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Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus | [Richard Carrier]

Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus

This in-depth discussion of New Testament scholarship and the challenges of history as a whole proposes Bayes's Theorem, which deals with probabilities under conditions of uncertainty, as a solution to the problem of establishing reliable historical criteria. The author demonstrates that valid historical methods - not only in the study of Christian origins but in any historical study - can be described by, and reduced to, the logic of Bayes's Theorem. Conversely, he argues that any method that cannot be reduced to this theorem is invalid and should be abandoned.
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Publisher's Summary

Anyone with an interest in historical methods, how historical knowledge can be justified, new applications of Bayes's Theorem, or the study of the historical Jesus will find this book to be essential reading. Almost all experts agree that the Jesus of the Bible is a composite of myth, legend, and some historical evidence. So what can we know about the real Jesus? For more than 150 years, scholars have attempted to answer this question.

Unfortunately, the quest for the historical Jesus has produced as many different images of the original Jesus as scholars who have studied the subject. The result is a confused mass of disparate opinions with no consensus view of what actually happened at the dawn of Christianity. And this uncertainty is not unique to the historical study of Jesus. The problems related to establishing the reliability of historical criteria apply equally to any historical analysis of the persons and events that have shaped our lives and the beliefs we hold dear.

This in-depth discussion of New Testament scholarship and the challenges of history as a whole proposes Bayes's Theorem, which deals with probabilities under conditions of uncertainty, as a solution to the problem of establishing reliable historical criteria. The author demonstrates that valid historical methods - not only in the study of Christian origins but in any historical study - can be described by, and reduced to, the logic of Bayes's Theorem. Conversely, he argues that any method that cannot be reduced to this theorem is invalid and should be abandoned.

Writing with thoroughness and clarity, the author explains Bayes's Theorem in terms that are easily understandable to professional historians and laypeople alike, employing nothing more than well-known primary school math. He then explores precisely how the theorem can be applied to history and addresses numerous challenges to and criticisms of its use in testing or justifying the conclusions that historians make about the important persons and events of the past. The traditional and established methods of historians are analyzed using the theorem, as well as all the major "historicity criteria" employed in the latest quest to establish the historicity of Jesus. The author demonstrates not only the deficiencies of these approaches but also ways to rehabilitate them using Bayes's Theorem.

©2012 Richard C. Carrier (P)2014 Pitchstone Publishing

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  •  
    Elizabeth M. True 07-15-14 Member Since 2013
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    "Worth the Challenge"

    This is a great intro to Bayes's Theorem, although for me the audio version made it pretty challenging to keep up with the pace of the narrator while trying to create a mental picture of the theorem and it's various iterations given for different applications. I did stick with it though and am glad I did. I'll be buying a hard copy as well. Looking forward to to ear-reading the 2nd volume On the Historicity of Jesus.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    carl801 09-28-14
    carl801 09-28-14 Member Since 2004

    Old soldier

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    "No leap of faith required"

    Richard Carrier's book is more about the application of Bayes's Theorem to history in general than it is about the historical Jesus specifically. No doubt, many people are put off by the idea of using mathematics to separate what is likely true about the past from what is not, but what is our knowledge of things past if it is not fundamentally uncertain? Personally, I like Carrier's approach. It gives a consistent formality and structured process to determining what most likely actually happened, given all of our evidence, while taking into account the presence of uncertainty. Carrier says over and over again that it will not work if historians are not honest with themselves and with their colleagues. I suspect that at the root of opposition to this approach is that its use requires facing down our biases, never an easy thing to do.

    I am neither a historian nor a mathematician. This book was not easy for me to plow through, but it was worth the effort. My white board is covered with forulae that I'll be thinking about some time to come. I look forward to Carrier's next book.

    The reader did a very good job, in spite of the fact that a lot of the text was equations and formulae.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Lawrence Scotts Valley, CA, United States 04-16-14
    Lawrence Scotts Valley, CA, United States 04-16-14 Member Since 2001
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    "Pedantic. Drains all the life out of history"

    The author doesn't seem to like his subject much, and he quarrels with all of his colleagues. By applying statistical likelihoods to the Jesus story, he pretty much concluded that it was all extremely unlikely. Which is not surprising in the least.
    A good historian would try to explain how Christianity managed to overtake the Roman Empire, when it's central documents were so spurious. Perhaps there were other forces at play? We'll never find out with Bayes's Theorem. It takes a historian, not a mathematician, to shed light on (and maybe explain) the rise of Christianity.

    The books seems to be an atheist's attempt at arguing Christianity into non-existence. What I learned instead was that the early Christians must not have cared very much about the historical accuracy of their scriptures, because they could have easily gotten to the bottom of the historical Jesus in the first few centuries, while the Empire was still intact and memories were fresh. Early Christians didn't seem to care about that. There must have been something else going on, and I doubt very much that the spread of the religion was due to the charisma or marketing talents of the Palestinian peasants who were Jesus' followers & apostles.

    I did learn a few new things, like Judas Iscariot is probably not a name, but rather a type of person-- a Sicarii Jew, or ancient Jewish assassin, such as the Maccabees. And in that sense, Jesus could be a stand-in for the Temple that was destroyed by the Romans, who were incited by Jewish insurgents. In other words, the insurgents betrayed the temple when they incited the Romans to destroy it.

    Maybe if you are an Atheist and you want to be reassured about your wisdom, you will like this book.

    1 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    bookworm 04-15-14
    bookworm 04-15-14

    bookworm

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    "its all about the author...ego-maniac"
    What disappointed you about Proving History?

    the author was a bore
    It was all about him and how he is the best and why his opinion is the only one that counts
    I was so looking forward to what I thought was going to be insight and educational
    Never got past the first chapter...He's like Sheldon on Big Bang Theory


    Has Proving History turned you off from other books in this genre?

    no, just to him


    What didn’t you like about Richard Carrier’s performance?

    boring and self serving


    What character would you cut from Proving History?

    the writer


    Any additional comments?

    don't waste your money or brain matter.

    1 of 5 people found this review helpful
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  • G. T. Dyson
    West Yorkshire UK
    6/29/14
    Overall
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    "Not much fun"
    Would you try another book written by Richard Carrier or narrated by Richard Carrier?

    No


    What was most disappointing about Richard Carrier’s story?

    he spent hours saying basically the same thing


    What didn’t you like about Richard Carrier’s performance?

    A+C+D-true H = A lot of bored confused people


    If you could play editor, what scene or scenes would you have cut from Proving History?

    Most of it


    Any additional comments?

    Boring

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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