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Bayesian evaluation for the likelihood of Christ's resurrection (Part 32)

So, could the resurrection testimonies really have a near-total dependency among them? Could they have been generated by a conspiracy of some sort? There are a multitude of reasons to think they were not.

First, there is the story of apostle Paul - one of the named witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15, and someone who first started out as a zealous persecutor of Christianity. He is then supernaturally converted by literally seeing the light on the road to Damascus, and becomes Christianity's most effective evangelist. How many conspiracies have something like that in their narrative?

Now, the conspiracy theorist can still say "that was obviously a part of the plan! You've been taken in by their trap!" After all, that's precisely what a conspiracy theory is designed to do. But as I said before, while this allows them to "explain" apostle Paul by keeping the Bayes' factor for his testimony to around 1, it is still a significant blow against a conspiracy theory. For a conspiracy that has planned for such a conversion is far less likely a priori than one that has not. In postulating a more vast, deep, and comprehensive conspiracy, the theorist has postulated a less likely one.

In fact, Paul's conversion is so unlikely that it's probably enough by itself to debunk the most common types of conspiracy theories. Ascribing Paul's actions to a conspiracy is like planning to punch a stranger in the streets in hopes of making money from the ensuing lawsuit, or asking a politician to concede an already won election to their bitter political rival solely out of respect and goodwill. Human beings just don't work that way.

But we're just getting started. Let's look at James - the biological brother of Jesus, and another of the named witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15. Consider his relationship with the rest of the early Christian movement.  Earlier on in his ministry, there is good reason to think that there were some strained relationships between Jesus's family and his disciples. And yet, after the resurrection James is considered one of the chief disciples, and is named as a witness to Christ's resurrection. Could this have been the result of a conspiracy?

Unlikely. Conspiracies are, I think, either family affairs or professional affairs. The relatively rare cases where it involves both are cases where the family member was already in the professional circle from the beginning (e.g. a family of politicians or bankers). I haven't really heard of a conspiracy which starts in a professional setting, then spreads to encompass estranged family members, as key players. Of course, you can postulate that James was in on the plan from the beginning - but you're again just postulating a bigger, and therefore a less likely, conspiracy.

So there is already a great deal of independence for Paul and James from the rest of Jesus's disciples, which include Peter. So our three named witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15 are quite unlikely to be dependent, and therefore their testimonies are unlikely to be the product of a conspiracy.

But the independence of the witnesses don't stop here. The twelve disciples may be thought of as a fairly interdependent group - after all, they were twelve Jewish males who all followed one leader. But looking into their background reveals a good amount of diversity. Some of them were fishermen - but their number also included, at a minimum, a tax collector (working for Rome) and a zealot (revolutionaries working against Rome). It's not easy to come up with three groups that would have gotten along less with each other than a tax collector, a zealot, and a regular Jewish worker, like a fisherman. Could a conspiracy rise from such a group? It's not impossible, but it's also not likely.

The diversity is further magnified in the earliest converts to Christianity, at the Pentecost. According to Acts 2, these people were from all over the known world. Many of them did not even consider Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek to be their native tongue. Again, could a conspiracy spread out so quickly to such a diverse group, as the very first people to be taken in? It must have been a very flexible and compelling conspiracy indeed - and therefore a very unlikely one.

Lastly on the point of diverstiy, there are of course the women. They go unmentioned in the public declarations of 1 Corinthians 15, because women were not considered reliable witnesses in the 1st century Jewish society. Yet they are featured prominently in the actual narrative in all of the gospels - as the group that did not abandon Jesus at the cross, and the first witnesses to the risen Christ. What kind of conspiracy does this? Why have the first witnesses to the resurrection be a class of people the society considers unreliable? Why include them in the story at all, if you're not going to publically mention them among the chief witnesses?

If it's all true, then all this makes sense. But as a conspiracy theory, each one is a mystery. One can construct a conspiracy theory that fits all this, but such a conspiracy would be a rare one indeed, and highly unlikely a priori.

We will go over more reasons against conspiracies next week.

You may next want to read:
A common mistake in Bayesian reasoning
How to determine the specific purpose of the universe
Another post, from the table of contents

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One comment on “Bayesian evaluation for the likelihood of Christ's resurrection (Part 32)”

  1. Hi. I enjoyed reading this series. I'm just trying to better-arm myself against some annoying atheists that I know, to dispose of them in arguments lol. My question is,while I've read that the New Testament is reliable, is it reasonable to just presume that it's reliable from the fact that they all existed, they all made their personal testimonies in the good book, etc.? BTW, I'm actually assuming you've already done a LOT of homework on this and drew your conclusion long ago. I'm just inquiring. Thanks!

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