Monday, February 26, 2007

How Likely Is It That These are Jesus's Bones?

Well, there's this from

So, apparently James Cameron made this documentary for the Discovery Channel, and in it he claims to have found an ossuary containing the bones of Jesus. Dunno what his evidence is, but the only piece revealed in this piece is that one of the tombs may or may not have "Jesus" written on it, and another one may or may not say "Judah, son of Jesus." On the other hand, they may say "Hanun" instead of "Jesus." My guess is that there's more to it than this, otherwise who the heck would take this seriously? But that's all CNN says. And I'm in no mood to Google.

Two amusing quotes:

"The historical, religious and archaeological evidence show that the place where Christ was buried is the Church of the Resurrection," said Attallah Hana, a Greek Orthodox clergyman in Jerusalem. The documentary, he said, "contradicts the religious principles and the historic and spiritual principles that we hold tightly to."

Gee, ya' think? I mean, "hold tightly to" is rather an understatement, isn't it? How about "cling blindly to, to the exclusion of all contrary evidence"? Face it, there is basically no conceivable evidence that would change the minds of most Christians.


"How possible is it?" Pfann said. "On a scale of one through 10 -- 10 being completely possible -- it's probably a one, maybe a one and a half."

The thing:

The theists in this story are right about something: the proffered evidence described by CNN is pathetically weak. But here's one thing we can be extremely certain about: the likelihood that these are Jesus's bones (low though it might be), is far greater than the likelihood that he was God and ascended to heaven. And the pathetically weak evidence cited by CNN is better evidence for the these are Jesus's bones hypothesis than all the other available evidence is for the Jesus was God and ascended to heaven hypothesis. This is largely because extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and this is the most extraordinary of claims.

Thing is, of course, people are bad about amplifying the strength of evidence they like, and ignoring the strength of evidence they don't like. And nothing exacerbates these tendencies more than religion (not even politics!).

Anybody who thinks that the available evidence gives the Jesus was God and ascended to heaven hypothesis a probability greater than 0 + epsilon is mistaken. It ain't zero, but that's about the best thing you can say for it. And anybody who would accept that extremely unlikely hypothesis yet scoff at the these are Jesus's bones hypothesis has got his probabilities woefully out of whack.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I belive you are mixing up belief, reality, and the assumption that they need to track each other in any direct way.

They are stories, we don't take Grim's fairy tales as true, yet still extract use as moral and practical guides from them. If religion is seen the same way, then what is the problem?

1:28 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Um, nope. I never mix those things up.

Perhaps you're confused about what Christianity purports to be. It purports to be not just some kind of guide to life, but, rather, to be a true account of actual events.

12:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let me phrase it another way, why do you belive that belief must/should/does track reality in any meaningful way?

10:18 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Oh, o.k.. Perfectly reasonable question...

I was thinking like so:

Christianity *purports* to be true, so it ought to be evaluated like any other historical theory. But the available evidence (and, in fact, any evidence we have any real chance of finding) can't support it.

Now, if the question is:

Does Christianity provide a good guide for life?

Then things change. I think it's got a better case to make for an affirmative answer there.

3:14 PM  
Blogger Aa said...

"Does Christinaity provide a good guide for life" WS

I think its case would be fairly weak if it tried, and a better question might be does it do more harm than good...or more good than harm.

Christianity bases its 'morals', supposedly, on the Bible. Having read it cover to cover and even upside down, in my opinion it is not a good moral guide. At least by modern society's standards. Slavery, murder, mysogyny, polygamy, human sacrifice are all concepts modern society has deemed immoral, yet the Bible supports...and eternal damnation is incredibly moral, ain't it? Those who claim it as a moral guide usually, in my experience growing up "In the fold", have either (1) not read it, (2) read it and have selective memories/never thought about waht they were reading or (3) took what their pastors spoon feld them (i.e., had it cherry picked for them).

I have to wonder though, if belief doesn't track reality in some way, what's the point?

Tribalism? Comfort at the thought of an afterlife? Obedience to authority? Really, what is the point?

2:29 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

I'm with you Aa--the Bible doesn't provide a very good guide for life. But as history and metaphysics, it's even worse. (Lots of the non-supernatural history is apparently fairly good, though, I'm told by informed and reliable sources.)

One big problem with the Abrahamic faiths (and all others?) is that they think they've got the final version of the final story. Apparently Jesus's message was unusual and important 2000 years ago. If people really didn't understand the importance of something like the Golden Rule, then fer chrissake (heh) it's good that somebody pointed it out to them. So, as a stepping-stone, JC's points may have been extremely crucial. But there's lots of room for improvement, and we've made at least some moral progress since then.

11:32 AM  

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