Monday, May 30, 2011

Sources of the Jesus Tradition

Several months ago the papers of the 2008 Amherst conference finally appeared in print. Sort of. I have a lot of problems with this, and the following is a review of the successes and failures of the new book Sources of the Jesus Tradition: Separating History from Myth (Prometheus Books 2010).

I've been working on this review for a long time, but too many other matters kept taking precedence (especially a surprising flood of appearances I was booked for this year). This turned out to be helpful, as I had more time to reflect on what went wrong. I have to conclude it represents an epic fail for the editor R. Joseph Hoffmann. Prometheus is just the unfortunate victim. I've spoken with several persons involved. But in private conversations about some of the problems I had with the book, Hoffmann was a complete dick to me, and wouldn't own up even to the mistakes I had actual proof he had made. Rumor has it he's like this. But this was my first experience of it. His behavior toward me leaves me with no further sympathy for him, so here it goes...

Summarizing the Suck

The book has enough merits to be worth buying (almost...regardless of its list price, it's only actually worth maybe $15, so if you can find a copy in that ballpark, go for it). But its flaws are frustrating in the extreme. I'll discuss them at greater length below (as well as what's still good), but here I'll just summarize them. First, there is no logical order to the chapters (they are thrown into the book seemingly at random, despite the fact that there is an obvious order to put them in--this is just quintessential lazy editing), there is no evidence that the editor worked with the authors to make their chapters better or more appropriate to the venue, and actual mistakes were made that, despite his being advised of them in advance of publication, were not corrected.

All that would amount to just an amusing defect to chuckle about, in an otherwise excellent book, but the biggest disaster is what makes it not excellent to begin with. Fifteen chapters are included in this book, a third of which were not even presented or even scheduled to be presented at the conference. That alone is shocking, but worse, to include these "surprise" five chapters, three papers that were presented were left out, two of which were in fact among the best papers presented at the conference! In addition to which, two of the chapters that were rightly included are substantially inferior to what was actually presented at the conference. Even the two papers scheduled but not presented (by Hector Avalos and Philippa Carter, who each could not attend due to separate emergencies), despite having been circulated beforehand, were not among the "added" chapters. I wouldn't expect them to be, but adding those would at least make sense, whereas the chapters that were added don't. Adding insult to injury, three of the added chapters (the chapters, remember, that weren't presented at the conference nor ever scheduled to be and thus not circulated or discussed by anyone there) are by...drum roll...R. Joseph Hoffmann. That's more than half of the "added" chapters. All by our illustrious editor. And they all suck. But more on that later.

In short, almost half the book could be torn out without losing anything of value, while half of what would have made this book superb, and required reading by scholars the world over, was torn out instead. That alone renders this book an epic fail. Rumor has it that "perhaps" there will be a second volume that will redress this grave mistake, including the "lost" chapters (and, I suppose, adding even more bogus ones, as if to pad it out for some reason, the way this one was). But no one I have spoken with will confirm this. Not even Hoffmann. It doesn't seem likely at this point.

I still recommend buying it, if you can afford it, since there are at least four chapters in it that are superb and still, IMO, required reading (although one of those is mine, so if you discount my personal bias, there are then only three), and three others that are not required reading but nevertheless worth reading.

So much for my summary. Now for those who want more detail I shall digress...

The Backstory

This book was supposed to be, and in the hands of a competent editor would have been, a superb book, a must-buy for anyone studying Jesus. As one can already conclude from my descriptions and rave reviews of almost all the papers presented at the Amherst Conference in 2008, which had the same title as the book (see my previous blog on the Amherst Conference).

This, in turn, was supposed to be the first of many conferences in the newly launched Jesus Project aimed at working out the correct method for studying the historical Jesus and ascertaining what facts can be known about him (see my previous blog on The Jesus Project). That project has been canceled and (as far as I can tell) completely scrapped. Some have blamed Hoffmann, others Ron Lindsay, for the demise of the Jesus Project, but I doubt either story (no one who tells me either can give me any verifiable evidence, and the stories of infighting are all contradictory). It seems self-evident that it was killed by the recession. CSH (which funded CSER which launched The Jesus Project) literally lost half its endowment in a single year. They had to make massive cuts in spending and projects, and I'm not at all surprised The Jesus Project was among the baggage tossed into the drink so CSH could stay above water. I probably would have axed it myself had I been the one to decide what goes and what stays. CSH has a much bigger mission.

Things have improved since then (stocks are up, wealthy donors are almost flush again, the endowment is getting back to where it had been), but as far as I hear still not back to pre-2008 levels, and the lessons learned may prevent the CSH from ever trying anything so ambitious again. Unless someone out there starts seriously funding them. No more half-assed donations, but big money. So if you are a megamillionaire and outraged by the cancellation of the Jesus Project, you need to call the CSH and put up some outrageous cash. The CSH is probably right to assume that's never going to happen. And that's the end of it.

The Lesser Mistakes

So the JP is dead. But they could at least have gone out with a bang, producing a fantastic, historic book. And when it comes to figuring out why they didn't, the only suspect I can find is Hoffmann. Perhaps someone at Prometheus Books balked at producing a 400-page book, panicking at the massive losses brought on by the recession, but even if that happened (and I have no evidence it did, and very much doubt it), a good editor would have fought tooth and nail against that reaction and won them over. Because a complete book would have been among the greatest contributions to any field that Prometheus has published, a book that would in fact have become required reading in that field for generations to come. If Hoffmann couldn't sell that fact to PB (or didn't even try), then I call lame.

Here is the actual table of contents (chapters that are essentially the papers presented are in black, chapters that are "sort of" but not quite are in green, and chapters that were never a part of the conference are in red):
  1. R. Joseph Hoffmann, "Preface: Of Rocks, Hard Places, and Jesus Fatigue"

  2. Dennis R. MacDonald, "An Alternative Q and the Quest of the Earthly Jesus"

  3. R. Joseph Hoffmann, "Jesus and the Brothers: The Theology of the Imperfect Union"

  4. Justin Meggitt, "Popular Mythology in the Early Empire and the Multiplicity of Jesus Traditions"

  5. Richard C. Carrier, "Baye's Theorem for Beginners: Formal Logic and Its Relevance to Historical Method"

  6. Robert M. Price, "The Abhorrent Void: The Rapid Attribution of Fictive Sayings and Stories to a Mythic Jesus"

  7. Bruce Chilton, "Jesus' Dispute in the Temple and the Origin of the Eucharist"

  8. David Trobisch, "The Authorized Version of His Birth and Death"

  9. Frank R. Zindler, "Prolegomenon to a Science of Christian Origins"

  10. Robert Eisenman with Noelle Magana, "'Every Plant Which My Heavenly Father Has Not Planted Shall Be Uprooted'"

  11. R. Joseph Hoffmann, "On Not Finding the Historical Jesus"

  12. Ronald A. Lindsay, "Assessing the Evidence: Historical and Legal Perspectives"

  13. Gerd Lüdemann, "Paul as a Witness to the Historical Jesus"

  14. J. Harold Ellens, "Jesus' Apocalyptic Vision and the Psychodynamics of Delusion"

  15. R. Joseph Hoffmann, "Epilogue: The Canonical-Historical Jesus"
I'll revisit this TOC later. But for now, notice how the order of chapters makes no logical sense. It doesn't even follow the logical arrangement in which the papers were presented at the conference. And an even better arrangement should be obvious. Either way, Lindsay's chapter should certainly have been the first, as it discusses fundamental issues that all the subsequent chapters then deal with. Stumbling across it near the end of the book simply makes no sense. 

None of Hoffmann's chapters are worth reading. I recommend you skip them, or paint them with pretty colors or something. His last (which appears to have some of what he presented at the conference) at least has interesting things to say, but doesn't even try to prove any of them, and is too brief to be of any use. Chilton's chapter (which isn't even remotely the paper he delivered at the conference) is likewise a waste of time. As with a lot of his opus generally, it starts with assumptions so wholly dubious that his entire argument is not even worth the bother of reading, not least because he doesn't even interact with the scholarship on the topic his chapter is supposed to be about, so it doesn't even have any value as a reference work. And his entire methodology is scandalously defective, practically making this chapter a poster child for how not to argue for historical conclusions. The paper he actually presented at the conference was at least interesting and useful. This one is neither. And Eisenman's chapter can be disregarded for much the same reasons--though at least this chapter is more intelligible than his conference paper (I notice he got a co-author, perhaps to tame his seeming insanity...nevertheless the arguments and assumptions of this chapter remain almost as insane).

Excluding those chapters, the remaining order should be: Lindsay, Zindler, Carrier, on method and basic principles; then Meggitt and Price (and of cut chapters, Droge), on comparative material that must inform the application of those methods; then Trobisch and MacDonald (and of cut chapters, the paper Chilton actually delivered at the conference) on crucial preliminary findings affecting the application of any method; and then finally Lüdemann and (the second half of) Ellens (and of cut chapters, Tabor) on the kinds of results sound methods might achieve. I include half of Ellens here, even though he didn't present at the conference, only because the second half of his chapter is interesting enough to read (the first half could have been cut without loss--so, IMO, start reading his chapter at p. 226), the only "addition" worthy of such a remark. I'll say more about that later.

If you read this book, do it in that order. For ease, just label the TOC in your copy as follows: X, 7, X, 4, 3, 5, X, 6, 2, X, X, 1, 8, 9, X. Then skip every chapter labeled "X" and read the remaining chapters in the new order in which you just labeled them. That's how the book should have been organized, or something at least like that. Instead, readers will be lost and confused, rambling from one unrelated topic to the next without explanation, wondering why on earth chapters that they should have read first are popping up at random places later on, or why certain chapters are even included at all.

A second problem is that it doesn't appear Hoffmann took any interest in getting these chapters better composed or more appropriately rewritten for this venue. Each author was thus left to his own devices. In some cases this worked fine. For example, Meggitt's chapter is perfect. In others, not. MacDonald's and Trobisch's chapters fall into this category. Ellens' chapter likewise could have been greatly reduced in size and given a clearer thesis statement, two things a good editor would have seen to. Zindler's chapter included controversial material that wasn't discussed at the conference (pp. 143-45), and some of his arguments are patently fallacious, and had I been editor I would have demanded these things be rewritten or excised, but that at least is a judgment call (though it's what any competent peer review would have demanded, and Hoffmann certainly should be qualified as a peer reviewer here, and an editor ought to act as one, IMO).

But those last two are less annoying than what happened to MacDonald and Trobisch. MacDonald's chapter in this book is a highly technical bare-bones survey of the comparative results of his new theory that Mark, Matthew, and Luke all used not Q but a lost "Deuteronomy Gospel" in which the story of Jesus parallels, point for point, the entire book of Deuteronomy (mythically constructing Jesus as a new Moses). As such the chapter is purely a reference work for people wanting to pursue the theory, not an argument for that theory, and most readers will find it unintelligible or unreadable. Hence its being the first chapter in the book, after Hoffmann's indulgently irrelevant "preface," is one of the weirdest editorial choices I've ever seen.

As editor I would have told MacDonald to compose instead of this a chapter more like what he presented at the conference, and circulated beforehand: an actual survey of the evidence and argument for this proposed reconstruction, not the actual reconstruction itself. And this wouldn't be difficult, as MacDonald would need merely excerpt and adapt the pages on this from his forthcoming book, which he precirculated, so I know this excellent material exists, and so should Hoffmann. No editor worth his salt would let this go. As it is, no one is going to be persuaded by MacDonald's chapter that his thesis is correct, and many won't even be able to grasp what his thesis is. And that's a terrible shame, because MacDonald has really good arguments and evidence supporting this thesis, and for it not to be here is a scandal. I wonder if MacDonald was even consulted about this (or if Hoffmann just grabbed one piece of MacDonald's precirculated material and slapped it in), but even had he been and asked this be done, I (like any good editor) would have persuaded him not to go with that, but something more persuasive and summarizing, using the other material I already knew he had. Instead, this chapter is a lost opportunity, and is not really worth reading, unless you are a serious bible scholar keen on reverse-engineering his thesis from a long, raw list of its results.

Trobisch's chapter is likewise disappointing. It is not the material presented at the conference. Instead it's a rather random grab bag of, again, some of the results of his thesis, rather than an argument for that thesis. At the conference he discussed numerous kinds of physical and textual evidence in the manuscripts that only makes sense if the New Testament was published, all 27 books, in codex form, near the end of the 2nd century. He made a pretty convincing case, adding to the case made in his CSER article (issue 2.1, possibly the same as published in Free Inquiry 28.1), which is actually more worth reading than this chapter, as is his book on this subject (The First Edition of the New Testament), and yet there was a lot of material in his conference presentation that isn't in either. None of which is in this chapter. Again, a great loss, as the material actually presented would have made this chapter, and with it the whole book, required reading. I can't fathom any editor not agreeing with that and convincing Trobisch of it and thus getting the best chapter in the book (particularly as it was the actual conference paper), rather than this one, which is mediocre, and won't convince anyone of anything.

Finally there are actual mistakes in the edit. I caught some of them long before publication and asked Hoffmann to make the corrections. He never did. Instead, he slagged me off as a liar when I complained about this afterward. Bizarrely, as "proof" that I had not asked him to make this change, he quoted back to me the email I had sent months before publication asking him to make the change. Thereby tempting me to conclude that he must be a lunatic. I was also never shown a galley proof, and thus never had any opportunity to review the edit for further errors. I only caught other errors in the CSER publication of the same chapter and thus informed him of them prior to seeing any galleys. I was expecting to get a chance to do a final error check from a galleys, but I never got one. As I have gotten one on every other Prometheus anthology project I've worked on, the dropped ball here is almost certainly Hoffmann's.

If this is how I was treated, I can only assume other authors may have been similarly treated, so there may be other defects of the chapters those authors would have corrected had they been given the chance. The entire book should thus be read in that light, with charity to the authors. Blame any correctable errors on the editor.

As for my chapter, you should make the following changes to your copy of the book: the first sentence on p. 92 should end with an end- parenthesis (after the "S1"); in the second paragraph on p. 97 every time the word "equation" appears (except the first one, in the first sentence, which is correct), cross it out and write in "expression" instead (doesn't affect anything but it's important to get the terminology right); every time the phrase "posterior probability" appears (in bold on p. 98 and 99, and in the plain text atop p. 100) cross out "posterior" and write in "consequent" (everyone I've spoken with agrees there is still no ideal convention for naming this term here, and in consultation with mathematicians I settled on the latter, the former being too confusing because "posterior probability" also refers to the conclusion of an entire Bayesian equation). Also, on p. 107, my forthcoming book that will discuss Bayes' Theorem will now have a different title, although its present working title is Bayes' Theorem and Historical Method, and On the Historicity of Jesus Christ will later apply the method.

(For convenience, readers who want to keep up with my adjunct materials for this chapter, see my PDF document Bayes' Theorem for Beginners, which I have improved for accuracy, and now my Bayesian Calculator, still in development).

The Greater Mistakes

All that would merely be annoying. What actually all but ruins the book are the chapters left out, and the crap put in in their stead. I've already mentioned the effective losses of MacDonald's and Trobisch's original papers. But several papers were outright cut, for no reason I can tell.

Chilton's actual conference paper ("Aramaic Jesus Traditions: Evidence and Reconstruction") was about the development of the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon (effectively the Aramaic equivalent of the marvelous Thesaurus Linguae Graecae) and its use to develop a methodology for reconstructing the possible original Aramaic of the sayings of Jesus, and what this could tell us as far as determining their historicity. I think there were flawed assumptions in this, but it was at least interesting, important, and usefully general, i.e. it was an example of developing a new method, and a new technology, for studying the historical Jesus. The chapter that ended up in the book is none of these things, and has nothing at all to do with what Chilton talked about at the conference.

James Tabor's "Leaving the Bones Behind: A Resurrected Jesus Tradition with an Intact Tomb" was a smart work that would have been ground-breaking, and whether you agree with his conclusion or not, it would have become a required reading in the field, so it's absence here is a serious defect of this book. Tabor made a reasonably convincing case that John 21 (often recognized as a later addition) and Peter 14 both derive from the same lost source in which no empty tomb is recorded (or reported) as being discovered, Jesus is just "seen" in bizarre ways in Galilee by Disciples who had long since given up and returned to their jobs after his death. One might make the argument that this "lost source" was the "original ending" of Mark, since it dovetails perfectly with Mark 6:8 (the odd declaration that the only witnesses to the empty tomb never told anyone about it), but that would be speculation. And either way, we still have an appearance tradition unconnected to an empty tomb report, which would logically have to be the earlier tradition. Tabor also presented evidence supporting my two body theory of resurrection as being the original Christian view. The book would have been far more useful if this chapter had been retained.

A.J. Droge's "Jesus and Ned Lud[d]: What's in a Name?" both as presented and pre-circulated was one of the most important papers in the field of Jesus myth studies ever produced, and its loss here is a disaster. Even just its inclusion alone (when added to the other good material retained) would have made this book's list price just about warranted. In it Droge thoroughly documents and analyzes the case of Ned Ludd ("founder" of the 18th-19th century Luddites), providing source citations and scholarship, demonstrating that he did not exist, and yet an entire movement was credited as having been founded by him, complete with biography, tales, and teachings, within a generation of when he was supposed to have lived (about thirty years of his supposed techno-sabotage, and thus within his very lifetime, had he lived, and lived to a commonly reached age). This establishes a useful case to compare with Jesus, to ascertain how likely the same may have unfolded for him (and, of course, it refutes the claim that such a thing can't happen).

In his actual conference paper, I thought Hoffmann made an extensive and well-organized argument that the New Testament documents were produced by a faith community for preaching and propaganda, and not as disinterested (or even interested) biographies or memoirs. We see no indication in them, or in the first two centuries, any discussion of sources or reasons to prefer one account to another. They all just make Jesus do or say whatever they want. Which seems an obvious point, but laying the evidence out really drives home the implication: they weren't even interested in knowing what the truth really was; they were only interested in the "truth" being the way they wanted it to be, and then just declared it so. This is a radically different situation to be in than for any other ancient historical person. 

Hoffmann discussed how the nativity stories were invented to make a point (as is proved by their being completely contradictory, but also by the obvious symbolic and propagandistic elements in them), and not constructed from historical sources or analysis (as neither sources nor analysis appears in them), and if the Gospels can invent such elaborate historical narratives, we can have little hope anything else in them is any more factual. Similarly, the process of deciding the canon proceeded according to circular and dogmatic criteria rather than any objective method of determining document reliability. Hoffmann's main theme was to illustrate the use of these documents to fight sectarian ideological battles, so that to expect them to also be reliable historical sources is like expecting a man to serve both God and Mammon.

That's what I remember. Potentially a much better paper than any of the chapters Hoffmann produced for this book. All of which are lame, indulgent, and useless...

Hoffmann's "preface" (so called) is really just a random chapter rambling on (yet saying very little) about the history of the Quest and the Jesus Seminar, yet (strange for a "preface") never once even mentioning the Amherst conference, the Jesus Project, or any of the authors or chapters in the rest of the book. He says nothing about how the book came together, what's in it, or how any decisions were made in regard to either. And even as a random editorial on the subjects it does discuss, it's inferior to anything else written on them, almost any of which are far better, more comprehensive, and more useful as a reference or introduction to the issue.

Hoffmann then throws into the midst of the book two chapters that make no sense here. One rambles almost randomly on evidence from the NT of Christians inventing traditions about marriage and attributing them to Jesus, his conclusion being that "the Jesus community did not engage in marriage," "they did not regard it as a sacrament," but as "a moral expedient for the spiritually weak." Of course, Paul says "the brothers of Jesus" and even the supreme apostle Peter were married (1 Cor. 9:5), Ephesians declares marriage a divine mystery ordained by God (Eph. 5:28-33), and Hebrews outright declares marriage honorable and important (Heb. 13:4), which are some things that could challenge Hoffmann's conclusion (and which Hoffmann himself never even mentions, nor does he interact with any of the scholarship on this question, two facts alone rendering this chapter fatally defective). Sure, he might say Ephesians and Hebrews reflect 2nd century attitudes projected back onto the earliest churches, but we should expect him to at least make his case for that, as well as discuss what some other scholars have concluded about all this. Moreover, Hoffmann puts far too much confidence in what Paul says as being representative of all Christianity in Paul's day and before, when we have ample evidence to be sure it was neither (indeed, on marriage especially, Paul may have been particularly idiosyncratic). But even granting Hoffmann's conclusion, what has it to do with ascertaining what we can say are facts about the historical Jesus? This is a chapter about the early church, not Jesus. Hoffmann doesn't even discuss how he decides that the relevant sayings were assigned to Jesus rather than actually said by him, which at least would have entailed a relevant discussion of methodology. What we get instead is simply useless.

Later Hoffmann tosses in another random chapter vaguely arguing that we can know nothing for certain about Jesus apart from perhaps that he was "a man of no prominence, living in a widely illiterate age in a backward province even by Roman standards, with few friends who could have told his story," and then hints that we can't even be sure he existed at all. These are extremely bold claims that he doesn't even come close to adequately proving in the chapter (which is barely just twelve pages). After reading it, in the margins of its lead page I wrote, "argument is unclear, and when clear is unconvincing, and overall is of no practical use in reading."

Finally, Hoffmann added some dim reflection of his conference talk as an "epilogue" that again never mentions the conference, the Jesus Project, or any of the contents of the book (not even to ruminate over their significance), and instead just lists a series of unproven hypotheses.

Summarizing the Good

So much for what sucks about this book. Let me close with what's nevertheless good about it. It contains, of course, my chapter "Bayes's Theorem for Beginners: Formal Logic and Its Relevance to Historical Method," which is a nice brief introduction to historical reasoning, and Bayes' Theorem and how it might be applied to that (and also sampling some of the evidence that, by contrast, the usual "criteria" used in Jesus studies are fatally defective, which is not a novel finding: as I show, every scholar who has published specifically on this subject concurs). But were that all, I still would not recommend this book to anyone, because one chapter just isn't enough (and this chapter still needs the corrections made that I noted above). So fortunately there's a lot more...

Lindsay's chapter makes some nice points about the semantics of the question "did Jesus exist?" (showing that philosophers do have something to add to the debate). Not essential reading, but worth a read. The second half of Ellens' chapter, as I noted before, is also worth reading. Even if you disagree with his conclusions, he makes an interesting case that many elements of the Jesus story (such as his age when he begins his ministry, his atonement role, the transfiguration) were invented to characterize him as an ideal Levitical priest, in accordance with patterns established by Ezekiel, Daniel, and texts at Qumran. An example of the kind of analysis historians need to explore.

Zindler's chapter makes a very important point about the serious technological defects of Jesus studies as a field intending to make any progress. Everything he says about that subject is spot on, and not something you will have thought of before. It's just that rectifying it would require the dedication of millions of dollars a year for many decades to develop the required databases, and no one is going to foot that bill for a dying, profitless field that fewer and fewer people give a shit about (indeed, my own primary field, ancient science, has even more dire prospects, yet IMO is objectively far more worth studying). However, there are many defects to Zindler's chapter, which I mentioned before, making it a flawed contribution (I counted eight fallacies and four dubious claims before p. 149, where his good material begins, after which point there are no serious flaws).

But the three most important chapters in this book, which alone make it worth having (if you can get a cheap copy), are Justin Meggitt's "Popular Mythology in the Early Empire and the Multiplicity of Jesus Traditions," which very informedly surveys the actual context of Christian discourse and mythmaking and how this changes the way we look at the Gospels and Apocrypha (this chapter is so well referenced
 it's a must-read); Robert Price's, "The Abhorrent Void: The Rapid Attribution of Fictive Sayings and Stories to a Mythic Jesus," which, like Droge had done, teaches by example, taking the case of how quickly and shamelessly entire lists of sayings and stories were invented for Mohammed and his successors and showing that we can have no reason to believe Jesus was treated any differently, and given the evidence he presents, it's hard to deny that conclusion, making this another must-read; and Gerd Lüdemann, "Paul as a Witness to the Historical Jesus," the most important chapter of all, surveys the supposed evidence in Paul's letters of knowledge about a historical Jesus and finds in fact there is none. Such a conclusion, demonstrated by such a widely respected scholar
, carries particular weight, and makes this yet another must-read.

So Sources wasn't a complete failure, but it could have been vastly better, and to the extent that it's good at all, that would seem to be wholly despite Hoffmann's involvement. I recommend you buy it only if you find a good discount price, and aren't pressed for space in your home library (and then take into account all its defects when reading it).


Hjalti said...

Epic fail :(

Vince said...

RE: Bayes' Theorem
I was thinking what you call consequent probability, P(e|h), is usually called a likelihood.

P(e|h) + P(~e|h) = 1 but,
P(e|h) + P(e|~h) doesn't have to sum to one. For that reason it is not called a probability.

I take it that usage is not universal?

Richard Carrier said...

That variable has been described with many terms, with no consistent convention. "Likelihood" is among the most popular. But "likelihood" is a really bad choice of term, because it is too easily confused for countless other statements of probability--the word "likelihood" being profusely commonplace in discourse about probabilities, and as such almost never meant in the extremely technical sense of "the probability of a ramified set of evidence consequent on the presumption that a given hypothesis is true."

The reasoning you've heard makes little sense to me, and is an example of why the terminology is hosed. Likelihood simply is a probability. Not only are they dictionary synonyms, even a Bayesian "likelihood" is still a frequency of something, which is by definition a probability of something, in this case the probability that e would obtain when h is true. And this is rendered mathematically self-evident by the fact that the term is stated as a probability ("P(e|h)") and only is valid if it is a probability (since the formal proof of Bayes' Theorem, from which the equation derives, follows from a series of statements in conditional probability, therefore every term in it has to be a probability, otherwise the theorem would be logically invalid).

For all these reasons, "likelihood" sucks as a designator and should be abandoned (because it's as confusing as anything). I've heard similar frustration from mathematicians, a few of whom resort to "consequent" (or similar terms).

Vince said...

RE: likelihood
Ah, thanks for the explanation. I was a tad concerned you were using non-standard terminology.

RE: Sources of the Jesus Tradition
It is a real shame about the quality of the editing. At the very least you would think he would put the chapters in some kind of logical order. Very strange.

Ben said...

Think of how oppressed the world would have to be to get a Jesus Project well funded! We should rejoice that we can only half-ass books like this. hehe

Richard Carrier said...

Hoffmann has, as expected, posted his sour grapes reply, proving indeed what a dick he is (or lunatic, take your pick): see Play Mythty For Me? Dr Carrier Carries On. Compare our two posts with the actual book (and my chapter) and you'll know who's full of shit.

But just to make sure we’re all on the same page...

Richard Carrier said...

...contrary to Hoffmann, I am not in CFI's employ "as an advocate" and never have been. Indeed, the only paid work I've ever done for them is co-teach an online course in naturalism. Though I am certainly a personal supporter of CFI (I'm a paying member), I have also been a vocal critic of it, too. Why he thinks I'm their shill is beyond me, other than my hypothesis that he's insane.

It's strangely amusing (and exactly how he started behaving once I started criticizing him--he never acted this way toward me before) that he now slags off my chapter as vacuous and irrelevant when in fact he invited me to deliver that very talk at the conference, read it in advance of the talk, and it received a standing ovation at the conference, with nary an objection from him. Quite the contrary: his response was to say "I think personally you should be the conscience or historiographer in chief!" (email of 10 Dec. 2008) and "It would be to my liking if you would take the lead-role in the historiography my opinion we need someone with fresh ideas who can keep them honest about the kind of history they (often) are doing" (email of 18 Dec. 2008). (The conference was held the weekend of December 5) He never said a negative word until now.

Ironically this childish behavior only proves my point: he is basically admitting to being such a shitty editor he didn't even ask me to modify the chapter to satisfy whatever weird thing he now expects it to have said, but kept it in, exactly as is, even though he now can't see a reason he did that.

See what I mean about my worrying he's a lunatic? He appears to be suffering from real paranoia: remarks like "the organization at whose bidding he’s doing this hatchet job" tell me he really thinks I am a paid shill on a propaganda campaign for CFI. The guy's off his rocker.

Further evidence of his insanity is that he says the only "other" papers I found redemptive were Zindler's and Lindsay's, when that's not even a plausible reading of my blog post, in which I list several other chapters as being in fact far more important, and only those as fully redemptive, whereas I even criticize Zindler's. In fact, the very part in Zindler's chapter that advocates mythicism is the very part I declared fallacious and used as evidence of Hoffmann's incompetent editing (for allowing it to remain in, unqualified). Yet Hoffmann now implies I favored Zindler because he's a mythicist! That's balls out cookoo.

Hoffmann also claims Lindsay is a myther, although I was not aware of that, and did not get that impression from his talk or his chapter (whereas, as I indicated, one of Hoffmann's chapters does flirt with claiming mythicism, and in fact I criticized him in this very blog for making such implications without support!).

He also claims his chapters are verbatim what he delivered at the conference. I am fairly certain that's not true. He definitely discussed, for example, the nativity stories in Amherst; nary a word in Sources. And there are countless other incongruities. I still have my notes from his talk, taken as he gave it. They do not align with anything in Sources (nor does his preface to Sources match his opening remarks at the conference, either).

All of this leads me to doubt him when he claims the missing papers were committed elsewhere (it's been three years; where are they?). Likewise he seems insane again when he says Droge didn't get his in on time, yet they had a copy ready for CESAR. Hoffmann used my CESAR article (unchanged); why didn't he do the same with Droge's? His excuses make no sense. It's just crazy.

Ben said...

The Uncredible Hallq said...

Props for using a picture from Buffy to illustrate this post.

That is all.

Brian said...

Hi Richard
I was sooo looking forward to this book. But apart from a few gems (I pretty much agree with you on which ones) it was a real turtle thump.

Richard Carrier said...

The Uncredible Hallq said... Props for using a picture from Buffy to illustrate this post.

And props for noticing.

Vic said...

I too had been waiting for this book. But Hoffman's bizarre behavior on other subjects preceding it's release put me off. But, your review does point out a few articles that are worthwhile. The Kindle version of the book is retailing 9.99, so I think I will spring for it, grimacing a bit, but knowing I'm getting a few worthy opinions.

Richard Carrier said...

On Kindle it's certainly worth it, because that's a much more fitting price for its content, and it won't take up any space in your library and you can just read the bits you like, even bookmark and annotate them.

Landon Hedrick said...

Say what you will about the book, but you must admit that the cover is excellent. I like covers like that (and like Erhman's new book Forged).

It will be interesting to see what other scholars think about the papers in this book. I've already seen a highly negative review of Price's paper in it.

kilo papa said...

James Tabor's and A.J. Droge's left out chapters sound very interesting. Are they available anywhere else?

Blue Devil Knight said...

Surefire way to come off as a dilettante is to use a bunch of cheesy neologisms for things that already have a vocabulary. Maximum likelihood is a well entrenched test, using term most scientists are comfortable with. Yes, you are right a likelihood is a probability, but so is the 'consequent' or whatever. People are smart enough to understand the terminology. I know you got confused with the McGrew's on this, but people who actually use prob/stats in real life won't get confused, and you're gonna come off as a dabbler know-it-all who doesn't (know it all).

At any rate, be careful I foresee a debacle coming.

Blue Devil Knight said...

I realize I was a bit harsh in my previous comment. My worry is that there will be good ideas lost in idiosyncratic distractions. To create a new vocabulary, when there is a standard in place, is to immediately lose a good proportion of the audience that knows the stuff really well. That's all I'm saying.

Richard Carrier said...

Landon Hedrick said... I've already seen a highly negative review of Price's paper in it.

By an actual expert, or just an amateur blogger?

If the former, please post the citation, as I'd love to read it. The latter I have no interest in.

kilo papa said… James Tabor's and A.J. Droge's left out chapters sound very interesting. Are they available anywhere else?

Not to my knowledge. If anyone sees them appear anywhere, then definitely post the citation here.

Richard Carrier said...

Blue Devil Knight said… Yes, you are right a likelihood is a probability, but so is the 'consequent' or whatever.

Consequent probability. It is therefore a direct parallel to prior probability, so when you talk about priors and consequents, everyone will know which probability is which (and not confuse those terms with ordinary words that just mean "probability", like "likelihood"). I have the approval of mathematicians on this. And more to the point, it will be formally peer reviewed by a professor of mathematics anyway (which I wonder if that can be said of anything the McGrews have published in this area). If the peer reviewer comes up with something even better, I'll run with that. But so far no mathematician I've talked to could think of anything better.

So if the worst the Christians can bitch about is that they don't like my terminology (and it will only be Christians--secular historians won't give a shit), that would betray the bankruptcy of their opposition--since it would mean they have no objection to anything I am actually saying, just to the words I chose to say it with, which will make them look pathetic (and make me look practical).

I realize I was a bit harsh in my previous comment.

No worries. I didn't take it as harsh. I quite understood your point.

Blue Devil Knight said...

So if the worst the Christians can bitch about is that they don't like my terminology (and it will only be Christians--secular historians won't give a shit), that would betray the bankruptcy of their opposition--since it would mean they have no objection to anything I am actually saying, just to the words I chose to say it with, which will make them look pathetic (and make me look practical).

Yes, and I wasn't making a substantive point, just airing a worry that you might be giving them something irrelevant to focus on. However, as I've thought about it more since I wrote that I think if you at least give the the standard usage a shout-out (and it really is pretty standard) and expliclitly say what you are doing, it will not be all that big a deal. Except to the pedants.

Liberty Atheist said...

I have a question about the Ned Ludd paper/argument that wasn't in the book. How exactly would the figure of Ned Ludd relate to whether or not Jesus existed as an actual person?

It has always been my understanding that Ned Ludd was a fictional mascot used by the Luddites because they were advocating illegal acts and didn't want to make their names public. The Luddites never believed he was a real person, they thought of him as a symbol like Uncle Sam, John Bull, or Lady Liberty/Columbia

Andrew G. said...

Isn't that exactly the point? Ned Ludd is widely believed (or at least assumed) now to have been a real person; at some time between then and now, the symbolic leader has become reified into a real historical figure.

(For example, someone (not me, honest) just removed without explanation the caveat "Although no actual proof of his existence has been found" from the Wikipedia article on Ned Ludd, so that article now addresses its subject as though his historicity were not in doubt.)

The implication is that exactly the same thing could have happened to an early symbolic Jesus: a few decades of time, and the appearance of stories about his earthly life and sayings, and the original symbolic saviour becomes assumed to be a straight historical figure (and after long enough, if there were any holdouts maintaining his ahistoricity, they would inevitably be suppressed).

Richard Carrier said...

Andrew G. is right. Indeed, Droge documented that that development had occurred within 40 years. Note that I am not aware of any actual evidence that Ludd was invented or used in the way Liberty Atheist said. As far as I know, that is only a modern theory as to how the legend got started. But if anyone has any documents to cite that actually confirm that theory, please cite them here, because I may find them useful. As to your more general question, the relevance is that it proves 40 years is not "too fast" for an invented person to be believed historical, even by his own devoted "followers."

Liberty Atheist said...

I know understand why you brought up Ned Ludd. I still stand by my assertion that the Luddites viewed Ludd as a symbol not a real person. I put a link below that has a bunch of transcriptions of documents by the Luddites, the government, and those that opposed them

Writings of the Luddites By Kevin Binfield, 2004

Andrew G. said...

There's an excellent example on that page; the document headed "The Beggar's Complaint", which appears to be dated 1813, repeats the tale of a historical Ned Ludd (as having happened "a good many years ago"). It then recounts the use of the name by both an organized group ("These men, collectively, were therefore called Luddites") and also by hangers-on and copycats ("for every thief and highwayman now takes the name of Ned Ludd in his mouth").

This shows that the story of a historical Ned Ludd existed at that time (which was about two years after the Luddite movement started), whether or not the Luddites actually believed he had existed.

So the possibilities are:

1) a real historical Ned Ludd existed (generally reckoned to be about 30 years prior to the Luddite movement), had already given his name to the act of frame-breaking in, and that name was adopted by the Luddites as a symbolic figurehead.

2) no real Ned Ludd existed, but folk tales of him were already in circulation before 1811, and the Luddites adopted his name as above.

Note that if either 1 or 2 is true, then the Luddites would likely not have cared in the slightest whether Ludd actually existed; the existence of tales about him would have been enough for them.

3) no real Ned Ludd existed and he was wholly an invention of the Luddite organizers, which would imply that the folk tales about him all originated in 1811 or later (and were established enough by 1813 for people to believe them to have a historical basis).

Option 3 could be ruled out by the presence of references to Ned Ludd (e.g. in folktale or as a euphemism for frame-breaking) in the period 1780-1810. I am not personally aware of any such, though I'm no expert and haven't searched in any depth. Obviously, option 1 could be confirmed by any contemporary historical record of a Ned Ludd involved in a frame-breaking incident in the general area and about the right time.

Andrew G. said...

Another source identifies the first account of the historical Ned Ludd as being in the 20 December 1811 issue of The Nottingham Review. This is only 9 months after the first recorded use of the name Ludd by the Luddites (March 1811).

In addition to the lack of direct historical evidence for the existence of Ned Ludd, it also appears that there is no record of any existing version of the tale of Ned Ludd predating 1811. If this is the case, then it implies that Ned Ludd went from pure fiction to legendary historical figure in the space of only 9 months. I don't see that as being especially unlikely given the circumstances.

Richard Carrier said...

Andrew G., I haven't checked your facts, but you're right as to the general principle. It has always been obvious that legends take effectively zero time to form: they exist the very instant they are created. As long as no one gainsays it, it becomes fact immediately. Thus the notion that legends take time is in that sense illogical.

But what people usually mean to say is that a legend would be gainsaid within a certain time frame (let's say, forty years), because people alive when and where Ludd is supposed to have acted would still be around and know it was false, therefore the absence of that gainsaying proves it's not a legend (the "not enough time" argument is therefore really just a convoluted argument from silence).

The Ned Ludd case refutes this generalization. And of course there are many reasons why that generalization is groundless besides actual disconfirming cases: e.g. it presumes things, such as about how people behave and how sources get preserved, that just don't match reality--especially in cases like Jesus, where source survival is fantastically pathetic and entirely biased, in contrast with the case of Ludd, so the fact that it succeeded even in his case makes an a fortiori argument that the same could even more easily have happened in the case of Jesus.

Richard Carrier said...

Andrew G. and Liberty Atheist: Thank you! Your ideas and sources will definitely be useful.

Liberty Atheist said...

Does anybody know where a copy of the Dec. 20, 1811 Nottingham Review article can be found?

I saw it referenced in many articles on the internet and even a book from 1919 but none of them even quote from the article. My gut tells me that they are all just copying the reference from each other without reading it themselves. I don't doubt that it exists but it would be interesting to read itself because it is supposedly the earliest account of the Ned Ludd biography and the Nottingham Review was sympathetic to the Luddites and the 1813 Beggar's Complaint is written by an opponent of the Luddites.

Also you should look into this fellow:

Andrew G. said...

There are several archives which may have it; I know that both Nottingham University and Nottingham City Library have archives of the Nottingham Review covering 1811, though I do not know how complete they are or if they contain that specific issue. I do not know of any online copy.

Andrew G. said...

Also, the British Library has an archive of the relevant period.