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.
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.
In 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).
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.
Click to enlarge.
Today is the fifteenth anniversary of a beautiful late-summer morning when thousands of people were murdered for no reason. Some victims died in Washington, D.C. and others in a Pennsylvania field, but the enduring iconic images concern the last hours of the mortally wounded Twin Towers in New York City.
To your right is an advertisement that appeared in the New York Times on May 2, 1968. Its purpose was to protest the then-proposed construction of the World Trade Center. The artwork depicts an airliner about to crash high up into what appears to be the northeast face of the North Tower, just where the first impact would occur a generation later.
Although the ad warns about something that eventually really happened, the ad does not foresee the fate of the towers. One of the ad’s backers owned the Empire State Building, into which a plane had crashed in 1945. Concern about airplanes and skyscrapers was based upon memory, not prescience. The ad itself is the opposite of a prediction. It aspires to be self-negating. If the ad had achieved its purpose, then a disaster like what it tells us about could never have happened.
An especially eerie feature of the ad is its headline, a gratuitous play on the colloquial phrase “If the mountain will not come to Mohammed…” Why that unmistakable reference to Islam?
Preaching of the Antichrist by Luca Signorelli ca 1500 (detail, click to enlarge)
An earlier post discussed ancient critics of Christianity who vigorously expressed their doubts about the factual reliability of the Gospels, the character of the Apostles, and the discernment of their Christian audience. We couldn’t find an example, however, of an argument based on the possibility that Jesus never existed.
Some modern apologists would explain that this is because there never was any example. “The argument that Jesus never existed, …was not one that the enemies of Christianity in the ancient world ever used,” James Carleton Paget, a Cambridge academic flatly assured his readers (link).
It turns out, however, that an ancient patristic author wrote that there was a Christian group who taught that the proto-orthodox Jesus was an enchantment devised by a First Century magician. According to this magican’s followers, he was the real historical figure whose words and deeds inspired Christianity, not Jesus. Jesus was a thing of smoke and mirrors, or maybe not even that.