Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Error In, Error Out

In recent months (since last year in Jon Curry's case), Jon and Bill Curry have been arguing against Christianity with appeals to Bayes' Theorem. I and others have mentioned that the results we get from Bayes' Theorem are only as good as the numbers we put into it. Bill Curry's latest article on the subject is an illustration.

He cites two pieces of evidence relevant to an evaluation of Jesus' resurrection, one in support of the resurrection and one against it. The one cited in support of it is the argument about the shortness of time between Jesus' life and the Christian claims about Jesus, an argument about how long it takes for unhistorical accounts to develop. The example cited against the resurrection is the supposed unhistorical nature of the need for Judas to guide people to Jesus when He was arrested (Mark 14:44). Bill concludes:

"It seems to me that this datum [Mark 14:44] would weigh against the resurrection perhaps a little more than the first datum [the shortness of time between the life of Jesus and the Christian claims about Him] supported the resurrection."

Anybody interested in detailed responses to the material Bill cites from Richard Carrier can consult Steve Hays' recent book, J.P. Holding's material in response to Carrier, the Christian CADRE's relevant material, or Glenn Miller's, for example. In this article, I'll note just a few of the problems with what Bill is arguing.

On the issue of the shortness of time between Jesus' life and the Christian claims about Him, Bill cites examples of people believing purportedly false claims about recent events. But who denied that people sometimes believe false claims about recent history? It seems that Bill doesn't understand the argument he's attempting to answer.

In Bill's quote of William Craig, Craig (who's citing A.N. Sherwin-White) uses the word "prevail". He's referring to widespread acceptance of an account. He isn't saying that there aren't any individuals or groups that accept unhistorical accounts of recent history. Rather, he's arguing that an unhistorical account isn't likely to be widely accepted early on if it's a claim that was of significant interest to people (a "core" fact). Thus, Bill's use of examples like Roswell and Benny Hinn are insignificant. The accounts of Roswell and Benny Hinn that Bill considers unhistorical were widely opposed early on. They didn't "prevail", to use Craig and Sherwin-White's term. And there are many "core" facts (what William Craig was addressing) about Roswell and Hinn that are widely accepted and that Bill himself wouldn't dispute. For example, both Benny Hinn's supporters and his critics agree that he exists as a historical figure, that he's a male rather than a female, that he professes to perform miracles, etc. People disagree over other claims about Benny Hinn, but there are many core facts about him that have been widely accepted while he's still living and while eyewitnesses and contemporaries of his life are still living. It's highly unlikely that such early, prevailing core beliefs about him would be false. (For a discussion of the differences between Jesus and Benny Hinn, see my article here.) William Craig's argument is more nuanced than what Bill interacts with. For a more lengthy explanation of Craig's argument and how it's commonly used by Christians, see here.

The examples Bill cites against Craig's argument fall into one of the following categories: they were widely disputed early on, they were of so little consequence that we would have no reason to expect much early interest in their historicity, or they occurred in a context in which we don't know much about how people reacted to the claims. Christianity originated in a significantly different context. The early enemies of Christianity disputed concepts such as how Jesus performed His apparent miracles and how Jesus' tomb became empty, but they agreed that Jesus performed apparent miracles and that His tomb was empty. When such facts are so widely accepted early on among both Christians and their enemies (enemies who were far from apathetic about the religion), it's highly unlikely that such a situation would be brought about by means of the development of a legend.

Bill acknowledges that "maybe legendary development typically takes longer" than the time between Jesus' life and the Christian claims about Him, but he goes on to conclude that the earliness of the Christian claims is only of "marginal" value. No, earliness is of major significance, even though we can't be sure that all early accounts are entirely correct. The earliness of the accounts is far more significant as evidence for Jesus' resurrection than Mark 14:44 is as evidence against the resurrection.

He asks why Judas would have needed to identify Jesus when He was arrested, since Jesus was such a public figure. But how do we know that all of the people with Judas had seen Jesus before? We don't. They were going to arrest a man at night, and they were expecting other people (Jesus' disciples and perhaps others in the area) to be with that man. Since people might flee once the arrest was being attempted (as Jesus' disciples did), and since they would want everybody (not just the people who knew what Jesus looked like ahead of time) to know which man needed to be arrested, and since Judas would know the relevant details (how Jesus was dressed, where He tended to go, etc.) better than others would, it would be helpful to have somebody who could quickly single out the man who needed to be arrested. To conclude that Mark's gospel is significantly unhistorical, on the basis of Judas' coming along to identify Jesus, is absurd. To then go on to argue that this element of Mark's gospel carries more weight than the earliness of the Christian claims about Jesus is likewise absurd.

Jon and Bill Curry need to do a lot more work on the numbers they put into Bayes' Theorem. If you put unreasonable numbers in, you'll get unreasonable results.

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