Miracles and Probability II

In the previous post, we focused on how you can use the principle of analogy to conclude that if something contradicts what you already know (what we will call background knowledge), then, unsurprisingly, in all likelihood it is false.  We saw the limitations of this principle, however, especially when generalized to mean rare and new events, not just miracles.  So we need some other tool or insight to allow us to conclude that if something rare and new occurs that we don’t necessarily rule it out, assuming we have good evidence.  To illustrate, we can see all the background knowledge that we have as all the accepted truths in the world, and identify a miracle occurring in the Gospels as our hypotheses.  We can then assign a degree of certainty (probability) to our belief that the miracles are true, given our background knowledge; this is known as the prior probability.  Now, we were essentially arguing in the last post that the prior probability of miracles is low because our background knowledge consists of truths that contradict it.  But what if, say, as Mike Licona and others claim, that we have good evidence for a miracle, for example, the resurrection.  We need to find a way to incorporate that “good evidence” into our argument.  After all, we can’t a priori rule out miracles because we can never be one hundred percent certain that the supernatural doesn’t exist.


The solution to this problem is Bayes’ theorem.  The theorem’s conclusion takes into account our background knowledge, and the evidence we have for the hypothesis we make.  Where as before we were jumping to the conclusion that the probability of a miracle is low based on our prior knowledge of how the world works, we will now take into account the actual evidence of the miracle.  Quantitatively speaking, the theorem makes us express our premises in terms of degrees as opposed to absolutes by forcing us to numerically label them as probabilities.  This is important because most claims in life, especially about historical events, can only be discussed in terms of probabilities, with us often saying things like “most likely” or “more likely”, for example.  So, those that object to doing math in history, think again, because everyday we already speak in terms of probabilities.  Moreover, the theorem forces you to think of alternative hypothesis, reducing confirmation bias.  This formalized and systematic approach to viewing your hypothesis allows for a clarity unrivaled by other methods.  I offer two quotes below that explain its history and importance.
In simple terms, Bayes’s Theorem is a logical formula that deals with cases of empirical ambiguity, calculating how confident we can be in any particular conclusion, given what we know at the time.  The theorem was discovered in the late eighteenth century and has since been formally proved, mathematically and logically, so we now know its conclusions are always necessarily true if its premises are true (probabilities).  [Richard Carrier]
Bayes’s theorem is at the heart of everything from genetics to Google, from health insurance to hedge funds. It is a central relationship for thinking concretely about uncertainty, and–given quantitative data, which is sadly not always a given–for using mathematics as a tool for thinking clearly about the world. [Chris Wiggins, Scientific American]


It’s probably best to jump into the formula because the mathematical relationship between the premises reveal a lot about the theorem’s mechanics.  We are trying to find how likely or unlikely (probability) our hypothesis is.  A hypothesis we’ve been working with is whether or not miracles occurred as purported in the Gospels.  So our question is how probable is it that miracles occur in the Gospels relative to the evidence and background knowledge we have, P(h|e,b), which is the posterior or epistemic probability.  The prior probability itself is how typical our explanation (hypothesis) is, P(h|b), or how plausible it is, relative to our background knowledge.  And, finally, the evidence that we have for the miracles occurring, e, can be best thought of as how expected the evidence is if our explanation (hypothesis) is true, P(e|h,b), often called consequent or explanatory probability.  In summary, we have a prior probability, P(h|b), that when it takes into account new evidence, P(e|h,b), the posterior probability, P(h|e,b), gets updated.  Two forms of the equation are given, one that takes into account one hypothesis and antithesis hypothesis, while the other takes into account multiple hypotheses.  The equation, 2, can be thought of as the probability or the ratio of your hypothesis (h1) to the competitor’s hypotheses (h2, h3, … ), again, reducing our confirmation bias.  The prior probabilities must sum to one while the expected probabilities don’t.  Please see below for more detail.  


1)  P(h|e,b) =  P(h|b) * P(e|h,b) / [ ( P(h|b) * P(e|h,b) ) + P(~h|b) * P(e |~h,b)]
2)  P(h1|e,b) =  P(h1|b) * P(e|h1,b) / [ [P(h1|b) * P(e|h1,b)] + [P(h2|b) * P(e|h2,b)] + [P(h3|b) * P(e|h3,b)]  + …]


P(h|e,b) = probability that the hypothesis is true;  Epistemic probability or Posterior probability
P(e|h,b) = how expected the evidence is if our explanation is true; Expected probability or Explanatory probability
P(e|~h,b) = how expected the evidence is if our explanation is false 
P(h|b) = how typical our explanation (hypothesis) is; Prior probability or Intrinsic probability  
P(~h|b) = how atypical our explanation is; (1 – prior probability)


Calculating our prior probability is one of great importance because it can mean the difference between a probable event and an improbable event.  A prior is derived from all known information about your hypothesis.  This leads us to the concept of reference classes.  A reference class can be thought of as a category of claims that all address a similar scenario.  This information can be used (referenced) to assist us in finding how typical our explanation is; in other words, it estimates our priors.  As an example from “Proving History” by Richard Carrier, a hypothesis you may promote to explain the evidence in the Gospels, empty tomb etc., is that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead by a supernatural agent.  How do you derive a prior probability based on your background knowledge?  Well, what you can do is look for similar scenarios that were believed to have occurred in the past.  For instance, Romulus, Asclepius, Zalmoxis, Inanna, Lazarus, many Saints in Matthew or the Moabite of 2 Kings have all been purported to have been raised from the dead by a supernatural agent.  So our reference class is all persons purported to be raised from the dead by a supernatural agent.  We have at least ten of them from antiquity and probably more.  Since prior probability is only based on background knowledge and not conditioned on the evidence, we can assume that each one of the persons claimed to have been raised by a supernatural agent is equivalent.  That is, there’s no more reason to believe one story over the other since all equally contradict our background knowledge.  If that is the case, then classical probability theory says we can divide the sample space into equivalent pieces such that they sum to one.  So the prior probability would be 1/10 or 0.1 that Jesus Christ rose from the dead by a supernatural agent.  


It’s important to realize that we could have used a broader reference class and achieved a much lower probability.  For this fact and others, probabilities formed via Bayesian are classified as subjective, but they are not arbitrary since we have good reasons for our methodology.  To be conservative, we picked the narrowest reference class possible.  But we could have found other attributes in common and defined a more generic class.  For example, all of these claims of risen figures also have the attribute in common that they are supernatural, miraculous or mythological.  If that’s the new class, then we know that there are hundreds of thousands of cases where people wrote, spoke or claimed that a miracle was true when in fact it wasn’t.  That would give us a prior of 1/100,000 at least.  But as a heuristic we will pick the narrowest reference class in order to produce the most conservative estimates.  This rule of thumb reduces the chance that our presuppositions or biases will influence the estimate. This is known as a fortiori estimate.  Getting back to reference classes, it’s worth noting that our background knowledge of all accepted truths is quite large – that is, there are a lot of truths that can contradict our belief in a miracle occuring.  For example, the fact that we are creative and inventive would make us believe that a lot of miracles are fabricated, that we are meaning making machines and see agency in inanimate objects, that we make things up in order to influence others, that we could be honestly mistaken, that we can be credulous and so forth – all are apart of of b and all are viable hypotheses that can explain the evidence.  If incorporated, these can have the effect of lowering the posterior probability, but creating reference classes for multiple hypotheses can be challenging albeit the principle is the same as in the single case.


It’s significant enough to make the distinction between epistemic probabilities and physical probabilities.  Epistemic probabilities are beliefs that an event happened is true versus someone making it up (or being mistaken), and physical probabilities are probabilities (relative frequencies) of events occurring.  An example might be what’s the probability of someone at random having a myocardial bridge in their heart, which is pretty small, incidence of occurrence being 3%.  But the probability that you believe someone has a myocardial bridge can be quite high since it’s based or conditioned on the evidence at hand, say a recent angiogram.  Moreover, epistemic probabilities often measure events that occur just once, like historical claims, versus physical probabilities which are often statistical averages of repeated phenomena.  So you can’t empirically derive epistemic probabilities by repeating an experiment – say by taking the long term average of flipping a coin resulting in a relative frequency or probability of 0.5 – instead you must rely on thought experiments by deriving a reference class.  The former method is known as the frequentist approach, while the latter method is known as the Bayesian approach.  It’s best to think of these methods as different approaches designed for different kinds of problems rather than as rivals.  Please see quote below, emphasizing the fidelity of the Bayesian method.  The next post will discuss the consequent probability and eventually compute an epistemic probability of our hypothesis; we’ll stick with the miraculous hypothesis that Jesus was raised from the dead by a supernatural agent in order to explain a wide range of claims found in the Gospels and Epistles.
The specification of the prior is often the most subjective aspect of Bayesian probability theory, and it is one of the reasons statisticians held Bayesian inference in contempt. But closer examination of traditional statistical methods reveals that they all have their hidden assumptions and tricks built into them. Indeed, one of the advantages of Bayesian probability theory is that one’s assumptions are made up front, and any element of subjectivity in the reasoning process is directly exposed. [ Olshausen]  

Miracles and Probability I

We deem them myths not because of a prior bias that there can be no miracles, but because of the Principle of Analogy, the only alternative to which is believing everything in The National Inquirer. If we do not use the standard of current-day experience to evaluate claims from the past, what other standard is there? And why should we believe that God or Nature used to be in the business of doing things that do not happen now? Isn’t God supposed to be the same yesterday, today, and forever? [Robert Price]

The principle of analogy, presented above, is really just a summary of David Hume’s argument involving the likelihood of miracles.  Hume’s argument says that since our uniform experience does not include miracles, it’s very unlikely that miracles have occurred in the past.  This is analogous reasoning.  It’s not that miracles are impossible; it’s just that we should remain agnostic towards them since it’s far more likely that a natural explanation is the cause.  Now the principle of analogy has its shortcomings, especially when generalized to mean rare events.  What if, for example, Einstein didn’t move forward with his theory of relativity because it contradicted his present day uniform experience?  What if we observed a nuclear explosion and explained it as a conventional explosion just because we had no experience with nuclear physics?  Moreover, there are much quantum mechanical phenomena that appear to violate the laws of Newtonian physics.  Do we also outright reject these, at the time, very rare events just because they don’t agree with our current background knowledge?

The answer to the above questions is obviously no.  If the new observation, model or prediction pans out empirically and is corroborated by other means, then we must accept it.  So it has been argued by many philosophers that Hume’s argument is circular, that the definition of miracle need not be a violation of natural law and that Hume, in a Bayesian sense, does not take into account all the probabilities involved, to name just a few.  So the principle of analogy, in my view, is most useful as a heuristic – a guiding principle rather than a law.  It’s there to tell us that if a claim doesn’t square away well with what we already know as plausible (things measured against our background knowledge), then it’s probably false.  A caveat is that if something conflicts with our background knowledge, but, we have suspicion that it’s true because of good evidence, then we must test it or observe many other instances to change the state of our current background knowledge.  Since Hume primarily had miracles (violations of natural law) in mind, we will investigate miracles further.

So, more specifically, how can we adjudicate the validity of miracle claims in the Gospels?  I argue here that a historian can’t say much of anything about them.  This is not born out of a prejudice from metaphysical naturalism; in other words, I’m not saying this because a worldview doesn’t permit me to do so.  A historian can’t say much about it because the way in which we understand how the world works – today, yesterday and tomorrow – is at odds with the way in which miracles occur.  This knowledge accumulated over the centuries is known as background knowledge, which comes from our scientific testing of claims and observations.  And miracles contradict our present day background knowledge.  We will show in the next post through Bayesian’s theorem that if things aren’t plausible (a technical term), then, not surprisingly, the probability of them occurring is low.  And in the case of miracles there is, in my view, an insurmountable amount of contradictory evidence, presented as background knowledge, to overcome.

Our scientific knowledge base gives us a relatively reliable way of understanding how the world works – from predicting the speed of light to understanding complex human behavior – it has a pretty good track record.  It doesn’t have all the answers – for example, why are we here or why is there something rather than nothing – but it’s the best we’ve got to work worth.  Moreover, it’s important to understand that history is not the proper purview for establishing the kind of world we live in, for that should be reserved for the scientific community.  And, as of today, there are no peer reviewed periodicals by forensic scientists or medical professionals confirming a single miracle.  That is not to say that one can’t or hasn’t occurred, but they just haven’t been able to stand up to scientific scrutiny.  A good example, one of many, is a large study in 2006 on whether or not prayer would assist one in recovering from major cardio surgery.  It was found that prayer had no effect on the experimental group, while in some cases the control group actually fared better.  So, as to another point, miracles are within the realm of experiemental  science – that is, they can be tested.

Some of our background knowledge includes not only our inability to observe and reproduce miracles in the scientific community but also our understanding of how human nature functions.  For example, we know that humans as a species are fairly creative and inventive, in addition to having a deep need for meaning making.  In fact, humans have lots of faculties that collectively make them receptive to mythology, like a strong tendency to see agency (intentionality in the inanimate), to see design and purpose in the natural world (a river’s purpose is for us to fish in), and to detect patterns out of otherwise meaningless stuff (Marian apparitions).  In other words, we have a tendency, starting at a very early age, to connect-the-dots in order to explain why things happen.  These meaningful patterns we create become our beliefs and guide us to understand reality, regardless of their accuracy.  And these explanations can give us psychological comfort as a reward.

This above is a powerful way of explaining why people believe and create mythology but falls short in explaining the genesis of the Gospels.  To the contrary, I believe the Gospel writers invented literary miracles to highlight Jesus Christ’s role as Lord and savior that primarily functions as propaganda.  Lastly, we know that there has been plenty of mythology created in the past that is not believed now, see “Why is Jesus so special?”.  So why do we dismiss other mythology but not the mythology of the Gospels?  There are various explanations to this question, but argument by analogy says that since those were creative inventions, there is a likelihood that the Gospels’ mythology is as well.  In conclusion, our background knowledge thus far tells us that miracles aren’t plausible.  However, we noted early on that things can contradict our background knowledge and nevertheless be true if good evidence exists.  In the next post we will gain insight into this problem with the aid of probability theory.  Probability theory says that there exists two probabilities, a prior probability – chances a miracle can occur in light of what we already know – and an explanatory probability – how expected the evidence is if the miracle is true.  As a hint, the explanatory probability is a miracle’s only hope.


Why is Jesus so special?

I’m often baffled when I get such a question as to why I don’t take Jesus Christ as a god and savior seriously.  My reasons why, I hope, are apparent when one considers other literature and evidence that involve belief in the supernatural.  I mean, after all, it would be nothing but special pleading for me to take one serious (Jesus Christ) and forget the rest (other gods).  For example, there are dying and rising sons (daughters) of gods that go through a passion (suffering) in order to obtain victory over death that have some elements similar to Jesus.  To expound upon those predating Christianity, Osiris from the mystery religions was a son of a deity and offered an afterlife for those baptized into his death and resurrection, Romulus, a Roman God, had his death and resurrection celebrated in annual passion plays and was born of a virgin, while Inanna, a Sumerian goddess, had a resurrection and escaped from the underworld [Richard Carrier].  Robert Price describes below how apologists, in the 2nd century, admitted to these parallels existing:
The early Church fathers understood [parallels] as a problem because they were already getting the same objections from pagans.  They said, “What you say about Jesus we’ve been saying about Dionysus and Hercules all the time.  ”What’s the big deal?  I mean they didn’t believe in them either anymore.  And so the Christian apologists (Justin Martyr) – the defenders of the faith – would say, “Well, yea, but this one is true. And you see Satan counterfeited it in advance because he knew this day would come.”Boy, I’ll tell you that tells you two things right there that even they didn’t even deny that these other Jesus like characters were before Jesus or they never would have resorted to something like that Satan knew it would happen and counterfeit it in advance?
There are many more mythical gods that were often transformed into historical figures although they may not predate Christianity, perhaps because the evidence simply did not survive or was destroyed by their competitor religion.  I’m using myth as in factually untrue stories that are historically improbable but symbolically meaningful [Richard Carrier].  Note, also, that I’m not insinuating that Christianity copied some of these themes out of whole cloth.  What I am saying, however, is that these ideas came from the same creative cognitive faculties that also produced the mythical motifs of Jesus Christ.  There’s no difference here.  And so why should we reject all the other mythological gods but accept this one?  In a similar vein, Gregory Boyd, a Christian apologist, proposes the following argument:
We know the Jesus story is about God visiting us and/or about a God who does something along the lines of dying and rising is not altogether unique. The history of religion and mythology is full of “incarnation-like” stories and “resurrection-like” stories. So, one could argue, if we assume that all these analogous “incarnations” and “resurrections” are mythological, we should similarly concede that the Christian version of these stories is mythological, its unique features notwithstanding.
The following list of mythological gods, some from the mystery religions, share some characteristics with Jesus.  For comparison, Jesus was born of a virgin, was a son of a god, was a divine judge, had a communal meal of bread and wine, was a savior, performed miracles, was crucified, resurrected, and ascended into heaven.  Now, for these, there is by no means a one-to-one parallel here, but they share some similar features nevertheless.  On the other hand, if you emphasize the differences, then you’d rightly conclude that these are quite different from Jesus.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that the human imagination and intellect are capable of creating etiologies – things that attempt to explain common mysteries – for example, what happens after death.  Mythology is nothing more than etiology expressed in dramatic ways, and may be used to comfort and satisfy human curiosity, while often being used as a tool for propaganda.  For instance, developing the virgin birth and performing miracles to show the greatness of the protagonist (e.g., Jesus Christ) is potentially propaganda.  All of the following gods were fabricated (adapted from Mike Licona), so why not Jesus Christ’s divine attributes as well?


  • Adonis (Syria) – ascended to heaven before death, resurrected on the 3rd day (later Christian interpretation)
  • Attis (Asia Minor) – virgin born
  • Baal – son of El a God, descends to the underworld, could have resurrected
  • Dionysus (Greece) – son of a God Zeus, a savior, descends to underworld, communal wine, rival of Christianity, could have resurrected
  • Hercules (Greece) – performed miracles, ascended to Mt Olympus and became a god
  • Hermes (Greece) – guides souls to underworld, son of Zeus, created miracles as an infant
  • Horus (Egypt) – son of Osiris and later son of Re, performed healing magic as a child
  • Krishna (India) – born of a virgin, performed miracles as a child, resurrected, ascended to heaven
  • Mithra (Persia) – a savior, divinity of light and salvation, communal bread and wine but was not considered the flesh and blood of God, ascends to heaven
  • Orpheus (Greece) – descends to underworld
  • Tammuz (Sumeria) – resurrection debated, descends to underworld
  • Zalmoxis () – death assured an afterlife (immortality of the soul), resurrection debated
In addition to mythological gods transformed into history, there were also people transformed into mythology or legend.  Once the mythology – dramatic stories and beliefs – have been created, then it can be set into historical reality, becoming legendary.  These characters all share common attributes or fit common themes known as the mythical hero archetype.  Jesus, as expressed in the Gospels, represents a lengthy mythical hero archetype quite well (not shown here).  The following is adapted from Robert Price and note that some gods are apt for this archetype as well, not just miracle workers.  There are many more attributes if curious, so please see the work of Alan Dundes for further details.


  • Persecuted as a child by a tyrant: Caesar Augustus, Moses, Krishna, Zoroaster, Jesus Christ
  • Postmortem appearances: Romulus, Appolonius, Jesus Christ
  • Performed miracles:  Appolonius, Onus, Hanina Ben Dosa, Honi the Circle Drawer, Pythagoras, Empedocles, Asclepius, Mohammed, Jesus Christ
  • Passion narratives: Appolonius, Jesus Christ
  • Empty tomb stories: popular contemporary novels, Jesus Christ
Now that we’ve identified the fallacy of special pleading that some commit in which they are unwilling to apply the same set of standards when evaluating their own god as they would to the other gods, it’s time to create some arguments.  The argument I’m making is an inductive, analogical argument, so the more features the comparing god has in common with Jesus, then, obviously, the more likely Jesus is similar to the comparing god.  And the more similar Jesus is to the comparing god, then the stronger the inference drawn will be.  For example, some gods are sons of gods that are mythical, Jesus is a son of a god, and therefore the inference can be drawn that Jesus is mythical too.  [When I use mythical, I mean at the very least having mythical attributes but not necessarily the entire being.]  But this, like all inductive reasoning, is only in probabilistic terms, and the conclusion is not guaranteed.  Moreover, the argument is only as good as how strong the comparison is.  So just because we have one attribute in common – both sons of gods – that doesn’t necessarily justify us in saying that Jesus was also similar in a further respect.


But I think we can do better than this because any one god and Jesus has other features in common, namely that some of their features are divine or that they have the capacity to perform miracles, i.e., they have the ability to do something that goes beyond what nature can accomplish.  Knowledge that is accumulated over time is known as background knowledge, which comes from our scientific testing of claims, our observations and experiences.  And miracles and divine features contradict our present day background knowledge – that is, these features, such as miracles and divine qualities, don’t coincide with how we know the world operates.  So they have a low prior probability of occurring, and are therefore likely to be mythology.  So we have other features in common – performance of miracles and divine attributes – that strengthens our inference that Jesus’ supernatural attributes are probably mythological like the other gods and miracle workers from above.


The last argument I’m making is a causal one.  This essentially says that there had to be a cause for the development of what we’ve established as mythology.  One possible explanation: evolutionary psychologists believe that people are born with “meaning-making” faculty and resort to myth making as a consequence of wanting to explain why things are the way they are and also for reasons of propaganda.  So myth making is a human enterprise.  To be clear, I am not allowing a metaphysical bias, namely that of naturalism, to skew my conclusion; these supernatural features are clearly byproducts of the human mind.  Moreover, we don’t know how god functions, and, therefore, it won’t do us much good to speculate that he’s the cause.  It’s much more likely that the same creative forces that created the other gods also created Jesus.  And there’s no reason to believe that the minds that developed the aforementioned mythological gods were any different from the minds that developed the mythology surrounding Jesus.  Jesus is engulfed by, plain and simple, mythology like the rest of them.


This post was inspired by Robert Price’s video and writings.


Gospels as Literary Creations

The Gospels are, it must be said with gratitude, works of art, the supreme fictions in our culture, narratives produced by enormously influential literary artists who put their art in the service of a theological vision. It is, of course, not uncommon to recognize literary artistry in the Gospels; there is perhaps no more beautiful short story than “The Prodigal Son,” no more moving sentence in all world literature than “I am with you always, until the end of time” (Matt. 28:20) – Randel Helms

A previous post argued that the gospels should have a qualifier to the consensus genre classification of greco roman biography, namely that they should be legendary biographies and not historical biographies.  The genre gives an indication of what to expect, so we should see a lot of legendary and mythological embellishment in the biography.  But this does not necessarily imply that all is fiction since there could be some historical content embedded in the narratives.  There are criteria that historians use to determine if content is historical or not, but I don’t have much confidence in the results, as Richard Carrier has outlined that many arguments can be fallacious.  Besides I tend to think that the Gospels are more literary than anything else, as this post will illustrate by drawing chiefly on Bart Ehrman’s analysis.


To put it plainly, the Gospel stories should be viewed as pieces of theological literature with little historical value.  What undermines their historicity is not so much the miracle stories and mythology – as most biographies of their time period contain – nor their favorable bias towards the subject matter, but rather their direct use of literary devices and editing to make theological and idiosyncratic points.  After all, if you start with one thing (Gospel of Mark) and change it to another thing (the other Gospels), how do you know which is correct?  This post will focus on how each author borrowed and changed content from the Gospel of Mark to construct their own ideas and implications of the life and death of Jesus Christ, while a later post will explore the different literary devices used to craft such stories.


The Gospels are filled with symbolism – things that mean something beyond their literal meaning. If you miss this, then you miss the best parts of the story.  Metaphor is a type of symbolism that equates one thing to another, not using like or as.  Most pervasively though, the stories use allusion, which makes references to people or events outside of the Gospels, most commonly from the Old Testament.  Just as heavily, the Gospels are filled with allegory, which makes references to other stories outside of the Gospels by subtly recasting characters or retelling events.  Parables are the most common form of allegory found in the Gospels, and they teach moral or spiritual lessons.  Lastly, rhetorical devices that are meant to persuade are quite common, consisting of hyperbole, chreia, personification, amplification, irony and incomplete syllogisms [3].


To explain the tools of analysis, redaction is the process of editing and redaction criticism is the study of how authors have created a story by editing another story.  As Bart Ehrman says, “If enough changes point in the same direction, we may be able to uncover the redactor’s principal concerns and emphases.”  Redaction criticism is very important to the study of the Gospels since both Matthew and Luke relied on the Gospel of Mark to create their story.  In fact, 80% of Mark is contained in the Gospel of Matthew.  Remember that the Gospel of Mark was written first, roughly around 70 CE. The Gospel of John’s story uses sources that are more controversial; he may or may not have relied directly on Mark, Matthew or Luke.  As a side, the authors of the Gospels are all anonymous, and for brevity sake, I’ll be referring to them by their traditional names assigned to them by the Church.


As a first example of editing, in Mark, it starts out by having the heavens open up and a voice from above says, “You are my beloved Son”, while in Matthew it says “This is my beloved Son.”  The change may be grammatically slight, but it’s significant in meaning.  Matthew is trying to show that his identity of being the Son of God is not hidden to everyone as it is in the Gospel of Mark.  By saying this is my beloved Son, you know you have an audience (Pharisees and Sadducees).  As another example of this difference, there is the walking on water narrative.  In the Gospel of Mark, people do not understand the implications when Jesus walks on water and “their hearts were hardened”, while in Matthew, they react by falling down in worship, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God”.  Matthew deliberately made a change to Mark to make a different point.  Why did Matthew make this change? Matthew probably made this change to emphasize the culpability of the Jews, which works more dramatically in Matthew than in Mark since they were conscious of his identity all along.  Moreover, “in John, for example, as in Luke, three times Pilate tries to release Jesus by declaring him innocent (unlike in Mark).  And at the end, so, too, does the centurion (Roman soldier).  The Romans all agree on Jesus’ innocence.  Who then is guilty for his death? Not the Romans, but the Jewish authorities, or the Jewish people themselves” [1].


To mix things up, we can go to the end of the story of Mark, the crucifixion narrative. His dying words on the cross were “My God My God why hast though forsaken me.”  This is a direct quote from Psalm 22 of the Hebrew scriptures.  This passage and others (35 and 69) were known as the Psalms of Lament (22, 35 and 69) – speaks of a righteous man who suffers at the hand’s of God’s enemies and becomes vindicated by God in the end [1].  Knowing that the author had in their hands a copy of the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), it’s hard to not think that the passion-crucifixion narrative was influenced by these passages, including Isaiah 52, the Songs of The Suffering Servant.  After all, there’s a direct quotation, and the beginning of the story says this is to follow in accordance with Scripture.  Whether or not the author wanted people to know that this was allegorical or something that Jesus actually said, we’ll never know for sure.  Now Luke changes the words completely by appealing to Psalms 31, “Into your hands I will commit my spirit.”  Again, this is a direct quotation out of the Septuagint in order to fulfill scripture.  Luke’s Jesus accepts his death and willingly gives himself over during the crucifixion.  By contrast, Mark’s Jesus is in agony and seems to be completely unaware of his purpose, which is an atonement for our sins.  Luke changes this to fit his formulation of Jesus.  Luke’s Jesus is a prophet that was rejected by God’s people; he preaches as a prophet, heals as a prophet and also dies as a prophet.  The greatest prophets from scripture, e.g., Elijah, Amos, Ezekiel, all were persecuted and sometimes even martyred by their own people [1].  Luke has placed his Jesus alongside these great prophets. “Luke emphasizes that Jesus dies as a righteous, blameless martyr of God.  As a prophet he knew that this had to happen” [1].  Right, prophets are visionaries, they can foresee the future. This explains why Jesus has complete confidence that his death will bring him in God’s special care as his final words were a prayer not a plea.


Towards the end of both Mark and Luke, the curtain in the holy Temple gets torn in half. The curtain tearing, however, happens at different times and for different reasons.  The Temple is where sacrifices were offered up to God, and the most sacred place in the Temple was the square room, “in whose darkness God’s presence was thought to dwell.” No one could enter this room unless it was the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) when the high priest would go behind the curtain into the presence of God to perform a sacrifice to atone the sins of the people [1].  Mark indicates that when Jesus died, the curtain separating the holiest of places from the outside world was torn in half [1].  This is symbolic in that the tear has opened up the holiest of places to the rest of the world; God is no longer separated by the curtain and all have access to him now.  The ultimate sacrifice has been made, voiding the necessity of all others. Jesus, the Son of God, has “given his life as a ransom for many” (Mark).  People now have direct access to God, who comes to them in the death of Jesus [1].  On the other hand, In Luke, the curtain is torn when Jesus was on the cross and when darkness comes upon the land.  The torn curtain is symbolic of the people rejecting God’s gift (Jesus) and shows God’s judgment upon them. The torn curtain accompanies the eerie darkness over the land as a sign of God’s judgment upon his people who have rejected his gift of “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke).  What underscores this point of God’s wrath is when Jesus says to his enemies (Jewish authorities) that “this is your hour and the power of darkness” (Luke).


The centurion (commander in a Roman army) at the end of Mark says that, “Truly this man was God’s Son.”  The centurion in Luke says, “Certainly this man was innocent.”  These two passages are clearly different.  We can try to reconcile them, but what is more likely the case is that the authors wanted to get across different messages.  Mark is portraying Jesus as the atonement for sin, so his phrase reconfirms that Jesus, the Son of God, had to die for our salvation.  By contrast, Luke wanted to emphasize that Jesus was truly innocent and whose death would not bring, in it of itself, salvation or forgiveness.  Jesus died because he was a prophet rejected by God’s people.  And the people need to repent of their sins and return to God, and then they will be forgiven and granted salvation.  So Mark’s theology regarding salvation (forgiveness for sin) is more of a “get out of jail free card”, while in Luke’s you have to work for it.


Lastly, but certainly not the last of the discrepancies, is the day that Jesus actually died.  This is a contradiction not easily reconciled, despite numerous attempts by apologists.   In the Gospel of Mark, the Passover Meal is the Last Supper.  Passover was a most significant event for Jews during Jesus’ time.  For this year, it started on Thursday evening and continued on to Friday day since Jews viewed the start of the day as the beginning of nightfall.  So Thursday evening was the beginning of Passover.  Thursday day was the Day of Preparation where people brought their lambs to be slaughtered for sacrifice for their sins, and the meal was prepared that afternoon to be eaten that evening, on Passover.  The Last Supper includes the ceremonial wine and bread, where Jesus says after breaking the bread and giving it to his disciples, “This is my body.”  This is symbolic for when his body is broken for the salvation of all.  Jesus then gave the cup of wine to his disciples and said, “This is my blood of the covenant, that is poured out for many” (Mark).  And this is symbolic for the blood that will be shed.  After the Last Supper, Jesus is later taken by the authorities and spends the night in jail, while being found guilty by Pontius Pilate the next day.  He dies on Friday at 9 AM on Passover Day.  In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist announces that “Jesus is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.”  This is the only Gospel in which a metaphor for a lamb is used for Jesus.  The Passover meal in John takes place on Friday evening.  Jesus’ Last Supper is not a Passover meal; it occurs on a Thursday, the evening before the Passover lambs are slaughtered.  After the meal, Jesus spends the night in jail and then Pontius Pilate announces that he will be crucified on the Day of Preparation at noon – the day the lambs are slaughtered, which is a Thursday [1].  Therefore, in Mark, Jesus dies on Friday Passover Day, and, in John, Jesus dies on the Day of Preparation, which is a Thursday.  So Jesus is the slaughtered lamb in the Gospel of John.


Looking at these differences, and there a lot more to point out, one can conclude that either the writers based their stories on different sources of information or that they are literary creations.  I believe that since the changes made coincide with an authors particular vision of Jesus Christ that they are most certainly fabrications, molded to fit a theme or to make a point.  One could argue, as most Christian apologists do, that the differences are historically compatible.  They could argue that, using the centurion as an example, he was both innocent and also the Son of God, so there is no contradiction but rather one author chose to emphasize one point over the other.  However, Luke had the centurion say that “certainly this man is innocent” for a reason; Jesus was a prophet in which his people outright rejected him, and it’s structured this way to fit within Luke’s theology of guilt and repentance.  Moreover, it’s a climatic phrase for the centurion to say, and therefore has all the hallmarks of a literary creation.  I don’t think anyone was recording what the centurion was saying and passed it on through oral tradition; it’s just part of the story.  This goes for all the modifications aforementioned.  In my view, the editing in it of itself makes it hard to know which is historical and which is not, but an even better argument is that the changes made are too integral to the author’s theme to be anything but literary creations.



[1]  Ehrman, Bart D. (2009-02-20). Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

[2]  Helms, Randel. Gospel Fictions. Kindle Edition.

[3]  Witherington III, Ben.  (2009).  New Testament Rhetoric: An Introductory Guide to the Art of Persuasion in and of the New Testament.  Cascade Books.

Gospels as Legendary Biographies

Knowing what type of writings the Gospels are – for example, legendary versus historical – will help us to understand the writers intentions and therefore help guide our interpretation.  And the subject of genre – the category in which a piece of literature should fall into – is crucial to this understanding.  This short piece will establish why the Gospels should not be categorized as historical biographies.  For starters, Richard A Burridge in “Four Gospels, One Jesus?: A Symbolic Reading”, defines what genre means.
Genre forms a kind of `contract’ or agreement, often unspoken or unwritten, or even unconscious, between an author and a reader, by which the author sets out to write according to a whole set of expectations and conventions, and we agree to read or to interpret the work using the same conventions, giving us an initial idea of what we might expect to find.
The Gospels were initially viewed as being “one of a kind” (sui generis) biographies because they differed from modern biographies in that the subject lacked much personal detail, such as personality, character development and appearance.  In the 1920’s, form criticism came to the forefront analyzing the different types of mini-stories that the Gospels are comprised of.  They saw the Gospels as completely void of biographical and historical content.  This, and other reasons, led them to conclude that the Gospels were folk literature, that is, pieces of oral tradition passed down and synthesized into narratives.  Ben Witherington, on the other hand, a modern New Testament scholar, says, “The whole form critical approach to these Gospels is deeply flawed, for the Gospels do not amount to boiling up narratives from shards and bits of tradition and sayings of Jesus; on the contrary, Gospel writing was a matter of editing the material down in specific ways.”  

A more recent analysis, namely by Richard Burridge, has stolen the show.  He concludes that the genre of the Gospels should be one of ancient Greco-Roman biography by comparing the Gospels to other well established Greco-Roman writings in terms of similarity in function, form and content.  To be sure, the consensus for both Christian and secular scholars do agree with Richard Burridge.  To gain further insight into Greco-Roman style, Bart Ehrman defines Greco-Roman biography as follows: “ a prose narrative recounting an individual’s life, often within a chronological framework, employing numerous subgenera (such as sayings, speeches, anecdotes and conflict stories) so as to reflect important aspects of his or her character, principally for purposes of instruction (to inform about what kind of person he or she was), or propaganda (to show his or her superiority to rivals).”  Although this definition is fair enough for the Gospels, I tend to think that it lacks granularity.  As the historian Matthew Ferguson points out:

The genre of Graeco-Roman biography was rather diverse in antiquity, with many variations in structure and content depending on the biographical subject being described. As such, the comparison of the NT Gospels with “Graeco-Roman biography” is no simple or straightforward matter, as ancient biographical scholars still debate how the genre can even be defined to begin with.
Matthew Ferguson believes that if the Gospels are classified in the aforementioned manner, there should be a distinction made, namely that the Gospels are more similar to prose novels and legendary biographies than to that of historical biographies.  This inference comes from the Gospels lacking analytical rigor and containing many storytelling elements in comparison to that of historical biographies.  Some of these novelistic biographies, for example, are about Homer, Alexander the Great, and Aesop, whereas writings by Plutarch, Arrian and Suetonius are historical biographies.  There are even biographical examples of miracle-working “divine men”, similar in broad outline to Jesus, such as Pythagoras, Empedocles, Asclepius and, the most uncanny, Apollonius of Tyana.  As Morton Smith puts it, these are known as aretalogies because they are “a miracle story or a collection of miracle stories” whose primary purpose was “praise of and propaganda for the deity supposed to have done the deeds.”  Matthew Ferguson further contrasts historical and prose writing:
Ancient historical prose has a very distinct style, in which the historian often would discuss the methodology of his research, the sources he consulted, the differences between multiple traditions about a person or event, and his judgment as an inquirer into past affairs. History, derived from the Greek ἱστορία (“inquiry”), is not merely a narrative about past people, places, and events, but is an investigation that one conducts in the present in order to formulate a hypothesis of what probably took place in the past, based on the available evidence. 
Rather than read as the unmitigated praise of a saint who can do no wrong, ancient historical works and historical biographies were far more critical of their subjects, whom they analyzed less one-dimensionally and more as complete persons. Even for a popular and well-liked emperor like Augustus, his biographer Suetonius in his Life of Augustus still did not hold back from describing Augustus’ acts of adultery and lavish behavior. Good historians are concerned with telling the past as it really is rather than just heaping praise upon individuals as propaganda.  
So historical biography, generally, is more investigatory, analytical and critical of their subject matter.  This does not seem to be the case with the Gospels where the aim of the omniscient, third-person authors is not to chiefly convince you of the accuracy of their accounts but rather to convince you of the subject matter’s heroic deeds, etc.  Moreover, all of the Gospels are anonymous, don’t cite their sources or methodologies and utilize much myth making, which is atypical of historical biographical material.  

Two possible exceptions, one being the Gospel of Luke, where there is mentioning of how sources have been passed down and that the author has done all that he could to ensure that his account is the correct account.  This passage doesn’t amount to much as it excludes the names of the sources and doesn’t bother to discuss their relevancy to the events.  There is no critical engagement at all.  Second exception is the Gospel of John where John claims to have an eyewitness disciple, but the Gospel doesn’t even name this person.  To summarize, I leave you with a quote from Ferguson.  
The Gospels, in contrast, are not historical biographies but hagiographies written in unquestioning praise of their messianic subject. As a good representation of the scholarly consensus about the aims of the Gospels, the Oxford Annotated Bible (pg. 1744) explains, “Neither the evangelists nor their first readers engaged in historical analysis. Their aim was to confirm Christian faith.” Such works, written for an audience of converts, are not chiefly concerned with being critical or investigative, but rather serve the religious agendas and ideologies of the communities that produced them.
Boyd, Gregory A.; Eddy, Paul Rhodes (2007-08-01). The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. Baker Book Group – A. Kindle Edition.
Burridge, Richard A. . Four Gospels, One Jesus?: A Symbolic Reading. Kindle Edition.
Ehrman, Bart D.  The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.
Ferguson, Matthew.  Κέλσος
Witherington, Ben.  New Testament Rhetoric.

Which tribe do you belong to?

In this post I go over some biases and influences that we encounter that can interfere with our ability to form well reasoned opinions.  As my first post, I feel it’s important to show how I was affected by them and how I eventually was led towards free thought.

Bias is a personal inclination, feeling or opinion – usually not reasoned out – that interferes with obtaining the truth.  As far as how we process information concerning ourselves and the world around us, psychologists have identified numerous cognitive biases, but none are more important than confirmation bias.  It essentially says that we confirm a hypothesis or belief about something by looking for evidence to support it and discarding that which does not support it.  This bias makes our beliefs and hypotheses very resistant to change.  A good example of a confirmation bias is if I was convinced that prayer will assist me in getting an interview, and I counted all the times that I got an interview with prayer but ignored the interviews I got without prayer.  In other words, as you may have heard before, we count the hits but ignore the misses.  The remedy is, in addition to proving our beliefs, that we should always be trying to falsify our beliefs, in this case proving that you’d get an interview without prayer. Moreover, you need to be cautious of the correlation fallacy; that is, just because an interview was obtained when you prayed, it doesn’t mean the prayer caused the interview. You must either look for other explanations (hypotheses) as to why you got that interview or admit falling prey to confirmation bias. [Once you take all that into consideration, and you are still convinced that the prayer caused the interview, see my discussion on Miracles and Probability I, II, and III.]

There is an even more hideous offender to the truth, specifically ingroup bias.  Once we are affiliated with a certain ideology, we then frequently inherit the beliefs and preferences of that ingroup.  And once we are in an ingroup, we often, unconsciously, argue in favor of that group’s positions.  In fact, the supporting of other member’s ideas in our ingroup can be so dysfunctional that a phenomenon known as groupthink can occur.  Groupthink is when uniformity in the group’s decisions is elevated at the cost of irrational thinking.  Examples of groupthink are abound – from the Bay of Pigs invasion to simple meetings at work.  To illustrate, think of a meeting at work where you had a good idea but failed to mention it because you know it wouldn’t be well received by influential others.  That is a classic example of how groups can be forced into making poor decisions, mainly by refusing anything that’s contrary to the group’s opinion, typically articulated by the higher ranking or more well-liked individuals.

Prior to being educated in the necessary fields, such as economics, history and logic, I personally was affected by the conservative movement ingroup.  I started my political career out by listening to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. The result was disastrous. I became a staunch, conservative zealot.  I recall that the hate for liberals spewed by these pundits was contagious, and I used to call my teachers liberals with a contemptuous tone.  I reverberated a tribal instinct with an “us” against “them” mentality.  I inherited all of their assumptions, arguments and preferences as well.  So, for example, I equated government and government intervention as bad, gun control as the government trying to take our guns away, Christians as founding our nation, unbridled pride as something to be cherished, protesting against war as wrong, protecting the environment as unnecessary, and, finally, welfare means doing a person harm and one should practice tough-love in its stead.

So what explains this?  For our ancestors, evolutionary psychologists believe that there was survival value in group members demonstrating uniformity and favoritism, while showing prejudice towards outsiders.  This conformity would allow for cohesion and cooperation in order to meet similar ends.  According to the logic of evolution, if a behavior occurs frequently enough in a high enough percentage of the population, then it’s a good candidate for being an adaptation.  If it’s an adaptation, then it’s probably hard-wired into our psychology.  So once we are in an ingroup, it comes quite natural for us to adopt their beliefs and fight for their cause, while shunning outsiders.  The consequences are clear, and we end up forming conclusions without any forethought.  We kind of just back into these beliefs as Michael Shermer says and then defend them at all costs.  I recall watching a debate with Dr. Richard Carrier and Michael Licona, and they were perplexed at how they arrived at different conclusions as to whether or not Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  I have often wondered how each ingroup they were associated with contributed to their conclusions.

Cognitive dissonance is an uneasy feeling that one gets when there is a contradiction between a deep-seated belief and another opposing belief.  It’s not a cognitive bias in it of itself, but it nonetheless assists people in maintaining erroneous views.  I felt this dissonance myself when I was a diehard fan of evolutionary psychology.  To recall a specific incident, I was listening to a debate between Stephen Pinker and Steven Rose on whether or not the brain was designed as a general problem solving tool or a domain specific problem solving tool.  I had so much invested into evolutionary psychology – countless hours of reading it and using it as an explanatory tool to understand the hardships of life – that I was vulnerable.  It was perfect, sacred and infallible to me.  Because the tenet and pillar of evolutionary psychology is that the mind is a Swiss army knife that is filled with individual tools to solve specific problems at hand, I couldn’t imagine the mind being anything else.  Sounds frivolous, but I fought for days to resist thinking that it may be true.  Although I don’t know evolutionary psychology’s official stance today, ten years later I’ve conceded that it could be both, with the help of “Adapting Minds” by Buller.

A worldview is a framework of beliefs that allows us to make judgments and decisions about our environment.  So not only do beliefs function as cohesive and cooperative mechanisms in groups, they also serve to pragmatically guide us throughout the day.  My system of beliefs and values that I had when I worshiped evolutionary psychology constituted a world view.  This world view allowed me to make sense out of a lot of things in life.  However, I was too emotionally entrenched in it, and it was perhaps acting as a distorter of truth by not allowing other more plausible explanations for phenomena.  I haven’t abandoned evolutionary psychology; I’m just no longer holding on to it so tightly.  I have since reassessed what’s worth holding on to and that so happens to be principles relating to relationships, civics, justice etc.  Moreover, I try to now be independent as much as possible, rarely adhering to an ideology.  By not adhering to an ideology you are not as liable to be indoctrinated with inflexible assumptions and beliefs that don’t work for every problem.  For example, becoming a libertarian forces you to believe that government intervention will most always result in an undesirable outcome, but this may not always be the case.  Problems need to be looked at individually, free from dogma.

So we see the disadvantages of affiliating with an ingroup and holding on to beliefs too strongly.  But it’s impossible to not have some sort of worldview.  As Michael Shermer expounds, we are meaning making machines and demand an interpretive framework to understand the world and humans around us.  We can’t function without beliefs, assumptions and values.  But that’s not to say that one group doesn’t hold a better set of heuristics that minimizes these biases over another.  I believe that philosophical point of view to be found in free thought.  It’s less likely to be plagued by bias since its very nature is to be skeptical of it in the first place.  The following definition of it is most applicable.  Since free thought relies on empiricism like science does, then an assumption or hypothesis can be disputed and discarded.  By contrast, an ideology or religion has undisputed truths that would probably never be overturned.

Free thought — is a philosophical viewpoint which holds that positions regarding truth should be formed on the basis of logicreason, and empiricism, rather than authoritytraditionrevelation, or other dogma.  The cognitive application of freethought is known as “freethinking”, and practitioners of freethought are known as “freethinkers”.  Freethinkers are heavily committed to the use of scientific inquiry, and logic. The skeptical application of science implies freedom from the intellectually limiting effects of confirmation biascognitive biasconventional wisdompopular cultureprejudice, or sectarianism.