A Philosopher, while almost more important than, is still not a historian

Stephen Law wrote some time ago regarding the search for the historical Jesus. Law, an atheist philosopher (not that there is anything wrong with that), suggests that miracle accounts only serve to disprove the Historical Jesus.


The vast majority of Biblical historians believe there is evidence sufficient to place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt. Many believe the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish Jesus as an actual, historical figure. I question these views. In particular, I argue (i) that the three most popular criteria by which various non-miraculous New Testament claims made about Jesus are supposedly corroborated are not sufficient, either singly or jointly, to place his existence beyond reasonable doubt, and (ii) that a prima facie plausible principle concerning how evidence should be assessed – a principle I call the contamination principle – entails that, given the large proportion of uncorroborated miracle claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, we should, in the absence of independent evidence for an historical Jesus, remain sceptical about his existence.

That and the full paper can be found here.

He suggests that we get our evidence for the Historical Jesus from two sources:

(i) The Gospels, some written within a few (perhaps one or two) decades of Jesus’ death (though probably not by first-hand witnesses).

(ii) The writings of Paul – written perhaps within a decade or two of Jesus’ life. Paul may have known some of those who knew Jesus personally. Paul claims to have received the Gospel not from any human source or teaching but by revelation from the miraculously risen Christ (Galatians 1:11-12, 15-16).

Showing the ignorance of New Testament scholarship, Law then proceeds to suggest that such evidence cannot simply be believed. I note that he believes in an early date for Mark, perhaps, and maybe other Gospels as well, showing no real knowledge of the variety of dating issues which are currently entertained. Perhaps he would believe that Jesus exists if we had evidence of the Gospels being written later? I mean, this issue is the one raised most by those like Carrier, that the Gospels exist too far out to give us solid evidence. He suggests that other historical sources are in fact corrupted through various means. He also takes things a little too literal, much like other mythicists and their believing cousins, YEC’s.

Now, he does have some good points, about the idea of multiple attestations, showing some of these criteria for what they are, but he doesn’t, like others, get to the root of the issue as he is still stuck on the idea that the Gospels are meant to be read all the same way, and the same as modern history books. The Gospels aren’t really attestations of the Historical Jesus. Paul attests to the historical Jesus, and does so rather quickly. While he received his revelation from heavenly sources, he also confirmed this with early disciples, one of which was the physical brother of the physical Lord (Jesus). We shouldn’t also forget that Paul’s self-stated history is one who persecuted Christians who existed before him. We do have attestations from other historians. While I do believe that some of Josephus (you know, claiming Jesus is the Messiah after having done so for Vespasian might be a clue) can be shown to be an interpolation, not all of the accounts are. Further, there are other historians who have been shown to be drawing from independent sources. There is also the matter of Lucan who, while his poem does not survive, is thought to have followed Nero’s claim that the Christians burned Rome, giving the Emperor the needed propaganda. This poem is what helped to secure to Lucan the patronage of Lucan.

Anyway, he makes the same pitfalls other do.