Evaluating the Evidence for the Resurrection, Part 1

In earlier posts, I have established a methodology and given my background assumptions regarding the resurrection of Jesus, I will begin evaluation of the evidence. In this post, I will consider the first two lines of evidence. On the pro side for the resurrection I will evaluate the lack of time between the events and the reports (i.e. the Gospels and letters of Paul). On the contrary side, I will examine an aspect of the Gospel of Mark that seems to indicate of legendary development. Future posts will build upon these evaluations.

Evidence 1: Time between the reports and the events
Craig states that the Gospels were written too soon after the events for significant legendary development to occur. He cites A. N. Sherwin-White's analysis of the writings of Herodotus to test the rate of legendary accretion. White concludes "that even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of oral tradition." (From "Jesus Under Fire" pg. 154)

However, there are several well known counterexamples to White's conclusion. Richard Carrier relates the story of Saint Genevieve here

In 520 A.D. an anonymous monk recorded the life of Saint Genevieve, who had died only ten years before that. In his account of her life, he describes how, when she ordered a cursed tree cut down, monsters sprang from it and breathed a fatal stench on many men for two hours; while she was sailing, eleven ships capsized, but at her prayers they were righted again spontaneously; she cast out demons, calmed storms, miraculously created water and oil from nothing before astonished crowds, healed the blind and lame, and several people who stole things from her actually went blind instead. No one wrote anything to contradict or challenge these claims, and they were written very near the time the events supposedly happened--by a religious man whom we suppose regarded lying to be a sin.

There are more modern examples. Many still believe that the crash in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 is evidence of UFO's. This is in an era when the government keeps records and people have access to the Internet. The fact that Benny Hinn has made miracle claims and still has a following persuades me that even today, people are willing to accept legends as true in a very short time.

Further, Richard Carrier gives an example of where Herodotus records the temple of Delphi magically defended itself with animated armaments, lighting bolts, and collapsing cliffs (See "The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave" pg 173). The recording happened within 55 years of the supposed event. This seems to completely undermine Craig's characterization of A.N Sherwin-White's case. Now maybe legendary development typcially takes longer, but at best this evidence for the resurrection is marginal.

Evidence 2: Chief Priest's need of Judas
The other evidence I want to consider is a parallel in the Gospel of Mark that seems well explained if Mark is following a legendary template, but is not well explained if the account is historical. Richard Carrier writes: "Why do the chief priests need Judas to identify Jesus in order to arrest him? This makes absolutely no sense, since many of their number had debated him in person, and his face, after a triumphal entry and a violent tirade in the temple square, could hardly have been more public. But MacDonald's theory that Judas is a type of Melanthius solves this puzzle: Melanthius is the servant who betrays Odysseus and even fetches arms for the suitors to fight Odysseus-just as Judas brings armed guards to arrest Jesus-and since none of the suitors knew Odysseus, it required Melanthius to finally identify him." It seems clear that this evidence weighs against the case for Christianity. It seems to me that this datum would weigh against the resurrection perhaps a little more than the first datum supported the resurrection.

Weighing the Evidence
In this post, I am only considering two pieces of evidence to see where the evidence is pointed. However, systematically weighing a large amount of evidence can be difficult to do without the aid of a mathematical framework. As I have argued here Bayes' Theorem provides that framework.

Technical caveats: I am presuming that the evidences here are epistemologically independent. If the evidence E is comprised of several constituents (i.e. E = e1, e2, ..., e,n), by the product rule in probability P(E|H) = P(e1 e2 ... en|H) = P(e1|H) P(e2|e1,H) P(e3|e1e2,H) ... My analysis presumes that P(e2|e1,H) = P(e2|H), P(e3|e1e2,H)= P(e3|H), etc.

If I am not careful I could, in essence, count the same evidence more than once. Expressing the relations of the evidence in a Bayesian belief network may provide a much better assessment of the evidences. However, this increases the complexity of the analysis and if the epistemic couplings of the evidences are not strong, the overall results will not be affected significantly. Further, it seems to me that coupling the evidences would likely reduce the strength of the evidence for the resurrection.

In the case of merely two hypothesis, where the relative strength of the evidence is P(e|H)/P(e|~H) = Ratio. Bayes' theorem can be written as (See Stephen Unwin's book: The Probability of God):
P(H | e) =       Ratio × P( H)      
Ratio × P(H) + 1- P(H)

For our purpose, H is the resurreciton hypothesis, P(H) is the a priori probability. A Ratio greater than 1 indicates positive evidence for the resurrection, a Ratio less than 1 indicates evidence against the resurrection. I would estimate that a Ratio of 10 (or 0.1) is moderately strong, a ratio of 2 (or 0.5) is somewhat strong, a ratio around 1.25 (or 0.8) is marginal, and 1 is even (doesn't favor either position). I understand that the assessments are somewhat subjective, but it should be clear which way each piece of evidence points. It should also be clear when one piece of evidence is stronger than another.

In this case, after evaluating the probability based upon one piece of evidence the result becomes the a priori for the next piece of evidence. This form of Bayes' Theorem is conducive to entering the data into a spreadsheet like MS Excel. To make the following table in Excel, (presuming that the first evidence listed is in row 3, enter the formula "=C2*B3/(B3*C2+1-C2)" into cell C3. Drag that cell down to add more evidence.

Another note here. In by original assessment of prior probabilities, Jon stated that I was being far to generous to the Christian and may have been pandering a bit. In light of his comments, I am going to say the ratio of the prior of legend to the resurrection is about a million to one. (I originally estimated the ratio to be 100 thousand to one. Jon thought the ratio should be closer to a billion one.) In the following table, I denote the resurrection hypothesis as HR, and the legendary/deception hypotheisis as HL.

Evidence Ratio,
a priori - 10-6
Time of Reports 1.2 1.2×10-6
Chief Priest's need of Judas 0.5 0.6× 10-6

So as a result of evaluating these evidence, the plausibility of the resurrection has dropped to 0.6× 10-6. It is theoretically possible that the cumulative case will change based upon the other evidences. That will be the topic of future posts. However, it should come as no surprise that as I assess the other evidence, my confidence the resurrection didn't happen increases.