Monthly Archives: April 2016

“In Most Worlds, You Don’t Even Exist” — Miracles and Probability

Jesus Walking on Water

Jesus Walking on Water (Ivan Aivazovsky)

Recently, while watching our favorite apoplectic antimythicist discuss “The Case of the Historical Jesus,” something the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature said caught my ear. Here’s what he said:

Historians tend to discount miracle claims and those kinds of things right off the bat, because even if they were to investigate them, the things that people call miracles tend to be things that are inherently improbable . . . But talking about things like walking on water, turning water into wine — most historians won’t even bother discussing those things, because the most a historian ever does is say something is probable. And a historian is never going to tell you that something inherently improbable is probable. And so those kinds of things can be set aside from the outset. (James McGrath, 2016)

Actually, two things drew my attention here. The first is the term inherently improbable, and the second is the claim that historians set aside miracle claims.

Inherently improbable

If you search among books, articles, and academic papers, you’ll find the term inherently improbable used quite frequently in the sciences, liberal arts, religious studies, and the law. But in philosophy (especially logic), you’ll also find people writing about it with some ambivalence.

What exactly do we mean by inherent probability? In his book, Acceptable Premises: An Epistemic Approach to an Informal Logic Problem, James Freeman cites John Nolt’s definition. read more »

Myth Conference 2016

May 22nd, 2016, at the City of Athens Cultural Centre

You may recall the book Jesus Mythicism: An Introduction by freelance journalist Minas Papageorgiou. The book was originally written for Greek readers and now there is a mythicist conference coming up soon in Greece. Some of the same names associated with the book also appear related to the Conference.

From the Conference website:

In November 2013 a group of Greek independent investigators decided to join their forces in the website, in an effort to present a fuller picture of the area of study called Mythicism. 

About two and a half years later, this area of investigation is becoming more and more popular in Greek society, attracting numerous scientists of various worldviews and beliefs. We have therefore decided to move one step further and organize, in collaboration with the Mythicist Milwaukee group, on May 22, 2016, in the city of Athens, the 1st Greek Mythicism Conference, with a free entrance to all.

The goal of this innovative conference is to feature the various manifestations of Mythicist concepts, as seen through the particular viewpoint of both Greek and foreign investigators, who do not necessarily embrace the same philosophical line of thought. The international character of the conference undoubtedly increases the value of this venture.

For the schedule:προγραμμαschedule/

And for the speakers:ομιλητεσ-2/

And for the translation:

I like the way it goes beyond the historicity of Jesus question. It’s certainly eclectic. I hope some of the presentations will be available online afterwards. I’d personally like to see even more eclecticism in future years so methodological approaches comparable to those of Carrier (and non-secularists like Brodie) can gain a hearing.



For the record I was interviewed by Phil Robinson for Nuskeptix. Tech problems mercifully (for me, not being in my comfort zone) cut the interview short and it may be completed at a future date. What I would like to do is expand on some of the questions in future posts. One point in particular was the question regarding the human form of Jesus in the gospels, in particular the first gospel, that of Mark. What I had in mind was that even in Jewish mystical writings (e.g. Ezekiel’s visions) we find the Glory of God depicted in the form of a man who gets up off his chariot and walks around Jerusalem; and then again we have other writings referencing an Ideal Heavenly Man, and a Son of Man figure in heaven — I would think that such a background would make it almost inevitable that at some point someone would imagine, especially in parable form, a celestial figure acting out a human-earthly career. So

Once more on reactions to Brian Bethune’s Macleans article

Coincidentally with my own two posts Richard Carrier has been posting on two other reactions to the widening interest in questions about the historicity of Jesus. He takes the trouble to respond to James McGrath’s typically dishonest nonsense (this time against Raphael Lataster’s new book), and to respond point by point to John Tors’ reaction to Brian Bethune’s Macleans’ article.


On Stanley Porter’s reaction: Biblical Scholars Reacting to Public Interest in Mythicism: Part 1

On Philip Jenkins’ reaction: Biblical Scholars Reacting . . . Part 2



“Say My Name” — Anonymous Women in the Bible

First half of the 17th century

The Wedding at Cana, Simon de Vos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During my mother’s last few weeks, I read to her from the Bible. Picking around, I looked for the most comforting passages. As she slipped in and out of consciousness, I tried reading from the Sermon on the Mount, but it wasn’t helpful. In the end I read mostly from the Gospel according to John, especially where Jesus speaks directly about hope, life, light, and the resurrection.

“In my father’s house, there are many mansions.”

To me, John seems the most “Christian” of all the gospels. By that I mean, if I were a Christian and had to choose only one gospel to survive after an asteroid hit the Earth, I would probably pick John. Yet it has quite a bit missing when you compare it to the Synoptics.

For one thing, like Mark, there’s no nativity story. But we can live without that. It also lacks the parables and exorcisms that litter the landscape in the other three gospels. However, in return we get the so-called “signs,” and we gain the long discourses in which Jesus explains himself.

And we get these verses that I read to my mother, over and over again, as she lay dying:

In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. (John 14:2-3, KJV)

You could still make a good case for Matthew. With it, we get a family tree and an exciting birth legend. We also get the name of Jesus’ mother, something John omitted. Yes, as odd as it sounds, John never got around to telling us Mary’s name. We know her only by her relationship to men.

Our Blessed Lady of Whoever

She appears to be a woman of some substance, since she commands the servants at the wedding in Cana to “do whatever he tells you.” But she has no identity outside her relationship to her son. Try to imagine Christianity with an anonymous mother of Christ. It’s no easy task. read more »

Biblical Scholars Reacting . . . Part 2

Continues from part 1 . . . .

Philip Jenkins in his reaction, The Myth of the Mythical Jesus, has an even more blunt response to anyone who ventures into the “far swamps of extreme crankery” by pursuing questions that have no place among biblical scholars:

Scholarship is what scholars do, and if they don’t do it, it’s not scholarship. That is by far the most important point against the mythicists, and really, nothing more needs to be said.

Jenkins remains silent about Carrier’s book, the book that largely prompted Brian Bethune to ask serious questions about the evidence for the existence of Jesus. One can only conclude Jenkins has not read it and that his confidence that he knows all he needs to know about mythicist arguments is perversely misplaced. After all, it’s not a view “done” by scholars so it would be a waste of time bothering with it. One cannot imagine a more classic illustration of contempt for (ideologically incorrect) public interests.

Such ignorance gives him the confidence that merely repeating a few mantras to a few informal mythicist bylines he may have heard second hand or from some “over zealous riff-raff on the web” is all that he needs to do to persuade right-thinking people to stay clear of the danger zones around those far swamps.

The affirmative evidence for that existence is easily offered, consisting as it does of a sizable body of writings dating from within a half century of the events described.

Those documents are, without question, the most closely debated and analyzed in human history. A vast body of scholars works on those texts and their implications, and they come from a wide body of religious backgrounds – Christians of every possible shade, Jews, skeptics and atheists, and people of various other faiths. Within that scholarly universe, the number of qualified scholars who today deny the historical existence of Jesus is infinitesimal. The consensus on that matter is near-total. (My bolding and formatting in all quotations)

“A paper I had written on a disturbing, ridiculous, and idiosyncratic method used by historicists was rejected by a prominent society of Biblical literature, but was later accepted by a general historical research organisation – forgive me if I feel a smug sense of vindication.[32] This paper dealt with what I call Ehrman’s law, which shall be explained later and discussed throughout this book. My presentation of the paper was very successful, with almost everybody (a room full of proper historians) agreeing with me that this method used by Biblical ‘historians’ is ridiculous and not typical of historians proper.

“[32] Raphael Lataster, “The Gospel According to Bart: The Folly of Ehrman’s Hypothetical Sources” (paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Australian Historical Association, Sydney, 7th July 2015).”

Lataster, Raphael (2015-11-12). Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists (Kindle Locations 400-405).  . Kindle Edition.

Mainstream biblical scholars often point to atheists among their ranks as evidence that they are not swayed by Christian bias. Craig Evans in the debate mentioned in my previous post did this when he spoke of the atheist James Crossley arguing that the Gospels were written considerably earlier than even many Christian scholars concede. What Evans was doing in reality was demonstrating that atheist scholars can only survive in the Christian dominated field of biblical studies as long as they conform to the minimal ideological foundations of Christianity. Arguing a Marxist model of Christian origins naturally conforms admirably with the values of many liberal Christians.

In fact neither Bethune nor anyone denies the “near total consensus” in the public face of the biblical studies guild. When prominent authors like Philip Jenkins not only demonstrate their ignorance of the arguments of those “infinitesimally” few scholars but even despite their ignorance insult them as belonging to the “far swamps of crankery”, one has to wonder if Raphael Lataster is quite correct when he writes that the historicity of Jesus is a debate that cannot be conducted among biblical scholars but can only move forward in other history and religion departments.

Hence reaction, neither engagement nor education, is the response.

Jenkins sees no need to bother with anything Carrier might have written nor even with the actual problems raised by Bethune. Leave all that to the “swamps of extreme crankery” — a nice intimidating phrase attached to the pointy headed doubters among those leprous masses.

And so Jenkins proceeds to address what he blindly presumes anonymous ignoramuses argue. The challenging questions of Bethune and Carrier are lost in the far swamps of Jenkins’s awareness and are replaced by some vague general points from the minds of an undefined “they”.

The first vague point unrelated to any of the questions troubling Bethune and that is posed as a substitute for Bethune’s questions:

  • *Contemporary writers do not refer to Jesus

Jenkins’s ignorance of serious mythicist arguments is palpable. Sweeping aside the issues of concern to Brian Bethune and many readers of the Macleans article, Jenkins embarrasses any slightly knowledgeable reader with this “explanation”:

All the canonical sources depict a very plausible Jesus in a very identifiable early first century historical setting. More significant, there are clear and well understood chains of evidence and tradition from Jesus’s time to the writing of those gospels.

Plausibility is a condition of historicity but that is a long step from being an argument for any particular scenario. Historical fiction works because it is equally plausible, set as it is in real times and places. That this point is ever raised as a serious argument for the historicity of Jesus is truly an embarrassment to our intellectual elites. Craig Evans made much of it in his debate with Richard Carrier. Why? It’s so obviously a red-herring, a non sequitur, an offence to anyone who has read any historical fiction, including ancient historical fictional writings.

As for the second point that there are “clear and well understood chains of evidence and tradition from Jesus’s time to the writing of the gospels”? Well, yes, there certainly are “clear and well understood” imaginative constructs of what scholars who presume a core historicity behind the gospel narratives believe must have existed. Of course there is no evidence for those oral traditions. Indeed, works that have seriously challenged the prevailing presumption that “there must have been oral traditions” passed on from eyewitnesses to eventually reach the authors of the gospels have been largely ignored. (See discussions of some of these in the oral tradition archive, as well as other posts on scholarship presenting evidence for literary mimesis.) Yet Jenkins presents the presumed model of oral tradition as part of a “clear and well understood chain of evidence“!

Clearly unaware of his ignorance that the mythicist case for Jesus as an “otherworldly being” is grounded in the writings of

  • the New Testament epistles
  • and Revelation,
  • other Second Temple Jewish literature,
  • and documents such as the original form of the Ascension of Isaiah dated by mainstream scholars to the end of the first or very early second century,

Jenkins surely mystifies readers of Macleans and Carrier’s book when he writes: read more »

Biblical Scholars Reacting to Public Interest in Mythicism: Part 1

Biblical scholars are reacting uncomfortably to signs of public interest in the view that Jesus did not exist. Not all biblical scholars, though. A tiny few do publicly welcome and accommodate this mythicist view of Jesus with their Christian faith and others who have confessed to being open-minded on the question. (For details see Who’s Who: Mythicists and Mythicists Agnostics.) But it is no secret that biblical studies is dominated by the Christian faith, both its liberal and conservative wings, so when articles questioning the most fundamental precept of that faith appear in prominent media outlets like The Washington Post,, and most recently Macleans, some of those scholars let their indignation and impatience show. Unfortunately for their cause, however, while they focus on defending their traditional assumptions they all too often completely ignore (or misrepresent) the actual reasons many intelligent and educated people continue to have doubts.

My own position on mythicism: Following is my (slightly modified) email reply to someone who recently asked me if I was an agnostic on the mythicist question. —

Yes. It is the best we can argue. The evidence and critical methods we have can only allow us to argue that our New Testament literature can well be explained without recourse to a historical Jesus but that fact does not itself prove their was no historical Jesus. Even some “historicists” admit that the historical Jesus is essentially irrelevant to what became Christianity.

Personally I see no reason to believe in the existence of a historical Jesus but I cannot prove that position, so I must remain agnostic. The best I can do is to demonstrate how the evidence we have for Christian origins can be explained far more cogently without reference to a historical figure.

[A danger some mythicists fall into is an ideological desire to prove Jesus was not historical but the expression of some other deity or cosmic phenomena,] — that is, looking only for evidence to support their theory. That approach is susceptible to confirmation bias. If we can’t find ways to test our hypotheses and identify how they could be disproved then we are not using valid historical or scientific reasoning. [I think a more interesting and profitable pursuit than trying to prove or disprove the historicity of Jesus is to explore and understand the evidence that sheds light on Christianity’s origins.]

In posts on Vridar I’ve said several times that by explaining the origin of a gospel narrative as an adaptation of another story (say, Jesus stilling the storm from the Jonah story) we do not disprove the historicity of the event. Ditto if we find mythical associations with Jesus: even known historical emperors described themselves and were described by others in ways comparing them with mythical persons. What matters is what the evidence we have points us towards. If we have evidence for a literary or mythological borrowing, and that is all there is, then — all other things being equal — it is reasonable to tentatively assume that that the literary or mythological source is the origin of our narrative. But our conclusion is tentative – pending the discovery of additional evidence that there is also a historical source.

In this series of posts I will address the public responses of two mainstream scholars, Philip Jenkins and Stanley Porter (who responds jointly with Hughson Ong, a relatively new name in the field), to Brian Bethune’s discussion of Bart Ehrman’s new popular book, Jesus Before the Gospels, in the context of questions raised by Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. The two articles:

Both responses are clearly written with considerable impatience:

In debates about Christian origins, one tiresome canard is going to come up sporadically, and usually, it’s not worth wasting time on. (Jenkins)

Here we go again, chasing after another ill-conceived theory about the Bible, this being one that periodically rises from the mordant ooze. (Porter-Ong)

And both responses completely sidestep Brian Bethune’s core questions. By way of reminder here are those unaddressed questions that arise from Ehrman’s book:

Q1. Almost entirely from the Christian tradition

Ehrman’s memory book, in effect, is more an appeal to the faithful to accept historians’ approach than a new way of evaluating evidence. His list of what historians, including himself, think they can attest to hardly differs from a list he would have made a decade ago:

  • Jesus was a Jew,
  • an apocalyptic preacher like the man who baptized him, John the Baptist;
  • his teaching, rooted in Torah, was delivered in parables and aphorisms;
  • Jesus had followers who claimed his message was validated by the miracles he wrought;
  • in the last week of his life, Jesus went to Jerusalem, where he caused a disturbance in the Temple that, some hours later, led to his arrest;
  • Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor found him guilty of sedition and had him crucified.

However appealing and reasonable such a list is to modern skeptics, it is still drawn almost entirely from within the faith tradition, with buttressing by the slimmest of outside supports—brief references from Roman observers. (My own bolded emphasis and formatting in all quotations)

Q2. Buttressed by the slimmest of outside supports

Bethune then shows us just how slim the most “rock-solid” of those outside supports are:

Consider one item on Ehrman’s list, perhaps the most accepted and certainly the one with the largest claim to historical accuracy embedded within it: Pontius Pilate executed Jesus. Scholars are almost universally on-side, as are most Christian churches. Pilate is the sole figure from Jesus’s trial for whom we have undoubted archaeological evidence, and he’s also, perhaps coincidentally, the only one to become part of the Nicene Creed, the most widely embraced capsule statement of Christian faith: “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.”

But that wasn’t what all early Christians thought.

  • The apocryphal Gospel of Peter says King Herod signed the death warrant.
  • Others who thought Jesus was nearly 50 when he died believed that happened in the 40s of the first century, long after Pilate had been recalled to Rome.
  • The Nazorians, an intriguing sect of Torah-observant early Christians discussed by a fourth-century scholar, believed Jesus died a century before the canonical Gospels, around 70 BCE. (And, since they were descended directly from the first followers of Christ, called Nazarenes before they became known as Christians, the Nazorians cannot be easily dismissed. The Babylonian Talmud, composed by the fifth century, notes the same.)

Yet Pilate is in Mark as the agent of Jesus’s crucifixion, from which he spread to the other Gospels, and also in the annals of the Roman historian Tacitus and writings by his Jewish counterpart, Josephus. Those objective, non-Christian references make Pilate as sure a thing as ancient historical evidence has to offer, unless—as has been persuasively argued by numerous scholars, including historian Richard Carrier in his recent On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason For Doubtboth brief passages are interpolations, later forgeries made by zealous Christians. . . .

The Gospels are forthright in their agendas to serve theological and not historical needs. Mark may have pinned Jesus’s death on Pilate because he knew or believed it to be true, says Carrier, or he may have been practising “apocalyptic math.” [“Apocalyptic math” is a reference to the interest in that day of finding a timetable for the appearance of the messiah in the mysterious numbers in the Book of Daniel.]

Craig Evans interlude

Uh oh, is Carrier befuddling the public with the question begging “interpolation” card? Is he blithely sweeping aside contrary evidence as possible forgeries? That’s how Craig Evans, another mainstream scholar, chose to react to Carrier’s case in a recent debate. But in a live debate situation Carrier was able to respond on the spot and remind the audience that far from any question begging, detailed and abundant evidence for the claim of forgery was used to back up the assertion. (Bart Ehrman himself not very long ago even wrote another popular book demonstrating just how widespread forgery was in the early Christian world.)

When Craig Evans brushed aside Carrier’s assertions he was brushing aside all the evidence and argument upon which those assertions were grounded. That’s not addressing the arguments; it’s reacting to them in a way that leaves the critical public unpersuaded. read more »

Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 4: Genre

In the last installment, we covered oral tradition. As I look over the post now, I see that I missed several opportunities to add the adjective, “rich.” Biblical scholars love to write the words “rich oral tradition.” How, you may ask, do they know such details about something based mostly on conjecture? Watch out! If you keep asking questions like that, you’ll earn yourself demerits for skepticism.

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bart Ehrman naturally considers it important to expound upon the rich oral tradition™ behind the gospels, because it connects the historical Jesus to the written New Testament. Serious scholars would probably also care about how the evangelists assembled that material. They would ask themselves what the authors intended. Did they think they were writing biographies, histories, hagiographies, novels, or what? Were authors of the gospels even conscious of what they were doing; did they have a plan?

What is a gospel?

An actual historian would most likely start with the written work first, and work back from there. He or she would want to determine the type of document we’re dealing with — i.e., the genre of the gospels. We’ve covered this topic many times on Vridar, including my series about how the consensus changed dramatically over the past century.

As we learned previously, the form critics cared about genre, too. Rudolf Bultmann called it the first task of form criticism. Until we confirm that the gospel of Mark is not a story about Jesus, but a collection of stories about Jesus, we have no solid grounds for dividing the book into individual pericopae (that supposedly came from distinct oral streams).

Oddly enough, the scholar credited as the father of Formgeschichte, Hermann Gunkel, never used the word. Rather, he focused on the Gattung or genre of the literature in the Old Testament. He well understood the need to identify the book of Genesis as a large collection of individual traditions assembled under the guiding hand of gifted redactors. He accepted the prevailing Graf-Wellhausen theory that the Pentateuch is composed of four main separate, written sources: J, E, D, and P. But he also argued that the individual source documents reflect much older oral tradition.

Are the gospels written “memories”?

However, in Jesus Before the Gospels, Bart Ehrman sidesteps the entire issue, preferring instead to treat the gospels as memories. At least in the case of their readers, the gospels certainly became memories. But he does not provide any sustained credible argument that the gospel stories had been actual memories of their communities, let alone give us any reason to believe that such memories go back to real events that occurred in the life of Jesus.

He introduces his discussion of the canonical gospels not by telling us they are biographies, histories, or whatever. Skipping over the unpleasant task of trying to place the gospels in their literary setting, he simply asserts they are writings that contain memories. Ehrman explains: read more »

Euhemerism Is Not “Doing What Euhemerus Did”

The Family Shakespeare

The Family Shakespeare

Imagine for a minute that you’re administering a test on the history of English literature, and one of your questions asks the students to explain in a short essay the meaning of word bowdlerize. Now imagine I’ve taken your test, and my essay begins:

“To bowdlerize something means doing what Thomas Bowdler did.”

I’m off to a bad start. But it gets worse. I continue:

“We can debate about why he expurgated Shakespeare’s plays, but what matters is what not why he did it.”

Then, oddly, I cite Aristotle’s four causes as if they have any relevance to the meaning and history of a word. Next, I veer off into a discussion about what other bowdlerizers have done.

“Some were offended by sexual innuendo, while others were put off by curse words and impiety. But it doesn’t matter why they did what they did, nor does it matter what the effect was. What they all did in common is the same one thing: expurgate works of literature. A trend begun by Bowdler. And thus so called.”

If I were you, I wouldn’t give me any points. The tiny part I happened to get right is overshadowed by the rest. We’ll see why as we go on.

Euhemerism, again

Richard Carrier, in his recent “Brief Note on Euhemerization,” provides a helpful TL;DR, which begins:

Euhemerization is doing what Euhemerus did: convert a non-historical deity into a deified historical man (in contrast to deification, which is when an actual historical man is converted into a deity).

Everything after the colon is generally correct, albeit incomplete. But in the first part of the sentence Carrier commits the same error I did concerning the word bowdlerize. He has demonstrated a rather extreme case of the etymological fallacy. Usually, that would mean that he knew the original meaning of the word and discounts the current meaning. However, in this case, he has gone all the way back to the word’s eponymous roots.

That isn’t how English works. That isn’t how any language works. Words gain meaning through usage, which explains why Oxford, Collins, Merriam Webster, et al. keep vast repositories of lexical citations. You can’t understand what a word means without knowing how people use it. Living languages are not prescribed; they are described. read more »

What Does “Probably” Mean to Historians and Forecasters?

We often hear it said that historians deal with probabilities, not certainties. Thus Bart Ehrman explains in his latest book:

Historians, of course, can ask what probably happened in the past, for example, in the earthly ministry of Jesus with his disciples. And historians can establish with relative levels of probability that this, that, or the other tradition is likely something that happened or didn’t happen. But history is all a matter of such greater or lesser probabilities. When dealing with a figure such as Jesus, these probabilities are established only by critically examining the memories that were recorded by later authors.

Ehrman, Bart D. (2016-03-01). Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (p. 31). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. [My bolded emphasis in all quotations.]

Interestingly Ehrman assumes as a certainty (not probability) that the gospel narratives were sourced from “memories” of Jesus (whether personally experienced or fabricated memories) and sidesteps an entire area of biblical scholarship that argues the evangelists themselves imaginatively created the narratives of Jesus inspired by analogous tales in the Jewish Scriptures and other writings. He also uses the language — e.g. “that were recorded by” — we associate with historical “reports” or “records” thus further entrenching his bias in the mind of the reader. But we’ll leave Ehrman’s own contradictions aside for now and focus on the more general principle.

Anyone who has read scholarly works relating to Christian origins is familiar with the language of probability, possibility, maybe, likelihood, etc. Too often, however, this same language magically transforms itself as the argument proceeds into certainty. As Jacob Neusner in Rabbinic Literature and the New Testament complained of “pseudocritical” scholarship, it is commonly characterized a number of faults including

the use of “presumably,” “must” or “may have been,” and “perhaps,” a few sentences later magically converted into “was” and “certainly.” (p. 88)

A serious possibility

tetlsLet’s start with the reverse of history: forecasting the future. The past is past and gone but reverse our perspective for a moment and problems with vague and loose language become immediately obvious. The following cases are taken from Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner. In early 1951 the CIA published a National Intelligence Estimate warning that a Soviet Union attack on Yugoslavia “should be considered a serious possibility.” What does that phrase mean to you?

But a few days later, Kent was chatting with a senior State Department official who casually asked, “By the way, what did you people mean by the expression ‘serious possibility’? What kind of odds did you have in mind?” Kent said he was pessimistic. He felt the odds were about 65 to 35 in favor of an attack. The official was startled. He and his colleagues had taken “serious possibility” to mean much lower odds. Disturbed, Kent went back to his team. They had all agreed to use “serious possibility” in the NIE so Kent asked each person, in turn, what he thought it meant. One analyst said it meant odds of about 80 to 20, or four times more likely than not that there would be an invasion. Another thought it meant odds of 20 to 80— exactly the opposite. Other answers were scattered between those extremes.

Tetlock, Philip; Gardner, Dan (2015-09-24). Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (Kindle Locations 858-864). Random House. Kindle Edition.

A fair chance

When in 1961 President Kennedy sought to know the chance a small army of Cuban expatriates landing at the Bay of Pigs would have in toppling Fidel Castro his Chiefs of Staff concluded that the plan had a “fair chance” of success.

The man who wrote the words “fair chance” later said he had in mind odds of 3 to 1 against success. But Kennedy was never told precisely what “fair chance” meant and, not unreasonably, he took it to be a much more positive assessment.

Tetlock, Philip; Gardner, Dan (2015-09-24). Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (Kindle Locations 872-873). Random House. Kindle Edition.

Sherman Kent of the CIA’s Office of National Estimates sought a remedy by setting out more precise meanings: read more »

The Free Will Question Once More . . .

There’s an interesting outline of a new experiment to assess processes involved in decision making at the General Religious Discussion section of the Biblical Criticism & History Forum: Do we have free will? Researchers test mechanisms… (The original article is at Do we have free will? Researchers test mechanisms involved in decision-making.)

I was beginning to think that I no longer have any idea if we have free will or not and after reading the ensuing discussion I felt I could firmly conclude that I really am undecided — though lately beginning to lean a little towards the “yes, we do have it” side of the fence. For now.



Part 2 of the case for the historicity of Jesus

Part 2 of Professor McGrath’s discussion on historicity of Jesus is in podcast form. Disappointing in that it is mostly a mocking of mythicism by setting up a series of seriously oversimplified claims and outright straw-men.  I was hoping for a more serious collation of arguments for historicity of Jesus. The strongest they came to that was by saying that “critical scholars” have done “tons of research” and have “concluded some things are more probable than others” on the basis of “the evidence”. Not much detail there. (As some of us are well aware, that research has by and large been into what the Jesus who is assumed to have existed may have said and did — not whether he existed or not.)

Points from part 2 of the Historicity of Jesus podcast follow. [I] = interviewer expresses the idea; [M] = McGrath’s thoughts. Mostly paraphrased, not always word for word.

[I] The crucifixion is a good indicator that the early Christians did not make up Jesus because the crucifixion was actually contrary to the message they were trying to spread about him! (I think the point here is that the Christians wanted to teach Jesus was the Davidic King Messiah and Crucifixion was an embarrassment to that claim so they were compelled to mention it because it was unavoidable because everyone knew about it being historically true.)

[M] Responding to “mythicist claim” that mythicist Jesus is not on the agenda because biblical scholarship is funded by churches, says no, not true, and cites his own university, Butler, as a secular university. McGrath teaches at a secular university so the implication is that there is no religious bias from his quarter. Moreover, what “historians” say about the HJ [=historical Jesus] is not liked by most religious (liberal and conservative Christian) people. Did not claim to be God; he was a rabbi, faith healer, followers thought he was messiah and he expected kingdom to come in his time but he was wrong — so Christians don’t like this Jesus.

Mocking denigration of mythicists skipped here.

[M] Jesus was believed to fit typologies in Jewish scriptures so these were used to depict Jesus — but not so with pagan dying and rising gods like Osiris.

[M] Docetists were not mythicists because they admitted there was a Jesus in history.

[M] Gospel of Matthew uses the Moses typology with the birth of Jesus and his final commission to disciples from the mountain. These sorts of infancy stories (supernatural) were common in ancient biographies. So these are not an indication that Jesus was myth. read more »

Questions for Professor McGrath re Those Proofs

I trust I have set out Professor McGrath’s proofs for the historical existence of Jesus fairly and accurately in my previous post. Since the Professor has declined to engage in discussion with me I wonder if any interested readers would like to raise the following questions with him and alert us here of his responses.

Paul says Jesus was of the seed of David according to the flesh — thus indicating he believed him to be historical. Here Paul is talking specifically about “the Davidic anointed one” and referring to a “kingly figure” and the “expectation that the kingship would be restored to the dynasty of David”. That expectation meant that the messiah would be made the king, not crucified. So crucifixion was almost automatic disqualification from being the Davidic messiah.

“So if you’re inventing a religion from scratch and trying to convince Jews that this figure is the Davidical anointed one, then you don’t invent that he was crucified.”

If Jesus was crucified then is it not equally unlikely that the early disciples would have come to interpret him as having been the Davidic Messiah? Yet they obviously did interpret Jesus this way despite his crucifixion. So how can we explain a historical crucified man being interpreted as having been the Davidic Messiah? Is not your argument invalidated by the very fact that the early Christians chose to interpret a crucified one as the Davidic Messiah? read more »

Proofs that Jesus Did Exist (by Professor McGrath)

Professor James McGrath explains in the Talk Gnosis video interview what he believes is “the case for the historical Jesus”.

Interestingly the interviewers open the program by assuring viewers that the interview with McGrath will provide loads of fun. To be discussed is a “fun topic” and “a super fun topic”. The point is to explain whether or not “there is a good reason to believe that Jesus actually existed”.

The prime interviewer opens by asking McGrath if the reason most scholars don’t believe Jesus is a myth is because they might think there are good reasons for thinking he is historical. Makes sense.

McGrath “personally” thinks a good case can be made for the historicity of Jesus.

Point one: When a mythicist apologist gets up and says that there is not as much evidence for Jesus as for an emperor who minted coins and fought battles then serious historians are not surprised.

Point two: Historians don’t bother discussing improbable miracles. What many mythicists lack is a detailed acquaintance with the New Testament texts and the rationalist (i.e. don’t believe in miracles) perspective that historians bring to them. Most mythicists are familiar with the Jesus they have been brought up with — i.e. that Jesus is God incarnate, etc. And so most mythicists are as shocked as conservative Christians are when you explain to them that Jesus as we meet him in the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Luke is “not that sort of figure”. He is a human being in those gospels though people believed he carried out cures etc — just like other people in that day and even today who are believed to have those abilities.

So Jesus being believed to have these powers is just like other people also believed to have these powers whom we do think are historical.

McGrath says mythicism is not a taboo topic but an outdated one. Casey and Ehrman took the time to look at recent claims and still found it to be unpersuasive. McGrath has “long wanted there to be some serious well-argued cases for this so it would give us something to discuss”. Scholars as part of their job description want things to discuss so if they don’t discuss mythicism it is because they think they’ll be hurting their own credibility if they do.

Next question: What are the reasons scholars believe there was a historical Jesus? Specifically, what are the reasons the crucifixion leads us to believe there was an HJ?

McGrath: No one would say that Socrates did not exist if the earliest evidence for Socrates came from a disciple of his. So it is bizarre to discount the evidence of early “Christians” for Jesus.

Paul says he met the “brother of Jesus (sic)”

Paul says Jesus was of the seed of David according to the flesh — thus indicating he believed him to be historical. Here Paul is talking specifically about “the Davidic anointed one” and referring to a “kingly figure” and the “expectation that the kingship would be restored to the dynasty of David”. That expectation meant that the messiah would be made the king, not crucified. So crucifixion was almost automatic disqualification from being the Davidic messiah.

“So if you’re inventing a religion from scratch and trying to convince Jews that this figure is the Davidical anointed one, then you don’t invent that he was crucified.”

Tony Sylvia (interviewer) adds that if you are inventing a story and wanted people to believe it you don’t include all the embarrassing things that don’t further your point. And crucifixion doesn’t help the early Christians’ case at all.

McGrath: It doesn’t give them the kind of figure they are claiming.

Mythicists often credulously swallow what historians find problematic. Example: mythicists often claim Jesus was based upon Old Testament prophecies as their fulfilment. It seems to McGrath that these mythicists have only heard this claim from Christian apologists or the NT authors themselves and that they haven’t actually looked carefully at these texts. In fact most of the scriptures are not prophecies at all and the few he seems to fulfil he doesn’t really (unless one forces the interpretation) so — if you’re inventing someone who fulfils the prophecies, you invent one who fulfils the prophecies. (Jesus doesn’t fit this bill.)

When we see the evangelists trying to link Jesus’ life with texts that don’t really fit him at all, then we have a situation where they have a real figure and they are struggling to make him fit — they can’t just make up anything about his life that they wanted to. read more »