Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus, Richard Carrier 2012:

# ch5

Formulated in various ways, the Criterion of Dissimilarity has been identified as underlying many of the others, which are just particular applications of this more general principle. One reference defines it this way: “If a tradition is dissimilar to the views of Judaism and to the views of the early church, then it can confidently be ascribed to the historical Jesus.”1 Another says: “If, therefore, Jesus is presented as saying or doing things that seem almost out of place for both Palestinian Judaism and early Christianity, the likelihood of the presentation being accurate seems great.”2 Yet the latter author immediately follows this with an example that is factually false,3 thus illustrating the most common folly in using this or any criterion: the evidence often fails to fulfill the criterion, contrary to a scholar's assertion or misapprehension. But even once you've eliminated all applications that depend on demonstrably false assertions (which represent instances of ignoring evidence or field-comprehensive background knowledge), you still have the two remaining problems I identified before: logical invalidity and inconclusive threshold.
First, we simply don't know much of what went on in second-temple Judaism and the early church. To the contrary, we know early Christianity and Judaism were wildly diverse and that we have scarce to no data about all the many different communities we know were flourishing at the time (I'll come back to that problem on page 129). Thus we cannot establish for alternative hypotheses either a low prior or a low consequent. Second, just because something unusual is attributed to or said about Jesus doesn't make it true. If something that unusual can happen to or be said by Jesus, then it can just as easily have happened to or been said by anyone in the Christian tradition after him. So when does “being unusual” indicate it came from an innovating Jesus, rather than a later innovating missionary or prophet? At what point does meeting this criterion make the former explanation more probable? Everything that would tend to raise the prior or consequent for a hypothesis of “historicity” on this criterion will raise the prior or consequent of the contrary hypothesis just as much—or nearly as much, producing a conclusion so far from certainty as to be of no use.
Two more particular problems arise for this criterion. First, if a purported fact was so unusual, why then was it preserved so faithfully? Any answer to the latter question will entail as much a reason to invent it as to preserve it if true. Indeed, combining this problem with the first, the most obvious answer to “why was it preserved?” is that it was entirely in accord with the views of early Judaism or the church—and we just lack the information in surviving evidence to confirm this. As Christopher Tuckett says, “The very existence of the tradition may thus militate against its being regarded as ‘dissimilar’ to the views of ‘the early church.’”4 The last problem is that a saying or story that did originate with Jesus or eyewitnesses can easily have become confused or distorted in the retelling until the version we have appears unusual against its Judeo-Christian background, yet not because it is historical, but precisely because it is not.

The EC (or Embarrassment Criterion) is based on the folk belief that if an author says something that would embarrass him, it must be true, because he wouldn't embarrass himself with a lie. An EC argument (or Argument from Embarrassment) is an attempt to apply this principle to derive the conclusion that the embarrassing statement is historically true. For example, “the criterion of embarrassment states that material that would have been embarrassing to early Christians is more likely to be historical since it is unlikely that they would have made up material that would have placed them or Jesus in a bad light,”6 or in other words, “the point of the criterion is that the early Church would hardly have gone out of its way to create material that only embarrassed its creator or weakened its position in arguments with opponents.”7
...Adapting various formulations of the juridical ‘statement against interest’ rule into a concise form applicable to the EC, we can define it as “a statement made by someone having sufficient knowledge of the subject, which is so far contrary to their interests that a reasonable person in their position would not have made the statement unless believing it to be true.” This sets two requirements, each of which must be reasonably proved or known for the principle to apply: we must be able to confirm the speaker was actually in a position to know the truth of the matter, and that their statement was so far contrary to their interests that they would not have said it unless they believed it to be true. Only in this formulation is the EC logically valid, which entails the following EC argument: “If a person made a statement so far contrary to their interests that a reasonable person in their position would not have made the statement unless believing it to be true and that person was in a position to reliably know what the truth really was, then their statement is probably true.” So formulated, a valid EC argument is exceedingly difficult to apply in Jesus studies, where typically neither requirement can be reliably met.
In Bayesian terms, when this criterion as thus stated is met, P(e|~h.b) << P(e|h.b). So, as long as prior probability does not render the claim incredible (i.e., as long as P(~h|b) is not >> P(h|b)), it should be believed.
...When all our background knowledge about the nature of man, the world, and the ancient evidence and context is taken into account, we will find that several general defects plague the EC.
(a) Problem of self-contradiction
The first general problem facing successful application of the EC is that most actual uses of the EC in Jesus studies have been based on an inherent contradiction. The assumption is that embarrassing material “would naturally be either suppressed or softened in later stages of the Gospel tradition.”10 But all extant Gospels are already very late stages of the “Gospel tradition,” the Gospel having already been preached for nearly an entire lifetime across three continents before any Gospel was written. The most widely held consensus in the field is that the Gospels post-date the life of Paul, as he never mentions them or any uniquely identifying information in them. And this is a strong Argument from Silence, as he cannot have been ignorant of them if they then existed, and the information in the Gospels would surely and repeatedly have been used by him or against him, either way ending up in his letters. And there is no other evidence that securely dates the Gospels to that period. Yet Paul's ministry spanned two continents and nearly three decades, long enough even for the authors of the Gospels to have been born into the Christian faith and grown into adulthood believing in no other (not that they did, but they well could have, the tradition by their time was indeed that old), while countless other missionaries (Apollos, for example) also spent decades preaching and wrangling with opponents inside and outside the church, all across Africa, as well as (like Paul) Europe and the Middle East. It's simply inconceivable that no one would ever have noticed “embarrassing” details in the story until Mark wrote them down after all this time. So the fact that we see a redactional tendency in later Gospels to soften or erase embarrassing material in Mark is very nearly conclusive proof that those embarrassing details never existed in the tradition at all before Mark. For had they preceded him, they would have undergone all that redactional treatment well before Mark put pen to paper.
...if the material was not embarrassing to Mark, the EC does not apply, and you have no EC argument (see problem (b) below). The only remaining option is to somehow prove that Mark was under different pressures, or was innately more honest, than the other Evangelists. But the latter cannot be proved—and is doubtful, especially given the quantity of dubious material in Mark (not least being the false story of the sun going out, examined in chapter 3).11 And the former bears consequences some scholars might fear to allow, such as conceding the other Evangelists were liars, and requiring the device of weighing down your hypothesis with conditions that explain why Mark would be compelled to tell truths that the other Evangelists felt free to suppress.
...Authors often don't realize how critics will exploit the things they say, which opponents will often do in unexpected ways. It's entirely conceivable that an author could write one thing, not even thinking about how his critics will use it, then after it gets thus used, a subsequent author would be keen to try and edit the tradition to counter the new and unexpected controversy it created. The history of doctoring the manuscripts of the New Testament is rife with examples of statements that only later became embarrassing as they came to be exploited or emphasized in novel ways (by “heretics,” which is to say, “competing interpreters of the gospel”).12 This happened even as the Gospels were composed. Like Matthew's stated excuse for introducing guards into the story of the empty tomb narrative—which reveals a rhetoric that apparently only appeared after the publication of Mark's account of an empty tomb.13 For Mark shows no awareness of the problem. It clearly hadn't occurred to Mark when composing the empty tomb story that it would invite accusations the Christians stole the body (much less that any such accusations were already flying). Which should be evidence enough that Matthew invented that story, as otherwise surely that retort would have been a constant drum beat for decades already, powerfully motivating Mark to answer or resolve it (if his sources already hadn't, and they most likely would have).
...(b) Problem of ignorance
 The second general problem facing successful application of the EC is the extraordinary degree of our ignorance. As Stanley Porter says, “determining what might have been embarrassing to the early Church” is “very difficult,” especially given “the lack of detailed evidence for the thought of the early Church, apart from that found in the New Testament.”14 Even conservative scholar Mark Strauss admits that “what seems embarrassing to us may not have seemed so to the early church” and “there also may be reasons we cannot immediately recognize for the creation” of seemingly embarrassing details.15...As Morna Hooker puts it, “Use of this criterion seems to assume that we are dealing with two known factors (Judaism and early Christianity) and one unknown—Jesus,” but “it would perhaps be a fairer statement of the situation to say that we are dealing with three unknowns, and that our knowledge of the other two is quite as tenuous and indirect as our knowledge of Jesus himself.” As she rightly says, “It could be that if we knew the whole truth about Judaism and the early Church, our small quantity of ‘distinctive’ teaching would wither away altogether,” which could be equally true of our small quantity of “embarrassing” content.17...The incest and immorality of the gods in Homer was embarrassing to Plutarch and Plato [see also Xenophanes], for example (as they chafe at it constantly), yet no one today uses that fact to argue that Homer's stories of the gods must therefore be true...What was embarrassing to many elites (such as embracing pacifism or placing faith before reason or even worshiping a Jewish god) was not embarrassing to Christians. That's why they were Christians.18 One example of this fact is how rapidly Christians abandoned the elite Jewish requirement of ritual diet and circumcision, even though we know these cannot have been ideas promulgated by the historical Jesus (as in Galatians Paul reveals that he introduced that innovation himself, years after Jesus is supposed to have died; which is corroborated in Romans, where Paul makes a lengthy defense of the innovation without ever once citing the authority of Jesus).
...Mark's Gospel is actually rife with irony and reversals of expectation.24 Which means Mark appears to have inserted material precisely because it was embarrassing—to outsiders, not privy to the “secret” (as Mark actually says in 4:11–12, 33–34). Insiders would not perceive any embarrassment, because they would be taught the real point behind everything, just as Mark says Jesus’ disciples were (a story that itself establishes the model Christians were to emulate in their own churches). In effect, Mark's literature is designed to exclude people who “don't get it,” thereby increasing the commitment of insiders who are made to feel they are special by the very fact that they understand what others don't. As this is explicitly stated by Paul (1 Corinthians 1:19–27, 2:14, 3:18–20, 8:1–2) and our earliest Gospel (per above), it's one of the few instances where we can be certain of how the earliest Christians thought about what they preached...Once our ignorance is dispelled, we discover the EC fails to apply. How many more applications of the EC will fail once we correctly grasp the author's actual intent? Meier fails to realize that there is no difference between this example and those he finds convincing. The evidence is identical (in every case, all Meier has to offer is the fact that later authors expose their embarrassment at the remark by changing it, exactly as they did here), and the reasoning is identical (theologically, a perfect God should not be in despair, much less talking to himself in the third person and expecting a reply, yet all Meier can propose in every other case is some similar conflict between what Christians were supposed to think of Jesus and how he was actually depicted, exactly as should be the case here). Meier thus fails to apply his own principles and background knowledge consistently. He knows full well (from his own example of Jesus’ “cry of dereliction”) that both this evidence and this reasoning fail to entail the conclusion intended (that the cry is historical), and yet he appeals to exactly this kind of evidence and exactly the same reasoning to argue other claims are historical, thus employing a method he already knows to be invalid.
(c) Problem of self-defeat
The third general problem facing successful application of the EC is the fact that (as I've suggested already) the EC most typically ought to entail exactly the opposite conclusion. Scholars advancing EC arguments fail to establish the answer to a key question: If a statement was embarrassing, then why is it in the text at all? You have to explain why this author included something contrary to his supposed editorial tendency. Yet any such explanation will entail as much reason to invent it as record it. The EC thus becomes self-defeating.
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It's worth remarking here, as I'll further discuss later (page 192), that everyone literate enough to compose books in antiquity was educated almost exclusively in the specific skill of persuasion: that is what all writing was believed to be for, and how all literate persons were taught to write. Therefore, already the prior probability that a seemingly embarrassing detail in a Christian text is in there only because it is true is low, whereas the prior probability that it is there for a specific, persuasive reason regardless of its truth is high, the exact opposite of what's assumed by an EC argument (and I can demonstrate this mathematically, see page 162). The mere fact that, as Meier observes, later Gospel authors freely omitted or revised what they received, is proof enough that that's exactly what authors do. So the fact that, for example, Mark shows no signs of being embarrassed by something that later authors found embarrassing, should either tell us that something has changed (which leads to the previous two problems), or that Mark had overriding reasons to include that detail. And if the latter, he (or his sources) may have had that same reason to fabricate it.
...For if it “would not likely be preserved,” then there must still be a reason to have preserved it, which reason must have been stronger than the impetus to discard or alter it due to its supposed embarrassment, otherwise we cannot explain its preservation at all (because otherwise “it would not likely be preserved” entails a low P(e|h.b); that is, without any reason to preserve or mention it, its preservation is simply unlikely). But if there were such a reason, and it was that compelling, that reason would just as easily overcome the embarrassment of a fiction as the embarrassment of a fact. In other words, that it was preserved at all entails Christians must have also had a reason to invent it that would have overcome any embarrassment it created—the very same reason they would have had to preserve it if it were true. Therefore, its preservation does not argue for its authenticity at all, much less “strongly,” as Evans avers.
...The castration of Attis and his priests was widely regarded by the ancient literary elite as disgusting and shameful, and thus was a definite cause of embarrassment for the cult, yet the claim and the practice continued unabated. No one would now argue that the god Attis must therefore have actually been castrated. The humiliation of Inanna, Queen of the Gods, was similarly embarrassing (her story even seems deliberately crafted to be), yet no one would argue from this that Inanna really was stripped naked, killed by a death spell, and nailed up in hell.28 The mythical Romulus murdered his own brother, which was then among the most despicable of crimes, and still he remained a revered god of the Roman people—and yet no one believes that ever happened, either.29 We simply have no clue why these shocking stories were invented, much less became the objects of veneration and symbolic emulation. Religions frequently rally around apparently embarrassing yet entirely false myths, often in defiance of common sense. The Jews were no exception. Contrary to current assumption, the execution of their own messiah was believed to have been predicted by Daniel (Daniel 9:26; even more clearly in the Greek), yet he was widely recognized as an inspired prophet of God.30 And the Gospels clearly regarded Daniel as an authority: Mark's apocalypse (in chapter 13) and Matthew's nativity and empty tomb stories all incorporate overt allusions to the Book of Daniel.31 Hence it would not matter if the execution of their messiah was embarrassing, for it already had the full prior authority of God and his prophets. Which would be just as much a reason to invent the detail, for such an invention would overcome any and all embarrassment at the fact by virtue of having clear scriptural endorsement from God. If you could prove God had said it would happen centuries in advance, then you will get far more traction inventing a confirmation of that prophecy than you would suffer from the fact that what God had ordained was in any sense embarrassing.
...
(d) Problem of bootstrapping
...Indeed, some attempts to bootstrap an EC argument with other criteria can actually make that argument weaker, not stronger. For example, responding to instances when the EC is bolstered with the Criterion of Multiple Attestation, Mark Goodacre remarks, “I can't help thinking that one cancels out the other. If everyone, Q, an independent Thomas, Mark, Matthew, Luke all have this same material, who is embarrassed about it? The multiple attestation is itself an argument against embarrassment.”34 Quite so.
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the hypothesis that the Christian messiah's trial and execution by “the ruler who would come” (Daniel 9:26) was indeed derived from the OT is initially as good an explanation of the evidence as Meier's, particularly since the Jews at Qumran were already equating this messiah with the servant of Isaiah 52–53, wherein we have almost the whole core Gospel story.38 This fully explains why they expected the messiah to be executed, why they would imagine (or preach) that the Romans did it, and thus why they would conceive that death as a crucifixion (it being the standard mode of Roman execution for those who have humbled themselves completely). It would only be a bonus that being hung on a stake accorded with Scripture (Galatians 3:13) and that the Jewish authorities also crucified the bodies of their convicts.39 It's notable that later, Babylonian Jews knew only of an account in which Jesus was executed by stoning (and then hung up), and solely by the Jewish authorities, all exactly in accordance with Jewish law.40 Even the Christian Gospel of Peter (vv. 1–2) only knows of an execution by the Jewish state, under the command and supervision of Herod Antipas, rather than Pontius Pilate. In contrast, the canonical Gospels have to twist their story into a convoluted and implausible sequence of events just to get Jesus executed by Romans and not the actual Jews who were accusing him of violating only Jewish laws. Nearly every scholar acknowledges the glaring inconsistency. Some even conclude that the story can only be a whitewash for what was really a Roman execution of Jesus for attempting a coup.41 But one can just as easily argue the reverse, that this element is the whitewash, for what was really a Jewish execution for blasphemy, as the Talmud records, some Christian texts confirm, and even the canonical Gospels imply.42...The fact that Mark is deliberately casting Jesus as a “suffering just man” and packing that story with deliberate irony would be reason enough to construct the tale as it is. Indeed, the humiliation-execution theme was a trope for Jewish mythic and figurative heroes of the time, and thus fashionable, not embarrassing (it appears in many ancient Jewish texts, including Wisdom of Solomon 2–5, Isaiah 52–53, and 1QIsaa 52.13–53.12).43
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I have shown how the three EC arguments most often regarded as unassailable are in fact unsustainable. Any other example you care to choose will fall to the same analysis. One such is Mark 13:32, where we find, as John Meier puts it, “the affirmation by Jesus that, despite the Gospels’ claim that he is the Son who can predict the events at the end of time, including his own coming on the clouds of heaven, he does not know the exact day or hour of the end.” But Meier gives no explanation why we are supposed to believe Mark expected Jesus to be omniscient.60 Mark simply says Jesus knows some details and not others; that God has reserved those for himself and not told his Son. Mark shows no embarrassment at this at all. That would only be embarrassing to later Christians who were increasingly equating Jesus with God, to the point that it became less and less intelligible how God could simultaneously know and not know something.
...
In the hypothetical source document Q, Jesus is made to say all twelve of his disciples would receive eternal honors (Luke 22:30; Matthew 19:28). Meier insists:
    If one wants to claim that the saying was instead created by the early church, one must face a difficult question: Why would the early church have created a saying (attributed to the earthly Jesus during his public ministry) that in effect promised a heavenly throne and power at the last judgment to the traitor Judas Iscariot?64
Even Theissen and Winter declare, “Early Christianity always numbered Judas Iscariot among the twelve disciples and had simply scorned and condemned him as the one who betrayed Jesus,” so “When nevertheless the Jesus tradition preserves a promise that the twelve (and not the ‘eleven’!) disciples will exercise future rule over the restored Israel (Matthew 19:28/Luke 22:28–30), there can be no doubt that this is a saying that has withstood the tendencies of the tradition.”65
Already, their first fact isn't true. For at least the twenty or thirty years of Paul's ministry, in other words the entirety of “early Christianity,” we never hear of any of these claims (that a Judas Iscariot was one of the twelve or that he, or any member of the twelve, betrayed Jesus or was “scorned and condemned” for doing so, despite an occasion to mention it in 1 Corinthians 11:23–27; nor even the saying about twelve thrones, despite an occasion to mention it in 1 Corinthians 6:2–4). If anything, we have evidence confuting this betrayal. Unless we admit to an interpolation, Paul says “the twelve” were honored with a vision of Jesus almost immediately after his death (1 Corinthians 15:5), which is hard to reconcile with any notion that one of those twelve was known to have betrayed Jesus. This likewise suggests the later Gospel story of Judas's suicide must be false (since he must then have been still alive to receive—and report—a revelation of the risen Jesus)...The fact that Jesus’ betrayer's name essentially means “Jew” should already make us suspicious.69 Mark may have intended him as a symbol of particular recent poignance. In both name and deed, Judas may be an intentional symbol of the very internecine betrayal that was destroying Jewish society and causing it to fail to realize God's kingdom, even just recently having caused the destruction of Judea, Jerusalem, and God's own Temple (if Mark wrote in the 70s CE, as most scholars now think). Judas was also a name famously associated with the path of violent rebellion (Judas Maccabeus and Judas the Galilean), which is all the more obvious an allusion if “Iscariot” is (as many scholars believe) an Aramaicism for the Latin “Sicarius,” the infamous “Killers” whom Josephus blames for provoking Rome to bring about the destruction of the Jews (which would further mean that Judas's full name meant in Aramaic “The Jew Who Kills [Him],” which one might think would be too coincidental to be historical). The name Judas may also be intended to evoke the divided kingdoms Judah and Israel, a symbol of Jews disunited and at war with each other, the more so if you agree that a number of indicators suggest Jesus is typecast in the Gospels as a symbol of Israel (as Thompson argues in convincing detail in The Messiah Myth), which alone could have inspired the creation of a Judah to oppose him. The text of Zechariah from which Matthew borrows many details of his expanded Judas story even contains this very juxtaposition, including the very name of Judas.70 In Zechariah, the one who is paid the thirty shekels is to “become shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter” (an apt description of Judas in respect to Jesus) and then, by abandoning the task (and the sheep to their death) and casting the money aside, to “break the brotherhood between Judas and Israel” (the very point of the Judas story: you can take the money and die, or follow Jesus and live, thus either joining the New Israel or the grave).71 Matthew thus saw this very symbolic value of the Judas story, which inspired him to exaggerate it with even more scripturally derived detail. Mark may have had the same idea all along.

All the other criteria suffer the same defects. The Criterion of Coherence assumes that anything that coheres with what has been established with other criteria is also historical. “If a saying or story is consistent with the picture of Jesus that is emerging from well-attested material, then it may be considered likely to have been historical,” because “it is consistent with what has already been discerned” as originating with Jesus.83 But this is illogical.84 Coherent material can be fabricated precisely because it coheres with other beliefs about Jesus, or even for the specific purpose of cohering with them.
Liars tend to prefer their lies to be coherent, and when telling new lies, build on old ones. Even more innocent mechanisms of legendary development follow the same principles (“but that's just what Jesus would have done, isn't it?”). Indeed, the usual trend in fabrication over time is toward harmonization—in other words, the creation of coherence (the textual tradition of the Gospels even shows this explicitly occurring). Everyone knows “good fiction is often just as ‘coherent’ as historical fact.”85 Indeed it can even be more so—for coherence is easy to create by design, whereas real historical people and events are often evolving, complex, unpredictable, or actually in fact incoherent. It's easy not to understand what people said and did, to see such events as incoherent or inexplicable. It's then much easier to make it all cohere after the fact, imposing structure and consistency on what actually had none (or whose structure and consistency actually escaped you, and thus was replaced by structure and consistency of your own imagining). As a result, although failing to cohere with established facts might (at least in some cases) raise the priors or consequents of “fabrication” hypotheses, cohering with established facts does not raise the priors or consequents of hypotheses of “historicity” by any relevant amount—since coherence is just as common and expected on hypotheses of fabrication
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It might be assumed that prior confirmed cases of some property x would increase the prior probability of another case of x being true, but in this case that doesn't follow. A story found in an author whose stories often turn up confirmed will have a higher prior probability of being true; but the mere fact of “a” detail cohering with “some other” detail in the overall “tradition history” of all the stories preserved does not have that effect, precisely because not all authors are reliable, nor are all sources, and unreliable authors and sources will produce (or reproduce) fictions that cohere with tradition more than amply. Thus, the mere fact of cohering with established facts is insufficient to make a story more likely to be true. If, for example, unreliable sources transmit as many false cohering stories as reliable sources do true ones, and we cannot confirm there are more reliable sources behind our accounts than unreliable ones, then so far as we know the set of all cohering stories will contain as many fictions as truths, making no difference to the odds that any particular story will be true. Only if you can demonstrate that these ratios fall out differently can you get coherence to change the odds of some detail being true. And in the study of Jesus, we generally don't have that kind of information.

“If a tradition is attested in more than one strand of the tradition” then “it is more likely to be authentic,” as long as these strands are “independent layers of the tradition.”89 This is often a sound principle commonly employed throughout the field of history. But it has to be applicable—and applied correctly. And yet in Jesus studies, “relatively few individual units of the tradition are attested in more than one strand,” and even in those few cases establishing independence is hard to do.90 It was long thought that the Gospel of John is independent of the Synoptics, but a growing body of evidence argues otherwise, so John's independence can no longer be reliably assumed.91 Some scholars even argue that Mark knew Q (which is entirely possible: just because he rejected much of it doesn't mean he wasn't aware of it or didn't use it) or that there was no Q, only Matthew's expansion of Mark.92 And hardly any of the extrabiblical evidence for Jesus is independent of the NT [New Testament], and most of the evidence that even so much as might be independent of the NT is universally rejected as fabricated (e.g., the Infancy Gospels; 3 Corinthians; the Epistle of Jesus to Abgar), and thus can hardly count as “multiple attestation” (a fact that should already caution against assuming the canonical texts are any more trustworthy than these).93
....
A classic example is the fact that we have impressive multiple attestation of the labors of Hercules (and in antiquity this was even more the case, as many texts now lost are known to have recounted them), yet no one believes this makes those labors even “more probable,” much less believable. The story was fabricated long before our written sources (probably long before even their written sources), spawning numerous independent lines of legendary development, which each came to be independently recorded later on, an outcome that in no way makes the story more credible. The same clearly happened to the Christian tradition before the Gospels were even written. For example, it appears two separate and contradictory legends developed about the suicide of Judas (Matthew 27:3–10 vs. Acts 1:18–20), yet this could have resulted just as easily from an originating fiction as from an originating fact (and as I argued earlier, it most likely did: see page 152). Thus its multiple attestation does not establish its historicity (and if Luke's version is a deliberate rewrite of Matthew's, we don't even have multiple attestation). A similar datum can also originate independently because of a common motive rather than a common source, to explain a shared problem in the text or to defend a shared doctrine or goal. For example, many scribal emendations of the NT manuscripts produce the same or similar results even when they were not even aware of each other, simply because they saw the same problems and devised similarly obvious solutions. Though this will usually be less likely, it still has to be ruled out.

Claims contrary to nature or that are suspiciously improbable are probably false.102 This is essentially just a restatement of the Smell Test analyzed in chapter 4 (and there demonstrated to be yet another special case of BT: see page 114). It's another criterion that is primarily exclusionary: validly applied, it can only tell you what's probably false, not what's probably true—except sometimes when a naturalistically realistic claim is made that an author could not have imagined with the same frequency as someone actually having seen it. For example, when Pliny the Elder marvels at a tribe of fire walkers, it's unlikely he or anyone would have made this up had it not been true. For that would entail a remarkable coincidence between random fantasy and an actual, venerable, scientifically well-understood magic trick (the details of which his account perfectly corresponds to). Likewise, Pliny the Younger's once scientifically incredible description of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius was scientifically confirmed by the modern eruption of the geologically similar Mount St. Helens, which vindicated every detail. It's quite unlikely the younger Pliny would have just accidentally erred his way into what turned out to be a scientifically correct observation.

“If we cannot imagine a tradition being preserved orally, then we cannot think that it goes back to Jesus,” such as, Marcus Borg argues, “the extended discourses attributed to Jesus in John's gospel,” because “what one can imagine being remembered is the gist of a saying, parable, or story,” whereas it's hard to “imagine one or more disciples memorizing [e.g., the entirety of John 14–17] as it was spoken and then preserving it through the decades” (in fact nearly a century, according to some scholars), especially with no other Gospel author in the meantime ever having heard of it.103
...Our background knowledge establishes that oral tradition can be rapidly distorted and expanded with fictions, while any true content gets simpler and less detailed over time—indeed, writing was specifically invented to combat those facts (and yet even writing suffers alteration and distortion over time, just much more slowly), which facts are confirmed by recent scientific studies of human memory.104 Only when background knowledge establishes a high prior can the inevitably low consequent be overcome, and we can't do that for early Christian oral tradition. We have no evidence of the presence and operation of the institutions and mechanisms we know are required for securing the reliable memorization of detailed material within the first-century churches (there were no Christian schools, for example, as there were for memorizing the Mishnah, nor was the Gospel put into verse, song, or anything like mnemonics or counting rhyme). Indeed, the wild discordance among the New Testament materials (much less noncanonical materials) attests no such institution or mechanism was in operation.

As if defiantly contradicting the previous criterion, it has also been claimed that versions of a story that are more vividly narrated (as if the author were “there” and viscerally responding to what she experienced) are more likely true than versions that use a more distant or cursory mode of narration. But this is a non sequitur. For vivid detail is also an established trend in fictionalization and embellishment. Good storytellers often come up with these details, especially when they are lacking, and thus such elements are as likely as any to accumulate in the retelling over time. Human memory even does this routinely, without anyone being aware of it, especially through memory distortion and contamination through repeated retelling.108 Conversely, an eyewitness can produce a concise and droll account without vivid narration, as can someone relaying what an eyewitness said.
In fact, in the ancient world especially, our background knowledge establishes that vividness of narration is more often a sign of fiction than history. Schools of the time specifically taught writers to embellish stories and speeches in exactly this way (see note 118, page 323), and we can find numerous cases where battles and speeches are described in vivid detail when we know for a fact the author had no actual sources for them. Conversely, the histories we trust the most are the ones that restrict themselves to the fewest and least embellished details that could be corroborated by multiple lines of evidence, and we especially prefer prosaically analytical discussions of the evidence to unsourced novelizations of it.109 Thus, vividness of narration by itself actually argues slightly against historicity, not in favor of it, and can only support historicity in cases where you can specifically prove such vividness isn't the result of dramatization. So by itself this criterion is useless, and we're left again with BT.

To illustrate the above I will draw on an example I published myself.132 We know from archaeology that the story of Daniel in the lion's den was a popular symbol of resurrection (and of Jesus) among early Christians.133 The story is told in the Old Testament book of Daniel, which we know was written (and translated into Greek) over a century before the time of Christ, and was very popular. As the story goes, when Daniel was entombed with the lions, and thus facing certain death, the Persian king Darius placed a “seal” on the stone “so that nothing might be changed in regard to Daniel” (Daniel 6:17). The same thing is done in Matthew's story of Jesus’ burial: the Jewish authorities place a “seal” on his tomb, and post a guard, so they could be sure his body stayed put—a whole incident that conspicuously doesn't occur in any other Gospel, not even Matthew's source, Mark, whose account (as also Luke's and John's) thoroughly contradicts Matthew's additions in this regard (thus confirming they are fictional creations of Matthew—see previous discussion in this chapter, page 128).134 The absence in every other Gospel, especially Matthew's source Mark, of guards, seal, even prior awareness of a possible plan to steal the body, as well as an ensuing miraculous angelic act, is less likely on the theory that any of this actually happened, than on the theory that Matthew made it all up, intentionally embellishing the story he received from Mark. This fact alone entails P(e|HISTORICAL.b) << P(e|MYTHICAL.b). But we needn't stop there.
In Matthew the placing of the seal (Matthew 27:66) is described with the exact same verb used in the Greek edition of the Daniel story (sphragizô), which is in both stories a rather unusual detail. This evokes a meaningful parallel: Jesus, facing real death, and sealed in the den like Daniel, would, like Daniel, escape death by divine miracle, defying the seals of man. The parallels are too dense to be accidental: like the women who visit the tomb of Jesus at the break of dawn (Matthew 28:1), the king visits the tomb of Daniel at the break of dawn (Daniel 6:19); the escape of Jesus signified eternal life, and Daniel at the same dramatic moment wished the king eternal life (Daniel 6:21; cf. 6:26); in both stories, an angel performs the key miracle (Matthew 28:2, Daniel 6:22); and after this miracle in Matthew, the guards curiously become “like dead men” (Matthew 27:4) just as Daniel's accusers are thrown to the lions and killed (Daniel 6:24). The very unusual choice of phrase “like dead men” in Matthew thus becomes explicable as an allusion to these victims in Daniel. The angel's description is also a clue to the Danielic parallel: in the Septuagint version of Daniel 7:14, an angel is described as “and his garment white as snow”; in Matthew 28:3, the angel is described as “and his garment white as snow,” in the Greek every word identical but one (and that a cognate), and every word but one in the same order. Another angel in Daniel 10:6 is described as “his outward appearance as a vision of lightning” while the angel in Matthew is similarly described as “his appearance as lightning.” The imagery is thus a Danielic marker: Matthew is getting his ideas of what an angel looks like and how to describe one not from eyewitnesses but from Daniel, exactly where he's getting the lion's den story. (Matthew was fond of expanding on Mark by lifting ideas from Daniel, e.g., Matthew 17:6–8 takes material from Daniel 10:7–12 to expand on elements of Mark 9.)
Furthermore, Matthew alone among the Gospels ends his story with a particular commission from Jesus (Matthew 28:18–20) that matches many details of the ending of the Greek version of Daniel's adventure in the den: Jesus says God's power extends “in heaven and on earth,” to “go and make disciples of all nations” and teach them to observe the Lord's commands, for Jesus is with them “always” even “unto the end.” And so King Darius, after the miraculous rescue of Daniel, sends forth a decree “to all nations” commanding reverence for the Jewish God, who lives and reigns “always” even “unto the end,” with power “in heaven and on earth” (Daniel 6:25–28). The latter phrase in Greek is even identical in both cases. The stories thus have nearly identical endings. Indeed, the king's decree in Daniel reads like a model for the very Gospel message itself (see Daniel 6:25–27). And the episodes are framed the same way: in both Matthew and the Greek text of Daniel the stories introduce their parallel structure with the same verb and object, “to seal” (sphragizô) the “stone” (lithon), and conclude it with the same teaching about the Lord reigning until the “end” (telos; sunteleia) of the “eons” (aiôn; aiônas).
Since the placing of a “seal” is essential to creating the Danielic parallel, Matthew has a motive for inventing the entire motif of the guards in order to create the pretext, not only for the sealing, but for the clue of “becoming like dead men” and the angelic “miracle,” all elements unique to his story.
...Focusing on the emulation hypothesis alone, all six of MacDonald's criteria for literary emulation are met: the text being imitated (the Septuagint, which by then included the book of Daniel) was well-known and frequently used this way, and the comparison of Jesus with Daniel was a common one (so there are no deductions from the prior probability on that account); there are several significant parallels; the parallels often appear in the same order; the connection is confirmed by peculiar features (direct borrowing of terms and phrases; the unusual description of the guards); and the whole device reveals an obvious, intelligible meaning. Indeed, the story becomes interpretable, with obscure and seemingly confusing features suddenly making perfect sense (such as why the guards become “like dead men,” why the Jews bother with a seal when they have a guard, why an angel has to intervene even though Jesus is apparently no longer even in the tomb, and why Matthew alone reports any of this). All of these factors are more expected (and thus more likely) on the hypothesis of emulatory fabrication than on any other hypothesis. For all these coincidences with the Daniel story to have actually happened is intrinsically improbable (even if not impossible, certainly not highly probable—in fact it's highly improbable, the likes of which never found by chance anywhere else), but for these coincidences to exist as a product of emulatory fabrication is intrinsically likely (in fact, entirely expected).

11. Mark's penchant for fabrication is often denied, but is fairly well confirmed by now, e.g., Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988); Burton Mack, A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988); Dennis MacDonald, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000); Thomas Thompson, The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David (New York: Basic Books, 2005). See also Michael Vines, The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002). On this same subject I have also found useful the cautious but often apt analysis of R. G. Price, The Gospel of Mark as Reaction and Allegory (Raleigh, NC: Lulu.com, 2007). I will demonstrate this point in my next volume, On the Historicity of Jesus Christ.

30. Of course we now know that entire prophecy was a fabrication, the book of Daniel having been forged centuries after it purports to have been written, cf., e.g., André Lacocque, The Book of Daniel (Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1979). Although some early pagan critics of Christianity had noticed this, too. On this and other evidence of Jewish speculation regarding a “dying messiah” who would redeem Israel or otherwise presage the end of the world, see NIF, pp. 34–44 and Richard Carrier, “The Dying Messiah,” October 5, 2011, http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/2011/10/dying-messiah.html. Key evidence includes a pre-Christian Jewish pesher recovered from Qumran that makes this claim explicit, and at the same time links the dying messiah of Daniel 9 to the suffering servant of Isaiah 52–53 (11QMelch ii.18, aka 11Q13, http://www.gnosis.org/library/commelc.htm).

54. For the now-fragmentary Hazon Gabriel (or Revelation of Gabriel) as a possible foundational scripture for the Christians, see Israel Knohl, “‘By Three Days, Live’: Messiahs, Resurrection, and Ascent to Heaven in Hazon Gabriel,” Journal of Religion 88, no. 2 (April 2008): 147–58. It is likewise a known fact that many ancient manuscripts of the OT had variant readings unknown to us. The Dead Sea Scrolls revealed so many examples of new variants in the texts, peshers, and targums recovered there that we must conclude the quantity of still-lost variants is vast beyond reckoning, as that collection represents just a single library, and that of relatively small size.

68. Fairly thoroughly established by the analysis of Haim Cohn, The Trial and Death of Jesus (New York: Harper & Row, 1971). It can be added that publicly crucifying a beloved demagogue on (or the day before) a high holiday (Mark 11:1–11; Matthew 21:1–11; Luke 19:29–44; John 12:12–19) would be so politically suicidal (virtually guaranteeing riots and violence in the city) that it's simply unbelievable. The prior probability that the Jewish elite would be that stupid is vanishingly small (a fact fully admitted by Mark, cf. 14:1–2, who nevertheless has them stupidly contradict themselves in the very next chapter, which is a sign of bad fiction more than honest history). It's vastly more likely that they would simply have jailed him, incommunicado, until the holiday passed, and conducted a trial then, when the vast throngs of visitors in Jerusalem had thinned and the passions of the holiday had passed.

[I'd note that Josephus's Jewish Wars description of both the Roman and Jewish elites in Jerusalem is consistent with them not being politically suicidal or utterly moronic.]

118. On this and other ancient educational practices: David Gowler, “The Chreia,” in Levine, Allison, and Crossan, Historical Jesus in Context, pp. 132–48; Tim Whitmarsh, Greek Literature and the Roman Empire: The Politics of Imitation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Raffaella Cribiore, Gymnastics of the Mind: Greek Education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001); MacDonald, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, pp. 4–6 and Christianizing Homer: The Odyssey, Plato, and the Acts of Andrew (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); and extensively in Thomas Brodie's doctoral dissertation, “Luke the Literary Interpreter: Luke-Acts as a Systematic Rewriting and Updating of the Elijah-Elisha Narrative in 1 and 2 Kings” (Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, 1981), pp. 5–93.
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