Thursday, May 16, 2019

The power of storytelling, and the problem of probability.

I’ve recently listened to the debate between Michael Shermer (skeptic) and Luuk Vandeweghe (Christian apologist) which took place in Sequim, Washington, USA, in March 2019, and was broadcast on the Unbelievable radio show and podcast a couple of weeks later.

It was a debate on biblical miracles, in front of a mostly Christian audience. It's fair to say that Vandeweghe won the debate. But I don't think he won the debate because he is right and has the facts on his side, I think he won the debate because he's a great storyteller, and told a compelling story of early Christianity which sounded entirely plausible, and therefore believable. Shermer never got the chance to take the story apart, and so wasn't able to counter the power of a good story.

Christians have always had great storytellers and great stories. But just because they have great stories, perhaps even the greatest story ever told, doesn't make the stories true. Sometimes fiction is more interesting than real life.

So let's break down Luuk Vandeweghe's story and see if it holds up to scrutiny. Obviously I'll only comment on a few aspects of it here, but I'll try and give the gist of the whole and be accurate in a few direct quotes.

He began by acknowledging that he was telling a story: "I want to tell you a story..." and used a repeated refrain to link together all the different characters he told us about: "They weren't liars and they weren't fooled".

He started his story in 66AD with a story about the emperor Nero in Rome, told by Tacitus. Vandeweghe doesn't tell us that Tacitus was only ten years old in 66AD, and wasn't there, and wouldn't write this account until at least 30 years later, he implied an accurate report of the events in AD66. He told how Nero took Christians, nailed them to crosses, and burned them as torches for his garden parties. He then told a tale of someone at the Colosseum, who could have saved their family members from being torn apart by wild animals if only they had denied Christ, but who chose to stay faithful. He said: "Tacitus tells us Christians gained the sympathy of the people because they never did this, they suffered, they endured, and they won over the hearts of Rome during that era, because they never went back on their testimony".

The problem I have with this, is that Tacitus says no such thing. Tacitus does not recount the story of the people at the Colosseum being given the opportunity to deny Christ and live. As far as I know, those stories come from 2nd century writings like the Apocryphal Acts, and writings like the Epistles of Ignatius, it's not in Tacitus. And the 2nd century writings contain a lot of stories that serious historians laugh at. They are not history. But here, a storytelling Christian has merged aspects of real history, with some ambiguous interpretation, with probably fictional stories, to make the story he wants to tell. This is not history, this is apologetics, and if the truth has to be bent along the way, so be it.

The storyteller told a good story, does it matter that it is probably not true? 

Is Luuk Vandeweghe a liar, or has he been fooled?

Here's what Tacitus actually said:
"Consequently, to get rid of the report [that Nero had ordered the fire in Rome], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed."
This does say that Nero blamed the fire of Rome on Christians, and had some Christians crucified, some burned as torches, and some torn by beasts. It doesn't say that any of them were given the option to deny Christ and be saved. And while it does say that the people of Rome had some compassion for the Christians, it doesn't say that this was because they were faithful to their beliefs.

Luuk made the claim that "the early martyrs weren't liars", but on the evidence of Tacitus, we don't actually know what the early martyrs said. They pleaded guilty to something, but Tacitus is unclear on what. Possibly the crime of setting fire to the city?

But the storyteller told a good story, does it matter that it is probably not true? 

Is Luuk Vandeweghe a liar, or has he been fooled?

The apologist's story now goes a couple of years before AD66 to the supposed martyrdom of Peter. Here, the apologist does that usual apologetic trick of overstating his case: "According to all the earliest sources that we have, Peter is the man who inspired Mark to write his gospel". Really? All the earliest sources? Paul doesn't say it, Acts doesn't say it, even Mark doesn't say it, secular historians like Tacitus and Josephus certainly don't mention it. In fact, most of the earliest sources we have do not mention the gospel of Mark or any connection between it and Peter. I think our earliest source on the supposed link between the two is Papias in the early to mid 2nd century. And there are reasons to question whether the writings Papias was talking about are actually the same thing as the book we now call Mark. And quite a few historians question the reliability of Papias. Most of the claims we have for a link between Peter and Mark are late 2nd century, possibly a whole century after the death of Peter, certainly more than a century after the death of Jesus. Yet the apologist declares, with apparent certainty, that the miracles in Mark came from the eyewitness accounts of Peter and that he died for his belief in those miracles.

I'd like to insert a little parenthesis here about probability. I'll continue with Luuk's story in a minute.

Here our apologist made three historical assertions in quick succession. These are:

  1. Peter witnessed the miracles of Jesus.
  2. Peter told the stories to Mark who wrote them down.
  3. Peter died because he would not abandon his belief in these miracles.
For the overall story to be true, all three of these need to be true. If one is false, the whole story is proven false. But historical reconstruction doesn't work in absolute truths, it works in probabilities.  The way probabilities work is that the probability of the whole is found by multiplying the probabilities of the individual components together. That is Ptotal = P1 × P2 × P3.

Suppose you think there is an 80% probability that each of these three statements is true, the probability of the overall story would be 0.8 × 0.8 × 0.8 = 0.51 or 51%. That's not a statement of high certainty, is it? But suppose we doubt the stories of Papius and think that it is unlikely that Mark's stories come from Peter, perhaps allocating that a 20% chance, and we think there's only a 50% that Peter actually saw miracles, and we think there's only a 30% chance that he would not have been martyred if he had changed his story, then we get 0.2 × 0.5 × 0.3 = 0.03 or only a 3% chance that the overall story is true!

In order for you to have (say) a 75% (or higher) probability in the overall claim, you actually need at least a 90% certainty in each of the three claims. Few historians would be likely to stake their claims that high.

This is what happens when there are only three claims being combined, Luuk's overall story has many more claims. If even a few of these have low probability, the likelihood of the overall story becomes very small. However, this reasonable application of probability in history is completely masked by compelling storytelling. A good story makes something plausible sound like something probable. They are very far from being the same thing. I'll try the sum at the end of this post... but now back to the story. 

Luuk now makes something entirely up. He says to imagine the evangelist Luke in the crowd, watching the crucifixion of Peter. Where did that come from? I've never heard that claim before. It would sure help the apologist's case if the author of Acts was there at the events he describes in his book, or the events he alludes to, because -of course- the martyrdom of Peter is not actually recorded in Acts. If Luke was there and if he witnessed Peter not denying Christ and being crucified as a consequence, and if he wrote that in his book, that would indeed be good evidence. But the thing is, this didn't happen, he didn't see it, he didn't write it. This part of the story is a complete red herring.

But the storyteller told a good story, does it matter that it is probably not true? 

Is Luuk Vandeweghe a liar, or has he been fooled?

Although the chain of evidence Vandeweghe is trying to build has already been broken with the lie above, he carries on and makes a big deal of the historical reliability of Luke's writings. He portrays Luke as a top notch historian who interviewed named eyewitnesses, including Mary the mother of Jesus. He claims that every time a minor character is named, this is probably because Luke has interviewed the eyewitness in question, and has told their story. It makes a great story, but this is also a highly doubtful claim. Nothing in there can be stated with certainty.

Scholars have long known that Luke used Mark as his primary source, but freely changed the bits he didn't like and added in other stories to bulk out his gospel. While the opening statement of Luke's gospel does sound like a claim of historical scholarship, not everyone is convinced. Indeed, from all I've read on the subject of Luke (and Acts, for that matter) I am reasonably convinced that the final edition of Luke, including the dedication to Theophilus, is a 2nd century expansion of an earlier gospel that made no claim to scholarship. Look at the first couple of chapters of Luke compared to most of the rest of the gospel, they're not even the same genre; chapters 1 and 2 are a musical! If you start reading Luke's gospel at chapter 3, it reads like the start of a book. I think chapter 3 is where the original gospel began and chapters 1 and 2 were added on by whoever was compiling this book for Theophilus. If the compiler was someone called Luke, this can't have been the same character who Paul named in his letters a couple of generations earlier. The apologetic as to why the evangelist Luke was the same as the companion of Paul is quite convoluted and there are good counter-arguments. Its certainly a low probability claim, not a certainty. Yet Vandeweghe relies on Luke's 'unbroken line of evidence' to support his case.

The storyteller told a good story, does it matter that it is probably not true? 

Is Luuk Vandeweghe a liar, or has he been fooled?

The chain of evidence now jumps to an individual I have thought a lot about recently, James the Just, the alleged brother of Jesus. Luuk invokes Josephus at this point. As with Tacitus, Josephus was a child at the time of the events of interest occurred, and was not there to witness them. There is also suspicion that the works of Josephus have been edited by later Christian redactors. Certainly the 'Testimonium Flavianum' has evidence of someone tampering with the text, and if it wasn't for the words 'the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ' in the passage about James, there would be nothing about the story in Josephus for us to think that James was martyred for anything to do with the Christian faith. He was executed as a lawbreaker. Maybe he was just a lawbreaker who was executed, and who has accrued legends after his death. People considered to be martyrs do seem to attract stories of great deeds and holiness.

Luuk repeats the oft-told apologetic about how James was a skeptic and became a believer and became leader of the early church. Having invested a lot of time reading up on this and thinking about it, I am really not convinced that this is in any way historical. I think that James the Just was co-opted by the 2nd century church as one of 'their' early martyrs and turned into Jesus's brother in the stories. See my blog post about that here. For me, this is a really weak link in the story.

Once again Vandeweghe repeats the completely non-historical claim that James only had to do one thing to avoid being martyred, he had to deny Jesus. This statement has no basis in history. At best it is simply assuming a detail of one story fits into another story, at worst it is pure fiction.

But the storyteller told a good story, does it matter that it is probably not true? 

Is Luuk Vandeweghe a liar, or has he been fooled?

The apologist next made the claim that the Sanhedrin who killed James were the same group of people who killed Jesus. Maybe they were, maybe they weren't. Given the years that separate the two events, death of Jesus around 30 CE, death of James around 69 CE, it is unlikely that the group members would be the same, and even if one or two were the same, the chance that they would connect the two events in any way is tiny.

Vandeweghe concluded his story by invoking the words of the Babylonian Talmud, a book written between 500 and 600 CE. He described how the Talmud referred to Jesus as 'a sorcerer', and claimed that this belief "went right back" to the trial of Jesus. His point being that by using the word translated here as 'sorcerer' the Jews were acknowledging that Jesus actually performed magic. This is not the word for a trickster, this is the word for the real deal. In other words, the accusers of Jesus believed his miracles were real, even if they believed they were of diabolic origin.

And so, by following a chain of 'evidence' from 66 CE back to Jesus himself, the apologist concluded his case that the miracles of Jesus were real, because the Sanhedrin at the time believed they were real. It was a strong story. The fact that it is not based in history is irrelevant. Vandeweghe won the debate.

But, of course, there is no chain of evidence linking the Sanhedrin in Jesus's day with a book written about 5 centuries later. And even if there was, there are a few details in the Talmud that should give us pause for thought. The Talmud story of "Yeshu the sorcerer" names his five disciples, tried with him, as "Matai, Nekai, Netzer, Buni, and Todah". None of those names feature in the gospel accounts. And in the gospels, Jesus is tried alone, not with his disciples. Maybe Yeshu the sorcerer and Jesus of Nazareth are not the same character? If that's the case, then the apologetic case fails. The dates also do not line up. If you look at the Talmudic timeline, then Yeshua the sorcerer lived and died a generation or so after Jesus supposedly did.

The storyteller told a good story, does it matter that it is probably not true? 

Is Luuk Vandeweghe a liar, or has he been fooled?

I don't think Vandeweghe is a liar. I just think he fundamentally believes the Christian story, and so lines up a bunch of historical data in a way that is coherent with the thing he believes anyway. He's doing good apologetics and bad history. He's been fooled.

So, how unlikely is his story? Here is a list of the links in his story, together with my estimates of probability for each of them. Assuming they are all required to prove the case, and therefore the probabilities multiply together, I'll do the sum and see just how probable or improbable I think the story is... I'll not allocate anything a zero probability as that messes with the calculations.
  • Christians in the time of Nero were martyred for being Christians. (60-95% likely)
  • They could have saved themselves by denying Christ. (20-50%)
  • Peter witnessed the miracles of Jesus. (10-90%)
  • Peter told the stories to Mark who wrote them down. (20-60%)
  • Peter died because he would not abandon his belief in these miracles. (20-80%)
  • Luke witnessed the martyrdom of Peter. (5-10%)
  • Luke interviewed the people who knew Jesus. (10-50%)
  • James the Just was the brother of Jesus. (5-95%)
  • James was martyred because he was a Christian. (5-50%)
  • James could have saved himself if he'd denied Jesus. (20-50%)
  • The same people who killed James killed Jesus. (5-30%)
  • The Talmud story of Yeshua the sorcerer is about Jesus. (10-60%)
  • The Talmud story goes back to the time of Jesus. (5-20%)
  • The Sanhedrin believed that Jesus could do miracles. (5-70%)
Here I've given reasonable ranges of probability from typically skeptical at the low end (actually, some of these should go way below 5% in that case) to fairly generous credulity at the upper end.

If we do the skeptical sum, we end up with a probability of 1.5 × 10-12%, or 0.0000000000015%. That is about a one in 600 Billion chance of it being true. Not very likely, in other words.

Even if we go to the generous end of the scale, the probability of all of Vandeweghe's story being true is 0.02% or about a 1 in 5000 chance. Still not very likely.

With 14 links here, in order to obtain a probability of more than 50% we need to have more than 95% confidence in all of the links in the chain. If we want the overall probability to be 75% or more, our confidence in each of the 14 links would need to be 98% or higher. Historical probabilities almost never go so high. You basically can't conclude a historical fact on a long chain of cumulative evidence. (Which reminds me that I never completed the 2nd part of my review of Cold Case Christianity... maybe someday...) 

Of course, it is possible that Jesus was real and his miracles were real even if the apologist's story is false or partially false, but that's not the point here. The point here is that you cannot prove something historical by telling stories like this, even though they seem plausible to people who want to believe the story.


Edwardtbabinski said...

The Colosseum? I recall reading that there is no evidence that Christians were put to death in that arena, and the reason people assume such things happened in the Colosseum is because of Christian novels and movies.

Edwardtbabinski said...

The Colosseum? I recall reading that there is no evidence that Christians were put to death in that arena, and the reason people assume such things happened in the Colosseum is because of Christian novels and movies.

Edwardtbabinski said...


Nice post. I tend to doubt Jesus performed the miracles listed in the Gospels, or at least that he performed no more than televangelists claim to perform today, i.e., some alleged healings and exorcisms. Hokey stuff, much of which is explainable, even expected, as Derren Brown demonstrates in his show called Miracle! that one can view on Netflix. One person’s paralysis was healed permanently during Brown’s performance. Brown himself is a gay atheist and mimicked Evangelical showmanship to prove how the mind can be manipulated to convince itself that pain has been relieved. He showed it brilliantly in his show. There are also numerous accounts of unexpected recoveries from various illnesses that have little to do with a specific religion being involved.

The Gospels say Jesus performed miracles while at sea but those were only seen by a few disciples, or he performed them on an unidentified mountain seen by only three disciples, or in an unidentified wilderness per the earliest two Gospels, or in small towns and villages known as the evangelical triangle, but those same villages “rejected” him, which is possibly an excuse invented by Christian Gospel writers for why Galilee was not filled to the brim with Christian converts after the majority of Jesus’ alleged miracles had been performed there. The Gospel of Matthew even ends with the further excuse by its author that after the allegedly risen Jesus had appeared in Galilee, “some doubted.”

In other words, there is no mention of Jesus performing miracles in big cities in Mark, the earliest Gospel, though it says Jesus passed through some big cities like Caesarea and Jerusalem, and Jesus was well within reach of other big cities on the shores of the Lake of Galilee. One big city was within walking distance of Jesus’ boyhood village.

Nor does the earliest Gospel mention Jesus performing a single miracle in the big city of Jerusalem, it only says that women discovered an empty tomb and told no one anything, and that a young man at the tomb said that Jesus had gone before his disciples to Galilee to be seen there.

Moreover, the body of the other Gospels simply repeat the miracles found in Mark in most cases. And most of their new miracle tales are added to the beginnings and endings of their new Gospels.

Looks like the story grew over time.