Possible Explanations of the Gospel Evidence

Brian Holtz   Jan 2003

People on both sides of Christian apologetics argue incessantly over what explanation must be true or false, but few ever admit less than total confidence in their position, and fewer still ever try to quantify their relative confidence in their explanation versus its alternatives. (A partial exception is Richard Carrier's probabilistic analysis of Jesus' survival at  http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/resurrection/2i.html.)

The evidence directly concerning the gospels has been essentially unchanged for almost two millennia, and the wider evidence concerning supernaturality has been almost unchanged for half a century. Despite a clear trend -- especially among those learned in philosophy, history, and science -- toward a consensus of naturalism about the world in general and the gospels in particular, the disagreement by a significant minority of intellectuals with that potential consensus demands explanation. My theory is essentially that they are dogmatic -- that their beliefs stem mostly from cultural and personal factors that leave them with a level of certitude that is not justified in light of both the evidence and their status as an intellectual minority. One prediction of my theory is that these dogmatic theists would reject outright any possibility of alternative explanations.

Here is my attempt to classify the possible explanations of the gospel evidence and to roughly quantify the probability of each. My confidence range for my estimates is roughly a factor of five. So if I say an explanation has a probability of 1/50, then I won't quibble with anyone saying that explanation is as likely as 1/10 or as unlikely as 1/250.

From this analysis we may observe that: I wonder if any Christian would be willing to test his level of dogmatism by assigning numeric probabilities to each of these explanations (or to a similarly-detailed set). The only rules are that the classification should cover all the logical possibilities (including those listed below, either separately or in aggregate), and no case should be given zero probability unless its logical impossibility is uncontroversial.

By default, the probability analysis of a Christian apologist can be assumed to be something like:

Any Christian apologist who is unwilling or unable to assign a non-zero probability to the alternative explanations is obviously unreasonable and dogmatic.