Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus

Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus

by Richard C. Carrier

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This in-depth discussion of New Testament scholarship and the challenges of history as a whole proposes Bayes’s Theorem, which deals with probabilities under conditions of uncertainty, as a solution to the problem of establishing reliable historical criteria. The author demonstrates that valid historical methods—not only in the study of Christian origins but in any historical study—can be described by, and reduced to, the logic of Bayes’s Theorem. Conversely, he argues that any method that cannot be reduced to this theorem is invalid and should be abandoned.

Writing with thoroughness and clarity, the author explains Bayes’s Theorem in terms that are easily understandable to professional historians and laypeople alike, employing nothing more than well-known primary school math. He then explores precisely how the theorem can be applied to history and addresses numerous challenges to and criticisms of its use in testing or justifying the conclusions that historians make about the important persons and events of the past. The traditional and established methods of historians are analyzed using the theorem, as well as all the major "historicity criteria" employed in the latest quest to establish the historicity of Jesus. The author demonstrates not only the deficiencies of these approaches but also ways to rehabilitate them using Bayes’s Theorem.

Anyone with an interest in historical methods, how historical knowledge can be justified, new applications of Bayes’s Theorem, or the study of the historical Jesus will find this book to be essential reading.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616145606
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 04/03/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 340
Sales rank: 529,004
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Richard C. Carrier, an independent scholar with a doctorate in ancient history from Columbia University, is the author of Why I Am Not a Christian: Four Conclusive Reasons to Reject the Faith; Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed; and Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism. He has also contributed chapters to The End of Christianity, edited by John W. Loftus; Sources of the Jesus Tradition: Separating History from Myth, edited by R. Joseph Hoffmann; The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, edited by John W. Loftus; and The Empty Tomb: Jesus beyond the Grave, edited by Robert Price and Jeffery Lowder.

Read an Excerpt


By Richard C. Carrier

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2012 Richard C. Carrier
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-559-0

Chapter One


A part from fundamentalist Christians, all experts agree the Jesus of the Bible is buried in myth and legend. But attempts to ascertain the "real" historical Jesus have ended in confusion and failure. The latest attempt to cobble together a method for teasing out the truth involved developing a set of criteria. But it has since been demonstrated that all those criteria, as well as the whole method of their employment, are fatally flawed. Every expert who has seriously examined the issue has already come to this conclusion. In the words of Gerd Theissen, "There are no reliable criteria for separating authentic from inauthentic Jesus tradition." Stanley Porter agrees. Dale Allison likewise concludes, "these criteria have not led to any uniformity of result, or any more uniformity than would have been the case had we never heard of them," hence "the criteria themselves are seriously defective" and "cannot do what is claimed for them." Even Porter's attempt to develop new criteria has been shot down by unveiling all the same problems. And Porter had to agree. The growing consensus now is that this entire quest for criteria has failed. The entire field of Jesus studies has thus been left without any valid method.

What went wrong? The method of criteria suffers at least three fatal flaws. The first two are failures of individual criteria. Either a given criterion is invalidly applied (e.g., the evidence actually fails to fulfill the criterion, contrary to a scholar's assertion or misapprehension), or the criterion itself is invalid (e.g., the criterion depends upon a rule of inference that is inherently fallacious, contrary to a scholar's intuition), or both. To work, a criterion must be correctly applied and its logical validity established. But meeting the latter requirement always produces such restrictions on meeting the former requirement as to make any criterion largely useless in practice, especially in the study of Jesus, where the evidence is very scarce and problematic. The third fatal flaw lies in the entire methodology. All criteria-based methods suffer this same defect, which I call the 'Threshold Problem': At what point does meeting any number of criteria warrant the conclusion that some detail is probably historical? Is meeting one enough? Or two? Or three? Do all the criteria carry the same weight? Does every instance of meeting the same criterion carry the same weight? And what do we do when there is evidence both for and against the same conclusion? In other words, even if meeting the criteria validly increases the likelihood of some detail being true, when does that likelihood increase to the point of being effectively certain, or at least probable? No discussions of these historicity criteria have made any headway in answering this question. This book will.


The quest for the historical Jesus has failed spectacularly. Several times. Historians now even count the number of times. With the latest quest (numbered "the third") and its introduction of criteria, the concept of Jesus we're supposed to believe existed is actually getting more confused and uncertain the more scholars study it, rather than the other way around. Progress is supposed to increase knowledge and consensus and sharpen the picture of what happened (or what we don't know), not the reverse. Instead, Jesus scholars continue multiplying contradictory pictures of Jesus, rather than narrowing them down and increasing their clarity—or at least reaching a consensus on the scale and scope of our uncertainty or ignorance. More importantly, the many contradictory versions of Jesus now confidently touted by different Jesus scholars are all so very plausible—yet not all can be true. In fact, as only one can be (and that at most), almost all must be false. So the establishment of this kind of "strong plausibility" has been decisively proved not to be a reliable indicator of the truth. Yet Jesus scholars keep treating it as if it were. This has left us with a confused mass of disparate opinions, vast libraries of theories and interpretations essentially impossible to keep up with, and no real efforts at improving or criticizing the worst and gathering the best into any sort of coherent, consensus view of what actually happened at the dawn of Christianity, or even during its first two hundred years.

I won't recount the whole history of historical Jesus research here, as that has been done to death already. Indeed, accounts of the many "quests" for the historical Jesus and their failure are legion, each with their own extensive bibliography. Just to pick one out of a hat, Mark Strauss summarizes, in despair, the many Jesuses different scholars have "discovered" in the evidence recently. Jesus the Jewish Cynic Sage. Jesus the Rabbinical Holy Man (or Devoted Pharisee, or Heretical Essene, or any of a dozen other contradictory things). Jesus the Political Revolutionary or Zealot Activist. Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet. And Jesus the Messianic Pretender (or even, as some still argue, Actual Messiah). And that's not even a complete list. We also have Jesus the Folk Wizard (championed most famously by Morton Smith in Jesus the Magician, and most recently by Robert Conner in Magic in the New Testament). Jesus the Mystic and "Child of Sophia" (championed by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and John Shelby Spong). Jesus the Nonviolent Social Reformer (championed by Bruce Malina and others). Or even Jesus the Actual Davidic Heir and Founder of a Royal Dynasty (most effectively argued in The Jesus Dynasty by James Tabor, who also sees Jesus as a kind of ancient David Koresh, someone who delusionally, and suicidally, believed he was sent by God and charismatically gathered followers; not surprising, as Tabor is also a Koresh expert, having been an FBI consultant during the siege at Waco, and subsequently authoring Why Waco?). There are even recent versions of Jesus that place him in a different historical place and time, arguing the Gospels were mistaken on when and where Jesus actually lived and taught. Or that conclude astonishing things like that he arranged his own execution to effect a ritual sacrifice to magically cleanse the land. We even get confused attempts to make Jesus everything at once (or half of everything at once, since most theories are too contradictory to reconcile), for instance insisting we should understand him to have been "a prophet in the tradition of Israel's prophetic figures ... a teacher and rabbi, or subversive pedagogue of the oppressed ... a traditional healer and exorcist, a shamanistic figure ... [and] a reputational leader who brokers the justice of Yahweh's covenant and coming reign," whatever that means.

This still isn't even a complete list. As Helmut Koester concluded after his own survey, "The vast variety of interpretations of the historical Jesus that the current quest has proposed is bewildering." James Charlesworth concurs, concluding that "what had been perceived to be a developing consensus in the 1980s has collapsed into a chaos of opinions." The fact that almost no one agrees with anyone else should compel all Jesus scholars to deeply question whether their certainty in their own theory is really even warranted, since everyone else is just as certain, and yet they should all be fully competent to arrive at a sound conclusion from the evidence. Obviously something is fundamentally wrong with the methods of the entire community. Which means you cannot claim to be a part of that community and not accept that there must be something fundamentally wrong with your own methods. Indeed, some critics argue the methods now employed in the field succeed no better than divination by Tarot Card reading—because scholars see whatever they want to see and become totally convinced their interpretation is right, when instead they should see this very fact as a powerful reason to doubt the validity of their methods in the first place.

When everyone picks up the same method, applies it to the same facts, and gets a different result, we can be certain that that method is invalid and should be abandoned. Yet historians in Jesus studies don't abandon the demonstrably failed methods they purport to employ. This has to end. Historians must work together to develop a method that, when applied to the same facts, always gives the same result; a result all historians can agree must be correct (which is to say, the most probable result, as no one imagines certainty is possible, especially in ancient history). If historians can't agree on what that method should be, then their whole enterprise is in crisis, because agreement on the fundamentals of method is the first essential requirement for any community of experts to deem itself an objective profession.


In this book I will present a new method that solves the problems attending the 'method of criteria' so progress can finally be made in the field of Jesus studies. But the method I propose is not limited to that field. It can be employed, and I argue should be employed, in every field of historical study. The quest for the historical Jesus is the principle example on which this book's argument will focus, and this can be taken by Jesus scholars as of direct relevance to their work, but by all other historians as only an example that they can use as a model for adapting the same methodology to any other field or question in history.

The solution I propose involves understanding and applying Bayes's Theorem. To make the case for this, I will have to explain and defend this theorem's structure and application (chapter 3), show how all other valid historical methods actually reduce to it (chapter 4), and exemplify how applying it to specialized questions in history can improve results, in particular by using that theorem to show how and why all historicity criteria in the study of Jesus have failed and what it would take for them to succeed (chapter 5). I then take up more technical questions about the applicability and application of Bayes's Theorem (chapter 6). But before embarking, I must set the groundwork for historical reasoning generally (chapter 2), to make sure we're all on the same page.


Excerpted from PROVING HISTORY by Richard C. Carrier Copyright © 2012 by Richard C. Carrier. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. The Problem....................11
2. The Basics....................17
3. Introducing Bayes's Theorem....................41
4. Bayesian Analysis of Historical Methods....................97
5. Bayesian Analysis of Historicity Criteria....................121
6. The Hard Stuff....................207
Common Abbreviations....................291

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