The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife

The latest analysis has all but confirmed the recently announced “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is a modern forgery. See Mark Goodacre’s summary in Jesus’ Wife Fragment: Further Evidence of Modern Forgery or go look at Andrew Bernhard’s latest analysis directly: How The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Might Have Been Forged: A Tentative Proposal. Bernhard is the renowned author of Other Early Christian Gospels: A Critical Edition of the Surviving Greek Manuscripts (2006).

Photo of the so-called Gospel of Jesus' wife papyrus fragmentFor background (in case you hadn’t heard about this new find or want to know more) see the Wikipedia page on the new gospel fragment and Harvard University’s official page on it.

Very early on several scholars pointed out that all the words in the fragment come from the late Coptic text of the Gospel of Thomas, and suggested this indicated forgery because such an agreement would be improbable. But in fact those agreements were not established as improbable; almost all consisted of single words, not phrases, and none of any extended length, and dependency on or similar origin to GThom could have been at play. Indeed this could even be a fragment from a redaction of GThom. In Bayesian terms, critics were saying this feature was improbable (had a low likelihood, or consequent probability) on the hypothesis of authenticity, but the fragment’s content was probable on a hypothesis of forgery. (And the prior probability is always dangerously high, owing to the fact that biblical and apocryphal texts, especially on recently fashionable subjects like whether Jesus was married, are prime targets for forgery, and like most forgeries, this fragment’s exact provenance was unknown or unverifiable).

However, this estimate of improbability (of a low likelihood) was not soundly based. Moreover, there are improbabilities also on the forgery hypothesis: forgers would more likely have attempted to create a Greek fragment to market it as earlier and more authoritative (and thus more valuable); would more likely have made the text clear rather than ambiguous; the forgery is in most respects physically excellent; etc. Whereas the fact that it had words shared by GThom is not sufficient to lower its consequent probability, because of the danger of the multiple comparisons fallacy: of all Coptic texts one could find such a match with given such a small scrap of so few words, what are the odds one will match by accident? Probably not as low as you think [as Timo Pannanen demonstrated by parody]. So the critics did not yet have a good argument for forgery. They established only its possibility, not its probability.

However, a new analysis just came out that shows features that actually are very improbable on any other hypothesis but forgery, and in this case that conclusion is self-evident even before we attempt any kind of exact mathematical calculation. These features include the repetition of typos and other mistakes from an online edition of the Gospel of Thomas in Coptic, which are extraordinarily unlikely, unless the text was being reproduced using that online resource (which would date the forgery to after 1997, when that resource first appeared online). Defenders of authenticity (if there even are any left at this point) have not yet responded to this evidence. But I think the odds of authenticity are pretty low at this point. The only way it can be rehabilitated is if proponents can show the coincidences with the online source are highly probable, or at least not very improbable, and I cannot presently imagine how they could do that.

There is one last question. Chemical tests on the ink are still underway. And whether those could be fooled will depend on exactly which tests are done (and no one has specifically said). A mere chemical composition assay could presumably be fooled by a forger simply composing a realistic ink. But isotopic tests can more likely establish a post-Hiroshima date, since any biological materials in the ink, such as oil, gall, or soot, will carry trace signatures from nuclear fallout. Only inks that set before 1945 will lack those trace signatures. (And an ink made without biologicals will fail to pass a standard assay, since no such ink would be realistically ancient.) Carbon dating would be fruitless in this case since an actually-ancient scrap of blank or washed papyrus was most likely used. Faded ink on the reverse, which does not align with the formatting on the front, is in fact already suspicious. It has been suggested that the ink on the back was washed off and reused on the other side to produce the forgery, and if that’s the case, it’s possible even an isotopic test could be fooled.

When the results of the promised chemical tests are announced I’ll add an update here and in comments below. But in the meantime, the authenticity of the fragment is already highly doubtful.

Help a Fellow Warrior Weather a Storm

Greta Christina with her lovely wife Ingrid.Greta Christina only a few months ago quit her day job to work for herself as a writer and speaker (both of which she’s really good at), and things were looking great, then bam, her dad gets badly ill and dies, causing her to lose work for about a month…and then she gets cancer. Not a terrible cancer, but still. Curable–but at a cost (thanks to our being the only first world country without national health care). It’s a double-hit for the self-employed, because you lose income while also paying the new medical bills (she has already had to cancel her Skepticon gig and might not be able to get back to work for several months, depending on how things go).

She really needs gap funding to keep her in biscuits until she can get back to work and get her medical bills behind her. In Bad News, Good News, Greta explains her situation and what you can do to help. So hop on over there, read her piece, and see what you can do. It really doesn’t require much–the cost of a nice birthday gift, say, only it’s cash rather than trinkets. A little will go a long way if lots of us help (so spread the news if you’re inclined). If you aren’t familiar with Greta’s work, she’s a superb writer, and an asset in communicating real life issues from an atheist perspective. I’ll soon be posting a review of her great new book (I’ve read it; it rocks) as soon as it finally hits Amazon (to help get her a boost in sales ranking there)–but you can already buy it elsewhere; see her blog for details. But if you want to test the waters first, you can explore her blog (see her “categories” index down the right margin and pick the one that intrigues you the most).

Historicity News: Notable Books

This is the second of three posts covering news in the historicity-of-Jesus debate (for the first see Thallus et Alius). I recently finished reading the latest books by John Crossan and Dennis MacDonald. They inadvertently support the mythicist case with their latest arguments (despite making some weak, almost half-hearted arguments for historicity), and are worth taking note of. I don’t have time to write a full review, but here are some observations of interest to the historicity debate… [Read more…]

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…]

Appearing in London

It’s official! I will be speaking on Bayes’ Theorem and Proving History in London this November 16 (Friday, 2012) and in Oxford the day before (Thursday the 15th). Although the latter may be restricted to students and faculty, the former is open to the general public. That event is sponsored by the British Humanist Association and CFI London (details here). You must buy a ticket to attend, and you might want to do that well in advance, just in case (see the previous link).

That will be at the Stamford Street Lecture Theatre in the Franklin Wilkins Building of the Waterloo Campus at King’s College London (127 Stamford Street, London SE1 9NQ). Nearest tube station is Waterloo.

The talk will be “Bayes’ Theorem and Historical Reasoning: How Historical Methods Can Be Improved and Why They Need to Be,” starting in London at 7:30pm (you’ll want to arrive earlier) and going until late, with Q&A. I will probably not be able to sell any books (doing sales overseas without a local vendor is complicated), but if you bring any you’ve already bought I’ll sign them. And you can always scare up interest by ordering Proving History from a nearby bookstore a few weeks in advance (if they get a bunch of those orders they might wonder what’s going on and that might be fun), rather than just going through Amazon UK (although that’s always easier). I’ve suggested to the sponsors that they might procure some stock to sell at the event, but I am assuming logistics will prevent that.

At Oxford the day before I will be discussing the same subject as the guest speaker for the traditional Doug’s Lunch at Balliol College. I have no further details than what appears on their calendar (and that will be fleshed out more I expect as the date nears). Generally, if you’re at Oxford, you know what that is and how to get in (or how to find out). If not, assume you can’t. It’s mainly for students and faculty.

Historicity News: Thallus et Alius

I have a slew of things to report. I was thinking of doing some book reviews, for example, but I am not going to have the time. With my England trip coming up and my push to hunker down and finish On the Historicity of Jesus Christ, I will have much less time for blogging over the next two months. So I’m just going to summarize some things of late, including a new publication of mine, new books by others, and major events in the field, over the course of three posts.

First, my peer reviewed paper on Thallus has just been published (my paper on Josephus is soon to follow). The full citation is Richard Carrier, “Thallus and the Darkness at Christ’s Death,” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 8 (2011-2012): 185-91. [It was available online, as part of Volume 8, as a downloadable PDF, but only until it appeared in print]. The conclusion is that Thallus never mentioned Jesus in any capacity, and must therefore be removed from all lists of authors attesting to Jesus. In fact, we have what is certainly a direct quotation of what Thallus said in Eusebius: that in the year 32 “the sun was eclipsed, Bithynia was struck by an earthquake, and in the city of Nicaea many buildings fell.”

If anyone wants to update Wikipedia’s article on Thallus to quote and/or cite this peer reviewed article, please feel free. It currently quotes my very old online essay on the matter; whereas the new paper is not only peer reviewed, but contains additional arguments confirming the conclusion, improves various points, and skips over unnecessary digressions.

Second, in yesterday’s post “Understanding Bayesian History” I responded to a scientist’s critique of my book Proving History, and he posted a well written reply in comments there, which I much appreciated and to which I have responded in kind, and that exchange makes a lot of things clearer, especially as to my objectives in writing PH and how to improve upon it, and regarding what his concerns actually were. I consider this a model of constructive dialogue, so it’s worth looking at.

Next I’ll report on two new books I’ve read that relate to the question of historicity.

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…]

Skepticon 5 Will Be Awesome

I will be speaking on “miracles and the historical method” at Skepticon this year, greatly updating my old but popular talk on the subject with what I’ve discovered and worked out in writing Proving History. This will build on last year’s talk about Bayes’ Theorem, but will be more about method than math, and cover a lot of real-world examples from the ancient world. The gist will be: how to think critically about history generally, using miracles as an entertaining example. I will be selling and signing copies of my new book and my previous ones.

This year Skepticon is happening a little earlier than usual, November 9 to 11 (2012). Things start Friday (workshops in the day, talks and events begin at night) and conclude Sunday night (the specific schedule might change but not the general plan). If you want to attend, and you haven’t already registered, you should do that now so they can plan ahead for how many will be there (as always, it’s free; but donations of any amount are welcome–the option is provided at registration). My talk is presently scheduled for Sunday afternoon but there is a scheduling conflict and I don’t know which way it will get resolved.

Skepticon is in Springfield, Missouri. And this year it’s being held in the ultra-modern Springfield Expo Center (I assume this time without the gun show next door). That’s at 635 East Saint Louis Street, roughly across the street from the University Plaza Hotel. There is a lot of useful info on the Skepticon website, including forum-based help on getting there and getting accommodations (and a bunch of other cool stuff). So check that out.

The speakers list this year is even more amazing than past years, a group of fascinatingly diverse skills and backgrounds. Returning wonderfuls are, besides myself, of course PZ Myers (evolution science), Greta Christina (gender and sexuality…and all around common sense), JT Eberhard (asskicking), David Fitzgerald (Jesus, Mormonism, and the Atheist Film Festival), Hemant Mehta (mathematics and critical thinking), Darrel Ray (psychology and sexuality), Julia Galef (education, rationality, and critical thinking), and Rebecca Watson (feminism and laser-sharp cheekiness…wait, are lasers sharp?).

Newcomers include Jessica Ahlquist (atheist activism and general bravery in the field…or translated into churchspeak, “an evil little thing”), Sean Carroll (cosmological physics), James Croft (philosophy, humanities, and humanism), Matt Dillahunty (television host and counter-apologetics kung fu master), Phil Ferguson (godless financial expert, and godless parent, who has been deep in the belly of the beast), George Hrab (all things musical…and skeptical), Deborah Hyde (cinematic make-up artist, editor of The Skeptic UK, and expert on the supernatural), Keith Jensen (a real actual atheist comic), Amanda Knief (atheism lobbyist for the Secular Coalition for America; probably knows ten times more about politics than you do), Teresa MacBain (ex-pastor, atheist PR guru, and major figure in The Clergy Project…in fact hers is one of the most sensational coming out stories of the 21st century), Jennifer Ouellette (English major, science writer), and Tony Pinn (professor of religious studies, significant figure in black humanism).

Katie Hartman makes a really beautiful case for donating to help fund the event, which is almost entirely dependent on donations (with only a little help from sponsors and exhibitors).

And last but not least, Secular Woman is raising money to fund grants to send more women from around the country to Skepticon. It’s a great idea and they need your help, so donate to that cause if you can. Men can also apply for grants through Skepticon, and you can donate to their funds, too (see here).