Κυριακή, 5 Μαρτίου 2017

Richard Carrier : List of Responses to Defenders of the Historicity of Jesus (8)

OHJ: The Covington Review (Part 1)

Cover of Richard Carrier's book On the Historicity of Jesus. Medieval icon image of Jesus holding a codex, on a plain brown background, title above in white text, author below in white text.This week I am doing a series on early reviews of my book On the Historicity of Jesus. If you know of reviews I don’t cover by the end of the first week of July, post them in comments (though please also remark on your own estimation of their merits).
One of those early reviews posted is by Nicholas Covington (at Hume’s Apprentice of SkepticInk), author and blogger, with a strong interest in counter-apologetics, naturalist philosophy, and historical argument. He is blogging his review as a series, and so far only parts 1 and 2 are available. I will post more as he does. But here is my commentary on part 1, on a question of method. For the remaining parts, see closing paragraph.
First, of course, I concur with Covington’s opening warnings. As I have written on the same point before (Fincke Is Right: Arguing Jesus Didn’t Exist Should Not Be a Strategy). I have likewise made the same point about the Possibility Fallacy (Proving History, pp. 26-29). And I am glad he plans to get to his own estimates of numbers by the end of his series (that’s important).
Second, his part 1 only addresses the question of prior probability. He correctly points out that that precedes our examination of specific evidence for or against historicity, so the historicity of Jesus is not decided by its prior (as I also explain in OHJ, ch. 6).
Third, so far he has only one point to make about this. Essentially, he repeats what I call the Alternative Class Objection. Which I already fully address in the book (OHJ, pp. 245-46).
I could leave it at that. But Covington proposes a reference class I didn’t give as an example, one that gives occasion to discuss an important methodological point that is easily gotten wrong. [Note that after I composed the following, but before I published it, Covington updated his article with a paragraph noticing on his own the last point I make here.]

The Objection

Covington’s conclusion on this one point is:
All in all, Carrier’s prior probability of 33% for the historicity of Jesus is reasonable but not entirely beyond challenge, and it may be equally reasonable for us to hold to a prior probability much higher if we use a different reference class such as the one I mentioned.
By which he means what is essentially the converse of Stephen Law’s Contamination Principle (which I actually refer to in OHJ, see the author index). Stephen Law’s principle is that the more unbelievable things there are in a story, the less believable the mundane things in that story are. Stated as such, he is correct (although the question remains how much less). Covington proposes the converse: the more true things there are in a story, the more believable the rest of the story is. Stated as such, he is correct…provided we commute the principle to the correct reference class of information. Covington skips that step. Consequently, his objection (which admittedly he does not really have that much confidence in) is not valid. Although it could in principle be fixed up to work, that would require the Gospels to look substantially different than they actually do (as I explain in detail in OHJ, ch. 10).
An easy example of what I mean is to take Law’s example (which Covington discusses), in which someone claims a certain person they call Bert “flew around the room by flapping his arms before dying, coming back to life and turning their sofa into a donkey,” and add the detail that Bert voted for President Obama in 2008 and lives in Seattle. Does the fact that there really was an election for a man really named Obama in 2008, and there really is a city named Seattle, increase the probability that Bert exists at all? Or by any appreciable amount? No. Because fiction routinely includes factually true details (in fact, studies of urban legends show they actually accumulate such details over time, so reliably that experts in the subject consider the proliferation of factual details a sign of a story not being true: OHJ, pp. 480-81, n. 195). And this is where we have to pay attention to reference classes: is it improbable for the story of a non-existent person to contain true facts of the world? No. To the contrary, it’s almost universally the case (pick any myth placed in an actual historical context and you’ll find things in it that are true, like the names and locations of cities and other geographical and political and cultural facts). So it is actually expected (see OHJ, pp. 214-34).
Therefore, the presence of true facts of the world in a story does not increase the probability of the rest of the story being true, at least not by any significant amount. Except contra-factually, of course: it increases it relative to the same story but where all those true facts are replaced by false ones. But the fact that false facts lower a story’s probability does not entail true facts raise it; they only raise it relative to that hypothetical but non-existent version of the story containing false facts of the world. And that’s not the question we are asking here. We are asking how likely the stories we actually have are. Not the likelihood of stories we don’t have. See my discussion of a similar problem regarding Nazareth archaeology in OHJ, p. 258, n. 8. Contemplating the stories we don’t have can be a useful exercise (as P(e|h) must equal 1 – P(~e|h)), but only in a certain way (I explain all of this in PH, pp. 52, 230, 255-56, 302 n. 13).

Examples to the Contrary

An example I have discussed (as have other scholars making the exact same point: see NIF, pp. 174-87) is the book of Acts: peppered with true facts of the world (some cribbed from Josephus precisely for the purpose), yet nevertheless not at all believable on almost any other detail (OHJ, ch. 9). This is how historical fiction gets written. It’s not like Luke was really good at checking incidental details of regional geography and politics (he sometimes wasn’t, but even if he was), therefore the stories he inserts those details into are credible. To the contrary, Luke weaves false tales and then inserts true background facts to make them seem believable.
Therefore we cannot use the insertion of true background facts to support the truth of the stories. Those are separate reference classes, and they do not inform each other. That an author is good at the one only tells you the probability that he continues to be good at that, and therefore Luke’s often getting background facts right lends credence to other background facts in Luke that we can’t independently verify. Nothing more. If you want to up the credence of Luke’s stories (the individual pericopes, as narrative units), you need evidence that he regularly gets stories right, not just the background facts. And that is precisely what we can’t verify, whereas we can show he often (and deliberately) gets stories wrong, or uses such suspicious methods of composing them that they can’t be credited as being the result of honest inquiry (again, see OHJ, ch. 9). Which sets the prior probability of any of his other stories being true to a low value, not a high one.
I do the same thing with the Gospels: demonstrate that they are composed in such a suspicious and consistently unbelievable manner that there is no way to get a high prior that any story in them is true (OHJ, ch. 10). That’s why you can’t use them to support the historicity of anything in them that we can’t independently verify. And we can’t independently verify Jesus (OHJ, chs. 8, 9, and 11).
In fact, in precisely that context I discuss in both PH and OHJ what I think Covington wants to do. See “iteration, method of” in the index to PH, which I mention in OHJ, p. 509. I’ll quote the latter here now because it’s relevant:
… from the survey in this chapter it’s clear that if we went from pericope to pericope assessing the likelihood of it being true (rather than invented to communicate a desired point or to fit a pre-planned narrative structure), each time updating our prior probability that anything in the Gospels can be considered reliable evidence for a historical Jesus, then that probability would consistently go down (or level off somewhere low), but never rise. In fact I have not found a single pericope in these Gospels that is more likely true than false. These Gospels are therefore no different than the dozens of other Gospels that weren’t selected for the canon (as discussed in Element 44). They are all just made-up stories.
To change this conclusion, historicists need to find a way to prove that something about the historical Jesus in the Gospels is probably true (not possibly true, but probably true). They have often attempted this, but so far only with completely invalid methods (as I have already thoroughly documented in Chapter 5 of Proving History). I see no prospect of any valid method ever succeeding at that task. But only time will tell. For now, my conclusion is that we can ascertain nothing in the Gospels that can usefully verify the historicity of Jesus.
Note my use of the correct reference class: stories, not background facts. Background facts (like that Pontius Pilate was governing Judea in the 30s A.D.) are wholly unconnected from the truth of anything in the stories. That Pilate existed is not connected to whether Jesus Christ existed, any more than it is connected to whether Joseph of Arimathea existed (see OHJ, index). It therefore does not lend credence to either.
Certainly, if the Gospels got that detail wrong, then the probability of the story being true would plummet. Hence my conclusion is not that the Gospels plummet the probability of historicity (as they would if they got everything wrong), but that they have no effect on it that we can discern (except as I extract in chapter 6 to construct the only reference class for which we have enough data to build a probability out of: see OHJ, p. 395).
So notice, for example, that the “gospel” that placed Jesus a hundred years earlier under king Jannaeus (OHJ, pp. 281-89) also gets the same kind of historical fact correct (there really was a king Jannaeus and he really was the last in an uninterrupted line of kings of Judea). Yet both stories can’t be true. Thus, getting right who was in office when you set your story tells us nothing about whether the hero of your story even existed.
So Covington is right that the only way my prior probability can be challenged is by coming up with a better reference class. But that reference class cannot exclude the Rank-Raglan data and accomplish anything–because that data would go back into e and thus drop the probability all over again, as I demonstrate mathematically in OHJ, pp. 239-44 and 245-46. This is why using the Josephan Messiahs class doesn’t work (OHJ, p. 246). And [as his revision now acknowledges] the approach Covington suggests wouldn’t work for the same reason–unless the Gospels were substantially different than they are. And lo. They aren’t.
Covington’s entries in this series are indexed here. He has also responded to this commentary on part 1 and I have replied in turn (see comment). My commentary on his remaining sections is as follows:


OHJ: The Covington Review (Part 2)

Last week I did a series on early reviews of my book On the Historicity of Jesus. If you know of reviews I haven’t covered, post them in comments (though please also remark on your own estimation of their merits).
One of those early reviews began a series by Nicholas Covington. Last week I commented on part 1. Here is my commentary on part 2, which deals with Paul’s reference to James. More to come. Here I’ll just comment item by item. But those who want to can skip all the commentary and go directly to my two-paragraph summary.

Of course, if “James, brother of the Lord” meant “James the Christian” we must ask why Paul needed to specify that the James in question was a Christian (wouldn’t that have been obvious enough?) – See more at: http://www.skepticink.com/humesapprentice/2014/06/29/on-the-historicity-of-jesus-part-2/#sthash.xdcUbfwC.dpuf
Of course, if “James, brother of the Lord” meant “James the Christian” we must ask why Paul needed to specify that the James in question was a Christian (wouldn’t that have been obvious enough?) – See more at: http://www.skepticink.com/humesapprentice/2014/06/29/on-the-historicity-of-jesus-part-2/#sthash.xdcUbfwC.dpuf
Of course, if “James, brother of the Lord” meant “James the Christian” we must ask why Paul needed to specify that the James in question was a Christian (wouldn’t that have been obvious enough?) – See more at: http://www.skepticink.com/humesapprentice/2014/06/29/on-the-historicity-of-jesus-part-2/#sthash.xdcUbfwC.dpuf
  • Of course, if “James, brother of the Lord” meant “James the Christian” we must ask why Paul needed to specify that the James in question was a Christian (wouldn’t that have been obvious enough?)
As he points out, I give the reasons why (more than he mentions). But that will be apparent to anyone who reads the book on this point (ch. 11, § 10).
  • Under the proposition that Jesus really lived, Jesus had a brother names James who must have later on played a role in the church (perhaps not as an apostle, but as somebody at least) and that explains the two passages reasonably. The probability of the evidence is close to 100% under the historicist framework.
Notice that I do not agree with this reasoning. The evidence is actually to the contrary that James “must have” played a later role. In fact, not even the evidence that he merely “may have” is sound. I make all the following points in the book, although not necessarily in the same place (you can check “brothers of the Lord” and “James” in the subject index to find every discussion):
Mark has Jesus simply disown his brothers. Mark has no evident awareness that any were even in the church later, much less famed leaders of it. Ditto every other Gospel. And Acts (written by Luke at the end of the century) also evinces no knowledge of a James the brother of Jesus ever being a leader in the church. Luke simply assumes generically that his brothers were Christians; but in Acts they disappear from history thereafter (I even have a whole section on this point, ch. 9, § 9). The notion that any brother of Jesus became an apostle (much less a leader) does not appear until a century or more after the cult began, and then only in manifestly absurd legends (e.g., see my discussion of Hegesippus in ch. 8, § 8).
Meanwhile, it is a demonstrable fact that all baptized Christians were brothers of the Lord. This means that if there were biological brothers, Paul would have had to make that distinction (e.g., by saying something like “brother of the Lord in the flesh,” or something akin). Yet Paul shows no awareness of any need to make that distinction. That means Paul only knew of one kind of brother of the Lord. And the only kind we can prove Paul knew of, is the fictive (see “fictive kinship” in the subject index), not the biological. Paul never anywhere shows any awareness of there being biological kin for Jesus; he even in some places conspicuously omits them; and his use of the phrase in 1 Corinthians 9 actually contradicts such a notion (ch. 11, § 10).
All of this I discuss and explain in OHJ. We mustn’t skip over that.
This is relevant, as Covington says “it seems to me that under historicism it is equally likely that either (a) Paul would use ‘brother of the Lord’ to refer to a literal brother or (b) use it to denote someone was a Christian,” but per above I do not believe that is soundly assumed. To the contrary, under historicism, Paul would need to distinguish those two groups from each other. He could not therefore refer to a biological brother of Jesus as “brother of the Lord” and mean distinctly a biological brother rather than a baptized Christian. Thus, under historicity, the probability that he would do so is low, not equal. The evidence therefore does not fit historicity–unless Jesus existed and had no brothers in the church, or his brothers were treated as equals and thus not singled out with any special phrase but treated like, and referred to like, every other baptized Christian, but in either case the Galatians passage ceases to be evidence for historicity.
Likewise, under historicity all the other evidence is very unlikely. Mark would know James became a revered leader of the church (or at least a member) and would write accordingly (barring ad hoc assumptions, which lower the prior); as would all the other Gospels; and Acts would record this as well; and our first evidence of it would not be in absurd, century-late myths and legends.
Covington does not take any of this into account in his calculations. So his final math, if he does not include these facts, won’t be accurate (it will violate the rule of total evidence).
The omission in Acts one could say is already covered by the likelihood ratio for Acts (OHJ, pp. 371-75, 603-05). But the omission in the Gospels and the absurdity of later legends about the brothers of Jesus either become background evidence for estimating probabilities in the Epistles (and thus lower the consequent probability of their contents on historicity) or else by “enhancing” the historicity hypothesis with the a priori assumption (since it is then not otherwise in b) that Jesus had brothers who were leaders in the church, the consequent probability of what’s in the Gospels and extrabiblical evidence goes down (further than already argued in chs. 8 and 10). Either way the mathematical effect is the same.
Also lowering the probability of the extant Epistles is the expectation that Paul, if there really were biological kin of Jesus in the church for Paul to refer to, would have to have made a distinction between them and the adopted brethren of Jesus. That he isn’t aware of any need to is to some degree (I would say a significant degree) less probable on historicity than mythicism (or else requires ad hoc assumptions that lower the prior:  OHJ, pp. 584-85). In fact, on the historicist hypothesis (enhanced with the addition “Jesus had brothers in the church”), Paul would more probably have made clearer and more frequent reference to such a remarkable group within the church. Which further entails his not doing so is less probable on historicity than on mythicism.
  • It is also my judgement that the fact that Paul identifies this “brother” as someone with the same name as one of the brothers listed in Mark is more probable under the historicist explanation than under the mythicist explanation.
Here I think Covington uses the wrong math. In fact, he makes a similar error to the blogger who argued that Jesus is more likely fictional because he had an unusually large family (see commentary here). Because there would have been dozens of men named James in the church even if historicity is false, therefore mentioning one for Paul is not unlikely. Indeed, as Covington points out, the apostle James whom Paul immediately discusses in Galatians 2, was conspicuously not the brother of Jesus. Likewise, the grammar in Galatians 1 entails the James being referred to there was not an apostle (contrary to every legend claiming the brother of Jesus became a leader in the church). I discuss this in OHJ, pp. 588-92. Paul thus means a non-apostolic Christian. Curiously, as I note in OHJ, it appears that when Paul most needs to distinguish non-apostolic Christians from apostles (due to the required force it has on his argument), he always uses the full term for a Christian, “brother of the Lord,” rather than its abbreviation, “brother.”
So what is the probability that Paul would sometimes refer to a baptized Christian named James as a brother of the Lord, given that all baptized Christians were known to Paul and his congregations as brothers of the Lord, and Paul needed to distinguish between an apostle and a non-apostolic Christian, so as to strengthen his claim not to have spoken to anyone who could tell him the secrets of the gospel until long after he had been preaching that gospel, thus proving he learned the gospel from the revealed Jesus and not human testimony? (Which is the entire argument he is making in Galatians 1.) I point out in OHJ that just saying “brother” would not suffice, since that could be mistaken as referring to a biological brother of Cephas; and not saying anything would not suffice, since that would leave unclear why this person is being mentioned at all (if Paul just met some Jew or catechumen, it would not be clear why he was mentioning them; that he met a baptized Christian in addition to an apostle would be relevant, however, as I there explain).
Covington’s reasoning is that it would be a coincidence (and thus not 100% expected) if Paul called a Christian by the name “brother of the Lord” who just happened to have the same name as what was later claimed to be one of the brothers of Jesus. But this is not the case if all baptized Christians were known by the name “brother of the Lord.” And they were. On mythicism we should expect Paul to not always use the full phrase, because it was a pleonasm (the same reason we don’t say President of the United States Obama every time we talk about President Obama), so we should expect it only occasionally, especially when a particular contrast needed to be emphasized (expecting most of the time just the abbreviated “brother” and “brethren”). Whereas what we should expect if historicity is true is for Paul to be even more specific than he is in Galatians 1, distinguishing the fact that he means not just a baptized Christian, but a biological brother of Jesus–who was not even an apostle, and yet still needed to be mentioned for some reason.
Thus the evidence is actually contrary to expectation on historicity, and not at all unusual on mythicism, wherein there would have been many men (non-apostolic, baptized Christians) whom Paul could sometimes fully refer to as James the brother of the Lord. Note that I am not positing this ad hoc (against which coincidence might be a relevant argument); that all baptized Christians were known to be (and thus could by anyone be called, at any time) brothers of the Lord is an established fact (OHJ, element 12, p. 108), and that pleonasms will appear less frequently than their abbreviations is a universal truth of human language use.
Meanwhile, the notion that Jesus had a brother named James appears only decades later, in a mythical text, in which Jesus disowns said brother (yet not even by name, just all his siblings collectively), and where no knowledge is evinced of said brother being subsequently special in any way at all, much less joining the church (even less leading it). And all subsequent stories concur for several decades on, even the first history of the church–except by then (decades even after the first Gospel is written) the assumption is finally made that those brothers joined the church, but then never do or say anything or appear in history at all–and none become leaders, or are described as meeting Paul. Then, many, many decades later, wild legends are composed that have this James, for the first time, being an apostolic leader of the church.
That sequence of events is improbable on the historicist reading of Galatians 1. And that has to be factored into the math. As does the fact that under historicity, Paul would need to be more specific if he meant to distinguish a biological brother from a baptized Christian. As does the fact that “brothers of the Lord” can’t mean biological kin when Paul uses it in 1 Cor. 9 (as I show in OHJ, pp. 582-88), which decreases the chances that he meant it so in Gal. 1. As does the fact that had the biological brothers of Jesus joined the church, Paul would be more likely to mention this remarkable fact at several other points in his letters (such as I note in OHJ, e.g. p. 524).
These things have to be calculated, in one way or another, as discussed in the preceding section above–depending on whether “Jesus had brothers” is treated as an ad hoc assumption that then generates expectations in other evidence like the Gospels, or a post hoc assumption based on placing this data, e.g. from the Gospels, in b (as Covington effectively does).
  • [T]he probability of the evidence in question is close to 100% under the historicist theory whereas it is about 25% probable under the mythicist theory.
Covington’s mathematical assumption here requires that, on historicity, Paul could not refer to another person this way, e.g. “Matthias the brother of the Lord,” but that’s not true (and therefore his prediction of 100% for a legendary brother’s name here is incorrect). That the phrase “brother of the Lord” would mean baptized Christian is in our background evidence (OHJ, p. 108): it is not an enhancement to the mythicist theory, but an established fact, that Paul could refer to another person that way, even on historicity. So contrary to Covington’s assumption, Paul’s ability to do so is not a peculiarity of the mythicist theory. In fact, the probability is essentially the same, since there will be by proportion just as many Jameses etc. who were baptized Christians as would have been biological brothers of Jesus, since the name frequencies in the general population commute to both sets, and Paul’s infrequency of using this particular pleonasm would be the same either way (absent ad hoc assumptions like those I discuss on pp. 584-85).
Indeed, I dare say if Paul wrote “Matthias the brother of the Lord,” historicists would insist this is still evidence of historicity, and that the Gospels just forgot this one guy or got his brothers’ names wrong, thus exposing their assumptions are irrationally dogmatic–because they can never be falsified. But what if indeed Paul had said that? The probability of historicity would drop even further than I estimate, because then we would have a direct mismatch between what historicists need to be true (the assumptions or background data they are relying on to bolster h), and what the evidence actually contains. And all mismatches entail reductions in probability. That there is a match only keeps the estimated probabilities where I generously have them.
I discuss this mathematical effect, using the impact of our having or not having the trial records of Pontius Pilate, in Proving History, pp. 219-24. That our not having them is expected on b (just as it is expected on b that Paul will sometimes refer to any random James as a brother of the Lord) does not significantly reduce the probability that he crucified Jesus (any more than Paul sometimes referring to a James as a brother of the Lord significantly increases the probability that Jesus existed). There would arguably be an effect, but it would be too small to care about mathematically (as in the case of Pilate’s lost records).
On historicity, even if we set aside all the considerations I laid out above, it remains at best only trivially more likely that Paul would refer to a biological brother of a coinciding name using the exact same term as an adopted brother (i.e. a baptized Christian), just as it is only trivially more likely that Pilate didn’t crucify Jesus given that we don’t have Pilate’s trial records (see PH for how this works mathematically). And when we don’t set aside all the considerations I laid out above, it is actually considerably unlikely that Paul would do this even on historicity.
  • Moreover, this [passage about James in Galatians 1] is about the only piece of evidence for an historical Jesus of which I know (I’ve looked into the issue before, and have come to the conclusion that most claimed evidence is actually very doubtful).
In the end it is reassuring that someone else sees the same point. Indeed, this is just about all the evidence there is. In my final calculation, when arguing a fortiori in favor of historicity, I only find two pieces of evidence have any strength, the two references to brothers in Paul and the two references to parents in Paul. I actually think these argue the reverse, due to considerations like those above, so in my a judicantiori estimates I find these passages to be very bizarre (= unexpected = improbable) on historicity, contrary to the assumptions of historicists, who don’t actually think very hard about these passages. But even when counting them as evidence for Jesus, I end up finding historicity improbable.
Covington might concur. Although, per above, I think he violates the rule of total evidence when assigning the evidence in Galatians 1 too high a likelihood ratio favoring historicity. Other considerations that he doesn’t assess drag it back down. And I think he uses the wrong math to generate a likelihood ratio of Paul using a legendary brother’s name on either historicity or myth (e.g. after putting the “legendary brothers’ names” data from the Gospels into b). Because due to Element 12 being in b (OHJ, p. 108), P(~e|h.b), that Paul would have used a non-legendary brother’s name in Gal. 1, is not zero, but in fact pretty much the same as P(~e|~h.b). Consequently, P(e|h.b) is pretty much the same as P(e|~h.b). (See PH, pp. 230, 255, 302n13.)
See my commentary on part 3. And my commentary on part 1. I will eventually blog on all of Covington’s entries in this series (his continuing index is here). He has also responded to this commentary on part 2 and I have replied in turn (see comments). And after that and further thought and discussion with other commenters, Covington came to rethink his position on the James passage in Galatians. He discusses his reevaluation in part 9. He now comes out roughly in agreement with my a fortiori estimate in OHJ. But nothing he has so far said has convinced me to alter my a judicantiori estimate. For the same reasons laid out above.

OHJ: The Covington Review (Part 3)

Here continues my series on reviews of my book On the Historicity of Jesus. If you know of reviews I haven’t covered, post them in comments (though please also remark on your own estimation of their merits).
This series has included another series begun by Nicholas Covington. I have commented on part 1 and on part 2. Today I shall comment on part 3.

Of course, if “James, brother of the Lord” meant “James the Christian” we must ask why Paul needed to specify that the James in question was a Christian (wouldn’t that have been obvious enough?) – See more at: http://www.skepticink.com/humesapprentice/2014/06/29/on-the-historicity-of-jesus-part-2/#sthash.xdcUbfwC.dpuf
Of course, if “James, brother of the Lord” meant “James the Christian” we must ask why Paul needed to specify that the James in question was a Christian (wouldn’t that have been obvious enough?) – See more at: http://www.skepticink.com/humesapprentice/2014/06/29/on-the-historicity-of-jesus-part-2/#sthash.xdcUbfwC.dpuf
Of course, if “James, brother of the Lord” meant “James the Christian” we must ask why Paul needed to specify that the James in question was a Christian (wouldn’t that have been obvious enough?) – See more at: http://www.skepticink.com/humesapprentice/2014/06/29/on-the-historicity-of-jesus-part-2/#sthash.xdcUbfwC.dpuf
In summary, Covington’s Part 3 is a useful read. It adds to better understanding of the reasons Jesus’s historicity is reasonably doubtable. And it provides examples for future scholars to build on my work.
I have one dispute to air, though, that is relatively minor in the grand scheme, yet elucidating it can be very helpful to many readers pondering the issues in this debate, most particularly the question, ‘Why not just straightaway conclude Jesus was mythical on the strength of the “mythyness” of the Gospels themselves?’ I’ve seen many laypeople advance that argument. “The Gospels are so obviously bogus, obviously there was no Jesus!” It’s not a valid argument. As I explain in OHJ, the premise is correct; but the conclusion does not follow. Covington isn’t so sure. He wants to make a more sophisticated attempt at that argument.

Should the Gospels Count More Against Historicity?

Covington starts with a good point. Although he gets wrong what I argue in the book, he is not too far off. Covington agrees the Gospels are too thoroughly mytho-symbolic to count as historical evidence. From this he concludes:
Naturally, if it is the case that the gospels are wholly symbolic, this would seem to lend tremendous support to the Christ myth theory. However, Carrier only argues that the gospels don’t count against his thesis. The reason for that? Well, he generated a prior probability for the Christ myth theory based upon information given in the gospels (which shows that Jesus fits the mythic hero archetype) and I suppose he thinks it’d be circular to then use the gospels to generate a posterior probability. I understand that position; however, if one uses the pieces of the gospel that conform to the mythic hero archetype to generate a prior it is still possible to use the rest of the gospel narratives to generate a posterior probability.
This isn’t quite right. He is referring to what I say in OHJ, p. 395, which is actually this (and I’m even truncating here):
We already know, as a general rule, that completely fictional accounts can be written about historical persons and seemingly straightforward historical accounts can be written about non-historical persons. So which it is … will have to depend on what the remaining evidence indicates … There is one important exception to this point: the Rank–Raglan data, which was used to construct our prior probability … because it can be correlated with enough examples to derive an actual probability that such data would accumulate for a real man. But we have already employed that evidence in our calculation … Thus, the mythic character of the Gospels overall will affect our estimate of historicity. But only as much as it already has.
First, note how I am not arguing that I already used up all the Gospel data in generating the prior. I am arguing that I only used up a subset of that data. Which leaves plenty of data in the Gospels that can legitimately affect the consequents, just as Covington says (so, I actually said exactly what Covington says). The reason I find the remaining data indeterminate is not that I already used it, but that it’s just as likely to be there even if Jesus existed. In particular, “completely fictional accounts can be written about historical persons.” Thus, even if we granted that the Gospels are completely 100% fictional, that can still just as easily be true if Jesus existed, and very little was remembered or transmitted about him (or what was, was simply unusable to suit the evangelists’ purposes).
Second, note what I say about this in OHJ, p. 507:
A more ardent skeptic could disagree. Here I am arguing a fortiori, and as such granting historicity its best shot. But some will still ask why the Gospels appear out of nowhere forty to eighty years after the fact, as fully structured literary myths, rather than there first being more mundane reports, memoirs and accounts, closer to the events concerned, only later evolving into increasingly grandiose myths.
I go on to answer that question, by pointing out this is really a question about the extra-biblical evidence, which I treat separately from the Gospels (in ch. 8 rather than ch. 10). In short, I do not exclude the Gospel data from determining consequent probabilities. I simply find their contents equally likely on historicity and myth even if they are completely fictional.
Covington’s point could be tweaked to make a different argument, that the Gospels’ extreme fictionality should trigger Law’s Principle of Contamination (OHJ, p. 394), such that the historicity of Jesus becomes less likely simply because the stories he’s placed in are so unhistorical (and often absurd). The argument here would be that it is more likely such mytho-symbolic treatises would be written about a non-existent man than an existing one–in other words, that the suspicion raised by the absurd claims should contaminate the mundane claims as well. But I don’t know how one would prove that. It seems to me that, so far as we know, this outcome is equally likely either way.
I do argue in OHJ that “it’s much easier to make up things about a person who never existed than about one who actually did” (p. 237; a point I expand on on p. 250), but the effect of that quite undeniable fact is too small for minimal historicity to significantly affect our math. This is therefore the same problem confronting the extra-biblical evidence (as I note in OHJ, p. 356): certainly, if we posit Jesus was famous, the Gospels become notably less probable on historicity (just as the extra-biblical silence does); but if we posit he was a virtual nobody, and that even his own followers were disinterested in preserving much detail about him (as defenders of historicity are actually forced to argue in order to explain the Epistles: OHJ, pp. 514-28; see especially the point I make in pp. 557, n. 55, and 574-75, n. 82), then it’s no longer significantly harder to make up stories about him decades later.
This is reinforced by the fact that several stories in the Gospels can be “pruned” of embellishments and implausibilities until they are mundane enough that one can say their core is as likely to come from historical memory as from literary license. Although one can get no further than that. One cannot argue that they “probably do” come from historical memory, just from the mere possibility that they could (that’s the possibiliter fallacy: Proving History, Axiom 5, pp. 26-29). But one also can’t prove they “probably don’t,” either (from that datum alone).

Using Up the Gospel “Mythyness” to Generate the Prior Probability

This leads to another key point: why I allow a lopsided result for the Rank-Raglan class, but assume everything else is 50/50. I assume everything is 50/50 for which I have no data demonstrating it to be otherwise. I have data for the Rank-Raglan class demonstrating it to be otherwise. But, Covington could ask, isn’t that true for a few other things as well, and not just the fact that Jesus is a Rank-Raglan hero? Maybe. But…
I noted in Element 48 (in OHJ, p. 230; and also, less obviously, in my development of Elements 31, 46 and 47) that there are many other attributes the Gospel Jesus shares in common with mythical persons more frequently than historical persons besides the Rank-Raglan criteria (a fact often overlooked by people who despise the Rank-Raglan criteria and think my prior probability hinges all on that…it doesn’t). When we include them all (all those criteria, e.g. the classes Jesus falls into in Elements 31, 46, 47, and 48), Jesus falls even more certainly in a reference class over-loaded with mythical persons and under-occupied by historical persons. We just don’t have the sample size for those classes that we have for the Rank-Raglan class, so assessing priors from them, even though that certainly (even a fortiori) would always favor ahistoricity for any randomly selected member (and therefore Jesus), would still be more subjective, and thus harder to explain why it has this effect on the prior (not impossible, just harder).
More importantly, being more certainly in a myth-heavy class is not the same thing as being in a class that is more myth-heavy. For example, the ratio of mythical-to-historical persons in the super-class of all persons conjoining Elements 31, 46, 47, and 48 may be entirely the same as the ratio in the Rank-Raglan class. But what we gain by noticing that Jesus actually belongs to that super-class is that his being in it is even less likely to be an accident than his being in the Rank-Raglan class. Thus, those other Elements (as well as the additional criteria I mention on p. 230) create high confidence that the result derived from the Rank-Raglan class alone is applicable and correct. Covington might want to argue that “surely” members of that superclass are less commonly historical than even members of the Rank-Raglan class alone are. But there isn’t really any data to establish that…and what there is, looks pretty much just like the Rank-Raglan data.
In summary, adding more mythic markers to Jesus than are included in the Rank-Raglan class, even though Jesus does indeed possess those markers, does not make Jesus any more likely to be mythical. At least not significantly (as in, enough to show up relevantly in our math). Once you are that mythical, adding even more mythic markers makes little further statistical difference. At least, I cannot see how to prove otherwise in any convincing fashion.
So we could pull a lot more data from the Gospels into generating our prior probability estimate…and it would not significantly change the prior. Which means, leaving that data in the evidence-pool instead will not generate any significant difference in the consequent probabilities, either. (Because mathematically, those two statements mean the same thing: every prior is the output of previously calculated consequents; so no change in a prior, means no difference in the consequents.)

Adding to My Treatment of the Gospels

Covington makes a really good point about the use of the Gospel genealogies in the historicity debate, well worth reading. There were tons of things I had to leave out of my treatment in the book, since to save space I only needed to prove a generalization with enough examples. But one can extend that project all the way through every single piece of every single Gospel. And I think a lot of benefit could be had by doing that, and collecting it all in one place. Covington provides an example, by noting scholarship showing the mytho-symbolic nature of the genealogies (there is much more, particularly in print, than even he mentions), destroying any prospect one may have had of using them to argue for historicity. Covington is also astute enough to note that this topples even such uses that admit the genealogies are fake.
He then expands this point into a really sharp generalization, about what he amusingly calls the Gee-Whiz Argument:
I find that when people first hear of the gospels being symbolic, they balk, point to some story in the gospels, and say, “Gee Whiz, This Doesn’t Look symbolic to me!” Anyone who gives the “Gee-Whiz defense” should learn a huge lesson from the example of Matthew’s genealogy. The fact that it does not look symbolic to you does not mean that it intends to convey historical truth.
Bingo. I give plenty of examples myself in OHJ ch. 10, so many that I’m sure you’ll find several stories covered there that you may have “Gee Whizzed” at, which are exposed as mytho-symbolic. This should train you to update your priors. Because this happens so often (a seemingly mundane story turns out to be obviously mytho-symbolic) that every other time you “Gee Whiz” a story in the Gospels, you should be deeply worried that you are missing the author’s point. Which is indeed my own point (OHJ, pp. 508-09).
Covington even goes on to explain the effect of this on your priors. In his hypothetical (which you should read) we are left with a 90% chance any remaining stories with unknown symbolic meanings have actual symbolic meanings after all and our not knowing them is simply a product of lost data. I make this point myself regarding the number symbolism in the Gospel of John (OHJ, pp. 498 and 505-06); and I make a similar point about family names in Mark (OHJ, pp. 445-56). I also discuss the method of iteration Covington is implying (OHJ, p. 509; see PH, index, “iteration”).
My commentary on part 4 will go live in a few days. See my commentary on part 2, if you want to walk back in the series. I will eventually blog on all of Covington’s entries in this series (his continuing index is here). 
Covington has also responded to another’s (rather off-topic) question about part 3 (part 3a, with more discussion of the point in part 9), on whether my claim of a Philonic Jesus theology holds water (he confirms it does). I have nothing further to add to that, except that there is even more evidence cited in OHJ on this point than Covington already astutely summarizes (e.g. that the Philonic Logos is the celestial High Priest is explicitly stated by Philo in several places, and not just an inference from his saying it is the same figure in Zechariah 6). And my book already addresses all the objections commenters raised on his blog (OHJ, Element 40).

OHJ: The Covington Review (Parts 4 & 5)

Here continues my series on reviews of my book On the Historicity of Jesus. If you know of reviews I haven’t covered, post them in comments (though please also remark on your own estimation of their merits).
This series has covered another series begun by Nicholas Covington. I have already commented on earlier entries (see part 3). Today I shall comment on parts 4 and 5.
In these entries, Covington actually proposes that I under-sell my argument, and that in fact it’s even stronger than I think. He may be right.
Of course, if “James, brother of the Lord” meant “James the Christian” we must ask why Paul needed to specify that the James in question was a Christian (wouldn’t that have been obvious enough?) – See more at: http://www.skepticink.com/humesapprentice/2014/06/29/on-the-historicity-of-jesus-part-2/#sthash.xdcUbfwC.dpuf
Of course, if “James, brother of the Lord” meant “James the Christian” we must ask why Paul needed to specify that the James in question was a Christian (wouldn’t that have been obvious enough?) – See more at: http://www.skepticink.com/humesapprentice/2014/06/29/on-the-historicity-of-jesus-part-2/#sthash.xdcUbfwC.dpuf
Of course, if “James, brother of the Lord” meant “James the Christian” we must ask why Paul needed to specify that the James in question was a Christian (wouldn’t that have been obvious enough?) – See more at: http://www.skepticink.com/humesapprentice/2014/06/29/on-the-historicity-of-jesus-part-2/#sthash.xdcUbfwC.dpuf

Did Demons Kill Jesus?

In part 4, Covington does a good job of explaining why we should concur with several background ideas that my theory rests upon (a more basic, stripped-down Doherty thesis), in this case the theory that Paul probably is referring to demons as the killers of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 2, and that it actually was readily understood in antiquity that things could be planted, built, and buried in outer space (as to them the layered heavens were just other levels of the world, each with their own contents, paralleling everything found on earth).
I need only add a few remarks. When Covington says he’s “no expert in ancient Greek” so “for all [he] know[s] it could be routine for historians to analyze the meanings of Greek words within extremely narrow time-frames [of just fifty years], nonetheless it strikes me as contrived” to do that. Covington is right. It would be extremely bizarre for Classicists to change the definitions of words in half-century time-units. In fact ancient languages were fairly stable, and definitions typically took centuries to shift significantly. Attempting to claim words completely changed their meaning in the course of just one average lifetime is an unusual claim. It requires unusual evidence. It therefore cannot simply be asserted.
Moreover, in respect to 1 Cor. 2:6-8, Gordon Fee’s claim that “‘rulers of this age’ is not used to refer to demons until the second century” is either moot (we have so few documents from the period between Paul and the 2nd century that no claims can be made like this based simply on what extant documents contain) or implausible (I extensively document the evidence of, and scholarship on, multiple different words and phrases for the demonic powers and their use and meaning in OHJ, Element 37). As Covington notes, Paul calls Satan the “god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4), but I should add the Gospels (even Mark) call Satan the archon, ‘ruler’ (Mk. 3:22). It’s easy to see what people would understand by ‘rulers of this age’…a phrase, incidentally, never used of humans. So Fee’s own methodology, “if we don’t see it, it didn’t happen,” would nix his own argument from the start. Fee is engaging in apologetics, not scholarship.
Certainly, the ambiguity still exists, since the phrase could refer to humans, although I do adduce two strong reasons why in this case that’s unlikely in OHJ, pp. 564-66 and 572-73. But what if we assume it’s still ambiguous and could as easily mean either? Covington concludes with a remarkable point that I actually didn’t consider in my book: since on mythicism the only way Paul could refer to the execution of Jesus is with a phrase that can mean demonic powers, the probability of our seeing such a phrase here is 100%; whereas on historicity, we have no particular reason to expect Paul to have used such a phrase, he could as easily have used one that excludes demonic powers and explicitly identifies earthly powers, and when we have no particular reason to expect either more than the other, the probability of the evidence we then have is 50%. This alone creates a 2:1 factor in favor of mythicism. I did not include that in my math. And it’s not clear how a historicist can escape the logic of doing so.
I had mistakenly assumed that since this phrase can mean either, it is equally expected on both theories (and therefore argues for neither). But I think Covington may be right. If anyone can argue me out of that conclusion, please try. Because it becomes rather damning of historicity if accepted. In OHJ (pp. 563-74; 594) I treat the entire array of “things Jesus did” (including get crucified) as 2:1 in favor of mythicism (3:4 a fortiori). But if this one phrase alone carries that much weight, then my estimates are significantly more generous to historicity than they logically should be.
Covington became less certain after further discussion (see the first section of his part 9 and the comments section of his part 4, although much of that comes from Bernard Muller, who is known to deal in disinformation, false claims, and irrational inferences). But I don’t think the objections raised alter the calculation, because the ambiguity is still not expected on historicity, whereas especially in conjunction with b (our knowledge of the filter), it is expected on myth.

Should the Shift in Who Is Proclaiming the Gospel Count More?

In part 5, Covington proposes:
I’m going to take Carrier to task for missing an important piece of evidence … a piece of evidence that supports his theory. … In the Pauline letters, Jesus is the proclaimed, whereas in the gospels Jesus is the proclaimer. In other words, the gospels portray Jesus as one proclaiming the kingdom of God, whereas in the Pauline letters, the order is reversed: Jesus is what the kingdom of God proclaims.
I actually do mention this in OHJ (e.g., pp. 554-55; cf. pp. 594, 530, 528, 520-21, 516-17, and also in respect to Clement of Rome, p. 314), but Covington does a better job of calling attention to it (and he even cites more scholarship in support). But I zero-out it’s significance, concluding this is equally likely on either theory (minimal historicity or mythicism). Covington disagrees and thinks it should favor mythicism by a factor of 9 to 5.
I’m sympathetic to this. It is certainly a reasonable proposal when arguing a judicantiori (rather than a fortiori), i.e. when modeling what you personally think must be the case even if you are certain stalwart deniers could never be persuaded of it. And I do mention in OHJ from time to time that even my a judicantiori estimates are often over-generous (e.g., pp. 308 and pp. 557, n. 55, and 574-75, n. 82). This may be another instance.
But I was not fully persuaded when I wrote OHJ.
First, although indeed the switch from “Jesus proclaimed” to “Jesus proclaimer” is weird and makes little sense if the Gospel accounts are histories, the Gospel accounts are not histories. And there’s the rub. When we are testing minimal historicity, we are not presuming that what the Gospels say is what happened. To the contrary we are fully allowing that it is not. Consequently, it is entirely possible that Jesus did not do any proclaiming (beyond just prophesy, say), and that it was his followers who started that up after his death. The Gospels then fabricate his “ministry of proclaiming” in order to more effectively allegorize what his followers actually had until then been proclaiming about him. On minimal historicity this is as expected as anything else (because minimal historicity does not predict the contrary).
Although Covington can still capitalize on this. Because this commits the historicist to such a stripped-down historicity as to put the kaibosh on almost every cherished theory of the historical Jesus. But if they want to rescue the baby of historicity, they may be willing to throw out the bathwater of comforting theories about what Jesus actually did. Although that does create even graver problems for them, as I note in OHJ, pp. 557, n. 55, and 574-75, n. 82. So it’s worth pushing them into that corner, even if only to compel them to realize what it entails.
But second, it’s also just as likely Jesus did proclaim, but was just so unknown and unlistened to, that his followers had to switch to proclaiming him (becoming his ad men—in effect, for what was in life a failed product pitch). The Gospels could then have restored the original order, even if with fabricated accounts of it, because they are a different kind of teaching tool than the Epistles. Thus, all historicist attempts to “explain away” the silence of Paul’s letters (with respect to Jesus having a ministry) apply here as well: maybe Paul never did have an occasion to clearly say that’s where any Christian teachings came from. Personally, I do think that’s unlikely. But a fortiori?
So I think Covington is at least right that my a judicantiori estimate for Jesus’ sayings is over-generous to historicity and should not be 1:1, on the same reasoning as previous: the Epistles display the only way Paul could talk about the gospel on mythicism (or almost, see below), but that is not the only way he could have spoken on historicity. One might counter that he could also have spoken more explicitly of the cosmic origin of the gospel (so what we have is not the only way he could have written about it), but b (our background evidence) counters that in turn, because we know the Epistles passed through a very corrosive filter (OHJ, Element 21) that would have destroyed any such thing (to a very high probability, e.g., if Paul wrote any letter saying something explicitly anti-historicist, it simply would not have been preserved for us to know if it: OHJ, pp. 552, 593-94, and ch. 8, §12). Whereas that filter would have had the opposite effect on historicity: had Paul written anything more explicitly historicist, that probably would have been preserved.
So Covington may be right: for the Epistles to speak of proclaiming Jesus rather than Jesus proclaiming anything could be 2:1 more likely on mythicism.
At first look I should have thus replaced my 1:1 (for ‘things Jesus said’) with that 2:1 (OHJ, p. 594) in the ‘worst’ case column. For the ‘best’ case column, it should be 3:4, on the reasoning that the text as we have it is all but 100% expected on mythicism, but on minimal historicity there is a 50% chance Jesus never did proclaim a gospel, and if he did, there is a 50% chance it was so unknown and unlistened to that it had to be proclaimed by others first, before his fame would be enough to write stories about what he proclaimed (in each case it’s 50% because, I am assuming, we don’t know one way or the other which is more likely—since mininmal mythicism says nothing about that, and there is nothing in b that makes either more likely than the other…if we think a fortiori, although see again p. 557, n. 55). That means even a fortiori the evidence of the Epistles is only 75% likely on minimal historicity, on the most generous framing of options possible (50% + [50% x 50%] = 50% + 25% = 75%). That gives us 75:100, which is 3:4.
But there is one hitch: on mythicism it is actually possible to have preached Jesus as a proclaimer from the start—by saying the heavenly Jesus proclaimed a message (to the apostles, and through their proxy, to the world) which is now being delivered. There may well be texts already that say this. So the sequence ‘proclaimed-proclaimer’ (our e) may be more likely on mythicism, but the sequence ‘proclaimed-proclaimed’ was also genuinely possible on mythicism, so P(~e|m) is not zero, which entails P(e|m) cannot be 100% (Proving History, pp. 230-31, 255-56, and 302, n. 13). When we carry out the math from there I think this may entail a wash a fortiori (1:1), and at best 3:4 against historicity a judicantiori (to reflect the fact that it’s more expected to see our e if historicity is false, given that those rescuing assumptions for historicity are not really 50/50, because in fact our world knowledge in b renders them unusual and thus unlikely).
Although that still means, so far, it looks like Covington’s review of OHJ is making its conclusion stronger.

OHJ: The Covington Review (Parts 6-11)

Here continues my series on reviews of my book On the Historicity of Jesus. If you know of reviews I haven’t covered, post them in comments (though please also remark on your own estimation of their merits).
This series has covered another series begun by Nicholas Covington. I have already commented on earlier entries (see parts 4 & 5). Today I shall comment on 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11.

Is Paul’s Silence Even Harder to Explain?

In part 6 Covington gives a good summary of why this is a stronger argument than historicists insist. As Covington puts it:
When you compare the 200 silent passages [documented by Earl Doherty] with the handful of debatable passages that might refer to a historical Jesus (or just as easily might not) and the lone reference to James the brother of the Lord (which can be plausibly explained by mythicism) things begin to look pretty bad for the historicists. Paul mentions Jesus again and again in his letters, mentions his crucifixion and resurrection multiple times, but never says much of anything else about him.
He goes on, and concludes “the argument from silence here is extremely compelling.” As I noted in my last commentary, I was very over-generous to historicity in my probability estimates in OHJ. I actually think historicists may have gaslighted me on this one. In OHJ I just took their excuses as being as credible as not, and so a wash. Because even many non-believing experts insist upon them so unabashedly and often, acting all shocked and nonplussed that anyone would balk. But as Covington explains, those excuses are really not that credible.
In light of that, Covington’s own estimate is 10:1 against historicity, instead of my merely 2:1. I think he might be closer to being right. Compare his calculation to my comment in OHJ, pp. 518-19, n. 13. To illustrate, for my result of 2:1, the average probability of a historicity-confirming comment in each of the sixty chapters of Paul can’t be much more than 1% (or 1 out of every 100 chapters, so less even than 1 out of 60), and Covington is saying that’s way too low to be believed. His estimate, of 10:1, requires that probability to be around 3.8%.  At 5% (the estimate I used for illustration in the book), we end up with a factor of almost 22:1 against historicity.
Think about that.
I can also add to Covington’s closing paragraph expressing distrust of the argument “from high context” against this conclusion. That argument is not only bogus (see my comments, and the critiques of Tim Widowfield, in my Review of Casey), but it is actually refuted by Gerd Lüdemann, whom I quoted to exactly that effect in OHJ (p. 520), “In the letter to the Romans, which cannot presuppose the apostle’s missionary preaching, and in which he attempts to summarize its main points, we find not a single direct citation of Jesus’ teaching.”
The reason Romans cannot be, in any relevant way, using high context discourse (discourse that presupposes the readers have already been fully briefed) is because Paul is there writing to people he has never communicated with before, even some of whom have not yet heard the gospel (Rom. 1:15). And accordingly, much of the text from chapter one on is an elaborate summary of the gospel and how it works salvation, refuting the notion that Paul would not repeat basic things already understood—for Romans is specifically about many of those basic things! (And, I would add, our Romans appears to be an interwoven stitch of at least three separate letters [OHJ, p. 511, n. 4], such that the original letter beginning with Rom. 1 may have contained a lot of really fundamental material that has been cut from our copy.)
So this factor may need to go from 2:1 to 10:1 or even 20:1 against historicity. Certainly something to ponder.

Why Wouldn’t Mark Sneak Paul into the Twelve?

As Covington poses the question in part 7, “Why didn’t Mark include Paul as one of the twelve disciples in his book?” He almost immediately answers his own question, of course, that “that’d be a dead giveaway at what he was doing, since we know through Paul’s letters that he never met Jesus in person.” Since Paul refers to the twelve as something he wasn’t a part of (1 Cor. 15:5-8), and clearly and even insistently says he wasn’t in the original group (Gal. 1), and Mark is writing for the Pauline sect (who would surely know Paul’s letters if anyone would), it would make no sense at all for Mark to sneak Paul into his symbolic commentary on the original twelve. Not only because it would be for that very reason jarring and contradictory, but also because it would be directly contrary to Mark’s entire evangelical purpose in narrating the original followers of Jesus: the disciples are nitwits who never understood the gospel and were too fickle and foolish to follow as leaders. He is thus using his narratives of them to comment on the anti-Pauline sect. Paul doesn’t belong there, even fictionally.
Covington is aware of the problem, noting “the chances are small that [Mark] would’ve wanted to portray Paul as one of the cowardly, half-witted disciples like the others were portrayed,” although he thinks maybe Mark wasn’t wholly hostile to the original disciples, since “Mark also has Jesus designate Peter as ‘The Rock’” and whatnot. But it’s crucial for Mark’s message that the disciples not be completely disgraced, because Paul admitted they founded the church (and were the ‘pillars’, essentially the rock, on which it was founded) and had to be deferred to (Gal. 1-2), so the disciples had to be depicted as losers, but not wholly lost (hence Mark 16:7). Paul also knew and said the founder of the church was named ‘Rock’ (Cephas: 1 Cor. 15:5; Gal. 1:18, 2:9), so an etiological myth explaining that is what we would expect in Mark (however allegorically he intended it). Mark also knew Paul thought Peter was a weasel (Gal. 2:11). So we should expect Mark to depict him as such (Mark 14:30-72 passim).
By contrast, inserting Paul in a setting he was never in would actually go against Mark’s deployment of a quasi-accurate historical setting for his fiction. For Paul was never in Judea, and was unknown in person there (and was affiliated with Damascus, not Galilee), until years after he converted, which was in turn years after Peter launched the church (Gal. 1:18-2:1). If you want to write a plausible veneer for your secret messages (Mark 4:10-11), you don’t insert a pink gorilla in the middle of it, least of all one that wholly spoils the message. That would be like having Herod the Great show up in Mark 15 to personally berate Pontius Pilate for crucifying the messiah.
Consequently, I can’t see any appreciable probability that Mark would have inserted Paul into his narrative. Much less the 50% chance Covington declares. He subsequently came to agree (see part 9), though for different reasons than I adduce here (although nevertheless also reasons worth considering).

Does Hebrews Argue Even More Against Historicity?

In part 8, Covington says the content of Hebrews is “one of the most compelling arguments for mythicism.” I agree it is compelling. But I wasn’t sure it was that conclusive when I wrote OHJ, owing to its plausible vagueness. So I gave all the epistolary gospels collectively a 5:2 against historicity, or 5:3 a fortiori (p. 594). But Covington makes a good argument that, again, I was being way too generous to historicity. Observe the elegance of his argument:
The author of Hebrews believes that there are copies of things in heaven mirroring the things on earth … and that the animal sacrifices [in the Jerusalem temple] are a copy or shadow of Jesus’ sacrifice … Think about the Hebrews author’s logic:
1. There are imperfect earthly copies of heavenly things.
2. Animal sacrifices are an imperfect copy of Jesus’ sacrifice,
Therefore: Jesus’ sacrifice was a heavenly sacrifice.
This is essentially what I myself argue, but I did not conceptualize it so clearly. It evokes a powerful syllogism:
  • P1. Hebrews 9-10 says the imperfect copies of any x are on earth and the perfect copies of x are not on earth.
  • P2. The sacrifice of Jesus is the perfect copy of x.
  • C1. Therefore, Hebrews 9-10 says the sacrifice of Jesus was not on earth.
From there:
  • P3. It is improbable that C1 [the author of Hebrews would say the sacrifice of Jesus was not on earth], when B [the sacrifice of Jesus was on earth], but probable that C1 [the author of Hebrews would say the sacrifice of Jesus was not on earth], when ~B [the sacrifice of Jesus was not on earth].
  • P4. If it is improbable that C1 when B, and probable that C1 when ~B, then, when C1, ceteris paribus, ~B is more probable than B.
  • C2. Therefore, equiter paribus, “the sacrifice of Jesus was not on earth” is more probable than “the sacrifice of Jesus was on earth.”
In Bayesian terms, if C1 is twice as likely when ~B than when B, then this one fact of Hebrews alone entails a factor of 2:1 against historicity. And that’s being generous already, since that seems surely more than twice as likely. For it does not seem likely at all that the author of Hebrews would use an argument he knew to be refuted by a well-established fact (that the sacrifice of Jesus was on earth, just like the animals, and in fact in almost the same location), nor at all likely that the author of Hebrews would not know of that fact, if it were a fact. It is therefore not at all likely that it was a fact. In other words, it is not at all likely that Jesus died on earth. (This can be added to the arguments from Hebrews I already make in OHJ, ch. 11 § 5.)
Covington goes on to shore up and reinforce the point. I am again persuaded to agree. Unless someone can argue me out of it (please try!), I have to concur C1 is almost certainly true (as it follows from P1 and P2, neither of which can plausibly be denied), and C1 is surely more than twice as likely if Jesus didn’t exist than if he did. Unless one posits a bizarre theory in which Jesus was believed to have been raptured into heaven before his death to be killed there, a notion requiring so many ad hoc suppositions just to stand, that it would suffer an intolerably low prior probability. No, I think we are left with a stronger than 5:3 factor against historicity from this alone, even a fortiori. And even more so when combined with the other gospels in Paul and Colossians.
I should probably double that category factor from 5:3 to 10:3 a fortiori, and make it 5:1 a judicatiori (from doubling my 5:2 to 10:2). Because this isn’t the only passage in Hebrews that is less probable on historicity than myth, so if even just this single passage compels a 2:1 factor, we should let it do so, all on its own.

The Last Three Sections So Far

Covington’s parts 9, 10, and 11 are more like a summary, recap, or re-evaluation of his previous material. Part 10 is not really about OHJ but advances an unusual argument from Enoch that I don’t use in OHJ but which offers an interesting support to it (it would essentially expand my Element 41), although with a few too many speculations I think. But part 9 contains further thoughts on the preceding sections (I have simply newly inserted this fact and my very brief remarks on it in or at the end of my original commentaries on those preceding sections). And part 11 is a summary of why OHJ has tentatively persuaded him, after a final collecting of his personal probability estimates, which work out to a Bayesian conclusion of 99% against historicity.
I have just one thing to add here. In the latter Covington mentions his opinion that “if someone demonstrated that Mark probably had an historical Jesus in mind” then that would tip the scales over to historicity, because Mark was writing so early he couldn’t be mistaken about that. I disagree. The evidence of Roswell disconfirms the required premise (OHJ, pp. 249-50). And that’s even if we assume Mark was written in the 70s. It could have been written decades later. But even by the 70s, we are a lifetime away from the events related (OHJ, Element 22), and possibly a whole continent away as well (if Mark was written in Europe or Africa, although even Syria would have been a world away given ancient transportation).
For example, if Mark could believe an hours-long extinguishing of the sun was historical (Proving History, pp. 41-60), mistakenly believing Jesus was historical would be vastly easier. This holds even for Christians a century later, who would have as much evidence no such darkness occurred (in public libraries of the time) as Mark (a Greek writer with imperfect knowledge of Judea and likely writing nowhere near it) would have that there was no Jesus (the difficulty of disconfirming it would be considerable: see Not the Impossible Faith, chapter 7). Yet those later Christians appear to have bought that sun thing, hook, line, and sinker (even Hippolytus did, and he actually built public libraries). So I see no reason to think people could not be believing in a historical Jesus by the 70s, just as people were already believing in a recovered flying saucer and alien bodies at Roswell in the 1980s, also just forty years after the fact.
And even then, we would have to tease out the difference between Mark intending his readers to believe in a historical Jesus, and Mark himself actually believing it (on why merely “intending” it does not support historicity, see OHJ, Elements 13 and 14). So I don’t think there is much opportunity to rescue historicism by this route. It’s not enough to show Mark intended a historical Jesus, nor even enough to show he believed in one himself. One simply has to show that Mark had information that he could not have had unless there was a historical Jesus (or at least, that he would not probably have). The report of there being a historical Jesus is not such a piece of information, any more than the report of there being a recovered flying saucer and alien bodies at Roswell is.
But that’s my only quibble here. Covington is otherwise right as to how else historicity can be rescued (if it can be rescued). And in his part 11 he closes with a fair summary of how laypeople should respond to the publication of OHJ: “Historicists may be able to defeat mythicism, but if so, they will have to stop using bad arguments.” And until they do, the case against historicity is respectably strong.
More to come. See my commentary on parts 4 & 5, if you want to walk back in the series. I will eventually blog on all of Covington’s entries in this series (his continuing index is here).
SOURCE: http://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/6454

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