Review of Chapter 8 of The End of Christianity

Introduction

In chapter 8 of The End of Christianity, Matt McCormick argues that, “by the conventional epistemic standards we already endorse in other comparable cases like the Salem Witch Trials” (Loftus 195), we are not justified in believing that Jesus was resurrected. He believes that if we applied the same standard to both the Salem Witch Trials and the resurrection of Jesus we would not believe anything supernatural occurred in either case. He assumes that almost no one will believe that any supernatural or paranormal events occurred at Salem. Since, according to McCormick, the evidence surrounding the Salem Witch Trials is of a better quantity and quality than what we have for Jesus (Loftus 207), we would be guilty of applying a double standard if we believe that Jesus was raised from the dead while denying that real witches roamed Salem.

While the author states that there must be some threshold of evidence that could make it reasonable to believe Jesus was resurrected (Loftus 216) he never states what that threshold is. In fact, he never explains what “conventional epistemic standards” he is employing. Therefore, this review will merely show how it possible to apply a consistent standard to both the resurrection of Jesus and the Salem Witch Trials and conclude that Jesus did rise from the dead but that there were no true witches in Salem.

The Resurrection

McCormick’s assumptions about the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus are different from mine. I think the evidence for the resurrection is better than he does. I will note these differences here since a difference of opinion on this point can lead to different conclusions about whether the same standard can lead one to believe in the resurrection while dismissing the existence of true witches in Salem.

First, he notes that Jesus’ disciples were more prone to hallucinations in their grief-stricken state than they otherwise would be. At first a hallucination hypothesis may seem plausible but, as McCormick himself admits, the “same hallucination cannot be had by large groups of people” (Loftus 209). It should also be noted that the apostle Paul was not grieving the death of Christ.

Second, he notes that people sometimes place themselves at great risk for unworthy causes. This is true, but such perseverance in the face of persecution is strong evidence that the people in question are sincere in their beliefs. Therefore, the disciples’ willingness to undergo persecution and even death for the gospel rules out hypotheses invoking fraud on the part of the disciples to explain the resurrection.

Third, I do not believe the traditions in the Gospels were passed down in a haphazard way, as McCormick suggests. I find arguments such as those put forth by Richard Bauckham and Birger Gerhardsson to be more plausible explanations of the formation of the Gospels. I find the traditional authorship of Mark, Luke, and John to be plausible.

The Salem Witch Trials

Now, let’s work through a number of statements from McCormick about the Salem Witch Trials.

The events began with the strange behavior of some little girls, which fed suspicions. The girls ran about and froze in grotesque postures, complained about biting and pinching sensations, and had violent seizures. (Loftus 207)

The first thing to note is the data we are trying to explain. In the case of the Salem Witch Trials we are attempting to explain the fits and seizures of a group of afflicted girls and young women. We are not attempting to explain how alleged witches flew through the air on brooms or how they turned someone into a frog. In the case of the resurrection we are attempting to explain the empty tomb, the appearances of an executed man to his disciples, and the conversion of Paul.

Thorough investigations were conducted. Witnesses were carefully cross-examined. A large body of evidence was meticulously gathered. Many people confessed. The entire proceedings were carefully documented with thousands of sworn affidavits, court documents, interviews, and related papers, a scale of surviving evidence vastly greater and more reliable than anything we have for the resurrection of Jesus. (Loftus 208)

Those convicted of witchcraft were largely convicted on the basis of spectral evidence. The afflicted claimed that the spirit of the witch threatened or tormented them. Only the afflicted claimed to see the witch’s specter. Those not afflicted simply saw the afflicted undergoing fits and seizures. The afflicted often had fits and seizures when the accused entered the meetinghouse where the trials were being held. This correlation convinced many (not all) that the accused were truly tormenting the afflicted in the spirit realm. While we have a large body of evidence about what happened at Salem it should be noted that the kind of evidence presented at the trials was qualitatively poor. In the case of the resurrection, on the other hand, the disciples claimed to see the physical Jesus over a period of forty days.

In the interest of charity, do not take McCormick’s statement about the witnesses being cross-examined to refer to cross-examination as practiced in a modern trial in the U.S. His point is, presumably, that the judges questioned both the accused and the accusers. But I must take issue with the statement that this was done “carefully”. As noted above, the kind of evidence admitted was very poor. Many did confess to being witches but they were coerced and sometimes even tortured. The judges did not take note of contradictions in some of the confessions. Even worse, the confessions were then used as evidence to accuse others.

It is true that we have a fuller picture of what occurred in Salem in 1692 than we do surrounding the life of Jesus. However, we still know certain facts surrounding the resurrection that are in need of explanation. The mere fact that one event has quantitatively more evidence than another does not mean we ignore the event with quantitatively less evidence. Seeing, hearing, and touching the physical Jesus is qualitatively better evidence for the supernatural than the visionary experiences of the afflicted girls in Salem.

These people had a great deal to lose by being correct — men would lose their wives, children would lose their mothers, community members would lose friends they cared about. It seems very unlikely that they could have had ulterior motives. Accusing a friend or wife of being a witch would very likely force the horrible outcome of getting them executed. (Loftus 208)

McCormick leaves out a couple of important facts. First, there were divisions in the community and therefore it is not true that the accusers necessarily cared for the accused. At times, the accuser may have despised the accused. Second, by confessing the accused thought they could spare their lives. Not everyone who was accused of witchcraft confessed, but confessions were plentiful. This stands in stark contrast to the behavior of the apostles. The apostles were willing to put their own lives on the line for the gospel. The Salem Witch Trails show how easy it can be for a person to crack under pressure. That the apostles stood firm is a testament to their sincerity.

It also seems abundantly clear that the accusers, or at least a significant number of them, were utterly convinced that the women were witches. Why else would so many people agree and act so decisively and with such conviction? It strains credibility to suggest that there was a conspiracy or a mass hallucination shared by all of the hundreds of people involved. The same hallucination cannot be had by large groups of people. (Loftus 208-209)

Once again, let us note that if the mass hallucination hypothesis can be ruled out to explain the Salem Witch Trials it can be ruled out to explain the resurrection.

We have the actual sworn testimony of people claiming to have seen the magic in Salem performed. The girls were repeatedly examined and interviewed. A large number of people devoted a great deal of time and energy to carefully analyzing their states and concluded that whatever was wrong with them must be of a supernatural origin. (Loftus 210)

This statement is misleading since there were no eyewitnesses to physical manifestations of witchcraft. What we have is the testimony of people, many of whom we would consider mentally ill, stating that they could see witches working in an invisible world not seen by the public at large. It is true that many people interpreted the fits and seizures as being caused by the supernatural. However, there were also people who doubted this interpretation.

Most people now see them as a frightening example of how enthusiasm, hysteria, social pressure, anxiety, and religious fervor can be powerful enough to lead ordinary people to do such extraordinary and mistaken things. (Loftus 212)

I can agree with McCormick that what happened at Salem fits our knowledge of psychology. Naturalistic hypotheses explain the evidence well. But this is also what differentiates the Salem Witch Trials from the resurrection. Naturalistic hypotheses do not explain the data surrounding the resurrection well (sometimes not at all). A Christian who looks for the best explanation of the evidence is not applying a double standard when he concludes that Jesus really rose from the dead but there were no real witches in Salem in 1692.

Key Differences

McCormick foresaw that a response such as mine was likely. I contend that there are key differences between the Salem Witch Trials and the resurrection that allow one to apply the same standard to both events while accepting the supernatural explanation only in the case of the resurrection. Let’s address his objections.

This approach appears to be doomed to fail, too, and amounts to ad hoc rationalizing. (Loftus 213)

Michael Licona has already shown how naturalistic hypotheses of the resurrection are actually more ad hoc than the supernatural hypothesis. If we agree that, all else being equal, we should prefer the least ad hoc explanation then this is a point against McCormick.

One problem is that any such approach will have to be reconciled with the fact that we have so much more information about Salem. (Loftus 213)

The quantitative amount of evidence is not the sole deciding factor in accepting a supernatural explanation of an event. We are also interested in how naturalistic hypotheses compare to supernatural hypotheses.

If someone wishes to argue that we are justified in concluding that there were natural causes in Salem on the basis of the evidence, they face a challenge when it comes to defending Jesus. They will also need to argue that we have substantial reasons to believe that nothing like that explanation is likely to be true with Jesus, and that we can be sure that a similar naturalized account cannot be correct on the basis of a much smaller, more fragmented, older, and less corroborated body of information. That we have only a few stories (that conflict on many important details) recorded on the basis of unknown hearsay testimony decades after the fact, and lacking any recorded attempt at a soundly principled inquiry by anyone, will be the undoing of many attempts to argue that we can definitively rule out some alternate natural explanation of what happened. We just don’t have enough good information about Jesus to rule anything out definitively. (Loftus 213-214)

Note how McCormick now resorts to definitively ruling out hypotheses. Absolute certainty is not possible in most matters, including history. While I accept a natural explanation for the Salem Witch Trials, I do not claim that I can definitively rule out a supernatural explanation. My differences with McCormick concerning the Gospels have already been summarized above. I noted key differences between the two events under discussion and how this resulted in qualitatively better evidence for a supernatural explanation in the case of the resurrection.

Advocates of the historical resurrection have sometimes argued that unless some natural explanation can be successfully defended, then we must accept the supernatural conclusion. If the naturalistic explanations that we can come up with all fail, then the resurrection must be real. There’s a mistake concealed in this innocuous-sounding approach. What the Salem example illustrates is that one need not believe or defend any particular alternative natural explanation, such as the rotten rye grain/hallucination theory, in order to conclude reasonably that they weren’t witches. We believe that it is reasonable to think there were no real witches at Salem even without knowing exactly what happened. (Loftus 215)

In this paragraph McCormick seems to tacitly admit that naturalistic hypotheses about the resurrection are not as good as the supernatural explanation. If the supernatural explanation is the best explanation it does not mean that the resurrection must be real in some logical sense of the term “must”. But it does mean, well, that it’s the best explanation. The Salem example does not prove what he thinks it proves. It is true that we do not have an explanation as to what exactly happened to the last detail. However, the naturalistic explanations do explain the data very well. It is not the case that the natural explanations are admittedly terrible but we accept them anyway because we don’t want to accept the supernatural.

Even if it turns out that a number of proposed naturalistic hypotheses do not readily fit with what we believe are the facts about the case, it would not follow from those failures alone that we should default to the supernatural explanation as the best or default hypothesis. (Loftus 215)

This sentence is a train wreck. I’m not sure what the “default hypothesis” would be in an historical investigation. And if the resurrection hypothesis is better than the naturalistic hypotheses then it is, by definition, the best hypothesis. Maybe McCormick just can’t accept the resurrection because it is a supernatural explanation. It would be nice if he just admitted that instead of trying to tell us the best explanation is not the best explanation.

Conclusion

Hopefully it is clear that, if you are determined to find the best explanation of the evidence we have, then it is possible to accept that Jesus rose from the dead while rejecting the existence of real witches in Salem. Admittedly, many points were covered briefly so I have included a short bibliography for further reading.

Bibliography

Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. First Printing. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006.

Gerhardsson, Birger. Memory and Manuscript with Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity. Revised. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.

Hill, Frances. A Delusion Of Satan: The Full Story Of The Salem Witch Trials. Kindle Edition. Da Capo Press, 1995.

Licona, Michael R. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. IVP Academic, 2010.

Loftus, John W., ed. The End of Christianity. Prometheus Books, 2011.

Roach, Marilynne K. The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege. Taylor Trade Publishing, 2004.

About these ads

11 thoughts on “Review of Chapter 8 of The End of Christianity”

  1. Thanks for reviewing my chapter. There are lots of interesting points here. I’m in the middle of final edits on my book, so I don’t have time to reply in detail at the moment, but I’ll try to soon.

    One major difference, and one that I couldn’t expand on in the space for the chapter, is that I do not take the claims about the empty tomb, the appearance of Jesus to his followers, and so on as seriously as you do. The history of the stories as they passed through the alleged witnesses, to the population, and then to the authors of the Gospels decades later is such that I don’t think we can reliably conclude that the tomb was empty, that Jesus appeared, and so on. Given the factors between us and the alleged events, I am not even sure that we can conclude that the alleged eyewitnesses believed that they saw Jesus. The ending of Mark, for instance, that is the primary source of many of the details about Jesus return was added a 100 or more years later–it is not in the original version of Mark that was already written decades after the alleged events. In my experience, defenders of the historical resurrection have underestimated a variety of well documented and heavily studied aspects of human psychology that raise substantial doubts about ancient miracle stories and the origins of ancient religions. I’ll be detailing many of these in the book: Atheism and the Case Against Christ, coming out with Prometheus, next spring.

    Nevertheless, I’ll try to respond to some more of the issues here shortly. Thanks.

    Matt McCormick
    http://www.provingthenegative.com

  2. Matt:

    One major difference, and one that I couldn’t expand on in the space for the chapter, is that I do not take the claims about the empty tomb, the appearance of Jesus to his followers, and so on as seriously as you do.

    I tried to note that.

    The history of the stories as they passed through the alleged witnesses, to the population, and then to the authors of the Gospels decades later is such that I don’t think we can reliably conclude that the tomb was empty, that Jesus appeared, and so on.

    If the tomb was not empty then it is difficult to explain why Matthew 28:15 states that the Jews thought the disciples stole Jesus’ body in order to explain the empty tomb. Are we to believe that Matthew created an entirely fictional story that might have cast some doubt on the resurrection? Didn’t he run the risk of his readers noting that the Jews of his day did not, in fact, believe Jesus’ disciples stole the body? But even if we think Matthew was wrong about what the Jews were saying, an empty tomb in combination with the appearances explains why the first Christians believed Jesus physically rose from the dead. That Jesus’ disciples were convinced he appeared to them seems to be a bedrock historical fact. You have a clear chain of transmission from the Jerusalem apostles to Paul to us.

    The ending of Mark, for instance, that is the primary source of many of the details about Jesus return was added a 100 or more years later–it is not in the original version of Mark that was already written decades after the alleged events.

    But Mark clearly knew of resurrection appearance (e.g., 16:6-7). Plus Paul pre-dates Mark and he notes the resurrection appearances.

  3. Jayman,

    If it will not be too tangential, let us set Matt’s Salem Witch Trial argument aside for the moment: why ought we to believe that Jesus died as a result of his crucifixion? Is it not more likely that he survived the crucifixion, appeared some time later to people with whom he was close, then left town incognito than that he died, laid dead for three days, and was resurrected?

    Perhaps you could argue that we ought to believe that he died on the cross because the probability that he survived is much to low to permit rational belief. But of course the probability that the necessary cells and neural pathways could (somehow) regenerate and reform must be lower, no?

    If you advance the argument that, whilst the resurrection hypothesis is improbable given naturalism, it is probable given supernaturalism (viz., given the existence of an omnipotent and omniscient god disposed to resurrect people), how then can you reasonably exclude, say, the Muslim hypothesis that Allah replaced Jesus with another whilst Jesus was on the cross?

    Let us suppose that historians can, though I am not entirely sure how they might accomplish this, can exclude with a high degree of probability all possible naturalistic explanations, to include even future explanations which might reveal themselves with further research.

    Even then historians are not justified in believing that Jesus’ reported postmortem sightings were the result of a Christian miracle. For if we are permitted to postulate as an explanation one miraculous hypothesis, we cannot in a non-question begging way exclude the plethora of other competing, equally miraculous explanatory hypotheses.

    Nevertheless, if you wish to postulate the Christian god hypothesis to explain the (paltry) historical evidence which lends credence to the Resurrection, then you really might want to decide in which way you intend to direct the epistemic support to go: Does the Resurrection case lend credence to the existence of the Christian god, or does the Christian god lend credence to the Resurrection case?

  4. Aaron:

    why ought we to believe that Jesus died as a result of his crucifixion?

    Basically, because all of the earliest sources state that he died and that his death was confirmed by professional executioners. Plus, the vast majority, if not all, people would die if they were flogged, crucified, and had a spear thrust through their side.

    Is it not more likely that he survived the crucifixion, appeared some time later to people with whom he was close, then left town incognito than that he died, laid dead for three days, and was resurrected?

    This would only appear tenable if you were willing to completely ignore what the Gospels said happened. And even if you doubt the accuracy of the Gospels, you would end up with an implausible story. It might go something like this: An extremely weakened Jesus awakes in the tomb. He can barely move since he is wrapped in a shroud and ointments. Luckily, a small slit in the cloth near his face has allowed him to breath. After a few hours of writhing he manages to escape the shroud. In the darkness of the tomb he manages to find the entrance. Using MacGyver-like ingenuity he manages to construct a tool that allows him to move the stone at the entrance. It is still dark and he slowly makes his way to the house where his disciples are staying. As he is on his journey, the women come to the tomb to find it empty. At some point on Sunday morning he stumbles to the door of the house. The disciples find him and bring him into the house. Jesus tells them that God has raised him from the dead. The disciples believe he has been raised from the dead and inaugurated the age to come, despite the fact that they have to spend the next month keeping Jesus alive (not to mention the yelling that Jesus did when Thomas decided to stick his hands in his wounds). When he’s finally up and about, he and the disciples decide that it’s best if he goes somewhere else. The disciples, who have followed him everywhere for the past three years, decide they no longer want to follow him around. They wish him well and then make up a story that he ascended to heaven. On his way East, Jesus bumps into Paul and convinces him that he has been raised from the dead. Despite his fame in Galilee and Judea, nothing is written about Jesus’ later years.

    But of course the probability that the necessary cells and neural pathways could (somehow) regenerate and reform must be lower, no?

    Perhaps in an abstract sense, but we must ask what makes sense of the evidence. And let us note that no one is claiming cells regenerated through regular means.

    how then can you reasonably exclude, say, the Muslim hypothesis that Allah replaced Jesus with another whilst Jesus was on the cross?

    The difference is that Jesus’ disciples claimed he rose from the dead, not that he was replaced on the cross. Early sources support the resurrection hypothesis and contradict the Muslim hypothesis.

    Even then historians are not justified in believing that Jesus’ reported postmortem sightings were the result of a Christian miracle. For if we are permitted to postulate as an explanation one miraculous hypothesis, we cannot in a non-question begging way exclude the plethora of other competing, equally miraculous explanatory hypotheses.

    Jesus’ resurrection did not happen in a vacuum. His resurrection was a vindication of his message. It is evidence for the veracity of his message, the message of the Judeo-Christian God. The best explanation, whether natural or supernatural, fits certain criteria (see Licona’s book). That is how we decide between the infinite number of possible hypotheses (which exist in natural cases too).

    Does the Resurrection case lend credence to the existence of the Christian god, or does the Christian god lend credence to the Resurrection case?

    I think the existence of the Judeo-Christian God could be argued for independently of the resurrection. However, I also think that historical cases are somewhat circular in nature regardless of whether we are talking about religion or not. For example, the existence of Abraham Lincoln makes it more likely that he would give the Gettysburg Address. Yet, the giving of the Gettysburg address is evidence for Lincoln’s existence.

  5. Jayman,

    First, I should like to offer the following caveat: I am giving you much leeway here with respect to the historical and textual reliability of the Christian texts.

    Now, of course the hypothesis that Jesus did not die on the cross is unlikely given the evidence (though, there was no medical examination), but the improbability of the event is immaterial and thus your response fails to address the essential point: Jesus survived his crucifixion, recovered, and was well enough to comfort his disciples *because* of a miracle. (For the record, I believe Jesus died, was buried, with the corpse later being either stolen or misplaced- then not uncommon occurrences.)

    If you dismiss the survival hypothesis on the grounds that it is too improbable given the relevant evidence, and if you dismiss the miracle account of his survival, then reason obliges that you likewise dismiss the miraculous resurrection hypothesis. For, given naturalism, the probability of surviving a crucifixion (and the prior torture) is greater than the probability of bodily resurrection after three days of decomposition. Given supernaturalism, both hypotheses are as equally probable (I would assert that the probability assignments are without a reference class and thus incoherent). Thus, you ought not to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

    As for Licona’s book and the historical methodology he espouses, I am remarkably unimpressed. His criteria for IBEs are similar to C.B. McCullagh’s, which are, themselves, much too uninformed by the best work in current formal epistemology and philosophy of science, notably Bayesian treatments of IBE.

    Re: ‘I think the existence of the Judeo-Christian God could be argued for independently of the resurrection.’

    I would like to hear the arguments. The arguments for a supernatural agency I am aware of provide a much too thin conception of god to serve as evidence for the existence of the personal deity of Christianity. You would need bridging arguments or evidence, such as the resurrection, to flesh out the argument for the Christian deity. But, of course, without postulating god, Jesus’ resurrection is incredible… and down the primrose path you go if you go that route.

    Re: The Lincoln analogy.

    At first blush, I am inclined to disagree with the assessment that historical cases are circular in nature, but the inclination is admittedly tentative; I would want to consider the matter closer before I comment further. (An appeal to some form of epistemic holism- which, I think, is untenable for independent reasons- would have to be made in order to sustain the assessment.)

    That aside, the Lincoln case is not analogous to the resurrection case. Had our evidence indicated that Lincoln did not exist, the evidence for the occurrence of the Gettysburg address would would warrant the inference that the address occurred, just that Lincoln did not give it. However, if the relevant evidence indicated that the Christian god did not exist, the evidence for the occurrence of Jesus’ bodily resurrection would not warrant the inference that it occurred. I believe most Christian apologists concur with me on this point (at least, I know Craig and Licona do).

  6. Aaron:

    For, given naturalism, the probability of surviving a crucifixion (and the prior torture) is greater than the probability of bodily resurrection after three days of decomposition.

    As I stated in my previous comment, this is only true in the general sense. In light of the evidence, I think the resurrection is the best explanation.

    Given supernaturalism, both hypotheses are as equally probable (I would assert that the probability assignments are without a reference class and thus incoherent).

    No they are not, for both Jesus and his disciples believed he was raised from the dead and not merely miraculously spared death on the cross. The resurrection hypothesis better explains why this is so.

    Bayesian treatments of IBE

    Do you have any links/references on this? It sounds intriguing at first, but I have yet to be convinced that the numbers plugged into the equation are at all reliable.

    I would like to hear the arguments.

    I would start with arguments from natural theology that argue for the existence of a single deity who sustains creation. If successful, these arguments would disprove atheism, deism (a God who sustains creation is active), and polytheism. This deity would be compatible with religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I would then proceed with an argument from prophecy to support the contention that the Old Testament (or at least parts of it) are revelations from God. One may also want to muster an argument for the historicity of certain miracles in the Old Testament. If this step is successful, then the existence of the Jewish God has been established. At this point we could examine the resurrection of Jesus in light of the existence of the Jewish God, the very God believed in by Jesus.

    At first blush, I am inclined to disagree with the assessment that historical cases are circular in nature, but the inclination is admittedly tentative; I would want to consider the matter closer before I comment further.

    Note that you may come to historical questions with certain criteria that you apply that would result in your investigation not being entirely circular. What I mean is that, in some sense, the existence of a person makes any of his purported actions more probable and that any alleged action by a person makes the existence of that person more probable.

  7. Jayman,

    Re: ‘As I stated in my previous comment, this is only true in the general sense. In light of the evidence, I think the resurrection is the best explanation.’

    Like it or not, the probability that Jesus survived the crucifixion and torture, recuperated to point that he could talk to his followers (the accounts of which were greatly elaborated), and then left town incognito is MUCH higher than the probability that his cells and chemical and neural pathways were *somehow* regenerated so as to allow him to walk through walls, etc., etc. You absolutely MUST postulate a miraculous event. Which leads us to…

    Re: ‘No they are not, for both Jesus and his disciples believed he was raised from the dead and not merely miraculously spared death on the cross. The resurrection hypothesis better explains why this is so.’

    First, ‘Jesus… believed he was raised from the dead’? Doesn’t that beg the question a bit? Second, of course Jesus’ disciples believed Jesus was raised from the dead: they saw him crucified and then they thought they saw him walking around. But this is easily explained by the miraculous cross survival hypothesis. [Enter explanatory agent(s) here] saved Jesus from death so that he could comfort his disciples. Or, my favorite, a malevolent deity miraculously saved Jesus from death so he could interact with his disciples so as to instill in them a false hope in an afterlife.

    The point is elementary: Once you entertain one supernatural hypothesis, then you must countenance *every* supernatural hypothesis, and, in a non-question begging way, you must somehow exclude your favored choice (the Christian god) as the most likely. Not an easy task considering the poverty of the evidence available from which to draw inferences. In short, there is an underdetermination of evidence problem here with respect to discriminating miraculous hypotheses.

    Re: ‘I would start with arguments from natural theology that argue for the existence of a single deity who sustains creation. If successful…’

    Thus far no such arguments have succeeded, hence, if there are no better arguments on offer, reason obliges me to conclude that the endeavor is unsuccessful.

    Re: ‘I would then proceed with an argument from prophecy to support the contention that the Old Testament (or at least parts of it) are revelations from God. One may also want to muster an argument for the historicity of certain miracles in the Old Testament.’

    Besides being epistemically irresponsible (you *really* think the evidence on offer rationally obliges belief in Old Testament miracles? Really?), this is entirely question begging. Simply put, like the Jesus resurrection hypothesis, in order to give credence to the miracles purported in the Old Testament, you must first postulate the existence of a supernatural agency who is disposed to effect such miracles, viz., Jehovah.

    Re: ‘Do you have any links/references on this? It sounds intriguing at first, but I have yet to be convinced that the numbers plugged into the equation are at all reliable.’

    The numbers “plugged” in the equations are no more unreliable than the probabilities for this and that hypothesis you and I availed ourselves of during this exchange. Moreover, Bayesian treatments of IBE, and epistemic probabilities for inductive logic in general, are much more unambiguous than vague notions like ‘explanatory scope,’ ‘explanatory power,’ ‘plausibility,’ and ‘ad hocness’ found in C.B. McCullagh’s ‘Justifying Historical Descriptions,’ and other similar works. (Indeed, I should like to argue vigorously that ‘explanatory scope’ et al. are cogent criteria for assessing hypotheses only insofar as they are given Bayesian or other probabilistic interpretations.)

    As for resources, here are a few (there are many more):

    Jonathan Weisberg ‘Locating IBE in the Bayesian Framework’

    Valeriano Iranzo ‘Bayesianism and Inference to the Best Explanation’

    Bas van Fraassen ‘Laws and Symmetry’

    Wesley Salmon ‘Explanation and Confirmation: A Bayesian Critique of Inference to the Best Explanation’

    Re: ‘What I mean is that, in some sense, the existence of a person makes any of his purported actions more probable and that any alleged action by a person makes the existence of that person more probable.’

    Yes, right, so the proposition, P1, ‘Julius Caesar existed’ is a necessary condition for the truth of the proposition, P2, ‘Julius Caesar led the Legio XIII Gemina across the Rubicon,’ thus P1 confirms P2 and P2 lends credence to P1. Agreed.

    However, the evidence for P1 is independent of P2, because, on the evidence, P1 could be highly probable though P2 is false or improbable. The evidence which confirms that the Legio XIII Gemina crossed the Rubicon could turn out to have unreliably indicated under whose command the legion was subject at the time of the crossing. However, unlike the Rubicon case, Jesus’ resurrection is much too improbable given naturalism to warrant rational acceptance; the Christian god must be postulated; but, the resurrection is necessary for establishing reasonable belief in the Christian god (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:12-28).

    P.S. I suspect your patience on this matter (and with me!) has reached its limit, so allow me to say thank you for the exchange and that I leave any last words with you.

  8. Aaron:

    First, ‘Jesus… believed he was raised from the dead’? Doesn’t that beg the question a bit?

    Not if you take the accounts seriously (e.g., Lk 24:46).

    Second, of course Jesus’ disciples believed Jesus was raised from the dead: they saw him crucified and then they thought they saw him walking around. But this is easily explained by the miraculous cross survival hypothesis.

    But it fails to explain Jesus’ subsequent teachings and the ascension.

    Thus far no such arguments have succeeded, hence, if there are no better arguments on offer, reason obliges me to conclude that the endeavor is unsuccessful.

    Obviously I disagree. If interested, I wouldn’t mind seeing your taking on the argument at the end of the review of chapter 11.

    you *really* think the evidence on offer rationally obliges belief in Old Testament miracles? Really?

    Generally, no, but I won’t make a universal statement on the matter. That’s why I included the word “may.”

    The numbers “plugged” in the equations are no more unreliable than the probabilities for this and that hypothesis you and I availed ourselves of during this exchange.

    In this exchange we are mainly dealing with the a posteriori side of things. It is the a priori side of the equation that I am most skeptical of. Consider even mundane examples, such as, what is the a priori probability that Barack Obama exists. I am also fearful that asking such questions will lead to an infinite regress of more questions (e.g., what is the a priori probability that Obama’s father and mother existed). Anyway, thanks for the references.

    P.S. I suspect your patience on this matter (and with me!) has reached its limit, so allow me to say thank you for the exchange and that I leave any last words with you.

    As with most internet discussions, there’s only so much you can say in a few paragraphs. I agree we are probably at the point of diminishing returns. However, I wouldn’t mind hearing your take on the cosmological argument noted above. Regardless, take care.

  9. “The first thing to note is the data we are trying to explain. In the case of the Salem Witch Trials we are attempting to explain the fits and seizures of a group of afflicted girls and young women. We are not attempting to explain how alleged witches flew through the air on brooms or how they turned someone into a frog. In the case of the resurrection we are attempting to explain the empty tomb, the appearances of an executed man to his disciples, and the conversion of Paul.”

    Hi Jayman,

    I think where you’re going wrong is this: we have the same thing in both cases: testimony. We don’t have an empty tomb, we have testimony of an empty tomb.

    Just as an interesting aside: It would be interesting to see if Matt could look at the Salem Witch Trial documents and use the criterion of embarassment and the like to establish certain things as “facts” and then use those “facts” to support witchcraft.

    In any case, I think resting a case for a miracle purely on testimony* (testimony that came from agenda-pushing, non-eyewitnesses) is wildly insufficient. Matt noted in his chapter that testimony concerning miracles is known to be wildly unreliable (check the endnotes for that).

    As for the Matthean tomb story: John Corvino once remarked that there are two ways to doubt an argument: show one of the premises are wrong or show that the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises. I think that’s what the Jews Matthew spoke of did: They were saying, OK, we’ll take it on faith that his tomb was found empty, that could be because of body theft, not resurrection. Even some non-Christians today have made this argument even though they do not believe in an empty tomb! (See “The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave”).

  10. Ryan:

    I think where you’re going wrong is this: we have the same thing in both cases: testimony. We don’t have an empty tomb, we have testimony of an empty tomb.

    I have no problem with testimony since virtually all of our knowledge comes through testimony in some form or another. But if you want to focus on testimony then there is still a difference between the testimony given in each case: the early Christians say that the tomb was empty and that Jesus appeared to them alive, whereas the witnesses in Salem say girls underwent fits and seizures.

    Just as an interesting aside: It would be interesting to see if Matt could look at the Salem Witch Trial documents and use the criterion of embarassment and the like to establish certain things as “facts” and then use those “facts” to support witchcraft.

    The basic facts do not seem to be in dispute. It is how one interprets those facts that will determine whether witchcraft is a compelling hypothesis.

    In any case, I think resting a case for a miracle purely on testimony* (testimony that came from agenda-pushing, non-eyewitnesses) is wildly insufficient.

    Unless you witness something directly you are always relying on testimony. I disagree on whether we have eyewitness accounts in the Gospels. That the early Christians had an agenda is to be expected. It would be incredibly strange if the disciples believed Jesus rose from the dead but that fact did not drive them at all in their subsequent mission. Holocaust survivors often have an agenda (to make sure another Holocaust never happens) yet I take their testimony very seriously.

    Matt noted in his chapter that testimony concerning miracles is known to be wildly unreliable (check the endnotes for that).

    In endnote 2, Matt states that the reliability of testimony from the miracles at Lourdes comes out to 0.0000167. The problem with this number is two-fold. First, he bases the number on the 67 miracles officially recognized by the Catholic Church. But, as far as I know, the Catholic Church is not ruling out the occurrence of miracles in other cases. They merely could not find enough evidence or have enough confidence in a certain interpretation of the evidence to officially recognize it as a miracle. Second, he fails to note the accuracy of the witnesses concerning whether someone was healed after going to Lourdes. I imagine much of the dispute over the alleged miracles at Lourdes is the interpretation of the testimony and not the accuracy of the testimony itself. We might be absolutely certain that someone went to Lourdes with a disease and was healed while not being certain that the healing was the result of a miracle.

    I think that’s what the Jews Matthew spoke of did: They were saying, OK, we’ll take it on faith that his tomb was found empty, that could be because of body theft, not resurrection.

    I see no indication in Matthew that the Jews were taking it on faith that the tomb was empty. Other sources imply they took the empty tomb seriously:

    “. . . you [Jews] have sent chosen and ordained men throughout all the world to proclaim that a godless and lawless heresy had sprung from one Jesus, a Galilæan deceiver, whom we crucified, but his disciples stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when unfastened from the cross . . .” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 108)

    “This is He whom His disciples secretly stole away, that it might be said He had risen again, or the gardener abstracted, that his lettuces might come to no harm from the crowds of visitants!” (Tertullian, The Shows, ch. 30)

    Jason Engwer, who is more knowledgeable on the Church Fathers than I am, notes that both Justin and Tertullian were familiar with the Judaism of their day.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s