Just when you think the ‘Jesus Myth’ controversy couldn't get any more surreal, out pops a paper from Stephen Law, a philosopher at theUniversity of London entitled “Evidence, miracles, and the existence of Jesus“ in which he concludes that the historical Jesus did not exist. He does this by laying out two principles – P1 that if you get a series of extraordinary claims (i.e miracle stories without extraordinary evidence you have good reason to be skeptical and P2:
Where testimony/documents weave together a narrative that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims, and there is good reason to be sceptical about those extraordinary claims, then there is good reason to be sceptical about the mundane claims, at least until we possess good independent evidence of their truth.
I'm a little confused with how this works as a foundational principle for ancient history. For instance, of the Emperor Vespasian, the Roman historian Tacitus writes:
Among the lower classes at Alexandria was a blind man whom everybody knew as such. One day this fellow threw himself at Vespasian's feet, imploring him with groans to heal his blindness. He had been told to make this request by Serapis, the favourite god of a nation much addicted to strange beliefs… A second petitioner, who suffered from a withered hand, pleaded his case too, also on the advice of Serapis: would Caesar tread upon him with the imperial foot? At first Vespasian laughed at them and refused. When the two insisted, he hesitated. .. With a smiling expression and surrounded by an expectant crowd of bystanders, he did what was asked. Instantly the cripple recovered the use of his hand and the light of day dawned again upon his blind companion. Both these incidents are still vouched for by eye-witnesses, though there is now nothing to be gained by lying.
Does this mean we should deny the existence of Vespasian? Should we also deny the existence of Augustus because (according to Suetonius) he was sired by Apollo in the form of a snake. Now of course there is – by most standards – good independent evidence for both these historical figures – but as we have seen with the myther controversy, all of it can be dismissed as interpolations using the same methodology. Many other figures from history have miraculous occurrences sprinkled through our sources for them and could similarly be dismissed as fabricated.
‘Our two prima facie plausible principles – P1 and P2 – combine with certain plausible empirical claims to deliver a conclusion very few Biblical scholars are willing to accept….
4. (P2) Where testimony/documents weave together a narrative that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims, and there is good reason to be sceptical about those extraordinary claims, then there is good reason to be sceptical about the mundane claims, at least until we possess good independent evidence of their truth.
5. The New Testament documents weave together a narrative about Jesus that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims.
6. There is no good independent evidence for even the mundane claims about Jesus (such as that he existed)
7. Therefore (from 3, 4, 5, and 6), there’s good reason to be sceptical about whether Jesus existed.
. . . So, our empirical premises – 2, 5 and 6, – have some prima facie plausibility. I suggest 2 and 5 have a great deal of plausibility, and 6 is at the very least debatable’
I think at this stage I have to present my own set of principles:
1) The Gavin Menzies principle – history and the methodology of historical research should be the art of historians who are properly qualified in their fields. Philosophers, English professors and retired submarine commanders can popularise, but beyond that should STFU (especially if they are 'introducing a new paradigm') .
2) The Egregious Jargon principle – history should remain free of the type of meaningless twaddle I have witness over the past few weeks – this would include Bayes probability theorem, obscure Marxist terminology, postmodern waffle, p’s q’s I’s brackets and other the other assorted excel formulas that seem to be creeping in.
3)The James the Just principle – People that don't exist don't tend to have flesh and blood brothers (whose existence is multiply attested).
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