I should note that I originally had no interest in the OP, but got dragged into this when John Loftus included a link to one of my essays in a blog post, and then Torley posted comments criticizing it. I responded to Torley’s criticism of my essay, defending my original points against those criticisms, and then he asked me to also respond to his OP. I have already diverted a number of hours away from my dissertation to engage in this tangent, but I will be indulgent of Torley’s request.
Torley begins by noting that he is only arguing for rational belief in the resurrection on the basis of probability and not certainty:
“In this post, I will not be attempting to demonstrate that the Resurrection actually occurred. Rather, my aim will be to outline the process of reasoning whereby someone might conclude that it probably occurred, while acknowledging that he/she may be wrong.”
On this point we are agreed. I think that virtually all of history (especially ancient history) can only be reconstructed in terms of probability. In my post “History, Probability, and Miracles,” I take a Bayesian approach to argue that historians must factor in 1) the prior probability of a certain event occurring, and 2) how expected the evidence is on that hypothesis. Here is my original essay:
Interacting with the arguments of epistemologist Robert Cavin, I argue that the 1) prior probability of Jesus resurrecting from the dead is astronomically low. I also argue that 2) the expected evidence found in Paul’s letters and the Gospels is very weak, due in large part to the nature of ancient literary evidence. We know very little about the circumstances in which such evidence was produced (which we can contrast with more tangible forms of evidence, such as what is used in forensic science, for example), and the literary texts themselves are likewise problematic in a number of ways. Paul is problematic because his testimony is too vague and doesn’t allow us much evidence to know specifically what the disciples experienced. The Gospels are problematic because they are anonymous, theological narratives that do not discuss their sources, and were most likely prone to literary embellishment.
Interacting with the arguments of epistemologist Aviezer Tucker, I argue that the primary data that needs to be explained is not what the disciples experienced, but why we have ancient literature describing such experiences. I note that a second-hand or anonymous report of an author *writing* about such experiences is not the same thing as having access to the experiences themselves. An author can write a letter or narrative about things due to other causes than the experiences actually taking place (e.g. hearsay, literary embellishment, lies, misinterpretation of natural phenomena, etc.). When we especially know very little about the circumstances in which such literature was produced, it leaves its causes for being written open to a much wider range of explanations.
This is especially important when discussing the expected evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. Since Paul’s letters and the Gospels could have been produced from a wide range of causes, I think they are (roughly speaking) equally expected for a number of non-resurrection hypotheses (e.g. mythical translation fables, hearsay, embellishment, hallucinations or non-veridical visionary experiences, etc.). Since I think that all of these hypotheses also have a higher prior probability than the resurrection, I think their overall probability (when factoring in expected evidence) is likewise more probable than the resurrection, and likewise when they are combined (allowing for a wide range of alternative naturalistic explanations), I think the combined weight of all non-resurrection hypotheses greatly outweighs the probability of the resurrection itself.
With this background in mind, now let’s turn to Torley’s arguments. Torley begins with a “minimal facts” approach that is common in resurrection apologetics. He lists the following “key facts”:
- The man known as Jesus Christ was a real person, who lived in 1st-century Palestine.
- Jesus was crucified and died.
- Jesus’ disciples collectively saw a non-ghostly apparition of Jesus, after his death.
N.B. By a “non-ghostly” apparition, I mean: a multi-sensory [i.e. visual, auditory and possibly tactile] apparition, which led the disciples to believe Jesus was alive again. I don’t mean that Jesus necessarily ate fish, or had a gaping hole in his side: many Biblical scholars now think that these details may have been added to the Gospels of Luke and John for polemical reasons. Are they right? I don’t know.”
I have already discussed in a previous comment why I think that the use of the term “facts” is problematic. What is really meant here is that we have broad scholarly support for these premises (especially that Jesus existed and was crucified). Here is the previous comment:
I would take issue with the notion that “fact 3” is a premise accepted by a consensus of scholars. It is true that 1 Cor. 15 describes an appearance to one group (i.e. the 500), but the evidence is too vague to say that they all saw or heard the same thing. Paul also says that Jesus appeared to the 12, but he doesn’t specify that he appeared collectively. It is also too vague to conclude that it was “multi-sensory,” since the Greek verb ὤφθη can variantly mean “to be seen physically” or “to be seen in visions” or even just “to appear.” To quote scholar Stephen Patterson (The God of Jesus, pg. 236) about the appearance to the 500, for example:
“It is not inconceivable that an early Christian group might have interpreted an ecstatic worship experience as an appearance of the risen Jesus.”
I think, therefore, that Paul’s testimony is too limited to conclude with certainty that the disciples collectively saw a multi-sensory apparition of Jesus. It’s possible, of course, but the evidence is vague enough to be open to other explanations.
Now, it is true that the Gospels (especially Matthew, Luke, and John) do describe multi-sensory experiences of the disciples seeing, speaking with, and even touching Jesus. But, it is important not to conflate these *literary narratives* (which were produced anonymously several decades later, in a different language) with the *experiences* themselves. We don’t have the independent testimony of 12 men giving detailed first-hand accounts of what they saw or heard. What we have are anonymous narratives describing such experiences (in a number of varying ways, such as Jesus appearing in Galilee vs. Jerusalem). Since such narratives can be produced from other causes than the experiences described actually taking place (e.g. hearsay, literary embellishment, lies, etc.), I think that the evidence in the Gospels is (roughly speaking) equally as expected for a much wider range of naturalistic explanations, as it is for the resurrection.
Torley notes that he won’t be relying on the empty tomb as a “fact,” because it is not found in Paul’s letters and because he is primarily trying to avoid relying on the Gospels. On this point I agree with his methodology. But I do take issue with Torley’s statement:
“Jesus’ disciples collectively saw a non-ghostly apparition of Jesus, after his death … which led the disciples to believe Jesus was alive again.”
This statement seems to imply that it was the experience of apparitions that caused the disciples to believe in the resurrection. But a number of scholars have argued that the resurrection belief may have preceded the experiences themselves. One hypothesis is that after Jesus’ death the disciples were frustrated and confused about their failed messianic expectations. This dissonance caused them to rationalize how Jesus, in some way, could still be the messiah. They may have come to believe that he had not truly died, but had been raised to heaven by God after his death, and that he would soon return to carry out the rest of his messianic mission.
If belief in the resurrection did indeed come first, then it may have been this belief which then triggered the reports of “appearances.” Believing that Jesus was raised, the disciples could have started to have visions, hallucinations, ecstatic experiences, or prayers in which they thought the resurrected Jesus had “appeared to” them. The point is that the appearances themselves did not need to come out of the blue. They could have already been wound up in a theology that was developing shortly after Jesus’ death.
Torley next states:
“I propose to distinguish between two kinds of skepticism: Type A and Type B. Type A skepticism casts doubt on people’s claims to have had an extraordinary experience, while Type B skepticism questions whether a miraculous explanation of this extraordinary experience is the best one. In the case of the Resurrection, Type A skepticism seeks to undermine one or more of the key facts listed above, whereas Type B skepticism doesn’t question the key facts, but looks for a non-miraculous explanation of those key facts.”
I would argue in the case of the Gospels that Type A skepticism is certainly justified. The anonymous Gospel authors could have certainly invented, embellished, or passed along hearsay about what Jesus’ disciples experienced, without such experiences taking place. We need not assume that the description of Thomas’ experience in John, for example, actually corresponds to a historical event. In that case, I would say that I am a Type A skeptic for most of the resurrection appearances in the Gospels (at least as they are literally described), but I do think that they probably go back to earlier traditions about Jesus appearing to his disciples in some way, which were subsequently embellished and added to.
Torley has noted, however, that he wants to focus on Paul. In the case of Paul, I think Type A skepticism is plausible, if Paul had merely been lying about the report in 1 Cor. 15, for example. But, to be fair, I would describe myself as more of a Type B skeptic in this case. My biggest objection to the evidence in Paul is that it is too vague to be very probative. All we have is a second-hand report of Jesus “being seen” or “appearing” to his disciples. It doesn’t say what they saw or how the experience took place. That kind of evidence is open to wide range of explanations, as noted by scholar Stephen Patterson above.
Torley then notes that there is a difference between an extraordinary *experience* and an extraordinary *occurrence*:
“But we must be careful not to confuse extraordinary claims with extraordinary experiences: the former relate to objectively real occurrences, while the latter relate to subjective experiences. There is nothing improbable about someone’s having an extraordinary experience. People have bizarre experiences quite often: most of us have had one, or know someone who has had one. However, extraordinary occurrences are by definition rare: their prior probability is very, very low. The distinction I have made above is a vital one. The key facts listed above imply that Jesus’ disciples had an extraordinary experience, but as we’ve seen, there’s nothing improbable about that…”
I would also add the nuance that it is even more common for there to be a second-hand or anonymous *report* of an extraordinary experience, than an *actual* extraordinary experience. Remember, what we have as evidence is not the disciples’ experiences themselves, but ancient literature that describes such experiences. So, when Torley states:
“So even if we can show that Jesus’ disciples had an extraordinary experience which persuaded them that he had risen again, one still needs to show that the posterior probability of all proposed non-miraculous explanations of this experience is less than the posterior probability of a miracle, given this extraordinary experience, before one is permitted to conclude that the miraculous explanation is warranted.”
I would argue that what we can show is that we have *ancient literary texts* claiming that the disciples had extraordinary experiences. What needs to be demonstrated is whether the posterior probability for all non-miraculous explanations of such texts being written and transcribed is less than the posterior probability of them being produced in response to an actual miracle.
Torley argues that, in part, he must show:
“(ii) given the key facts listed above, and given also that there is a reasonable likelihood that a supernatural Deity exists Who is at least able to resurrect a dead human being, if He chooses to do so, then the total [posterior] probability of the various Type B skeptical explanations listed below is far less than the posterior probability that Jesus was miraculously raised.”
I would probably disagree with him regarding the reasonable likelihood that a supernatural deity exists who is able to resurrect a human being. If one comes from the background of naturalistic metaphysics (which often denies that there are supernatural agents who intervene in the physical world), then that would probably affect how they evaluate their Type B skeptical explanations for the posterior evidence.
But I would also like to note that Robert Cavin argues that Jesus’ resurrection is improbable, even in a universe where God actually exists. Simply because God is *able* to resurrect the dead does not show that he actually *does*. In a world where there is no scientific/medical evidence of human beings being resurrected in the manner described in Paul and the Gospels, and likewise an abundance of false or imagined reports of such things (e.g. ancient translation fables), the posterior evidence might still favor a non-miraculous hypothesis, even if we assume that God exists.
Torley next states:
“As it happens, I’d estimate the probability of Loftus’ preferred explanation [that the early disciples were visionaries, that is, they believed God was speaking to them in dreams, trances, and thoughts that burst into their heads throughout the day … having their hopes utterly dashed upon the crucifixion of Jesus they began having visions that Jesus arose from the dead] for the Resurrection of Jesus to be about 10%. That’s much higher than the prior probability that God would resurrect a man from the dead, even if you assume that there is a God. However, I also believe that there’s a 2/3 probability (roughly) that Jesus’ disciples had an experience of what they thought was the risen Jesus. If they had such an experience, and if there is a God Who is capable of raising the dead, then I think it’s easy to show that the posterior probability of the Resurrection, in the light of these facts, is very high.”
I think that his 10% figure is a gross underestimation. If all we are dealing with is Paul’s letters (and we bracket the claims in the Gospels), then I think there is a wide range of causes that can explain such vague testimony. Scholar Stephen Patterson above noted how the appearance to the 500, for example, could have been nothing more than an “ecstatic worship experience.” Without specific details, which Paul does not provide, we lack the kind of evidence that we would need to eliminate the kinds of explanations that Loftus is describing to the degree that Torley has claimed. I’ll evaluate more of Torley’s estimations below.
Torley next discusses a number of Type A skeptical scenarios:
I’ll leave aside 1. that Jesus never existed, and 2. he didn’t die on the cross, since I do not support these theories. I take issue with how Torley describes the next hypothesis:
“3(a) The fraud hypothesis: Jesus’ disciples didn’t really see an apparition of Jesus; their story that they had seen him was a total lie. For thirty years, they got away with their lie and attracted quite a following, prior to their execution during the reign of the Emperor Nero. (James the Apostle died somewhat earlier, in 44 A.D.)”
Remember, we don’t have the disciples’ story. What we have are Paul’s vague, second-hand account and the Gospels to work with as evidence. One might also factor in the sociological background that it is widely accepted premise that Christianity grew as a nascent religion during those thirty years. But, we cannot attribute the growth of the religion solely to the disciples claiming to see apparitions of Jesus, since there were many other beliefs wound up in the Christian message (e.g. imminent apocalypticism, the notion that Gentiles could embrace the Hebrew faith, the worship of Jesus in place of other gods, etc.).
When it comes to the “fraud hypothesis,” what really needs to be considered is the possibility that the authors of the literary texts which describe the disciples’ experiences were lying/embellishing. For the Gospels, I think this is highly likely. (I would avoid the word “lying,” but I do think they were imagining, embellishing, and inventing many of the details in their narratives, or their sources did.) When it comes to Paul, I think it is less likely that he was lying about his report in 1 Cor. 15, but I have noted how that report is too vague to exclude with high probability of the kind of explanation that Loftus is giving.
Also, Torley in this statement alludes to the disciples’ persecution and executions, implying that it would count against the idea they were committing fraud. I have already discussed problems with the martyrdom argument in this previous comment:
I will discuss the rest of Torley’s 3(b-d) scenario below, where he provides counter-arguments that I will respond to.
I next take issue with how Torley limits the possibilities for Type B skepticism:
“Supposing that one grants the key facts listed above, I can think of only two skeptical hypotheses by which one might seek to explain away the disciples’ non-ghostly post-mortem apparition of Jesus, without having recourse to a miracle. Either it was a purely subjective experience (i.e. a collective hallucination), or it was an illusion, created by mind control techniques.”
The range of purely subjective experiences could be much more than just a “collective hallucination.” As Patterson has noted, it could be nothing more than an ecstatic worship experience, or other forms of prayers or dreams in which they thought Jesus had “appeared to” them. As for some form of optical illusion (let’s a say a solar miracle), I don’t think Paul’s testimony is specific enough to exclude this possibility (the 500 may have seen a solar miracle). All we are dealing with is vague descriptions of “appearances,” and that can encompass a wide range of experiences. I’ll set aside mind control (from aliens or demons) since I don’t consider that very probable. I’ll discuss more of Torley’s objections to Type B skepticism below.
Torley next discusses “religious skeptics” who believe in God but deny the resurrection. Since I don’t belong to this category, I will largely skip over most of the points. But I will say the following about one of Torley’s remarks:
“The fraud hypothesis was put forward by the Jews back in the first century … I have to say that I regard this explanation as a much more sensible one. If I had nothing but the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection available to me, I might be persuaded by it, but for my part, I find it impossible to read the letters of St. Paul to the Corinthians without becoming convinced of their author’s obvious sincerity. The man wasn’t lying when he said that Jesus appeared to him.”
Paul may have been highly deluded though, and we cannot glean from his letters *how* he thought Jesus had appeared to him. He never describes the experience in detail. If we go into Acts, Paul saw a light from heaven and heard a voice speaking to him. That kind of experience could easily be explained by something as simple as a heat stroke on the road to Damascus. It’s also not clear whether his companions saw/heard the same thing. Acts 9:7 states that Paul’s companions heard the sound with him, but saw nobody. Acts 22:9 states that Paul’s companions saw the light, but did not hear the voice that was speaking. Also, there is disagreement on whether Paul’s companions fell to the ground or remained standing. Acts 9:4, 9:8 mention only Paul falling to the ground, whereas Acts 26:14 states that Paul and his companions fell to the ground.
Either way, if we don’t like the idea that Paul was committing fraud, it is certainly possible that he *imagined* much of what he experienced and possibly embellished it in his letters.
Torley next discusses “non-religious skeptics” who deny the resurrection. I fall into this category and will explain where below:
“Non-religious skeptics who deny the Resurrection fall into different categories: there are both Type A skeptics and Type B skeptics. Among the Type A skeptics, there are a few Jesus-mythers (G.A. Wells, Earl Doherty, Robert Price, Richard Carrier) favor hypothesis 1, while swoon-theorists such as Barbara Thiering and the authors of the best-seller, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, favor hypothesis 2(i). However, most skeptics tend to either favor the Type A hypothesis 3(b) [the disciples saw a ghostly apparition; later Christians made up the resurrection – this is Loftus’ proposal] or the Type B hypothesis 4 [Jesus’ disciples had a collective hallucination, which was so vivid that it caused them to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead]. Hypothesis 3(c) has few proponents, and I don’t know anyone who advocates hypotheses 3(d) or 5.”
I am not a Mythicist, and so I will largely ignore Torley’s comments on that approach.
When it comes to the other hypotheses, I would argue that what needs to be demonstrated is whether they best explain the *ancient literary texts* that describe the disciples’ experiences, not the experiences themselves (which we don’t have access to), following Tucker’s methodology.
Type A hypothesis 3(b) I think is quite probable, though I would stress that the range of “ghostly apparitions” is quite broad can account for a wide range of experiences, to be discussed further below.
Hypothesis 3(c) I think is plausible, if Jesus’ body could no longer be found after the disciples’ had visions of him. Or, in contrast, perhaps the body went missing, which triggered them to have visions of him. I agree with John Loftus (as well as scholars like James Crossley) that the empty tomb story was probably invented by Mark (or his source), so I will focus mostly on the accounts of the disciple’s experiences.
I’m not sure why Torley states that he doesn’t know of any advocates for 3(d), which he describes as “Jesus’ disciples experienced individual (rather than collective) non-ghostly apparitions of Jesus, on separate occasions, which convinced each of them that he had risen, and which made them willing to be martyred for their faith in that fact.”
If we rely on Paul’s letter, the only experience that was clearly defined as collective was the appearance to the 500, through the use of the adverb ἐφάπαξ (“at once”). Though, even that adverb can just mean “at one time” and not necessarily “at one place,” so even it is a bit vague for describing a collective experience.
Either way, I would argue that the first apparition of Jesus was probably a private, individual experience (Paul starts, after all, by naming Peter and no one else). But we need not assume that private experiences are independent of each other. If, for example, Peter had a bereavement vision of Jesus, and then told the other disciples, that may have triggered them to have similar visions, hallucinations, dreams, or prayers. This circumstance could also account for latter collective experiences. Say that Peter convinced the 12 that Jesus was risen, and then they gathered the 500 and told them that Jesus would appear to them. Then, that group had an ecstatic worship experience in which it was thought Jesus had revealed himself. The point is that that apparitions of Jesus certainly could have started as individual experiences, and only later become group experiences, when a common belief in appearances spread throughout the early church.
I will now discuss Torley’s response to the skeptical hypotheses:
When it comes to Jesus never existing, I am no Mythicist, but I would probably rank its probability at above 1%. I certainly place it below 50%, but it strikes me as more plausible than 1%. I don’t know if I can make a precise mathematical calculation, but I would at least put it somewhere in the realm of 3-10%.
I think the swoon theory is pretty unlikely, as well as the notion that someone else was crucified in Jesus’ place, so I don’t have many objections to Torley’s analysis on this point.
For hypothesis 3(a), I think the use of the word “fraud” is too simplistic. We can certainly imagine less sinister motives. Perhaps the disciples were pious believers in an impending apocalypse, and needed the resurrection belief to justify their view (that’s not just looking for fame or money). Again, embellishment and imagination, I think, often cause people to skew the truth more so than deliberate lying. And, of course, we don’t have the disciples’ own testimony, so it only takes the embellishment or imagination of later, second-hand accounts for their experiences to become exaggerated. I’m not going to make precise mathematical calculations in this response, but I think Torley is being too simplistic and too skeptical about this hypothesis.
Torley also brings up the persecution that Paul (self-)describes in 2 Corinthians 11:24-27 as counting against the idea he was a fraud. Of course, if Paul was lying about his experiences of Jesus, for the sake of argument, who’s to say that he wasn’t lying about his persecution? I’ve also already discussed with Torley previously why I don’t think we can attribute Paul’s persecution solely to his claim that he saw a resurrected Jesus (as opposed to other causes, such as conflicting with other Jews over their interpretation of the Law, or with the Romans over emperor worship), and so I don’t think we can count such persecution as being motivated solely (or even primarily) by the resurrection belief. I make my reply to Torley about 2 Cor. 11:24-27 in the following comment:
For hypothesis 3(b) I think Torley performs a bit of a bait and switch. He seems to have defined a “ghostly” appearance in two ways, and I discuss this with him in the following comment:
On the one hand, he defines “non-ghostly” as “multi-sensory” [i.e. visual, auditory and possibly tactile] apparition. But here he states:
“St. Paul speaks of Jesus as the first person to be raised from the dead: he is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” If being raised simply means “being seen in a vision after one’s death,” this would make no sense. Post-mortem visions were common in the ancient world. Jesus wasn’t the first to be seen in this way. Nor would it account for St. Paul’s assertion that the resurrection of other human beings would not take place until the end of the world – “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” If a post-mortem appearance by a ghost counts as a resurrection, then many people are raised shortly after their death, and will not have to wait until the Last Day.”
This second definition implies that the disciples believed that Jesus was the “firstfruits” of the resurrection, and not merely a ghost of a dead person. There was something ontologically different about Jesus’ resurrection. That’s fine, but I think that involves much more of a theological distinction, rather than a difference over what the disciples might have seen.
I have already noted to Torley in a comment above how Bart Ehrman, for example, thinks that the disciples originally believed that Jesus had ascended to heaven after his death (not physically returned to earth), and then “appeared to” them from another plane of existence:
By Torley’s first definition of “non-ghostly,” I think Ehrman is open to the possibility that they did not have multi-sensory experiences of Jesus, since there would be other forms of experiences (e.g. prayers, dreams, or revelations) that might have led them to believe that Jesus had communicated to them from his new place in heaven. But Ehrman would certainly grant this second definition of “non-ghostly,” in that he believes that Jesus had resurrected in some special sense, and was not the ghost of an ordinary person.
Either way, all we are dealing with here are a few vague descriptions in Paul’s letters. I think the term “non-ghostly” is too limited. To have the accounts described there could have been a wide range of experiences (e.g. visions, hallucinations, spiritual ecstasy, prayer, revelation, etc.), and we don’t need to assume a vivid or tactile interaction with the risen Jesus. And, even if one or more of the disciples had such an experience, we don’t need to assume that they saw or heard the same thing, or that every post-mortem experience was of the same character. I discuss this further in reply to Torley in the following comment:
For hypothesis 3(c), I think if Jesus’ body had gone missing and the disciples’ learned of this, it may have triggered them to start having post-mortem experiences of Jesus. But, I think this is less likely than the empty tomb being invented.
But what I think is missing from Torley’s analysis is another possibility, namely that the disciples first believed that Jesus had resurrected and would soon return (as a rationalization of how he could die and still be the messiah), and subsequently had post-mortem experiences that (to them) justified their belief. This additional hypothesis is important, because it provides an explanation for how such experiences did not come out of thin air. It’s also something that Bart Ehrman has suggested, which I discuss with Torley in the following comment:
For hypothesis 3(d), I think it is important to stress how individual appearances may have later influenced group appearances. We don’t need to assume that individual appearances happened independently of each other. If one disciple had a post-mortem experience and then told the others, it could have triggered them to have experiences of their own. Collective, group experiences may have then emerged as the idea that Jesus was appearing to his disciples began to spread in the early church. If the group of the 500 had been told, for example, that Jesus would soon appear to them during an ecstatic experience, they could have then believed that they had collectively experienced the post-mortem Jesus.
To return to my original point, all we have is ancient literature, in this case Paul’s letters. Since the evidence is so vague and non-probative, we can’t exclude possibilities like this. We don’t know the circumstances in which group appearances occured, or how and when they happened. I don’t think we can dismiss the notion, then, that the first appearances were private, and then group experiences occurred primarily from the incitement of others.
Let’s now turn to Torley’s counter-arguments to the Type B skeptical hypotheses. First, Torley states:
“Let me begin by saying that if one has prior reasons for believing that the existence of God is astronomically unlikely, then the evidence for the Resurrection won’t be powerful enough to overcome that degree of skepticism. (John Loftus is one such skeptic.) If, on the other hand, one believes that the existence of God is likely (as I do), or even rather unlikely but not astronomically unlikely (let’s say that there’s a one-in-a-million chance that God exists), then the arguments below will possess some evidential force.”
I agree that if the existence of supernatural agents who intervene in the physical world is extraordinarily unlikely, it makes it further improbable that the resurrection occurred as described (i.e. God raiding Jesus from the dead).
But, I’ll repeat that epistomologist Robert Cavin’s arguments that, even if God exists, the resurrection might still be extraordinarily low, simply because God being *able* to perform such a miracle does not entail that he ever *does*. As Cavin observes, billions of billions of people die without God raising them from the dead. That makes the prior probability that he will do so in the case of Jesus quite low. The posterior probability may be greater, depending on how one weighs the evidence (Paul’s letters and the Gospels), but as I have repeatedly said, such ancient literature is very weak evidence for establishing such extraordinary claims, primarily because we don’t know much about the circumstances in which it was produced (making it non-probative), which leaves its production open to a wide range of causes (including those beyond the resurrection hypothesis).
I think that Torley’s counter-arguments to hypothesis 4 are filled with problems. First off, a collective post-mortem appearance of Jesus can be explained by much more than a “collective hallucination.” It could also be caused by other things, such as an ecstatic group experience, which is what Patterson has noted. Now above, Torley defines this hypothesis as “an apparition of Jesus after his death which was so vivid that they came to believe that what they had seen was no ghost, but a resurrected human being,” so I suppose he is excluding anything short of a vivid and collective multi-sensory experience corroborated by each member of the group. (An ecstatic group prayer experience, I guess, would fall under Type A skepticism.) But he also defines Type B skepticism as the following:
“Type B skepticism questions whether a miraculous explanation of this extraordinary experience is the best one.”
The problem is that he seems to be assuming too much about what this “extraordinary experience” was. If all we are working with is Paul’s letters, we don’t know if the disciples had a “vivid” experience of Jesus, for example. The data available is not probative enough to grant this kind of certainty. Given the wide range of phenomena that might have caused the disciples’ experiences (or more importantly, the second-hand reports of them), I would think that there would be many things that could account for such an “extraordinary experience,” besides a collective hallucination.
Torley next claims:
“It stands to reason that after having had the experience of seeing Jesus alive again after his death, the apostles would have cross-checked their reports, to see if they were in agreement about what they saw, before accepting the veracity of such an extraordinary miracle as a resurrection from the dead.”
How does he know this? Paul says no such thing in his letters, and Torley is reading *way* beyond the evidence. Remember also that Torley describes Jesus’ “non-ghostly” apparitions as a “fact.” But it is certainly not a “fact” agreed upon by scholars that the disciples cross-checked their reports with each other, or that they even saw or heard the same thing. I would certainly deny this premise of Torley’s.
Torley calculates the odds of all eleven disciples “seeing and hearing substantially the same thing” as less than 10^-33. I don’t think we have any ancient evidence establishing this. As I explain to Torley in another comment:
“In the case of the Gospels, though, what we have are anonymous narratives claiming that Jesus spoke to his disciples. That is not the same thing as having 11 men individually corroborate that they saw or heard the same thing. The data that needs to be explained is why we have those anonymous narratives (which could have come from a wide range of reasons, like legendary development, polemics, and imagined events), not whether the events depicted correspond to what actually took place, as Tucker has emphasized.
Paul’s testimony is vague and goes even less far toward supporting the notion that the disciples “heard the same thing.” To get evidence like that, what we would need is something like 12 independent, first-hand accounts all describing their experiences in detail, which then corroborate each other about what was seen and spoken. We have nothing like that. We have a vague second-hand account in Paul, and dependent anonymous accounts in the Gospels. That kind of literature, I think, could have been produced from a wide range of causes.”
Torley then notes how those experiencing the appearances of the virgin Mary or the angel with the golden plates in Mormonism “didn’t all hear the same thing.” We have no ancient evidence that the disciples did either, as I shown in the comment that I quoted above. Torley remarks:
“the angel who handed Smith the plates did not speak, whereas Jesus’ disciples spoke with him on multiple occasions.”
Paul’s letters (which are supposed to be the primary evidence that Torley is relying on) do not state that the disciples “spoke” with Jesus on multiple occasions, or saw/heard the same thing. The Gospels are not the disciples’ own testimonies, but anonymous theological narratives produced decades after the fact. Torley is reading vastly beyond the evidence when he assumes such a narrow view of their experiences, and such a narrow view is certainly not a “fact,” when many scholars (e.g. Ehrman and Allison) would grant that they could have had a much wider range of experiences. And again, we don’t have the experiences themselves, but only ancient literature vaguely describing such “appearances” (in the case of Paul), which could have been produced from a much wider range of causes than Torley’s narrow description.
I’ll skip over hypothesis 5, since I do not find it very probable.
For the resurrection hypothesis, Torley grants that the prior probability of Jesus resurrecting is astronomically low, based on how many people have died across history without such an event occurring. On this point, I think Robert Cavin would agree with him. But then Torley states:
“Given the evidence listed in the key facts above (a death, and a post-mortem apparition with many witnesses substantially agreeing about what they saw and heard), the posterior probability of a resurrection is much higher. But even if it were only 10^-11, that’s still much higher than 10^-33, as in hypothesis 4.”
Considering that Torley has only listed a collective hallucination (aside from mind control) for Type B skepticism, even though he describes it as “skepticism [that] questions whether a miraculous explanation of this extraordinary experience is the best one,” I think that he has substantially underestimated the range of explanations that can account for Paul’s report of the disciples’ experiences, and substantially overestimated how many concrete details we can gather from it. I think there are many forms of Type B skepticism that would not need to rely on a collective hallucination, and so the range of alternative explanations (and their probability) is much higher here.
(I’m also not sure that the odds of a collective hallucination are really as low as 10^-33, and although Torley denies that there has been no authenticated psychological study of such a thing, I would like to see more expert testimony on this.)
I do appreciate that Torley is upfront about how his probability estimates are subjective, when he states:
“I can understand why someone might rate the probabilities of hypotheses 3(a), 3(b) and 3(c) at 20% each, instead of 10%. For such a person, belief in the Resurrection would be irrational, since the total probability of the Type A skeptical hypotheses would exceed 50% … estimates of the probabilities of rival hypotheses will vary from person to person, and there seems to be no way of deciding whose estimate is the most rational one.”
On this point we agree. I have not provided precise subjective estimates of my own, but I would say that I would consider both Type A and Type B skeptical scenarios to be more probable than what Torley is estimating (especially in the Type B camp).
To summarize my main complaints about Torley’s OP, though:
1) Torley lists the evidence that needs to be explained as the disciples post-mortem experiences of Jesus. But as I have said, interacting with the arguments of epistomologist Aviezer Tucker, the actual evidence that needs explanation is why we have *ancient literature* describing such experiences. The literature itself need not correspond to what actually took place (as a much wider range of causes can explain its production), and in the case of Paul, the testimony is too vague to provide a concrete description of what took place.
2) Torley overplays the significance of the early Christians’ persecution and “martyrdoms,” which I have already argued above depends on evidence that is highly unreliable, and likewise cannot be attributed solely to preaching about the post-mortem experiences. There were many other causes of Christian persecution, including conflicts with the Jews over the interpretation of the Law, conflicts with the Romans over emperor worship, or political motives such as Nero blaming the fire in Rome on the Christians. In fact, no Jewish or Pagan author claims that Christians were persecuted for claiming that they had post-mortem experiences of the resurrected Jesus.
3) Torley has seemed to provide two different definitions of what a “non-ghostly” apparition of Jesus is. On the one hand, he defines it as a “multi-sensory” apparition of Jesus, but on the other hand, he defines it as the theological view that Jesus was the “firstfruits” of the resurrection and not just the ghost of an ordinary person. In response, I would think that the appearances of ghosts to people could be multi-sensory (such as in Pliny’s discussion of a ghost haunting), but I would also say that the appearances of a resurrected figure need not be multi-sensory. As I discuss, interacting with Ehrman above, if the first Christians had believed that Jesus had been raised to heaven and communicated to them from another plane of existence, I think there are a wide range of natural phenomena that could account for such experiences (e.g. spiritual visions, individual hallucinations that prompted later group experiences, ecstatic prayer experiences, revelation, etc.), besides just a collective hallucination.
4) Torley reads far too much into the primary sources, especially Paul. He assumes things such as that the disciples cross-checked their experiences with each other (which Paul does not say), that they heard/saw the same thing (Paul does not even describe what they heard or saw), and that the experiences were primarily collective (even though, as I have discussed above, group experiences may have been provoked by individuals first talking about private experiences, and likewise, Paul only describes one group appearance). Torley seems to occasionally draw on evidence from the Gospels, when it suits him, but remember that the Gospels are anonymous, theological narratives and not the disciples’ own testimonies. Such texts could have been produced from a wide range of causes (e.g. hearsay, legendary development, mythical translation fables, literary embellishment, lies, etc.).
5) Torley has not considered enough the possibility that the disciples may have believed in the resurrection *first* (perhaps through some form of cognitive dissonance rationalization), and that it was this prior belief that led them to have post-mortem experiences. He assumes throughout that the post-mortem experiences are what led the disciples to believe that Jesus had resurrected. But, as Ehrman has noted, the disciples may have first come to believe that Jesus was raised (and would soon return) to rationalize how he could still be the messiah. The belief in the resurrection of esteemed figures (e.g. Roman emperors) was common in antiquity, and Richard Miller has argued that the early Christians probably drew their belief from previous translation fables. In that case, the post-mortem appearances could heave easily been secondary to the resurrection belief itself. Since we have no timeline of when the first Christians came to believe in the resurrection or when they had their post-mortem experiences, we can’t assume that the latter preceded the former.
6) Torley is too restrictive of the hypotheses that fall under Type B skepticism. If such skepticism “questions whether a miraculous explanation of this extraordinary experience is the best one,” then I think there is a much wider range of hypotheses than a collective hallucination. This is because, drawing solely on Paul’s testimony, we don’t even have a concrete description of what those “extraordinary experiences” actually were. All we have is a second-hand report claiming that Jesus “was seen” or “appeared to” his disciples. Since a lot of different experiences can fall under “seeing” or “appearing,” I think there are a lot of possible experiences that the disciples may have had. And, when there is a broad range of possible experiences, there is also a wider range of explanations that can explain such experiences.
But overall, I would just say that Torley reads way more into the primary evidence than what is there, and that this has caused him to assign too low of a probability to alternative explanations, especially under Type B skepticism. Since I disagree with his estimates on this point, even though I am not going to provide precise estimates of my own, I would say that I probably do not accept his 60-65% probability of the resurrection. To reach that figure, he has to assign an absurdly low probability to type B skepticism, which I would disagree with, and I probably would rate the hypotheses that fall under type A skepticism higher, as well.