Richard Carrier, Bayes’s Theorem, and Historical Jesus Criteria

Richard Carrier has a new article posted at the online journal Bible and Interpretation entitled Bayes’ Theorem and the Modern Historian: Proving History Requires Improving Methods.  Here is the blurb:

Several examinations of the methodologies employed in the study of Jesus have consistently found those methods invalid or defective. Which fact has resulted in the proliferation of endless different conclusions as to the nature of the historical Jesus and the origins of Christianity. Attention to the logical validity of the methods we employ is essential to repairing this problem. One particular theory of human reasoning can lead the way: widely known as Bayes’ Theorem, historians would benefit tremendously from understanding it and learning how to apply it in their arguments and research.

Bayes.pdf (application/pdf Object).

You should definitely go read it!  I especially like this part:

The latest in this series of studies is a new volume to be published this year, edited by Chris Keith and Anthony LeDonne, titled Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (T & T Clark, 2012), and featuring such luminaries as Mark Goodacre and Morna Hooker, all coming to the same conclusion: the method of criteria is simply not logically viable. This leaves the field of Jesus studies with no valid method, and puts into question all consensus positions in the field, insofar as they have all been based, to one extent or another, on these logically invalid methods.
The consequence of this has been more than evident: every scholar using these methods “discovers” a completely different historical Jesus. As Dale Allison 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.”[8] As Helmut Koester concluded after his own survey, “The vast variety of interpretations of the historical Jesus that the current quest has proposed is bewildering.”[9] James Charlesworth concurs, concluding that “what had been perceived to be a developing consensus in the 1980s has collapsed into a chaos of opinions.”[10] Several others have come to the same conclusion, demonstrating, with extensive citation of examples, the whole confusion of contradictory opinions that has resulted from applying these methods: Thomas Thompson,[11] Thomas Verenna,[12] James Crossley,[13] Mark Strauss,[14] John Poirier,[15] Mark Allen Powell,[16] and John Dominic Crossan,[17] just to name a few.

When everyone picks up the same method, applies it to the same facts, and gets a different result, we can be certain that that method is invalid and should be abandoned. Yet historians in Jesus studies don’t abandon the demonstrably failed methods they purport to employ.[18] This has to end.

Indeed. Do read on.  Exceptional article.

2 Responses

  1. I think it’s great that Richard Carrier is trying to get Biblical studies on board with Bayesianism, since it’s also been sweeping the (hard) sciences for a number of years. I’ve been a Bayesian a bit before all of this historical Jesus stuff, so I’m hoping it catches on.

    I just read this quote over at Choice in Dying that points towards Bayesian reasoning but stops just short of an obvious Bayesian conclusion:

    One example which illustrates the condition most vividly is discussion of the Christian hypothesis that Jesus rose from the dead. This hypothesis is of greater explanatory scope and power than other hypotheses which try to account for the relevant evidence, but is less plausible and more ad hoc than they are. That is why it is difficult to decide on the evidence whether it should be accepted or rejected.

    This quote of C.B. McCullagh in Hector Avalos’ The End of Biblical Studies is already using many elements of Bayesianism and other probability theory by using language like explanatory scope, taking into account other hypotheses, as well as taking points off a hypothesis for being “ad hoc”, which is itself a probabilistic argument.

    So it seems as though Biblical scholars are implicitly nudging towards Bayesianism while doing proper logical thinking, they just need to become more aware of it, which can only help clear up reasoning. In the above quote, if we reformulated it using Bayes’ theorem, it looks like the argument that McCullagh is critiquing (and why it seems “wrong”) is an example of a Base Rate fallacy. The argument has good “explanatory scope” (i.e. high conditional probability) but the hypothesis itself is less plausible and too ad hoc (the quality of being ad hoc is one of the reasons why a hypothesis is less probable).

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