Review of Richard C. Carrier, Proving History

Review of Richard C. Carrier, Proving History August 7, 2012

I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to review Richard Carrier’s latest book, Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus. I am grateful to Prometheus Books for sending me a free review copy.

Carrier emphasizes from the outset that this is the first of two books, the second of which will focus on the evidence for there having been a historical figure of Jesus. In fact, quite a bit of attention to both the figure of Jesus and the methods used by historians investigating him appears already in this first book. And as a result, by the time I had finished reading, I felt like I had already read two very different books. One of them is lucid, focused, methodologically rigorous, and full of powerful insights. The other reads like a case study in what happens when someone ignores their own sound methodological advice in practice when turning their attention to the figure of Jesus, an exercise which has led even some of the brightest minds in history to write some absolute nonsense, and many more to write things that were merely unpersuasive. I have read many other books where the same criticism could be made that I will here make of Carrier: the methodology is brilliant but the application is problematic.

This illustrates what is perhaps the most important point about the book and any evaluation of it. The application of Bayes’ Theorem to history is simply a matter of ensuring that strict formal logic is followed in historical reasoning. It does not turn history into mathematics, but nor does it guarantee that those who purport to use it will always manage to adequately assess their own blind spots, shortcomings, and clutching at straws in an attempt to reach a desired conclusion. Human assessment of probabilities is still involved, and the formula of Bayes’ Theorem cannot prevent one from misconstruing the likelihood of one’s own view or the unlikelihood of another’s and thus getting a flawed result. Only Bayes’ Theorem and a good deal of critical introspection and openness to criticism is likely to accomplish that. Or as they say in computing, “garbage in, garbage out”: if the probabilities entered are problematic, so too will the conclusion be.

However, Carrier makes a strong case that Bayesian reasoning can help expose when this is taking place. If so, then I fully expect that some of the claims Carrier makes in the present book will be revisited, and different conclusions drawn, when he writes his second volume. There is, however, an important point Carrier makes about Bayesian analysis in history requiring a wide-ranging knowledge of relevant language(s), historical texts, cultural and social data about time periods, and other such relevant background information, without which calculations will again be flawed. Whether Carrier is sufficiently acquainted with Jewish history and literature from this period to allow him to use Bayesian reasoning persuasively on his chosen subject matter is another important question which is bound to come up in his second volume, if the hints of his reasoning in this first one are any indication.

But let me now turn to viewing the brilliant book within the book, the one which makes important and insightful methodological points, and then return to flesh out my criticisms of the application of those methods (or failure to apply them in the manner Carrier himself says they ought to be) to the historical figure of Jesus.

For many historians and others in the humanities, the idea that one can express what we do in a formula may seem not merely wrong but even offensive. Carrier does an excellent job of clarifying what Bayes’ Theorem is and why such objections are inappropriate. While the letters and symbols can seem daunting at first, particularly to us humanities types, Carrier offers a “translation” into plain everyday English at more than one point in the book, including in an appendix which breaks the reasoning process of Bayes’ Theorem into a flow chart articulated in simple and clear English.

The key point of using the theorem, as I understand it, is to emphasize the appropriate logic to use in assessing the likelihood that one’s theory about a historical matter is correct. One of the most important points is the following: historians need not merely to look for a fit between their theory and the evidence, but to also consider the fit between that evidence and other competing scenarios and explanations. The historian using Bayesian reasoning will ask what the likelihood is of the evidence being what it is if their theory is correct, what the likelihood is if their theory is incorrect, what the likelihood is if an opposing theory is correct, and so on. This is to be done taking account of relevant background information as providing the framework within which historical questions and assessment of probabilities need to be answered.

In assigning a specific percentage of probability, it may be true that there is no way to say that the odds against evidence X arising without event Y having caused that evidence to exist are precisely 7 to 1. But in assigning a number or range of numbers to our estimation of probabilities, we are not being less precise than we already are. All probabilities that historians currently use have numbers hidden behind them, as Carrier emphasizes. And so it is useful to be forced to articulate more clearly whether we think that the likelihood is closer to 70% or closer to 90% – and to assess whether, if we are unsure which, it makes what we thought was a sound conclusion a much less certain one.

I don’t think there is any disputing that approaching history in this way may allow it to be more scientific in its approach. I sincerely hope that Carrier’s points about method will get some serious discussion, and that the shortcomings in his own application of the method will not lead to the methodological points themselves being ignored.

It may be that very often competing theories may do equal justice to the evidence, since often our evidence in historical research is piecemeal and dependent on what texts and artifacts just happen to have resisted the destructive effects of time’s passage to reach us. There may be multiple ways to fill in gaps. But even acknowledging this will lead to more fruitful discussions, since often the ways we fill in gaps in our knowledge reflect assumptions about the historical background of our question, or ideological convictions we hold, and bringing these into the foreground as part of the reasoning process more frequently than tends to be the case has the potential to make our scholarly conversations more productive.

In his introduction, explaining the rationale for his two-volume endeavor, Carrier says a lot about the quest for the historical Jesus, and about mythicism, that is right on target, although not all of it is. Carrier notes the problem of historians drawing such diverse conclusions about the historical figure of Jesus, and suggests that the diversity even among those working with the same sources and the same tools of historical criticism indicates that the methods of investigation are fundamentally flawed. This conclusion is not entirely fair, since the differences may result from (1) different ideological stances, (2) misuse of or failure to apply historical criteria and methods, and (3) the different ways that authentic material may be interpreted and configured. Indeed, his own discussion of methods and specific details indicates that the methods can be perfectly fine and yet not lead inevitably to well-reasoned, persuasive conclusions. But that said, no one denies that the methods used in historical investigation of Jesus but in positivistic historical investigation more generally need to be re-examined. And the diversity of conclusions drawn about Jesus have exposed problems not only with the criteria of authenticity, but the attempt to treat the Jesus tradition atomistically, as though individual sayings can be evaluated while ignoring the gist of what our earliest sources have to say. To do so is seriously problematic, as Dale Allison in particular has recently pointed out.

But let me accentuate the positive once again. Carrier writes early in his second chapter, “To laypeople who ask me what history to trust, I always offer three basic rules: (1) Don’t believe everything you read; (2) always ask for the primary sources of a claim you find incredible; and (3) beware of scholars who make amazing claims about history but who are not experts in the period, or aren’t even experienced historians at all. That three-step guideline provides a basic inoculation against most bad history” (p.17). This is sound advice, and Carrier seems at times to be aware that it blows most if not all current treatments of Jesus by mythicists out of the water.

Carrier proceeds to list twelve key axioms of historical method, followed by twelve rules to be followed. I will not list all the points, but will focus on those most directly relevant to the question of whether there was a historical Jesus. On the subject of seeking consensus among historians and scholars, Carrier writes, “This process cannot be bypassed, as specialists in a field are the most qualified to assess an argument in that field, so if they cannot be persuaded, no one should be (unless their resistance can be proven – not merely assumed – to have other motives than truth-seeking). Conversely, if they are persuaded, everyone else has a very compelling reason to agree (unless, again, their acceptance can be proven – not merely assumed – to have other motives than truth-seeking). This is the social function and purpose of having such experts in the first place” (p.21).  Carrier even articulates as a separate axiom that “an effective consensus of qualified experts constitutes meeting an initial burden of evidence” because “it is far more unlikely that an incorrect argument would persuade a hundred experts than that it would persuade only one; and it’s far more unlikely that it would persuade any expert than that it would persuade even a hundred amateurs” (p.29).

If the internet mythicists of today were to take this advice to heart, they might work on trying to actually publish scholarly works in appropriate venues, instead of complaining about their being dismissed in a manner that Carrier rightly says is appropriate when people without relevant expertise try to bypass peer review and scholarly discussion and promote their ideas directly to a public ill prepared to assess them. Even if the majority of scholars might still disagree with them if they did this, that is the risk those who propose new theories take, and at least they would not remain a pseudoscholarly group seeking to bypass the academy and appeal directly to the masses with arguments that do not pass muster as scholarship, but would have begun to approach the matter in a scholarly fashion.

There are many other points which Carrier makes which likewise sound the death-knell of mythicism in its currently-popular forms (for instance, his point on p.39 about not relying on pre-1950 scholarship and focusing on work more recent than 1970), and Carrier’s genuinely scholarly stance on these matters, given his sympathy towards mythicism, is incredibly refreshing.

After the chapter on Bayes’ Theorem, the next chapter uses that theorem to assess the validity of historical methods, and the chapter after that focuses on the criteria of authenticity articulated in the quest for the historical Jesus. Carrier joins with other scholars and historians in criticizing the criteria. But Carrier sometimes agrees with scholarly criticisms of the criteria that ought to seem less impressive in light of his Bayesian analysis and the points he had already made in his book. For instance, the fact that we do not have a complete and comprehensive background against which to determine what would have been embarrassing to early Christians is by Carrier’s own statements irrelevant, since a Bayesian approach assesses probability based on the evidence we have. If new evidence comes to light, we change our analysis if necessary, but we ought to proceed based on the evidence we have, as Carrier acknowledged elsewhere in the book. And so I found myself puzzled as to why this point did not lead him to defend certain criteria against this irrelevant criticism.

His treatment of the criterion of embarrassment seemed particularly problematic in view of his use of a softer form of it elsewhere in the book. Indeed, in discussing a fictional ancient person in chapter 6, he finds it persuasive to argue in terms of “the absence of any likely or discernible reason for the story as we have it to have been made up (by the historian or his source)” (p.253). Yet in his treatment of the criterion of embarrassment – which focuses on things which are not merely indifferent to an author, and so unlikely to have been invented, but things which are even less likely to have been invented because they run counter to the author’s or his community’s aims – Carrier claims that anything included in an early Christian work must have been worth including and therefore could not have been embarrassing. But by this token, any detail in any text seemed worth including to its author, and could therefore be deemed suspect. And so Carrier needs to apply to the early Christian sources the same principles and standards of evaluation he himself recommends.

I could make similar point about other aspects of Carrier’s treatment of the criteria, but this example seems to most glaringly illustrate the disconnect between his affirmed methodological principles and what he actually does with the historical quest for Jesus. And so we see that, in spite of his working with Bayes’ Theorem, this does not in practice prevent Carrier from falling back into the sorts of apologetic arguments that have been the bane of attempts to study Jesus in any sort of dispassionate, scientifically rigorous kind of way. But perhaps it does show that Carrier is right when he suggests that Bayesian analysis can be helpful in drawing attention to those places where one’s argument is problematic. Carrier’s own arguments in places are found wanting by posing the questions and demanding the logically consistent treatment that a Bayesian approach calls for.

If in his second volume, Carrier actually rigorously applies to the early Christian sources the methods he outlined in this book, then it will in all likelihood be a fantastic volume. But if he is faithful to his Bayesian logic, it will not be a book that supports mythicism, the idea that there was no historical Jesus at all behind the later mythologized and legendary portraits of him. Either way, Carrier will also need to get to grips with a wider array of relevant textual sources about ancient Judaism. In some instances, Carrier works with English translations, seemingly unaware of possible dogmatic influences that may have influenced the translation. He even continues to make reference to the long-discredited idea that Jesus was thought of as “God” or “a god” by his earliest followers – as though this were not precisely the sort of place where a critical scholar, unencumbered by faith commitments, ought to see claims to the contrary for what they are, namely the anachronistic influence of dogmatic credal statements of later orthodoxy on an earlier period where they are not applicable and do not fit the evidence.

He also continues to discuss whether “messiahs” (i.e. anointed figures like kings and high priests) could die – something that no one to my knowledge has ever disputed – rather than focusing on the smaller set (again, as his Bayesian approach requires) of the specific type of anointed one that the earliest Christians claimed, namely a Davidic anointed one, the figure expected to restore and rule the kingdom of his forefather David. There is no text from this period which suggests that the individual of Davidic descent who was expected to restore the dynasty of David to the throne was also expected to fail before achieving that by getting executed by foreign rulers. The only way to argue that this was more likely invented is to say that anything in a text could be invented – which is true, but it is not a valid piece of Bayesian reasoning. This is true of all texts, in theory, and an “explanation” that can fit any evidence has little or no explanatory value in and of itself. The question is whether it is more likely that a group who followed a messianic claimant of the sort we know appeared in this period in history made sense of his failure by giving his execution of positive interpretation, or whether it is more likely that a group invented a purely fictional failed Davidic anointed one and set about trying to persuade their contemporaries to believe in him. To every scholar with a substantial background in early Christianity or ancient Judaism, the choice seems a no-brainer.

Carrier will likewise need to apply rigorous Bayesian analysis of likelihoods of the meanings mainstream scholars and mythicists give to the reference to “James the brother of the Lord” in Galatians. If one considers “brother of the Lord” to be distinct from “brother in the Lord” then the matter already seems fairly clear (see e.g. John 2:12). But if one considers the depiction of Jesus calling his disciples “brothers” (see e.g. Matthew 12:49) makes it possible that “brothers of the Lord” was a way of referring to them, then we must ask whether the term is more likely to have been used to differentiate James from Peter if this was the meaning. As Carrier emphasizes, in a Bayesian analysis, the question must be which is more likely given the evidence, and whether the same evidence would be as likely if an alternative explanation were the case. But time and again, when it comes to the matter of the historical Jesus and the evidence that there was such a figure, Carrier falls back on arguments that do not reflect the rigorous Bayesian logic he calls for historians to use.

This will be most glaring if Carrier fails to conclude in his second volume that it is far more likely that, when Paul wrote that Jesus was “born of a woman” (like all human beings) and “born under the Law” (i.e. Jewish) and “of David according to the flesh” and so on, he believed Jesus had been a human being who appeared in history. If Carrier’s method can take such relatively straightforward mundane statements, and claim that they more likely refer to things that transpired in a celestial realm, then Carrier will have showed that his method does nothing to add rigor to historical study – not necessarily because Bayesian reasoning is flawed, but at least because it will have become clear that even being a vigorous advocate for Bayesian reasoning will not prevent one from being illogical, when one has spent too much time using and listening to apologetic-style arguments of whatever sort.

But sticking to examples that come up in this volume, another place where Carrier fails to be true to his own principles and shows a glaring lack of familiarity with relevant scholarship is in his discussion of Jesus’ alleged connection with Nazareth. On the one hand, his use of Rene Salm’s self-published armchair opinions (p.142) is at variance with his emphasis on both the need for relevant expertise (Salm has no qualifications or experience relevant to either the archaeological or the linguistic matters on which he comments, and regularly gets things wrong), and the appropriateness of ignoring fringe claims with little probability of being correct when doing Bayesian calculations. Carrier’s own linguistic deficiencies become apparent when he treats Irenaeus’ account of the symbolic meaning given by Gnostics to words  as indicative of the actual meaning of those words (p.142). While there is a legitimate line of investigation about the relationship between the various forms of Nazareth and terms allegedly associated with it (in particular Nazorean), without the relevant background in Semitic linguistics, the matter is not going to be given a plausible explanation, and because of his lack of background and expertise in this particular area, Carrier seems unable to discern when Salm is offering him bunk packaged to look to the non-expert eye like scholarship.

But perhaps most telling is when, with respect to Matthew 2:23 and the possibility of a connection with Nazareth deriving from prophecy, Carrier writes, “Unless Matthew was lying…” (p.144). Even a cursory familiarity with scholarship on Matthew would make one aware that Matthew almost certainly was lying – or if not, then had experienced a lapse of memory. The “prophecy” Matthew appeals to here is not found in any known Scripture. Moreover, most of the alleged connections between Scriptural texts and Nazareth (proposing connections with words like “branch” or the Nazirite vow) are linguistically tenuous, and in most cases they are mentioned in discussion of Matthew 2:23 precisely in an unpersuasive attempt to salvage Matthew from having lied or been mistaken, by proposing any possible connection with an actual text, however slim the link. Carrier’s willingness to accept Matthew’s claim about prophecy when there is no known text in view, but not Matthew’s mundane claims about things Jesus said and did even when they are unlikely to have been invented, shows an inconsistency. The problem is perhaps due to a lack of familiarity with the scholarly study of these texts, which is a vast field and a challenging one for an outside to try to become familiar with – that is true of most scholarly fields, many of which have not seen the voluminous output for which Biblical studies is renowned/notorious. But that is precisely why Carrier advised, here in his own book, that detailed familiarity with relevant background information and scholarship is crucial to assessing probabilities.

And so the next volume will provide a crucial test for all that is good (and some of it really is very helpful) in this first volume. If Carrier applies rigorous Bayesian logic to the matters mentioned above, and to other comparable cases, we will perhaps at long last be able to put this mythicist nonsense aside and focus where we ought, namely on seeing whether these methods can help sift out specious reasoning to lead to solid conclusions about the historical Jesus. If these rigorous logical methods don’t enable Carrier to see through where mythicist reasoning is illogical and faulty, then Carrier will not only fail to make a persuasive case for mythicism, but he will also demonstrate that his proposed methods do not actually correct for faulty reasoning or bias in the way that he hoped. Because ultimately, as was said above, Bayes’ Theorem only helps if the human beings who utilize it do so correctly, fairly and logically.

But while we wait for that second volume, it will be very valuable for scholars and historians to interact with Carrier’s current volume, with its proposed methods and its claims both persuasive and unpersuasive, and to provide feedback to Carrier himself. Carrier has a blog, where he posts on occasion about topics that he is working on. Among the offerings on his website is a Bayesian calculator which allows one to work through the logical structure of the theorem verbally rather than using symbolic notation. The more scholars interact with Carrier now, pointing out instances where a greater knowledge of relevant background material leads one more naturally to a different conclusion, or where he is not being true to his own stated principles and methods, the more likely it is that the second volume will actually offer something of benefit to the quest for the historical Jesus, assuming, that is, that Carrier is open to critical feedback from scholars working in this field, in the manner that he says that historians need to be.


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  • Mark Erickson

    “But by this token, any detail in any text seemed worth including to its author, and could therefore be deemed suspect.” I don’t follow that argument. Why would any detail in any text be deemed suspect?

    • On the one hand, Carrier accepts in other cases unrelated to early Christianity the reasoning that, if an author had no reason to make something up, then that can be part of a logical deductive case that the author did not make that up. But in relation to the NT sources, he says that anything that is included must have been worth including and so could not have been embarassing or problematic and thus could have simply been invented. If this line of argument were applied universally, it would undermine and discount all Carrier’s other cases as well. If the author included it, it was desirable to include it, therefore we should suspect that they invented it. If that logic applies, it applies to all literature and not just early Christian sources, and undermines any historical deduction in which our evidence is textual.

      Does that clarify my point?

    • Actually, I think I can be clearer and more succinct even than that.

      On pp.252-3 Carrier offers a fictional case as an illustration, and says that one argument that would persuade him was if the ancient historian who wrote the account had no reason to make it up.

      On p.134 Carrier says that anything that an author included was by definition worth including and thus would have been worth fabricating.

      Both cannot be sound reasoning. Either authors may have reason to include things they would not have invented, or they only included things that they would have invented. If the latter, then one cannot use the argument Carrier does on p.253 to argue that material is unlikely to have been invented. Both claims cannot be true.

    • Mark Erickson

      I think you may be misunderstanding the argument on p.134, but I’ll have to get my copy later and check it out. I don’t think he argued the “and thus” part of “he says that anything that is included must have been worth including
      and so could not have been embarrassing or problematic and thus could
      have simply been invented.”

      • Right, and if that logic works, then how can there be anything that an author is unlikely to have invented? Those things that are unlikely to have been invented because of embarrassment are a subset of that which is unlikely to have been invented for any number of reasons. If anything that was worth including was by definition worth inventing, then there can be nothing in the category of things not worth inventing. I find the attempt to argue that problematic, in addition to finding the inconsistency in Carrier’s handling of the two cases problematic.

      • Mark Erickson

        Yup, you’ve misunderstood. I admit the last sentence below is not immediately clear, but if you think about it a bit, it is unambiguous. “if a statement was embarrassing, then why is it in the text at all? You have to explain why this author included something contrary to his supposed editorial tendency. Yet any such explanation will entail as much reason to invent it as record it.” He is saying that there is a reason for everything appearing in a text, and because of that,it doesn’t help you to disinguish between an invention and recording what happened. Carrier thus calls the criteria of embarrassment self-defeating.

        • No, I understood that. I don’t understand how one can say that, i.e. that anything an author included is by definition in accordance with the author’s intention and thus as likely to be invented as authentic, and then go on to claim/assume that there is a category of material which an author is unlikely to have invented. This seems to me inherently self-contradictory. Either things can be at odds with or indifferent to an author’s aims, and thus likely to be authentic for that reason, or everything included is in accord with an author’s aims by definition, in which case nothing can be argued to be authentic on the basis of authorial unlikelihood of having invented it.

          • Mark Erickson

            This isn’t an either/or problem. He is arguing against the Criteria of Embarrassment, which tries to claim that some material would be embarrassing, thus it is likely true. He says an author wouldn’t include anything embarrassing, so the criteria doesn’t help distinguish anything as true or invented. Thus one can’t use embarrassment for arguing that something is true. (He has two other arguments against what he abbreviates as EC) But as you understand, his argument for the truthfulness of material in the other case is not based on embarrassment, but on the evaluation of whether the author had anything to gain by making up the material. If not, that is one argument for truthfulness. It should be stated that Carrier says all cases of EC are invalid. While his other case is just one argument and I’m sure he doesn’t take it as dispositive. He would likely state that it is not very strong evidence. There is no contradiction here. And if there is one thing to be careful about, is accusing Carrier of being contradictory. The prior probability is extremely low.

          • Have you read the book? Carrier claims that the criterion of embarrassment cannot even be used in conjunction with other criteria in order to make a case for historicity, and so if he was using the weaker form of simply “no reason to invent” (EC is “reason not to invent”) then he is still not being consistent with his own stated methodological principles. And to be frank, the treatment later in the book is fine, it is the apologetics-style attempt to deny historians’ reasoning about Jesus when he admits that reasoning elsewhere that is the problem.

            Carrier also does not take seriously enough the fact that the literature he is discussing was that of a group trying to persuade others to embrace their beliefs about who Jesus was. This creates a context in which inconvenient and embarrassing material would need to be dealt with, since there were opponents of the Christian movement who would have brought such things up and kept the memory of them alive.

            I appreciate that you may want very badly for Carrier to be right about this. But you yourself are repeating his self-contradictory argument. Either an author may have had reason to include things that they had nothing to gain by making up, including but not limited to embarrassing material, or they by definition only included what they would have gained from making up. Both cannot be correct.

          • Mark Erickson

            Yes, I’ve read the book. His argument about whether an author had a reason to invent something is not a weaker form of EC. Did you notice that it doesn’t involve embarrassment? Your statement saying “no reason to invent” is a weaker version of EC (= “reason not to invent”) shows your confusion. There is no valid “reason not to invent”. And this claim has no bearing on whether “no reason to invent” is valid or not. (Again, Carrier would agree that it’s a weak argument, easily overshadowed by others, such as independent attestation).

            Another point is that Carrier says all uses of EC are invalid. (BTW, using an invalid criterion with other valid criteria doesn’t make the case any better). So he wouldn’t use a weaker version of an invalid argument.

            If you care to argue for the validity of EC, please, be my guest. “This creates a context in which inconvenient and embarrassing material would need to be dealt with, since there were opponents of the Christian movement who would have brought such things up and kept the memory of them alive.” That isn’t sufficient because it assumes that there was memory of embarrassing details to bring up and keep alive.

          • I am not sure whether you are confused about what the criterion of embarrassment is, or whether I am misunderstanding you. How can you say that there can be an absence of reason to invent something, but never a reason not to invent something? I do not understand what logic or reasoning, if any, is behind this claim. If a person is making claims about historical figures (and the Gospels clearly include some of these, whatever one’s view of the matter of a historical Jesus may be, but at any rate we are talking in the abstract at present) then on what grounds can you argue that a person could never have a valid reason or motive to not invent something about such people? If they can lack a reason to invent something, that includes the possibility of having a reason to invent something. So what is the logic behind saying that having a reason to not invent something is an impossibility?

            ADDENDUM: Just to clarify, when I talked about an author not having a reason to invent something, and that being a relevant consideration as far as assessment of historicity is concerned, I meant that that is a weaker motivation to not include something than actually having a reason not to invent something. I was not referring to the logical argument in the one case being weaker than the other, although there is a sense in which this is true. If not having any reason to invent something suggests historicity, all other things being equal, then having a reason not to invent suggests historicity even more strongly, since there is not merely absence of motive but disincentive.

            But again, the heart of the matter is this: if you accept Carrier’s claim that anything that was included by definition was worth the author inventing, then his claim that there are some things which an author had no reason to invent is logically excluded. I don’t understand why you are having so much difficulty grasping my point here, unless you simply don’t want to. I realize that many people have a vested interest in Jesus not existing, since they find it hard to separate out the matter of a historical figure behind the Gospels from the Jesus of the Gospels and later doctrinal, dogmatic, supernatural, and other claims. But the two really are separate, and must be treated as such.

          • Mark Erickson

            “if you accept Carrier’s claim that anything that was included by definition was worth the author inventing” I do not accept that Carrier made this claim! He says anything that was included by definition was not embarrassing. Full stop. His argument against EC in this self-defeating case (remember, he has two other cases) is finished. The rest is just commentary. You are confusing the next step, which says thus any piece of text doesn’t argue for or against its veracity by the fact of its being included (which is trivial), with the other argument, which says if an author had no reason to invent a piece of text, that can be (weak) evidence that it is true. I don’t think I can make it any clearer than that.

          • “In other words, that it was preserved at all entails Christians must have also had a reason to invent it that would have overcome any embarrassment it created – the very same reasin they would have had to preserve it if it were true” (p.136). My point is that by this same reasoning, anything worth preserving was worth inventing, and so if this is a logical criticism of the reasoning behind expecting something embarrassing to be more likely traditional than invented, then it applies all the more to things for which no case for embarrassment can be made at all.

            Seriously speaking, do you think that Carrier would have accepted the reasoning he offers about his fictional Matthias on pp.252-3 if the figure under discussion had been Jesus of Nazareth? My main point is that Carrier’s more rigorous methods and explicit statement that ad hoc objections do not lessen the probability of historicity, are not being carried through into the discussion of Jesus. He is using the reasoning of internet apologists, not that of mainstream historians, much less historians with more rigorous methods.

          • Mark Erickson

            “My point is that by this same reasoning, anything worth preserving was worth inventing” Nooooooo! That’s a non sequitur. In fact, I think it’s incoherent. Can you give an example? The quote only means embarrassment doesn’t make a valid distinction between truth or invention. That’s it. You are inventing the connection to Carrier’s other argument.

          • Carrier explicitly says that anything that the author would have found worth preserving, they would have found worth fabricating. And so there is, if Carrier is right about this, no valid argument based on the unlikelihood of someone having invented something. I am simply showing how Carrier’s own reasoning undermines his own deductive inferences.

            Again, if one is willing to posit ad hoc explanations and propose motives for fabrication even when we have no evidence that an author had that motive, then one can thereby discount any and all authors’ information. If Carrier wants to provide improved methods then they need to be applicable to and then applied to Jesus in the same way as to any other figure from ancient history.

            So let me pose a question back at you, based on what you wrote. If something having apparently been embarrassing for Christians does not make unlikely that they would have simply invented it, then are there any grounds on which you could say that anything at all is unlikely to have been fabricated, in any ancient literature about a comparable figure?

          • Mark Erickson

            Please give me the explicit quote please.

            Again, “if” and “then” are unrelated. If = that something was embarrassing for Christians makes it likely they invented it. So “if” is the opposite of the EC? Are you trying to argue that Carrier must believe this since he rejects EC? In any case, “if” isn’t true. Then = can I validly argue that anything is likely to be true yadda yadda…. Yes, I can.

            A correction: Carrier has 4 problems making up the general inadequacy of the criterion of embarrassment, not 3. These take up pages 126 to 138. Then he uses 6 examples about Jesus to show specific problems, running to page 155. Two pages of summary and that makes 33 pages dealing with EC. You’ve written about one problem of the general inadequacy. (yes you discuss historical issues from the 1 of the examples, but not the application of the EC)

          • I didn’t follow your first paragraph, as it seemed to be suggesting that I wrote the opposite of what I did (likely as opposed to unlikely).

            I am aware that Carrier has other objections and I am happy to move on to discussing them if we can reach clarity on the current point. So let me ask again: if nothing can be so embarrassing as to be unlikely to have been invented, because inclusion by definition means that detail was worth inventing, then how can one say that something that was included was so indifferent as to not be worth fabricating, since (as per the previous argument) if it was worth including, it was by defition wrth inventing? What is your argument against my point that the same objection Carrier makes to the one works at least as well against the other?

          • Mark Erickson

            Tried answering above. Will start anew tomorrow.

  • Mark Erickson

    “the more likely it is that the second volume will actually offer something of benefit to the quest for the historical Jesus, assuming, that is,” that there is an historical Jesus.

    • After having drawn that conclusion by applying appropriate Bayesian reasoning to the sources as Carrier advocates that we ought to.

  • Gary

    On Carrier’s blog, “Right now it only allows running calculations with two-digit probabilities from .01 to .99 (or 1% and 99%), so you can’t use it for odds outside that range (for example, you can’t see what happens when the prior is 1 in 1,000 or 1 in 1,000,000 or when a consequent is even closer to 100% than 99%). But future versions of the page might have those features.”… A sign of a true optimist. Future plans for assigning probabilities on input data down to 1 in 1,000,000. And the input data is something written by someone, or multiple someones, 2000 years ago. The experts can’t even agree on what the writers meant, let alone assigning probabilities that it is true or false. Good luck.

  • Ian

    There’s a lot of magical thinking about Bayes theory in humanities, and your review doesn’t give me any confidence that Carrier is any better.

    Bayes formula just inverts conditional probability: what is the probability of A given B, if all I know is the probability of B given A? It DOES NOT allow you to determine the probability of A given B, based on estimates of the other quantities in the formula. You may as well just estimate the probability you’re looking for. You will be more accurate if you do.

    So to use Bayes, how on earth can you assert that you can determine the probability of seeing a certain pattern of evidence given some historical event, with more accuracy than of the historical event given the evidence?

    It is harder, surely. A fact reflected in the fact that we even have a whole logical fallacy named after trying to figure out the inverse: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

    Your characterization of why Carrier argues that Bayes theory is applicable seems totally spurious to me (I will, of course, read the book in due course).

    “we are not being less precise than we already are”,

    Oh yes, yes you are. Very much so. The error margin of a result of applying Bayes theorem to a set of uncertain inputs will be far, far, far bigger than the error margins of those inputs. This quotation is a dead cert for someone who doesn’t understand what they’re talking about. He’d fail to defend any thesis in a science discipline with crap like that, straight off.

    Having a methodology where you are forced to enumerate and consider alternate explanations for evidence is all well and good. Once you start putting probability values on them, you’ve left reality behind.

    • If you manage to read the book, I will be interested to hear your thoughts on it. And perhaps Carrier will offer you some conversation on this point – I would be interested to hear how he would respond to your comments.

    • Mark Erickson

      He’d respond that Ian doesn’t know what he’s talking about. There is a YouTube of Carrier giving a talk on Bayes, watch it and then come on back to voice your opinion.

      • Ian

        “He’d respond that Ian doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Well I’ve been debating creationists long enough to know that most dilettantes don’t like being disagreed with by people who, you know, have actually done stuff for real.

        But that’s by the by – I agree with some of Carrier’s conclusions, but there are two problems with the video.

        1. the way he uses “Bayes Theory” is so broad that it basically for him seems to mean “probabilistic reasoning”, e.g. at 14:00 he actually has a slide saying “Bayes Theorem // Probability its true = times its true / (times its true + times its false)” – that is just bizarre.

        2. it is notable in the entire of his skepticon talk that he doesn’t give a single argued basis for calculating one of his historical probabilities. From his first example at 18:00 he literally waves his hands through the whole talk! Bayes theory doesn’t help you if you can’t correctly calculate probabilities. The error you get out will be a non-linear function of the errors in the input probability distributions. This is *not* an equation to plug guesses into!

        The whole talk is a well-meaning massacre of probability theory. There is the share of downright falsehoods (the probability of something happening is ‘totally irrelevant’ to Bayes rule, even though it is the first term in his version of the numerator – he makes this cock up because he is interpreting the *result* of bayes rule correctly as having this quantity in numerator and denominator, whereupon it largely *but not entirely* cancels itself out – i.e. he again isn’t talking about Bayes formula at all, but just a slightly sloppy version of prior probabilities), but most of it is just indelecate, imprecise use of the math in ways that are clearly designed to be polemic and not rigorous.

        If you think I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m happy to get very, very specific on this. There is no excuse for trading on mathematical illiteracy, any more than creationists can trade off scientific ignorance. Not even if the conclusions are *approximately* correct.

        • Mark Erickson

          Bayes’s Theorem is an equation. Equations have a more specific meaning than just use probabilistic reasoning.

          But to your examples: The slide at 14:00 is explained as the “ultimate ultimate reduced concept of Bayes’s Theorem.” And it’s not bizarre. That is how you show that you don’t know what you’re talking about. An example – 9 red marbles and 1 black marble in a jar. What is the probability of drawing a red marble? The math is so simple here it’s easy to just say 90%. But how is 90% calculated? Well, you take the number of red marbles divided by the total number of marbles. The total number of marbles is the number of red plus black marbles. 9 / (9+1) = .90 = 90%. (did that middle step confuse you?) And what do you know? That’s what is shown on the bottom of the same slide! To get back to the top of that slide, substitute “draw a red marble” for “true” and “draw a black marble” for “false” and you get the equation you call bizarre.

          • Ian

            Oh my, really? Seriously? You’ve got to be parodying yourself surely?

            My PhD was in mathematics of evolution. In particular I studied the statistical and probabilistic dynamics of genetic regulatory networks and within in that I identified and quantified a particular form of non-selective probabilistic bias in modular models of regulatory function. So forgive me if I assume you have no clue what you’re talking about when you say that Bayes theorem is about working out the probability of drawing a red marble from a jar by dividing the number of positive events by the total number of events! I get you obviously have some deep ideological sympathy for Carrier, but please go and learn some actual math before making an idiot of yourself like this. There are resources out there, courses on probability theory that cover the basics and good books on Bayesian interpretation of probability and its applicability to knowledge representation.

            “If you could get specific with when in the talk Carrier massacres probability theory, I’d be happy to guide you through where you are wrong.” Oh the humanity!

          • Mark Erickson

            Dude. Spare me your impressive credentials and try to refute my point. Is “Probability its true = times its true / (times its true + times its false)” really bizarre? How so?

            And you said you’d be happy to get “very, very specific.” Why the sudden reluctance?

          • Ian

            “Probability its true = times its true / (times its true + times its false)”

            Is a frequentist definition of a probability. It is bizarre to give the definition of a probability and describe it as Bayes theorem at all, which is a theorem relating conditional probabilities to their priors. It is doubly bizarre when Bayes theorem, and the kind of Bayesian reasoning Carrier wants to do with it, uses a specifically non-frequentist interpretation of probability anyway. (i.e. in a Bayesian interpretation of probability, probability does not actually mean the frequency of an observed event). Few of the uses of Bayesian inference (a separate thing again) use frequentism. .

            “Why the sudden reluctance?” Because you decided to be an asshat, which is usually a good indication of someone discussing in bad faith. Because you think that you have a ‘point’ that needs to be refuting. And because your response indicated that you are suffering from a level of Dunning-Kruger that makes me pessimistic that you’ll have enough foundational knowledge to even bother engaging you. Let’s see.

          • Mark Erickson

            I get the frequentist vs. Bayesian thing. But your impressive knowledge is leading you astray here. Carrier doesn’t need to even broach the distinction to explain how to use Bayes’ Theorem for historical inference. Frequentist is most people’s understanding of probability and Carrier said he was super simplifying things, remember?

            I ass-umed (and made an ass-hat out of you) that no one would criticize Carrier’s presentation to a general public audience on the basis of PhD math and ignore pedagogy. But if you’re a hammer, everything’s a nail.

            Maybe instead of showing where Carrier massacres probability theory, you could tell me how that matters to explaining the use of Bayes’ Theorem for historical inference.

          • Ian

            Cool, back to a bit more civil conversation then.

            Interesting how we’ve gone from “you’re an idiot you don’t know anything, let me teach you basic math”, to “you know too much and are being unduly pedantic”. Because, you know, as long as I’m wrong, it really doesn’t matter how, does it? Clearly you’re in the goldilocks zone for understanding this: not too little knowledge, not too much, but just the right amount.

            The ‘super-simplified’ version isn’t Bayes theorem at all, and is not even a simplification of it, regardless of the interpretation. Bayes isn’t a ratio of counts at all, it is a ratio of probabilities, and the semantics aren’t the same. In other words, Carrier here has looked for something else with a similar formula, and he presents the two as being somehow connected, when they aren’t. In fact it is worse, because he’s had to specifically expand Bayes theorem into a non-normative form to make it fit. This is sympathetic magic, that is bizarre.

            I think he is deliberately obfuscating Bayes theorem so he can hide the rabbit of his presuppositions in the hat then pull it out as if it had some scientific or mathematical credibility. William Lane Craig does just the same when he uses Bayes theorem to prove the resurrection.

            Bayes theorem *is* used in knowledge representation theory to determine the quality of a conclusion based on some evidence. If you do real Bayesian analysis with real data, you have to be able empirically quantify everything, which in turn means you need good grounds to adopt a closed-world hypothesis on the data. None of this is possible with this kind of textual historical data (too many Black Swans).

            And that is even before you consider error. For almost all manipulations of probability density functions you get an increase in error. When you have division terms, as in Bayes, this can increase *dramatically*. When you have denominators close to zero (as in applying Bayes to unlikely events), you basically lose all signal with even a modest input error.

            In other words, if you put guesses into Bayes formula, you get *much* worse guesses out. Even pretty good guesses as input can give you provable rubbish at the end.

            The only time Bayes is useful is if you can make a *much* better guess at the inputs than you could at the outputs. If, for example, you could do a much better guess at the probability that Jesus was Resurrected, and the probability that you would see the Evidence regardless of cause, and the probability that you’d see then given Evidence in the case of the Resurrection (the three inputs to Bayes) than you could guess at the probability he was Resurrected, given the Evidence (obviously the same in Carriers case for the historical Jesus). It seems very obvious that is a joke, and I’ve not seen either Carrier or Craig even attempt to quantify errors in their inputs. They just talk as if Bayes is a magical process where guesses go in one end and an meaningful number comes out the other.

            Bayes is *not* a reasonable choice for what Carrier or Craig do with it. They are trading on the mathematical naivety of their audience to try to convince them that they have some mathematical basis for their conclusions. Those of us who aren’t mathematically naive have a responsibility to call them on it, even if we agree with most of their conclusions.

            If they had some way of solving this issue, some genuine way of applying Bayes to historical, partly specified data, under an open-world assumption, it would big a *very big deal*. All of the worlds biggest companies spend tens of millions of dollars every year on reasoning with large data-sets. All of them use Bayes theorem to invert conditional probabilities. If there were some way to get sensible results out of contingent, imperfectly specified inputs, it would be huge. If I had found that, I sure as hell wouldn’t be using it to publish a book on the Historical Jesus! But once again, like all pseudo-scholars, the outlet for these ideas is in a polemical book aimed at general readers rather than in peer-reviewed scholarship or in a real commercial context with testable results.

            Hopefully that is specific enough.

          • Mark Erickson

            Well, I did make the mistake that you were critiquing the talk on the level that it operated at. A course correction was needed. I agree that application of Bayes’ Theorem to history is not accepted in the academy. And just so you know, a group of people gave Carrier $20,000 to publish a book applying Bayes’ Theorem to the historical Jesus debate, so that’s what he’s doing. This is the groundwork on BT, the next book applies it to HJ.

            All that said, your criticism is still off base. In the book, Carrier makes clear that he is using BT to improve the quality of historical arguments. He says that all valid historical arguments reduce to BT. Also, it should be used because all historians implicitly use numeric probabilities in their evidence and conclusions. It would be best if those probabilities were made explicit and open to debate.

            Currently, historical consensus is said to occur when a majority of scholars agree that a certain thing happened or what the reason it happened was. Carrier wants to impose another condition on the conclusions. How sure are we about that? Enter BT. I agree he didn’t figure out “sensible results out of contingent, imperfectly specified inputs.” (I take sensible to mean a solution to the types of problems global corporations would like answers to) And, he didn’t say that he was even trying to.

            I’ll have to watch the video again now that I’ve read the book, so if you have any other particular problem with the video, let me know. Better yet, read the book and get back to me. If you want it, I’ll get you my email address.

          • Ian

            Again you take a lead at calming the tone, thanks.

            So is Carrier claiming that if you do put numbers on these guesses, you’ll get usable results? I’ve read a couple of things he’s written, seen that talk, and read reviews, and it seemed to me he was arguing that. Sorry to him if I’ve misunderstood or misrepresented him. If he is saying that, he’s wrong. Or at least, he needs to show how.

            “He says that all valid historical arguments reduce to BT. ”

            I get the sense, then, that he is just using ‘BT’ to mean ‘probabilistic reasoning’. He’s using the term Bayes theorem just because it happens to be one of the few conditional probabilistic identities with a name.

            So maybe what he is saying (or should be saying) is this:

            The probability that your explanation is right is larger if the explanation is itself likely; an explanation that is improbable is less likely to be right. But on the other hand, no matter how unlikely the explanation, your confidence can be high if your evidence that is very unusual.

            Or, simply, Truzzi’s rule: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

            I think there are still dangers, even so. Three of them spring to mind.

            1. I’ve read a fair bit of history, and I don’t get the sense that explanations are arrived at in a vacuum. If historians are guessing probabilities implicitly, they are guessing both sides of the equation, as it were, so quantifying any individual bit doesn’t help. This is the magic trick I’ve seen Craig pull – he leads you to agree that a few basic probabilities are reasonable then puts them through BT and ends up proving the resurrection. “You can’t dispute the conclusion!” he says, “you agreed with all the premises”. I think real historians (and for that matter any reasoning about probability in a non-closed-world) don’t work that way. I think they use the result to change the premises until they reach something that feels right. And I think that is not an unreasonable approach.

            2. Historians and anyone outside narrow fields of applied maths, use much richer forms of argumentation than conditional probabilities. [edit: I removed a long screed on other probabilistic logics …] the upshot is that I think probability theory is a terrible way to model historical arguments. The worst outcome of this mismatch would be to then argue that certain types of historical reasoning are not sensible or valid, because they perform badly under probabilistic analysis. I’m not sure I’ve communicated this well, but hopefully you see there is a cart-before-horse problem here.

            3. You also don’t have to quantify things to work with them. Bayes theorem (like many other logical formalisms) works under the closed-world assumption. You cannot calculate a probability unless you can close the world. This is normally done by assuming that a subset of the world is closed for the purpose of your analysis. But real historical reasoning is not closed. It is not closed in extent or intent. In other words, there are always other situations which can impinge upon the probabilities. There may be an infinite number of infinitesimally unlikely events, for example. And for any given set of possible explanations, there may be an infinite set of intermediate explanations, so it isn’t clear one is even dealing with a valid categorization. The upshot of both is that the probability of *any* historical explanation being correct is going to be essentially zero. Instead, historical probability estimates are probably better dealt with as a partially ordered set. In other words, historians deal with what is more likely or less likely, and don’t *need* to worry about how likely. You could produce a mathematical model of historical reasoning under that assumption. I’m not sure I could see how one could argue that it isn’t at least as valid.

            So, I get the idea about trying to help historians think about probability theory. I am *all for* improving mathematical literacy in the humanities. But from what I’ve read and seen of Carrier his goal seems to be more to use these things to present his presuppositions as having some mathematical merit, which they don’t. In the video, for example, he seems to be suggesting that BT allows him to prove the non-existence of God. That is why he comes across as a charlatan to me. If I have him wrong, then mea culpa. I will read this book.

            As for email – my blog is at If you just post a comment anywhere with your email in it, I’ll email you and delete the comment so it isn’t public. Don’t really want to post my email on here!

          • Mark Erickson

            Do read the book. It sounds like WLC has poisoned the well of BT for you. I didn’t know he used it. After refuting him and creationists, I’m sure it would be like a Calgon bath-tub experience to read Carrier.

            He’s not just using BT for conditional probability. He really goes into detail about how it works and how it subsumes all valid historical argument. He’s a logic guy, not a math guy. But really the math of BT is simple. He is saying what you think he may be saying.

            1. and 2. I’m going to let you go to Carrier to figure out. 3. “There may be an infinite number of infinitesimally unlikely events, for example.” Well, no there can’t be. Infinity doesn’t rear its head in historical reasoning. Lots of really small numbers still add up to a small number. That’s as far as you need to go. There aren’t intermediate explanations because BT will tell you how likely a certain well-formed hypothesis is true. If there are “intermediate” steps, they are a part of the other two variables, our background information and the evidence. You don’t need to go all set theory on this problem. And they should worry about how likely. That’s the point.

            I’m positive Carrier doesn’t think he can use BT to prove the non-existence of God. I’ll maybe re-watch the video and will probably skim the book again for some relevant info, if so, I’ll ping your website. Until then, check this out:

          • Ian

            Let’s pause then until I can finish the book. Nothing you’ve said or I’ve seen of Carrier has put any distance at all between Carrier and Craig’s use of BT, so far. And your third paragraph there is almost entirely untrue. On infinities (most non-trivial cases of probability are continuous, and therefore intrinsically infinite), on large and small numbers (a very odd claim, the counter is trivially proved), on the well-formedness of historical hypotheses (please define a mathematically well formed and complete hypothesis of something historical!), on what BT can tell you (c.f. errors in the preceding discussion), on the importance of set theory (all probability is w.r.t. a set – they are inseparable), and on the inapplicability of order stats (understandable – most folks have only ever done maths on numbers rather than other structures). A bit more knowledge would be helpful, I think. If I’m reading Carrier, I’d suggest you read some probability theory from a source other than Carrier. There are good reasons why this stuff isn’t common outside very specific areas of knowledge theory and why, if it were applicable to history, it would be applicable to far more juicy topics in human behavior.

          • Mark Erickson

            Fair enough. I knew I was going to be in trouble for using “well formed”! You’ve got me on the math, I’m just a wanna be. Good reading!

          • Mark Erickson

            Um, I made a huge boner. I got caught up in the debate with McGrath and forgot I hadn’t finished the book! I ended on page 256, which had just included the discussion of the hypothetical Matthias (see below for that), with two sections left, “The Role of Hypothetical Data in Determining Probability” and “Bayesianism as Epistemic Frequentism” totaling 14 pages. Now, don’t go rushing to conclusions based on the second section heading, although it just might be that Carrier waves his hand with a semantic trick. Rather, read this section first when you get the book.

          • MattB

            Have you read Carrier’s new book? I found it to be extremely problematic. I still don’t see how one can apply BT to historical studies.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Myself, I broke down and ordered it last week. Alas, I had to order through Amazon US, and it will take forever to get up here to Canada. But I don’t have high hopes for the argumentation.

          • MattB

            His book was written at an unnecessary length, I can tell you that.

          • Straw Man

            I realize this comment is two tears old, but I can’t resist–it’s a howler. Your calculation is correct, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with Bayes’ Theorem. It’s just the definition of probability. Bayes’ Theorem has nothing whatever to do with that. The theorem is for computing a specific CONDITIONAL probability (A given B), in circumstances that you know certain OTHER probabilities (B given A, and B itself).

            Carrier ‘s slide does indeed stick Bayes’ name on an elementary definition that has nothing whatever to do with Bayes.

        • Mark Erickson

          #2 is because the talk is on how Bayes’s Theorem works, he’s currently writing the book that applies Bayes’s Theorem to the HJ debate. You’ll just have to wait and read it when it comes out.

          If you could get specific with when in the talk Carrier massacres probability theory, I’d be happy to guide you through where you are wrong.

  • Breen

    Superb review, however, I’m afraid that the Bayesian approach even if properly applied would force us to deny very improbable events, even if they actually occurred! For example, an extremely strange event like a full solar eclipse would have to be rationally denied even if predicted and witnessed because the vast majority of days do not feature a moon-blocked sun! Or if someone got a perfect bridge hand in cards, we would be forced to deny the event because the probability of a perfect bridge hand is 1,635,013,599,600 to 1. What do you think, Dr. McGrath?

    • Michael Wilson

      Breen, I don’t think it forces you to deny, only that you can justly say it occured. It still deals in probilility. In the case of unusual events, we have to examine the probilities that people writing this are lying. One can still accept someting on faith, but it has to be achknoledged that it is only beleived on faith. When I watch crime documentaries am always impressed by the grieving parents that can’t beleive their son is a murderer.

      • Carrier claims that sufficient evidence can make the improbable probable. He gives the example of the darkness for a period of hours that the Gospels claim occurred when Jesus was crucified. Given the duration and conjunction with the full moon, the reference cannot be to an eclipse. The fact that no other text than those dependant on Mark mentions such a phenomenon, when we would expect the many astrologers and astronomers of the time to do so, indicates that it was almost certainly made up. But if there had been widespread reference, then however improbable we would have to concede that some such event had indeed occurred.

        I do not have the necessary background to assess the “Bayesianness” or otherwise of his reasoning, so I will leave that to others.

        • Ian

          Ah, interesting, so Carrier is using ‘Bayes theorem’ as a shorthand for any discussion of probabilistic cause and effect then? That makes a bit more sense.

          So he’s saying – look if X were the case, we’d expect to see Y. Therefore if we don’t see Y, we can deduce not X.

          This is A->B, not B, therefore not A. — basic logic.

          Certainly Bayes theorem can be used to quantify that syllogism (and many others) in probability theory, (i.e. if I know the probability distributions of the axioms, I can calculate the probability distribution of the conclusion), but it seems a bit over-egging to call that kind of reasoning an application of the formula.

        • Gary

          “He gives the example of the darkness for a period of hours that the Gospels claim occurred when Jesus was crucified.” Wait a minute. Who says THAT is the interpretation. Maybe it is just symbolic, like all of our hearts are dark, with the death of Jesus. Symbolic, just like most of Genesis. But “But if there had been widespread reference”, then there was widespread mourning for Jesus, not an actual event. So who is to say that it is an observable event, or a mutual mourning. You summed it up best with “Garbage in, garbage out”. Example… so I think the Gospel of Thomas says that the spirit of God resides in each of us. Irenaeus didn’t agree, and burned all the copies of the Gospel of Thomas. So Irenaeus provided a “forcing function” to develop the creeds. Probabilities cannot be assigned to such erratic behavior of humans. All the writings are subject to interpretation. Same as your frequent reference to a dome of water. Trying to assign a probability to it’s truth is rather useless. Garbage in, garbage out. Trying to fit input data into an equation to determine probabilities, based upon human “conjecture”, is futile. Resistance is futile. Borg’s know.

    • Ian

      Your objection is nothing at all to do with Bayes, it is just probability.

      If someone you’re playing bridge with ends up with a ‘perfect hand’, then I’d suggest it is much more likely there was cheating, or a mistake (new deck, forgot to shuffle) than it was a fair deal. Basic probability tells you that, without Bayes at all. In fact Bayes would be a particularly useless tool in that, since the conditional probability is just equal to the general probability.

      Probability is hard, it is counter-intuitive, put Bayes in the mix as if it were some magic spell that spits out dependable conclusions, and you’ve got a heady recipe for pseudoscientific math-babble. It annoys me to see in the same way as it annoys me when creationists misappropriate bits of biology to ‘prove’ or ‘strongly suggest’ evolution is wrong.

      • Breen

        But that’s precisely the problem; you could never believe in anything improbable. If someone ever got four aces, you would have to deny it every single time even if a player clearly got four aces. My objection doesn’t have to do with Bayes’ theorem itself, but in its application. And I know Carrier is applying it as a probability test; he’ going to come to certain supposed events in history, ask “Which is the more probable explanation?” and then make his conclusion. But that’s precisely the problem because if you do history like that, you can’t rationally affirm something like accounts of whaling sailors in the 1800s getting swallowed by whales, living in the stomach, and then getting rescued by fellow whalers when they split the stomach; Why? Because it’s more probable everyone just made the whole bloody thing up. With regards to creationists, I think it’s more that they’re just ill-informed.

        • Ian

          I still don’t see how correct application of Bayes forces you to deny improbable events.

          There’s a *big* difference between dealing a specific 52 card deal to hitting a four-ace poker hand. The former shouldn’t happen in the lifetime of the universe, the latter you’d expect to be happening on several poker tables around the word, right now. Most folks don’t have a good sense of the difference between odds of (say) 10,000:1, 10,000,000:1, or 10,000,000,000:1.

          One of the interesting things about real probability theory is that continuous probability distributions (the meat of it), every specific outcome has zero probability. But it doesn’t stop it working.

          I didn’t get the bit about whales. Are you saying those stories are true? I don’t see how you can estimate the probability of them being true enough to use probability as a tool at all in that case?

  • Gary

    I remember another study someone did, relating the statistics of the names on tombs in Jerusalem, connecting the names Jesus, Joseph, Mary, etc, trying to prove with a probability a particular tomb belonged to Jesus’s family. Can’t work, because the input data is contaminated. Humans name humans. Humans are not predictable. Names on a tomb are NOT independent variables. Christians can be in love with the Jesus story, and name their family members accordingly, but not be related at all. The tombs seen by us in the present day are not necessarily representative of all the tombs in Jerusalem. Maybe anti-christians purged tombs with Jesus family names (Moslems occupied Jerusalem for a long time). Maybe Jews and Romans did the same. Too many variable, none of which are independent. They are all, one way or another, dependent variables. So a probability assigned to a tomb based upon Jesus, Joseph, and Mary present means nothing. Assigning probabilities to events based upon a literary text is the same. Good luck. Because luck is all Carrier has going for him.

  • Mark Erickson

    I’ll start a new thread to discuss the other half of your comparison, the material on page 253. I’m going to produce a long quote, beginning on the bottom of page 252 to show how specious your argument is.

    “If we had a contemporary historian describing Matthias’s enterprises and success, depending on the content of that account we might be able to say that the probability that a historian would report such a story if it were false is substantially less than if it were true – enough, in fact, to conclude that more probably than not, the story is true. Factors that would convince me of this include: the very idea that someone could get rich that way suggests (at least more than chance) that it derives from some actual experience rather than fantasy; the specific details reported of how it was done, if they all track actual and otherwise obscure facts of the time (as that is much less likely for a fabrication); and the absence of any likely or discernible reason for the story as we have it to have been made up (by the historian or his source). These all constitute elements of [evidence in Bayes’s Theorem], and collectively they would be extremely improbable unless the story is true. That might be debatable – but the fruits of such a debate, with its inevitable focus on specific and comparative evidence and its logical significance, is precisely what I find of use in approaching such questions with [Bayes’s Theorem].”

    I don’t think I need to provide any other context or explication for every one who can read to see you cherry-picked your quotation (in italics). Did you really think no one would call you on this?

    • I don’t think you are grasping my point. If nothing can be genuinely embarrassing to an author if that author included it, then how can anything be genuinely indifferent to an author if they included it? I do not see how Carrier can logically dismiss the one without it implying the appropriateness of dismissing the other. The context clarifies what I am talking about, and so if you think that quoting it in full is “calling me” on “cherry picking” then you must not have understood my point up until now. Do you understand my point now?

      • Mark Erickson

        Your formulations of your argument(s) are not cogent. This seems different than your latest formulation in the other thread:

        “If something having apparently been embarrassing for Christians does not
        make unlikely that they would have simply invented it, then are there
        any grounds on which you could say that anything at all is unlikely to
        have been fabricated, in any ancient literature about a comparable

        Admittedly, that’s a word salad, but I think I can say I answered it below. As for the question here, I agree with your “if”. As for “then”, based on your other comments here (Matthias vs. Jesus, Carrier’s motivations regarding HJ, etc.) I think you are confusing the differences in contexts between EC for HJ and a standard historical question like that illustrated in the long quote above.

        Take the first two general reasons for the inadequacy of EC, self-contradiction and ignorance (you committed the fourth problem, bootstrapping, in the other thread.) They are specifically about the historical study of Jesus and early Christianity. Because the Gospels were written by adherents decades after the supposed events took place, they are highly problematic as historical sources. EC was invented to try to deal with this problem, but it fails because of the precise reasons HJ scholars were forced to turn to it.

        On the other hand, in the example above, Carrier is talking about a contemporary historian describing a particular person’s business success, a completely mundane occurrence. The hypothesis being tested here is “Matthias the first-century Galilean got rich by building industrial machinery.” What is the hypothesis being tested with HJ? “Jesus the first-century Galilean preached an apocalyptic gospel, was crucified in Jerusalem, and a religion sprang up that came to worship him as the Son of God.” (Or substitute any of the other supposed historical Jesuses that Carrier mentions on page 13). And the sources we have are all non-contemporaries and believers in the religion. Don’t get caught up in the details here, just look at the big picture. Do you see a difference between the two cases? There can be no comparison, can there be?

        • I think that you are assuming that our earliest Gospel does not stem from contemporary sources, if not in fact being contemporary in the sense of being by an author who was part of Jesus’ generation, during which of course Jesus died earlier and not by natural causes. Historians and scholars assign a range of possible dates to the Gospels, and mythicists often assume the latest possible date even though the extreme dates may be at the extreme limits of possibility. But be that as it may, I think your last point is telling, and illustrates what seems to me a frequent but entirely fallacious argument. About what other historical figure does anyone say that those biased in favor of the individual because they consider themselves followers of his teachings are therefore biased about the question of the person’s existence? We can easily discount Socrates, Hillel, the Maccabees, and most people from history having existed.

          Carrier’s point about diverse Jesuses is also problematic, because the diverse conclusions are arguably the result not primarily of flawed methods (although there is definitely some of that) but the strong desire people have to say something new about Jesus, and have Jesus be either a proponent of what they themselves support, or a figure that can be easily dismissed. That is why historians have worked hard to try to come up with mo specific and more rigorous criteria in historical Jesus studies, to try to sift the wheat from the chaff. Carrier could potentially make a really important contribution to rectifying that, if he stops giving so much attention to the sort of fringe theories with little plausibility that he says his proposed method rightly should ignore!

          • Mark Erickson

            You’re assuming that the Gospels are from contemporary sources if you don’t see the difference between Carrier’s Matthias example and Carrier’s discussion of EC arguments.

            The Socrates thing again?!? Oh boy. First there is more historical evidence for lives of the supporters, Plato and Xenophon, than Paul. (Obviously, the actual Gospel writers are pseudonymous) Second, these supporters didn’t worship their subject as a god. Third, there is historical evidence from opponents of Socrates: “The Clouds” and another play produced in 423 BC, during the life of Socrates, both lampooned him. I would be signing a different tune if there was evidence two plays criticizing Jesus were performed during his lifetime.

            BTW, you never gave the explicit quote for “Carrier explicitly says that anything that the author would have found worth preserving, they would have found worth fabricating.”

          • If you think that Jesus’ early followers viewed him as a god, you have not understood the conclusions of mainstream historical scholarship. As for Socrates, you would not accept the testimony of followers of Jesus if the testimony was in manuscripts from so much later, and Aristophanes’ use of Socrates as a fictional character would probably just confirm to you that this is not a historical figure. It is hard for me to believe that mythicists really cannot see that they are treating Jesus differently than other figures. But perhaps it is because they think they are talking about a divine figure, and so don’t realize they are starting from a view that they have taken over from later Christianity without grasping how it is at odds with the early sources, any more than conservative Christians do.

          • Mark Erickson

            Okay, change god to high Christology and early followers to Paul. Does that work? What early followers and sources are you referring to? And where is the quote that explicitly shows Carrier said what you think he said?

          • No, it doesn’t work. I am considering the letters of Paul and the Synoptic Gospels’ sources to be early, i.e. within a period when it is reasonable to expect people to have known at least the gist of what happened.

            I suppose a major problem is that Carrier assumes, contrary to the evidence, that all the Gospels are “already very late stages of the “Gospel tradition,” the Gospel having already been preached for nearly an entire lifetime across three continents before any Gospel was written” (p.126). Carrier fails to consider the possibility that it was the transition to a later generation, and further afield geographic locations, that might explain why later authors felt able to ignore or rewrite embarrassing material. Take for instance the prediction attributed to Jesus that he would destroy and rebuild the temple. Even though not a precise fit, once the temple was destroyed in the year 70, what had been a liability for Mark became proof of Jesus’ prophetic ability for later writers, who took what they needed and altered the rest, as e.g. the Gospel of Thomas, which turns it into “I will destroy this house, and no one will be able to rebuild it.” There we have the reworking of the saying to fit exactly what happened. If Carrier’s logic were sound, Mark ought to have done the same, since his narrative indicates that he found the saying troubling, so much so that he tries to attribute it to false witnesses rather than to Jesus himself.

            As for your repeated question, if the quote I offered from p.135, about Mark having reason to include something meaning that he may have had the same reason to fabricate the detail, does not mean what I understand it to mean, when taken in the context of Carrier’s entire argument in this section, then perhaps you’d care to say what you think it does mean?

          • Mark Erickson

            My mistake for allowing the conversation to drift towards theological beliefs of early Christians and historical dating of the Gospels.

            To get back on track (your claim that Carrier uses two contradictory arguments): you offered a quote from page 136 before: “In other words, that it was preserved at all entails Christians must have also had a reason to invent it that would have overcome any embarrassment it created – the very same reason they would have had to preserve it if it were true”

            This means: a particular story or detail is under consideration as true or invention. Someone argues that the story or detail is true because it is embarrassing to those who wrote it. Carrier’s third point against EC, that it is self-defeating, states that any story or detail was included because the author wanted to include it. (a truism, but stay with me) If they wanted to include it, then they weren’t embarrassed by it enough to leave it out. Rather, some reason to include it superceded any embarrassment. That reason to include the story or detail applies equally to both true and invented stories or details. Thus, the EC argument fails because it makes no distinction between true and invented details.

          • And my question is why one cannot make the same point about Carrier’s acceptance of things that someone is merely unlikely to have invented. If it was worth including, for whatever reason, then they could not have been indifferent about it. It seems that that principle is at least as self-defeating, and that is the point I have been trying to make.

            But I think that the point that is being ignored by Carrier is that this literature was produced by people trying to persuade their contemporaries that Jesus was the long-awaited Davidic Messiah. And so it then becomes important to ask why, if that was one of their aims, they would include things that would make it harder for them to persuade others of the truthfulness of those central claims. And one obvious reason – although by no means the only one – is that the things in question were so well-known, both within Christian circles and outside them – that they could not be avoided at all.

            This is not to say that Carrier does not make some valid points, but some of them only work if he is opening to having some of his preconceptions challenged. If the author of the Gospel of Mark thought of Jesus as a celestial deity then having him submit to a baptism of repentance would be a problem. If Mark wrote at a time when Jesus was not even thought of as sinless yet, much less super-human, then the detail might not have been embarrassing. But that still provides evidence that the earliest Gospel author assumed Jesus was a human being like others, and was not trying to transform a celestial being into a terrestrial one, as some mythicists have claimed.

          • Mark Erickson

            “If it was worth including, for whatever reason, then they could not have been indifferent about it.” Yes they could have: they could have included it because they saw it happen. That cannot apply to any argument using the criterion of embarrassment with NT material.

            You’re also excluding the middle (false dilemma). Carrier says that if there is no reason to for a contemporary historian to make something up, then that is evidence for the something to be true. But if there is a reason to make something up, then that something could be true or invented. Your really should go over to Carrier’s blog and explain your argument for a contradiction to him. He is usually glad to be corrected on any errors of logic he has committed.

            [To explain why I think you cherry picked Carrier’s argument from the self-defeating section of the case against EC is that it is one small bit of argument for a conclusion that was reached by including two other much stronger arguments. Further, the example involved a contemporary historian as the writer. That you think this one small argument in a situation completely removed from the Gospel authors (you don’t consider them contemporary historians, do you?) can be contradictory to something said against the criterion of embarrassment is … wait for it … embarrassing.]

          • I am not sure why you think that the fact that Carrier had other arguments invalidates my point about this particular argument. Carrier himself says that a weak argument does nothing to help a case. And so if this reasoning is weak, let’s discard it and move on. If not, then let’s see whether it is relevant to the discussion of embarrassment.

            Embarrassment allows for an argument that something was not invented. Even when Plato and others found the myths embarrassing, we can reason that they did not themselves invent those myths. The question then becomes whether the fact that the author did not invent it works as part of a case for the information likely being reliable.

            The sources of the Gospels are certainly “contemporary” unless you mean by that “written before Jesus died” in which case you are expecting something in relation to Jesus that we don’t seek in relation to other comparable figures like John the Baptist or Hillel or Hanina ben Dosa. But the material in Mark 13 seems clearly to have been shaped into its present form in the midst of the Caligula crisis in the 40s CE. Some argue that the Gospel of Mark itself should be dated then – see James Crossley, the atheist who makes that case. But for the majority, it just indicates that, whenever Mark wrote, he had sources that were earlier which we can trace back to an early enough period to strongly suggest that the mythicist conspiracy theories, such as that in which Paul proclaimed a purely heavenly Christ and then Mark transformed him into a human figure without anyone objecting, simply does not fit the evidence.

          • Mark Erickson

            I said it is not a contradiction with another Carrier argument, which is your claim to remind you. Your rhetorical skills are impressive, but I don’t think you’re fooling anyone. I admit that the argument that “no motive” is evidence for truth by itself is weak. I’m sure Carrier would agree (have you queried him yet?). So what – it isn’t a contradiction.

            Of course we seek contemporary (in its, you know, meaning) sources for John the Baptist, Hillel, Hanina ben Dosa and the mummy from “The Mummy”. But we don’t have any!

            By coincidence, Hurtado just cited Hillel in the same context and I cited another scholar’s use of “seems clearly” in a comment to the previous post (both unpublished as of now). So: Mark 13 was composed in the 40s CE – does is seem that way or is it clear?

          • Well, I would need to turn to Carrier’s scale and figure out precisely where to place it in terms of the probability. To say that it “seems clear” is to indicate that one’s own estimation of the probability is high, and invite others to either agree or offer a counter-argument.

            We seek contemporary sources whenever we can. But that does not mean that, in their absence, we can say nothing. As you’ll note, Richard Carrier is quite happy to make use even of the Talmud, from many centuries later, in discussing Christian origins. And so unless he is engaging in sleight of hand, then it must in principle be possible for oral traditions to which we cannot assign a specific author to nevertheless preserve material for much longer than the period between the historical Jesus and the writing of the Gospels.

          • Mark Erickson

            “We seek contemporary sources whenever we can. But that does not mean that, in their absence, we can say nothing.” I didn’t say that.

            I’m just wondering, what would it take for you to admit that there is no contradiction between the self-defeating argument against EC and the no-reason-to-make-it-up-contemporary-historian argument. That “this example seems to most glaringly illustrate the disconnect between his affirmed methodological principles and what he actually does with the historical quest for Jesus” is wrong.

            I can’t see how you can continue to think so. But, to each his own. BTW – the quoted sentence above screams for a pop-psychology projection treatment. Just let me know if you’d like one.

          • Well, I think we can test whether I am off base about this or not. How would you respond if I were to say, instead of talking in terms of embarrassment, that the earliest Christians had no reason to make up that Jesus, whom they believed to be the Davidic anointed one, had been crucified? No embarrassment mentioned. They simply did not have a reason to make it up.

          • Mark Erickson

            Who are these earliest Xians, when and where did they live, and why did they believe that a man named Jesus from Nazareth was both the Davidic anointed one and was crucified? Then tell me how you received this information. Because I know all of these things about Matthias’ contemporary chronicler.

          • You know them because Richard Carrier made them up and he told you!

            But we know about Paul, who had met Jesus’ brother, and we know things from the later Gospels and Acts, which include stories about the followers of Jesus and of Paul which provide clear indication that, while unsurprisingly memories and details did not get passed on without change, these authors were not simply inventing things from scratch. There are things in Acts which we would dismiss if Paul had not also mentioned them in his letters. They are not pure history that can simply be trusted, but there can be no doubt that they contain historical information, except in the sense that one can doubt anything in history because nothing is absolutely certain, only probable, and also in the sense that, because there is always room for doubt in matters of history, denialists can always come in and use the same tactics to ask ad hoc “But what if…?” questions without focusing, as historians must, on the only matter of relevance: What is most likely, based on the available evidence?

            At least, that’s what Richard Carrier says historians do and should do, and I agree with him, even though I dispute whether he always does that himself in practice.

          • Mark Erickson

            Duh, it’s a hypothetical. But there are real examples of contemporary historians from the 1st century AD writing about people they knew without having a reason to make it up. You cannot say that about Jesus. So, what’s your point? And will you admit that this situation does not apply to the criterion of embarrassment used in NT studies?

            Paul, the Gospels and Acts are not contemporary – written during Jesus’ lifetime if you have problems remembering. As for those things “we know”, please state your own personal level of confidence in the hypothesis Jesus was historical according to Carrier’s canon of probabilities.

            Mythicists do focus on “what is most likely, based on the available evidence?”

          • None of the mythicists I have interacted with focuses on what is most likely, based on the available evidence. You will have to let me know who you have in mind, and what leads you to believe that that is what they are doing.

            By your definition of “contemporary” Flavius Josephus was not a contemporary historian writing about James the brother of Jesus called Christ, since James was dead by the time he wrote, correct? Presumably Josephus was not even a contemporary of most people who are mentioned in his Jewish War since lots of them died in that same war the story of which he tells, right? That seems like an unnecessarily narrow definition, and having lived simultaneously with is usually enough to be judged a contemporary even of those who died before their time, in the reckoning of most people.

            Just out of curiosity, will you only ask questions, or do you plan on answering some, too? I asked you how you would respond to the argument that Paul and other early Christians had no reason to invent that the person they proclaimed as the Davidic Anointed One had been crucified.

          • Mark Erickson

            Answer: I’m glad to grant that Paul had no reason to invent a real person proclaimed as the Messiah that was crucified. The next question is vastly more important: did Paul believe that there was a real person that was proclaimed as the Messiah and was crucified? Granting that he did, that would mean weak evidence of a HJ. Congratulations: put that in your pipe.

            However, this whole thread has been about whether two of Carrier’s arguments are contradictory. You haven’t proven that they are and you continually deflect prompts to just admit they aren’t. It is my stubbornness (a trait you surely share) and vanity that causes me to try to answer all of your deflections. But I will have to draw the line at arguing the Jesus myth hypothesis itself. So, again, are the two arguments contradictory or not? I won’t respond to your yes or no answer, I’ll just leave it at that.

          • Carrier has said on his blog that if Paul thought Jesus was a historical human being, contra Doherty, then mythicism is unlikely to be correct. Worth looking into.

            As for the other point, I do not believe that I anywhere said that the two arguments are contradictory, I said that the same objection to one works for the other. If the criterion of embarrassment is workable and the only issue is whether the source in question is early enough and in the know enough for embarrassment to make historicity likely, then that is where we should focus our attention, and not on alleged problems with the criterion itself.

          • Hoo boy, James, you never did attempt to engage me in that Socrates discussion. What prompts you now to declare that the question hangs on the date of the manuscripts? Care to actually engage in the discussion? It has naught to do with the relative dates of the manuscripts. You keep making up stuff like that.

          • Interesting, James. In which one of those links did you actually engage with the debate I offered you?

          • Of course, if anyone is monomaniacal enough to follow the links James offers, they will find nothing, not one where he engaged with my points. Each one of those links is to nothing more than a post that began a discussion– yet if James wanted he could just as easily have linked to his knock-out comment against me. Of course he can’t do that.

          • James, you suddenly introduced the date of manuscripts into the debate. Please do pinpoint just one comment of yours and mine that actually demonstrates that the date of the manuscripts has any relevance to what I attempted to discuss with you on the Socrates question. You can’t? Well, well. . . .

        • Samsam

          “you committed the fourth problem, bootstrapping, in the other thread.”

          What thread are you talking about?

  • Mark Erickson

    I wouldn’t have dreamed about continuing with this thread, but I just realized that I made a huge boner. After having just read the section about Matthias (ending on 256), I started commenting here on that point and forgot to go back and finish the book! Wowser. There were only 16 pages left, but one sentence has just a little application to this thread.

    At the bottom of page 262: “in [Matthias’] case we have been faced with evidence … by discovering direct evidence of a wealthy Roman industrial mechanic who made his fortune in the Middle East.” (emphasis in original) Bam! The footnote refers you to Tullia Ritti, Klaus Grewe and Paul Kessener, “A Relief of a Water-Powered Stone Saw Mill on a Sarcophagus at Hierapolis and Its Implications,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 20 (2007): 138-63. Pow!

    Boy, that’s some forgetfulness that caused you not to bring this up in our debate. Now that you are reminded, you certainly can’t compare Matthias’ real case with Jesus in Josephus, Paul, or the Gospels. And how stupid was I to not bring up stone inscriptions! I feel like such an ass. How do you feel?

    • I wonder if in the intervening time you have forgotten that Matthias is a fictional case? And did you perhaps also misunderstand what Carrier’s point was, namely that in that fictional case there is confirmation from real sources that one could indeed engage in the sort of industrial activities that the fictional Matthias did, lending plausibility. Those are precisely the sorts of evidence we have about Jewish charismatic prophets, Messianic claimants, and healers from close to the time of Jesus, which makes Jesus seem to historians to fit right into his context when you get behind the subsequent layers of Christian dogma. And it is that sort of evidence that mythicists dismiss by saying that it could just be that a figure was made up based on the sort that really existed.

      So which do you consider the legitimate arguments? The one that Carrier uses about his fictional Matthias and mainstream historians make about Jesus? Or the ones the mythicists make about Jesus but not anyone else?

      • Mark Erickson

        Hypothetical, not fictional. Again with the projection? And based on the truth. And that is precisely the type of evidence we do not have for Jesus of Nazareth. Not a single inscription. Mythicists rightly dismiss the argument that the fact that Jesus fits a type means he was historical. This is all so pathetic.

        • How many figures genuinely comparable to Jesus in status and influence in their own time left behind inscriptions which have survived to the present day?

          No historian suggests that because Jesus fits a type he was historical. We suggest that he is likely to have been a historical figure because the combination of Paul having met his brother, the unlikelihood of his crucifixion having been invented, the unlikelihood that later Christianity would invent a figure who fits first century Galilee so well, and many other considerations all point to the same conclusion: that there was a historical Jesus behind the myths, legends and dogmas is more probable than that there was not. And no matter how many historians draw that informed conclusion, mythicists refuse to accept it, even though Richard Carrier is emphatic in his book that you should, at least until the actual scholarly consensus is either changed or shown to be due to something other than scholarship.

          • Mark Erickson

            None. Thus, we have no evidence for any one particular Galilean preacher, no matter the status and influence. Btw, are you slipping across the difficult-for-you border between contemporary source and non contemporary source? I’m wondering how you know the status and influence of Jesus in his own day.

          • Are you saying that historians should be skeptical about figures like Hanina ben Dosa and Honi the Circle-Drawer as well? Should they be mythicists and say that they probably did not exist, or historicists who admit that the matter is not certain but the likelihood of their having been completely invented is slim? What about a figure not connected with Galilee, such as John the Baptist, or Hillel?

          • Mark Erickson

            I’m not saying nothing about those dudes.

            Is Allison’s latest book Jesus of Nazareth or The Historical Christ and Theological Jesus?

          • Mark Erickson

            My public library doesn’t have a single book by Allison. There are only two copies of Constructing Jesus in all of MN’s public libraries. I had to request it through inter-library loan from a local college. That’s why HJ would get some props from amateur mythicists if they linked to papers online. It seems like many scholars post at least some of their journal articles on their own websites. Why not share the wealth (knowledge)?

          • I agree – at Butler we always try to obtain permission to get faculty publications, or at least a sample of them, available online:

          • Mark Erickson

            How much more likely than not? 51-49? 55-45? 66-34? In the spirit of BT, you should assign a probability to it.

            Yes, non-experts should accept the scholarly consensus. But if they don’t, what’s it to you? You obviously like a good argument. Lay out your knock down arguments and be good.

            Btw, Hurtado didn’t give a single journal paper on Paul’s use of Jesus’ teaching. Can you guide me to something open access and worthwhile on the subject?

          • Can you get hold of Dale Allison’s last book from a public library? It has an entire section on what we would be able to deduce about the historical Jesus if we had only Paul’s letters. That is a good, balanced, and very recent treatment. I seem to call that Marion Soards had a piece on the story of Jesus as per the Pauline letters, but I would need to track it down, while Allison’s recent book is probably easier to get a hold of, depending on your library access.

          • Mark Erickson

            I’ve heard his name enough, I’ll give it a try.

  • Mark Erickson

    Ahem. Carrier has posted a reply and I am glad to see I was right about his argument, and you were wrong. Don’t worry, it’s just the Internet.

    • Thank you for taking the time to post this amusing comment. I linked to his response yesterday. Even if he had just published a peer-reviewed article replying to my criticisms of his work, and not merely a blog post, that would not “prove” that he is right and I am wrong. That is not how scholarship works, as Carrier himself explains in his book. Why is it that even his own supporters won’t actually listen to what he says about the nature of scholarship, how it proceeds, and everything else he has tried to communicate to the mythicists whose approach is the reason mythicism is looked upon as a crackpot theory by historians and scholars?

      I think you already know this, deep down. If not, then when Maurice Casey’s book about mythicism appears in print, presumably you will say that mythicism is wrong, since a critic of it has responded to its claims, in a book published by a major academic publisher no less? But you know that it takes more than simply having responded, don’t you?

      Be that as it may, perhaps you would care to say why you find Carrier’s statements about Jesus as a god, his apparent appreciation for lack of specificity when it comes to the sort of anointed one Jesus was said to have been, and the other things he mentions to be persuasive to you? Then, at least, you would be engaging in conversation rather than the silly attempt at declaring victory that is common among internet apologists on all sides. But since your behavior previously suggests that you have nothing to offer but animosity towards the work of mainstream scholars and historians, your brief comment’s content and tone today is unsurprising.

      • Mark Erickson

        Sorry, I wasn’t specific. My main argument with you, one which you tried to push out to the general topic of mythicism as you do here, was that there was no contradiction between two of Carrier’s arguments about trusting the contemporary Roman historian about the person getting rich through industrial technology and not trusting an argument from embarrassment. As such, Carrier’s words “That’s not my argument. I carefully explain that my argument applies to (1) friendly (2) propagandistic texts (3) that lack internal indications of embarrassment – …” You were wrong in your specific argument on this topic. Do you admit that? That is why I posted it here, where our discussion was, and not on your recent post.

  • If anyone missed it, I posted a link to a response to my review of his book which Richard Carrier posted on his blog yesterday:

  • Kevin

    I’m surprised you gave this book a relatively good review. I’m reading it now and think its rubbish. I will have to write a review of my own over the next week.

  • Don Camp

    Appropriate critique of Carrier’s methods. Thanks.