Historians and probability

Dice players

Dice players (detail, Georges de La Tour, 17th C.)

Bayesian probability theory is a formal method of reasoning about evidence. Its probabilities are typically subjective and personal measures. They represent either a real person’s felt confidence, or a hypothetical person’s theoretically justified confidence. Please do not be put off by the word subjective. Justified confidence is the foundation of prudent belief, action and behavior.

Richard Carrier is a serious independent scholar and internet celebrity who earned his doctorate in ancient history from Columbia University. He uses Bayesian methods to study history, especially the question of whether Jesus was a real historical person. Carrier professes serene assurance about the objectivity and validity of his Bayesian approach to history (link),

“I don’t think I’ll convince everyone, but the only people who won’t be convinced are people who are irrationally, dogmatically opposed to what I’m arguing.”

This post discusses how well Bayesian methods can resolve historical controversies, in the sense of achieving consensus founded on objective analysis of evidence. Within a community of Bayesians, objectivity and near-unanimity aren’t completely out of reach, but they tend to be elusive except when most people would be convinced whether or not they appeal to Bayes.

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Epiphanius didn’t write about a pre-Christian Jesus

cyprus-mosaic-floor-text

Saint Epiphanius of Salamis (about 315 to 403 CE) was a hard-line defender of orthodox Christianity. Nevertheless, in modern times there is a surprisingly prevalent misreading of his Panarion (29.3), supposedly telling us that Jesus had lived decades before Herod became king,

For with the advent of the Christ, the succession of the princes from Judah, who reigned until the Christ Himself, ceased. The order [of succession] failed and stopped at the time when He was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Alexander, who was of high-priestly and royal race ; and after this Alexander this lot failed, from the times of himself and Salina, who is also called Alexandra, for the times of Herod the King and Augustus Emperor of the Romans ; …

“Alexander” is King Alexander Jannaeus. He died in 76 BCE, about a century before Pilate first took office in Judea. If Epiphanius really taught that Jesus had lived in a different generation than Pilate, then he would flatly contradict his creedal faith which in reality he aggressively championed.

What are the odds of a seasoned apologist making a mistake like that? Jerome and Origen made huge mistakes about what they had read (link and link), but their mistakes reinforced, not denied Christian doctrines.

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St Aspinquid, meet St Tammany

Paul Revere "Obelisk" panel

Paul Revere “Obelisk” panel, 1766; click to enlarge

In the recent Hallowe’en posting (link), the Uncertaintist introduced you to a regional legend of Nova Scotia and Maine, Saint Aspinquid, the “Native American Saint.” He has some attributes of the real Seventeenth Century New England chief Passaconaway. His name might be a variant of another real Seventeenth Century chief’s, Abenquid, about whose life little is known. A lingering question is whether Saint Aspinquid refers to any specific real-life hero or only to an imaginary character.

The prospects for a powerful, pious and real Aspinquid are dim. The earliest extant published mentions of him, in the 1770’s, emerge among English colonists in northern British America just when other English colonists farther south also adopt Native themes in their own public festivities. Conspicuously similar to the peace-preaching religious-minded Aspinquid is the character built upon the Seventeenth Century Lenape (Delaware) chief Tamina, Tamanend or Tammany, who dealt with William Penn.

“Tammany” is a household name today because of the spectacularly corrupt political machine that once ran New York City. How Chief Tammany’s renown took that turn is a good story (told in detail by Edwin Patrick Kilroe’s 1913 Columbia University dissertation, link), but our present concern is to examine how Chief or “King” Tammany became a frankly imaginary “Saint.” The conjecture is that something similar happened to Chief Abenquid-Saint Aspinquid, at about the same time, farther north.

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Whom we remember atop Agamenticus

view from the top

click to enlarge

The middle panel above looks easterly from the highest of the three hills that are Mount Agamenticus in York, Maine. The current signage dates from 2009 when the rock pile in the picture was instituted after an older nearby pile was summarily dismantled, to the displeasure of local Native Americans.

Our subject for this Hallowe’en is the legend told by the left-hand sign, and by its predecessor at the earlier pile that had proposed its own version of the Native hero Aspinquid. The right-hand placard is shown only for the record. It has no predecessor. It scolds about a “leave no trace policy” amid cell towers, a former ski lodge, ample parking, a newly installed semi-paved walking trail, a fire watch tower, a memorial to a deceased fire watchman, picnic tables and bird-watching platforms. There are portable toilets, but not public trash cans. Carry in, carry out, sure enough, but leave no trace? Traces have been left, oh gentle bureaucrats.

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Josephus and Jesus V: Seriously, Origen, how’d you manage to do that?

inverted-jennyIn the previous installment (link), Origen recalled having read in Josephus’ Antiquities that James, the brother of “Jesus called Christ,” was sentenced to death by stoning. However, Origen says that Josephus wrote much more about this James than what’s in our received Antiquities.

Origen’s testimony has been offered in support that the extant Antiquities is faithful to the original; that Josephus reported the actual existence of a close associate of the Christian Jesus in Josephus’ own time and surroundings. That is, Josephus implicitly vouched for a historically real Jesus, possibly based on a reasonable inference about the associate that Josephus could have made from his own lived experience.

The finding of this post is that Josephus did write some things substantially similar with what Origen recalled, in close proximity to Josephus’ mention of James. However, Josephus was discussing other people and events. Origen conflated Josephus’ actual writings with stories about the Christian martyr James the Just. Thus Origen’s faulty memory made a new non-Christian witness to Christian tradition, much as Jerome’s memory brewed up a new Christian miracle by misremembering an incident from Josephus’ War and mixing it with the Gospel passion (link).

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Early dates for GMark, part II: How could Jesus say such a thing?

Lion of Mark

10th Century Lion of Mark

This series (first post here) is about Jesus’ prevision of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple complex, which is found in Mark 13:2,

Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone on another, which will not be thrown down.”

How much support does Mark’s reporting of this statement lend to estimates that Mark’s Gospel was composed after the Romans destroyed those great buildings in 70 CE, rather than sometime before? The question itself is somewhat curious, since Jesus is supposed to have said this in the 30’s.

This post finds that Jesus could easily have said such a thing back then even if he, or whoever first attributed the remark to him, lacked foreknowledge of the disastrous Roman-Jewish War. Jesus wouldn’t necessarily have intended his remark as a personal prediction of a specific near-future (about 40 years) catastrophe. Finally, it isn’t much more or less likely for Mark to have included this remark in his story, depending on whether the Temple was or wasn’t intact when he made his choice.

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