Quest for the Historical Jesus
One historian’s quest for the historical Jesus uses Bayes’s theorem to establish reliable historical criteria and uncover the proper proportion between belief and evidence.
“Proving History” by Richard C. Carrier uses Bayes’s theorem to study Christian origins and all the major historical criteria employed in the latest quest for the historical Jesus.
Almost all experts agree that the Jesus of the Bible is a composite of myth, legend, and some historical evidence. So what can we know about the real Jesus? Proving History (Prometheus Books, 2012) by historian Richard C. Carrier proposes Bayes’s theorem as a solution to the problem of establishing reliable historical criteria in this in-depth discussion of New Testament scholarship and the challenges of history as a whole. The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 1, “The Problem.”
Apart 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.
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