In a recentish post, Arkhenaten advances two theses, one concerning the philosophy of science, the other history:
A) Sometimes science can test for and falsify supernatural phenomena (philosophy of science).
B) Jesus of Nazareth never existed (history)*.
More specifically, he writes:
If the theist wants the atheist to change – and aren’t they compelled to spread the Word? (sic) – then simply provide evidence that demonstrates the sincerity of their objective and the veracity of their claims.
At least provide the evidence that convinced them to become Christian.
Ah … but then we are back to things supernatural which cannot be tested by scientific means as they fall outside the natural world. Right?
Well, yes … and no.
Yes, he[Jesus] was a regular bloke. Except for miracles. The miracles he did. Not least of which was raising Lazarus from the dead.
And this is where we should expect to find evidence. Some independent attestation of the wondrous deeds he did. After all:
Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
It’s in the bible, and the bible is the inspired Word of God, right?
And, yet, what do we have?
Not a word, not a whisper.
A god who lived among humans as a human and as a god for over thirty years and left no trace outside of a story?
There is absolutely nothing that can be checked. Nothing to back a single claim.
In this case absence of evidence is most definitely evidence of absence.
Evidence of miracles? Hmm …. I don’t think so.
And under such circumstances it is perfectly reasonable to draw the only logical conclusion.
The biblical character, Jesus of Nazareth is simply a work of fiction.
There are several things to be noted here:
1) Why must the Christian provide evidence to prove the “sincerity of their[sic] objective”? Why assume that when a Christian is evangelizing to the non-Christian he is doing so with nefarious intent? Perhaps this Christian knows nothing of apologetics and the rational case for the Christian worldview. Yet, when he recites John 3:16 to someone he’s proselytizing, what is there to suggest he’s doing so disingenuously and not with the belief that it’s for non-Christian’s best interest?
This Freudian slip suggests there is no “evidence” that will give Arkenaten cognitive pause because he is already convicted not to mull it due to prejudice he has about its source. Whether this prejudice is rationally justified, I’ll let the reader decide. For those who have met him online, I think the answer is readily apparent.
2) Arkenaten doesn’t flesh out the “scientific means” he has in mind to test the supernatural—also undefined. The supernatural, being super-, must be beyond the natural, which itself refers to what I’m interpreting as what the spacio-temporal exhausts. So, miracles from Jesus, Moses, or whoever are supposedly of the supernatural and workings not of this spacio-temporal realm. Indeed, according to Hume, miracles are by essence violations of observable natural laws. If science only operates within these observable natural laws of the spacio-temporal, then any miracle is beyond the reach of science to corroborate. To wit: Any miracle X that seems in violation of some natural law Y doesn’t provide prima facie evidence for the existence of X, but throws into question the veracity of Y as being a bonafide natural law.
So, it’s not clear what’s applicable for the natural can verify the supernatural. Though Arkenaten admits the difficulty here, he also thinks there is a way to get around this problem, vaguely appealing to “evidence.” However, it’s not obvious how science—understood as the empirical method that seeks knowledge of the physical spacio-temporal universe via continuous stages of observation, hypothesis, and experimentation—can provide evidence about whether a proposed historical figure existed (How do you test that?). The past isn’t empirical; why assume the “evidence” strictly is too?
Perhaps what Arkenaten means by “evidence” are archaeologically gathered artifacts, like contemporaneous manuscripts from the first century Roman Palestine. Well, deriving conclusions about the past from writings of a bygone era is not science but something closer to the discipline of history, which can be informed by science but not actually be of science as defined above.
So, Arkenaten seems to be stretching the bounds of empirical science in order to make a historical argument about whether Jesus existed. This either stems from a commitment to scientism, the incoherent view that the only genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge, or confusion about what science does and what constitutes its evidence. Regardless, both undermine his claim A) that science can test for and falsify supernatural phenomena. It also is unrelated to the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. These are separate issues.
3) As for Arkenaten’s historical argument for the non-existence of Jesus, it seems to be the following:
- If Jesus did exist, then there is independent attestation of his miracles.
- There is no independent attestation of Jesus’ miracles (indeed, nothing at all “outside of a story”).
- Ergo, Jesus did not exist.
As a modus tollens, the argument is formally valid, but that itself is not a guarantee of soundness. Indeed, I think both 1 and 2 can be rejected as false.
For premise 1, there isn’t a strong reason to think independent attestation, meaning contemporaneous references to Jesus’ miracles not from his disciples or their followers, would have much bearing on the question of Jesus’ existence. Either Jesus, as a mere man or the incarnated Son of God, did or didn’t exist; whether Roman historians or others of the time cited miracles attributed to him is logically irrelevant to the matter at hand. For it’s possible, even likely, that Jesus’ miracles wouldn’t be widely written down in the oral tradition-driven society of first century Judea. As for the occupying Romans, it’s probable they wouldn’t even be aware of Jesus until he would be leveraged as a symbolic figurehead for Jewish insurrection. The antecedent of 1 does not imply its consequent.
Moreover, Arkenaten provides no argument for this criterion of independent attestation found in the consequent. He just posits it as plausible and definitive. But why assume this? I mean, most of what we know about Socrates, a man who was amazing in his own right, comes from his followers. They’re not independent either, yet, while some might doubt some parts of Socrates’ life, no one doubts that Socrates even existed. That’s because there are other means historians use to establish the historicity of an event or person that this dogged insistence on independent attestation of miracles as what determines Jesus’ historicity precludes by seemingly capricious fiat. So, what is gratuitously asserted—if there was a historical Jesus, his miracles would be confirmed by contemporary independent sources—can be gratuitously denied.
Likewise, premise 2 can be regarded as false. Let’s grant Arkenaten’s call for “independent attestation,” albeit modified. While there isn’t a contemporary non-Christian reference to Jesus or his miracles (Tacitus and Josephus are later), it’s simply not the case that there is “Not a word, not a whisper … absolutely nothing that can be checked. Nothing to back a single claim” about Jesus. It’s not “In this case, absence of evidence is evidence of absence.” The Christian faith did not emerge from a vacuum. There are particular facts established by historian-developed methodologies in need of explanation which apologists use to make an abductive case for the Resurrection, the miracle upon which Christianity is erected, and, ipso facto, the historical Jesus.
For example, at least a few of Jesus’ apostles died espousing Jesus as Lord and Savior. Martyrs make terrible liars. It seems the likes Peter and Paul really believed what they were preaching. Well, it’s possible they hallucinated Jesus or were just plain crazy. But isn’t it much more likely they knew a person (or in Paul’s case, knew people who did) upon whom to base their radical new religion? As it so happens, the same sort of argument, mutatis mutandis, is used to claim the Resurrection as history.
So, it’s not enough for Arkenaten to declare victory here. These kinds of arguments from apologists have to be refuted, the historical facts explained better in terms New Atheists would accept, before justifiably dismissing Jesus’ existence, and thereby Christianity, not to mention the many secular accounts of the Gospels’ narratives in which Jesus is a historical figure.
4) Now, I’m sure this reasoning has little pull on Jesus mythicists, who occupy quite the redoubt on the internet when it comes to this area of New Testament scholarship. They’ll find this answer too speculative. After all, they’re demanding a “smoking gun” in a discipline where practitioners, more often than not, don’t possess one and must piece together what they do have to draw conclusions about the past. History is not a hands-on science.
Nevertheless, I suspect Arkenaten and company will treat it as such if it suits their ideological fancy. In my experience, “evidence” can be whatever they need it to be, hence the adamant Jesus mythicism in spite of the evidence that convinces the vast majority of academic historians, many of whom have no theological axe to grind, that Jesus, at least as a mortal, walked the earth two millennia ago.
Why do New Atheists cling to this benighted view about Jesus? My estimation: It’s not enough for Christians to be wrong—they must be hopelessly irrational too. Christianity, in their minds, is not merely false, but ridiculous. And those who believe in and live by the ridiculous in an increasingly secular society deserve ridicule from their more enlightened peers.
These anti-Christian beliefs form a cock-sure attitude. Neither falsifiable nor open for negotiation, they are dogma founded more in vitriolic politics than dispassionate reason.
For potential further evidence of it, read the comments.
*I’m not being uncharitable about Arkenaten’s position either. He’s maintaining it’s not merely the Christian conception of Jesus Christ that is the myth, which allows the possibility of a historical person known as Jesus who’s merely a man, not divine. It’s Jesus wholesale. Note that Arkenaten expresses skepticism about even the seemingly most mundane details of his life, writing, “Jesus was born, lived – and one can presume he slept, ate and used the toilet just like regular people – and of course he died. Or at least this is the claim [emphasis mine]. He’s also said as much in previous comments on another entry of this blog.