Till now I’ve always been more curious than persuaded about Carrier’s application of Bayes’s Theorem to what he calls historical questions, so curiosity led me to purchase his book in which he discusses it all in depth, Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus.
Before I discuss here his preface and opening chapter I should be up front with my reasons for having some reservations about Carrier’s promotion of Bayes’ theorem. (Allow me my preference for Bayes’ over Bayes’s.) I should also say that I’d like to think I am quite prepared to be persuaded that my resistance is a symptom of being too narrow-minded.
My first problem with Carrier’s use of the theorem arises the moment he speaks of it being used to “prove history” or resolve “historical problems”. For me, history is not something to be “proved”. History is a quest for explanations of what we know has happened in the past. Historical problems, to my thinking, are problems having to do with how to interpret and understand what we know has happened in the past. The milestone philosophers of the nature of history — von Ranke, Collingwood, Carr, Elton, White — have certainly spoken about history this way.
I have always understood that where there is insufficient data available then history cannot be done at all. Ancient history, therefore, does not allow for the same sorts of in-depth historical studies as are available to the historian of more recent times. Historical questions are necessarily shaped (or stymied altogether) by the nature and limitations of the available sources.
Criteriology (I take the term from Scot McKnight‘s discussion of the historical methods of biblical scholars in Jesus and His Death) has always looked to me like a fallacious attempt to get around the problem of having insufficient data to yield any substantive answers to questions we would like to ask. We don’t know what happened? Okay, let’s apply various criteria to our texts to see if we can find out what “very probably really did happen”.
Carrier’s introduction of Bayes’ theorem has always appeared to me to be an attempt to salvage some value from a fundamentally flawed approach to “history” — the striving to find enough facts or data with which to begin to do history.
I should add that I do like Carrier’s offering of hope that Bayes’ theorem can promote more rigorous and valid thinking and applications of criteria. But I can’t help but wonder if in the end the exercise is an attempt to patch holes in the Titanic with admittedly very good quality adhesive tape.
What is really accomplished if we find only a 1% probability for the historicity of Jesus? Improbable things really do happen in the world. Otherwise we would never know chance and always be living with certainty. Or maybe I’m overlooking something about Carrier’s argument here.
Not that I’m a nihilist. I do believe we have lots of useful evidence to assist us with the study of Christian origins. I think scholars are agreed that pretty much all of that evidence speaks about a Christ of faith (a literary figure) and not an historical figure. That’s where our historical enquiry must begin — with the evidence we do have. After we analyse it all and frame such questions as this sort of evidence will allow us to ask then we can begin to seek explanations for Christian origins. This will probably mean that we will find answers that do not address the life and personality of someone who is hidden from view. Our understanding will address religious developments, ideas, culture, literature, social developments. We will probably be forced to conclude — as indeed some historians do — that if there is an historical Jesus in there somewhere he is irrelevant to our enquiry.
So that is where I am coming from.
Let’s see if I am being too narrow-minded. Here is my reading of Carrier’s preface and opening chapter.
Carrier informs us from the start that this volume is preparation for his next, On the Historicity of Jesus Christ, in which he will use Bayes’ theorem to test the arguments for the historicity of Jesus. Till then, this book is an exploration of Bayes’ theorem as a method to be applied to historical studies albeit with specific application to the question of the historicity of Jesus.
He makes bold claims. This method is of general applicability, he suggests, for testing “all historical theories of any sort whatever”. I wonder. Is history a series of progressions of movements and forces of various kinds? Or is it after all simply one damn thing after another and without any meaning or even existence apart from the biases and personal meanings through which an historian imposes order on those events?
The aim here is to develop a formal historical method for approaching [historical] debate, which will produce as objectively credible a conclusion as any honest historian can reach. One need merely plug all the evidence into that method to get a result. That’s a bold claim, I know; but the purpose of this book is to convince you . . . All I ask is that you give my argument a fair hearing. (p. 7)
I cannot deny I approach this claim with scepticism. I don’t even consider “Was there an historical Jesus” to be an historical question. No evidence (only evidence for a Christ of faith, as I mentioned above) so no scope for asking the question. The data we have only allows us to seek historical explanations for the origins of Christianity as a social or religious movement. But Carrier has asked for a fair hearing so I’m willing to give him a go.
Carrier lays out his biases — as I have laid out mine here. Quite rightly, as an atheist, he does not need Jesus to be a myth but Christian believers do need Jesus to be historical. I would add some few Christians, for example Albert Schweitzer, have argued for a rebuilding of Christianity upon “a new metaphysic” and not on an historical Jesus at all. I would also suggest that Jesus has an iconic place in our culture that extends beyond religious institutions, and some people (including non-Christians) have staked careers and reputations upon the study of this Jesus. The debate is not entirely between believers on one side and unbelievers on the other.
He points out that both sides of the debate have advanced dubious arguments at times. That’s a reason for his book. To help lay readers and experts evaluate these arguments. Carrier also promises to avoid technical or academic jargon and to attempt to reach wider audiences by means of “a style more attractive and intelligible to ordinary people.”
He gives special thanks to Atheists United for supporting his research.
Chapter 1: The Problem
Carrier begins with the failure of historical Jesus studies to make any advances in reaching agreement upon anything about this Jesus. He cites well known biblical scholars who have conceded the unreliability or invalidity of the criteria that have been used in the most recent “quest for the historical Jesus”: Gerd Theissen, Stanley Porter, Dale Allison.
For Carrier, there are three reasons these criteria have failed to yield progress in the historical quest:
- Specific criteria are invalidly applied
- Specific criteria are invalid
- The “Threshold Problem”: that is, how do we decide if and when a question that passes criteria tests tells us anything more certain than simply that something plausibly may have happened?
It is that third point that Carrier describes as the “fatal flaw” in the “entire methodology” of the use of criteria to investigate the historical Jesus. I agree. But Carrier will argue for a fix to this problem.
Carrier surveys the evidence for the spectacular failure of all attempts of biblical scholars to find “the historical Jesus”. He points to the many scholarly variations of Jesus and says all are very plausible but obviously they cannot all be true. I don’t know if very many are plausible at all when it comes to thinking through how each one ever produced a religion that within a handful of years exalted that person to pre-existent and divine status. But let’s not quibble.
I like setting our handy lists for rainy days, and here is a list Carrier takes in part from Mark Strauss of the various Jesuses that have been argued for recently:
- Jesus the Jewish Cynic Sage
- Jesus the Rabbinical Holy Man
- or Devoted Pharisee
- or Heretical Essene, etc etc etc
- Jesus the Political Revolutionary
- or Zealot Activist
- Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet
- Jesus the Messianic Pretender
- or Actual Messiah
- Jesus the Folk Wizard
- Jesus the Mystic
- Jesus the Nonviolent Social Reformer
- Jesus the Actual Davidic Heir and Founder of a Royal Dynasty
- And more . . . .
Obviously something is fundamentally wrong with the methods of the entire community. . . Indeed, some critics argue the methods now employed in the field succeed no better than divination by Tarot Card reading . . . . (p. 14)
Richard Carrier calls for an end to methods that lead to such chaotic results.
Historians must work together to develop a method that, when applied to the same facts, always gives the same result; a result all historians can agree must be correct (which is to say, the most probable result, as no one imagines certainty is possible, especially in ancient history). (p. 14)
I am not entirely sure I fully understand this. What “facts” are we referring to here? I have not thought of criteria as being “applied to facts” but only to “data” (or “testimonies” or “accounts” or “narratives”) in order to find or conclude what might be a probable fact. My understanding is that historians do have much data and many “facts” (e.g. persons and events well established by means of primary and secondary evidence, independent confirmations of sources that are analysed as being reliable, etc) — even in ancient history — with which to work and seek to understand.
I think Carrier is saying that historians must find an agreed-upon method that will lead them to agree on the “facts” they “find” (by means of criteria) about Jesus himself. Indeed, he appears to confirm this in his conclusion to this chapter when he writes
In this book I will present a new method that solves the problems attending the ‘method of criteria’ so progress can finally be made in the field of Jesus studies. (p. 15)
Fair enough. I guess. My reservations about the possibility of doing any history at all “about Jesus” are yet to be laid aside. Carrier says his method will have applicability beyond Jesus studies. I don’t see that yet. But I promise to give his argument the fair hearing he has asked for.
I personally think historians already have and use valid methods, and we have seen these applied to Old Testament studies by historians such as Thompson and Lemche and others. Why not apply the same methods to the question of Christian origins? Analyse documents for what they are (that is, don’t assume the historical origins of the narratives a priori), seek to explain them by means of external or independent attestations. If such a method leads us to explain Christian origins quite apart from any necessity for an historical Jesus then so be it.
What is missing in Carrier’s early argument is an explanation of what he means exactly by “history”, by “historical method”, by “facts”, by “data”, by “proving history” to help one like me orient my thinking and lay aside some of the uncertainties I have discussed here as I begin to read his book.
But I have seen some good points in other briefer discussions by Carrier on Bayes’ theorem. These include the need for historians to face up to the fact that a narrative about an event is not itself evidence for the event, but only evidence for the existence of a narrative. That’s good. So I’m not closing the door on the usefulness of what Carrier is offering. Let’s see where he can take me with his fuller discussion in the coming chapters.
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