2019-05-12

The Questions We Permit Ourselves to Ask

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by Neil Godfrey

In historical research, we evaluate the plausibility of hypotheses that aim to explain the occurrence of a specific event. The explanations we develop for this purpose have to be considered in light of the historical evidence that is available to us. Data functions as evidence that supports or contradicts a hypothesis in two different ways, corresponding to two different questions that need to be answered with regard to a hypothesis:

1. How well does the event fit into the explanation given for its occurrence?

2. How plausible are the basic parameters presupposed by the hypothesis?

. . . . .

[A]lthough this basic structure of historical arguments is so immensely important and its disregard inevitably leads to wrong, or at least insufficiently reasoned, conclusions, it is not a sufficient condition for valid inferences. Historical data does not come with tags attached to it, informing us about (a) how – or whether at all – it relates to one of the two categories we have mentioned and (b) how much plausibility it contributes to the overall picture. The historian will never be replaced by the mathematician.23

23 This becomes painfully clear when one considers that one of the few adaptations of Bayes’s theorem in biblical studies, namely Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2014), aims to demonstrate that Jesus was not a historical figure.

Heilig, Christoph. 2015. Hidden Criticism?: The Methodology and Plausibility of the Search for a Counter-Imperial Subtext in Paul. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. pp. 26f

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28 Comments

  • 2019-05-13 03:18:36 GMT+0000 - 03:18 | Permalink

    This seems important, but I don’t understand what his critique of Carrier is. Can someone illustrate the point with an example?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-05-13 04:59:26 GMT+0000 - 04:59 | Permalink

      He writes that a sound argument that can be represented by Bayesian symbols is not “sufficient” to establish the historicity of an event.

      But he gives no examples of any historical event that cannot be established as having happened and for which a Bayesian argument cannot be set out. I suspect it would prove impossible. Unless he just assumes that certain things were historical happenings — e.g. King Agamemnon led a Greek army to lay a ten year siege of Troy or that Rome was ruled by seven kings from its founding — even though we have no way of determining these ancient accounts are anything but legend and myth. See Finley for our limitations on knowing what was historical in ancient times: https://vridar.org/2017/10/31/an-ancient-historian-on-historical-jesus-studies-and-on-ancient-sources-generally/ Finley’s and other historians’ methods are all able to be represented in Bayesian form.

      Quite simply, Heilig avoids facing the question of the historicity of Jesus by asserting that sound reasoning that can be represented by Bayesian symbols cannot establish what surely we know was historical. He gives no example to demonstrate that there is any event or person who was clearly and definitely historical that cannot be established as such by Bayesian reasoning. I don’t see how there can be any such examples. I have covered many grey area examples of ancient history and demonstrated the basics of how we can have confidence, more or less, in their historicity.

      Interesting that a comment that takes Carrier down is considered “important” even though it is not understood!

      • Christoph Heilig
        2019-05-13 09:11:34 GMT+0000 - 09:11 | Permalink

        I don’t think you understood me correctly here – not sure whether it was due to the prior probability of a biased reading on your side or because of the likelihood of your interpretation in right of my bad way of expressing myself in English ;). In that section I was defending a Bayesian approach to doing history with regard to people who’d say: “well, but I can’t do a precise calculation here.” My point was: true, but Bayes’s theorem can still be applied. And yes, just because somebody uses fancy numbers doesn’t mean his or her argument is valid. In other words: one can understand Bayes but still be a lousy historian. So what I wanted to avoid here is that people don’t take my approach seriously because they know that a guy had done something similar with the historicity of Jesus and in the process of doing so produced a rather strange work. My comment is not a critique of Carrier. It presupposes that his argument is bad (i.e. his general approach is fine but his assessment of the evidence is just horrible at so many points that it doesn’t help his conclusion that he updates his prior constantly) and it points out that this doesn’t have to mean that all Bayesian historical accounts are bad. So if you are reading this as an interaction with Carrier, it’s certainly disappointing. It was not meant that way, however. This just leaves us with the question of whether I should have discusses his thesis on Jesus in my book on Paul. 🙂 And I still don’t think so.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2019-05-13 09:29:10 GMT+0000 - 09:29 | Permalink

          I took your sentence “[A]lthough this basic structure of historical arguments is so immensely important and its disregard inevitably leads to wrong, or at least insufficiently reasoned, conclusions, it is not a sufficient condition for valid inferences” as the basis of my interpretation. But if I understand your correction now, you are saying that someone can make gratuitous estimations of probability so that the structure itself loses its point.

          If that is the case then I thank you for your corrective explanation.

          Given that Carrier argues a fortiori I think there is certainly room to disagree that his “assessment of the evidence is just horrible”. Even one or two specific examples would have helped give that assertion some teeth. An example even now would be appreciated.

          (It should be noted, by the way, that this blog has posted many times criticisms of Carrier’s arguments in OHJ and we expect to post more in the future. As for your own view of the larger value of Bayesian reasoning in historical reasoning we have also posted on your views at https://vridar.org/2019/04/06/how-to-do-and-not-do-history-by-historians-biblical-and-non-biblical/ )

        • Neil Godfrey
          2019-05-13 09:33:16 GMT+0000 - 09:33 | Permalink

          P.S.

          In short, if your criticism of Carrier boils down to “garbage in — garbage out”, surely that applies to any style of reasoning (even syllogisms). I initially assumed you were suggesting something more substantial as a criticism.

          If you were simply saying that a sloppy or invalid use of Bayes then perhaps a more outrageous example would have been one of those well-known claims to prove the historicity of the physical resurrection or existence of God through Bayes.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2019-05-13 21:07:13 GMT+0000 - 21:07 | Permalink

          You wrote, “The historian will never be replaced by the mathematician.” Surely Carrier is a historian whether or not we agree with his analysis and discussion of the data. And it is surely as a historian that he presents his case. So if your difficulty is with the numbers Carrier fed into his equation then I don’t understand what appear to be your objections to the application of Bayes’ theorem to the hypothesis of whether a historical Jesus is the best explanation for the data we have when you write:

          1. How well does the event fit into the explanation given for its occurrence?
          2. How plausible are the basic parameters presupposed by the hypothesis?

          Further, if I understand your point here you have said that you have difficulty with the way Carrier regularly updates his prior — again that confuses me or I am misunderstanding your point, because isn’t the constant updating the whole point of Bayesian reasoning?

          Sorry, but the more I have reflected on your reply the more unclear I am about what you have wrote in the book. Perhaps, as you said, there is some confusion over the English expressions.

          But I myself fully acknowledge the value of Bayes, and I also find some strong drawbacks in some sections of Carrier’s book and I certainly cannot bring myself to like him as a person (though I try to keep those feelings out of my analysis of his work), but I do not understand — if I understand you correctly — how the problem can be with Carrier’s “numerical values” he uses given that he generally offers two values, one being as strongly in favour of historicity as possible, in order to argue a fortiori.

          Just one example of what you see as a “bad” argument to clarify your meaning would help. Thanks.

          • Christoph Heilig
            2019-05-14 21:28:08 GMT+0000 - 21:28 | Permalink

            Ah … now I see where the misunderstanding comes from!
            I usually don’t engage in these discussions on the internet but since here something I wrote caused some confusion I think I at least owe you a short clarification. (As you’ve certainly noticed, English is not my mother-tongue, so I wouldn’t be surprised if my writing is open to misinterpretation to some extent.)
            When writing the whole section, I did not have Carrier in my mind as a potential opponent. I was pre-emptively dealing with some objections I anticipated from some of my colleagues – objections I had already encountered when presenting earlier stages of my assessment. I had noticed a certain defensive attitude towards my argument, which was in part entirely understandable to me. For every once and a while, someone in our discipline comes along and introduces a new “method” from another discipline, claiming that it will – finally – result in objective interpretation and that all other scholars have to follow him or her, with this approach being outdated the next year or so (e.g. Greimas’s structural analysis of stories). To those colleagues I wanted to say: ‘Don’t reject my proposal because you assume it makes such an assumption. I am not claiming that traditional historical work is wholly subjective and thus worthless and that it now has to replaced by an objective calculus. Familiarity with historical sources, their languages, and contexts, will always remain necessary, even if one adopts a Bayesian approach.’ So when speaking of “the historian” and “the mathematician” I was simply referring to our roles as scholars: we would not be just sitting their with our calculators, we’d still have to do detailed historical work in order for our calculations to work. (Plus, I don’t think that it makes sense to use actual numbers so often, but that’s another matter that I discussed elsewhere.)

            I then adduced Carrier in a footnote because I was afraid that somebody might have taken a look at his work, disliked it, and might now think that he or she also had to reject my approach. To them I wanted to signal that I do not think that Carrier’s argument is compelling at all and that his adaptation of Bayes’s theorem should not be taken as an indicator of what could and couldn’t be done with Bayesian reasoning.

            By the way, of course it is entirely appropriate to use Bayesian reasoning to ask questions about the historicity of a certain figure – be that Moses, David, Jesus, Paul, Homer, Brutus, etc. To the contrary: my most basic claim defended towards my colleagues was that as soon as you say things like “evidence X confirms hypothesis Y, which is thus the most probable explanation,” etc. you automatically have to follow Bayes’s theorem in updating your subjective beliefs, whether you do so intentionally or not.

            I should probably not made the comment on Carrier’s “horrible” analysis, because I completely understand that this automatically causes the wish for further elaboration, something I have consciously not offered so far in my writing. I will mention, but not discuss in detail, a single example that everybody who’s interested in the matter can look at for him- or herself. Carrier translates Ἰάκωβον τὸν ἀδελφὸν τοῦ κυρίου as “a certain ‘brother James.’” To say that this wording might actually “favor” the myth-hypothesis must be very surprising to anybody who has a working knowledge of Greek and knows the texts in question. (Again, it’s not that I would not “permit” the hypothesis to be considered – discussions about the identity of people with the same names in antiquity are common, also among biblical scholars, btw.) It is in any case completely beyond me how anybody who’s familiar with Bayes’s theorem might come up with the likelihoods he suggests. There is absolutely no other context, in which Bayesian reasoning is used, where anybody would be willing to use a data set of 2 (!) items to give a likelihood without specifying the uncertainty. If Carrier actually wanted to use actual numbers, fine. Just go through the early Christian literature and see how often the phrase is used for physical relatives on the one hand and believers on the other – and how often other formulations are used for both concepts! It’s just completely wrong to make any claim about how “expected” a certain word choice for a given meaning is if alternative lexical realisations of that meaning are not even taken into account. To say: “So my most sceptical estimate is that this is just what we’d expect on mythicism (for Paul to occasionally, and in contexts most demanding it, refers to other Christians as ‘brothers of the Lord’).” How often Paul used this phrase or not for other Christians unfortunately does not tell one at all whether you’d “expect” this wording if the author wanted to refer to other/another Christian/s. That’s just not how we estimate likelihoods. Period. I don’t know what else to say about that. It’s demonstrably wrong and I actually still can’t really believe that Carrier is serious about that. Plus, the whole discussion of course displays astonishing ignorance concerning the secondary literature – Carrier even seems to assume that since/if James of 1:19 is the same as the one in chapter 2, he must be the brother of the apostle John (who, of course, had been executed in 44 CE), etc. There’s just so much wrong in this short discussion, such a disregard for Greek syntax and semantics, relevant secondary literature, even very foundational historical information that can be found in every encyclopaedia, and of course an utter misunderstand of how likelihoods are to be determined that I don’t think the work deserved to be taken seriously at all. In any case, I didn’t feel comfortable that what I was trying to establish – paying attention to Bayes’s theorem – might have been discredited among some of my colleagues, who by any chance might have come across Carrier’s strange meanderings.
            Ok, now I’ve probably already said more than I wanted. I hope I at least clarified what I meant in my book. The rest is for others to discuss. 😉

            • 2019-05-14 23:53:03 GMT+0000 - 23:53 | Permalink

              To be fair to Carrier, in terms of his educational background, he is not a New Testament expert, but rather has a PhD in ancient history where his thesis/area of focus was on the history of science in antiquity, so there is really no reason he would be aware of the kind of methodological issues you bring up. I wouldn’t bother engaging him, though. As Ehrman points out, for whatever criticism you give Carrier, he, apparently by reflex, immediately produces a response that is twice as long as the critique, often with derogatory language.

              • Neil Godfrey
                2019-05-15 00:37:09 GMT+0000 - 00:37 | Permalink

                Carrier responds intemperately to those who clearly misrepresent, along with insulting innuendo at best, what he writes. I don’t excuse Carrier for his responses in kind and more, but it should not be overlooked that the fault is not all one-sided. (Look at the criticisms of McGrath and Gullotta and it is blindingly obvious to anyone who read Carrier’s book that those critics totally misrepresent Carrier’s core arguments and method.) But if we want to be fair then we will also note that Carrier responds in a perfectly scholarly tone and manner to those who offer their criticisms the same way. His online debates also show him as a responsible professional in his exchanges. So let’s be fair and informed in our criticisms.

                As for responding at length, is that really a fault? That sounds like thoroughness and intent to clarify to me. One does have to wonder about a scholar who complains about the length of an argument as if that is somehow a negative.

            • Sili
              2019-05-15 05:37:19 GMT+0000 - 05:37 | Permalink

              “[James] the brother of the apostle John (who, of course, had been executed in 44 CE)”

              Isn’t the source of that datum Acts?

              • Sili
                2019-05-15 18:59:38 GMT+0000 - 18:59 | Permalink

                And of course James, son of Zebedee is a Marcan invention.

            • Neil Godfrey
              2019-05-15 10:44:12 GMT+0000 - 10:44 | Permalink

              I usually don’t engage in these discussions on the internet

              Welcome to the democratization of information and knowledge sharing, along with the opportunity to contribute specialist skills and insights.

              When writing the whole section, I did not have Carrier in my mind as a potential opponent. I was pre-emptively dealing with some objections I anticipated from some of my colleagues – objections I had already encountered when presenting earlier stages of my assessment. I had noticed a certain defensive attitude towards my argument, which was in part entirely understandable to me. For every once and a while, someone in our discipline comes along and introduces a new “method” from another discipline, claiming that it will – finally – result in objective interpretation and that all other scholars have to follow him or her, with this approach being outdated the next year or so (e.g. Greimas’s structural analysis of stories).

              Understood. In one sense, though, and I suspect you would agree, Bayesian reasoning is not really a “new method” at all but rather a symbolic representation of valid reasoning processes at their best.

              By the way, of course it is entirely appropriate to use Bayesian reasoning to ask questions about the historicity of a certain figure – be that Moses, David, Jesus, Paul, Homer, Brutus, etc. To the contrary: my most basic claim defended towards my colleagues was that as soon as you say things like “evidence X confirms hypothesis Y, which is thus the most probable explanation,” etc. you automatically have to follow Bayes’s theorem in updating your subjective beliefs, whether you do so intentionally or not

              Appreciate that clarification.

              Carrier translates Ἰάκωβον τὸν ἀδελφὸν τοῦ κυρίου as “a certain ‘brother James.’”

              Carrier uses that phrase, “a certain ‘brother James'”, twice, on pages 589 and 590, but he does not present it as his translation of the Greek.

              To say that this wording might actually “favor” the myth-hypothesis must be very surprising to anybody who has a working knowledge of Greek and knows the texts in question.

              Carrier does not argue that the Greek expression Ἰάκωβον τὸν ἀδελφὸν τοῦ κυρίου itself favours mythicism. If I am mistaken someone can point to the passage that corrects me.

              (Please understand, too, that I am not a knee-jerk defender of Carrier’s arguments. I find several serious shortcomings in his book, and I do disagree with his argument in relation to Galatians 1:19 and the significance of James being called the brother of the Lord. I think his reasoning is specious, here. But not for the reasons that it appears you fault him.)

              (Again, it’s not that I would not “permit” the hypothesis to be considered – discussions about the identity of people with the same names in antiquity are common, also among biblical scholars, btw.) It is in any case completely beyond me how anybody who’s familiar with Bayes’s theorem might come up with the likelihoods he suggests. There is absolutely no other context, in which Bayesian reasoning is used, where anybody would be willing to use a data set of 2 (!) items to give a likelihood without specifying the uncertainty. If Carrier actually wanted to use actual numbers, fine.

              Just go through the early Christian literature and see how often the phrase is used for physical relatives on the one hand and believers on the other – and how often other formulations are used for both concepts!

              This is not in dispute. But unless I have misread Carrier I think it sidesteps his actual argument (which, on other grounds I find flawed.)

              It’s just completely wrong to make any claim about how “expected” a certain word choice for a given meaning is if alternative lexical realisations of that meaning are not even taken into account.

              Again, having had another quick look at Carrier’s argument here I don’t believe he claims the actual “word choice” or phrase itself is the grounds for his argument about its significance. (Carrier does address other Greek phrases found in Paul to support his argument, by the way.)

              To say: “So my most sceptical estimate is that this is just what we’d expect on mythicism (for Paul to occasionally, and in contexts most demanding it, refers to other Christians as ‘brothers of the Lord’).” How often Paul used this phrase or not for other Christians unfortunately does not tell one at all whether you’d “expect” this wording if the author wanted to refer to other/another Christian/s.

              That’s just not how we estimate likelihoods. Period. I don’t know what else to say about that. It’s demonstrably wrong and I actually still can’t really believe that Carrier is serious about that.

              I may be mistaken but it appears to me that your view of Carrier’s argument is limited to his final paragraph which he begins:

              So the question at hand is how likely it is that Paul would use the phrase ‘brothers of the Lord’ on the two occasions he does . . . . (p. 591)

              But the context of the preceding argument (587ff) is clearly about far more than the simple wording or translation of the prhase “brother of the Lord”.

              (I think that if Paul really knew and met in the circumstances described in Galatians a “James brother of the Lord/Jesus” then we have many serious questions and problems facing a good amount of the rest of the early Christian records. The problems and questions multiply. We also need to consider the very real evidence for the late appearance of this expression into Galatians in a post-Marcionite world. Further details at Thinking through the “James, the brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians 1:19 and Reply to James McGrath’s Criticism of Bayes’s Theorem in the Jesus Mythicism Debate — the latter in particular also zeroes in on a supporter of Bayes in history — but more Bayesian yet,
              Putting James the Brother of the Lord to a Bayesian Test)

              Plus, the whole discussion of course displays astonishing ignorance concerning the secondary literature –

              I think “astonishing” might be a bit strong, yes, especially given the secondary literature that is cited. (Not that the point is relevant to this particular question, but I’d be interested is someone could give me a short bibliography of the secondary literature that argues that the James in the second chapter of Galatians is not the same James as in the first chapter. I’d like to know who the authors are.)

              Carrier even seems to assume that since/if James of 1:19 is the same as the one in chapter 2, he must be the brother of the apostle John (who, of course, had been executed in 44 CE), etc.

              I think you have misread Carrier here. Carrier certainly does not assume James is the brother of John. Carrier writes, contrary to the view that he assumes the James is the brother of John,

              The Gospels imagine these three as disciples, not the family of Jesus. In fact, the Gospels uniformly report that this James and John were the brothers of each other, not of Jesus.97 Might Paul have only known them as such, too?

              Certainly in Gal. 1.19 Paul meant either James the Pillar or another James. And if he meant James the Pillar, then he did not mean he was literally the brother of Jesus—as that James appears to have been the brother of John, not Jesus.

              97. Mk 5.37; 9.2; 14.33; Mt. 17.1; Lk. 5.10; 8.51; 9.28; Acts 12.2. Paul himself mentions a James in only two places: here in Paul’s defense to the Gal. (1.19; 2.9; 2.12) and in 1 Cor. 15.7 (although that verse may be an interpolation: see earlier note). The latter does not indicate the brother of Jesus is meant, yet neither would one expect that James to be the Pillar, either, as James the Pillar would have been among ‘the twelve’ in 1 Cor. 15.5.

              (p. 588)

              Continuing with your comment:

              There’s just so much wrong in this short discussion, such a disregard for Greek syntax and semantics,

              On re-reading Carrier’s argument against your criticism I don’t see where you have established that he has disregarded “Greek syntax and semantics”. As mentioned above, I think your impression of Carrier’s argument has missed the key flow of his reasons set out to make his case.

              relevant secondary literature,

              Do you mean that Carrier fails to acknowledge the view that Paul is speaking about two different Jameses in chapters 1 and 2?

              even very foundational historical information that can be found in every encyclopaedia,

              Again, as mentioned above, I think your criticism actually sidesteps the details and respective points of Carrier’s argument.

              and of course an utter misunderstand of how likelihoods are to be determined

              “Utter misunderstanding”? You have surely read the entire book so I do not understand why you make a statement like this that appears to be informed solely on the basis of a few points in its second last paragraph. (Your statement that Carrier “translated” the Greek in a certain way is simply not borne out by a reading of these pages in OHJ.)

              that I don’t think the work deserved to be taken seriously at all.

              What surprises me most here is that you have failed to mention that Carrier in fact concludes for a fortiori purposes that his entire argument is unpersuasive (and I agree that it is, but not for the same reasons you present) and that he concludes that the phrase in Galatians 1:19 supports historicity. He says historicity must be considered twice as likely as a mythicist interpretation of this passage and I would disagree again and say it is probably more like ten times more likely at least.

              In any case, I didn’t feel comfortable that what I was trying to establish – paying attention to Bayes’s theorem – might have been discredited among some of my colleagues, who by any chance might have come across Carrier’s strange meanderings.

              I think your criticism of Carrier’s treatment of this one point as if it is representative of the entire book and all its arguments appeals most to your peers who have a very cynical view of Carrier to begin with. To that extent your point, I am sure, is well targeted.

              Ok, now I’ve probably already said more than I wanted. I hope I at least clarified what I meant in my book. The rest is for others to discuss.

              I do now accept that my initial understanding of your point was wrong and I thank you for the clarification. (I would have preferred, though, that your criticism of Carrier — and there is much to criticize in Carrier’s OHJ — was based on a more legitimate reading of the details of his argument. And I say that as one who rejects Carrier’s argument, but I think my criticism is more justified because I base it on an assessment of the details and each step of his assertions.)

              • Christoph Heilig
                2019-05-15 12:21:46 GMT+0000 - 12:21 | Permalink

                “Welcome to the democratization of information and knowledge sharing, along with the opportunity to contribute specialist skills and insights.”

                I appreciate that sentiment. (I really do!) I just found that for myself it is too time-consuming to get into these kinds of things and I try to find other opportunities for advancing the same cause. So please accept my apologies that I can’t respond in as much detail to your comment as would actually be necessary. That I spoke of “translation” is also such a case of too less time for this kind of comment. This was not the best way to put it. Let me try to summarise my position as succinctly as I can: you are right, I did not offer evidence on syntax and lexical semantics. In fact, it was my aim not to comment on the evidence itself at all because if I did I would actually have to offer quite a bit of details and that’s just too time-consuming (frustrating statement, I know). But let me just say that if you look at the relevant passages in modern grammars of Koine, you’ll notice that Carrier does not do justice to the article, nor does he actually get the nature of the exceptive clause. He doesn’t even seem to have understood the issue in the secondary literature (i.e. what is confusing and what is not). But I don’t want to go into more detail concerning the lack of interaction with secondary literature. What I meant is something like this statement: “Certainly in Gal. 1.19 Paul meant either James the Pillar or another James. And if he meant James the Pillar, then he did not mean he was literally the brother of Jesus—as that James appears to have been the brother of John, not Jesus.” The idea that James the Pillar might be James, the brother of John (i.e. son of Zebedee), is something that isn’t discussed in commentaries for the reason of the wide consensus, that this James had already died at that point in time. (For a good overview over some of the relevant issues concerning James, I’d suggest you consult Bockmuehl’s “James, Israel and Antioch”.) If a student of mine wrote a sentence like the one I’ve just quoted, I’d have the suspicion that he or she has failed to understand the secondary literature on the subject. In other words: you just can’t write on the possibility that one of possibly two James is the brother of John without there also discussing the consensus view that he had already died at that point in time. But that’s just a very minor and random observation on Carrier’s interaction with the secondary literature – even though it’s the kind of problematic interaction that I would not accept from a student. But again: not substantial at all compared to Carrier’s much deeper problem (see below). It might be the main reason why many of my colleagues don’t think his work can be taken seriously – and in consequence that Bayes’s theorem too is of no value for historical studies – and it’s indeed below any standard of a publishable contribution to biblical studies, but it’s not at all the biggest problem I have with Carrier.

                “Understood. In one sense, though, and I suspect you would agree, Bayesian reasoning is not really a ‘new method’ at all but rather a symbolic representation of valid reasoning processes at their best.”

                Absolutely. Perfectly put. But it might have the appearance to others and so I try to emphasise what you say here while also pre-emptively reacting to such a position. Sometimes (!), Bayes’s theorem can also cover invalid reasoning, however. Our brains have difficulties to follow Bayesian lines of thought in real time and in the past I’ve made mistakes in applying the theorem myself in presentations before people with degrees in Maths and they didn’t even notice. So I think it’s great to have Bayes’s theorem in mind when doing research but I think one should be very careful how one incorporates it in the actual written product, in that it can also be a distraction. I think that’s exactly what happened in Carrier’s case. The way he updates the priors is not legitimate because of the way he estimates the likelihoods. But that can easily be overlooked. The danger with reference to Bayes is that whenever someone says “and here’s my likelihood” and “here’s my prior” we are so occupied with thinking about whether the calculation behind that number might be correct that we can miss the fact that the calculation itself might be coherent but simply not leading to the goal in question (see below).

                “Carrier does not argue that the Greek expression Ἰάκωβον τὸν ἀδελφὸν τοῦ κυρίου itself favours mythicism.”

                I was quite deliberate in how I put it, but again it’s possible that the way I expressed myself lent itself to be misunderstood: “To say that this wording might actually “favor” the myth-hypothesis …” I used “might” because he says (as you quote, p. 591): “My own conclusion is that there is at best no difference in probability and at worst a difference favouring myth…” Next page: “I actually think this evidence is twice as likely on mythicism…” For the purpose of my comment I didn’t care about how in the end he factors it in, what I found shocking was even the fact that someone with a basic knowledge of Greek and Bayes might think the favouring might go in this direction. It clearly doesn’t and it not even does so on the basis of Carrier’s own interpretation of the other passages (on this below).
                “Again, having had another quick look at Carrier’s argument here I don’t believe he claims the actual ‘word choice’ or phrase itself is the grounds for his argument about its significance. (Carrier does address other Greek phrases found in Paul to support his argument, by the way.)”

                “I may be mistaken but it appears to me that your view of Carrier’s argument is limited to his final paragraph which he begins: So the question at hand is how likely it is that Paul would use the phrase ‘brothers of the Lord’ on the two occasions he does . . . . (p. 591) But the context of the preceding argument (587ff) is clearly about far more than the simple wording or translation of the phrase “brother of the Lord”.”

                Well, the whole section clearly is about the fact “that twice Paul mentions ‘brothers of the Lord’” (p. 582). So we are dealing here with a piece of evidence – an expression, a genitive construction with two specific nouns – and the question of which of two hypothesis it favours. This classical Bayesian confirmation. I’ve done that for a single word θριαμβεύειν (and it took me a whole monograph). Nothing easier than that. However, all Carrier does is to argue that it was indeed possible to use this expression to refer to fellow Christians without a physical link to a person called Jesus. Now, let me be even clear: even if of the two passages he discusses in detail, the expression would clearly refer to this latter category (which I think is not the case), this doesn’t tell us anything about P (“brother[s] of the lord” I reference to believers in general). That’s also wrong in the blogpost you linked to, by the way (“So how expected is the evidence if our hypothesis were not true? I have to say it is “extremely probable”: that is, 0.99.”). The ratio of attestations of different meanings of one lexeme/phrase doesn’t tell us anything about the likelihood. Or, rather, at best, a single attestation proves that the likelihood can’t be zero. So it tells us something (but it’s never zero anyway because of how language works anyway, so that’s not such a great insight). But it certainly doesn’t tell us how the likelihood-ratio looks like. It’s entirely possible that most occurrences of the phrase “brother of X” means ‘fellow Christian’ and not ‘son of the same mother’ but the likelihood still being clearly in favour of the latter! For example: the verb θριαμβεύειν almost always or always occurs with a specific meaning X. But that doesn’t mean that P (θριαμβεύειν I X) = 1! Rather, I have to look at the concept of X and how it is usually realised lexically. On that basis I might find that the likelihood is more like 0.2 or so because there are other lexical solutions that are more “expected” (such as πομπεύειν εν τω θ. κτλ.). The expression still favours interpretation X because the likelihood of θριαμβεύειν given interpretations Y and Z is even lower because there are many much better ways of expressing that thought (αγειν θ. κατά τινα κτλ.). The fact is: I can’t know unless I look at the frequency of these alternative word choices. If I don’t want to do that, I just can’t comment on the likelihood. It’s outright impossible.

                So in order to determine the two likelihoods Carrier is interested in he would have to ask the two questions:
                (1) How can one refer to fellow believers (“those in Christ,” “those of the faith, etc.”)? And how frequent are these solutions?
                (2) How can one refer to physical relatives (“the other son of mother Mary, etc.”)? And how frequent are these solutions?

                Unless one has done this very hard work, it’s simply impossible to estimate likelihoods. Everything else is fundamentally mistaken. So I actually don’t care whether in the end – after examinations of the different ways to say ‘believer’ and ‘physical relative’ – the ratio of likelihood turns out to be 2:1, 1:2, 10:1 (as you suggest) or 1000:1 (which seems much more realistic to me on the basis of my reading of ancient Greek texts). The basic problem is that it’s logically impossible to come up with an estimation of the likelihood on the basis of the evidence that Carrier discusses. That’s the kind of problem that I mentioned above that might come from relying too much on Bayes, i.e. trusting that it will guide us to the right result: if we make a mistake in applying the different factors, the whole things just blows up. That happens, to be sure. In fact, Carrier’s mistake is one my students like to make when they are asked to apply Bayes’s theorem for the first time. It’s not a big deal. But it shouldn’t be published and it can’t be taken seriously as a scholarly argument in my opinion.

                Ok, I hope this helps a bit. Please understand that I can’t comment on this any further due to lack of time. It’s not a cheap excuse. I do feel bad about it because I like the way you approach these issues. If my comment is still unclear to you, perhaps you might profit from taking a look at “Paul’s Triumph.” There you can see a demonstration of how a likelihood can be estimated (though I refrain from using numbers even in this well-studied example) and what Carrier would have had to do in order to come up with his estimations in my opinion.

              • Neil Godfrey
                2019-05-16 06:58:10 GMT+0000 - 06:58 | Permalink

                Let me try to summarise my position as succinctly as I can: you are right, I did not offer evidence on syntax and lexical semantics. In fact, it was my aim not to comment on the evidence itself at all because if I did I would actually have to offer quite a bit of details and that’s just too time-consuming (frustrating statement, I know). But let me just say that if you look at the relevant passages in modern grammars of Koine, you’ll notice that Carrier does not do justice to the article, nor does he actually get the nature of the exceptive clause. He doesn’t even seem to have understood the issue in the secondary literature (i.e. what is confusing and what is not). But I don’t want to go into more detail concerning the lack of interaction with secondary literature.

                I think it is better to leave such sweeping assertions unsaid unless you can demonstrate their relevance to the specifics of what Carrier wrote. Otherwise we are just reading blanket dismissal without any supporting evidence — and to readers who have read Carrier’s argument the sweeping assertion appears to entirely miss the argument.

                What I meant is something like this statement: “Certainly in Gal. 1.19 Paul meant either James the Pillar or another James. And if he meant James the Pillar, then he did not mean he was literally the brother of Jesus—as that James appears to have been the brother of John, not Jesus.” The idea that James the Pillar might be James, the brother of John (i.e. son of Zebedee), is something that isn’t discussed in commentaries for the reason of the wide consensus, that this James had already died at that point in time. (For a good overview over some of the relevant issues concerning James, I’d suggest you consult Bockmuehl’s “James, Israel and Antioch”.) If a student of mine wrote a sentence like the one I’ve just quoted, I’d have the suspicion that he or she has failed to understand the secondary literature on the subject. In other words: you just can’t write on the possibility that one of possibly two James is the brother of John without there also discussing the consensus view that he had already died at that point in time. But that’s just a very minor and random observation on Carrier’s interaction with the secondary literature – even though it’s the kind of problematic interaction that I would not accept from a student.

                Chris, you are surely ripping Carrier’s qualification statement out of context. You have totally disregarded the sentences either side of the one sentence you have addressed and into which you impute thoughts that are contrary to the clearly stated context. In the previous sentences Carrier makes it clear that he does not believe the James in Gal.1:19 is the brother of John — I even quoted that section in my previous comment.

                Your point is not at all “very minor and random” but a quite false claim about Carrier’s view and argument, having taken one sentence out of context and imputed to it a meaning that is contrary to what Carrier is explaining!

                But again: not substantial at all compared to Carrier’s much deeper problem (see below). It might be the main reason why many of my colleagues don’t think his work can be taken seriously –

                I am beginning to see evidence in your comments that the reason you do not take Carrier’s arguments seriously is because you have not read or addressed them. Simply taking a few words of one section completely out of context to give them a meaning contrary to what Carrier has clearly stated in that very context does leave me wondering why you bothered to mention Carrier at all.

                and in consequence that Bayes’s theorem too is of no value for historical studies – and it’s indeed below any standard of a publishable contribution to biblical studies, but it’s not at all the biggest problem I have with Carrier.

                If you are basing this assertion on a sentence taken out of context and impute to it a meaning that contradicts Carrier’s clear argument in the sentences either side, then your justification for your assertion is invalid.

                I think that’s exactly what happened in Carrier’s case. The way he updates the priors is not legitimate because of the way he estimates the likelihoods.

                I have yet to see you give a fallacious example of his estimation of likelihoods. A sentence taken out of context and made to mean the opposite of what the context makes clear he is arguing is not a valid example.

                But that can easily be overlooked. The danger with reference to Bayes is that whenever someone says “and here’s my likelihood” and “here’s my prior” we are so occupied with thinking about whether the calculation behind that number might be correct that we can miss the fact that the calculation itself might be coherent but simply not leading to the goal in question (see below).

                Again, how much have you read of OHJ? Surely it is clear that Carrier does not fall into this “sin” of focusing on numbers and overlooking the real point. He explains quite clearly how the same reasoning can be done without numbers at all. And again, you have entirely overlooked the key point in Carrier’s argument on this particular point — that Carrier accepts that Galatians 1:19 and James the brother of the Lord must be used as SUPPORT FOR HISTORICITY! So your complaint about him botching the argument by being totally lost in numbers falls by the wayside. He concedes that his argument to the contrary may not be persuasive!

                “Carrier does not argue that the Greek expression Ἰάκωβον τὸν ἀδελφὸν τοῦ κυρίου itself favours mythicism.”

                what I found shocking was even the fact that someone with a basic knowledge of Greek and Bayes might think the favouring might go in this direction.

                Again, you have simply ignored Carrier’s arguments and focussed on something Carrier does not use as the basis of his argument, the Greek expression itself.

                It clearly doesn’t

                But you have not addressed his reasons for suggesting the contrary. You completely ignored them on the previous pages and addressed on section that you misread and claimed Carrier used in a way that he does not.

                So in order to determine the two likelihoods Carrier is interested in he would have to ask the two questions:
                (1) How can one refer to fellow believers (“those in Christ,” “those of the faith, etc.”)? And how frequent are these solutions?
                (2) How can one refer to physical relatives (“the other son of mother Mary, etc.”)? And how frequent are these solutions?

                and

                The basic problem is that it’s logically impossible to come up with an estimation of the likelihood on the basis of the evidence that Carrier discusses.

                And Carrier accepts that on these grounds that Galatians 1:19 should be used to argue FOR the historicity of Jesus.

                I might be mistaken here, but I think you are implying that because ‘brother of the Lord’ in Galatians 1:19 refers to a physical sibling of Jesus (I agree, and accept your odds of 1000:1 in favour of that being so) that that somehow puts to rest the question of the existence of Jesus. You appear to be overlooking other evidence and problems raised as a result of this passage in Galatians as addressed in the other posts I linked. But those are going beyond Carrier’s argument.

                Am I right in thinking that this is the only section of Carrier’s book you have read, and that only partially?

                Ok, I hope this helps a bit. Please understand that I can’t comment on this any further due to lack of time. It’s not a cheap excuse. I do feel bad about it because I like the way you approach these issues. If my comment is still unclear to you, perhaps you might profit from taking a look at “Paul’s Triumph.” There you can see a demonstration of how a likelihood can be estimated (though I refrain from using numbers even in this well-studied example) and what Carrier would have had to do in order to come up with his estimations in my opinion.

                I cannot help but suspect that your lack of time has extended to inability to do anything more with Carrier’s book than look for a few passages to take out of context and misrepresent.

                You wrote in your first comment,

                his [=Carrier’s] general approach is fine but his assessment of the evidence is just horrible at so many points that it doesn’t help his conclusion

                But taking a passage out of context and imputing to it a meaning contrary to the context is “just horrible” assessment of Carrier’s argument, and failing to mention that Carrier actually factors “James, the brother of the Lord” passage as SUPPORT FOR HISTORICITY fails to treat his argument with due professionalism.

              • 2019-05-16 00:36:20 GMT+0000 - 00:36 | Permalink

                Heilig further clarified his critique of Carrier on Religion Prof, Heilig wrote:

                -“It’s even worse. The way Carrier derives his numbers are even explicitly forbidden by Bayes’s theorem. It has been a long time that I’ve watched WLC, but as I remember it he was at least clear what kind of prior he presupposed and where he was getting his estimations from. One can debate whether there is much value in mapping out why one believes a certain thing (and why one thinks that people who share certain assumptions also should do so), but it’s not formally wrong. Carrier is just wrong. Apparently, he hasn’t understood how Bayesian confirmation works. So this is not an example of the limited use of Bayes’s theorem for historical research, it’s just an example of an outstanding misuse of the theorem. If I say a calculator helps me doing calculations but I then type in a number and claim it’s the result of a calculation process, that’s not the fault of the calculator! Ok, but I said elsewhere I wouldn’t comment on this again… so I won’t. Really. Now I am serious. :D”

              • Neil Godfrey
                2019-05-16 07:05:32 GMT+0000 - 07:05 | Permalink

                Oh John, you never tire of bashing Carrier with bullshit, do you. Read my comments and read Carrier’s book for yourself against Heilig’s criticism. Heilig bizarrely mispresents Carrier’s actual argument. He rips a sentence out of context and imputes it to say the very opposite of what Carrier is arguing and then uses that to claim Carrier is proposing likelihoods that are forbidden by Bayes’s theorem. That’s total bullshit but I can depend on you to repeat it as if it is a valid fact. Anything to bash Carrier.

                Heilig also conveniently overlooks the fact that Carrier concedes that his own arguments — arguments that Heilig does NOT address, substituting instead concocted fabrications — is not plausible for many and THEREFORE HE (CARRIER) CONCEDES THAT GAL 1:19 SHOULD BE USED TO FAVOUR THE ARGUMENT FOR HISTORICITY!

                Do try to get something right, John.

                There is plenty to critique in Carrier’s book. There is no need to be so lazy and dishonest as to resort to bullshit. Do try to do a little better than the Religion Prof.

              • 2019-11-13 15:44:12 GMT+0000 - 15:44 | Permalink

                To add to this:

                Hebrews 2:
                11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers, 12 saying,
                “I will proclaim your name to my brothers in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”
                13 And again,
                “I will put my trust in him.”
                And again,
                “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.”
                14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.

                This all, of course, comes from OT scripture…

              • db
                2019-11-13 22:30:15 GMT+0000 - 22:30 | Permalink

                Fahrig, Stephen David (2014). “The Context of the Text: Reading Hebrews as a Eucharistic Homily” (PDF). semanticscholar.org. Dissertation: Boston College.

                When viewed through this Eucharistic lens, both the overall rhetorical strategy of Hebrews and the meaning of several key passages attain a clarity and a coherence that other traditional interpretive approaches have not been able to accomplish. —(p. 271)

            • db
              2019-11-12 17:55:43 GMT+0000 - 17:55 | Permalink

              Carrier’s response:

              Comment by Richard Carrier—11 November 2019—per “Kamil Gregor on the Historicity of Jesus”. Richard Carrier Blogs. 31 October 2019.

              If Carrier actually wanted to use actual numbers, fine. Just go through the early Christian literature and see how often the phrase is used for physical relatives on the one hand and believers on the other…

              That’s not correct procedure. Context changes meaning. All language is contextual. How one author uses words differs from another, and how words get used in different periods of church history will differ, and the contexts words are used likewise confers different meanings.

              So the base rate has to be discerned from like contexts: which I demonstrate are (a) a writer (Paul) who only ever mentions being brothers of Jesus in a spiritual sense (the baptized are the “adopted” sons of God and thus “the firstborn of many brethren”) and never shows any need to distinguish this from being biological brothers of Jesus (a linguistically unlikely behavior, unless there was no distinction needing to be made–and thus only the spiritual kind of brother ever meant) and (b) contexts where Paul is distinguishing apostles from lower ranking Christians (the only contexts in which he ever uses his complete phrase “brother of the Lord”). Otherwise, Paul almost always uses “brother” fictively, and always because the referenced persons are the adopted sons of God (which entails they are brothers of the Lord, who, as Paul says, was likewise adopted as the son of God). And Paul only ever uses “Brother of the Lord” twice, without making any distinction from his usual practice.

              This actually makes a biological meaning statistically unlikely. But at best can make it no more likely. So even at best it’s a wash. We cannot tell what kind of brother he means here. We therefore cannot use it to argue anything.

              It would be wholly invalid to use other contexts for one’s base rate here (e.g. writers a hundred years after Paul, i.e. “the early Christian literature”). Whereas it is valid to use all the above contextual information in Paul.

              …the brother of the apostle John (who, of course, had been executed in 44 CE)

              This is based on relying on the chronology of Acts which is wildly inaccurate in light of the letters of Paul. It’s therefore a useless datum. And one need not interpret the pillar as the same James as the brother of John. Since the grammar of Paul in Galatians 1:19 entails the James there referenced is not an apostle, it cannot be the same James as in Galatians 2, who is a “pillar” and thus definitely an apostle (he is one of the apostles Paul is saying he never met until the second Jerusalem visit; as until then, he says, he only met one, Peter). So it doesn’t matter who that second James is. It’s not the first James regardless.

            • Neil Godfrey
              2019-11-12 22:56:17 GMT+0000 - 22:56 | Permalink

              If Carrier actually wanted to use actual numbers, fine. Just go through the early Christian literature and see how often the phrase is used for physical relatives on the one hand and believers on the other – and how often other formulations are used for both concepts!

              Tim addressed this method in three posts — see especially the video on Part 1:

              What’s the Difference Between Frequentism and Bayesianism? (Part 1)
              What’s the Difference Between Frequentism and Bayesianism? (Part 2)
              What’s the Difference Between Frequentism and Bayesianism? (Part 3)

              — Frequentist and Bayesian analysis examine different things.

          • Christoph Heilig
            2019-05-16 08:51:59 GMT+0000 - 08:51 | Permalink

            Perhaps I should indeed stick to writing books not blog post comments since I am apparently not able to communicate effectively in that context.
            “Chris, you are surely ripping Carrier’s qualification statement out of context. You have totally disregarded the sentences either side of the one sentence you have addressed and into which you impute thoughts that are contrary to the clearly stated context. In the previous sentences Carrier makes it clear that he does not believe the James in Gal.1:19 is the brother of John — I even quoted that section in my previous comment.”
            I know what he says. My point was that if someone writes the conditional clause “if he meant James the Pillar, then he did not mean he was literally the brother of Jesus—as that James appears to have been the brother of John, not Jesus,” he demonstrates that he hasn’t read or is not willing to engage with the relevant literature on the subject. I am sorry for apparently implying something about Carrier’s actual position that I never intended to do.
            “If you are basing this assertion on a sentence taken out of context and impute to it a meaning that contradicts Carrier’s clear argument in the sentences either side, then your justification for your assertion is invalid.”

            I wholeheartedly agree.

            “I have yet to see you give a fallacious example of his estimation of likelihoods. A sentence taken out of context and made to mean the opposite of what the context makes clear he is arguing is not a valid example.”

            Is it possible that this is because yourself have a mistaken view of how likelihoods work?
            I appreciate the more systematic manner in which you try to apply to theorem to the data here: https://vridar.org/2012/04/22/putting-james-the-brother-of-the-lord-to-a-bayesian-test/. Still, it’s definitely not correct what you are doing.

            “Again, how much have you read of OHJ? Surely it is clear that Carrier does not fall into this “sin” of focusing on numbers and overlooking the real point. He explains quite clearly how the same reasoning can be done without numbers at all.”

            Oh, he does again and again. For example, he concludes on Acts that there is at best a likelihood-factor of 0.72 for historicity and it worst 0.2. He then writes: “Conversely, nothing in Acts is unexpected on minimal mythicism, as on that account anything historicizing in it is a mythical invention of Luke’s …, while the omissions and vanishing acts would be inevitable result of there being no historical Jesus.” Here, he’s using “normal” language to say that nothing of that evidence is “unexpected” within the framework of his hypothesis. That’s fine (even though I’d strongly disagree on the individual points). Then he continues: “So the same consequent probabilities on -h can be treated as all 100% across the board.” He adds a footnote, saying that even if not, that doesn’t matter, since the ratio will always be the same. Now, this is surely an absurd claim. I’ve never seen any scholar who works on historical matters using Bayes, who dared to say that P (EIH) = 1! Whether or not some evidence can be “explained” by a hypothesis and whether it is thus “expectable” doesn’t tell us anything about the likelihood. Surely, there are many different ways of writing fiction about Jesus, so even if Luke’s version is the most probable one, it’s still just one among very many possibilities. Again, using θριαμβεύειν in order to refer to the Roman triumph is not “unexpected” in light of the fact that (almost) all its occurrences are used in that way. So a reference to the Roman triumph would “explain” the word choice. But – no – it still doesn’t tell us anything about the likelihoods. Carrier gets that wrong. At almost every point. I used the James example simply because it’s very clear because we are here dealing with a tiny little piece of evidence and not so many assumptions influence the decision (such as how “reliable” Acts is anyway, etc.).

            “And again, you have entirely overlooked the key point in Carrier’s argument on this particular point — that Carrier accepts that Galatians 1:19 and James the brother of the Lord must be used as SUPPORT FOR HISTORICITY! So your complaint about him botching the argument by being totally lost in numbers falls by the wayside. He concedes that his argument to the contrary may not be persuasive!”

            You don’t have to yell at me. I never said anything else. My point was that even to entertain the thought that perhaps “there is at best no difference in probability and at worst a difference favouring myth” shows that Carrier has clearly not understood how Bayes’s theorem works at all., I don’t care how he incorporates it in the end into his final calculation, what he graciously “admits.” The fact alone that he is able to write such a sentence shows that he has not understood the very basics of Bayesian confirmation. I know this sounds harsh, and if I see how your reactions to my comments have evolved I can see that you are increasingly getting frustrated with me. I’m sorry for that because I see that you also are really interested in the matter – and frustrated with people who just attack Carrier ad hominem. I didn’t want to do that. I just don’t want to interact with him because I am convinced that his argument is deeply flawed beyond redemption.
            Let me try to explain with reference to your blogpost, which does a really nice job in translating Bayes into terminology understandable to people not familiar with probability theory. You correctly “translate” the likelihood-factor into the following task: “The next value we need to enter is one to indicate how expected the evidence is if the explanation is true.” Now, what’s the hypothesis and what’s the evidence? You write: “So the explanation, or hypothesis, that I decide to test is: That James, whom Paul meets according to this letter, was a sibling of Jesus. That’s my initial explanation for this verse, or in particular this phrase, ‘James the brother of the Lord’, being there.”
            So the situation looks like that: we might have some prior convictions concerning whether in antiquity there existed a person called James (a strange way of rendering the Greek name, by the way, we Germans are much more faithful to the original here ). That includes extra-biblical evidence (ossuary, etc.), evidence from Acts, potential writings by such a person, etc. Then we come to Paul and we encounter the phrase “James the brother of the Lord” (well, it’s a Greek phrase, but we’ll just keep the translation for a moment). So the question is, how this “new” evidence influences the value of our priors, which might differ a lot, to be sure. I don’t want to talk about how the posteriors look in the end and whether Paul’s mention of James actually settles the case. I am not interested in that at all. I just want to look at which hypothesis the evidence favours and how it is doing that – because I believe both you and Carrier are wrong on that.

            Let’s look at how you determine the two relevant likelihoods:
            “Well, if our hypothesis were true, yes, we would expect someone who met James to inform readers of his letter that the James he met was indeed the brother of Jesus if that’s what “Lord” refers to. (And certainly Jesus is called “Lord” very often elsewhere. So is God, but Jesus is too.) So to that extent the evidence is just what we would expect.“

            Good observation. Of course, whether it’s really expected or not will depend to some degree on whether at that point in time there actually were two persons called James in Jerusalem, i.e. it’s only then something we would expect an author to necessarily do if there is reason for confusion (and even then authors sometimes fail to clarify). So I guess you might be a little too optimistic here on behalf of the physical-brother-hypothesis.

            “Against this, however, is the problem that if our hypothesis were true — that James, a leader of the church, really was a sibling of Jesus — we would expect to find supporting claims to this effect in the contemporary or near contemporary literature.”

            Well, this is an aspect that influences the prior (i.e. updates an earlier prior to the posterior which becomes the new prior). So it’s a fine comment but has nothing to do with determining the likelihood in question here, to be sure. That applies to all the aspects you list in red. Now, don’t get me wrong: these are important aspects to be considered. They might have an immense effect on how the priors of the two competing hypotheses looks like. But if we turn to Gal 1:19 as evidence and what to decide, which one is the best “explanation for this verse, or in particular this phrase, ‘James the brother of the Lord’” we can’t of course take it into account at this stage.
            So your conclusion that “we can assign a probability of 0.05 to the expectedness of the evidence that we do have given our hypothesis is true” now actually presupposes that the evidence in question is not what you said in the beginning, i.e. you take an earlier prior in order to show how low the likelihood is. In my opinion, it’s better to focus on tiny bits of evidence and do many rounds of confirmation. Of course it’s possible to take the whole bunch of evidence at once but then you have to be very clear about what the “new” evidence is that is taken into account and what is part of the prior. So in my opinion, if you set out to explain Gal 1:19, you should incorporate all the red evidence you mention as background knowledge into the prior under the heading “So the first value I need to enter is ‘How typical the explanation is’.” In fact, I even believe you have to do so because you use the Gospels’ talk about siblings of Jesus as background knowledge for the prior but then you re-address the same material for the likelihood. That’s confusing it best. Better to concentrate on Gal 1:19, and use the rest for the prior (or write a blog post series in which you incorporate all that background knowledge successively into an original agnostic prior). Again, I am not interested in the posterior here so I’ll just agree with your assessment of all that other evidence. So I think it might be fine to say:
            “The prior of the person called ‘James’ in Gal 1:19 being intended to be understood as a physical relative of a person called ‘Jesus’ is 0.05.”
            So what’s the likelihood P (“brother of Jesus” I Hypothesis physical relative)? You seem to imply that it is close to 1. From my experience with actual data analysis on similar questions, it’s more like 0.1 or so, i.e. there are just too many factors that might influence an author in not using this phrase even if he or she wanted to make such a reference. Also, there are of course other ways for saying the same thing, such as “brother of Jesus,” “brother of the Messiah,” “the other son of Mary,” etc.
            Ok, so let’s assume the prior is so bad. This might mean that even a really good likelihood doesn’t change much, granted. But the likelihood of 0.2 is indeed decent and what we are interested in is which hypothesis is favoured – which has after all nothing to do with which hypothesis has the higher posterior.
            Ok, so how does the likelihood compare to the likelihood of the alternative?
            You write: ”How expected is the evidence [i.e., the verse Gal 1:19 and more specifically the phrase “brother of the Lord”] if our hypothesis were not true. That is, how expected is our evidence if James were not literally in real life the brother of Jesus?”
            Well put. Then you continue you: “Given the considerations listed above, I would say that the evidence is just what we would expect if James were not a literal sibling of Jesus.”
            But is it? Apparently you are again thinking of all the evidence that you adduce in red. Again, if you claim to analyse Gal 1:19 as evidence, then this is not allowed and all this has to be used as background knowledge for the prior. So I think what you should have been saying is: “No matter how low the original prior is, all the evidence I’ve adduced above has resulted in an extremely low new prior, with which we now address Gal 1:19.” Alternatively you can, again, of course incorporate all the evidence at once but then please don’t say you are evaluating explanations for Gal 1:19. The reason why I prefer doing it step by step is because it is then clear where the numbers come from. For example: who did you actually incorporate the “brother of the Lord”-reference, the allegedly new evidence that you set out to incorporate? The following statement might work for the evidence as a whole, but certainly not for the “brother of the Lord”-evidence itself: “So how expected is the evidence if our hypothesis were not true? I have to say it is ‘extremely probable’: that is, 0.99.” Of course, Carrier would say that even if you focus on this tiny piece of evidence (as you claim you’d do and as he claims he would do in that section) that’s above right. But he grants that perhaps the likelihood is not 100% but just half as “good” as the alternative likelihood. So if we take the likelihood P (“brother of the Lord” I Physical relative) to be 0.1, the likelihood of P (“brother of the Lord” I Fellow Christian) would be 0.05. It’s difficult to see how you deal with Carrier’s actual assessment because you lump together all the evidence and do not differentiate between different stages of updating (which, again, is fine in principle – but then requires you to specify evidence and explanation differently at the outset). But how does the likelihood really look like?
            My most basic point is this: CARRIER DOES NOT ADDUCE THE EVIDENCE THAT IS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY FOR DETERMINING THE LIKELIHOOD. And neither do you. There’s only one way to find out if you are really interested in statistical values for likelihoods: count how often Paul uses the expression to communicate that thought and count how often he uses other expressions for the same thought. So let’s assume he indeed uses the expression “brother(s) of the Lord” twice in order to communicate the concept of ‘fellow believer.’ Carrier seems to imply that this means the likelihood is high. It doesn’t imply anything of that sort. What we would have to do is to go through the Pauline corpus and watch out for the expressions that Carrier adduces on p. 584 (any many others) in footnote 94. So let’s say Paul refers 100 times in his letters to other Christians and he uses the expression “brother(s) of the lord” twice for that but other options at the 98 other places. That would mean that the likelihood for every individual randomly picked passage would be P (“brother(s) of the Lord” I fellow Christians) = 0.02, i.e. what we would actually expect each and every time Paul makes a reference to such a person is that he uses a different phrase and only in 2% of these cases he will use the phrase “brother(s) of the lord.”
            Of course, all these numbers have nothing to do with reality but are only there for illustrative purpose. I don’t care about the actual numbers. And I care even less about the resulting posteriors. What I care about is that you can only come up with a likelihood if you take a look at these alternative ways of expressing the same thought. And Carrier doesn’t do that and you don’t do that and therefore it’s just not possible for you to speak about likelihoods.
            Now perhaps you might understand why I found it so outrageous that Carrier at least entertains the possibility that Gal 1:19 might favour mysticism (or is at least not far worse than the physical-brother alternative). The fact that he can manage to entertain such a thought implies that he hasn’t understood how likelihoods work. For if he had understood the conceptof likelihood-rations he would have had to think at least for a second: “The expression ‘brother of the Lord’ is a less obvious choice for a physical relative than it is for the concept of a fellow believer.” And he can’t be serious about that, can he? Of course, saying “brother of X” is quite a default solution for referring to a brother. But on the other hand, even if it’s possible to refer like that to a fellow Christian, it’s certainly not the first choice and he himself never claims so. But without this claim you can’t have a likelihood even being close to favouring mysticism. You just can’t.

            “I might be mistaken here, but I think you are implying that because ‘brother of the Lord’ in Galatians 1:19 refers to a physical sibling of Jesus (I agree, and accept your odds of 1000:1 in favour of that being so) that that somehow puts to rest the question of the existence of Jesus. You appear to be overlooking other evidence and problems raised as a result of this passage in Galatians as addressed in the other posts I linked. But those are going beyond Carrier’s argument.
            Am I right in thinking that this is the only section of Carrier’s book you have read, and that only partially?”

            No to all of that. I just picked this example because I think it’s very clear here to show that Carrier doesn’t understand Bayes at all. In fact, as I said, you might be right about the other evidence and about the priors in light of this evidence but if one claims to do another round of updating one has to do it right. Again: perhaps the posterior will still be worse than for mysticism. I don’t care for this purpose. What I care about is that the updating is done in a way that respects the structures of Bayes’s theorem. And this example demonstrates that Carrier doesn’t do that here. It’s the same at many other places, but here it’s quite obvious. Also, it demonstrates that at a very fundamental level Carrier hasn’t understood Bayes. If you still can’t see that I am sorry because, again, it’s a rather fundamental mistake, something that can happen in a blog post perhaps or happens to students when they are first confronted with the task but which is unacceptable in scholarly literature. If you do understand my concern and you go through the book again, you’ll see that Carrier does exactly this mistake over and over again. But apparently you’ve at least so far made the same mistake. At least your blog post did not show awareness of how the language of “explanation” and “expecting” evidence needs to be translated into an empirical assessment.

            • Christoph Heilig
              2019-05-16 09:16:39 GMT+0000 - 09:16 | Permalink

              P.s.: I’d personally evaluate the hypothesis of a gloss in a separate analysis. Again, much will depend on the prior – i.e. how frequent one thinks such glosses are in general and in such situations which this kind of manuscript evidence – but also how probable it is that there was a scribe who felt the necessity to clarify which James was meant and that he was physically related to Jesus. The likelihood for this hypothesis will naturally increase the more specific assumptions we make about the scribe (i.e. we can imagine a scribe who with high probability would render every mention of James into “James, the brother of the Lord”) – which will in turn cause the prior to decrease. Or we can keep the hypothesis more general, which will be good for its prior but would then of course also decrease the likelihood-value (just as Paul had different ways of referring to a potential physical relative, a scrive would also – unless of course we can identify a certain setting where Jesus was always addresses as “Lord,” etc.).

  • MrHorse
    2019-05-13 21:44:03 GMT+0000 - 21:44 | Permalink

    Of course “[t]he historian will never be replaced by the mathematician”, but it would help if probabilities were attributed to some aspects of historical methodology.

    And, of course, assessment of [and commentary on] the evidence should be optimal, as should probability calculations when used.

  • Neil Godfrey
    2019-05-14 10:50:22 GMT+0000 - 10:50 | Permalink

    It’s a funny area because historians don’t generally spend a lot of time trying to decide is some person actually existed or not. Usually they have indisputable reasons for accepting certain persons and actions having existed in the past and the probabilities they are weighing up have to do with reasons, motives, explanations for certain actions and events.

    There are certainly names that do enter the narratives without any clearcut telltale signs to inform us with absolute certainty that they existed (e.g. Hillel) but in such cases the question of historicity is, essentially irrelevant, because what is important and the historical “event” or influence historians are examining is the influence and tradition attributed to Hillel. That’s all we can know and need to know. Again, probabilities about his existence are irrelevant, if not impossible to determine in any way at all.

    Jesus, of course, is quite different for reasons that ultimately have little to do with “purely” historical interest.

  • db
    2019-05-17 00:16:52 GMT+0000 - 00:16 | Permalink

    OP: “Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2014), aims to demonstrate that Jesus was not a historical figure.”

    Per Carrier (25 April 2016). “Bart Ehrman Just Can’t Do Truth or Logic”. Richard Carrier Blogs. “[An error many historians make] is to say “My theory explains the evidence, therefore my theory is true!” They forget to ask if an alternative explanation also explains the same evidence just as well (or even better).”

    • As I understand, Carrier “aims” to compare his minimal historical Jesus definition and his minimal ahistorical Jesus definition. And said comparison is by Bayesian probability.

  • db
    2019-05-17 04:08:19 GMT+0000 - 04:08 | Permalink

    A side note on the reception of Bayes’s theorem:

    • McGrath (23 March 2019). “Bayesian Reasoning Making Inroads in Historical Scholarship?”. Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. McGrath.

    Mark Given writes . . .:

    I only have one major criticism of the book: the use of Bayes’s theorem.
    […]
    Heilig is explicitly clear that he is not claiming Bayes’s theorem is a methodological key that can open the door to assured results regarding the subtext hypothesis. However, implicitly he often argues as if it can, or at least that it can rule out some proposals, and that leads me to my own reflections on “sound historical reasoning.” It must be acknowledged that the vast majority of historians do not employ Bayesian probability theory, and for good reason.

    Cf. Mark D. Given, review of Christoph Heilig, Hidden Criticism? The Methodology and Plausibility of the Search for a Counter-Imperial Subtext in Paul, Review of Biblical Literature (2019).

    • Carrier (6 March 2019). “Hypothesis: Only Those Who Don’t Really Understand Bayesianism Are Against It”. Richard Carrier Blogs. “Godfrey-Smith would be a Bayesian, if ever he correctly understood what Bayesianism was and entailed. And as I have found this to be the case a dozen times over, in fact in every case I have ever examined, I am starting to suspect this is the only reason anyone ever isn’t a Bayesian.”

    • Per later comment by Richard Carrier March 14, 2019:

    “Can we consider Bayes’ to be the deductive structure underneath inductive/abductive reasoning.”

    Yes. That’s spot on, IMO.

    The form is mathematical and not syllogistic (although one could, if one wanted, awkwardly construct a syllogistic form for it, that would be grossly inefficient and unnecessary). But it is still formally deductive (conclusions necessarily follow from the premises).

    Analytically, BT explains what we are doing when we do inductive reasoning. And it explains why the conclusions of inductive reasoning are valid, when they are (and to also be sound, as usual, the premises also have to be known to a reasonably high probability).

    I show this in Ch. 4 of PH where I take several common models of inductive reasoning (like Inference to the Best Explanation and the Hypothetico-Deductive Method) and demonstrate they are actually reductively Bayesian.

  • Bruce Grubb
    2019-05-19 14:19:46 GMT+0000 - 14:19 | Permalink

    One of my major beefs is the inconstancy with which the historical method is used. The best example of this is Sun Tzu. You can hold a translation of his work in your hands, he was written about by a professional historian who noted in his work “I have set down only what is certain, and in doubtful cases left a blank.”, and yet we are not even sure if Sun Tzu even existed.

    More over c 180 Irenaeus’s Against Heresies gives conflicting information on when Jesus lived. In Book III, Chapter 21 Paragraph 3 he states “for our Lord was born about the forty-first year of the reign of Augustus” which would work out to 14 CE and yet earlier in that work (Book II, Chapter 22) when showing how Jesus had to be between the age of 46 and 50 when he was crucified cites Luke (which set Jesus between 26-34 c 28 CE) and John as proof and back this up in Demonstrations (74) which states “For Herod the king of the Jews and Pontius Pilate, the governor of Claudius Caesar, came together and condemned Him to be crucified.” With the exception of Pontius Pilate this would put the crucifixion 42-44 CE – well after Paul’s conversion (no later then 37 CE)

    Yet despite all this Jesus gets effectively a free ride in the ‘he’s historical’ train.

    • db
      2019-05-19 16:47:00 GMT+0000 - 16:47 | Permalink

      Sima Qian trans. Watson, Burton (1958). Ssu-Ma Ch’ien Grand Historian of China. Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-343-25000-3.

      A little further on we find how important it is for the historian to record no more than he knows to be absolutely true. Under Duke Huan, fifth year, we find two days recorded for the death date of Marquis Pao of Ch’en. “Why two death dates?” the Kung-yang asks itself and replies: “The Scholar [i.e., Confucius] was in doubt and so he recorded both days.” Tung Chung-shu, the most important exponent of the Kung-yang school in the early Han, remarks on this: “He copied down what he saw but did not speak about what was unclear.” In this connection we may notice a saying of Confucius recorded in the Analects (XV, 25): “The Master said, ‘Even in my early days a historiographer would leave a blank in his text.’ ” The passage, obscure as it is, has been interpreted to mean that the ancient historians were in the habit of leaving unrecorded anything they were in doubt about, but that this commendable practice was being violated in Confucius′ later years. —(p. 80)

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