# Torley on The Resurrection: Take Two

I believe in four gospels, of course. There is no doubt in my mind about that. I don’t struggle with that one bit.

Old Testament is a little hit and miss for me though.

First Time Post here. As someone who actually does have experience in NT studies, I agree with @swamidass and @dga471. Alter’s book is not something that would convince any fair minded historian. There are a number of glaring problems with it that should pop out to anymore informed reviewer. For instance, the use of rabbinic and other Jewish texts is outdated and uncritical. It is widely held that they don’t accurately reflect 1st century Jewish legal practice (among other things). You cannot read them at face value. Most scholars would disagree with his use of them as in the case of Jesus’s trial and evaluation of Pilate’s character. See The Trial and Crucifixion of Jesus: Texts and Commentary by Chapman and Schnabel for an actual scholarly overview of the subject.

Alter also uses older sources that have been superseded by new scholarship and fringe sources that a less discerning audience might not be aware of- like when arguing against the bystanders at Jesus’ cross. Maurice Casey was a good scholar on some things, but his work on John is is close to reverse fundamentalism. Likewise, Corley is a part of the Westar Institute which is basically the Jesus Seminar redux. Nowadays people have a much more positive opinion on the historical character of John. Take his citation of Barrett’s supposed refutation. If you actually read the text from Josephus Barrett cites, it’s about getting permission to take people off crosses, not merely approaching them. His understanding of Jesus being crucified because of maxime maiestatis causa damnatorum (high treason) is unlikely- see Craig Evans, John Welch, John Granger Cook, etc. There were a variety lesser charges that fell under maiestatis like laesa maiestas or seditio. For Barret’s argument to work he needs to have Jesus charged with maxime maiestatis causa damnatorum, but Pilate explicitly finds no fault with Jesus in the gospels and doesn’t see him as a political threat. That’s why a number of scholars who favor the lesser charges like John Welch, Craig Evans, John Granger Cook, Jürgen Moltmann, etc.

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I should also add that red flags should go off for anyone who cites Ehrman as a reliable source for Jesus’ burial. His arguments against its historicity have been widely rejected. Most continue to find the burial by Joseph of Arimethea and the empty tomb plausible. But what’s really damning is the following.

1. Ehrman’s book is aimed at the Barnes and Noble crowd. It is not academic in nature.
2. He pretty much recycles the arguments of Crossan from the 90s… which most scholars also rejected at the time. His argument only works if you assume from the outset that there is no historical data for the crucifxion and the evangelists were making stuff up.
3. He doesn’t interact with scholars who have written on the subject since Crossan. This is telling, since said scholars all all vastly more informed on the subject, go into much more depth, and all contradict him.
4. He doesn’t understand the charges against Jesus have to be nuanced (no high treason).
5. He misreads ancient sources on Jewish burial customs and why most people think the Romans made allowances for the Jews. Instead he takes what happens outside of 1st century Palestine and reads it in to what he think should have happened.
6. He ignores the archaeological evidence. There were a variety of punishments deemed crucifixion, these wouldn’t leave traces, and the fact that we do have evidence of in favor of tomb burials for criminals but not the opposite is telling.
7. Outside of skeptics on the internet, Ehrman’s arguments have been ignored because of 1-6. People who are familiar with scholarly discussion on the subject would know this and wouldn’t cite him if they wanted to be taken seriously.
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Crossan as in Jesus Seminar, right?

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Thanks @Freakazoid for this information. Finally we have someone who has some actual experience in NT studies joining this thread. This sort of insight is exactly what I was talking about when I asked @vjtorley earlier:

Knowing that Casey’s view on people standing near a cross is not a consensus opinion of the field completely changes the credibility of Vincent’s inclusion of that as one of his 17 claims. It is telling, though not surprising, that Vincent seems to be unaware of how other professional scholars view Casey’s work on John, or Ehrman on the empty tomb. This only illustrates the pitfalls of trying to make sweeping judgments about a field one is not an expert in.

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I should probably give a few.examples.to back up my claim on Ehrman.

Craig Evans says that almost no one follows Ehrman and Crossan in Roman Law and the Burial of Jesus- Matthew and Mark Across Perspectives: Essays in Honour of Stephen C. Barton and William R Telford. He pretty much dismissed Ehrman in a footnote.

Another overview is John Granger Cook, ‘Crucifixion and Burial’, New Testament Studies, 57 (2011), 193–213. Ehrman should had access to this while writing his book but completely ignored it.

And I repeat, I can’t think of any actual published work that agrees with Ehrman.

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I don’t know if this matters but what made me distrust Ehrman is the time he said that earliest New Testament writings had 40.000 differences between each other.

Technically true, but what Ehrman ‘failed’ to mention is that those ‘differences’ are difference in spelling and changing certain words so it would be easier to read (since, as we know, language evolves), basically, whatever the differences, the meaning was always same.

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Hi @Freakazoid,

Thank you for your comments. I’ll respond to you first, because you are the only contributor so far who has actually addressed the arguments marshaled by Michael Alter and summarized in my September 2018 post over at The Skeptical Zone, rather than quibbling about “methodology.” I appreciate that.

Let me begin with a short prologue. Right now, there is a real battle for souls going on, online. I can sense it, because I’m at the coalface, and I spend a considerable portion of my time arguing against Internet skeptics of various stripes. I used to be an enthusiastic supporter of Resurrection apologetics, and I enjoyed watching online debates between skeptics and Christian apologists like William Craig and Mike Licona, among others.

I should add that for several years, I contributed articles supporting Intelligent Design and various aspects of Christian belief, over at Uncommon Descent. The amount of material I wrote would probably be enough to fill two or three Bibles. As a result of interacting with various skeptics, I learned a couple of things.

First, whether you like it or not, people these days assess the truth of religious claims by comparing the best arguments they can find for and against, on the Internet. Books don’t count anymore. Why not? First, they’re too darned expensive - yes, even that $10 Kindle version that you can download. For many of us,$10 is a lot of money. We have families to feed. [In any case, Kindles are unreadable for anyone who (like myself) is over the age of 50 and suffers from presbyopia.] Second, the Internet is free and immediately accessible, at the touch of a button. Third, the Internet is widely perceived as an open forum, where ideas can be tested in an online battle of wits. So if you tell me, “I could refute what skeptic X says, but you’ll have to read my book,” my reaction is likely to be: “What are you hiding? If you’ve got a good argument, why don’t you bring it out into the open? Let’s thrash it out online.” Please, don’t go and tell me to read some 1,000-page scholarly tome which costs $50 and may or may not address the arguments I want to see addressed. Not going to happen. Second, you have to hit bad arguments on the head immediately, if you’re going to make any headway against them. Otherwise, they’ll simply proliferate online - and if you’re a committed Christian apologist, it will be your fault for not hitting them earlier. This should be obvious to any media-savvy person who’s familiar with the new cycle: any negative publicity about a public individual has to be countered within the first 24 hours, or the public will ignore it and they’ll simply believe the accusations against that person. It’s the same with Jesus: any attacks on the Christian faith have to be whacked online, pronto. Otherwise they’ll stick, in the public mind. With these points in mind, I’d now like to address your arguments: I should also add that red flags should go off for anyone who cites Ehrman as a reliable source for Jesus’ burial. His arguments against its historicity have been widely rejected. Most continue to find the burial by Joseph of Arimathea and the empty tomb plausible. Widely rejected by whom? Who are these scholars who look down their noses at Ehrman? Why do none of them ever debate him, either in front of student audiences at Christian colleges or in their online blogs? I’ve looked in vain online for refutations of Ehrman’s online posts about Jesus’ burial, and haven’t found any, despite the fact that some of Ehrman’s posts go back to 2014 and can be viewed by the public. Instead, what I found was an online debate between Licona and Ehrman on the historical reliability of the Gospels, which I have to say Licona lost. The only scholar I found who was willing to engage online with Ehrman on the subject of Jesus’ burial was Craig Evans - and judging from Ehrman’s recent reply here, I’d have to conclude that he has the better of the argument with Evans. (I’ve read other online posts by Ehrman in response to Evans, as well. And of course I’ve read what Evans has to say here and here. I’ve also read Jodi Magness’s article on the subject.) So when you claim that most scholars today thumb their noses at Ehrman, on the subject of Jesus’ burial, I’d like some names and references, please. He pretty much recycles the arguments of Crossan from the 90s… which most scholars also rejected at the time. In this 2012 post, Ehrman explains that when he first heard about Crossan’s views on Jesus’ burial, he thought them “pretty outrageous,” and held that “Jesus was almost certainly buried by Joseph of Arimathea immediately upon his death.” As late as 2012, he contented himself with claiming that “it is not a certain “fact” that Jesus was given a decent burial and that the tomb must have been empty (as Christian apologists love to claim).” It is only in recent years that Ehrman’s views have crystallized, as it were. This is important, because if scholars have long debunked Crossan’s arguments (as you contend), then why isn’t Ehrman aware of their debunkings? Are you seriously claiming that he’s not au fait with the current literature on the subject? That makes it all the more puzzling as to why no New Testament scholar has taken him on in public debate and trounced him. He doesn’t interact with scholars who have written on the subject since Crossan. This is telling, since said scholars all all vastly more informed on the subject, go into much more depth, and all contradict him. Again: could I have some names and references, please? There were a variety of punishments deemed crucifixion, these wouldn’t leave traces, and the fact that we do have evidence of in favor of tomb burials for criminals but not the opposite is telling. I don’t know what you mean by “traces,” but Ehrman’s core argument is a very simple one: 1. Jesus was executed as a political criminal. 2. There are no known instances in history of the Roman authorities ever allowing a political criminal to have a decent burial. With regard to premise 1, Ehrman writes: Jesus was not executed as a member of the riff-raff, as a slave who committed a crime against his owner, as a lowly criminal from the lower classes. He was executed for calling himself King of the Jews. Craig Evans agrees with that. Virtually everyone agrees with that. Jesus was killed on a political charge. Now, you contend that Jesus was put to death on some lesser charge than high treason. Fine. But even if you’re right, it was still a political charge: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” That’s political. Can’t get round that. So my question to you is: do you know of a single case where Romans allowed someone who was executed on a lesser political charge to have a decent burial? He misreads ancient sources on Jewish burial customs and why most people think the Romans made allowances for the Jews. Ehrman explicitly deals with Jewish burial customs in several of his online blog articles, including this one. As far as I can tell, he seems to be one step ahead of his critics. But you know what? I’m actually inclined to agree with you that Jesus probably did get a burial of some sort. My point, however, is that even if he did, that won’t help the case for the empty tomb. Here’s why. As I wrote above, there are five possibilities that we have to consider: 1. Jesus didn’t get a proper burial at all. Pilate never handed over the body; it was just dumped in a pit, along with those of other crucified criminals. (This is Professor Bart Ehrman’s thesis, and he backs it up by arguing that we have no historical record of a person executed as a political criminal [as Jesus was] being disposed of in any other way.) 2. Jesus’ body was handed over to the Jewish chief priests and leaders (including Joseph of Arimathea), who gave him a dishonorable burial in a dirt grave. No family members were present, and there were no mourners. 3. Jesus’ body was handed over to the Jewish chief priests and leaders (including Joseph of Arimathea), who wanted to give him a dishonorable burial in a dirt grave, but ran out of time before the Jewish Sabbath, so they placed his body in someone’s family tomb, as a temporary measure, planning to bury it later on. Once again, no family members were present, and there were no mourners. 4. Pilate handed Jesus’ body over to a private individual, Joseph of Arimathea, who, in opposition to the wishes of the Sanhedrin, buried Jesus in his own rock tomb. Because it was a family tomb, there would have been other bodies inside the tomb as well. 5. Pilate handed Jesus’ body over to a private individual, Joseph of Arimathea, who, in opposition to the wishes of the Sanhedrin, buried Jesus in his own rock tomb. Because it was a new tomb, there were no other bodies inside the tomb as well. As I understand it, Jodi Magness argues for position 3. Matthew Ferguson, over at his Celsus blog, argues for position 2. Personally, I’m inclined to think position 3 is most likely: it accounts for the Gospel traditions, and it is not too far-fetched, in the light of what we know about Roman crucifixion practices. But here’s the thing: in order to establish the historicity of the empty tomb, you need to argue for position 5. And that’s the least likely position of all, from an independent historian’s standpoint. It goes against all historical precedent. ====================== You also criticize Michael Alter’s arguments in his book, where he attempts to discredit John’s account of Mary and the Beloved Disciple standing at the foot of the Cross: Alter also uses older sources that have been superseded by new scholarship and fringe sources that a less discerning audience might not be aware of - like when arguing against the bystanders at Jesus’ cross. Maurice Casey was a good scholar on some things, but his work on John is is close to reverse fundamentalism. Likewise, Corley is a part of the Westar Institute which is basically the Jesus Seminar redux… If you actually read the text from Josephus Barrett cites, it’s about getting permission to take people off crosses, not merely approaching them. His understanding of Jesus being crucified because of maxime maiestatis causa damnatorum (high treason) is unlikely - see Craig Evans, John Welch, John Granger Cook, etc. There were a variety lesser charges that fell under maiestatis like laesa maiestas or seditio. For Barrett’s argument to work he needs to have Jesus charged with maxime maiestatis causa damnatorum, but Pilate explicitly finds no fault with Jesus in the gospels and doesn’t see him as a political threat. That’s why a number of scholars who favor the lesser charges like John Welch, Craig Evans, John Granger Cook, Jürgen Moltmann, etc. Well, at least you appear to have gone out and bought a copy of Alter’s book (am I right)? It’s a pity that Joshua still can’t bring himself to do so. Actually, Alter cites several scholars on the subject: “Tinsley (1965, 204; cf. Casey 1996, 188; Corley 2004, 81; 1998, 196n117; Thompson 1995, 61) argues that “The Romans did not permit bystanders at the actual place of execution.” Alter then refutes alleged exceptions by citing the work of Corley. Dismissing her as a Jesus Seminar crank (as you do) is an ad hominem argument. Dismissing Maurice Casey as a reverse fundamentalist is equally ad hominem. Casey was a highly respected Biblical scholar, and this is what he wrote about Mary and the Beloved Disciple at the foot of the Cross: The fourth Gospel’s group of people beside the Cross includes Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple. It is most likely that these people would have been allowed this close to a Roman crucifixion. If they had been, and they included people central to Jesus’ life and ministry, it is most unlikely that Mark would merely have women watching from a distance. If a major male disciple had approached this close, it is likely that he would have been arrested. (Is John’s Gospel True?, 1996, London: Routledge, p. 188.) The central question is simply this: is Casey factually correct or not? If you think he’s wrong, please say why. I’ll leave it there for now. Please remember: I am a Christian, like you. The difference between us is that after a decade of engaging in online apologetics, I’ve soured on many of the arguments I’ve found, and I now think it’s a waste of time arguing for the Resurrection. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe it; it simply means that I believe for personal reasons of my own, which I find myself unable to articulate to other people. Everyone has to hear the still, small voice of God in their own time. And now, over to you. Really @vjtorley? Are you really going to force us to quote the many many places we addressed specific arguments? Are you really going to say that questions about methodology are merely quibbles? 4 Likes Jesus as documented in the 4 gospels. 3 Likes Uh, yes I can. They were mocking what they considered to be crazy ravings of a madman. 2 Likes OK, that might have been redundant. 1 Like Thank you for taking time to respond to my earlier post. Your comment is definitely appreciated and respected. There are several problems that potentially confronting “outsiders” (such as myself) attempting to objectively evaluate the topic of Jesus’s Resurrection. If possible, please read my guest blog ## “Follow the Money”: Guest Blog by Michael Alter on Faith-Based Education and Publishing An obvious obstacle is that most of the published texts about Jesus’s resurrection are/were written by believers. In effect, the literature is stacked…Historically, and currently, believers have the upper hand, although conditions are improving. A significant number of writers have degrees from Christian seminaries or private Christian colleges. Of course, some detractors might question the value of a M.A. of PhD from some of these institutions. In contrast, relatively few detractors or skeptics have the luxury of earning a degree after their name to lend credence to their publishing “authority.” For example, I wrote: “Cutting to the “money trail,” how many detractors would be willing to devote one year of their life and spend$95 to \$500 per credit hour for a 36-credit hour MA in a counter-apologetics degree program (even if it existed)? And, remember, we are not even talking about a multi-year PhD program. On the other hand, financial aid (scholarships, loans, underwriting by local churches, etc.) are often available to seminary students…”

I could say more, but your time is respected.

Perhaps more uplifting, your profile states that: " I am also an enthusiastic composer and cellist!" If possible, try to listen to the ending of Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante, Opus 125. It is really great. I assume that you are familiar with the Saint Saens and Dvorak’s cello concertos and Bach cello suites… Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme is also pretty assume. Enjoy!

Take care

Mike

Hi @Freakazoid,

Looks like we’ve cross-posted one another. I see that you’ve been kind enough to post the following, in response to my request for names and sources:

I should probably give a few.examples.to back up my claim on Ehrman.

Craig Evans says that almost no one follows Ehrman and Crossan in Roman Law and the Burial of Jesus- Matthew and Mark Across Perspectives: Essays in Honour of Stephen C. Barton and William R Telford. He pretty much dismissed Ehrman in a footnote.

I take it you’re referring to this 2016 article by Dr. Craig Evans, which is available online. However, the blog articles I cited above from Ehrman’s blog, in response to Evans, date from as recently as 2018, and specifically address the strongest points in Evans’ arguments, so as far as I’m concerned, they supersede what was written in 2016.

Another overview is John Granger Cook, ‘Crucifixion and Burial’, New Testament Studies, 57 (2011), 193–213. Ehrman should had access to this while writing his book but completely ignored it.

Thank you for the reference. I tried to read it online, but since I’m not attached to an academic institution, I couldn’t get access. However, being a person who doesn’t give up easily, I hunted around, and eventually tracked down what I take to be Cook’s strongest argument, on this thread:

John Granger Cook has written a comprehensive book Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World (2014)

On page 186, he points out Philo of Alexandria’s account of Flaccus and the crucifixion of Jews in Alexandria in 38 CE that there was an earlier custom of allowing burial rites to the crucified but Flaccus did not follow this custom.

There are accounts of thieves being denied burial as a spectacle to dissuade other thieves.

However, Ehrman addressed this point in a blog article here. I’ll quote the relevant passage:

Philo is NOT stating a universal exception to the rule. He is saying that in Alexandria, where he lives, he has known some “cases” where crucified people have been allowed burial. These are a few cases, not the “practice” (as Craig would have it). These exceptions have been made for one reason and one reason only: to honor “the birthday of the emperor.’ The reason that Philo points this out is because in fact it is a surprising act of clemency, precisely because it was NOT the Roman practice ever to do such a thing. The bodies in these cases are not given to friends or anyone who asks for them, but only to relatives. And most important of all is this: Philo objects to Flaccus for actually crucifying people on the emperor’s holiday, when his predecessors removed crucified bodies ahead of time on that day. But that means that the predecessors had NOT crucified people on that day – because Philo is objecting to Flaccus since, unlike them, he has not only not shown clemency but HAS crucified people on that day. That clearly means that the people whose bodies were removed on this holiday had been crucified previously (otherwise Philo would not have said, to paraphrase: you not only have not done what a few others have done and allowed a decent burial for those crucified – you’ve actually performed the crucifixion itself on that day). I’m having trouble explaining this as clearly as I like. But the point is this: the bodies that were given decent burials on these rare occasions were bodies that had been hanging on their crosses after they had died. In other words, EVEN THIS EXCEPTION does not involve an instance in which someone was given a burial on the day that they were executed (which is what Craig argues happened in the case of Jesus).

Dr. Craig Evans also cites the discovery of hundreds of hundreds of crucifixion nails as evidence that crucifixion victims were given decent burials in Roman-governed Judea. Ehrman apparently disagrees with this interpretation. He writes of the nails: “Some of them with calcium on them (according to Zias, the expert) were not crucifixion nails, but over the years absorbed some of the calcium from the ossuary skeletons. Others (possibly not always connected with tombs) survive because they had been used as talismans.”

Another argument made by Evans is that Roman justice "not only allowed for the executed to be buried, but it even encouraged it in some instances.” On this point, Craig cites the Roman Digesta. However, Ehrman replies that this would not have applied to Jesus, since he was convicted as a political criminal: “King of the Jews.” He asks: “Do we have any evidence that Roman authorities allowed someone like Jesus, who was crucified – and especially one crucified as an enemy of the state, guilty of high treason — to be given a decent burial on the day of his execution, as opposed to the general practice of leaving the bodies on the crosses to be subject to the ravages of time and scavenging animals?”

Now you have said Jesus may not have been guilty of high treason, but we can rephrase Ehrman’s question: is there any evidence of lesser political criminals being given a decent burial on the day of their execution?

Up until this point, I have defended Ehrman, but now I’m going to do a back-flip and give a plug to his academic adversary, Dr Craig Evans. I have just been watching a one-hour video, by Dr. Craig Evans, dated 30 March 2018, and titled: “Was the Body of Jesus Placed in a Known Tomb?” I would strongly urge all readers to watch this video: it’s very good.

After listening to Dr. Evans’ side of the story, I think it’s fair to say that a strong case can be made that Pilate would have allowed the Jewish authorities to take Jesus’ body down from the Cross and bury it on the same day. I won’t say it’s highly probable that Pilate would have done that: I really don’t know. But it’s certainly highly plausible.

However, as I argued above, that still leaves scenarios 2 (dishonorable burial by the Jewish authorities in a dirt grave), 3 (dishonorable burial by the Jewish authorities in Joseph of Arimathea’s family tomb, as an interim measure), 4 (burial by Joseph, against the wishes of the Sanhedrin, in his family tomb) and 5 (burial by Joseph, against the wishes of the Sanhedrin, in a new tomb) as possibilities. Dr. Evans seems to opt for a version of scenario 5: Pilate gave the body to Joseph of Arimathea, who allowed Jesus to be buried in his own new tomb. As I pointed out in my original post on Michael Alter’s book, the story of Jesus being buried in a new tomb was deliberately written for apologetic purposes , in the opinion of the late Catholic Biblical scholar and priest, Fr. Raymond Brown (The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John (xviii-xxi), 1970, Garden City: Doubleday, p. 959). Brown was no radical. I also mentioned that Dr. Jodi Magness thinks that Jesus’ body was laid in a new burial niche in the wall (or loculus ) inside Joseph of Arimathea’s family rock tomb - which, if true, would undercut the apologetic claim that Jesus’ tomb was found empty on Easter Sunday morning.

So my biggest criticism of Dr. Evans’ presentation is that he fails to explain why he believes Joseph of Arimathea was permitted to place Jesus’ body in his own tomb, let alone a new one, and that he fails to discredit scenarios 2, 3 and 4, which would undercut any empty tomb apologetic. Evans also fails to explain where and how the women would have managed to purchase the spices Mark says they bought on Sunday morning, at the crack of dawn (Mark 16:1).

As I stated above, I think it’s quite possible that Pilate made an exception and allowed the Jewish leaders to give Jesus a dishonorable burial, as it was the eve of the Passover. My own view is that Byron McCane in his article, “‘Where No One Had Yet Been Laid’: The Shame of Jesus’ Burial” (in B.D. Chilton and C.A. Evans (eds.), Authenticating the Activities of Jesus (NTTS, 28.2; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1998) comes closest to describing what actually happened.

The upshot of all this is that it’s very uncertain what actually happened to Jesus’ body. Since we need to establish what happened in order to show that he was resurrected, it follows that in the 21st century, we are no longer in a position to show that. That’s all I wanted to say.

Hi @Djordje,

Uh, yes I can. They were mocking what they considered to be crazy ravings of a madman.

Except that Jesus never called himself “King of the Jews.”

Hi @swamidass,

Really @vjtorley? Are you really going to force us to quote the many many places we addressed specific arguments? Are you really going to say that questions about methodology are merely quibbles?

I’d like to apologize. My words were too harsh and sweeping: there were some comments where you attempted to address my arguments, even if the majority of them related to methodology and Michael Alter’s credibility.

Look, I’m a meat-and-potatoes man: I focus on the nitty-gritty stuff. When I see a book attacking the Resurrection, the question I ask myself is not, “Who is this guy?” or “What’s his approach to sorting out historical claims?” but rather, “Has he read the literature, and are his arguments any good?” My overall impression from reading Michael Alter’s book was that he scored a number of big hits. Also, he knew a lot of stuff about Jewish practices that I’d never heard Christian apologists address before, and he was meticulous about citing his sources. So I was very impressed.

At the end of the day, the biggest question you need to address is this: can the empty tomb be historically demonstrated, with a high degree of probability? After reading Alter’s book and the online debates on the subject, I don’t think it can be. There are too many alternative possibilities, and I don’t see how they can be ruled out. Perhaps you feel differently, but I can only call it the way I see it.

Anyway, I shall bow out here. I don’t want to say anything more, as I don’t wish to sound uncharitable. This is your blog, and I’d like to think you for allowing me to comment on it, Joshua. Peace.

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Having commented on the meta-level of the debate, I now want to respond to the debate at a lower level. I want to point out the Vincent’s accusations that

is patently false, since besides my meta-level methodological “quibbles”, I have tried my best, for example, to respond to Vincent’s probabilistic arguments, despite my lack of historical training or knowledge about NT studies. I think the difference is that unlike you, I am way more cautious about proclaiming what a “impartial historian would do”, because I approach this subject as a humble layman.

Nevertheless, in this post I will pick up on a line of argument from our last exchange:

What I seriously think is that the whole business of assigning prior probabilities to events seems dubious and non-rigorous, such that I am happy with assigning 50-50 prior probabilities to most historical claims that are not immediately outlandish (such as a giant blue dragon appearing next to Jesus’ cross). I will elaborate on this claim in more detail here.

Can we psycho-analyze Pilate?

Let’s take, for example, the claim that Pilate would be reluctant to condemn a man accused of advocating insurrection. You base this on an psycho-analysis of Pilate based on his historical record:

Pilate’s alleged reluctance to condemn Jesus to death. This, I argued, is psychologically unlikely, given what we know of Pilate’s character. Here, Story1 is that Pilate was indeed reluctant to condemn Jesus, while Story 2 is that he sentenced Jesus to death without compunction. In my post, I described several incidents in the life of Pilate which illustrated his cruelty. Clearly, killing Jesus would not have been out of character for him. Given this background information about Pilate’s character, we might reasonably conclude that the ratio P(Story2)/P(Story1) is pretty high – say, 10 to 1.

And here is an example of an incident of Pilate’s brutality that you cite:

The Jewish historian Josephus chronicles Pilate’s brutal acts: he tells us (Antiquities 18.3.2) that on one occasion, when Pilate wanted to build an aqueduct to provide fresh water to Jerusalem, he decided to finance the undertaking by stealing the money from the treasury of the Jewish temple. When the Jewish authorities and the people of Jerusalem protested in outrage, Pilate responded brutally: on his command, his soldiers mingled with the crowds, in disguise, and then they suddenly attacked the people, not with swords but with clubs. Many Jews were slaughtered on that day, and many others were trampled to death.

But the above incident could also be interpreted as Pilate simply suppressing a potential rebellion stirred by the Jewish authorities. It is a different situation from responding to an odd, wacky religious leader which seems to be hated by the Jewish authorities for some reason but only had tens of unarmed, mostly poor and powerless followers. It is possible that Pilate would have reacted with the same brutality to Jesus. But it is also possible that he viewed Jesus differently, perhaps buoyed by his personal charisma. Or he just felt differently that day. We don’t know.

We also don’t know how much an account of Josephus (or several of the others you mentioned) is representative of Pilate on a day-to-day basis. It could be that Pilate was a level-headed, fair ruler who just had a bad day and responded brutally, and what gets recorded are the bad things. Of course, I could be wrong. My point is that there is a lot of uncertainty here in assigning the prior probability of Pilate condemning Jesus (versus him not condemning Jesus), P (S_1)/P(S_2) = 0.1. It could be 0.01. It could be 0.2. Or it could be 0.5, if perhaps Pilate was feeling good that day and wanted to toy with the Jewish authorities instead of simply acceding to their request to execute someone they hated.

The Impact of Uncertainty in Priors

This uncertainty in assigning P(S_1) has a great impact on your calculation of the Bayesian odds:
\frac{P(S_1|E)}{P(S_2|E)} = \frac{P(E|S_1)}{P(E|S_2)} \frac{P(S_1)}{P(S_2)}.

In your post, you claim that even if \frac{P(E|S_1)}{P(E|S_2)} = 5 (which we’ll grant as exactly right for the sake of argument), because you assign \frac{P(S_1)}{P(S_2)} = A = 0.1, then multiplying the factors together, we get \frac{P(S_1|E)}{P(S_2|E)} = 0.5. (Note that I have defined the new variable A for the sake of brevity in notation.)

Thus it is twice more likely that S_2 happened compared to S_1. Sounds reasonable!

But this factor of 2 has a huge uncertainty due to the uncertainty of A. If say, we take A = 0.2, then \frac{P(S_1|E)}{P(S_2|E)} = 1. Thus it is now equally likely that S_1 compared to S_2! And taking A = 0.2 is not utterly crazy - we are just saying that Pilate is 83% likely to condemn Jesus, instead of 91% likely.

In fact, if we set conservative limits for A, such as
0.01 < A < 0.5
Then we get
0.05 < \frac{P(S_1|E)}{P(S_2|E)} < 2.5.
In other words, as long as we are taking into account our uncertainties in psycho-analyzing Pilate’s state of mind on that day, affected by environmental and societal factors that we don’t fully have access to, our Bayesian calculations have a huge uncertainty on them - from telling us that it is utterly ridiculous to believe that Pilate could ever be reluctant to condemn Jesus, to telling us that it is 2.5 times more likely than not that he was reluctant to condemn Jesus.

Now if we were to be even more honest and start examining \frac{P(E|S_1)}{P(E|S_2)} which we assigned to be equal to 5 (based on the estimation of 20% probability of the Gospel writers fabricating or mis-remembering the account of the trial), the uncertainty in the calculation goes up even higher. Arguably, one could assign any reasonable value from 0.1 to 10. There is no rigorous argument for assigning it to be 20%. Thus, our bound becomes even looser:

0.0001 < \frac{P(S_1|E)}{P(S_2|E)} < 5

(Note: edited a miscalculation, but conclusion does not change)

As a physicist, a result like the above would raise eyebrows on the soundness of this whole business of trying to micro-analyze the Gospels and assign priors based on limited historical data. Even if I had access to a person whom I knew fairly well, I would not be able to assign A to them with an uncertainty of less than 20-30%. Why do we think we can do so for historical people we know comparatively very little about? At best, our assignment of A or other priors is a reflection of our subjective, personal belief of how probable some reported incident is, affected by our background beliefs and prior commitments. In this case, there’s a wild diversity in such beliefs.

A Note on the McGrews

Note that the McGrews also perform Bayesian analysis in making their case for the Resurrection, but they calculate the probability of general facts, not very specific facts that apply to variable historical situations like Pilate’s state of mind when being dealt with the Jesus case. In addition, the McGrews argue using extremely large or extremely small probabilities, such that a 20-30% uncertainty on their priors would not significantly affect their case. Still, the shakiness of assigning priors based on historical judgment and not more rigorous scientific reasons makes me not take their claim that the Resurrection happened with 0.9999 probability (from their essay in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology as literally true.

Edit: Licona and Bayesian Analysis
Thumbing through my copy of Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus, I noticed that on pages 116-118, Licona basically makes the same argument as I did above, pointing out that historians (he cites David Bartholomew, C. B. McCullagh and even WLC) regard Bayesian analysis of history as subjective due to the inscrutability of priors. He also has a footnote that makes the same exception for the case of the McGrews, who argue that their case can overcome even very small priors.

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Apology accepted, though you seem to misunderstand @dga471 and I.

First of all, You are claiming that a neutral historian would be convinced by @MJAlter but you have not produced any evidence this is the case. Obviously, @MJAlter is not a neutral historian (or a historian of any sort). This is not an attack on his character, but just a brute fact of direct relevance to your claim. I’ve asked you for evidence that any historian has been convinced by his arguments. None have been produced. In fact, people with training in history have noted several of the problems that both @dga471 and I have noted.

Second, we do not believe you are using a sound historical methodology. @dga471 has been explicating this, and I can agree with what he has written. This not a logical way of reasoning, because (as I have said before) it leads ot nihilism. One could not know anything about anything with this sort of reasoning. This is why historians do not reason this way.

Third, we do no believe you are using a fair rhetoric. I’ve compared this to a Gish Gallop, and that is very much what this continues to look like. You flooded the conversation with dozens of weak arguments that are individually easy to refute, but in some total would take too much too much time to deal with in totality. When we have presented explanations of problems with specific arguments, you have essentially ignored them, retreating back to the gallop. This is not a convincing strategy when YECs or anyone else execute it.

You’ve asked to engage the arguments, and we have. We are waiting for you to respond. For example, see what I wrote about communion, one of the more bizarre arguments made by @MJAlter,

You responded:

You propose, without evidence, that it arose gradually, when in fact this does not actually match the evidence we have about the early church.

This is just my point. You are whistling past the graveyard where bad historical arguments go to die. It is a nihilistic argument you are making, leaving all the important questions unasked and ignored. For this reason, I’m certain that this is not what a neutral historian would conclude. At the very least, this is not how they would come to conclude it.

You’ve fallen into a objectively false rhetoric about neutral historians that really needs to be stopped. You can’t justify it, so why continue insisting on it?

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@vjtorley you aren’t be asked to leave. I hope you continue the conversation. Your voice is important and you are raising points that need to be engaged. I’m just asking you to engage how we’ve responded to you, rather than just claiming we never responded.

We are fortunate too to have @Freakazoid here. It would be good for you to engage his work. I’m thinking inviting some other scholars here.

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and, thank you.

Mike

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