Category Archives: Knowable historical Jesus

When Bart Ehrman pulled an Origen

Postal misprint“[T]here were no effective measures in Pliny’s province to deal with the outbreak of fires, and so villages were burning,” according to Bart Ehrman in his book Did Jesus Exist? (Chapter 2). His source for this ancient catastrophe? Ehrman says that Pliny the Younger discussed the fire problem in “Letter 10” of his correspondence. Ehrman mentions that source by name, “Letter 10,” twice in his telling the story of how Pliny wrote to the Emperor Trajan for permission to establish a fire brigade. In that same letter, Ehrman tells his readers, Pliny also mentioned Christians.

In reality, there is no “Letter 10” in Pliny’s correspondence that deals with fires or that mentions Christians. Nor were villages burning. However, something was spreading through the countryside according to Pliny, something contagious.

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Why Richard Carrier probably won’t win over the guild, part 3

NYT Office scene

The guild knows the beat it covers.

This post concludes the series on the frosty reception of Dr. Richard Carrier’s book On the Historicity of Jesus among biblical studies academics, “the guild.” The series is not a book review of On the Historicity, but rather a sketch of a different Bayesian-style investigation parallel to Carrier’s.

Previous posts (link and link) have refined Carrier’s hypothesis specifications, considered alternatives to his permissible but unappealing choice of an initial belief state, and checked his claim to have weighted evidence systematically to disfavor his own preferred hypothesis. This post looks at some reservations about Carrier’s interpretations of ancient texts. Finally, a brief conventional Bayesian sensitivity analysis of his results sheds some light on the potential to open up the guild to new foundational ideas.

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Why Richard Carrier probably won’t win over the guild, part 2

Chaplin in Modern Times

Bayes isn’t as mechanical as some seem to think.

How confident should a reasonable person be that Jesus was a real person who actually lived? Academic biblical scholars, “the guild,” display little doubt. Dr. Richard Carrier urges a skeptical view in his book, On the Historicity of Jesus.

The first post in this series (link) specified two alternative hypotheses about Christian origins based on Carrier’s work. The next step in a Bayesian-style analysis is to compare the plausibility of the contending hypotheses based on general background information, before examining how more specific evidence about Jesus’ historical or mythical status might change the relative plausibilities.

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Why Richard Carrier probably won’t win over the guild, part 1

Workers lunch on girder

The guild sticks together and never looks down

Was Jesus a real person who actually lived, or is he instead an ancient fictional or mythological character?

Dr. Richard Carrier votes fictional or mythological. Carrier earned a Ph.D in ancient history from Columbia in 2008. Since 2014, his book, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason to Doubt has enjoyed popular success. However, the book was published by a university press (Sheffield Phoenix) specializing in biblical studies. The book was addressed to academics in that field, “the guild” as they style themselves.

Over the years, the Uncertaintist has covered some of the tense interaction between Dr. Carrier and members of the guild (link). We now await his follow-up volume, Jesus from Outer Space: What the Earliest Christians Really Believed about Christ, due out in September. As is obvious from the flippant title, the new book won’t be addressed to the academy. That’s not because the scholarly battle has been won: all but a few guild researchers still premise their work on a Jesus who really lived.

Is that because five or six years is too soon to expect to see widespread change in dominant attitudes? Maybe, but Carrier acknowledges that much of his main thesis resembles that of Earl Doherty, whose writings have been available since the 1990’s (link).

What most clearly distinguished On the Historicity from other “mythical Jesus” works was to frame its argument using Bayesian methods, introduced by Laplace in 1814. Carrier assessed specific probability numbers and ratios to express the weight of evidence and how confidently his conclusions should be held. That idea hasn’t swept the guild by storm, either.

In this short series, the Uncertaintist will look at the historicity question within the framework of a typical “Bayesian” analysis, but adapt the method to the subject matter and forget about numbers. The findings of the series can be summarized by reference to the subtitles of the two Carrier books mentioned. That we might have reason to doubt the existence of a historical Jesus can probably be supported. To convince many others that any specific mythical Jesus hypothesis is what the earliest Christians really believed about Christ probably remains out of reach for now.

This series is not a review of On the Historicity. Bushels of those are already on the web. Here, the book’s premises and outlook will be a point of departure for continuing work, now that Dr Carrier himself seems to have left us for, well, outer space.

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Brothers III: Like Paul

Paul sends a letter

The previous installment (link) concluded that Paul would plausibly have referred to some distinguished fellow apostles as the brothers of the Lord, whether or not there were any kin or former disciples of Jesus for Paul to describe that way. Paul habitually used fraternal language. He often called attention to distinctions among the early apostles. He may have meant that these brothers were former intimates of a historical Jesus, but he may instead have meant they were “like Jesus” in other ways.

Perhaps they were models of good behavior for their followers, or willing victims of persecution, or senior apostles who’d been personally chosen by the risen Jesus. The diverse potential meanings for a phrase typical of Paul’s prose style set a low ceiling on our justifiable confidence that Paul reported meeting an intimate of Jesus (Galatians 1:19) and that he knew of others (1 Corinthians 9:5).

The brothers of the Lord sounds harmonious with “Jesus’ brothers,” but it’s not discordant with other meanings, either. “Bayesian thinking” reminds us to consider how the phrase would sound under other assumptions than what first pops into our heads.

This installment looks at the context of the specific occasions when Paul used the phrase. Both times, he was making an argument, trying to persuade his readers. In Galatians, Paul defends the independence of his preaching from that of the Jerusalem church. In 1 Corinthians, Paul seeks a church-paid stipend comparable with other apostles’ spousal allowance.

Context helps refine our estimate of Paul’s intentions for the brothers of the Lord. In the stipend argument, for Paul to invite comparison with Jesus’ intimates would clash with his rhetorical goals. In contrast, if he meant and was understood to mean non-intimates of Jesus, then positioning himself among prestigious churchmen could harmonize sweetly with those goals.

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Brothers II: Like Jesus

George Polya

The previous installment (link) concluded that Paul’s accepted use of the phrase the brother(s) of the Lord ought not to dispel all uncertainty about the historical existence of Jesus. However, so long as it is possible that the phrase was genuinely Paul’s and that it referred to a relationship among two or more living people, then what scholarship receives as Paul’s writing, if it bears at all, counts in support of a historical Jesus and against hypotheses where he is entirely fictional or mythological.

How strong should that bearing reasonably be? This second post about these brothers is informed by “Bayesian reasoning,” but here fielded without numbers, in a style which incorporates the ideas of George Polya about qualitative plausible thinking and assessment of evidence.

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