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Bayesian evaluation for the likelihood of Christ's resurrection (Part 33)

November 29, 2016

So the diversity of the individuals involved in Christ's resurrection testimonies already make a high degree of interdependence unlikely. One could hardly find a less likely group of people to enter into a world-spanning conspiracy. You would expect disparate parts of such a group to be constantly at odds with each other, destroying the conspiracy almost immediately.

In fact, that's pretty much what happened: the disparate parts of the group were constantly at odds with each other - and yet, the "conspiracy" was preserved.

There were hints of confusion and division even before Jesus's crucifixion, in things like the disciples arguing about who will be the greatest, or who will be sitting by Jesus's side when he establishes his kingdom. Peter even berated Jesus for announcing his upcoming death, and there seems to have been a general confusion about the nature of the movement - are they going to lead an uprising against Rome? Do they need to be armed?

After Christ's ascension, very early in the book of Acts, there was a conflict between the Greek-speaking members and the other Jewish members of the Church, concerning the equitable distribution of food to the widows. This was a big enough deal that the Church instituted a whole new tier of leadership - the first deacons - to address the issue. And yet, the central tenant of the "conspiracy" - the resurrection - was unchanged.

Soon thereafter, an intense persecution befell the church. Several key members were killed, and the church was scattered across the known world. Gentiles were evangelised around this time as well (Cornelius, Ethiopian eunuch) - which in itself caused no small controversy. All of this further fragmented an already very diverse church. The problem was so bad that various evangelists regularly encountered people with very incomplete knowledge about Jesus. There was a group who did not know about the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and Apollos had to have his knowledge completed by Priscilla and Aquila. Still others were only attracted to the power associated with the name of Jesus and wanted to misusing it outright, like Simon Magus and the seven sons of Sceva. And despite all this persecution, fragmentation, and confusion, the "conspiracy" held together.

In the middle of all this, Paul - already mentioned as one of the early persecutors of the church - miraculously converted to Christianity, and became one of its foremost evangelists, to the point of becoming one of the named witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15. He then got embroiled in the central controversy of the early Christian Church: how to handle Gentile believers. This controversy got so heated that Paul once had to publicly rebuke Peter for his stance, and James wrote his epistle with a vastly different emphasis from Paul on what it means to truly be a "believer". In other words, this controversy set all three of the named witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15 against one another, to some degree. And yet, the "conspiracy" endured.

And that's not the end to the divisions of the early church - A number of outright heretical groups had to be condemned - Paul pronounced anathema to a group proclaiming "a different gospel", and John pointed out certain "antichrists" at large in the world, and also named the works of the Nicolaitans as the objects of Jesus's hate. And despite all this division, the "conspiracy" remained.

Again, what kind of conspiracy does this? What conspiracy kills off its leader, fragments itself into dozens of different pieces, bitterly fights itself on internal controversies, condemns some parts of itself, and still survives? And all for what purpose? Persecution, controversy, and death? That is all that any insider might have hoped to receive by adhering to their conspiracy. As Paul himself says in 1 Corinthians 15: "If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied."

If the "conspiracy" is that Jesus really did rise from the dead, and that this was the central truth that held early Christianity together, despite all of its divisions - then all this makes sense. But if you want all this to be the result of some made-up story, then you have to postulate a completely ridiculous conspiracy - one where the leaders somehow concocted the greatest and most effective lie the world had ever seen, despite being an inept, fractious group of people with little control over their followers. Or, you can instead postulate a truly vast conspiracy, one which planned for all this persecution and division and infighting from the beginning. You can postulate whatever you'd like. That's the whole appeal of conspiracy theories. But at the end, the prior probability for any conspiracy you postulate will be absolutely miniscule.

The next post will begin the process of putting all this on a quantitative footing.


You may next want to read:
Miracles: their definition, properties, and purpose
How to make a fractal
Another post, from the table of contents

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