Monday, January 31, 2011

Was Jesus Raised: Finding Our Values

Remember those four questions that needed to be answered:

1. What is the probability of our hypothesis being true independent of its explanatory power?
2. Assuming our hypothesis is true, and taking into account other facts we know about the world, how likely is it that we would have the evidence that we have?
3. What is the probability of our hypothesis not being true independent of its explanatory power?
4. Assuming our hypothesis is not true, and taking into account other facts we know about the world, how likely is it that we would have the evidence that we have?

We can now begin to answer these questions. I will assume that, for the sake of argument, all the evidence we have is 100% likely if the resurrection occurred (that's our answer to question 2).

On question 1: Since we have strong confirmation that billions of people have died and stayed dead, never returning to life, and since we also have no other strong evidence that a miracle has occurred, it follows that miracles, if they even occur at all, are rare. After all, if miracles were even a one-in-ten-million sort of event, wouldn't we have overwhelming confirmation of one having occurred? With all those video cameras running (some 24/7) all over the world, wouldn't we know about miracles if they occurred with a frequency of even 1 in 100 million? Therefore, even granting the existence of a miracle-working God, the prior probability of a miracle is low. It is even lower if one takes the evidence against God's existence into account, which I won't do here. For now, we'll set the prior probability of God raising Jesus at 1 in 100 billion (That's our answer to question 1). It follows that the prior probability of God not raising Jesus is 99,999,999,999 out of 100 billion (that's our answer to question 3). The McGrews shouldn't have any problem with the prior probability being what it is, as they allow that the prior could be as low as 1 in 10^40.

Question #4 is more difficult to answer and will require at least two more long blog posts: If the resurrection didn't happen, how likely is it that we would have the report of an empty tomb, reports of various people seeing Jesus individually and in groups on a couple of occasions? Lots of considerations will go into figuring that out.

To my surprise, the McGrews actually didn't even present all of the various arguments for the resurrection. They're not to be blamed for this, necessarily, since they can only focus on a few things in their article. However, I'm going to incorporate some of the other arguments for the resurrection into my considerations.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Was Jesus Raised: Bayes' Theorem

The McGrews' approach to proving the resurrection is Bayesian; That is, it employs Bayes' Theorem.

In order to address their argument I realized that I had to become familiar with Bayes' Theorem. So I went to my local library and found a textbook called Introduction to Probability and Statistics which had an introduction to Bayes' Theorem.

According to the book, the theorem should be used when various theories are both mutually exclusive and exhaustive. In the case of the Resurrection, I think it's quite clear how we can do this; Logically there are only two possibilities: Either the resurrection occurred or it did not, and these are mutually exclusive.

Bayes' Theorem can be expressed this way:

Pr (h/e.b) = Pr (h.b) x Pr (e.h&b) / [Pr (h.b) x Pr (e.h&b)] + [Pr (not-h.b) x Pr (e.not-h&b)]

This looks scary as hell, I know. So let me explain what all this means Pr (h/e.b) describes what we're trying to figure out: What is the probability (Pr) of a hypothesis (h) given the evidence we have (e) and our "backround knowledge" (b) ? In other words, how likely is the hypothesis we are proposing, all things considered? That's what Bayes' Theorem helps us figure out.

According to Bayes, we can figure out how likely a hypothesis is if we know the following values:

1. What is the probability of our hypothesis being true independent of its explanatory power?
2. Assuming our hypothesis is true, and taking into account other facts we know about the world, how likely is it that we would have the evidence that we have?
3. What is the probability of our hypothesis not being true independent of its explanatory power?
4. Assuming our hypothesis is not true, and taking into account other facts we know about the world, how likely is it that we would have the evidence that we have?

The values of these four things can then be plugged into Bayes' Theorem and will answer how our question: All things considered, how likely is it that our hypothesis is correct?

A Test Case

The book that I checked out gives the following example on page 157 which I will paraphrase:

Medical case histories tell us that different illnesses may produce the same symptoms. Pretend that a particular set of symptoms (refered "H") occurs only when any of the three illnesses A, B, or C occur. For simplicity assume that these illnesses are mutually exclusive (they never occur in the same person).

Here's how often people in general get these illnesses:
A occurs in one percent of the population
B occurs in half of one percent of the population
C occurs in two percent of the population

When illness A is present, the probability of symptom H developing is .9 (or 90 percent). When illness B is present, the probability of symptom H developing is .95 When illness C is present, it's .75 .

Now, pretend we're doctors and we observe that our patient has symptom H. How likely is it that this person has illness A?

Bayes' Theorem allows us to figure that out from the above information. Remember those four questions I posed earlier? Let's take them one at a time:

1. What is the probability of our hypothesis being true independent of its explanatory power?

Our hypothesis, in this case, is that the patient has illness A. We know illness A occurs in one percent of the population, so the answer to this is .01

2. Assuming our hypothesis is true, and taking into account other facts we know about the world, how likely is it that we would have the evidence that we have?

The answer to this is in the information that we're given about the probability of symptom H occurring if illness A is present. The answer to that is .9

3. What is the probability of our hypothesis not being true independent of its explanatory power?

Things are a little bit trickier here, since there are two other hypotheses on the table (the hypothesis of illness B and the hypothesis of illness C). But we do know how likely they are, independent of their explanatory value, and that is contained in the statement given earlier:
Here's how often people in general get these illnesses:
B occurs in half of one percent of the population
C occurs in two percent of the population

4. Assuming our hypothesis is not true, and taking into account other facts we know about the world, how likely is it that we would have the evidence that we have?

The probability of the evidence that illnesses B and C is, of course, given earlier as .95 and .75, respectively.

These four questions give us every value we need to figure out the overall likelihood that the patient has illness A. Let's go back to the equation:

Pr (h.b) x Pr (e.h&b) / [Pr (h.b) x Pr (e.h&b)] + [Pr (not-h.b) x Pr (e.not-h&b)]

One at a time: The probability (Pr) of the hypothesis (h) given our backround knowledge (b) is answered by question 1, it is .01

We must multiply that number by the Probability (Pr) of the evidence (e) assuming our hypothesis is true (h) and given all our other medical knowledge (b). This value is given by question 2, it is .9

When we multiply .01 by .9, we get .009
We can put that in our equation:

.009 / [Pr (h.b) x Pr (e.h&b)] + [Pr (not-h.b) x Pr (e.not-h&b)]

Now, look at what's in that first set of brackets following the slash. The symbols there are precisely the same as those that were in front of the slash. Therefore that should be replaced with the same number:

.009 / [.009] + [Pr (not-h.b) x Pr (e.not-h&b)]

Not so scary anymore, huh?

The only thing left is to plug in the alternatives to our hypothesis. There are two alternatives to our hypothesis, not just one alternative which might be implied by the crude expression "not-h" or NOT our hypothesis. So our equation needs to take into account B and C:

.009 / [.009] + [Pr (B.b) x Pr (e.B&b)] + [Pr (C.b) x Pr (e.C&b]

For both of these bracketed equations we're doing something very similar to what we've done before. We need to find the probability of B given our backround knowledge, then find how likely the evidence is assuming B is true, then multiply those two figures together. The same goes for our next set of bracketed symbols: find the probability of C given our backround knowledge, then find how likely the evidence is assuming C is true, then multiply those two figures together.

If you've been reading my post and paying attention, you'll already know what numbers to put in:

.009 / [.009] + [.005 x .95] + [.02 x .75]

Now work that out:

.009 / [.009] + [.00475] + [.015]

Add the numbers in brackets together:

.009 / .02875

Now divide, of course, and you'll get a number of roughly .3130 or 31.3%

I checked the answer I got here against the answer given in the end of my textbook and it confirmed this answer.

The Relevance of This Post

Now that we've gotten some backround in Bayes' Theorem, how does this apply to the Resurrection? Just as we can estimate the intrinsic likelihood of a disease, so too we can estimate the intrinsic likelihood of a resurrection, as I will demonstrate in future posts. Just as we can look for symptoms of a disease, so too can we look for "symptoms" of a resurrection (i.e. the tradition of an empty tomb) and we can estimate how likely these symptoms are if the resurrection happened versus how likely these symptoms are if the resurrection did not happen. As I'll demonstrate in future posts, we have ways of estimating values for each of the four questions I presented earlier. And so we can make a definitive statement about whether the resurrection happened.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Was Jesus Raised: Burial of Jesus

Lately I've been trying to come to some conclusions on Jesus' burial.

It seems highly probable to me that Jesus was buried somewhere, however, the question of whether the burial was simply in a hole in the ground or a tomb is difficult to sort out.

It has been suggested by some (i.e. John Dominic Crossan) that Jesus was simply left on the cross and not given a burial. But look at Deuteronomy 21:22-23:

"If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance." (Note that some translations say "tree" instead of "pole").

This theme is repeated throughout Jewish literature: that even criminals are supposed to buried, and therefore it is likely that Jesus would have been buried, at least if the Jewish authorities had any say-so in the matter. And they probably did, for there is evidence that during peacetime Roman authorities would comply with the local Jewish customs. See chapter 2 of Doubting Jesus' Resurrection

Also note that Shimon Gibson concurs with this on page 132 of The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence

Last night I was reading something on google.books but I can no longer find it. It was discussing John Dominic Crossan's suggestion that most (perhaps all) criminals in first-century Palestine were simply tossed in burial pits. Against this claim was an archaeological find in which a skeleton was found in a tomb with a nail lodged in its foot. Crossan claimed that the fact that the we have only one skeleton of a crucified victim in a tomb proves that it was the exception and not the rule. Against this claim it was shown that crucifixion did not always involve nails and that when it did the nails were often removed because they were reguarded as having magical powers (in this particular find the nail wasn't removed because it was stuck between the bones). I'd say, on this issue, Crossan is completely wrong. The fact that we have a skeleton with such an usual feature (having the nail stuck in bones) would be something very rare, and we would only be likely to make such a find if many other crucified victims were buried in tombs (the other victims would not, of course, be recognizable as victims of crucifixion because of reasons mentioned previously).

So, based on what I've found so far, burial in a tomb is at least plausible, although some of the details in Mark's story are not. Burial in the ground is also plausible, I think, and I know of no good evidence that would render ground-burial-of-Jesus implausible.

In future posts concerning this issue I won't bring up Jesus' burial in a tomb as a point of contention, since, as I've said, I consider it to be a highly plausible hypothesis (though I don't consider it proven or greatly superior to the ground burial hypothesis).

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

James McGrath's Blogging on Mythicism

James McGrath has posted a list of blog posts he's written concerning Jesus mythicism:

I haven't read every post yet, but I have read a few. And I'd say it's definitely a must if you are thinking about mythicism. The problems he's outlined with the theory and with the way in which its proponents argue (of which I have been guilty of in the past, I'm ashamed to say) are very clear.

Was Jesus Raised: Backround Facts

This is the sixth post of my blog series concerning Tim and Lydia McGrews' A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. This post will concern pages 12 through 14.

The McGrews seek to establish two facts: one being that Jesus died and the second being that he was buried in a tomb.

The first fact, that Jesus died, is intended to establish that Jesus did not simply "faint" or "swoon" on the cross and then later appear to his followers. I agree that Jesus probably died. Nonetheless, it is worth inquiring: Is it more likely that Jesus was raised from the dead or that he simply fainted on the cross, recovered in the tomb, and appeared to his followers later on before disappearing? Both the resurrection and the swoon theory have exceedingly low prior probabilities. We know resurrection is improbable because it doesn't happen to anyone in our experience. On the other hand, people have been mistaken for dead before. Though it seems unlikely that Roman executioners would be bad enough at their job not to make sure Jesus was dead, the improbability does not equal impossibility. Another thing: I have no backround knowledge that supernatural entities exist, from which it follows that it might not even be possible for a resurrection to occur. On the other hand, the swoon theory, though very, very, very unlikely, is at least possible.

The swoon theory, on the other hand, seems to fall on the horns of whether it would cause early Christian belief. Would the disciples actually see a worn out, bloody Jesus and conclude that it was a supernatural resurrection from the dead and that God had vindicated Jesus? On this point I genuinely don't know. Seeing Jesus alive again (even in bad condition) might have been monumental enough to the disciples to conclude that it was a miracle.

Anyway, it's not important or worth my time to spend much time disputing whether Jesus actually died or whether the swoon theory (as shitty a theory as it is) has more merit than the resurrection hypothesis, since there are other, better alternatives that I will blog on later.

The only other point of focus here is whether Jesus was buried in a tomb or in the ground. If it was more likely the latter, then the empty tomb story is bogus, in which case Christians lose a big piece of their case for the resurrection. The case that Jesus was buried in the ground is made superbly by Kris Komarnitsky in Doubting Jesus' Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?

The McGrews object to the common burial hypothesis on two grounds: 1) It requires dismissing the Markan burial report and 2) It requires dismissing the burial report in 1 Corinthians. Neither of these objections are strong.

To take the second objection first, the McGrews contention that 1 Corinthinas argues against the common burial hypothesis is absurd. 1 Corinthians 15 simply reports that Jesus "was buried... was raised" it doesn't tell us whether Jesus was buried in a rock-hewn tomb or in the ground.

On the Markan burial report, the McGrews tell us:

"In order to maintain this position, Crossan must dismiss the burial narrative in Mark 15:42-47 as a fabrication; accordingly he does, stressing the incongruity in the description of Joseph of Arimathea (a follower of Jesus vs. a member of the Sanhedrin, who all condemned Jesus) and the absence of a motive for his burying just Jesus rather than all three of the crucifixion victims. Crossan argues that the motive cannot have been either piety or duty, for then he would have buried the thieves as well; he concludes that 'Mark created that burial by Joseph of Arimathea in 15:42-47. It contains no pre-Markan tradition.' (Crossan, 1998, p. 555) For good measure, Crossan adds that Mark created the story of the women’s discovery of the empty tomb.

"In company with the majority of New Testament scholars, we find this argument wholly unpersuasive. The very tension Crossan sees in the description of Joseph of Arimathea would count as evidence against his being an invented character. Why, if Mark were embellishing the narrative, would he invent someone who appears nowhere else in his gospel and give him such a pivotal role?"

There's a very easy explanation for this one: Mark's theme of reversal of expectation. Jesus was supposed to be buried by his father, Joseph, but is instead buried by another Joseph, Joseph of Arimathea. See especially pages 226-228 of Bart Ehrman's book Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend.

The McGrews continue with their objections:

"If he did, why would he present a description of that character that generated questions? But in any event, it is not terribly hard to find plausible answers to Crossan’s questions. Anyone who has ever been a member of a committee understands that sometimes decisions are made by the committee as a body in the absence of some of its members, and those decisions are recorded as unanimous. As for Joseph’s motives for burying Jesus, Crossan employs too narrow a set of alternatives when he considers only piety and duty. There is also the reason implicitly given in the text itself: a disciple’s love, which would not extend to the thieves. And we do not know in any event whether, had he been so inclined, he would have had either time or the opportunity to bury the others. This is a profoundly inadequate set of reasons to abandon an inconvenient section of a primary source – or, in this case, four primary sources."

A "disciple's love" of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea is ad hoc. Nonetheless, why would Joseph of Arimathea only attend to Jesus' body and not the other three? Even if he did have a secret love for Jesus, why would he do something like this that might call attention to him and get him killed? I mean, as a member of the Sanhedrin you wouldn't want anyone to know that you had any special admiration for Jesus as opposed to the other two criminals?

As a final consideration, I quote from Peter Kirby's essay on the empty tomb:

[T]here is a plausible significance to the name Arimathea. Richard Carrier speculates, Is the word a pun on 'best disciple,' ari[stos] mathe[tes]? Matheia means 'disciple town' in Greek; Ari- is a common prefix for superiority." Since commentators have seen the burial by the outsider Joseph of Arimathea as a contrast to the failure of the disciples and intimates of Jesus, the coincidence that Arimathea can be read as "best disciple town" is staggering. Indeed, it is good evidence that Joseph of Arimathea is a fictional character and that the
tomb burial story in the Gospel of Mark is also fictional.

In conclusion, I find that there is a very strong consideration against Jesus' burial in a tomb: Tomb burial was not common amongst the poor (See Komarnitsky on this point) and therefore unlikely in the case of Jesus. On the other hand, there aren't any very strong considerations that Jesus was buried in a tomb. Our information on that point derives from the gospel of Mark but there are plausible reasons that show that Mark's story is a fiction and there are some points on which Mark's narrative makes little sense.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Was Jesus Raised: Reliability and Authorship of NT Documents

This is the fifth post of my blog series concerning Tim and Lydia McGrews' A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. This post will concern pages 8 through 12.

The McGrews tell us that:

"The extreme late dating of John’s gospel advocated by Loisy had already been undermined by discoveries in another field. The papyrus fragment p52, which is independently dated by paleographers to the first half of the second century, contains a few sentences of John’s gospel."

The source cited for this claim was Bruce Metzger in a publication from 1978 (!). Metzger was a great scholar, no doubt, but I don't think that's legitimate to toss out such an old reference with checking it against newer material. So, I took it upon myself to check the current scholarly thinking about the dating of John. What do they think?

On page 194 of Expectations of the End (2009) Albert Hogeterp tells us that the gospel of John is usually dated about 90 AD, but cautions us in a footnote that papyrus 52 could date as early as the second century or as late as the early third century (!!) based on a recent analysis.

On Page 165 of Jesus in the Gospels and Acts (2009) similar reservations are expressed. It is stated that scholars have questioned the early dating of the papyrus fragment and seems to imply that since the gospel of John underwent at least one major revision, we can't really know which version of John's Gospel this papyrus was, since we have only a tiny fragment.

On Page 108 of John: The Son of Zebedee (2000) we find yet another iteration of current scholarly opinion: that papyrus 52 may date as late as 200 AD.

On the Reliability of Acts

The McGrews take a few stabs at establishing the reliability of the book of Acts. Here are the historical accuracies they have listed:

"The discovery in Caesarea Maritima in 1961 of an inscription bearing Pilate’s name and title, the discovery of a boundary stone of the emperor Claudius bearing the name of Sergius Paulus (cf. Acts 13:7)..."

"Small details [of Acts] were questioned by members of the Tübingen school, such as the use of kyrios as a designation for the emperor in Acts 25:26, have turned out instead to provide evidence for the accuracy of Acts, since numerous papyri subsequently discovered show that this term had been used in Egypt and the East for the reigning emperor since Ptolemaic times, though it became widespread under Nero and later."

It's not been easy for me to tell exactly what they mean with these examples. The first quote: an inscription was discovered which bore Pilate's name and title. To my knowledge the existence of Pontius Pilate has never been in doubt, nor has his title of "prefect" been in doubt or used as some sort of basis to attack the gospels. In fact, Pilate and his title as prefect are mentioned in Tacitus' Annals. So how can this be seen as anything but a trivial detail which that the New Testament documents get right? This isn't overwhelming confirmation by any stretch of charitable imagination. The same can be said for the boundary stone of Claudius and the use of kyrios as a designation for the emperor: these may provide corroboration for Acts, but the corroboration seems to me very, very weak.

With that in mind, are there any reasons not to trust the book of Acts? I think so. In Galatians chapter 1:15-17 Paul gives us his own account of what happened after his vision of Jesus:

"But when it pleased reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus."

On the other hand, the Book of Acts chapter 9:5-18 tells us us that after Paul's vision he met with Ananias (i.e., consorted with flesh and blood) after being brought directly into Damascus (not going to Arabia before returning to Damascus). Acts 9:9 tells us that Paul was without sight three days; and yet Ananias is with Paul when he recieves his sight back. That's important because Paul has just told us that he did "not immediately confer with flesh and blood" after his conversion but according to Acts he did so within three days. There's also the issue of whether or not Paul visited with all of the disciples after his conversion. Acts tells us one thing, Paul himself tells us another in Galatians.

At the present time I don't know of any other reasons for distrusting Acts, but as I've detailed below I am planning on reading a book about Acts, so at some point in the future I'll blog on this issue further.

On the Date of Acts

Should the Book of Acts be dated as early (as in mid-first century) or late (as in early second century)? I am undecided. I have managed to find an online copy of a book cited by the McGrews called Redating the New Testament which argues that the bulk of the New Testament was written before the end of the first century. When I have the time I am going to read it. I've also found a critique of the work on the website Rejection of Pascal's Wager. Yesterday I ordered a copy of Richard Pervo's work The Mystery of Acts: Unraveling Its Story which is supposed to be a highly critical work on the Book of Acts that shows that the book is ahistorical. I'm on the lookout for any critiques of that work that I can find, so if anyone can direct me to a criticial review of his work please post a comment letting me know where to find it. At some point in the future when I have managed to read and digest all of these things I will post a summary of my conclusions.

On Q

On page 9 the McGrews once again try to kick sand over New Testament theories they don't like, in this case they go after the Q document. They gleefully report that Q is "entirely hypothetical" and that there is "not a whisper of it in any writing of the early church fathers."
It is true that we don't have a hard copy of Q. Nonetheless, Q, or something like Q, is a practically inescapable deduction from the facts we have. How else would we explain so much common material between Matthew and Luke which aren't found in Mark? The McGrews reasons for doubting Q, that a hard copy of it doesn't exist and that no church fathers mention it, are very weak. First: They are contradicting themselves by making an "Argument from Silence" against the Q document (if you recall, they were extremely dismissive towards arguments from silence... That is, when such arguments were used to cast doubt upon the gospels). Second, we already know that a lot of early church documents weren't handed down to us in the present day. In 1 Corinthians 5:9 Paul tells us that he had previously written a letter to the Corinthians... A letter which we don't have, which was lost over time. Nor do we have the Logia of Jesus that Papias refers to, but that doesn't mean there was no such thing. Third, and this is the most damning point of all: The word "Q" is a recent invention to designate the postulated source between Matthew and Luke. If the document originally had a name, it most certainly wasn't Q. And that's important, because some scholars believe that the Logia of Jesus is the Q document, which means that there is no argument from silence to be made after all. In the book Sources of the Jesus Tradition Dennis MacDonald argues that the Logia is the long lost hypothetical Q document, and that in fact this document was a rewritten version of Deuteronomy designed to show Jesus' superiority to Moses (fascinating, I know!).

On the Gospel of Matthew

According to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE), Papias mentions the Logia of Matthew as being first written in Hebrew, which the McGrews interpret as being the Gospel of Matthew, and at that being the gospel which we have in the New Testament today. This is extremely dubious. As is laid out in the ISBE on pages 280-282, "Logia" probably does not refer to a Gospel, not least because the evidence clearly shows that the Gospel of Matthew we have is not a translated document. Secondly, the Gospel of Matthew that we have today may very well not have been written by Matthew. In fact, if the real Matthew wrote a gospel that wouldn't preclude in any way the possibility that the gospel was lost and Matthew's name was attached to another gospel that he didn't write which became what we now have in our bibles as "The Gospel of Matthew"). As documented by Helmut Koester, more than one early church father attributed the gospel of Thomas to Thomas the follower of Jesus. Would the McGrews accept this evidence as strong indications that the Gospel of Thomas really was written by Thomas? I doubt it, and neither would I. Bottom line: The church traditions concerning the gospels aren't reliable, not least because they are wildly contradictory (which the McGrews give examples of). And that they contradict one another doesn't prove they are totally independent traditions. If, in the early Christian community, there arose a rumor that Matthew wrote one of the gospels circulating, then that rumor might get passed around through many "chinese whisper" generations and evolve into several distinct (yet similar) traditions about the gospel. And if the church fathers were relying purely on their on memory of the traditions in question when they were writing about them, then they become even more unreliable. All of us have seen someone botch the details of a story they are recalling.

Were the Gospels from Eyewitnesses? And if they were then doesn't that mean they're reliable?

No and No. The McGrews quote Richard Bauckham, who believes that the gospels show indications that they were composed on the basis of eyewitness testimony. As John J. Pilch pointed out in his review of Bauckham*: "[A]nyone even superficially familiar with Mediterranean society understandsthat people often report what others want to hear (e.g., eyewitnesses testifying to weaponsof mass destmction in Iraq). In the Bible, consider 1 Kings 22 or Jeremiah 27-28."

And things get even worse. For one of the things Bauckham proposes is that the Twelve Apostles are named in order to identify them as eyewitnesses and also that the twelve were responsible for assuring the accuracy of the gospel narratives. But if that were true, how is it (As Stephen J. Patterson noted**) that we ended up with four wildly divergent accounts? If the Twelve took it upon themselves to "peer review" the manuscripts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, then whence so many discrepancies? I have already pointed to plenty of bullshit in the gospels. As Richard Carrier pointed out in his essay on the Resurrection, why is it that no one else in history noticed the tearing of the temple veil mentioned in Mark's passion narrative, not even the priests whose sole duty was attendance of the veil? Also see my previous post on the subject of gospel reliability here. Fact is, either the gospels are not based on eyewitness testimony or the eyewitnesses are pathological liars. Neither hypothesis is encouraging for someone arguing the resurrection.


* John J. Pilch, Review of "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses," Catholic Biblical Quarterly; Jan. 2008, Vol. 70 Issue 1, p137-139.

** Stephen J. Patterson, Review of "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses," Review of Biblical Literature; 2010, Vol. 12, p365-369.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Was Jesus Raised: Notes on Carrier

Although I have been reviewing Tim and Lydia McGrew's argument on the resurrection, I have decided to give a brief rundown of Richard Carrier's Why the Resurrection is Unbelievable which is a chapter of that (highly recommended) book The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails.

Carrier's Basic Contentions

1. Herodotus, who was an educated, careful, and generally reliable historian, reports all kinds of fantastic tales, such as a fortress that magically defended itself with armaments. But no one would believe any of Herodotus' wild tales, and since Herodotus' credibility is equal to or greater than the Gospels, we shouldn't believe the Gospels when they tell us that a man came back from the dead.

Point of interest: yesterday I posted about how the gospels had some degree of archaeological support, a real boasting point for Tim and Lydia McGrew. Well, guess what: Herodotus has recieved some fantastic corroboration, and even some corroboration for issues about which some historians thought he was full of it. His fantastic tale of giant ants, for example, probably refers to something real (!), he correctly identified the first pharaoh and the builders of the pyramids, he correctly reported that Medes was overthrown by Cyrus, and he's been vindicated by various topological and archaeological surveys, as has been reported in the Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writings.

2. The Resurrection of Jesus is an extraordinary claim. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The evidence for the resurrection is not extraordinary because it comes from poor sources, and, even if those poor sources were right about basic things such as an empty tomb, such evidence could never be called truly "extraordinary."

On the sources: Our Sources are (1) Paul and (2) the Gospels. Paul is not reliable because, as he tells us in Galatians 1, he gets his gospel from Old Testament Scripture and from personal revelation of God. We wouldn't accept the word of a cult leader today who claimed God revealed the truth to him or that he could find hidden messages in Old Scripture (such claims are reminiscent of Charles Manson believing that the Beatles were giving him messages through their songs). Therefore Paul is not a reliable source for true historical events, because he does not use a method we would consider to be reliably tracking the truth.

The gospels aren't reliable either, for a number of reasons:
(a) they are wildly contradictory (just read the resurrection stories of each one).
(b) they report extravagent events that aren't reported anywhere else, even though such fantastic things would have been reported if they really happened. For example, they report that the temple curtain was torn after Jesus' death. But that isn't reported anywhere by anyone, even though there were priests whose sole duty was to attend the temple veil.
(c) The gospels are full of symbolic fiction, as Carrier demonstrates with his example of the passion narrative imitating the scapegoat ritual, and has been shown by others in works such as Gospel Fictions and The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark.
(d) they contain interpolations and later additions, which makes their original content somewhat suspect (I don't fully agree with Carrier on this point, and I'll elaborate on that later).
(e) the gospels were born in an environment that was short on skepticism and full of credulity and fraud, which doesn't give us any reassurance that the gospels must be true; the fact that they were passed down to us is not an indication that they were considered credible by any careful, critical, and skeptical person(s).

3. Natural explanations of Christian beliefs are more credible. This true because (a) natural explanations are intrinsically more likely (b) they have greater explanatory scope, they explain why Christianity has so much in common with other religious movements of the time and (c) natural explanations explain why Jesus was only seen by a Paul and a handful of others after his death, instead of appearing to the whole world, which is something God would certainly do if he endorsed the Christian religion.

Where I Disagree with Carrier

On page 302 Carrier tells us that Mark 16:9-20 was "'snuck in'" by "dishonest Christians." He says that the story of the woman caught in adultery, long known to be a later addition to the text of John, a "forgery" which was "deceitfully inserted after the fact." He finishes up with, "We have no way of knowing what got added to the version we now have in the Bible."

I think this is a little uncharitable. First, the insertions and additions that occurred in the New Testament may not be dishonest. Maybe a scribe figured that Mark's ending had been "cut off" from his copy of the Gospel (as some scholars have proposed today), and decided to fill in the blanks as best he could by writing a new ending. Such an action wouldn't be dishonest to my mind. The same goes for the story of the woman in adultery: it could be an illicit forgery, or it could simply be some piece of oral tradition or something that got inserted into the gospel by a Christian who wanted to see it preserved; by a Christian who thought he was doing nothing more than augmenting someone else's gospel.

And as for Carrier's statement: "We have no way of knowing what got added to the version we now have in the Bible." That is way off. The field of lower criticism has ways of knowing (such as: when a verse isn't present in our earliest manuscripts, which is how we know Mark 16:9-20 is a later addition). The field of higher criticism has ways of telling when something is out of place or uncharacteristic, an example being 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16 which, to my mind, is certainly an interpolation because of its antisemitism (not characteristic of Thessalonian's author) and because the chapter reads just fine when the passage in question is removed.

Carrier may have meant something along the lines of, "We have no way of being absolutely certain about the original text of the New Testament." Which is true. If some addition or change was made to the New Testament in the early time from which we have no manuscripts, and if the finished text reveals no clues showing us that the passage in question is interpolated, then we won't know about it. And that is a significant concern which ought to decrease our confidence in the evidence for the resurrection, at least slightly.

And that's it. Those are my only concerns with Carrier's chapter. Other than that, I approve of it and highly recommend it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Was Jesus Raised: Form Criticism, Archaeology, and the Gospels

This is the third post of my blog series concerning Tim and Lydia McGrews' A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It will concern portions of pages 7 and 8 of that document, and will discuss how archaeology and form criticism reflect on the reliability of the gospels.

The McGrews begin:

"The assumption that the gospels and Acts are basically historically reliable has
knowledgeable contemporary advocates. But it flies in the face of nearly a century of New
Testament scholarship based on form criticism and its methodological offshoot, redaction
criticism. In brief, these are versions of literary criticism whose adherents have proclaimed the
gospels in their present form to be late productions of the Christian community and have
attempted to excavate the texts as they have come down to us in order to discover the
hypothesized original layers beneath the postulated accretion of oral tradition and legend or to
determine the intentions of the last redactor, or editor."

All of this is accurate to my knowledge. The gospels and the book of Acts are defended by contemporary scholars, and sometimes the strong reliability claimed by those defenders does fly in the face of the more liberal literary critics. This isn't to say that the conservative or liberal position is correct, this only reports that such critics exist. The McGrews continue:

"The chief requirement for this theory of literary layers is time – time for originals to be gradually edited into a radically different form, time for the development of miracle legends, time for the evolution of John’s high Christology that could be grafted onto a set of original simple parables and sayings of Jesus or for those sayings to be midrashically expanded without the fact’s attracting notice or criticism."

I agree, of course, that an extensive project of editing, re-editing, and expanding on some body of material would take time. But the question is, how much time would it take? Miracle stories and other fantastic claims do not take decades to form, even if they are false. They can spring up overnight. Don't believe me? Visit and see for yourself.

Of course, literary theories necessarily require a bit of time if they postulate (for example) the Gospel of Q was edited three times and then used as a source for Matthew and Luke. How much time? It's not entirely clear, but it would seem implausible to postulate so much change within ten years, for example. Is such time available for the development of the narratives? I do not know. I may decide to pursue that issue in the future. The McGrews go on:

"It is therefore no accident that the dominant position in New Testament studies since the pioneering Formgeschichtliche work of Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann has been that the gospels are very late productions, preferably well into the second century but in all events after A.D. 70, since any earlier dating would require us to attribute to Jesus prophetic abilities with respect to the destruction of Jerusalem that would run afoul of the philosophical naturalism driving the project.

"The role of such naturalism as a motivating factor in the work of the form critics is often
explicit, but as an argument against a more traditional position it suffers from the obvious
drawback of circularity."

I agree that philosophical naturalism shouldn't be merely assumed in this debate, because that would indeed be circular.

I'd like to return to comment that the McGrews made, that the gospels dating well before 70 AD would imply Jesus had prophetic abilities. I think I know what the McGrews are talking about: Mark 13. Mark 13 is typically the chapter used to date the gospels to 70 AD. But what exactly does it say? Read it. The "prophecies" in question appear to be (1) that the temple will be destroyed and (2) that Christians will be persecuted in Jesus' name. Neither one of these strikes me as miraculous, even if it was written down before the fact (and I'm not saying it is, by the way).

But was it written down before the fact? I genuinely do not know. On the one hand, there is James Crossley, a thoroughly secular scholar who argues for dating Mark (the first gospel) at 35-45 AD. He's written an entire book on this entitled The Date of Mark's Gospel: Insight from the Law in Earliest Christianity. Is he right? Again, I don't know. I can't afford the book, and the preview I read on google.books wasn't overly convincing, although it was intriguing.

On the other hand, there is at least one good reason to peg the gospels after 70 AD. This is the fact that all of the gospels say that the stone at Jesus' tomb was "rolled" away, which implies the stone was round. This is important because the vast majority of tombs before 70 AD had stone doors that were square,** i.e. not the sort of shape one would envision as "rolling." Of course, there are some caveats as to whether the Greek word translated as "rolled" might possibly just mean "moved." In spite of this I think this piece of evidence still argues firmly for a post 70 AD date for Mark, although this evidence is not infallible or completely airtight.

On page 7 We read that, "there are good reasons for dismissing the sweeping negative
conclusions of form criticism regarding the authenticity and reliability of the narratives." One reason being that "There are no independent textual traditions preserving the allegedly earliest forms." It's quite ironic that just a few pages ago the McGrews were attempting to show us how worthless arguments from silence are, and yet now, when it is convenient for them, they embrace a sort of argument from silence: the fact that early textual traditions such as the Q document aren't attested to anywhere else means that it didn't exist. We must, as always, consider how strong the absence of the "earlist forms" of textual traditions weighs against their theorized existence. My answer is: not very strongly. It's only too easy to imagine why such documents became lost over time. Readers may want to refer back to my previous post about arguments from absence and silence:

The McGrews go on to detail how they believe that Archaeology has vindicated the gospels and the book of Acts. First, their defense of the gospels: they argue that the pool of Bethesda had five porches (this has been discovered through archaeology) just as the gospel of John said, and then go on to detail similar archaeological discoveries that provide support for the gospels and Acts.

I have no particular bone to pick with the examples they give. I managed to find a book called Jesus and Archaeology, which recieved good reviews in scholarly journals such as Catholic Biblical Quarterly and Review of Biblical Literature, which details many of the sorts of finds that the McGrews refer to. It is interesting to read the comments Jodi Magness made concerning "Jesus and Archaeology":

"despite its clear theological tone and agenda and the presence of obvious anachronisms, the Gospel of John should not be dismissed as ahistorical."*** (emphasis mine)

Reading the McGrews one might get the idea that the gospels have been completely vindicated and shown to be careful and totally accurate histories. But I think the above quote shows the reality of the situation, which is that the gospels contain some historical errors as well as some remarkably correct historical reports.

The McGrews' entire point here is that the level of historical accuracy present in John and Acts is too great to be the result of embellishment and whatnot over several decades. That could be true, but then who's to say that this means that John and Acts, as we know them today, must be very early creations? Perhaps both of these books used sources which had been written in the 30's, 40's, 50's or 60's, and that is why these books have some level of historical accuracy. Indeed, from my reading it is accepted by many in New Testament studies that the gospel of John, as we know it today, has been edited and altered from an earlier edition. See, for example, The Fourth Gospel And Its Predecessor. The theory that the gospel of John was redacted is not simply some contrivance designed to avoid the terrible fate of acknowledging the gospel's early date. There's evidence from within the text that the gospel of John has been fiddled with. Take this passage:

"Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name."

Sounds like the conclusion of the gospel, doesn't it? But it isn't! Strangely, the gospel of John has entire chapter tacked on to this passage. The conclusion is obvious: the gospel of John originally ended with this passage, but someone came along later and tacked on the extra chapter. And that's not the only evidence of tampering, as any decent book on the gospel of John will tell you, but that's another story and is too much to go into in this blog post.


** See Richard Carrier, "Craig's Empty Tomb and Habermas on Visions" (1999, 2005). Available at:

*** See Jodi Magness, Review of "Jesus and Archaeology," The Journal of the American Oriental Society. 127.1 (January-March 2007) p. 87.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Melody from the Ancient Past

It's the oldest written melody, from 3400 years ago. Very beautiful.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Another one sees the light

Please have a look at this recently deconverted Christian's blog:

His story has so much I can relate to. And listen to this:

"In middle school my Bible teacher preached to us his unwavering belief that the smurfs (yes, the little blue elves) were satanic. His entire theory based off the name given to the antagonist’s animated cat, Azrael, was blatantly delusional. (Azrael is the name of the fallen arch-angel of death - Satan’s right-hand man)."

I briefly attended a Christian middle school and I can remember peculiar individuals who thought Pokemon was evil, the work of the devil. I mean, can't you just see Satan in Pikachu?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Was Jesus Raised: Contradictions and Silence

This is the second post of my blog series concerning Tim and Lydia McGrews' A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. This post will concern pages 5 and 6 and the first paragraph of page 7.

The McGrews observe that:

"A favorite tactic of the adversaries of Christianity in the eighteenth century... is to point to various discrepancies, real or imagined, in the telling of the same story and to conclude that the texts contradict each other and therefore are untrustworthy at best and worthless at worst.

The McGrews go on to point out that the discrepancies can be exaggerated and multiplied by the use of "arguments from silence" which are arguments that assume that because some piece of information was not mentioned by an author, that therefore the author did not know such an event occurred (or, more strongly, that the author believed the event NEVER occurred). The McGrews add that such arguments from silence are "tenuous" and that,

"By such reasoning we can easily find 'contradictions' even in the writings of one and the same historian, as when Josephus mentions facts in his Antiquities that we might have expected him to repeat in his Jewish Wars (Paley, 1859, p. 337). When we extend it to the comparison of multiple authors who treat of the same subject, the results are ridiculous... [I]t is a risky business to speculate upon the motives of authors for including or omitting various facts. To create an appearance of inconsistency by this device, or by such means to justify elaborate hypotheses regarding editors and recensions of the gospels, is methodologically unsound."

The McGrews go on to offer up the old "The contradictions prove the testimony of the gospels was independent..." argument, and finally they remind us that their case for the resurrection will not rest itself upon simply assuming that the gospel's reports are true.

So let's take these assertions, one at a time.

An argument from silence is just a special type of argument from absence. An argument from absence is just what it sounds like: an argument in which not seeing something is used as evidence to argue for or against some conclusion. The usual counterpoint to these arguments is that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence". PZ Myers provides a perfect reply to this canard:

"[Absence of evidence] is just evidence of variable strength, from laughably weak (I have no evidence of a teapot in orbit around the sun, which isn't a very strong case since no one has looked for an orbiting teapot, and it's a tiny target in a vast volume anyway) to extremely strong (there are no dragons in my backyard; I have looked, and there are no large firebreathing reptiles gnawing on virgins back there)."

We can apply PZ's method to the gospels and to Paul easily. Some parables, some miracles, are reported in one or two gospels and are never reported again. That's easy enough to understand. If Jesus was always going around performing healings and teaching wisdom we could expect that certain examples would not be known or remembered or written about to each gospel author. So I won't spend time arguing for a contradiction based on silence unless I think that the silence is very unlikely and peculiar for the writer, given that he knew about the facts in question.

To give you an example: the Gospel of Matthew reports that a bunch of saints rose from the dead and wandered around the city when Jesus was crucified. No other gospel reports this "night of the living dead" scene, which is a little odd since one would think that this would've been one of the most astonishing and gut-wrenching events that would've stuck in the minds of those who saw it... That is, unless the event is a fiction by Matthew. And things get even worse: even if the silence of the other gospel writers doesn't affect you, then riddle me this: why is the zombie-fest of Matthew, surely one of the most chilling, shocking, and ripe-for-story-telling event in history not mentioned by any historian during any decade ever? You reckon maybe it just didn't happen?

Another example: Take a look at the Easter narratives in the gospels. Mark says the women saw a young man but does not mention the women seeing Jesus at or near the tomb. Matthew says the women saw an angel. Luke says they saw two men. John says they saw two angels, and adds that Mary finds Jesus (upon leaving?) the tomb. No apologist can reconcile these by using the old line: "Well, Mark didn't say that there was only one man, or that the man wasn't an angel disguised as a man, and it doesn't say that Mary definitely did not see Jesus on her tomb visit, so there's no contradiction. You're just arguing from silence." The whole thing is absurd.

What about the McGrews' claim that "By such reasoning [arguments from silence] we can easily find 'contradictions' even in the writings of one and the same historian, as when Josephus mentions facts in his Antiquities that we might have expected him to repeat in his Jewish Wars (Paley, 1859, p. 337)." [words in brackets are my addition for clarity].

I've found the original document written by William Paley and read the relevant part of it. Click here to read it yourself. It is strange that the McGrews refer to Paley, since Paley doesn't lay out this argument himself, but simply refers us to "Lard. part i. vol. ii. p.735 et. seq". Not very helpful. From what I have gathered, this reference probably refers to some work of 18th century Christian apologist Nathaniel Lardner. But which book does Paley refer to? Perhaps it is part i. vol. ii of "The Credibility of the Gospel History"? But that book, insofar as I found on googlebooks, doesn't have more than 700 pages (which is a problem since Paley refers us to page 735). What to do? I'm not sure. But I shouldn't have to chase down a source like this. The McGrews could've done a better job of citing specific examples in Josephus of what they mean. Or they could've at least given a source which actually does list such examples.

The McGrews further argue that minor differences and small contradictions on matters of detail prove that the witnesses to Jesus' resurrection were not in collusion, and therefore the contradictions are actually beneficial to their case for the resurrection! Not so fast, say I. I'm not arguing for collusion. But the contradictions we've seen here are not just simple differences like "Was Jesus' robe purple or scarlet?" If this was the only sort of contradiction in the gospel narratives, the McGrews would be completely correct in their point that little differences can add strength to their case. But it isn't, as demonstrated above.

And what we've discussed does affect their case very seriously. Yes, contradictions, especially really serious ones that we've been discussing, don't mean that "nothing at all happened that Easter morning." But it does mean that our only sources on the issue are wildly unreliable, which is not encouraging for someone who must rely solely on them to prove an extraordinary claim of a miracle.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Was Jesus Raised: Introduction

I decided to wrap up my "Mapping the fine-tuning argument" project the day before yesterday in part because I wanted to make way for a new project: I am going to blog my way through Lydia and Timothy McGrew's A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. At the link you can read it yourself.

A notice about the series: what I am going to do is read the document a little at a time and then blog on it. This method may occasionally cause me to err: I might criticize the article, then read a little further and find out that my objection was answered. If that happens, I will make a note of it and I will go back and correct my older blog post. Why am I doing it that way? Because I feel like it.

I am also not going to analyze every sentence, paragraph, or claim made in the article. For example, the introduction of A Cumulative Case begins with some historical backround on arguments for miracles. This is interesting and certainly a fine introduction to the article, but I won't spend any time analyzing it because it isn't of interest to me. What I am interested in will concern matters of fact and logic which have a bearing on whether we should conclude that Jesus was raised from the dead. The dates and reliability of the gospels have a bearing on the conclusion. David Hume's argument has a bearing on that issue. The personal opinions of 18th and 19th century philosophers and polemicists have no bearing on this issue, unless those opinions happen to include correct observations or reasoning that will help us reach a conclusion.

On David Hume

My Dad and I were watching David Blaine performing magic tricks on TV late one night. I expressed complete amazement when David Blaine appeared to bring a bird back to life. Remember that, we will discuss it later. And feel free to take two minutes to watch it yourself. Pay attention as best you can, I want to discuss it more later on.

Replying to my amazement, my dad said, "You know there's no way he's actually doing what it looks like he's doing." Behind that simple comment lies the same reasoning that lies behind the "everlasting check" David Hume set against miracle claims.

There's no way he's actually doing what it looks like he's doing. Why not? Why shouldn't we believe that David Blaine is a miracle worker? Of course Blaine has told us that he's only an illusionist and not a miracle-worker. But what if he hadn't told us that? Could we then believe David Blaine was a miracle worker? My father would say no. I would say no. David Hume would say no. Anyone with a sliver of reason and good sense would say no. So what reasoning lies beneath our answer?

The reasoning is this: all of us have an extraordinary amount of evidence that dead birds, and animals in general, cannot be brought back to life. We've seen them die. We have not seen them come back to life. On the other hand, we also have some good evidence that people can fool us. If you see a stage magician who'll reveal how they do their tricks, then you know this. So, there are two theories that can account for the apparent bird resurrection. Either (1) The bird was raised from the dead or (2) The apparent resurrection was nothing more than... apparent. Theory 1 is extremely improbable due to the overwhelming evidence that the dead stay dead. Theory 2 is not improbable, in light of the fact that we know that we can be fooled.

The argument I've just given you is like a miracle-eating acid, and it is especially deadly to miracles that are known only through the report of other people. For when we haven't seen the alleged miracle with our own eyes, we have another factor to consider: honesty.

When we see a stage magician do a trick, we certainly can't doubt our own honesty with ourselves. But when someone tells you something, that report is never as reliable as your own experience, simply because that person may be lying. And people lie all the time. So if our evidence is the report of a miracle, and we can explain the report as either a lie or a miracle, which one should we conclude? It's a lie; because we have no other evidence of miracles but lots of other evidence that lies are told. And lies aren't the only possible explanation on the table: people can be mistaken about their experience (as they are fooled by magic tricks and optical illusions, for example). Again, people are mistaken frequently, while miracles, if they occur at all, must be rare since we have no other evidence of them.

David Hume established a principle from such reasoning: "No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish." Notice that Hume has "left the door open" for miracles: we can't conclude that a miracle occurred from someone's testimony unless the testimony itself is of such a kind that its falsehood would be even more miraculous than the miracle that the testimony bears witness to.

And what does that mean? I can't think of any examples that would do the trick (off the top of my head) but in abstract it means this: the evidence we have is the testimony of the miracle. The miracle is unlikely to have happened, so we normally explain the miracle report as some sort of deception. But what if we found some special kind of testimony, some kind of testimony that was incredibly unlikely to have been produced by anything other than a miracle (in fact, was so unlikely to have come about through non-miraculous means that the miracle told to us in the report is more likely to have happened than the non-miraculous generation of the miracle report itself)? In that case, we would have to conclude that the miracle occurred (Read the last sentence a few more times if you need to).

All of this discussion is simply calling attention to the fact that miracles have a low prior probability of occurring in some specific case. Usually we have on hand some other non-miraculous explanations which fit the data about as well and which have a far higher prior probability, and when an explanation meets those two conditions that means that the nonmiraculous explanation will win the title of "most likely explanation for the evidence."

Now, just because a hypothesis has an extremely low prior probability doesn't mean that the hypothesis is automatically wrong. It just means that the hypothesis needs an extraordinary amount of evidential support before it can be believed. In the lens of Bayes' Theorem (which is what the McGrews' use in their article) what this means is that the posterior probability of that hypothesis needs to be so much higher than the posterior probabilities of other hypotheses which attempt to explain the event(s) we are trying to explain. How much higher does the posterior probability have to be? The short answer is that the number has to be high enough that when we plug it into the Bayes' equation it will tell us that the hypothesis is more than 50% probable.

Now, it is NOT logically impossible for us to find evidence of good enough quality which generate a favorable posterior probability for the miraculous explanation (which would make the miracle believable). However, the evidence required to believe a miracle is a tall order.

Here's an analogy that might help: think of the various competing theories as stones. Think of evidence as being energy that propels the stones forward. Think of those stones sitting at a starting mark, just a few feet from a finish line. The stones are different sizes: some are large and heavy, some are small and light, others are in between. Now, to get a great big stone across the finish line you need lots of energy. More energy than you'd need for a light stone. That's kind of like what is going on here: the miraculous explanation of an event is extremely heavy and overbearing, and it needs a huge burst of evidence to push it across the finish line so that it can become the most likely explanation for the evidence. Sure, it can happen, but it is a big burden that will only happen under special circumstances when we have the powerful evidence we need.

Closing Statements

I think I've gotten us to the point in which I can say that we need extremely strong evidence before we can believe the resurrection. But I want to make a further point: remember that video of David Blaine apparently raising a dead bird to life. If you didn't watch it before, watch it now before you continue. Think how it would be if you couldn't see this for yourself, if you had to take it on the word of one or a few people. When they told you the story how much detail would they include? Would they tell you that David Blaine rubbed his hands together many times before laying them on the bird? I suspect they wouldn't. And that is important, because David Blaine's hand rubbing goes a long way toward showing how the trick is done.

You see, I have a theory about David Blaine's trick. My theory is that the bird was placed in a storage freezer and its heart-rate slowed down dramatically before someone took it and put it out on the grass for Blaine and his companion to "find". When Blaine was rubbing his hands together, he was warming them up so that when he picked up the bird the heat would transfer from his hands to the bird's body. And that would make the bird "wake up" from its icy coma.

What does all this have to do with Jesus? Well, all of our evidence affirming Jesus' resurrection comes from testimony (perhaps not even eyewitness testimony) that was passed along to us. In the case of David Blaine, if we had gotten our information about the bird resurrection from eyewitnesses, we would have probably lacked the crucial information we needed to solve that case. And so it is with Jesus: if there was any peculiar evidence that proved some alternative theory about the resurrection of Jesus, we would not have it, either because Jesus' disciples honestly never saw any need to report such evidence because they didn't realize what it meant, or because they didn't want to report something damning to their beliefs.

So, those are preliminary thoughts on the subject. I'm planning on reading about Bayes' Theorem as much as I can, because the McGrews' case uses it and I have little knowledge of it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Marcotte, Randi, Nickell

Amanda Marcotte spoke about feminism at Skepticon 3, and the recorded talk is on youtube (click her name). I found the New York Times Article that she mentioned in her talk concerning the women who go around preaching to other women about being submissive. Marcotte is the author of It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments. Haven't read it, if anyone has let me know how it is.

James Randi's talk is also available, very funny, and very inspiring to see him still giving lectures. Randi is the author of the wonderful book Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions as well as The Faith Healers.

Last, but most certainly not least, is Joe Nickell's lecture. Nickell's lecture was one of the crowning jewels of the event; a fascinating look at some of his investigations. Joe Nickell is the author of Looking for a Miracle: Weeping Icons, Relics, Stigmata, Visions & Healing Cures. I've referenced his work several times, such as in the article on miracles I wrote for DB Skeptic.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Hasty Conclusion

Several months ago I began a project called "Mapping the Fine-Tuning Argument". I started off with a lot of dedication, but gradually I forgot about it and the result is that I haven't posted anything about it in months, in spite of the fact that I had not yet examined all of the premises of the argument. Anyway, here is the argument as I stated it, here are the posts I made on the argument so far. I'm now going to attempt to do a hasty and sloppy wrap-up to this project (It's better than nothing, right?). So, here are my closing points:

1. I blogged that I did not believe there was any reason for God to create a physical universe. On closer inspection, I think this is false. "Physical" and "Natural" things are basically just things that can't think (objects, if you will). I don't think it's a big stretch to imagine God creating a universe with physical (or unthinking) things for sentient creatures like us to interact with. So God might create a physical universe.

2. Even if the universe is fine-tuned for life and God explains this perfectly, we are still left wondering whether God is the best explanation for our life-friendly universe. Here are some considerations against the God hypothesis:

A. Every mind we have any experience of is a physical mind which has a body. We have all known thousands of minds, but each and every one has a body, which implies that all minds probably have bodies. God is a spirit, which means that he is a disembodied mind. The strong inductive evidence we have against disembodied minds also counts strongly against God.

B. The God hypothesis postulates not just a new entity, but a new type of entity, a supernatural being. Remember Ockham's razor (aka The Principle of Parsimony): Do not multiply entities beyond necessity, the simplest explanation is most probably correct? Philosophers now distinguish between quantitative and qualitative parsimony: Quantitative parsimony concerns the number of entities you postulate, qualitative parsimony concerns how many types of entity you postulate. In both cases, fewer is better: a smaller number of starting assumptions increases the odds that the explanation is right.

As I said: The God hypothesis postulates not just a new entity, but a new type of entity, a supernatural being. And this means that other explanations, such as the multiverse theory, which invent no new types of entities, may be seen as superior to supernatural explanations, because (amongst other things) they invoke no new types of entities.

C. Supernatural explanations (like the God hypothesis) are further degraded by the fact that they have a bad track record. In this book review I wrote, I explain why.

D. If God wanted the universe to be friendly to life, it is very difficult to explain why most of the universe is not able to support life. From the radiation filled vacuum of space, to the super-chilled astronomical bodies so far away from stars that they are nothing but icy deserts, to the feverish bodies that are too hot to be anything except living hell, the universe seems to be anything but designed for life. Sure, the laws of physics may seem 'rigged' to support life, but other aspects of the universe, like those just mentioned, are not.

The fact that I have just mentioned weighs in on this debate for three reasons:
Because the God hypothesis cannot explain the hostility to life in the universe whereas essentially any atheistic explanation could (the universe not being designed for life entails that it could be hostile to life in some ways) which gives atheistic explanations more explanatory scope.

Because the life-hostility is evidence against God which decreases the probability that the God hypothesis is correct. Think about it: if life-friendliness is evidence for God, then life-hostility must be evidence against God.

Because the life hostility alerts us to the anthropic principle: Since we exist, we can expect to find ourselves on one of those rare islands of life, and we can expect the rare islands of life to exist because the universe is vast (100 billion galaxies) and is highly variable in its conditions from planet to planet. This explanation has proven itself correct and adequate to explain why a life-friendly planet exists, and therefore it has a weighty precedent which suggest it be given more weight as a possible explanation for the life-friendly laws of physics.

E. No other explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe suffers from the problem of evil or any other consideration that usually weighs against God. Other than the problem of evil, there is at least one other extremely powerful, knockout argument against God that comes close to disproving God's existence, called the Ultimate 747 Gambit.

With all of this in mind, my judgement is that the fine-tuning can be explained by (1) postulating a large number of universes (called the 'Multiverse) (2) Postulating some variation in the physical constants of these universes and (3) Invoking the anthropic principle: we exist in one of those few universe capable of supporting life because we could not find ourselves (as living beings) in a typical barren universe.

On various multiverse theories:

David Darling's article

Lee Smolin explains Cosmological Natural Selection in Two Minutes

The Life of the Cosmos by Lee Smolin

Modal Realism

Pages 141-150 of Dawkins, The God Delusion

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Checkerboard Illusion

Can you tell when two things are the same color? Maybe not. When you've looked at that, also see here.

"The Moon is God" Says Astrophysicist

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Bill O'Reilly Proves God's Existence - Neil deGrasse Tyson
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>Video Archive

BTW: The title of this post is a misquote made on purpose to make fun of sensationalist journalist who quote people out of context.

Friday, January 7, 2011

NCSE's Blast from the Past

The National Center for Science Education has uploaded an enormous amount of video material from the 1980's. Absolutely classic stuff and worth passing on to your young earth creationist friends:

Also worth reading is the debate between Henry Morris and Kenneth Miller here:

Morris was entirely misleading in this debate. He trots out his second law of thermodynamics argument:

Get out an encyclopedia and read the entry on the second law of thermodynamics. It has nothing to do with evolution one way or another. Most of Morris' quotes and what-not can be searched for and debunked here:

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Paulos on the Decline Effect

John Allen Paulos has written a very interesting and brief column on "The Decline Effect" (the tendency for later scientific studies to overturn the fantastic results of earlier studies):

Paulos is the author of Innumeracy and Irreligion

Monday, January 3, 2011

Obesity and Atheism

That marvelously unbiased website Conservapedia has reported that there is a correlation between being fat and not believing in God. So, if you're a fence-sitting agnostic, you have a sort of pascal's wager before you: believe and be a skinny, healthy person, or don't believe and be a fat, unhealthy bastard. Believing in God, it turns, has lots of little side-incentives. Here's the link:

The article is written in a very hilarious manner in which the subject is often changed in the same paragraph. Examples:

As of December of 2010, the most popular YouTube channel run by an atheist is TheAmazingAtheist YouTube channel which has over 175,000 subscribers. TheAmazingAtheist YouTube channel is produced by an overweight atheist.[27] In one video, TheAmazingAtheist exclaimed "Why am I so fat?"[28] The popular Christian YouTube producer Shockofgod posed the question "What proof and evidence do have that proves that atheism is accurate and correct?" to TheAmazingAtheist and he was unable to provide any proof and evidence supporting atheism.

Carrier on Jesus

Luke over at Common Sense Atheism just posted an hour long interview with Richard Carrier. Very interesting, and I can't wait for Rick's new book on the subject of Jesus! Until that book comes out, you'll just have to tide yourself over with The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, which was last year's great success: it provided a very powerful and thorough challenge to Christianity of both liberal and conservative stripes.