Drawing Conclusions

At the beginning of this project, I said that I would try to shield my readers from as much of the math of Bayes’s Theorem as possible, so I will at this point simply sum up the various probabilities that I have outlines in the previous essays, and state the result. First, arguing a fortiori, that is, as in favor of minimal historicity as is possible, we have:

  • Prior Probability: 33% historicity vs. 67% myth
  • Extrabiblical evidence: 46.08% historicity vs. 100% myth
  • Epistles: 100% historicity vs. 34.7% myth
  • Gospels: 100% historicity vs. 100% myth
  • Acts: 72% historicity vs. 100% myth

When all of that is plugged into Bayes’s theorem, we get a 32% chance that historicity is correct based on the evidence vs. a 68% chance that mythicism is correct. That is, even being as generous as possible to historicity, mythicism is still over twice as likely to be correct. This result should not be surprising, because nearly all the evidence tended toward myth.

“And yet that is using the absurdly generous estimates concluding every chapter, and especially the last chapter, on the Epistles, the only place I could claim to find any credible evidence for a historical Jesus” (p. 599). So what about the ‘more judicious’ estimates?

  • Prior Probability: 6.25% historicity vs. 93.75% myth
  • Extrabiblical evidence: 10% historicity vs. 100% myth
  • Epistles: 6% historicity vs. 100% myth
  • Gospels: 100% historicity vs. 100% myth
  • Acts: 20% historicity vs. 100% myth

Plugging this into Bayes’s theorem, we get a 0.008% chance that historicity is correct based on the evidence vs. a 99.992% chance that mythicism is correct.

Carrier goes through, in great detail, how one would put one’s own estimates into the formulas to get revised probabilities. I will spare you all of that. I considered seriously assigning my own probabilities at each stage, but I’m not really an expert so I don’t know that they would be meaningful. Suffice it to say that in nearly every case I agreed with Carrier’s judicious estimates or even thought that those were too generous to historicity, and in every case but one thought that his a fortiori estimates were easily too generous to historicity, so that one case where I thought he wasn’t generous enough would end up being counterbalanced by the many cases where he was too generous. In the end, I agree with him… in my best estimation there is nearly no chance that Jesus existed, and giving historicity the benefit of the doubt in every case it is still more likely than not that he did not exist.

Carrier summarizes the mythicist history that has been uncovered in the analysis, which he argues is between 67% and 100% likely to be true. This history is:

  • Before the 20s: The Jesus that Christians would later worship was known by some Jews as a celestial being.
  • Between the 20s and 40s: A small fringe sect of Jews, probably led by a man named (or later renamed) Cephas, came to believe this Jesus figure had undergone a salvific incarnation, death, and resurrection in the heavens, thus negating the cultic role of the Jerusalem temple. This cult began as a Torah-observant sect.
  • In the 30s or 40s: An active enemy of this cult, Paul, had or claimed to have had revelations from Jesus and became an apostle. The cult fragmented, producing alternate gospels, some of which (including those started by Paul) abandoned Torah observance.
  • Between the 30s and 70s: Some congregations mythicized their story of the celestial Jesus. During this time (66-70) the Jewish war destroyed the original church in Jerusalem.
  • From the 60s to 90s (and maybe on to the 110s): A dark age from which we have no history, during which the canonical Gospels were probably written. At least one Christian sect began to believe the myths the Gospels told were real. This gave that sect a competitive advantage over the original sects, because it allowed them to claim immutable authority over doctrine rather than being subject to later revelation.

None of this is ad hoc. The only element that is even incredible at first look “is that the transition from a secret cosmic savior to a public historical one happened within two generations” (p. 609). But the major disruption in the church that is part of the historical record makes this plausible.

I will sum up this project by quoting Carrier’s own summation (pp. 617-618).

From here things can go one of three ways:

  1. Minimal mythicism is more likely how Christianity began. If that’s true, we can prove it. If we can prove it, it will eventually become the broadest consensus of all but Christian apologists (who obviously will reject evidence and reason when in conflict with their faith).
  2. Minimal mythicism is not more likely how Christianity began. If that’s true, we can prove it. If we can prove it, what we will then have proved will become the broadest consensus. We will then have some facts about a historical Jesus we can assert as confidently known.
  3. It’s not possible on present evidence to know whether minimal mythicism is more likely how Christianity began. If that’s true, we can prove it. If we can prove it, mythicists and historicists will both have to concede the point. Historicists will have to accept mythicism as a viable theory, and mythicists will have to accept some historical Jesus scenarios may be viable too. We just won’t have the data we need in order to know which it is.

Accordingly, I intend this book not to end but to begin a debate about this, regarding both its methods and its conclusions. Hence, if readers object even to employing Bayes’s Theorem in this case (or in any), then I ask them to propose alternative models for structuring the debate. If, instead, readers accept my Bayesian approach, but object to my method of assigning prior probabilities (e.g. if my choice of reference class is faulty, then I ask you to argue why it is, and to argue for an alternative). On the other hand, if readers accept my method of assigning prior probabilities, but object to my estimates of consequent probability, then I ask them to argue for alternative consequent probabilities–not just assert some, but actually argue for them. Because the mythicist case hinges on the claim that these things cannot reasonably be done. It is time that claim was properly put to the test. And finally, of course, if readers object to my categories and sub-categories of evidence, or believe there are others that should be included or distinguished, then I ask them to argue the case.

I know many devout Christian scholars will balk and claim to find all manner of bogus or irrelevant or insignificant holes or flaws in my arguments, but they would do that anyway. Witness what many Christian scholars come up with just to reject evolution, or to defend the literal miraculous resurrection of Jesus (which they claim they can do even with the terrible and paltry evidence we have). Consequently, I don’t care anymore what Christian apologists think. They are not rational people. I only want to know what rational scholars think. I want to see a helpful critique of this book by objective, qualified experts who could live with the conclusion that Jesus didn’t exist, but just don’t think the case can be made, or made well enough to credit. And what I want from my critics is not useless hole punching but an alternative proposal: if my method is invalid, then what method is the correct one for resolving questions of historicity?… Also correct any facts I get wrong, point out what I missed, and if my method then produces a different conclusion when those emendations are included, we will have progress. Even if the conclusion is the same, it will nevertheless have been improved.

But it is the method I want my fellow historians to correct, replace or perfect above all else. We can’t simply rely on intuition or gut instinct when deciding what really did happen or who really did exist, since that simply leans on unexamined assumptions and relies on impressions and instincts that are often not reliable guides to the truth. We need to make explicit why we believe what we do rather than something else, and we need this as much in history as in any other field. And by the method I have deployed here, I have confirmed our intuitions in the study of Jesus are wrong. He did not exist. I have made my case. To all objective and qualified scholars, I appeal to you all as a community: the ball is now in your court.

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