Overdue Apology

I know there where a handful of people actually reading my materials on Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus (OHJ). Obviously that effort has completely stalled out. I have a few half written posts on various topics but I just haven’t found the will to finish them of late. The big problem is that I don’t have strong opinions on a lot of the material so it is hard for me to get motivated to do the necessary research.

Overall the book didn’t really change my stance, yet. I still think most scholars grant too much credibility to the sources we have, but on the other hand, I don’t think the evidence for Carrier’s thesis is particularly strong. I don’t expect anyone should put much stock in that conclusion but that’s where I stand at the moment.

I think the biggest thing for me is that there are just too many cases where there is potentially strong evidence for Jesus being a real person. For example, maybe Paul isn’t referring to Jesus having a brother in Galatians 1:19 but, if he is, that is pretty much case closed for the historicity question. On the other hand, if he means something else, that isn’t really a problem for historicity. So if we have one case which is 50-50 and another that strongly favors historicity, that suggest to me that if you are a betting man (and that’s what Bayesian reasoning is all about really) you should put your money on historicity. To do otherwise I think one would have to more or less eliminate even the possibility that Paul could be talking about a biological brother, and I don’t think that can be done.

Anyway, I hope to return to the subject eventually but it probably won’t happen until I get a bug up my butt about it some day. Maybe if a wider discussion develops in the blogosphere.

If there is anyone left reading I’ll say I’m sorry for taking so long to say why I had disappeared.

OHJ – Victorious Messiah

The Jewish word messiah (which translated into Greek is christós or for us christ) simply means anointed, and is used in the Hebrew Bible of kings and priests (who were literally anointed with oil). Over time, and especially around the time Christianity began, it had taken on a more eschatological meaning. In this view the Messiah would defeat the enemies of Israel and usher in an era where Israel’s God was recognized as the only God.

Given this widespread belief in a victorious messiah the story of Jesus the Messiah stands out for its depiction of a messiah who dies. What could account for such a deviation from the norm? The standard scholarly explanation is that there was a historical Jesus whose followers believed him to be the Messiah, and he was actually crucified. Reinterpretation of the prevailing messiah model then followed as a means to eliminate the cognitive dissonance created by that crucifixion. That people do not abandon strongly held beliefs in the face of disconfirming evidence, instead seeking ways to reinterpret them, is a well established phenomena, giving this explanation an intuitive appeal.

As some would have it, this isn’t just a reasonable historicist explanation; it is all but a show stopper for mythicism. So strong is the trend of a conquering messiah that we can be sure no one would invent a dying one. Sure, anything is possible, but the probability of invention is very low.

Are things really that bad for the mythicists? I’ve never thought of this argument as a show stopper. The human ability to innovate is strong and by nature difficult to predict. However, I did think that maybe this point was strong enough to require a major revision to our prior probabilities. The Rank-Raglan scale Carrier uses in On the Historicity of Jesus (OHJ) doesn’t bring any data about prior Jewish beliefs to bear.

As I wrote this post (starting over several times) I reviewed the material in the book that had some bearing on this issue. In the second to last section in the book, Chapter 12.4, Carrier reviews this argument which he styles as “The Last Desperate Objection“. In that section he in turn refers back to numerous elements of the background knowledge explored in chapters 4 and 5.

As I crafted several responses to the material I found that really I think he has met the objection. I now think this argument from the pre-Christian Messiahs is fairly weak.

Pre-Chrisitian Messiahs

One attempt to confront this argument is to try to find examples of pre-Christian dying messiahs after all. I’ll just say I haven’t found those efforts to have any merit. There is a post on the Hume’s Apprentice blog that lists a few possibilities I haven’t looked at very closely, but Carrier’s efforts to find such evidence in On the Historicity of Jesus (OHJ) and on his blog were failures in my opinion. I may do a summary post at some point on the exchange between Carrier and Thom Stark on this subject.

Why the Argument Fails

  • The message of a victorious messiah is mostly still present in Christianity. Really the only change is that the (first) victory was a spiritual one in the present. Like all the other conceptions of the Messiah, the final victory in the physical world has been placed in the future.
  • Even if Jesus existed, most Christians had never met Jesus. They can’t have had any expectations of him being the messiah before they learned of the death component of the Christian message. So clearly people could lack a prior expectation of Jesus being the messiah and yet still find a message involving his death and resurrection compelling.
  • If someone can hear such a message and find it compelling, then obviously someone who happened to think of such a notion can find it compelling as well. Therefore this argument can only be a claim about what is and isn’t possible for someone to think of in the first place, which seems dubious to begin with, but is even worse as we review the other items below.
  • Even without the death of an actual teacher there was plenty of cognitive dissonance to go around in first century Judea. Though the Jews had long believed their God had promised they would rule the world, they were in fact being ruled by Rome. Things weren’t even moving in the right direction as in 6 AD they had gone from being a client kingdom to being directly ruled. Revolts and rebellions had no effect. It’s not like the Jews of the early first century could see the future and know that there was worse still to come.
  • The Jewish temple cult was viewed by many as being corrupt and therefore illegitimate. This posed a problem since the common belief was that the reason the Jews weren’t ruling the world was because of their sins. The temple sacrifices were the means of removing those sins but were controlled by people God had “obviously” rejected.
  • The Christian gospel neatly solves all those problems. The final victory would come in the future but a victory over sin and death could be had now. In the meantime the Jewish God would be recognized by all nations (just as the standard Messiah model proposed) through the spreading of the gospel. The atoning sacrifices at the heart of the temple cult were replaced once and for all thereby removing the need for them. What fabulous good fortune then that Jesus was killed! Otherwise, according to those deploying this argument, no one would have ever been to imagine the solution to the problem. Of course lucky accidents do sometimes drive history, but on the other hand, people have been known to find creative solutions to their cognitive dissonance.
  • On pages 159-163 Carrier reviews the anthropological findings regarding cargo cults. Those cults, and movements like the Native American “Ghost Dance”, tend to arise in exactly the situation that gave rise to Christianity. An occupied people up against a foe they can’t dislodge turn to a non-militaristic apocalypticism instead. The movement may start with revelatory visions, invented manifestations of a local god, and include practices such as speaking in tongues and prophesying. In addition the cult often incorporates elements of both the local traditions and those of the foreign culture, just like Christianity did. They develop their own social institutions and moral code, and often attempt to unite the two cultures.
  • Though I believe a dying Messiah was most likely a Christian innovation some related ideas were surely already present in both pre-Christian Judaism and the pagan world. Ideas such as the suffering just man and the noble death.
  • Moreover, the earliest Christians seem to have conceived of Jesus’ sacrifice as a replacement for the Passover sacrifice. The Passover sacrifice however was already conceived of, by some, as a replacement for the sacrifice of Issac the beloved son of Abraham, who went willingly to his death. If one wanted to replace the temple cult it would make perfect sense to replace its sacrificial rites with the sacrifice of a firstborn beloved son, this time of God.

I think the reason this argument has more initial appeal than it deserves is that it is generally presented as cognitive dissonance vs a random invention. That portrayal however is not at all accurate. The reality is that we are comparing two hypothetical situations with plenty of cognitive dissonance to spark an innovation. If it is at all possible for an idea like a dying messiah to arise you couldn’t ask for a more perfect environment for it, and arguing that it is impossible is not realistic. I think it is important to realize that in both cases we are talking about an innovation that was an exceptional event. There were messianic pretenders whose deaths did not spark a reinterpretation of the messianic model, so the fact that most groups did not react to Roman occupation by inventing a new model shouldn’t count against invention in the mythicist case either.

Where Does This Leave Us?

Trying to quantify the likelihood of an innovation seems problematic from the start, but given the historical circumstances it at least seems clear it isn’t as low as some would have us believe. I don’t really agree with styling it a desperate objection but I don’t see it as a particularly strong one either. The very most I could accept is if someone argued it gave historicity a 2 to 1 advantage. That would exactly cancel out the prior derived from the Rank-Raglan scale and leave us with a flat 1 to 1 prior probability. I think this is probably way too generous to historicity but I honestly don’t know how to quantify the actual number.

The Criterion of Embarrassment in 177 AD

This has nothing to do with the historicity of Jesus but I stumbled upon an interesting passage while reading A Plea for the Christians written by Athenagoras in 177 A.D. In chapters 28 through 30 he is arguing that the Greek gods were really just men; kings who came to be worshiped as gods.

At the end of chapter 30 he deploys the criterion of embarrassment to make his point! He quotes what must be something written by Callimachus, a librarian at Alexandria, denying the tomb of Zeus is legitimate. The point he is making is that if the gods had tombs, if they had suffered and died, they were men, and no one would have invented such sufferings and deaths unless they were true! After all, the poets and multitudes wished these gods to be venerated, so why would they invent sufferings and deaths?

“The Cretans always lie; for they, O king, Have built a tomb to thee who art not dead.”

Though you believe, O Callimachus, in the nativity of Zeus, you do not believe in his sepulchre; and whilst you think to obscure the truth, you in fact proclaim him dead, even to those who are ignorant; and if you see the cave, you call to mind the childbirth of Rhea; but when you see the coffin, you throw a shadow over his death, not considering that the unbegotten God alone is eternal. For either the tales told by the multitude and the poets about the gods are unworthy of credit, and the reverence shown them is superfluous (for those do not exist, the tales concerning whom are untrue); or if the births, the amours, the murders, the thefts, the castrations, the thunderbolts, are true, they no longer exist, having ceased to be since they were born, having previously had no being. And on what principle must we believe some things and disbelieve others, when the poets have written their stories in order to gain greater veneration for them? For surely those through whom they have got to be considered gods, and who have striven to represent their deeds as worthy of reverence, cannot have invented their sufferings.

OHJ – Tally Sheet

It seemed about time to start tracking my individual estimates in one place.

Note: The scope of what I address may not always match the scope of Carrier’s relevant section.

On the Historicity of Jesus - Tally Sheet

Item Name
OHJ Location | Tally Name
My Likelihood Ratio (Mythicism/Historicity)
Running Likelihood
(Multiply rows)
Twin TraditionsCh. 8 Section 1 | Twin Traditions1/1OHJ – Extrabiblical Evidence – Twin Traditions – Part 1
OHJ – Extrabiblical Evidence – Twin Traditions – Part 2
OHJ – Carrier’s Response on Epiphanius and Adam
Missing Extrabiblical ReferncesCh. 8 Sections 3 - 4 | Documentary Silence11/10OHJ – Missing Extrabiblical Evidence
First ClementCh. 8 Section 5 | 1 Clement3/2OHJ – First Clement
JosephusCh. 8 Section 9 | Josephus3/5Josephus, Jesus and Bayes’



Searching for Rational Religion

Professor of Philosophy David Kyle Johnson went to a conference hoping to find the ever elusive believers who eschew pseudo-scientific thinking. It didn’t quite turn out that way, but the article he wrote is a good read.

Source: Is Religion Pseudoscience?

As an atheist, and a logician, I’m often tempted by the notion that religion is just socially accepted pseudoscience (with tax breaks). After all, the arguments in favor of ghosts, alternative medicine and ancient aliens, are very similar to the arguments for angels, the “power of prayer” and God. Sleepparalysis and hallucinatory visions are taken to be evidence for ghosts/angels, post-hoc reasoning is used in arguments for alternative medicine/prayer, and “unexplained mysteries” are counted as evidence for aliens/God. But as tempting as this notion is, it’s difficult to see it all the way through. Although I know plenty of people whose religious belief is steeped in pseudoscientific thinking, I also know religious people who pride themselves in their critical thinking abilities. Does this mean that religion isn’t steeped in pseudoscience, or are these religious people who say they are critical thinkers just fooling themselves? I’d hate to think the later is true. 

I was partially successful in my conversations, where I met some wonderfully rational religious people who understood and cared about science. They helped me hone some of my own arguments and I hope I helped them hone theirs. Unfortunately, I also found creationists, people who believe in demons, new-ageism, and even defenders of the pseudoscientist Rupert Sheldrake. Some even refused to say Dawkins’ name—saying instead “the D word”—because (as someone suggested)  he was like Voldemort. If you say his name, especially in Oxford, he might appear. And then there was the New Testament scholar who insisted that the idea that 21st century medical doctors are more qualified to distinguish illness from death than 1st century Palestinians was just a conclusion driven by “western bias.”

But what was most disappointing were the headliners—the keynote speakers, none of whom were academic lightweights, and all of whom were there to speak at the request of the foundations. Although a few of the talks were interesting, far too many were tinged with pseudoscience—and the biggest names seemed to be drenched in it.


OHJ – Carrier’s Response on Epiphanius and Adam

Richard Carrier has responded to a couple of my posts in a comment thread on his blog. I guess I should not be surprised that he thinks I am someone who,  “needs the truth to be different than it is, so they invent implausible conspiracy theories to explain how the evidence got the way that annoys them,” as that too often seems to be Richard’s default reaction to anyone who disagrees with him.

Nothing could be further from the truth, however. I don’t care at all what the outcome of my exploration here is. I’ve followed the Doherty thesis, and Richard’s blog, for years. At one point I was pretty gung-ho in favor of the thesis. My current stance has changed slightly to the negative; it is a hesitancy rather than a resistance, however. I would gladly accept it if I think it is warranted. That doesn’t mean I want to believe things that aren’t true in support of it.

I had been waiting to read On the Historicity of Jesus (OHJ) for a few years now. Because of that, I read it through in a handful of days after its arrival; there was no way I was going to go through it slowly and examine each claim. Now that the initial reading is done that is what I intend to do. The two items in question just happened to be among the handful I wanted to look into first, because I found them interesting.

Life of Adam and Eve (original post)

I’ll start with the Life of Adam and Eve and keep things simple. There is one passage in particular that seems to me to be conclusive; Adam (and Abel) were buried in the earth of our world. This passage is far from the only one in support of my view, but it is the most direct. Without an explanation of it I don’t see me changing my mind. You might say the consequent so favors my view that it would take a lot of evidence the other way to change the posterior, yet there are other passages pointing in the same direction.

Before I quote the passage I want to note that I’m not alone in my overall conclusion. As I noted in my original post it was the conclusion of the translator in “Life of Adam and Eve, A New Translation and Introduction” (1985), in JH Charlesworth, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Volume 2. Richard cites no one else supporting his take when he introduces the idea, and I haven’t been able to find anyone either.

So here goes:

40.3 When they finished preparing Adam, God said they should bear the body of Abel also. And they brought more linen and prepared him for burial. 
40.4 For he was unburied since the day when Cain his brother slew him; for Cain took great pains to conceal (him) but could not, for the body sprang up from the earth and a voice went out of the earth saying: 
40.5 “No other body can be covered until –with respect to the first creature who was taken from me — the earth from which he was taken is returned to me.” And the angels took at that moment and put him upon a rock until Adam, his father, was buried. 

Neither Cain nor Abel were ever in paradise, where ever it is located. The murder of Abel happened in our world. Cain tried to conceal Abel’s body in our world. Variant readings replace conceal with bury but it should already be clear that is what is meant by conceal when it says the body sprang from the earth. Then that earth said,“No other body can be covered until –with respect to the first creature who was taken from me — the earth from which he was taken is returned to me.” 

On the face of it the consequent for a passage like that on the theory that Adam was taken from soil in the heavens is essentially zero. The only inference required is to realize Cain and Abel were never in paradise and therefore this speaking earth has to be of our world. Hardly a stretch.

Richard’s Highlights

As for the parts Richard highlights in his response they don’t actually support his theory. The angels are told to go the third heaven and “carry away” three cloths. Go to, as in somewhere you aren’t right now, as in they aren’t in the third heaven. Carry away, as in away from the third heaven where they were just sent to get the cloths. Somehow Richard missed my comments to that effect? Pseudepigrapha has “and bring me” fine linen cloths. Why he thinks this supports the notion Adam was in the third heaven is beyond me.  

Then Richard highlights the passage that says to bear the body of Abel as well. Yes, but bear him where exactly? That is not evidence for his view. Then he conveniently skips highlighting the passage I gave above since it would give away the game. In the final highlighted section is a statement to bear up the body of Abel to paradise. Unlike Richard I did at least acknowledge that ‘up’ might be against my view but it turns out that might not have been necessary. I should have checked back with Pseudepigrapha which only has “and both were buried according to the
command of God in the regions of Paradise in the place from which God had  found the dust”. No ‘up’. Since I’m saying there was an earthly paradise (and other sections of the book require that to be the case) this isn’t a problem.

Now I welcome an explanation for the 40:3-40:6 passage, but I don’t see what it is, nor what it could be. So by all means enlighten me, but there are several other passages which I highlighted that point in the same direction, and an entire story line that requires Adam to have been in an earthly paradise at some point. I can mention all that later if an explanation of this passage is forthcoming. For now I’m sticking with what the scholar other than Richard has said. There are two scenes, one dealing with Adam’s soul which gets sent to the third heaven, and another dealing with his burial on earth.

Epiphanius (original post)

Richard’s complaint that the Talmud confirms the belief that Jesus lived under Jannaeus is not relevant to my post. He clearly says in his book, “Epiphanius then says a curious thing: these Christians say Jesus had live and died in the time of Alexander Jannaeus. This is what he says they preach:” He then quotes the passage I gave in the original post and goes on to say (in reference to the Talmud passages about Jesus under Jannaeus), “the Jews east of the Roman Empire (where this Talmud was compiled, assembled from the third to fifth centuries) were reacting to this Nazorian Christianity.”

The claim that Epiphanius was ascribing views to the Nazorians is completely separate from the (correct) claim that the Talmud mentions a Jesus living under Jannaeus. If the Epiphanius claim is wrong, it is wrong! That something similar appears in the Talmud doesn’t suddenly make it right. Or is Richard perhaps “invent[ing] implausible conspiracy theories to explain how the evidence got the way that annoys” him?

Let’s be clear here. The passage Richard quotes in the book does not say anywhere that it is describing the views of the Nazorians. Neither does any other portion of Chapter 29 of the Panarion. Richard cites no scholarship in support of his claim nor does he advance any argument whatsoever in its favor. Even in his blog response he provides no evidence, only a plea for a low prior probability. But we need to look at the evidence Richard!

What is the prior probability Epiphanius would make a non-orthodox apologetic? Well in one location he says Jesus was born in a cave so it does happen, but let’s be as generous, absurdly generous, as possible here. Let’s give P(h), the probability Epiphanius is stating the Jannaeus claim himself, a very low value 0.01.

Now what is our evidence ‘like’. It lacks certain things like any mention the Nazorians are the source of what he writes about Jannaeus, and any correction of the claim. I haven’t read all of the Panarion but I did sample a handful of chapters  and I found no instances where both of those things were missing. We don’t want to be too harsh here so lets be absurdly generous and say that 10% of the time Epiphanius tells us a belief of a group without mentioning he is telling us a belief of the group and without correcting their erroneous view. Of course those items will always be missing if he is stating the claim for himself, so:

So P(h)=0.01, P(~h)=.99, P(e|h) = 1.00, P(e|~h)=0.1 for a posterior of 0.0917. 

So that’s what the passage doesn’t have, what about what it does have? Well it does have a direct statement of what Epiphanius is responding to! It is a hypothetical challenge a skeptic might make.

2:5 But probably someone might say, ‘Since Christ was physically born of David’s seed, that is, of the Holy Virgin Mary, why is he not sitting on David’s throne? For the Gospel says, ‘They came that they might anoint him king, and when Jesus perceived this he departed … and hid himself in Ephraim, a city of the wilderness.’ ‘

2:6 But now that I have gotten to this passage and am asked about this text and the reason why the prophecy about sitting on David’s throne has not been fulfilled physically in the Saviour’s case—for some have thought that it has not—I shall still say that it is a fact. No word of God’s holy scripture comes to nothing.

Immediately ! following  is the passage Richard quotes in the book. I have to wonder, did Richard even read the entire chapter here or did he just go fishing for the part he needed for his “case”?

So how often do you supposed Epiphanius would introduce a passage that’s supposed to describe the beliefs of the Nazorians but instead frame it as an answer to a hypothetical skeptic? And not only that but specifically say that it is he, Epiphanius, that will still say it is a fact! Zero? Nada? Zilch? None? Negative four? I mean really! Let’s be preposterously generous and say he’ll do something that idiotic 1/10th as often as he would if he, rather than the Nazorians, is saying it. Using the outcome of the previous calculation for this round’s prior we have:

P(h)=0.09, P(~h)=.0.91, P(e|h) = 1.00, P(e|~h)=0.1 for a posterior of 0.5. 

Well look at that, even being insanely generous things are coming out dead even. But we aren’t done yet.

If Epiphanius is ascribing this view to the Nazorians, how often do you think he will repeat in another chapter, in the middle of giving his own timeline of the birth of Jesus, the strange statements about Jannaeus and Alexandra, and even cite the same exact scripture as being fulfilled by their “ceasing” and Jesus being born? Again, nada? Zilch-o? Let’s be embarrassingly generous to Richard here (I’m feeling sorry for him for not bothering to investigate the source he used) and again say he’ll do it 1/10th as often.

P(h)=0.5, P(~h)=.0.5, P(e|h) = 1.00, P(e|~h)=0.1

And the answer is…. 91% in favor of my hypothesis.

Now, to be fair, I haven’t evaluated Richard’s evidence yet, but that’s because he hasn’t given any! Not in the book. Not in the form of a citation. And, not in his blog response. He appeals only to a low prior which I incorporated above and easily overcame. There is no other conclusion I can come to other than Richard is wrong here.

There is one final piece of info I’ve left out. I started out only giving my hypothesis a 1% prior. However, as I noted in the original post, Epiphanius also included this gem as part of a defense of Mary’s perpetual virginity, in his Chapter 78 (7)

Joseph was the brother of Clopas, but the son of Jacob surnamed Panther; both of these brothers were the sons of the man surnamed Panther.

Well what do you know, surname Panther, from the Jewish polemic against Jesus. (Naw, that’s just crazy conspiracy talk right? To heck with that evidence stuff.) So, we can clearly see 1% is far too low for the prior probability that Epiphanius would make unorthodox apologetic claims. I won’t go back and account for that. The evidence is already enough as it is, but keep this in mind lest anyone wants to gainsay the generous estimates I’ve given above.

 Ball’s in Your Court

Now I’ve had a bit of fun above, but in the end I’m more than happy to be shown to be wrong. I just don’t want to accept faulty or un-evidenced claims. It is going to take more than knee-jerk slanders on my character and motivations, and shoddy reading of source materials however.

OHJ p.281
OHJ P.282

Josephus, Jesus and Bayes’

Continuing with my theme of bouncing all over the place, according to whim and fancy, next up is the Testimonium Flavianum.

In the late first century, historian Flavius Josephus published his book Antiquities of the Jews, which is a history of the Jewish people. In the book are found two references to Jesus Christ whose authenticity have been questioned by scholars. I’ll just briefly indicate why for the first of these references.

Antiquities Book 18 3.3
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.

Josephus was a Jew, not a Christian, so you’ll notice that phrases such as “He was the Christ”, and “if it be lawful to call him a man”, cannot possibly be authentic. Since all of our extant manuscripts come from Christian sources it would seem that phrases such as these, at the least, have been added by Christians. Now, some scholars want to argue for an authentic core to the passage, but I find this to be nothing more than wishful thinking.

For a good summary of the arguments regarding authenticity, pro and con, I suggest this article on Peter Kirby’s Early Christian Writings. The arguments that I find conclusive are 6(missing from table of contents), 8 (doesn’t fit well in the surrounding material), 9 (not cited in works of early church fathers and should be if it was there), and 11 (sounds very much like the language of Eusebius, who may have been the forger himself) on the con side. For more on number 11 see this blog post by Ken Olson brought to my attention in the review of OHJ by Nicholas Covington.

Devilish Details
The rest of this post is just me playing around with some ways to visualize the task of  coming up with likelihood ratios. I’m not sure if this will be at all useful to anyone so you may want to skip it (no, trust me, you probably do). I’m just experimenting, really.  As I said above I consider the Testimonium completely spurious but find it to be a convenient starting point for the discussion below.

I’ve said before that what we are doing when developing our likelihood ratios is imagining the total space of possible worlds under the hypotheses we are comparing. We are then comparing how often our evidence shows up under each. We don’t mean the very specific details. For instance, we don’t really care that the Testimonium Flavianum shows up specifically in the 18th book of the Antiquities, that isn’t relevant. So we are abstracting away some of the details and want to know which possible worlds have evidence ‘like’ ours.

  • Historicity Possible Worlds
    • Contains passage ‘like’ Testimonium (x%)
    • Doesn’t contain passage ‘like’ Testimonium (100 – x%)
  • Mythicism Possible Worlds
    • Contains passage ‘like’ Testimonium (y%)
    • Doesn’t contain passage ‘like’ Testimonium (100-y%)

Our ratio then will be y divided by x. Obviously, it will matter quite a bit what our evidence is ‘like’. For example, if ‘definitely authentic’ is one of the characteristics the passage has, x and y will be very different than if the passage is inauthentic.

Our intuition might be that an interpolated passage (i.e. not authentic) doesn’t argue for either historicity or mythicism. If we take a step back though, and look at the situation before we decide on authenticity, we might think differently. I’ll show you what I mean.

  • I-HistoricityPWs
    • A- No passage in Josephus
    • B- Passage present but entirely interpolated
    • C- Passage present and has, at minimum, an authentic core
      • 1- Info gleaned from Christian report only
      • 2- Info independent of (or mostly independent of ) Christian reports
  • II-MythicismPWs
    • A- No passage in Josephus
    • B- Passage present but entirely interpolated
    • C- Passage present and has, at minimum, an authentic core
      • 1- Info gleaned from Christian reports only

I want to briefly defend dividing up the possible worlds as I have done in A, B and C.  As long as the items in any subtree add up to 100% any division should theoretically be as good as any other. Before we divided them up into ‘like our evidence’ and ‘not’, here I add a more finely grained view. Now, not every way of dividing up the space will be as useful, but there is nothing wrong with doing things this way. In fact, in this case, it aligns better with how we naturally want to approach the problem. We would like to figure out if the passage is an interpolation(or not)  and then figure out how often interpolations show up under each theory.

Getting back to the outline above we should first notice how difficult it would be to actually estimate the numbers we need. We are basically floating free here. (I think) we have no actual, empirically derived,  numbers to use. Still, perhaps we could say something about the relationships between them. It seems like I.C. should be bigger than II.C. for the simple reason that there are more ways for an authentic passage to show up under historicity. This means that I.A. or I.B., or both, have to be smaller than their counter parts in II. So which one is it?

Our initial intuition might have been that an interpolated passage was just as likely under either theory and so the extra occurrences of an authentic passage are all coming out of the “No passage” bucket. I would be more inclined to think it would diminish a little of each. There is less need to interpolate under historicity and therefore it would occur less. I think whatever the ratio of II.A. to II.B. is should be maintained under I. Redrawing the tree in a slightly different way, and adding some actual numbers (pulled straight out of nowhere), might help visualize what I’m saying

  • I-HistoricityPWs
    • A – Passage present and has , at minimum, an authentic core (4%)
      • 1 – Info gleaned from Christian report only (50%)
      • 2 – Info independent of (or mostly independent of ) Christian reports (50%)
    • B – No authentic passage (96%)
      • 1 – No passage at all (75%)
      • 2 – Entirely interpolated passage (25%)
  • II-MythicismPWs
    • A – Passage present and has , at minimum, an authentic core (2%)
      • 1 – Info gleaned from Christian report only (100%)
    • B – No authentic passage (98%)
      • 1 – No passage at all (75%)
      • 2 – Entirely interpolated passage (25%)

So B. takes up a slightly different amount of space in the over all possibility space under each hypothesis, but is split up between ‘no passage’ and ‘interpolation’ the same.

This all means that an interpolated passage would actually end up favoring mythicism. Not so much because the passage is interpolated, but because it falls under the no authentic passage scenarios which happens more often under mythicism. This fits in with what I said in a previous post where I felt that each failure to find a mention of Jesus should at least count somewhat against historicity.

Does this seem right, though? The arguments I gave seem reasonable but it definitely gives me a healthy respect for the complexity of the situation. If I’ve got the relationships right, the numbers themselves are probably less than justified (I just made them up). My thinking was that there was probably a low chance for inclusion by Josephus even if he has heard of Christians but that, given the status of Josephus, there would be a strong motive to fill in any silences found in his work.

What’s It Like?

More important is the case where we can’t narrow things down to one branch but favor one over the other. In the case of the Testimonium I’m convinced we can proceed as if our passage is interpolated; I don’t think there is much chance it has even an authentic core. For the other passage in Josephus however I’m not as confident of that conclusion.

Just adding together both the interpolated and authentic options won’t do in this less clear cut scenario. Some of those possible worlds will have unmistakable evidence one way or another, and they aren’t ‘like’ a passage that could be either. Besides we may heavily favor one, interpolation say, but still give authenticity a reasonable chance of being true.

Jeffrey Conditionalization is one way forward. Basically we just do a weighted average, which requires us to estimate how likely each branch is. The way it would work in this case is we would calculate our posterior probability as if we know the passage is authentic, and then multiply by the percent chance we think that is the case. Then add to that the calculation, done as if we know it isn’t authentic, multiplied by the percent chance we think that is the case. Too many words… an example:

Let’s say the posterior probability of mythicism is 0.333 , if the passage is authentic, and we started  with a flat prior (i.e. P(h) = 0.5 = P(~h) ). But lets say we only think there is a 5% chance the passage is authentic so we multiply: 0.333 *  0.05 = 0.017.

Now let’s say the posterior probability for an interpolation (we know there isn’t “no passage”) is 0.505. We think it is 95% likely this is the case so we multiply: 0.505 * 0.95 = 0.48

Now adding those two numbers together we come up just shy of 0.5. Surprised? Those are the actual number you will get, by the way, if you plug the numbers in my outline into your favorite Bayes calculator. What is happening is that an authentic passage is a much better indicator than an interpolated one, so even though I gave authenticity a mere 5% chance of being true, it was enough to bring the posterior below 50%.

The final number is sensitive to how likely we think it is for an authentic passage to show up. For example, if I change II.A. to 5% and I.A. to 10%, and again assume a flat prior, we get a final posterior slightly above 50%. If we go to 10% and 20% then the posterior will be about 52%. All in all calling it a wash seems fair since I have no idea what those actual numbers should be, however do note that if I give authenticity as little as a 20% chance of being true we are back under 50% even with the larger estimates for I.A and II.A.

The lesson here is that a characteristic that sharply distinguishes between two theories can sway our results even if we think it has a low probability of being true.

The brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James

Moving on, the strangely worded phrase in the heading is the other reference found in Josephus, this time in Antiquities 20.9.1. I again recommend Peter Kirby’s site for the arguments for and against this passage.

The phrase does look a bit odd, with Jesus coming first and James last, but Peter Kirby thinks it is just another grammatically correct way to identify James. I also find items 4 and 5 in favor of authenticity important.  Against authenticity I find items 4 through 6 sway me to consider interpolation more likely than authenticity, but not by much.

Richard Carrier has published a peer-reviewed article on this passage where he suggests the passage was an accidental interpolation. That kind of thing happened a lot back then. They had no method to distinguish between a marginal note and a phrase that had been left out during copying of the manuscript, so often a marginal note would be included in the text the next time it got copied. To read the article you can buy Carrier’s book Hitler Homer Bible Christ or read a summary of the argument here.

He offers a very plausible scenario for how an interpolation might have occurred. Still I don’t find the arguments quite as convincing as those against the Testimonium. I’m going to proceed by assuming there is a 25% chance of the passage being authentic.

  • HistoricityPWs
    • No passage (90%)
    • Interpolated passage (5%)
    • Authentic passage (5%)
  • MythicismPWs
    • No passage (94.999%)
    • Interpolated passage (5%)
    • Authentic passage (.001%)

With the Testimonium I see interpolation as a purposeful action designed to fill a void. Here any interpolation is going to be accidental. Therefore I’ve lowered the rate of occurrence and kept it at a fixed rate. I could have structured things the same as before but this way gives me a nice even fraction which I would probably round off to anyway (I checked).

Using these numbers and the technique I used in the previous section:

Assuming an authentic passage, and flat priors gives us essentially zero. And, zero multiplied by 25% is still zero.

Assuming an interpolated passage, and flat priors gives us 0.5. Multiplying by 75% gives us: 0.375

So if this were our only piece of evidence we would have 37.5% chance for myth and 62.5% chance for historicity. Since I’ve been using ratios instead of percentages, dividing 37.5/62.5 gives 0.6… or a 3 to 5 ratio in favor of historicity. The Testimonium I found to favor neither theory (i.e. the ratio was 1/1) so 3/5 is our final answer.


Josephus: 3/5

OHJ – Tally Sheet

OHJ – First Clement

The earliest Christian letter outside of the New Testament comes from Clement, supposedly the bishop of Rome. The letter doesn’t actually name its author, but it was traditionally attributed to him. Scholars typically date it to the late first century. The letter was written to the Corinthian church in response to an incident involving the ouster of the elders of the church. It is quite a long letter (ten thousand words) and calls for the group that took over to hand the leadership back to the elders.

In On the Historicity of Jesus (OHJ) Richard Carrier examines the letter to see if it provides any evidence for or against the historicity of Jesus. Some odd features cause Carrier to conclude this letter is evidence for a mythical Jesus. He summarizes those odd features as “of such great length, filled with so many opportunities to reference the facts of Jesus’ life but never doing so, and with scripture and revelation the only mentioned sources for Jesus’ deeds and sayings” (p. 315).

A translation of First Clement is available at Peter Kirby’s Early Christian Writings.

One silence I found particularly striking was in Chapter 17 where we read, “Let us be imitators also of them which went about in goatskins and sheepskins, preaching the coming of Christ. We mean Elijah and Elisha and likewise Ezekiel, the prophets, and besides them those men also that obtained a good report.” Where is John the Baptist in this list? Lest you think he is one of the men “that obtained a good report”, he is not. Those men are detailed in the rest of the chapter, and the next, and are all Old Testament figures. Later in 36:4 when writing, “Thou art my Son, to-day have I begotten thee”, he cities the Psalms in full, not any encounter with John the Baptist. Biblical scholars assure us that the story of Jesus’ baptism by John is one of the truest pieces of information recorded in the gospels, yet he doesn’t even merit a passing mention. (But, perhaps this is merely another indication the story was invented by Mark.)

As Carrier points out, when recounting the evils of envy in chapters 4 through 6, Clement can’t find a place for the envy of the Pharisees leading to the crucifixion of Jesus. This despite the fact the examples given range from the ancient, to Paul and Peter, and even examples of a more general nature. Chapter 7 follows, on the subject of repentance. Though the blood of Christ gets a mention as bringing repentance to all, no sayings of Jesus on the subject are produced.

In my view, it is not just that Jesus based examples are missing from places they should be. It is also that the letter is structured the way it is. 1 Clem 45:2-4 says, “Look diligently into the scriptures… for ye will not in them find the just expelled by holy men. The just were persecuted, but it was by the lawless;”. Because of this framing of the topic, in terms of what is in the Hebrew scriptures, we might not expect to find a mention of Jesus’ crucifixion, but why frame it that way in the first place? Surely, the best possible example here is of the Jews violating their own laws to kill Jesus. I think it is very odd we don’t find each section of examples, throughout the letter, topped off with an example from the life of Jesus.

Holy Ghost Writer
The view of Clement is that the authors of the Hebrew scriptures were channeling the Holy Spirit. In 45:2 we read “Look diligently into the scriptures, which are the true sayings of the Holy Spirit”. But, apparently, sometimes the Holy Spirit was merely a conduit for Jesus. In giving examples of humility, peacefulness, and obedience to God, Clement tells us Jesus spoke to us through the Hebrew scriptures, using the Holy Spirit as ghost writer (pun intended).

All these things doth the faith which is in Christ assure. For he himself, through the Holy Spirit, thus calleth unto us:
[Psalm 34:11-19]Come, ye children, hearken unto me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
What man is he that wisheth for life and would fain see good days?
Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips that they speak no guile.
Turn away from evil and do good;
seek peace and pursue it.
The eyes of the Lord are over the just, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to destroy their memorial out of the land.
The righteous cried, and the Lord heard him, and delivered him out of all his troubles.
[Psalm 32:10]Many are the afflictions of the sinner, but they that hope in the Lord, mercy shall compass them round about.

Stranger still, when Clement wants to tell us Jesus was of a “lowly condition” he doesn’t produce an actual story about Jesus, he simply cites Isaiah 53 as evidence.

For Christ belongeth unto them that are humble, not unto them that exalt themselves over his flock.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the sceptre of the majesty of God, came not in the arrogance of boasting and pride, though he was able to do so; but in humility, even as the Holy Spirit spake concerning him.
For he saith,
[Isaiah 53]Lord, who hath believed our report, and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed? Like a child have we delivered our message before him; he is as a root in a thirsty land. There is no form nor glory in him, and we beheld him, and he had neither form nor comeliness, but his form was despised, lacking comeliness, beyond the form of the sons of men. He was a man stricken and in toil, knowing how to bear infirmity, for his face was turned away; it was dishonoured and held in no reputation.
He beareth our sins and suffereth pain on our account, and we esteemed him as one in toil, stricken and afflicted.
He was wounded for our sins, and for our transgressions did he suffer infirmity; the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we were healed.
All we, like sheep, have gone astray, every one hath erred in his own way,
and the Lord hath given him up for our sins; and he, through affliction, openeth not his mouth. He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearers is dumb, so openeth he not his mouth.
In his humiliation his judgment was taken away, and who shall declare his generation, for his life is taken from the earth;
for the iniquity of my people he hath come unto death.
And I will give the wicked in requital for his burial, and the rich for his death: for he did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: and the Lord willeth to purify him from stripes.
If ye make an offering for sin your soul shall prolong its days.
And the Lord willeth to take away from the travail of his soul, to show him light and to form him by knowledge, to justify the righteous man who serveth many well; and their sins he shall bear himself.
Wherefore he shall receive the inheritance of many, and shall divide the spoils of the strong, because his soul was delivered up unto death, and he was numbered among the transgressors,
and he bore the sins of many, and was given up for their sins.

And again he saith,
[Psalm 22:6-8]I am a worm and no man — a reproach of men and despised of the people;
all they who saw me mocked me, they spake with their lips, they shook the head; he hoped in God, let him deliver him, let him save him, because he desireth him.

See, beloved, what is the example that hath been given unto us; for if the Lord so humbled himself, what shall we do who have through his mercy come under the yoke of his grace?

What must the situation have been regarding knowledge of Jesus to produce passages like these? It can’t be the one biblical scholars like to imagine; there is no rich oral tradition to draw from. Together with the silences regarding the deeds of Jesus during his life these passages present a serious problem for a historicist understanding of this letter.

The Sayings of Jesus
In his extensive quotation of the Hebrew scriptures, Clement twice cites scriptural passages that don’t match anything we have today (23:3-4 and 46:2). Similarly we also find two passages describing things Jesus spoke that, while resembling sayings in the gospels, are slightly different from them. If these are indeed things a historical Jesus said, Clement probably didn’t get them from a gospel we have. Indeed, the aforementioned silences all but require that to be the case.

The possibility exists though that we are indeed seeing a preserved memory of Jesus’ teaching. The problem is, it is tough to see how this can outweigh the strange features already reviewed above. We know that eventually a large body of sayings were attributed to Jesus despite not being from him. We also know that in Paul’s letters he appears to at least have received some of his information via direct revelation from Jesus. That Clement quotes from unknown (to us) scripture also leaves open the possibility he is doing the same and, like in Chapter 22, attributing the scripture to Jesus.

13:1 Let us therefore, brethren, be humble, laying aside all boasting and pride, and folly and wrath, and let us do that which is written; for the Holy Spirit saith, Let not the wise boast in his wisdom, nor the strong in his strength, nor the rich in his riches; but let him that boasteth make his boast in the Lord, even by seeking him and doing judgment and justice. Let us especially remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ which he spake when teaching gentleness and long-suffering, for he spake thus:

13:2 Show mercy, that ye may obtain mercy; forgive, that it may be forgiven unto you; as ye do, so shall it be done unto you; as ye give, so shall it be given unto you; as ye judge, so shall ye be judged; as ye are kindly affectioned, so shall kindness be showed unto you; with whatsover measure ye measure, with the same shall it be measured unto you.

13:3 With this commandment and with these exhortations let us strengthen ourselves, that we may walk obedient to his holy words with all humility. For the Holy Scripture saith,

13:4 [Isaiah 66:2]Upon whom shall I have respect but upon him that is meek and quiet, and that trembleth at my words?

Carrier thinks the quotation in 13:2 looks like a proverb, perhaps a lost one. Against the notion that Clement is quoting a lost scripture here are the following points: (1) unlike in Chapter 22 he doesn’t say it is through the Holy Spirit that Jesus is speaking and (2) when introducing the next quotation in 13:4, which is from scripture, he says so. So, I don’t buy that explanation. On the other hand I also don’t see why this couldn’t be the kind of thing someone received through revelation. That is a mere possibility however, and therefore I think this slightly favors a historicist interpretation.

The same could be said of the other saying of Jesus found in Clement’s letter (46:7-8). It is a combination of sayings found in the gospels but slightly changed. In this case I agree with Carrier that the saying best fits a church community settings, in which case it couldn’t be an actual saying of Jesus, since there wouldn’t have been a church when he was alive.

From Jacob According to the Flesh
There is a passage in the letter that is more challenging for a mythicist interpretation.

For from Jacob came the priests and all the Levites that serve the altar of God. From him came our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh; from him came the kings and rulers and governors of the tribe of Judah; and the remainder of his tribes are of no small glory, since God hath promised, Thy seed shall be as the stars of heaven.

A discussion of the phrase translated as “according to the flesh” is beyond what I want to go into here. The mythicists certainly think Jesus took on the ‘likeness’ of flesh before his heavenly sacrifice. The merits of that view though aren’t what I have in mind as being challenging. It is where in the passage the phrase occurs. The priests that came from Jacob were certainly ordinary flesh and blood human beings. The same can be said of the kings and rulers of Judah. So why is Jesus, who only took on the likeness of flesh sandwiched in between those two references? Shouldn’t he be set apart somehow? Perhaps I’m making too much of it, but it seems strange to me to find Jesus casually enumerated among people who came from Jacob in the ordinary way.

My Conclusion
In the end there are indications pointing in different directions. Without the two sayings of Jesus and the listing of Jesus among the things that came from Jacob I would find the letter to strongly side with the mythicist position; at perhaps as much as a 4 to 1 ratio. The sayings don’t reduce it by much but perhaps it might bring it down to a 3 to 1 ratio instead. The Jacob passage however I feel is at least 2 to 1 against mythicism.

Putting that all together the final ratio would be 3 to 2 in favor of mythicism.

First Clement: 3/2

OHJ – Tally Sheet

OHJ – Missing Extrabiblical Evidence

If Jesus lived should we have heard about him from the numerous writers who lived in and around his time? That’s the topic of Chapter 8 Section 2 through 4 in On the Historicity of Jesus (OHJ). I have a dilemma of sorts when it to comes to this subject. On the one hand it bores me to tears for the simple reason that I’ve heard it discussed so many times before. On the other you can’t reasonably form a conclusion without at least considering it. There are the Josephus passages, after all, and numerous silences in authors who we might expect to have written about Jesus. I’ll just have to find some way to make it interesting to myself.

The silences of pagan authors are covered in Chapter 8 Section 3. Carrier documents several people who had every opportunity and reason to write about Jesus but didn’t (or if they did their writings were not preserved). The section documents many types of missing evidence but I have in mind those authors closest to the time Jesus would have lived, who failed to mention him. Ultimately, Carrier decides the silences as a whole favor neither historicity or mythicism, and thus assigns 1/1 as the likelihood ratio.

I’m inclined to think he is being too generous to historicity. To understand why we’ll need to look at what (and how) it is we are estimating when we state a likelihood ratio. (I’ll note that I haven’t fully worked through this intuition I have, so enjoy watching me fumble in the dark a bit here).

When estimating our likelihood we are given two things; the hypothesis under consideration, and our background knowledge. By given I mean, we are to assume they are true during our analysis. You can think of it like this: given the hypothesis, imagine all the possible worlds where it is true. These worlds will have properties (or states if you will) that are entailed by the hypothesis (i.e. they logically must be the case if our hypothesis is true), and properties that are merely allowed by it (because the hypothesis doesn’t specifically disallow them or have any logical effect on them). It is important to note that we are not to limit the space of possible worlds to the evidence we will be considering. In fact that’s the whole point, to discover what percentage of the total space has our evidence in it.

Now one of the excuses often given for all of the silences is that, unlike his portrayal in the gospels, Jesus wasn’t at all famous. However, this a conclusion based on the very evidence Carrier will have us consider here. Though he discusses this possibility in Section 2, he hasn’t included it in the extensive background knowledge chapters, and neither is it part of our minimal historicity hypothesis. Therefore ‘Jesus was famous’ is not ruled out by either, and therefore must be part of the total space of possible worlds under historicity. Remember, the space of possible worlds will include worlds whose evidence is nothing like ours.

What this means is that a (potentially) large fraction of the possible worlds under historicity will contain lots of early written information about Jesus because he was famous. But that is not what our actual world looks like at all. So the only way the silences could be a wash is if there is an identical large fraction of possible worlds under mythicism where we expect to have such references even though they are false. Otherwise we would expect the entire space for mythicism to contain no references. Obviously there is the possibility of false references (I believe the Testimonium Flavianum is one such reference) but is it enough to balance out the references we should expect if Jesus had indeed been famous? I think, perhaps, not.

This obviously has implications for analyzing the passages in Josephus. So I may have found a way to make this interesting for me, after all. In the future I’ll explore how exactly I want model this intuition and how specific evidence and arguments can effect this more general evaluation.

Though I reserve the right to change my estimate in the future, for now I’m going to say that the silences are at least 10% more common on mythicism, which gives me a ratio of 11/10.


OHJ – Extrabiblical Evidence – Twin Traditions – Part 2

My ultimate goal in this series is to come up with my own numbers to plug into the framework Richard Carrier develops in On the Historicity of Jesus (OHJ). Some items will just be short statements and the numbers I’ve assigned and others I’ll devote time to writing something more extensive, or explore the underlying sources. There will no doubt be digressions as well. This entry will be short.

As I mentioned in the previous post, as Carrier has it in the book, Epiphanius says there was a group of Jewish-Christians who preached Jesus lived under Alexander Jannaeus and the Jews confirm this view in the Babylonian Talmud. I found the case for the former part of the claim lacking. Robbed of that aspect, I really don’t see that much can be made of the Jews reporting variant stories of Jesus. It’s one thing if a sect of Christians has an entirely variant timeline for Jesus but quite another for a hostile witness like ancient Judaism.

I invite anyone who is interested to review the Wikipedia page that covers Jesus in the Talmud, but for me I have to say I find this ‘Twin Traditions’ issue a wash and not favoring either theory.

Twin Traditions: 1/1

%d bloggers like this: