How to Correctly Employ Bayesian Probabilities to Describe Historical Reasoning (Jesus Edition)

I recently did a quick forty minute debate on the historicity of Jesus with Canadian Catholic (with James Is Tired capably moderating), which was remarkably content-rich for such a truncated timeline. The overall takeaway was that Canadian Catholic wasn’t correctly applying Bayesian probability assignments to the evidence of the New Testament (we ended up focusing almost entirely on the Gospels and Epistles, rather than extra-biblical mentions, which is IMO a more efficient approach for either side: see Historicity Big and Small: How Historians Try to Rescue Jesus). This is a common risk with someone who doesn’t actually understand how Bayesian reasoning works, but knows at least that it has something to do with probability equations, and then tries to “do history” with the resulting broken tool they just saddled themselves with.

It’s important instead to be able to model ordinary, everyday historical reasoning with a Bayesian framework first, so you get right what it is that Bayesian models are actually doing mathematically: they are simply describing correct reasoning. So if you can figure out how to translate such reasoning into Bayesian terms (for example: A Test of Bayesian History: Efraim Wallach on Old Testament Studies), you’ll actually get it, and end up with a functional rather than a broken tool. Indeed, at that point you might have that “Eureka!” experience most of us Bayesians once had (see We Are All Bayesians Now: Some Bayes for Beginners). This will then equip you to actually effectively evaluate any empirical arguments (Bayesian or not—for example: Bayesian Counter-Apologetics: Ten Arguments for God Destroyed).

And that’s literally true. All empirical arguments are Bayesian (see: Everyone Is a Bayesian). Because all empirical arguments are, really, arguments over probabilities; and any attempt to arrive at a coherent calculation of any total probability ends up at Bayes’ Theorem (seriously—there is literally no way to avoid it; I offer my own deductive proof of this point in Proving History, pp. 106-14; and I show this specifically for any principled hypothetico-deductive method, pp. 104-06, or argument to the best explanation, pp. 100-03, even generic historical arguments from evidence, pp. 98-100). Apart from actually getting it, there are two common responses to this discovery that I run into a lot: to not understand it (Hypothesis: Only Those Who Don’t Really Understand Bayesianism Are Against It), or to misunderstand it—or worse, attempt to run a con with it (Crank Bayesians: Swinburne & Unwin). I think Canadian Catholic is sincere. I don’t believe this of Swinburne or Unwin; I think they are grifters (and in popular company as such: see Crank Bayesianism: William Lane Craig Edition).

The sincere are educable. They can also be inoculated against error before they even make it. So a primer on where Canadian Catholic went wrong can benefit countless others, by steering them from the start toward a correct understanding of how to assign Bayesian probabilities to historical facts when testing any hypothesis.

“But Couldn’t Jesus’s Drowning Two Thousand Pigs Be Historical?”

This wasn’t an argument Canadian Catholic made. But it brings into focus what’s wrong with an argument he kept making: the “Couldn’t it be historical?” rebuttal to any and every claim of literary mimesis and mythic construction in the Gospels. It seemed as if his mistaken tack was that we have to “include” the probability that a pericope in the Gospels is historical (at least in its core, behind the Oz-curtain of any legendary embellishment), and “I didn’t do that.” He seemed to be arguing that if you “re-include” that probability, it should increase the total probability Jesus existed. But I actually did include that probability; it’s already in the math (you can see it in all the tables in On the Historicity of Jesus, and in the explicit descriptions of how I estimate the numbers for them, e.g. Ch. 10.13, pp. 506-09; and 12.1, pp. 596-601; and see my explanation, which he clearly didn’t read, in 12.2, pp. 601-06).

The total probability I assigned to the Gospels containing actual historical data about a real Jesus in OHJ is effectively 50%. That’s quite high. That’s saying it is just as likely that such exists, and Jesus really existed, as that it does not—which I also point out (in Ch. 10 of OHJ, cf. pp. ) still does not of itself entail Jesus didn’t exist, since he could still exist, and the Gospels contain no authentic data about him; but such a condition still removes the Gospels as evidence for the existence of Jesus. And yet the problem is that when that probability is 50%, that means the “possibility” of there being real historical data about a person is not likely enough to increase the total probability of that person being real. So Canadian Catholic tripped himself up into a possibiliter fallacy, “possibly, therefore probably.” That’s a non sequitur. What historicists need is evidence that it is probable that real data about Jesus exists in the Gospels—which means, more likely than not; which means, more probable than 50%.

How this probability ends up 50% and why that has no effect on the total probability is easiest to see in the Odds Form of Bayes’ Theorem, which is why I used that for OHJ (though the same effect is in the Long Form, as can be seen by anyone adept at reading equations). Stated as Odds, the Likelihood Ratio puts the probability of the evidence in question (in this case, the content of the Gospels) on the assumption that a claim is true (in this case, “Jesus really existed”) in the numerator, and then the probability of that same evidence on the assumption that that claim is false in the denominator. I show throughout Ch. 10 that every pericope in every Gospel is effectively 100% expected on either theory. That is, we can just as easily predict its content if Jesus didn’t exist, than as if he did. So we get 100% over 100%; which is identical to what we mean by 50/50: 100% divided by 100% is simply 1, and any result multiplied by 1 remains unchanged. Thus, such a Likelihood Ratio never changes the final probability.

Of course there is a “coefficient of contingency” being subtracted out here (see Proving History, index). The probability that a particular story would be chosen to be told, and told in a particular way, is unpredictable on either theory (we can’t start with simply “Jesus existed” and then deduce any pericope in the Gospels); but the concomitant improbability is the same either way, and so cancels out. Let’s say that shared improbability is a million to one. Then we’d have (100% x 1/1,000,000)/(100% x 1/1,000,000), or (100% x 0.0001%)/(100% x 0.0001%), which is the same as (100%/100%) x (0.0001%/0.0001%), which by sixth-grade arithmetic reduces to 1/1 x 1/1. And 1/1 is simply 1, and anything multiplied by 1 remains itself. So we can ignore all those shared contingencies (the 0.0001%/0.0001%), so we can focus on whether any difference in probability remains after that—in other words, is there any greater expectancy of any content of the Gospels if Jesus existed, than if he didn’t. And what we find is, well, no, there isn’t.

This does not mean I have concluded everything in the Gospels “is” fiction. And Canadian Catholic made the mistake of thinking that’s what this means. This is a common confusion I notice, particularly among people trying to use or criticize Bayesian reasoning without understanding it: proving that we don’t know something is true is not the same thing as proving it’s false. Yet Christian apologists especially have a hard time understanding the difference. When I conclude it’s 50/50 whether the Gospels contain authentic data about Jesus, I am not thereby claiming “the Gospels do not contain authentic data about Jesus.” To the contrary, I am claiming we do not know if they do. And consequently, we can’t use any assumption that they do as a premise. What this translates to in the Bayesian framework is simply a 50/50 Likelihood Ratio: the contents of the Gospels are just as likely either way. Therefore, we cannot use the Gospels as evidence either way. Note that that includes mythicism: the fact that we cannot prove the Gospels do or don’t contain data about Jesus means the Gospels also don’t argue for mythicism either. There is one other sense in which they do (how they establish Jesus in a familiar and countable reference class), but we’ll get to that later. Apart from that, our being unable to prove anything probably is true about Jesus in the Gospels, leaves us simply not knowing—from only the Gospels—whether Jesus existed or not.

One might ask (indeed, to explore and understand Bayesian reasoning, one should ask) how the probabilities would change if, for instance, we could prove conclusively that everything in the Gospels was indeed made up. In other words, what if instead of it being 50/50 whether the Gospels include historical data, it was more like 1/50, i.e. barely a 2% chance they did (which I think is what Canadian Catholic mistook me for arguing in OHJ, when in fact I take pains to make very clear there that it is not). In that latter case we’d then be saying we are fairly certain the Gospels are 100% bogus. Would that have changed my conclusion? This actually corresponds to a real case, one Canadian Catholic might even agree with: the non-canonical Gospels. Consider the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, now even proved a modern forgery: I think even Canadian Catholic will agree that the probability that that Gospel contains any authentic data about Jesus is effectively zero (so, certainly no better than that hypothetical 2%). So what effect does that have on the historicity of Jesus? Well, none. Obviously. It makes no difference to whether Jesus really existed or not that someone forged a tale of him thousands of years later. Lo, the same holds for someone forging a tale of him forty years later: no effect, either way.

This might also be where the mistake occurs. By not realizing that there is no difference in effect between concluding the Gospels have a 50/50 chance of containing historical data and the Gospels having a mere 1 in 50 chance of containing historical data (even though, on the a fortiori side of my error margin, I never argue the latter, only really, more or less, the former), Canadian Catholic assumed the huge difference in those probabilities should show up in any final calculation of the probability that Jesus existed. But it won’t. Because the only probabilities that matter are the probability of either theory causing the same evidence. So it doesn’t matter how independently likely it is that the Gospels contain historical data, if their content remains nevertheless equally likely whether Jesus existed or not. The only probability that actually matters here is the differential between those two probabilities. Everything else is irrelevant. Just as we see for the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.

In order to change this outcome, what a historicist needs is something in the Gospels they can show to be more likely historical than mythical. Not “just as likely” (hence not just “possibly”), but more likely (hence “probably”). That’s the only thing that can bump the relative odds in favor. If you could show, for example, that some pericope in a Gospel is 60% likely if Jesus existed but only 50% likely if he didn’t, then you’d have a ratio of 60/50, or 6/5, which would increase the odds Jesus existed by about a tenth (as an output of 6/5 odds would be a 6/11 probability, so if the probability started at 50%, then that evidence would increase it to about 55%; or if it started at 33%, then to about 37%; etc.). This would mathematically model the effect of the simple observation that “this content is slightly more likely to be here if Jesus existed, than if he didn’t.” That’s what you need. Or anything of the kind (and really, ideally, something much better than that). Which is why I take pains to show no such passage exists in the Gospels: every piece of them is either just as expected as a mythical device than as a signal-distorted transmitted memory. (I had previously already showed historians’ attempts to argue the reverse don’t logically work in Ch. 5 of Proving History.)

In fact, most pieces of the Gospels turn out more likely mythical than historical (and the logical effect of that observation I’ll elucidate next). But this still does not mean the same thing as “more likely if Jesus was mythical.” Because, as Canadian Catholic correctly intuits (and as I explain myself in OHJ), all sorts of myth can be built up around a historical person. In order for the Gospels to increase the probability of Jesus being a myth (and not just fail to increase the probability of his historicity, which is not the same thing), we would need something in the Gospels that is actually not as likely if Jesus existed than if he didn’t (and note, accordingly, this is what historians attempt to produce in reverse, so they at least understand the concept: see Historicity Big and Small: How Historians Try to Rescue Jesus; except when they give up on that and attempt something illogical instead: see How to Successfully Argue Jesus Existed (or Anything Else in the World)). This means not just something we don’t know is mythical or historical (that won’t have any such effect), nor even something we know is mythical (likewise); in fact, not even knowing everything in the Gospels is mythical would suffice. Because a historical man can just as easily inspire a completely mythical account of him. Unless there is something about said account that isn’t as commonly inspired by historical men as it is by mythical ones instead. In other words, is there anything about the Gospels that simply isn’t likely unless Jesus never existed?

Well, yes…

“But Shouldn’t We Treat the Gospels Like All Other Biographies?”

Canadian Catholic’s second mistake was to resort to the Formalized Gullibility of arguing that because the Gospels share genre features with ancient biography, therefore they should be treated the same as all other ancient biographies. Notably, the actual scholars Christian apologists will usually cite in defense of this move, actually specifically denounced it (proving apologists don’t actually read these scholars; they just “heard tale” and made up their own story in their minds of what they said). In actual fact, the literature establishing the genre features of the Gospels find that they do not match ancient rational-historical biography, but rather, ancient mythical biography. In other words, the Gospels don’t look like any researched biographies of the ancient world (e.g. Suetonius’s Life of Caligula, Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, Xenophon’s Life of Agesilaus II, Tacitus’s Life of Julius Agricola). They look like the fictional ones, of either non-existent people (e.g. Plutarch’s Life of Romulus; the anonymous Lives of Aesop or the Life of Adam and Eve; the various Lives of Moses then written; the biographies of Osiris, Hercules, Homer, and so on), or of real people yet whose Lives are all but entirely made up (like the various lives of philosophers and poets analyzed in the works of Ava Chitwood and Mary Lefkowitz: see their works as listed in the bibliography of OHJ, and my discussion of their contributions in Why You Should Not Believe the Apostle John Wrote the Last Gospel).

This illustrates the crucial importance, to any valid Bayesian reasoning, of always locating and faithfully employing the correct reference class (see, for example, Jesus and the Problem of the Fraudulent Reference Class). It is epistemically fraudulent to leap from “the Gospels have biographical genre features” to “the Gospels have rational-historical biographical genre features” and then, that fallacy secured, argue “the Gospels are as historically reliable as other rational-historical biographies of the time” (which is not as hot a recommendation as Christian apologists think, but would at least carry their minimally required point). In actual fact, the Gospels belong to a different genre subcategory: mythobiography. They conspicuously lack “rational-historical biographical genre features” and instead abundantly exhibit “mythographical genre features.” Thus, if you want to estimate the prior probability that the Gospels contain real historical data about their subject, you have to look at how commonly that is the case in the actual reference class they belong to. And the result of that does not go well for the historicist.

For the Gospels I’ve already thoroughly covered what happens when we do this correctly in Jesus and the Problem of the Fraudulent Reference Class. So I won’t repeat all that here. You can delve into it there. But the upshot is simple: when we look at the correct reference class (all ancient books actually most like the Gospels, and not books least like them in the “biography” category), we find that it is actually quite rare for any genuinely historical person to receive that treatment. It’s not that it never happens; what matters to our estimation of what’s likely is that it does not typically happen. When we narrow the reference class to the most comparable, without narrowing it so far we can’t derive a usable frequency, no matter which way we do this, we always end up in the same place: it’s simply not a priori likely anyone in that category of literature really existed. Which means, the prior probability Jesus existed is likewise low—as low as it is for anyone else in that category. Because we cannot engage a “special pleading” fallacy and insist (on a basis of no evidence at this point) that Jesus is “special,” and somehow unlike everyone else he is most like. You can do this on a basis of evidence that makes him different, if you have some—which is why the prior probability is not the posterior probability (I explain this very clearly in both OHJ, Ch. 6.8, pp. 252-53, and PH, pp. 70-76). But when it comes to the priors, you have to treat everyone in the same reference class as the same. If they are most alike, then it’s just as initially likely Jesus existed as Osiris or Hercules or Moses did. Absent any evidence to the contrary, that’s how you have to conclude. And that’s why you need evidence to conclude otherwise. Hence it’s then that we notice we don’t really have any. If, of course, we’re being honest (I lay this out most clearly across Chs. 4-6 of my new book Jesus from Outer Space).

The main takeaway of Jesus and the Problem of the Fraudulent Reference Class is that Jesus is among the most mythologized figures in antiquity (even right out of the gate, in the Gospel of Mark, the first we ever hear of him being definitely placed in history); and among the most mythologized figures in antiquity, real people are rare (to a straightforward observed frequency of less than 1 in 16, or a most speculative maximum of about 1 in 3: OHJ, Ch. 6). I employ a number of metrics to determine that, none of which are honestly escapable. But one of the metrics I develop in my analysis of whether the contents of the Gospels contain any evidence for historicity as I just defined (in Ch. 10 of OHJ) is to ascertain the iterative prior probability of any pericope in the Gospels going back to a historical core. I already explained above that finding this to be below 50% (even as low as 2%, should that be where we get to, though I didn’t claim to) does not of itself increase the probability that Jesus is a myth (and therefore does not decrease the probability of historicity). But what it does do is show Jesus is heavily mythologized. Which supports the larger point that the prior probability he exists must come from the corresponding reference class of heavily mythologized people, and not the set of just any person written about then (on which point see my discussion in So What About Hannibal, Then?, which is reproduced and gathered with numerous other examples in JFOS).

I don’t think (?) Canadian Catholic had made this mistake, but one could: if one were to say there is a 50% chance of historically authentic data per pericope in the Gospels, that would entail a high probability of some authentic data in them, somewhere. Hence my conclusion is not that, but rather, that the total probability of any authentic data in them is 50%. And this derives from the method of iterated priors (PH, p. 337; OHJ, pp. 240, 509):

[F]rom [my] survey [of many of the pericopes in the Gospels] it’s clear that if we went from pericope to pericope assessing the likelihood of it being true (rather than invented to communicate a desired point or to fit a pre-planned narrative structure), each time updating our prior probability that anything in the Gospels can be considered reliable evidence for a historical Jesus, then that probability would consistently go down (or level off somewhere low), but never rise. In fact I have not found a single pericope in these Gospels that is more likely true than false. These Gospels are therefore no different than the dozens of other Gospels that weren’t selected for the canon (…). They are all just made-up stories. To change this conclusion, historicists need to find a way to prove that something about the historical Jesus in the Gospels is probably true (not possibly true, but probably true).

OHJ, p. 509

In other words, if we started at one pericope, and calculated how likely it was to be historical, and got “50%” as the result, that would then become the prior probability that the next pericope was historical. So we’d go and look at that, and if no evidence changed that expectation, we’d end up with an output, again, of 50%. So that’s the posterior probability of any historical data in either of those two pericopes, and thence the prior probability of such data in the next pericope we examine. And so on. If you continue this process until you’ve processed every pericope, and still your output is “50%,” then you have determined there is at best a 50/50 chance any real data exists anywhere in the whole of the Gospels. This does not entail asserting there is none. Rather, it only entails asserting that we don’t know whether there is.

Yet you might observe from the above quote that I said I personally think we’d end up with a final output lower than 50%. Hence I only settled on 50% a fortiori. Because anything less would make no further difference (for the reasons I explained here earlier). But to understand why it’s lower, consider again simple arithmetic: if in some cases (“magically drowned two thousand pigs”; “irrationally withered a fig tree”; “walked on water”; “glowed on a mountain”; “flew with the Devil”) the probability of historical fact is actually, obviously, quite low, then on account of that we’d have valid reason to start increasing our doubt that anything else in such a collection of lore is true (see Craig vs. Law on the Argument from Contamination and For the Existence of Jesus, Is the Principle of Contamination Invalid? Cavin & Colombetti vs. Law). After all, the inclusion of these obviously mythical absurdities entails the gullibility (or dishonesty)—and thence unreliability—of anyone who’d include them without blush, as we see happened. Any author retaining such material without skepticism clearly does not know how to determine if anything is true (because, remember, Naturalism Is Not an Axiom of the Sciences but a Conclusion of Them); and therefore, their ability to do so with mundane material is not going to be much better.

This effect has to be represented in our probabilities. We cannot honestly treat such authors as “the same” as reliable, objective, rational historians. Let’s say we were so generous as to give each of these absurd tales a 1/3 relative odds of being added onto a collection of oral lore that otherwise still somehow retained real (albeit more mundane) data, then if everything else is 50/50, your net outcome (the final probability that “anything in the Gospels about Jesus is historical”) will be far below 50/50. For instance, assume just the five examples I listed. The iterative prior then will be: 50/50 x 50/50 x 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3 x (50/50)^n = 1/243, or less than half a percent chance anything in the Gospels (that is not externally corroborated) is real. That’s how mythical they look to be. This outcome could have been different. Take the works of Josephus for example: we doubt many things in his opus, even within the sections that deal with non-mythical history (from his dubious tales of several famous mass suicides, to outright myths like his presenting the morality tale of Cannibal Mary as historical fact), but we also trust a lot, because a lot of it has been corroborated (unlike anything about Jesus in the Gospels), and most of the rest sits on higher priors due to its framing and context (he cites credible sources, and discusses material there is less basis for anyone inventing, and even good reason to avoid inventing; unlike anything about Jesus in the Gospels).

Assessed “story by story,” the fabrications in Josephus are very few relative to the remainder. Much of that remainder may sit at 50/50 odds of being true, but much of it sits higher—and there is a lot of that (we can be sure at least a hundred higher-credibility stories, over on top of countless stories whose credibility we might not know either way). So if we did the same analysis on the relevant material in Josephus (like, say, all his tales about the historical periods he isn’t using mythical sources for), and here just reasoning a fortiori rather than more meticulously than the point being made here requires, we might get something more like: (50/50)^n x 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3 x (60/50)^100 … = 1 x 1/243 x 82,817,974/1 = 82,817,974/243, which comes to about 340,815. Which means it is over three hundred thousand times more likely “something” in Josephus is historically true than that nothing is (and that, you might be able to tell, is an outrageous undercount). This is a result of there being so many corroborated and reliably presented “stories” (the functional analog to Gospel “pericopes”) across the whole of Josephus compared to so (relatively) few fabrications (while all the material in Josephus we can’t tell either way has no effect, just as with the Gospels). Thus it matters that the Gospels contain nothing peculiarly more credible than not, and yet at the same time are full of the incredible. This puts them on exactly the opposite side of any measure of credibility from ancient rational historians and biographers—even given the fact that (for example) Josephus also makes a lot of stuff up or reports it unreliably.

This is why it is so important for a historian to find pericopes in the Gospels that are more likely to derive from a historical Jesus than to have been contrived to represent him and his message. But there just aren’t any (hence OHJ, Ch. 10). For what I mean, consider my analysis of the pericope of Simon of Cyrene (and other like peculiar tales in Mark: OHJ, 10.4, pp. 444-56). I explicitly note there that I don’t claim to have proved that was a mythological contrivance; rather, only that a full analysis of all its features (including the features it lacks), and the contextual principles of ancient authorship (e.g. no author ever added material for no reason, and their reasons are always made evident by what they do or don’t say or how they employ the material, its overall and immediate context, and that author’s overall discourse style), leaves us with equal odds it was contrived to a purpose or preserves some sort of historical memory (however distorted).

Until we apply the iterated prior, of course. By itself (if, for example, the Simon of Cyrene tale was the first pericope we started with), we’d honestly get nothing better than a 50% chance it’s history rather than myth. But when we then notice how routinely Mark fills his book with symbolic and allegorical myth and deliberately crafted irony, including many convenient symbolical meanings of the characters’ names and roles that he populates his narrative with, the prior probability that he is doing the same with Simon of Cyrene is substantially above 50%. Whereas the complete absence, for example, of Mark ever citing sources prevents our making the converse case for his doing that with Simon of Cyrene and his sons; likewise any other historicist “interpretation” (none have any support in Markan discourse practice and style or any individual pericope’s framing or context). Thus the “possibility” Mark is “doing history” suddenly only here, when throughout his book he’s regularly been mythologizing (see, e.g., Mark’s Use of Paul’s Epistles and Why Did Mark Invent an Empty Tomb?), is not credibly at all high (see, e.g., Mark Goodacre on the Historicity of Jesus’s Execution). It’s not even 50%. But since it’s being much lower than that changes no result, we don’t need to evaluate what that probability is. We know it’s no more than 50/50. And that’s all we need to dismiss the Gospels as completely unusable for reconstructing anything about a historical Jesus.

Again, the probability that there is any fact in the Gospels is not the probability that the Gospels would look that way if Jesus existed or not; because “historicity” could produce a “totally” made-up biography almost as easily as a “mostly” made-up one (OHJ, Ch. 6.7). So even the complete, guaranteed absence of any history in Mark (as with the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife) would not, by itself, be more unexpected if Jesus existed than if he didn’t. That’s more or less an expected an outcome either way (hence, that’s how I scored it: as increasing neither historicity nor mythicism, cf. OHJ, pp. 506-09)—until we consider what reference class this puts Jesus in. Then it starts to look bad for historicity. Real people rarely got such mythologized biographies written of them; that usually happened to mythical people. And all of this is just logic. It’s not some mysterious sorcery with numbers. There is no logically valid way to avoid these conclusions. All that the Bayesian framework does is reveal why.

“But Doesn’t That Require an Elaborate Conspiracy Theory?”

A third argument Canadian Catholic muddled up even more. The gist of it was: all extant late second century Christian authors were historicists (he mentioned for no discernible reason Pantaenus and Heracleon, from whom we have no texts, only references to what they wrote in other authors; he could more easily have named Justin and Ignatius, as even earlier authors from whom we do have relevant texts; he instead went in the opposite direction chronologically and mentioned third century authors Clement and Origen), therefore to deny historicity we are committed to believing an implausible global conspiracy to suppress all record of original Christianity. This was a strange argument because I extensively address this in OHJ, and Canadian Catholic claims to have read that, yet he seemed utterly clueless as to what my responses to this argument would be (see OHJ, index, “conspiracy theories,” and most especially Ch. 8.12, 7.7, and 6.7; I expand on all this in Ch. 7 of Jesus from Outer Space).

The Bayesian lesson here is that all probabilities—literally every single probability in any Bayesian equation—must be conditioned on total background knowledge (usually b or k in most fully expressed equations). That means you can’t just “come up” with probabilities that ignore everything else we know in the universe (about everything, from physics and human psychology, to what actual evidence survives from any given century of the Roman Empire). Those probabilities are dependent probabilities, not independent. That means they are the probability given everything else being the case. And in this case, that means the fact that almost all evidence pertaining to the entire first century of Christianity’s history is completely lost. In fact, of what few things survive for us to examine now, they consist solely of what’s in the New Testament, and texts that never reference a historical Jesus (e.g. 1 Clement, Pliny the Younger, the earliest reconstructable redaction of the Ascension of Isaiah). Moreover, all subsequent Christian authors demonstrate to us that they also had no knowledge of any other texts than these. They had no other sources regarding their religion’s first hundred years other than what we have (or else, none they chose to ever mention, much less quote or describe). Thus, for example, when affirming the historicity of Jesus, from the first hundred years of Christianity, they could only cite the Gospels. They evidently had nothing to corroborate them by (OHJ, Ch. 4, Element 22). This complete hole in their own religion’s history was so severe and complete they eventually had to resort to fabricating some—faking both documents (OHJ, Ch. 5, Element 44; with Ch. 7) and entire histories (e.g. How To Fabricate History: The Example of Eusebius on Alexandrian Christianity).

That is not conjecture. It is not some ad hoc “commitment.” It is an indisputable empirical fact. And all probabilities must therefore be conditional on that being the case. So, we don’t need any conspiracy theory to explain why the historicist church, the only one to politically survive, preserved only historicist texts (and texts they could spin as such), none of which evinced any knowledge of any evidence for historicism other than the Gospels, and texts and interpretations derivative of them (and thus incapable of corroborating them), including forgeries and fake histories. By contrast, when we look at the earliest verifiable example of an extant Christian author outside the New Testament attempting to take a historicist stance, we find a deeply suspicious desperation to push historicity against fellow Christians who evidently were denying it (see How Did Christianity Switch to a Historical Jesus? and the corresponding chapter building on that in Jesus from Outer Space). But we don’t get to hear from them; their texts were all destroyed, which we know for a fact, because we don’t have them.

We see this again in the forgery of 2 Peter (see OHJ, Ch. 8.12), which may date from around the same time (the Ignatian letters were traditionally dated to the 110s AD, but the latest trend in scholarship is to place them decades later, which still makes them earlier than any author Canadian Catholic named, and probably earlier than any known: see OHJ, Ch. 8.6, with Ch. 7.6, p. 274, n. 41). Even by the 160s (before anyone Canadian Catholic named), that the Christians might have invented Jesus is imagined by Justin a common enough accusation that he has his fictional Jewish opponent Trypho suggest it offhand (“you invent a Christ for yourselves from a baseless report,” Dial. 8.4). Justin’s rebuttal consists solely of gainsaying (“we have not believed empty myths or unproven stories, but [stories] filled with the Spirit of God, bursting with power, and flourishing with grace,” Dial. 9.1) and a posture of indignation (“at that I rose up and was about to leave,” Dial. 9.2), threatening to depart if they dare even suggest it again. All of which, those of acute mind will notice, amounts to admitting the total lack of any evidence by which to rebut the charge. There was no evidence known for him to cite. Thus, they had to invent it: 2 Peter was forged to fabricate an eyewitness testimony to the actual historicity of Jesus, in a passage that in fact sounds an awful lot like Justin in its worry, and exhibits the same denunciative desperation as Ignatius: “we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” Note this says “we did not follow myths,” rather than “we” did not “create” myths: so this author sees the opposition as claiming no one even met a historical Jesus so as to make up stories about him, thus they had to invent an eyewitness testimony to doing so. Evidently no real ones were available. And like Justin and Ignatius, the forger of 2 Peter’s solution to these pesky “mythicist” Christians was to declare them evil and to be shunned.

Possibly earlier than Ignatius is Papias, but we don’t have what Papias wrote, only scattered and incomplete quotations, and they only verify the point: Papias says he had no sources (no books, no texts, no letters) to consult to corroborate any Gospel, but only scattered, unverifiable rumors going about in his own day, which we know were false (e.g. he was persuaded by these “rumors” to believe Matthew was written in Hebrew and independently of Mark, and that Mark wrote down the gospel of Peter when in fact his Gospel supports the opposing faction of Paul); and his gullibility regarding those rumors is so infamous as to well establish Christians clearly were the easiest of dupes (see my discussions of Papias in Did Polycarp Meet John the Apostle? and Why You Should Not Believe the Apostle John Wrote the Last Gospel and Is Jesus Wholly or Only Partly a Myth? The Carrier-MacDonald Exchange; and these don’t even cover the most absurdly gullible things Papias believed, such as that Jesus taught there would be talking grape clusters the size of houses in paradise and that Judas became so filled with worms he bloated to the size of a wagon trail: OHJ, pp. 324-25, and “Papias and the Miraculous Vines” by Philip Jenkins).

With this as the background, we need no conspiracy theory to explain how historicists could end up immovably convinced of their own position and take no bother to preserve any contrary view. Hence I discuss several pathways in OHJ, Ch. 8, that would explain this evidence; none require any “conspiracy.” More to the point, we don’t need a theory, because we have the fact. It is idle to bicker over what theory explains a broken window, when the fact that the window is broken is indisputably in evidence. It would be silly to insist that window can’t be broken “because” believing it was would require an elaborate global conspiracy. It doesn’t matter how the window came to be broken. We can plainly observe something broke it. Ditto the state of Christian evidence: that all record of what happened in the church between its original cosmic gospel and its historicization is gone, and wasn’t known even to the earliest authors we have discussing their adamant historicist beliefs, is a fact. Not a conjecture. Again, as I note in How Did Christianity Switch to a Historical Jesus? and Jesus from Outer Space, we have no record, either, of how or when belief switched from Jesus appearing in inner mystical visions (Galatians 1:11-12 & 1:15-16) to hanging out in an animated cadaver for a month of dinner parties (Acts 1:3-11). Nevertheless, it happened.

It need not have been this way. Imagine the counterfactual condition of having a good solid record of the first one hundred years of Christianity, at least as good as we have for the origin and evolution of the modern Cargo Cults or the turning of the historical Haile Selassie into the mythical version of Ras Tafari (for both see OHJ, index), or even Mormonism and Scientology. If we had that, we would indeed be able to make significant probabilistic assertions based on what is and isn’t in that record. Consider:

  • In the case of Ras Tafari, enough evidence survives for us to be able to firmly establish he existed and that the Rastafarian gospels are just myths about the man (in which almost nothing is historically true, equivalent to the currently dominant position of mainstream Jesus scholarship). One could indeed rebut any claim that Ras Tafari never existed by appealing to that continuous record attesting him, and dismiss any attempt to deny his historicity as requiring some elaborate conspiracy theory (to “plant” and “alter” all manner of records and reports). But we aren’t in this position with Christianity. Everything we have to prove Ras Tafari’s historicity, does not exist to prove Jesus’s. It’s gone. And even the earliest Christian commentators we have didn’t know of any either.
  • Conversely, we were lucky to have scientists on the island where and when the Cargo Cult movement began and thus have a reliable eyewitness account of it, and of subsequent events, by which we can confirm John Frum and Tom Navy never existed, and that the attribution of an entire religion to one or the other’s ministry is mythical. We don’t in that case have a complete record (like a continuous year-by-year collection of correspondence or scientific or journalistic reports) so as to reconstruct when that subsequent mythical construct was proposed and how it spread and came to be believed; but we have enough evidence to prove that that is indeed what happened. So questions about “how” it did cannot be posed to challenge that it did. All the more so in the case of Christianity, where the silence of the record extends not just a matter of years as in the case of the Cargo Cult movement, but an entire century.

An even better example is Ned Ludd (mythical founder of the Luddite movement; OHJ, index), where the newspaper and documentary record in England is solid all the way through—which is how we can now tell Ned Ludd never existed. Yet within forty years, he was unquestioningly believed real, and entire biographies written about him. No conspiracy theory required. We also have the example of the Roswell “flying saucer and alien autopsies” (OHJ, index), where excellent documentation survival allows us to prove not only that that never happened, but exactly when and by whom the idea originated, and how belief in it then spread even despite stalwart refutations and a documentary record fully refuting it, conditions hostile to such legendary development not even present in antiquity (where myths were even more likely to spread and eclipse the truth: see Chs. 7, 13, and 17 of Not the Impossible Faith and No, Mr. Christian, A.N. Sherwin-White Didn’t Say That. And Even What He Did Say Was Wrong. and The Rain Miracle of Marcus Aurelius: A Case Study in Christian Lies). No conspiracy theory was required for this to happen. Or for any of these historicizations of myth. And since all probabilities must be conditioned on background evidence b, we need no “conspiracy theories” in b. We already have all we need without it.

“But What If the Forged Epistles Are Authentic?”

Extending his first mistake from the Gospels to the Epistles, Canadian Catholic then tried arguing we have to “include” the probability that a forgery or interpolation among the Epistles is instead authentic, and “I didn’t do that.” He seemed (again) to be arguing that if you “re-include” that probability, it should increase the total probability Jesus existed. But I actually did include that probability; it’s already in the math (this time, regarding the forgeries, covered in OHJ, Ch. 7.1, 7.3, and 7.7; and regarding 1 Thessalonians 2, Ibid., Ch. 11.8, pp. 566-69). Here there is at least the substance of a different point, which I already discussed in Kamil Gregor on the Historicity of Jesus. It differs from the case of the Gospels because any significant probability of the authenticity of strong references in Paul would affect the final probability of historicity because we aren’t here dealing with the alternative that he is making them up (that would be too improbable to credit, and thus mythicism cannot survive on such a supposition, as I explained to Gregor).

Regarding interpolation in 1 Thessalonians, the probability of that being instead authentic I show in OHJ to be less than even a single percentile; it therefore falls far below my margin of error (of over thirty percentiles), and thus has no observable effect on the mathematical result (as I also explained to Gregor). This is why I don’t have to account for it. Indeed, at the top end of my margin of error I round to the nearest whole percentile, so a variance of a fraction of a percent will be invisible there (and 1 Thessalonians being authentic won’t be included on the lower margin). This is why we don’t have to “take into account” in our calculations and estimates every harebrained “possibility” anyone can think of (of which there will be billions). That, and the fact that there are as many harebrained possibilities to conjecture for either hypothesis (mythicism or historicity) that their probabilities therefore cancel out (ibid.).

All the same goes for “forged epistles,” like (as Canadian Catholic cited) 1 Timothy—the pertinent passage in which (1 Tim. 6:13) I actually do discuss in OHJ, as you can tell by simply consulting its scripture index (you’ll find there that it’s a more problematic passage than he thinks, but even apart from that, there’s no point in addressing it, as there’s no appreciable likelihood that Paul wrote it). I didn’t run the math in that case, because the pastorals being forged is the mainstream consensus, and for efficiency of word count I didn’t need to argue points overwhelming consensus already grants (OHJ, p. 65). But if I were to do, we’d definitely get well below a one percent chance 1 Timothy is authentic. Its stylistic and theological differences from Paul (and similarity to second century Christian dialect and concerns) are far too severe to imagine it at all likely to have still been written by him (see Katarina Laken, An Authorship Study on the Letters of Saint Paul and Bart Ehrman, Forgery and Counter-Forgery, pp. 192-217). So that probability falls below even my rounding error. It therefore need not be considered.

Indeed, from a “harebrained possibility” perspective, it’s essentially as likely that Galatians was wholly forged as that 1 Timothy was not; so those two “harebrained probabilities” cancel out anyway. This is the problem with possibiliter fallacies: as soon as you start acting like you get to pull that on someone, you’ve thereby given them epistemic permission to pull the same right back on you. And then maybe you’ll realize why it’s a fallacy.

“But Doesn’t Doubting Historicity Require Too Many Commitments?”

By now we can tell that this, Canadian Catholic’s final refrain, simply isn’t true. The concept is correct: the more ad hoc commitments a theory requires in order to maintain it, the less likely it has to be on account of that (see “The Cost of Making Excuses”). But as I explained in Kamil Gregor on the Historicity of Jesus, I do not adopt any such commitments in On the Historicity of Jesus for reaching my upper margin of error, the only probability that matters to the point. And accordingly, neither critic has ever identified a single such thing in my study (and you can’t just “claim” something exists, and fail to present any actual example). “Assumptions” I condition all my a fortiori probabilities on I meticulous prove are facts, not conjectures (e.g. OHJ, Chs. 1, 4, 5, and 7). And insofar as any are mere “commitments,” they are matched and thus canceled out by the comparable commitments of historicists (e.g. OHJ, Chs. 2, 3, and 12).

By contrast, the excess commitments required of historicists are more dubious and ad hoc than any I require. Mythicism, for example, does not require assuming anything historical is or is not in the Gospels, whereas historicity does; mythicism already predicts the odd silences in Paul’s letters, whereas historicists must resort to implausible and unevidenced ad hoc suppositions to explain them away; mythicism reads the texts as they are, in context, whereas historicists have to “reinterpret” what the plain language says, often by ignoring its actual context. And so on (e.g. OHJ, Chs. 6 and 8-11). This is why the mathematical model is so important: it actually allows you to do what Canadian Catholic and Kamil Gregor attempted to do—find unevidenced assumptions whose improbability has not been accounted for. Unfortunately, both simply ignored what’s actually in my study when doing that. They thus whiffed on their ability to use Bayesian reasoning effectively.

Conclusion

These same points about how to correctly model our reasoning with actual probabilistic math carry over to every other point Canadian Catholic attempted to make. I have shown elsewhere how it actually follows from defensible Bayesian estimation that There Is No Logically Sound Case Against Interpolation in 1 Thessalonians 2 and that Yes, Galatians 4 Is Allegorical (he did not seem to know that; he thus prepared poorly for our debate). Hence, we must remember, any prior odds must reflect the actual frequency in comparable cases—which have to actually be comparable enough to count. Your reference class must be credible, and complete (no cherry-picking; everyone in the same hat must be treated equally). All probabilities must be conditioned on background knowledge (not contrived in ignorance or disregard of it). And when there is no evidence either way—when some fact is just as expected whether Jesus existed (“as a vestige of historical memory”) or not (“as a piece of allegorical mythologization”), it increases the probability of neither. In Bayesian terms, it’s then just as likely on either theory, and thus the likelihood ratio is effectively 50/50, hence 1/1, hence simply 1—and any probability multiplied by 1 remains unchanged. This does not require proving it’s “a piece of allegorical mythologization.” All it requires proving is that we have no more evidence it is not, than that it is. We don’t know. So it’s 50/50. And 50/50 means no change in probability. You must respect all of these principles if you want to construct a valid Bayesian model.

By contrast to mythicism, for example, it is actually historicists who have to pile up ad hoc suppositions not in evidence to get there to be no interpolation in 1 Thessalonians, for example, or to convert an argument Paul explicitly says is allegorical from top to bottom to suddenly burp out an incongruous historical assertion that (it turns out) he then must never have explained the relevance of. Why is Jesus being born “of a woman” at all historically relevant to the argument is he making there? It had no role then in defining one’s status as a Jew or under covenant law (only patrilineage and circumcision could do that; and Paul doesn’t say this woman was Jewish anyway, so that can’t have been his point in mentioning it). Nor is this something one usually has to assert about anyone. Who isn’t born of a woman? Indeed, if Jesus was a historical person, why would there be any confusion as to whether he was? By ignoring the context (which perfectly explains this as referring to the allegorical “women” Paul explains we can all be born of, the corrupt sublunar world or the celestial order of the heavens), historicists end up making this text less explicable, indeed unintelligible, requiring them to pile on a bunch of ad hoc unevidenced suppositions about what Paul is then supposed to have meant. Mythicists have no need of those commitments. They need merely take the text, in context, exactly as written. As such, it entirely explains itself. No commitments required. In Bayesian terms, therefore, it is the historicist reading of this verse that is improbable, not the other way around. I nevertheless score it the other way around in my study (On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 592-600), to account for the possibility I missed something (and thus I counted it as evidence for historicity!)—a generosity historicists would be horrified to reciprocate.

In the end, no matter what historical argumentation you are modeling so as to evaluate the merits of, lack of knowledge either way must always come to a 50/50 likelihood and thus have no effect on the final probability of any theory. If some piece of evidence is just as expected to look that way no matter which theory turned out to be true, then it simply makes no difference to the probability of either theory. You can’t just “assume” one thing over another instead—that would be a straightforward fallacy of circular argument, which will be captured in the invalid likelihood ratio you would then be asserting. Likewise, all your probabilities must be conditioned on background knowledge. So, if all the documents you need to test a claim are lost, you cannot argue from what was or was not in them; because you don’t have them. Accordingly no “conspiracy theory” is needed to explain why something you expect is not reflected in the record—if there is no record, then you don’t know what it would have reflected had it survived. And this includes background knowledge’s effect on prior expectations. If a document looks like a piece of faked nonsense, then the probability it is must derive from the frequency of all other documents that look that way being that way. You cannot ignore the evidence of past cases; nor try to derive a preferred frequency from a false reference class (like claiming the Gospels look like rational-historical biographies, when they explicitly don’t).

As such, Bayesian methods only quantify and thus describe, and therefore expose ordinary everyday reasoning about history, revealing when it is valid and sound, and when it is not. But to use it that way, you have to use it correctly. Just like any other method or logic.

18 comments

  1. First of all, didn’t you exclude the idea of the supernatural Jesus from the discussion as being a priori low probability enough that it was really only worth comparing secular mythicism and secular historicism? That may have been part of what CC was objecting to. I don’t have a copy of OHJ so I don’t know where that is in the math if it is anywhere, but that could be it.

    More cogently, I actually do wonder if enough accounts like the Gospels that could be said to be all BS (like, if we knew that everything that was even remotely possible non-supernaturally was also taken from known individuals from other traditions, and all reflected clear Greek influence like the Sermon on the Mount, etc. etc.), if that actually should have an effect, though possibly a small one, on Jesus’ historicity.

    My immediate point of comparison would be all the biographies and descriptions of Ronald Reagan. Reagan is heavily mythicized for someone in a secular era, but even if you just look at people in the United States, you will see that, whatever myths come up, there are some events that a future historian could see as both plausibly historical and that are agreed to have happened. Even if you excluded the biographies and analyses of Reagan written by liberals and leftists, you would still see a range of opinion, some critical and some not. Yes, obviously this comparison is between vastly different eras, but I think one could do the same almost anywhere that we have document survival that is good enough to give multiple retrospectives on the same person that are either written by their contemporaries or by the generation after. From all that, future historians could probably do a decent job at arriving at a picture of the real Reagan.

    In contrast, mythical characters have personal histories that are endlessly violable. You can retcon whatever you want, you can change details and even broad narratives, you can change the order of events in their lives. Like, anything but the most absolutely incompetent biography of Reagan could differentiate between his first and second term, but Jesus stories seem to have major life histories shifting both in objective dates and vis-a-vis each other.

    I think if we were looking at a modern figure who was attested by a lot of documents and all of those documents were clearly fictive, we would actually start thinking that the idea that there was a mundane person anywhere in there would be lessened. If one rando writes a biography about your dead spiritual teacher (or. more accurately, your Dad or Granddad’s dead spiritual teacher) fifty years later that is absolutely false, maybe you don’t catch it, but if hundreds were, it would be reasonable to expect some pushback at that point. Yes, document survival went through a great filter and so forth, but I still think that if we were absolutely sure that there was no tradition whatsoever in the Gospels that a Bayesian argument could argue for a lowered probability of the man.

    To put it another way, imagine if we found an early Gospel that we could confirm was contemporaneous with Mark and differed with Mark on all the particulars, and perhaps we could show was even known by Mark’s community. I would make an argument that such a document made Mark’s recollections less likely to be accurate, just like if we had two vastly different biographies of the same person (and with all the differences not pointing to the kind of understandable differences of interpretation one could have had about a real-life person, especially an iconoclastic preacher, but to propagandistic changes of a heroic template).

    As it is, the reason I remain agnostic leaning historicist is because I have seen enough about cults to think that the Gospels maintain some kind of ideology. Historicists seem to think that cult ideologies are really well policed when they’re actually just… not, all sorts of wacky ideas get added and they often eclipse their leader (L. Ron Hubbard was actually pretty well imprisoned by his own mythology in terms of psychiatric and medical care, for example), and when the leader dies or even stops policing doctrine all sorts of hell can break loose (and cult leaders themselves are often personalities who actually don’t have the greatest grasp on their own thinking, don’t always think coherently and aren’t great ideology-builders, and they tend to get worse as they get surrounded by people who need them to be right rather than people who want to actually check if they are and make sure that their leader is healthy and okay). With that, I think that Paul being able to so radically change cult dogma and then the Gospels basically freestyling actually makes sense, but you can still see a throughline of inspiration. And while your point that Peter could have been the guy who basically made the cult just as much as a hypothetical Jesus was, the brief descriptions I’ve seen don’t really point to a cult founder type but a strong second-in-command (though perhaps that’s the idea of the Rock being mapped onto the Epistles inaccurately), and the pushback that Paul seems to be able to give is actually rather unlike the early history of the Mormons and other modern analogies from my reading. But of course this is all GIGO, since analyzing cults is really hard to do even when you have ample contemporaneous attestation and it’s much, much harder to do when all you have is their own propaganda.

    Reply
    1. Frederic wrote:

      “As it is, the reason I remain agnostic leaning historicist is because I have seen enough about cults to think that the Gospels maintain some kind of ideology.”

      Response: Without question underlying ideologies were the motivating factor for their existence to start with. But having said that the authors of the Gospels seem to differ/disagree in various aspects with respect to their individual ideologies, so I’m not so sure that what you see when you compare and contrast them is actually a maintained ideology.

      Reply
      1. That’s a good point to call attention to.

        These are “shibboleth” constructs (as I discuss in Historicity Big and Small: How Historians Try to Rescue Jesus). The hero and his story is invented to sell a perspective, even indeed specifically against previous uses of the same fictional puppet. Matthew coopts and expands on and alters Mark indeed I suspect to try and pass off the result as the original Gospel and make claim that Mark corrupted or truncated it (much as 2 Thessalonians was forged to convince people 1 Thessalonians, the actually authentic letter, was forged).

        At some point this tactic becomes more persuasive and effective when you start insisting the stories are true and have a tradent history going back to eyewitnesses, and not just sacred allegories for the gospel teachings they are meant to reify (hence the approach of possibly G.Luke, and certainly G.John). Hence the Noll hypothesis (OHJ, pp. 352, 331, 521).

        Reply
      2. Ou8: You’re right there are differences, but there’s some big constancy there, which is exactly why we can identify some texts as Christian and others as being part of other counter-culture Jewish movements. To be clear, my position is not that you’re getting the same idea with no changes: that’s BS Christian propaganda. You’re getting endless remixes, but I do detect repeated themes. For example, the reason why Jesus-as-cynic has some merit to it as an analytical strategy is that Jesus as a character is depicted in the same kind of scrappy way that Socrates often is, as this weird dude prone to some odd angry outbursts and odd behavior all of which seems to be intended to teach ideas. (There are Zen teachers who do the same kind of thing).

        My (non-expert) read is that you had a cult that formed and then, thanks to things like the Jewish war, you had this huge splintering. And obviously the texts are referring to each other, so one can’t say that these communities were unaware of each other, so there was obviously cross-pollination. Cults that split off from each other tend to do that, sniping at each other and referring to each other, taking ideas and evolving them.

        Reply
    2. First of all, didn’t you exclude the idea of the supernatural Jesus from the discussion as being a priori low probability enough that it was really only worth comparing secular mythicism and secular historicism? That may have been part of what CC was objecting to. I don’t have a copy of OHJ so I don’t know where that is in the math if it is anywhere, but that could be it.

      I didn’t get that impression from CC. He never made the associated arguments (like that this is “bias against the supernatural,” nor did he defend any supernatural claims about Jesus as historical).

      I do bracket “supernatural Jesus” in OHJ (in Ch. 2) as too low in probability to even show up in the math. Note there are versions of this on both sides, i.e. the Doherty thesis of a cosmic Jesus death, per Ch. 3, could be factually true, i.e. Jesus really was killed by Satan on or below the moon, and this really did effect a magical spell on the universe that freed our souls from Satan’s clutches—and if Christians could jettison their commitment to the Gospels as literal without jettisoning their commitment to the supernatural, they could re-embrace the original Christian creed and still regard the Gospels as divinely inspired allegory.

      So, really, “the existence of the supernatural” actually would not change the debate too much. Though it would some. And CC never went there. He seemed to be taking a Raymond Brown style approach: historical facts can be established by secular methods, while miraculous content must always be believed on faith, not by independent historical reasoning.

      I actually do wonder if enough accounts like the Gospels that could be said to be all BS (like, if we knew that everything that was even remotely possible non-supernaturally was also taken from known individuals from other traditions, and all reflected clear Greek influence like the Sermon on the Mount, etc. etc.), if that actually should have an effect, though possibly a small one, on Jesus’ historicity.

      I discussed this in my response to Covington asking the same question several years ago, where I explain that making Jesus even more mythical would have no measurable effect. Once you are “heavily mythical,” being more so makes no observable change in the frequency of ahistoricity. Think of it as diminishing returns: once you get passed a certain point, adding more myth makes no measurable difference anymore. And Jesus is already maximally mythical by any metric (even using just Mark, often—inaccurately—considered the most mundane of Gospels; Matthew makes Jesus even more fantastical, but that just means adding more supernatural stuff, and myth is not solely indicated by a heavy presence of the supernatural, of which there is already an over-abundance in Mark, relative to sober histories and memoirs).

      I think one could do the same almost anywhere that we have document survival that is good enough to give multiple retrospectives on the same person that are either written by their contemporaries or by the generation after. From all that, future historians could probably do a decent job at arriving at a picture of the real Reagan.

      Indeed. But we don’t have any of that for Jesus. No documents whatever (historians have shit-tons of first-person multimedia docs on and from Reagan and eyewitnesses to him), and not even any narrative about him (other than credited to revelation) from even his lifetime, or even the lifetime of anyone alive at the time.

      This is more like if all we had to evaluate Reagan by was some fantastical and implausible morality fables written a lifetime after the fact. Then, average life expectancy for an adult was 48; now (in the US) it’s 78. So for a lifespan-adjusted time frame, we’re looking at no narratives or documents clearly referring to a real Reagan at all are even composed that survive for historians to consult before the year 2066. We’d have to suppose some outlandish Nuclear War destroyed everything, to explain the total absence of other evidence (though even the entire planet’s arsenal isn’t actually that powerful, but still, maintaining the analogy as best I can). But then add in earlier letters, written in the early 2000s, that depict Reagan solely as a mystical cosmic being only referred to as being met in revelations.

      With that evidence, our epistemic probability Reagan existed, being calculated by historians who only have the above to work with in the year 3960 AD, would certainly be no better than 1 in 3.

      In contrast, mythical characters have personal histories that are endlessly violable.

      Hence the forty Gospels we have, including Toddler Jesus who animates clay pigeons and kills numerous kids in his own village for offending him; and Jesus writing letters to kings; and being born in a cave; and walking out of the tomb with a giant animated cross and ascending with an army of angels; and preaching about talking grapes the size of houses; and resurrecting and cuddling with Lazarus; and so on. The Jesus of even every canonical Gospel is an entirely different person with rather notably different behaviors and teachings and feats and chronology. Certain material was simply preserved as being considered shared in import and in need of retention or recontextualization (hence, compare all the diverse Lives of Moses we have, or the various redactions of the Lives of Aesop; likewise, accounts of Hercules’ labors may vary, but the core notion that he performed twelve great labors, and the rough outlines of most of them remain the same; and so on).

      To put it another way, imagine if we found an early Gospel that we could confirm was contemporaneous with Mark and differed with Mark on all the particulars, and perhaps we could show was even known by Mark’s community. I would make an argument that such a document made Mark’s recollections less likely to be accurate…

      That would depend on the particulars of course. A second Gospel competing with Mark’s could actually (in principle, depending on what it contained and the external context we could put it in etc.) corroborate historical details in Mark, even as it called others into question; which could both diminish the reliability of Mark and at the same time increase the probability of the historicity of Jesus. But this hypothetical other Gospel would have to actually exist, and also actually have that effect. For example, if it was credibly written in the form of a personal memoir or investigation (something like Lucian’s account of his interactions with Alexander of Abonuteichos or Proteus Peregrinus), and not a mythography.

      For example, the standard belief (though IMO it isn’t credible) is that there was a contemporaneous Gospel, Q, and it did differ substantially from Mark (it, supposedly, lacked a crucifixion narrative or atonement theology; this is questionable, but I’m only describing the mainstream view). Dennis MacDonald even tries to date it pre-war (as some have done, to even less plausibility IMO). And once you grant all his convoluted premises and conclusions about it, it then would increase P(historicity). But because it takes ten steps from Sunday, each questionable, to get there, it doesn’t actually have that effect. Until a proper probabilistic analysis can be done that shows what impact this complex thesis would have. IMO, that it is still absurdly mythographical undermines its impact in that regard, even if we granted all of MacDonald’s premises (and I don’t think we should).

      Note by contrast, our documentary sitch with respect to L. Ron Hubbard is more in line with Haille Selassie, whereas with respect to Jesus is more in line with John Frum and Ned Ludd. So we can’t really build analogies between them. And “Hubbard was mythologized in rampant fashion” doesn’t get any different conclusion here, as the question is not whether than can happen, but how many people in antiquity who ended up that way were historical vs. mythical. These are not the same things. Of course, first, antiquity differed in context from modernity, which more severely limits historicizing mythical people and thus reduces its frequency in ways not a thing back then, e.g. consider how we are able to find out Betty Crocker never existed. But second, “we 100% expect religious founder-figures to be rampantly mythologized” doesn’t tell us much, because in antiquity “we 100% expect mythical religious founder-figures to be rampantly historicized” as well, leaving the only question left to answer: in the set of all rampantly mythologized religious figures, how often do they turn out to be historical rather than mythical? The answer does not favor historicity.

      Reply
      1. Good for CC that he was least honest enough to debate like a scholar up front!

        On the diminishing returns: That makes sense, but I wonder if the contamination can spread beyond Jesus and thus seep back into the math, so to speak. Like, if the Gospels are not even depicting the Christian cult very accurately, or even the allegories are clearly evolved later, then the utter inaccuracy of the Gospels would possibly show that whatever ideological foundation everyone is riffing off of in writing this mythology is itself deeply contaminated above and beyond the central character of Jesus. But at the same time it makes some sense that, since Jesus is effectively the only real character in these stories (everyone else is just a prop character or foil), the only thing that really matters is him.

        However, as another hypothetical (just to tease out your read of the methodology): Imagine we had a better range of Gospels, and ones that seemed to be perhaps less obviously directly responding to each other. If all of them were clearly garbage, might that lower Jesus’ historicity even if it’s only a tiny fraction? Or do you think that the fact that a real person could hypothetically be so mythologized means that basically it all comes down to the mythologization score? Because, yeah, I agree with you that Jesus is mythologized to hell and back. I was trying to think of any cult leader in the real world across history who gets the same kind of nonsense propagated about him, and the only one that comes to mind is the Falung Gong founder, and even then real cult leaders have real biographies that even their founders have to refer to. (Like, Mormons don’t think Joseph Smith is a cheat and fraud, but their own histories clearly capture that he was, so even if we didn’t have independent historical knowledge of the trajectory of Mormonism, we could extract a “real” Joseph Smith from the Mormon mythology, and that Joseph Smith would not be their Smith but would be an identifiable character).

        On the parallel Mark: My example was assuming that we could be sure that this new Gospel was utter nonsense and somehow corroborated nothing about Mark (or if it did corroborated only details we could tell independently couldn’t be true, like it also happened to write everyone around Jesus like they were sock puppets but had them behave like totally different sock puppets). The idea of it being written in a distinct genre and fashion is really interesting, and that made me have an independently interesting thought, which was why the cult never played around with that. Were they just so wedded to the literary form of Aesop/Odysseus/etc. that they couldn’t do something like forging an autobiography? Did they just need that “Jesus as third-person exemplar of missionaries” so badly?

        But that is also interesting to think if such a Gospel could somehow help historicity a little, if even a story that had such a mythologized character could possibly confirm enough details about the behavior of the person that would stick around. I used to be much more strongly historicist because I see a constancy in Jesus as character across the Gospels (you can even remove John’s bizarre fascination with making him into a boring-ass Superman and still come back to this interesting character), and from my own study of cults I find that that’s what tends to stick around (that is, their accounts of their founder tend to put a positive spin on the weird behavior, but you can still see that they remembered the weird behavior). However, you’ve made really strong arguments that every apparently unique behavior of Jesus are either in service of literary form (like handing a character the Idiot Ball because you need it for the plot) or are emulating prior modes, and the only reason why it comes together is because these were exemplary writers and because if you take enough classical literary archetypes and ram them together into a character you can often get something unique and interesting for the same reason that peanut butter and jelly work as a sandwich.

        I also find it interesting that you think Q as imagined does increase historicity slightly; I wonder if that’s part of why it remains a woobie. You actually see the same behavior among Buddhists who are slightly more invested in some Buddha (Gautama or otherwise) being real: You see them basically imagining that a particular literary tradition was riffing on koans or sutras or some saying tradition or practice in temples or groups. But to do that, they have to just imagine that the writers of these texts didn’t want to just make a philosophical point using a character and had no creativity or investment. But yeah, I had the same thought as you: No matter what you want to extract from the Gospels, the best you could get would still be something that would have a ton of mythography behind it.

        And, yes, obviously the documentary record is such garbage that it’s hard to tell. I just try to imagine when I’m assessing historicity versus mythicism how these cults evolved, how their ideologies changed and adapted to new environments, etc. But it is telling, obviously, that Frum and Ludd remain really good analogs even with everything removed. Which does make me wonder: Based on what I’ve read about Frum and Ludd, they seem to be really basic characters, whereas Jesus to me feels more like Jim Casy as a character (though Jim is a lot more likable) and has parallels to the Buddha and Socrates in terms of feeling like a protagonist. Do you think that’s an artifact of the literary form, that they have to give Jesus some personality because he’s the protagonist?

        Reply
        1. Oh yes, Q is their woobie precisely because historians need it to anchor their claims of historicity; with often outlandish ancillary claims, such as that it was originally written in Aramaic and we therefore “have” that Aramaic original and it was therefore written by eyewitnesses in the 30s AD—something Bart Ehrman literally said. Q is always a historicity MacGuffin. If it stopped being that, advocates would quickly lose interest in defending it.

          This is true even in reverse: many mythicists “craft” and then depend on Q for the opposite conclusion; e.g. Doherty unnecessarily rooted his entire thesis in an incredibly elaborate Q theory, which I completely stripped out in my defense of his model in OHJ because it was not historically defensible. And on the other end of the spectrum as well: Christian apologists need Q to be true because if it’s not, that entails Matthew and Luke are making a vast ton of shit up, which is a much worse thing for them to admit to than that they plagiarized two prior Gospels. So they defend the lesser evil. Their last castle.

          If historians didn’t need their outlandishly contradictory and barely defensible theories of Q for anything they have staked their careers on, Q would have been abandoned as an interpretive framework decades ago. It’s like with transphobes: the real meat of the issue is always in the question, “Why do you even care?” Not in the nuts and bolts of whether their beliefs are true, but why they need them to be. Once you go there, all becomes revealed.

          -:-

          “Were they just so wedded to the literary form of Aesop/Odysseus/etc. that they couldn’t do something like forging an autobiography? Did they just need that “Jesus as third-person exemplar of missionaries” so badly?: This is a good question. True fake histories almost don’t exist in the ancient world, as in a fake history engineered to look in every particular like a real one. Indeed, the only example we have is late: the latter half of the Historia Augusta, composed during the decline of the Empire. In that, the first several chapters are authentic histories (not great ones—methodology is crap—but at least honest ones); then suddenly they are all fake, yet keep maintaining the same appearance of the earlier ones, complete with quoting documents (that now don’t even exist). This has perplexed historians for centuries (we have no idea what the author(s) of these books was on about; just about the only plausible theory is that they were commissioned to write this as an extension of Suetonius for a rich patron, got bored or ran out of time, and just spun out the last half of the book confident their patron would never actually check any of their work).

          Ancient authors were better at forging epistles, although even there they kind of sucked at it. You can often tell a forgery from a lot of telltale “bad liar” features in them, e.g. the correspondence of Abgar and Jesus doesn’t look at all realistic, nor even does the correspondence of Seneca and Paul, and 3 Corinthians reeks of absurdity in every aspect of its construction and context next to 1 and 2 Corinthians.

          Probably the best “fake history” we have in the Christian tradition (apart from, of course, the History of Eusebius, which mixes fake and real history to achieve its propagandistic purpose, but that is late in the production of Christian literature) is Luke-Acts. Yet notice that its author knew to include some trappings of real history (relative dating an event; a procedural preface; etc.), yet failed to make them believable (unlike Luke’s, real prefaces include actual details, e.g. the author identifies themself and why they are to be trusted, and if they mention their sources there, they’ll name and evaluate them for the reader; and real historians employed relative dating frequently, whereas Luke does it just a couple times at the start and then forgets to keep doing it, and the most notable time he does it, to date the ministry of John the Baptist, he uses a sneaky handwave to trick the reader into thinking he has dated the ministry of Jesus, when actually he hasn’t; etc.).

          Luke will quote documents (probably fake) and date events by naming magistrates (he picks this back up in Acts at some points), definitely trying to make his book look and sound like a history, but with so many oddities deviating from expected authentic style as to give away that it’s fake. In the end he emulates more features of ancient novels than histories. He just couldn’t keep away from all the rhetoric and literary allegorism and structure his school taught him to employ in telling stories.

          Was this deliberate? They wanted the savvy to be able to tell this, in agreement with what Origen describes as the method of double truth (one, the literal, for the ignorant masses; the other, the allegorical and actually correct, for the elite). Or was this because they just weren’t smart enough to actually realize what they needed to do to write an actually convincing fake history? Or perhaps, they were too smart for their own good; given magnificent tools in school for fabricating stories, they couldn’t “put them down” and just write an authentic-sounding history instead. Schools didn’t really teach anyone to do that; they taught storytelling and rhetoric, not the distinctions between authentic and well-researched history, and propaganda.

          I don’t know. All I can observe is the effect: they didn’t do a very good job of fabricating histories (or even forging letters). They were too busy crafting ingenious literary structure and messaging. Whether intentionally or indicative of failure. This is evident even in the Testimonium Flavianum, whose author made little to no effort emulating Josephus’s actual discourse style, but composed an absurdly fawning and barely informative and uncontextualized encomium of Christian belief by riffing on the structure of the Emmaus Narrative in Luke. A competent forger would not have produced such a piece of crap. But there it is. Josephus was rolling in his grave not because they were doctoring his text, but doctoring it so amateurishly.

          As to why Jesus is the only person actually given any personality in the Gospels, yes, that is a feature of mythography generally (e.g. compare the Lives of Aesop and of Moses, where every other character orbiting the hero is a cardboard cutout or central casting trope). But it was not too different even in real bios, which also focused heavily on the titular figure, and everyone they interact with is only described in reference to the antagonist’s thoughts and interests, as either assistants or foils to their story, in minimal detail.

        2. I suppose as a writer I shouldn’t be surprised to consider that the answer could easily be “We’ve learned a ton of new ways to write coherently, including having better research tools, trying to avoid using prop characters, playing with genre, and not being taught only a few ways of creating”. Still, at the risk of continuing to anachronize by putting myself into the shoes of writers who didn’t have the tools I have and borrowing from what I know about the Buddhist literature, I wouldn’t be surprised if a constraint on their creative output was expectations that came about because of their goals. First of all, if you want to do Just So stories to establish facts about your cosmology or your cultic practices, that actually limits the range of your potential forms: third-person remains the easiest way of doing it. Second, as you’ve suggested, the Gospels were probably intended to be able to include ideas taught in such a way, like parables or individual speeches, that could be told as miniature stories by missionaries. (Christians themselves brag about how good of a teacher Jesus is in the Gospels, pointing out that Jesus often poses ideas in response to questions that aren’t closed answers but are more open-ended or are stories that let the audience arrive at the conclusion himself, etc., and they have a point… which could be because a tradition remembered a good teacher they had, or because good writers knew how to write a good teacher). Third, they probably also had to write within the genre range that could be possibly understood by a group of people with very mixed levels of literacy and power (since they were a counter-culture group), and that would be accepted as a story about a god. I bet if one looks at each structural limitation on their writing based on their goals, there’s probably a very solid reason why they wrote what they did… which of course is again an indication that the Gospels are totally useless to arrive at real history, because virtually every choice that’s made has at least one function that isn’t about honestly communicating history or remembering a tradition or a master.

          CC in your debate pointed to Plato, and what I found hilarious about that is that Plato is an incredible example of someone who took his beloved master who probably (though not necessarily) actually existed and then filled that master’s mouth with all sorts of garbage. Ancient people were perfectly happy to use both real and mythical people as puppets for ideologies, once they found a literary form that worked for them. The Buddhists did the same: Koans, sutras, and stories would often invoke the Buddha even though there’s no way that the original Buddha told that particular story. It’s just that Buddhists cared more about trying to preserve some degree of history, and don’t have an a priori reason to necessarily treasure the original teacher over all others, so they would keep stories and traditions from people who weren’t Siddhartha (or whoever/whatever group founded the faith) and there was greater attention to trying to keep track of the actual traditions. (Of course, the fact that Buddhism split into sects indicates that this didn’t work either!)

          But, yeah, obviously at this point it’s very difficult to figure out the creative process of people dead for more than a millennium.

          Regarding Q: What always struck me about it wasn’t only that it was such a bad argument for it existing at all but also that the reasoning just explodes your number of possible causal entities. That’s why there’s also M and N and what not. If there’s one hidden source text, why not two, or three, or four? It’s actually much more reasonable to think, especially under historicity but even under mythicism, that all of these authors were drawing upon stories that had worked in their own missionary experience, their own reading of scripture and interpretations from rabbis, etc. Cults always do this: Scientology had to come from a more “secular” tradition of the auditing before they retooled it with mystic nonsense, and ideas like body thetans have now been absorbed into the New Age. They’re always seeking out new ideas and remixing them, and it’s not even a lie (usually) that they think the idea was authentically within their tradition, because cult members very often think they’re on the right track and so if they encounter an idea that sounds right to them they will just absorb it and assume that it must be another indication of the truth of their religion.

          But one document puts out some hope that this was not just a tradition of some kind but a possibly well-policed, authentic tradition that has one document they could possibly ever find. It’s a hypothesis that’s almost hand-designed to find what the scholars want.

      2. Obviously also agreed on Reagan, I was just using him as an example of a person who was mythologized literally in his lifetime (though obviously nowhere near as substantially, though Trump actually gets close for the secular context if you look at the Q mythology and the people who depict him as literal Jesus and act like he’s a prophet). The problem is exactly that the biographies we have of Jesus are so obviously ahistorical that the best you can say (the point you belabored to CC which I do think he finally comprehended) is that any piece of information in it is has a 50-50 chance of being true.

        (And I still think that’s being very charitable: when something is that propagandized, it’s actually reasonable to start assuming that anything that’s depicted is either outright fabrication or is true but has been reframed to the point that it’s effectively a different event. Which is why historians try using things like the criteria you point out they don’t have the evidence to deploy properly, like a criterion of embarrassment which hinges on you actually being able to prove that the detail was embarrassing to the person offering it which is exceedingly difficult to do with a countercultural cult. Lots of the criteria Jesus historians use are ones that, if they were applied logically validly, would raise the chance of something being true drastically).

        And yes, I was excluding the documentary record for Reagan, imagining only that we had the most mythologized biographies available… but even that wouldn’t do it because anything besides outright lunatic fringe stuff wouldn’t do, so it would be like future historians had only Internet forum posts from far-right websites from 2066 (and even that still wouldn’t do it because far-right websites could be critical of Reagan, so it’d literally have to be only the Internet forum posts that fanatical Reagan fans curated).

        And I do have to admit that the characterization of Jesus I was using comes from the canonical Gospels, which is very arguably a selection bias. So do you think that things like the infancy Gospels actually lower his probability somewhat in context of the other data, or again is that just an indication that he’s so heavily mythologized that you can write whatever you want about him?

        That having been said, you do still see ideas that are being held constant. The Infancy Gospels read like Brightburn or some weird Superman fan fiction, but they still retain the idea of a precocious Jesus and a Jesus who can be kind of a dick to his enemies, they just turn that up to 11. Everything else you describe is still somewhat consistent with the Gospels. Has anyone done an Ehrman-type analysis of all of our extant literature from within a reasonable time period of the Gospels and did a list of character traits that come from each source?

        Reply
        1. “do you think that things like the infancy Gospels actually lower his probability” : No. Because of my point about diminishing returns. He’s already so heavily mythologized even in Mark, that adding more ridiculous mythologization has no further effect on his probability of historicity.

          This is just as true the other way around: the mythology built up around Alexander the Great reached eventually the absurdest of heights (eventually narrating him exploring the depths of the sea as a child in a glass diving bell where schools of fish paid homage to the future ruler of the world). But that was just more of what had already happened to his story. So it has no further effect on the probability (or improbability) of his historicity.

          Once that mythologized, the prior probability of being mythical is just always the same. Alexander I’d assign a 1 in 3 prior (though not because he’s in the Rank-Raglan class, because he’s not, despite claims to the contrary; but the extent of his mythologization is comparably high). It’s just that we have vast evidence confirming his historicity, which reverses that 1 in 3 all the way to millions to 1, easily (despite scholars equating Alexander and Jesus, they are literal opposites in evidentiary status).

        2. “Has anyone done an Ehrman-type analysis of all of our extant literature from within a reasonable time period of the Gospels and did a list of character traits that come from each source?” : Not that I know of; as in, not all in one place. There are scattered studies or discussions of particular aspects (e.g. Ehrman has written some pages here and there on how scribes altered the Angry Jesus that appears in the early manuscripts of the canon into Nicer Jesus, sometimes by simply altering a single word in a verse, as attitudes about the ideal hero-god changed).

          But if you are interested, a valuable analogous study is Valerie Tarico’s psycho-historical analysis of why many ANE gods (Yahweh included) are all the same in their personality and character—and, it happens (not by coincidence), to exactly resemble the actual behavior and propaganda of the most successful despots of the same period and region (“God’s Emotions,” in The End of Christianity).

          The upshot is that the character of mythical heroes is always a portrait of the ideals of the communities worshiping them; and socio-politically, that was often the same (in who or what was revered and considered “perfect”), so mythical heroes often look alike in personality. To the extent, even, that you can sometimes date and provenance (geographically and socially) the origin of myths by the character ideals represented in them. And sometimes you even see explicit “corrections,” e.g. the Aeneid emulates Homer so as to “fix” the then-considered-backwards values Homeric heroes exhibit, “updating” the character portrait of the ideal hero to suit Roman sentiments (I cover some of this in OHJ, Ch. 10.2 and my study of cross-cultural heroism in Hitler Homer Bible Christ).

          Thus, for example, that Jesus only ever displays anger, righteous arrogance, annoyance, and reluctant duty (and never actual compassion, much less humor; the only time he ever cries, is selfishly for himself) is because that was the actual ideal of the time, among the wing of Christianity that gained political power and generated all subsequent extant sects (all others were eclipsed out of the picture and driven extinct). All Jesus’s depicted talk of pacifism (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount) did not represent any character values of the authors, it was entirely an ascetic apocalyptic proceduralism (you are a wimp, unlike Jesus, therefore you should refrain from doing anything lest you fuck it up and get damned; just wait it out and you’ll get to trample the ashen skulls of your enemies in short enough time—with the actual objective of keeping the masses in line and thus “solving” social strife as a “problem”).

    1. He didn’t prepare.

      But IMO, that suggests he is sincere.

      This happens a lot: I feel bad how easy it is to crush honest apologists (there have been a few cases of that, e.g. my Seattle debate with Duane Morris), because they aren’t trying to run game; they actually believe they are right, and thus don’t need “game,” or even preparation. They might get emotional and unprofessional (this didn’t happen with me and CC, but perhaps it has with other folks he has debated, where I’ve been told he can get dismissive and talk-overy), but they don’t resort to well-contrived rhetoric to try and “win” conflicting arguments disingenuously.

      For whatever reason, CC didn’t do that with me. Which made a technical win easier. He could have tried to run a dishonest game (like William Lane Craig does, and Ken Waters did), which requires much more time and effort to expose and thus rebut effectively. Or CC could have prepared better and thus made a stronger case (compare my Horn, MacDonald, and Crook debates).

      But one of the downsides of sincere faith in false beliefs, is a corresponding overconfidence, that amounts to a self-defeating arrogance (“I don’t need to prepare”; “I don’t really need to read my opponent’s peer-reviewed work more carefully”; “I don’t need to apply falsification tests to my own beliefs”; “all my premises are facts, not beliefs”; etc.). Which is a correlation to be expected: more effectively self-critical people wouldn’t get duped into a false belief in the first place, or would escape it in reasonable time. That leaves only the foolishly arrogant behind, trapped in false worldviews.

      Welcome to Christian apologetics.

      Reply
      1. Well, it leaves behind the foolishly arrogant, or the people who see something beautiful in an idea so badly that they will end up swallowing a lot of evil and a lot of inaccuracy to preserve it (though my read is that those people rarely survive being apologists very long – one of the things that’s cool about Sheffield is that he seems like one of those types), or the holy grifters (e.g. my read of Craig is that he’s “sincere” in his religious belief, it’s just that his religious belief includes all the escape hatches that let him rationalize his disingenuous behavior, whereas people with more integrity would despise lying even if they could make some gross pseudo-utilitarian argument for it). You excluded the non-holy grifters by talking about sincere beliefs.

        To be extremely fair to apologists, many are taking the tack of the defense attorney: They make a strong case for their faith, and as long as they don’t make a lie of commission, it’s okay if they play games. Of course, this too is garbage, because the reason we accept defense attorneys doing that is because we want people to have vigorous defense and to present the strongest possible version of an argument so that we can then add back in the complicating factors and doubts, whereas the colossal social and personal risk of defending ideas that way is the very reason a defense attorney can be compelling to others is because they’re making the kind of arguments that can feel compelling to ourselves even when they shouldn’t be.

        Reply
        1. Yea it gets interesting trying to get into the psyche of Christian apologists and the basis of their beliefs and how they maintain those beliefs.

          For the lay person it is often a matter of being intellectually isolated from facts about the Bible that they will never hear from their pastors (e.g. Gospels as being unreliable sources of historical events).

          This was certainly well true before the Internet age.

          And even today if they hear it from someone outside their group they simply don’t trust what they are saying because it is a view that is “not Biblical”.

          They are trapped in that way.

          Any then you have the intellectually dishonest. This can happen intentionally, or because their confirmation biases are so strong, or they are so attached to their beliefs that they NEED for them to be true. They can’t imagine (or accept) a world in which they are not true.

          A non-religious example of the latter is a mother whose son has committed a horrible crime but she just can’t bring herself to believe (accept) the obvious truth that her son is guilty, because (in her mind) doing so would just destroy her world. So she just rejects it despite of all of the evidence.

        2. I have become skeptical of mere ignorance as being a substantial explanation for the adherence to dogmatic views. If it were true that the mere availability of information was a central factor rather than one of many, the Internet age would have been the era that its greatest proponents hoped it would be, one of breaking down of intellectual barriers and convergence toward truth.

          At the minimum, the person in the pews who accepts what a preacher says isn’t motivated to check those facts in the Internet era. There’s credulity, often from having been in an environment from birth, and there’s also a sense that rocking the boat undermines the community, but there’s also people just holding onto beliefs they want to be true. Like you said, people will respond with special pleading (“That’s not Biblical”, as if they had some single unifying way of establishing what is rather than merely following some dogma) and out-group bias.

          It’s true that if you do consciousness raising, you will start to peel off the actually ignorant, but it’s rare that a person holds a view simply because they’ve only heard one side of a story and will correct it once they see the facts and figures. Rather, we tend to hold onto beliefs within our worldview, and it takes us seeing enough of that worldview’s core assumptions being wrong (and being able to dispense with some tribalism and behave with integrity) to be able to change our minds on some things. And that’s even rational to some extent: If our worldview is that a certain group of people are more likely to be untrustworthy, we shouldn’t take their arguments as seriously, ad hominem fallacies aside.

        3. It’s a good point that ignorance is no longer a sufficient explanation these days.

          There is also a resistance to finding or listening to information, even when it’s readily available. This most commonly comes from an assortment of what I call “trap beliefs,” whereby someone convinces themselves of some false belief (“nothing ever reported by a liberal newspaper is true”; “nothing coming from an atheist can be true”) that traps them in other false beliefs, by preventing them from even accessing or processing falsifying information in the first place.

          This is a symptom of clinical delusion. And it is disturbing that it is very, very common in modern populations. It might always have been; we just can more starkly see it now, because with global access to the internet we have removed the “control” of poor access to information, allowing us to “see” that that wasn’t the causal factor all along. Beliefs are primarily desire-driven, not evidence-driven. And that’s the central problem.

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