Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Should I Believe Jesus Was A Bachelor?

A lot of words have been spilt over The Da Vinci Code and its historical claims.  I am about to spill some more, but not in service to a specific apologetic refutation.  My concern here is to try to answer whether there is a good philosophical reason to believe if Jesus was a bachelor or if Jesus was married.  So here is my shot at a good reason to believe the proposition “Jesus was a bachelor.”

There is no warrant for the belief, “Jesus was married.”

In a rough syllogism (you must forgive any rather rough roughness):

  1. It is better to hold beliefs with greater warrant than to hold beliefs with less warrant.

  2. The belief “Jesus was a bachelor” has greater warrant than the belief “Jesus was married.”

  3. It is better for me to believe “Jesus was a bachelor.”

Unless you are an epistemological relativist or deep skeptic, line 1 is, I think, obviously true.  The burden of proof is in line 2.

As Kevin and Brian have debated in my earlier post, I believe the state of evidence in the Gospels, early church theological development (the Epistles), and early Church tradition, is such that the belief that Jesus was unmarried was generally accepted as true.  The NT scholar Darrell L. Bock makes this case in an article on Beliefnet.  Another respected NT scholar, Craig Blomberg, appeals to not only the silence about Jesus’ supposed marriage, but offers at least one positive argument against it.  He notes:

Specifically, there is not a shred of historical evidence that Jesus ever married Mary Magdalene (or anyone else) or ever fathered children. As Darrell Bock points out in his recent Christianity Today review (January 2004, 62), such information would certainly have been included in 1 Corinthians 9 where Paul appeals to the fact that Peter and various other apostles had wives when they received material help from the churches. In supporting his right to receive such help, Paul would have wanted to appeal to an even more convincing example-Jesus-if it were available. I would add also that with the very early veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in Roman Catholicism, largely out of a desire to have a quasi-divine female figure along with God the Father, had Jesus ever been married, such a woman could scarcely have disappeared without a historical trace.

Is it trite or even tautologically unimportant to offer this argument in service of the belief that Jesus was a bachelor?  If the Christian worldview believes in the importance of truth, then it is not.  If the evidence of a possible belief is 50/50, and the consequences of holding that belief are insignificant (like Mary’s mole on her shoulder), then it may not be as important.  If we had better than 50/50 evidence to warrant Mary’s mole, then one belief should be held rather than the other even if the consequences of that belief are minimal to nonexistent.  But marriage seems to me to be of a different order, and certainly the evidence is not 50/50 one way or the other.


Kevin Winters said...


I'm not so sure that #1 is "obviously true." Let me ask some questions that might illustrate this:

1) How is it "better"?

Is it some moral imperative (and hence morally better) to believe something only if it has warrant? Is it an epistemological imperative (and hence epistemologically better) to believe something only if it has warrant? Is it an existential imperative (and hence existentially better) to believe something only if it has warrant? Is it a pragmatic imperative (and hence pragmatically better) to believe something only if it has warrant? I'm not clear on your use of "better." Would you restate this as saying that one should believe something only to the degree that it is warranted?

2) Should warrant or truth be the decisive factor?

Evidence is very often wishy-washy, sometimes seeming to validate one view and then, we later discover, validating another view. In almost all cases, what is seen as 'warranted' depends in large part on our presuppositions, on what we 'find' convincing (which much more often than not isn't an issue of choice). Who's understanding of what is 'warranted' should we trust in? Shouldn't we rather believe something because it is true, even if evidence doesn't seem to warrant it?

3) What of the ignorant Christian who is unaware of the warrant of Christianity and yet sees a lot of warrant for, say, naturalism?

I think the question of ignorance is of great importance on issues like these: if we take (1) to be "absolutely true," then would the ignorant Christian who believes perhaps despite what he views as warranted violating (1)? You might respond by saying that, even though he is ignorant of it, Christianity is in fact more warranted than rationalism, hence he is not violating (1), but on what basis can you make that claim? What's to stop someone else from saying that a Christian who does believe because Christianity seems to be more warranted than naturalism falls prey to the same claim: he's just ignorant of all the evidence that really warrants naturalism (which is an incredibly common claim on both sides--they just don't understand all the evidence).

Let me be clear on something (just so there are no misunderstandings): I am a Christian, even if unorthodox or heretical by 'traditional' standards. So I'm not asking the above as someone who is trying to sway you from your faith.

Brian B said...

Hi Kevin! Hope it's ok if I make a few comments in response to your (good) questions.

1) You ask how it is "better" to believe in something w/ greater rather than less warrant, and wonder whether "better" is to be construed in one of several ways (epistemically, morally, pragmatically, etc.).

I guess I don't see how those distinctions are relevant: will one's answer change, depending on how one reads Phil's (1)? Let's take "epistemically better" (which I would take to be the default interpretation) - is it even controversial to endorse (1) on this reading? I can't think of any major epistemological programs according to which (1), read as endorsing epistemically "good" features of belief, comes out false. What are some examples of situations in which the different readings have interestingly different outcomes, e.g. examples in which (1), read as one kind of "better" turns out true, but read as another kind of "better," turn out false? Anyway, read as "epistemically better," would you agree with it?

Also, on most internalist epistemologies, where 'warrant' ends up looking more like, or at least necessarily involving, deontological justification, then (1) will turn out to be true, typically, read as "morally better" as well. But does anyone really think that, ceteris paribus, epistemic warrant is not a good-making feature of a belief?

2) You ask whether warrant or truth should be the decisive factor, asking "Shouldn't we rather believe something because it is true, even if evidence doesn't seem to warrant it?"

I'm not sure this proposal (to believe something because it is true, even if not warranted) makes any sense. Are you talking about something already known to be true, or not known to be true? If the former, then, of course, the belief is already warranted; if the latter, then what would it mean to believe something because it is true? As far as I can tell, it means believing that X is true on the basis of the fact that X is true. But this either is vacuously tautological ("I believe X is true, because I believe X is true,"), something that I can never imagine grounding belief in any appropriate way, or it puts warrant back into the mix after all ("I believe X is true, because I know that X is true;" and, of course, to know X entails that X is warranted). Unless believing X "because it is true" means "because it is a warranted belief that X is true," then I can't think of any situation in which it would be a good idea to believe something without warrant.

3) You ask "What of the ignorant Christian who is unaware of the warrant of Christianity and yet sees a lot of warrant for, say, naturalism?"

Most standard uses of the term "warrant" come within an "externalist" epistemology, one according to which "awareness" of the relevant evidence is not a necessary condition of warrant ("awareness," or some kind of "internal access" is a hallmark of internalist epistemologies). Plantinga's theory of warrant as proper function, for instance, and Goldman's reliabilism construe warrant as a feature of beliefs (or persons) that obtains in virtue of a belief being the output of a reliable belief-forming process, or a properly-functioning belief-producing faculty that is aimed at the production of true beliefs.

Still, you ask a good question - "if we take (1) to be "absolutely true," then would the ignorant Christian who believes perhaps despite what he views as warranted violate (1)?"

Here's one answer: it depends. It depends on, among other things, the basis or cause of the person's belief. If their belief is the product of a correctly functioning faculty aimed at the production of true belief, then it might be warranted, despite that person thinking there is good evidence for naturalism. If their belief is the product of, say, wishful thinking, or a desire to please their parents, then it is unlikely to be warranted. If it really seems totally impossible that Christianity be true, and yet they believe, then their belief probably does not enjoy warrant. So, we need more to the story to see whether it is warranted; but in any case, I don't think any situation we come up with will be a clear counterexample to Phil's (1), unless we construe 'warrant' in quite a non-standard way.

Finally, ignorance or knowledge of relevant evidence usually counts for or against justification (in what William Alston calls the "deontological" sense of the term), but not (directly) for or against warrant, as that term is standardly employed in epistemology.

Anyway, if you could perhaps give an example of a situation in which a person has a choice of beliefs X and Y, one of which clearly has greater warrant (for them) than the other, and in which it would be epistemically better (or better in any of the senses you demarcated) to adopt the belief that enjoyed less warrant, that would be helpful. Worst case, would you agree that (1) holds generally, or perhaps ceteris paribus? And if so, what would be the relevant reason to claim exemption to (1) in this specific argument that Phil's created regarding Jesus being married?

Brian B