Regular readers of my blogarooney will have to peel their eyebrows from the ceiling, because given the stories we have in the bible, it does not at first glance appear possible that the McGrews could say such a thing. Yet that is what they argue, and they use a lot of fancy-looking mathematical footwork to show that to be the case.
Gadzooks! (I hear you cry). How in heck can they do that with some very contradictory passages that were only written down several decades after the death of Jesus the Nazarene by people who never even met him, and were not present at the supposed resurrection? And you would be right. At least part of the answer to that question lies in this statement from their article:
Our argument will proceed on the assumption that we have a substantially accurate text of
the four gospels, Acts, and several of the undisputed Pauline epistles (most significantly
Galatians and I Corinthians); that the gospels were written, if not by the authors whose names
they now bear, at least by disciples of Jesus or people who knew those disciples – people who
knew at first hand the details of his life and teaching or people who spoke with those
eyewitnesses – and that the narratives, at least where not explicitly asserting the occurrence of a
miracle, deserve as much credence as similarly attested documents would be accorded if they
reported strictly secular matters.
Now just hang on there a minute, my good man and lady - you are proceeding on some mighty questionable assumptions there! We actually have very very little evidence on which to base such a strong conclusion, and when you take these stories, such as they are, together, it is not at all clear what sort of resurrection we are talking about. At the very best, it seems that the body of Jesus the Nazarene might have gone missing, and in the cognitive dissonance, confusion and grief that followed, certain vulnerable folks claimed to have seen visions of him, and concluded that in some sense he had been "raised" from the dead. That we can make a connection between this sorry state of affairs and an *actual* miraculous resurrection seems rather hopeless.
But why do the McGrews do this? Why do they need to front-load their argument with such a contentious and unsupportable set of assumptions? The answer, it would seem, is that it helps buttress their argument and avoid the sorts of Bayes factors that undermine their conclusions, as long as they declare them and neutralise them up front, rather than factoring them into the argument.
And what constitutes a "similarly attested document"? The external attestation of pretty much anything reported in the gospels is nil (even leaving aside the fact that Matthew and Luke grabbed most of their narrative from the pre-existing gospel of Mark, plus other sources). It's all rather suspicious.
But there is a wider malaise at work here - ever since the dolorous Richard Swinburne let rip his own foray into Bayesian territory, some Theistic Christian apologists (not to be confused with the growing ranks of Atheistic Christians) have leapt on Bayes like squirrels on a Snickers to try to use its seemingly arcane powers of mathematical robustness to splint the legs of their teetering sacred cows, and try to bamboozle poor philosophers (who really have trouble dealing with mathsy things) into thinking that the arguments for ancient imaginary space pixies are a lot stronger than they actually are. But Bayes' Theorem is a wonderful little tool - we use it in Genetics all the time, and it is a common feature of many risk estimation algorithms and programmes. Do not try to fool Bayes - Bayes will find you out!
So things are not going well for the paper so far. In a future post I will proceed a little further into this curious article to see if any nuggets gleam from within the vein, and maybe explain a little more about the remarkable Bayes' Theorem as we go.
Spoiler alert: I will destroy Swinburne and the McGrews in the process, and show beyond reasonable doubt that the resurrection did not, in fact, occur. Sorry to give the game away so early! You're drooling already - I can tell!