Monthly Archives: April 2012

Historical Jesus Scholars Should Do What Biologists Do in the Creation/Evolution Debate

In my time traveling through the mire of debating Creationists (both occasionally IRL and on the series of tubes) one of the questions I get from them is “What is the best evidence for evolution?”. Before I even considered myself a Bayesian, I started to realize that this was a trick question, especially after Creationists would attempt to refute that “best evidence”.

On my website about the evidence for the theory of evolution, I list a bunch of evidence and then their explanation in an evolutionary framework. In a Bayesian sense, all of this evidence increases the probability of evolution, since their absence would decrease the probability of the theory of evolution. And that’s the point; the best argument for evolution is that there is so much evidence accumulated together for evolution. Which is the Bayesian answer.

Historical Jesus scholars should follow the same reasoning when dealing with mythicism. There is no “best argument” for the historical Jesus. The best argument should be a cumulative Bayesian one, meaning that the best argument for the historical Jesus is (or should be) that there is so much evidence for the historical Jesus. That’s certainly what I would do, and that is certainly what Richard Carrier will do in his forthcoming book about the historical Jesus (though he will be arguing the negative for Jesus’ historicity).

For example, Bart Ehrman, whenever questioned about whether Jesus existed or not, usually falls into the analogous Creationist trap above. He notes the best evidence for why he thinks Jesus existed which is essentially using the criterion of embarrassment. This fails for two reasons: One, like I wrote above, any “best argument” has the possibility of being wrong which if it is, then this gives the opposition the opportunity to claim victory. And two, even if that logic weren’t the case, criteriology can never uncover “evidence”. A criterion of embarrassment is an interpretation of evidence, not the evidence itself. The only way that Ehrman’s argument could be foolproof, and admitted into the evidence bin, is if it were formulated like this:

P1: All people in antiquity didn’t invent dogma that was embarrassing
P2: All Jews in antiquity were embarrassed by a crucified messiah
P3: Jesus was crucified
C: Therefore, Jesus was not invented

This argument is only as strong as its weakest premise. Do we know that all people in antiquity didn’t invent embarrassing details of their religions? Do we know that the Jews were Borg-like entity with one monolithic thing that they were embarrassed by? The same failure happens when scholars appeal to Paul meeting James the brother of the lord as a “slam dunk” argument. There are no slam dunk arguments; the only “slam dunk” should be the accumulation of evidence.

Usually, though, when dealing with Creationists, I lay out all of the evidence and then ask them to explain it using their Creationist framework (e.g. how do you explain both Endogenous Retroviruses and Ring Species using one framework?). More importantly, I ask them what is the least likely type of evidence we would expect to see given Creationism. That is the principle of falsifiability, explained using Bayesian conditional probability terminology. Historical Jesus scholars should do the same, instead of listing hypothetical documents that aren’t in evidence; they can’t be in evidence because they’re hypothetical (if you have to appeal to a hypothetical document to support your hypothesis, this makes your initial hypothesis less likely).

For example, under a mythicist framework, when talking about the original language that a pericope is written in, the least likely evidence would be… absolutely nothing. There’s no restriction on the language that a pericope would originally be written in. This means that there is no language that is the most or least probable given mythicism, making mythicism unfalsifiable when it comes to language evidence. Which is a strike against mythicism. That should be the strategy that historical Jesus scholars engage in when dealing with mythicism. On the other hand, given that Jesus was such a charismatic preacher that that was why his followers revered him and exalted him to the right hand of god after death, what is the least likely evidence we would see? The least likely evidence would be the absolutely zero quotes of his so-called charismatic preaching in any NT writings until around the time of Marcion and Justin Martyr; a full 100 years after Jesus was supposed to have lived**. If you didn’t read any gospels and only the epistles written in the first 100 years of the Christian religion, the last thing you would come away with was how much Jesus’ teachings influenced the new religion.

So as of right now I’m extremely disappointed in the way that historical Jesus scholars have been arguing against mythicism. They need to think more rigorously and scientifically, using actual logical reasoning instead of faulty criteriology and waving around invisible — hypothetical — documents. What I’m seeing is the same sort of reaction that Christian apologists have when trying to defend the truth of their god’s existence or the resurrection; being well read but not knowing anything about formal logic or even probability theory to ensure that they’re not promoting logical fallacies. Maybe the whole enterprise is inherently apologetic in nature, as Hector Avalos argues in The End of Biblical Studies.

** Of course, I’m excluding the four gospels because no one seems to be aware of their Jesus-the-teacher content until Marcion and Justin Martyr


The "Aramaic Therefore Jesus" Fallacy

I’ve encountered this argument enough in NT studies that I’m really shocked that scholars think that is has so much weight. Simply put, scholars think that just because a saying or pericope in the gospels (like Mark 5.41) has an Aramaic source that this means that it must go back to Jesus himself. Sure, if some saying or episode was originally penned in Greek (like John 3.1-30) then it is pretty much impossible for it to go back to an Aramaic speaking Jesus. But the converse is not necessarily true; an Aramaic saying possibly goes back to Jesus. But just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s probable.

I don’t want to state the obvious, but I have to. The “Aramaic Therefore Jesus” fallacy is literally a logical fallacy. It’s a smaller version of Affirming the consequent:

P1: If Jesus said something, then it was in Aramaic
P2: Something is in Aramaic in the gospels
C: Therefore, Jesus said it

It’s really sad that textbook logical fallacies are being trumpeted as foolproof evidence for the historical Jesus.

The thing is, if NT scholars were thinking like Bayesians, then they wouldn’t fall into this trap. Even though it’s a logical fallacy, it’s not necessarily a fallacy of probability. If we take into account alternative hypotheses for the source of an Aramaic saying or episode, then we might see that the presence of an Aramaic source isn’t strong enough Bayesian evidence to rest a conclusion on. Aramaic could be evidence for a historical Jesus, but Aramaic could also be evidence for a preaching and exorcism performing Cephas (Mark 6.7-13). It’s not like Cephas didn’t speak Aramaic.

Because of all of the other possible sources for Aramaic sayings within the early (Aramaic speaking) Christian community, an Aramaic pericope/saying is very, very, very weak probabilistic evidence for a historical Jesus.

H1 = Jesus said it
H2 = some other early Christian said it
~H = every other explanation

E = Aramaic saying

P(E | H1) = probability of an Aramaic saying given Jesus said it
P(E | H2) = probability of an Aramaic saying given some other early Christian said it
P(E | ~H) = probability of an Aramaic saying given some other explanation

P(~E | H1) = probability of some other language given Jesus said it
P(~E | H2) = probability of some other language given some other early Christian said it
P(~E | ~H) = probability of some other language given some other explanation

Obviously, under the assumption that the historical Jesus only spoke Aramaic, P(~E | H1) has to be zero. This, in turn, means that P(E | H1) has to be 1.00. Next, under the assumption that the majority of some other early Christians only spoke Aramaic, P(~E | H2) would be a bit more than zero, since there probably were early Christians who spoke some other language. So while not as extreme as an Aramaic-only speaking Jesus, it’s still pretty extreme. We would have to know the percentage of how many of the first Christians only spoke Aramaic. Since I don’t know that number, I’ll say that most (c. 90%) spoke only Aramaic. Thus P(E | H2) would be .9. Under some other explanation, there really doesn’t seem to be any constraints on that one. Given a mythical Jesus, there’s no language that would falsify it; sayings could have originated in Aramaic, Greek, Latin, or whatever. Thus P(~E | ~H) seems to be no different than P(E | ~H) so P(E | ~H) I would generously place at .5

There’s another way of going about divvying up the conditional probabilities, and that would be to find the Total Probability. That would just be a frequentist approach of counting up all of the sayings/pericopae in the gospels and seeing how many of those are originally in Aramaic. Whatever percentage that is would be the denominator of Bayes’.

Now that I think about it, not only is the “Aramaic therefore Jesus” fallacy an Affirming the Consequent fallacy, it’s also a Prosecutor’s Fallacy. Two fallacies for the price of one! (Or maybe all Affirming the Consequent fallacies are Prosecutor’s Fallacies?).

So let’s say I was unsure of whether a saying went back to Jesus or went back to some other original apostle (i.e. both are .4 or 40%), with the alternative hypothesis taking up the rest. How much would the presence of Aramaic increase the probability of a historical Jesus?

P(H1 | E) = P(E | H1) * P(H1) / [P(E | H1) * P(H1)] + [P(E | H2) * P(H2)] + [P(E | ~H) * P(~H)]
= 1.00 * .4 / [1.00 * .4] + [.9 * .4] + [.5 * .2]

Going through all of the math, the probability of a historical Jesus given an Aramaic saying/pericope went up from 0.4 to 0.465. But, the probability of some other Aramaic Christian saying it given an Aramaic saying/pericope also went up from 0.4 to 0.417. And the probability of some other explanation (i.e. mythicism) went down from 0.2 to 0.17.

So again, it looks like this is another case of a logical fallacy being weak Bayesian evidence. Obviously looking at it this way, we can see that the problem is differentiating between a saying going back to Jesus and a saying going back to some other early Aramaic speaking Christian. Hell, I didn’t even attempt to factor in an Aramaic saying going back to some non-Christian altogether, I just lumped it under ~H. A difference of .46 and .41 isn’t very strong evidence; certainly not strong enough to put all of your weight behind it, like what certain recent scholars have done.

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Posted by on April 24, 2012 in Bayes


Do Animals Have Morality?

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Posted by on April 22, 2012 in morality


Carrier’s Ehrman Eviceration

I’ve read quite a few critiques of Bart Ehrman’s new book Did Jesus Exist, but Richard Carrier’s is the most brutal:

That Dying-and-Rising God Thing: Case in point. Regarding the claim that Osiris “returned to life on earth by being raised from the dead,” Ehrman insists that in fact “no ancient source says any such thing about Osiris (or about the other gods)” (p. 26). He relies solely on Jonathan Z. Smith, and fails to check whether anything Smith says is even correct. If Ehrman had acted like a real scholar and actually gone to the sources, and read more widely in the scholarship (instead of incompetently reading just one author–the kind of hack mistake we would expect from an incompetent myther), he would have discovered that almost everything Smith claims about this is false. In fact, Plutarch attests that Osiris was believed to have died and been returned to life (literally: he uses the words anabiôsis and paliggenesis, which are very specific on this point, see my discussion in The Empty Tomb, pp. 154-55), and that in the public myths he did indeed return to earth in his resurrected body (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 19.358b).

Although Plutarch does say that in the private teachings Osiris’ death and resurrection took place in outer space (below the orbit of the moon), after which he ascended back to the heights of heaven in his new body (not “the underworld,” as Ehrman incorrectly claims on p. 228), that is irrelevant to the mythicist’s case (or rather, it supports it, by analogy, since this is exactly what competent mythicists like Doherty say was the case for Jesus: public accounts putting the events on earth, but private “true” accounts placing it all in various levels of outer space: see my Review of Doherty). In fact the earliest Christians also believed Jesus was resurrected into outer space: he, like Osiris, ascended to heaven in his resurrection body, appearing to those below in visions, not in person (see my survey of the evidence in The Empty Tomb, pp. 105-232; the same is true of many other dying-and-rising gods, like Hercules). The notion of a risen Jesus walking around on earth is a late invention (first found in the Gospels).

That these kinds of beliefs about Osiris’ death and resurrection long predate Plutarch is established in mainstream scholarship on the cult: e.g. S.G.F. Brandon, The Saviour God: Comparative Studies in the Concept of Salvation (Greenwood 1963), pp. 17-36 and John Griffiths, The Origins of Osiris and His Cult, 2nd ed. (Brill 1980). But we hardly need point that out, because there is already zero chance that the entirety of Isis-Osiris cult had completely transformed its doctrines in imitation of Christianity already by 100 A.D. (I shouldn’t have to explain why such a claim would be all manner of stupid). Ehrman’s claim that Plutarch is making all this up because he is Platonist is likewise nonsense. Ehrman evidently didn’t check the fact that Plutarch’s essay is written to a ranking priestess of the cult, and Plutarch repeatedly says she already knows the things he is conveying and will not find any of it surprising.

So regarding the death and resurrection of Osiris, Ehrman states what is in fact false. And this is most alarming because much of his case against mythicism rests on this false assertion. But worse, Ehrman foolishly eats his foot again by hyperbolically generalizing to all possible gods (he repeatedly insists there are no dying-and-rising gods in the Hellenistic period). Which is really bad, because that proves he did no research on this subject whatever. I shouldn’t have to adduce passages such as, from Plutarch, “[about] Dionysus, Zagreus, Nyctelius, and Isodaetes, they narrate deaths and vanishings, followed by returns to life and resurrections” (Plutarch, On the E at Delphi 9.388f-389a). That looks pretty cut and dried to me. But it’s worse than that. Because for Romulus and Zalmoxis we undeniably have pre-Christian evidence that they actually die (on earth) and are actually raised from the dead (on earth) and physically visit their disciples (on earth). And likewise for Inanna, a clear-cut death-and-resurrection tale exists on clay tablets a thousand years before Christianity (she dies and rises in hell, but departs from and returns to the world above all the same).
I was very alarmed to see that Ehrman never once mentions Romulus or Zalmoxis or Inanna. Thus demonstrating he did no research on this. He didn’t even read my book Not the Impossible Faith, even though he claims to have and even cites it. I know he can’t have actually read it, because I document the evidence, sources, and scholarship on these gods there (pp. 17-20 and 85-128), yet his book shows no awareness of these gods or any of the evidence I present for their resurrection cults. As well as many others, besides those I’ve just here named. (Do not mistake me for supporting false claims in this category, however; Mithras was almost certainly not a dying-and-rising god, and Attis only barely was.)
Even if Ehrman had done any responsible literature review on this, he would have found the latest peer reviewed scholarship establishing, for example, that vanishing bodies as elements of resurrection tales were a ubiquitous component of pagan mythmaking: Richard C. Miller, “Mark’s Empty Tomb and Other Translation Fables in Classical Antiquity,” Journal of Biblical Literature 129.4 (2010): 759-76. And thus a dying-and-rising hero theme was incredibly ubiquitous, even if highly flexible in the different ways this theme could be constructed. To be fair, Ehrman does address Tryggve Mettinger’s work on pre-Hellenistic dying-and-rising gods, dismissing it as questionable but ultimately admitting he might have a case for there being such gods (Ehrman arguing instead, albeit implausibly, that they can’t have influenced Christianity). But Ehrman doesn’t address any of the evidence for these same (much less other) gods in the Hellenistic period, the period actually relevant to Christianity, which proves he did no checking, and isn’t even aware of such evidence, nor even thought it was important for him to be.

Again, Ehrman exposes himself as completely uninformed, and incompetent as a scholar (like any hack, trusting a single biased scholar and not checking any of the evidence or reading any of the other literature), and as consistently misinforming his readers on the actual facts, and thus hiding from them almost everything that actually adds strength to the mythicist thesis. That he does this on a point so central and crucial to his book’s entire argument is alone enough to discredit this book as worthless.

He concludes:

It is for all the reasons documented in this article (which are again just a sample of many other errors of like kind, from false claims, to illogical arguments, to self-contradictions, to misrepresentations of his opponents, to errors of omission), especially this book’s complete failure to interact with even a single complete theory of mythicism (which alone renders the book useless, even were it free of error), that I have no choice but to condemn this thing as being nothing more than a sad murder of electrons and trees.


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Posted by on April 20, 2012 in historical jesus


Good Without God?

A lot of the time theists are shocked that atheists can be good without believing in a god. Or, at least they pretend to be, who knows. They usually ask something like “what’s stopping you from going out and murdering and raping people without believing in god?”. Unfortunately, this argument isn’t an argument against atheism, it’s an argument against theism.

By way of analogy, say you have two kids. For one of your kids, the only reason that he doesn’t take cookies from the cookie jar is due to fear of punishment. The other kid, she doesn’t take cookies from the jar because she knows it will ruin her appetite. In this scenario, which kid is the better kid? Which kid would you want as your own?

In this analogy, the kid who doesn’t take cookies because of fear of reprisal is the theist. And the kid who doesn’t take cookies because she knows it’s bad for her in this context is the atheist. Most parents would want the atheist kid in this scenario, yet somehow in real life the theist kid is the one who gets respect.

Seems exactly backwards to me.

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Posted by on April 17, 2012 in apologetics


Another Reason Why The Base Rate Fallacy Is A Fallacy

So a couple of years ago I had someone use this line of reasoning on me:

“If I had some disease that had a 1 in a million chance of survival and I survived it, it’s not because I was that one in a million, it’s because God did it”

This is the Base Rate Fallacy because even if there is high conditional probability of surviving the disease given god did it, this is ignoring the prior probability of god’s existence which is extremely low.

But ok. What if I didn’t know that the prior probability of god’s existence was low? What if I assumed it was high? If so, why is it still a fallacy? Because of the Total Probability Theorem.

Positing god in this case would skew the Total Probability to be something other than what it is by necessity of the above reasoning (i.e. it has to be 1 in a million for her “logic” to work). So the reasoning above could also be called a Total Probability Fallacy, if it wasn’t already called the Base Rate Fallacy.

Let H be “god did it”. E is the 1 in a million chance of surviving the disease, .0001%. P(E | H), or surviving the disease given god did it, is 100%. So then we have:

P(H | E) = P(E | H) * P(H) / P(E)
= 1.00 * “high” / .000001

Here’s the thing. P(E) can also be represented by including the alternative hypothesis and its conditional probability, P(E | ~H) * P(~H). It then becomes:

P(E) = .000001 = P(E | H) * P(H) + P(E | ~H) * P(~H).
.000001 = 1.00 * “high” + P(E | ~H) * P(~H)

So what is the probability of surviving the disease given some other hypothesis? Like random chance? Isn’t that the same as P(E)?

The only way to get this to work is if P(H), the probability that god was responsible, is so close to zero that it might as well be zero. That is the only way it can all work out so that .000001 = P(E | H) * P(H) + P(E | ~H) * P(H). If P(H) is “high”, then the second term P(E | ~H) * P(~H), or surviving the disease given some other hypothesis, would have to be a literally impossibly low number to compensate, like a negative probability.

If P(H) was equal to P(E) — “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” — then this would necessitate that the second term was equal to zero and not the first, meaning that it would be impossible to survive the disease without god’s intervention… meaning that the actual probability is not 1 in a million like she needed it to be for her logic to work but a much, much, much lower number.

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Posted by on April 14, 2012 in Bayes


My Prediction For The Internet and Religion

My first caveat, obviously, is that I’m not a professional historian. My background is in math and science; I only study religion as an interest of mine though it would be nice if I could do it professionally.

Anyway, I have a prediction about what the Internet will do to religion. This is based on how religions like Christianity and Islam became dominant religions, which is also related to how languages like Latin or English became dominant languages.

As most people know, religions like Islam and Christianity didn’t spread because their arguments were so cogent. They spread because they were the official religion(s) of their particular vast empires. If one wanted to be a full member of those empires, you had to speak the dominant religious language(s). Which is why Christianity spread most successfully to all nations that were originally Latin speaking (i.e. Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, etc.) or were heavily influenced by Roman rule / Latin language (English, German, etc.).

Dominance by way of the sword then began to be conjoined with economic dominance. Hence the spread of English (and thus Christianity) as a dominant world language, and another reason why Islam fell to second place.

We are now in the Information Age. Whatever religion is most associated with “the Internets” and communities therein will eventually become the religion of anyone who wants to participate on the Internet; the “language” of the Internet. What religion is that? I obviously don’t have any numbers for the religion of the most vocal people on the Internet.

But I have a sneaking suspicion it’s atheism.

So my amateur “historian’s” prediction is that the societies most plugged in to the Internet will eventually become the most predominant religion of the people who already engage the most on the Internet. Whoever is the most vocal, the most unapologetic, or what have you will become the voice of the Internet in total, and anyone who wants to participate in the New Empire Of The Internet will have to join their “religion” or be left in the past. And I have a sneaking suspicion that Christianity won’t survive the Information Age.

For example, if someone says “the gospel of Matthew wasn’t written by Matthew” how easy is it to whip out your smartphone and Google that fact? Most sites, like Wikipedia, will of course confirm that fact unless you specifically try to land on an apologetics website. But most apologetics are pathetic, especially on arguments about why the gospels are eyewitness testimony, or why the gospel of Matthew was written by Matthew. Of course most people after this might even go a bit further and read about the Synoptic Problem and might learn a bit about early Christianity.

Just like the Catholic Church of 500 years ago feared the idea of laypeople reading the Bible for themselves (which their fears were, in hindsight, entirely justified since the reading of the Bible for oneself directly led to Protestantism), Protestants now have the same fears about the Internet.


Posted by on April 12, 2012 in economics/sociology

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