Daily Archives: 2018-07-11 09:44:11 UTC

That one piece of solid evidence that weighs strongly in favour of historicity…..

[A]ll we need for the case for the historicity of Jesus to be solid is some evidence that weighs strongly in favor of his historicity. And we have it, and so in theory, mythicism should simply vanish. But as with all forms of denialism, it will persist regardless of the evidence.

— McGrath, Jesus Mythicism: Two Truths and a Lie

There was some question in the comments of my initial response as to what that solid evidence was that James McGrath had in mind. I responded as if he were addressing Paul’s claim to have met James “the brother of the Lord” — both here and again here.

McGrath has since made it clear:

But the point remains: if we have an authentic letter from someone who met an individual’s brother, and we judge that individual’s historicity probable on that basis, the addition of spurious information does not diminish the likelihood that the letter-writer met the brother of that individual and thus was in a position to know whether they were historical or not. If everything else they learned about that individual was pure fabrication, it would diminish the historical accuracy of their portrait of him, but it would not diminish the likelihood of the individual’s historicity.

I’m not going to repeat the points I have made before about the problems with detail after detail in Carrier’s argument (such as when he treats the common name Joshua/Jesus as though it were a too-convenient name for a savior god – begging the question by casting Jesus as a god and not a human being as Davidic anointed ones were expected to be). Let ms simply conclude by quoting what Carrier says on p.337 of his book that I supposedly have not read: “Obviously, if Jesus Christ had a brother, then Jesus Christ existed.”

— McGrath, Mythicist  Math

That would indeed be strong evidence if in fact Paul did meet “James the brother of the Lord” and it would end any debate over mythicism.

But even Philip R. Davies recognized the evidence is not so simple:

I don’t think, however, that in another 20 years there will be a consensus that Jesus did not exist, or even possibly didn’t exist, but a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability. In the first place, what does it mean to affirm that ‘Jesus existed’, anyway, when so many different Jesuses are displayed for us by the ancient sources and modern NT scholars? Logically, some of these Jesuses cannot have existed. So in asserting historicity, it is necessary to define which ones (rabbi, prophet, sage, shaman, revolutionary leader, etc.) are being affirmed—and thus which ones deemed unhistorical. In fact, as things stand, what is being affirmed as the Jesus of history is a cipher, not a rounded personality (the same is true of the King David of the Hebrew Bible, as a number of recent ‘biographies’ show).

So is it sheer “denialism” that prevents some of us from accepting the “solid evidence” of Paul’s encounter?

There have been attempts to use the full Bayesian formula to evaluate hypotheses about the past, for example, whether miracles happened or not (Earman, 2000, pp. 53–9). Despite Earman’s correct criticism of Hume (1988), both ask the same full Bayesian question: “What is the probability that a certain miracle happened, given the testimonies to that effect and our scientific background knowledge?” But this is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?” The center of research is the explanation of the evidence, not whether or not a literal interpretation of the evidence corresponds with what took place.

Tucker, Our Knowledge of the Past, p. 99

And it goes exactly the same way for the testimony that we read in Galatians 1:19. No, it is not simply dismissing uncomfortable passages as interpolations. It is about exercising responsible historical criticism and testing of the evidence as all sound historical method requires. The alternative is naive apologetics or uncritically furthering tradition. There are indeed reasonable grounds for doubting that that verse was known to anyone before the third century. There are also reasons to doubt that anyone had any idea that James, a brother of the Lord, was indeed a leader of the Jerusalem church until the third century. There are good reasons to suspect the passage was introduced to serve the interests of an emerging “orthodoxy” against certain “heresies”. See the posts in the Brother of the Lord archive for more detail.

 

Analysis of the McGrath and Carrier debate on a Bayesian approach to history

The latest contest started when James McGrath made a mockery of his understanding of Carrier’s mehod: Jesus Mythicism: Two Truths and a Lie

I have run the to and fro posts through a Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) analysis. Here are the interesting results:

VARIABLE MCGRATH 1
Two Truths
(449 words)
CARRIER
Wrong Again
(2485 words)
MCGRATH 2
Mythicist Math
(680 words)
Analytic thinking:
(the degree to which people use words that suggest formal, logical, and hierarchical thinking patterns)
82.22% 32.85% 55.17%
Authenticity:
(when people reveal themselves in an authentic or honest way)
49.57% 34.39% 39.55%
Clout:
(the relative social status, confidence, or leadership that people display through their writing)
38.59% 47.75% 48.82%
Tone:
(the higher the number, the more positive the tone)
92.86% 16.55% 13.75%
Anger: 0.22% 0.56% 0.88%

.

Tone

Unfortunately when one reads McGrath’s Two Truths post one soon sees that his very positive tone (over 92% positive) is in fact an indication of overconfidence with the straw-man take-down.

But but but….. Please, Richard, please, please, please! Don’t fall into McGrath’s trap. Sure he sets up a straw man and says all sorts of fallacious things but he also surely loves it when he riles you. It puts him on the moral high ground (at least with respect to appearances, and in the real world, despite all our wishes it were otherwise, appearances do seriously count).

But see how McGrath then followed with a lower tone — and that’s how it so easily can go in any debate on mythicism with a scholar who has more than an academic interest in the question.

Anger

Ditto for anger.

This variable was measured by the following words:

MCGRATH1 CARRIER MCGRATH2
lying destroyed
argued
argument
liar
arguments
argues
lied
lies
damned
insults
criticized
argument

Clearly a more thorough and serious analysis would need to sort words like “argument” between their hostile and academic uses.

Analytic thinking style

James McGrath began the discussion in a style that conveyed a serious analytical analysis of Carrier’s argument. Of course anyone who has read Carrier’s works knows McGrath’s target was a straw man and not the actual argument Carrier makes at all. (Interestingly when Carrier pointed out that it appeared McGrath had not read his actual arguments McGrath at best made inferences that he had read Carrier’s books but fell short of saying that he had actually read them or any of the pages where Carrier in fact argued the very opposite of what McGrath believed he had.) Nonetheless, McGrath’s opening gambit conveyed a positive approach for anyone unfamiliar with Carrier’s arguments.

But look what happened to McGrath’s analytical style after meeting Carrier’s less analytical style: he followed Carrier’s lead.

Carrier has chosen to write in natural language style which is fine for informal conversation but the first impression of an outsider unfamiliar with Carrier’s arguments would probably be that McGrath was the more serious analyst of the question. (I understand why Carrier writes this way but an overly casual style, I suspect, would appeal more to the friendly converted (who are happy to listen rather than actively share the reasoning process) than an outsider being introduced to the ideas.

In actual fact, Carrier uses far more words that do indeed point to analytic thinking than does McGrath. Carrier uses cognitive process words significantly more frequently than does McGrath (24% to 16%/19%). But his sentences are far less complex and shorter.

Other

There are many other little datasets that a full LIWC analysis reveals. One is a comparative use of the personal singular pronoun. A frequent use of “I” can indicate a self-awareness as one speaks and this can sometimes be a measure of some lack of confidence. Certainly the avoidance of “I” is often a measure of the opposite, of strong confidence and serious engagement in the task at hand. Carrier’s use of I is significantly less than McGrath’s.

Another progression one sees is the use of “he”. As the debate progressed it became increasingly focused on what “he” said: e.g. McGrath1: 0.45%; Carrier 1.65%; McGrath2 2.06%.

McGrath sometimes complains about the length of Carrier’s posts. But more words are linked to cognitive complexity and honesty.

—o—

Of course I could not resist comparing my own side-line contribution:

VARIABLE NEIL
Reply
(1077 words)
Analytic thinking:
(the degree to which people use words that suggest formal, logical, and hierarchical thinking patterns)
86.42%
Authenticity:
(when people reveal themselves in an authentic or honest way)
44.36%
Clout:
(the relative social status, confidence, or leadership that people display through their writing)
56.27%
Tone:
(the higher the number, the more positive the tone)
32.13%
Anger:
(measured by my use of “criticism”, “argument” and “critical”)
0.93%

.


Pennebaker, James W. 2013. The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us. Reprint edition. New York: Bloomsbury Press.