The Reverend Bayes Vs. Jesus Christ [Review article]

The Bayesian perspective on historiography is commonsensical: If historiography is not certain like a priori knowledge or sense data, and it is not fiction, historiography is probable. Richard Carrier's book argues for a Bayesian, probabilistic interpretation of historiography in general and of the debate about the historicity of Jesus in particular. Jesus can be interpreted as a historically transmitted reference of “Jesus,” as a bundle of properties, or literally. Carrier devotes too much energy to debating literalism that confuses evidence with hypotheses. But evidence preserves information to different degrees; it is true or not. Carrier proposes to apply objective, frequentist Bayesianism in historiography despite the difficulties in assigning values. He argues that ranges of values can determine historiographical hypotheses. Carrier does not analyze in Bayesian terms the main method for Bayesian determination of posterior probabilities in historiography: inference from multiple independent sources. When the prior probability of a hypothesis is low, but at least two independent evidential sources, such as testimonies, support it, however unreliable each of the testimonies is, the posterior probability leaps. The problem with the Synoptic Gospels as evidence for a historical Jesus from a Bayesian perspective is that the evidence that coheres does not seem to be independent, whereas the evidence that is independent does not seem to cohere. Carrier's explanation of some the evidence in the Gospels is fascinating as the first Bayesian reconstruction of structuralism and mimesis. Historians attempted to use theories about the transmission and preservation of information to find more reliable parts of the Gospels, parts that are more likely to have preserved older information. Carrier is too dismissive of such methods because he is focused on hypotheses about the historical Jesus rather than on the best explanations of the evidence. I leave open questions about the degree of scholarly consensus and the possible reasons for it.