Friday, June 8, 2012

HJ Agnosticism (22): What Would It Take to Convince Me?

I am periodically asked by some internet apologist “What evidence would it take to get you to believe in the resurrection?” I usually reply that in my knowledge and experience, miracle stories are invariably the product of human foibles like superstition, gullibility, ignorance and prevarication so I would need to personally experience a miracle in order to change the background knowledge against which I evaluate miracle claims.

The most common response I get to this is “I don’t think you would believe even then” which usually brings the discussion to a halt. In essence, the apologist seems to be saying “I don’t have good evidence for the resurrection, but since a skeptic might not accept good evidence, I am justified in believing in the resurrection on lousy evidence.” The apologist is right that I might just interpret my miracle experience as a sign that I was losing my mind, but I think the real problem is that the apologist doesn’t want to talk about the possibility that his reasons for believing in the resurrection aren’t the best ones possible.

A similar argument is sometimes made about mythists:
At one point in the interview, [Dr. Robert] Price suggests that one letter mentioning Jesus would be enough to destroy the Christ myth theory. I like Price, but this seems to betray a lack of self-awareness. He is on record as disagreeing with the consensus dating and authorship of nearly every piece of text within the New Testament. What exactly could an archaeologist find that Price could not argue is misinterpreted, interpolated or an outright forgery?
Unreasonable Faith, H/T James McGrath

This seems to be a variation of the apologetic dodge. Rather than addressing the possibility that there might be better evidence for the existence of a historical Jesus than we have, the historicist sidesteps it by asserting that the mythicist wouldn’t believe the better evidence if we had it. While it is entirely possible that Price might try to explain away better evidence, it is still worth discussing what that evidence might be in order to identify the shortcomings in the evidence we have.

I think that the problem for the historicists is a simple one. The historical Jesus was likely as not an obscure itinerant preacher who went unnoticed for most of his life beyond a small group of illiterate peasants. To the extent that he drew more attention than that, he was just another troublemaker put to death by the Roman Empire. There is no reason to expect such a man to have left a discernible trace in the historical record and there is no reason to expect that we should be able to establish such a man’s existence. As a result, there is no way for the historian to argue by analogy to any known cases.

I am doubtful that mythicism is ever going to be much more than an intriguing possibility, but I don’t see how we can hope to have anything more than provisional confidence in the existence of a man whose life we wouldn’t have expected to leave a mark in the historical record. We are never going to find the kind of evidence that usually makes us confident about the existence of someone in the ancient world because Jesus' life wasn't likely to have produced such evidence.

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