Trusting the evidence, distrusting the evidence, and explaining the evidence
Someone in another forum (http://www.freeratio.org/showthread.php?p=6991844#post6991844) commented on the title of Ehrman's delayed e-book on the existence of Jesus:
Isn't it interesting that it is called:
The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth
rather than the historical evidence for Jesus?
That alone already speaks volume about the quality of the evidence. Why, afterall, would you need to make an argument if the evidence was good enough?
"Why, afterall, would you need to make an argument if the evidence was good enough?"
I think this is an essential point, because it reflects the way of thinking among many of us, and it seems to be a misleading way of thinking. The seeming fallacy is to think about ancient historical claims purely in terms of whether or not we should trust them. We get in this mode of thought because we are critical thinkers and we argue against the claims of religion so much.
Of course, Ehrman's primary evidence would be the New Testament, and it is the same evidence that everyone already knows about, so a supporter of the theory that Jesus existed would place focus on the argument, not merely the evidence. To make a scientific case, normally all it takes is to present the evidence, and one side clearly wins. That isn't always how it works, however. Sometimes, everyone has the same evidence, but there are two or more different ways to interpret the evidence. Further, even in such cases, it isn't always a matter of reasonable uncertainty, because sometimes one party of the debate has far better arguments than all other parties.
The underlying methods of thinking are just as relevant as the both the evidence and the arguments, because the methods of thinking fundamentally influence one's conclusions, for better or for worse. Among atheists who believe or suspect Jesus never existed, they tend to judge the quality of the arguments based on the historical reliability of the evidence. This means they think it is a matter of whether or not we should trust the evidence. If that is how the debate is framed, then of course they win the debate, because we can't trust the evidence. It is the converse of the paradigm that conservative Christians hold. Since conservative Christians trust the historical reliability evidence, they believe the claims contained within the evidence, including the claim of the historical Jesus.
I don't mean to be insulting, but I hope to somehow make clear the fallacy of this way of thinking. Some of the most relevant information concerning Alexander the Great is inferred from ancient myths, and the myths are not historically reliable. The ancient myths claim among many other things that Alexander the Great was fathered by Zeus. It does not follow, however, that no knowledge about Alexander the Great should be inferred from such myth. The myths are our only sources of the stories of Bucephalas, the name of a heroic horse and a city that Alexander apparently named in its honor. The myths about this super-horse and the super-horse-tamer Alexander are various and extraordinary, so how do we explain the existence and contents of those myths? We can speculate that maybe Bucephalas was just a fictional invention by a general of Alexander, and we really would accept that hypothesis if it had plausibility and explanatory power. Alternatively, Alexander rode into battle a horse named Bucephalas that he liked. That hypothesis seems to have the most plausibility and explanatory power, so that is the explanation I accept, even if I have to depend entirely on unreliable myths. I am not saying that Jesus is exactly analogous, and I am not saying that all evidence for Bucephalas is untrustworthy. Don't miss the point. I am saying we need a better way to think about evidence than purely in terms of whether or not we should trust the ancient claims.
There is nothing wrong with acknowledging the historical unreliability of the evidence, but it shouldn't be all about that. I advocate a different mode of thought. For me, it is neither about trusting nor about distrusting the claims found within the evidence. Instead, it is about best explaining the evidence.
How strongly does the theory expect the evidence? That is explanatory power (related to induction). Or, how strongly does the evidence expect the theory? That is plausibility (aka abduction). The relative probability of a hypothesis is decided by how well the expectations are fulfilled in both directions, from the theory to the evidence and the evidence to the theory.
To illustrate, birds, dinosaurs and fossils of the archaeopteryx strongly expect the theory of evolution, and the theory of evolution strongly expects the archaeopteryx. No such expectations exist for creationism. The criteria of explanatory power and plausibility are both fulfilled by the theory of evolution and not by creationism. Therefore, the theory of evolution is a more probable explanation for these evidences than creationism.
My theory of the historical Jesus is that he was a human doomsday cult leader, and I arrive at this theory by best explaining (not trusting) the earliest Christian writings. Again, it is not about trusting the New Testament, nor is it distrusting the New Testament. I am just trying to explain with the greatest probability how the contents of the New Testament came to exist as they do.
In all of human society past and present, all known doomsday cults are founded by a single human being who remains highly revered by the cult. When the cult founder dies, the cult typically dissipates. But, in a significant minority of cases, the cult lives on, evolves, diversifies and becomes a religion. That is what happened with Islam, Rastafarianism and Mormonism. Doomsdayism is a common characteristic of cults, and that is what we see in Mormonism ("...Latter-day Saints" ). In all cults we know about, the reputedly-human central figurehead was the actual-human founder of the cult. So, given the seeming universal pattern of cults, we strongly expect the reputedly-human figurehead of Christianity to be the actual-human founder of Christianity. The evidence strongly expects the theory, so the theory fulfills the criterion of plausibility.
Conversely, the New Testament writings are very much what we expect from the theory that Jesus was a doomsday cult leader. Imminent-doomsday prophecies are seen all throughout the earliest Christian writings--the letters of Paul (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and 1 Corinthians 15:50-52), the gospel of Mark (Mark 8-9:1 and Mark 13), and the gospel of Q (via Luke 3:7, Luke 13:22-25 and Luke 12:40). Mark and Q attribute imminent doomsday prophecies to Jesus, and Paul believes that Jesus would be instigator of the imminent doomsday. And, of course, all early sources revere Jesus as the leader and founder of their religion, attributing miracles to him. All sources claim that Jesus was the Son of God and the Messiah. In other words, the evidence is what we expect if Jesus was the doomsday cult founder of Christianity. If Jesus was NOT a doomsday cult leader, then we would NOT expect these evidences. The theory fulfills the criterion of explanatory power.
If any theory in any field is considerably stronger than all competing explanations in both of those criteria, then I think that is all it takes. I don't think that the position that Jesus never existed has much if any advantage in either of those criteria. I think it follows only from the limited and misleading perspective that judging explanations should be purely about judging the accuracy of the claims within the evidence.