Historical judgement on Jesus and the sieve of realism

A judge must decide whether the accused is guilty or not. Must a historian decide whether Jesus existed or not ? Or can a historian live with uncertainty ?

Shouldn’t the historian emphasise the uncertainty, rather than guess at a verdict ?

This is a serious problem. On the issue whether there was a historical Jesus or not, we see that some historians arrive at a judgement. They in fact eliminate the uncertainty that they had exposed before. They behave like judges, which isn’t their role.

There is a difference between people trained in alpha or beta educations. See C.P. Snow and the clash of two cultures, between those who read Shakespeare and those who read quantum mechanics. My background is econometrics, say gamma. With people in law and history, economists e.g. can use the method of Verstehen, like introspection. With the physicists, we econometrians use hard mathematics and statistics. A tantalising question is whether gamma could be accepted as a bridge between alpha and beta.

Let us look at a judgment. The Dutch legal system originally condemned Lucia de B. as a serial killing nurse. She claimed to be innocent but spent almost seven years in prison and suffered a disabling stroke because of severe trauma, before she was released after much a-do. The key role was for docter of medicine Metta de Noo – Derksen and her brother and philosopher of science Ton Derksen who exposed errors in the evidence and the trial. A key supporting role (supporting but still key) was for econometrician Aart de Vos and statisticians like Richard Gill of Leiden who explained that the court had been advised by crummy experts on statistics. My own paper may be found here.

Let us compare this with the “historical method“.  Historians not only reason like judges but they may feel that they must expound a verdict too, and thus they can be wrong on two counts. Note that this weblog uses wikipedia not as evidence but as a portal to look for the original scientific sources.

The historical method gives an algorithm that Sherlock Holmes might use to perform his forensic art. That the dog didn’t bark is evidence too. Fine. This isn’t as complicated as econometrics.

At the end of the wikipedia article we see some simple statistics. Now this is interesting. I encountered a historian who implied that I didn’t understand the historical method. When I look at the historical method, I encounter statistics again, that is part of my training. Don’t historians know this ? Don’t they know that econometrics is an empirical science ?

I met another historian who apparently cannot live with uncertainty, and feels the need to expound a verdict. Anton van Hooff concludes that there is a historical Jesus. This is curious. He behaves as a judge, while a scientist would explain the uncertainty of the data. See this earlier weblog entry on this curious situation.

My suggestion is a sieve of realism. Most evidence points to the likelihood that Jesus never existed but was created as a mythical figure to flesh out the gospels. Thus there simply cannot exist any evidence that he ever existed. Thus, if a historian claims that there was a historical Jesus, and comes up with a piece of evidence, then he or she should also look for alternative explanations that destroy that evidence. Clear evidence would only surface if there are no alternatives. For example, when Tacitus mentions the crucifixion by Pontius Pilatus he might merely use the statements by the christians themselves. There is no proof that he used another source, whence the evidence evaporates.

Up to now, these historians don’t work like this. They behave like judges but in fact they conceal the uncertainty.

PM. In that wikipedia article (retrieved today): “McCullagh sums up, “if the scope and strength of an explanation are very great, so that it explains a large number and variety of facts, many more than any competing explanation, then it is likely to be true.”” This is right, but the error is to decide from “likely to be true” to “true”. There still is uncertainty, so keep it there.

Indeed the article continues with “(1) In thousands of cases, the letters V.S.L.M. appearing at the end of a Latin inscription on a tombstone stand for Votum Solvit Libens Merito. (2) From all appearances the letters V.S.L.M. are on this tombstone at the end of a Latin inscription. (3) Therefore these letters on this tombstone stand for Votum Solvit Libens Merito.” (willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow) Now, what is the evidence for point (1) ? You only have the letters and no statement on paper afixed to the stone what they stand for. Or is it indeed true that there are thousands of such cases ? Or is the statement meant to express that such stones are found on cemetaries ? If we grant (2), the error in (3) is that the historian switches from probability to certain truth. Perhaps it was Victor Simplissimus who expressed his love for Lucia M.


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