This is Bookmarks. You’ll get a little look into what the show is reading right now in order to prepare for upcoming shows and get a glimpse into some upcoming books, many times before they’re released.
This 2nd edition of Bookmarks is on Dr. Richard Carrier’s upcoming book Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Dr. Carrier is a historian and philosopher specializing in the intellectual history of ancient Greece and Rome as well as in the philosophy of metaphysical naturalism. He has written or contributed to several important works including, as author, Not The Impossible Faith, Sense and Goodness Without God, and Why I am Not a Christian; plus, as contributor, The Empty Tomb, The Christian Delusion and The End of Christianity.
First, let’s get out of the way the question of the title– or, really rather the subtitle. This is the first of two volumes on the question of a historical Jesus. The second volume will suggest and argue for a new methodology for HJ research and then apply that method to the sources for Jesus to see if they can justify the position that there is a historical core to narratives about him to be found in the Gospels. But first, this volume is a defense of justifying descriptions of the past using a rigorous method called Bayes’s Theorem plus an examination of the currently employed criteria in Historical Jesus (HJ) research. Carrier (and me too) councils the reader not to be scared off by the notion of a theorem, that there’s very little math that’s required and what is required is intuitively grasped. Basically, the math is the formal expression of something that we all do already (assuming you use words like “probably”,”likely”, and phrases like “I doubt it”). Though the book is ultimately a discussion of the question of the historical Jesus, it (particularly the first part) functions as an excellent tutorial on Bayes’s and a convincing argument for its use in any situation where you’d like to make judgements under uncertainty and do so with rigor.
As I read this book I’m happy once again, as with all of Carrier’s writing, to find an easy conversational flow. Carrier talks with you, not to you. And indeed I know this to be a goal of his as in our first interview with him he expressed a desire when writing a book to have that book be accessible and appealing to the layman, not only the scholar. He succeeds.
The book is in essentially two parts. After first briefly laying out the general problems with the current state of Historical Jesus scholarship, with references and quotes from scholars in the field, he then moves on to a description of Bayes’s. His description assumes no prior familiarity and is in the simplest terms, easily accessible to anyone. He shows how Bayes’s works, why it works, and that it is the only method that is logically sound, that all other methods actually reduce to Bayes’s (for instance, Inference to the Best Explanation) or are logically invalid. He makes the case that even while these other methods reduce to Bayes’s we should be using Bayes’s instead because it formalizes an argument and lays bare its underlying assumptions, forcing them to be justified first; it also enables us, where no other method does, to judge just when an argument has enough evidence for it to get over the hump into believable territory (how probable is probable enough to earn the provisional label “true”?), and in a non-subjective way.
The second part is an examination of the current criteria in use in HJ scholarship. While there are dozens of criterion that have been proposed, many are simply different names for the same thing or overlap. Carrier identifies 18 that seem to be distinctive enough to merit a closer look. He then proceeds to the examination, exposing their logical and conceptual difficulties in principle and in practice, citing numerous scholars to back him up.
In the end, this is a great book for anyone interested in a primer on Bayes’s Theorem and its power as a critical thinking tool, in how best to (and how best not to) justify historical descriptions, and especially in HJ scholarship. Indeed, it seems no one will be able to discuss the HJ methodology currently in use and the Jesus (better: Jesuses) that it produces without responding to the scholarly critiques of that methodology Carrier pulls together in this one book. And on that score Carrier has done us a service because many of those critiques he pulls together are from numerous, often expensive books– Stanley Porter’s book on the subject from which Carrier quotes to good effect multiple times is US$180!– whereas this is just one quite inexpensive book.
We look forward to having Dr. Carrier join us on the show to discuss the book. And after reading this first of two volumes, I’m ready to urge his publisher Prometheus Books to take the option on the second volume and get it out to us!
Check out our first interview with Dr. Carrier where he discusses a bit about Bayes’s Theorem and check out his books, written or contributed to, in the links in this post above in the bookstore. Remember, purchases there are via Amazon and cost no more but Amazon shares a tiny slice of their profits with us.