bookmark_borderDid Jesus Exist? Ehrman’s Complete Failure – Part 5

Because my main objection to a key argument in Chapter 3 of Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? (hereafter: DJE) is a strong and decisive objection (i.e. Ehrman provided ZERO historical facts to support the main historical premise of a key argument),  I have felt some concern that my identification or interpretation of the ABSIG argument (Agreements Between Seven “Independent” Gospels) might have been incorrect or inaccurate.  In my view, Ehrman is an intelligent and knowlegable N.T. scholar, so it seems unlikely that he would do such a lousy job of supporting the main historical premise of a key argument.
Because of this concern, I have gone back through Chapter 3, as well as some key parts of Chapters 2, 4, and 5, to double-check myself.  As a result of a brief review of these chapters, I have one correction to make to my characterization of Ehrman’s viewpoint, and I also have located key passages that support my identification of, and understanding of, the ABSIG argument in Chapter 3.
First, I will reinforce my identification and interpretation of the ABSIG argument, then I will make a correction to my characterization of Ehrman’s viewpoint about the existence of Jesus.
CONFIRMATION of my Identification & Understanding of the ABSIG Argument
The most important passage supporting my identification and understanding of the ABSIG argument is found in Ehrman’s discussion about oral traditions behind the written sources allegedly used by the authors of the seven “independent” Gospels:
Where did all these sources [i.e. “the written sources that emerged in the middle and end of the first century”] come from?  They could not have been dreamed up independently of one another by Christians all over the map because they agree on too many of the fundamentals.  (DJE, p.86, emphasis added)
In this passage Ehrman argues against the skeptical view that Jesus was an invention of early Christian believers on the grounds that the earliest written sources about Jesus “agree on too many of the fundamentals”, which is a reference to a phrase from a sentence earlier in the same paragraph: “agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death…”.  Thus, one reason why Ehrman rejects the skeptical position that Jesus was an invention of early Christian believers is that the written sources behind the seven “independent” Gospels “agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death…”.
The roots of this line of reasoning go back to Ehrman’s discussion in Chapter 2 of DJE about the nature of historical reasoning about evidence for an historical event or historical person:
Moreover, in an ideal situation, the various sources that discuss a figure or an event should corroborate what each of the others has to say, at least in major points if not in all the details. …if you have multiple sources from near the time that tell many stories about…[a particular historical figure]…that corroborate one another’s stories–then you have good historical evidence.  (DJE, p.41, emphasis added)
Clearly, this principle is intended to be applied in the case of Jesus and the Gospels, and clearly the historical reasoning on page 86 of DJE is intended to be an application of this principle to the evidence from the seven “independent” Gospels (and the written sources allegedly used by the authors of those Gospels).
Note that Ehrman refers to “various sources” that “tell many stories” and that “corroborate one another’s stories”.  This suggests that Ehrman will go on to discuss various Gospel sources that “tell many stories” about Jesus (especially since the next Chapter is titled: “The Gospels as Historical Sources”), and that “corroborate one another’s stories” about Jesus.  The phrase “many stories” ties into a phrase later used in Chapter 3: “many of the basic aspects of Jesus’ life and death”, and the word “stories” clearly applies to the various stories about Jesus found in the seven “independent” Gospels (and their various alleged written sources).
That this is an important part of Ehrman’s historical reasoning in Chapter 3 of DJE is also shown by the emphasis placed on this point by means of repetition of the point by Ehrman in Chapter 3:
All of these written sources I have mentioned are earlier than the surviving Gospels; they all corroborate many of the key things said of Jesus in the Gospels; and most important they are all independent of one another.  (DJE, p.82, emphasis added)
Yet many of them [i.e. “the written sources that emerged in the middle and end of the first century”], independent though they be, agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death…  (DJE, p86, emphasis added)
They [i.e. “the written sources that emerged in the middle and end of the first century”] could not have been dreamed up independently of one another by Christians all over the map because they agree on too many of the fundamentals. (DJE, p.86, emphasis added)
…these independent witnesses [i.e. “a number of surviving Gospels–I named seven…”] corroborate many of the same basic sets of data [about Jesus](DJE, p.92, emphasis added)
The historical principle given in Chapter 2 speaks of the requirement that “multiple sources” that are “from near the time” of the person or event in question and that “tell many stories”  should “corroborate what each of the others has to say, at least in major points…” in order to provide “good historical evidence” for the alleged person or event.
The ABSIG argument asserts there are seven “independent” Gospels that are based on several “independent” written sources, and that these alleged written sources “agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’ life and death…”.  Clearly, there is an argument in Chapter 3 that is based on alleged Agreements Between Seven “Independent” Gospels, and which makes use of the principles of historical reasoning given in Chapter 2, concerning corroboration of “multiple sources” about “many stories” or “many basic aspects” of the life of Jesus.  So, I feel confident that I have presented an accurate interpretation of a key argument by Ehrman in Chapter 3 of DJE.
CORRECTION to my Characterization of Ehrman’s Viewpoint
In the second post in my series on “Did Jesus Exist?”, I raised an objection to Ehrman’s general approach to this question:
Because Ehrman never stops to clarify and define the word “Jesus”, he is UNCLEAR about the meaning of the question “Did Jesus exist?”, and because he is UNCLEAR about the meaning of this question, he is in no position to think clearly about this question, and he is in no position to prove or to establish that it is the case that “Jesus” did exist. 
While I still believe that Ehrman was unclear about the meaning of the question “Did Jesus exist?” and I still believe that he failed to adequately clarify the meaning of the claim “Jesus exists”,  and that he failed to provide a clear definition of the word “Jesus”,  I failed to note a few passages where Ehrman appears to indicate at least a partial list of basic attributes of Jesus which clarify the meaning of the word “Jesus” and the meaning of the claim “Jesus exists”.
There is at least one passage in Chapter 3 that hints at some basic or essential attributes of “Jesus”:
…they [i.e. “the Gospels”] provide powerful evidence indeed that there was a historical Jesus who lived in Roman Palestine and who was crucified under Pontius Pilate.  We will see in the chapters that follow that this is not the only kind of evidence we have for the existence of Jesus.  (DJE, p.70, emphasis added)
In this paragraph Ehrman appears to view evidence related to the specific attributes of (a) living “in Roman Palestine” and of (b) being “crucified under Pontius Pilate” as relevant evidence for answering the question “Did Jesus exist?”.  This suggests that these two attributes are basic or essential attributes of “Jesus”, at least for the purpose of answering the question “Did Jesus exist?”.  (Since there were numerous people living “in Roman Palestine” who were “crucified under Pontius Pilate”, these two basic attributes are obviously insufficient to formulate a definition of “Jesus”.)
This hint in Chapter 3 is reinforced in the conclusion of Ehrman’s positive case for the existence of Jesus at the end of Chapter 5:
WHAT CAN WE SAY in conclusion about the evidence that supports the view that there really was a historical Jesus, a Jewish teacher who lived in Palestine as an adult in the 20s of the Common Era, crucified under Pontius Pilate sometime around the year 30?  (DJE, p. 171, emphasis added)
In the above passage, Ehrman appears to view various attributes of Jesus or aspects of Jesus’s life as being directly relevant to the question of the existence of Jesus.  This assumption is even more clear when Ehrman recaps the conclusion of his positive case at the beginning of Chapter 6:
Up to this stage in our quest to see if the historical Jesus actually existed,  I have been mounting the positive argument, showing why the evidence is overwhelming that Jesus really did live as a Jewish teacher in Palestine and was crucified at the direction of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.  It will be equally important for us to learn what the historical Jesus said and did, since the mere fact of Jesus’s existence does not get us very far.  (DJE, p.177, emphasis added)
Here it is clear that Ehrman is separating out two different sets of attributes of Jesus or aspects of the life of Jesus.  First there are the basic aspects that are tied to the question “Did Jesus exist?”:  (a) a Jewish teacher, (b) living in Palestine, (c) who was crucified, (d) who was executed at the direction of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.  Second, there are other non-basic aspects about “what the historical Jesus said and did”.
Clearly, Ehrman has some ideas about which alleged attributes of Jesus ought to be considered basic or essential, and which alleged attributes are non-basic or non-essential.  Although there is some consistency in Ehrman’s various short lists of basic attributes, the lists do vary from one passage to another in his book DJE.  Furthermore, there is no discussion or justification of any of Ehrman’s lists of basic attributes.
Although I admit that the logic of Ehrman’s viewpoint on the existence of Jesus is not as grossly flawed as I had indicated in the objection that I raised in the second post of this series, I still believe that Ehrman’s failure to make a serious effort to clarify the question “Did Jesus exist?” and to define the word  “Jesus” is a major flaw with his positive case for the existence of Jesus.

bookmark_borderDid Jesus Exist? Ehrman’s Complete Failure – Part 4

A Brief Review of My Previous Objections
One key argument for the existence of Jesus presented by Bart Ehrman in Chapter 3 of Did Jesus Exist? (hereafter: DJE) is based on an historical claim about alleged Agreements Between Seven “Independent” Gospels:
(ABSIG) There are seven Gospels which were written within “a hundred years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death” (DJE, p.78) that are “either completely or partially independent” from each other (DJE, p.78) and yet they “agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death” (DJE, p.86).
One problem with the argument is that a strong version of the argument requires forty to fifty pieces of historical evidence (i.e. forty to fifty specific passages quoted from the seven “independent” Gospels), but  Ehrman provides ZERO pieces of historical data in support of  the historical premise of this argument: (ABSIG).
Another problem with Chapter 3 in general, and the ABSIG argument in particular, is that Ehrman is UNCLEAR about the meaning of the question “Did Jesus exist?”.  Specifically, Ehrman never attempts to clarify or define the meaning of the word “Jesus”, nor does he provide a clear explanation or definition of what he means by a “basic aspect” of the life or death of Jesus.  Before Ehrman can prove that “Jesus exists”, he needs to identify what the “basic” or essential aspects/attributes of Jesus are, so that he can then (potentially) prove that someone who had those attributes actually existed.  Since Ehrman did not clarify or define the meaning of the word “Jesus”, he was in no position to present ANY arguments for the existence of “Jesus”.
A third problem with the ABSIG argument is that Ehrman does a poor job explaining and clarifying the crucial concept of “independence”.  First of all, his use of the phrase “independent Gospels” is misleading and confusing, because, for example, the Gospel of Matthew is one of these “independent” Gospels, but a large portion of Matthew was based on the Gospel of Mark.  The author of Matthew used Mark as a source of information about Jesus, as Ehrman himself points out.  Because the evidence needed to support (ABSIG) is specific passages from the seven Gospels, the real issue concerns the independence of the PASSAGES presented to support the claim that there is an agreement between some of these Gospels on a basic aspect of the life or death of Jesus.  So the “independence” of the Gospels (as books) becomes irrelevant.
Furthermore, the concept of “independence” is not as clear and simple as it first appears, and upon closer examination it has numerous implications, especially when we are talking about the claim that several passages (concerning a basic aspect of the life of Jesus) are independent of each other.  If we have six such passages, for example, then there are 30 different potential dependencies between these passages which must be eliminated in order to show that the passages are independent of each other.  This means there is a significant burden of proof on anyone who attempts to provide historical evidence in support of (ABSIG).  Since Ehrman offered ZERO pieces of historical evidence in support of (ABSIG) he never had the opportunity to take on this burden of proof, and thus made no efforts along these lines.
Today I will discuss another problem (or potential problem) that faces anyone who attempts to provide actual historical evidence in support of (ABSIG).
Independence of the Basic Aspects/Attributes of Jesus
Ehrman never provided actual historical evidence in support of (ABSIG) so he had no opportunity to work at meeting the burden of proof to show that the relevant PASSAGES from the seven “independent” Gospels were PASSAGES that were independent from each other (as well as from other possible sources).   Similarly,  Ehrman never provided a list of “basic aspects” of the life of Jesus; he never defined the essential attributes of “Jesus”, and so he had no opportunity to work at meeting the burden of proof to show that those attributes were reasonable and significant attributes to use for the purpose of investigating the question “Did Jesus exist?”
One likely problem or objection that Ehrman would face (from me at least) if he ever gets around to defining the essential attributes of “Jesus”, is that his list of essential attributes will probably contain attributes that are NOT independent of each other.
The independence that I have in mind is different from the concept of the independence of sources or passages.  Lists of important or essential attributes of Jesus typically involve attributes that are not “independent” given that we understand “independent” in the sense that is used in relation to probability calculations.  It is crucial, for the purposes of supporting (ABSIG) that either the basic attributes of Jesus are independent from each other, or (failing that) that we determine the degree of dependence between each of the various basic attributes.
There is no discussion of this issue by Ehrman simply because he never gets down to the business of actually providing historical evidence in support of (ABSIG), so the issue of the independence of “basic aspects” of the life of Jesus, or of essential attributes of “Jesus”, does not come into view.   But if someday Ehrman (or a Christian apologist) attempts to provide actual historical evidence for (ABSIG), then they are likely to run into this problem.
In his book, The Real Jesus, Luke Johnson’s argument for the basic historicity of the Gospels runs into a problem because Johnson fails to notice the degree to which some of his basic attributes of Jesus have dependencies on each other.  I have commented on this in my series of posts responding to criticisms from William Lane Craig.
This concern about the independence of basic or essential attributes of Jesus grew out of objections to apologetic arguments concerning alleged fulfilled messianic prophecies.  Consider the following objection raised by Tim Callahan in Bible Prophecy: Failure or Fulfillment? (hereafter: BP) against Josh McDowell’s presentation of allegedly fulfilled prophecies about Jesus:
McDowell has fudged his figures a bit by taking one incident and breaking it into two to get an extra prophecy or using one prophecy as the source of two separate fulfillments. … Numbers 8 and 9 on his list are that Jesus was a descendant of Jesse, fulfilling Is. 11:1 and that he was of the house of David, fulfilling Jer. 22:5. Since David was the son of Jesse, if Jesus were a descendant of David he would also be a descendant of Jesse. Thus, this should be one prophecy, not two.  (BP, p.113)
One can broaden Callahan’s objection by use of the concept of “independence” from the context of probability calculations.   Because being a descendant of David implies being a descendant of Jesse, these two (alleged) attributes of Jesus are NOT independent from each other.  If Jesus is the descendant of David, that impacts the probability that Jesus is the descendant of Jesse; it raises the probability of the latter attribute to: 1.0  (certainty).  So, if possession of attribute A by Jesus impacts the probability that Jesus possesses attribute B, then attributes A and B are NOT independent attributes.
Furthermore, if possession of attribute A by Jesus makes it certain or likely that Jesus also posses attribute B, then we need to be cautious about overestimating the significance of the fact that Jesus possesses BOTH attribute A and attribute B.
Jesus was generally believed by early Christians to be “the messiah”.  The messiah was expected to be a Jewish male, from the tribe of Judah, a descendant of King David, who would be born in Bethlehem, who would be righteous and a devout worshipper of Jehovah, and a wise man who was obedient to and close to Jehovah.  Because of these expectations, a list of basic attributes like the following is highly problematic:

  • A jewish male
  • who was the messiah (or claimed to be the messiah)
  • who was from the tribe of Judah
  • who was a descendant of King David
  • who was born in Bethlehem
  • who was righteous
  • who was a devout worshipper of Jehovah
  • who was a wise man (or was believed to be wise by many)

All of these attributes (and more) are implied or at least made probable by the second attribute: “who was the messiah (or claimed to be the messiah)”.
More precisely, anyone who sincerely believed that Jesus was the messiah would be likely to also believe that Jesus possessed the other attributes in this list.  So, if the author of a Gospel believed that Jesus was the messiah, then we would reasonably expect that author to also believe that Jesus possessed all of these other attributes as well (even if they had no evidence, no facts, and no sources of information indicating that Jesus possessed those other attributes).
So, if and when Ehrman (or some enterprizing Christian apologist) makes a serious attempt to provide actual historical evidence supporting (ABSIG), then I, for one, will take a very close look at the list of basic or essential attributes used to define the word “Jesus” and to clarify the claim “Jesus exists”, and one of the things I will be looking for is whether those attributes are in fact independent of each other.
If I find there are dependencies between the attributes, then I will be checking to see whether Ehrman (or the apologist) has identified those dependencies and whether the degree of dependence has been properly assessed and taken into account in evaluating the significance of the conjunction of those various attributes in the descriptions of Jesus found in the seven Gospels.

bookmark_borderDid Jesus Exist? Ehrman’s Complete Failure – Part 3

The Independence of Passages vs. Books
Among the seven “independent” Gospels to which Ehrman’s ABSIG (Agreements Between Seven Independent Gospels) refer are the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Mark.
A “basic aspect” of the life or death of Jesus is the claim that Jesus was crucified by the Romans.  There is agreement between Matthew and Mark on this “basic aspect”:
And they [the soldiers] crucified him [Jesus], and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take. – Mark 15:24 (NRSV)
And when they [the soldiers of the governor] had crucified him [Jesus], they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; – Matthew 27:35  (NRSV)
According to Ehrman these are “independent” Gospels, so here we have an agreement between two “independent” Gospels on a basic aspect of the life or death of Jesus.  Can we put this into the matrix diagram as an instance of agreement between at least these two Gospels? No.  That would be a mistake.
The problem is that the author of Matthew used the Gospel of Mark as a primary source of information about Jesus.  This passage in Chapter 27 of Matthew, as Ehrman would no doubt agree, was based on the passage about the crucifixion of Jesus in Chapter 15 of Mark.  So, this passage in Matthew is DEPENDENT on the passage from Mark.  Because of this dependency,  the passage in Matthew does NOT provide any confirmation or corroboration of the passage in Mark.  The author of Matthew got this information from reading the Gospel of Mark.
So when Ehrman claims that the Gospel of Matthew is an “independent” Gospel from the Gospel of Mark, this is misleading and confusing.  Hundreds of verses in Matthew are based on verses from Mark.  So, it is clear that much of the Gospel of Matthew IS dependent upon the Gospel of Mark.  Ehrman is just pointing out that there are some verses and passages in Matthew that are NOT based on Mark, and which thus probably do not have a dependency on Mark.  One CANNOT simply compare passages in Matthew and Mark and upon finding an agreement on a basic aspect of the life or death of Jesus, declare that Matthew has corroborated that basic aspect found in the Gospel of Mark.
What this means is that as a general rule, when one finds an agreement between two (or more) of the seven so-called “independent” Gospels, one must then ask a crucial question:
Are these PASSAGES independent of each other?
Because Ehrman uses the term “independent Gospels” in a way that allows for the Gospel of Matthew to be considered an “independent Gospel” in relation to the Gospel of Mark, such supposed independence is irrelevant when we examine individual passages from various Gospels.
But when we look for agreements between various Gospels concerning basic aspects of the life or death of Jesus, we are examining individual passages, not entire works or books.  Therefore, any claim to the effect that one passage from one Gospel confirms or corroborates a passage from some other Gospel concerning a basic aspect of the life or death of Jesus, we need a JUSTIFICATION of the claim that the two PASSAGES in question are independent passages. The fact that the two passages are from so-called “independent” Gospels is irrelevant and does not answer the crucial question at issue.
Because Ehrman never bothered to offer one single passage from any of the so-called “independent” seven gospels, there was never an opportunity for him to JUSIFY the claim that one passage from one of the seven Gospels was independent from another analogous passage (about the same basic aspect of the life or death of Jesus) in another of the seven Gospels.  But if Ehraman had produced forty or fifty passages, some from each of the seven Gospels, in order to make a strong case for his key premise (ABSIG), then he would have had to JUSTIFY many different claims about the independence of these passages from their analogues in the other Gospels.
We will soon see that this would be a rather daunting task, one that might well require multiple chapters of a book to accomplish.
The Logic of Independence
The concept of “independence” is more complex than it initially appears to be.  So, let’s start with as simple an example as possible, and then work our way towards examples of greater complexity.
Ehrman puts very little effort into discussing the concept of “independence”, but the little that he does say about it has some very significant implications.  It is worth taking a bit of time to think about the meaning of the word “independence” and what it implies.
Suppose that there are only two books in existence, and that these are the ONLY two books ever written (so far in human history): Book-A  and Book-B.
One logical possibility is that the author of Book-B used Book-A as a source.  In this case Book-B would be dependent on Book-A.  The contents of Book-A are thus, in effect, a cause of the contents of Book-B, at least of part of the content of Book-B, so let’s represent this situation with an arrow going from A to B:
A–>B     (B is dependent upon A)
Another logical possibility is that the author of Book-A used Book-B as a source.  In this case Book-A would be dependent on Book-B.  The contents of Book-B are thus, in effect, a cause of the contents of Book-A, at least of part of the content of Book-A, so let’s represent this situation with an arrow going from B to A:
A<–B   (A is dependent upon B)
Another logical possibility, which is probably very rare in reality, is that it is BOTH the case that Book-A is dependent on Book-B AND  Book-B is dependent on Book-A:
A<–>B   (A is dependent on B AND B is dependent on A)
How could this be possible?  Wouldn’t this involve circular causation?  Actually this is possible if, for example, both books were being written in the same time period (say the same four-month period), and when the author of Book-A had completed the first half of Book-A (say at the end of the first two months),  the author of Book-B obtained a copy of that half of Book-A and used it as a source for the second half of Book-B, and if when the author of Book-B completed the first half of Book-B (say at the end of the first two months), the author of Book-A obtained a copy of that half of Book-B and used it as a source for the second half of Book-A.  In this way, it is possible for Book-A to have a dependency on Book-B while Book-B also has a dependency on Book-A.
If we limit ourselves to evaluating the indpendence of PASSAGES rather than BOOKS, then this third logical possibility becomes even more unlikely and remote, because it is very unlikely that two authors would be writing analogous passages in the same short time frame and also read each others partial drafts of the passage prior to completing the writting of their own passage (this might, however, happen with cheating on Essay exams at colleges!).
If we can establish that Book-B is NOT dependent on Book-A, does that mean that Book-B is independent from Book-A?  I’m not sure.  It depends on how we understand the meaning of “Book-B is NOTdependent on Book-A” and it depends on whether “independence” is a symmetrical relation.
If “Book-B is NOT dependent on Book-A” just means that the author of Book-B did not use Book-A as a source, then it does not follow from this claim that Book-B is independent from Book-A.
Suppose that the author of Book-B had read Book-C and used that book as a source.  Suppose further that the author of Book-C had used Book-A as a source.  In this way even though the author of Book-B did not use Book-A as a source (and perhaps never even set eyes on a copy of Book-A), the information that came from Book-C might have been obtained (by the author of Book-C) from Book-A.
This is a circumstance in which it might well make sense to say that “Book-B is NOT dependent on Book-A”  (meaning that the author of Book-B did not read Book-A or copy from Book-A) and yet it could also be the case that “Book-B is NOT independent from Book-A” (meaning that some of the information in Book-B can be traced back to Book-A, via Book-C).
Of course, I specified earlier that Book-A and Book-B were the only two books in existence, so on that assumption there could be no Book-C to complicate matters.
However, even if there were NO OTHER BOOKS besides Book-A and Book-B, a similar complication could arise because information can be transferred verbally (e.g. by oral tradition).  So, even in my super-simple imaginary world where there are only two books in existence, things can get complicated and confusing because there could be an oral tradition that transfers information from Book-A to the author of Book-B without the author ever laying eyes on a copy of Book-A.  (The complexity is just getting started.)
Another problem is whether “independence” is a symmetrical relation.  Equality is a symmetical relation.  If  X = Y, then it follows that Y = X.   So, asserting that X = Y  implies that Y = X.   If “independence” is a symmetrical relation, then asserting that “Book-B is independent from Book-A”  implies not only that “Book-B is NOT dependent on Book-A” but also that “Book-A is NOT dependent on Book-B”.
It is not necessary to resolve this question right now about whether “independence” is a symmetrical relation, because even if we decide that “independence” is not symmetical, we still need to determine whether there are any significant dependencies in ANY direction between various passages of the seven Gospels if and when somebody gets around to actually providing specific passages from these Gospels in order to support the key historical claim (ABSIG).
The complexity involved with establishing “independence” of sources grows rapidly as we increast the number of books or the number of passages in question.
Suppose that somebody produces four different passages from four of the seven “independent” Gospels, and suppose these four passages agree on a specific basic aspect of the life or death of Jesus.  What are the various possible dependencies that need to be eliminated?
Let’s refer to the four passages as A, B,  C, and D.  In order to justify the claim that these four passages were independent of each other the following dependency claims would need to be shown to be false (or very improbable):
A–>B
A–>C
A–>D
B–>A
B–>C
B–>D
C–>A
C–>B
C–>D
D–>A
D–>B
D–>C 
In short, one would need to argue against all twelve of these possible “dependence” relationships.
But we know that other books and other passages exist besides just these four passages, so even if one shows that none of these twelve depdency relationship exist, there are other possible dependencies that could still undermine the claim that these four passages are independent of each other.
For example, there might be another passage E from one of the remaining three Gospels, and these four passages that agree with each other might all be dependent upon passage E.  In that case, there would be only ONE actual source of this information, and there would be NO CORROBORATION between the four passages that were put forward as evidence for (ABSIG).
If there are basic aspects of the life of Jesus that are allegedly agreed upon by five or six or seven different passages from different Gospels, then the possibilities for dependency relations are multiplied further.  For five passages, there are 20 different possible dependencies (5 x 4 = 20) that must be ruled out.  For six passages, there are 30 different possible dependencies (6 x 5 = 30) that must be ruled out.  For seven passages, there are 42 different possible dependencies (7 x 6) that must be ruled out.  This does not include the task of ruling out dependency relations with other passages outside of the passages that are presented as evidence.
I hope that this brief discussion of the concept and logic of “independence” shows that the claim that several passages from several Gospels are “independent” from each other is a claim that carries many significant implications, and thus involves a serious burden of proof that may require numerous arguments and justifications to support, none of which you will find in Chapter 3 of DJE, because Ehrman does not even begin the task of providing historical evidence.
Because Ehrman never put forward ANY passages from ANY of the seven “independent” Gospels as evidence in support of (ABSIG),  he never had the opportunity to start building the necessary complex justifications required to show that such passages were in fact “independent” from each other.
 

bookmark_borderDid Jesus Exist? Ehrman’s Complete Failure – Part 2

Existence vs. Basic Aspects/Attributes
“Did Jesus exist?” – What does this question mean?
Clarity is a gateway standard of critical thinking.  If you are UNCLEAR about the meaning of a question, then your thinking about that question will also be unclear, and your thinking will probably not be very useful or productive or logical so long as you remain UNCLEAR about the question at issue.
On the one hand, it is certain that there was no Jewish man who lived in Palestine in the first century  named “Jesus”.  That is because “Jesus” is a name in the English language, and the English language did not exist in the first century.  Question settled!  That was easy.
On the other hand, if the question is asking whether there was a Jewish man who lived in Palestine in the first century named “Yeshua” (in Aramaic), that question can also be answered with certainty.  Yes, there was such a man.  In fact, there were thousands of Jewish men who lived in Palestine in the first century named “Yeshua” (in Aramaic).  Aramaic was the language of Palestinian Jews in the first century, and “Yeshua” was a very common name at that time.  Question settled.  No need for further discussion.
Obviously, I have not really settled the question “Did Jesus exist?” here.  Clearly, the question is NOT merely asking whether there was a Jewish man by the name of “Yeshua” who lived in Palestine in the first century.  But if that is not what the question is asking, then what IS the question asking?  It turns out that it is not so easy to say what this question is asking.  So philosophy (or at least logic and critical thinking) has an important role to play, as it usually does, right from the start.  We need to clarify the meaning of the question “Did Jesus exist?”
One important failure of Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? (hereafter: DJE) is that Ehrman never asks this basic question of clarification:
What does the question “Did Jesus exist?” mean?
The clarity and quality of Ehrman’s thinking about the question “Did Jesus exist?” suffers because of this fundamental mistake.   Furthermore, because of his basic unclarity about the question at issue, Ehrman appears to make the same sort of blunder that was made by Thomas Aquinas when Aquinas discussed the question “Does God exist?”.
In Summa Theologica Aquinas attempts to first prove the existence of “God” and then he goes on to try to prove that God has various divine attributes.  Ehrman similarly thinks that the question of the existence of Jesus can be settled prior to showing that various basic aspects of the life of Jesus (as portrayed in the canonical gospels) are factual.   Here are some comments by Ehrman where he seems to treat these as two separate issues:
The reality is that whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist. (DJE, p.4, emphasis added)
…a dispassionate consideration of the case makes it quite plain: Jesus did exist.  He may not have been the Jesus that your mother believes in or the Jesus of the stained-glass window or the Jesus of your least favorite televangelist or the Jesus proclaimed by the Vatican, the Southern Baptist Convention, the local megachurch, or the California Gnostic.  But he did exist, and we can say a few things, with relative certainty, about him.  (DJE, p.6, emphasis added)
[My goal is] to show that there really was a historical Jesus and that we can say certain things about him.  (DJE, p.37, emphasis added)
These [surviving Gospels] all attest to the existence of Jesus.  Moreover, these independent witnesses corroborate many of the same basic sets of data–for example, that Jesus not only lived but that he was a Jewish teacher who was crucified by the Romans at the instigation of Jewish authorities in Jerusalem.  (DJE, p.92, emphasis added)
Would someone count as BEING “Jesus” if that person was not Jewish?  I don’t think so.  Would someone count as BEING “Jesus” if that person was not crucified by the Romans?  Probably not.  These “basic aspects” or attributes of Jesus seem to be more than just trivial claims about Jesus.  They seem to be a part of the meaning of the word “Jesus”, part of how we determine whether or not a particular person was in fact “Jesus”.
Aquinas and Ehrman both failed to recognize the need to DEFINE the thing that you want to talk about BEFORE attempting to prove that it exists.  This is a basic mistake in logic.
Knut Tranoy raises a serious objection against the way Aquinas approaches the question “Does God exist?”:
To prove or to produce evidence that a certain being, x, exists, is, one might say, to prove that a certain set of compossible properties is actualized.  That is, we cannot prove or know that x exists without at the same time knowing something about the nature or essence of x.
To prove the existence of God is, then, to show that the properties ascribed to the Christian God in the Bible are actualized in one and only one being.
(“Thomas Aquinas” in A Critical History of Western Philosophy, p.110)
Tranoy sums up the logical principle this way:
Before we can try to prove anything at all we must, of course, have some idea of the nature or properties of the being whose existence we want to prove. 
(“Thomas Aquinas” in A Critical History of Western Philosophy, p.110)
In order to prove the existence of God, one must START with a definition of God, and this is commonly done by means of a list of key (or basic) divine attributes.  For example, here is a list of basic divine attributes that I use to clarify the meaning of the word “God”:

  • an eternally bodiless person
  • an eternally omnipotent person
  • an eternally omniscient person
  • an eternally perfectly morally good person
  • a person who is the creator of the universe

Ehrman never explains what he means by a “basic aspect” of the life of Jesus, but I suspect that the word “basic” here is leaning in the direction of “essential”.  In other words, some aspects of the life of Jesus are very important and central from the point of view of Christian faith, and other aspects of the life of Jesus are less important and less central from the point of view of Christian faith.  That Jesus was crucified by the Romans is a very important and cenral aspect of the life of Jesus from the point of view of the Christian faith.  That means that the “basic aspect” of Jesus being crucified by the Romans is a good candidate for being an essential attribute of Jesus.  In other words, this is an aspect or attribute that we could reasonably include in a DEFINITION of the meaning of the word “Jesus” for the purpose of clarifying the question “Did Jesus exist?”
But lots of Jewish men were crucified by the Romans in first century Palestine, so these basic attributes would not be sufficient by themselves to define the word “Jesus”, since the point is not to locate a whole GROUP of Jewish men, but to identify exaclty ONE particular Jewish man.  So, what we need, and what Ehrman failed to provide, is a clear definition of the word “Jesus” for the purpose of clarifying the question “Did Jesus exist?”, and that definition, in order to be plausible and useful, will need to specify several basic aspects or attributes, just like my definition of “God” specifies several basic attributes of  God, in order to clarify the question “Does God exist?”.
Because Ehrman never stops to clarify and define the word “Jesus”, he is UNCLEAR about the meaning of the qeustion “Did Jesus exist?”, and because he is UNCLEAR about the meaning of this question, he is in no position to think clearly about this question, and he is in no position to prove or to establish that it is the case that “Jesus” did exist.
I have some other serious objections to raise against Ehrman’s ABSIG argument (Agreements Between Seven Independent Gospels) for the existence of Jesus, but they will have to wait for another day.
 

bookmark_borderDid Jesus Exist? Ehrman’s Complete Failure – Part 1

I was recently asked to participate in a public discussion/debate about the question “Did Jesus Exist?”.  I don’t plan to argue in favor of the mythicist position, just because I don’t think I would do it justice.  I’m not a mythicist, and I have not studied any mythicists in recent years (I read some of G.A. Wells books years ago, and I read Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle some years ago).  But I do have significant doubts about the existence of Jesus, and especially about the strength of the historical case for the existence of Jesus.
In order to prepare for the discussion,  I pulled out my copy of Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? (hereafter: DJE) and began to re-read his positive case for the existence of Jesus.  I have criticized part of his case previously, so I began reading with the assumption that his case was weak and problematic, at least the initial argument that he makes based on seven allegedly independent Gospels, in Chapter 3.  Upon re-reading this Chapter, my conclusion is that this important part of his case is not just weak, it is a complete and utter failure.
I’m reminded of William Lane Craig’s argument for the claim that “Jesus died on the cross” in his book The Son Rises.  I went through Craig’s argument, line by line, and showed that while he made dozens of historical claims, there was not one single historical fact in the entire passage (there was one reference to one passage from one historical document, but upon examination of the document, the passage, its authorship, and its content, there was no real evidence for the specific historical claim being asserted).
I realize that Ehrman is not a Christian believer, and so obviously he is not a Christian apologist.  But there is a clear parallel between Chapter 3 of Did Jesus Exist? and WLC’s argument for the claim “Jesus died on the cross” in his book The Son Rises.  In both instances, we are set up with the expectation and promise that a strong historical case will be made for a basic Christian belief, but the case includes arguments that are virtually FACT FREE.  I suspect that Ehrman’s thinking was corrupted by exposure to Christian apologetics, and this has, sadly, led him to construct arguments for historical claims without bothering to mess with those inconvenient little things known as historical facts.  Jesus Freaking-H-Christ! (… an historically relevant curse for this occasion).
I respect both WLC and Ehrman.  They are both intelligent men and knowledgable about their fields.  They are both hard-working scholars.  I have learned much from both Craig and Ehrman.  I don’t claim to be smarter than they are, or to have more knowledge than they have, nor do I claim to work harder than they do.  They are scholars and I am not a scholar.
Nevertheless, I could do a better job defending these basic Christian beliefs with one hand tied behind my back while blindfolded.  I am very confident that I could do a better job, because I would make use of actual historical facts to make my case.  I may not be a brilliant scholar, but I know better than to make a fact-free case for an historical claim.  WLC and Ehrman evidently missed that memo.
Here is how Ehrman characterizes himself and his view on the question of the existence of Jesus:
But as a historian I think evidence matters.  And the past matters.  And for anyone to whom both evidence and the past matter, a dispassionate consideration of the case makes it quite plain: Jesus did exist.  (DJE, p.6, emphasis added)
Apparently evididence matters to Ehrman, except when he is laying out a key argument in his case for the existence of Jesus, because he doesn’t bother to provide ANY historical evidence for his key historical premise, though many dozens of pieces of historical evidence would be required to properly support that premise.
Here is how Ehrman characterizes his main goal in the book:
My goal, however, is neither to please nor to offend.  It is to pursue a historical question with all the rigor that it deserves and requires and in doing so to show that there really was a historical Jesus and that we can say certain things about him.  (DJE, p.37, emphasis added)
Making an argument for an historical claim without presenting any historical evidence in support of the key historical premise of a key argument means that Ehrman not only fell short of fully realizing this goal, it means that Ehrman completely and utterly failed to even partially acheive this goal, at least in terms of the argument about corroboration between seven Gospels that he presents in Chapter 3 (he does manage to do a somewhat better job with the argument presented in Chapter 4).
Ehrman’s positive case for the existence of Jesus is given in Part I, which encompasses Chapters 1 through 5.  But Chapter 1 just introduces the mythicist viewpoint, and Chapter 2 basically dismisses all of the non-Christian writers/sources.  So, the positive case for the existence of Jesus is given in just three chapters:  Chapter 3, Chapter 4, and Chapter 5.  The title of Chapter 3 indicates the content of the argument in that chapter: “The Gospels as Historical Sources”.  Craig miserably failed to prove that “Jesus died on the cross” largely because he made the absurd assumption that he could do this in just a few short pages.  Ehrman makes bascially the same mistake in Chapter 3 of DJE.
The basic principle used in this key argument was spelled out in Chapter 2, but is nicely summarized in Chapter 3:
…historians,  who try to establish that a past event happened or that a past person lived, look for multiple sources that corroborate one another’s stories without having collaborated.  And this is what we get with the Gospels and their witness of Jesus.  (DJE, p.75)
There is more than one argument presented in Chapter 3, but a key argument is summarized by Ehrman at the end of Chapter 3:
We are not dealing with just one Gospel that reports what Jesus said and did from sometime near the end of the first century.  We have a number of surviving Gospels–I named seven–that are either completely independent of one another or independent in a large number of their traditions.  These all attest to the existence of Jesus.  Moreover, these independent witnesses corroborate many of the same basic sets of data–for example, that Jesus not only lived but that he was a Jewish teacher who was crucified by the Romans at the instigation of Jewish authorities in Jerusalem.  (DJE, p.92, emphasis added)
One could summarize the key premise of this argument in one sentence (about: Agreements Between Seven Independent Gospels):
(ABSIG) There are seven Gospels which were written within “a hundred years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death” (DJE, p.78) that are “either completely or partially independent” from each other (DJE, p.78) and yet they “agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death” (DJE, p.86).
The agreement on “the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death” is asserted by Ehrman about the written sources that were allegedly used in the composition of the seven Gospels.  But we know of the content of the alleged written sources of these seven Gospels only by carefully studying the content of the seven surviving Gospels;  we don’t have manuscripts of the alleged written sources (with the exception of the Gospel of Mark, which was one of the sources used in the composition of Matthew and in the composition of Luke).  We only have manuscripts of the seven surviving Gospels. So, any alleged agreements between the written sources behind the seven Gospels must be discernable in the existing texts of the surviving Gospels.
In the above quotations, there is a subtle clue that indicates Ehrman has failed to do his homework on this argument. The word “many” in the phrase “agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death” points to a fundamental flaw of Chapter 3.  The word “many” is vague.  If Ehrman had actually investigated the evidence on this issue “with all the rigor that it deserves and requires”, then he would have provided a specific number here, instead of the vague quantifier “many”.  But he did not do his homework, and so he was unable to provide a precise quantity.
Agreement on three or four characteristics of Jesus or events in Jesus’s life might qualify as “many” agreements, but that would not be very impressive as an argument for the existence of Jesus.  Presumably, a strong case would involve something on the order of one or two dozen agreements on “basic aspects of Jesus’s life”.  But let’s just consider a conservative and round number of agreements that could potentially constitute a strong case: TEN.
Since we are talking about seven “independent” Gospels, a perfect argument for ten basic aspects would involve about 70 pieces of historical evidence, in which each of the seven Gospels has at least one passage that confirms each of the ten “basic aspects of Jesus’s life”.  But some of the “Gospels” are not very extensive, so those Gospels would probably only confirm a few of the ten basic aspects.  Even the more extensive Gospels might not confirm all ten basic aspects of the life of Jesus, and yet the overall argument could still be fairly strong.
It seems to me that a fairly strong argument could potentially be made if an average of five out of seven Gospels confirmed each of the ten basic aspects.  Then we could justifiably say that “Each of the ten basic aspects of the life of Jesus is confirmed by most of the seven Gospels”.
A matrix diagram is the obvious way to present an overview of the relevant historical data.  An ideal matrix, one that represents what is potentially a fairly strong case, would look something like this, where an “X” means that there is at least one passsage in that Gospel that confirms the basic aspect of Jesus’s life (click on the image below for a better view of the matrix diagram):
Ideal Matrix
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
In order to support this ten-aspect matrix, one would need to provide about 50 separate pieces of historical data, i.e. fifty different specific passages from the various seven gospels.  In some cases, a single passage from one gospel will support two or three basic aspects, reducing the required number of pieces of data.  But in some cases, one gospel will have two or three passages confirming just one aspect, increasing the number of pieces of data supporting the diagram.  So although this diagram does not require exactly 50 pieces of historical data, the number of pieces of historical data supporting this diagram would probably be close to 50.
If only two or three out of the seven Gospels support a given basic aspect, on average, then the argument for the existence of Jesus would be pretty weak, and the matrix diagram would look something like this:
WEAK Case Matrix
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Note that even to make this very weak argument for the existence of Jesus, one would need to provide about 20 to 30 pieces of historical data (quotations from about 20 to 30 passages from the seven “independent” gospels).
Does Ehrman’s matrix look like the first one, with lots of X’s and very few blanks? Or does his matrix look more like the second one, with only a few X’s here and there and lots of blanks?  Neither.  Ehrman has no matrix diagram at all.
OK, that is not a deal breaker.  We can fill out a matrix diagram for Ehman, based on the historical evidence that he provided in Chapter 3.  How many pieces of historical data does Ehrman provide that we could use as the basis for constructing such a matrix?  Does he provide 50 passages from the seven Gospels? No.  Forty passages from the seven Gospels? No.  Thirty passages? No.  A measly twenty passages?  Nope.   Ehrman provides exactly ZERO passages from the seven “independent” Gospels to support his key premise (ABSIG).
So, here is the appropriate matrix diagram representing Ehrman’s argument from the agreement between seven “independent” Gospels (ABSIG):
No Case Matrix
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
I am not impressed, and I am certainly not convinced.
Ehrman does sometimes quote a Gospel passage in Chapter 3, but not for the purpose of showing how that Gospel supports a specific “basic aspect” of the life of Jesus.  In Chapter 3, Ehrman quotes Luke 1:1-3 on pages 73 and 79, but not to show that this Gospel confirms a specific basic aspect of the life of Jesus that othere Gospels also confirm.  The quotation of Luke on page 79, for example, is to support the general claim that “the Gospels…were based on earlier written sources…” (DJE, p.78).
Ehrman quotes three passages from the Gospel of Mark and one passage from the Gospel of John on pages 87-89, but the point of that evidence was to show that these Gospels include written sources that ultimately were “based on oral traditions” (DJE, p.86) that were “originally spoken in Aramaic, the language of Palestine.” (DJE, p.87).  The purpose of these quotes is to support the claim that the Gospels can be traced back to early oral traditions, traditions that existed shortly after the standard date for the crucifixion of Jesus.
On page 90 of DJE, Ehrman quotes a passage from the third chapter of the Gospel of John, but the purpose of that quote is just to illustrate how Aramaic can be used to determine that some Gospel passages (like the one quoted from John) are NOT based on early oral traditions about Jesus (which were in Aramaic).
There are no other quotations from the four canonical Gospels in Chapter 3 of DJE.  There are also no quotations in Chapter 3 from the Gospel of Thomas, or from the Gospel of Peter,  nor are there quotations from “the highly fragmentary text” called Papyrus Egerton 2.  Therefore, there are ZERO quotations (from any of the seven “independent” Gospels) that are given in support of the key historical premise (ABSIG) of a key argument in Ehrman’s positve case for the existence of Jesus.
If Ehrman had provided twenty to thirty different passages, some from each of the seven “independent” Gospels, showing that two or three of the Gospels support each of ten “basic characteristics” of the life of Jesus, then I would conclude that he had presented an argument which was potentially, at best, a very weak argument for the existence of Jesus. But Ehrman has in fact provided ZERO relevant quotations from the seven “independent” Gospels, so this argument is a complete and utter failure.  It should persuade nobody, because there is no historical evidence provided to back up the main historical premise of this argument.
In Chapter 3 of DJE, Ehrman has presented a FACT FREE argument for the existence of Jesus, which is completely contrary to his claim that he thinks “evidence matters” and completely contrary to his goal to pursue the historical question of whether Jesus exists “with all the rigor that it deserves and requires”.  Ehrman promised devotion to evidence and he promised scholarly rigor, but what he delivered is pure BULLSHIT, at least with his argument concerning Agreements Between Seven Indendent Gospels (ABSIG).
There are other serious defeciencies with this argument in Chapter 3, but I will save discussion of those for another post.

bookmark_borderThe Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry – Part 1

In this series I will discuss a recently published book called The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry (hereafter: TRACI).  It is not my intention to DO a critical inquiry into the (alleged) resurrection of Jesus in these posts.  Rather, I will be describing and commenting on the efforts of Michael J. Alter, the author of TRACI, to do a critical inquiry into the (alleged) resurrection of Jesus.
I often complain about the intellectual laziness of Christian apologists.  I have dozens of books by Christian apologists where they present a “case” for the resurrection of Jesus in just one short chapter, or in a few short chapters, or in a short book.  Nearly all of these “cases” for the resurrection are complete and utter CRAP.  They are crap not only because of logical errors and questionable premises, but also because they are simply too short and skimpy to provide a serious rational case for the resurrection of Jesus.  Christian apologists are, in most cases, too intellectually lazy to work up a serious rational case for anything, even for one of the most important doctrines of their faith.
Most Christian apologists write articles and books for a popular audience, and their target seems to be primarily Christians who might have some questions or doubts about the resurrection, rather than writing for an audience of well-informed skeptics and atheists.   They don’t have to work very hard to convince their target audience that Jesus really did rise from the dead.  Because their target audience is largely Christian believers who are ignorant about the New Testament, and about ancient history, and about philosophy, Christian apologists who write for this audience do not have to face serious and intelligent challenges, so they become intellectually fat and lazy.
Although Michael Alter is not a biblical scholar or theologian, his book on the resurrection appears to accomplish what nearly all Christian apologists fail to accomplish: a serious, detailed, and in-depth examination of the question at issue.
So far, I have only examined the table of contents and quickly scanned TRACI, so I cannot recommend it as a good and solid book yet.  However, judging from the table of contents and a quick glance at a few sections,  it seems likely that Alter has done an intellectually serious critical inquiry into the (alleged) resurrection of Jesus.   As I make my way though the 745 pages of text in TRACI,  I will attempt to confirm or disconfirm whether (and to what degree) Alter succeeds in carrying out an intellectually serious critical inquiry into the resurrection, which would put his book head-and-shoulders above the vast majority of intellectually inferior books and articles on this issue written by Christian apologists.
Michael Alter is not an atheist.  He is motivated by the desire that his fellow Jews not be taken in by weak and questionable arguments presented by Christian apologists:
Alter’s interest in the field of Jewish apologetics began in the 1980s when he was a member of Havurah of South Florida. The spark was a class taught by Rabbi Norman Lipson, a guest teacher. Among the topics that Lipson discussed were Key ’73 [The avowed objective of Key ’73 was “to confront every person in North America more fully and forcibly with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”] and the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. An important object of these efforts was to convert Jews to the Christian faith. Alter became concerned over Christian attempts to witness, evangelize, and proselytize Jews; his concern prompted him to research this topic.  (Biography)
Michael wants to prevent Jews from converting to Christianity on the basis of weak and questionable arguments.  As an atheist, I’m sympathetic with this aim; I just have a bit more general aim in mind, namely that NOBODY should be taken in by weak and questionable arguments for the (alleged) resurrection of Jesus.  Jews should not be taken in by such arguments, and Muslims should not be taken in by such arguments, and Buddhists should not be taken in by such arguments, and of course atheists and non-religious people should not be taken in by weak and questionable arguments for the (alleged) resurrection of Jesus.
In addition to his concern about Christian attempts to convert Jews,  Alter was partly inspired by a long debate that he was involved in over this issue with a Christian believer:
Alter’s resulting text, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, was a direct challenge raised by Anthony Buzzard, a prolific Biblical Unitarian. They corresponded over a lengthy period of time. Although they agree that Jesus is not God and that there is no such thing as the Trinity, Buzzard adamantly maintains that Jesus is the Messiah, a theological position that Alter totally rejects. It was during several communications that Alter was challenged by Buzzard to refute Jesus’s physical, bodily resurrection – supposedly the ultimate proof that Jesus is the Messiah (and also God for mainline Christianity). During a decade and more, Alter worked to meet Buzzard’s challenge, that Jesus was not physically, bodily resurrected. (Biography)
Alter has an interest in taking a close skeptical look at the arguments and evidence relevant to the claim that Jesus rose from the dead.  He wants to help his fellow Jews to avoid being taken in by weak and questionable arguments for the (alleged) resurrection of Jesus, and he wants to defend the Jewish position that Jesus was NOT “the Messiah”.   So, it is no surprise that Alter’s conclusion is a skeptical one:
However, the pertinent question that must be asked relates to the evidence of Jesus’s death and claimed physical, bodily resurrection: is the evidence overwhelmingly conclusive to any honestly objective seeker of the truth? This book reveals certainly that this is not the case. (TRACI, p.745)
Although Alter clearly has motivations for reaching a skeptical conclusion on this question, that does not mean that his analysis is biased or unfair.  I will need to read his treatment of several of the questions and controversies that he covers in TRACI in order to determine whether, and to what extent, his analysis is fair and objective.
TRACI is organized chronologically in keeping with the Gospel stories about the trials, crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  Here are some of the chapter titles:
Chapter 3: From Crucifixion to Death
Chapter 5: Friday Afternoon until Saturday Morning
Chapter 6: Saturday Evening until Sunday Morning
Chapter 7: The Guard’s Report and the Bribe
Chapter 8: Easter Sunday: Travels, Angelic Encounters,
and an Appearance of Jesus
Chapter 9: Mary Magdalene’s Travels
Chapter 10: The Judas Episodes
Chapter 11: The Two Travelers on Their Way to Emmaus
Chapter 12: Easter Sunday Evening to Peter’s Recommissioning
Chapters contain sub-sections that deal with specific “Issues”.  Each issue is numbered, and by the end of TRACI, Alter has covered 113 different issues.  The “Issues” sections are often further divided into sub-sections concerning “Contradictions” and “Speculations”.  Each such sub-section is numbered, and by the end of TRACI a total of 120 contradictions have been discussed, and 217 speculations have been covered.  Here is an example of one “Issue” that contains subsections that are about “Contradictions” and subsections about “Speculations”:
Issue 15: The Actions of Jesus’s Followers during the Crucifixion and His Death

  • Contradiction #20 The Forsaking of the Disciples
  • Contradiction #21 The Differing Accounts of the Women at the Cross during the Crucifixion
  • Speculation #30 Those Present during Jesus’s Death—the Acquaintances in Luke 23:49
  • Speculation #31 Improbability of the Presence under the Cross
  • Speculation #32 The Theological Agenda of John Regarding “the Beloved Disciple”
  • Speculation #33 Could John Have Possessed a Home?

Atheists and skeptics are familiar with the problem of the existence of numerous apparent contradictions between the four canonical Gospels (sometimes even within the same Gospel). Many such apparent contradictions are discussed by Alter.
What about the “Speculations”?  These appear to be any other topic, besides a contradiciton, that is relevant to the issue of whether Jesus rose from the dead.  Some of the “Speculations” clearly involve skeptical objections or challenges to the resurrection claim (e.g. “Speculation #31 Improbability of Presence under the Cross”), while others deal more with matters of interpretation (e.g. “Speculation #32 The Theological Agenda of John Regarding ‘the Beloved Disciple’ “).

bookmark_borderResponse to William Lane Craig – Part 10

Here is my main objection to William Craig’s case for the resurrection of Jesus:
It is not possible for a person to rise from the dead until AFTER that person has actually died. Thus, in order to prove that Jesus rose from the dead, one must first prove that Jesus died on the cross. But in most of William Craig’s various books, articles, and debates, he simply ignores this issue. He makes no serious attempt to show that it is an historical fact that Jesus died on the cross.  For that reason, I’m convinced that Craig’s case for the resurrection is a complete failure.
Here is WLC’s main reply to my objection:
The reason that I personally have not devoted any space to a discussion of the death of Jesus by crucifixion is that this fact is not in dispute. This historical fact is not one that is controversial among biblical scholars. 
Craig supports this point by giving examples of biblical scholars who express great confidence in the historicity of the crucifixion of Jesus and Jesus’ death on the cross: Luke Johnson and Robert Funk.  In Parts 2 through 8 of this series, I have argued that the example of the biblical scholar Luke Johnson fails to support his point.  I will now argue that the same is true of the biblical scholar Robert Funk.
Craig quotes a part of a comment by Robert Funk:
In fact, the death of Jesus is so well established that according to Robert Funk, who was the co-chair of the Jesus Seminar, the crucifixion of Jesus was “one indisputable fact” that neither the early Christians nor their opponents could deny.
The footnote for this quoted three-word phrase is rather vague:  “Robert Funk, Jesus Seminar videotape.”  The Jesus Seminar was in operation from 1985 to 1998, so a Jesus Seminar videotape could have been produced anytime in that fourteen-year window.  I have little hope of locating the particular Jesus Seminar videotape that this quote was taken from, so I have no way to either confirm the accuracy of the quote or to determine the meaning of the three-word phrase in the context of what Funk was talking about at that point.  I do not find this to be convincing evidence that Funk believed that the crucifixion of Jesus is a certain or nearly certain historical fact.
Furthermore, based on Funk’s comments in his book Honest to Jesus (published in 1996, hereafter: HTJ), it seems to me that although Funk believes that it is probable that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross, Funk believes that this claim is less than certain, and that there can be reasonable doubt about this claim:
There is nothing in the Christian story, so far as I can see, that is immune from doubt.  The crucifixion of Jesus is not entirely beyond question….We do not know for a fact that he was buried.  His body may have been left to rot on the cross, to become carrion for dogs and crows….Even the existence of Jesus has been challenged more than once and not without justification.  We should begin by admitting that all of these myths and legends may rest on nothing other than the fertile imagination of early believers. (HTJ, p.219-220)
The crucifixion is NOT “beyond question” according to Funk.  Even the very existence of Jesus as an historical person is NOT beyond question according to Funk.
This openness of Funk to doubt about the crucifixion of Jesus is in keeping with Funk’s general skepticism.  In Chapter 1 of Honest to Jesus, Funk proposes seven ground rules for the quest of the historical Jesus.   Three of Funk’s seven ground rules clearly support a skeptical outlook in the study of Jesus:
Rule One
Human knowledge is finite.  It is fallible, limited, subject to correction.  If it were not, study and learning would be unnecessary.  This applies, willy-nilly, to the Bible, to the pope, to ecclesiastical bureaucrats and contemporary preachers alike.  And to scholars. (HTJ, p.24)
 Rule Five
In spite of the sciences, impressive methodological advances, and the knowledge explosion, we still cannot be certain that we can tell the difference between illusion and reality.
Aspects of what we think we see and hear, of what we believe we know, are almost certainly illusory.  The social world we inhabit as human beings was created for us by our historical and social contexts and by our own imaginations.  We are products, to a greater or lesser extent, of our own creative activity….One consequence of this arrangement is that we are constantly being deceived….illusion and error are a part of the human condition.  (HTJ, p.26)
Rule Seven
No matter how many illusions we dispel, no matter how firm the conclusions we reach this time around, we will turn out to be wrong in some way, perhaps in many ways, down the road.  Someone, somewhere, sometime will have to come along and correct our mistakes while adding their own. (HTJ, p.26)
Given this skeptical outlook, it is no surprise that Funk is open to doubt about the crucifixion of Jesus and even to doubt about the existence of Jesus.  Funk rejects the view that the existence of Jesus and the crucifixion of Jesus are beyond question.
It is not merely this general skeptical outlook that casts doubt on the crucifixion, but a number of specific skeptical assumptions held by Funk that cast significant doubt on the crucifixion of Jesus and the on the claim that Jesus died on the cross.  I will argue that if one accepts Funk’s various skeptical assumptions, then one cannot rationally conclude that it is nearly certain that Jesus was crucified and that Jesus died on the cross.
Before I discuss Funk’s specific skeptical assumptions, however, I would like to touch on another aspect of Funk’s general viewpoint:  his cynicism.  I appreciate Funk’s cynicism.  Though Funk believes in God, and has some sort of very liberal belief or faith in Jesus, he is a kindred spirit, as far as I am concerned.   I appreciate Funk’s skepticism and his cynicism.
My own skepticism, I believe, arises out of cynicism, at least in part.   I suspect the same is true for many other skeptics, and it appears to me that Funk’s skepticism might also arise out of cynicism, at least in part.  So, I would like to share a few selected quotes that reflect Funk’s cynicism.
In the Prologue of Honest to Jesus, Funk lists ten of his personal convictions.  Two of them embody cynicism about human thinking:
8. I believe in original sin, but I take original sin to mean the innate infinite capacity of human beings to deceive themselves.
9.  I have come to see that the self-deception inherent in “original sin” prompts human beings to believe that what they want is what they are really entitled to and what they will eventually get–things like unending life in another world and absolute justice in this.  I doubt that it will work out that way.  (HTJ, p.11)
Funk experesses cynicism about his own conversion experience (and about other Christian believers):
…in the exuberance of youth, I thought it extremely important to hold the correct opinions.  I didn’t really know what the correct opinions were, but friends and others around me seemed to know, so I embraced theirs when I could understand them and sometimes when I couldn’t.  Among them was the good confession.  In response to prompting, I said Jesus was my personal savior.  Nobody explained to me what that entailed.  It has taken me several decades to get even a hint of what it could mean.
Most of us cling to opinions received secondhand and worn like used clothing. … (HTJ, p.4)
Funk experesses cynicism about Americans in general:
I am happy to report that I am the victim of a good education.  I would undoubtedly have grown up opinionated, narrow-minded, and bigoted like many Americans, but I had the misfortune, or the good fotune, of having excellent teachers. (HTJ, p.4)
Funk experesses cynicism about Christian ministers:
I started out to be a parish minister but soon learned that passion for truth was not compatible with that role.  In self-defense I became a scholar. (HTJ, p.5)
Funk expresses cynicism about churches and seminaries:
In Jesus as Precursor, a book I wrote while teaching in the Divinity School, I concluded that theologians should abandon the cloistered precincts of the church and seminary  where nothing real was on the agenda.   I soon followed my own advice.
The longing for intellectual freedom drove me out of the seminary and into a secular university. … the university had become my church and learning my real vocation. (HTJ, p. 5)
… I discovered that by and large what my students learned in seminary did not get passed on to parish memebers; in fact, it seems to have little or no bearing on the practice of ministry at all.  I was chagrined to learn that I was investing in an enterprise with no prospect of return. (HTJ, p.6)
Funk expresses cynicism about universities and academia:
The University of Montana taught me another hard lesson:  universities are much like churches, replete with orthodoxies of various kinds, courts of inquisition, and severe penalties for those who do not embrace mediocrity and the teacher’s union.  Preoccupation with political trivia and insulation from the real world eventually pushed me to abandon that final sanctuary.  (HTJ, p.5)
…my academic colleagues and I were trapped in a perpetual holding pattern dictated to us by a system of rewards and sanctions in the university.    That system prevented us, or at least discouraged us, from entering the public domain with learning that mattered.  In their book, The Social Construction of Reality, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman define intellectuals as experts whose specialized knowledge is not wanted, is not even tolerated, by the general public.  (HTJ, p.6)
Funk expresses cynicism about the general level of knowledge about religion and the Bible:
In our time, religious literacy has reached a new low in spite of our scholarship, in spite of the remarkable advances in research and publication our academic disciplines have made. (HTJ, p.5-6)
Jesus is a topic of wide public interest, and the ancient gospels are the subject of profound public ignorance. (HTJ, p.7)
All of this cynicism from Funk is found in the short Prologue of Honest to Jesus, and there is much more of this cynicism expressed in Chapters 1, 2, and 3, but I will spare you from any further cynical comments, and move on (in the next post) to taking a closer look at a number of specific skeptical assumptions held by Funk.
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Here is an INDEX to posts in this series.
 

bookmark_borderResponse to William Lane Craig – Part 8

I have one final objection to raise against Luke Johnson’s use of the “method of convergence”.  I have been using the phrase “the devil is in the details” to summarize a number of problems with, or objections to, Johnson’s use of the “method of convergence” to establish some key claims about Jesus.  But there are some specific DETAILS about the alleged crucifixion of Jesus that I have not yet mentioned but that represent more such details that raise doubt about the claim that “Jesus died on the cross on the same day he was crucified.”
First of all, we don’t know how crucifixion CAUSES a person to die.  There are various theories, of course, but it would be unethical to put those theories to a full scientific test, because it would be unethical to crucify human beings and to carefully observe their deaths in order to answer this historical/medical question.  However, one popular theory is that crucifixion kills a person by asphyxiation, but actual scientific tests of crucifixion (where subjects were strapped, not nailed, to crosses) have indicated that, contrary to the asphyxiation theory, people can breathe without difficulty while hanging from a cross.  The subjects, of course, were only attached to the crosses for a few minutes, not for several hours, so the asphyxiation theory has not been disproved, but it has been cast into doubt.
Because we don’t know how crucifixion causes death, we can hardly be certain that it caused Jesus to die in a matter of just a few hours (Jesus was crucified around 9am according to the synoptic Gospels and around noon according to the Gospel of John.  The  Gospels agree that Jesus was buried before sundown on the day he was crucified, around 6pm, so his apparent death would have been sometime in the late afternoon, between 2pm and 5pm).  If Jesus had been on the cross for several days, that would make his death highly probable because people usually died after three or four days.  But since Jesus was allegedly on the cross for between about three hours (noon to 3pm) and eight hours (9am to 5pm), the fact that he was hanging from a cross for a few hours is not sufficient to confidently conclude that he died on the cross.
One important detail is the use of NAILS.  Most paintings and sculptures of the crucifixion show Jesus as nailed to the cross, but the synoptic Gospels do not mention hammers, hammering, nails, or nailing.  The synoptic gospels only say that Jesus was crucified, and crucifixion was often carried out by binding the victim to the cross, without using nails.  The Gospel of John also does not mention hammers, hammering, nails, or nailing in the description of Jesus’ crucifixion.
However, in the story of Doubting Thomas, which is found ONLY in the Gospel of John, we are told that the risen Jesus had marks in his hands/wrists from nails.  Since nails are mentioned ONLY in the Gospel of John and in the dubious story of Doubting Thomas which also occurs ONLY in the Gospel of John, the evidence for the use of nails in Jesus’ crucifixion is weak and questionable. (Note: The Doubting Thomas story says nothing about nail wounds in Jesus’ feet, only in his hands.)
If Jesus had been bound to the cross rather than nailed to the cross, then that would mean that instead of having a serious wound in each hand/wrist and in each foot/ankle, he would have had no serious wound in each hand/wrist and no serious wound in each foot/ankle, meaning that four of the serious wounds traditionally believed to have been inflicted on Jesus, might be fictional rather than factual.  If  Jesus had been bound rather than nailed to the cross, this would significantly reduce the probability that he would die after just a few hours of hanging on the cross.
One other very important wound that Jesus allegedly received while on the cross is the SPEAR WOUND to his side.  The story of the spear wound, however, is found ONLY in the historically dubious Gospel of John.  None of the synoptic Gospels record this event, and none of the other Gospels ever mentions a wound in Jesus’ side.
Furthermore, there is good reason to suspect that this spear wound incident was created on the basis of an O.T. prophecy, which is specifically mentioned in the Gospel passage that relates this story (John 19:36 & 37):
36. These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.”  
37. And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”
The author of this Gospel might have accepted these scripture passages as divinely inspired prophecy which MUST be fulfilled, and on this basis INFERRED that Jesus MUST have been stabbed with a spear while on the cross, and then created the story about the spear wound, without any thought or intent to deceive the readers of this Gospel, being fully confident in the inspiration of the O.T. and in his interpretation of these ‘prophetic’ passages.
I, however, am quite confident that the O.T. was NOT inspired by God, and even if it were inspired by God I have no good reason to trust or rely upon the interpretation of these O.T. passages by an unknown first-century Christian author.  Since there is a good chance that the story was created on the basis of the O.T. passages, there is a good chance that the spear-wound story is fictional and false.  If the spear-wound story is fictional and false, then one of the most serious and important wounds traditionally believed to have been inflicted on Jesus was NOT actually inflicted on Jesus.   If there was no spear-wound to Jesus’ side while he was hanging on the cross, then that would significantly reduce the probability that Jesus would die after just a few hours on the cross.
Within the general constraints of the Gospel accounts, but allowing for some dubious details to  be fictional, it is quite possible that Jesus was merely tied to the cross (not nailed), that he hung from the cross for just a few hours (from noon to 3pm), and that there was no serious spear-wound inflicted on Jesus while he was on the cross.  Given that we simply do not know how crucifixion causes death (other than by dehydration, starvation, and exposure over a period of days),  the fact that Jesus was crucified fails to show that the death of Jesus on the cross is highly probable.
These are all details concerning the alleged crucifixion of Jesus:
How many hours was Jesus on the cross?  
How was Jesus attached to the cross?  
If nails were used, were they used only for his hands or only for his feet or for both hands and feet?  
Was Jesus stabbed with a spear while he was on the cross?  
If so, where on his body did the spear penetrate?  
If Jesus was stabbed with a spear, how deep and how wide was the spear wound?
If Jesus was stabbed with a spear, were any vital organs seriously damaged by this? 
None of these details are known.  We can only formulate educated guesses in order to answer these questions.  But the probability that Jesus would have died on the cross on the same day he was crucified depends to a large degree on the answers to these questions about the details of Jesus’ alleged crucifixion.
As Luke Johnson repeatedly and correctly points out, when it comes to such details, we cannot rely upon the Gospels to provide solid historical evidence:
A careful examination of all the evidence offered by outsider and insider sources justifies making certain statements about Jesus that have an impressively high level of probability.
Such statements do not concern details, specific incidents, or the sequence of events.
(The Real Jesus, p.111-112)
Johnson is skeptical when it comes to the DETAILS provided by the Gospels, but we must acknowledge that “the devil is in the details”.
In order to determine the probability that Jesus died on the cross on the same day he was crucified, we need to answer questions of a detailed nature, such as the questions I have outlined above about the details of Jesus’ crucifixion and wounds.  I agree with Johnson that we cannot confidently rely on the Gospels when it comes to such details, but the implication of this is that we are NOT in a postion to confidently conclude that it is highly probable that Jesus died on the cross on the same day he was crucified.
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Here is an INDEX to posts in this series.

bookmark_borderIn Defense of Dwindling Probability – Part 2

I see that Plantinga’s skeptical argument refers to “Dwindling Probabilities” rather than “Dwindling Probability”.  Sorry about my failure to get the name of this topic quite right.
I should mention that I did not learn about this sort of skeptical argument from the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga.  I learned about the Multiplication Rule of probablity in high school math, and then again in one of many courses on logic and critical thinking that I took in college and as a graduate student of philosophy.
Although I enjoyed learning about basic probability calculations in a Critical Thinking class at UCSB (esp. from The Elements of Logic by Stephen Barker, Chapter 7, 5th edition), the significance of the Multiplication Rule did not fully register with me until (I think) I read a skeptical argument by a Christian bible scholar: Robert Stein.
In his book Jesus the Messiah, Stein makes a skeptical argument about scholarly attempts to reconstruct the historical development of Q, a hypothetical source that most N.T. scholars believe was used by the authors of the Gospel of Luke and of the Gospel of Matthew.  Stein notes eight different hypotheses required in order to arrive at such a reconstruction of the history of Q.  Then Stein suggests estimated probabilities for each of the first five of the eight hypotheses, and argues that the probability that all five of those hypotheses is true is equal to the multiplication of the probabilities of those five hypotheses:
In other words, if the probability of the first five hypotheses were (1) 90 percent, (2) 80 percent, (3) 60 percent, (4) 50 percent, (5) 40 percent, the possibility of the fifth being true is .90 x .80 x .60 x .50 x .40, or a little more than 8 percent!  (Jesus the Messiah, p. 40)
Stein is a little sloppy here, and he appears to contradict himself.  He seems to be saying that the probability of the fifth hypothesis being true is 40 percent and also saying that the probability of this hypothesis being true is a little more than 8 percent.  But I think what he means is that the probabilty of the fifth hypothesis being true GIVEN the relevant facts AND the truth of the previous four hypotheses is 40 percent, and I think what he means is that the probability of the fifth hypothesis being true GIVEN only the relevant factual data is a little more than 8 percent (because the truth of the conjunction of the previous four hypotheses is NOT certain, but is actually somewhat improbable).
In any case, this skeptical argument presented by Stein inspired me to make use of the Multiplication Rule of probability in constructing skeptical arguments.
Richard Swinburne has raised some objections to Plantinga’s “Dwindling Probabilities” argument, and I am going to state and clarify those objections, and respond to each objection in relation to my example of “Dwindling Probabilities” presented in Part 1 of this series of posts.
Swinburne presents one primary objection, and then presents two more objections.  Swinburne’s primary objection is stated early in his essay on this issue:
Now, strictly speaking – as Plantinga acknowledges, but takes no further – P(G/K) is the sum of the probabilities of the different routes to it.   G might be true without some of these intermediate propositions being true.  
First, let me explain the meaning of P(G/K).   Read this as “The probability of G given K.”
G means:
The central elements of  Christian doctrine are true.
(e.g. God exists; Jesus rose from the dead; Jesus’ death on the cross atoned for our sins; etc.).
K refers to:
The totality of what we know apart from theism.
So P(G/K) means:
The probability that the central elements of Christian doctrine are true GIVEN the totality of what we know apart from theism.
One “route” to G is to establish the authority of the teachings of Jesus, and the reliability of the Gospel accounts of the teachings of Jesus.  If one could show that the teachings of Jesus are a reliable source of theological truths, and that  the Gospel accounts of the teachings of Jesus are accurate and reliable, then one could establish the probable truth of many or most Christian doctrines on the basis of the teachings of Jesus as presented in the Gospels.
So, one could break this line of reasoning down into various components, assign probabilities to each of the components, and then multiply the probabilities to arrive at a probability for G, for it being the case that the central elements of Christian doctrine are true:
1.  God exists.
2. Jesus existed.
3. Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem about 30 CE, assuming that Jesus existed.
4. Jesus rose from the dead, assuming that God exists, and that Jesus existed, and that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem about 30 CE.
5.  God showed approval for Jesus’ claims about himself by raising Jesus from the dead, assuming that God exists and that Jesus rose from the dead.
6.  The Gospel accounts of the words and teachings of Jesus are accurate and reliable accounts, assuming that Jesus existed.
7.  Jesus claimed to be a prophet who was a reliable source of truth about God and theological matters, assuming that Jesus existed and assuming that the Gospel accounts of the words and teachings of Jesus are accurate and reliable accounts.
8.  Jesus’ teachings about God and theological matters are a reliable source of truth, assuming that God showed approval for Jesus’ claims about himself by raising Jesus from the dead and assuming that Jesus claimed to be a prophet who was a reliable source of truth about God and theological matters.
9.  The central elements of Christian doctrine are true, assuming that Jesus’ teachings about God and theological matters are a reliable source of truth and assuming that the Gospel accounts of the words and teachings of Jesus are accurate and reliable accounts.
None of these claims is certain.
A careful and rational evaluation of this line of reasoning would require assigning probabilities to each of these claims.  There is some probability that God exists, and some probability that Jesus existed, and some probability that Jesus was crucified (given that he existed), and some probability that Jesus rose from the dead (given that he existed and was crucified), etc.
Even if we assign a high probability to each of these claims (such as .8 or .9), when we use the Multiplication Rule of probability to determine the probability of G, the claim that the central elements of Christian doctrine are true, the probability will be fairly low.  For example, suppose that we assign a probability of .9 to each of the first four claims.  In that case the probability of the conjunction of these four claims would be: .9 x .9 x .9 x .9 =  .81 x .81 = .6561  or about .7  which is not exactly a high probability.
If we assigned a probability of .8 to each of the first four claims, then the probability of the conjunction of those claims would be:
.8 x .8 x .8 x .8 =  .64 x .64 = .4096 or about .4 which is clearly NOT a high probability.
Swinburne’s objection is that there may be other “routes” to the ultimate conclusion that G is the case, and if this is so, then we have to add the probability of arriving at G from other routes to the probabilty of G based on the particular route described above.
Let’s consider a simpler example to make Swinburne’s point more clearly:
1.  It will (probably) rain this afternoon.
2. If it rains this afternoon, then your lawn will (probably) be wet this evening.
Therefore:
3.  Your lawn will (probably) be wet this evening.
Neither premise of this argument is certain.  We coud assign a probability to each premise and use that to calculate the probability of the conclusion.  Supose that there is an 80% chance of rain this afternoon, and if it rains this afternoon, there is a 90% chance that your lawn will be wet this evening.  We could calculate the probability of the conclusion (3) by multiplying .8 x .9  to get:  .72.  Thus, the probability of (3) appears to be about .7 based on these assumptions about the probability of the premises.
However, there could be other “routes” or ways that your lawn could become wet:
4. Your lawn sprinkler system will (probably) turn on and water the lawn for an hour this afternoon.
5. If your lawn sprinkler system turns on and waters the lawn for an hour this afternoon, then your lawn will (probably) be wet this evening.
Therefore:
3.  Your lawn will (probably) be wet this evening.
We could assign probabilities to each of the premises in this argument to arrive at a probability for the conclusion.  Suppose that the sprinkler system is fairly reliable, and has been set to water the lawn for an hour each afternoon.  In that case, we might assign a high probabililty of .9 to premise (4), and a probability of .9 to premise (5).  We could calculate the probability of conclusion (3) by multiplying .9 x .9 to get:  .81.  Thus, the probabilty of (3) appears to be about .8 based on these assumptions.  But this is a different probability than what we arrived at based on the previous argument.  Which probability is correct?  .7 or .8?
If both arguments apply on the same day to the same lawn, then NEITHER estimate is correct, because the probabilty that (3) will be true would be higher than either estimate, since there are TWO DIFFERENT WAYS, each of which has a significant probability, that your lawn could become wet this afternoon.
Presumably the operation of the sprinkler system would NOT affect the weather, and thus NOT affect the chance of rain.  However, if it rains, that could affect the operation of the sprinkler system.  Some sprinkler systems can detect rain or detect moisture in the soil and adjust the watering schedule based on that data.  A sprinkler system might be designed to cancel the scheduled watering for the afternoon if it starts to rain early in the afternoon.   So, with some sprinkler systems, rain in the early afternoon would reduce the probability of the scheduled afternoon watering to nearly ZERO.  But if the scheduled watering begins early in the afternoon, that would have no impact on whether it would rain later that afternoon.
But suppose the sprinkler system has a simple timer and no mechanism for detecting rain.  In this case the sprinkler system which is set to water the lawn each afternoon, will turn the sprinklers on whether it rains that afternoon or not.  In that case, we could reasonably assume that these two different ways of making your lawn wet, operate INDEPENDENTLY of each other, and thus both of the above calculations of the probability of (3) would be too low, because each calculation assumes that there is only ONE WAY for your lawn to become wet, when there are actually (at least) TWO WAYS for this to occur.  Rain is one ROUTE for making your lawn wet, but a sprinkler system is another different ROUTE for making your lawn wet.
One ROUTE for showing central Christian doctrines to be true, is through the resurrection of Jesus as evidence for the authority (reliability) of the teachings of Jesus about God and theological matters.  But other ROUTES are possible,  as Swinburne points out, so the probability of the truth of central Christian doctrines does NOT rest exclusively on the ROUTE through the resurrection of Jesus as evidence for the authority (reliability) of the teachings of Jesus.  In order to arrive at an accurate probabilty of G, one must take into account any and every ROUTE that contributes some degree of probability to G.
My response to this objection in relation to my example of dwindling probabilities in the previous post is that there is ONLY ONE ROUTE (that has a probability higher than ZERO) to the claim “Jesus died on the same day he was crucified” in my probability tree diagram.  So, although I agree with Swinburne’s point and his logic, this point has NO RELEVANCE in relation to my particular example of dwindling probabilities.
There is some relevance to Swinburne’s point, however, if one uses my example probability tree diagram as part of one’s thinking about the resurrection of Jesus. The claim “Jesus died on the same day he was crucified” reflects the standard Christian view or scenario about the death of Jesus. According to the Gospels, Jesus died on the cross on the same day that he was crucified (which is somewhat unusual – crucifixion was intended to be a slow, long, drawn-out, and painful death).  But it is possible that Jesus rose from the dead, even if he did not die on the day that he was crucified.
Jesus might have been barely alive when removed from the cross, the soldiers mistakenly believing that he was already dead, and Jesus might have been placed in a nearby tomb, again by someone who mistakenly believed he was already dead, and then Jesus might have survived that Friday night and died in the cold, dark tomb early on Saturday morning, but came back to life on Sunday morning about 24 hours later.
This would still count as rising from the dead, and would still be more-or-less in line with Christian belief and doctrine. Therefore, it is not absolutely required that “Jesus died on the same day he was crucified” in order for it to be the case that “Jesus rose from the dead”. So, there is this alternative ROUTE or WAY that the resurrection could have occured, and in order to accurately assess the probability of the resurrection of Jesus, the probability of this alternative ROUTE must be added to the probability of the standard ROUTE, where Jesus dies on the same day that he was crucified.
To be continued…

bookmark_borderResponse to William Lane Craig – Part 7

I have another objection to raise against Luke Johnson’s use of the “method of convergence” to support the reliability of the Gospels or the “historical framework” of the Gospels (emphasis added by me):
As I have tried to show, the character of the Gospel narratives does not allow a fully satisfying historical reconstruction of Jesus’ ministry. Nevertheless, certain fundamental points on which all the Gospels agree, when taken together with confirming lines of convergence from outsider testimony and non-narrative New Testament evidence, can be regarded with a high degree of probability.  Even the most critical historian can confidently assert that a Jew named Jesus worked as a teacher and wonder-worker in Palestine during the reign of Tiberius, was executed by crucifixion under the prefect Pontius Pilate, and condintued to have followers after his death.  These assertions are not mathematically or metaphysically certain, for certainty is not within the reach of history.  But they do enjoy a very high level of probability.    (TRJ, p.123)
This paragraph contains a common logical fallacy concerning probability.   This logical fallacy is of great practical importance as well as theoretical importance.  In the field of project management, one important practical application of logic and probability is that of constructing realistic, accurate, detailed schedules, and evaluations of the probability that a project will be completed on time.
There is a common tendency to overestimate the probability of completing a project on schedule.  One reason for this tendency is the failure to apply the logic of probability by committing a particular logical fallacy.  For example, lets say that we have a very simple and short project that consists of just five tasks, with a one-week duration for each task.  Suppose that each task has a very good chance of completing on schdule, specifically, each task has a probability of .8 completing in the planned duration (being completed in one week or less).  Furthermore, suppose that these tasks must be worked in a particular order, and one task must be completed before the next task can be started.  Project managers create charts to display the logic of project schedules, and the chart for this simple project would look like this:
Simple Gant Chart
Suppose that this project had to complete in five weeks in order for the project to make a profit.  What is the probability that the project will complete on time?  Because each task in the project has a high probability of being completed in one week (or less), it is tempting to infer that there is a high probability that the project as a whole will complete on time, in five weeks (or less).  But this is a logical fallacy.
Although each individual task has a high probability of being completed in the planned duration (of one week), this does NOT mean that the entire project has a high probability of being completed in the planned duration (of five weeks).  If just one of the tasks takes longer than estimated, that could make the whole project take longer than planned.  The probability that this project will complete in five weeks (or less) is NOT .8, but rather approximately  .8 x .8 x .8 x .8 x .8 =  .64 x .64 x .8 =  .32768  or aprox. .33  or one chance in three.  In other words, it is more likely that this project will fail to complete on time than that it will complete on time.
This common logical fallacy concerning the probability of a chain of tasks completing on schedule is a particular form of the more general fallacy known as the FALLACY OF COMPOSTION:
What is true of the part is not necessarily true of the whole.  To think so is to commit the fallacy of composition.  
(With Good Reason, 4th edition, by S. Morris Engel, p.103)
Reasoning of the following form is invalid:
1.  It is highly probable that A is the case.
2. It is highly probable that B is the case.
3. It is highly probable that C is the case.
4. It is highly probable that D is the case.
Therefore:
5. It is highly probable that A and B and C and D are the case.
But in the paragraph quoted at the begining of this post, it appears that Luke Johnson reasons this way:
1. It is highly probable that claim (A) about Jesus is true.
2. It is highly probable that claim (B) about Jesus is true.
3. It is highly probable that claim (C) about Jesus is true.
4. It is highly probable that claim (D) about Jesus is true.
Therefore:
5. It is highly probable that claims (A) and (B) and (C) and (D) about Jesus are all true.
This is clearly a bit of fallacious reasoning.  Such bad reasoning about probability is tempting and quite common, but it is still bad reasoning, and Johnson appears to be encouraging his readers to engage in such fallacious reasoning about the probability of claims about Jesus.  In the paragraph quoted at the start of this post, Johnson appears to be encouraging his readers to commit the fallacy of compostion, and to reason from the high probability of individual claims about Jesus to the high probability of  conjunctions of serveral claims about Jesus.
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Here is an INDEX to posts in this series.