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OHJ: The Covington Review (Parts 6-11)

Cover of Richard Carrier's book On the Historicity of Jesus. Medieval icon image of Jesus holding a codex, on a plain brown background, title above in white text, author below in white text.Here continues my series on reviews of my book On the Historicity of Jesus. If you know of reviews I haven’t covered, post them in comments (though please also remark on your own estimation of their merits).

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This series has covered another series begun by Nicholas Covington. I have already commented on earlier entries (see parts 4 & 5). Today I shall comment on 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11.


Is Paul’s Silence Even Harder to Explain?

In part 6 Covington gives a good summary of why this is a stronger argument than historicists insist. As Covington puts it:

When you compare the 200 silent passages [documented by Earl Doherty] with the handful of debatable passages that might refer to a historical Jesus (or just as easily might not) and the lone reference to James the brother of the Lord (which can be plausibly explained by mythicism) things begin to look pretty bad for the historicists. Paul mentions Jesus again and again in his letters, mentions his crucifixion and resurrection multiple times, but never says much of anything else about him.

He goes on, and concludes “the argument from silence here is extremely compelling.” As I noted in my last commentary, I was very over-generous to historicity in my probability estimates in OHJ. I actually think historicists may have gaslighted me on this one. In OHJ I just took their excuses as being as credible as not, and so a wash. Because even many non-believing experts insist upon them so unabashedly and often, acting all shocked and nonplussed that anyone would balk. But as Covington explains, those excuses are really not that credible.

In light of that, Covington’s own estimate is 10:1 against historicity, instead of my merely 2:1. I think he might be closer to being right. Compare his calculation to my comment in OHJ, pp. 518-19, n. 13. To illustrate, for my result of 2:1, the average probability of a historicity-confirming comment in each of the sixty chapters of Paul can’t be much more than 1% (or 1 out of every 100 chapters, so less even than 1 out of 60), and Covington is saying that’s way too low to be believed. His estimate, of 10:1, requires that probability to be around 3.8%.  At 5% (the estimate I used for illustration in the book), we end up with a factor of almost 22:1 against historicity.

Think about that.

I can also add to Covington’s closing paragraph expressing distrust of the argument “from high context” against this conclusion. That argument is not only bogus (see my comments, and the critiques of Tim Widowfield, in my Review of Casey), but it is actually refuted by Gerd Lüdemann, whom I quoted to exactly that effect in OHJ (p. 520), “In the letter to the Romans, which cannot presuppose the apostle’s missionary preaching, and in which he attempts to summarize its main points, we find not a single direct citation of Jesus’ teaching.”

The reason Romans cannot be, in any relevant way, using high context discourse (discourse that presupposes the readers have already been fully briefed) is because Paul is there writing to people he has never communicated with before, even some of whom have not yet heard the gospel (Rom. 1:15). And accordingly, much of the text from chapter one on is an elaborate summary of the gospel and how it works salvation, refuting the notion that Paul would not repeat basic things already understood—for Romans is specifically about many of those basic things! (And, I would add, our Romans appears to be an interwoven stitch of at least three separate letters [OHJ, p. 511, n. 4], such that the original letter beginning with Rom. 1 may have contained a lot of really fundamental material that has been cut from our copy.)

So this factor may need to go from 2:1 to 10:1 or even 20:1 against historicity. Certainly something to ponder.

Why Wouldn’t Mark Sneak Paul into the Twelve?

As Covington poses the question in part 7, “Why didn’t Mark include Paul as one of the twelve disciples in his book?” He almost immediately answers his own question, of course, that “that’d be a dead giveaway at what he was doing, since we know through Paul’s letters that he never met Jesus in person.” Since Paul refers to the twelve as something he wasn’t a part of (1 Cor. 15:5-8), and clearly and even insistently says he wasn’t in the original group (Gal. 1), and Mark is writing for the Pauline sect (who would surely know Paul’s letters if anyone would), it would make no sense at all for Mark to sneak Paul into his symbolic commentary on the original twelve. Not only because it would be for that very reason jarring and contradictory, but also because it would be directly contrary to Mark’s entire evangelical purpose in narrating the original followers of Jesus: the disciples are nitwits who never understood the gospel and were too fickle and foolish to follow as leaders. He is thus using his narratives of them to comment on the anti-Pauline sect. Paul doesn’t belong there, even fictionally.

Covington is aware of the problem, noting “the chances are small that [Mark] would’ve wanted to portray Paul as one of the cowardly, half-witted disciples like the others were portrayed,” although he thinks maybe Mark wasn’t wholly hostile to the original disciples, since “Mark also has Jesus designate Peter as ‘The Rock’” and whatnot. But it’s crucial for Mark’s message that the disciples not be completely disgraced, because Paul admitted they founded the church (and were the ‘pillars’, essentially the rock, on which it was founded) and had to be deferred to (Gal. 1-2), so the disciples had to be depicted as losers, but not wholly lost (hence Mark 16:7). Paul also knew and said the founder of the church was named ‘Rock’ (Cephas: 1 Cor. 15:5; Gal. 1:18, 2:9), so an etiological myth explaining that is what we would expect in Mark (however allegorically he intended it). Mark also knew Paul thought Peter was a weasel (Gal. 2:11). So we should expect Mark to depict him as such (Mark 14:30-72 passim).

By contrast, inserting Paul in a setting he was never in would actually go against Mark’s deployment of a quasi-accurate historical setting for his fiction. For Paul was never in Judea, and was unknown in person there (and was affiliated with Damascus, not Galilee), until years after he converted, which was in turn years after Peter launched the church (Gal. 1:18-2:1). If you want to write a plausible veneer for your secret messages (Mark 4:10-11), you don’t insert a pink gorilla in the middle of it, least of all one that wholly spoils the message. That would be like having Herod the Great show up in Mark 15 to personally berate Pontius Pilate for crucifying the messiah.

Consequently, I can’t see any appreciable probability that Mark would have inserted Paul into his narrative. Much less the 50% chance Covington declares. He subsequently came to agree (see part 9), though for different reasons than I adduce here (although nevertheless also reasons worth considering).

Does Hebrews Argue Even More Against Historicity?

In part 8, Covington says the content of Hebrews is “one of the most compelling arguments for mythicism.” I agree it is compelling. But I wasn’t sure it was that conclusive when I wrote OHJ, owing to its plausible vagueness. So I gave all the epistolary gospels collectively a 5:2 against historicity, or 5:3 a fortiori (p. 594). But Covington makes a good argument that, again, I was being way too generous to historicity. Observe the elegance of his argument:

The author of Hebrews believes that there are copies of things in heaven mirroring the things on earth … and that the animal sacrifices [in the Jerusalem temple] are a copy or shadow of Jesus’ sacrifice … Think about the Hebrews author’s logic:

1. There are imperfect earthly copies of heavenly things.

2. Animal sacrifices are an imperfect copy of Jesus’ sacrifice,

Therefore: Jesus’ sacrifice was a heavenly sacrifice.

This is essentially what I myself argue, but I did not conceptualize it so clearly. It evokes a powerful syllogism:

  • P1. Hebrews 9-10 says the imperfect copies of any x are on earth and the perfect copies of x are not on earth.
  • P2. The sacrifice of Jesus is the perfect copy of x.
  • C1. Therefore, Hebrews 9-10 says the sacrifice of Jesus was not on earth.

From there:

  • P3. It is improbable that C1 [the author of Hebrews would say the sacrifice of Jesus was not on earth], when B [the sacrifice of Jesus was on earth], but probable that C1 [the author of Hebrews would say the sacrifice of Jesus was not on earth], when ~B [the sacrifice of Jesus was not on earth].
  • P4. If it is improbable that C1 when B, and probable that C1 when ~B, then, when C1, ceteris paribus, ~B is more probable than B.
  • C2. Therefore, equiter paribus, “the sacrifice of Jesus was not on earth” is more probable than “the sacrifice of Jesus was on earth.”

In Bayesian terms, if C1 is twice as likely when ~B than when B, then this one fact of Hebrews alone entails a factor of 2:1 against historicity. And that’s being generous already, since that seems surely more than twice as likely. For it does not seem likely at all that the author of Hebrews would use an argument he knew to be refuted by a well-established fact (that the sacrifice of Jesus was on earth, just like the animals, and in fact in almost the same location), nor at all likely that the author of Hebrews would not know of that fact, if it were a fact. It is therefore not at all likely that it was a fact. In other words, it is not at all likely that Jesus died on earth. (This can be added to the arguments from Hebrews I already make in OHJ, ch. 11 § 5.)

Covington goes on to shore up and reinforce the point. I am again persuaded to agree. Unless someone can argue me out of it (please try!), I have to concur C1 is almost certainly true (as it follows from P1 and P2, neither of which can plausibly be denied), and C1 is surely more than twice as likely if Jesus didn’t exist than if he did. Unless one posits a bizarre theory in which Jesus was believed to have been raptured into heaven before his death to be killed there, a notion requiring so many ad hoc suppositions just to stand, that it would suffer an intolerably low prior probability. No, I think we are left with a stronger than 5:3 factor against historicity from this alone, even a fortiori. And even more so when combined with the other gospels in Paul and Colossians.

I should probably double that category factor from 5:3 to 10:3 a fortiori, and make it 5:1 a judicatiori (from doubling my 5:2 to 10:2). Because this isn’t the only passage in Hebrews that is less probable on historicity than myth, so if even just this single passage compels a 2:1 factor, we should let it do so, all on its own.

The Last Three Sections So Far

Covington’s parts 9, 10, and 11 are more like a summary, recap, or re-evaluation of his previous material. Part 10 is not really about OHJ but advances an unusual argument from Enoch that I don’t use in OHJ but which offers an interesting support to it (it would essentially expand my Element 41), although with a few too many speculations I think. But part 9 contains further thoughts on the preceding sections (I have simply newly inserted this fact and my very brief remarks on it in or at the end of my original commentaries on those preceding sections). And part 11 is a summary of why OHJ has tentatively persuaded him, after a final collecting of his personal probability estimates, which work out to a Bayesian conclusion of 99% against historicity.

I have just one thing to add here. In the latter Covington mentions his opinion that “if someone demonstrated that Mark probably had an historical Jesus in mind” then that would tip the scales over to historicity, because Mark was writing so early he couldn’t be mistaken about that. I disagree. The evidence of Roswell disconfirms the required premise (OHJ, pp. 249-50). And that’s even if we assume Mark was written in the 70s. It could have been written decades later. But even by the 70s, we are a lifetime away from the events related (OHJ, Element 22), and possibly a whole continent away as well (if Mark was written in Europe or Africa, although even Syria would have been a world away given ancient transportation).

For example, if Mark could believe an hours-long extinguishing of the sun was historical (Proving History, pp. 41-60), mistakenly believing Jesus was historical would be vastly easier. This holds even for Christians a century later, who would have as much evidence no such darkness occurred (in public libraries of the time) as Mark (a Greek writer with imperfect knowledge of Judea and likely writing nowhere near it) would have that there was no Jesus (the difficulty of disconfirming it would be considerable: see Not the Impossible Faith, chapter 7). Yet those later Christians appear to have bought that sun thing, hook, line, and sinker (even Hippolytus did, and he actually built public libraries). So I see no reason to think people could not be believing in a historical Jesus by the 70s, just as people were already believing in a recovered flying saucer and alien bodies at Roswell in the 1980s, also just forty years after the fact.

And even then, we would have to tease out the difference between Mark intending his readers to believe in a historical Jesus, and Mark himself actually believing it (on why merely “intending” it does not support historicity, see OHJ, Elements 13 and 14). So I don’t think there is much opportunity to rescue historicism by this route. It’s not enough to show Mark intended a historical Jesus, nor even enough to show he believed in one himself. One simply has to show that Mark had information that he could not have had unless there was a historical Jesus (or at least, that he would not probably have). The report of there being a historical Jesus is not such a piece of information, any more than the report of there being a recovered flying saucer and alien bodies at Roswell is.

But that’s my only quibble here. Covington is otherwise right as to how else historicity can be rescued (if it can be rescued). And in his part 11 he closes with a fair summary of how laypeople should respond to the publication of OHJ: “Historicists may be able to defeat mythicism, but if so, they will have to stop using bad arguments.” And until they do, the case against historicity is respectably strong.

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More to come. See my commentary on parts 4 & 5, if you want to walk back in the series. I will eventually blog on all of Covington’s entries in this series (his continuing index is here).

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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.

Comments

  1. says

    IIRC Tolbert in “Sowing the Gospel” takes Peter’s “Rock” designation as an illusion to the sower’s seed falling into the rocky place, “to petrodes” (Mk. 4:5).

  2. says

    I too think that Hebrews strongly suggests the entire sacrifice takes place in the heavens but I’ll take a crack at defending the other side.

    Only the sprinkling of the alter with blood is explicitly said to take place in the heavenly temple. The suffering of Jesus is said to take place outside the camp in Hebrews 13:11-14. This could plausibly include earth. In OHJ you argue otherwise, that outside the camp can’t mean earth, but I’m not so sure.

    11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. 12 Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. 13 Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

    14 surely refers to a heavenly city to come but it could be that 13 just means that the way to get there, eventually, is to leave the temple cult behind, just like Jesus did. Going to him doesn’t have to mean to (spiritually) go to heaven with him (where he surely resides at the time Hebrews is being written). It could just mean that we should join him in leaving the temple behind. 14 would then be just for emphasis. A paraphrase might be something like, “Jesus suffered outside the temple cult, so let’s join him and leave it behind. After all, it isn’t Jerusalem we are hoping to arrive at eventually.” That those passages follow on what appears to be a reference to Jewish food regulations somewhat supports the notion that is all the author has in mind.

    Also is the fact that the suffering of Jesus is equated here with the burning of the animals. Why is that? Unless I’ve misunderstood, the blood of the bull and the goat are collected in the temple courtyard, not outside the camp. So on Yom Kippur the blood is sprinkled, and then eventually the bull and goat are burned. In the case of Jesus he suffers first (which is equated with the burning), and then sprinkles his blood. So, one might argue that we are seeing here an attempt to smooth out the rough edges so to speak. The story the author has of Jesus doesn’t quite fit, since he died outside the courtyard gates, so he has to equate his death with the burning of the animals instead.

    Now that’s rather thin, I’ll admit, but it is perhaps a plausible historicist explanation.

  3. humesapprentice says

    Great post!

    Re: The Argument from Hebrews, I have wondered on this. Did the ancients categorize “just beneath the firmament” as one of “the heavens”? Based on a little bit of googling I’ve done, it looks like there was variation in ancient beliefs such that one of the levels of heaven was beneath the firmament. If that’s the view that the author of Hebrews had, then my interpretation of him would be plausible. On the other hand, if he took a view of the world such that everything beneath the firmament was ‘not heaven’ but instead part of the ‘earthly sphere’ my interpretation is wrong.

    Also, I felt we may have been talking past each other in the last post regarding Luke and the whole ‘proclaimed/proclaimer’ switch. It might be helpful for me to zoom in on the passages in Luke that I was talking about:

    “Then He said unto them, ‘O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!
    Ought not Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” (Luke 24:25-27)

    “And He said unto them, ‘These are the words which I spoke unto you while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and in the Prophets and in the Psalms concerning Me.’ Then opened He their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures, and said unto them, ‘Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day,'” (Luke 24:44-46)

    Here Jesus is seen authorizing Paul’s method of learning about Jesus via the scriptures (as Paul did in 1 Corinthians 15:3). Luke evidently realized the discontinuity between the gospel narratives, where people learn about Jesus by observing him, and the Pauline letters, where the early church learns about Jesus via the Old Testament. Not only did Luke realize it, he even writes a story to try and make this transition seem plausible and natural. I think these verses show that Luke was having to unite two factions within the church (one that believed in a revealed Jesus with a historicist sect), much as he had to unite the legacy of Peter, the Torah observant Jew, with the non-Torah observant sect of which Luke was a member.

    • says

      Did the ancients categorize “just beneath the firmament” as one of “the heavens”?

      Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

      Luke evidently realized the discontinuity between the gospel narratives, where people learn about Jesus by observing him, and the Pauline letters, where the early church learns about Jesus via the Old Testament. Not only did Luke realize it, he even writes a story to try and make this transition seem plausible and natural. I think these verses show that Luke was having to unite two factions within the church (one that believed in a revealed Jesus with a historicist sect), much as he had to unite the legacy of Peter, the Torah observant Jew, with the non-Torah observant sect of which Luke was a member.

      That’s well said.

  4. deuterostome says

    I appreciate this study in applying Bayes Theorem to more “nebulous” questions (I come from a field where likelihoods come from specific mathematical models and priors are defined as formal distributions). “Proving History” effectively convinced me that Bayes Theorem should be the methodology for any field that involves testing claims based on evidence, whereas before I leaned toward a limited application to fields that could actually generate plausible mathematical models. One thing that does bother me about the Jesus discussion is that I have repeatedly seen people talk about likelihoods of 0% or 100%. For example, I just read Covington’s part 6 where he claimed that each place Paul fails to mention a historical Jesus has a 100% likelihood under mythicism. This means that if Paul mentioned what seemed to be a historical detail just once in any of these places, mythicism would be completely destroyed as a model even if Paul failed to mention a historical Jesus at every other opportunity (*any* single observation with a likelihood of 0 means the model probability is 0). Surely this is hyperbole. For example, the detail could be a later addition to the text or it could only seem historical at first blush with a mythical interpretation developed later (as in the “brother of the Lord” thing). Even if the proposed mythical interpretation was extremely implausible, it wouldn’t be *impossible*. Thus, there is some chance of finding historical details in the letters under mythicism, so the probability that those details are missing cannot be 100%. I’ve given one example, but I am proposing that this is a general problem. We just shouldn’t be talking about likelihoods of 0% or 100% in a context like this. If those are meant to be translated as “really close to 100% but not exactly,” then is seems important to specify how close to 100%. .99 and .99999 can give really different results in some contexts.

    • says

      Yes, actually it’s a little different than that. I explain in Proving History and OHJ about normalizing procedures, factoring out coefficients of contingency (see esp. PH, pp. 77-79, 214-28, and index). Thus, to say we are comparing 100% against 50% (for example) is actually after factoring out the coefficient of contingency.

      This means, the actual probability the text would look exactly so is always really small, because there are endless other things that could have been said and ways to say it, but which variations are the same on either hypothesis. Let’s say this is by a factor 0.0001%. Since it’s then 100% x 0.0001% in ratio to 50% x 0.0001%, the 0.0001% cancels out, and you are left with 100% in ratio to 50%.

      Thus, we are not literally saying it’s 100%. We are saying, once you factor out the common contingencies, it’s 100%. For example, there is a 100% chance I’ll eat in an hour is true regardless of what I eat, so you can say as I eat a sandwich that that was 100% expected. Even though, of course, I could have eaten a salad or a steak or what have you. You are not saying “100% sandwich” but “100% eat” of which sandwich counts as a fulfillment, as would any other food item.

      The differential effect of alternatives that would affect the probability of h against ~h can be subtle. See my treatment of “finding / not finding” the trial records of Pontius Pilate in PH (pp. 219-24). That is a paradigm example of how this reasoning works.

    • says

      Mentions but clearly did not read my book Proving History. Because he completely fails to respond to the refutations of his arguments already in that book (throughout chapter three especially).

      A critique that is already soundly refuted by the book being critiqued hardly requires a response. Other than, “Read the book.”

  5. says

    Dr. Carrier,

    “1. There are imperfect earthly copies of heavenly things.

    2. Animal sacrifices are an imperfect copy of Jesus’ sacrifice,

    Therefore: Jesus’ sacrifice was a heavenly sacrifice.”
    .

    The logic is greatly flawed.
    I do not see why that would prevent Jesus’ sacrifice to be on earth.
    I do not see why the ultimate sacrifice could not be done on earth.
    Furthermore, in the air, below the moon, among demons, is not a perfect environment (not God’s heaven and not any better than earth), and rather strange for someone in a flesh & blood human body (even if generated from a sperm of David & an allegorical woman).
    It is therefore more logical for the sacrifice to be done on a human/earthly being, even if he is an incarnated deity.
    .
    Note: the Jerusalem temple is a copy of God’s heaven, according to Heb 9:11-12 & 23-24, and nothing else earthly is said to be a copy of heavenly things.
    .

    On the same topic, you wrote in OHJ:
    “Because here we’re told that Jesus not only performed his sacrifice in the celestial temple (as in Heb. 9, as we’ll see in a moment), but that he had to do so. Otherwise the magic of it wouldn’t have worked.”
    Are you saying it was believed by the author of Hebrews there was a celestial temple in the air, below the moon. And that “celestial” temple (or sanctuary) is not in (or the whole of) God’s heaven, where it is located according to Heb 9:11-12 & 23-24?
    So where is that celestial temple where the sacrifice was performed?
    .
    Cordially, Bernard

    • says

      Bernard, you don’t know how logic works. You claim the syllogism is flawed, but fail to identify any flaws in it. Just because you don’t like the conclusion doesn’t mean the logic is flawed.

      The syllogism in fact already answers your questions. You are simply ignoring what it actually says.

      Because you are a crank. As has been well established, again and again and again.

      Case in point, you quote mine. Honest people would admit to what I say just a few pages later: pp. 543-45. You are not honest people.

  6. scoobie says

    Wot’s “equiter paribus”? All other things being equal?
    All I can find is “Ceteris Paribus”, which is ‘all other things being unchanged or constant’. Which apparently is the opposite of “Mutatis Mutandis”, which is pretty cool, because I’ve often seen that but *never* known what it means, but now I do.

  7. Kiljoy says

    Holy cow Richard! Do get nourishment through a tube or do you actually manage to free your hands from the keypad from time to time?

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