Sunday, April 22, 2012

Proving History: A Review

I have now finished Richard Carrier's Proving History.

The book was written in order to advance the thesis that Bayes' Theorem ought to be used to decide correct historical explanations and, more specifically, that Bayes' Theorem ought to be used in studies of the historical Jesus and early Christianity. Carrier also tries to show that all the criteria used to judge the historicity of gospel events and sayings of Jesus are bankrupt, illogical, and do not do the job they are supposed to do: find historical truth.

Bayes' Theorem itself has been proven true, so this isn't at all controversial. What is controversial is whether it can be validly applied to history. How can we possibly come up with a decimal number to describe the prior probability of certain historical events? Isn't math just the wrong sort of thing to bring to a field like history? Carrier satisfactorily addresses all of the concerns one might have about this, and in the process I think he shows that Bayes' Theorem can be extended to all kinds of fields besides the "hard" sciences. Indeed, he demonstrates that all of us are already using Bayes' Theorem in our everyday lives but that we never realized it before. The theorem is just the mathematical description of our off-the-cuff reasoning about everything else (like how a jury can justify finding someone guilty or innocent, how we know that the sun rose today, how we know the Civil War took place, and so on and so forth). Carrier's discussion of this is worth the price of the book alone, and it will be of great interest to those looking to deepen their understanding of epistemology (the philosophy of how humans can know things are true).

The second thesis of the book is a bit trickier and far more controversial: is it true that Jesus scholars have been using bankrupt methods in their historical studies? Several leading biblical scholars (Stanley Porter, for example) have already reached similar conclusions. I'm not sure if they agree that *all* such "criteria" and methodology employed in Jesus studies are bankrupt, but it is beyond doubt that they believe all/most of the criteria have one or more shortcomings. After reading Carrier's analysis of the criteria, I am very much inclined to agree with him, with only one caveat. While Carrier seems to think that all of the criteria are bankrupt no matter what, I believe that if we *assume* that there was a historical Jesus then we can validly reach some conclusions about the life of Jesus. For example: Was Jesus an apocalyptic prophet? That is, did he teach that the end of the world was near? Paul thought the end of the world was near, the gospel authors say that Jesus said this, the book of Hebrews and Revelation says it. What could account for all of these early Christian authors believing the end of the world was near and the gospels portraying this as a central teaching of Jesus? If Jesus was a real historical figure, we have two hypotheses to test: that he was an apocalyptic prophet or he was not. If he was, it is easy to see why early Christian texts say what they do. If he was not, then we have to postulate a rather radical, ad-hoc discontinuity between the teachings of Jesus and the beliefs of so many early Christians. The latter seems fairly improbable while the former is not. Therefore, it is somewhat probable that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. To take another example: Was Jesus crucified? Most scholars would say that this is almost certainly true because it is a part of the earliest Christian teaching and because it seems implausible that a humiliating death would be invented. However, Carrier disagrees with both of these and I am in partial agreement with his reasons for doubt. That said, in his discussion of the criteria of embarrassment (the criteria of "they would have never made it up because it went against their interests") he says that if someone reports something that is true even though it is embarassing, this predicts that they may try and spin it, rationalize it, etc. Well, look at what Paul says about the crucifixion of Jesus in Galatians 3:10-13. Look at how the crucifixion is tied in to Old Testament references in the gospels (as if the Old Testament had predicted it when it had not). Why did the gospel writers do this? Probably, or at least plausibly, they were looking to put a spin on their savior's death, to cloak the embarassment of a crucifixion with a blanket of Old Testament approval. So, if there was a historical Jesus, then it follows that we can know at least a couple of things about him. That said, Carrier is right that the gospels are not generally reliable and that any sound analysis of the evidence we have will not render much of the traditional story historically true. In fact, it seems to me that the amount of confirmable history in the gospels is really pathetic.

I'd like to return to what I said earlier about assuming Jesus existed. Is this a valid assumption to make? Carrier's next book will address the topic and it seems he will be arguing that it is not. I happen to think that is, because I think that a historical Jesus is the best explanation of the beginning of Christianity and because I think certain things in early Christian letters (Paul's reference in Galatians 1:19 to "James, the brother of the Lord") are somewhat more probable if Jesus did exist than if he did not. That said, there is a fairly startling conclusion that I have reached after reading this book. Bart Ehrman, in denouncing mythicism, mentioned that he had written a book on what Jesus said and did and added that "Jesus could not have said or did anything if he didn't exist." Ehrman has put the cart before the horse: the so-called historical events and sayings in the life of Jesus probably cannot be judged as historical unless one first makes the assumption that a historical Jesus existed, and therefore this set of judgments cannot be used as evidence of an historical Jesus without begging the question. So after reading "Proving History" I am convinced that (1) We know very little about the historical Jesus assuming there was one and (2) What we do believe is true about the historical Jesus cannot be known unless we are first sure that he existed and (3) Therfore the "historical" bits of the gospels cannot be used as evidence for a historical Jesus, which wipes one of the biggest lines of evidence for a historical Jesus completely off the map. This is significant.

Here's my recommendation about this book: Buy it. Buy it to further your understanding of how you know things. Buy it so you can learn about early Christian studies. Buy it because that will help it become a number one seller on amazon and will hopefully open the eyes of others about both of these issues.

1 comment:

Ben said...

I'm still only like half way done. I should like finish it n stuff.