Jesus Process Members Announced

As we work toward having a functioning website up and running in the fall of 2012 I am pleased to announce the charter members of The Jesus Process (TJP). It is likely that this number will be modestly expanded in 2013.

The project has the dual purpose of encouraging the non-parochial and non-theological study of Christian origins, including texts, artifacts, and ideas, and the dissemination of information, through its website, book-series, and other outlets, to professional scholars and others with an interest in its work.

TJP is not a professional society, but a consultation of men and women who feel an academic responsibility to the field of biblical studies generally and the study of early Christianity in its historical and social context particularly.  It advocates rigour, honesty, and methodological transparency in an age increasingly threatened by mere information, opinion-mongering and  web- and media-based sensationalism.

At the same time, its members hope to exploit advances in technology to create a public forum in Christian origins governed by consensus rather than private opinion and ideology.  For that reason, while membership in TJP is limited to those with credentials in the study of religion and closely related fields, including Semitic languages, archaeology, classical philology, and textual studies, its forum will be open to everyone who wishes to participate in a lively and civilized discussion.


Maurice Casey

Maurice Casey is a British scholar of New Testament and early Christianity. He is currently Emeritus Professor at the University of Nottingham, having served there as Professor of New Testament Languages and Literature. Casey has argued strongly in several books and learned articles for Aramaic sources behind the New Testament documents, including the Double Tradition and the Gospel of Mark as well as occasional passages found in the Gospel of Matthew or Luke. He has discussed many examples of these Aramaisms. He has also contributed works on early Christology and the use of the term son of man. His latest publication is Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teachings, (T&T Clark, 2010).  In 2010, he was honoured with a Festschrift, Judaism, Jewish Identities and the Gospel Tradition (ed. J.G.Crossley with a preface by C.K.Barrett. London: Equinox).

R. Joseph Hoffmann

is an American Scholar trained at Harvard and Oxford, a former senior scholar of St Cross College, Oxford, and former research associate in Patristics and classical linguistics at the University of Heidelberg.   Hoffmann has specialized in the development of the New Testament canon, second century Christianity, and the pagan milieu of the early church.  He is professor of historical linguistics and cultural studies at the Graduate University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

Stephanie Louise Fisher

was born in Aotearoa New Zealand in 1965.  She went to the University of Victoria, in Wellington, earning two first class degrees, with an eclectic range of interests including history, anthropology, sociology, classics as well as music. She also worked as a research fellow to Jim Veitch on the history of the Lloyd Geering heresy trial.  She won two scholarships including the Commonwealth scholarship and the overseas research scholarship for research at Sheffield or Nottingham. choosing to work with Professor Maurice Casey from the University of Nottingham. She has been research fellow to Maurice Casey working on his book Jesus of Nazareth and his current book refuting mythicists.  She is now writing up her doctoral thesis on the Double Tradition, and publication may be expected in two or three years’ time.

James Crossley

has been at Sheffield University since 2005 where he is now Professor of Bible, Culture and Politics. He is particularly interested in the role of ‘religion’ as a human phenomenon and its relationship to social, economic and ideological contexts, especially, but not exclusively, how these relate to the critical study of the origins, use and influence of New Testament texts. His research extends from the historical Jesus and the Gospels, early Jewish law and constructions of Judaism to social and economic explanations of Christian origins, social history of contemporary scholarship, reception of the Bible in contemporary politics and popular culture and construction of ‘religion’ and the media.

Justin Meggitt 

is the University Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion and the Origins of Christianity at Cambridge University as well as a Fellow and Director of Studies in Theology and Religious Studies at Hughes Hall. He holds a Ph.D. and specializes in formative Christianity within the early Roman Empire, along with sectarian and utopian movements. His many publications include The Madness of King Jesus. London: IB Tauris (forthcoming 2012). ‘For who hath despised the day of small things?’: Quakers and Muslims in the Seventeenth Century (forthcoming) and Paul, Poverty and Survival. Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1998.

Roger David Aus

was born in the USA in 1940.  He studied English and German at St. Olaf College.  Aus went on to study theology at Harvard Divinity School, Luther Theological Seminary, and Yale University, from which he received his Ph.D. in New Testament Studies in 1971. Ordained in the Lutheran Church, Aus served German-speaking congregations in Berlin for many years. Aus has written several books, beginning with Water into Wine and the Beheading of John the Baptist (Brown Judaic Studies, 150. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988). His most recent book is Feeding the Five Thousand. Studies in the Judaic Background of Mark 6:30-44 par. and John 6:1-15 (Studies in Judaism; Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2010).  Such books have established Aus as a leading authority on the use of Jewish material to understand stories in the Gospels.

Deane Galbraith

has studied at the University of Otago in New Zealand, and is reviews editor for a new journal in reception history, Relegere: Studies in Religion and Reception. His primary research interests are in the development and transformation of myth in the writing of the Pentateuch and ideological bias within modern Pentateuchal scholarship and is currently writing up a doctoral thesis at the University of Otago.

Jim West

is Adjunct Professor of Biblical Studies at the Quartz Hill School of Theology; Adjunct Professor of Biblical Languages and Literature at Foundation University (The Netherlands); and Pastor of Petros Baptist Church, Petros, Tennessee. He has written a number of books and articles and serves as Language Editor for the Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament and Language Revision Editor for the Copenhagen International Seminar.

Philip Davies

is Professor Emeritus at Sheffield University in the UK. He taught in Ghana before he was appointed at Sheffield. He is an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and has written four books on the subject.  His publications include 1QM: The War Scroll from Qumran, Qumran, The Damascus Covenant, Behind the Essenes, In Search of ‘Ancient Israel’ and The Old Testament World, co-authored with John Rogerson.  His research interests are Intertestamental and rabbinic literature and Persian and Hellenistic periods. He is Joint founder with Professor Clines of the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, a Board member of the Supplement Series of monographs, Executive Officer of the European Association of Biblical Studies and Editor of Equinox Publishing.

David Trobisch

was born in Cameroon, West Africa, as the son of missionaries. He grew up in Austria and studied theology in Germany. He taught New Testament at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, Missouri State University, Yale Divinity School, and Bangor Theological Seminary.  As a scholar Dr. David Trobisch is internationally recognized for his work on the Letters of Paul, the Formation of the Christian Bible, and Biblical Manuscripts. He now lives and works in Springfield, Missouri, and Nussloch, Germany.  He has a wide range of affiliations and interests including  working with original manuscripts around the world from Heidelberg (Papyrologisches Institut), Ann Arbor (University of Michigan) to Cambridge, (UK Trinity College), Damascus (Greek Orthodox Patriarchate) and with microfilms at Washington D.C. (Library of Congress), Münster (Institut für neutestamentliche Textforschung). He is also a founding member of Interfaith Maine, an initiative seeking peace and justice through deepening interfaith understanding and relationships.

Bruce Chilton

is Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion at Bard College, and Rector of the Church of St John the Evangelist. He is an expert on the New Testament and early Judaism, and has contributed fifty books and more than a hundred articles to those fields of study. His principal scholarship has been in the understanding of Jesus within Judaism and in the critical study of the Targumim, the Aramaic paraphrases of the Bible. Jesus appears clearly as a rabbinic teacher in Dr. Chilton’s analysis, on the basis of his study of the Targum of Isaiah, which he has edited and translated in the first commentary ever written on that book. Dr. Chilton has earned degrees at Bard College, the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church, and Cambridge University. Previous to his chair at Bard College, he held positions at the University of Sheffield in England, at the University of Münster in Germany, and at Yale University (as the first Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament.) His books include Beginning New Testament Study (Eerdmans and SPCK), A Galilean Rabbi and His Bible (Glazier and SPCK), The Isaish Targum (Glazier and Clark),The Temple of Jesus (Penn State University Press), and A Feast of Meanings (Brill). With Jacob Neusner, he has written Judaism in the New Testament (Routledge), a trilogy entitled Judaism and Christianity—the Formative Categories (Trinity Press International), and Jewish-Christian Debates (Fortress).  He contributed the article on the high priest Caiaphas in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, and for that reason was consulted by academic, governmental, and journalistic reporters at the time of the discovery of the tomb of Caiaphas outside Jerusalem. His works also include Pure Kingdom: Jesus’ Vision of God(Eerdmans), the first in a series of books on Jesus, and Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography, (Doubleday, 2000).

The Case: 13 Key, Unarguable Principles

The train crash that is modern mythicism is built on the train crash that was earlier mythicism. The chance of the crash happening twice in just the same way?  About 50%.

In a previous post I reproduced chapter three of Shirley Jackson Case’s 1912 study, The Historicity of Jesus, which is a fair account of the state of the question in his day. At the end of his book, Case writes,

 “If the possibility of his non-historicity is to be entertained at all it must be brought about by reconstructing, without reference to him, so strong a theory of Christian origins that the traditional view will pale before it as a lesser light in the presence of a greater luminary. Will the radicals’ constructive hypothesis stand this test?”

The new mythtics (some anyway) have claimed that their argument can be won by the application of Bayes’s theorem.  Confronted with arguments about why the theorem is useless in deciding a question like this, their recourse has been to repeat two assertions: (1) It is too useful; and (2) People who say it isn’t useful don’t “get” it.  Whereupon they usually invoke some parallel as distant from what they are trying to prove as Herakles is from Jesus.

The rush of excitement that greeted Richard Carrier’s suggestion that the Jesus question could be settled with relative finality has been offset slightly by the failure to recognize that the first step in using Bayes’s Theorem is to establish plausible assumptions.  A few bloggers at Vridar have suggested that proving Jesus is like proving a case at law: after all, we’re trying to reach a verdict on whether Jesus existed, so, since a trial deals with events that happened in the past, and Jesus existed in the past, you could say that the application of probability to the Jesus question is like determining guilt or innocence.  All you need to do is compile the evidence,  plug it into your probability machine, write the equation, and you’re home free.

Except you’re not.  In a law case–let’s make this one a murder so we can use DNA–the variable to be decided is not the event (E), the crime, but the cause (C) of the crime.  Let’s make it a ghastly murder, a murder most foul (they like to quote Shakespeare over at Vridar– just trying it on).  You postulate a murderer. Good job.  You discover a bloody knife.  A glove–shades of OJ–fingerprints, crime scene, probable time of death. It is a linear progression of data that points to Mr. Jones as the perp: the right man in the right place at the right time with the right motive and the right DNA.  What has not changed in all of this?  (E) has not changed: the murder itself is not in doubt. It raises the speculation and creates uncertainty about (C).

In the case of Jesus, as the mythtics frame the case,  we are doubting an event (E) has taken place at all: the mythtics are not asking whether Jesus rose from the dead (= dealt the fatal wound causing E) but whether there was an E.  They are saying all the reports of E–what he said and did are falsifications of an historical occurrence.

To prove this contention (the groundwork of the assumptions that will then be used to establish probability) they offer not evidence but a succession of increasingly more tortuous challenges to the only available evidence, thus trying to prove through improbability what a linear progression of known, envalued variables (the sort of thing that makes statistics useful in law cases)  cannot readily establish.

In no particular order, individually and conglomeratively mythicists have argued:

1.  The evidence for E is hopelessly tainted and unreliable, proving that E did not occur.

2.  The sayings and deeds attributed to E are the work of a single author or the “church” and were intended to propagate a cult.

2.  The so-called evidence for E was mostly written in the second century by unknown authors, forgers, or copyists.

3.  It is based on a combination of myths and stories familiar to the forger or copyist or his naive imitators. These range from ancient stories like the Gilgamesh to first century tales about the death and apotheosis of Hercules, and everything in between (“A myth is a myth, like a rose is a rose”).

4.  Elements of the record that appear to be “historical” are decoration provided by the fabricator to create a veneer of authenticity–especially the use of place names and Aramaic, the language E is alleged to have spoken.

5.  The original second-century document was probably composed in Rome where myths and mystery religions circulated freely and a copyist could make a living and use the libraries.

6.  Prove postpositive that the gospels are fabrications is provided by the  inexplicable silence of someone [Paul] who “should have”  known him but doesn’t say much about him.

7.  References in Paul’s writings to both Jesus, his brothers, his most important followers, their interference with his mission, the existence of churches that worship him and believers who supervise them, and the correlation of names between the gospels and this writer’s references to Jesus and his circle are not dispositive because they do not fit the pattern of what this writer actually believed.

7.  Some of Paul’s letters are forged.  Those that are “authentic” and seem to speak of an historical individual are tainted, like the gospels, with additons, corrections and interpolations.  All passages that seem to speak of an historical figure are interpolations.  All references to historical-biological relatives of Jesus are figures of speech referring to the church.

8. It is plausible that this writer did not exist at all.

9.  If he did not exist, it is stronger than average proof that Jesus did not exist either. It is not necessary to explain who wrote Paul’s letters or explain what he was talking about if he did not write them.  (In all likelihood, the church wrote them too.)

10.  The fact that the gospels do not differ substantially from many Graeco-Roman historical writings concerning known historical figures, except in length and subject, is of no importance to the case.

11.  The fact that miracles, healings, miraculous births and ascensions to heaven are attibuted to historical figures in the Roman world has no bearing on the case.

12.  The external sources are completely irrelevant to the case, as they are either silent, clearly forged or heavily interpolated.  Sources almost uniformly agreed to be authentic like Tacitus are of no relevance to the case.  Sources that require more judicious treatment–like Josephus–are clearly fabrications.

13.  The fact that no ancient writer questioned the historicity of Jesus and the fact that no church writer felt compelled to defend it is of no relevance to the case.

et cetera…

The anti-evidence continues until the mythtics are satisfied that their demolition has proved the non-occurrence of E.  To challenge this brutually unsatisfying logic is to be a fundamentalist, or to use a word they are trying to make current as a counterpoint to the word “mythtic” and “mythicist,” an “historicist.”  There is a strong implication that not believing in Jesus is the rational complement to not believing in God.  As a rule, most mythicists are atheists.  As a rule, most people who subscribe to mythicism are not biblical scholars, trained in biblical studies but regard such training as a kind of “brainswashing” in the methods that have been used for the last century and a half to investigate the origins of Christanity and the context of Jesus.  To know something about human anatomy is good for a doctor.  But to know something about the technical aspects of biblical studies is a liability to knowing anything about this subject.

It seems to me that this latest and less impressive incarnation of mythicism has tried and failed to satisfy Case’s 1912 challenge to them, which, frankly, in the wake of substantial advances in New Testament scholarship, makes their work much more difficult than it was at the opening of the last century.  Salvation by Bayesth alone will not really help: they are stuck precisely where the formidable Morton Smith left them in 1986:  “The myth theory is almost entirely based on an argument from silence, especially the ‘silence’ of Paul….In order to explain just what it was that Paul and other early Christians believed, the mythicists are forced to manufacture unknown proto-Christians who build up an unattested myth . . . about an unspecified supernatural entity that at an indefinite time was sent by God into the world as a man to save mankind and was crucified… [presenting us with] a piece of private mythology that I find incredible beyond anything in the Gospels.”

They are not likely to create the plausible reconstruction demanded by their task from the debris they leave behind when they are done with their work.  In fact, there is no indication that they acknowledge or are capable of meeting that challenge.  They are puzzlingly content to locate the answer to how did it happen?in their belief that it did not happen at all, at least not in the way the only available evidence asserts.  And that is a very curious position for people who are looking for “reasonable” solutions to adopt.

Proving What?

The Revd Thomas Bayes

The Revd Thomas Bayes, 1701-1761

The current discussion among Jesus-deniers and mythicists over whether probability in the form of Bayes’s Rule can be used in historical research is more than a little amusing.

The current fad is largely the work of atheist blogger and debater Richard Carrier who despite having a PhD in ancient history likes to tout himself as a kind of natural science cum mathematics cum whachagot expert.

Carrier’s ingenuity is on full display in a recent book published by Prometheus (Buffalo, NY) in which he makes the claim that Bayes Theorem–a formula sometimes used by statisticians  when dealing with conditional probabilities– can be used to establish probability for events in the past.  That would make it useful for answering questions about whether x happened or did not happen, and for Carrier’s fans, the biggest x they would like to see answered (he claims ) is Did Jesus exist or not?  

The formula looks something like this:

Let A1, A2, … , An be a set of mutually exclusive events that together form the sample space S. Let B be any event from the same sample space, such that P(B) > 0. Then,

P( Ak | B ) = P( Ak ∩ B )

P( A1 ∩ B ) + P( A2 ∩ B ) + . . . + P( An ∩ B )

Invoking the fact that P( Ak ∩ B ) = P( Ak )P( B | Ak ), Baye’s theorem can also be expressed as

P( Ak | B ) = P( Ak ) P( B | Ak )

P( A1 ) P( B | A1 ) + P( A2 ) P( B | A2 ) + . . . + P( An ) P( B | An )

Clear?  Of course not. At least not for everybody. But that isn’t the issue because the less clear it is the more claims can be made for its utility.  Its called the Wow! Effect and is designed to cow you into comatose submission before its (actually pretty simple) formulation, using the standard symbols used in formal logic and mathematics.

What is known by people who use Bayes’s theorem to advantage  is that there are only certain conditions when it is appropriate to use it.  Even those conditions can sound a bit onerous: In general, its use is warranted when a problem warrants its use, e.g. when

  • The sample is partitioned into a set of mutually exclusive events { A1, A2, . . . , An }.
  • Within the sample space, there exists an event B, for which P(B) > 0.
  • The analytical goal is to compute a conditional probability of the form: P ( Ak | B ).
  • You know at least one of the two sets of probabilities described below.
    • P( Ak ∩ B ) for each Ak
    • P( Ak ) and P( B | Ak ) for each Ak  

The key to the right use of Bayes is that it can be useful in calculating conditional probabilities: that is, the probability that event A occurs given that event B has occurred.  Normally   such probabilities are used to forecast whether an event is likely to  occur, thus:

Marie is getting married tomorrow, at an outdoor ceremony in the desert. In recent years, it has rained only 5 days each year. Unfortunately, the weatherman has predicted rain for tomorrow. When it actually rains, the weatherman correctly forecasts rain 90% of the time. When it doesn’t rain, he incorrectly forecasts rain 10% of the time. What is the probability that it will rain on the day of Marie’s wedding?
StaTTrek’s solution to Marie’s conundrum looks like this:

“The sample space is defined by two mutually-exclusive events – it rains or it does not rain. Additionally, a third event occurs when the weatherman predicts rain. Notation for these events appears below.

  • Event A1. It rains on Marie’s wedding.
  • Event A2. It does not rain on Marie’s wedding.
  • Event B. The weatherman predicts rain.

In terms of probabilities, we know the following:

  • P( A1 ) = 5/365 =0.0136985 [It rains 5 days out of the year.]
  • P( A2 ) = 360/365 = 0.9863014 [It does not rain 360 days out of the year.]
  • P( B | A1 ) = 0.9 [When it rains, the weatherman predicts rain 90% of the time.]
  • P( B | A2 ) = 0.1 [When it does not rain, the weatherman predicts rain 10% of the time.]

We want to know P( A1 | B ), the probability it will rain on the day of Marie’s wedding, given a forecast for rain by the weatherman. The answer can be determined from Bayes’ theorem, as shown below.

P( A1 | B ) = P( A1 ) P( B | A1 )

P( A1 ) P( B | A1 ) + P( A2 ) P( B | A2 )

P( A1 | B ) = (0.014)(0.9) / [ (0.014)(0.9) + (0.986)(0.1) ]
P( A1 | B ) = 0.111

Note the somewhat unintuitive result. Even when the weatherman predicts rain, it only rains only about 11% of the time. Despite the weatherman’s gloomy prediction, there is a good chance that Marie will not get rained on at her wedding.

When dealing with conditional probabilities at the loading-end of the formula, we are able to formulate the sample  space easily because the “real world conditions” demanded by the formula can be identified,  and also have data–predictions– regarding Event B, which is a third event, A1 and A2 being (the required) mutually exclusive events.

So far, you are thinking, this is the kind of thing you would use for weather, rocket launches, roulette tables and divorces since we tend to think of conditional probability as an event that has not happened but can be predicted to happen, or not happen, based on existing, verifiable occurrences.  How can it be useful in determining whether events  “actually” transpired in the past, that is, when the sample field itself consists of what has already occurred (or not occurred) and when B is  the probability of it having happened? Or how it can be useful in dealing with events claimed to be sui generis since the real world conditions would lack both precedence and context?

To compensate for this, Carrier makes adjustments to the machinery: historical events are like any other events, only their exclusivity (A or not A) exists in the past rather than at the present time or in the future, like Marie’s wedding.  Carrier thinks he is justified in this by making historical uncertainty (i.e., whether an event of the past actually happened) the same species of uncertainty as a condition that applies to the future.  To put it crudely: Not knowing whether something will happen can be treated in the same way as not knowing whether something has happened by jiggering the formula. Managed properly, he is confident that Bayes will sort everything out in short order:

If you treat every probability you assign in the Bayesian equation as if it were a syllogism in an argument and defend each premise as sound (as you would for any other syllogism) Bayes’s theorem will solve all the problems that have left [Gerd] Theissen and others confounded when trying to assess questions of historicity.  There is really no other method on the table since all the historicity criteria so far have been shown to be flawed to the point of being in effect (or in fact) entirely useless. (Carrier, “Bayes Theorem for Beginners,” in Sources of the Jesus Tradition, 107).

What? This is a revolution in  thinking? Never mind the obvious problem:  If all the historicity criteria available have been shown to be “in fact” entirely useless and these are exactly the criteria we need to establish (“treat”)  the premises to feed into Bayes, then this condition would make Bayes compeletly useless as well–unless opposite, useful criteria could be shown to exist.  Bayes does not generate criteria and method; it depends on them, just as the solution to Marie’s dilemma depends on real world events, not on prophecy. Obversely, if Bayes is intended to record probability, the soundness of the premises is entirely vulnerable to improbable assumptions that can only poison the outcome–however “unarguable” it is by virtue of having been run through the Carrier version of the Bayes Machine.  Moreover, he either means something else when he talks about historicity criteria or is saying they exist in some other place.  In any event, the criteria must differ from premises they act upon and the conclusion Bayes delivers.

“Fundamentally flawed,” as I noted in a previous post, is the application of Bayes to data where no “real world data and conditions” can be said to apply.  It was this rather steep lapse in logic that led a former student of mine, who is now studying pure mathematics at Cambridge to remark,

Is this insistence [Carrier’s] of trying to invoke Bayes’ theorem in such contexts a manifestation of some sort of Math or Physics envy? Or is it due to the fact that forcing mathematics into one’s writings apparently confers on them some form of ‘scientific’ legitimacy?

The fact of the matter, as far as I know, and as I thought anyone would realize is that Bayes’ theorem is a theorem which follows from certain axioms. Its application to any real world situation depends upon how precisely the parameters and values of our theoretical reconstruction of a real world approximate reality. At this stage, however, I find it difficult to see how the heavily feared ‘subjectivity’ can be avoided. Simply put, plug in different values into the theorem and you’ll get a different answer. How does one decide which value to plug in?

Secondly, is it compulsory to try to impose some sort of mathematically based methodological uniformity on all fields of rational inquiry? Do there exist good reasons to suppose the the methods commonly used in different areas that have grown over time are somehow fatally flawed if they are not currently open to some form of mathematization?

If this kind of paradigm does somehow manage to gain ascendency, I assume history books will end up being much more full of equations and mathematical assumptions etc. While that will certainly make it harder to read for most (even for someone like me, who is more trained in Mathematics than the average person) I doubt that it would have any real consequence beyond that.”

In fairness to Carrier, however, the use of Bayes is probably not being dictated by logic, or a respect for the purity of mathematics, nor perhaps even because he thinks it can work.

It is simply being drawn (unacknowledged) from the debater’s handbook used by Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne, who (especially through 2007) was active globally debating the question of God’s existence, under the title “Is there a God?” using Bayes’s Theorem as his mainstay.  Not only this, but Swinburne is the editor of the most distinguished collection of essays on Bayes’s Theorem (Oxford, 2002).  In case you are interested in outcomes, Swinburne formulates the likelihood of God in relation to one argument for his existence (the cosmological) this way:  P (e I h & k) ≥ .50  The “background knowledge” Swinburne needs to move this from speculation to a real world condition is “the existence [e] over time of a complex physical universe.”  In order to form a proposition for debate properly, Swinburne depends on the question “Is There a God,” which gives a clear modality:  A and A1.

Unlike Carrier, I believe, I have had the dubious pleasure of having debated Swinburne face to face at Florida State University in 2006. A relatively complete transcript of my opening remarks was posted online in 2010. In case it is not clear, I took the contra side, arguing against the proposition.

I knew enough of Swinburne’s work (and enough of his legendary style from graduate students he had mentored at Oxford) to be on guard for his use of Bayes.  Unlike Carrier, Swinburne is both a theologian and a specialist in formal logic, whose undergraduate degree was in philosophy, politics and economics.  He travels the two worlds with ease and finesse and his most prominent books—The Coherence of TheismThe Existence of God, and Faith and Reason--are heavy reads.

But he is quite uncomfortable with historical argumentation.  Historical argumentation is both non-intuitive and probabilistic (in the sense of following the “law of likelihood”); but tends to favor the view that Bayes’s excessive use of “prior possibilities”  are subjective and lack probative force.   So, when I suggested he could not leap into his Bayesian proofs for God’s existence until he told me what God he was talking about, he seemed confused.  When I scolded him that the God he kept referring to sounded suspiciously biblical and fully attributed, he defended himself with, “I mean what most people mean when they say God.” When I retorted that he must therefore mean what most atheists mean when they say there is not God, he replied that arguing the atheist point of view was my job, not his.   When I said that any God worth arguing about would have to be known through historical documents, the autheticity and epistemological value of which for a debate like this would have to be tested by competent historical research, he became  impatient to get back to his formula, which works slowly and cancerously from givens to premises–to the prize: the unarguable conclusion.  It seems Swinburne thought the fundamentalist yahoos (not my interpretation) would be so dazzled by the idea of an “unarguable argument” for God’s existence that he would win handily.

Except for those  pesky, untended, historical premises.   Not to let a proficient of Bayes get past his premises is the sure way to cause him apoplexy, since Bayes is a premise-eating machine.  Like any syllogistic process, it cannot burp out its unarguable conclusions otherwise.  The result was that in an an overwhelmingly Evangelical-friendly audience of about 500 Floridians, the debate was scored 2 to 1 in my favour: Swinburne lost chiefly because of The Revd. Thomas Bayes.

And this is the trouble Richard Carrier will also need to confront, sooner or later.  He will not solve the primary objections to the use of Bayes’s Law by telling people they don’t get it (many do), or that there are no other methods on the table (where did they go to?), or that all existing historicity criteria, to use a more familiar word in the lexicon he uses on his blog, are “fucked.”

It is rationally (still a higher term than logically)  impossible to use the existence of the world in which thinking about God takes place as the real-world condition that makes it possible to use cosmology as the real-world condition proving his existence.  As Kant complained of Anselm’s ontology, existence is not essence.  It is not argument either. The defeater in this case is history: God has one, in the sense that all ideas about God are historically generated and directly susceptible to historical description and analysis.

And he could learn a thing or two from Swinburne’s sad fate, which is adequately summarized in this blog review of the philosopher’s most extensive use of the Theorem in his 2003 book, The Resurrection of God Incarnate.

Using Bayesian probability and lashings of highfalutin’ mathematical jargon, Swinburne argues that “it [is] very probable indeed that God became incarnate in Jesus Christ who rose from the dead” (p. 214). His mathematical apologetics for the resurrection boils down to the following argument:

  1. The probability of God’s existence is one in two (since God either exists or doesn’t exist).
  2. The probability that God became incarnate is also one in two (since it either happened or it didn’t).
  3. The evidence for God’s existence is an argument for the resurrection.
  4. The chance of Christ’s resurrection not being reported by the gospels has a probability of one in 10.
  5. Considering all these factors together, there is a one in 1,000 chance that the resurrection is not true.

It’s almost impossible to parody this argument (since in order to parody it, you would have to imagine something sillier – a daunting task!). But let me try:

The probably that the moon is made of cheese is one in two (since it is either made of cheese or it isn’t);

the probability that this cheese is Camembert is also one in two (since it’s either camembert or it isn’t); and so on.

At any rate, while Carrier loads his debating machine with still more improbable premises, I am going on the hunt for those missing historicity criteria.  They must be here someplace.  I do wish children would put things back where they found them.