Bayesian evaluation for the likelihood of Christ's resurrection (Part 23)

Let us now turn to some figures from Buddhism who are said to have appeared after their deaths.

Bodhidharma is the Buddhist monk credited with bringing Chan Buddhism to China, some time around the 5th century AD. Here is Wikipedia's summary of the legend surrounding his death:
Three years after Bodhidharma's death, Ambassador Sòngyún of northern Wei is said to have seen him walking while holding a shoe at the Pamir Heights. Sòngyún asked Bodhidharma where he was going, to which Bodhidharma replied "I am going home". When asked why he was holding his shoe, Bodhidharma answered "You will know when you reach Shaolin monastery. Don't mention that you saw me or you will meet with disaster". After arriving at the palace, Sòngyún told the emperor that he met Bodhidharma on the way. The emperor said Bodhidharma was already dead and buried and had Sòngyún arrested for lying. At Shaolin Monastery, the monks informed them that Bodhidharma was dead and had been buried in a hill behind the temple. The grave was exhumed and was found to contain a single shoe. The monks then said "Master has gone back home" and prostrated three times: "For nine years he had remained and nobody knew him; Carrying a shoe in hand he went home quietly, without ceremony."
So, that's something. We not only have the usual "group of people who believe" that Bodhidharma rose from the dead, but also a named figure, one "Ambassador Sòngyún of northern Wei", who at least sound like a historical person. So, how should we evaluate this story?

As before, we first ask where this story comes from. It turns out that the source for this story is the Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall, which was compiled in 952 - about 400 years after Bodhidharma is supposed to have died. Again, this is far outside a human lifetime, and that makes it impossible to find the kind of personal testimonies of historical individuals that we're looking for.

As for "Ambassador Sòngyún of northern Wei" - well, it turns out that he really was a historical person - a Buddhist monk who was sent into India to acquire some Buddhist texts, some time around 520. But this does not really help the case for Bodhidharma's "resurrection", because none of the texts that mention Song Yun or his journey mentions this "resurrection". The event therefore seems to be a later, legendary addition.

The other sources on Bodhidharma, many of which are earlier than the Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall, also force us to draw the same conclusion. None of them mention this story of Bodhidharma "going home". It is clearly a later, legendary addition, and Wikipedia has no qualms about labeling it as such.

Let's now assign a numerical value to the level of evidence in this story. There's the usual "some people say this happened" dimension to the story, which again gets counted for 1/10th of the 500 witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15 - that is, as 1/10th of 1/6th of the evidence for Jesus's resurrection. As for "Ambassador Sòngyún of northern Wei", having a named, real, historical witness would count as a full 1/6th of the evidence, except that this witness is named 400 years after the fact. This would still count as some non-negligible fraction of that 1/6th, and we'd have to add that in.

But nearly all of this gets wiped out by the strong evidence against the story from the lack of mention in the earlier sources, indicating that this whole story is a later, legendary addition. In the end, the level of evidence for Bodhidharma's "resurrection" can't amount to more than the "some people say" level - the usual 1/60th of the amount of evidence for Christ's resurrection.

Next week we'll examine another Buddhist monk.


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Bayesian evaluation for the likelihood of Christ's resurrection (Part 22)

We now come to Hinduism's Krishna, who's another god that's sometimes compared with Jesus. He's said to be have been the incarnation of Vishnu, who is either the supreme god, or one of three or five most important gods, depending on the specific tradition in Hinduism.

Krishna has perhaps a greater claim to a real, historical substance compared to the other gods we've covered. For starters, he is at least said to have been born as a human. He is said to have gotten married and ruled kingdoms and fought battles. There is a great deal that is said about Krishna - but we are, of course, primarily interested in the story of his death and "resurrection".

The main literary sources we have on this part of Krishna's life are the Mahabharata and the Srimad Bhagavatam. They tell the story of how Krishna, at the end of a long and eventful life, intended to leave the world. He was then shot by a hunter named Jara, with an arrow through the foot. This marked the end of Krishna's life, for thereafter he immediately ascended to go to his own abode, leaving earth.

So, what are we to make of this "resurrection" story? What kind of evidence is there for it? Let us first try to establish the setting. These stories take place in ancient India, and Krishna is proposed to have lived some time between 3200 and 3100 BC, although there are some wildly differing estimates. These are quite large uncertainties, from a very long time ago - right at the edge of pre-history. These issues, by themselves, might not cause too much concern -  until we attempt to date the writing of the Mahabharata, which contains these stories.

Dating the Mahabharata is tricky - it is a massive work, composed of multiple layers. Current scholarship estimates that the oldest layers are from around 400 BC, and the origin of the stories within it can perhaps be extended back to 1000 BC. In other words, the stories of Krishna were, at best, already thousands of years old at the time that they were recorded. Therefore, no personal, firsthand testimony to Krishna's death and ascension are possible in this work.

Okay - but what if we ignore the scholarship, and and go with the Hindu tradition which says that the Mahabharata was authored by the legendary sage Vyasa? Unfortunately, this doesn't help things at all. We know little about a historical Vyasa. When did he live? When did he write? We can no more anchor him in history than we can Krishna.

Complicating matters further is the story structure of the Mahabharata. You see, the death and ascension of Krishna is not just told as a story; it is framed as a story being told by Vaisampayana (a student of Vyasa) to the king Janamejaya (supposedly a great-grandson of a character in the Mahabharata), many years after the fact. But that's not the end of it - this story is further framed as a story being told by Ugrasrava Sauti, even more years later. So, the story of Krishna's ascension is a story (about Krishna), within a story (being told by Vaisampayana), within a story (being told by Ugrasrava Sauti), within a work (the Mahabharata itself, which was presumably written down some time afterwards). All this "story-within-a-story" structure sounds like a device for saying "once upon a time...", and makes the story sound like something told about "a friend of a friend". But let us ignore that for now. Even if we were to take the Mahabharata entirely at face value - an outlandishly generous acquiescence - we would still be forced to conclude that this story was already incredibly old at the time of the recording, and its content disqualifies itself from being considered a primary account, due to its story-within-a-story structure. Again, no personal testimonies are possible.

But - what if the dates for Krishna's life are mistaken? What if he lived more recently than in the 4rd millennium BC, and the portion of the Mahabharata which contains his ascension were written closer to the actual event, and the rest of the Mahabharata, including the story-within-story structure, was built up later? Well, that's a lot of "what-if's" - and while that does get the text closer to the event, it's still of no help in solidly placing Krishna in history, or producing personal testimonies from any witnesses to his ascension.

Going to the Srimad Bhagavatam instead of the Mahabharata doesn't help here - for the Srimad Bhagavatam was written even more recently than the Mahabharata. Modern scholarship places its composition as some time between 500 to 1000 AD, and it references parts of the Mahabharata. In fact, its other name - Bhagavata Purana - means "Ancient Tales of Followers of the Lord". The work itself acknowledges that these are "ancient tales", right there in the title. It cannot possibly produce the kind of testimonies we're looking for.

Let's compare all this to the evidence for Jesus's resurrection. Even if we only consider those modern scholars that are skeptical and unbelieving, the New Testament was mostly completed within decades of Christ's death and resurrection. 1 Corinthians, from which we got the summary of the evidence for Christ's resurrection, was written a mere 20 years after the event. The creed within it comes within several years of the event itself. Furthermore, we have numerous records within the New Testament of people claiming to have personally seen the risen Christ. Multiple such claims are in fact made in the first person within the New Testament text itself.

These are stark differences compared to the ascension of Krishna. We have time gaps of years compared to millennia, and personal, firsthand testimonies instead of a story about a story about a story about an ascension. It may be that Krishna was a real person who once lived a remarkable life. It may be that the Kurukshetra War actually took place. But in judging the amount of evidence for Krishna's ascension, there can be no real comparison to the evidence for Christ's resurrection.

But in the end, we still need a numerical value for the level of evidence for Krishna's ascension. Well, we can certainly say that some people say that Krishna "rose from the dead". But we cannot historically locate any group of people who first personally testified to this fact, like we can with the 500 witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15. Nor can we find any group of witnesses corresponding to the apostles, or to the specific named witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15. In the end, we just seem to have the story in the Mahabharata, with the version of the story in Srimad Bhagavatam being a later telling of the same story. Previously, I've assigned such "some people say" stories 1/10th of the level of evidence of the 500 witnesses. But given the sheer size of the works about Krishna, I'll increase this to 1/4th of the level of evidence of the 500 witnesses. That means that the evidence for Krishna's ascension amounts to 1/4 * 1/6 = 1/24th of the evidence for Jesus's resurrection.

There's more cases to consider in the next post.


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Bayesian evaluation for the likelihood of Christ's resurrection (Part 21)

How about we look at some ancient gods? Jesus is often compared to the gods in other religions, but can any of them actually serve in our comparison of historical evidence for a resurrection?

Mithra, for instance, is a god in the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, who then inspired a Roman mystery religion. He often appears on lists of gods that Jesus was supposed to have been copied from. But... um... it seems that he was never actually said to have been a human, or any kind of a historical figure, in either the Persian or the Roman variants. He doesn't even die, let alone rise from the dead, even in his mythologies. Furthermore, any specific details or even general plot points is notoriously difficult to extract from any Mithra mythology. The Roman version of Mithra was worshiped in a mystery religion, and none of their written narratives or theology survive - we only have some iconography to glean what we can of this Mithra. In the Persian version, Mithra is mentioned in some hymns (Yashts), which are again very short on details, mythology, or narrative. In all cases, he is always presented as a mythic entity, and the scant stories about him are always framed in that context.

So, on his comparison with Jesus, Mithra fails on this crucial point of historical existence. For our purposes, this also means that we can safely say that there is no evidence for Mithra's resurrection. Indeed such a claim is never even made, or even dreamt of - someone would first have to claim that Mithra was a historical figure.

Horus, an ancient Egyptian god, along with his father Osiris, are some more gods who are sometimes compared to Jesus - and they, too, fail the "historical existence" test. As with Mithra, all of the stories concerning these gods take place on a purely mythological level, and there are no claims to them having been a real, historical figure. For our purposes, it's clear that their story presents no evidence for a historical resurrection. But at least Osiris has a mythological story where he comes back from the dead. Of course, it's not even clear that there was ever a group of people who might have claimed to have been historical witnesses to this - all ancient sources (Pyramid Texts,  Palermo Stone, etc.) which mention this story always present it something that took place a long time ago, in an mythic age.

So, in assigning a level of evidence to this, we'll be extremely generous and again count this as an order of magnitude less than the evidence of the 500 witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15. Recall that this comes to 1/6 * 1/10 = 1/60th of the evidence that we have for Christ's resurrection.

Dionysus is another god, this time from the Greek pantheon, who is superficially compared to Jesus but fails the "historical existence" test. Yes, there is a mythological story where he is killed as an infant then re-incubated in Zeus's thigh - but none of the sources that mention this mythology pretends to be history. Dionysus's situation with regards to his "resurrection" is therefore similar to that of Osiris - there is virtually no historical evidence for his "resurrection".

As with Osiris, we'll again be extremely generous and rate him as having 1/60th of the evidence for Christ's resurrection.

We will discuss Krishna in the next post.


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Bayesian evaluation for the likelihood of Christ's resurrection (Part 20)

Next, let us consider Zalmoxis, whom Herodotus writes about in his "Histories" as a divinity in the religion of the Getae. Herodotus wrote that Zalmoxis's followers believed they have a form of immortality in him, and performed a kind of human sacrifice to communicate with him through death.

According to Herodotus, he was told by certain non-Getae peoples that Zalmoxis was really a man - that he was teaching his countrymen some philosophy, but then hid himself in a secret underground housing for three years while people thought he was dead. He then came back out and showed himself alive, and this caused the people to believe his teachings.

And... that's it. That's the substance of this Zalmoxis and his "resurrection". Apparently this is one of the best examples that the world can come up with when asked about non-Christian resurrection stories. And yes, some people really have tried to link this "resurrection" to Jesus's resurrection, in an attempt to discredit Christianity. This, in spite of the record having no witnesses testimonies of any kind, nor even a group of people who can clearly be said to believe that someone came back from the dead.

Again, using the metric derived from 1 Corinthians 15, how does this measure up against the evidence for Christ's resurrection? Is anything about Zalmoxis's "resurrection" comparable with the testimonies of Peter, James, or Paul? Well, no. Zalmoxis has no witness testimonies, period - let alone any named witnesses among historically known persons. This means that nothing about Zalmoxis is comparable to the testimony of the apostles as a group, either. At the end of the day, all the evidence for Zalmoxis's "resurrection" comes down to "some people might have said that a god, who might have been a real person, might have come back from the dead". Note that all the "might have"s in that sentence are part of the historical evidence. It is not an external skeptic injecting doubt into the story, it's actually how the story is handed down to us through history.

So... I would again say this is pretty much no evidence. But again, because we need a quantitative value, I will be generous and say that this is an order of magnitude less than the evidence of the 500 witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15. That gives Zalmoxis 1/6 * 1/10 = 1/60th of the evidence that we have for Christ's resurrection.

Let's next look at Aristeas, who is another character in Herodotus's "Histories". He is said to have been a poet. The "Histories" relate how Aristeas "suddenly dropt down dead" one day (in front of just one witness), but then his body could not be found and he was seen alive - once close to the time of his death, and then seven years later, when he appeared in another town and wrote a poem.

Here's the thing about this story: it was already at least 240 years old when Herodotus was telling it. Then, Herodotus says that some people say that Aristeas appeared again (as a "ghost" or an "apparition") after those 240 years, and instructed these people to build an alter to Apollo and a statue of Aristeas himself.

Again, that's about it. The whole story only takes up a couple of paragraphs in Herodotus's "Histories". Now, it's not quite clear that a "resurrection" had taken place - the first part of the story sounds more like a fainting or a disappearance, and the second one is called a "ghost" or an "apparition" by the people who were suppose to have seen it, who presumably had no means of personally identifying Aristeas. But let's ignore that for now. What kind of evidence - what kind of witness testimony - do we have for this story, and how does it compare to the story of Christ's resurrection?

Well, once again we have no named witnesses. The first part of the story is at least 240 years old at the time of the telling - so no witnesses, of any kind, are even possible. The second part, where a ghost or an apparition instructs people to build an alter and a statue, may be a bit more credible. We seem to at least have a group of people who were instructed to build a specific alter and statue, and Herodotus might have conceivably met the individuals who claimed to have personally received these instructions. On the other hand, they are never identified more specifically than "the people of Metapontion", and it's unclear whether this is simply a story that the Metapontines told about their alter and statue. Furthermore, it's not even clear how long ago this was supposed to have happened - the story about the apparition might as well have happened another 240 years ago from the time that Herodotus relates the story, judging from the scant details.

So, once again the testimony evidence here only turns out to be of the "some people say..." kind. The closest thing we can relate this to is the testimony of the 500 witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15. Given the rather shadowy nature of the "apparition", and the uncertainty about whether Herodotus has any specific primary witnesses in mind, I would generously say that this counts for maybe a fourth of the evidence of the 500 witnesses. So, Aristeas's "resurrection" has about 1/6 * 1/4 = 1/24th of the evidence we have for Christ's resurrection.

We'll present some more examples next week.


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Bayesian evaluation for the likelihood of Christ's resurrection (Part 19)

Fortunately, skeptics of Christ's resurrection often do some of the early leg work for us, in that they compile lists of purported people who have been said to be like Christ for one reason or another. We'll look at a representative sample from such lists.

First, let us consider Apollonius of Tyana, who is sometimes compared to Christ because they were both philosopher/preachers in first century Rome, to whom miraculous powers are attributed. Wikipedia has a list of similarities between Jesus and Apollonius, which includes a wondrous birth, the ability to heal the sick and raise the dead, a condemnation by Rome, and an ascension into heaven. That sounds pretty similar, no? So how does the evidence for Apollonius's "resurrection" hold up?

Pathetically. Most of the information on Apollonius comes from Philostratus, who was paid to write a biography of Apollonius well over a hundred years after Apollonius's death, and after Christianity was already a thing. This biography only "implies" that Apollonius underwent heavenly assumption. Furthermore, the chief primary source for this biography is one Damis, a disciple of Apollonius, who is unknown outside of this biography. And to top it off, Philostratus specifically writes that Damis had not recorded anything about Apollonius's death. The stories of his death and supposed heavenly assumption are in a part of the biography that are filled with 'some say this, some say that' stories, which, by the author's own admission, he wrote because he felt that his story needed to have a natural ending.

So, the evidence for Apollonius's "resurrection" comes down to one author, who wrote more than a hundred years after the event, who says that he's getting his information second-hand from a Damis that nobody else has heard of, who then says that the "resurrection" bit - which is only implied - doesn't even come from Damis.

Compare that to the evidence for Christ's resurrection, in the form of the testimony of his disciples. 1 Corinthians 15 was written within a couple decades of the event, and it contains a creed that was formulated mere years after the resurrection. We have the personal, first-hand testimonies of the people who have seen the risen Christ. They clearly say that it really happened, and that it transformed their own lives. Each of these disciples appear in multiple other sources, and bear the same witness about Christ's resurrection in those sources.

So... now I'm suppose to compare the strength of the evidence between these two? Well, let's see. Remember our previous criteria, about what it would take to "match" 1/6th of the evidence in 1 Corinthians 15. Can we say that maybe that Damis's testimony about Apollonius's resurrection matches the testimony of Peter, James, or Paul? Well, no. Damis never made that testimony, nor is he anything like those three individuals on the quality of historical information we have on him. So then, all that's left as evidence is "some say that Apollonius rose from the dead", stated more than a hundred years after the fact?

That is essentially no evidence. But since I have to give a numerical estimate, I would be generous and say that Damis's "testimony" counts as an order of magnitude less than that of Peter, James, or Paul. I will also generously grant the "some say..." part of the story as being a order of magnitude less than that of the 500 witnesses that Paul mentions. So, that comes to:

1/6 (matching a single element in 1 Corinthians 15)
× 1/10 (an order of magnitude less)
× 2 (two such instances),
= about 1/30th of the evidence that we have for Christ's resurrection.

We will continue with other personages in the next post.


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