Jury Duty and the Historical Jesus

Jury Duty and the Historical Jesus April 28, 2016

The first two days of this week, I was selected for jury service. This was my first time selected. I wished I could have recorded some of the ways that the lawyers explained the criteria of evidence during the voir dire, explaining that “beyond reasonable doubt” doesn’t mean “beyond all doubt” and other things that I have regularly discussed in relation to matters of history.

I suspect that it was largely because of my academic area that I was a bit of a nuisance, and was not happy to simply see whether we all agreed even before engaging in discussion (I wanted to hear and learn from other perspectives and give others the chance to hear and learn from mine, before we decided what we really think in any kind of definitive way), and wanted to make sure in particular that, even if it was not evidence that places a particular matter beyond reasonable doubt, testimony most certainly is evidence. I got the impression that some other jurors held the view that, when it is one person’s word against another, with no physical evidence, then there is simply no way to decide.

And that is not the case, and the lawyers and judge emphasized as much in introductory remarks. And I felt that, even if in the end we still felt there might be reasonable doubt about what happened, if any of us were victims of a burglary, where someone forced their way into our home when we were there, it might well be the case that it would be our testimony alone that was evidence of how the accused individual got into our premises. Whether my testimony or yours would be found convincing, or sufficient, is another matter, but it would be evidence.

This was obviously a criminal case, and as I’ve said before, history in general, and ancient history in particular, makes for more apt comparisons to civil court procedures, in which the standard is “more probable than not” rather than “beyond reasonable doubt.”

History is not a science, and the levels of certainty that were offered on the basis of DNA evidence are not comparable to the levels of certainty that historians can offer in their conclusions.

But that doesn’t make their conclusions “weak” or something to be dismissed.

I was particularly fascinated by our discussions on the jury of a variety of possible scenarios regarding what had transpired. I wondered what limits there were, if any, on the appropriateness of speculation. We were clearly instructed that, if two theories are reasonable in light of the evidence, then we must go with the one that finds the defendant not guilty. But the crux of the matter, in court and in history, is what makes a theory reasonable.

I wonder if mythicists think that they, or historians, have received instructions to the effect that, if two theories are reasonable in light of the evidence, you should opt for the one that finds Jesus to not be historical. I have discussed whether mythicist theories are reasonable before, but that is, as I said, a separate matter. My point here is that there is no “presumption of ahistoricity” (or if you prefer, “presumption of innocence of historicity”) in the study of ancient history. Ancient history is not like a criminal trial, but like a civil one, and it is sufficient for the historian to find the theory of Jesus’ historicity to be more probable than not.

The instructions and/or presumptions about standards of evidence are crucial. There are, I am certain, plenty of instances in which someone will be found not guilty because there is reasonable doubt, where they would have been found guilty if the question had been merely which of several scenarios is more probable. This is why, in the debates I get into here about mythicism, I am always concerned not to jump right into discussing the evidence, but to discussing assumptions and methods. The aim of many mythicist apologists is to try to introduce reasonable doubt, thinking that if they can do that it might just be enough. But even if they come up with a theory that is not completely wacky and that is compatible with the evidence, the ancient historian must ask not just if it is possible but if it is probable.

“Probably” is not enough in a criminal trial, and “possibly” is not enough in the study of history.

I am glad to have had the privilege of serving on a jury in this way. And I’m glad to have the chance to reflect on how the experience relates to my own academic interests and area of expertise. I’ve used courtroom analogies, without having been directly involved in courtroom proceedings until now. This new experience has both confirmed many things that I had thought, as well as giving me much that is new to think about.

Have you served on a jury? Do you have thoughts on the analogy between courtroom decisions and historical investigation?

 

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  • Marcus Maher

    On a related note, I think you’ll enjoy this article on skeptics and credulity

    http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/who-will-debunk-the-debunkers/

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I have thought about this whenever someone protests that accounts from people claiming to be eyewitnesses or having heard things second or third hand aren’t “evidence.”

    In a courtroom, they are most definitely evidence. This evidence must be weighed. If a witness is unreliable, that’s something you determine in the process of the trial. But can you imagine a lawyer saying that witnesses who are friends or relatives of the defendant are inadmissible because they’re biased?

  • John MacDonald

    Sometimes theories need to reconcile apparently contrary pieces of evidence. For instance, more liberal scholars will usually say the historical Jesus was thought of as a traditional type of Messiah, so the crucifixion would have been contrary to this. On the other hand, conservative scholars will point to Jesus’ atoning death (e.g., “For even the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many, Mark 10:45.”), and argue the crucifixion fits in nicely with this. Mark seems to display both sides, so there appears to be contrariety here. But this tension seems to be relieved when we affirm that the crucifixion was not part of what the disciples thought would happen to Jesus (as evidenced by the clash between the disciples and the arresting party), and yet Jesus seemed to think that his atoning death was the plan God had set aside for him (as we see when Jesus petitions God in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane to get out of this role). There are apparently two levels to the crucifixion story in Mark: The irony of one where Jesus is a failed messiah, and the other where he bears the sin debt of humanity. I like questions of interpretation like these, which are much more interesting ways into the texts than silly mythicist speculations.

  • ydoethur

    Richard Evans made a similar point about the comparison between civil law and history in his book Telling Lies about Hitler, his expose of David Irving. He said that in fact a civil case turned out to be an excellent way to make an historical case, because everything had to be investigated and considered in exhaustive depth, along with such evidence as existed, bearing in mind that the Nazis hid the Holocaust in documentation as much as they could.

    However, criminal trials are clearly less amenable. In the 1980s Richard III was put on trial by Channel 4 in the UK, using criminal barristers and an experienced judge. The jury found him not guilty of murdering the Princes in the Tower because the case was not proved beyond reasonable doubt. In this they were of course correct, by evidential standards. The small problem that there is no other really plausible explanation however means Richard is still generally considered guilty by historians – indeed Michael Hicks goes so far as to convict him of all ‘the case for the prosecution’, meaning being pretty much as bad as the Tudors said he was!

  • John MacDonald

    There seems to be few problems presented to the conservative theological position more perplexing than reconciling the low Christology of Jesus in the gospel of Mark with the high Christology of Jesus in the gospel of John. In Mark, we find Jesus as a fallible human prophet who is unable to perform miracles in his home town (see Mark 6:5), and in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane begging God to release him from his fate (see Mark 14:32-42). By contrast, in the gospel of John, Jesus is the word who is God (see John 1:1-3), and “was” before Abraham was born (see John 8:56-59). Mark and John appear to present two fundamentally different men when they portray Jesus.

  • Speusippus

    I am totally on board with thinking it’s reasonable to believe Jesus’s existence is “more probable than not.” What I think is not justified are claims that Jesus’s existence is close to certain. It’s reasonable, in other words, to think that Jesus’s non-existence is a very real, plausible possibility, even _if_ less probable than existence.

    • I have yet to encounter a scenario that posits there never having been a historical Jesus which deals in a straightforward and persuasive manner with the evidence. It may not be quite the standard of “beyond reasonable doubt” that can be attained in the present day when one can cross-examine witnesses and hear live testimony. But “a very real, plausible possibility” seems to significantly overstate what mythicism has thus far offered.

      • Speusippus

        In my ideolect, if something isn’t “beyond a reasonable doubt” then its negation is “a very real, plausible possibility” because doubt is reasonable. (If the negation weren’t a real, plausible possibility, then it would not be reasonable to doubt.)

        Do you think Jesus’s existence is beyond a reasonable doubt?

        If it’s not beyond reasonable doubt, then it’s reasonable to doubt it, which means its negation is a real, plausible possibility.

        But if it _is_ beyond reasonable doubt, it’s good for us to have you clarify that that is what you think. (I wasn’t sure.)

        • I would prefer not to use that phrase, since it may not be clear to someone in the present day that it is not reasonable to expect evidence of the ancient past that is comparable to what it is reasonable to expect for recent crimes. And so reasonable doubt would have to mean different things in the two uses. But if all you mean is that none of the mythicist scenarios which seek to explain the relevant ancient evidence seem reasonable, then in that sense I would say yes, the historicity (not “existence”) of Jesus is “beyond reasonable doubt.” The explanation in the trial was precisely that, if there are two reasonable theories, then we favor the one that has the defendant found not guilty. For there to be reasonable doubt about the historicity of Jesus in those terms, there would need to be a reasonable competing theory.

          • Speusippus

            Thanks for that response, it clarifies things.

            With my background in analytic philosophy, I tend to think for most purposes, every statement is either true or false. So once we understand what a statement means, we can then go look at how the world actually is then decide whether the statement is true–and if it’s not, it must be false. So far so obvious!

            It looks like what you’re saying is you’d hesitate to use the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt” because you’d be afraid people would think you mean something by the phrase that you don’t. That’s fair!

            Here’s what I mean when I say something is beyond a reasonable doubt: One can be certain of X beyond a reasonable doubt given evidence Y, if it is not possible for someone who knows of Y to doubt X while remaining reasonable. (Where “Y” stands for potentially a whole spread of evidence, not necessarily just a single item of course!)

            What does “reasonable” mean? By this term I mean one uses good reasoning skills and is open to following the evidence by good reasoning skills toward wherever the evidence seems to lead.

            This doesn’t mean all reasonable people will agree with each other–“good reasoning skills” admit of some degree of variance, especially in cases where the evidence admits ambiguity.

            Okay so with all of the above clarified, I think it’s reasonable to doubt Jesus’s historical existence because I think someone aware of the relevant evidence can use good reasoning skills to doubt that Jesus existed.

            I think you disagree with that claim. (Right?)

            For the sake of argument, I’d grant that the idea Jesus existed is the _most_ probable hypothesis, and I’d grant that no mythicist hypotheses come close to its probability. But this, in and of itself, doesn’t make his existence beyond reasonable doubt in the sense I just outlined. Because a more-probable-than-not hypothesis remains just that (more probable than not) and does not become in some sense “even more certain” or “the only thing a reasonable person can believe” just because it happens to be more probable than every other alternative.

            So for example, if I show you a twenty sided die you are convinced is fair, and you can see that it has dots on 15 sides and a square on the 16th side, and triangles on the final four, and I then roll the dice without allowing you to look at the result, it’s definitely _more probable than not_ that the result was a dot, but it would be wrong to conclude from this that _all reasonable people would affirm_ that it is a dot. Rather, reasonable people would affirm that it’s _probably_ a dot.

            (Could someone reasonably say it’s probably a triangle? Only if they have independent reasons to think it’s not a dot, but here the analogy goes too deep. 🙂 )

            So in that case, it is not “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the result was a triangle, or even a square. This, despite the fact that the best hypothesis going is that the result was a dot.

            Okay so anyway. That’s how I see the historical Jesus hypothesis. I don’t know if you guys (historicists about Jesus) see his existence as in some sense _practically certain_ or rather as more like the dot-result in the example above, but I do often feel like there’s a tendency to elide from talking as though the situation is analogous to the dot case, to talking as though the situation is practically certain _on the basis_ of the resemblance to the dot case. In other words, I feel like I often see people in this discussion move from “this is the most probable explanation” to “it is not reasonable to doubt this explanation” — and that’s not really a valid move.

            If on the other hand the deal is that you guys think this really is a matter where it’s practically certain–like betting on a thousand sided die to come up “anything but a thousand”–then that would explain the talk that seems to connote near-certainty, but still would not make it particularly mete to insist on the point that historicism about Jesus is “more probable than not.” If in this latter possibility is in fact the case, then you guys are understating what you really think by talking in terms of “more probable than not” because what you really think is “it’s really, really, really probable.”

            What do you think James?

          • Speusippus, I confess that I am not sure how the die and dot illustration is supposed to help things. But trying to apply it to this case, we can refer to instances of people in the same social category that Jesus is purported to have belonged to more generally, or to a more narrow category such as messianic pretenders, and we find the evidence to be at least as good as we would reasonably expect given what we have for other such individuals in the same time period in history. And so, under such circumstances, the question I guess is what would make doubt “reasonable.”

          • Speusippus

            The die and dot case is supposed to provide an illustration of the way in which something can be more probable than not, and even the most probable option available, yet still not be beyond a reasonable doubt.

            I take your point about comparing the evidence for Jesus to the evidence for similar figures from the time, and I guess that just leads back to the debate over what “similar” should mean here (as you intimated!) and the debate over whether the evidence really is”as good” (and what “as good” means). Round and round she goes…. 🙂

          • James Byron

            Yup, what’s reasonable is circumstantial.

            I’d agree that, given the alternatives, Jesus’ existence is established beyond all reasonable doubt. There’s no credible alternative explanation to explain the origin of Christianity; and certainly none for why all early evidence of mythicism vanished without a trace.

            It’d be great to have a Jack McCoy figure on retainer to bark this home at mythicist events: reasonable doubt doesn’t mean any doubt.

          • I would prefer not to use that phrase, since it may not be clear to someone in the present day that it is not reasonable to expect evidence of the ancient past that is comparable to what it is reasonable to expect for recent crimes.

            Doesn’t exactly the same problem arise when you claim certainty about Jesus’ existence, or make comparisons with the creation/evolution debate?

          • Ophis, the issue is that, when something is as certain as it is reasonable to expect it to be given the nature of the inquiry, it is not inappropriate to speak with the utmost confidence. The issue is that some individuals try to make out that, just because not all areas of inquiry are math, somehow that makes them profoundly uncertain. My preference to avoid terminology from the modern courtroom is because I think that it can reinforce precisely this kind of misunderstanding, because there seem to be so many people who don’t understand that the kind of absence of evidence that would lead to reasonable doubt if missing in the case of a recent crime, it is reasonable to expect to be missing in the case of ancient individuals of non-elite status.

          • The issue is that some individuals try to make out that, just because not all areas of inquiry are math, somehow that makes them profoundly uncertain.

            That is exactly why it is inappropriate to “speak with the utmost confidence” when the nature of the inquiry puts tight limits on the evidence available. It’s a lot easier to make the case for profound uncertainty when you can start that case by saying “historicists are unjustifiably certain about the existence of Jesus”, and justify that claim by quoting historicists repeatedly proclaiming certainty.

            My preference to avoid terminology from the modern courtroom is because I think that it can reinforce precisely this kind of misunderstanding, because there seem to be so many people who don’t understand that the kind of absence of evidence that would lead to reasonable doubt if missing in the case of a recent crime, it is reasonable to expect to be missing in the case of ancient individuals of non-elite status.

            So why do you expect these people to start understanding the limits of historical inquiry when you claim certainty in other ways? Which of your objections to the phrase “beyond reasonable doubt” isn’t equally applicable to other expressions of certainty?

          • If people discuss history – and do so publicly no less – then I do indeed expect them to understand the nature, methods, potential, and limitations of the field of inquiry that they have chosen to comment on. If they have done so in ignorance, that is their mistake and not mine.

          • Your expectations seem to have changed then. You previously wished to avoid courtroom terminology, lest it perpetuate misunderstandings of the nature, methods, potential and limitations of the field. Now you expect your audience not to have such misunderstandings, and say it’s not your mistake if they are perpetuated. That means that you should not be concerned about avoiding courtroom terminology.

            Which is it? Should you avoid some terminology lest it reinforce misunderstandings? Or should you expect your audience to avoid such misunderstandings on their own, regardless of your terminology?

          • I think it is important for those who engage in public discussions of scholarship to communicate clearly and to avoid misunderstanding for the benefit of those who are reading what they write precisely as a first step towards informing themselves. Those who speak as though they are already well-informed, on the other hand, ought to actually understand the issues.

          • I think it is important for those who engage in public discussions of scholarship to communicate clearly and to avoid misunderstanding for the benefit of those who are reading what they write precisely as a first step towards informing themselves.

            That’s why I want to avoid potentially misleading claims of certainty in general, whether those claims are in the form of “beyond reasonable doubt” or in some other form. You evidently agree with me when the phrase “beyond reasonable doubt” is used, but you start to disagree when an equivalent phrase is substituted, and I don’t understand why, since the same logic seems to apply in both cases.

          • All certainty, except in specific mathematical instances, is confidence based on probability. One often has to navigate between seeking as precise and accurate a nuancing of things as academics prefer, and not opening things to misunderstandings that denialists will then attempt to exploit for ideologically-motivated ends.

          • Claiming excessive certainty also risks opening things to misunderstandings that mythicists can exploit. Isn’t that exactly the reason you avoid “beyond reasonable doubt”? I don’t dispute the need to navigate between precision and potential misunderstanding, but you seem to navigate very differently in situations that look, to me, to be essentially identical.

          • arcseconds

            Also, the comparison with the creation/evolution debate is never that Jesus’s existence is as certain as evolution, but that the tactics of the deniers in both cases are similar.

            I don’t understand why this is so hard for people to grasp. Analogies never have all aspects precisely analogous, and the tactics could be the same even if knew pretty much for certain Jesus didn’t exist!

          • If I say that “my opponent in this debate is acting like a holocaust denier”, that suggests they are on a similar level morally. I haven’t explicitly said it, and if I’m challenged on it later I can claim that I was only comparing their tactics, but the implication is obvious and will occur to anyone who hears or reads such a comparison.

            Similarly, if I compare my opponent to creationists, it suggests that they are on the same intellectual level as Ken Ham or Ray Comfort, and that their opinions are as incompatible with reality as creationism is. When McGrath writes multiple posts and statements that are variations on “mythicism and creationism are very similar to each other”, I don’t expect people to come away thinking “clearly McGrath thinks mythicism is unlike creationism in some important ways”.

          • If people are commenting on the nature of history or its conclusions, and/or about its similarities and differences to the natural sciences, without adequately understanding either or both, the blame lies wholly with those who pontificate dogmatically in public about matters concerning which they are inadequately informed.

          • If people are commenting on the nature of history or its conclusions, and/or about its similarities and differences to the criminal law, without adequately understanding either or both, the blame lies wholly with those who pontificate dogmatically in public about matters concerning which they are inadequately informed.

            So why are you concerned to avoid the terminology of a criminal trial? What is it about replacing “natural sciences” with “criminal law” that makes the argument invalid?

          • As I’ve explained before, I think that the language used in civil trials is a more apt analogy for ancient history.

            I’m not sure what your second question is supposed to mean.

          • The second question means that if I replace “natural sciences” with “criminal law” in your previous reply, I can use your argument as a rebuttal to anyone who thinks it’s important to avoid phrases like “beyond reasonable doubt”, just as you have used it as a rebuttal to my belief that claims of certainty and comparisons with biology should be avoided. The reasoning is exactly the same. Yet you accept that reasoning in one case while rejecting it in the other, and I want to know why.

          • Comparisons are not to be avoided – they are inevitable. Using phrases without sufficient clarification to make clear what the point of the analogy is and how the things being compared are different is the issue.

          • I don’t think we should avoid all comparisons, just the ones that are potentially misleading in the same way that “beyond reasonable doubt” is potentially misleading. Saying that we’re certain, or using language that implies we’re certain, when what we really mean is “we’re about as sure as we can be given the limited evidence available” falls into that category, I think.

            Or to put it another way: to the average reader, I think a phrase like “practically certain” means the same thing as “beyond reasonable doubt”, and a comparison to creationism means (or at least strongly implies) that “this is false beyond reasonable doubt”. If you want to avoid using “beyond reasonable doubt” then it also makes sense to avoid other phrasing that readers will interpret in the same way as they would interpret “beyond reasonable doubt”.

          • One could also emphasize the need in the natural sciences to emphasize that, when it comes to historical reconstruction of the course of evolution, it would in theory be appropriate to emphasize that our confidence is as high as it is reasonable to be given the nature of the methods used and the data that it is reasonable to expect to find. But it is not appropriate for us to simply speak about things as certain, especially given the penchant for denialists to treat any attempt at nuance as an excuse or opportunity for claiming all sorts of garbage and nonsense, and casting doubt where none is “reasonable.”

          • The epistemology of science, the nature of scientific theory, and explanations of the difference between confidence in a theory and absolute certainty, do seem to come up pretty often when creationism is being addressed in order to counter or avoid misunderstandings. So the need to emphasize our confidence levels is addressed to a large extent, at least when addressing people who are likely to misunderstand this.

            Anyway, the difference between “practically certain” and “as confident as we can expect given the nature of the inquiry” is pretty small for well-established scientific theories, and much larger when establishing the existence of ancient individuals living in obscure circumstances. The importance of emphasising this difference is correspondingly larger in the latter case.

          • arcseconds

            One way of characterizing ‘practically certain’ (and, dare I say it, a practical one) is that for practical purposes it can be assumed to be true.

            If something can be assumed to be true, then you don’t need to hedge against it not being true, even if the stakes are high. Hedging against a very low probability occurrence makes sense if the stakes are high enough, but not against something with zero probability, or (in practical situations) ‘practically’ zero, or negligible probability.

            We do hedge against, say, our houses burning by buying fire extinguishers and purchasing insurance, so we don’t treat it as practically certain that they won’t burn down, even though our particular house very probably won’t.

            But we treat Earth’s gravity as practically certain. Even in high-stakes operations, we do not hedge against gravity behaving in an unexpected way. Even though we don’t know absolutely for sure, probability mathematically equal to 1, that there’s no way of cancelling out gravity or creating it, or something that acts like it. So for practical purposes we treat this as certain.

            Now, historians nigh-universally treat Jesus’s existence as practically certain in this sense. People refer to Jesus without caveats, and make use of both his existence and the standard account of early Christianity (which would have to undergo major revision without a historical founder) without caveats. As far as I know, there is no hedging, no reluctance to employ the notion that Jesus existed, no discussion of what the implication for a particular hypothesis will be if Jesus turned out not to exist, etc.

            So individual historians certainly treat the matter as practically certain. This perhaps doesn’t show us much, as researchers of course do tend to treat their own theories or the theories of a research programme that they have some allegiance to as being true long before they’ve been established as being practically certain or even very probable by the wider research community.

            But one can look to the behaviour of the community as a whole and say that it treats the matter as practically certain, as the community (modulo a tiny number of fringe figures) doesn’t engage in hedging or any kind of doubt-exhibiting behaviour about this. The hedging might take the form of an alternative, minority programme that does question the notion of Jesus’s existence, and this can’t really be said to exist with any status or impact within the professional research community.

            So Jesus’s existence seems to be being treated as practically certain in a way that, say, the existence of Orpheus is not.

          • One way of characterizing ‘practically certain’ (and, dare I say it, a practical one) is that for practical purposes it can be assumed to be true.

            That sounds more like a definition of a working hypothesis to me. A working hypothesis doesn’t need to be “practically certain” in order to use it. If a hypothesis is probably true, and is generally accepted as true in the academic community in the relevant field, then I think it’s legitimate to assume its truth when you’re doing other work in that field.

            The fact that experts assume a hypothesis just tells us that the hypothesis is the standard model in the field; it doesn’t really tell us whether that hypothesis has near-absolute certainty, or is provisionally accepted in the absence of clear evidence to resolve the issue, or something in between. That makes it a poor standard for determining what is “practically certain”.

          • arcseconds

            Every time this is mentioned, it is usually stated outright that it is the tactics and arguments that are similar, or, if not, this clarification is made as soon as someone says something like “but evolution is far more certain than Jesus’s existence”

            To phrase this as an unspecified similarity is simply disingenuous. Yes, in the absence of this clarification someone might mistake the nature of the similarity being asserted, but as we always are clear about it, it misrepresents the situation to pretend we aren’t.

            And the tactics and arguments really are similar, so saying so seems perfectly justified.

            It may be tactically unwise, because people inevitably misunderstand the nature of the comparison, but that’s about all that can be fairly said against it.

            (It’s misunderstood due to emotion, I suspect, not that we’ve been unclear, or that they wouldn’t be capable of understanding the comparison if it were moon landing hoaxers and climate change denialists being compared, despite the fact that climate change is far more morally important)

            Pointing out similarity in tactics does not imply moral equivalence — and this is surely obvious, as we do not think someone employing blitzkreig tactics in a computer strategy game is doing anything morally similar than invading the real Poland and actually starting another world war.

            But there is nevertheless a real sense in which there is moral equivalence, due to the very use of those tactics.

            Denialists of all stripes employ blatant double standards (holding the standard view to an absurdly high level of proof, yet accept vigorous handwaving and speculative plausibility arguments from the fringe view), make mountains out of evidentiary molehills, cherry-pick, quote mine, engage in total misrepresentation and conspiracy theories, and impugning the competence of every expert in an entire academic field. It’s not rare for this to spill over in to what amounts to defamation. This is intellectually dishonest, and doesn’t start being intellectually honest just because the position is only pretty absurd, rather than being completely ludicrous.

            This behaviour is also not justified on the basis of relative levels of certainty; the moral, pratical, or intellectual importance of the question; the moral character of the person involved, or their ‘intellectual level’. No level of certainty, and no level of intellect would justify anyone doing this, and morality could only do so in the case of utterly contrived examples with no similarity to this case.

            It’s not even justified if the position they’re arguing for is correct.

            So bringing any of this up is simply to miss the point.

            Someone arguing for the historicity of Jesus or the reality of global warming using these kinds of tactics is also guilty of the same kind of intellectual dishonesty, and ought to be held to account by anyone who’s actually interested in rationality and honesty.

          • I don’t think that McGrath has been all that careful about clearly stating the limits of the similarities between creationism and mythicism; sometimes he seems to be making the comparison in order to assert that they are in the same general category, without much in the way of caveats (such as here and here).

            Even with more precision, it’s difficult to avoid the extra implications. If I wrote multiple blog posts discussing similarities in the political tactics of Hitler, Stalin and Barack Obama, wouldn’t you think I was trying to imply something about Obama? If I didn’t want people to think I believed Obama had dictatorial tendencies, wouldn’t it be better to avoid such comparisons entirely?

            It may be tactically unwise, because people inevitably misunderstand the nature of the comparison, but that’s about all that can be fairly said against it.

            That’s pretty much all I’m trying to say. The use of the creation/mythicism comparison is tactically unwise, because people will inevitable misunderstand it as meaning there are other similarities between creation and mythicism.

          • arcseconds

            Mythicism is a common topic for McGrath to discuss, and he has plenty of regular readers. No blogger has to write every post in such a way that everything can be understood by first-time readers: it’s fine for some background to be assumed.

            Anyway, in the case of the first one, I think the point of comparison is pretty clear: mythicism and creationism both (generally speaking) involve a conspiracy theory. And this is hardly even an analogy, as it’s exactly the same conspiracy theory, just said of a different academic discipline.

            Moreover, there are two quite specific charges made in that blog post:

            1) ” they are very selectively gullible while in certain areas they are extremely skeptical
            2) “The issue is selectively appealing to mainstream sources.”

            So it’s hard to see how your characterization of this being ‘they are in the same general category, without much in the way of caveats’ is anything but a mischaracterization. It is fairly clear that what is being discussed is the similarity of the conspiracy theory, and the two specific charges quoted above.

            Also, in the comments there is the predictable misunderstanding (by someone who should know better, as he is or was at least a semi-regular reader), and the usual response by McGrath.

            The second example is a bit more vague to be sure, but even here we have:

            … the sort of answers creationists and mythicists give: the academy stifles dissent, they say, and so genuinely honest and novel ideas don’t get published, so it is no surprise that one has to go beyond the official franchise/academy to do pioneering work.

            Again, that’s a specific example of how they are similar.

            And more generally I think it’s pretty clear that they’re being discussed as examples of pseudoscholarship, and there’s no reason to expect that all examples of pseudoscholarship are equally absurd or equally morally culpable, and just a little thought is required to see in fact that they’re not equal in these respects.

            There doesn’t seem to be an example of anyone saying “but evolution is waay more certain than the historicity of Jesus” in the comments in this case — colour me suprised!

            A comparison of Hitler and Stalin and Obama if these were the only things mentioned I would certainly be suspicious that it would be a right-wing hatchet job. But I don’t think a comparison of this sort is necessarily always and forever off the table. If someone were to write a piece on popularism in western politics, and were to throw George W. Bush into the analysis too, and be even-handed about the issue and not just pretend that Obama is somehow exceptionally evil and manipulative as far as US presidents go, that could be a very interesting analysis and one that I would like to read, and I would not necessarily think that it must be carrying the connotation that Obama and Bush are as evil as Stalin and Hitler despite the fact it explicit denies this and is clear about what comparisons are being made and why.

            And I certainly think there’s an apt comparison between the political tactics used by Hitler and those used by Trump. They both utilize and amplify a pre-existing fear of a minority group which is supposed to be at odds with ‘real’ German/American culture and society, for example, and both promise radical steps to protect the nation from their malign influence.

            That seems like a parallel we should be very aware of to me, and to say any comparison with Hitler invariably connotes moral equivalence and we should avoid it unless there really is moral equivalence, is to say we must ignore similarities with Hitler until genocide has been committed and a major global war initiated— a little late to be noticing the similarities, I feel.

            As far as the tactics go, people who are emotionally committed to a fringe viewpoint are never going to be easily convinced, and they’re always going to be upset when you say they’re being intellectually dishonest, and they’re not going to like comparisons with other people whose intellectual dishonesty is obvious to them. They’re already going to be disappointed (at the very least) that their ideas are not being taken seriously, and interpret the situation as dogmatic running-dogs of the status quo circling the wagons.

            So misinterpretation and a certain amount of heat and feeling aggrieved seems inevitable no matter what one says.

            I suppose it might be possible in some cases if one was sufficiently patient and manipulative to carefully guide them without ruffling feathers in gentle steps, avoiding misunderstanding at each step, but only in some cases, and this is unlikely to work in an open forum where people can more or less do what they like, because even if I tried being diplomatic and gentle someone else won’t be.

            Besides, the discussion isn’t solely for the benefit of mythcists. It’s also a discussion we’re having among people who are convinced of historicity (or at least think it’s by far and a way the best account) — and in fact I’d say it’s primarily this, and secondarily trying to inform uncommitted bystanders, and only trying to communicate to mythicists as a tertiary, ‘nice if it happens’ kind of goal.

            And if I’m having a discussion with McGrath about mythicism, I can’t see why I should avoid an apt comparison just because a mythicist might read it and get the wrong idea and get upset, any more than I would avoid talking about the massive unlikelihood of miracles and the inability of history to attest to them just because it might upset a traditional Christian who might be reading it.

          • No blogger has to write every post in such a way that everything can be understood by first-time readers: it’s fine for some background to be assumed.

            In this case the background contains comparisons with creationism, conspiracy theories etc being made on a regular basis, along with other statements which imply a very high degree of certainty. If McGrath wrote posts along the lines of this “Jury Duty” one with such regularity, and every now and then made a casual comparison with creationism in order to provide a rough illustration of the relevance of expert consensus, there wouldn’t really be a problem.

            Anyway, in the case of the first one, I think the point of comparison is pretty clear: mythicism and creationism both (generally speaking) involve a conspiracy theory.

            Sometimes they do, but a conspiracy theory isn’t a necessary part of either one of them. Mythicist claims of academic inertia, systematic bias, or professionals being over-reliant on old conclusions without carefully examining the matter themselves, are sufficient for their argument and don’t require a grand evil conspiracy.

            Moreover, there are two quite specific charges made in that blog post:

            I disagree that those charges are specific. They are basically equivalent to saying, “my opponent gives too much weight to some evidence, and too little weight to other evidence”. The first charge could be made against pretty much anyone you disagree with, and the second could be made against anyone who advocates a minority opinion in a particular field of expertise.

            In fact, I don’t really understand why the second charge is supposed to be a point against mythicists at all, unless they are being misrepresented as believing that all mainstream scholarship is stupid and evil and has nothing useful to contribute. As long as they’re not quote-mining or leaving out caveats or something like that, what exactly is the problem with citing evidence from someone who doesn’t share your conclusion? Wouldn’t it be a lot more worrying if mythicists only ever cited other mythicists?

            Also, in the comments there is the predictable misunderstanding (by someone who should know better, as he is or was at least a semi-regular reader)

            Since this misunderstanding is predictable, doesn’t it make sense to try to avoid it?

            McGrath has extensively explained in this post and the comments here that he predicts a misunderstanding when he expresses himself in a particular way, and therefore avoids that form of expression. I agree with that choice and his justifications for that choice.

            But that is all suddenly forgotten when I’ve pointed out other examples of phrasing which cause identical problems and which have identical solutions to those problems. Now, apparently, it doesn’t matter how we express ourselves or what comparisons we make, and we can blame the readers for their own misunderstandings.

            So I’ll ask you the same question I asked McGrath (since he hasn’t answered it): what is the relevant difference between a comparison to a criminal trial, and a comparison to scientific theories, that means the former comparison should be avoided but the latter comparison should not?

            A comparison of Hitler and Stalin and Obama if these were the only things mentioned I would certainly be suspicious that it would be a right-wing hatchet job.

            So where are all the posts where McGrath mentions other, less extreme examples of non-mainstream theories at the same time as creationism and 9/11 conspiracies? Is there a post somewhere where he mentions the Steady State Theory, or panspermia, in this context? Your analogy of throwing George Bush into the political analysis doesn’t seem to apply to anything in McGrath’s creationism comparisons.

            I agree that the Trump stands out as more being comparable to Hitler than other politicians are, but I think the point of such comparisons is to imply some kind of moral similarity; to say, in short, that “Trump’s rise to power is similar to Hitler’s, and Trump will abuse that power, just as Hitler did”. I don’t think it’s necessarily saying “Trump’s actions will be precisely as evil as Hitler’s”, but it’s definitely using the image of Hitler to suggest something bad about Trump.

            So misinterpretation and a certain amount of heat and feeling aggrieved seems inevitable no matter what one says.

            Sure, but the fact that it can’t be eliminated doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea to reduce it, and at least avoid writing things that encourage misinterpretation among even those who aren’t particularly committed to the opposing view.

            Besides, the discussion isn’t solely for the benefit of mythcists. It’s also a discussion we’re having among people who are convinced of historicity (or at least think it’s by far and a way the best account) — and in fact I’d say it’s primarily this, and secondarily trying to inform uncommitted bystanders, and only trying to communicate to mythicists as a tertiary, ‘nice if it happens’ kind of goal.

            I don’t mind a discussion among historicists, if that discussion is about other issues. But what’s the point in having a discussion about the validity of historicity among people who are already agreed on the matter, if you don’t intend at some point to spread the message to other people?

          • Nick G

            I think there are statements about ancient history that are beyond reasonable doubt. For example, that Julius Caesar existed, became effective ruler of the Roman world by defeating Pompey, and was assassinated. I’d say the existence of a historical Jesus is very highly probable, because (as you say) no alternative hypothesis has been presented that accounts for the evidence – but given that there are people from that time whose existence is based on better evidence (and not only public figures like Caesar – I’ve mentioned before the letters found at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall – the existence of both writer and addressee is more firmly established than that of Jesus) I would not say it’s established beyond reasonable doubt.

          • I agree, Nick, that there are individuals about whom it makes sense to talk about reasonable doubt even in ancient times. But because they are such a small subset of people, it seems that it would be inappropriate to say that it is reasonable to doubt the existence of most people who lived then. If an approach makes such doubt seem reasonable, surely there is something unreasonable about the standards of evidence we are applying?

          • Paul E.

            This comment identifies one of the problems in comparing legal and historical evidentiary standards. When applying the proof-beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard in a courtroom, the accused is presumed innocent. This presumption is only overcome when a jury is convinced of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But is there or should there be a presumption of non-historicity in the case of Jesus? If so, may be there is some validity to the comparison of the proof standards. But why should there be? And if there isn’t, then does proof beyond a reasonable doubt acquire a different hue than without the adverse presumption?

          • Right – there is no rule requiring that someone be “presumed unhistorical”!

          • Nick G

            Actually, not such a small subset – although I don’t know its actual size – when you consider all the individuals mentioned on surviving memorials. Admittedly we know very little about most of them, but we have a contemporary physical record of their existence, which we lack in the case of Jesus, or, indeed, many public figures. In some cases, we have parts of their body as well, which can tell us quite a lot about their lives. Historians are still prone to underestimate archeology!

          • Well, it was still the wealthy few who had memorials in the ancient world, in most instances. We have bones and other such evidence from many more people whom we know existed, but we cannot in most instances correlate such osteological remains with names in texts.

          • arcseconds

            Why does it follow from the fact that there are figures with more evidence for them that there must be reasonable doubt in Jesus’s case?

            There’s more evidence for the existence of Martin Luther King (Jr) than there is for the existence of any figure in the remote past. We have all sorts of evidence for him that we just don’t have and can’t have for figures in the distant past: we’ve got recordings of him, for example, and there are people around still who knew him. But you still think Caesar’s existence is beyond reasonable doubt, despite this.

            And for most criminal cases, it’s possible to imagine more evidence that would make one more certain, and there are likely to be cases that in fact did have better evidence. But if ‘reasonable doubt’ is to be a useful concept in law or anywhere it can’t mean having the maximum possible evidence.

  • John MacDonald

    It seems to me almost unthinkable that by simple coincidence BOTH Matthew and Luke would include a genealogy of Jesus in their gospels (since there was no genealogy in Mark) unless Luke was creatively editing Matthew, or else there was a primitive genealogy in “Q.”

    One reason to think Luke was editing Matthew was that in Matthew’s genealogy Jesus’ bloodline was cursed. According to the genealogy in Matthew 1:12, Jesus is a descendant of Jeconiah. But Jeconiah was cursed in Jeremiah 22:24 and 22:30:

    “As surely as I live,” declares the LORD, “even if you, Jehoiachin son of Jehoiakim king of Judah, were a signet ring on my right hand, I would still pull you off.

    This is what the LORD says: “Record this man as if childless, a man who will not prosper in his lifetime, for none of his offspring will prosper, none will sit on the throne of David or rule any more in Judah.”

    Since no descendant of Jeconiah could ever sit on the throne, if Jesus is a descendant of this cursed king, he is disqualified from being a traditional Messiah.

    Matthew may have written his genealogy in this way because he wanted to foreshadow for the reader that Jesus would fail to become King of the Jews.

    Luke may have found the idea that Jesus had a cursed bloodline repugnant, so he changed Matthew’s genealogy in his own portrayal of Jesus’ genealogy. In the introduction to his gospel, Luke said he had many sources to work from, so it is not unreasonable to think he had a copy of Matthew.

  • arcseconds

    Since I became interested in the question, I have gone back and forward whether Jesus’s existence is beyond reasonable doubt (I think it’s pretty clear it’s the most probable option, and I’ve never been in doubt about that).

    I have eventually settled on deciding it is indeed beyond reasonable doubt.

    The key factor for me was not discovering something new about Jesus, but rather rethinking what ‘reasonable doubt’ might mean. A doubt being unreasonable (perhaps this might be better stated as ‘a doubt being held unreasonably’) does not mean that the doubt is crazy or even that the doubt is particularly implausible, but rather that there is no real reason to suppose that the situation that the doubt envisages obtains.

    For example, take a murder case. There’s a motive, a threat, video evidence and fingerprints, but the defense says the threat has been misinterpreted and taken out of context (it was a joke, possibly in poor taste), the defendant didn’t know about the motivation at the time of the threat, and actually the victim was murdered off-screen and the defendant was trying to aid them, hence why it looks like they’re struggling with them and their fingerprints on the knife. There’s some other circumstantial evidence, but this is put down to the police being keen to secure a conviction. There is, let us say, another person with a motive and no alibi, but no evidence linking them to the crime at all, so it could be that they’re the actual murder who has cleverly framed the defendant.

    None of this is crazy, and certainly no individual aspect of this is implausible, but unless there’s some actual evidence — like context provided which actually shows that the threat was a joke, rather than just asserting that it might have been a joke — this remains a baseless conjecture.

    It’s not a silly thing to consider, so a reasonable person could consider the scenario and propose it to others, and we would find it understandable if the defendant’s loved ones believed this was the case, so ‘otherwise reasonable’ people could believe it, but it’s not, I think, ultimately very reasonable to suppose this possibility raises significant doubts about the defendant’s guilt.

    By contrast, thinking that both the victim and the defendant are both victims of a vast government conspiracy would be crazy. Without the alternative suspect, the story starts to become implausible (some person unknown just happened to kill the victim while the defendant was right near by to get captured on film?), and the notion that the defendant had meant to kill the victim, but backed out at the last minute only to have the victim knived in front of them by someone else starts to look very implausible.

    In sum: ‘reasonable doubt’ means something different than thinking of a plausible alternative scenario. It means thinking that this scenario has some significant probability, which surely means having at least some evidence for it, that in some ways works out better for it than the ‘guilty’ scenario.

    NB: I don’t really know how the ‘reasonable doubt’ principle is defined and talked about in law, and I probably should…

  • John MacDonald

    I am intrigued by what the Prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane tells us about the mindset of the historical Jesus. In it, Jesus begs God to not have to go through with the plan for Jesus to hideously suffer and die. Jesus had always taught that he knew he must die: “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again (Mark 8:31).” But the Prayer in Gethsemane seems to portray a change of mind. Afterwards, Jesus seems to know he will be crucified, spouting blasphemy to the Jewish high council and telling Pilate he was the King of the Jews. I wonder what God said to Jesus to convince him to go through with the plan? Maybe God told Jesus he would miraculously save him from death on the cross. When it becomes clear that God will not save Jesus and that Jesus will die, Jesus cries out “My God My God, why have you forsaken me?” God has abandoned Jesus to his death on the cross, and Jesus is begging for God to come rescue him: “When some of those standing nearby heard this, they said, ‘Look, He is calling Elijah.’ And someone ran and filled a sponge with vinegar. He put it on a stick and offered it to Jesus to drink. ‘Wait!’ he said. ‘Let us see if Elijah comes to take Him down’ (Mark 15:35).” So what is going on here? Maybe God told Jesus he would be miraculously rescued at the last minute, like Isaac was rescued from the knife of Abraham. This would be reminiscent of Elisha. Elisha told King Benhadad that he would recover, even though God told Elisha that the king would die: “Benhadad the king of Syria was sick … And the king said unto Hazael … go, meet the man of God, and enquire of the LORD by him, saying, Shall I recover of this disease? Elisha said unto him, go, say unto him, Thou mayest certainly recover: howbeit the Lord hath showed me that he shall surely die (2 Kings 8:8-10.).” Maybe God promised to Jesus he would be miraculously saved from the cross, even though God knew Jesus wouldn’t.

    • John MacDonald

      Luke evidently saw a problem with the cry of abandonment by Jesus on the cross, so he changed Jesus’ last words to “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke 23:46).”