Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Get over it.

Dear fundagelical Christians,

Why not just accept that the law now accords same sex couples the same right it accords opposite sex couples to enter a relationship with a particular set of legal consequences. You are still free to believe that these are not "real" marriages in the eyes of God, just as you are free to believe that Mormons, Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Unitarians are not "real" Christians in the eyes of God. You just don't get to control how the rest of us use the language.


Friday, March 27, 2015

On Presuppositions

Assessing the probability of miracles as low is no more a matter of presuppositions than is assessing as low the probability that the sun will rise in the west. It is a conclusion based on knowledge and experience.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

On Occam's Razor in New Testament Studies

Suppose that a student submitted an essay to a professor that is suspiciously similar to an essay submitted to the professor a previous term. Hypothesis A might be the second student copied from the first and hypothesis B would be that they both copied independently from a third source. How would the professor go about determining which hypothesis is more likely?

Hypothesis A is somewhat more parsimonious than B in that there is no need to posit the existence of a third source, so Okkam's Razor might favor A.  On the other hand, it is easy to see how the effect of parsimony would be quickly overwhelmed by evidential factors. For example, if investigation established that the two students were friends, that would incline the professor towards A much more than mere parsimony ever could. By the same token, if no connection between the two students could be discerned, B would look better regardless of its slightly greater prodigality. If the professor was the only one who taught that class or assigned that essay topic, A would be favored much more than if the course was offered every term by different professors who assigned similar topics.  I suspect that there is probably a laundry list of evidential factors that would trivialize the influence of parsimony in the final assessment.

I was recently involved in a discussion of whether the occurrence of “the worker deserves his wages” in both 1 Timothy 5:18 and Luke 10:7 makes it more likely that the former is quoting the latter than that both are drawn from some other source.  I personally cannot see how parsimony gives us much more to go on than it does in the case of two students with similar essays.

To my mind, the virtue of Okkam's Razor in historiography is mostly as a guide to investigation. You should start with the simplest hypothesis not because it is the most likely to be true.  Indeed, considering the complex forces that shape history, any simple explanation will likely leave much to be desired.   However, it is still good to start with the simplest explanation because it will be the one that is easiest to verify or falsify as there are fewer variables for which to control.  If it proves impossible to come to a conclusion about a simple explanation, the chances of having any certainty about more complex conclusions are remote.

I read a fair amount of history, but the only place I ever see Occam’s Razor invoked with any frequency is in New Testament studies. I suspect this is because the evidence is simply so sparse that there is little left to fall back on. Unfortunately, like many of the other criteria that New Testament scholars have developed, I just don’t think it can bear anywhere near the weight that they place on it.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

My Doubts About the Consensus of New Testament Scholars

I am entirely open to the possibility that it is objectively more probable than not that Jesus was a historical person.  However, when a scholar claims that he can be almost certain about specific things that Jesus said or did, I think that he is badly overestimating the weight that the evidence will bear.   As a result, when he urges me to trust the consensus of mainstream New Testament scholars like himself concerning the certainty of Jesus' historicity, I cannot help but wonder whether the weight the evidence will bear isn't being overestimated again.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Steven Bollinger's Take on Historical Jesus Agnosticism

In a story in which so much was obviously made [up] and the dates don't fit more firmly-established history, how is it at all unreasonable to ask if the man's very existence is more than one more fictional detail of the story?
Steven Bollinger Why I have doubts about Jesus' existence.


Friday, September 5, 2014

Aslan's Zealot: A Theoretically Possible Jesus

I've just started reading Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, in which Reza Aslan portrays Jesus as a political revolutionary opposed both to Romans occupying Palestine and the Jewish elite who cooperated with them, rather than the peace loving rabbi that so many see in the gospels.  Aslan had been criticized on the grounds that he is not an expert in the field, he arbitrarily declares those passages in the gospels that support his position authentic and those which do not invented, he states his conclusions with an unwarranted degree or certainty.  All those criticism may be justified, although the latter two are true of so many historical Jesus scholars that it is hard for me to judge Aslan too harshly for them.  Nevertheless, I think that there is some logic in his approach.

If as it is often claimed, the most indisputable fact known about the historical Jesus is that he was crucified by the Romans, doesn't it make sense to start by looking at other people who were crucified and the kinds of things that led to their crucifixion?  Everything in the gospels was written after his death for the purpose of proclaiming him as God's anointed one who was exalted by resurrection from the dead.  Many stories like the birth narratives were clearly invented for that purpose and any story might have been invented for that purpose.  If any parts of the gospels are actual events in the life of the historical Jesus, I can certainly see an argument that they are most likely to be the ones that are consistent with what we know about other first century messianic claimants who were executed by the Romans for sedition.

In any case, Aslan is an entertaining writer and I am learning a lot about the political turmoil in first century Palestine that eventually led the Romans to destroy Jerusalem in 70 A.D.  When Aslan writes about Jesus, it smacks more of historical fiction rather than history, but I think that a person can learn a lot from well researched historical fiction.  I suspect that Aslan's historical Jesus is as objectively probable as most of the others.