A Better Prior Probability for a Historical Jesus
In Richard Carrier’s book On the Historicity of Jesus (OHJ) he compares Jesus to a modified version of Lord Raglan’s myth-ritualist hero type. He uses this comparison, along with comparisons to other archetypes, to come up with a prior probability for his Bayesian analysis of the two hypotheses mythical Jesus vs historical Jesus. Here I want to examine what Raglan’s type really tells us and it how it functions in the analysis. Then I will argue that there is another type, and associated data set, that has a very similar logic to it but that Carrier has improperly excluded it from his analysis.
Remember, a prior probability is intended to be a measure of our subjective confidence in a hypothesis before we start examining the evidence. In science this will often be driven by where our previous research has led us before we begin collecting data in an experiment. The nature of historical investigation is such that we already have the data, so picking what to single out as our prior probability is somewhat arbitrary.
Despite being subjective we are free (and even encouraged) to look to objective data to help us form our prior. It is still a subjective enterprise however, as we are not going to find a data set that shows how many times our hypothesis turned out to be correct (it either is or it isn’t), and we will have to use our judgment about what is a good proxy. For instance, if we are trying to decide whether a particular American man owns a car, there isn’t a data set on how many times this man was found to own a car vs how many times he wasn’t. He either owns one or he doesn’t. However, data from the US Department of Transportation on adult male car ownership would likely be a good proxy for what our confidence in the hypothesis should be, and data on female car ownership in France wouldn’t.
Raglan as Diagnostic Tool
Lord Raglan developed a set of 22 traits that he claims are common in different hero traditions across cultures. Not just any tradition however. In particular Raglan was looking for story elements that were strongly associated with rituals. As Neil Godfrey once explained:
Raglan has drawn these parallel motifs from what he terms “genuine mythology” — meaning “mythology connected with ritual”. That excludes mythical tales of the King Arthur sort. Raglan is interested in myths that appear to have been associated with ancient rituals as acted out in dramatic shows (e.g. the Dionysia, May Day rituals, Passion plays) and religious ceremonies.
Later in the article he adds:
Lord Raglan’s thesis is that these myths are the product of rituals. They originated as explanations (or even as dramatizations) of ritual ceremonies… The stuff of history (building cities or monuments, expanding the kingdom, etc) is missing. The most eventful moment in some such stories is the king’s inauguration of laws. Historically we know no one person was responsible for introducing complete sets of laws out of nowhere; we are confident that such stories are etiological tales.
While Raglan views these story elements as always mythical instead of historical, what the type is really diagnostic of is whether the hero of the story was celebrated in ritual (or perhaps is symbolic of those who are) or worshipped in religious ceremony. Of course, all sides of the debate already agree on the point that Jesus was worshipped as a god (or demigod). Perhaps some historicists would have to concede that the gospels were primarily written to promote said ritual worship of Jesus (or at least the parts that match the type) but most already concede that point as well. So it would appear that, as a diagnostic tool, the Raglan hero type doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.
Raglan as Sampling Tool
Since the Raglan type is merely diagnostic of a fact already known in the agreed background it’s actual use in Carrier’s procedure is to sample from ancient hero stories. The idea is, if we can build a data set of characters using the archetype, then we can see how frequently historical characters fit the type. Or, in other words, we can see how often historical people are the subject of ritual worship.
Said another way, we are proposing that one of our agreed background facts (Jesus was worshipped as a god) has a different plausibility depending on which of our two hypotheses is correct. If Jesus is invented then it is no surprise he was worshipped because many invented beings are worshipped, but if he was historical, it is a less common occurrence.
Carrier confirms this is his conception of it in a blog post on his website.
Jesus meets even more markers for mythical persons than the Rank-Raglan type: he is, unlike most historical persons, a worshiped celestial savior deity (OHJ, pp. 96-108, 230), a dying-and-rising demigod (OHJ, pp. 168-73, 225-29), a revelatory space alien (137-41, 146, 197-206), a prophecy-fulfilling godman (OHJ, pp. 141-43, 230), an aetiological cult figure (OHJ, pp. 8-11, 159-63), and a counter-cultural hero (OHJ, pp. 222-25, 430-31; cf. Proving History, pp. 131-32).
So what I am measuring is how often historical persons get that heavily mythotyped (and indeed that quickly, which should be near impossible for a historical person: OHJ, pp. 248-52)
So using the Raglan archetype as a sampling tool we have discovered that invented persons are worshiped as gods more often than real persons. We might wonder if this isn’t just another thing we already knew.
At any rate scholars have an answer to this dilemma. The answer is that the closest followers of Jesus were motivated by grief following his death to have visions. I’m pretty sure Carrier agrees this is a fine proposal. I looked to see if I could find a direct quote and couldn’t ,but I’m pretty sure he has said that if Jesus was historical this is definitely what happened and that it is not at all improbable. For his part Carrier has contributed quite a lot of references to the fact that hallucinations and trance states, etc were quite common at the time and people in groups like the early Christians may have even selected for people prone to such things. That grief, especially over a death of someone close, is a strong trigger for such things is also well established.
So what effect should this have on us as we build our subjective prior? Should it cause us to adjust what we have learned from the Raglan data? I think probably so but I will leave it an open question while we examine another collection of data and an argument of a very similar nature.
Rare or Common?
Before I get to that other argument I can’t help but point out that there seems to be some tension between what I quoted from Carrier’s blog and what he says early in OHJ.
It’s quite common for historical persons to become surrounded by a vastOHJ p.18
quantity of myth and legend, and very rapidly, too, especially when they
become the object of religious veneration.
Carrier makes the statement as a preface to talking about Haile Selassie, a real man, becoming elevated to status of a god. He then goes on to list off nine traits of Selassie that are remarkably similar to Jesus. He also quotes Edmund Standing’s argument that if all materials except the religious materials were lost we would incorrectly conclude Selassie was mythical. Carrier agrees but thinks the difference is that we have Paul where Jesus is a sky god and the Gospels that are so mytho-symbolic that no history can be recovered for them. Of course, much later in book, he ends up allowing someone could view Paul as favoring historicity. As far as the gospels, that isn’t actually a difference. That was Standings point. If only those remained we would think Selassie maybe didn’t exist.
The relevant issue here though is that the entire discussion there seems to be in conflict with what is being done with the Raglan archetype. If the difference between Selassie and Jesus is what we will find when we peel away the layers of the mytho-symbolic gospels, then the things that are supposed to be “peeled away” are precisely the things the Raglan archetype is measuring! So why are we using it? Aren’t we falling to the very trap Standing warned us of (which Carrier agreed with)?
So I’m left puzzled. Is a human worshipped as a god and mythologized quite common and rapid (per OHJ p 18) or rare and perhaps impossible (if it happens quickly) per the blog. Should we be basing our prior on the gospels, or is that the very data we need to peel away? Which view does the 33% prior probability represent? Or is it a subjective balancing of both?
The Not So Desperate Objection
The structure of the Raglan prior probability argument is that there is an element in our agreed background knowledge, that Jesus was worshipped as a god, that can be better explained by one of our two hypotheses, the mythicist one. In short “people don’t worship men, they worship invented beings,” because remember, that Jesus was the subject of ritual worship was all Raglan told us directly.
There is another element in our agreed background knowledge we should look at, that the first Christians thought Jesus was the messiah and that he was executed. As scholars have pointed out, this is also a case that can be better explained by one of our hypotheses, in this case historicity. All the extant conceptions of the messiah before Christianity envisioned a conquering hero. While it is not impossible for someone to buck that trend (as some have foolishly suggested), a historical trigger would surely make that more likely.
Now I want to be clear, I know Carrier made an argument against this view (which he labeled “A last desperate objection”). The Cargo cults arose in socio-political situations quite similar to Christianity so the situation was ripe for an innovation. I thought his treatment of the Cargo cults was quite excellent (in Element 29) and that section certainly cushions the blow and makes the extreme versions of the argument, “no Jew would invent a crucified messiah”, untenable. What it doesn’t do, however, is make the data disappear, and yet it has in Carrier’s analysis. After all, those other conceptions of the messiah arose in the same socio-political context as Christianity. We can only conclude that while it may be possible for such an invented innovation to arise the data show it is a low frequency occurrence at best. Why shouldn’t this low frequency affect our prior?
Compare this to the situation with the Raglan data. We have data that suggests worshipping invented people is more common than real people. We have an argument that explains why Jesus might have been an exception; grief based visions. Notice too that the same Cargo Cult argument also works to situate Jesus differently than other Raglan heroes. So why is a mere argument enough to dismiss the previous messiah conceptions but not the Raglan data?
It appears to me that this a double standard. Either a plausible argument is enough to ignore previously low rates of occurrence or it isn’t. So either both data sets should be ignored and a flat 1:1 prior adopted (and the relevant data considered to be already accounted for) or we should accept both of the low frequencies and acknowledge they point in different direction and probably just cancel each other out, again leaving a 1:1 prior.
This should not sound unreasonable. After all, either way something weird/unusual/rare seems to have happened. Either a group of Jews began worshipping a man, or they invented and worshipped a crucified messiah. But, under Carrier’s treatment, only one of the two hypotheses comes under scrutiny for it’s weirdness. The other one gets a pass and treated as perfectly common. The data says it shouldn’t be.
Some Useful Links About OHJ
Some recent debate on YouTube regarding this book caused me to return to this long forgotten project. I thought I should add some links related to things I wrote about.
First up is the Apocalypse of Moses. After writing here I posted a thread over at the Early Writings Forum but never got much discussion going. You can find it here: Adam wasn’t buried in the third heaven. .
Better, however, would be to read the post by Ben Smith there: Richard Carrier and the burial in heaven. He covered it in a much more readable way and had access to better sources than I did. He concludes, as I did, that “once one has fully digested the text and grasped the contexts of the various key passages… it is unambiguously in favor of an earthly burial, not a heavenly one”.
Next up is Epiphanius. A wonderful post by a blogger called The Uncertaintist fills in all the details I didn’t have the knowledge to fill in. Though it is plain that Epiphanius is describing his own view, I didn’t understand that he was basically repeating an apologetic first given by Eusebius. I’ll let The Uncertaintist fill in the rest. Epiphanius didn’t write about a pre-Christian Jesus
His 3 post series on the book is worth reading also.
Why Richard Carrier probably won’t win over the guild, Part 1 (the nature of the investigation and hypotheses)
Why Richard Carrier probably won’t win over the guild, Part 2 (on prior probabilities and some of the evidence)
Why Richard Carrier probably won’t win over the guild, Part 3 (there likely isn’t enough evidence to change anyone’s mind)
Why Richard Carrier probably won’t win over the guild, Summary
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)||Posts|
|Twin Traditions||Ch. 8 Section 1 | Twin Traditions||1/1||OHJ – Extrabiblical Evidence – Twin Traditions – Part 1
OHJ – Extrabiblical Evidence – Twin Traditions – Part 2
OHJ – Carrier’s Response on Epiphanius and Adam
|Missing Extrabiblical Refernces||Ch. 8 Sections 3 - 4 | Documentary Silence||11/10||OHJ – Missing Extrabiblical Evidence|
|First Clement||Ch. 8 Section 5 | 1 Clement||3/2||OHJ – First Clement|
|Josephus||Ch. 8 Section 9 | Josephus||3/5||Josephus, 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.
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.
2:6 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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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
- 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
- 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%)
- A – Passage present and has , at minimum, an authentic core (4%)
- 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%)
- A – Passage present and has , at minimum, an authentic core (2%)
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.
- No passage (90%)
- Interpolated passage (5%)
- Authentic passage (5%)
- 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.
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.
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 – 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.