Monday, January 14, 2013

Biblical Studies, Confirmation Bias, and the Quest for the Historical Jesus

A confirmation bias is when you agree with something because it appears to support your already preconceived conclusions (conclusions you made before testing the claim and thereby verifying the conclusion).

One of the best examples of confirmation bias comes in the form of religiously reinforced beliefs. The believer will often times selectively choose to use the information they have collected in a way which only confirms their beliefs.

You might have heard anecdotal stories about a sick patient thanking God, rather than their doctor, for their expedient recovery. They are ignoring all the medical science, medicine, technology, and hard work of dedicated and well trained professionals simply to thank God for their miraculous healing. This is a form of confirmation bias. They are selectively choosing what comports to their beliefs, and that which doesn't is deemed unimportant, which is why so many devoutly religious forget to properly thank their doctors.

Another type of confirmation bias can be readily found, sometimes to shocking degrees, in the area of Christian and Biblical studies. 

It has always amused me that the majority of nearly all Christian scholars that profess a belief in the truth of the historicity of Jesus Christ all happen to be card-carrying members of Christianity. As convenient as it may be, it has also led Christian and Biblical studies to become overridden with fallacies tainted both by theological assumptions as well as confirmation biases galore.

The evidence most Christian scholars swear supports the historical truth of Christianity is spotty at best. I am mainly talking about the claim that Jesus was born of a virgin, died on the cross, and was resurrected. This is the backbone of Christian history, for if these claims were not historical, then Christianity would be rendered false. It is no wonder then, that there has been more time and energy spent trying to safeguard Jesus Christ from disproof than any other figure in history.

Historians from other fields often look at this mess and shake their heads in the realisation that Biblical studies has never been more than a form of strained Christian apologetics.

For example, an archaeologist might discover the remains of a few buildings from the first century near the assumed location of Nazareth, and then suddenly, from the Christian community of scholars, there is a claim that Nazareth actually existed! 

Therefore Jesus' town did exist in the day he lived. But the historians selectively choose one specific discovery to hang all their precious hopes, and then imaginatively reconstruct a whole city around what may have been one farm house, and then this mino of barely anything to write home about turns into a whopping whale which nobody can ignore. Suddenly, finding just the foundation of a house that possibly resided in the area of Nazareth becomes evidence that what the Bible says about Jesus having been from there is the undeniable truth.

This is a confirmation bias specifically because such scholars are ignoring all the evidence which shows the contrary, that there wasn't any Nazareth during Jesus time, is actually much more likely to be the case. 

Rene Salm, for example, has collected all the archaeological and historical data on Nazareth he could find, and his conclusion is that there was no such place during the time of Jesus. I've looked at the data, and I agree. A little after Jesus' time, however, a town emerged that would go on to become the Nazareth of the Gospels. But the historical Jesus (should he have existed) was not from any such place.

This has led the historian Robert M. Price to theorize that Jesus was a Nazorean, because Naorene and Nazorean are two terms that are easily confused. This is a valid theory, because if there was no Nazareth, then why would we even make that mistake to begin with? Price's theory attempts to explain away two problems, while those who persist in the belief that Jesus was from Nazareth are simply working overly hard to ignore the two problems.

Knowing about confirmation bias then, is it so strange that mainstream Bible scholars call Price a quack while affirming the contention that Nazareth existed regardless of what the evidence should say?

Who is trying to be the more objective historian here?

The more objective Christian scholars say something more like this: we cannot know if Jesus existed or not. There's not enough information to piece together any trustworthy model of his person. We remain agnostic on that question.

That's what honest Christian and Biblical scholars say. What is it that the majority of Christian and Biblical scholars say? It's certainly not that!

For three decades before the supposed Son of God was born of a virgin (who probably wasn't even a virgin thanks to a better translations of the text which render it 'young woman') we have a very detailed account of Queen Cleopatra's suicide. 

We have so many extemporaneous details about Cleopatra's high profile exit from this mortal coil that it is practically shocking that we have absolutely NO extemporaneous writings about Jesus, the supposed Son of God, the redeemer of all--a guy who is said to have died and come back to life. We've got nothing.

What? The son of God wasn't worth writing about?

Well, the Christian historian plays the role of the apologist by making rationalizations to account for why we have no mention of Jesus Christ outside of the Bible. They strain credulity by citing sources like Josephus' Antiquities which has mention of a Christus, but which many historians believe to be an interpolation. But they cite it none-the-less.

This is the problem of Confirmation bias cropping up again. An otherwise level headed historian would log that evidence as anecdotal.  Interesting, sure, but until the interpolation business can be cleared up, it's simply not admissible as evidence. 

To make matters worse, an alternative translation of Josephus lacks that exact inscription altogether, so it really raises more questions than it answers. And when one is attempting to reconstruct history, one is trying to illuminate possibilities and make the best inference to the best representation of what most likely happened in history.

This is not what scholars of Christianity are doing when they weight their models with precisely selected pieces of evidence. It makes me wonder, do Christian and Biblical scholars understand that part of the reason they are so certain that Jesus existed is because they have spent hundreds of years making it look that way?

This problem also happens to be the reason why the mythic view needs to be taken seriously. If you weed out all the Confirmation bias from classical Christian studies, history, and archaeology, and Bible scholarship then all one is left with is very little in the way of anything which could support the claim that Jesus of Nazareth, a man from a town which is known not to have existed, is anything remotely close to an accurate portrayal of past events.

Historians, after settling upon the best representation of history, then go about trying to poke holes in that theory. It's called peer review. I find it highly suspect that after several thousand years of diligent research, most of it focused on the existence of Jesus Christ, we still aren't any closer to finding out if he was a real person or not.

It seems to me this is rather telling. Being so focused on this man, yet having nothing to say he existed, seems to suggest the mythicist view might be correct. Correct in the view that Jesus existed, not as a real man, but as a literary or mythical figure. 

If there was a real man, then the best we can say, as honest historians, is that we know nothing of him.

What about the Gospels, one might ask? You mean those collections of stories which have been mistaken for history? Sure, they're evidence that there was a man named Jesus Christ that many people told stories about. That's all they're evidence for. And that's why so many Christians had pinned their hopes on Christian and Biblical studies. They were wishing, praying, for anything that would support their religious beliefs.

That definitive evidence is still lacking.

What this suggests to me is that the quest for uncovering the historical Jesus is mainly a waste of time. We've collected as much data as we are likely to get on this one person. No other person in history has garnered so much interest, or had so much attention paid to them, and still have left us completely in the dark as to their existence. It seems that the search for anything substantial will continue to go on endlessly, because if the thousands of years of searching up to this point are any indicator, there is likely nothing substantial to find. Therefore, the question is forced to remain open by a firmly built wedge fully dependent on Confirmation bias.

Hector Avalos has observed that we have truly come to an end of Biblical studies for similar reasons. I do not think he is wrong. 

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