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.


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4 Replies to “A Philosopher, while almost more important than, is still not a historian”

  1. Most mythtics explain they aren’t really mythtics. They just believe Jesus probably didn’t exist or would like to deny him (especially former fundamentalists). Carrier has it on a probability rating of 4 chances in 5 using his exceptional mathematical skills which also enable him (combined with his expertise on food science, animal psychology and ethics) to pronounce with authority, that all vegetarians are deluded. Some people are genuinely agnostic on the historicity of Jesus. Agnosticism and skepticism are honest positions to hold particularly when one isn’t a specialist in the field of the history of religion and cannot devote their life to evaluating all the arguments and evidence. I am agnostic and skeptical about everything except that I am now convinced there is no good reason to doubt the existence of Jesus. Evidence and argument leads me to be convinced that he existed and that we can learn things about him by continuing to evaluate new evidence and argument in recent critical scholarship and research, despite having disagreements and feeling skeptical in regard to minor issues. However, to try to defend agnosticism by inventing abstract philosophical arguments, is irrelevant and flawed.

    One of the major problems of mythtic arguments is that they’re actually completely out of date with recent critical scholarship, appealing to imaginary concensus despite the fact that the majority of NT ‘mainstream’ scholarship is conservative Christian, and they don’t engage with recent critical arguments that diverge from consensus views and new critical method. Generally they dismiss ‘historical method’ as if it’s a homogenous whole rather than a complex evolving web of different approaches.

    The mythtics are not trained in the area (except Robert Price who has abused his training with is flawed and unconvincing mythtic theory based on alot of mishandled evidence – to be discussed in Casey, forthcoming) and have no necessary expertise and knowledge. I’m hardly likely to take much notice of a biblical scholar on neuroscience or an anthropologist on the weather. I am skeptical enough of the flooded field of neuroscience itself and the weather is a tricky one. Neuroscience has its quacks, the field of religion has its apologists, and the weather… well, it’s raining cats and dogs. And neuroscientists and philosophers, anthropologists and meteorologists, don’t have the appropriate training and knowledge to analyse composite historical religious texts. Abstract philosophical approaches and mathematical formulae applied to composite historical religious texts fail to recognise the difference between primary, and secondary tradition, which is legendary and myth mixed accretion. Consequently they are not equipped to say anything useful about history because they can’t see it through the myth.

    So when Law says ‘the gospels’ are early, does he include the hypothetical saying source ‘Q’ (which never existed anyway) and Thomas which the crackpot Jesus seminar slot in early, or is he referring to Mark, or even Matthew and has he perhaps read Crossley’s doctoral thesis. Having made a tangled web of unqualified assumptions, he applies his abstract philosophical approach, imposing a twenty first century analogy on first century culture with no apparent understanding of the nature of ancient documents and their transmission and general oblivion to first century culture, language and context. Also when critical historical scholars propose dates for gospels, they aren’t just guesses but conclusions on the basis of argument and evidence. Law appears not to have taken this into account as the arguments and evidence are of no consequence to his argument which is built on convenient cherry picked conclusions which fit his assumptions.

    Naturally as a busy philosopher, Law can’t be expected to know all the scholarship relevant to early Christian documents so his ability to handle the evidence is crippled. Making up silly analogies in a twenty first century context and assuming their similarity to all the complexities of first century culture (of which Law is unlearned), made very little sense and is anachronistic. The pity is, that he has a delighted lay audience only to keen to embrace a theory uncritically which supports their convictions.

    1. It’s a pity we can’t hand them all the years of accumulated research, evidence and argument on one conveniently simple little entree dish at dinner.

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