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The extreme improbability of one's own life

C.S. Lewis, writing about New Testament criticism, says, "[R]eflection on the extreme improbability of his own life--by historical standards--seems to me a profitable exercise for everyone. It encourages a due agnosticism." ("Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism," in Christian Reflections, p. 164)

Lewis was talking about the over-confidence with which NT scholars make up the history of a biblical narrative and the unwarranted conclusions that they draw. His example from his own life was this: Suppose that someone in the future learned that he abandoned Christianity in his teens and also that he had an atheist tutor in his teens who had a great influence on him. It would seem indubitable to such an historian that the tutor influenced Lewis to abandon Christianity and therefore that any earlier texts that seemed to show that he was already an atheist before going to the tutor must be "backwards projections." But, as Lewis points out based on his own knowledge, the conjectural historian would be wrong, as in fact he did abandon Christianity before going to the atheist tutor.

I was thinking about this matter of the extreme improbability of all real history apropos of the earlier posts I wrote concerning the infancy narratives of Jesus.

Michael Licona quotes Jonathan Pennington as saying, concerning the stories of Jesus' infancy,

Despite our conflation of all these events at the annual church Christmas pageant, these stories do not in fact overlap at all. If Jesus did not appear as the named figure in both of these accounts, one would never suspect they were stories about the same person.

This sort of consideration appears to be the reason why Licona says repeatedly that he doesn't "know what's going on with the infancy narratives," as if the sheer differences between the narratives create some kind of deep problem for the New Testament scholar. Apparently he considers Pennington's comment to summarize a central part of the alleged problem.

But Pennington's comment should, frankly, be regarded as quite pointless. Such failure of "overlap" (an interesting word) between different statements about a given person's life is entirely common. And concluding that two texts complement one another and tell different parts of the same person's story is not "conflation." (Insert pedantic acknowledgement that, contrary to the portrayal in many Christmas pageants, the wise men didn't come to the stable and the shepherds didn't follow the star. Let's face it: If that were all Pennington were saying, any fundamentalist would say the same, and nobody would be out there agonizing over "what is going on with the infancy narratives.")

Real history is always improbable in its particulars. That all of these different things should have happened to one and the same person can always be made to sound incredible, and one could present different instances from the majority of people's lives that one wouldn't "suspect were stories about the same person" if one were not told. This can even be done with stories about approximately the same period of the same person's life.

Following Lewis's example, I present the following infancy stories:

1) She was born to an unwed mother.
2) Her mother was poor at the time of her birth.
3) The child was born with a misshapen skull, causing doctors to suspect mental disability.

Contrast that with this:

1') She had a father and mother who loved her dearly from infancy.
2') She was a child prodigy and was quoting passages of Scripture before the age of two.
3') Her parents had great aspirations for her and worked hard to send her to college.

These stories do not overlap at all! If one were not told that both of these were about the same named person, one would never suspect such a thing!

Yet they are. Both sets of facts are true of me. The apparent "contradiction" concerning the single mother and the loving mother and father is resolved by the fact that I was placed for adoption at birth and adopted in early infancy. The skull anomaly ended up being a minor matter; the doctors who fretted at my birth were just wrong to think there was anything wrong with my brain.

As Lewis says, reflection upon the extreme improbability of one's own life encourages a due agnosticism when it comes to making pronouncements about the alleged inaccuracy of an historical record of someone else's life. Or even when it comes to thinking that there is something "going on" with narratives other than the statement of plain historical truth.

If we want to know the truth about historical events, including the life of Jesus, we need to have the kind of robust approach that does not create problems where no problem exists. New Testament criticism has become adept at borrowing trouble. Reflection on the extreme improbability of one's own life should be a healthy corrective to that tendency.

[Update]: In fairness to Pennington (though to my mind this reflects rather unfavorably upon Licona's use of Pennington), I should say that I have now been able to get a look at more of Pennington's book in which the above quotation occurs, and he explicitly states that "reasoned harmonization" takes care of the differences between Luke's and Matthew's birth narratives! Pennington's original comment is just setting up an alleged problem that he intends to address later. It is extremely odd that Licona quotes Pennington as he does (with the added emphasis of the phrase "my friend Jonathan Pennington") while apparently rejecting Pennington's unfazed solution to the alleged "problem" and also not making it clear that Pennington, unlike Licona himself, doesn't really think that this is an issue. He's just temporarily setting it up that way on a particular page! I'm glad myself to be able to place Pennington's comment in context and avoid attributing to him the artificial creation of a problem where none exists, but apparently his friend Dr. Licona isn't unduly troubled about any such impression that might be given.

Comments (10)

Lydia, you are being very naive here, employing standard obscurantist tactics used by conservative scholarship. Who are you, the person in question, to contradict the findings of higher-critical scholarship? Clearly (1)-(3) are a proto-Lydian tradition regarding the Lydia Event, and (1')-(3') are the later development of Lydiological development. Furthermore, (1)-(3) cannot possibly refer to the same person as (1')-(3'), because (1)-(3) mention unwed mothers and low income status, but these proto-Lydian themes do not appear at all in (1')-(3'). Furthermore, that (2') and (3') use the pronoun "she" is a clear attempt to pass off a non-authentic message by the author(s) of (1), who also uses "she". To deny these clear results of modern Lydian scholarship is to retreat to the world of nineteenth-century Victorian scholarship and to reject the results of form and redaction criticism.

This trenchant and piercing critique by yours truly does not even go into the Lydia Myth Theory, which claims that you did not even exist. This is the topic of the next Lydiacon, which is being held in a meeting room at a Motel 6 in Milwaukee. And I find (3) to be merely a literary device.

These are the assured results of modern Lydian scholarship.

One does not need to deny that harmonizations are possible in order to question whether the lengths to which one must go to provide such harmonizations is reasonable. Are the tales in GMatt and GLuke reconcilable without employing too much ingenuity in doing so? How does one easily decide such a question? I think Licona's questions are valid.

Moreover, Paul and GMark, our earliest sources, have no nativity tales, no mention of virgin birth, GMatthew has Jesus's miraculous birth story, while GLuke has not just one but two miraculous birth stories (John the Baptist's miraculous birth story has been added) and GLuke adds several poetic canticles to his birth stories as well, Luke the musical! This could be taken as prima facia evidence of a Gospel trajectory, especially when one considers how both GMatt and GLuke appear to have built their stories on a GMark backbone, adding to GMark's beginning and ending.

GMark (along with Paul, the two earliest sources) have no nativity tale, nor does GMark feature any post-resurrection tales (aside from the empty tomb and a prediction of a forthcoming sighting of Jesus that will take place in far off Galilee). Compare GMatt that reproduces nearly every story in GMark but adds stories--especially to the beginning and ending of GMark--some of those added stories feature amazing miracles never seen in the NT before or after such as the miracle star, the visitation of wise men from the East (their number is not stated) bearing gold and other gifts, and at the other end of GMatt there is the addition of the raising of many saints, and an angel being seen by guards coming down out of heaven and rolling the stone away from the tomb's entrance, along with two earthquakes (one when Jesus died and one when the stone was rolled away) none of which appear anywhere else in the entire NT. Are those examples eyewitness testimony or miracle mongering (legendary embellishment) at work, because GMark's story was a bit blase in its opening and ending?

Look at GMatt's two lines about many saints being raised. The passages preceding those and succeeding those are found in GMark, nearly the same. So the author of GMatthew appears to have inserted some brief lines about "many saints being raised and entering the holy city and appearing to many." GMatt also features subtle changes in GMark that accompany his insertion of the many raised saints story. That's why GMatt rewrites the reactions of the Centurion and the guards,

GMark says: "And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, Surely this man was the Son of God! (NIV)"

GMatthew says: "When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened [the opening of tombs and raising of many saints] they were terrified, and exclaimed, 'Surely he was the Son of God!'" (NIV)

So GMatthew depicts the centurion along with those with him all “seeing” the “earthquake and all that had happened” (apparently including the earthquake, graves being opened and many saints being raised) and “they were terrified.”

GMark depicts no terror, only a lone centurion standing “there in front of Jesus,” reacting to “his cry” and seeing “how he died.”

GMatthew has the centurion "and those with him" exclaiming seemingly together, "Surely he was the Son of God," i.e., "seeing all that had happened" around them, and reacting in "terror." That's not the GMark story. It's an enhancement. And it's not so surprising that the story grew enhanced over time, from GMark to GMatt. Nor does Paul or any latter NT authors know about any of GMatt's spectacular enhancements either.

I agree with C. S. Lewis that circumstances in one's life sometimes feature odd coincidences that can be interpreted different ways, either causally or as pure coincidences. Some might say it is too much of a coincidence that Lewis's tutor proved to be an atheist so soon after Lewis himself became a teenaged atheist, therefore a biographer of Lewis might presume that the young Lewis was influenced by his atheist tutor to become one himself. But Lewis assures us atheism preceded contact with his tutor.

But doesn't this kind of argument also make one question stories in which people interpret coincidences as God's answer to their prayers?

Even more challenging to a belief in divine causation are probability arguments that point out the myriad of circumstances that were involved in you being born and developing into exactly the person you are today with your current personality and beliefs, or your species, or even this cosmos in particular: http://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2015/07/can-fine-tuner-admit-that-their.html

Are the tales in GMatt and GLuke reconcilable without employing too much ingenuity in doing so?

Extremely easily so. Hands down.

How does one easily decide such a question?

By using a small modicum of common sense, with which commodity the skeptical community (and the NT scholarship community) are sadly ill-provided.

Moreover, Paul and GMark, our earliest sources, have no nativity tales, no mention of virgin birth, GMatthew has Jesus's miraculous birth story

Can you chaps in the infidel-o-sphere breathe in and out without making incredibly lame arguments from silence? One wonders at times.

while GLuke has not just one but two miraculous birth stories (John the Baptist's miraculous birth story has been added)

Well, _two_ miraculous birth stories! That's _it_. They've _gotta_ be made up!

This could be taken as prima facia evidence of a Gospel trajectory,

It could be so taken. If you're determined to take it that way without any evidence.

GLuke adds several poetic canticles to his birth stories as well, Luke the musical!

Um, the whole stories occur only in Luke, so this is misleadingly worded. Actually, they probably were spoken, not sung, and yeah, because Jews _never_ read the Psalms and _never_ made up stuff like that.

This could be taken as prima facia evidence of a Gospel trajectory, especially when one considers how both GMatt and GLuke appear to have built their stories on a GMark backbone, adding to GMark's beginning and ending.

If you squint real hard and spit three times at the moon and say, "David Hume" each time, it "appears" that way to you.

I'm not going to keep fisking this, but one could go on. More lame arguments from silence. More "appears to have" where nothing of the sort appears. More prejudicial wording such as "adds stories" as opposed to, y'know, *had access to additional material which shows his independence*.

And on. And on. And on.

I lack both the time and the patience to do a line-by-line of the entire thing. If there were a sincere believer or would-be convert who needed further explanation, I'd rather discuss it with him in private than get involved in a never-ending debate with Mr. Babinski's poor arguments.

But doesn't this kind of argument also make one question stories in which people interpret coincidences as God's answer to their prayers?

Squirrel!! Hey, I know, let's _totally_ change the subject to try to talk about something _totally_ different and threadjack. Because after all, Lydia McGrew is _well-known_ for asking people to believe in God and Christianity because of coincidental apparent answers to prayer! Why, only last week...Oh. Okay. Maybe not.


I realize you were being somewhat playful (while providing a serious reply) with your answers to Ed Babinski, but since you made a comment about "infidel-o-sphere" and "arguments from silence" I wanted to comment.

I think arguments from silence can be inductively strong or weak, depending on the circumstances. I disagree with people (usually, but not always, theists) who think all arguments from silence are worthless. But I disagree with people (usually, but not always, skeptics) who employ arguments from silence which clearly don't work.

I think the best way to approach arguments from silence is from a Bayesian perspective. Based upon your contribution to the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, I suspect you'd agree with that, at least in principle. Here is my attempted Bayesian formulation of arguments from silence: LINK. That article is the first in an ongoing series of blog posts which evaluate specific arguments from silence, such as:

* two arguments (by Peter Kirby) from silence against the historicity of the empty tomb of Jesus
* an argument from silence FOR the historicity of Jesus
* an argument from silence about the absence of competing burial traditions (of Jesus)
* Uta Ranke-Heinemann's argument from silence against the empty tomb
* atheist Victor Stenger's argument from silence (the alleged absence of scientific evidence for God) for atheism
* the 'missing links' objection to biological evolution (read: common descent)
* an argument from silence regarding the Golden Plates against Mormonism

I'd be interested in your take on either the general Bayesian analysis, specific arguments, or both.

I think arguments from silence can be inductively strong or weak, depending on the circumstances. I disagree with people (usually, but not always, theists) who think all arguments from silence are worthless. But I disagree with people (usually, but not always, skeptics) who employ arguments from silence which clearly don't work.

I don't presume to speak for Lydia or Tim or anybody else other than myself, but this is very reasonable as I read it.

I assume that by "argument from silence" you mean something like: if X really happened, it should be mentioned or seen in Y. But we do not see X being mentioned in Y, from which one concludes with some degree of confidence that X didn't happen or X, even if it did happen, cannot be rationally believed. (Or something like that.)

As an example, consider the miracle of Jesus restoring Lazarus to life in John 11. Samuel Davidson's An Introduction to the Study of the New Testament, representing a distillation of negative higher-critical views, on page 358 (volume 2 of his 1894 edition) says of this miracle that "...it was too important to be omitted by the other evangelists had it been a real occurrence." (italics mine). Also on page 358 he says of the miracle: "Had they [the synoptists: JL] known it, it is difficult to account for their silence; and had it been a historical fact, it is as difficult to account for their ignorance."

Now why am I pulling out something from 1894 when it is 2016? Because this sort of argument and the battles fought over the historical reliability of the NT writings in the 18th and 19th centuries seem to be the basis for today's skepticism. The arguments made there are made today. The "battle" continues today; different people, same sorts of arguments. Here, Dr Davidson, a scholar of notoriety in those days, asserts authoritatively that, on the basis of the silence of the synoptic gospels for this miracle, the miracle didn't take place. This is the same sort of stuff I thought in my skeptical days, and it is the same stuff I've heard for the decades after conversion. It's simply a bad argument, and, despite scholarly pretense, Davidson (and the other negative higher critics) were very arrogant to think that they could theorize what somebody else should have written or said about a topic, or even if they should've mentioned it at all.

These arguments from silence are also used in arguing against Pauline authorship of the disputed epistles. Such-and-such epistle doesn't mention some authentically Pauline concept (such as justification by faith) and thus that is evidence that Paul didn't write the epistle or that the ideas and thoughts behind the epistle did not originate with Paul. But, unless I have deluded myself or missed the obvious, I do not see attempts to justify the claim that, if Paul was behind a disputed epistle, he necessarily had to mention X using the same sort of diction, vocabulary, etc as he did in, say, Romans or Galatians.

See this link for an example of modern-day arguments from silence a la Ehrman, if you accept Kruger's description of things:
(I have no particular admiration for Ehrman as a skeptic, though I definitely consider him a legit scholar in his field.)

Thus, my guess is that I am not alone among Evangelical types when I get exasperated at these sorts of arguments, if they can be called that. They prove so much that in the end they prove nothing.

I won't dismiss out of hand every argument from silence a priori, but common sense should be the guide for whether an argument from silence is applicable. The usual skeptical arguments (like the ones above that I'm using as exemplars) just are plain weak. I don't say this as somebody on the other side of the fence lobbing nasties to the other side, but merely pointing out my observation from looking at this stuff over the last few decades.

As an argument from silence that would seem to carry some weight, if somebody was writing the "complete biography" of Mr. Important, and this biography was the only source of Mr. Important's life, and this biography mentioned that Mr. Important was married once to Jane, and once to Sally, then I think it would be common sense that one shouldn't believe that Mr. Important was also married to Carol. There, you think or would have some justification to think that this complete biography would/should mention Carol if in fact she and Mr. I were married. But the gospel writers made no pretense to completeness (e.g. the fourth gospel talking in 21:25 explicitly that there was much more that could've been said). Arguments from silence are possible, I think, but they should be more than just fiat assertions as I have seen throughout my adult life.

I hope everything I've said is something that is simply common sense (or perhaps is insultingly obvious, with my apologies if I've stated the obvious as if it were profound). Lastly, I hope this common sense is something motivated just by general critical thinking principles, and not by a sense of Christian apologetics. (Sorry if I have too pedantic a tone here, really more my trying to think things through clearly and then turn them into clear English.)

JJL, I've looked _briefly_ at your posts on arguments from silence concerning Christianity, specifically. (I haven't had time to look at the ones outside of that, such as Mormonism and evolution.)

Since you are generally _criticizing_ as insufficiently justified arguments that I would _also_ reject, to that extent you won't be surprised that I agree with you, and I find it somewhat refreshing to see a skeptic criticizing such arguments. In fact, I _think_ I would give a different formal modeling of Kirby's second argument from the one you give (though he's still wrong). I shd. mention that you don't actually need to say anywhere in a Bayesian reconstruction of an argument from silence that the two hypotheses to be considered have the same or even approx. the same prior probabilities on the background. If I'm understanding you correctly, you seem to be throwing that in there, but it actually is a fifth wheel, formally, in the argument. The Bayes factor is all.

I would say that in quite a few cases there is anachronism in an argument from silence. For example, Kirby's idea about venerating the empty tomb seems based on later Catholic approaches to pilgrimages and holy places, but there is no reason to think that the members of the early church would have taken this approach at all. And from a purely evidential point of view, an empty tomb even a few years later, in full control of a Christian property owner, much less a decade later, would be _far_ less important than an empty tomb three days later, when it has been in control of an unsympathetic set of guards! So the whole idea that the Christians would have sent people for years to trot along to the empty tomb to prove to themselves that Jesus was risen seems quite silly. It's certainly not something _I_ would do if I were a disciple or Christian missionary, after anyone would know that there had been a lot of time and opportunity to make away with the body and put it anywhere one wanted to. At the most it would have psychological or rhetorical value.

Hi Lydia,

Thank you for the time spent looking at my stuff. It appears, then, that we are in broad agreement, which is encouraging. The main disagreement, if there is one at all, seems to be, at root, over semantics. I define an argument from silence as an argument which argues that the silence about X makes it more likely than not that X never happened. So defined, simply dealing with the Bayes' factor isn't sufficient. The prior probability(ies) must also be considered. I take this to be axiomatic, following directly from Bayes' Theorem.

If I understand you correctly -- and I am not sure that I do -- you define an argument from silence as something weaker: in Bayesian terms, you seem (?) to define arguments from silence as basically claims about Bayes factors. On that definition, I completely agree with you that Bayes factors alone are sufficient and prior probabilities do not need to be considered.

I'm not offended at all that you would formulate Kirby's second argument differently. I could definitely be wrong. If you have the time and interest to spell it out, I would be interested in reading your alternative formulation.



P.S. Does the requirement to type in "goldfish" indicate you have goldfish? I have 8 in my pond; they have grown to about 4 inches long each.

Edwardtbabinski notes that Mark and Paul do not record birth stories for Jesus. He can verify for himself that Mark was recording the preaching and teaching of Peter during Peter's period in Rome, meaning that Peter was preaching to Gentiles. Hence, Mark does not focus on matters of great interest to Jews (genealogy and birth, which tie in to covenant promises from the Old Testament; and fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy) which are of no great concern to Gentiles. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles and his teaching also reflects the same emphases as Mark.

Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, place great emphasis on the interaction between Jesus and the Jewish leaders, and Matthew has been noted for ages as being a gospel written to persuade Jews that Jesus is the Messiah.

Therefore, the differences between Mark and Paul on the one hand and Matthew and Luke on the other hand are what we would expect when it comes to genealogy, birth, and Old Testament fulfillment.

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