Bayesian evaluation for the likelihood of Christ's resurrection (Part 49)

Let us now consider some miraculous stories from the works of Josephus.

Josephus was a Jewish historian who was active in the latter half of the first century. His works include The Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews. They deal with the contemporary and the ancient history of the Jews, from the perspective of the a Jew living after the Siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD.

As such, he is a valuable resource in understanding the background of early Christianity, and his works are quite compatible with the New Testament. The miracles in his works that we're about study are likewise Jewish in origin, and compatible with Christianity. It would do Christianity no harm if these miracles really took place. They do not meet our earlier criteria of "miracles that expressly support a non-Christian worldview". In fact, Christianity could quite happily accommodate Josephus's stories about the signs surrounding the sacking of Jerusalem (Jewish War, 6.5.3).

After all, Christianity started out as a Jewish sect, and acknowledges the fundamental truth in Judaism. Jesus himself was Jewish, and famously predicted the sacking of Jerusalem. The New Testament acknowledges the existence of miracle workers and exorcists outside the immediate circle of New Testament Christians, of varying degrees of legitimacy, including one that Jesus himself was okay with.

However, even all that doesn't mean that we ought to uncritically accept the miraculous stories in Josephus. We will evaluate some of them, according to the methodology we've used thus far. In doing so, we will also evaluate the methodology itself.

First, Let us consider the story of Honi the Circle-drawer, also known as Onias. Josephus tells his story in the Antiquities of the Jews, 14.2.1-2, briefly mentioning that he once called on God to bring down rain.
Now there was one, whose name was Onias, a righteous man he was, and beloved of God, who, in a certain drought, had prayed to God to put an end to the intense heat, and whose prayers God had heard, and had sent them rain.
The rest of the story is about how a warring faction attempted to get him to use his miraculous powers against their enemies - so apparently his feat was publically known. He is also mentioned in some other Jewish works. But at the end of the day, there just isn't much written about him.

Now, what are we to make of this story? Unfortunately Josephus doesn't mention any specific sources in relating this story. He simply tells it as a story, more than a hundred years after the fact. That means we don't have anything like any of the direct witnesses we have for Christ's resurrection. The best we can do here is infer that Josephus and others must have heard the story from someone, presumably from a group of people. But given that we don't know anything else, again the most we can do is credit this account with the "some people say..." level of evidence. This is nowhere near enough evidence to overcome the small prior against a supernatural event, and we can be fairly certain that this event did not actually occur as a miracle.

Next, let us consider the story of Eleazar the exorcist, as told in the Antiquities of the Jews, 8.2.5:
I have seen a certain man of my own country, whose name was Eleazar, releasing people that were demoniacal in the presence of Vespasian, and his sons, and his captains, and the whole multitude of his soldiers. The manner of the cure was this: He put a ring that had a Foot of one of those sorts mentioned by Solomon to the nostrils of the demoniac, after which he drew out the demon through his nostrils; and when the man fell down immediately, he abjured him to return into him no more, making still mention of Solomon, and reciting the incantations which he composed. And when Eleazar would persuade and demonstrate to the spectators that he had such a power, he set a little way off a cup or basin full of water, and commanded the demon, as he went out of the man, to overturn it, and thereby to let the spectators know that he had left the man; and when this was done, the skill and wisdom of Solomon was shown very manifestly
Well, now this sounds pretty impressive! Josephus names himself as an eyewitness! And also his Roman Patron, the emperor Vespasian, whom Josephus would not invoke lightly! And a great number of Vespasian's associates! Let's see what we can make of this.

First, Josephus and Vespasian are both very well known historical characters, easily on par with the named individual witnesses in 1 Corinthian 15. Josephus furthermore mentions a crowd of other people - Vespasian's sons, captains, and soldiers. This crowd is specific enough to match the crowd of 500 in 1 Corinthians 15. The only thing missing from the roster in 1 Corinthians 15 is the group of apostles, and a third major historical character. So that's nearly as much evidence as there is for Christ's resurrection, right?

But we have not yet considered the full qualifications to match the 1 Corinthian 15 witnesses. First, Josephus's testimony here is nowhere as earnest or insistent as the testimonies of someone like apostle Paul. The above passage is the only thing that's known about this Eleazar. Josephus mentions him this one time, and that's it. Compare that to the twelve disciples, who completely oriented their entire lives around the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Compare also to the apostle Paul, whose every writing can be traced back to his testimony that Jesus rose from the dead. There can really be no comparison.

Furthermore, it's worth noting that Josephus mentions this story in a larger narrative about king Solomon. Yes, that Solomon - the son of king David, builder of the first temple, well known for his wisdom. What's a story involving Vespasian doing in a narrative about king Solomon, who lived a thousand years earlier? Well, it turns out that this whole story is actually an aside, an anecdote that Josephus tells to demonstrate how wise Solomon was. He was saying that Solomon was so wise that his wisdom was used to exorcise demons even after all this time. In other words, the whole story is a parenthetical remark to the main point he was trying to make. In fact, for Josephus's main point, it doesn't even really matter if this exorcist was genuinely supernatural. A fake exorcist invoking Solomon is still evidence for Solomon's renown. This erodes the testimony further on the "earnest" and "insistent" scales, for everyone involved.

In addition, there's significant dependency factors at work here. Josephus clearly has ulterior motives in mentioning Eleazar and his feat. He wants to impress his Roman audience with the wisdom of Solomon, as we just mentioned. This is plainly written out in the text itself.

Furthermore, given that he was writing to a Roman audience about Solomon - one of the most famous Jewish kings - it makes sense that he would invoke Vespasian and his associates, even if might mean falsely implying that they were more impressed than they were in reality. Because, of course, we're not told what Vespasian and his associates thought of the whole affair. Clearly they cannot count as being more impressed than Josephus, as there are no records of any testimony that they, or anyone else, gave concerning this event.

And this complete lack of any other mention of this story makes the dependency factors far worse. The testimonies in 1 Corinthians 15 are of course all attested to in multiple other places in the New Testament, and corroborated by multiple non-biblical sources. We have no doubt that their testimonies are accurately summarized in 1 Corinthians 15. Even Vespasian's healing miracles had multiple attestations. But with this story, it's Josephus and only Josephus, who is himself one of the named witnesses. Everything depends on his testimony, on that small passage he wrote - including his claim that there were other testimonies. This dramatically increases the chance of near-complete dependency among the witnesses.

Lastly, it's again worth noting that a resurrection is nearly impossible to fake, whereas in Josephus's story the narrative itself suggests that nothing remarkable happened. He specifies very simple, physical things involved in the exorcism: a ring was put up to the demoniac's nostril. The man fell down. There were incantations mentioning Solomon. A container of water was knocked over. All these are simple, ordinary, non-supernatural events. There is no mention of whether the man was actually restored, in the sense of being in his right mind, free of demonic influence. Taken altogether, it again looks like nothing much happened, and this is far less remarkable than the resurrection of a man who was confirmed to be dead multiple times, who then came back walking and talking.

So we see that while the roster of witnesses is pretty impressive for Eleazar's exorcism, their testimony is actually very weak in comparison to their parallels in 1 Corinthian 15, according to the previously established rules for matching testimonies.

So, let's consider two separate versions of what happened, as we did for Vespasian's healing miracles. First, did something remarkable happen with Eleazar performing in front of a crowd? And second, was it an actual, supernatural exorcism of an actual demon?

As before, let's give the first, non-supernatural "something happened" version of the event a prior odds of 1e-6. On the evidence side, after taking everything above into account, I'd give Josephus's testimony for himself a Bayes' factor of 1e4 - about half as strong as a full-blown, earnest, insistent testimony. Vespasian's testimony must be significantly less than this, because of the very strong dependency factors involved. It is entirely dependent on Josephus's testimony, and Josephus has a strong motivation to mention Vespasian in appealing to a Roman audience in telling a Jewish story. I'd give Vespasian a Bayes' factor of around 1e2, and his associates about the same number. That all comes to a combined Bayes' factor of 1e8. Or, another way of thinking about this is to say that we really only have Josephus's testimony, but the fact that he's willing to involve Vespasian in the story shows that he's really serious, and that upgrades his testimony to make it earnest. In the end, this very rough calculation comes out to about a final odds of about 1e2. We can be fairly certain that "something happened" here.

As for the "actually supernatural exorcism" case, we'll again start with a prior of 1e-8. As for the Bayes' factors, Josephus himself gets 1e3. He clearly tells the story as an exorcism which he himself witnessed, but his focus on the physical aspects of the story sounds like he has some doubts himself as to whether there was actually anything spiritual going on - so he loses an order of magnitude compared to the "something happened" case above. Vespasian and his associates each get a 1e1. The drop here for them is due to the lack of any testimony concerning what they thought about the event. Overall, the combined Bayes' factor is 1e5. Again, we can think of this as being entirely up to the testimony of Josephus - he starts with a Bayes' factor of 1e8 as in the "something happened" case, but loses 3 orders of magnitude because of the relative ease of faking this kind of exorcism, and his lack of any mention of how Vespasian and his associates reacted. So then, this Bayes' factor of 1e5 is set against a generous prior of 1e-8, resulting in a final odds of 1e-3. Therefore, we can choose to disbelieve that anything actually supernatural happened in the story, with some confidence.

The calculations here are quite rough. The testimonies involved in this story about Eleazar are different from the ones summarized in 1 Corinthians 15, along multiple dimensions. A more accurate calculation would be much more time-consuming. But I'm fairly certain that the results here are good to a couple orders of magnitude, and I'm therefore willing to say that something probably happened, but that it probably wasn't anything supernatural.

Again, does that conclusion sound reasonable? Is that what you would have concluded upon reading this passage from Josephus? Good - then the methodology we used is further validated, and the resurrection of Christ is therefore made more certain.

We will examine more non-Christian miracles next week.

You may next want to read:
Come visit my church
"Simon, son of John, do you love me?"
Another post, from the table of contents

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