Liberal Scarecrows, Shadows, and Atheist Internet-Experts

eorge Rupp, former president of Columbia and before that the dean of Harvard Divinity School wrote in 1979 that “Christian theology is in disarray; it has neither a goal nor a purpose,” trends follows fads with such dizzying speed, he wrote,  that the discipline is more like a carousel gone wild than an academic discipline.  If Rupp were observing the current state of New Testament scholarship in 2012, he might have written just the same thing.

Why has this situation arisen?  While generalizations are always more convenient than precise, I think it’s safe to say that three overlapping trends explain the current crisis in New Testament studies.

irst, of course, New Testament studies is simply a mess.  It is a mess because many otherwise conscientious scholars (many of them either refugees from or despondents of the Jesus Seminar) had reached the conclusion that the New Testament should be regarded as a theory in search of facts.  Accordingly, the “facts” were arranged and rearranged in sometimes ingenious ways (and sometimes absurd) to support personal theories. The harsh truisms of 100 years of serious “historical-critical” study (not atheism or scholarly extravagance) were largely responsible for the rubble out of which the scholars tried to build a plausible man, but the men they built could not all be the same character as the one described in the gospels.  They differed from each other; they differed, often, from the evidence or context, and–perhaps vitally–they differed from tradition and “standard” interpretations, which had become closely identified with orthodoxy–which in turn was identified with illiberal politics and hence ludicrous and bad. Having left a field full of half clothed and malformed scarecrows, the theorists packed their bags and asked the world to consider their art.

ECOND: the rescucitation of the myth theory as a sort of zombie of a once-interesting question.  The myth theory, in a phrase, is the theory that Jesus never existed. Let me say for the hundredth time that while it is possible that Jesus did not exist it is improbable that he did not. For the possibility to trump the probability, the mythicists (mythtics in their current state of disarray) need to produce a coherent body of evidence and interpretation that persuasively challenges the current consensus.  No argument of that strength has been proved convincing.  Moreover, there are serious heuristic questions about why many of the mythticists want the theory “proved,” the most basic of which is that many are waging a kind of counter-apologetic attack on a field they regard as excessively dominated by magical thinking.

Bruno Bauer

And the “proof”  is unlikely to appear. As someone who actively entertained the possibility for years, I can report that the current state of the question is trending consistently in the direction of the historicity of Jesus and partly the wishful thinking of the mythtics is responsible for the trend. The myth theory, in its current, dyslectic and warmed over state,  has erected the messiest of  all the Jesuses in the field, constructed mainly from scraps discarded by the liberals and so startling (perhaps inevitably) that it looks more like an Egyptian god than a man, less a coherent approach to its object than an explosion of possibilities and mental spasms. Like all bad science, its supporters (mainly internet bloggers and scholarly wannabes)  began the quest with their pet conclusion, then looked for evidence by alleging that anything that counted against it was false, apologetically driven, or failed the conspiracy smell-test. A survey of the (highly revised and hideously written) Wikipedia article on the Christ Myth Theory shows its depressing recent history–from a theory that grew organically out of the history-of-religion approach to Christianity (which drove my own work in critical studies) to a succession of implausibilities and splices as limitless as there were analogies to splice.

The prototype of the Jesus story?

Yet the myth theory is explained by the woeful history of liberal scholarship: ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. It is a direct result of the mess liberal scholarship made of itself.  If the problem with “liberal” scholarship (the name itself suggests the fallacy that guides the work) is that a flimsy, fact-free, wordless Jesus could be a magician, a bandit, an eschatologist, a radical, a mad prophet, a sane one, a tax revolutionary, a reforming rabbi (anything but Jesus the son of God)–the mythical Jesus could be Hercules, Osiris, Mithras, a Pauline vision, a Jewish fantasy, a misremembered amalgam of folk tales, a rabbi’s targum about Joshua. In short–the mirror image of the confusion that the overtheoretical and under-resourced history of the topic had left strewn in the field.  If the scarecrows concocted  by the liberals were made from rubble, the mythtic Jesuses were their shadows. If the bad boys of the Jesus Seminar had effectively declared that the evidence to hand means Jesus can be anything you want him to be, there is some justice in the view that Jesus might be nothing at all.

he Myth Theories, in some respects, but not every detail,  are the plus ultra of the old liberal theories rooted in the Enlightenment and the philosophy of Kant and Schleiermacher, abetted by the work of Strauss and his sympathizers. Perhaps that is why New Testament scholarship is so eerily quiet or so lazy towards them, and why the proponents of the theory feel betrayed when scholars who point them to their own scarecrows  suddenly say that while the scarecrow exists, the shadow doesn’t.  That is what happened (unmysteriously) when the very liberal Bart Ehrman, thought to be a “friend” to atheists and mythtics, decided to draw a ring around his neck of the field and say that a makeshift Jesus made of doctrinal rags and literary plunder is better than no Jesus at all.  It is not nice to be driven into a field, invited to choose the most appealing strawmen to reject, and then told that only scholars can reject scarecrows. New Testament scholarship defends its nominal field with a No Trespassing sign that invites the suspicion that there is very little to protect.

inally, the New Atheism.  In a minor scholarly rhapsody called Of Love and Chairs, I tried to suggest that not believing in God is not the same as not believing in Jesus.  In fact, it is only through making a category error that the two beliefs can be bought into alignment.  It is true that both God and Jesus are “discussed” in the Bible (though Jesus only in an appendix).  And it is true that later theology understood the Bible to be saying that Jesus was a god or son of God. But of course, very few scholars today think the Bible actually says that or meant to say that.  It is also true that the God of the Hebrew Bible walks, talks, flies through the sky, makes promises, wreaks venegance, gives laws and destroys sinners. And surely, that is a myth–or at least, extravagantly legendary. Thus, if God and Jesus occupy the same book and his father is a myth, then he must be a myth as well.

This reasoning is especially appealing to a class of mythicists I’ll call “atheoementalists,” a group of bloggers who seem to have come from unusually weird religious backgrounds and who were fed verses in tablespoons on the dogma that all of the Bible is, verse for verse, completely, historically, morally and scientifically true.  To lose or reject that belief and cough up your verses means that every one of them must now be completely false.

The New Atheism comes in as a handy assist because it came on the scene as a philosophical Tsunami of militant opposition to religion in general but biblical religion in particular.  NA encouraged the category error that the rejection of a historical Jesus was nothing more than the logical complement of rejecting the tooth fairy, the sandman, Santa and the biblical God. Conversely, believing in the god of the Bible, or Jesus, was the same as believing in (why not?) a Flying Spaghetti Monster. The NAs were less driven by the belief that religion was untrue than that religion was all bad, that God is Not Great, that it is toxic, hostile to science (the true messianic courier) and a delusion, a snappy salute to Freud’s diagnosis.

While the books of all four NA “Horsemen” were roundly thumped in the literate press as hastily conceived and shoddily reasoned attacks–largely provoked by the anti-religion and anti-Muslim rage of the post-9-11 world–they became canonical, and strategic, for large numbers of people who wanted to take Dawkins’s war against religion from Battleship Mecca to Battleship Biblicana. It is intersting for example than in the Wiki article on the Christ Myth Theory referenced above, where almost anyone who has floated the notion gets a mention,  someone has felt it necessary to insert Richard Dawkins’s irrelevant opinion that “a good case can be made for the non-existence of Jesus,” though he “probably did” exist (God Delusion, 2006, 96-7).  –Irrelevant and non-supportive.

IBERAL scarecrows, mythicist shadows, and atheist internet-experts who argue history as though scholarship was a polticial slanging match of opposing “opinions.” That is not the end of a story but the description of a situation.  I do not believe that “professional” New Testament studies, divided as it still is, especially in America, by confessionally biased scholars, fame-seekers, and mere drudges, is able to put its house in order. Their agendas only touch at the Society of Biblical Literature conclaves, and there c.v. padding and preening far outweigh discussion of disarray and purpose.  I think the situation in New Testament studies has been provoked by a “Nag Hammadi” generation–myself included–who weren’t careful with the gifts inside the Pandora’s box, so greedy were we for new constructions of ancient events.

But as part of a generation that thought it was trying to professionalize a field that had been for too- long dominated by theology, Bible lovers, and ex-Bible lovers, it is disheartening now to see it dominated by the political interests that flow from the agenda-driven scholarship of the humanities in general–attempts to see the contemporary in the ancient.  The arrogance of the “impossibility of the contrary” has displaced the humility of simply not knowing but trying to find out.

I have to sympathize with the mythtics when I lecture them (to no avail) about the “backwardness ” of their views and how New Testament scholarship has “moved beyond” questions of truth and factuality–how no one in the field is (really) talking about the historicity of the resurrection any more. How the word “supernatural” is a word banned from the scholarly vocabulary, just as “providential” and “miraculous” explanations are never taken seriously in assessing the biblical texts. They missed the part where we acknowledged it wasn’t true, and so did the people in the pews. They want to know–and it’s a fair question–where it has moved to.  This is not a defense of mythicism; it a criticism of the stammering, incoherent status quo and failure to do what a discipline is supposed to do: look critically and teach responsibly.

Robert Funk, a founder of the Jesus Seminar

I do not think, either, that the voices of dissent have much, if anything to offer.  I’m well aware that many of my colleagues are grossly ignorant of the history of radical New Testament criticism.  That being so, they are unlikely respondents in the defense of sound method. Perhaps that is why they are  unresponsive, in an era where non-response is always interpreted as a sign of weakness–especially in the gotcha culture of the blogosphere.

If the challenge to mythtics is to come up with something better than the more cognizant radicals had produced by 1912, the challenge for liberal and critical scholarship is to recognize that the mess that made the mess possible–the scarecrows that created the shadows–need to be rethought.  That’s what scholarship, even New Testament scholarship, is meant to be about: rethinking. That is what the Jesus Process is all about.

See also: “Threnody, Rethinking the Thinking Behind the Jesus Project,” The Bible nd Interpretation, October 2009.


When to Bayes

Richard Swinburne

The Following essay review of Richard Swinburne’s The Resurrection of God Incarnate appreared originally in Ars Disputandi (Utrecht) and is reprinted here without editorial changes.

The Resurrection of God Incarnate
By Richard Swinburne (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003; 232 pp.; hb. £ 45.00, pb. £ 16.99; ISBN: 0-19-925745-0/0-19-925746-9.)

Reviewed by Andrew Wohlgemuth
University of Maine, USA

1 Introduction
[1] Swinburne states, ‘New Testament scholars sometimes boast that they inquire into their subject matter without introducing any theological claims. If they really do this, I can only regard this as a sign of deep irrationality on their part. It is highly irrational to reach some conclusion without taking into account 95 per cent of the relevant evidence…But of course they couldn’t really do this if they are to reach conclusions about whether the Resurrection occurred…For you couldn’t decide whether the detailed historical evidence was strong enough to show that such an event as the Resurrection occurred without having a view whether there was prior reason for supposing that such an event could or could not occur. What tends to happen is that background theological considerations—whether for or against the Resurrection—play an unacknowledged role in determining whether the evidence is strong enough. These considerations need to be put on the table if the evidence is to be weighed properly.’ (p.3) Swinburne’s book has this ambitious and worthy aim.

[2] The book is in three parts, and has an appendix in which he uses the probability calculus to formalize his arguments. He concludes that the probability of Jesus being God Incarnate and being raised from the dead is very high. His assignment of what he feels to be conservative probabilities to the relevant data leads, via the probability calculus, to a probability of 97% that God Incarnate in the person of Jesus was raised from the dead.

2 The Probability Calculus
[3] Swinburne describes three types of probability: physical probability, statistical probability, and inductive (or logical) probability. (Some people identify physical probability with statistical probability.) Statistical probability is the most widely known. It rests on events—technically, subsets of a probability space. A typical probability space might be the set of all possible outcomes in some game of chance. Actuarial science and the physical sciences make use of statistical probability—which has been well developed mathematically. Probabilities in statistical probability can be assigned with precision.

[4] Logical probability is an extension of the propositional and predicate calculus—the formal logical structure of mathematical argument itself. It was developed by J.M. Keynes (A Treatise on Probability, MacMillan, 1921), because in many real-life situations one proposition, say q, does not follow another, say p, with the complete certainty of ‘p implies q’ in a mathematical argument. Instead, we might only be able to say that we are fairly sure that q would follow, if we knew p. Thus, a probability, a number from 0 to 1, might be assigned to the expectation that q would be true, if we knew that p was true. This probability is denoted by P(q/p) (the ‘probability of q given p’). Thus p implies q in the logical, or mathematical, sense provided that P(q/p) = 1.

[5] I think we all feel that it is reasonable and meaningful to ask if something is likely to happen, or likely has happened. To give an easy example, consider the forecast that the chance of rain today is 80%. We base this on experience. The forecasters notice that it actually did rain on 80% of the days that had the same early-morning conditions as today. This is an example of statistical probability. The underlying probability space is the set of days with the same initial conditions as today. The event we’re concerned with is rain.

[6] Suppose, however, that our neighbor Tom is accused of knocking his wife unconscious while in a rage. Although there may be no way to form a meaningful probability space here, we can nevertheless feel strongly that Tom is likely to have done it—or very unlikely. We do this by considerations that run deeper than the merely statistical. Of course, if Tom habitually knocks people about while in a rage, then we may not need to go any deeper than the statistical. But if the accusation is unexpected and unique, then we begin to rely on things such as Tom’s character, as it is known to us, in order to support our feelings of the likelihood of his having done the deed.

[7] This is what Swinburne is doing in his book. He is asking whether God is likely to have done certain things, and he is adding that in with the smaller world of history. Christians, of course, do believe that some things can be known about the character of God. I’ll look first at the formal treatment in the appendix, and then go to the material in Chapter 1.

[8] Swinburne lists 5 axioms of the probability calculus. (The axioms of the predicate calculus are implicitly also needed.) Axiom 4, which will play a prominent role, follows.

(4) P(p&q/r) = P(p/q&r)P(q/r)

[9] Substituting h, e, and k (letters Swinburne will use later) for p, q, and r gives

P(h&e/k) = P(h/e&k)P(e/k)

[10] Dividing both sides by P(e/k) gives

P(h&e/k)∕P(e/k) = P(h/e&k)

[11] Since h&e is logically equivalent to e&h, we can substitute

P(e&h/k)∕P(e/k) = P(h/e&k)

[12] Now by Axiom 4, P(e&h/k) = P(e/h&k)P(h/k), so we can substitute for P(e&h/k) to get

P(e/h&k)P(h/k)∕P(e/k) = P(h/e&k)

[13] Interchanging left and right sides of the equation gives

(4′) P(h/e&k) = P(e/h&k)P(h/k)∕P(e/k)

[14] Swinburne states, ‘Among the theorems that follow from the axioms is a crucial theorem known as Bayes’s Theorem. I express it using letters ‘e’, ‘h’, and ‘k’ which can represent any propositions at all; but we shall be concerned with it for the case where e represents observed evidence (data), k represents ‘background evidence’, and h is a hypothesis under investigation’ (p. 206) Equation 4′ above is Bayes’s Theorem as Swinburne expresses it. I have derived it to show that it follows from the axioms by the two simple algebraic operations of substitution and dividing both sides of an equation by the same thing. It is customary, when talking about formal languages (like the propositional, predicate, and probability calculus) to refer to anything that follows from the axioms as a ‘theorem’. In other mathematical branches with which the reader may be more familiar (like geometry or calculus, for example), the use of the word ‘theorem’ is reserved for deeper results. The foregoing should take away any mystery from the use of ‘Bayes’s Theorem’. It is really just a rephrasing of an axiom.

[15] As to the axioms, Swinburne states, ‘It is very easy to see intuitively the correctness of these axioms.’ (p. 206) At which point he explains them in words. When he gets to axiom 4 however, he appeals to successive tosses of a coin—which doesn’t model the situation accurately. We don’t know what p, q, and r are. In order to see why axiom 4 is true, we can relate the logical probabilities to conditional (statistical) probabilities. Thus let p, q, and r be events with probabilities P(p), P(q), and P(r). Let p be the proposition ‘p occurs’, and similarly for q and r. The conditional probability P(a/b) (the ‘probability of ‘a’ given ‘b’)’ for events a and b is defined to be P(a&b)∕P(b). In this case

Axiom (4) P(p&q/r) = P(p/q&r)P(q/r)

[16] in terms of conditional probabilities is

P(p&q/r) = P(p/q&r)P(q/r)

[17] which by definition is

P(p&q&r)∕P(r) = [P(p&q&r)∕P(q&r)][P(q&r)∕P(r)]

[18] which is an identity, since the factors P(q&r) cancel.

[19] It should be noted here that while any conditional probabilities (of statistical probability) can be seen as propositions of logical probability (as we have done), the reverse is not so—simply because there may not be any well-defined probability space. It is crucial for the case Swinburne makes that meaningful probabilities can be assigned to the factors on the right-hand side of equation 4′. Once that is granted, the probability on the left side must be accepted as calculated. I have shown the ‘intuitive correctness’ of axiom 4, since it follows from definition in the realm of statistical probability, which can be viewed as a restricted case of logical probability—the case in which we would find illustrative examples.

[20] Specifying the factors in equation 4′, Swinburne states, ‘Let k now be…the evidence of natural theology (including the sinning and suffering of humans). Let e be the detailed historical evidence, consisting of a conjunction of three pieces of evidence (e1 &e2 &e3 ). e1 is the evidence of the life of Jesus set out in Part II. e2 is the detailed historical evidence relating to the Resurrection set out in Part III. e3 is the evidence (summarized in Chapter 3) that neither the prior nor the posterior requirements for God being incarnate were satisfied in any prophet in human history in any way comparable with the way in which they were satisfied in Jesus.’ (p. 210) ‘Let h1 be the hypothesis that God became incarnate in Jesus, and h2 the hypothesis that Jesus rose from the dead. h is the conjunction (h1 &h2 ). Now at the end of the day this book is interested in P(h∕e&k)—the probability that Jesus was God Incarnate who rose from the dead (h), on the evidence both of natural theology (k) and of the detailed history of Jesus and of other human prophets (e).’ (p. 211)

[21] Assigning probabilities to the factors of equation 4′ is done by building up from other factors: ‘Let us represent by t theism, the claim that there is a God of the traditional kind. P(t/k) is the probability that there is such a God on the evidence of natural theology. I suggested in Chapter 1 that we give this the modest value 1∕2.’ (p. 211) Swinburne backs up this value only in the last paragraph of Chapter 1: ‘This evidence, the evidence of natural theology, provides general background evidence crucially relevant to our topic. I have argued elsewhere the case for this evidence giving substantial probability to the existence of God. (See esp. my The Existence of God and the shorter Is there a God? (Oxford University Press, 1996)). I cannot, for reasons of space, argue that case again here. But to get my argument going here, I will make only the moderate assumption that the evidence…makes it as probable as not that there is a God…’ (p. 30) I’ll return to more in Chapter 1, Principles for Weighing Evidence, after another illustration of assigning probabilities.

[22] ‘Then let us represent by c the claim that God became incarnate among humans at some time with a divided [’…he could act and react in his human life in partial ignorance of, and with only partial access to his divine powers.’ (p. 52)] incarnation, a more precise form of the way described by the Council of Chalcedon…and set out in Chapter 2. I suggested there that if there is a God (and there are humans who sin and suffer), it is quite probable that he would become incarnate…I suggested that it was ‘as probable as not’ that he would do this, and so in numerical terms the probability of his doing it is 1/2. The probability of 1/2 is clearly unaffected if we add to [should read ‘t’] all the data of natural theology, and so P(c/t&k) = 1∕2.’ (p. 211) Since P(c/k) = P(c&t/k) = P(c/t&k)P(t/k) by Axiom 4 and the logical equivalence of c and c&t, P(c/k) = 1∕4.

3 The Grand Philosophical Principle
[23] The two paragraphs above suffice to illustrate the completely subjective nature of assigning probabilities to the factors involved in the calculations. I don’t mean to imply that being subjective is necessarily bad, although I would not want to be involved personally with arguing the case for certain subjective probabilities. In the main body of the book, there are arguments for why Swinburne believes these probabilities to be reasonable—even conservative.

[24] The most problematical assertion in Chapter 1 is the following: ‘It is a further fundamental epistemological principle additional to the principle that other things being equal we should trust our memories, that we should believe what others tell us that they have done or perceived—in the absence of counter-evidence. I call this the principle of testimony. It must be extended so as to require us to believe that—in the absence of counter-evidence—when someone tell us that so-and-so is the case…they have perceived or received testimony from others that it is the case. Without this principle we would have very little knowledge of the world.’ (p. 13) There is no doubt that we get almost all of our information about the world in this way—but we also get a very good amount of misinformation too. For example, in a letter to John Norvell in 1807, Thomas Jefferson wrote, ‘Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day.’ If we change the word ‘lies’ to the word ‘fancies,’ we get a fair account of my own experience. I also have a great skepticism of grand philosophical principles that are used to draw inferences in special cases in arguments. If the special cases are not seen to be true themselves, how can the generalization be seen to be true?

[25] Swinburne would be on much sounder ground to take, as his ‘principle of testimony’, something in his next paragraph: ‘Testimony by more than one witness to the occurrence of the same event makes it very probable indeed that that to which they testify is true—to the extent to which it is probable that they are independent witnesses.’ (p. 13)

[26] A discussion of the probability of a miracle must, I suppose, bring up David Hume. Swinburne says, ‘Hume’s discussion suffers from one minor deficiency, one medium-sized deficiency, and one major one.’ (p.24)…‘But Hume’s worst mistake was to suppose that the only relevant background theory to be established from wider evidence was a scientific theory about what are the laws of nature. But any theory showing whether laws of nature are ultimate or whether they depend on something higher for their operation is crucially relevant. If there is no God, then the laws of nature are the ultimate determinants of what happens. But if there is a God, then whether and for how long and under what circumstances laws of nature operate depends on God. And evidence that there is a God, and in particular evidence that there is a God of a kind who might be expected to intervene occasionally in the natural order, will be evidence leading us to expect occasional violations of laws of nature.’ (p. 25)

4 Proof by Lack of Imagination
[27] Since I faulted Swinburne on using grand generalizations in a logical argument, I feel the need to fault Hume on the same account. Hume states, ‘It being a general maxim, that no objects have any discoverable connexion together, and that all the inferences, which we can draw from one to another are founded merely on our experience of their constant and regular conjunction; it is evident, that we ought not to make an exception to this maxim in favor of human testimony, whose connexion with any event seems, in itself, as little necessary as any other.’ (An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, edition by The Liberal Arts Press, 1955, p.119) This ‘maxim’ is Hume’s own grand philosophical principle. It elevates mere correlation, and pronounces the discovery of causation as hopeless. The most obvious counter-example is modern medical science, where correlation most often prompts the question—to which the discovery of causation constitutes the answer. One may not think it fair to fault Hume for not being familiar with modern medical science, but that gets us to an important point. Hume’s assertion that ‘all the inferences, which we can draw from one (object) to another are founded merely on our experience of their constant and regular conjunction’ is a mere proof by lack of imagination—which, in general, would run something like this: ‘I can imagine it being like this. I can’t imagine it being any other way. Therefore, it must be like this.’ Logical possibilities cannot be ruled out simply because they do not present themselves to even the best human imagination. For a statement or argument to be truly logical, it must exclude the possibility of a counter-example. That’s what makes it logical (instead of empirical). If a counter-example is ever found, it shows that the statement or argument was not logical in the first place.

[28] There is no doubt but that Hume intended his maxim to be part of a logical argument. He begins, ‘I flatter myself, that I have discovered an argument of a like nature, which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures. For so long, I presume, will the accounts of miracles and prodigies be found in all history, sacred and profane.’ (ibid. p. 118) And concludes, ‘The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), ’That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous…’ (ibid. p. 123) And right in the middle of this argument is his maxim—which appears ridiculous to scientific eyes.

[29] It is interesting, to me, that Hume thinks his argument will be effective with the ‘wise and learned’. When looking through Swinburne’s references and related material, I noted numerous statements of Hume’s brilliance. Hume ponders his own ‘genius’, and is concerned with the ‘admiration of mankind’. (ibid. p. xi) I am uncomfortable in a field where people feel it appropriate to attest to the brilliance of anyone. It smacks of whistling in the dark—and I suspect the praise is lavished on those with a philosophy close to one’s own.

[30] Except for one place in which his ‘principle of testimony’ creeps in, Swinburne’s five-and-one-half page introduction states his case well. At the end of the introduction, he states, ‘Although there are, I believe, a number of original detailed historical arguments in this book, its main task is to put arguments developed by others into a wider frame so as to form an overall picture.’ (p. 6) In the body of the book, he addresses the program of the introduction, and motivates the assignment of probabilities assigned in the appendix.

[31] Swinburne’s main thesis, that one should make decisions about the likelihood of things only in the broadest context available, is very well taken. For example, consider suffering. Swinburne says, ‘I argued in The Existence of God that it is “more probable than not” that there is a God. However, my subsequent more satisfactory argument in Providence and the Problem of Evil to show that suffering does not count against the existence of God relied in part on the supposition that God would become incarnate to share our suffering and to make atonement for our sins.’ (p. 31 note)

[32] Suffering has been felt to be inconsistent with an omnipotent, good, and omniscient God. The only way I can see to reconcile these is to observe that the evidence is not all in yet—except in one case. Who could say that anyone suffered more than Jesus—with sweating blood (hemathidrosis) in Gethsemane, even before the physical abuse began. Yet who would want to say that Jesus himself would be better off, now, without the suffering. Jesus is the only one of us for whom we have enough information to decide that ‘suffering does not count against the existence of God’. And St. Paul says, ‘Christ has been raised from the dead, as the first-fruits of all who have fallen asleep.’ (1 Cor. 15:20) And, ‘Just as all die in Adam, so in Christ all will be brought to life; but all of them in their proper order: Christ the first-fruits, and next, at his coming, those who belong to him.’ (1 Cor. 15:22,3) And St. James says that ‘we should be a sort of frirst-fruits of all his creation.’ (James 1:18, italics mine, of course) So where the results are in, we see that God is justified, and we have promises that when all the results are in, God will be justified.

Proving What?

The Revd Thomas Bayes

The Revd Thomas Bayes, 1701-1761

The current discussion among Jesus-deniers and mythicists over whether probability in the form of Bayes’s Rule can be used in historical research is more than a little amusing.

The current fad is largely the work of atheist blogger and debater Richard Carrier who despite having a PhD in ancient history likes to tout himself as a kind of natural science cum mathematics cum whachagot expert.

Carrier’s ingenuity is on full display in a recent book published by Prometheus (Buffalo, NY) in which he makes the claim that Bayes Theorem–a formula sometimes used by statisticians  when dealing with conditional probabilities– can be used to establish probability for events in the past.  That would make it useful for answering questions about whether x happened or did not happen, and for Carrier’s fans, the biggest x they would like to see answered (he claims ) is Did Jesus exist or not?  

The formula looks something like this:

Let A1, A2, … , An be a set of mutually exclusive events that together form the sample space S. Let B be any event from the same sample space, such that P(B) > 0. Then,

P( Ak | B ) = P( Ak ∩ B )

P( A1 ∩ B ) + P( A2 ∩ B ) + . . . + P( An ∩ B )

Invoking the fact that P( Ak ∩ B ) = P( Ak )P( B | Ak ), Baye’s theorem can also be expressed as

P( Ak | B ) = P( Ak ) P( B | Ak )

P( A1 ) P( B | A1 ) + P( A2 ) P( B | A2 ) + . . . + P( An ) P( B | An )

Clear?  Of course not. At least not for everybody. But that isn’t the issue because the less clear it is the more claims can be made for its utility.  Its called the Wow! Effect and is designed to cow you into comatose submission before its (actually pretty simple) formulation, using the standard symbols used in formal logic and mathematics.

What is known by people who use Bayes’s theorem to advantage  is that there are only certain conditions when it is appropriate to use it.  Even those conditions can sound a bit onerous: In general, its use is warranted when a problem warrants its use, e.g. when

  • The sample is partitioned into a set of mutually exclusive events { A1, A2, . . . , An }.
  • Within the sample space, there exists an event B, for which P(B) > 0.
  • The analytical goal is to compute a conditional probability of the form: P ( Ak | B ).
  • You know at least one of the two sets of probabilities described below.
    • P( Ak ∩ B ) for each Ak
    • P( Ak ) and P( B | Ak ) for each Ak  

The key to the right use of Bayes is that it can be useful in calculating conditional probabilities: that is, the probability that event A occurs given that event B has occurred.  Normally   such probabilities are used to forecast whether an event is likely to  occur, thus:

Marie is getting married tomorrow, at an outdoor ceremony in the desert. In recent years, it has rained only 5 days each year. Unfortunately, the weatherman has predicted rain for tomorrow. When it actually rains, the weatherman correctly forecasts rain 90% of the time. When it doesn’t rain, he incorrectly forecasts rain 10% of the time. What is the probability that it will rain on the day of Marie’s wedding?
StaTTrek’s solution to Marie’s conundrum looks like this:

“The sample space is defined by two mutually-exclusive events – it rains or it does not rain. Additionally, a third event occurs when the weatherman predicts rain. Notation for these events appears below.

  • Event A1. It rains on Marie’s wedding.
  • Event A2. It does not rain on Marie’s wedding.
  • Event B. The weatherman predicts rain.

In terms of probabilities, we know the following:

  • P( A1 ) = 5/365 =0.0136985 [It rains 5 days out of the year.]
  • P( A2 ) = 360/365 = 0.9863014 [It does not rain 360 days out of the year.]
  • P( B | A1 ) = 0.9 [When it rains, the weatherman predicts rain 90% of the time.]
  • P( B | A2 ) = 0.1 [When it does not rain, the weatherman predicts rain 10% of the time.]

We want to know P( A1 | B ), the probability it will rain on the day of Marie’s wedding, given a forecast for rain by the weatherman. The answer can be determined from Bayes’ theorem, as shown below.

P( A1 | B ) = P( A1 ) P( B | A1 )

P( A1 ) P( B | A1 ) + P( A2 ) P( B | A2 )

P( A1 | B ) = (0.014)(0.9) / [ (0.014)(0.9) + (0.986)(0.1) ]
P( A1 | B ) = 0.111

Note the somewhat unintuitive result. Even when the weatherman predicts rain, it only rains only about 11% of the time. Despite the weatherman’s gloomy prediction, there is a good chance that Marie will not get rained on at her wedding.

When dealing with conditional probabilities at the loading-end of the formula, we are able to formulate the sample  space easily because the “real world conditions” demanded by the formula can be identified,  and also have data–predictions– regarding Event B, which is a third event, A1 and A2 being (the required) mutually exclusive events.

So far, you are thinking, this is the kind of thing you would use for weather, rocket launches, roulette tables and divorces since we tend to think of conditional probability as an event that has not happened but can be predicted to happen, or not happen, based on existing, verifiable occurrences.  How can it be useful in determining whether events  “actually” transpired in the past, that is, when the sample field itself consists of what has already occurred (or not occurred) and when B is  the probability of it having happened? Or how it can be useful in dealing with events claimed to be sui generis since the real world conditions would lack both precedence and context?

To compensate for this, Carrier makes adjustments to the machinery: historical events are like any other events, only their exclusivity (A or not A) exists in the past rather than at the present time or in the future, like Marie’s wedding.  Carrier thinks he is justified in this by making historical uncertainty (i.e., whether an event of the past actually happened) the same species of uncertainty as a condition that applies to the future.  To put it crudely: Not knowing whether something will happen can be treated in the same way as not knowing whether something has happened by jiggering the formula. Managed properly, he is confident that Bayes will sort everything out in short order:

If you treat every probability you assign in the Bayesian equation as if it were a syllogism in an argument and defend each premise as sound (as you would for any other syllogism) Bayes’s theorem will solve all the problems that have left [Gerd] Theissen and others confounded when trying to assess questions of historicity.  There is really no other method on the table since all the historicity criteria so far have been shown to be flawed to the point of being in effect (or in fact) entirely useless. (Carrier, “Bayes Theorem for Beginners,” in Sources of the Jesus Tradition, 107).

What? This is a revolution in  thinking? Never mind the obvious problem:  If all the historicity criteria available have been shown to be “in fact” entirely useless and these are exactly the criteria we need to establish (“treat”)  the premises to feed into Bayes, then this condition would make Bayes compeletly useless as well–unless opposite, useful criteria could be shown to exist.  Bayes does not generate criteria and method; it depends on them, just as the solution to Marie’s dilemma depends on real world events, not on prophecy. Obversely, if Bayes is intended to record probability, the soundness of the premises is entirely vulnerable to improbable assumptions that can only poison the outcome–however “unarguable” it is by virtue of having been run through the Carrier version of the Bayes Machine.  Moreover, he either means something else when he talks about historicity criteria or is saying they exist in some other place.  In any event, the criteria must differ from premises they act upon and the conclusion Bayes delivers.

“Fundamentally flawed,” as I noted in a previous post, is the application of Bayes to data where no “real world data and conditions” can be said to apply.  It was this rather steep lapse in logic that led a former student of mine, who is now studying pure mathematics at Cambridge to remark,

Is this insistence [Carrier’s] of trying to invoke Bayes’ theorem in such contexts a manifestation of some sort of Math or Physics envy? Or is it due to the fact that forcing mathematics into one’s writings apparently confers on them some form of ‘scientific’ legitimacy?

The fact of the matter, as far as I know, and as I thought anyone would realize is that Bayes’ theorem is a theorem which follows from certain axioms. Its application to any real world situation depends upon how precisely the parameters and values of our theoretical reconstruction of a real world approximate reality. At this stage, however, I find it difficult to see how the heavily feared ‘subjectivity’ can be avoided. Simply put, plug in different values into the theorem and you’ll get a different answer. How does one decide which value to plug in?

Secondly, is it compulsory to try to impose some sort of mathematically based methodological uniformity on all fields of rational inquiry? Do there exist good reasons to suppose the the methods commonly used in different areas that have grown over time are somehow fatally flawed if they are not currently open to some form of mathematization?

If this kind of paradigm does somehow manage to gain ascendency, I assume history books will end up being much more full of equations and mathematical assumptions etc. While that will certainly make it harder to read for most (even for someone like me, who is more trained in Mathematics than the average person) I doubt that it would have any real consequence beyond that.”

In fairness to Carrier, however, the use of Bayes is probably not being dictated by logic, or a respect for the purity of mathematics, nor perhaps even because he thinks it can work.

It is simply being drawn (unacknowledged) from the debater’s handbook used by Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne, who (especially through 2007) was active globally debating the question of God’s existence, under the title “Is there a God?” using Bayes’s Theorem as his mainstay.  Not only this, but Swinburne is the editor of the most distinguished collection of essays on Bayes’s Theorem (Oxford, 2002).  In case you are interested in outcomes, Swinburne formulates the likelihood of God in relation to one argument for his existence (the cosmological) this way:  P (e I h & k) ≥ .50  The “background knowledge” Swinburne needs to move this from speculation to a real world condition is “the existence [e] over time of a complex physical universe.”  In order to form a proposition for debate properly, Swinburne depends on the question “Is There a God,” which gives a clear modality:  A and A1.

Unlike Carrier, I believe, I have had the dubious pleasure of having debated Swinburne face to face at Florida State University in 2006. A relatively complete transcript of my opening remarks was posted online in 2010. In case it is not clear, I took the contra side, arguing against the proposition.

I knew enough of Swinburne’s work (and enough of his legendary style from graduate students he had mentored at Oxford) to be on guard for his use of Bayes.  Unlike Carrier, Swinburne is both a theologian and a specialist in formal logic, whose undergraduate degree was in philosophy, politics and economics.  He travels the two worlds with ease and finesse and his most prominent books—The Coherence of TheismThe Existence of God, and Faith and Reason--are heavy reads.

But he is quite uncomfortable with historical argumentation.  Historical argumentation is both non-intuitive and probabilistic (in the sense of following the “law of likelihood”); but tends to favor the view that Bayes’s excessive use of “prior possibilities”  are subjective and lack probative force.   So, when I suggested he could not leap into his Bayesian proofs for God’s existence until he told me what God he was talking about, he seemed confused.  When I scolded him that the God he kept referring to sounded suspiciously biblical and fully attributed, he defended himself with, “I mean what most people mean when they say God.” When I retorted that he must therefore mean what most atheists mean when they say there is not God, he replied that arguing the atheist point of view was my job, not his.   When I said that any God worth arguing about would have to be known through historical documents, the autheticity and epistemological value of which for a debate like this would have to be tested by competent historical research, he became  impatient to get back to his formula, which works slowly and cancerously from givens to premises–to the prize: the unarguable conclusion.  It seems Swinburne thought the fundamentalist yahoos (not my interpretation) would be so dazzled by the idea of an “unarguable argument” for God’s existence that he would win handily.

Except for those  pesky, untended, historical premises.   Not to let a proficient of Bayes get past his premises is the sure way to cause him apoplexy, since Bayes is a premise-eating machine.  Like any syllogistic process, it cannot burp out its unarguable conclusions otherwise.  The result was that in an an overwhelmingly Evangelical-friendly audience of about 500 Floridians, the debate was scored 2 to 1 in my favour: Swinburne lost chiefly because of The Revd. Thomas Bayes.

And this is the trouble Richard Carrier will also need to confront, sooner or later.  He will not solve the primary objections to the use of Bayes’s Law by telling people they don’t get it (many do), or that there are no other methods on the table (where did they go to?), or that all existing historicity criteria, to use a more familiar word in the lexicon he uses on his blog, are “fucked.”

It is rationally (still a higher term than logically)  impossible to use the existence of the world in which thinking about God takes place as the real-world condition that makes it possible to use cosmology as the real-world condition proving his existence.  As Kant complained of Anselm’s ontology, existence is not essence.  It is not argument either. The defeater in this case is history: God has one, in the sense that all ideas about God are historically generated and directly susceptible to historical description and analysis.

And he could learn a thing or two from Swinburne’s sad fate, which is adequately summarized in this blog review of the philosopher’s most extensive use of the Theorem in his 2003 book, The Resurrection of God Incarnate.

Using Bayesian probability and lashings of highfalutin’ mathematical jargon, Swinburne argues that “it [is] very probable indeed that God became incarnate in Jesus Christ who rose from the dead” (p. 214). His mathematical apologetics for the resurrection boils down to the following argument:

  1. The probability of God’s existence is one in two (since God either exists or doesn’t exist).
  2. The probability that God became incarnate is also one in two (since it either happened or it didn’t).
  3. The evidence for God’s existence is an argument for the resurrection.
  4. The chance of Christ’s resurrection not being reported by the gospels has a probability of one in 10.
  5. Considering all these factors together, there is a one in 1,000 chance that the resurrection is not true.

It’s almost impossible to parody this argument (since in order to parody it, you would have to imagine something sillier – a daunting task!). But let me try:

The probably that the moon is made of cheese is one in two (since it is either made of cheese or it isn’t);

the probability that this cheese is Camembert is also one in two (since it’s either camembert or it isn’t); and so on.

At any rate, while Carrier loads his debating machine with still more improbable premises, I am going on the hunt for those missing historicity criteria.  They must be here someplace.  I do wish children would put things back where they found them.

The Jesus Process: Stephanie Louise Fisher


(c) 2012 by Stephanie Fisher, University of Nottingham


The purpose of this essay is to make a further contribution to refuting the methods of recent mythicists and drawing attention to their unprofessional attitudes and prejudices.  It also exposes their lack of discernment and inability to engage with critical scholarship. Scholarship is compromised by these evangelising, self-promoting pedlars of incompetence. I discuss especially the recent attempt of atheist blogger, Richard Carrier to replace historical method with Bayes’ theorem, followed by scholars of whom he makes use. I go on to refute some criticisms of my previous comments, and finally put Albert Schweitzer, some of whose comments are routinely misinterpreted, in his historical context.

 Carrier and Bayes’ Theorem.

Atheist blogger Richard Carrier, has now added to his passionate flushings of incompetence with another book, for which he has eventually found a publisher other than himself. See Richard C. Carrier, Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus (Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 2012).

Bayes’ theorem can be traced back to Thomas Bayes (1702-64), in whose name it was first published in 1764. It was generally used, however, only after it was reworked by the mathematician P-S. Laplace (1749-1827), who was not initially aware of Bayes’ work. It has been used much more in recent years, during which it has been applied to all kinds of things, though not without criticism. It was, for example, successfully used by Alan Turing in deciphering the German Enigma code. It is basically at home in aspects of Maths and the Natural Sciences, where abstract measures of probability are needed.

The centre of Bayes’ theorem is the following:

P(A|B) = \frac{P(B | A)\, P(A)}{P(B)}. \,

Here P stands for ‘Probability’, and A and B are two different sets being assessed. Carrier has this slightly more complex version necessitated by the consideration of the relative probability of different hypotheses:

P(h|b) x P(e|h.b)


[P(h|b) x P(e|h.b] + [P(~h|b) x P(e|~h.b]

Carrier explains briefly, ‘P = probability, = hypothesis, = evidence, and = background knowledge.’[1]

Carrier uses this in a discussion which he calls ‘A Bayesian Analysis of the Disappearing Sun.’[2] This is the story that ‘there was darkness all over the land from the sixth hour until the ninth hour’ (Mk 15.33//Matt. 27.45//Lk 23.44-5). Critical biblical scholars have known for a long time that this story is not literally true.[3] Carrier’s discussion adds nothing significant to this discussion. Carrier includes the completely irrelevant notion that there might have been similar three-hour darkness in 1983, which we all know is false too. Carrier concludes that ‘Instead of letting us get away with vague verbiage about how likely or unlikely things are, Bayes’ theorem forces us to identify exactly what we mean. It thus forces us to identify whether our reasoning is even sound.’[4] Carrier’s discussion shows that this is not what happens. He tries to make it seem plausible by ignoring all the best critical scholarship, and discussing methodologically inadequate, ideologically-motivated pseudo-scholarship instead.

Most analysts would say that Bayes’ theorem is not in the least amenable to complex and composite historical texts. Carrier has too much misplaced faith in the value of his own assumptions. He claims, “[Bayes’] conclusions are always necessarily true — if its premises are true. By ‘premises’ here I mean the probabilities we enter into the equation, which are essentially the premises in a logical argument.”[5]  Bayes theorem was devised to ascertain mathematical probability. It is completely inappropriate for, and unrelated to historical occurrence and therefore irrelevant for application to historical texts. Carrier doesn’t have a structured method of application, but worse, he is dealing with mixed material, some of which is primary, much of which is secondary, legendary, myth mixed accretion. He has no method, and offers none,  of distinguishing the difference and this renders his argument a complete muddle. Effectively in the end, he can conveniently dispose of inconvenient tradition, with a regrettable illusion that Bayes provides a veneer of scientific certainty to prior conclusions he is determined to ‘prove unarguable’.

The Quest of the Historical Jesus: Supercilious Pseudo-Scholars, and the Omission of Inconvenient Critical Scholars.

 Carrier begins his book by arguing that the Quest for a historical Jesus has been a failure because it has reached no consensus on criteria or results.[6] He does not seem to realise that this is partly because he has included under the general umbrella of ‘Jesus scholars’ virtually anyone who has written about him, regardless of competence or bias. If he had included only recognised academics in top tier universities with qualifications in ancient history and New Testament Studies, he would have got a different result. As it is, he includes ‘scholars’ such as Burton Mack, who left the Church of the Nazarene to became a methodologically incompetent radical, and Stanley Porter, who is an equally incompetent Christian fundamentalist. Of course they don’t end up with the same picture of Jesus, and this is partly because both of them are totally incompetent in method. It does not follow that we should all drop reasonable historical criteria and use Bayes’ theorem instead, as Carrier has unwittingly demonstrated by means of his own extensive incompetence.

Notably incompetent are his discussions the “Criterion of Embarrassment.”[7] Carrier begins with a blunt declaration of a typical mythicist view: ‘The assumption is that embarrassing material “would naturally be either suppressed or softened in the later stages of the tradition.” But all extant Gospels are already very late stages of the “Gospel tradition”, the Gospel having already been preached for nearly an entire lifetime across three continents before any Gospel was written’.[8] There are two serious things wrong with this. The first is the description of Meier’s view as an ‘assumption’. No-one reading this without checking Meier’s enormous book would imagine that Meier’s comment is the beginning of a coherent argument of some length, not an ‘assumption’ at all. The second problem is the very late date assumed for all the Gospels. As early as 1998, Casey proposed Aramaic reconstructions of a small number of passages of Mark’s Gospel, and on that basis he rather tentatively proposed a date c. 40 CE for this Gospel. This was worked through in detail and reinforced with considerable evidence and argument by James Crossley in a doctoral thesis published in 2004.[9] Carrier knows just what to do with such learned arguments leading to results which he does not wish to believe in: he leaves them all out. What defence does Bayes’ theorem offer against this? It cannot provide any defence against such professional incompetence and methodological bias.

Among many details which illustrate Carrier’s total inability to understand Jesus’ culture is the story of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest and execution. He declares,

‘The authorities did not need Judas… to find or identify Jesus. Given what Mark has Jesus say in 14:49 (and what Jesus had been doing in Jerusalem only days before), the authorities knew what he looked like, and they could have seized him any time he appeared in public.’

It was fortunate for the Jewish people of the time that the Sagan, the chief priest in charge of security in the Temple, was wiser than Carrier. He will not have forgotten what happened in 4 BCE, when Herod Archelaus was faced with a serious protest in the Temple. Archelaus sent people to talk to the protesters, but when Passover came round and support for them increased, he sent in a cohort led by a tribune, so some 500 soldiers led by an officer: the crowd stoned them with such violence that most of the cohort were killed. Archelaus then sent in his army in force: the result was 3,000 dead Jews and the wreckage of a major festival (Jos. War II, 5-13: Ant XVII, 206-8). This is arguably what the chief priests were avoiding by not arresting Jesus in public in the Temple, yet Carrier shows not a glimmer of awareness of the event in the time of Archelaus ever happening..

Mark reports the possible mob scenario events with precision, but Carrier, despite presenting himself as a competent historian of the ancient world, seems to have depended on a traditional English translation. He announces that for the authorities to have arrested Jesus would not only be ‘politically suicidal’, but also that the idea that the ‘Jewish elite would be that stupid is vanishingly small (a fact fully admitted by Mark, cf. 14.1-2, who nevertheless has them stupidly contradict themselves in the very next chapter…’).[10] This supposed contradiction depends on a traditional translation of μὴ ἐν τῇ ἑορτῇ, (Mk 14.2) as, e.g.,  ‘Not during the festival’ (NRSV). Jeremias long ago pointed out that the Greek heortē also means ‘festival crowd’, as standard secondary literature intermittently repeats.[11] Moreover, Mark’s Greek will represent the chief priests saying in Aramaic al behaggā, which also means ‘not in the festival crowd’.[12] This is why Judah of Kerioth led a party to arrest Jesus in a garden at night. They were then able to hand him over to Pilate, the Roman governor, early the following morning, so that he could be crucified outside the city walls at about 9 a.m., when his disciples had fled and there were no crowds about.

As support for not believing the story of the betrayal and arrest at all, Carrier calls on part of the work of the Jewish scholar Haim Cohn.[13] Cohn was a German Jew who emigrated to Israel, where he became Attorney General of Israel, and Minister of Justice, as well as a member of the Supreme Court of Israel and the International Court of Justice in the Hague. He was a member of the “T’hila” Movement for Israeli Jewish secularism. It is culturally ludicrous to expect anyone like Cohn to give a fair account of a New Testament narrative, especially one which has played such an appalling role in the history of Christian anti-Semitism.

Cohn’s total ineptitude in historical research runs through his whole book. For example, at the beginning of his chapter on Jesus, he declares ‘Our purpose is to show that neither Pharisees nor Sadducees, neither priests nor elders, neither scribes nor any Jews, had any reasonable cause to seek the death of Jesus or his removal. Without such, it will be submitted, the reports that they sought to destroy him (Matt. 12:14; Luke 19:47) or that they counseled together “for to put him to death” (John 11:53; Luke 22:2; Mark 14:1) are stripped of all plausibility’.[14] This illustrates the way that Cohn ignores all historical evidence in favour of his own ideologically orientated fantasies, much as Carrier and other mythicists do.

Carrier follows the religious bias of amateurs as greedily as he does his own mistaken prejudices, rather than relying on competent Jewish scholars such as Amy-Jill Levine, Paula Fredriksen and Geza Vermes, when he opines that ‘The fact that Jesus’ betrayer’s name means “Jew” should already make us suspicious’.[15] It should not. Juda(s) (יהודה:  Yehuda, God is praised) was believed to have been the fourth son of the Biblical patriarch Jacob, and hence regarded as the eponymous ancestor of the tribe of Judah;  it is a well attested and popular Jewish name of the period. Famous examples included Judah ‘the hammer’, better known in English as Judas Maccabaeus, leader of the Maccabean revolt in the second century BCE: and Rabbi Judah the Prince. Another example is one of Jesus’ brothers (Mk 6.3). Many real people have been called ‘Judah’ ever since: one of the most famous recent examples is the musician, Yehudi Menuhin.

Carrier then suggests that ‘Iscariot’ is ‘an Aramaicism for the Latin “Sicarius”’. This etymology however is barely coherent. The Latin ‘Sicarius’ is not otherwise used for Jewish insurgents until much later, and no-one had any good reason to put the Hebrew Ish and the Latin Sicarius into a single name at any time. The Hebrew Ish was however sometimes used in names, and the very varied forms of Iscariot, including for example Iskariōth (e.g. Mk 3.19) and apo Karyōtou (D at Jn 12.4) make perfect sense if his designation was originally ‘man of Kerioth’, a village right in the south of Judaea, and this also makes good sense of him.[16]

How much help is Bayes’ theorem in understanding all this? It is of no help whatever. It can do nothing to prevent Carrier from being totally incompetent in doing the meticulous business of historical research, torturing  false assumptions into premises, and using equally incompetent pseudo-scholars such as the hopelessly radical Mack, the Christian fundamentalist Porter, and the equally bigoted  Cohn as pillars in his argumentative travesty. Mack and Porter have in common with Carrier that they cannot read Aramaic, and consequently cannot understand any arguments based on features in the text of the synoptic Gospels, especially Mark, which have often been thought to reflect Aramaic sources. Cohn simply seems not to have done so, and wrote too early to have read recent work written in the light of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Caeci caecos decentes: An ambitious blogger on New Testament subjects with no formal training in the field at all, Tom Verenna, who often makes unqualified pronouncements, has praised Richard Carrier’s piece on the ‘Bible and Interpretation’ on-line journal as an ‘Exceptional article’.[17] And it is indeed exceptional: an exceptionally flawed and overblown piece, Bayes’ Theorem and the Modern Historian: Proving History Requires Improving Methods,[18] in which he is typically misleading and characteristically over confident about his convictions. Especially in evidence in this article is his inability to provide sufficient or adequate references.

In an earlier blog post in which Carrier attempted to promote himself and his book Proving History, he made the most extraordinary and unqualified claim that ‘every expert who is a specialist in methodology has concluded, one and all, that the methods now used in Jesus studies are also totally fucked’.

Whom Carrier considers to be expert, and what criteria he assumes qualifies one as an expert are unclear, especially as Carrier considers himself to be an expert in fields in which he has no qualifications. All competent and critical New Testament scholars investigating the history of early Christianity, should be competent in methodology in order to pursue academic enquiry. Carrier’s claim is ludicrous. In this so-called ‘exceptional’ article, Carrier is still unclear and seems completely disconnected from the reality of the academic process of critical enquiry, debate and progress. He would like us to believe that a collection of essays will be 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.’

We cannot assess essays which have not been published. Nevertheless Mark Goodacre has generously sent me his contribution prior to publication. Carrier then goes on to include several other people, including Tom Verenna who has no qualifications and Thomas Thompson who is not a New Testament scholar, suggesting they all reject historical method as leading to confusing results. This is a grotesque caricature of scholarship, and Carrier’s expectation that consensus should be reached by people of such different ideological perspectives is fantasy.

Premised on his assumption that methods in historical studies must be non-duplicative, non-competitive and homogenous, Carrier claims

‘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.’

He concludes after accepting his own verdict that ‘This has to end’.

It’s a shame Carrier has collected such a disparate group of people and selected helpful words out of context in order to argue his own conviction that New Testament studies is ‘fucked’. It’s also regrettable that Carrier avoids discussion of crucial historical Jesus scholars such as Roger Aus, Maurice Casey (whose work on Aramaic Carrier routinely omits because it is inconvenient and he cannot understand it) Martin Hengel, William Horbury, who discuss method, evaluate it and constantly seek to improve it.

Method evolves with advances in knowledge and technical expertise; it cannot be shortcut by bogus and inapplicable mathematical formulas. Indeed, the nature of critical scholarship is to provide a continuing critique of the historical methods of previous generations and their application; to evaluate and revise them, and to help them to evolve and to improve.  At no point in such a process does a critical scholar throw his or her hands in the air and pronounce a fatwah on all preceding efforts.  Discussing and debating application and constantly evaluating method, Mark Goodacre whom Carrier cites out of context, writes,

‘This is not to argue for the replacement of one criterion (multiple attestation) for another (accidental information), but to suggest, rather, that crude, ham-fisted application of criteria was never likely to yield reliable historical results in the quest of the historical Jesus.[19]

Goodacre’s incisive comments are entirely correct and illustrate the sort of academic discussion critical scholars are engaged in.

It is presently too early to expect a consensus, even on methods, among all critical scholars, in view of new evidence and new argument especially since the 1970s and in view of more recent developments in Aramaic scholarship. Consensus involving ideological extremes is impossible and this has a regrettable effect on the most critical scholarship because all critical scholars are human beings who necessarily begin and continue their lives within some kind of social framework.

Aramaic, Greek and Porter.

Carrier’s section on ‘Aramaic Context’ moves beyond the incompetent to the barely comprehensible.[20] Astonishingly he once again relies on the Christian fundamentalist Stanley Porter, forcing even an inattentive reader to ask whether he cannot read any reputable critical scholars? Porter needs to believe that Jesus taught in Greek. He put this clearly on the Website of McMaster Divinity College, the theological seminary where he works. Here Porter comments on New Testament Greek: ‘I love the challenge of developing students who are passionate about learning New Testament Greek, the language that God used when he wished to communicate with us directly about his Son, and in which the New Testament is written.’[21]

So that’s it, then. Jesus must have spoken Greek because it is God’s language. It follows that Porter’s scholarship is a sham, and this is why it contains so many predicable mistakes. One mistake is to downplay or even omit the evidence that Jesus spoke and consequently taught in Aramaic. Noting quotations in Aramaic in the synoptic Gospels, Porter comments, ‘By this reasoning it is more plausible to argue that Jesus did most of his teaching in Greek, since the Gospels are all Greek documents.’[22]

This misrepresents the nature of the Gospels themselves. They were written in Greek to communicate the ‘good news’ to Greek-speaking Christians. This mere fact does not tell us in which language Jesus taught, whereas the Aramaic words and idioms in the synoptic Gospels cannot be explained unless the Gospel writers could expect their audiences to know or be told that the ministry took place in an Aramaic-speaking environment, and this is part of the evidence that Jesus must have taught in Aramaic. This is supported by peculiarities such as ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, which is not normal monoglot Greek, and which makes excellent sense as a translation of br ’nash(a)’. Porter’s second major mistake is to exaggerate the use of Greek in Israel. For example, Porter has Galilee ‘completely surrounded by Hellenistic culture’.[23] This Hellenistic culture was however Gentile, and its presence in cities such as Tyre and Scythopolis is entirely consistent with its rejection by Aramaic-speaking Jews. Again, Porter refers to the Greek names of the musical instruments at Daniel 3.5.[24] These are however the instruments of Nebuchadnezzar, and represent in real life the favourite instruments of the Hellenistic persecutor, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. They are the only Greek words in the text of Daniel precisely because they represent Hellenistic persecution, so they reveal very little knowledge of Greek and absolute rejection of it.

Moreover, it is notorious that this is the limit of Greek words in Biblical Aramaic. Qumran Aramaic has no Greek loanwords,[25] an there were very few Greek loanwords in Aramaic until after the time of Jesus. Fundamentalist Christians, however, believe in the traditions of their elders, according to which the book of Daniel, iconic in conservative circles for its providential significance to Christianity, is indisputable scriptural evidence of the use of Greek words in Aramaic in the sixth century BCE, a view which on scholarly grounds must be regarded as completely wrong.

Among genuine evidence of Jews using Greek, Porter cites the funerary inscriptions from Beth She‘arim, noting that they date from the first to the sixth centuries CE, and subsequently responding to criticism by continuing to maintain them as evidence that ‘some from that area, including possibly Jesus, used Greek’.[26] But ‘only a few of the village’s tombs date to the first century CE, and these do not contain inscriptions’.[27] Thus all the tomb inscriptions from Beth She‘arim are too late in date to affect the question of which language(s) Jesus is likely to have spoken in order to communicate with audiences in first century rural Galilee.

So much of Porter’s evidence is from a later time or the wrong place that it should not be used to support the notion of Jesus conducting a Greek-speaking ministry in the Galilean countryside or in relatively small towns such as Capernaum. Porter also drew on what was then recent research to support his view, including the blunt declaration that Sepphoris, where Jesus’ ministry conspicuously did not take place, was a ‘thoroughly Hellenized city.’ This has now been exposed as a temporary American trend, and the Jewishness of the area of the historic ministry has been recognised.[28]

Yet fundamentalist Christian Porter is a ‘scholar’ on whom Carrier relies.

Carrier also dismisses all proposed evidence of Aramaisms in the Gospels with ludicrous comments which show that he has not read relevant primary sources nor any significant secondary literature upon which it is based. He comments, ‘If every instance is a Semitism, then it is not evidence of an Aramaic source’,[29] and then assumes that every instance is a general Semitism (although he doesn’t distinguish the difference) and dismisses Casey’s evidence and entire argument of cumulative weight.[30]

Indeed Carrier has assumed it’s sufficient not to read Casey’s meticulous works because he can dismiss them on a prior assumption, but won’t read his academic arguments to see why Casey believes in written Aramaic sources underlying parts of the synoptic Gospels, not just ‘general Semitisms’. Casey does address the possibility of general Semitisms and has demonstrated in his arguments precisely why and where they are invalid. Carrier for his part repeatedly claims to have referred to ‘experts’, but he does not give proper references, and much scholarship precedes the discovery of Aramaic documents in the Dead Sea Scrolls and is consequently out of date. When he says that experts he knows reject Casey’s work on the ‘son of man’ he is oblivious to the difference between critical reviews and those clouded by hopeless bias.[31]  Needless to say, Casey’s work is rejected by all fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, who are determined to believe that ‘Son of man’ in the Gospels is derived from Daniel 7, a view which is still attractive to more liberal Christians because it derives what they think of as a Christological title from Scripture. The unfortunate fact is that most New Testament scholars are not competent Aramaists and Casey’s work has to be interpreted and interpreters trusted for critical interpretation. How many of these ‘scholars’ read more than 3,500 examples of the Aramaic term br ’nash(a)’ when they were deciding what it meant? Casey is the only such scholar known to me!

 The Family of the Historical Jesus

 Another significant point of contention is Jesus’ family, whose existence is one of the arguments in favour of his existence. Mythicists pour scorn on this, and especially on Gal. 1.19. At Gal. 1.18, Paul says that after his conversion he went to Arabia, then after three years he went up to Jerusalem to question Cephas, and stayed with him for 15 days: ‘but I did not see any other of the apostles except Jacob the brother of the Lord.’ Of course the Greek word ‘adelphos’ does not necessarily denote a sibling, because it is also used to denote members of a community. Doherty cites 1 Cor 15.6, according to which the risen Jesus appeared to ‘over 500 brethren at once’.[32] These were obviously members of the Christian community, not siblings of the historical Jesus. Noting however not very accurately Phil. 1.14, where members of the community are described by Paul in prison as ‘most of the brethren who have been made confident in the Lord because of my chains’, he declares that ‘James seems to have been head of a community in Jerusalem which bore witness to the spiritual Christ, a group apparently calling itself “brethren in/of the Lord”; the two versions were probably interchangeable.’[33] This is completely spurious: Jacob, and anyone else who might have been a sibling of Jesus, is never called ‘brother in the Lord’, and members of the community in general are never called ‘brethren of the Lord’.

Doherty then seeks to sidestep 1 Cor. 9.5, which has a long tradition of being misinterpreted, going back at least to Drews and others in the late nineteenth century. Here Paul clearly distinguishes a group and a person, ‘the brothers of the Lord and Cephas’. It is obvious that the term ‘brother(s) of the Lord’ is not applied to all members of the community, but Doherty suggests that this ‘may be due to a certain looseness of language’, and that Peter’s separate mention in this text ‘may be for emphasis and need not mean that he is not one of the “brothers”.[34] This suggestion is completely arbitrary. Paul’s language is mundanely precise. ‘The brothers of the Lord’ are Jesus’ brothers enumerated at Mark 6.3f., and Cephas was not one of them. Doherty then expounds his fantasy world to replace this;

‘…other explanations are possible. My own would be that the Jerusalem sect known to Paul began a number of years earlier as a monastic group calling itself “brothers of the Lord” (possibly meaning God) and after those initial visions revealing the existence of the dying and rising Son as recounted in 1 Corinthians 15:5-7, this group expanded its “mandate” to encompass apostolic work and attracted satellite members who, while being referred to as “brothers,” were thought of as distinctive from the original core group.’[35]

This is creative fiction, not scholarship, assumptions supported by guesses and distortion, by Doherty alone, not historical research at all, and it is regrettable that anyone should take it seriously.

Doherty then makes the convenient suggestion that the word ‘the (ton)’ might not have been in the earliest mss., though there is no evidence of its omission. He then declares, ‘I once asked if Paul had the word ton written in big caps’, because Doherty is too ignorant to know that all mss at this date were written in large capital letters – small letters or miniscules having not yet come into use.[36] This illustrates very well that, years after fundamentalist treatment of the text of the New Testament as inerrant, mythicists treat it as something they can always alter when they feel like it, in accordance with their predilections and in total contempt for anything recognisable as principles of reasonable textual criticism.

Doherty includes a very confused and ignorant discussion of what was possible in Greek, and of what we should call the generic use of the Greek article. First of all he declares that ‘there was no way to specify “brother of the Lord” except by simply leaving out the definite article.[37] Paul could however have done this. Secondly, he could have written adelphos tis tou kuriou, ‘a brother of the Lord’. Thirdly, he could have written heis tōn adelphōn tou kuriou, ‘one of the brothers of the Lord’. Paul had however no reason to write any of these things. Jacob was a common name in a culture which had no equivalent of our surnames, and Paul had this very simple way of saying which Jacob he met, in a high context culture in which further explanation was not necessary.  After his inadequate discussion of the Greek article, which should have said simply that it is generic more often than e.g. the English definite article ‘the’, Doherty is left without a reason for Paul’s description of Jacob as ‘the brother of the Lord’. He ends up suggesting that it may have originated ‘as an interpolation or a marginal gloss’. All this is caused by anti-historical convictions that Paul could not have referred to Jesus’ brother Jacob, as he did. It is also based on an arbitrary view of New Testament textual criticism, which is hopelessly out of date.

The rest of Jesus’ family also had names drawn from major figures of Jewish history and culture. His father was called ‘Joseph’, after a major patriarch who ruled over Egypt under the Pharaoh. His mother was called ‘Miriam’, after Moses’ sister. ‘Jesus’ is derived from the Greek form of Yēshua‘¸ whom we usually call ‘Joshua’, the major figure of Jewish history who was believed to have succeeded Moses and led Israel across the Jordan into the promised land. At the time of Jesus this name was believed to mean YHWH saves, or the like, so in effect ‘God saves’ (cf. Matt. 1.21). His brother ‘Jacob’ was of course called after the eponymous patriarch of the whole nation, ‘Jacob’ who was also called ‘Israel’. The other brothers were called ‘Judah’, after the fourth son of the Biblical patriarch Jacob, who was regarded as the eponymous ancestor of the tribe of Judah: ‘Joseph’ again: and ‘Simeon’, who was believed to have been the second son of Jacob and Leah, and thus the eponymous ancestor of the tribe of Simeon.

This family background locates Jesus right inside traditional Judaism. Trying to explain this to contemporary English speaking readers, Fredriksen drew a regrettable analogy with famous Americans’ names, regrettable because the result is not what one expects. Atheist blogger Neil Godfrey, an Australian ‘meta-data’ librarian, thus plucked her brief comments completely out of context, and cited her in favour of the opposite interpretation. While she correctly said, ‘the names themselves convey a close identification with the nation’s foundational past’, Godfrey declared,

‘Add to this the fact that the names are introduced within a narrative that serves the purpose of likening Jesus’ family situation to that of other biblical heroes, like Joseph and David to name only the most prominent ones, and thus conforms to the biblical pattern of being rejected by his own family, and we are entitled to hold some reservations about the authenticity of the list.’[38]

This means nothing more significant than that Godfrey proposes not to believe what he does not fancy. As a member of the Worldwide Church of God he could not cope with the Jewishness of Jesus, and when he converted to atheism this did not change.  As N.T. Wrong astutely observed, ‘Once a fundie always a fundie. He’s just batting for the other side, now.’ [39]


Still More Incompetence.

The undergraduate student Tom Verenna has recently attempted to contribute a piece, ‘Did Jesus Exist? The Trouble with Certainty in Historical Jesus Scholarship’, in Bible and Interpretation May, 2012.[40] This is yet another scandalously ignorant outpouring written in the form of (yet another) attack on New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman. I do not wish to defend Ehrman’s book but Verenna’s ignorance of New Testament scholarship is indicated by his declaration that the whole idea that Jesus existed is contrary to recent scholarship. In particular, his reference to ‘credible scholars like Thomas Thompson, Bob Price or Carrier’ has two people (Thompson and Carrier) who have never been properly qualified in New Testament Studies, and one (Price) who was a fundamentalist and who was converted to atheism without ever progressing through the rites of academic passage that would make him a critical scholar as opposed to a populariser of radical and unsupportable ideas.[41] Verenna ought to learn more before he pronounces, but his enthusiastic outpourings show no signs of a desire to learn.

Carrier’s over-long blog post[42] reviewing a very very brief piece by Ehrman in the Huffington Post (whenever was a book review ten times longer than the thing reviewed?), misrepresents several things. For example, he cites Philo, De Prov. II, 64, to show that Philo ‘made regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem’. This passage survives only in Armenian, which in general does not provide reliable tradition. Moreover, the passage does not say that he ‘made regular pilgrimages’ at all. It only says that he went via Ascalon, and it is perfectly consistent with the common view that he went only once.

Both Carrier and Verenna claim that Ehrman implies one’s career will be ruined if a scholars challenges the historical existence of Jesus. Ehrman, of course, does not, and Verenna and Carrier, who have never held academic positions, can point to no case since the nineteenth century in German protestant faculties where a career has been jeopardized by holding radical views, competently argued, vetted and defended. This is because there is no evidence and they assume a conspicuous falsehood.  The modern university in most parts of the developed world prizes academic freedom as an unalienable right to profess what you have learned without restriction:  that is why the convention called academic tenure exists. Indeed, even untenured lecturers, especially in the United Kingdom and the Antipodes, are appointed to permanent positions where they suffer no fear for voicing inconvenient positions.  One stands aghast not only that people like Carrier, Godfrey and Verenna subscribe to such opinions but that they feel free to broadcast their ignorance in writing.

Atheist blogger Neil Godfrey defends himself for his misleading comments on the work of Casey, Crossley and other scholars whom he has criticised for ‘circular reasoning, begging the question and special pleading’ after conveniently replacing their learned arguments (which he did not understand) with simplistic and misleading summaries which is all he can understand.  It is also apparent he does not read whole books, once claiming on his blog ‘I’m a librarian, but I never see or touch a book.’[43]

This is perhaps the one credible statement in Godfrey’s expanding dabble into the field of biblical studies: if one does not read entire books from beginning to end as a matter of habit before commenting on or attempting to critique them, what chance is there for scholarship to be fairly represented, and what confidence can a reader have in the validity of such critiques?  Much scholarship is incompletely available on line which could lead to the sort of hopeless misrepresentations, misinterpretations and muddles, by the likes of these atheist bloggers. A recent example of internet noise passing for information was a post by Godfrey  defending Steven Carr who had complained that Casey’s recent book Jesus of Nazareth was not given on a Nottingham university reading list. When I pointed out that there had not been time to put it there, given its recent publication date,   Godfrey announced that to list it  ‘needs nothing more than that the book is available and in print.’[44] This is completely untrue, and shows no grasp of what is involved in running a major university library. This illustrates as well the recurrent petulance of the comments by Godfrey and Carr, to which I have frequently drawn attention–and atheist blogger Neil Godfrey, who is a librarian, ought to know better.

Albert Schweitzer in his Historical Context 

Martin Luther, condemning the selection of words out of context and misrepresentation, says, ‘He does nothing more than latch on to a small word and smear over with his spittle as he pleases, but meanwhile he does not take into account other texts which overthrow he who smear and spits, so that he is up-ended with all four limbs in the air. So here, after he has raved and smeared for a long time … [he] is like the ostrich, the foolish bird which thinks it is wholly concealed when it gets its neck under a branch.’[45]

Mythicists also love to quote old scholarship out of its historical context. Schweitzer is one of their favourites for this. For example, atheist blogger Godfrey comments, apparently trying to demonstrate mythicists don’t use Schweitzer to support their claims, but his comment merely demonstrates that they do.  He is oblivious to the fact that nobody suggests that mythicists pretend Schweitzer was a mythicist.  This is further demonstration that Godfrey shows utter ignorance of what misrepresentation of scholarship is.  Mythicists misinterpret Schweitzer to claim there is no historically valid evidence for historicity of Jesus.  On his blog Godrey writes:[46]

‘Schweitzer understood the limitations of what generally passes for historical method far better than nearly every contemporary historical Jesus scholar I have read: In reality, however, these writers [those arguing for the historicity of Jesus against mythicists] are faced with the enormous problem that strictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.” (From page 402 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.)

Little wonder that Schweitzer called upon Christians to let go of their faith in an unknowable historical Jesus (whose very existence could not even pass the theoretical norms of positive probability) and ‘turn to a new metaphysic.’

This ignores the fact that, like von Ranke, whom Godfrey also loves to quote , Schweitzer was a committed German Christian and was not inveighing against the historicity of Jesus or advocating an end of the search to establish his actual historical coordinates. As such, Schweitzer believed that salvation was by faith, not by works, and historical research was merely a ‘work’. This is what he considered ‘uncertain’ about all historical research. It has nothing to do with what present-day historians or incompetent bloggers mean when they think that something is ‘historically uncertain’, which normally indicates that it may or may not have happened. It is well known that Schweitzer followed Weiss in supposing that Jesus expected the kingdom of God to come in his own time–and was mistaken. Schweitzer deserves to be quoted at length, since his memorable statement of the status quaestiones has dominated serious historical research for a century:

His [Weiss’s] Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, published in 1892, is in its own way as important as Strauss’s first Life of Jesus. He lays down the third great alternative which the study of the life of Jesus had to meet….either eschatological or non-eschatological!….The general conception of the kingdom was first grasped by Johannes Weiss. All modern ideas, he insists…must be eliminated from it; when this is done, we arrive at a kingdom of God which is wholly future….He exercises no ‘messianic functions’, but waits, like others, for God to bring about the coming of the kingdom by supernatural means…. But it was not as near as Jesus thought. The impenitence and hardness of heart of a great part of the people, and the implacable enmity of his opponents, at length convinced him that the establishment of the kingdom of God could not yet take place….It becomes clear to him that his own death must be the ransom price….

The setting up of the kingdom was to be preceded by the day of judgement. In describing the messianic glory Jesus makes use of the traditional picture, but he does so with modesty, restraint and sobriety. Therein consists his greatness….

The ministry of Jesus is therefore not in principle different from that of John the Baptist….What distinguishes the work of Jesus from that of the Baptist is only his consciousness of being the Messiah. He awoke to this consciousness at his baptism. But the messiahship which he claims is not a present office; its exercise belongs to the future….

…Reimarus…was the first, and indeed before Johannes Weiss, the only writer to recognise and point out that the teaching of Jesus was purely eschatological….But Weiss places the assertion on an unassailable scholarly basis.”[47]

Now where has all the supposedly historical uncertainty gone? It was never there! In this second passage, Schweitzer was discussing what really happened, and he had no doubts about that at all. His apparent doubts in the much quoted passage above are not historical doubts. They are entirely due to his conviction, which comes indirectly from his Lutheran beginnings, that salvation is by faith, not works, and historical research is a ‘work’ which does not bring salvation.

Genuine historical knowledge, however, restores to theology full freedom of movement! It presents to it the person of Jesus in an eschatological world-view, yet one which is modern through and through because His mighty spirit pervades it.

This Jesus is far greater than the one conceived in modern terms: he is really a superhuman personality. With his death he destroyed the form of his Weltanschauung, rendering his own eschatology impossible. Thereby he gives to all peoples and to all times the right to apprehend him in terms of their thoughts and conceptions, in order that his spirit may pervade their ‘Weltanschauung’ as it quickened and transfigured the Jewish eschatology.”[48]


Successus improborum plures allicit.[50] Carrier slanders scholars with spurious and unqualified accusations such as being ‘insane’ and a ‘liar’ which is merely a reflection of his own n0n-professionalism and inability to engage in critical academic debate.  He has no evidence that his claims are accurate. His attacks are entirely personal and usually conducted in the kind of language we would expect after a few rounds at the local.  They merely appear to be defensive emotional outursts.

Carrier  holds no academic post and the prospect for such is unlikely, a prophecy he would no doubt find preordained in the conspiracy of  ‘mainstream’ biblical scholarship against the truth of his conclusions.  In any case his field is not New Testament or the History of Religion.  To date, his doctoral thesis has not been published.  How does an author of self published books, which have never been peer reviewed, become renowned?   His atheist blog boasts “Richard Carrier is the renowned author of Sense and Goodness without God,  Proving History, and Not the Impossible Faith, as well as numerous articles online and in print. His avid fans span the world from Hong Kong to Poland. With a Ph.D. in ancient history from Columbia University, he specializes in the modern philosophy of naturalism, the origins of Christianity, and the intellectual history of Greece and Rome, with particular expertise in ancient philosophy, science and technology. He has also become a noted defender of scientific and moral realism, Bayesian reasoning, and the epistemology of history.”  One does not generally assume to have ‘expertise’ in areas one is self taught.  Carrier does and his egotistical pretences of learning, compromise his claim to credibility further. As Frank Leahy apparently said ‘Egotism is the anaesthetic that dulls the pains of stupidity’.[51]

His self published books follow here:
self published: AuthorHouse
self published: CreateSpace
self published: Lulu
Doctoral Thesis?? not published.

‘Renowned’?  If Richard Carrier had been Jesus at least we’d know how the gospels got published.  He has claimed on facebook to have covered “the whole issue [of historical criteria, citing] all the relevant scholarship on why those criteria are all flawed.”  He has done neither of these things.  His forthcoming volume is called On the Historicity of Jesus Christ.  The title alone in fact demonstrates how out of touch with critical scholarship Carrier is.  “Christ”?

It was unfortunate that Carrier managed to be invited by Robert M Price onto the Jesus Project.  As Bruce Chilton wrote in January 2009

“the Project has focused on an incoherent set of some of the least important questions in scholarship. For example, it keeps asking “Did Jesus exist?” as if that issue had not been raised repeatedly during the past two centuries… the Project has attempted to address questions of critical approach without a thorough grounding in academic study since the eighteenth century. The result is that some of the assertions made by contributors to the Project are not well informed and invoke quests for “objectivity” that seem more at home in nineteenth-century Europe than in twenty-first century America. What is more worrying, actual knowledge of primary sources (and of their languages) does not seem as great among participants in the Project as among Fellows of the Seminar… Fundamentalists are not the only partisans who permit their wishes to cloud what they see and that it takes more than a declaration of “objectivity” to acquire the discipline of reasoning from evidence, both textual and archaeological”.[52]

Chilton accurately identifies flaws which are so deplorably typical of the mythicist approaches to religious texts today.

Delusion is defined according to Carrier by three criteria: certainty (held with absolute conviction), incorrigibilty (not changeable by compelling counter argument or proof to the contrary), and impossibility or falsity of content.   These criteria are as characteristic of fundamentalist belief, as they are of atheistic Jesus denial, and Carrier’s atheistic convictions, and self image.  It is slightly ironic therefore that he announces during this same talk on Christian Delusion, “I don’t think there’s a problem with being a dick”.[53] If that clownish attitude existed in critical scholarship, academia would be a circus.[54]

In order to continue to advance knowledge and make progress in historical enquiry, we need to extinguish the maladroit methods and bumbling amateurism from scholarship.  From the muddled and ignorant delusions of Richard Carrier to the ideological extremes which have lingered too long and still creep into scholarship through the theological seminary corridor.

To ensure the healthy future of critical historical enquiry and continue to inspire the process of constructive debate and analysis, the continued development of new argument and evidence, and encourage the evolution of improved methodological approaches and application through precision and fine tuning, we need to start taking responsibility for maintaining high standards in scholarship.

This will be ensured with expertise brought about by specific specialist training in all aspects of New Testament and religion, including ancient languages and history, accompanied with sophisticated interdisciplinary knowledge.

It seems fitting to return to Albert Schweitzer.  Although he is renowned as marking the end of the first Quest for a historical Jesus, it could be argued that he inspired future historians with his insight and attitude, and also with his passion for life, his empathy and dedication to clarity:  “What has been presented as Christianity during these nineteen centuries is only a beginning, full of mistakes, not full blown Christianity springing from the spirit of Jesus… To the question whether I am a pessimist or an optimist, I answer that my knowledge is pessimistic, but my willing and hoping are optimistic.”[55]

[1] Richard C. Carrier, Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus (Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 2012) p.50, with p.301 n.10.

[2] Carrier, Proving History, pp.54-60.

[3] See especially R.D. Aus, Samuel, Saul and Jesus: Three Early Palestinian Jewish Christian Gospel Haggadoth, (Scholar’s Press, 1994) ch. 3, esp. pp. 134-57, with a summary for the general reader at Casey, Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching, (T&T Clarke, 2010) pp. 447-8.

[4] Carrier, Proving History, p. 60.

[5] Carrier, Proving History, p. 45.

[6] Carrier, Proving History, pp. 11-14.

[7] Carrier, Proving History, pp. 126-69.

[8] Carrier, Proving History, p. 126, quoting J.P. Meier, Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (New York: Doubleday, ABRL), vol I p.168.

[9] Maurice Casey, Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel (Society for New Testament Studies, Monograph Series 102; Cambridge: University Press, 1998);  J. G. Crossley, The Date of Mark’s Gospel: Insight from the Law in Earliest Christianity (JSNTSup 266. London: T&T Clark International, 2004).

[10] Carrier, Proving History, p. 317 n. 68.

[11] Joachim Jeremias, Eucharistic Words, translated by Norman Perrin, (S.C.M. Press, 1966) pp. 71-3, utilising older secondary literature in German.

[12] For a fully explanatory summary, see now Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teachings (T&T Clarke, 2010) pp. 415-7, 425-8, 438-47.

[13] Carrier, Proving History, pp. 153-5, with p. 317 n. 68, citing Haim Cohn, The Trial and Death of Jesus (NY: Harper & Row, 1971).

[14] Cohn, Trial, p. 38.

[15] Carrier, Proving History, p. 154.

[16] cf. Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of his Life and Teaching, (T&T Clark, 2010) pp. 191-2, 425-8, 439.



[19] Mark Goodacre, “Criticizing the Criterion of Multiple Attestation: The Historical Jesus and the Question of Sources” in Chris Keith and Anthony LeDonne (eds), Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (T & T Clark, 2012) forthcoming.

[20] Carrier, Proving History, pp. 185-6.

[22] Stanley Porter, “Jesus and the Use of Greek”, 125 n. 9, repeated in Porter, “EXCURSUS”, 171.

[23] Porter, ‘Jesus and the Use of Greek’, p. 135.

[24] Porter, ‘Jesus and the Use of Greek’, p. 139.

[25] F. García Martínez, ‘Greek Loanwords in the Copper Scroll’, in F. García Martínez & G.P. Luttikhuizen, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Rome: Studies in Ancient Cultural Interaction in Honour of A.Hilhorst (JSJSup 82. Leiden: Brill, 2003), pp. 119-45 (121), noting also the absence of Greek loanwords from Qumran Hebrew, other than in the Copper Scroll.

[26] Porter, ‘Jesus and the Use of Greek’, 146-7; ‘EXCURSUS’, 172-3, responding to Casey, ‘In Which Language’, p. 327, and Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel (Society for New Testament Studies, Monograph Series 102; Cambridge: University Press, 1998) p. 66.

[27] M. Chancey, The Myth of a Gentile Galilee (SNTSMS 118. Cambridge: CUP, 2002), 108-9, citing N. Avigad, Beth She‘arim. Report on the Excavations during 1953-1958. Vol. III: Catacombs 12-23 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1976): 260-1. Avigad (pp. 124-5, 261) has catacomb 21 as the earliest, dating perhaps from the Herodian period, but perhaps later, and with no inscriptions.

[28] Porter, ‘EXCURSUS’, p. 176: see now especially M. Chancey, ‘The Cultural Milieu of Ancient Sepphoris’, NTS 47 (2001): 127-45; id., Myth of a Gentile Galileeid., Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus (SNTSMS 134. Cambridge: CUP, 2005).

[30] Carrier, Proving History, pp. 185-6.

[32] E. Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor ManThe Case for a Mythical Jesus (Ottawa: Age of Reason, 2009), pp. 60-61.

[33] Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p. 60.

[34] Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p. 61.

[35] Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p. 61.

[36] Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p. 62.

[37] Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p. 62.

[38] P. Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity (New York: Random House, 1999), p. 240; quoted out of context by atheist blogger Neil Godfrey:

[41] See Casey’s essay in this series: and further on Joel Watts’ blog, with comments by Casey and myself, Casey’s comments include a refutation of Verenna.

[45] Against the Heavenly Prophets: In the Matter of Images and Sacrament, (1525) Vol. 40, Martin Luther’s Works: Church and Ministry II (Translated by Conrad Bergendof) p. 185.

[47] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (First Complete Edition. Translated by W. Montgomery, J.R.Coates, Susan Cupitt and John Bowden from the German Geschichte der Leben-Jesus-Forschung, published 1913 by J.C.B.Mohr, Tübingen. Ed. John Bowden. London: SCM, 2000), pp. 198-201.

[48] Albert Schweitzer: The Mystery of the Kingdom of God, translated by Walter Lowrie (Dodd Mead and Co, New York, 1914) p. 251.

[49] Albert Schweitzer, Ehrfurcht vor den Tieren: Ein Lesebuch, (München, Beck, 2011) p. 22.

[50] The success of the wicked encourages more: Phaedrus, Fables, II. 3. 7.

[51] appropriately Wikipedia for stupid people.

[55] Albert Schweitzer: Out of my Life and Thought, (John Hopkins University Press, 1998) pp 241-2.



Two pieces in the last three days have opened my eyes to a new reality.  Being opened to a new reality doesn’t happen every day, probably because as you get older there are fewer realities that are actually new.  Just things you have forgotten that seem new when you rediscover them.

One article which was good enough to repost in its entirety came from Jacques Berlinerblau, who often says wise things and should be heeded when he does.  Jacques has commented frequently on the need for secularists and even atheists to learn table manners and not rely simply on the assumed rectitude of their position while trying to influence people and win converts.

They could learn a lesson from that old time religion, Christianity, where instead of just shouting at people, like John the Baptist did (and look what happened to him), St Paul professed to become all things to all men in order to win souls to his cause.  Eventually, that strategy made Christianity the majority faith of the Roman empire.

Of course, the atheists old and new don’t believe there are souls to be won.  But there are political values at stake, and elections, and demographics which atheists and “seculars” do claim to care about.  But so far Americn secularism hasn’t had the savvy to know how to preach its gospel in a way that (really) ups the numbers.

For Berlinerblau, this has something to do with an historical incompetence at every level of the secular movment: Without naming names that could be named, he cites

“…a colossal failure of leadership and strategic vision. Those who advocated on its behalf in the 1970s and ’80s had little understanding of who their irate, coalescing adversaries actually were. In the secular mindset these “Fundies” were just a bunch of yokels, sitting on their front porches, cleaning their guns to the musical accompaniment of Pa strumming the gutbucket. In reality, however, the movement had scads of charismatic and savvy, if not incendiary, leaders. …Secular leadership, by contrast, was static and moribund.

Which brings me to the second piece, by E J Dionne, a truly liberal soul.  The always bluff Freedom from Religion Foundation, which sees itself as a “radical” conservator of First Amendment rights, has outed liberal Catholics for being hypocrites and challenged them to do the right thing: leave the Church.  Writes Dionne:

Recently, a group called [the FFRF] ran a full-page ad in The Washington Post cast as an “open letter to ‘liberal’ and ‘nominal’ Catholics.” Its headline commanded: “It’s Time to Quit the Catholic Church.”

The ad included the usual criticism of Catholicism, but I was most struck by this paragraph: “If you think you can change the church from within — get it to lighten up on birth control, gay rights, marriage equality, embryonic stem-cell research — you’re deluding yourself. By remaining a ‘good Catholic,’ you are doing ‘bad’ to women’s rights. You are an enabler. And it’s got to stop.”

Yes, it does sound just like the nun who told you to give up looking at dirty magazines during math class. Or maybe I have given away too much of my eighth grade year at St Joseph School.

But there is a pattern here that displays itself, as in neon lights, through the shouting.  I have commented more than three times on this site about the ugliness of the American Atheists’ (and others’) billboard campaigns and the way atheism itself is promoted by using a strategy that depends, basically, on repeating one hundred times the mantra:  “Wake Up Stupid: Nobody is at Home Up There.”

This is supported by the infinitely reasonable proposition that if there is no Santa Claus, no big bad wolf, and no such thing as ghosts, there is no Sky Fairy either. Anyone who says there is is just using up the oxygen that smart people need to grow brain cells.

But guess what?  Many people who would call themselves religious–like E J Dionne, and even the resoundingly secular Jacques Berlinerblau–are not at all stupid.  And they wonder why the advocates of freethought and secularism don’t get that.  Why is a secularism that flows from principles of religious tolerance more suspect than a secularism that flows from atheist suppositions?  It is a good question, because in those countries where a dogmatic atheism has been imposed from the top, tolerance has not fared well.  Restrictive practices based on the godlike perfection of the state–witness Chen Guangcheng– have.

And that leads me to conclude: there is a troubling religiophobia going on here.  The shouters and ultimatum-givers are not just in favor of separation of church and state, or freedom of (or from) religion, or secularism or the right not to believe in God and say so openly.

There is profound stress and anxiety about religion in these movements.


Is this a teenage anger pathology that comes from a passive fear of the gods? A bad church experience that stems from the awakening that Pastor Bob (or Sister Mary Therese) lied to you about…everything? The possibility that despite social approval of your atheism, your private doubts sometimes clash with that approval and put unreasonable and seductive thoughts in your head–a hankering for a ten o’lock sermon or a quick Mass at St Aloysius?

Probably none of the above.  It’s probably more easily explained as your anxiety over the existence of what you have come to believe is SPS–Stupid People Syndrome:  your feeling that the co-existence of atheists and believers has only been paralleled in human history by the brief co-existence of Neanderthal and modern humans.  And it would, after all, be so much easier if social disapproval could be generalized and society were rid of religion once and for all–its lures and seductions driven from the world and the gods into the fiery pit.   Maybe then you could get some sleep.  And stop being so Angry.

Homo Religiosus

Until the day that happens and the First Amendment is repealed, which is what the solution would require, reading Seneca and a little Marcus Aurelius or Lucretius on the gods would help:  They had this phobia mastered long before Christian thinkers like Boethius took up the question.   The gods are lazy blighters who don’t care about you. They only care about themselves. You are on your own.

The point is, religiophobia leads to aggression and aggression often manifests itself in stupidity and rash behavior.  I am not certain, given the religious perspective that God takes care of everything, that religion exhibits fear in quite the same way–which is a poor way of saying that fear of the gods (theophobia) is different from fear that there are no gods (religiophobia).

Oh, I know: you atheists out there will tell me I am making things up and that every atheist has the courage of his convictions and isn’t afraid of the big bad wolf or the big old sky fairy or any of those things.  And I say: Good for you, Pinocchio.  Then stop worrying about what goes on in the heads of religious women and men, or their being hypocrites for believing some of the things you no longer believe.

–And read some Seneca.

Shakespeare the Swedenborgian

AFTER an exhaustive study of approximately five days I’ve concluded that there is ample evidence to prove that William Shakespeare was a Swedenborgian.

According to Wikipedia, the standard of excellence for studies like this, “Emmanuel Swedenborg was a Swedish scientist, philosopher, and theologian.”  He has been termed a Christian mystic by some sources, including the fusty old Encyclopedia Britannica online version and the Encyclopedia of Religion  (1987), which starts its article with the description that he was a “Swedish scientist and mystic.”  Swedenborg termed himself  “Servant of the Lord Jesus Christ” in True Christian Religion, one of his published works. Perhaps he thought he was St Paul.  It annoys some people that he lived smack in the middle of the Enlightenment.  But there you go.

Anyway, he was an extremely accomplished guy and had many radical ideas, such as the idea that the last judgement had already happened (or was happening) and that the Bible should be used as a repository of spiritual truths. Likewise, Shakespeare according to some scholars (though none come to mind except F R Leavis and he didn’t say this) was  very radical and used the Bible as a repository of quotations he could skim for his plays.  The first act of Macbeth, for example is full of biblical references and stuffed with mystical beliefs.  As my full length study, Shakespeare and Swedenborg: A Spiritually Dynamic Duo, will show, these similarities cannot be explained as mere accident.

In his book Life on Other Planets, Swedenborg stated that he conversed with spirits from Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, Venus, and the moon.  He did not report conversing with spirits from Uranus and Neptune, however, which had not been discovered in his day.  This crucial piece of information lends veracity to his claim since an unscrupulous scholar might say he had conversed with spirits from undiscovered planets.

Significantly, Shakespeare’s references to planets are also well known. So is his belief in astrology, as we can see in All’s Well That Ends Well (I.i)

HELENA. Monsieur Parolles, you were born under a charitable star.PAROLLES. Under Mars, I.

HELENA. I especially think, under Mars.

PAROLLES. Why under Mars?

HELENA. The wars hath so kept you under that you must needs be born under Mars.

PAROLLES. When he was predominant.

HELENA. When he was retrograde, I think, rather.

PAROLLES. Why think you so?

HELENA. You go so much backward when you fight.

And, of course, references to the moon (“the inconstant moon”) abound.

No wonder Shakespeare, who was born in 1564, was an avid follower of Swedenborg, whose more scientific observations must have had their appeal in an earlier century.

Swedenborg's flying machine; cf. A Midsummer Night's Dream,' Act V. Scene I

OT only this, but Shakespeare also enjoyed writing about human beings conversing with spirits and ghosts.  If the ghost of Hamlet’s father weren’t enough proof, there’s also Banquo, Julius Caesar, probably a dozen in Richard III, and the mother of Posthumus in Cymbeline, which no one has ever read, and several in Antony and Cleopatra, which seven people have.

Geographical evidence for the “Emmanu-Will connection” is not lacking. Not coincidentally, Swedenborg lived in London for four years from 1709 until 1713, almost exactly one hundred years after the first performance of Shakespeare’s blockbuster hit, The Four Noble Kinsmen.  Circumstantially but crucially in my opinion: Shakespeare was also born in England.  One of his most famous plays is about a Scandinavian prince; and Swedenborg, as his name suggests, was also a Scandinavian.

Swedenborg’s scientific accomplishments have often been overlooked, especially his work in metallurgy.  He was a pioneer in the study of the smelting of lead and copper.   We find a similar interest in Act 2 scene 7 of Merchant of Venice, where a drawn curtain reveals three small caskets made of lead, silver and gold. In this scene Shakespeare shows his acquaintance with Swedenborg’s work in the quotation, “All that glisters is not gold” but there are equally decisive references to metals that range beyond a mere casual interest in the topic in both Macbeth and Hamlet.

After his retirement from the Board of Mines, Swedenborg was best remembered as a biblical interpreter. Usually abbreviated as Arcana Cœlestia and under the Latin variant Arcana Caelestia (translated as Heavenly ArcanaHeavenly Mysteries, or Secrets of Heaven depending on modern English-language editions) his writings on scripture swelled to eight volumes of impenetrable prose.

In a nutshell he thought thought the last judgement had begun in 1757 because the Christian church had lost faith and charity.  This is the scenario Shakespeare uses in Macbeth 1.2, when Banquo says to the hags, “If you can look into the seeds of time, And say which grain will grow and which will not, Speak then to me” (1.3.60).  There are all kinds of references to the supernatural in Shakespeare’s plays, but after five days I have only been able to track down a few.  One thing is sure, however:  both men believed in heaven, hell, and the devil. To wit, the Comedy of Errors (Iv.iii)

Ant. S. Satan, avoid! I charge thee, tempt me not!
 Dro. S. Master, is this mistress Satan?
 Ant. S. It is the devil.
 Dro. S. Nay, she is worse, she is the devil’s dam; and here she comes in the habit of a light wench; and thereof comes that the wenches say, God damn me;’ that’s as much to say, ‘God make me a light wench.’ It is written, they appear to men like angels of light.” 

This is just one example of Shakespeare talking about spirits and demons.  There are lots of others that point directly to his mystical infatuation with the idea of conversing with the dead.

Finally, Swedenborg wrote that “eating meat, regarded in itself, is something profane,” and was not practiced in the early days of the human race. Swedenborg’s landlord in London, a Mr. Shearsmith, said he ate no meat but his maid, who served Swedenborg, said that he would occasionally indulge in eating eels and pigeon pie.  Similarly, Shakespeare’s vegetarianism, derived from Swedenborg”s, is evident in the Witch’s Brew of Macbeth, Act I:  According to many scholars, the “ghastly preparation” qualifies for a vegetarian repast because it avoids the flesh of newt and frogs.  This cannot be pure coincidence. According to the same calculation, Falstaff, especially in Henry V,  can be seen as an allegory of the price of a strict carnivorism.  Nor is it merely “interesting” that both Swedenborg and Shakespeare wrote a lot about marriage and conjugal love, though both seemed to have lived as bachelors for most of their lives.

T  SHOULD not surprise us that we can confidently add the name of Shakespeare to the long list of famous men who have been attracted by Swedenborg’s ideas.  Kant, William Blake, Balzac, Henry James, Emerson,  Karl Jung and Jorge Luis Borges, to name only the most turgid,  have all been admirers and disciples.  Women, not so much.

Skeptics may contend that Shakespeare cannot have been influenced by Swedenborg because the bard lived in a previous century.  That, in my view, is the sort of discriminatory, limited, and shallow thinking that has kept history the poor sister of the sciences for a long time.

By what right do we proclaim that influence only moves from antecedent to subsequent events?  In the case of Shakespeare and Swedenborg, the evidence is overwhelming that history moves in all sorts of interesting directions, unlimited, like the cosmos itself, by conventional ideas of cause and effect.

What an Unbeliever Believes: A Prelude to Winter in a Secular Season

I am a humanist. I do not believe in an afterlife but (to quote Woody), “Just in case, I’m bringing a change of underwear.”

I don’t deny or affirm the existence of God, any god. There have been so many, and all of them had their vague charms and serious hang-ups, ranging from the violent to the sexually perverse. Who could know which to worship? No one. That’s why we usually end up with the god our grandfathers worshiped.

Whether there is a God or not is simply of no consequence to me, and if the truth be told, can anyone in raw honesty claim that the God they pray to for answers, solutions, reversal of fortune, pie-in-the-sky or redress of grievances ever–ever answers their calls. Of course not. I can still see the pious face of a too-close relative asking me, as my mother lay dying in a hospital ICU, whether I believed God answered prayer. “It depends,” I said. “What are we praying for?”

In the paragraph above: the part where I said “is of absolutely no consequence to me.” That was a lie.  It is of enormous consequence, and you are lying too if you say it isn’t. If you are a believer, it is what ultimately matters.  If you are an atheist, it is what ultimately matters.  

Squirm though you may.  Notice that I completed the last sentence with no reference to Richard Dawkins or his feckless bulldog, PZ Myers whose lives would be infinitely emptier if it did not ultimately matter.

I am an Unbeliever, of sorts. Joylessly so. I have no axe to swing at the necks of believers. I dislike the word “agnostic.” It sounds as precious in tone and as pretentious as the era when it was coined. It sounds as though we wait patiently for some impossible verdict to emerge from the skies confirming our hunch that we were right to disbelieve all along, Descartes and Pascal be fucked. But it’s not really about evidence, is it? It’s about hunches.

I am not an atheist. Not on Friday. But it is a noble thing to be, done for the right reasons.

There are plenty of good reasons to be an atheist–most of them originating in our human disappointment that the world is not better than it is, and that, for there to be a God, he needs to be better than he seems. Or, at least less adept at hiding his perfection.

But you see the problem with that.

Goodness and imperfection are terms we provide for a world we can see and a God we don’t.

Taken as it is, the world is the world. Taken as he may be, God can be anything at all. I’m not surprised by the fact, human and resourceful as we are, that religion has stepped in as our primitive instrument, in all its imaginative and creative power, to fill in the vast blank canvas that gives us the nature (and picture) of God.

But let’s be clear that God and religion are two different things, and that atheists err when they say “Religion gave us God.”

What religion gave us is an implausible image of God taken from a naive and indefensible view of nature. I find my atheist friends, even the “famous” ones, making this categorical error all the time.

There are also some very silly reasons to be an atheist. The silliest is the belief that the world wasn’t made by God because God doesn’t exist and that people who think this are stupid and ignorant of science.

There are so many fallacies packed into that premise that it’s a bit hard to know where to begin picking. But perhaps this analogy will help:

This clock wasn’t made by Mr Jones because I made Mr Jones up in my head. It was actually made by a clockmaker whose name is lost in the rubbish of history, so if you continue to think Mr Jones made it just because I said so, you’re ignorant.

No, that is not a broadside in favor of intelligent design (though I happen to think the atheist approach to the question is often tremulously visceral); it’s a statement about how we form premises.

The existence of a created order–a universe–will ultimately and always come down to a choice between the infinity of chance and the economy of causation.  Whatever the choice, my causation is not muscled and bearded and biblical.

The unreal gods of the human imagination from Marduk to God the Father are. If horses made gods gods would be horses. Xenophanes.

That much we can know.

I am a realist. I believe (with a fair number of thinkers, ancient and modern) that human nature is fundamentally about intelligence and that the world (by which I really mean human civilization) would be much further on if we stopped abusing it.

I regret to say, religion has not been the best use of our intelligence, and it has proven remarkably puissant in retarding it. Science is always to be preferred, except in its applied, for-profit form (as in weapons research) because it expands our vision and understanding of the world while religion beckons us, however poetically, to a constricted view of cosmic and human origins.

To be a realist makes me something of a pessimist (a term going out of fashion) not because I don’t believe in the capacity of human nature to become what it seems designed to be, but because–realistically–we have become as flabby in our thinking as we have become corpulent of mortal coil.Obese America is also fuckwit America.  Anti-Enlightenment America. Tea Party America.There may well be countries in the world, developed, developing and undeveloped that  have higher illiteracy rates, worse schools and universities, and greater obstacles to face in providing access to education at any level.

Yet America, it seems to me, is the greatest anti-intellectual country of all.  Even if America continues to monopolize the Nobel Prize, it has the humiliation of having the worst public school system in among G-20 nations.