A Mythicist Sympathizer’s Case for a Historical Jesus

A Mythicist Sympathizer’s Case for a Historical Jesus December 11, 2013

A new article in The Bible and Interpretation concludes in the following way:

Precisely because I am quite aware of the extent to which the Canonical Gospels are the result of a process of doctoring the historical figure of Jesus – a process which has had wide-ranging distorting effects –, I think I can better understand at least one of the reasons which lead some scholars (and also other readers) to deem these sources as desperately unhelpful and to remove them completely from the available evidence to recover a historical being. I think, however, that this is not only an unwarranted conclusion, but also a tragic mistake, because the critical energy of several intelligent people –as many “mythicists” undoubtedly are– devoted to “prove” the non-existence of Jesus seems to be both misguided and wasteful. In my opinion those scholars opt to cut the Gordian knot, instead of tackling the –by far harder– task of disentangling it. In this way, and despite the insights of some of their works, they leave the problem of the Gospels unresolved, the nature of their distortions ultimately untouched, and the embarrassing history these biased sources try to veil unfortunately unrecovered.

Click through to see how it gets there.


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  • newenglandsun

    I think both liberal Christians and fundamentalist Christians depend on there being an historical Jesus. This is because for both groups, Jesus *must* be found in a material abstract. Both groups exercise materialism into their theology.

    But the Christian faith is not built on materialism. So if there exists no proof of a so-called “Jesus-of-history” the Jesus of the Church (aka the Jesus of theology) remains standing. As such, Jesus can only be found *in* the Church, not apart from it as Pope Francis I made clear.


    At least the mythicists are honest so I think I side more with them.

    • $51751848

      If you read a little more carefully, you see that he is not claiming that Jesus only exists in the Church somehow, but that you can’t follow Jesus effectively without belonging to the Church. Catholics and other Christians alike are committed to God having actually become incarnate at a specific place and time in history.

      • newenglandsun

        that is how I read him.

  • $51751848

    I don’t agree of course with his assessment of how much information can be gleaned about Jesus from the sources, but I like the way he sums up the superiority of the historicity hypothesis: “we can easily explain Jesus, we cannot so easily explain those people who would have invented him”

  • A large part of the reason the simplest explanation is preferred in science is because it is most likely to yield a testable hypothesis. I don’t think that it can be demonstrated that the simplest explanation is inherently the most probable.

    • staircaseghost

      The simplest explanation (which fits the facts) is by definition the most probable.

      The less complex the model, the shorter the string it takes to describe it; the shorter the (most compressed version of) the string it takes to describe it, the lower the Kolmogorov complexity; the lower the K-complexity, the higher the (a priori) probability.

      • Ian

        This is nonsense. Unfortunately. (Oh the mathematical nonsense pedalled on the internet!).

        You can see this trivially: appending ‘or X’ to any statement S where p(S) << 1, where p(X) = 1 – e, and X is not in S increases both the string length, its complexity and its probability of being true. You could also prepend 'not' to any string with p < 0.5, and infinitely many other manipulations that increase the K-complexity and increase the probability of it being correct.

        In general, in even a zeroth order probabilistic logic, there is no correlation between length of string and probability. In fact, one can prove that, for any string with any probability < 1, there are an infinite number of longer strings representing propositions of higher probability. If you have enough math to properly understand Kolmogorov complexity, proving that result should be trivial.

        What I think you're trying to get at is the idea that adding conjunctive clauses never increases the probability of a compound statement (at least that is the nearest thing to what you said that is in any way correct). But you should understand the limits of that result: not all logic reduces to CNF.

        And even when true, there is no monotonic relation between number of clauses and K-complexity, since appending a clause can increase the compressibility of the string.

        Please don't throw information theory around to try to bamboozle people, unless you actually understand it.

        [Edit +5 mins – edited paragraph order and removed synonyms]

        • Ian,

          In my experience, StaircaseGhost is not a bamboozler, although I disagree with him here for reasons that have nothing to do (AFAIK) with Kolmogorov complexity..

          • Ian

            Thanks Vinny, good to know. I’ve not talked to him before.

        • staircaseghost

          You are correct to point out that I swept a lot of crucial qualifiers under the rug of non-technical terms while trying to convey a more basic point in a blog comment. I am always super happy to get pointers on how to maximize content while minimizing fudges and glosses.

          Vinny wondered aloud why so the slogan “the simpler explanation is more likely” gets bandied about.

          I take the phenomenon of a good explanation fitting the facts to be something which takes the long, complicated description of existing observations and substitutes a shorter description which allows the observations to be inferred (deductively or probabilistically) from initial conditions + the laws. And I take a good explanation to be one that continues to perform vs. future observations.

          So boring old classical mechanics is a good explanation of the way a ball falls because you can reconstruct the observations of the ball’s position and velocity at any given time simply by knowing the initial conditions plus the “right” laws. And the idea that a cynic-sage-exorcist got embellished into a celestial messiah is a better explanation for my observation of 1st and 2nd Century documents reporting a risen Jesus than an actual miraculously risen Jesus , because the law “superstitious religious people make shit up” + the initial conditions of superstitious religious people allow us to infer the reports, in a way that we cannot derive the reports from a string that does not contain an exorbitant number of additional unevidenced theological claims.

          You are of course right that “It will rain or it won’t” is indeed more probable than either disjunct, but it is not an explanation of our observed weather patterns, in any useful sense of the term “explanation”. It doesn’t tell you to expect anything in particular.

          I did toss in the qualifier “that fits the facts”, but I can see I’m now paying the price for not more explicitly delimiting what constitutes a string being an explanation. I certainly didn’t mean to make statements about “all logic” or logic “in general” or compound statements generally, so the good points on reducibility to conjunctive normal form etc. are not quite relevant.

          The idea here is that a more compact explanation has the relevant algorithmic virtues with respect to rival explanations. Given this I’m not sure whether you meant to dispute or affirm the nontechnical slogan “the simpler explanation is more likely to be true”. A philosophical account of what constitutes an explanatory model is nontrivial and demands extended argument, but don’t see any insurmountable barriers to looking at epistemic virtues in terms of computational investment vs. return.

          • Ian

            Please just stop.

            you are correct to point out that I swept a lot of crucial qualifiers under the rug of non-technical terms while trying to convey a more basic point in a blog comment.

            I did no such thing. I pointed out that your claims were incorrect and your analysis was nonsense. And your doubling down is still as bad.

            You’ve evidently decided to save face and play it off as a misunderstanding. But your examples, redefinitions and pseudo-mathematical jargon are still just as incorrect.

            Please stop digging. Your post wasn’t incorrect because of brevity or informality or misunderstanding of terms, and you know it.

            Information theory is a real mathematical discipline, with real axioms and theories and a real domain of applicability. Mathematics isn’t a bunch of conclusions that you get to co-opt when that conclusions coincides with something you want to claim. Creationists love to play that trick with information theory all the time too.

            You like pointing out where people’s scientific ignorance is tripping them up. Please have the common decency to admit your own mistakes in that regard.

            I’m not sure whether you meant to dispute or affirm the nontechnical slogan “the simpler explanation is more likely to be true”.

            I didn’t mean to do either. I meant to point out that you tried to pass off your opinion as a consequence of a mathematical theory whose basic contours you don’t seem to grasp.

            So please, for the love of pete, stop the bullshit.

          • Ian

            And, in case you think this is somehow personal, or a tribal attack. It isn’t. It pains me particularly because — reading through your comment history — you are someone who’s views on a wide range of issues are identical to mine.

          • I think I know why “the simpler explanation is more likely” gets bandied about. In my opinion, it results from a misapprehension of Occam’s Razor. As I said above, in science, it is useful to start with the simplest explanation as it is most likely to yield a testable hypothesis because it is likely to have the fewest variables. It is not necessarily more likely than a more complicated explanation to be true, but it is more likely that its truth or falsity will be determinable.

            By the same token, a simpler historical explanation is more likely to be subject to confirmation or refutation than a more complicated one. So even though the complicated one might be true, you are less likely to be able to know whether it’s true. As a result, the more complicated explanation is more likely to be more speculative than the simpler one.

            I think that Occam’s Razor is an extremely useful tool to guide historical inquiry, but I do not take it as a measure of probability. In my experience, the number of factors at work in any historical circumstance is likely to be incalculable such that the simplest explanation is almost necessarily going to be wrong in some respects. Nevertheless, it is the correct place to start and if the evidence is not sufficient to support or refute it, the odds that a more complicated one can be established with any certainty are probably pretty low and agnosticism may be warranted..

            I work with financial derivatives and I am aware of how many assumptions are necessary in order to mathematically model reality. So even without Ian’s input, my initial reaction to the proposition that Occam’s Razor can be established with information theory would be skepticism.

          • Ian

            The problem I have with this idea is it seems to assume truth is an all or nothing thing.

            If you think of all possible histories, then making a historical claim is effectively partitioning that set of possibilities. You have a set of possible histories that match your claim, and those that don’t. For the claim to be true, the actual history (which is unobtainable in its specifics), must be in the matching set.

            Historical claims trade off specificity and probability (and, in practice many other things, including sociological and political concerns of the people making the claim). There is no obvious way to say where in that trade off the line for ‘good’ or ‘true’ lies. Ideally we’d want to get a better understanding of the whole space of possible claims, but that is far too complex.

            So even with just the two dimensions here, there are enough ways to make anybody think they’re right, and there are many more dimensions in practice. Often discussions around mythicism, say, charge around this space as if everything is either black and white, or it reduces to some single dimension.

          • Ian,

            I’m sorry, but I’m have having a hard time figuring out from your comment exactly with which idea it is that you have the problem.

          • Ian


            My problem is both with the OP and with Occam’s Razor. Both seem to suffer from a desperate unclearness over what would constitute a ‘true’ claim.

          • Thanks. I think I agree.