bookmark_borderChanging Ethics by Changing Brains

In his very enjoyable PBS series and the accompanying book, The Brain: The Story of You, neuroscientist David Eagleman writes about the famous “trolley dilemma.” Here is the scenario: A runaway trolley is barreling down the tracks towards a group of four workers. You see that they will all be killed unless you pull a lever diverting the trolley onto a side track where it will only kill one workman. What do you do? In this case almost everyone will pull the lever. You sacrifice one life to save four. Now imagine a slightly different scenario: The same runaway trolley is heading for the group of four workers, and the only way you can save them is by physically pushing a man into the path of the trolley. Do you do it? In this case hardly anyone will agree to push the man.
What is going on here? The utilitarian calculation is the same in each case—sacrifice one life to save four. Yet, the decision feels entirely different for most people. Brain imaging shows that in the first scenario, logical thinking and calculating regions of the brain are engaged, but not those involved with emotion. “To the brain, the first scenario is just a math problem,” says Eagleman. In the second scenario, networks involved with emotions get involved in the decision making process. In the first scenario, we are emotionally detached from the decision to kill. In the second, we feel that the act would be murder. We feel abhorrence at such an act of violence, and this feeling conflicts with our problem-solving faculties to create a sense of stress or conflict.
So, are utilitarians cold, heartless calculators, emotionless Mr. Spock types intoning “The good of the many outweighs the good of the few”? Are deontologists, with their emphasis on rights, justice, and respect for persons more empathetic and emotional? Actually, humans, both individually and collectively, can move rapidly and often unreflectively from a utilitarian to a deontological pole and back again. We can easily evoke intuitions going in either direction.
For the past couple of years I and my coauthor have been working on a book on the nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958. These tests resulted in the permanent displacement of hundreds of native Marshallese from their ancestral homes and the irradiation of hundreds of others, particularly in the Castle Bravo event of March 1, 1954, a 15 megaton blast that dropped fallout over an area of 7000 square miles, including inhabited atolls. Today, atmospheric tests of thermonuclear weapons would be considered irresponsibly, perhaps even insanely, risky, even in “remote” areas. At the time these tests were widely approved and vigorously defended by American officials with wide support from the American public. Even the alarming events of Castle Bravo, which included the infamous irradiation of Japanese fishermen of The Lucky Dragon, did not deter or delay continued atmospheric testing by the U.S., which continued until 1963.
What is going on when a policy seems obviously reasonable, responsible, and justifiable at one time and later seems unaccountably risky and irresponsible? Has some sort of moral paradigm shift occurred? Are we now perhaps far more sensitive to the rights of indigenous peoples than we were sixty years ago? I hope so, but recall that far more nuclear tests were carried out in Nevada than in the Pacific, and the tests inside the U.S. irradiated not hundreds, but hundreds of thousands of American citizens. Not only was there little questioning among the American public at the time, the tests were a popular spectacle. From any empty parking lot in Las Vegas you could watch the mushroom clouds sprouting out in the desert about sixty miles away. There was even a “Miss Atomic Bomb” beauty contest (I am not making this up.). Some locales, such as St. George, Utah occasionally got very significant doses of radiation, which the Atomic Energy Commission just shrugged off. The John Wayne/Susan Hayward cinematic turkey The Conqueror was filmed in a highly radioactively polluted Utah valley. Ninety one of the 220 people involved in the filming developed some form of cancer.
Were 1950s people nuts? No, I think that what was going on was something that relates to the trolley problem. When people are stressed, and survival appears to be at stake, they calculate what is needed to survive. Risks are assessed and not much time is spent in emotional reflection. Empathy is largely switched off. You do what you have to do—as you perceive it at that time. Later, when the urgent sense of danger has subsided, we permit ourselves more emotional involvement with the victims of our utilitarian decisions. We might even be appalled at how we could seemingly have been so callous or reckless. How could we have thrown those innocent Marshallese (or Utahans) under the trolley? When we have to sacrifice people to survive, we feel that we are pulling the lever. When, later, we are not under survival pressure and more reflective, it feels like we pushed them onto the tracks.
The mid-1950s was a scary time. Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union were developing thermonuclear weapons, weapons of virtually unlimited destructiveness. Before the H-bomb policy makers could still pretend that nuclear weapons were just more bang for the buck and did not fundamentally change the nature of warfare. With thermonuclear weapons, it became clear that their use would be genocidal and so would be the retaliation. Frightened people calculate their odds and take the best ones they can get. At the time, a balance of terror seemed to be the best chance, and if you had H-bombs they had to be tested. So, risks to a few hundred natives, or even a few hundred thousand Americans was no big deal.
I tell my introductory ethics classes that the final test of an ethical theory is whether we can live with it. However rigorously logical, an ethical theory is doomed if we just cannot stomach it, i.e. if its implications clash with our basic, pre-theoretical intuitions about right and wrong. This is why Kant, whose theory is as rigorous and logical as any, floundered so haplessly when confronted with the consequence that the absolute proscription on lying could condemn an innocent person to murder. If the only way you can save your father from the insane ax-murderer is to lie, you will lie and feel good about it. Categorical imperatives be damned.
But what can we live with? Will not that vary according to historical circumstance, and, at the individual level, according to neurological states? As I say, the historical record shows that the same society may be under radically different moral regimes at one time or another—to such an extent that the views of those under the opposite regime will seem incomprehensible and perverse. Worse, such dichotomies exist within a given society at a particular time, and proponents of opposing views will be so at odds that each will seem morally obtuse to the other. “Debate” descends into shrill accusation and counter-accusation and ad hominem abuse. Sound familiar?
For instance, if immigrants threaten you, if you regard them as criminals, rapists, and drug dealers, you will easily be persuaded that harsh, even draconian measures are needed to deal with the perceived threat. On the other hand, if you do not perceive such an alleged threat, you will regard such measures as appallingly unjust. The former are ready to pull the lever on immigrants; the latter are not willing to push them onto the tracks. Note that I am not falsely equating these two views of immigrants. I regard the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Donald Trump as blatant demagoguery, a vicious and shameless appeal to ignorance and bigotry. I am merely pointing out that our ethical intuitions at any given time will depend crucially on our brain states as determined by our beliefs about the existence or non-existence of threats. Whether such belief is rationally justifiable is a different question.
The lesson, it seems to me, is that to if we want to change hearts and minds what we really have to change are brains, and to change brains we have to know how they really work. Neuroscience is therefore directly relevant to ethics and politics. Another insight offered by Eagleman is the extent to which the brain is wired for empathy. Brain imaging shows that when we feel empathy, the network called the pain matrix of our brains becomes active, much as when we ourselves feel pain. We do not literally feel the physical pain, but we feel the emotional response to pain. To that extent, then, you do feel another’s pain. The problem is that there are other brain processes that all too readily allow empathy to be shut off when some group is perceived as an outgroup—the “other”—as literally dehumanized.
How do we prevent the dehumanization, the reduction to the “other,” and the subsequent disabling of the empathy function? How, in short, do we change the brains of our fellow citizens so that they do not relegate some to an “other” status and switch off their empathy for those persons? But in speaking of changing brain states, aren’t we dehumanizing as well? Are we not objectifying and manipulating, speaking in terms of changing the state of an organ rather than in terms of addressing human beings? We are indeed! How to escape this conundrum? By realizing that the brains are not just any old organs, like lungs or livers. They are us.
With neuroscience therefore must come neuroethics. I would sum it up like this: Do unto another brain as you would have done to your own brain. I am quite happy to have my brain changed in some ways. Give me reasons to convince me. Tell me stories that make me see the humanity of others and to feel my connection with them. Present me with works of art that enlarge my vision or enhance my depth of feeling. Bond with me through shared experience. I like to have my brain changed in these ways, and I therefore feel comfortable about attempting to change others’ brains in these ways.

bookmark_borderDebate: External Evidence for Jesus – Part 4

QUESTION 1: What is Hinman’s Central Claim about Josephus?
There are two famous passages in a book by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus that appear to refer to Jesus.  Joe Hinman wants to focus on the “brother passage”, the passage in Antiquities that mentions a person named “James” and refers to him as “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ”. (Antiquities 20,200).
After a brief introductory paragraph, Hinman quotes the “brother passage”
But the younger Ananus who, as we said, received the high priesthood, was of a bold disposition and exceptionally daring; he followed the party of the Sadducees, who are severe in judgment above all the Jews, as we have already shown. As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as law-breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.  (emphasis is from Hinman’s web article)
After quoting the “brother passage” Hinman quotes a comment from the Josephus scholar Louis Feldman about the passage:
That indeed, Josephus did say something about Jesus is indicated, above all, by the passage–the authenticity of which has been almost universally acknowledged–about James, who is termed…the brother of “the aforementioned Christ”… (from the Introduction in Feldman, Louis H. & Hata, Gohey “Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity”, page 56)
From this quoting of Feldman,  I infer that the key claim in Hinman’s argument from Josephus is this:
(1) The passage in Antiquities in which a man named “James” is spoken of as being the brother of Jesus is authentic (i.e. it was written by Josephus and has not been altered by a copyist or editor).
This is Hinman’s central claim about Josephus.  He chose to focus on this passage about Jesus rather than the  more interesting Testimonium Flavianum (hereafter: TF) passage , because the “brother passage does not have the kind of doubt, or attack, or charges of forgery” that is associated with the TF passage.  There is less controversy about the authenticity of the “brother passage”, so Hinman bases his argument from Josephus on the authenticity of this passage.
QUESTION 2: What is the Logic of Hinman’s Argument from Josephus?
As with Hinman’s argument from Polycarp, my initial objection is that his argument is incomplete.  Hinman fails to explain how it is that his key premise (1)  supports a conclusion about the existence of Jesus.  However, it seems to me that the missing premises and reasoning are more obvious and less obviously mistaken than in the case of his argument from Polycarp.  I think the following unstated intermediate conclusion is very likely to be a part of Hinman’s argument/reasoning:
(2) There existed a man named “James” who was in fact the brother of Jesus of Nazareth.
From this intermediate conclusion, a further conclusion logically follows:
(3) Jesus of Nazareth was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.
Although it would beg the question to simply assert the truth of premise (2),  Hinman is not guitly of that fallacy here, because premise (1) appears to provide evidence in support of premise (2), and asserting the truth of (1) does NOT beg the question at issue.
However, it is important to note that although (2) entails (3),  (1) does NOT entail (2), which is why this argument does not beg the question at issue.  Premise (1) only provides evidence for premise (2); it does not provide a deductive proof of (2).  So, it would be clearer and more accurate to modify and re-state premise (2) and the conclusion (3) in terms of probability:
(1) The passage in Antiquities in which a man named “James” is spoken of as being the brother of Jesus is authentic (i.e. it was written by Josephus and has not been significantly altered by a copyist or editor).
THUS:
(2A) It is probable that there existed a man named “James” who was in fact the brother of Jesus of Nazareth.
THEREFORE:
(3A) It is probable that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.
Even with the addition of the intermediate conclusion (2A), this argument is still incomplete.  But the missing premise is a “warrant” premise (call it the “Josephus Warrant” or JW) that asserts that the truth of (1) proves or supports the truth of (2A):
(JW) IF the passage in Antiquities in which a man named “James” is spoken of as being the brother of Jesus is authentic (i.e. it was written by Josephus and has not been significantly altered by a copyist or editor), THEN it is probable that there existed a man named “James” who was in fact the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. 
It is the combination of premise (1) and (JW) that provides support for (2A).  Hinman did not argue for premise (JW), but if I am correct that his reasoning involves the intermediate conclusion (2A), then he needs for (JW) to be true or correct in order for his argument to be successful.
Perhaps Hinman believes that (JW) is obviously true and thus it is not in need of  supporting evidence or reasoning. Since (JW) is not obviously false and not obviously problematic,  I’m comfortable with attributing this argument to Hinman even though he did not clearly and explicitly state this argument in his post on Josephus.  I believe that this is a reasonable “educated guess” at the argument Hinman had in mind concerning the external evidence of Josephus.
It is also the case that Hinman provides very little evidence in support of his primary factual premise (1).  The link to more in-depth discussion of the Josephus evidence points to an article that makes no attempt to support premise (1):
It is not the purpose of this article to address the arguments of the few commentators-mostly Jesus Mythologists-who doubt the authenticity of the second reference [to Jesus]. (from the first sentence of the section called “The Testimonium Flavianum” in the web article “Did Josephus Refer to Jesus?” by Christopher Price)
QUESTION 3:  Is the “brother passage” in Antiquities Authentic?
A. Christian Copyists Altered their Own Sacred Scriptures
We know that Christian copyists made many alterations to the Greek text of the New Testament documents, both intentionally and unintentionally, even though those documents were considered to be sacred scripture by many Christians.  Bart Ehrman provides several examples of alterations by Christian copyists to NT texts in his book Misquoting Jesus, and he makes the following relevant comment in the concluding chapter:
…whatever else we may say about the Christian scribes–whether of the early centuries or of the Middle Ages–we have to admit that in addition to copying scripture, they were changing scripture.  Sometimes they didn’t mean to–they were simply tired, or inattentive, or, on occasion, inept. At other times, though, they did mean to make changes, as when they wanted the text to emphasize precisely what they themselves believed, for example about the nature of Christ, or about the role of women in the church, or about the wicked character of their Jewish opponents.
This conviction that scribes had changed scripture became an increasing certitude for me as I studied the text more and more. (Misquoting Jesus, p.210)
For examples supporting this view, see Chapter 2 (“The Copyists of Early Christian Writings”) and Chapter 6 (“Theologically Motivated Alterations of the Text”) of Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman.
Surely, if Christian editors and copyists altered the texts of their own sacred scriptures, they would be likely to alter the texts of a Jewish historian as well.
B. Christians Clearly Altered (or Created) the Only Other Passage about Jesus in Antiquities 
Robert Van Voorst describes the views of modern scholars about the TF passage:
While a few scholars still reject it fully and even fewer accept it fully, most now prefer two middle positions.  The first middle position reconstructs an authentic Josephan passage neutral towards Jesus, and the second reconstructs an authentic passage negative toward Jesus.  (JONT, p.93)
The viewpoints in order of descending acceptance by modern scholars:

  1. Middle Positions (most scholars believe that Christians made a few alterations to the TF passage).
  2. Full Rejection (a few scholars believe that Christians created the whole passage, or that it is simply not possible to determine what parts of the passage were originally written by Josephus).
  3. Full Acceptance (a very few scholars believe the entire passage is authentic, that all of the passage was written by Josephus).

All but a very few scholars have concluded that the TF passage was either partially or completely the creation of Christians.  There are only two passages that refer to Jesus in Antiquities, the other passage being the “brother passage”.  So, it is reasonable to conclude that Christians altered (or created) the TF passage, the only other passage about Jesus besides the “brother passage”.  This background information suggests that it is likely that Christian copyists also altered the “brother passage”.
C.  The Oldest Greek Manuscripts of Antiquities are from Long After Christians Altered the Text
According to John Meier, “we have only three Greek manuscripts of Book 18 [which contains the Testimonium Flavianum passage] of The Antiquities, the earliest of which dates from the 11th century.”  (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p.62).  But Eusebius quoted from the altered version of the TF early in the fourth century, so the Christian alterations were made in the second or third centuries:
The first witness to this passage as it stands now is from Eusebius in about 323 (Ecclesiastical History 1.11). (JONT, p.92)
This means that textual criticism is of no help in determining the authenticity of the TF:
Because the few manuscipts of Josephus come from the eleventh century,  long after Christian interpolations  would have been made, textual criticism cannot help to solve this issue. ..We are left to examine the context, style, and content of this passage to judge its authenticity. (JONT, p.88-89).
Examiniation of context, style, and content of the “brother passage”, however, cannot provide sufficient reason to be fully confident that no alterations were made to this passage by Christian copyists.  So, if small changes by copyists could make a big difference to the significance of this passage as evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, then premise (1) of Hinman’s argument would be cast into serious doubt.
D.  Small Changes to the “brother passage” by Christian Copyists Would Make a Big Difference
If the entire “brother passage” was invented by a Christian copyist, then obviously the passage would be a complete fake and provide no evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth whatsoever.
However, if the passage was NOT completely fake, but has been modified slightly by the addition of a phrase or two, then the evidence provided by the passage could be seriously diminished or even eliminated.

  • If the phrase “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ” was added by a Christian copyist, then the passage provides no significant evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, even if the rest of the passage was authentic.
  • If the original passage mentioned “the brother of the so-called Christ” and a Christian copyist added the name “Jesus” to that phrase, then the passage would provide only weak evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, because “James” was a very common Jewish name, and because there have been many Jews who claimed to be the Messiah or who were believed by others to be the Messiah.
  • If the original passage included the phrase “the brother of Jesus” but said nothing about Jesus being “the so-called Christ”,  then this passage would provide only weak evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, because “James” and “Jesus” were both common Jewish names at that time.
  • If the original passage included the phrase “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ” but a Christian copyist added the phrase “whose name was James” to this passage, then the passage would provide only weak evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, because “Jesus” was a common Jewish name, and because there have been many Jews who claimed to be the Messiah or who were believed by others to be the Messiah.

The “brother passage” provides significant evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth only if the phrase “the brother of Jesus” AND the phrase  “the so-called Christ” AND the phrase “whose name was James” are all authentic, only if ALL THREE of these phrases were in the original text of Antiquities written by Josephus.
E. The Difficulty of Determining the Authenticity & Significance of the “brother passage” given the Above Facts
Given that Christian copyists altered the texts of their own sacred scriptures, and given that Christian copyists have clearly altered (or possibly created) the TF passage in Antiquities, it is probable that Christian copyists also altered (or possibly created) the only other passage in Antiquities that refers to Jesus: the “brother passage”.
Furthermore, the most crucial evidence for determining whether any alterations were made to the “brother passage” is unavailable: the only Greek manuscript copies that we have were made many centuries after the TF passage was altered by Christian copyists (and presumably many centuries after the “brother passage” was altered, if it had been altered).  Finally, since the evidence provided by the “brother passage” would be seriously diminished if just one of the three key phrases had been added by a Christian copyist, this passage can be viewed as providing significant evidence of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth ONLY IF we can be very confident that NONE of the three key phrases was added by a Christian coyist.
Given that the general background evidence indicates that it is probable that a Christian copyist altered the “brother passage”, and given that the crucially important evidence needed to determine whether this passage is completely authentic is unavailable (no early Greek manuscript copies of The Antiquities are available), and given that the addition of a single word (“Jesus”) or one phrase (“the brother of Jesus” or “the so-called Christ” or “whose name is James”) by a Christian copyist would seriously diminish the strength of the evidence that this passage provides for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth,  I see no rational way to be very confident that the “brother passage” provides significant evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.  Considerations about context, style, and content of the “brother passage” will simply not be able to provide a rational basis for being very confident that NONE of the three key phrases was added by a Christian copyist.
F. IF the TF Passage Is Completely Inauthentic, THEN the “brother passage” is Probably NOT Completely Authentic
The majority view among modern scholars who study Josephus is that the TF passage is partially authentic, but not completely authentic.  The majority view is that Christian copyists made a few significant additions or changes to that passage.  Given this view, I have argued that it is probable that the “brother passage” was also altered by Christian copyists.  So, that is one way in which a judgment about the authenticity of the TF passage impacts our judgement about the authenticity of the “brother passage”.
But there are other possibilities concerning the TF passage.  Some scholars argue that the TF passage is completely inauthentic, that all or nearly all of the passage was created by Christian editors or copyists.  If these scholars are correct, then that would make it very probable that the “brother passage” was not completely authentic.  As Hinman points out,  the authenticity of the “brother passage” is evidence for the authenticity of the TF passage:
Josephus refers to James by referencing Jesus as though he’s mentioned Jesus or the reader should know who he is.  Jewish scholar Paul Winters states: “if…Josephus referred to James as being ‘the brother of Jesus who is called Christ,’ without much ado, we have to assume that in an earlier passage he had already told his readers about Jesus himself.”
In other words, if Josephus refers to “Jesus” in the “brother passage” without providing an explanation of who this “Jesus” person was, then this implies (or makes it very probable) that Josephus had referred to “Jesus” in the earlier TF passage.  But in that case, if the TF passage was completely inauthentic, as some scholar argue, then this would be significant evidence that the “brother passage” was NOT completely authentic.  This would be evidence that the reference to “Jesus” in the “brother passage” was added AFTER the creation and insertion of the TF passage, so that the writer composing the “brother passage” could refer back to the TF passage.  But if the writer composing the “brother passage” is referring back to a completely inauthentic TF passage, that means that the writer of the “brother passage” was not Josephus, but was instead, a  copyist (whether Christian or non-Christian) who was preserving a text that had previously been altered by a Christian copyist to include the TF passage.  The complete inauthenticity of the TF passage would thus imply (or make very probable) that the “brother passage” is not completely authentic.
G. If the Reference to “Christ” was Inserted into TF, then the “brother passage” is probably NOT Completely Authentic.
A similar issue arises even if we assume that the TF passage was partially authentic.  One of the two “Middle Positions” taken by modern scholars who study Josephus is that the original TF passage was neutral and Christian copyists simply inserted a few phrases. The leading Jesus scholar John Meier argues for a neutral re-construction of the TF passage, in which the sentence “He was the Christ.” is removed (along with some other phrases and sentences) on the assumption that this sentence was added by a Christian copyist.
But if this neutral reconstruction of the TF passage is correct, then the part of the “brother passage” that refers to Jesus as “the so-called Christ” is suspect, because the previous mention of Jesus in the TF did not use the term “Christ” to describe or identify the “Jesus” in that passage.  Since “Jesus” was a common Jewish name in that time, the absence of the term “Christ” in the TF passage would make it unclear that the “Jesus” in the “brother passage” was the same person as the “Jesus” in the TF passage.  Thus, it seems unlikely that Josephus would write about “Jesus the so-called Christ” and expect his non-Christian Gentile readers to know that he was referring back to the same “Jesus” that he had mentioned in the TF passage.
There is a good chance that the neutral view of the TF passage is correct.  But if that view is correct, then the TF passage did not refer to Jesus as “the Christ” nor as “the so-called Christ”.   But in that case, it seems likely that the phrase “Jesus the so-called Christ” in the “brother passage” was not written by Josephus, but was added later by a Christian copyist AFTER the TF passage was altered to refer to Jesus as “the Christ” (or after it was altered to refer to Jesus as “the so-called Christ”).
Once again, a judgment about the authenticity of the TF passage has implications for judging the authenticity of the “brother passage”.  Even if we assume that the TF passage was partially authentic, there is a good chance that the original TF passage did not refer to Jesus as “the Christ” and this would in turn cast significant doubt on the hypothesis that the “brother passage” was completely authentic.
H. If the Reference to “Jesus” was Inserted into TF, then the “brother passage” is probably NOT Completely Authentic.
Given that the vast majority of modern scholars who study Josephus have concluded either that the TF passage is partially inauthentic or that it is completely inauthentic,  that  either some parts of the TF passage were created by a Christian copyist or that the entire  passage was created by a Christian copyist, there is a good chance that the name “Jesus” was inserted into the TF passage by a Christian copyist.  But if that was the case, then that would cast doubt on they hypothesis that the “brother passage” reference to “Jesus” was authentic.
In the “brother passage” Josephus refers to James as “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ”, but provides no other expalnation to his non-Christian gentile readers about this “Jesus” person.  This makes no sense unless Josephus had previousl mentioned “Jesus” and previously provided more information about this “Jesus”.   If the original TF passage did not explicitly refer to “Jesus”, then it is highly unlikely that Josephus would assume that his non-Christian gentile readers would understand the “Jesus” mentioned in the “brother passage” to be the same person that he had previously mentioned in the TF passage.  Therefore, if the original TF passage did not explicitly refer to “Jesus”, then this would cast serious doubt on the hypothesis that the “brother passage” was completely authentic, and it would specifically cast doubt on the view that the original “brother passage” contained an explicit reference to “Jesus”.
QUESTION 4:  Is the Information in the “brother passage” INDEPENDENT of the NT writings?
A.  Authenticity is NOT Enough
There is a serious problem with the logic of Hinman’s argument, or at least with the argument that I attributed to Hinman (in response to Question 2 above).  Although establishing the authenticity of the “brother passage” is necessary in order to support his conclusion, it is NOT sufficient.  There are other important questions that must be considered.
One important question is about the source of the information that Jospehus presents in the “brother passage”.  If this information came either directly or indirectly from the Gospels or from other New Testament writings (e.g. the letters of Paul), then the “brother passage” does not provide evidence for the existence of Jesus that is INDEPENDENT from the New Testament.  If the “brother passage” does not provide evidence that is independent from the NT, then it does not count as external evidence for the existence of Jesus, but is merely an echo of the evidence from the NT.
B. Antiquities was Written AFTER the Gospels and the Letter of Paul to the Galatians
Josephus wrote The Antiquities in either 93 or 94 CE.  Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians about  50 to 55 CE.  The gospel of Mark was probably written about 70 CE, and the gospel of Matthew was probably written about 85 CE.  Thus Josephus wrote the “brother passage” about 40 years after Paul wrote to the Galations, about 25 years after the gospel of Mark was written, and about a decade after the gospel of Matthew was written.  Each of these NT documents states or implies that Jesus of Nazareth had a brother named James, and that some Jews believed that Jesus was the Messiah or “the Christ”:
55 CE:
but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. (Galatians 1:19, New Revised Standard Version)
70 CE:
Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.  (Mark 6:3, New Revised Standard Version)

85 CE:

Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?  (Matthew 13:55, New Revised Standard Version)

Josephus could have learned the idea that there was a man named Jesus who was the brother of a man named James, and who was believed by some Jews to be the Messiah or “the Christ” from reading the letter of Paul to the Galatians, or the gospel of Mark, or the gospel of Matthew.  He could have learned this “information” years before composing the “brother passage”.   If Josephus learned this “information” from reading one of these Christian writings, then the information would have come directly from the NT and thus the “brother passage” would NOT provide independent evidence for the existence of Jesus.
Any Christian who read (or heard someone else read) the letter of Paul to the Galatians, or the gospel of Mark, or the gospel of Matthew would have reason to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the brother of a man named James and that some Jews believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah or “the Christ”, based on these authoratative writings that many Christians viewed as inspired scripture. Josephus could have learned these ideas from one or more Christian believers who had read one or more of these two gospels or Paul’s letter to the Galations.  If Josephus learned this “information” from such Christian believers, then these ideas in the “brother passage” would have come indirectly from the writings of the NT and the “brother passage” would NOT provide independent evidence for the existence of Jesus.
Furthermore, a non-Christian friend or acquaintance of Josephus could have learned these ideas from either reading one of the canonical gospels or from reading the letter of Paul to the Galatians, or from conversations with Christian believers who had read Mark or Matthew or the letter to the Galatians.  If this non-Christian person then passed this “information” on to Josephus, then the ideas in the “brother passage” would have come indirectly from the writings of the NT and thus the “brother passage” would NOT provide independent evidence for the existence of Jesus.
C.  The Information in the “brother passage” could have Come from More than One Source
Just as it is important to recognize that the TF passage could be partially authentic and partially inauthentic, so it is also important to recognize that the “brother passage” could be partially independent of the NT and partially dependent on the NT.  The death of James the brother of Jesus is not described in the NT, so clearly the basic story in the “brother passage” did not come from the NT.  However, it is possible that the idea that James was “the brother of Jesus” and that Jesus was “called the Christ” could have come from the NT, could be dependent on someone having read one or more writings from the NT.
Josephus could have had a story about a man “whose name was James” from a non-Christian source who obtained this information independent of the NT.  But if Josephus wanted more information about this person named “James”, he could have obtained this additional information from a Christian source (who had read or heard Mark, Matthew, or Galatians), or from a non-Christian acquaintance who obtained information from reading Mark, Matthew, or Galatians or from conversations with a Christian (who had read or heard Mark, Matthew, or Galatians).  In this case, even if the entire phrase “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ” was written by Josephus, this part of the “brother passage” would NOT provide independent evidence of the existence of Jesus, even though the passage as a whole does provide some historical information that is independent of the NT.
D.  There is a Significant Chance that the “brother passage” is Partially DEPENDENT on the New Testament 
Because there is a significant chance that both references to “Jesus” in Antiquities are either directly or indirectly dependent on the writings of the NT, the NT scholar Bart Ehrman concludes that these references to Jesus fail to provide significant evidence for the existence of Jesus:
My main point is that whether the Testimonium is authentically from Josephus (in its pared-down form) or not probably does not ultimately matter  for the question I am pursuing here.  Whether or not Jesus lived has to be decided on other kinds of evidence from this.  And here is why.  Suppose Josephus really did write the Testimonium.  That would show that by 93 CE–some sixty or more years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death–a Jewish historian of Palestine had some information about him.  And where would Josephus have derived this information?  He would have heard stories about Jesus that were in circulation.  There is nothing to suggest that Josephus had actually read the Gospels (he almost certainly had not) or that he did any kind of primary research into the life of Jesus by examining Roman records of some kind (there weren’t any).  But as we will see later, we already know for lots of other reasons and on lots of other grounds that there were stories about Jesus floating around in Palestine by the end of the first century and much earlier.  So even if the Testimonium, in the pared-down form, was written by Josephus, it does not give us much more evidence than we already have on the question of whether there really was a man Jesus.  (Did Jesus Exist, p.65)
Ehrman believes that the references to “Jesus” by Josephus fail to provide significant evidence for the existence of Jesus even though it is Ehrman’s purpose in the book quoted above to refute Jesus Mythicists and to prove that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, flesh-and-blood historical person.  Ehrman does not reject these passages from Josephus in order to support the belief that Jesus is a myth; he rejects them because there is a good chance that the information about Jesus in those passages is DEPENDENT on one or more of the writings of the NT.
Robert Van Voorst is an NT scholar who has also carefully studied the external evidence for Jesus, including the two passages by Josephus that refer to Jesus.  Van Voorst is much more positive about this evidence that Ehrman is,  but Van Voorst is honest enough to admit that his positive evaluation of the external evidence from Josephus rests on a somewhat shaky assumption, the assumption that the information Josephus had about Jesus was obtained INDEPENDENTLY of the writings of the NT:
These items rule out Josephus’s obtaining this wording [in the TF passage], and probably the information behind it, from the New Testament or other early Christian writings known to us.  (JONT, p.102-103, emphasis added)
The evidence only “probably” rules out the hypothesis that Josephus obtained the information about Jesus in these passages from the New Testament or other early Christian writings.  Van Voorst does not assert that the evidence “certainly” rules this out, nor that it “almost certainly” rules this out, nor that it “very probably” rules this out.   Thus, Van Voorst tacitly admits that there is a significant chance that Josephus obtained his information about Jesus from the New Testament.
Further comments by Van Voorst reinforce his admission of the shakiness of the assumption that the TF passage and the “brother passage” contain independent historical information about Jesus:
Did this information [about Jesus] come indirectly from Christians or others to Josephus? We can be less sure about this [i.e. we can be less sure about ruling this out than ruling out that Josephus obtained the information about Jesus by reading some of the NT writings himself]althought the totality of the evidence points away from it.  (JONT, p.103, emphasis added)
A more plausible hypothesis is that Josephus gained his knowledge of Christianity when he lived in Palestine.  He supplemented it in Rome, as the words “to this day” may imply, where there was a significant Christian presence.  Whether Josephus aquired his data by direct encounter with Christians, indirect information from others about their movement, or some combination of both, we cannot tell.  John Meier is correct to conclude that none of these potential sources is verifiable, yet the evidence points to the last option as the more commendable.  (JONT, p.102, emphasis added).
If “we cannot tell” whether Josephus aquired his data by “direct encounter with Christians” or not, then this implies that there is a significant chance that Josephus aquired some of his data by “direct encounter with Christians”, some of whom were very likely to have read or heard either the gospel of Mark, the gospel of Matthew, or the letter to the Galatians.
If “the more commendable” view is that Josephus obtained his data from “some combination of both,” meaning that Josephus obtained part of his data “by direct encounter with Christians” as well as obtaining some of his data “from others [non-Christians] about their movement”, then it is PROBABLE that Josephus obtained at least some of his “information” about Jesus by “direct encounter with Christians”, and thus it is reasonable to conclude that there is a significant chance that ALL of the information about Jesus in the TF passage and the “brother passage” was obtained by “direct encounter with Christians” in which case these passages do NOT provide any INDEPENDENT historical evidence for the existence of Jesus.
QUESTION 5:  Is the Information in the “brother passage” probably true?
If I understand Hinman’s argument correctly, he is trying to provide evidence for an intermediate conclusion about a man named “James”:
(2A) It is probable that there existed a man named “James” who was in fact the brother of Jesus of Nazareth.
The fact that Josephus asserted that there was such a man, does not prove that there was such a man.  One can also challenge the assumption that the fact that Josephus asserted that there was such a man is sufficient evidence to show that it is PROBABLE that such a man existed.  Thus, the considerations of authenticity and independence are not sufficient by themselves to show that the “brother passage” provides significant evidence for the existence of Jesus.
The following diagram presents a somewhat overly simple analysis of how to approach the evaluation of the “brother passage”, but it illustrates that authenticity and independence are important considerations but are not sufficient for a careful and complete evaluation (click on the image below to get a clearer view of the chart):
Evaluation of BP
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
(This chart is a bit overly simple, because it probably makes sense to ask whether the passage is partially authentic, especially in relation to the three key phrases, and whether the passage is partially independent, and to do so would require a more complex analysis and diagram. )
Even if we assume that 80% of the historical claims that Josephus makes in Antiquities are true claims, this does NOT allow us to confidently conclude of any particular claim made by Josephus in Antiquities that the claim is PROBABLY true.  The problem is that the general reliability of Josephus as an historian and a maker of historical claims can be over-ridden by specific information relevant to a particular claim made by Josephus in Antiquities.   So, at best, we can only conclude that a given claim by Josephus in Antiquities is probably true OTHER THINGS BEING EQUAL.  But then we need to think about in the case of the three key phrases/claims, whether other things are in fact equal.
Furthermore, it is entirely possible that the information that a man named “James” was “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ” was included in the original passage written by Josephus, that this information was obtained completely independently of the NT, and yet that the information is simply mistaken.  Perhaps James was called “the Lord’s brother” by fellow Christian believers (as in Galations 1:19) and this expression was not intended literally, and it simply meant that James was a devout follower of a divine being named “Jesus”.  A non-Christian who heard others refer to James this way might well have mistakenly taken this expression to mean that James was the literal brother of a flesh-and-blood person named “Jesus”, and then passed this on to Josephus as a fact about James. In that case, the “brother passage” would be completely authentic, and it would be completely independent of the NT, and yet it would assert a false claim about this person named “James”, since it wrongly implies that James was in fact the brother of Jesus of Nazareth, when he was not.
Clearly, the combination of authenticity and independence is not sufficient by itself to establish that it is PROBABLE that there existed a man named “James” who was in fact the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. Further argumentation is needed to show that Josephus was a reliable historian and that there are no good reasons to doubt the reliability or truth of the three specific phrases/claims that we are concerned with in the “brother passage”:  that the man in question was the literal brother of Jesus,  that his brother Jesus was the so-called Christ, and that the man in question was named James.
CONCLUSION
Given that Christian copyists clearly altered their own sacred scriptures in the same time frame that they were copying the works of Josephus, and given that Christian copyists clearly altered the TF passage, the only other passage in Antiquities that refers to Jesus, it is reasonable to infer that Christian copyists probably also altered the “brother passage”, other things being equal.   Given that the oldest Greek manuscripts that we have of Antiquities were made many centuries after Christian copyists altered the TF passage, and presumably many centuries after Christian copyists altered the “brother passage”, if they did alter that passage too, we don’t have any good way to verify that the “brother passage” is completely authentic, and given that if one or two key words or phrases in that passage were added by Christian copyists, that would seriously diminish or even eliminate the force of this evidence for the existence of Jesus, I don’t see any way that one can have sufficient reason to be confident that the “brother passage” is completely authentic, and given that there is a good chance that some of the information in the “brother passage” came either directly or indirectly from the NT,  I don’t see how one can be confident that the “brother passage” is completely independent of the writings of the NT.   Finally, even assuming that the “brother passage” is completely authentic, and completely independent of the NT, it is not entirely clear  that we ought to conclude that premise (2A) is true.  Further argument is required before that conclusion is rationally justified.

bookmark_borderDebate: External Evidence for Jesus – Post on Part 4 Coming Soon

I have been working on understanding and evaluating Joe Hinman’s fourth argument for the existence of Jesus, and I believe my post on this subject will be ready to publish later this week.  This argument is based on alleged references to Jesus found in a book by the Jewish historian Josephus, particularly the “brother passage”, where a person named “James” is referred to as “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ”.

bookmark_borderMelania Trump Speaks Again; Trump Team Denies Plagiarism

The Trump team was quick to deny the Melania Trump’s latest speech was plagiarized. They noted that “four score and seven years ago” is a common way of saying “eighty seven.” Eighty seven is just a common number they observed, nothing special about it. Further, Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort noted that the phrase “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” is a phrase in the public domain that is not protected by any copyrights. When asked about her references to being “engaged in a great civil war,” and being “met on a great battlefield of that war,” Manafort suggested that she was referring metaphorically of the Republican National Convention as a “battlefield” in the “civil war” between True Americans and the supporters of diseased, criminal immigrants. Reporters then asked, about her assertion that “In a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” Was that her own wording? Yes indeed, Manafort replied: “She is eloquent in four languages, and is quite the wordsmith.” What about the phrase, “the last full measure of devotion?” Doesn’t that sound familiar? “Well,” said Manafort, “it may seem familiar to you, but I guarantee you that it was not familiar to the attendees of the Convention.” Finally, reporters queried her stirring conclusion, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Were these not, in fact, the concluding words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address? “Let me explain it this way,” said Manafort: “Shut up.”

bookmark_borderHas the Journal Philo Died?

I’ve heard privately from several philosophers that they submitted articles and heard nothing for months. It’s been years since a new issue of the journal came out. If you go to the journal’s new website, there is now a statement that “Philo is no longer accepting submissions.”
I have no inside information about what may or may not have happened behind the scenes, but I think it is very unprofessional to leave authors and subscribers in the dark like this for so long. If they are going to cease publication, they should make an announcement and be done with it. If they are going to resume publication in the year X, they should announce that.

bookmark_borderHow Theists Can Avoid God-of-the-Gaps Arguments and Still Argue for God

Background: In the context of a review of Dan Barker’s book, Godless, Randal Rauser had a very brief, even cryptic, exchange in the combox for his about God-of-the-Gaps (GOTG) arguments. (See here and here.) That exchange led to his latest post, which you can read for yourself here. I’ve decided to post my response on my own blog here, with some edits for further clarification.


I haven’t read Barker’s book, so I can only comment on what you have quoted:

“Many of these [theistic] arguments are reduced to a ‘god of the gaps’ strategy. At most, the theists might prove the existence of a current gap in human knowledge, but this does not justify filling the gap with their god. After all, what happens when the gap closes someday? The gaps are actually what drive science–if we had all the answers there would be no more science.” (Godless, 104-5)

Let’s start with the ‘god of the gaps’ (GOTG) strategy. What is a GOTG argument and why are such arguments so bad?
Theistic Argument Schema #1 (Focus on Gap in Scientific Knowledge)
GOTG arguments go like this.
(1) There is some fact, F, which science cannot explain today (in terms of naturalistic, mechanistic, unguided) causes
(2) [probable] Science will never explain be able to explain F. [inductive inference from 1]
(3) The existence of God does explain F.
(4) Therefore, the existence of God is the best explanation for F. [from 2 and 3]
(5) [probable] God exists. [inductive inference from (4)]
The key feature of schema #1 (and other schemas like it) is that “science cannot explain F today” plays a major role in the argument.
The move from (1) and (2) is weak. Science has been extremely successful in explaining a wide variety of phenomena in terms of naturalistic, mechanistic causes. Before we even get into the specifics of F, it’s already extremely likely that F has a naturalistic, scientific explanation. In Bayesian terms, “F has a naturalistic explanation” has a high prior probability. This is why I agree with the Barker quotation.
Theistic Argument Schema #2 (Focus on Content of Propositions)
(1) There is some fact F, we know to be true.
(2) The content of the proposition, “The mental exists and, if anything physical exists, explains why anything physical exists” (hereafter, “source idealism”), provides us with reason to expect F or, if it doesn’t provide a reason to expect F, makes F less surprising than it would be on “source physicalism.”
(3) The content of the proposition, “The physical exists and, if anything mental exists, explains why anything mental exists,” (hereafter, “source physicalism”), provides no reason to expect F (or it provides some reason, but less of a reason than what “source idealism” provides).
(4) Therefore, we’d expect F more on the assumption that source idealism is true than on the assumption source physicalism is true.
(5) [probable] Source physicalism is false.
The key feature of schema #2 (and other schemas like it) is that “science cannot explain F today” plays no role whatsoever in the argument. Although F might, indeed, be a fact that science has no explanation for, the lack of scientific explanation for F does zero work in the argument. (In fact, the lack of a scientific explanation for F isn’t even a premise in the argument!) What does do the work in the argument? The content of the propositions represented by the labels “source idealism” and “source physicalism.”
This is a major advantage of schema #2 over schema #1: because “science cannot explain F today” plays no role whatsoever in the argument, schema #2 makes an objection based on the history of science irrelevant. If I were a theist trying to make an argument for God’s existence based one some fact F–a fact which in principle could have a scientific explanation but currently does not (such as fine-tuning, origin of life, consciousness, free will, etc.)– I would use schema #2, not schema #1.
Example: An Argument from Consciousness Using Schema #2
For example, suppose we decide to adopt schema #2 as a “template” for theistic arguments (specifically, natural theology) and we want to try it out with consciousness. This would yield something like the following.
(1) Consciousness exists.
(2) The content of the proposition, “The mental exists and, if anything physical exists, explains why anything physical exists” (hereafter, “source idealism”), provides us with reason to expect consciousness or, if it doesn’t provide a reason to expect consciousness , makes consciousness less surprising than it would be on “source physicalism.”
(3) The content of the proposition, “The physical exists and, if anything mental exists, explains why anything mental exists” (hereafter, “source physicalism”), provides no reason to expect consciousness.
(4) Therefore, we’d expect consciousness much more on the assumption that source idealism is true than on the assumption source physicalism is true.
(5) [probable] Source physicalism is false.
In this case, source idealism not only ‘predicts’ that something mental exists, but it says that something mental explains the existence of everything physical. In other words, something irreducibly mental plays a ‘deep’ role in a theistic worldview. In contrast, source physicalism is logically compatible with the nonexistence of anything mental. If source physicalism is true, the only want to ‘get’ something mental is to have living organisms with bits of matter arranged in very specific and complex ways (e.g., organisms with brains or something very much like a brain). But source physicalism is logically compatible with all sorts of scenarios where such bits of matter never get into that kind of arrangement. For example, source physicalism is logically compatible with a possible world in which only one universe exists, the universe allows carbon-based life, carbon-based life arises through naturalistic abiogenesis mechanism, and then evolution never progresses past single-celled life. Source physicalism is also logically compatible with a similar possible world, but with no life whatsoever. And so on.
In a source physicalism world, mental phenomena like consciousness do not play the kind of ‘deep’ role that they play in a source idealism world. (That’s the whole point of source physicalism.) And so the existence of mental phenomena like consciousness–even if consciousness turns out to have a naturalistic, scientific explanation–is very surprising on source physicalism but expected on source idealism.
The ‘Catch’
If a theist decides to use schema #2, however, there is a catch: in order to maintain logical consistency, the theist is required to admit that there are good, parallel arguments against source idealism and for source physicalism.
For example, notice the symmetry in the definitions of source idealism and source physicalism: one is based upon the mental and the other based upon the physical. You might say that the argument from consciousness described above is a version of an argument family we can call ‘arguments from mentality.’ Source physicalists have a corresponding argument family of their own, what we can call ‘arguments from physicality.’ Similar to the argument I defend in this post, source physicalists can argue as follows.
(1) Matter exists.
(2) The content of the proposition, “The physical exists and, if anything mental exists, explains why anything mental exists” (hereafter, “source physicalism”), provides us with reason to expect matter or, if it doesn’t provide a reason to expect matter, it makes the existence of matter less surprising than it would be on “source idealism.”
(3) The content of the proposition, “The mental exists and, if anything physical exists, explains why anything physical exists” (hereafter, “source idealism”), provides us with no reason to expect expect matter.
(4) Therefore, we’d expect matter much more on the assumption that source physicalism is true than on the assumption source idealism is true.
(5) [probable] Source idealism is false.

bookmark_borderC.S. Lewis, Hammer of the Theocrats

A comment on the Friendly Atheist site had a marvelous quote from C.S. Lewis. I ran it by Victor Reppert to make sure that it was genuine and to get its source. Victor verified that it is from the essay “Equality” in Lewis’s collection Present Concerns. It is the best succinct critique of theocracy that I have read:

I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretensions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to rulers and to the subjects. Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant a robber barron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point may be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely more because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations.
And since Theocracy is the worst, the nearer any government approaches to Theocracy the worse it will be. A metaphysic held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign. It forbids them, like the inquisitor, to admit any grain of truth or good in their opponents, it abrogates the ordinary rules of morality, and it gives a seemingly high, super-personal sanction to all the very ordinary human passions by which, like other men, the rulers will frequently be actuated. In a word, it forbids wholesome doubt. A political programme can never in reality be more than probably right. We never know all the facts about the present and we can only guess the future. To attach to a party programme — whose highest claim is to reasonable prudence — the sort of assent which we should reserve for demonstrable theorems, is a kind of intoxication. – C.S. Lewis

Brilliant. Such intoxication now reigns in many state capitals, and, increasingly, in Washington D.C.
One very insightful sentence was “A metaphysic held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign.” Note that a theocracy is defined, not by a government’s dedication to religion per se, but by its dedication to any metaphysic (or, we might say, “ideology”) held with the force of a religion. An atheistic ideology, Marxism-Leninism or Maoism, say, could be (and has been) held with religious intensity. Thus, the Soviet Union, in its pre-Glasnost and pre-Perestroika days, and China under Mao are rightly viewed as a theocracies. Hence, the tired old polemical warhorse, regularly trotted out by religious apologists, about “atheist atrocities” can be stood on its head. The victims of communism were victims of theocracy.

bookmark_borderCorrection to “Are Atheism and Moral Realism Logically Incompatible?”

The introduction to my post, “Are Atheism and Moral Realism Logically Incompatible?”, probably gave readers an impression I did not intend, namely, that, in my exchange at Victor Reppert’s Dangerous Idea blog, Steve linked arguments from moral ontology (for theism) and arguments from evil (from atheism).  Steve didn’t do that there and I’m sorry if I created that impression. My introduction was aimed at other theists, not necessarily Steve, who I think employ a double standard when refuting so-called ‘logical’ arguments from evil while affirming ‘logical’ arguments from moral ontology.
I regret the error and have updated the introduction to my post accordingly.