This week I am doing a series on early reviews of my book On the Historicity of Jesus. If you know of reviews I don’t cover by the end of the first week of July, post them in comments (though please also remark on your own estimation of their merits).
One of those early reviews posted is by Nicholas Covington (at Hume’s Apprentice of SkepticInk), author and blogger, with a strong interest in counter-apologetics, naturalist philosophy, and historical argument. He is blogging his review as a series, and so far only parts 1 and 2 are available. I will post more as he does. But here is my commentary on part 1, on a question of method. For the remaining parts, see closing paragraph.
First, of course, I concur with Covington’s opening warnings. As I have written on the same point before (Fincke Is Right: Arguing Jesus Didn’t Exist Should Not Be a Strategy). I have likewise made the same point about the Possibility Fallacy (Proving History, pp. 26-29). And I am glad he plans to get to his own estimates of numbers by the end of his series (that’s important).
Second, his part 1 only addresses the question of prior probability. He correctly points out that that precedes our examination of specific evidence for or against historicity, so the historicity of Jesus is not decided by its prior (as I also explain in OHJ, ch. 6).
Third, so far he has only one point to make about this. Essentially, he repeats what I call the Alternative Class Objection. Which I already fully address in the book (OHJ, pp. 245-46).
I could leave it at that. But Covington proposes a reference class I didn’t give as an example, one that gives occasion to discuss an important methodological point that is easily gotten wrong. [Note that after I composed the following, but before I published it, Covington updated his article with a paragraph noticing on his own the last point I make here.]
Covington’s conclusion on this one point is:
All in all, Carrier’s prior probability of 33% for the historicity of Jesus is reasonable but not entirely beyond challenge, and it may be equally reasonable for us to hold to a prior probability much higher if we use a different reference class such as the one I mentioned.
By which he means what is essentially the converse of Stephen Law’s Contamination Principle (which I actually refer to in OHJ, see the author index). Stephen Law’s principle is that the more unbelievable things there are in a story, the less believable the mundane things in that story are. Stated as such, he is correct (although the question remains how much less). Covington proposes the converse: the more true things there are in a story, the more believable the rest of the story is. Stated as such, he is correct…provided we commute the principle to the correct reference class of information. Covington skips that step. Consequently, his objection (which admittedly he does not really have that much confidence in) is not valid. Although it could in principle be fixed up to work, that would require the Gospels to look substantially different than they actually do (as I explain in detail in OHJ, ch. 10).
An easy example of what I mean is to take Law’s example (which Covington discusses), in which someone claims a certain person they call Bert “flew around the room by flapping his arms before dying, coming back to life and turning their sofa into a donkey,” and add the detail that Bert voted for President Obama in 2008 and lives in Seattle. Does the fact that there really was an election for a man really named Obama in 2008, and there really is a city named Seattle, increase the probability that Bert exists at all? Or by any appreciable amount? No. Because fiction routinely includes factually true details (in fact, studies of urban legends show they actually accumulate such details over time, so reliably that experts in the subject consider the proliferation of factual details a sign of a story not being true: OHJ, pp. 480-81, n. 195). And this is where we have to pay attention to reference classes: is it improbable for the story of a non-existent person to contain true facts of the world? No. To the contrary, it’s almost universally the case (pick any myth placed in an actual historical context and you’ll find things in it that are true, like the names and locations of cities and other geographical and political and cultural facts). So it is actually expected (see OHJ, pp. 214-34).
Therefore, the presence of true facts of the world in a story does not increase the probability of the rest of the story being true, at least not by any significant amount. Except contra-factually, of course: it increases it relative to the same story but where all those true facts are replaced by false ones. But the fact that false facts lower a story’s probability does not entail true facts raise it; they only raise it relative to that hypothetical but non-existent version of the story containing false facts of the world. And that’s not the question we are asking here. We are asking how likely the stories we actually have are. Not the likelihood of stories we don’t have. See my discussion of a similar problem regarding Nazareth archaeology in OHJ, p. 258, n. 8. Contemplating the stories we don’t have can be a useful exercise (as P(e|h) must equal 1 – P(~e|h)), but only in a certain way (I explain all of this in PH, pp. 52, 230, 255-56, 302 n. 13).
Examples to the Contrary
An example I have discussed (as have other scholars making the exact same point: see NIF, pp. 174-87) is the book of Acts: peppered with true facts of the world (some cribbed from Josephus precisely for the purpose), yet nevertheless not at all believable on almost any other detail (OHJ, ch. 9). This is how historical fiction gets written. It’s not like Luke was really good at checking incidental details of regional geography and politics (he sometimes wasn’t, but even if he was), therefore the stories he inserts those details into are credible. To the contrary, Luke weaves false tales and then inserts true background facts to make them seem believable.
Therefore we cannot use the insertion of true background facts to support the truth of the stories. Those are separate reference classes, and they do not inform each other. That an author is good at the one only tells you the probability that he continues to be good at that, and therefore Luke’s often getting background facts right lends credence to other background facts in Luke that we can’t independently verify. Nothing more. If you want to up the credence of Luke’s stories (the individual pericopes, as narrative units), you need evidence that he regularly gets stories right, not just the background facts. And that is precisely what we can’t verify, whereas we can show he often (and deliberately) gets stories wrong, or uses such suspicious methods of composing them that they can’t be credited as being the result of honest inquiry (again, see OHJ, ch. 9). Which sets the prior probability of any of his other stories being true to a low value, not a high one.
I do the same thing with the Gospels: demonstrate that they are composed in such a suspicious and consistently unbelievable manner that there is no way to get a high prior that any story in them is true (OHJ, ch. 10). That’s why you can’t use them to support the historicity of anything in them that we can’t independently verify. And we can’t independently verify Jesus (OHJ, chs. 8, 9, and 11).
In fact, in precisely that context I discuss in both PH and OHJ what I think Covington wants to do. See “iteration, method of” in the index to PH, which I mention in OHJ, p. 509. I’ll quote the latter here now because it’s relevant:
… from the survey in this chapter it’s clear that if we went from pericope to pericope assessing the likelihood of it being true (rather than invented to communicate a desired point or to fit a pre-planned narrative structure), each time updating our prior probability that anything in the Gospels can be considered reliable evidence for a historical Jesus, then that probability would consistently go down (or level off somewhere low), but never rise. In fact I have not found a single pericope in these Gospels that is more likely true than false. These Gospels are therefore no different than the dozens of other Gospels that weren’t selected for the canon (as discussed in Element 44). They are all just made-up stories.
To change this conclusion, historicists need to find a way to prove that something about the historical Jesus in the Gospels is probably true (not possibly true, but probably true). They have often attempted this, but so far only with completely invalid methods (as I have already thoroughly documented in Chapter 5 of Proving History). I see no prospect of any valid method ever succeeding at that task. But only time will tell. For now, my conclusion is that we can ascertain nothing in the Gospels that can usefully verify the historicity of Jesus.
Note my use of the correct reference class: stories, not background facts. Background facts (like that Pontius Pilate was governing Judea in the 30s A.D.) are wholly unconnected from the truth of anything in the stories. That Pilate existed is not connected to whether Jesus Christ existed, any more than it is connected to whether Joseph of Arimathea existed (see OHJ, index). It therefore does not lend credence to either.
Certainly, if the Gospels got that detail wrong, then the probability of the story being true would plummet. Hence my conclusion is not that the Gospels plummet the probability of historicity (as they would if they got everything wrong), but that they have no effect on it that we can discern (except as I extract in chapter 6 to construct the only reference class for which we have enough data to build a probability out of: see OHJ, p. 395).
So notice, for example, that the “gospel” that placed Jesus a hundred years earlier under king Jannaeus (OHJ, pp. 281-89) also gets the same kind of historical fact correct (there really was a king Jannaeus and he really was the last in an uninterrupted line of kings of Judea). Yet both stories can’t be true. Thus, getting right who was in office when you set your story tells us nothing about whether the hero of your story even existed.
So Covington is right that the only way my prior probability can be challenged is by coming up with a better reference class. But that reference class cannot exclude the Rank-Raglan data and accomplish anything–because that data would go back into e and thus drop the probability all over again, as I demonstrate mathematically in OHJ, pp. 239-44 and 245-46. This is why using the Josephan Messiahs class doesn’t work (OHJ, p. 246). And [as his revision now acknowledges] the approach Covington suggests wouldn’t work for the same reason–unless the Gospels were substantially different than they are. And lo. They aren’t.
Covington’s entries in this series are indexed here. He has also responded to this commentary on part 1 and I have replied in turn (see comment). My commentary on his remaining sections is as follows:
For a complete list of my responses to critiques of OHJ, see the last section of my List of Responses to Defenders of the Historicity of Jesus.