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.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Historical Jesus Agnosticism

A commenter on another blog challenged me to explain the reasons why I think it reasonable to be agnostic about the existence of a historical Jesus. As the blogger didn’t want to get into the substantive issues, I decided to make my response a post here even though these are all points I have made in previous posts.

Most historical figures from the ancient are known to us today because they were literate or prominent people or they did things during their lives that had an impact on their literate or prominent contemporaries. It was the impact of their lives that caused information about them to be preserved. Information about Jesus of Nazareth, on the other hand, was preserved because some person or persons claimed to have encountered him after he was dead. Had it not been for a belief that arose in supernatural events occurring after his death, we cannot be certain that Jesus would have left any mark in the historical record that would be discernible two thousand years later.

There is nothing out of the ordinary in supernatural events being associated with historical figures in the ancient world. Fantastic supernatural stories about Alexander the Great spread after his death, but it was a result of the impact of the things he accomplished during his natural life. Stories about Jesus’ natural life, on the other hand, were preserved and perpetuated as a result of the belief that arose in the things he accomplished supernaturally after his death. If you strip away the supernatural stories about Alexander the Great, you still have a significant historical footprint. If you strip away the supernatural stories about Jesus of Nazareth, you strip away the reason that any information about him was preserved in the first place.

None of this constitutes evidence that Jesus didn’t exist or that the mythicism is likely true. However, I do think it creates unique problems for the historian insofar as historians reason by analogy. If a historian wishes to evaluate data concerning a poorly documented general or king from the ancient world, he can compare it to the data for many other generals and kings, some of whom will be much better documented. On the other hand, the reason a first century itinerant preacher like Jesus couldn’t be expected to leave much of a historical footprint is because no first century itinerant preachers left much of a historical footprint. As a result, it becomes very hard to reason by analogy.

I don’t think that I have seen any historical Jesus scholar adequately address these issues, but what troubles me even more is how often they will compare doubting the existence of a historical Jesus to doubting the Holocaust or the moon landing on the grounds that the consensus of scholars on all these issues is so strong that to doubt any of them is to engage in nihilistic skepticism. This strikes me as ridiculous as little that happened in the ancient world is as certain as anything that happened in the twentieth century.

History is about establishing what probably happened and probability is determined by the quantity and quality of evidence, not by the number of scholars who look at the evidence. Doubting that Shakespeare wrote The Tempest is not comparable to doubting that Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address regardless of how strong the consensus of scholars might be on the former. It is perfectly sensible to be more certain about the latter.

It may be that it is objectively more likely than not that a historical Jesus existed. However, until I encounter historical Jesus scholars who have a little better grasp of probability, I think I will remain agnostic.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Who Would Invent a Crucified Messiah?

Liberal scholars like Bart Ehrman and James McGrath argue that one of the ways we can know that Jesus was a historical person is that first century Jews had no expectations that the messiah would suffer and die.  At the time, all Jews believed that the messiah would be a conquering hero. Therefore, the only explanation for this belief arising is that someone who was believed to be the messiah by his followers actually suffered and died.

Christians claim that the prophet Isaiah predicted that the messiah would suffer for the sins of his people:
He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
Isaiah 53 3:5.  However, Ehrman says that first century Jews didn't understand this as a messianic prophecy.  Rather, the prophet is describing the past suffering of Israel during the Babylonian exile.

What I find interesting is that Christian apologists use the same logic to argue that Jesus was really resurrected from the dead.  Since no first century Jews expected the messiah to suffer and die, the only explanation for this belief arising is that Jesus of Nazareth proved he was the messiah by rising from the dead.

Personally, I don't think we really know enough about how an idea like this might have been invented to say what must have happened to cause it.  Ehrman writes "Who would make up the idea of a crucified messiah?  No Jew that we know of."  So what?  Prior to Joseph Smith, did we know of any Christians who would make up the idea of the Golden Plates and the Angel Moroni?  Does that give us any reason to think that there is anything historical about Smith's stories.

I think it entirely plausible that the idea arose of a crucified messiah because the follower of an executed messianic claimant interpreted Isaiah as a prophecy in order to cling to his belief in the man he had followed.  However, I don't see how that makes it highly probable and I don't see how that is the only way it could have happened.  Given the number of devout Jews who must of been searching their scriptures in order to understand why God had not sent a messiah to deliver His people from their tribulations, I think that any number of people might have stumbled on the idea that Isaiah 53 3:5 was a prophecy.

Moreover, even if we could establish that the execution of a real messianic claimant is the most likely circumstance under which a first century Jew would come up with the idea of a suffering messiah, does that mean that it must have been one of Jesus' followers who did so?  Potential messiahs were a dime a dozen if first century Palestine.  It's equally likely that it was a follower of John the Baptist who stumbled upon the idea in an effort to understand his death or the follower of one of the many other messianic claimants of the day.

I was recently chided by Dr. McGrath for making such suggestions:
[T]he existence of sources which say things that are radically different than the ones we have is itself a mere possibility, which cannot be excluded but neither should it be assumed to be probable. And so we should and do assess historical probabilities using the evidence we have, not the evidence that we could theoretically have.
I could not help but note that the sources we have say nothing about the idea of a crucified messiah arising from someone's attempt to maintain their belief in a messianic claimant in the face of his execution.  The sources we have say that the belief in a crucified messiah arose from Jesus of Nazareth literally rising from the dead and appearing physically to his followers.  The whole enterprise of trying to determine the actual events that might have led to the development of such stories necessarily involves a great deal of speculation and conjecture.