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Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus

Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus


An essential work on historical methods.

Almost all experts agree that the Jesus of the Bible is a composite of myth, legend, and some historical evidence. So what can we know about the real Jesus? For more than one hundred fifty years, scholars have attempted to answer this question. Unfortunately, the “Quest for the Historical Jesus” has produced as many different images of the original Jesus as the scholars who have studied the subject. The result is a confused mass of disparate opinions with no consensus view of what actually happened at the dawn of Christianity.

In this in-depth discussion of New Testament scholarship and the challenges of history as a whole, historian Richard C. Carrier proposes Bayes’s theorem as a solution to the problem of establishing reliable historical criteria. He demonstrates that valid historical methods—not only in the study of Christian origins but in any historical study—can be described by, and reduced to, the logic of Bayes’s theorem. Conversely, he argues that any method that cannot be reduced to Bayes’s theorem is invalid and should be abandoned.

Writing with thoroughness and admirable clarity, Carrier explains Bayes’s theorem in terms easily understandable to historians and lay people alike, employing nothing more than well-known primary school math. He then explores the theorem’s application to history and addresses numerous challenges to and criticisms of this application. Common historical methods are analyzed using the theorem, as well as all the major “historicity criteria” employed in the latest quest for the historical Jesus. The author demonstrates not only their deficiencies but also ways to rehabilitate them.

Anyone with an interest in historical methods, epistemology generally, or the study of the historical Jesus will find Carrier’s book to be an essential work.


“Proving History is a brilliant lesson in the proper proportioning of belief to evidence. Even minimal attention to Bayesian probability theory reveals just how much of Jesus scholarship confuses ‘possibly true’ with ‘probably true.’ The only miracle Richard Carrier has left to explain is why so few appreciate that extraordinary claims require extraordinary support.”
— Dr. Malcolm Murray, author of The Atheist’s Primer

“Carrier applies his philosophical and historical training to maximum effect in outlining a case for the use of Bayes’s Theorem in evaluating biblical claims. Even biblical scholars, who usually are not mathematically inclined, may never look at the ‘historical Jesus’ the same way again.”
— Dr. Hector Avalos, Professor of religious studies, Iowa State University, and author of The End of Biblical Studies

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