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Visions of JesusDirect Encounters from the New Testament to Today$

Phillip H. Wiebe

Print publication date: 1998

Print ISBN-13: 9780195126693

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195126693.001.0001

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(p.228) Appendix III

(p.228) Appendix III

Source:
Visions of Jesus
Publisher:
Oxford University Press

The position that the Resurrection of Jesus is highly probable on the NT evidence alone and that this belief cannot receive confirmation (expressed using the probability calculus) from additional evidence, including contemporary Christic apparitions, can be shown to be implausible. It requires an argument for the position that the probability of the Resurrection, given both the reports of appearances in the NT era and reports of contemporary apparitions, is greater than the probability of the Resurrection given only the NT appearance reports. This statement can be abbreviated as follows, using the usual symbols for probability statements:

T: P(R,N&C) 〉 P(R,N).

“R” stands for “the claim that Jesus was resurrected” (interpreted in close keeping with the traditional understanding of this), “N” stands for “the reports of appearances in the NT era,” and “C” stands for “the reports of contemporary Christic apparitions.” Some traditionalists disagree with T, maintaining that the probability of the Resurrection on the NT evidence alone is very high, and that other supposed evidence is neutral. In formal terms, this means that P(R,N) has a value close to 1, and that P(R,N & C) equals P(R,N), which contradicts T.

The crucial probability value in T on which the debate turns is P(R,N & C). According to Bayes's Theorem, which is a formal implication of the probability calculus, the following equation can be advanced:

(p.229) P(R,N & C) = P(N,R & C) × P(R,C) / P(N,C).

When the value on the righthand side of this equation is substituted for “P(R,N & C)” in T above, the following inequality results:

Tʼ: P(N,R & C) × P(R,C) 〉 P(R,N) × P(N,C).

Traditionalists who think NT reports are decisive naturally hold this inequality to be an equality, and therein lies the point of contention.

It is reasonable to assign a very high value to P(N,R & C), the probability that the NT appearance reports were advanced, on the supposition that the Resurrection occurred and that there are reports of contemporary Christic apparitions. In fact, the probability that the NT appearance reports were advanced, simply given that the Resurrection occurred, is very high without any reference to reports of contemporary Christic apparitions. This is because it is reasonable to assert that if the Resurrection took place much as traditionalists believe, then the probability of appearances occurring is high. So the first probability function in Tʼ, namely P(N,R & C), can be effectively ignored because it is so close to 1. Moreover, P(R,N) in Tʼ is high, perhaps close to 1 (by assumption in the traditional position), so it effectively cancels out P(N,R & C). The question then reduces to whether P(R,C) 〉 P(N,C) or whether P(R,C) = P(N,C) (or approximately so), with the traditional defenders in effect asserting the latter. An example of these values where P(N,R & C) and P(R,N) are both high but not quite equal is as follows: P(N,R & C) = 1, P(R,C) =. 1, P(R,N) =. 9, and P(N,C) =. 11; the difference between P(N,C) and P(R,C) is quite small.

The crux of the issue reduces to evaluating the probability of the NT appearance reports being advanced, given the contemporary reports of Christic apparitions, P(N,C), compared with the probability of the Resurrection, given the contemporary reports of Christic apparitions, P(R,C). The position that traditionalists are forced into—namely, that these probability functions are pretty much equal—is counterintuitive. It seems plausible to consider the probability of the NT appearance reports being advanced, given the reports of contemporary Christic apparitions (which have some interesting similarities to the NT appearance reports) to be considerably higher than the probability of the Resurrection given only the reports of contemporary Christic apparitions. The earlier probability function, P(N,C), could be a significant value, for instance, if a similar explanation for the NT appearance reports and the contemporary reports of Christic apparitions were to be advanced—an explanation that did not appeal to the Resurrection. The subjective vision hypothesis offered by (p.230) some critics for the NT appearance reports, for instance, might be suggested also for the contemporary Christic apparitions reported. But the other probability function, namely, the probability that the Resurrection occurred, given only contemporary Christic apparitions, can realistically be assigned a low value—surely it is primarily the NT appearance reports, not contemporary apparitions experiences, that give the Resurrection belief any of its initial credibility, even if it is not as high as some Christian apologists think. I conclude, then, that die contention that the probability of the Resurrection claim is high, and cannot be significantly enhanced by evidence additional to that coming from the NT appearance stories, is suspect.