Some years ago, I had a debate via email with someone regarding the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. I seem to recall that he was a Christian chaplain in the U.S. military with the last name of Huger. I only remember the name because that is also the surname of the fellow who wrote this charming piece: jhuger.com/kissing-hanks-ass
I pointed out that the evidence for Jesus having existed at all was not of high quality – eg. the complete lack of contemporaneous accounts and the fact that the purported eye witness accounts are anonymous and were written decades after the events in question were supposed to have occurred and, even if one were to accept them as eye witness accounts, eye witness accounts are one of the least reliable forms of evidence.
He disagreed with my evaluation of the evidence but also insisted that, even if I was right, stories about major historical figures in ancient times are accepted on the basis of evidence that is no better than that and, therefore, if I believed the stories about Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, then I ought to also believe the story of the resurrection of Jesus.
I didn’t get into whether or not it was true that the evidence for Caesar or Alexander was of the same quality as the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. Rather, I pointed out that saying that so-and-so was a king or general and fought and won such-and-such a battle is an ordinary claim while saying that someone came back to life after several days of being dead is an extraordinary claim and, as Sagan suggested, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. We see people becoming political or military leaders all the time and they take office or fight battles fairly regularly. We don’t see dead people come back to life.
I used an example something like the following to support the idea that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I live in northern British Columbia. If I tell you that I saw a moose or a bear the other day, you’ll probably take me at my word since it is not especially unusual to see moose or bear in this part of the world. However, if I tell you that I saw a unicorn or a sasquatch, you’ll probably assume that I’m joking or drunk – unless I’ve got some extremely strong evidence. Seeing a moose or bear in northern British Columbia is always interesting but, really, fairly ordinary. One’s word would probably be enough, barring good reasons to the contrary. Claiming to have seen a unicorn or sasquatch, animals whose existence is not supported by any testable evidence, would be extraordinary and would require extraordinarily good evidence in order to be believed.
He replied that 1) I could not precisely define the difference between ordinary and extraordinary and 2) just because resurrections are extraordinary events today doesn’t mean they were extraordinary two thousand years ago.
At that point, I ended the conversation because his second point made it reasonably clear that I was dealing with someone who did not place a high value on reason. One cannot expect to reason with such a person. However, I did spend some time thinking about the first point. Is it really a problem that I cannot precisely identify a dividing line between ordinary and extraordinary?
Consider a high definition colour gradient, red (#ff000) at one end and blue (#000ff) at the other. By looking at it, can you precisely identify the point at which the colour is no longer red or at which point it becomes blue? Probably not. However, if I show you a shade taken from fairly near to one end or the other of the gradient, you will probably have no trouble telling me whether it is red or blue. You don’t need to be able to clearly identify when something stops being red or starts being blue in order to differentiate between things that are obviously red and things that are obviously blue.
Seeing a moose or a bear in northern British Columbia is quite clearly not extraordinary. Resurrection from the dead is quite clearly extraordinary. Each of these things is fairly near to one end or the other in the gradient between ordinary and extraordinary. In such cases, I think it is fair to say that being able to define a precise point that separates the two is unnecessary.