Richard Carrier on Bayes’ Theorem, Historical Probability, and the Existence of Jesus

Richard Carrier on Bayes’ Theorem, Historical Probability, and the Existence of Jesus January 5, 2011

I had been hoping to listen to the interview with Richard Carrier on the blog Common Sense Atheism ever since I learned about it via Answers in Genesis Busted, Richard’s own blog, and a commenter here. Fortunately today I noticed that there is a transcript, which meant that I could read it, which takes less time than listening.

The central point is that Richard Carrier is seeking to quantify historical probabilities in more concrete, mathematical terms – in terms of Bayes’ Theorem, to be precise. Carrier argues that, in ideal cases, this is what historians are doing now, but often in a way that lacks quantitative rigor and thus is more prone to subjectivity, with the result that assessments of what is “probable” in fact vary.

If he can pull it off, and find an academic publisher for his work, this should create quite an interesting discussion.

What leads me to be somewhat pessimistic of how this will be applied in practice is Carrier’s positive description of Earl Doherty’s work, which he describes as “just short of Ph.D. quality.” Now, to be fair, his point seems to be that there have been PhD theses in history that were worse than what Doherty produced, and since they get taken seriously enough to be engaged by historians (even if only to argue against them), so should Doherty. Be that as it may, Carrier seems to me to be too willing to take what is a cosmology that seems to be distinctive of the Ascension of Isaiah (which, I agree with Carrier, far more people ought to read and study) and assume it could provide the background to early Christian thought, and provide a setting for the Jesus myth in the sky rather than on earth. To take a work that is only attested in a Christian redaction in a later time, and trust it to provide information about thought in an earlier time, is something that Carrier in this very same interview is unwilling to do with Josephus. And so it seems to me that, were someone to apply a mathematical assessment of Carrier’s consistency in his treatment of sources, they might find this problematic. But I will admit that figuring out the equation for such a problem is beyond my level of mathematical skill. But since the same may be true for many scholars of antiquity, there will certainly be challenges for the adoption of more mathematical models for historical research, even if Carrier’s case is persuasive.

Some indication of what Carrier has been working on can be seen in his chapter in the recent book Sources of the Jesus Tradition: Separating History from Myth.

I will await the publication of the academically-articulated and documented form of Carrier’s case before trying to evaluate it, for obvious reasons. In the mean time, I am grateful for his articulation of a point about which we both seem to agree: It is largely due to the enthusiastic proponents of forms of and arguments for mythicism that are riddled with errors of fact and problematic assumptions that makes it hard to take mythicism seriously. He also points out in the comments section on his own blog (including to one regular commenter here who often claims the contrary) that the issues he is addressing are about historical study in general, not limited to the study of Jesus or early Christianity, and he also emphasizes that some scholars trained in New Testament have excellent training in historical methods and do excellent historical work, citing Bart Ehrman as an example.

And so I look forward to Carrier finding a publisher for his book, and seeing what precisely he argues and how. And in the mean time, I hope that some of those responsible for making it hard to take mythicism seriously will take Carrier’s comments on this subject to heart – if having mythicism of some sort (and not just their own implausible brand of it) be given a serious consideration by historians and scholars is truly their aim.

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