Skepticism, Science, and Scholarship

P. Z. Myers has seen the dark side of skepticism, the fact that its tools can be applied not just to fringe bunk but to anything and everything. And so he has written in an effort to distinguish science and skepticism. Here is an excerpt from his recent post on the topic:

A short while ago, I received a very nice letter from a young woman in Indiana who liked my book. I scanned it and posted it, with her name and town redacted — it was a lovely example of a phenomenon we’ve noticed for quite some time, of the way the internet and books about atheism have opened the door for many people who had previously felt isolated. It also said kind things about The Happy Atheist, so of course I was glad to share it.

Some nut named Cavanaugh, in the name of True Atheism and Skepticism, has posted a lengthy dissection of the letter. He doesn’t believe it’s real. He thinks I wrote it myself. To prove his point, all he has is the scan I posted…so he has taken it apart at excruciating and obsessive length. He has carefully snipped out all the letters “w” in the letter, lining them up so you can easily compare them. My god, they’re not identical! He has another figure in which he has sliced out a collection of ligatures — would you believe the spacing between letters, in a handwritten letter, is not consistent? She used the word “oblivious” a couple of times…a word that I also have used many times. She wrote exactly one page, not two. He mansplains the psychology of teenaged girls to assert that there’s no way a 15-year-old woman could have written the letter. You get the idea. He is being properly skeptical, accumulating a body of “facts” to disprove the possibility that someone in Indiana actually wrote a letter…

When your whole business model is simply about rejecting fringe claims, rather than following the evidence no matter how mainstream the target, you’ll inevitably end up with a pathologically skewed audience that uses motivated reasoning to abuse the weak.

Skepticism is invoked to deny the reality of Bigfoot and alien abductions and Intelligent Design. And skepticism is invoked to deny climate change and that Al-Qaeda was responsible for 9/11 and the Holocaust and much else. And each side insists that it is just applying the methods of skepticism to dare to challenge what the world’s experts say.

Clearly we need more than “skepticism” to get us to an accurate portrait of reality.

Of related interest, Richard Carrier has posted a list of mainstream scholars, including myself, as well as others who disagree with him, and his assessment of our deludedness and in some instances even our mental health.

Also, Hemant Mehta is one of several to have drawn attention to this music video, which illustrates how our minds play tricks on us:

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  • Randy Wanat

    He quotated “facts” intentionally. He’s drawing a distinction between being skeptical and using facts that serve as evidence to pursue the truth, and being skeptical and using what one erroneously thinks is evidence but are merely facts to draw a preferred conclusion. One starts with the evidence and sees where it goes, the other starts with the answer and sees what can be construed to support it. It’s confirmation bias that he’s calling out, not skepticism.

    • James F. McGrath

      While that is an important distinction, I think we can all think of examples of people who are convinced they are being appropriately skeptical, when they reject mainstream science or medicine or history. And so the approach associated with skepticism does not in and of itself seem to prevent confirmation bias and motivated reasoning.

      • Randy Wanat

        What “approach associated with skepticism” is that? There’s a difference between skepticism and cynicism. In fact, the “skeptic” to whom Myers referred was being cynical, and then tried to backfill the void created by his assertion. Skepticism is reserving judgement until the evidence is presented and reaches a compelling level, whatever threshold the subject merits. The “skeptic” couldn’t have been convinced by the actual facts, because the actual facts fail under scrutiny by people who understand how the facts pertain to reality in general. The cynic can form any fact into perceived evidence of anything, but that is not skepticism, nor anything like it. It is confirmation bias under the aegis of cynicism.

        • Ian

          Given that these ‘cynics’ see themselves as skeptics, I think the point is a little moot. Where is the dividing line? If the dividing line is that skeptics are right where cynics aren’t then we beg the question. If the dividing line is methodology, then ‘reserving judgement’ isn’t a characteristic of a lot of debunking, as it is practically done (nor should it be, picking holes in terrible stories is important to the skeptical community).

          Talking about ‘actual facts’ again begs the question, from what I can see.

          • Randy Wanat

            I disagree. Reserving judgement IS part of debunking. At least, when done skeptically. Otherwise, we’re still having confirmation bias. Honest skeptics approach a claim with an open mind, neither abjectly dismissing nor immediately accepting. Only after the evidence has been gathered and analyzed by someone who understands the facts in context is a judgement rendered. Even when someone tells a whopper of a tale, we approach it the same way. We just don’t notice that we’re following the steps. But, when there is confirmation bias, following the steps in a deliberate and methodical fashion becomes necessary to remedy the bias as much as possible. Failure to do so negates the backdrop of skepticism.

          • Ian

            It would be nice if skepticism worked in that way. And to be fair sometimes it does. But you don’t have to hang around many skeptical events to know that in practice debunking doesn’t often go that way.

          • Randy Wanat

            Skepticism DOES work that way. It is a specific and discreet methodology and approach. If you’re not doing it, you’re not being skeptical. Just like if you fail to follow the scientific method, you’re not being a scientist. You can put rocks in the ground and say that’s how you cook spaghetti, but without any of the trappings of actual cooking of spaghetti, it’s nothing more than an error of labeling.

          • James F. McGrath

            Well, Richard Carrier self-identifies as a skeptic, I believe, and his skepticism leads him to reject the consensus of historians that there was a historical Jesus. Not, I should point out, to simply make a case for a different viewpoint, which is something that scholars do all the time, but rather to assert that all mainstream scholars who disagree with him have faulty reasoning or may be insane. And when Bill Maher jumped on the antivaccination bandwagon, I am sure he was convinced that it was just a further application of his skepticism.

            It is possible to poke holes in any story, to find issues with any proposed explanation. And so that’s why I think that skepticism, without the counterbalance provided by the community of experts who research things and seek to find consensus where possible, is not sufficient.

            Here’s a video that I think illustrates this well… :-)


          • Randy Wanat

            Carrier has never said Jesus has been proven not to have existed. The evidence does not convince him that Jesus existed, and he acknowledges that it’s merely an opinion that has not withstood the scrutiny of peer review. In other words, he is skeptical about his own opinions, as any good academician should be.

          • James F. McGrath

            Are you reading a different blog of Carrier’s than the one on which he dismisses scholars who disagree with him as at best incompetent and in some instances perhaps insane?

          • Randy Wanat

            Are you reading his actual responses, or just the stuff on the front page of his blog? He actually backs up what he says. And, he doesn’t generally call them incompetent. He refers to uses of logical fallacies, mostly, though there are a couple that are gross failures at reading comprehension.

          • James F. McGrath

            Yes, of course I am talking about his actual responses, as I’ve been blogging about this subject for years. I am sure it can seem to someone outside the field that he adequately backs up what he says, which is part of the point. It is very easy for someone to make it seem as though they are poking devastating holes in mainstream science or history, when in fact they are doing nothing of the sort. I would encourage you to compare the rhetoric, the selective focus on detail, the characterization of mainstream academia, and other aspects of Richard Carrier’s blogging with some other instance of denialism – say, perhaps, an Intelligent Design blog, for instance.

          • Anonymous Coward

            If one side in a debate seems to understand how accurately understand an argument and respond to its premises and its reasoning relevantly, and the other side in the debate does not seem to understand how to do any of this, we have a prima facie reason to think the latter side is more probably wrong than the former side.

          • James F. McGrath

            Indeed. So then you understand why I don’t find mythicism persuasive, right?

          • Anonymous Coward

            Nope. 😉

            I hope I’m as anonymous as I think I am here because I’m going to talk like I don’t talk IRL ever.

            I’m an expert on rational argumentation. Not a reknowned or even kind of well known expert, but a qualified expert. And it is utterly clear to me, on reading discussions between Carrier most of those historicists who respond to him, that most of those historicists have almost no idea how to understand an argument or respond relevantly to its premises or reasoning. You guys are out of your depth on this. I know that’s not a kind thing to say, and it’s practically impossible for me to prove it, but I’m just going to register it here. You may be right, but if you’re right, you guys are doing a seriously piss poor job of arguing for what you’re saying. Not just that your arguments aren’t convincing, but they’re _practically not even arguments_ in many cases. Just round-about ways to reassert.

            I was a Christian (super liberal, theologically weird, but still, a Christian) until very recently. Part of what tipped me over the edge was reading discussions between you (and some other historicists) and Carrier. Applying my expertise to the discussion, I realized holy shit, Carrier’s probably right. We’ve got no really good reason to think Jesus existed. The people who ought to be able to answer his arguments, _don’t even know how to argue_. I read Ehrman’s book, realized he doesn’t even know what a good argument _looks_ like, and gave up the ghost. The people who have been telling us we know Jesus existed turn out not to actually know how to reason about the question. What else am I supposed to conclude from this?

            If I’m being honest with myself, I have to realize that if it seems plausible to me Jesus didn’t exist, I really shouldn’t be calling myself a Christian.

          • MattB

            And what is the argument that historicists are arguing that is so “faulty”?

          • James F. McGrath

            Thanks for being so candid. I can’t tell who you are, and so I am pretty sure that no one else can. :-)

            It seems to me that Carrier’s logic can only be as strong as the evidence involved in making the historical case. And as long as he says things such as that Philo believed there was a celestial entity named Jesus, fails to explain why this supposedly celestial figure had an ordinary human name, fails to deal adequately with the actual language used when Paul refers to James as “the Lord’s brother” and what it most likely means in context, then I don’t see how a greater ability with logic in general, or the use of Bayesian reasoning more specifically, can make his case stronger.

          • Anonymous Coward

            Carrier makes a couple of different arguments about the
            Philo/Jesus thing, and I think one is weaker than the other, and people (including, unfortunately, Carrier!) often focus on the weaker one, whereas I think the stronger one should be emphasized.

            Here’s the weaker argument, if I can be permitted to lay it
            out step by step for clarity:

            Philo pointed to the character from Zech as an
            example describing the Logos (a celestial man)

            That character from Zech is named Jesus.

            If the character is named Jesus and Philo knew
            of the character, Philo probably knew it was named Jesus.

            So Philo probably knew it was named Jesus.

            The wider point this is supposed to contribute to is: If both Philo and Paul are saying similar things about a cosmically-significant figure named Jesus, and Philo and Paul are near contemporaries of closely related cultures, it’s a good bet that something in the cultural air was acting on both of them to bring about this effect.

            That’s the weaker argument, as I say, because premise 2 may not be true (The Zech passage could be read either way, at least,) and I think it’s conceivable that 3 is false as well, though that would be a _little_ surprising.

            Here’s what I consider to be the stronger argument. Bonus points accrue for this argument being more directly relevant to why the Philo stuff was brought up in the first place at all, as far as I can tell.

            Philo pointed to the character from Zech as an
            example describing a cosmically significant person.

            That character (regardless of whether Philo knew
            or cared about this) was named Jesus.

            The character also (regardless of whether Philo was
            thinking of this) fulfills messianic tropes.

            That Philo made this identification shows that
            Philo’s culture, time and place were, so to speak, “ripe” for making such an

            If that time and place and culture were “ripe”
            for making such an identification, then it’s not true that people of that culture, time and place would not have made such an identification.

            Therefore, it’s not true that it is particularly
            improbable that people of that culture, time and place could have conceived of things like cosmically-significant people name “Jesus” identifiable with messianic tropes etc.

            That conclusion isn’t meant to be that much of an argument for Carrier’s overall view as it is an _objection_ to certain arguments _against_ his view. (That’s a point that seems to be missed in the discussion.)

            I typed all the above from memory, not consulting things
            actually written, so if I got Carrier wrong on this that’s my fault.

            Concerning premise three, (which I don’t think Carrier even needs, btw, for his larger point, though it helps), I know I have read a lot of arguments about what Jewish people “would have” or “wouldn’t have” said about the Messiah, what counts as (what I called) a “messianic trope,” and so on. What I keep in mind, though, is how spotty and miniscule our knowledge about this is. We really aren’t in a place to know what they “would have” or “wouldn’t have” said just based on the textual or archaeological record. The fact that the experts themselves have widely varying views on this, and that there’s no consensus about this kind of question, is further evidence for the idea that we don’t really have enough information to say one way or the other.

            Concerning the “Brother of the Lord” stuff, I think that’s a
            weak point for historicists to hang their hat on. It’s not a clincher either way. Though it does remain an oddity that needs explaining on the mythicist picture, nevertheless if there is strong evidence for the mythicist picture outside the “brother of the lord” issue, and if the mythicist can offer a plausible enough explanation for this usage, then it’s not a _real_ problem for them. And of course as you can guess, I think both of those “if”s are discharged, and so I don’t think it’s a real problem for them. If the independent evidence for mythicism is strong enough,
            then it’s not really a problem for mythicism if this “brother of the lord” passage is a little surprising—so long as it’s not dumbfoundingly, gobsmackingly, that-can’t-even-be-possible surprising. It doesn’t seem like it is.

          • James F. McGrath

            I appreciate your taking the time to spell out what Carrier often pretends is as simple as “Philo says there was a celestial being named Jesus.” What your fuller expression of things raises is the issue of the core early Christian claim that Jesus (of Nazareth) was the Davidic anointed one, the one who was expected to restore the dynasty of David to the throne, who “came” and thus was not thought of as a purely celestial figure who “will come.”

            I’d be interested to know how you think the “brother of the Lord” issue can be shown to more probably favor mythicism rather than there having been a historical Jesus. It isn’t a peg to hang hats on, it is something to be understood within the context of the evidence as a whole, and mythicism seems to me to consistently deal in small purported proof-texts rather than the impression that the evidence as a whole consistently gives to historians and scholars who study it, except for Carrier, Price, and Brodie.

          • Anonymous Coward

            Out of curiosity, does Paul use language that indicates Jesus “came” (as opposed to is coming)? I don’t doubt it, but examples aren’t forthcoming to my brain.

            Concerning “brother of the Lord,” I don’t think it more probably favors mythicism, I think it’s a toss-up, maybe slightly in favor of historicism. The question I ask myself is, if mythicism were true, how surprising would this “brother of the Lord” language be? The answer is, not too surprising. Nonsiblings are said to be Jesus’s brothers elsewhere in Paul, and the other time the phrase “brother[s] of the Lord” appears, it doesn’t seem to be talking about siblings, at least, not clearly so. (But, well, it might be–as I said, this one seems like kind of a toss-up.)

            Something I haven’t seen anyone from either side mention is the fact that James “the brother of the Lord” seems to be mentioned in Galatians as _not_ an apostle, but if he were indeed a sibling and a believer, on historicism, shouldn’t he be an apostle? (Maybe not. What’s an apostle?) If he’s not, it would seem like the phrase “brother of the lord” is not meant to connote actual physical siblinghood but rather has some spiritual or titular significance. (Carrier thinks it’s just a way of saying what we might colloquially phrase today as “Brother James,” but I don’t really follow his reasoning there.)

            So again, to reiterate, the question is, how surprising would this phrase’s appearing be on the mythicist hypothesis? Not too surprising. There are plausible ways to understand it that don’t entail physical siblinghood.

            How surprising would it be on the historicist hypothesis? Again, not too surprising, of course. Though there are some aspects of the situation that make it _a little_ surprising on historicism. For example, it’s the only mention of James as brother of the Lord in the whole NT corpus IIRC. In fact James and John are said to be brothers elsewhere. Was John also Jesus’s sibling? Well anyway, these are small things. Overall the phrase isn’t too surprising at all, with some pretty minor caveats, on the historicist hypothesis.

            So, not too surprising on mythicism. Basically as expected on historicism. As I said, somewhere between a toss up and a little in favor of historicism.

          • James F. McGrath

            Where does Paul refer to people who are not literal siblings of Jesus as siblings of Jesus, as opposed to siblings IN Christ?

            If Paul had used the phrase “brothers of the Lord” to denote all Christians, then that would make the phrase as applied to James very odd, since it would not serve to single him out from Peter et. al. in any sense.

            For “came” used in reference to Christ, see Galatians 3:24, and also Galatians 4:4 which refers to the son having been “sent.”

          • Anonymous Coward

            Romans 8:29, and arguably Gal 4:31.

            1 Cor 9:5 is in dispute of course.

            I’ll also throw in, not as pauline, Heb 2:11, just to reiterate that the idea of christians as Christ’s brothers was certainly current in early Christianity. I know most people put Hebrews late, but I think it’s earlier than the destruction of the temple since it seems to presuppose the ongoing existence of the temple.

            Also note 2 Cor 9:3 and a couple of similar passages, where we can see the term “brothers” used to refer to specific people within the wider community. So saying someone is a “brother” doesn’t have to just mean they’re a Christian (which would indeed be a strange thing to say about James) but rather can, in context, refer to some special kind of status, if not an outright title.

            I want to be sure the reasoning I’m engaging in is kept clear. I am _not_ arguing that the James Brother of the Lord passage is a slam dunk. I am _only_ saying it’s not a particularly surprising passage on the mythicist hypothesis.

          • James F. McGrath

            Why not interpret Romans 8:29 in light of the way Paul and others use the metaphor of firstborn and firstfruits elsewhere in the New Testament, and understand it as a reference to the resurrection?

            2 Corinthians 8-9 is puzzling, but of course, one option Souter, Barrett, and Martin discuss is that the reference is to Titus and his unnamed brother. But otherwise, 9:3 refers to the brothers who were previously mentioned, and there is no hint that they were part of some special category denoted by the use of “the brothers,” since the latter phrase is used of Christians in general by Paul, and not a select group.

            But be that as it may, you are ignoring the actual construction used. “Brothers in the Lord” is not simply the same thing as “brothers of the Lord.” And the fact that the latter are distinguished from or among the former makes this clear in Paul’s epistles.

          • Anonymous Coward

            Concerning Romans 8:29, I don’t know what the importance is supposed to be of the fact that it’s a reference to the resurrection. You asked for cases where he uses the term “brother” to refer to Christians as brothers of Christ. Romans 8:29 is one such passage. What does it matter whether it refers to the resurrection or not?

            Concerning 2-Cor 8-9, absolutely, “brothers” here may refer to actual brothers of each other, and there are other possible explanations besides. This is beside the point. The question is whether the “James brother of the lord” passage is surprising on the mythicist hypothesis. One thing that makes it seem a little more surprising is the idea that James would be singled out like this if the phrase just meant “a Christian.” The 2 Cor 8-9 stuff, in turn, makes this a little _less_ surprising. Nothing here is a slam dunk. Nothing here is meant to be the thing that says “therefore it really definitely doesn’t mean sibling.” Rather, I’m pointing out facts which do actually make it more plausible that the phrase _might_ or _need_ not mean sibling.

            If we could establish with a great deal of certainty that “brothers” in 2 Cor: 8-9 definitely doesn’t mean “certain Christians” or something like that, this would reduce the force of this passage for making the mythicist reading of Galatians plausible. But we can’t establish that interpretation of 2 Cor: 8-9 with a great deal of certainty, can we?

            Concerning your last paragraph, to my knowledge I have not referred to any passage that says “brothers in the lord.” Have I? If not, then your last paragraph seems to be irrelevant unless I’ve misunderstood your reasoning.

          • James F. McGrath

            And so you are positing that, in Paul’s time, the phrase “brothers of the Lord” could denote Christians in general, but also a select group of Christians? I don’t see how that is supposed to have worked. Whereas even within groups that refer to everyone as “brothers,” it remains possible to still refer to one’s literal siblings. Could you perhaps elaborate on why you view the mythicist interpretation of these texts as unsurprising and unproblematic, discussing the details of the grammar of the texts and not just generalities?

          • Anonymous Coward

            ‘And so you are positing that, in Paul’s time, the phrase “brothers of the Lord” could denote Christians in general, but also a select group of Christians? I don’t see how that is supposed to have worked.’

            Your argument is that this is implausible because it couldn’t have worked. My reply will be to give an example of how a parallel linguistic conclusion does indeed work.

            “Scientists” denotes scientists in general. But if I say, in a letter to some scientists, “I knew you were having problems, that’s why I sent you the scientists to help out,” I’m using “the scientists” to refer to a specific group of scientists.

            Meanwhile, I might say in another context, “At the conference, I met Peter the administrator, and James the scientist,” and now scientist is being used to single out a particular person.

            So then, your argument that constructions like this “wouldn’t work” can be seen not to be true.

          • James F. McGrath

            That illustrates well why 2 Corinthians 8-9 is a bit awkward but not problematic. But I am talking about the issue you keep skirting with the appearances of “brother(s) of the Lord,” which are the equivalent of singling out “James the scientist” or “scientists” in contrast to Peter who is also a scientist.

          • Anonymous Coward

            In my example, Peter was called an administrator, but that doesn’t show that he wasn’t a scientist as well. They may both be scientists. And I might call Peter “the administrator” and James “the scientist” in the sense of “[just] the scientist [not an administrator]”

            This fits what’s going on in the Galatians passage, since Paul says “aside from apostles,” all he saw was James “the brother of the lord”.

            Lemme at this point reiterate the reasoning, as I’m wont to do. The “James brother of the lord” is not particularly surprising on the mythicist reading. But importantly, for the larger mythicist case, one can grant it’s even a little surprising. The whole case doesn’t hang on this Galatians passage unless it would be _practically impossible_ for this construction to appear on the mythicist hypothesis.

          • James F. McGrath

            But he doesn’t word it in a manner that is comparable to the example you are offering. He doesn’t say “Peter the apostle” and “James the Lord’s brother” – although even if he had said that, it would not fit the mythicist viewpoint unless you were able to provide evidence that “brother(s) of the Lord” was a way of referring to a different category of leader in this movement.

            It absolutely would be surprising if Paul wrote this way, if mythicism were true. But then so would his reference to Jesus as the anointed one, of the seed of David according to the flesh, and most of the other things he writes.

          • Anonymous Coward

            I have to admit it feels to me like you’re straining at gnats here–sure Paul doesn’t literally say “Peter the apostle” but he’s clearly communicating that thought. “Peter, and other than apostles, all I saw were…”

            As to your claim that I should provide evidence that “brothers of the lord” was a way of referring to a different category of leader, I’ve never made any such claim, and it’s not necessary (though it would help, you’re right) on a mythicist hypothesis. This seems to be another case (this keeps happening) where you don’t answer the arguments people actually make, but rather, arguments you imagine or wish they had made…. :/

            You said “it absolutely would be surprising if Paul wrote this way,” I have argued that “it’s not particularly surprising.” I’ve explained why it’s not particularly surprising, and you’ve offered objections which in each case I’ve effectively answered. (Any reader can go back and check for this.) At several points, you seemed to be offering objections that weren’t actually relevant to the reasoning. When that happened, I usually noted it down. It may be edifying for readers (or yourself) to review the conversation with that in mind. What’s most important to me, anyway, is that historicists _at least understand the arguments_ they think they’re answering.

            Anyway, I have even conceded this passage could be seen as “somewhat surprising,” and explained why even so, that’s not even close to fatal to the mythicist case overall.

            What it certainly is not is practically impossible on the mythicist hypothesis. It is within the realm of plausibility. That’s the claim I’ve argued for. It seems well-established to me. You disagree. I have a judgment as to which of us has done a better job of reasoning our way to our position, of course, but then so does everyone. My hope is that other readers who are in any sense “on the fence” about this might have a clear view about the quality of reasoning on both sides of the debate as well.

            I think that may have to be my final summary of our conversation. It’s been enjoyable, and I appreciate your generosity in continuing it, and I’ll be happy to have more of them, but in this particular thread of discussion, it looks like we’re both saying “we need to look at other evidence for mythicism, this isn’t going anywhere”.

          • Anonymous

            Like someone else pointed out, James was a common name and it could just be a way to distinguish him as the Christian one.

            Although this is from a laypersons’ blog, someone else made a decent case that a biological interpretation would be untenable given the family conditions of the time:


          • James F. McGrath

            I don’t see that that is a particularly cogent argument without knowing something more about the socioeconomic status of Jesus’ family, even if it were worded coherently. But as it stands, complaining that Jesus’ family of at least 6 siblings is unlikely because the average family size was 4-5.5 suggests that the author of that blog post does not understand what “average” means.

          • Anonymous

            That’s the first study, the second study says it would have been socioeconomically _impossible_ to have a family of nine (Jesus + 6 siblings + Mary and Joseph) when houses at the time only had the resources to support seven people.

          • James F. McGrath

            It doesn’t seem to me that you actually read Myers’ chapter. The immediate context problematizes the claim. The fact that she is talking about early Israel in the Iron age makes me wonder whether you think you are talking to someone very gullible.

          • Anonymous

            It seems pretty clear:

            “For the nuclear families…that were present in family compounds, a maximum of seven persons can be estimated, although that supposes a reproductive rate higher than what might in fact have existed…”

            That is, seven was not only too high but it might never have been reached because of the child/maternal mortality rates. The only way this could work is if they were actually two family compounds and the Jesus family used it for a single (which is not impossible but would have been very unlikely).

          • James F. McGrath

            Wouldn’t looking at life in the Roman era be more



            This may help you grasp the difficulties involved in trying to make estimates of this sort, and how dubious it is therefore to insist that the actual evidence is likely to be faulty because it doesn’t fit a modern attempt at estimation.


          • Anonymous

            I’m aware of the difficulties but it’s also the best evidence we have which is better than no evidence.

            Pastor comes up with the same 4-5 average figure for Israel and Curchin only cites figures for Pompeii in 1st century AD. Virtually all the sources are saying that it would have been either very unlikely or impossible for an Israeli family of nine to exist.

          • James F. McGrath

            Why do you consider evidence from a thousand years earlier to be the best evidence we have for the time of Jesus, given that there are other sources which address the relevant time period? And why do you completely ignore Pastor’s quite emphatic cautionary remark about what should be self-evident, namely the way averages obscure and are affected by the presence of families that were much larger or much smaller?

          • Anonymous

            Well first, the Pastor source was of the Roman era and it came away with the same conclusion (4-5 people average) as the other sources who said seven was theoretical limit.

            And second, you seem to be arguing that’s impossible to estimate whether something was rare just because the average is not completely certain.

            You can argue we don’t know the limit for the Roman era but you can’t dismiss any calcuation of probability just because we only have a rough idea of the average. Not only is it corraborated with other estimates but it’s the best we have. Given all this, why would argue for something extremely unlikely?

          • James F. McGrath

            You haven’t shown that it is unlikely. You have shown that Jesus’ family, as depicted, was larger than average. If you understand the nature of averages, you will expect to encounter examples of larger and smaller than average families. But even if I were to grant your dubious mathematical claims based on expert approximations of what was typical, how would it become more likely that there was no Jesus, as opposed to Mark having increased the size of Jesus’ family, whether through confusion, or in the interest of increasing his status, or for some other reason? You seem to prefer to make apologetic-style proof-text types of “arguments,” rather than actually discuss the subject and the evidence in detail in a more serious manner.

          • Anonymous

            Someone can double check me on this but if you run a normal distribution with an average of 4.5, the chances that you get a 9 is basically 1%. Or put another way, there’s about a 1% chance of there being a family of nine. So yes that would be very unlikely.

            What it shows is if the gospels were using the phrase biologically then they are unreliable on this issue (like you mentioned, they would be manipulating or mistaken on the information) and thus couldn’t be used. There’s no reason to suspect a metaphorical interpretation would have issues that problematic.

          • James F. McGrath

            You seem to be treating “unlikely” in the way evolution-deniers do. Something that is 1 in 100 is relatively unlikely, but you will still encounter it with that frequency, just as when winning a lottery is 1 in a million, there is a good chance that someone will win in a population significantly larger than that.

            If it helps you understand, the average family size in the United States at the moment is probably still around 2.58. But I am sure you know families that are significantly larger.

          • Anonymous Coward

            Anonymous, I think James is right here. I’m not sure why you’re pursuing this line of argument. If someone told me they had six siblings in America today, I wouldn’t even begin to doubt it. It would be _mildly_ surprising, but not at all implausible. That’s with an average number of kids of just 2.88. We know there were _some_ people with large families back then. Normal distributions aren’t really relevant here. That a person with a large family existed is not at all surprising, we know it was almost completely certainly true.

          • Anonymous

            To reply to both you and AC, I think it’s worth getting into the statistics of it. First there is a difference between common sense notions of significance and mathmatical significance. Yes most people probably do know some large families but most people also know thousands of people throughout their lives, it doesn’t change the fact that statistically, a 1% chance of being in such a family is considered very unlikely (especially when we need to historically verify something).

            When creationists use the “one in a billion” claim, it’s completely meaningless because there’s no reference (one in a billion chance of this as opposed to what?) Here the refrences are clear: a 99% chance of having a smaller family.

            Going back to the earlier point, if the averages stayed the same from the ancient to Roman periods, it’s likely because the causes (high infant mortality) stayed the same and thus so did the limit of seven per house.

          • Bruce Gerencser

            In the US, of the families that currently have children under the age of 18 at home, 14.6% of families have 3 children and 6.5% have 4 or more children. I can’t imagine why it would be less during Jesus’s time, especially since they didn’t have the birth control methods we have. (and I know there are a lot of other factors to consider)

          • Anonymous

            The difference is the limits on Israel were based on material limits (ie having enough to eat) and high infant mortality rates. The debate we’re having is whether the economic limits carried over from ancient Israel to the Roman period (the averages remained the same so I’m assuming the same limits remained given there were no other reproductive changes).

          • James F. McGrath

            And why are you assuming that all relevant factors remained the same from the Iron Age all the way down to the Roman period? You haven’t explained that yet.

          • Anonymous

            Generally speaking, GDP per capita stayed virtually the same throughout history until the Industrial Revolution (I can cite the major sources and debate over the issue if you want) so the underlying economics wouldn’t have changed.

            That doesn’t include things like reproductive changes but given that the average stayed the same It would be hard to argue that one occurred.

          • James F. McGrath

            From Families in the Roman and Late Antique World, in the introduction by editors Mary Harlow and Lena Larsson Lovén:

            “Scholars recognized early on that despite our best efforts in creating social norms in which to situate the Roman family, there was ‘no one size fits all’ model. Models remain models; they are useful tools to work with but even among the elite we have to recognize that families are made up of individuals who have not read our rule books. So, the Families of Beryl Rawson’s last edited volume is part of the way forward. We need to acknowledge the plurality and complexity of families – or households – in the past while retaining a pragmatic approach that sees these families existing in the social structures of the communities in which they lived.”

            You really seem to be clutching at straws here, presumably because you are trying to score apologetic-style points instead of taking the time to familiarize yourself with the scholarship in this area.

            See also Alexandria in Late Antiquity: Topography and Social Conflict by Christopher Haas for the contrasting estimated about another city. Cities tended to be more cramped than villages, of course, and that too needs to be taken into account in a way that you have failed to thus far.

          • James F. McGrath

            The limit of seven was referring specifically to a particular type of home in the Iron Age, and even in that context, it made clear that larger families and extended families may have inhabited more than one such structure around a common courtyard. I don’t see, unless you haven’t actually read what you linked to, how you can genuinely think it supports what you claim that it does.

          • Anonymous

            What the source said was that if they were single-family homes then the greatest material limit was seven (and that’s not taking into account any infant mortality rates). If they were two-family homes than the Jesus family apparently occupied a two-family home for a single family. The other source you cited for the Roman era had the same average figure. It would be odd to argue that the underlying limits changed when the numbers stayed the same.

            Anyways, if we assume that the gospels are describing a borderline impossibility (either a Jesus family bigger than what could be supported or a single-family occupying a two-family home) then the biological interpretation, even if true, is not historically reliable. The alternative is both more likely and doesn’t have any glaring problems if it was true.

          • James F. McGrath

            So do you treat the information provided by Josephus about Mattathias, the ancestor of the Hasmoneans, as describing a borderline impossibility? And if so, do you think that has any bearing on whether the Hasmoneans were historical?

          • Anonymous

            Could you explain the analogy for Mattathias here I don’t quite follow.

          • James F. McGrath

            It’s a family we happen to know a lot about. The children become leaders of the famous Maccabean revolt, but that was still in the future when Mattathias had his children, and so this wasn’t a royal family or something else that might be radically different from Jesus’ own family. Do you think that Josephus is wrong or unreliable in his details about the size of Mattathias’ immediate family, and if so, does that lead you to discount the historicity of the family itself?

          • Anonymous

            From what I can tell he had four children and was a priest which might have given him slightly higher status than average.

            Thus it would have been a family of 6 in an average of 4.5 which is less likely but not inconceivable given his religious status.

          • James F. McGrath

            The books of the Maccabees indicate 5-6 sons, which makes a family of 7-8, assuming he had no daughters – which is not an assumption one can safely make in a context in which daughters are often left unmentioned.

          • Anonymous

            The highest number I could find was 5, and without confirmation of daughter(s) I don’t think it’s fair to include them in. I’m less familiar with the socioeconomic status of preists in anciet Israel. But that aside, it would be the family right at the seven limit.

          • James F. McGrath

            Here is another study that might help you understand that an absolute limit of 7 imposed on the Roman era is arbitrary:

          • Anonymous

            Why is Zorn relevant to the question of limits? It says that best average is 4-5 just like everyone.

            In all this it’s worth remembering the 9 figure is the lowest possibility because two is the smallest plurality for the sisters.

          • James F. McGrath

            So basically it doesn’t matter how many studies I share with you that indicate that your proposed Iron Age limit does not fit the first century Roman context, you will keep going back go that study about an earlier millennium because you prefer something that would fit your conclusion, even if it is about the wrong time period, to numerous studies that are actually relevant?

            You still seem not to understand what average means. Are you by any chance from Lake Wobegone?

          • Anonymous

            You do realize I’ve already answered this: the limit stayed the same because contrary to the anachronism of a growing economy, in the ancient world it stayed the same as well (up until the industrial revolution).

            So yes, if all those studies aren’t able to break through your premise that somehow everything changed from the Iron Age to the Roman era then that is too bad.

          • James F. McGrath

            You haven’t even shown awareness of the evidence that house sizes in the Iron Age in Palestine varied more than the one study you keep harping on about, much less shown that that size limit remained for the subsequent thousand years. Either you haven’t read even the studies that have been linked to in our discussion, or you haven’t understood them, or you are pretending they support you and are hoping that someone will be fooled by that. I’m not sure how to tell which at this stage, but I am confident that no one reading this blog will be fooled. My only question, then, is whether you are managing to fool yourself.


          • Anonymous

            And you have not once responded to the fact that economics between Iron Age and Roman era Palestine have stayed the same.

            No one is saying house sizes didn’t vary but the _averages_ for all the periods did not. If the same 4-5 average existed when the limit was seven, and that economics stayed the same, then it means that the limit stayed the same.To put this in formal logic:

            1) If the same economics and reproductive rates then the limit is seven

            2) Conditions were the same for both Iron Age and Roman era

            3) Therefore: the limit was the same.

            Unless you’re denying the studies outright then they come to the same conlcusion.

          • James F. McGrath

            You must not have read the studies, then, apart from the one sentence which you think, taken out of context, supports your assertion. Why not try reading the ones that I linked to and then explaining why you have been ignoring the larger sizes of families mentioned in them.

          • Anonymous

            They do in fact seem to be saying that:

            Pastor: “Regarding this case, however, we would have to state that the indications are that families were small, i.e. four to five persons.”

            Zorn: “a consensus, based on premodern Middle Eastern populations, seems to be emerging that the most reliable figure shoud lie between 4 and 5.5.”

            Meyers: “For the nuclear families…that were present in family compounds, a maximum of seven persons can be estimated, although that supposes a reproductive rate higher than what might in fact have existed…”

          • James F. McGrath

            No one is denying that that was the average. You seem not to grasp that during the period when that was the average, we have evidence for families with seven children.

            But seriously, even if you refuse to read the studies I shared with you, what importance do you think this has for the matter at hand? If Mark decided to make Jesus one of seven children for symbolic reasons, perhaps recalling the mother with seven sons in 2 Maccabees or perhaps just liking that nice symbolic number, what bearing is that supposed to have on his historicity, as opposed to the factuality of this detail?

          • Anonymous

            Yes because _seven was the limit_ as Meyers said. We don’t have evidence of families of more and Jesus, at minimum, had nine (And I don’t appreciate being accused of not reading the studies since I clearly quoted them).

            It shows two things, either:

            A) Brothers/sisters of Jesus refers to a symbolic family because Jesus’s family size was impossible, or

            B) Mark got it wrong/changed it making him unreliable as a source for the heredity of James even if he did mean it biologically.

            While I think A) is much more likely (we don’t know that there were seven kids, we know that there were _at least_ seven because of undisclosed “sisters”) it clearly casts doubt for historicity.

          • James F. McGrath

            You are quote mining, which is not the same thing. You are ignoring the range of family sizes explicitly mentioned in studied linked to in this conversation. And you are also conflating accuracy of an author’s depiction on a particular detail with the question of the historicity of the figure. It is far more improbable that Alexander the Great was of divine parentage than that Jesus had six siblings (especially if, as tradition suggests, Mary was Joseph’s second wife). But that isn’t a valid argument against the historicity of Alexander.

          • Anonymous

            Like I said many times, the variation stops at seven. If you can cite some literature proving that Palestine’s economic conditions changed from the Iron Age to Rome and allowed for more children then I’m all for it.

            And it’s not going against the historicity per se, it’s one detail (heredity of James) which as many have pointed out, is probably the best evidence in favor of historicity. Obviously one bit of evidence alone isn’t going to prove the alternative.

          • James F. McGrath

            There are examples from around the Mediterranean. Cinna, mentioned in one of Martial’s epigrams, had seven children. So did Antony, according to Plutarch. So did Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus. Pliny says that Egypt was so populous because Egyptian women sometimes gave birth to seven children at once. There is a relief of Djedhor and his daughters.

            A History of Women in the West notes that average lifespans in ancient Rome were sufficient to allow a woman to have at least seven children, although many died before doing so.

            “Children – families of the premodern period reared large numbers of children, but household size was not very large because childbearing extended over a long span of years.”


            (Royal figures like Amyntas III of Macedon are irrelevant for these purposes, but King Jehoram is perhaps worth mentioning, given where he lived?)

          • Anonymous

            I’d say the reference class is people living in average houses/dwellings in Israel (which excludes all elites like royals and generals etc.), for instance the average in Pompeii was 7-8 but the conditions were clearly not the same as in Israel. Jesus’s family would have either been average or poorer.

            But the more important question is the economy in general. For instance, according to Maddison’s historical GDP per capita dataset, although it doesn’t have Israel, has estimates for Egypt and other Middle East and they stayed virtually the same or declined for 2000 years.

            It’s pretty clear the idea that a poor to average family of 9+ people could have sustained themselves is grasping at straws; clearly the symbolic interpretation of Jesus’s family makes more sense.

          • James F. McGrath

            You are using the assumption that Jesus’ family would have been average or poorer, to argue against his having existed? Can you really not see the problems with that?

            I take it you are not familiar with the socio-economic changes that followed Iron I, which make the use of proto-Israelite settlements a precarious basis for deciding what was typical in the Greco-Roman era? Can I assume that you are also unaware of the opportunities for a tekton and his family in nearby Sepphoris in precisely this period?

          • Anonymous

            So now you’re saying there were economic changes from the Iron Age to Roman era and that Joseph was well off as a carpenter?

            To the first point, it’s not mentioned in the settlement studies, the average family size stayed the same, and virtually all the social sciences say that the economy stayed the same until the Industrial Revolution.

            For the second point, that’s pure speculation. We know from the NT that the Jesus family had at least 9 people, we don’t know that Joseph did above average as a tekton.

            It seems much easier to argue that the “brothers” and “sisters” were symbolic.

          • James F. McGrath

            I don’t have a problem with either view. What I have a problem with is the dubious attempt to ignore the differences between the early Iron Age proto-Israelite settlements and the Roman era, to insist that someone could not have had an above-average sized family in a way that misunderstands what average means, and the suggestion that, if this detail turned out to be unhistorical or only partially accurate, it somehow leads naturally to the view that there was no historical Jesus of Nazareth.

          • Anonymous

            First I never said it’s impossible to have higher than average, I said it was impossible to have higher than seven, and second, the differences weren’t enough to change the first fact.

            And no, by itself, this detail does not disprove Jesus’s existance it shows that the language of “brothers/sisters” was symbolic (or, much less likely, that it was biological and that the gospels can’t be used for any kind of heredity claims).

            Basically it just leaves non-James evidence as the only evidence for historicity.

          • James F. McGrath

            That is hardly an accurate depiction of things. We have clear instances of families with seven children. Whether they were exceptional or rare is irrelevant, if we know that there were such families.

            Your suggestion that this makes non-James evidence the only evidence for historicity is simply false. If Mark invented additional family members because he lacked additional details, that doesn’t make either James or Jesus unhistorical because he did so. Indeed, Mark’s Gospel is clear evidence that the early Christians thought that their beliefs were centered on a historical individual, Jesus of Nazareth.

          • Anonymous

            Yes it is relevant because all the accounts point to Joseph being socioeconomically average and we know that for average families that was impossible.

            Why would he make up additional family members?Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus addresses large crowds of people who are made his “brothers” but clearly they aren’t biological.

            It’s clear that the gospels meant a symbolic family.

          • James F. McGrath

            Which accounts point to Joseph being socioeconomically average?

            The place where the Gospels make those who follow Jesus’ teaching his brothers and mother, it is in contrast to his biological mother and brothers. And so the emphasis on symbolic family is directly connected to mention of literal family.

          • Anonymous

            His profession as a carpenter would by default put him as average, there certainty isn’t evidence of him being wealthy like the other elite families you mentioned.

            But then what would be the point of already having an impossibly large biological family?

            You have to at least admit that there is a _greater_ possibility for the other interpretation, given the improbability and extra assumptions you need for this one.

          • James F. McGrath

            Moreover, Meyers is talking specifically about Iron I, before the transition to the monarchy and statehood and the emergence of Israel as a coherent entity. And so insisting that estimates based on remains from that period not only are certain, but apply to the Roman era, makes no sense if you know anything about the history of the region at all.

          • arcseconds

            The summary of this comment ended at ‘transition’, and I’m kinda disappointed to discover that this isn’t, in fact, about some point in the Earth’s ancient past when the environment was very reducing and Iron was generally in the first oxidation state…

          • arcseconds

            A normal distribution is characterized by both the mean and the variance (or, equivalently, standard deviation). If you only know the mean, you can’t say anything about how likely any particular value is.

            To give a couple of absurd examples with a mean of 4.5:

            *) standard devation = 0.1 -> chances of having a family of 5 people or more is of the order of 1:100 000 (i.e. pretty tiny)

            *) standard deviation = 5 -> chances of having a family of 10 people or more ≈ 15% (i.e. quite good).

            Do you know the standard deviation for families in 1st century palestine?

            Also, I’m wondering whether the normal distribution is really a good model for family sizes. Obviously one cannot have families with less than 0 children, so there’s kind of a wall there, but I would expect a distribution with a long tail – like a log normal distribution, maybe.

            If it’s log normal, than the mean will not correspond with the mode (the ‘peak’ of the distribution) but rather be into the tail some ways, and values further out from the mean will not fall away quite so precipitously from the mean as they would in a normal distribution.

          • Anonymous Coward

            “Could you perhaps elaborate on why you view the mythicist interpretation of these texts as unsurprising and unproblematic, discussing the details of the grammar of the texts and not just generalities?”

            The details of the grammar of the text do not appear relevant to me. This is where you come in, as an expert, to educate me! How are the grammatical details relevant here? You’ve gestured towards an in/of distinction, but I haven’t talked about any passages using the “in” construction so I don’t see how that’s relevant. Did you have something else in mind?

          • MattB

            Hello Anonymous,

            Mythicists would have to show that “brothers of the Lord” was not referring to James but a Christian group within Christianity, but even if they could that still wouldn’t prove what the mythicist want to argue. Suppose that the “Brothers of the Lord” was a group within early Christianity, then that would at best show that James had a real “brother” named Jesus that was a leader of that group. However, the text shows that James was a blood relative to Jesus and not the alternative that Mythicists propose.

          • Anonymous Coward

            You’re wrong about what mythicists would have to show. What they would have to show is that the presence of “James brother of the lord” is unsurprising enough in this passage to not be able to swamp whatever other evidence the mythicists have for their position.

          • James F. McGrath

            What “other evidence” do you have in mind? Mythicism is almost entirely about finding ways to interpret evidence in ways that most scholars find persuasive, including arguing that some later texts and movements more closely reflect the original form of Christianity than our earliest sources. But one really needs to take seriously the fact that there is no evidence which simply leads naturally to the conclusion that mythicism is more probable.

          • anonymous coward

            When you ask “what ‘other evidence’ do you have in mind,” do you mean that as a rhetorical question, implying that as far as you know, they don’t offer any other evidence? I need to know how to understand your meaning here before I can reply.

          • James F. McGrath

            I am asking you what you think constitutes positive evidence for the total ahistoricity of Jesus of Nazareth, rather than merely being something which mythicists have sought to reinterpret in a manner that allegedly makes it compatible with mythicism.

          • Anonymous Coward

            For me what seems more likely on mythicism than historicism is the content of Paul’s letters taken as a whole.

            That’s actually the main thing for me. To this, somewhat more weakly but still in the positive direction, I add the texts of Hebrews, I Peter, James, and I Clement. What these texts say seems more surprising on historicism than on mythicism, though problems with dating each of these makes it not completely clear what implications to draw from them. (Yet–even if they are all quite late, that makes it probably only _all the more_ surprising how they talk about Jesus.)

            Also counting as positive evidence is a bunch of the stuff about the cultural and intellectual background in and around the relevant decades, pagan and jewish. That I count as positive evidence in the sense that it makes mythicism less surprising than it might have seemed otherwise.

            This isn’t the place for me to lay out an entire detailed case, but in very broad outline, those are the main categories of evidence that seem to me to count positively toward mythicism.

          • James F. McGrath

            Well, if you want to reject the entirety of mainstream secular historical scholarship on this matter, then laying out your case in detail would seem the bare minimum place to start. The epistles you refer to can only be made to seem to support mythicism if you read into them things they do not say – that Jesus was of the heavenly seed of the heavenly David according to the heavenly flesh, that he suffered outside the heavenly city, and was buried in heavenly ground. But one can make anyone and anything seem to support any sort of mythicism if one adopts that approach. Try it and see.

          • Anonymous Coward

            Mainstream secular historical scholarship hasn’t dealt with this matter. Even the books written decades ago which have been pointed to by recent scholars as settling the question turn out, in almost every case, to explicitly say _they_ won’t really deal with the question because it’s silly, or whatever. Everyone punts the ball, basically.

            In very recent times, some mainstream secular historians have begun engaging with mythicism informally. Still no _scholarship_ has been done on the question. So it cannot be claimed mainstream scholarship has in any sense “reached” (my summary of others’ words) a consensus. They may have a consensus, but there is no record of them having “reached” it. They just start from there.

            Since my case laid out in detail would be basically a subset of Carrier’s, I’m just waiting to see how you and others respond to his book to see how you would criticize my own reasoning.

          • James F. McGrath

            That is the equivalent of saying that no scientific journal article demonstrates biological evolution, because each of them only deals with some small piece. There is no argument for the historicity of any ancient figure, other than the sum of the analyses of the various pieces of evidence and assessments of the authenticity and accuracy of references to them in texts.

            That said, there have been works like Jackson’s and Goguel’s even very long ago indeed, which address the ensemble question. Of course, since they wrote, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered which makes the placement of Jesus and the movement focused on him in a Jewish context much more certain, and thus undermines some of the older ahistoricity arguments to the satisfaction of scholars and historians.


            Goguel’s perspective, of course, is not exactly secular.


          • Anonymous Coward

            “That is the equivalent of saying that no scientific journal article demonstrates biological evolution, because each of them only deals with some small piece.”

            Are you contending that there is no scholarly work in a relevant field that makes the case for biological evolution?

            Evolution is a starting point in the reasoning of contemporary research, as historicity is in historical research. But evolution’s warrantedness as a starting point is well-established. There’s actual work you can go back and cite that takes on the question in a scholarly context and makes the case that establishes evolution by natural selection as a fact. There has been no need for more recent work on this because no evidence has come up which may seem to put it into question.

            Historicity, however, is not warranted as a starting point, because it turns out no one ever went and established it in the first place. I mean, a few people tried of course, but that work does not take into account further developments in the field which _do_ cast doubt on those works’ conclusions (not that, in many cases, they were particularly well established conclusions in the first place).

          • James F. McGrath

            The conclusions biologists draw about biological evolution are the result of an enormous number of studies of specific details, few of which, taken on their own, demonstrates the full evolutionary picture. And hence it is the tactic of denialists to take each detail in turn and insist that it has not demonstrated evolution, while ignoring the big picture of how the various pieces of evidence fit together. The historicity of an individual can only be determined by studying the specific evidence for their having said and done things. And if you are claiming that historians and other scholars have not done so, then you must not have done even a basic bibliographical search, never mind having actually read some of the relevant studies. Historians have been going over the evidence for Jesus with a fine-toothed comb for a very long time now.

          • Andrew Dowling

            Yep, the tone and language is very similar to what you’d find among those denying climate change, evolution, vaccinations etc. The “lone prophets of truth among crushing forces of traditional power structures.” As I’ve said before, one of the worst aspects of the Internet is that it’s allowed such communities to grow because they can just constantly feed each the BS inside their constructed bubbles and reenforce the mindlessness.

          • Randy Wanat

            “Actual facts” as in the data as they are. The facts themselves, rather than facts and interpretation.

      • Ian

        Indeed. Though I think you’re talking about the ‘debunking’ toolbox of skepticism rather than just being skeptical.

        I think that is because whatever happens is really, really unlikely. No matter what it is. Any event is mind boggling unlikely compared to all the other possibilities. So inevitably things won’t quite line up, there’ll be holes, inconsistencies, oddities. Plenty of things to point at and say “yeah, if this was real, there’s no way you’d expect to see that.” And you’re right, there’s simply no way you’d expect to see reality.

        So the approach of debunking something by pointing out its inconsistencies and unlikelihoods is dangerous, if you can’t properly establish the set of possible things that could have happened.

  • Bruce Gerencser

    It seems Richard Carrier in incapable of not being a dick. His treatment of those he disagrees with is very much like what I saw from fundamentalist preachers.

    While I may not agree with all of your conclusions, I do respect you and the work you do. Besides, you are a nice guy. :)

    Love the video!

  • Doug

    While I’d be broadly in agreement with the points you and PZ are making about evidence vs attitude, I’m not sure that “rejecting mainstream science” is on its own a sufficient way of conceptualising the difference. Arguably Galileo, Einstein and Bohr are examples of rejecting key aspects of the mainstream science of their day. Or, again, one of the reasons some people were sceptical (I’m English and I refuse to spell it with a “k”) about early Big Bang theories was less to do with evidence and more to do with an anxiety about mainstream scientific truth seeing to cohere with religious myths. So there’s a balance between evidence and questioning attitudes which shifts around a bit.

    • James F. McGrath

      I suppose it needs to be clearer that “rejecting mainstream science” does not mean “doing research to provide evidence which may one day convince one’s peers that they are wrong.” All scholars do that, although few of us end up actually overturning a consensus, and that’s as it should be, since otherwise it would mean that consensuses are wrong more often than they are right. By “rejecting mainstream science/scholarship” I mean calling most experts kooks, and insisting that you and those who agree with you are right, even though you cannot persuade the vast majority of experts that you are.

      • MattB

        Dr.McGrath, I am very disgusted by Richard Carrier’s comments on the defenders of historicity(Everybody). I posted a comment on there under the psuedonym “M-Source”. My comment however is still awaiting moderation though.

  • Ian

    Apparently I retracted all substantive criticisms of Proving History. I wasn’t aware of that. It’s good to know.

    Any suggestions for a one line summary of Carrier’s arguments in the style of his list?

    • Enopoletus Harding

      Bah! Ignore this comment of mine. Should have read further.

    • Anonymous Coward

      That was my judgment on reading the discussion between you and Richard as well. You were worried that he was misusing Bayes, and in the discussion you guys had, he convinced you that he wasn’t really misusing it, and that you’d misunderstood how he was using it. That was the _substantive_ criticism you had, and you retracted it.

      • Ian

        My substantive criticism of using Bayes Theorem in history is that it is a PR move designed to make it look like you are being rigorous when in fact you are just reasoning informally. As such it is somewhat of a silencing tactic, particularly in the humanities where math-phobia can probably be anticipated among your intellectual opponents. Much as William Lane Craig does to ‘prove’ the resurrection when talking to Bart Ehrman.

        Carrier certainly reassured me he wasn’t trying to use BT in the most egregious black-box way (though the book still comes across that way), and suggested that he was using it more informally (the book certainly doesn’t come across that way). But he certainly didn’t address the issue of actually determining what the error margins on the calculations he could make were, nor what actual data he was using to make calculations, nor therefore, whether the probability you derive from performing the calculations are more accurate than the probabilities you’d get from estimating.

        As such, I still think the main criticism stands: it is a book arguing for rigour using a technique that is formally correct but without any rigour or formal discussion of its applicability. At best I agreed to shelve my concerns pending his second volume applying BT to the historical Jesus. We’ll see then whether he can do the error analyses necessary to determine whether his conclusions are useful. I still struggle to conceive in principle how one would.

        • Ian

          I guess a way to illustrate my unresolved criticism is that, in Proving history, I don’t recall any worked example of using BT to confirm or exclude any historical hypothesis involving Bayesian interpretation of probability. He gives numbers for examples that are obviously frequentist, and makes narrative arguments on the rest.

          He suggests he’s found a solution to the interpretation problem so that the latter implies the former. But it is telling that his ‘solution’ has neither been adopted, nor even published, in the very active probability literature, whose scholars have been wrestling with this issue for decades!

          So, I am prepared to withdraw my criticism in the face of his assertions that he is concerned more with the narrative bigger picture, or specific frequentist cases, in archaeological interpretation, say. But in that case I wonder why use BT at all, except for the ‘scare’ power of quoting math to humanities scholars.

          • Anonymous Coward

            I agree that it’s weird what he says and does about solving the interpretation problem. But I also really don’t see why it’s important for what he’s trying to do in the book. Can you help me out with that?

            It seems to me he’s using BT in much the same way that I occasionally advocate getting people to use formal rules of logic. I do it just to help them see how to get clear on what they’re saying and how they’re arguing. I don’t expect anyone to become a logician. It’s just a basic tool for thinking about how you’re thinking.

          • Ian

            It’s a good point. But I feel there is a kind of cake-and-eat-it at work here. I can’t shake the feeling.

            That, used in the most general way, to support intuitions, to merely tell if some of your intuitions are egregiously inconsistent, probabilistic reasoning is useful. So yes, at that stage why not BT?

            But, a) why BT then, rather than a range of probabilistic identities. BT isn’t the basis of all probabilistic reasoning, it is a simple identity showing how to invert conditional probability. Why not write a book on probabilistic reasoning generally, rather than making out like BT is some panacea.

            b) why use that particular form of BT, as if it were ‘the one’, without discussing the underlying thing BT is doing, and ways to make form other similar identities more suitable for a range of other intuitions?, and

            c) why does this require a book, called ‘proving history’ where he seems to be arguing (quite explicitly in places) that this is somehow a rigorous basis on which to do history?

            See why I think there’s a bait and switch? If it is just another reasoning tool, as can be claimed (and is claimed to dismiss my concerns) then okay, I agree, we should all be better at probabilistic reasoning. But it sure looks like he wants to make more of it than that.

            And by not taking seriously the fact that BT can lead to very bad and tendentious conclusions for a large group of inputs (as I demonstrate in my error post), he absolves himself of having to figure out whether the general way he’s using it is likely to be in the problematic zone.

            It is pretty easy to atomize my concerns away, but I can’t help but feel, if you do, you atomize away the reasons he appears to have for doing this work. Let’s not be naive about his overall intellectual program here.

            He’s interested in applying BT to cases with Bayesian interpretations at low probability, questions around the historical processes that gave us the New Testament. The exact situations it is basically useless for. That he only gives worked examples from other situations, so can claim that his examples are all fine, does not help his case, IMHO.

            So I still think he’s either right in his use of BT and moot, or addressing interesting questions in an inappropriate way.

            But, we’ll have to see what he argues for in detail in his new book.

          • Anonymous Coward

            “And by not taking seriously the fact that BT can lead to very bad and tendentious conclusions for a large group of inputs (as I demonstrate in my error post), he absolves himself of having to figure out whether the general way he’s using it is likely to be in the problematic zone.”

            In the post you mention, you say, “This is a problem because, almost by definition, when dealing with events such as the founding of major religions, or the possibility of a human being having a divine parent, or the likelihood of a resurrection, we’re dealing with insanely small probabilities. ”

            But Carrier dismisses out of hand (or anyway, assigns to miniscule prior probabilities and discusses no further) hypotheses like “Jesus was resurrected” or “Jesus had a divine parent.” Those aren’t questions he’s interested in exploring. As to the founding of a major religion, I am not sure what to say as that item on your list of three isn’t a proposition we can assign a probability to! What very low probability propositions are you thinking of associated with the founding of any major religion?

            As your three lettered questions:

            a) So as not to hold all of probabilistic reasoning as a hammer over the head of mathphobes. Instead give them a single fairly simple but pretty robust tool, while also making sure to explain the limits of its proper use.

            b) I don’t have PH here with me but I am almost certain he doesn’t hold out his form as “the one” but instead explains (whether in a footnote or in the body of the text I don’t recall) that it’s one form out of more than one, and why he chose this one. Sorry no way to cite right now. Here’s a question though–is the form he uses somehow mathematically non-equivalent to the form you’d prefer he used? If not, why prefer a form? If so, how is it distinct and why does it matter? (Not asked rhetorically.)

            c) I think Carrier does think it’s a rigorous basis on which to do history. I’m still not really clear as to why you think it’s not. Your concern about very low probability events takes us out of the realm of history and into the realm of theology. Did you have other concerns in mind?(From my own standpoint as an intelligent outsider, I’m so far sympathetic with Carriers claim that it’s a rigorous basis from which to reason about just about anything, albeit more or less “weildy” than needs be in some cases. But sympathetic != totally on board, in this case. I’m looking to see the worries clarified by the people who disagree with him.)

            His historicity book is available now, I just got my copy yesterday. About a hundred and fifty pages in and in fact he’s hardly mentioned Bayes. That comes towards the end, I think, as he synthesizes all the info he’s going over.

            Are you getting the book?

          • Ian

            Are you getting the book?

            I thought I had it on pre-order, so was expecting it to magically arrive! Thanks for the reminder.

            b) Yes, it is equivalent. But is more complex, it takes the P(E) term in the denominator and replaces it by an expression that calculates P(E) from other probabilities. Whenever you do this you compound the errors, because you add new terms (with their own errors), and you multiply the errors together. This is only sensible if you can give a good reason for being able to estimate these new terms to a significantly higher accuracy than the original term you replaced. Using BT in real situations we may need to replace other terms instead if they are difficult to find accurately, but can be replaced by others that are more accurately observable. Better to start off understanding what BT is doing and how, then those concerns become simpler to manage. I think that Carrier’s preferred version of BT is very tendentious when dealing with Bayesian probabilities*, because it effectively hides the fact that you have to calculate the probability of the evidence. So not formally incorrect, but reinforces the concern I have that this is more about obfuscation than clarity.

            c) I do not, because I’ve not seen anyone do it in a way that is rigorous to the probability theory and enlightening to the history. And when I think about how you might do that, I can’t get past the fact that the probabilities involved are such functions of intuition, and so reliant on the quality of those historical intuitions, that i struggle to imagine a situation in which it is BT that tells you something useful. An argument to incredulity that I’m very willing to concede if shown otherwise. But putting forward a numerical frequentist case study, and a handwaving Bayesian narration isn’t using BT for anything other than its rhetorical effect, imho.

            * By Bayesian probability, I mean probabilities which rely on Bayesian interpretation to model the real-world concerns they claim to measure.

          • Anonymous Coward

            Well I shouldn’t prejudice you but I think given what you said above you probably won’t be satisfied with how Carrier deploys BT in the book. But I think you _should_ be satisfied with it 😉 because I really do think you’re ascribing to Carrier intentions in using it that he doesn’t have and has never claimed. He’s using it just to help show what peoples’ premises really commit them to, in hopes that the conversation will shift into a more sensible discussion of those premises. In that sense, BT, even when used about something fuzzy and intuitive, _does_ tell you something useful–it tells you what your fuzzy intuitions really commit to you, and how strongly. That’s far from nothing! It’s actually something people need to know how to think more clearly about. BT helps with this.

            Don’t let me mislead you into thinking I’m saying Carrier himself simply uses fuzzy intuitions in assigning his probabilities. For each he gives a pretty thorough justification for the range of values he allows for that probability. (He does the math, in the end, on two different sets of probabilities, the ones he thinks are the right probabilities, and the ones he thinks it’s barely reasonable to allow for (that a forteriori stuff)). And that’s _exactly his point_ on my reading of him–namely, that the reason to use BT is exactly to understand where your “burden of proof” is and what your judgments actually commit to.

            But given the width of the ranges and the general use of just multiples of ten percent to estimate confidence etc, I am afraid it will not be the kind of thing you’re hoping for.

          • Anonymous Coward

            Like, let me tell you something I’ve been toying with doing in my critical thinking class–giving my students a modified version of BT that just works on five values, 0-4, that signify really coarse grained levels of confidence from practically certain it’s false to practically certain it’s true. If (as I’m hoping but don’t know) the formula turns out simple enough for use even by math phobes, I’d demonstrate for them how this modified formula can be used to reason through things. And it could be used to do so very well! You don’t need precision to reason well, you just need rigor.

            Which is something I meant to note in my prior post–I am afraid that people are confusing the concepts of precision and rigor. Is it possible that this is happening in your case? That when you see lack of precision in Carrier’s studies as you read the book, you’re going to mistake this for a lack of rigor?

            If so, let me re-emphasize: It is perfectly sound to reason about imprecise things using rigorous methods, and to have confidence in the results (where that confidence level itself of course must take the imprecision into account, but then that’s just part of the rigor).

            If you’re objecting to the lack of precision, I think your objection is off target.

          • Anonymous Coward

            Sorry for the third post but I meant to also say I do not really feel okay making a judgment right now about whether there’s anything wrong rhetorically with the form he uses, I will need to see the subsequent discussion by knowledgeable readers first……

          • Ian

            Thank you for the discussion, and for the encouragement to give it a good fair go. I’ll read the book.

            I’m not updating the blog any more, because of other commitments, but I will put on record what I thought of the second book, when I’ve read it.

            The ‘a fortiori’ stuff is a welcome gesture towards dealing with error, but unfortunately the way he does this can cancel out the errors, rather than propagate it. Again, more on that on my reviews. So I think it is a good initial step, but there is a massive literature around probabilistic error, that he could do with at least being aware of.

            it tells you what your fuzzy intuitions really commit to you, and how strongly

            I’m not sure it does. At least can you give an example of something that isn’t a toy problem, where a novel, verifiable conclusion was drawn?

            Again, it is something that we can discuss over and again, but I want to see a demonstration of how this could work, that is actually verifiable. Applying it to your pet theory and finding you were right all along, when your opponents are all propping up impossible claims (which is how BT advocates like Carrier and William Lane Craig use it) isn’t very convincing to me.

          • Anonymous Coward

            I’ll try to come up with something but regarding your very last point, I am not aware of Carrier _ever_ having used BT to argue against claims like “Jesus rose from the dead” or “Jesus performed miracles” or anything like that. He’s not using BT to argue against impossible claims. Rather, he’s using it to argue against very well-established claims which most NT scholars think are so plausible as to be practically certain, such as “There was a man named Jesus causally responsible for the origin of Christianity,” and “Paul knew about a historical Jesus,” and things like that.

          • Ian

            Right, but they are still conclusions that a) show he is right (he is primarily a skeptic of historicism, at least that’s what he is basing his punditry on at the moment), b) are not verifiable either way.

            So like WLC, what he pulls out of his dealings with BT are both unverifiable and what he believed anyway. For the reasons I’ve detailed, I do not think this is a lucky coincidence.

          • Anonymous Coward

            Well, you can believe him or not but his claim is that he believed Jesus probably existed until he had occasion to think super-carefully about the evidence. Since he thinks that thinking super-carefully about the evidence is just thinking in good BT form, it would seem the idea isn’t that he can use BT to prove he was right all along, but rather, that HE used BT (at least, informal approximations of it) to discover where the evidence turns out actually to lead, and now he’s showing us (more exactly) how BT (more formally applied) bears that out.

            As to unverifiability, he makes the point that it could easily be that careful application of BT on all the evidence we actually have will lead to the view that it’s really an undecideable question. The evidence doesn’t look that way to him right now, but by using BT and laying out the evidence, he’s inviting others to reply, and he imagines the outcome could be that it turns out it’s all undecideable. I’m sure given his predilections “We have no way of knowing whether Jesus existed” is just as happy an outcome as “Jesus probably didn’t exist,” but the great thing about logic (including BT) is that even if I’m using it to “prove” things I “already believed” or “am happy to believe” anyway, the fact that I proved it using logic shows everyone else exactly the strategy they can use to rebut my claim. Maybe I’ll never change my mind, but by laying out my reasoning using logic, I make it possible for others to see whether they should change _their_ minds or not.

            Carrier makes basically this point in so many words throughout Proving History and once in the intro (I think it was) to Historicity.

            All that said, I think you’re more concerned about who’s motivated to say what than I really am. That’s not a criticism, just a remark that we may in some ways be talking across each other. I want to know if he’s right. I don’t really care what he _wants_ to be true. I am more interested in what _is_ true, and whether he’s making good arguments in that regard. They look pretty good to me, but there may be subteties about BT I’m failing to understand here.

            Meanwhile, I think you’re interested in that, but ALSO interested in what kind of character Carrier is displaying, or something. I can’t see anything wrong with that, it’s just not what I’m interested in.

          • Ian

            Thank you, the response is good, and I appreciate again your desire to go through this in detail.

            In terms of verifiability, I wasn’t specifically talking about this issue. I was saying that I’d like to see a case study using BT in a Bayesian sense (how likely is it that something happened, rather than what proportion of times does this thing happen), on complex situations, where there are lots of hidden assumptions, confounding conditionals, and there is no obvious way to assign probabilities to most of the variables. Where the result of that case study is verifiable new information. I.e. a test whether the method works. It wouldn’t have to be about Jesus. Carrier has the same insight that such a demonstration is necessary, I think, but the examples he gives in PH are fairly simple and frequentist. So pending such an example, I can’t get past my skepticism that using BT in this way does anything beyond reflecting your biases. That’s what I meant.

            I think your points are well made, but you were right, I think there was an element of talking past each other. That moment when you can agree with specifics but not agree with the conclusion :)

          • Anonymous Coward

            I’ve appreciated this discussion as well. I look forward to reading your future comments on the book.

          • Andrew Dowling

            “So like WLC, what he pulls out of his dealings with BT are both
            unverifiable and what he believed anyway. For the reasons I’ve detailed,
            I do not think this is a lucky coincidence.”

            Bingo, Funny how that works out, huh?

          • Anonymous Coward

            I just don’t see how this is a particularly interesting or informative point to make.

            “X was biased towards thinking Y, hence we can dismiss X’s argument that Y,” is a clearly bad argument. But it _seems_ to be the kind of argument you’re engaging in.

            If it’s _not_ the kind of argument you’re engaging in, then I don’t understand the point of pointing out Carrier’s or WLC’s bias.

        • Anonymous Coward

          I wouldn’t have called that a “substantive criticism” because it’s a criticism of style rather than of the content of an argument, so when I talked about substantive arguments above I probably wasn’t making myself clear (as it turns out we have different ideas of the meaning of the phrase). Apologies for that… 😉

          There’s a bit of PR to the whole Bayes thing, absolutely. The guy even sells coffee mugs with the thing printed on them. But I think it’s more because he’s a fan of a reasonably simple reasoning technique he’s discovered he can teach successfully to undergrads and which he thinks he can use to help people improve themselves. (At this point people are wondering whether I’m Richard Carrier. 😉 I’m not, I’m just reading this out of things I’ve seen him say here and there.) He’s evangelizing, in a sense.

          But I have no idea where you’re getting the idea that he’s using Bayes as a hammer to hit mathphobes with. As an educator (specifically focused on Critical Thinking, teaching to non-traditional students without much academic background) I felt I was clearly picking up, throughout the book, on Carrier’s attempts to make sure his use of Bayes was _intelligible_ and _empowering_ to people not used to thinking that way. To really make an argument here I’d have to cite passages and I can’t do that right now, but I just want to register how surprised I am to hear you (still!) saying the things you’re saying about the way he talks about Bayes.

          As to a false sense of precision, again, as I was reading it (this was before I’d ever read anything you or anyone else wrote about it) I was very specifically pleased to see that he was careful _not_ to do that. I mean, recall he even tells the reader how to just translate more or less impressionistic feelings about probability into multiples of ten in terms of probability percentages, and is careful to explain that those impressionistic feelings don’t establish anything, they just give you a way to understand taht if you _are_ committed to feeling that way, then (by Bayes) you’re also committed (whether you knew it or not) to believing certain _other_ probability statements. There’s no false precision here. Instead, there’s explicit, careful recognition of the lack of precision and the limits that attend thereon.

          My computer has crashed while posting twice now and I don’t want to lose this again so I stop now.

          • Ian

            I wouldn’t have called that a “substantive criticism” because it’s a criticism of style rather than of the content of an argument

            That’s convenient, isn’t it?

            But yeah, semantics. I don’t care about the definition of words, but I was annoyed at the phrase that i withdrew my substantive criticisms, because that sounded to me like Carrier suggesting I had nothing on him. When to me he has simply not addressed the overall problem yet.

        • Anonymous

          I was under the impression that Carrier used the number of relevant historical cases as evidence and any error bars would be the possibilities of what we don’t know.

          In theory this could work for something simple like say if he made the argument that all other religions from the time and place had celestial messiah’s and therefore for Christianity not to be would be some low probability and so forth (I have no idea if this is the case and am just using it as an example) .

          BT seems to be less useful when talking about the “brother of the Lord” issue since there don’t seem to be any contemporary uses of the phrase outside of Paul’s epistles.

          • Anonymous Coward

            He sometimes uses numbers like that in justifying his probability estimates, and he sometimes (as in the brother of the lord stuff) gives other justifications.

            I do think it’s hard to say how to assign a confidence level to claims about this, but that’s really neither here nor there–if people would just admit that it [i]is[/i] hard to say how confident we should be the “brother of the lord” stuff speaks for our “side” that’d be making most of the important point.

          • Ian

            Right, but he also identifies, correctly, that you get into horrible reference class issues. And if you look at the error bars, you end up seeing there’s basically no information.

            So he’s a bit more canny, I think, certainly that’s the claim I’m getting from him and his supporters. He wouldn’t try to calculate the probability of Jesus being celestial from the frequency of celestial messiahs, divided by the number of all messiahs. (In this case the answer he’d come up with wouldn’t support his view, so he’d have double reason not to).

            On the brother of the Lord issue, the problem is what is the divisor? Is the probability:

            Number of uses of brother of the Lord metaphorically
            Total number of uses of the phrase


            Number of uses of brother metaphorically
            Total number of uses of the phrase


            Number of uses of family terms metaphorically
            Total number of uses of family terms


            Number of uses of brother to refer to non-related adherents of Jesus
            Number of uses of brother to refer to any adherents of Jesus

            see, depending on how you choose your reference class, you get any where from almost-certainly-related to almost-certainly-metaphorical.

            There is a big literature about this problem. One of my problems with Carrier’s book is that he doesn’t engage with this literature, but instead puts forward a solution with this air of triumphalism, but which reads as naive, and which he hasn’t put forward in a venue that could subject it to peer review by people who actually study probability theory and interpretation.

            Also, your comment illustrates another thing that annoys the hell out of me about Carrier’s work on this. You’ve followed him identifying this kind of reasoning as BT, but it has nothing to do with Bayes’s Theorem, it is just basic probability theory at this point. Carrier seems to not understand that the two things are not the same, and it is frustrating that those responding on his work follow him into the same confusion. I’m not saying that to be nasty to you, it is just a ‘pet peeve’ of mine in this :)

          • Anonymous Coward

            “You’ve followed him identifying this kind of reasoning as BT, but it has nothing to do with Bayes’s Theorem, it is just basic probability theory at this point.”

            Wait, can you clarify that a little? What do you mean by “this kind of reasoning” such that it’s not BT but I’ve identified it as BT?

          • Ian

            Sorry, I didn’t realise it was the same you above. That was the comment I was responding to.

            The comment was talking about generating probabilities (or at least reasoning based on inferred probabilities) by looking at the frequency of events in history. That’s nothing to do with Bayes’s Theorem.

            Bayes’s Theorem is significant because it inverts conditional probabilities. If you have p(A|B) and want to find p(B|A) it tells you how they are related. You can do this if you have both P(A) and P(B) as well (or other methods of calculating them), i.e. P(A|B) = P(A) x P(B|A) / P(B).

            BT is confusing terminology-wise because Bayesian refers to something else again (a Bayesian interpretation of probability), and Bayes’s Theorem isn’t directly related to that either. And it is certainly invalid to talk about probability as if it were somehow a part of Bayes’s Theorem, or to imply that BT is somehow unique, central or foundational to all probabilistic reasoning. So the comment I was responding to, involved reasoning about probabilities that was neither Bayesian (it was frequentist) nor had anything to do with Bayes’s Theorem.

          • Anonymous

            I’m assuming for the former he would look at messiah’s around the time and place (say late Axial Age to Nicaea in the Mediterranean) which I think were all celestial. For the brother of the lord issue it would be the first and last one (Number of uses of brother of the Lord metaphorically and Number of uses of brother to refer to non-related adherents of Jesus) at least since it’s relevant those are the most relevant.

            I’d be interested in that literature but I’m assuming it’s just what makes it more relevant.

          • Ian

            but I’m assuming it’s just what makes it more relevant.

            Nope, it is nowhere near as simple as that.

            at messiah’s around the time and place

            Messiahs are Jewish, so those we know of are non-celestial, at least without begging the question. Unless you mean other major characters in religious narratives, in which case what qualifies Messiahs in the Jewish sense would be more relevant, but that wouldn’t give you the answer you want, so presumably you might think it too niche and want to look more broadly. Whatever conclusion you want to come to, you can find a reference class to match, and then mount a convincing post-hoc rationalisation for why it is the correct one.

            This problem has sent innocent people to jail.

            It is very easy to get the math to reflect your biases.

          • Anonymous

            Could you elaborate on the point about relevance and reference classes? Is it more just that there needs to be an objective standard for relevance or is it the problem of correctly using BT (which I think is a somewhat different issue which I address last in this comment).

            I’m assuming since it’s all Mediterranean religions it would include Roman/Greek religions (Carrier argues there was trend of mixing pagan and Jewish religions) but how would that go the other way? Up until Jesus there were very few claimed Messiah’s but when it came to deities I think almost all were celestial (and even this blog more or less argues Early Christians thought Jesus was a deity

            For BT what’s the issue with using historical cases? If you use celestial and non-celestial in P(A|B) wouldn’t it still be valid?

          • James F. McGrath

            Let me chime in and point out that Evangelicals do think that Jesus was divine, and some of them even think that he thought of himself in this way. But that is a reading back of later dogma into the earliest sources, and not a view that most historians would accept. This is part of the problem with mythicism – it rejects the conclusions of historians and sides with later Christian dogma, when it suits them to do so!

            The Davidic anointed one that some Jews were expecting, and which our earliest Christian sources claim that Jesus was, was the descendant of king David who, it was hoped, would restore the dynasty of David to the throne. This was never a purely celestial figure, by definition.

          • Anonymous

            Good point, I didn’t see that Roberts was an evangelical.

            But I think the use of the term “celestial” is a bit of a misnomer. At least from Carriers lectures he makes the argument that that things can happen in the celestial realm (which at the time was closer to space as we think of it today) but can still effect events on earth which was used in other religions and can be seen in things like the Ascension of Isaiah.

            In this sense celestialism is compatible with Jesus as a Davidic heir but not compatible with him as a non-deity unless we assume that the ancients thought normal humans could access it.

          • James F. McGrath

            But why would you read the Ascension of Isaiah back into our earliest sources, instead of treating it as what it appears to be, something of an oddity among our early Christian sources, both cosmologically and Christologically? Appeal to it just because it happens to say something more conducive to mythicism than any other text doesn’t make for a historically persuasive reconstruction of Christian origins.

          • Anonymous

            That’s in addition to arguments that Paul was talking about a celestial figure, the more important point was that being a descendant of David is compatible with Jesus being celestial.

            It’s why I was asking about the Bayesian interpretation, if you have almost all celestial religions and then Christianity could be either way, it would be extremely unlikely that it was the odd one out.

          • James F. McGrath

            But you have not shown that most Jews expected a celestial Davidic anointed one, and you haven’t shown that Paul was talking about such a figure.

          • Anonymous

            As other’s mentioned, Philo (knowingly or unknowingly) cites another celestial man named Jesus from Zechariah which shows that Jews were thinking of something along those lines.

            And again, it doesn’t have to be exactly both, you just have to show that the two ideas don’t contradict (and they don’t). Given everything, it would make more sense that Christianity was following the other celestial beings rather than the one outlier.

          • James F. McGrath

            I take it you haven’t read the passage from Philo which Carrier claims means that?

            Your last paragraph doesn’t make any sense, and seems to be ignoring everything that has been pointed out to you in other comments thus far. Are you a troll?

          • Anonymous

            I’m not using it the way Carrier did (who seems to be assuming for sure Philo knew) I’m saying a celestial “Jesus” was cited by Jews which shows that something was “in the air” as one commenter said. To avoid confusion, the two ideas were a celestial being and a David heir, the two are not contradictory and combine to follow the pattern of the time.

            No I’m not a troll and I don’t appreciate being delegitimized as such because something came off unclear.

          • James F. McGrath

            You are still being unclear, and still seem not to have read, or at least, not to have understood the passage in Philo. Here’s a link to an earlier discussion of it on this blog, to save having to repeat myself. Carrier seems to be deliberately mischaracterizing what it says.


          • Anonymous

            So what’s the disagreement? I was assuming the “logos” was a title for the other Jesus entity, whether Philo knew this or not is debatable but (in addition to Paul describing a celestial being) it shows that Jews were not unknown to refer to celestial Jesuses and this could have led to Christianity.

          • James F. McGrath

            The other “Jesus entity” you are referring to is Joshua son of Jehozadak. You either haven’t read the Philo passage, or haven’t understood it.

          • Anonymous

            Yes and as me, Carrier and the other commenters are saying, having any kind of celestial “Jesus” shows that the idea was used among the Jews. Unless you’re arguing that he wasn’t celestial it’s completely beside the point who that Jesus was.

          • James F. McGrath

            Of course he wasn’t celestial – So you are arguing that the high priest Joshua mentioned in the Book of Zechariah was a purely celestial figure? Seriously? Or do you not know enough about Philo to expect allegory?

          • Anonymous

            Joshua the High Priest is a character in the Book of Zechariah who stands trial before God in a celestial realm. So yes that would be pretty celestial by any standard.

          • James F. McGrath

            I take it you are as unfamiliar with Joshua and the Book of Zechariah as you are with Philo, then? But even if one situates Joshua in these visions in the celestial realm, how does the exaltation of a human being from earth to the celestial realm in a vision in any way help you make a case for the ahistoricity of Jesus?

          • Anonymous

            Because it shows that Jews were thinking of a celestial “Jesus” figure around the time of Paul.

            If you’re arguing that Zech gives enough evidence that Joshua was an actual high priest than frankly that’s as insane as arguing for a historical Gabriel or Moses.

          • James F. McGrath

            It does not show that by any stretch of the imagination. If you think it does then you must not have read it. And if you want to deny the existence of the governor and high priest mentioned by Zechariah and Haggai, you are free to do so, but it will not change the fact that these authors intended to refer to historical figures, not purely celestial ones.

            Are there no limits to the dishonesty and distortion to which mythicists will stoop?

          • Anonymous Coward

            “Are there no limits to the dishonesty and distortion to which mythicists will stoop?”

            C’mon man, don’t do that. Especially as you have no reason to think Anonymous is intentionally saying anything false or distortive. But mostly, just, you know, man, c’mon. That’s silly.

          • Anonymous Coward

            I mean, let’s be grown-ups, right?

          • James F. McGrath

            Did you read the way that commenter continues to ignore the evidence and make assertions that are clearly false? It isn’t at all silly to point out dishonesty. Perhaps it is silly for me to allow anonymous commenters who need not take ownership of their deceit, but it isn’t at all silly to insist that dishonesty has no place in a serious discussion of a serious scholarly subject.

          • Anonymous Coward

            This is ridiculous.

            Teach, teacher. If they can’t be taught, ignore. But accusations of dishonesty here are utterly unsupported and you have lost muchos brownie points for this.

            I’ll see you around. Again, thanks for the book links, I should have realized they’d be online.

          • James F. McGrath

            You are free to say that, if that is what you think. But this is not a classroom, in which students’ identities are known and they must own their behavior, and even if it were, if someone is engaging in disruptive behavior, ignoring it is often a course of action that allows them to disrupt the experience of others.

          • Anonymous

            Moses was also mentioned in quite a number of OT texts but that doesn’t mean he’s historical, that aside, it’s obvious what Philo mentioning him implies.

          • James F. McGrath

            Yes, it is obvious that Philo is offering one of his characteristic allegories. And no one is suggesting that one or even many texts mentioning someone indicates their historicity. It is the result of historical-critical study of texts and other relevant evidence that leads to appropriate results. If you want to have an apologetics-style back and forth, this is not the place for it. I am interested in discussing historical questions using the tools of secular historical study. If that doesn’t interest you, or you are not up to the task, then please be kind of enough to indicate that.

          • Ian

            Wikipedia has a good introduction to the Reference Class Problem and why there’s no such thing as the one ‘right’ class. I don’t have a huge amount of time, so apologies if I can’t go through it in detail here.

            After reading the Wikipedia entry then reflect on the fact that in some cases, probabilities are sensitive to reference class choice: a small change in reference class can give a big change in probability. In those cases, beware anyone making any claims about the probability of something based on similar cases. It is too easy to get the result you want from picking and post-hoc justifying the reference class.

            You’ll have to be clearer about your last paragraph. I explained above why your analysis so far is not Bayes’s Theorem. Sorry I couldn’t be more verbose.

    • Anonymous Coward

      BTW I’ve urged Richard to dial back the tone in a response on his blog. (It’s still being moderated.) I think he does himself a disservice, precisely because on the logical points, he’s right pretty much every time, but he makes it really really hard for people to see this because of things like calling his opponents “probably insane.”

      Funny thing about that one is–even _that_ is not just an off-hand insult, but a conclusion he draws from evidence he actually explains. And his reasoning for the conclusion is not completely implausible! Casey and Fisher really do (well, sorry, did) exhibit behaviors that were hard to understand on the hypothesis that they’re completely in possession of their rational faculties. True fact! But nevertheless, Carrier’s argument for their probable insanity is no clincher by any means, and anyway, even if they ARE probably insane, there’s basically no use in pointing it out. Just answer their argument and get on with it.

      Anyway, point is. I do think he needs to change his tone. But this does not by any means absolve anyone else of the responsibility of actually paying attention to his reasoning (and, of course, _understanding it_) if they think the matter is worth discussing at all.

  • Dr Denis O’Callaghan Ph.D.

    Well said.

  • pausanias

    I sometimes wonder if, when Paul refers to James as “the brother of the
    Lord,” that the phrase “brother of the Lord” is a nickname, like with
    Simon the Zealot (see Luke 6:15) or Sons of Thunder (see Mark 3:17).

    early tradition of the Jesus movement is preserved in Mark where Mark
    has Jesus say “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and
    mother (Mark 3:35).” Maybe in Paul, James has the title or nickname
    “The brother of the Lord” because James was a great example of someone
    who always did the will of God. This interpretation would agree with
    Origen who said in Contra Celsum 1.47 that James was called the brother
    of the Lord by Paul because James was very righteous, not because he was
    Jesus’ sibling.

    • James F. McGrath

      Later Christians were trying to make Mary a perpetual virgin, and so we should not read their avoidance of Jesus having siblings back into the earlier texts which lack such concerns. It isn’t clear that the nickname would have had that connotation – and indeed, the saying from Mark 3:35 that you mention is in the context of a story that mentions Jesus’ mother and brothers, and so it is not going to work well as a proof-text for mythicism! But if you are determined to avoid the more natural meaning of the text, there certainly are ways that you can do so, and in doing so, you will be following in the footsteps of many Christians.

      • VinnyJH

        I don’t think that the passage is a proof-text for mythicism, but it is evidence of an early belief among Christians that biological relationships were insignificant and spiritual relationships were the ones that mattered. In that context, perhaps the most natural connotation of any use of the word “brother” is spiritual. Indeed, this is a point that the Romans missed when they would occasionally accuse Christians of practicing incest because they mistakenly assumed that they were using “brother” and “sister” in a biological sense rather than a spiritual one.

        I am also curious as to how the notion of the perpetual virginity of Mary ever gained any traction if it was really such a well established tradition that James was Jesus’ biological brother. I would think that it would be a very difficult idea to sell if there were not already some confusion about the relationship, perhaps as a result of the fact that Acts can be read as identifying James as the son of Alphaeus.

        It also occurs to me that an established tradition of the superiority of spiritual relationships to biological relationships would provide Mark with a reason to invent biological brothers for Jesus in order to put the teaching his mouth.

        • James F. McGrath

          You are proposing several seemingly contradictory scenarios. You suggest that it would have been difficult for people much later, when the church had come to exalt virginity in a manner that we don’t find in the earliest texts (except at one point in Revelation), to turn Jesus’ brothers and sisters into cousins (which does nothing to make Jesus seem less like a historical figure), and yet you think that Mark could simply have invented siblings for Jesus in order to play down their importance?

          Do you not see yourself as one who is clutching at straws to defend a dubious viewpoint? And why do you prefer that to seeking to build an actual plausible historical scenario that makes sense of the evidence?

          • Anonymous Coward

            VinnyJH said if it were well established that Jesus had siblings, it would be surprising if it were easy later on to deny that.

            What VinnyJH said about Mark is not under the same antecedent–at that point VinnyJH is not longer talking about what would be the case “if it were well established that Jesus had siblings.”

            So what he said was not contradictory. One scenario he discussed is one in which it’s well established that Jesus had brothers and sisters but later on people said he didn’t, while the other scenario is one in which it’s _not_ well established that he had brothers and sisters and later on people said he did.

            (This is not to mention that there’s always in a mythicist’s [or mythicism-sympathizer’s] head the notion that Mark may not even be intended to be read as history.)

          • VinnyJH

            There is no contradiction at all.

            Consider these two scenarios:

            (1) Mark invented siblings for Jesus in order to put a teaching in his mouth concerning the importance of spiritual relationships and the insignificance of biological relationships. Nothing more is known of these siblings in the early church.

            (2) Mark references actual siblings of Jesus who went on to assume places of leadership in the early church where they were widely known to be the biological brothers of Jesus and the children of Mary.

            Under which scenario would it be easier for a doctrine like the perpetual virginity of Mary to arise?

            That James was not the biological brother of Jesus makes sense of the fact that Acts does not identify him as the biological brother of Jesus, despite the fact that its author used Mark as a source and knew that Mark had asserted that Jesus had a biological brother with that name.

          • James F. McGrath

            Why is Acts’ perspective allowed to trump that of earlier sources, other than that it happens to say what you would like to believe? This is an incredibly frustrating aspect of mythicism as related viewpoints. It mirrors the way conservative Christians are happy to read later things back into earlier ones.

            I think we both know that, once Jesus became a figure of widespread interest and viewed as authoritative, he gets co-opted as a symbol of a great many things. And so that is one more reason why historians focus on our earliest sources, and not the use to which Jesus, like most famous people, gets put by diverse interest groups in later times.

          • Anonymous Coward

            James, with respect and apologies, you’re simply not following the reasoning here. You can’t evaluate what you haven’t understood! First you called things contradictory that aren’t, and here you’re saying things are said to “trump” things when they aren’t.

            It is not for lack of clarity on your interlocutors’ part. What VinnyJH is saying is perfectly clear, as evidenced by the fact that I understand it.

            A little harsh, I know, but I do admit I think a lot of people who discuss this issue need to be brought to see how little they actually understand the arguments on offer. Seeing this will help progress be made.

            VinnyJH is not saying that Acts trumps earlier sources. He is not saying we should look to Acts to see what really happened. He is saying, rather, that his claim _makes sense of_ what we find in Acts. There is something surprising in acts on some hypotheses, which his hypothesis makes less surprising.

          • James F. McGrath

            What Acts says is not at all surprising. The possible range of explanations for its author not explicitly saying “James, the brother of Jesus” range from the author not knowing, since he was writing so much later, to the author thinking it was self evident, to the author wanting to downplay the status of James in the interest of elevating Paul’s. Mythicism will regularly bring the Talmud and Epiphanius from centuries later into the picture and claim that they trump our earliest sources, and Vinny has indicated on multiple occasions that such tactics of mythicists do not seem to him to make their claims significantly less likely than the conclusions of professional historians and scholars.

          • Anonymous Coward

            I can make sense of what you’re saying. When VinnyJH said his hypothesis “makes sense of” the stuff in Acts, he was necessarily signaling that what’s in Acts is (as I put it) at least “a little surprising.” And prima facie, the statement “James was Jesus’s brother but an early church document that talks alot about James seems not to know this” is, prima facie, “a little surprising.” Moreover, you’re right that there are plenty of explanations available for it, on many plausible hypotheses, just as you say.

            All those other explanations may “make sense” of the Acts stuff just as well as what Vinny’s saying. But the important point is, there’s no sense in which Vinny was having Acts “trump” earlier passages. That’s not how his reasoning goes. It’s an invalid criticism.

          • Anonymous Coward

            “Mythicism will regularly bring the Talmud and Epiphanius from centuries later into the picture and claim that they trump our earliest sources.”

            For “respectable” mythicists (here I include Carrier, Doherty, the earlier Wells when he was still a mythicist, and a couple of other people I forget whose names start with T, and some hispanic-named guy who studies the history of medicine, hopefully you know the one) I doubt that what you just said is ever true. Just as it wasn’t true for Vinny here, I think you are probably really misinterpreting the reasoning you’re looking at.

          • James F. McGrath

            What makes Doherty a “respectable” mythicist? Or are the scare quotes ironic?

          • Anonymous Coward

            That there are people with the requisite expertise (and not only Carrier) who have said, in so many words, that Doherty’s stuff is worth taking seriously.

          • James F. McGrath

            Carrier, who is not working professionally as a historian and has shown more than once that ancient Judaism and early Christianity are not areas of solid knowledge, has said this about Doherty, but that is a strike against Carrier, not something in favor of Doherty’s nonsense. Who are these unnamed others that you alluded to?

            You might want to explore my blog series, in which I made it through a significant chunk of Doherty’s tripe before I decided, seeing that mythicist fans of his were not open to criticism, that I was subjecting myself to suffering with little hope of anything more positive coming out of it were I to continue. Here’s a link to my post on chapter 1. I trust you can find your way to the rest from there.


          • Anonymous Coward

            GA Wells and Robert Price for sure, and I could _swear_ Thomas Brodie as well though I can’t find that reference online.

            I’ve read the blog series you referenced.

          • James F. McGrath

            G. A. Wells who was subsequently persuaded by the evidence that Jesus is not completely ahistorical?

          • Anonymous Coward

            Yes, the very one. How is that relevant? You asked me for examples of qualified scholars who say Doherty’s stuff can be taken seriously. GA Wells counts as one member of that class, so I mentioned him. That he is not himself a mythicist is irrelevant–arguably it makes his membership in the class even more significant!

            This is another case, I’ll note, where it doesn’t seem like you’ve successfully thought through exactly what a _relevant_ objection is… It keeps happening…

          • James F. McGrath

            You seem not to realize that you are appealing to people whose views are fringe ones. And you have not provided any evidence that Wells continues to find Doherty’s stuff persuasive despite his own change of opinion – indeed, you haven’t provided any specific evidence of what he says one way or the other. But you also seem to think that, if you can find that there are a few scholars who say something, that is significant. Would you apply that to climate change, or evolution, or the Holocaust?

          • Anonymous Coward

            Of course I realize that mythicists have a fringe view amongst NT scholars. You asked me what I meant by the scare-quoted term “respectable”. I gave you my definition. After you prompted me, I explained who fit in that definition. That their views are not shared by the great majority of scholars is not relevant. They are, as I said, people with the requisite expertise who think Doherty can be taken seriously. That’s what you asked for, and that’s what I provided.

            I put “respectable” in quotes for a reason. This is about as “respectable” as it gets for any mythicist.

            This is actually sliding way past the point I made in that post anyway. You made a claim about what these “respectable” mythicists say, in terms of things trumping things. I expressed my suspicion that what you said was false. I doubt this ever happens, and I think you have probably misunderstood the argument when you’ve thought it was happening. We’ve seen how this occurs, in this very thread, in your discussion with VinnyJH.

            As to why I say what I say about the fringe view called “Mythicism” but don’t say the same about fringe views in other fields, the answer is, I can read the stuff scholars write about climate change, evolution and the holocaust and tell at a glance who’s doing a better job of reasoning things through, who is doing a better job of laying out arguments in a way that helps bias not be a problem. Practically anybody with any background in serious critical thought can do so. You probably can just as well as I. And when it comes to reading the mythicist debate, I can _also_ tell at a glance, in much the same way, who’s doing a better job at laying out arguments in a way that helps overcome bias etc etc. I’m following the same instinct, so to speak, in all of these four cases.

            It is not just that there are some scholars who say Doherty can be taken seriously, it is that there are some such scholars, _and_ they’re doing a better job at thinking about this than are other scholars who are writing about the historicity issue.

          • James F. McGrath

            I can only assume that you haven’t read as much by mythicists as I have. If I wrongly attributed a common mythicist view to Vinny, who is technically an agnostic about the historicity of Jesus, then I apologize. But the view I mentioned is common.

            Most people are confident that they can see through motivated reasoning, because they do it well in instances where they are inclined to embrace the consensus of experts.

          • Anonymous Coward

            “But the view I mentioned is common.”

            The view you mentioned is the view that the Talmud and Epiphanius trump other sources. I doubt that this is true of the “respectable” mythicists I listed. What passages from these writers do you have in mind?

            I was not inclined to embrace the consensus of the experts. I valiantly defended not only historicity, but particular views about what Jesus was like, literally until the very day I read Carrier’s proving history. That was a serious “holy crap” moment for me. It’s actually what jogged me _out_ of my bias.

          • Anonymous Coward

            A crucial typo in that second paragraph. First sentence should have read “I was not inclined to embrace mythicist views.”

          • James F. McGrath

            I would encourage you to never allow one new argument, before it has been discussed and evaluated and reviewed by other academics, to change your mind about something. Every academic has to argue a new case in their doctoral work and subsequent publications. None of us (I hope!) is proposing something that seems to us to be complete and utter nonsense. But clearly we cannot all be right about our contradictory proposals. And Carrier makes this very point about consensuses in Proving History even though he backtracks significantly on his blog. Here’s a link to my review of his book, for your interest:

          • Anonymous Coward

            I’ve read your review.

            To clarify, it wasn’t that I read one book and immediately changed my mind, rather, I read the book, thought “Holy Crap, this sounds right, but I need to check to see what others have said in response,” went and read what experts are saying about it at least in informal venues, (the only venues where his book is discussed that I know about) realized “Holy HOLY crap, these guys don’t even know how to respond,” and thought about it some more, read up a lot more from both sides, and realized one side clearly had the better reasoning.

          • James F. McGrath

            If you think that historians do not know how to respond to Carrier’s claims about the historical Jesus, then you must be looking in the wrong places. I would encourage you to take this subject seriously enough to understand why the consensus of secular historians is that Carrier is wrong about this.

          • Anonymous Coward

            I assume you take yourself to be offering criticisms representative of the kind of criticism that a historian should offer in response to Carrier. Multiple times in this very comment section, you have offered objections which weren’t just weak, but actually irrelevant. You’ve multiple times failed to understand the arguments your interlocutors were making. You’ve ascribed views to them they didn’t have, and misunderstood the significance of those claims for their reasoning. At times, you’ve failed to even accurately identify the claim they were defending! I’ve done my best to note each time these things have happened, for anyone interested in reviewing the conversation.

            Bart Ehrman’s book, admittedly a popular work and not one written for other scholars (but no scholars are writing about this to each other, of course, because they all think it’s already settled, so popular works and conversations on blogs are the best I can get if I want anything less than decades old) is _terrible_, exhibiting all the errors I just listed, compounded by a failure to even understand how to appropriately relate his _own_ premises to his _own_ conclusions.

            It was truly a dumbfounding experience, reading that book.

            This is what I mean when I say the historians who respond to Carrier don’t know how to respond to him. This is what I see, practically every time. If this is how they “respond,” then it literally doesn’t matter what their consensus is, because by the kind of reasoning they’re exhibiting, their consensus is not at all likely to center around the actual truth.

            A book I haven’t read yet is Van der Voorst’s. He’s on my list. Maybe he’ll be better.

          • James F. McGrath

            If you want to see what historians and scholars write when they aren’t writing for a general audience, presumably you will find you can get access to scholarly monographs via a local library. Proponents of pseudoscience and pseudoscholarship often prefer to interact with blogs and books for a popular audience, ignoring the sheer volumes of data and discussion that such works seek to distill, because the latter cannot so easily be dismissed.

            That said, if my criticisms seemed irrelevant to you, then you probably need to inform yourself better about the relevant fields of historical study, so as to better understand the relevance of my points.

          • VinnyJH

            Your question assumes that the perspective of the earlier sources is unambiguous. You frequently cite the established tradition of James being the biological brother Jesus as a justification for your interpretation of Galatians 1:19. Now you cite your interpretation of Galatians in order to disregard evidence that calls that established tradition into question. There is some circularity there.

            It seems to me that there is some confusion about this James from a fairly early point. It was a common name, and absent Paul, there would be no reason to believe that Acts is referring to the same person that Mark is. Even assuming the historicity of Jesus, I don’t think that the evidence for the James named in Acts being the biological brother of Jesus is terribly compelling.

          • James F. McGrath

            And why would you choose to interpret Acts as though we did not have Paul’s letters, written earlier than Acts was? Once again it seems to be a matter of choosing whatever seems to have the possibility of supporting your own preferred view, rather than trying to make good historical sense of the evidence.

          • VinnyJH

            I don’t consider Paul’s letter to be unambiguous as to James’ biological relationship with Jesus and I’m trying to find other sources to corroborate Paul’s understanding of James as Jesus’ biological brother. Unfortunately, I cannot establish any other time that he uses the word brother to refer to a biological relationship rather than a spiritual relationship. I cannot see anything in Paul to indicate that he thought that anyone he knew had known Jesus personally prior to the crucifixion. I cannot see anything to suggest that Paul would have thought that biological relationships conferred any status or authority. I don’t think that Galatians 1:19 warrants a lot of weight absent some corroboration, which I don’t see.

          • James F. McGrath

            I don’t see any reason to think that Paul was unaware that the word “brother” could refer to biological siblings. I don’t see any reason to persistently ignore the possibility that this literal use is the very reason that he uses something beyond the generic “brother” here. You have yet to offer an interpretation of Galatians 1:19 which does justice to the actual wording, and how James is being distinguished by the phrase “brother of the Lord” if that phrase simply referred to Christians. And I don’t see why you think it is plausible to ignore Mark as corroboration but to appeal to Luke as supposed counter-evidence.

          • VinnyJH

            There is nothing in Mark or (Matthew or Josephus for that matter) to indicate that the James referred to therein ever played any role in the Christian movement. Since James was a common name, we would need something more to corroborate that they are the same person. The James in Acts does play a leadership role in the early Christian community. That gives us a much stronger basis for thinking that it is the same James that Paul is talking about.

            I have explained many times that a word that might generally apply to many Christians can be used in a titular sense to apply to a specific Christian. It is simply a matter of convention. Many Christians were zealous and many may have been Zealots, but “Simon the Zealot” is still sufficient to identify a specific person. Many Christians were just and pious, but “James the Just” was still sufficient to identify a specific Christian. “The brother of the Lord” was sufficient to inform the Galatians which James it was he met on his visit to Jerusalem because that is the name that they knew that James by. It is possible that he obtained that name because he was the unique biological brother of Jesus or it may simply have been a useful moniker to distinguish him from others of the same name.

          • James F. McGrath

            You consider it significant that Gospels which do not tell stories about the post-Easter movement do not tell of James’ role therein? How very odd.

            You can obviously drive wedges between Paul’s reference to James the brother of the Lord, James the brother of Jesus in Mark, and James in Acts who seems to be involved in the Jerusalem church in a manner that corresponds to what Paul referred to in Galatians. But surely you can see the relative unlikelihood of these being references to completely different people, just using Occam’s razor and not any other considerations?

          • VinnyJH

            I don’t consider that significant at all. It is exactly what I would expect. However, since they don’t tell me anything about the post-Easter movement, I cannot claim that they corroborate anything about the post-Easter movement. They don’t put any weight on either side of the scale.

            If you want to talk about Occam’s Razor, let’s consider Acts. The authors introduces two men named James. One he identifies as the brother of John son of Zebedee and the other he identifies as the son of Alphaeus. In Acts 12, the brother of John is killed. After that, the narrative refers to a James without saying who he is related to. Which is more parsimonious: (a) he is the James who is already part of the story, but his father Alphaeus is not mentioned because there is only one James left; or (b) he is a new character–a third James–being introduced into the story without the author telling us anything about him or distinguishing him from the James who is already there?

            The only reason I can drive wedges between the the James in Mark and the James in Acts is because there is insufficient evidence to establish that they are the same person. As there are a couple of men in the gospels named James who are identified as part of the Christian community, I can’t see anything unlikely about one of them becoming a leader after Easter as opposed to a James who thought that Jesus was crazy.

          • James F. McGrath

            Does any of this, even if one drives wedges in your preferred manner, genuinely seem to you to make mythicism more probable than that there was a historical Jesus?

          • VinnyJH

            I don’t think that it tips the balance in favor of mythicism. At most, it leaves mythicism as one of many possibilities that cannot be ruled out given the problematic nature of the sources.

          • Anonymous Coward

            Yes, this. I do think overall the evidence goes towards mythicism. But if people writing about this would just understand how _indecisive_ the evidence is _at least_ that would be serious progress.

          • VinnyJH

            I fear that the evidence for mythicism may look stronger than it really is simply because the other side thinks that historicity is such a slam dunk, and makes very poor arguments as a result.

          • Anonymous Coward

            Yep. Completely agreed. I cannot wait until (unfortunately probably at least 20 years from now) the younger scholars have their turn at this.

          • Andrew Dowling

            The fact that later sources like Acts try to play down James but still at least have to affirm his leadership role says that he was a character early Christianity was seeking to minimize as much as possible but who clearly had a very prominent role in the early Church. If James wasn’t a biological brother and just another leading Apostle like Peter, why the effort at erasing him as much as possible from the story of Christianity?

            Also, the perpetual virginity idea came CENTURIES after Mark was written . . .you might as well say that the doctrine of the Assumption proves Mary was just a fictional celestial figure as well . . .

          • VinnyJH

            Is Acts “playing down” James? Doesn’t that beg the question? Unless it was already established that James really was the biological brother of Jesus, I don’t see how Acts “plays him down.” It seems to me that he is a significant figure.

            There are many important figures from the early church about whom we know little today, such as Apollos. I don’t think that we need a biological relationship with Jesus to explain someone slipping through the cracks. It is a possible explanation, but not a necessary one.

            Depending on when you date the Protoevangelium of James the issue of whether James was the child of Mary was disputed within less than a century of Mark. That might still have been enough time for political forces to have been at work, though.

          • Andrew Dowling

            It’s a highly plausible one. James was not just an “Appolos” . . he was the head of the frikkin’ Jerusalem church. That was kind of a big deal. For Acts, which was mean tobe an apologetic history of the early Church, to barely mention James except when it has to, is very telling.

            In conjunction there is the large tradition, that the later Church was extremely uneasy with as Jesus’s humanity got downplayed and Mary became more deified, that James was the biological brother of Jesus, with Paul and Josephus being the most reliable sources historically.

            So if we’re going to play plausibles, which is more likely . .James was the biological brother of Jesus who became a leader of the Jerusalem church, who had both theological divergences with the Pauline Gentile church as noted in Paul’s letters (which became dominant post 70 AD) and was subsequently diminished in church history as both his theology lost favor and Jesus having any blood siblings became its own theological issue or . .

            James was not Jesus’s brother, but somehow a esoteric tradition-held by both proto orthodox and heretical Christian groups, arises that places him as his biological brother . .despite the church concurrently evolving against the Torah-observant Christianity he led and the idea of Mary ever having sex.


          • VinnyJH

            Or maybe it is later tradition playing James up rather than Acts playing him down.

          • Andrew Dowling

            That’s highly unlikely given what we know about James’s theology and the extent (or lack thereof) he’s discussed in Acts, the Patristics, absence in Synoptic Gospel post-Resurrection stories etc.

            If you were to claim that it was only later Jewish-Christian tradition playing up James, why do so many proto-Orthodox Christians accept the tradition that James was Jesus’s brother. If it was simply a 2nd century Ebionite invention they would’ve dismissed it.

            Add all of this with the use of the phrase of the “Lord’s Brother” in Paul and Josephus, and any remaining cynicism is really being enforced by a presupposed view and not by the evidence.

          • VinnyJH

            I’m sorry, but you cannot show that Acts is downplaying James unless you can show that he enjoyed some higher status prior to the time it was written and all you have are much later sources. It could have happened the way you suggest, but the evidence in certainly not sufficient to show that it did. “Nobody would have believed it if it wasn’t really so” isn’t a very strong argument. People believe all sorts of things that were invented in the second century.

          • James F. McGrath

            Again, I ask, why is it that it is supposedly perfectly acceptable to bring in Acts and suggest that it raises problems for what Paul and other earlier sources suggest, but now, when Andrew draws on Acts and later sources in an argument against mythicism, supposedly that is invalid? I really find this double standard regarding respecting the chronology of sources and prioritizing early ones to be extremely frustrating.

          • VinnyJH

            You have to look at the point that the later source is being offered on.

            Several people, including you have argued that one reason for interpreting Galatians 1:19 as referring to a biological relationship is that there was a consistent tradition in the early church that such was the case. I have offered Acts as evidence that the tradition was not that consistent. It does not establish who was right and who was wrong. It merely shows that there may have been some disagreement on the point from at least as early as Acts. It is appropriate for me to look at a later source because it is the later tradition that is being cited in support of the biological interpretation of Galatians 1:19.

            Andrew is arguing that Acts downplays James role in the early church. He points to the fact that James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem, however, from what I can tell, the earliest source we have for James being the exclusive leader of the Jerusalem Christian is Hegesippus writing sometime late in the 2nd Century. In Galatians, James is simply one of the pillars. In order to establish that Acts downplays James, we need to establish his status prior to Acts was higher.

            The difference is that I am using a later source to address the issue of the later tradition. Andrew is using the later source to address the issue of the earlier status.

          • James F. McGrath

            Unless you think that Acts is early enough to provide reliable information about Jameses in Paul’s time, then how is it relevant? And if it is early enough to provide evidence about James and Paul, why is it not also clear evidence for Christians being connected to a historical Jesus of Nazareth a few years earlier? Again, this choosing to attempt to use historical methods of reasoning and deduction only when it suits you in the interest of drawing a conclusion you wish to is thoroughly unpersuasive.

          • VinnyJH

            It’s relevant to your argument that “[o]ther sources refer to Jesus having a brother named James” and that “[s]ome attribute to him a leadership role in the early Church in Jerusalem parallel to what Paul indicates in his letters.” You offer the later tradition as evidence of how Paul should be interpreted and then you attack me for pointing out that the later tradition is not as uniform on the question as you make it out to be. You are the one who is trying to have it both ways.

          • James F. McGrath

            If your accusation is that I do not insist on unnecessarily driving a wedge between early and later sources when they seem to converge on details, in the manner some mythicists like to, then that is certainly true. But I do not see that I was doing the sort of thing that you were doing, and your attempt to say “I’m not, you are” doesn’t make it any harder for those who read these comments to see what you were actually doing.

          • VinnyJH

            No. My accusation is that you are happy to drive wedges when the later sources don’t fit with your claims. When Acts doesn’t corroborate your supposed consistent tradition, you either explain it away, claim that it’s irrelevant, or attack the person who points it out.

          • James F. McGrath

            When a later source differs from earlier ones, the appropriate conclusion of historians is that it is due to changing circumstances, fading memory, misunderstanding, or any number of other things that tend to happen over time. And mythicists are happy to say that sources only decades later, the earliest Gospels, distort a celestial Jesus into a historical one, but then suggest that Acts (which contributes to that distortion, since it depicts the apostles proclaiming a human Jesus who lived in history) happens to be right in failing to call James the brother of Jesus, for no better reason than that it suits them to do so. Mythicism is hypocritical apologetics, not scholarship, in all the forms that I have encountered it thus far.

          • Anonymous Coward

            What you’re saying here assumes it’s been established that Acts differs from Galatians on this. That’s one of the very things at issue in your discussion with VinnyJH–you’re begging the question. A common “apologist tactic” if we’re going there…

          • James F. McGrath

            I think you have what I was saying and what Vinny was saying reversed.

          • Anonymous Coward

            No, you said a later source differs from an earlier one. You’re referring to Acts and Galatians. Vinny is arguing they don’t differ–because Galatians isn’t actually saying James is Jesus’s brother. Meanwhile, you’re arguing that they do differ, and that the difference should be explained as due to changing circumstances, fading memory, misunderstanding, or something else.

            Vinny says they don’t actually differ, so when you begin an argument by assuming they do differ, you’re begging the question.

            BTW so I don’t post twice I’ll just say here thanks for providing links to Goguel’s and Case’s books. I’ve read about them, but not had a copy to read myself. I’ve just read through the first half of Goguel’s…. it’s not looking good in the sense that he doesn’t really argue that much, but asserts. And that’s when he’s actually saying anything on topic to building a case for historicity–a lot of it is responses to bad mythicist arguments, which in itself does not do much to build a positive case for historicity.

            Maybe Case’s book will be better. I know a lot of people refer to it. It’s also one I haven’t seen much written about. Maybe this finally will be the scholarly work that puts the whole thing to rest, right?

          • James F. McGrath

            No case will put the matter to rest. Has any work on evolution, or the Holocaust, put the matter to rest in such a way that the methods of denialism cease to be applied to them?

            Anyway, I don’t see that Acts is really relevant in the way Vinny claims. It doesn’t use “brother of the Lord” in reference to James either literally or metaphorically, and an argument from silence scarcely seems helpful. But it is still problematic to reject everything that Acts indicates about Jesus, and then to say that its testimony concerning James (or rather, its silence about a detail about him) is trustworthy and significant. Mythicists cannot have it both ways.

          • VinnyJH

            When a later source differs from earlier ones, it must surely be appropriate for historians to acknowledge that the later sources differ regardless of what they think the reasons for those differences might be. It is surely inappropriate for historians to claim that the later sources are consistent with the earlier ones when in fact some of them differ.

          • Andrew Dowling

            “ut you cannot show that Acts is downplaying James unless you can show
            that he enjoyed some higher status prior to the time it was written”

            Paul, Josephus, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of the Hebrews . .all written before Acts. All show James as leader of early Church.

          • VinnyJH

            Paul makes James one leader among several in Jerusalem, but he also seems to have a more negative attitude towards James than Acts does so I don’t really see that Acts downplays James.

            Josephus says absolutely nothing about James being a leader of the church in Jerusalem so I don’t see how that’s relevant at all.

            I’ll have to look at the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Hebrews. I don’t remember exactly what they say about James that gives him a much higher status than he has in Acts. I also wasn’t aware that the consensus dating for them was earlier than Acts.

          • James F. McGrath

            Since when does the consensus matter to historicity denialists? This seems like just another example of following scholarly methods and considerations only when they serve your interest.

        • pausanias

          Hi VinnyJh

          Some passages go beyond just arguing for the superiority of the spiritual over the biological, to the point that the biological is precisely that which needs to be overcome. Recall when Luke has Jesus say “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and
          children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person
          cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26).”

    • Bethany

      How would that explain Josephus? He has no allegiance to Jesus would have no reason to say James was Jesus’ brother if James was not, in fact, Jesus’ brother.

      Also note that Paul seems not to have seen eye-to-eye with James on a number of things.