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.

Brodie on Jesus

Cover of Brodie's book "Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus"Last month I completed Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery by Thomas Brodie (Sheffield Phoenix, 2012) and have only just now found the time to review it here (I’ve been so busy I haven’t even had internet access for most of the last two weeks–buried in the moors and quaint villages of England–sorry about that!).

In this book Brodie (a major biblical scholar) drops a bombshell: he has been convinced that Jesus never existed as a historical person since the 70s. Only now (in this much-anticipated book) has he felt free to say so publicly, and explain the path of discovery that took him there. This book is as the subtitle says: a memoir. It isn’t really a good book for arguing his case. In fact, it’s terrible at that. Consequently, I cannot recommend this book to anyone who wants to see a good case for Jesus not existing. You simply will not be convinced by his treatment of that here. All it does do is explain, autobiographically, the steps that took him to this conclusion, with some brief outlines of the kind of arguments he could perhaps gin up if he were to do a full-force defense of the thesis.

However, even were he to write that hypothetical book, I still don’t think he’d have a case. Not that there isn’t a good case for the conclusion (that Jesus probably did not really exist historically as the Gospels claim). Rather, I think Brodie has come to that conclusion invalidly, from a rather weak series of arguments. Cover of Hector Avalos' book The End of Biblical StudiesOthers will complain of his theology, as he attempts to argue in Beyond that he can still be a good Catholic (and a member of the church hierarchy) even if he believes there was no historical Jesus. His attempt to make sense of that is nonsense, IMO, worse even than the dubious “have it both ways” theology of the Episcopal skeptic, John Shelby Spong. But I really don’t care about that. That’s for the superstitious goons at the Vatican to argue over. Atheists can be satisfied with the gut punch to all such kinds of hyper-liberal reasoning in Hector Avalos’ The End of Biblical Studies (which smartly treats and refutes both conservative and liberal attempts to rehabilitate the bible as anything but awful ancient woo).

My interest is in this book’s value toward advancing the historicity debate. Assessment: it unfortunately won’t. It’s one merit is its honesty, and its setting an example that one major well-qualified expert does not deem the notion of Jesus’ ahistoricity to be implausible or out of bounds. I cannot say it adds to any argument from authority. Since his case is invalid in my opinion, his being a proponent of ahistoricity does not itself support ahistoricity, only its respectability. Why? Well, he rests on one non sequitur and one false premise.

The non sequitur is common among myth proponents: the Gospels are obvious contrived myths, therefore Jesus didn’t exist. The premise is true (many have well proved it already, but I will marshal the best evidence in my book on this next year). But the conclusion does not follow. Brodie also does not make a very good case even for the premise in this book, though I know he can. His treatment in The Birthing of the New Testament does a better job of that, albeit flawed in the same ways MacDonald’s Homeric argument is: the case is made with enough strong arguments, but those are buried under many weak arguments, so people tend to dismiss the whole thesis because of the latter, not taking proper note of the former. But in any case, if you want to see the best case for that, Beyond is not it. I don’t think he will convince anyone with what’s presented here. It’s possible I’m too jaded, though, and that the material in Beyond will be fresh and intriguing enough to someone not already familiar with the Brodie thesis.

Meanwhile, the false premise has to do with his treatment of the Pauline epistles. Really the only evidence for historicity there is is a scant few obscure passages in the Pauline epistles (e.g. references to “brothers of the Lord”), so they are really the most important evidence to deal with, and he deals with them almost not at all. In fact, his answer to them is to declare them all forgeries, and Paul himself a fiction. Brodie makes no clear case for this conclusion, and what arguments he does have are fallacious (e.g. the letters have certain features that forged letters sometimes share–except, so do authentic letters), and the position as a whole is too radical to be useful. Not that it hasn’t had serious defenders before this. But it constitutes a whole additional fringe thesis one must defend successfully first, before one can use it as a premise in an argument for the ahistoricity of Jesus. And I am skeptical that that can really be done (see my comments here and here). Certainly none of his arguments in Beyond are convincing on this subject.

To be clear, Brodie’s view appears to be that the authentic Paulines were written in the early first century by Christians who would have known the original apostles. So he is not advancing the Detering thesis, for example, that they are all mid-second century forgeries. But he doesn’t explain how their contents can still make sense within the context of a non-historical Jesus. In fact, Brodie presents absolutely no theory of Christian origins at all. And that is perhaps this book’s most decisive failing. You simply cannot argue successfully for ahistoricity without testing a theory of Christian origins without Jesus against the best (i.e. most defensible and least speculative) theory of Christian origins with Jesus.

So, methodologically, this book is just as unsound as Ehrman’s book arguing the contrary (which is rife with fallacies cover to cover). Does it have any merits? As autobiography, it is very informative. As a précis of why he believes what he does, it’s adequate, just not persuasive. His treatment of the presumption of an oral tradition behind the Gospels is spot on (no one has summed it up quite so well in so short a space: pp. 115-19, cf. also p. 156). His rebuttal to Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? is over-brief but on point (pp. 226-31). And he has sound opinions on the criteria used to defend historicity (they suck: p. 157) and the extrabiblical evidence (they prove nothing: pp. 16-68; I disagree with some of his premises here, but his conclusions follow all the same, e.g. here you will find the best argument that Josephus doesn’t matter even if everything he says is authentic). And there are occasional gems (e.g. he has an intriguing thesis as to why Jesus was mythically construed to be a carpenter or the son of one: pp. 159-60; and his conclusion of Josephus is eminently quotable: “it is not possible, in any reliable way, to invoke Josephus as an independent witness to Jesus. Unreliable witness cannot be used to condemn someone to death. And neither can it be used to assert that someone lived.”).

But these do not constitute enough of a merit to warrant recommending this book to most readers, who will not much benefit from it, I’m sorry to say.

Blogging Slowdown

Just FYI to everyone, tomorrow I fly out for the Skepticon conference in Missouri which I am certain will consume me the whole weekend (it always does!), and then immediately after that I’m flying to the UK and spending ten days all over the south of England, so I am also unlikely to find time for much else but all the things I want to do when I’m there (since I normally don’t get to travel abroad much at all). And then immediately upon getting back it’s my birthday.

In consequence, you shouldn’t be surprised if my attendance to comment moderation and blog posting slows down beyond normal until December. Please be patient until I’m back.

P.S. Thank you Ohioans! You went for Obama and saved us all. Now I don’t have to worry about the Supreme Court becoming evil.

Lana Wachowski is Awesome

Lana WachoswkiIf you hadn’t heard, one of the famous “Wachowski brothers,” creators of The Matrix franchise and directors of the new hit Cloud Atlas, recently came out as a transsexual woman. She is now Lana Wachowski. And for her efforts at giving transgenderism more visibility and acceptance she received a visibility award by the Human Rights Campaign.

For which her acceptance speech is amazing. She’s funny, smart, eloquent, and super cute. In fact this rates among the best speeches I’ve ever watched. She claims to be an inexperienced speaker, but she clearly is a talented teller of tales, with charm and wit and insight, and boldly honest. Her speech is charming, hilarious, moving, and informative. She’s an awesome person. I guarantee you’ll love having watched this. So go do.

I discovered this gem thanks to Kylie Sturgess of Token Skeptic who provides the video and links to the transcript at Lana Wachowski’s Human Rights Campaign’s Annual Gala Dinner Speech (or you can just go direct to the transcript or video at The Hollywood Reporter).

Skepticon Emergency!

SOS! The venue is turning out to be far more expensive than planned and they don’t have the funds to cover it. The event might even be canceled. They still want to keep it free for those who have nothing to spare. But those of us who do have something to spare: donate what you can, even if just ten bucks (Ed Brayton sent them a hundred). Biodork explains it best here. Donate here. And if you’re going, hopefully I’ll see you there!

Kickass Book: “Why Are You Atheists So Angry!”

You will want this book. I’ll say why in a mo. But I’m talking about Greta Christina’s first, and quite sensational, book that came out earlier this year but is now available at Amazon for the great price of just $9: Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless (or to get the kindle edition click here). I’ve been sitting on this review until that happened, in the hopes of helping boost her Amazon sales rank. Because with this book, she deserves it.

I usually don’t recommend books on my blog unless they are the very best on their topic and I know I can probably defend everything in them (thus many a book I haven’t had time to read carefully is just out of luck, even if it happens to be great). Generally, it has to be a “must have” in its category. And this is one of those. I loved it. In fact it’s awesome. I’ve given her a promotional blurb that accurately describes my opinion and reaction to the book, so I’ll lead with that: [Read more…]

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…]