Evaluating the Evidence for the Resurrection, Part 2

Christianity is a religion that grounds itself in historical claims. As such it is a religion that invites examination by using methods of inference. In essence, Christianity does not seem to exclude itself from the command to "Test everything, hold on to the good." In this post I will continue my examination of the inferential case for and against Christianity using what I think is relevant evidence. I will continue to utilize Bayes' theorem to help consolidate the evidence. My assessments are collected in a table at the end of the post. I will continue to provide the formula's I used so a reader could update the table with their own assessments. I find that this methodology helps eliminate much of the distraction from ensuing discussion and focuses the issue with those interested in understanding what they should believe and why.

My background assumptions are primarily based on experiences with people who make claims about the divine. I fleshed this out in greater detail here and argued that the background probability that God would raise Jesus from the dead (compared to the legendary hypothesis) should be no higher that 1 in million. So far I have considered 1) the time between the reports and events and 2) chief priest's need of Judas as relevant evidence with regard to determining if the Gospel accounts are legendary or historical (see here). In this post I will include two additional pieces of evidence.

I present numeric values in these assessments primarily as a tool to help me think in a disciplined way, not to provide a precision to the results. I would expect that the numbers would change as I continue to gain knowlegde about the situations I examine. However, the numbers do help present an ordering to the strengths of my beliefs. I would greatly appreciate criticism that included the critic's estimate of the plausibility ratio for the evidence in question. My goal here is to hold beliefs that are most consistent with the evidence, and I think including values for assessments helps to do that.

Evidence 3: The report of James' conversion
Both the Apostle Paul's testimony and Christian tradition give evidence that James was a Christian. The report of James' conversions is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15,
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, … 7 Then he appeared to James, …
and in Galations 1:
18 Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter[b] and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 I saw none of the other apostles-only James, the Lord's brother. 20 I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.

The question is "how likely would these reports be if Jesus was raised versus if the resurrection was a legendary addition?" P(E|H)/P(E|~H). I was asked, "what would it take for you to believe that one of your brothers was divine, and would you die for that belief?" The theory is that these reports would not have been possible had James not converted. Further James conversion would require that Jesus had risen and appeared to James.

However, there are some anomalies to the story, thus the report doesn't appear to be perfectly consistent with the resurrection hypothesis. It is somewhat surprising that James the Just is traditionally portrayed as the leader of the Jerusalem church given the facts 1) He had very little to do with Jesus' mission and story as portrayed in the Gospels. 2) Jesus had seemingly hand picked Peter to be the head of the church.

Hyam Maccoby argues that these anomalies give evidence that the Jerusalem church did not accept that Jesus was divine and the Jerusalem church was more monarchical than ecclesiastical. If the messianic claim were understood to be a kingship, then James would be the nearest relative the Jesus and would inherit the role as messiah. He cites the fact that the Jerusalem church kept meeting daily in temple courts (see Acts 2:46) and seemed to be part of the normal Jewish religious community. He also points out that Acts 2:22, Peter did referred to Jesus as "a man attested to you by God" and not "the Son of God." Now perhaps Maccoby's takes the evidence too far, but it is still clear that we are not getting the whole story from the New Testament here. In my opinion, James' leadership role in the church is not inconsistent with a legendary growth of Jesus.

Now if the resurrection story was legendary and James was a man of great esteem, it does seem plausible that writer would attempt to co-opt James as a support of the movement. We see similar things even today, both liberal and conservative politicians will cite John F. Kennedy in support of positions they each hold.

Although it would be hard to convince a sibling that one is God, it is not clear that Paul's testimony and tradition are sufficent to establish that fact James was convinced the Jesus was God. There are enough inconsistencies in reports to give one reason to doubt the veracity of the reports. This evidence is perhaps a bit stronger than the positive evidence assessed last time (the time for legends to grow), but again it doesn't seem all that powerful in and of itself. I would assess that P(E|Resurrection)/P(E| Legend) ~ 1.6 (about +2 dB).

Evidence 4: Deemphasizing Jesus lack of knowledge
When legends occur, it is expected that the hero of the story may become stronger, wiser, and more heroic in later accounts. Scholars typically date Mark prior to Matthew. If legendary development is true, one would expect that the character of Jesus would be improved in strength, character, and wisdom in the later accounts. Such development is less likely in the case of history.

Consider the passage Mark 13:32 where Jesus is talking about the signs of the end of the age: "But as for that day or hour no one knows it-neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son-except the Father." Obviously, this passage presents some theological difficulties for early Christians. This passage seems to run against the notion that Jesus is God. (It is conceivable that early readers could have concluded "if God knows all, and Jesus does not know all, Jesus must not be God.")

The author of Matthew also covers roughly the same event. Here the phrase "nor the Son" is missing in Matthew 24:36 (or it is at least not present in early manuscripts according to my NIV). Matthews's omission is consistent with legendary development and less consistent with the claim that Matthew was writing history. I think that this evidence is at least as strong as the no questions raised of reporting the chief priest's need of Judas. I would assign this ratio the value of 0.5 ( about -3 dB).

To make the following table in MS Excel, (presuming that the first evidence listed is in row 3, enter the formula "=C2*B3/(B3*C2+1-C2)" into cell C3. The continuation of that formula is used for the remainder of the column.

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
Reported conversion of James 1.6 0.96× 10-6
Jesus' ignorance deemphasized 0.5 0.48× 10-6