The McGrews on Carrier on the McGrews

by Luke Muehlhauser on January 8, 2011 in Historical Jesus

In my latest interview with him, Richard Carrier had some harsh words for Tim & Lydia McGrew’s Bayesian defense of the Resurrection.

Concerning the goal of the McGrews’ argument, Carrier said:

…the article in the Companion to Natural Theology does not come to any conclusion. One of the conspicuously missing things is the prior probability, one of the key premises of the entire argument. All they talk about are what we call two of the four premises of Bayes’ Theorem and they make an argument from those two premises.

But you can’t reach a conclusion without answering the other two premises and they never do, which I find disturbing because it suggests… and they don’t really explain this very well, I mean they kind of hint at it…

All they argue is that certain evidence makes the resurrection more probable… Again, that’s completely useless information. We could go from 1% to 10%, that’s 10 times more probable. Yeah, that makes it more probable. It’s still 90% chance it’s false… So, it’s a useless argument. Why would they publish in a companion to natural theology an incomplete argument that doesn’t even argue for the resurrection? What’s the point of that? And not even to explain in a closing paragraph as you would in a science paper, for example. If you did this in a science journal, believe me, the peer review would mandate that you have this closing paragraph explaining that you haven’t actually proved your conclusion you have just done one step of two essentially to do that…

…It’s such a crappy article… it has all these fancy calculations and stuff that make it look very impressive. It seems to me like it is hoodwinking the public in a way.

During the interview, I said “right” and “yeah” often, which was meant as acknowledgment, not agreement. But I did say this: “Right. I think it is something a little slippery going on.” I later apologized to Lydia for that, saying:

I wanted to apologize to you for saying “Yeah, it does seem like something slippery is going on.” That was me getting caught up in the “yeahs” instead of taking the time to thoroughly compare Carrier’s claims [to] the words in your article! I hope you’ll forgive that and harbor no hard feelings!

Luckily, Lydia said “shake and pax on it!” Which I translated to mean, “It’s all good, yo.”

But now, what of Carrier’s claim that the McGrews are being slippery about the intended conclusion of their argument?

Actually, the McGrews are quite explicit about the goal of their article:

At the outset, we need to make it clear what argument we are making and how we propose to do it. The phrase “the argument from miracles” implies that this is an argument to some other conclusion, and that conclusion is most naturally understood to be theism (T), the existence of a God at least roughly similar to the one believed in by Jews and Christians. It is, however, not our purpose to argue that the probability of T is high. Nor do we propose to argue that the probability of Christianity (C ) is high. Nor, despite the plural ‘miracles,’ do we propose to discuss more than one putative miracle. We intend to focus on a single claim for a miraculous event – the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth circa A.D. 33 (R). We shall argue that there is significant positive evidence for R, evidence that cannot be ignored and that must be taken into account in any evaluation of the total evidence for Christianity and for theism. [emphasis added]

More specifically, they write:

Even as we focus on the resurrection of Jesus [R], our aim is limited. To show that the probability of R given all evidence relevant to it is high would require us to examine other evidence bearing on the existence of God, since such other evidence – both positive and negative – is indirectly relevant to the occurrence of the resurrection. Examining every piece of data relevant to R more directly – including, for example, the many issues in textual scholarship and archeology which we shall discuss only briefly – would require many volumes. Our intent, rather, is to examine a small set of salient public facts that strongly support R. The historical facts in question are, we believe, those most pertinent to the argument. Our aim is to show that this evidence, taken cumulatively, provides a strong argument of the sort Richard Swinburne calls “C-inductive” – that is, whether or not P(R) is greater than some specified value such as 0.5 or 0.9 given all evidence, this evidence itself heavily favors R over ~R.

Furthermore, Lydia said in my interview with her:

Roughly speaking, a Bayes factor tries to model, number one, which way the evidence is pointing and, number two, how strongly the evidence is pointing that way. And what you’re trying to do at that point is you’re trying to look at explanatory resources of the hypothesis, in this case, the resurrection, and the negation of the hypothesis. How well does each of these explain the evidence, and is there a big difference between how well each of these explains the evidence? …So we estimate Bayes factors for these various separate pieces of evidence, then we argue for the legitimacy of multiplying these Bayes factors… and that ends up with this very high, high combined Bayes factor in our estimate…

And so what we estimate is that you could have this overwhelmingly low prior probability… of 10^-40 and still give a probability to the resurrection in excess of .9999. And we don’t get to that by saying in fact the evidence gives us a posterior probability in excess of .9999. We just say, well this is the power of the… combined Bayes factor, and a combined power that great could overcome this great of a prior improbability and would give you this high of a posterior probability.

In a recent blog post, Lydia explains this more slowly:

The odds form of Bayes’s Theorem works like multiplying a fraction by a fraction…

The first fraction is the ratio of the prior probabilities. So, let’s take an example. Suppose that, to begin with (that is, before you get some specific evidence) some proposition H is ten times less probable than its negation. The odds are ten to one against it. Then the ratio of the prior probabilities is 1/10.

Now, the second fraction we’re going to multiply is the ratio of the likelihoods. So, for our simple example, suppose that the evidence is ten times more probable if H is true than if H is false. The evidence favors H by odds of 10/1. Then the ratio of the likelihoods (which is also called a Bayes factor) is 10/1.

If you multiply 1/10 × 10/1 you get 10/10.

The odds form of Bayes’s Theorem says that the ratio of the posterior probabilities equals the ratio of the priors times the ratio of the likelihoods. What this means is that in this imaginary case, after taking that evidence into account, the probability that the event happened is equal to the probability that it didn’t: what we would call colloquially 50/50. (You’ll notice that the ratio 50/50 has the same value as the ratio 10/10. In this case, that’s no accident.)

Okay, now, suppose, on the other hand, that the second fraction, the ratio of the likelihoods, is 1000/1. That is, the evidence is 1000 times more probable if H is true than if H is false. So the evidence favors H by odds of 1000 to 1.

Then, the ratio of the posteriors is 1/10 x 1000/1 = 1000/10 = 100/1, which means that after taking that evidence into account (evidence that is a thousand times more probable if H is true than if it is false), we should think of the event itself as a hundred times more probable than its negation.

See how this works?

What this amounts to is that if we can argue for a high Bayes factor (that second fraction), even if we don’t say what the prior odds are, we can say something very significant – namely, how low of a prior probability this evidence can overcome. That is exactly what we say in the second quotation from our paper that I gave above… We say that we have argued for “a weight of evidence that would be sufficient to overcome a prior probability (or rather improbability) of 10^–40 for R and leave us with a posterior probability in excess of 0.9999.”

In our paper, we concentrate on the Bayes factor. The Bayes factor shows the direction of the evidence and measures its force. We argue that it is staggeringly high in favor of R for the evidence we adduce. Naturally, the skeptics will not be likely to agree with us on that. My point here and now, however, is that neither in the paper nor in my interview was there a mistake about probability, any insignificance or triviality in our intended conclusion, nor any deception. We are clear that we are not specifying a prior probability (to do so and to argue for it in any detail would require us to evaluate all the other evidence for and against the existence of God, since that is highly relevant to the prior probability of the resurrection, which obviously would lie beyond the scope of a single paper). Nonetheless, what we do argue is, if we are successful, of great epistemic significance concerning the resurrection, because it means that this evidence is so good that it can overcome even an incredibly low prior probability.

(This should all be familiar to those who worked through my tutorial on Bayes’ Theorem.)

So what can we conclude?

I think Carrier was wrong to suggest that the McGrews were slippery in the way they presented their argument, because the McGrews were in fact quite explicit on several occasions in their article (and in my interview with Lydia) about the form of their argument. I also think Carrier was wrong to suggest that arriving at an exceedingly high likelihood ratio pointing toward the Resurrection is “completely useless information,” for the reasons Lydia explained above.

I’m also embarrassed to have agreed with Carrier that “it does seem like something slippery is going on.” (Hence my apology.) I had skim-read the McGrews’ paper about a year before my interview with Carrier, but had forgotten enough about it that I simply went along with Carrier rather than checking his accusations against the actual content of the McGrews’ paper.

Oh. Carrier also said Lydia’s “facts are all wrong.” That will have to be another debate, as we didn’t cover that in my interview with Carrier.

Finally, the community at Less Wrong may have some trenchant criticisms of the McGrews’ article.

Update: Richard Carrier, too, has apologized:

Dear Lydia,

I apologize for my remarks in my interview with Luke Muehlhauser. I badly overstated my impressions, and drew the wrong inference from what I took to be the opacity of your paper’s explanations. I agree with everything Luke has said in his latest blog on this question.

Your conclusion is useful if it were based on correct facts. Part of my point in the interview was that it was not, hence my conclusion was actually based on that statement (that your declarations regarding the facts were incorrect), not the actual mathematical result you produced which, if it were correctly derived from the facts,would be a strong result that would warrant more serious attention to the prior probability of divine intervention in the universe in general. And whether the facts are correct is a wholly separate issue Luke and I did not delve into in that interview (I do so in chapter eleven of The Christian Delusion, with further support in my book Not the Impossible Faith and chapters in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave–none of which address you specifically, only the evidence). I should have corrected myself on these points.

And you do explain the absence of prior probability calculations (I said you “hinted” at it, which is inaccurate hyperbole). What I should have said was that this explanation is too opaque to lay readers and most don’t understand this caveat. Which is why I keep having people come up to me saying your article gives a Bayesian proof that the resurrection occurred or that Lydia McGrew “proved” the resurrection accounts are true (which even you would agree is not an accurate description of what your article does). I was reacting to those claims, not yours. I shouldn’t have assumed this was your design, but only an accidental effect.

Again, I regret my hyperbolic remarks, and I have asked Luke to make public my corrections in these regards. I apologize for misrepresenting you and I hope I can mend fences on this score.

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Joel January 8, 2011 at 4:24 am

Regarding Bayesian Probability:

I’ve always wondered what the priors would be for objective value (intrinsic value; some physical property that causes our brains (and henceforth our teleofunctionalist minds) to value it).

I do think that there is posterior evidence for objective value:

1) It is more likely that a world with intrinsic value will have impassionate valuation (i.e. people are willing to sacrifice their subjectively valued interests to pursue the ostensibly objectively worthy object).

2) It is more likely that a world with intrinsic value will have consistent valuation (i.e. everyone values justice, fairness, etc).

3) It is more likely that people will have a ‘conscience).


Admittedly, all these empirical phenomena can be explained with objective value, but they are still evidence inasmuch as they are more likely given the truth of value realism.

But this is not enough: As posters here on CSA have pointed out vis a vis the Bayesian Teleological Argument, we can always postulate some really ontologically extravagent cause to explain some phenomena that is susceptible to perfectly natural explanation (e.g. life-favouring Yahweh vs. brute bio-chemical forces). The priors against (say) intelligent design have to be accounted for.

So my question is, how do we calculate, or approximate, priors for value realism? Perhaps realism in the context of natural selection – and the selection for social behaviour? Would this, as Nicholar Sturgeon and the Cornell realists say, beg the question against the realist? So really, how do we determine what is prior and what is posterior, in such a field where “moral theory as empirical explanation” is a relatively new idea, and where we have no background of priors to recalibrate?


Joel January 8, 2011 at 4:26 am

Correction: cf my first post, paragraph 7; “can be explained without objective value”.


Mike Gantt January 8, 2011 at 5:50 am

Most of this discussion is way above my head, but I can say this: From a human viewpoint, the resurrection of Jesus Christ seems highly probable. In fact, I’d say it’s about as close to 0 as you can get. From a divine perspective, however, it’s a slam dunk. The probability doesn’t just approach 1, it is 1. Of course, we’re not divine; we’re human. Therefore, I think atheists – or any other human being for that matter – who argues that Jesus’ resurrection is highly improbable is on solid ground. It’s the improbability of the event that makes its occurrence such stunning news.

Jesus was a born! So what? Jesus died! (Yawn.) Jesus was raised from the dead! Okay, at least now you’ve given us something to talk about!


Mike Gantt January 8, 2011 at 5:52 am

Sorry for the typo, folks. The “probable” at the beginning of line 3 should say “improbable.”


Ralph January 8, 2011 at 6:38 am

Lydia makes too many assumptions in her article. I’m not terribly impressed with the epistemic significance of their work. Garbage In Garbage Out, even with Bayes.


Luke Muehlhauser January 8, 2011 at 6:45 am


That may be true, but it’s irrelevant to what I’ve said. I just said that (1) the McGrews have been clear all along about the form and conclusion of their argument, and (2) showing an extremely high Bayes factor pointing to the Resurrection is epistemically significant.

Naturally, if their article failed to show an extremely high Bayes factor pointing to the Resurrection, then their article may not be epistemically significant.


Taranu January 8, 2011 at 6:49 am

Thank you Luke for making things clear. I did think you were confirming Carrier’s claims during the interview.

The McGrews’ argument from miracles seems to me very interesting and intriguing, but that might be because of my limited understanding of Bayesian inference and NT history.


TDC January 8, 2011 at 8:39 am

I hope criticism here and at lesswrong (and anywhere else, for that matter) will start to get more specific and take the paper more seriously. Critics realize this isn’t Josh McDowell their dealing with, right?


Rob January 8, 2011 at 8:50 am

I cannot comment on this math dispute, but I have read the article. They, like so many apologists, go on and on about various “facts”. But “fact” does not mean what they think it means.

One example.

“Several of those who claimed to be eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ undoubtedly
did suffer death for their testimony. We shall discuss the three best attested of these martyrdoms below.”

Then a few paragraphs down:

“One of the best attested of these is James bar Zebedee, whom we have already mentioned. His death was apparently the first martyrdom of an apostle. It is documented in Acts 12 and is not in any real historical doubt. The author of Acts gives few details, saying only that Herod “had James the brother of John put to death with a sword.””

That’s It! For the mcGrews, this is evidence that he was “undoubtedly” martyred. Undoubtedly? WTF?

So, this James guy was killed. Why was he killed? Why do the McGrews call this a “martyrdom”? We have no idea why he was killed, and whether it had anything to do with his alleged testimony of his alleged experience of Zombie Jesus.

Also, they say James claimed to be an eyewitness. Hogwash. This guy did not write anything. We have hearsay that he was a witness.

The article is filled with these “facts”. It’s total garbage.


Tony Hoffman January 8, 2011 at 9:19 am

I think you should hesitate to throw Carrier under the bus. Carrier struggled to state explicitly what was wrong with the article, but I think he is correct in that the authors imply that the historical data for the Resurrection is  so strong that it results in a high probability that the Resurrection occurred. The problem is the implications of the McGrews’ article, which seems  written to fortify the  belief that the probability  of  the Resurrection occurring is high, while providing enough language to dodge responsibility for  those who accuse them of making this accusation.

I don’t know much (anything?) about peer review, but isn’t it a basic requirement that the authors state or  summarize what their article is about? And shouldn’t language that  strays from this summary have been caught in review?

For example, from Luke’s  quote paragraph, the McGrews write:

“Even as we focus on the resurrection of Jesus [R], our aim is limited. To show that the probability of R given all evidence relevant to it is high would require us to examine other evidence bearing on the existence of God, since such other evidence – both positive and negative – is indirectly relevant to the occurrence of the resurrection.”

Okay, so it seems like they admit  that the probability of R is outside the scope of their paper. 
But in the same paragraph, they follow that up with:

“Our aim is to show that this [for the Resurrection having  occurred] evidence, taken cumulatively, provides a strong argument of the sort Richard Swinburne calls “C-inductive” – that is, whether or not P(R) is greater than some specified value such as 0.5 or 0.9 given all evidence, this evidence itself heavily favors R over ~R.”

WTF? I read this as stating that the likelihood of the Resurrection  having occurred is greater than it not having occurred. Didn’t they just say that’s outside the scope  of their  paper. 

So, not an expert here – I am probably misreading the text. But again, it seems  like the purpose of  editing and peer review would  help prevent  my confusion. 

So, I still agree with Carrier here — something fishy does seem to  be going on here.

Even as we focus on the resurrection of Jesus [R], our aim is limited. To show that the probability of R given all evidence relevant to it is high would require us to examine other evidence bearing on the existence of God, since such other evidence – both positive and negative – is indirectly relevant to the occurrence of the resurrection. Examining every piece of data relevant to R more directly – including, for example, the many issues in textual scholarship and archeology which we shall discuss only briefly – would require many volumes. Our intent, rather, is to examine a small set of salient public facts that strongly support R. The historical facts in question are, we believe, those most pertinent to the argument. Our aim is to show that this evidence, taken cumulatively, provides a strong argument of the sort Richard Swinburne calls “C-inductive” – that is, whether or not P(R) is greater than some specified value such as 0.5 or 0.9 given all evidence, this evidence itself heavily favors R over ~R.


Rob January 8, 2011 at 9:32 am


You are not misreading anything. The paper is poorly written. They say they want to make it very clear what the paper is showing, and then proceed to be very murky.


g January 8, 2011 at 11:51 am

The McGrews’ paper claims that the “facts” they appeal to contribute 10^44:1 evidence for the resurrection. Well, let me be a little more precise: at one point they kind of hedge that a bit, but elsewhere they say things like “this is enough to outweigh even a prior probability of 10^-40 and leave you with 99.99% confidence that the resurrection happened” (I’m paraphrasing here, not quoting).

Any reasonable person would look at that, say: no, wait, that’s obviously wrong, and pretty quickly see some problems — e.g., dismissing rival explanations because they’re rather far-fetched, but without the slightest reason to think they’re so far-fetched as to have p<10^-44 (which is approximately what they'd need to justify ignoring them while claiming such an outrageous Bayes factor).

Unless, of course, said reasonable person cared more about propaganda than truth.


Steven January 8, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Unfortunately, I don’t have enough to time today to read the article, so I’m wondering exactly how you would go about proving that someone resurrected after three days, especially if they reached the conclusion that it is highly likely that the resurrection happened. What do they have? Eye-witness reports? Martyrs? How in do any of those things prove anything?

Eye-witness reports in an age of superstition and unverified beliefs hardly amounts to a higher probability of an event occurring, especially when said event runs counter to all of our knowledge (mainly that no one can be resurrected). A few years ago, a radio broadcast of the War of the Worlds was taken to be true by the unsuspecting public, and various eye-witness reports saw flashing lights in the distance. If we were to do a Bayesian analysis, would it indicate that aliens really did come to Earth? And how do martyrs make it any more likely that someone resurrected? It assumes that people–especially back then–ALWAYS went with the most reasonable explanation of things or didn’t accept silly things (like a person coming back from life) unless there was extremely good reason for doing so, but again, this is not the case with people, hence why insane ideologies often overtake mankind, and yes, people are willing to die for silly things (Nazism, for example). To me, all that these accounts prove is that many Christians really believed, not that any of their beliefs are valid. I’m also wondering, suppose we ran a Bayesian analysis on that one Egyptian King (forgot his name) who believed only in the Sun-God. Imagine how much political danger he ran with that belief! Surely this makes it more probable that the Sun-God really existed, right?

This whole thing seems like an attempt to make a silly belief legitimate, and really, it seems like if we really wanted to, we can make any god that had a lot of support “more probable” if we really invested as much time as Christians do trying to validate their beliefs.

Of course, I’m speaking without reading the article but just a few comments that seem to paraphrase the article (but really, I don’t think there is any other “evidence” for the resurrection of Christ other than those two), so I’m probably speaking out of turn and criticizing this too harshly. And I really have to read the whole article before I can say whether Carrier was too harsh or not.


Jwahler January 8, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Luke, I originally interpreted your “yeah I think something slippery is going on”, as you saying that you thought there was something slippery going on in their approach in general and not so much the particular of them using a Bayes factor. Maybe you did mean slippery in the particular and not it the general. Just to clarify, are you now saying you think there is nothing slippery going on in the methodology or goal, but that there is something slippery going on in the appropriation of priors relative to the alternative naturalistic hypothesis’ as well as their evaluation of the so called ‘facts’?


Luke Muehlhauser January 8, 2011 at 12:28 pm


There’s nothing wrong with the overall strategy of merely trying to demonstrate a very high Bayes factor pointing us toward one kind of conclusion. Whether the facts or right, or the whether the argument succeeds, that is another matter… about which I have no stated opinion.


Rob January 8, 2011 at 12:36 pm

For those who care about what is actually true, a “fact” means “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent”.

None of the so-called “facts” that the McGrews allege comes close this degree of confirmation. Does any reasonable person think the empty tomb is a “fact”, as I have defined it?

When Carrier called the article “crappy”, he was being polite.


JWahler January 8, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Luke, your right and I agree, nothing wrong with using the Bayes factor to point towards a conclusion. So you mistakenly agreed with Dr. Carrier about the use of the Bayes factor or the lack of a determination about the probability of the resurrection in the paper, but surely you do have an implied opinion about the facts; how odd would it be indeed for an atheist like you and I to say “the methodology is on the up and up, the facts are in fact facts, and the posterior probability approaches .999…. But I still dont believe in the resurrection.”. I understand you being coy about your ‘stated opinion’ to keep us all in anticipation of your follow-up post, but the cat may be out of the bag given your impressive body of work here thus far. Really just giving you a hard time. Would enjoy Dr. Carrier buzzing in on this.


Chuck January 8, 2011 at 1:55 pm

I’d like to see peer review of the McGrew’s paper with transparency to their facts that (R) occurred and let us test the hygiene of their purported data.

I really don’t understand the applicable use of their conclusion without examining the prior probabilities. They should do that and then discuss the probability of the resurrection. Otherwise it seems like nothing more than earnest Christians reaching for parts of a justified decision science to authenticate their feelings. Big deal. Who cares.

Lydia, do all the work and then you will have my respect. As such, you are simply stacking the deck in favor of your preferred belief without exhausting the full scope of the decision science you seem to be aware of. Do the work and then publish. Otherwise all you are doing is preaching to the choir. If not slippery it sure does seem self-satisfied and pretentious.


Ryan January 8, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Here’s my take on the issue: One of Carrier’s main criticisms of the McGrews was wrong, and wrong in a significant way. That maybe because he didn’t read the article carefully or maybe because he hasn’t read it recently, or both. Nonetheless, I’m glad he apologized for it, it reflects well on him.

All of this is irrelevant to someone who wants to know whether the resurrection really happened, or whether the McGrews’ article shows that it probably happened. BTW, the article can be read here:

I read the article quite a while ago, and I am in the process of reading it for the second time. So far, I think quite a lot of it is questionable, and I intend to blog about this in the future.


albert maas January 8, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Maybe we can dilute this argument with a little water and come up with a better understanding of the Resurrection.


Luke Muehlhauser January 8, 2011 at 4:03 pm


Well, here’s my stated opinion: I would be very surprised to consider the McGrews’ argument thoroughly (which would include studying the relevant history and methodology) and come out agreeing with their conclusion.


Chuck January 8, 2011 at 4:09 pm

I don’t think the McGrew’s have an argument. They have a provisional conclusion that supports their presupposition based on partial application of a decision science. An argument using decision science should allow one to make a decision. Their work doesn’t do that.


Shane Steinhauser January 8, 2011 at 8:54 pm

For those who care about what is actually true, a “fact” means “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent”.None of the so-called “facts” that the McGrews allege comes close this degree of confirmation. Does any reasonable person think the empty tomb is a “fact”, as I have defined it?When Carrier called the article “crappy”, he was being polite.  (Quote)

Under Christian logic, three eyewitness accounts from 2,000 years ago equal absolute proof. This is because, apparrently historians consider anything that meets a certian criteria of historicity to be true. And if you doubt the empty tomb then according to Christians you have to doubt nearly all history as well, since your only way of knowing most history to be true is whether or not it meets the criteria of historicity.

Of course most apologists simply don’t understand that historians use inductive reasoning which only shows that the empty tomb is probable, not that it actually existed. This probability of an empty tomb is far less probable than someone simply being mistaken though. Also most apologists don’t seem to understand that eyewitness testamony for things such as bigfoot, nessy, aliens, or gods are almost always unreliable. If eyewitness testamony were reliable concerning that stuff then all those things would exist. Not all those things exist though which shows what a horrendous fallacy it is to appeal to eyewitness testamony.

Then we have the fact that none of the Gospels were written by their supposed writers. The book of John admits that John didn’t write John. Mathew, refers to himself in the third person, which nobody would do if they had actually authored a book about themselves. Luke, doesn’t know Paul’s traveling plans as recorded in Galatians, yet claims to have been a traveling companion of Paul. Mark is attributed based on Papias’ testamony who heard from some guy who heard from some guy etc. Also Mark doesn’t know his Old Testament which he would know if he had actually studied under Peter. Case Closed.


Ed Babinski January 8, 2011 at 10:00 pm


In genetics you can study definite genes and work on chi square formula and probabilities. And you can even compared genomes across closely related species for specific genes and gene segments and their locations in related genomes.

So I understand how math and evolutionary biology overlap.

But how exactly does math and history overlap?

Is there some universally recognized “DNA structure” shared by all historic events that one can compare? The theory of “memes” compared with say “genes” is far less exact and controversial. So there is no genetic code to history, no universally recognized structure to all historical events that one may compare mathematically.

And the study of psychology and comparative religion demonstrate a broad range of experiences people have from visual hallucinations including “appearances of loved ones soon after their death” to “auditory hallucinations.”


Ed Babinski January 8, 2011 at 10:01 pm

Do resurrection apologists discuss the milieu of thought back then? The rise of apocalyptic hopes, dreams of salvific Messiahs, and the prevalence of miraculous tales in general? I can’t help but think of how crazy it was at that time for any nation to go up against Rome. It appears that the rise of intertestamental apocalyptic literature like Daniel, and older stories in the O.T. about God saving the Jewish people, led to a sort of frustration, anger, and finally religious first century madness.

Josephus says tens of thousands tried following some Egyptian outside Jerusalem and the Egyptian thought God was going to make the walls of Jerusalem fall down, presumably on the Jews that did not follow him and on the Roman occupiers still inside the city.

The writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls, writing more than a generation before Jesus believed that within a generation the Jews of the world would return to Jerusalem, train for battle and wage war against the rest of the world in a final battle called the battle between the sons of light and sons of darkness.

Crazy times breed crazy stories, hyperbole, embellishments. Have resurrection apologists seriously considered such a milieu, i.e., when ATTEMPTING TO ARGUE VIA MATHEMATICS how “rock solid” the thinking and storytelling of religious believers was at that time and that place?

The Jesus story has to begin being told before Jesus, before the Baptist, even before the Dead Sea Scroll writers, it has to begin with the rise of apocalpytic in intertestamental times, the Maccabean revolt against the Greek rulers of Palestine. And the craziness extended after the Greeks were overthrown, and Romans took over the land, with increasing agitation, not just the skirmishes leading up to the 70 AD war against Rome, but even a second revolt against Rome a century or so later, and the institution briefly of a Messiah King in Israel in the 2nd century.

See also




There are more questions than resurrection apologists seems to be capable of even recognizing.

And one need not provide reasons for every rumor or legend that got put into the Christ story (the story itself was written in Greek, outside Palestine, and there is prima facie evidence of literary dependence from Mark onward, one writer copying and changing the tale over time, not independent Gospel witnesses). Nor is there a need to supply reasons for every “appearance” story. One need only note the prima facie evidence for legendary additions, subtractions, edits, over time.

Do resurrection apologists imagine such stories are the best evidence an infinite God could or would provide if that God really thought people must believe in certain things. . . or else?


Ed Babinski January 8, 2011 at 11:33 pm

What are the odds of someone raised fundamentalist Baptist like Lydia McGrew, concluding that the odds of the beliefs she was raised with are not true?

When I think of the ways an infinite God could have proven the resurrection and the bodily ascension into heaven, my mind boggles at the paltry nature of the Gospel stories. Partisan tales, unnamed Gospel authors. Writing during a crazy heated apocalyptic-minded, and miracle-minded time period. Only Paul names himself and says something about the resurrection first hand. Has God or man preserved Paul’s first person testimony for us? Yes, and here’s all that Pauls says, “Jesus appeared to me.” That’s the only first person named testimony submitted in the N.T. (Excepting perhaps “John’s” vision of Jesus in Revelation. Which “John” is that? Scholars disagree. And Revelation is probably a literary compilation of different texts including 1 Enoch, and not a vision at all. The author is employing the visionary motif, common for apocalypses. It is also questionable whether the Petrine epistles were composed by Peter. So we’re left only with Paul’s first person statement, “Jesus appeared to me.”)

An infinite God apparently saw fit to leave behind very interesting evidence from the past. We have inter-testamental literature. We have the Dead Sea Scrolls. We have stories of first century charismatic Jewish wonder workers. We have manuscripts from Oxyrinchus. But our only complete Gospels date from the third century and they’re composed in Greek, not even the language of Jesus. They were composed by Christians living outside Palestine. We don’t know what stories from whom reached these communities outside of Palestine or what changes and additions and embellishments were made along the way as the stories continued being passed round orally outside Palestine before being committed to Greek. But the point is that an infinite God could have preserved first century manuscripts, even in Jesus’ own langauge (Aramaic), and could have left behind definitive evidence as to where Jesus was buried, could have provided first person stories galore, could have had the resurrected Jesus preach to the entire city of Jerusalem, could have had Jesus rise into heaven in sight of the city of Jerusalem, could have left behind the names of the “many raised saints” and the people to whom they appeared when they entered the holy city, and what they said and what happened to them. Could have left behind stories Lazarus told to others after being raised and what happened to him. Could have left behind stories of others who knew such people. Could have left behind the parables and teachings of the post-resurrected Jesus, what the raised Jesus told the people on the road to Emmaus when he was delivering apparently a long sermon on the Christ in the Bible, could have preserved what raised Jesus taught the apostles during his weeks on earth before the ascension (as Acts claims, Jesus was around for weeks, teaching). Neither God nor man was interested enough to recall nor write down such lessons from the post-resurrection Jesus? But they recalled his pre-death parables, and even recalled such tidbits as the time Jesus looked at someone “with anger?” No one could remember these conversations, and furthermore the raised Jesus leaves town with a whimper, seen only by believers.

And God expects people to believe this all, and in a most “traditional” fashion? Or be damned for eternity?

Looking at all of the intertestamental literature and even first century literature that has been preserved, it’s clear that an infinite Being could have left behind evidence. Being infinite He could have inspired people in Jerusalem to carve words of Jesus or stories about Jesus inside first century burial chambers, or on pottery, or on rocks and made sure each generation would discover a few every generation. Such a Being could have provided us with an actual drawing on a pot or rock of Jesus’ face. And much more.

Let me tell you the story of Matthew Tindal who wondered about the same things I have. He was a deist, author of a book questioning the divine inspiration of the Bible in 1730, which he published at the age of 73. His book rec’d 150 replies that sought to counter it. In a slightly earlier age he would have rec’d no replies at all, except perhaps the hangman. It was Tindal’s book that called forth Bishop Butler’s Analogy of Religion, and Bishop Berkeley’s Alciphron. Tindal wrote a second volume, a companion to the first, but the manuscript fell into the hands of a bishop who destroyed it. “Tindal ranged with no tender mercies through all the fantasies of theology. He asked why God should have given his revelation to one small people, the Jews, had let it remain their exclusive possession for four thousand years, and then had sent his son to them with another revelation that after seventeen hundred years was still confined to a minority of the human race. What sort of god could this be who used such clumsy methods with such tardy and inadequate results? What orgre of a god was this who punished Adam and Eve for seeking knowledge, and then punished all their posterity merely for being born? We are told that the absurdities in the Bible are due to God’s adapting his speech to the language and ideas of his hearers. What nonsense! Why could he not speak the simple truth to them intelligibly? Why should he have used priests as his intermediaries instead of speaking directly to every man’s soul? Why should he have allowed his specially revealed religion to become an engine of persecution, terror, and strife?”

Perhaps the most telling thing about Christianity (or should I say Christianities) is that since Constantine’s day Christians have been attacking each other, sometimes literally, other times, hotly debating Scripture interpretation and metaphysics, and are still doing it. For instance, Lydia McGrew calls herself a “traditional Christian,” and adds, “don’t get me started on the evils of the Emergent Church movement.” By Lydia is being far too nambsy pambsy by singling that solitary movement out when there’s moderates, liberals, and well over a thousand other Christian sects, as well as Bible revering and God fearing sects that highly revere Christ (but not enough for Linda’s taste), that I’m sure we’d better not “get Lynda started on the evils of.”

The McGrew’s are cordial people, they truly do wish everyone to be “saved” just as Lydia probably was when she was but a child. But her and Tim’s attempts to justify the religion they were raised to believe make them blind to all the of honest questions other people have, concerning the resurrection and much more. Not to mention the honest questions their own fellow Christians have, from those in the Emergent movement to a thousand other sects and movements.

When one truly adds up the probabilities that an infinite Being could inspire the production of the world’s most divine book, and add the Holy Spirit to lead people into the truth of all things, and add to that a new holy heart inside believers, one must conclude that with all such supernatural advantages, Christians in general are neither unified, nor saints, and thus what evidence is there truly that theirs is the one true faith?

Using Baye’s Theorem? Really? Why not have Baye’s Theorem Revivals? That ought to be fun. Bring together the most well qualified mathematicians on earth and the most well qualified biblical scholars on earth, and put them together in one room till they all come out holding hands, having arrived at the same end probabilities.

Lastly, if anyone wants to know what the probabilities truly are concerning conversion to Evangelical Christianity, I suggest they read this blog post: The continuance of Evangelical Christianity depends heavily on adolescents who “accept Christ” before they reach the age of 18. And adolescents do not know much about the Bible, history, science, psychology or religion; they are far from having peaked in their acquisition of worldly wisdom; and they are not known for their emotional maturity. Therefore, we have reason to doubt that such “decisions for Christ” are well informed. Yet Evangelical Christianity relies heavily on such decisions in order to continue at all. And the average age of conversion in America is 16 years. And the EIGHT PRIMARY MOTIVATING FACTORS are these:
(1) fears,
(2) other self-regarding motives,
(3) altruistic motives,
(4) following out a moral ideal,
(5) remorse for and conviction of sin,
(6) response to teaching,
(7) example and imitation, and
(8) urging and social pressure.
Recent studies reveal that people still become Christians mainly for these same reasons. Therefore, the reasons people become Christians appear to have at least as much to do with sociological factors as with purely ‘religious’ factors (for example, conviction of sin).

Furthermore, postadolescent persons do not seem to find Christianity as attractive as do persons in their teens. Indeed, for every year the non-Christian grows older than
25, the odds increase exponentially against his or her ever becoming a Christian.

That’s the probabilities regarding Christianity.

Did the editor of Blackwell’s Companion to Natural Theology consider taking a peek at at how and why people convert? There’s data in my blog entry that anyone studying such questions can discover.


Silas January 9, 2011 at 3:50 am

Very interesting stuff, Ed Babinski.


Chuck January 9, 2011 at 8:37 am

Yes Ed,

I’d say that given the McGrews priors that one could estimate a high probability they would misuse decision science to justify the veracity of their superstitious indoctrination.


Silver Bullet January 9, 2011 at 10:45 am

I sympathise a great deal with Tony Hoffman’s and g’s posts.

It sounds to me like the McGrew’s are trying to have their cake and eat it too.

There is something slippery going on there, even if it is implicit.


bram January 9, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I read the article of the McGrews and exchanged quite a few e-mails with them about some of the details.

In my opinion, the problem with the argument is that they calculate their Bayes factor under the assumption that the testimony of the 13 male witnesses (12 disciples and James, the brother of the Jesus) as being independent of each other. Under this assumption the Bayes factor of their combined testimony is the product of the 13 separate Bayes factors.

They go on to justify this assumption by saying that taking account of the dependencies between the testimonies will raise the Bayes factor, because they claim that there will be negative correlations between them.

Why? Because of the old “they dies for their faith” argument. If the first is killed, the others will be likely to drop their faith, thus even raising the Bayes factor even more.

However, once you argue that the disciples sincerely believed in the resurrection, this argument does not distinguish any more between R and ~R. Moreover, if we take group psychology into account, then certainly there should be positive correlations between the testimonies of the male disciples, which would lower the Bayes factor significantly.

At this point in our discussion, they claimed that the “disciples sincerely believed in the resurrection” would not work, because their testimony was not just that Jesus was risen, but also that they interacted with Jesus, talked to him, ate with him and more.

So this lead into a large debate about the reliability of the gospels and acts. They really think that all the post-resurrection stories are reliable, argue for an early date for the synoptics and really seem to dismiss all the results of historical critical research. So in the end that is where we ended up. Are the gospels reliable or not?


Rob January 9, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Thanks bram. I agree that their argument reduces to the oft repeated “die for a lie” trope. Unfortunately for the McGrews, we have zero eyewitness reports of anyone seeing a physical Jesus as well no persuasive evidence of anyone being martyred for claiming to have seen a resurrected Jesus. Paul having visions does not count.

When the McGrews use the word “fact”, they are not using it in the same way it is normally used.

Oh well. Nice try anyway.


Paul Baird January 10, 2011 at 10:42 am

Has anyone done any Bayesian analysis on a non-Christian miraculous event such as an Islamic claim for a miracle ?
I just find the whole idea a bit suspect and I would like to see the mothodlogy used not simply to prove a positive but also prove a negative.
However, if the methodology provides a similarly high probability for a non-Christian miracle then where does that leave the methodology, or even Christianity’s claim of exclusivity ?
Or are all miracles probably true ?


Argon January 10, 2011 at 10:56 am

Paul, one could evaluate ‘alien abduction’ and ‘recovered memories’.


Larkus January 10, 2011 at 11:04 am

ProfMTH made a highly interesting video series about the die-for-a-lie argument.

‘Did the disciples die for a lie?’ by ProfMTH


Tony Hoffman January 10, 2011 at 11:10 am

My experience with Christians and miracle claims is this:

1) Christians will happily accept that miracles happen all the time.
2) Christians will then claim that the real problem isn’t in determining if miracles occur, but which God is responsible for them.
3) Once the possibility of a high frequency of miracles has been accepted, Christians will then claim said miracles as evidence for the Christian God. The discussion then leaves reality (where miracles do not happen) and enters crazy world. Thomism will come up.

That why I think the kind of analysis you propose is fated as a non-starter — because Christians and atheists won’t be able to agree on what the frequency of authentic miracles are. I know that I’m starting with a baseline of: None. A Christian wants to increase the priors for miracles, I say, let them define how we can detect what a miracle is (so we can then count them), then we can get our priors from there.

It never gets off the ground. As, I think, it shouldn’t. Some birds aren’t made to fly, and I think that baby’s one of them.


Paul Baird January 10, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Argon – yes, and why not and what if the methodology works for that too ?


Tim January 13, 2011 at 4:42 am

Apart from contesting the math, Ed Babinski’s copious contribution above is very worthwhile.

As is his recent blog post showing the sort of simplistic Evangelical approach to the gospels themselves which Tim McGrew displays. The McGrews read the texts through the eyes of prior belief and seemingly ignore the copious scholarly work of the past century or so which demonstrates how much of a concoction the whole story is.


Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }