The Testimonium Flavianum

Now that Fox News has shot itself in the foot again and inadvertently made a Muslim scholar’s book about Jesus a bestseller and the talk of every town (which one can only assume from their interview of Reza Aslan is exactly the opposite of what they were hoping for), common concepts and terminology in the Jesus historicity debate are going mainstream and becoming familiar to ordinary people everywhere (even more so than after the best-selling release of Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist?, which I demonstrated to be terrible; although that, too, has primed the pump of popular discourse in this matter).

The experts have weighed in and found Aslan’s book Zealot to be, well, basically bad. From a historical perspective. As a writer everyone agrees he’s top notch. And even as history he’s not wholly wrong. But there’s a lot wrong. From mistakenly not knowing the Sea of Galilee is a fresh water lake and not, ahem, an actual saltwater sea, to misinforming the public on the status of certain debates in the field, to engaging in scholarship of convenience (ignoring evidence against his case or conveniently declaring it forged or fabricated…without any reason other than that it contradicts his hypothesis–although to be fair, even the experts who criticize him do this…a lot), to oversimplifying facts, and other common foibles, he makes his case look stronger than it really is. (See the reviews of Dale Martin [service intermittent], Stephen Prothero, Joseph Loconte, and Anthony Le Donne.)

This is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black (see chapter 1 of my book Proving History), but even then the kettle is still black.

But I’m here to talk about one particular issue his book has popularized: the Testimonium Flavianum. [Read more...]

Skeptical Humanities

I’ve found several websites dedicated to applying the principles of rational and evidence-based skepticism to subjects in the humanities. I’m looking for more. I’d like to expand the following list with any website that is worth bookmarking in this area, so everyone, please feel free to make recommendations in comments. I’m only looking for sites that regularly do this, and meet roughly the same criteria of utility and standards as those in the following list, and that are broader than single-issue sites.

Of course everyone knows You might not think of it as a skeptical humanities site, but what Barbara and David Mikkelson do there is address journalism and urban folklore and history, which are solidly in the humanities.

And everyone knows and (and its related PunditFact). They apply skepticism to journalism and advertising and propaganda, which is again skepticism in the humanities, yet often overlooked because we tend to compartmentalize politics as its own animal.

But fewer know about Run by archaeologists Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews and James Doeser, they also have an affiliated blog. I don’t consider this a single-issue site, since archaeology is broad enough in scope to make bookmarking the site in general worthwhile.

Similar to that is PaleoBabble, a prolific blog by Mike Heiser (a doctor of Hebrew and Semitic Studies) addressing bogus claims in archaeology and ancient history, mostly in relation to ancient aliens and other conspiracy theories about antiquity, but it ranges widely in that area. [Be aware that Heiser's position on traditional biblical religion might be less skeptical, though he does write skeptically about such fringe subjects as bible codes and apocalypticism.]

And in a different vein is Jourdemayne, by Skeptic magazine UK’s current editor Deborah Hyde, which applies skeptical analysis to folklore and legends (from vampires and werewolves to witches and whatnot).

But even broader is This ranges all over the humanities, from linguistics to art, philosophy, history, literature, rhetoric, aesthetics, literary criticism, pop culture, folklore, and cultural studies. Its many contributors (currently Bob Blaskiewicz, Eve Siebert, Mark Newbrook, and Jenna Marie Griffith) are doctors in English, Linguistics, and Visual Arts (or almost a doctor in that last case).

Are there more out there like this that I’m missing? Let me know!

Since my original post, here are my favorite additions from commenter recommendations:

Slate Star Codex. Applies skepticism to claims in and about “cognitive science, psychology, history, politics, medicine, religion, statistics, transhumanism” but also subjects like feminism and sociology. Which reminds me to also add our own…

Heteronormative Patriarchy for Men. Applies skepticism to both feminist and anti-feminist claims and rhetoric, and to claims about sociology, economics, and other related subjects in the study of gender, culture and justice.

Evidence Based EFL. Applies skepticism to all kinds of claims about language, education and the use of words. (See a recent post there about the reason for the blog. The author remains anonymous, but is clearly an expert in language instruction, and if I were to guess, they are an English teacher in Japan.)

JasonColavito. Applies skepticism to claims in history and folklore, from ancient aliens to psychic history to other fringe claims about the bible (like “Was Noah a Merman?” which is a really good example of the depth of historical context Colavito provides in his analysis of these fringe claims). Colavito is an author and a distinguished double-major in anthropology and journalism, and uses this background expertly to explore “the connections between science, pseudoscience, and speculative fiction.”

The Renaissance Mathematicus. Applies skepticism to claims in the history of science and mathematics (mainly 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, but occasionally ranging more widely). This blog is full of great skeptical writing on a large range of subjects and claims within its purview.

New at LacusCurius & Livius. Applies skepticism to claims about ancient history (principally Western, sometimes biblical). Has a handy list of common errors well worth exploring. But everything there should be used with caution. I found problems with some of the entries I looked at, generally key information is omitted that would qualify what is claimed. For example, on the flat earth myth, it’s true most educated elites in antiquity knew the earth was a sphere, but the masses often did not or even rejected the idea, and some of the most highly educated elites, like Lactantius, outright opposed the idea, calling it ridiculous (and Lactantius was and remained a revered Christian author throughout the Middle Ages). Accordingly, it’s entirely plausible that the illiterate crew of Columbus thought the earth was flat, but not likely that his financial backers did. This is the kind of information this site should be including. But as long as you are aware that its entries might not be complete, they have a lot of useful discussion and sourcing.

FiveThirtyEight. Nate Silver’s column for the New York Times online, which has many contributors besides himself, a decent example of explaining mathematical results to humanities folk, often applying fact-based “mathematical” skepticism to topics in politics, journalism, and economics, with a touch of history. Good one for dissecting opinion polls and their use and abuse.


Zindler-Price Anthology: Contra Ehrman

Frank Zindler and Bob Price have edited their own anthology of “responses” to Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? For this project Zindler bought the rights from me to include a special summary edition of my blogging on the same subject (see Ehrman on Historicity Recap). This anthology is now available through American Atheist Press as Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth: An Evaluation of Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? (also available on kindle).

The rights to my contribution were procured through a single-payment contract, so I won’t be getting any royalties from the sale of this book (if you want to buy it and still want me to get a cut, then you can buy it through the above link, which is to the respective sales page in my Amazon store, where I get a kickback on any sale). I also had (and have) no editorial control over this book or its publication. My contribution does contain some new material not included in my blogging, but the most important addition (quotations from the Egyptian Pyramid Texts) will be included in my next book, On the Historicity of Jesus Christ, and the rest is pretty much already what’s available online (either in or linked from Recap), although I made various improvements in wording throughout.

I required a disclaimer to be included (in the Foreword generally and in the first paragraph of my chapter specifically), since I do not endorse much of what gets said elsewhere in this book. I was sure of this even before I read it, but having at last read it I can now confirm my expectation was correct. In fact, I consider much of it terrible. But it is fair enough to say that each chapter represents the best of what you can expect from each contributor of late. So if you want to see what each mythicist author is most often like in their manner of argumentation and quality of research, this is the anthology for you, although at 567 pages from disparate authors, it can be a challenge to get through.

That’s the sum of it. But those who want to know more can read on… [Read more...]

Miracles & Historical Method

Fan photo of Dr. Carrier in shadow before stage screen showing slide that says 'Conclusion: Christians Were Big Ass Liars'Video of my talk for this year’s Skepticon is now available on YouTube. See Miracles and Historical Method. Description:

Carrier talks about how to think critically about history generally, using miracles as an entertaining example. Builds on his talk last year on Bayes’ Theorem, but this time it’s more about method than math, and surveys a lot of real-world examples of miracles from the ancient world (pagan, Jewish and Christian). Summarizes some of what is covered in much more detail in his book.

Glorious Smackdown of the 10/42 Apologetic

Have you heard the argument that Jesus must have existed because “42 ancient sources record Jesus 150 years within his lifetime, whereas only 10 mention the contemporary Roman emperor Tiberius,” and since we consider that enough to believe Tiberius existed, we should conclude Jesus existed? I know, you are already detecting umteen things wrong with that argument. But sometimes someone comes along who so gloriously destroys an argument like this you just have to sit back in awe and smile. [Read more...]

Understanding Bayesian History

So far I know of only two critiques of my argument in Proving History that actually exhibit signs of having read the book (all other critiques can be rebutted with three words: read the book; although in all honesty, even the two critiques that engage the book can be refuted with five words: read the book more carefully).

As to the first of those two, I have already shown why the criticisms of James McGrath are off the mark (in McGrath on Proving History), but they at least engage with some of the content of my book and are thus helpful to address. I was then directed to a series of posts at Irreducible Complexity, a blog written by an atheist and evolutionary scientist named Ian who specializes in applying mathematical analyses to evolution, but who also has a background and avid interest in New Testament studies.

Ian’s critiques have been summarized and critiqued in turn by MalcolmS in comments on my reply to McGrath, an effort I appreciate greatly. I have added my own observations to those in that same thread. All of that is a bit clunky and out of order, however, so I will here replicate it all in a more linear way. (If anyone knows of any other critiques of Proving History besides these two, which actually engage the content of the book, please post links in comments here. But only articles and blog posts. I haven’t time to wade through remarks buried in comment threads; although you are welcome to pose questions here, which may be inspired by comments elsewhere.)

Ian’s posts (there are now two, A Mathematical Review of “Proving History” by Richard Carrier and An Introduction to Probability Theory and Why Bayes’s Theorem is Unhelpful in History; he has promised a third) are useful at least in covering a lot of the underlying basics of probability theory, although in terms that might lose a humanities major. But when he gets to discussing the argument of my book, he ignores key sections of Proving History where I actually already refute his arguments (since they aren’t original; I was already well aware of these kinds of arguments and addressed them in the book).

[Read more...]

McGrath on Proving History

James McGrath has reviewed my book Proving History. We’ve argued before (e.g. over claims Bart Ehrman made), so there is backstory. But his review is unexpectedly kind and praising at points, and he likes the overall project of explaining the underlying logic of history as fundamentally Bayesian and making productive use of that fact. He does conclude with some select criticism, though, and that is what I will respond to here. [Read more...]

Bad Science Proves Demigods Exist!

Scientists prove Beowulf and the Iliad are true stories! Not. Sometimes scientists can be so clueless, you just want to pat them on the head and go “Aw, that’s so sad.” To get up to speed on this new silliness, check out John Bohannon’s article for Science Now: Is Mythology Like Facebook?, which summarizes this scientific paper: Ralph Kenna and Pádraig Mac Carron, “Universal Properties of Mythological Networks,” Europhysics Letters 99.2 (July 2012) #28002. To be fair, they only claim to have evidence “the societies” and “some of the events” in them are true, not the entire stories as wrote. But really they don’t.

Kenna and Mac Carron mapped out the social networks in three myths (Beowulf, the Iliad, and the Táin, a lesser-known Irish epic) and tested those networks for the properties of real networks. Then they used as “controls” four works of modern fiction (Les Misérables, Shakespeare’s Richard III, The Fellowship of the Ring, and the first book in the Harry Potter series). (If you are noticing a fatal flaw here already, you get ten bonus points. Fifty points if you already notice more than one fatal flaw.)

Facebook is a real network that’s been well-studied this way (hence the title of Bohannon’s article). And real networks have certain properties. As Bohannon explains: [Read more...]

Ehrman on Historicity Recap

This is a summary of the current state of the debate after the mini blog war between myself and Bart Ehrman over his latest book, Did Jesus Exist?, which attempted to argue against various scholars (both legitimate and crank) who have concluded, or at least suspect, that Jesus never really existed, but was an invention in myth, like Moses or King Arthur or Ned Ludd. Some of this exchange involved other people, or were tangential to Ehrman’s book. But I will give a state-of-play for everything.

In one case I have concluded I was too harsh. But in every other case my criticisms have stood without valid rebuttal. Most were simply ignored (and thus no rebuttal was even attempted). For others, attempts to rebut them have only generated increasingly ridiculous errors of facts and logic to waggle our head at. Which in the end has only made historicists look just like the hack mythicists they rightly critique. This is not the way to argue for the historicity of Jesus. [Read more...]

The Jesus Tomb and Bayes’ Theorem

Finally, a mathematician actually gets the math right on the Jesus Tomb hypothesis. Conclusion? We have not found the tomb of Jesus. For those who already know the backstory and want to jump right to it, read Bayes’ Theorem and the “Jesus Family Tomb” by physicist Randy Ingermanson. He approached the problem like a physicist dealing with any old problem in data analysis (the problem is not so much different from how particle accelerator data are analyzed). He was assisted by political scientist Jay Cost, another who has good experience running Bayesian models like this. This expands on Ingermanson’s work on this published under peer review as Randall Ingermanson, “Discussion of: Statistical Analysis of an Archaeological Find,” Annals of Applied Statistics 2.1 (2008): 84-90 (responding to Feuerverger).

Backstory: James Tabor and some others have been pushing the claim that a tomb uncovered in the Talpiot district of Jerusalem (hence now called the Talpiot tomb) is the actual burial place of Jesus (and we not only have his “coffin,” but his DNA! As well as evidence he had a child named Judas by Mary Magdalene, also buried therein, also with her DNA!), and they published a book and a documentary arguing their case. (I’m just being colloquial. The tomb’s not full of coffins, of course, but ossuaries, a cultural analog). They had a mathematician backing them (Dr. Andrey Feuerverger), but his math has been consistently bogus from day one. For example, even though we have vastly better odds of randomly getting a name in a group of ten-to-thirty bodies than in a group of five, he kept running the math for five, even though there were ten-to-thirty bodies buried in that tomb. He also adopted a number of dubious (and some outright refuted) factual assumptions (for example, regarding the names of the women in the tomb: see, as one instance, the penultimate paragraph of my previous article on this tomb). By these devices, he found the odds were 600 to 1 in favor of this being the actual tomb of Jesus.

What happened: Ingermanson and Cost apply the correct math (Bayes’ Theorem, valid historical premises, proper treatment of variables, and correct mathematical models, e.g. acknowledging that more than five people were buried there). They find that by standard historical assumptions, the odds are 1 in 19,000 against the Talpiot tomb being the tomb of Jesus, and even by more generous assumptions the odds are 1 in 1,100 against (I put my own assumptions into their model and came up with 1 in 200 against), while even the most fanatical “I desperately want this to be the tomb of Jesus” estimator can only get odds of 1 in 18 that the Talpiot tomb is the tomb of Jesus. Thus, it probably isn’t, even if we are ridiculously generous to the hypothesis that it is.

So much for that. Done and dusted.