Reply to McGrath On The Size of Jesus’s Family

A New Testament scholar, James F. McGrath, has responded to my post on the size of Jesus’s family and it’s puzzling. As he argues,

I had this come up in connection with a blundered attempt by a mythicist (who apparently doesn’t understand what an average is) to use an estimate of the maximum family size in Iron Age I proto-Israelite settlements to try to argue that the information about the size of Jesus’ family could not be correct. Yes, seriously.

and that

I’ve argued on other grounds that Jesus’ family appears to have had some significant social status.

Where to begin?

I’m not sure if McGrath read my post correctly because he seems to think I’m using the average of 4-5.5 to show that Jesus’s family of nine or greater was impossible, when I only used it to argue that the “likely[hood]” (read: probability) of such a family was low. As someone who praised the Bayesian methodology of Richard Carrier, it’s odd that he suddenly avoids using it.

Second, McGrath mistakenly assumes that there would have been a substantial economic difference between Iron Age settlements and the early 1st-century. While this is a common mistake for most people, it’s strange hearing it from someone who is supposed to know about ancient history. Regardless, these and other issues will be addressed.

Was Jesus’s Family Average? 

Of course, this analysis is only relevant if the Jesus family were the kinds of people who lived in ordinary compounds. McGrath argues in his paper that James had the social status of a Davidic heir which would make the family above average. However, the relevant question is not necessarily their social but economic standing to support such a large family.

In the gospel account, Joseph was a Tekton (or “carpenter”) which was a specialized and sustainable job, but was not necessarily wealthy. Luke for instance gives an account of the Jesus family during the passover sacrifice, those who can’t afford a lamb, instead offer two pigeons and the Jesus family does this, showing at least that it had financial problems.

This means that Christian followers thought that while the Jesus family wasn’t necessarily impoverished, it certainly wasn’t rich either. This not-too-rich and not-too-poor is right where an average might be and thus can be used in our analysis.

How Probable Was An Average Family of 9+?

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that there was no limit to how large a family could get (an issue we’ll get back to later), how likely would an average family like this be?

The problem is that while we have estimates of averages we don’t have the distributions. It could be that while the average is a particular number, the distribution can favor a higher number, of one which is clearly not the average. For instance, in the US during the late 1700s, while the average was around 5, a plurality of families consisted of 7 or more people, which was much more likely than any other.

To offset this, I ran two distributions, one generous using the standard deviation of a population with 5 and one that’s more realistic using the standard deviation with a population of 4.5 exactly)

In the generous scenario you get p = 0.0089 or 0.89% chance of being in such a family (SD = 1.9), in the realistic scenario you get p = 0.0062 or a 0.62% chance of being in a such a family (SD = 1.8).   The bottom line: you get less than a 1% chance of being in such a family which makes it unlikely.

Generous Probability For a Family of 9+

ImageFor reference, here’s what Jesus’s family would look like if it had 6 people using an SD of 1.8, which would have a 20% chance of being likely:

Realistic Probability for a Family of 6+

ImageWas There A Limit To How Many Children Families Could Have?

Some background: a study of Israel settlements said that it was economically impossible for an average family to be larger than seven. McGrath says that it’s incorrect to use this because these were much older than the 1st century and apparently thinks it’s so obvious as to be ridiculous.

My response would be: Yes, seriously.

It’s a well held consensus that the economy has stayed the same or decreased until the mid-1800s. As Clarke (2007) put it, “the average person in the world of 1800 [CE] was no better off than the average person of 100,000 BC.” Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature makes a similar point about material conditions and crime. This might seem odd to many people but prior to industrialization there was virtually no economic growth around the world (although other indicators are sometimes used for well-being).

There’s also no reason to assume that family populations changed during that time. For instance, one scholar estimates that the Roman population remained at 4-5 which is the same as the Israeli settlements.

That being said, what this strongly suggests is that economic maximum amount of children (as well as the amount people actually had)  remained the same and thus an economically average biological family of nine impossible. Unless someone can show that there was a drastic economic difference over thousands of years in Israel, then this conclusion holds.

This Can All Be Tested

Perhaps the only worthwhile thing from this exchange is that all these issues can be statistically tested (and I invite people to double-check my work). When the chances of something happening are 0 to less than 1%, we are clearly dealing with something that should be rejected. As it stands, it’s much more likely that Jesus had nine or more metaphorical siblings then an unsustainable large family.

Prometheus (2012) Was About Why Immortality Is Bad

Some people seemed to have figured it out even before the film came out, but I wanted to get into what Ridley Scott’s message behind Prometheus was.

First we should look at the centerpeice of the film: the engineers. As the species that created humans (or life on earth?) it’s clear that they are either immortal or can live for an extremely long period of time. Even after they’ve all supposedly died off, one engineer was alive after thousands of years.  It is clear that the engineers’ species collapsed and that this collapse coincided with them creating humans. The likely message: humans were created to die. The point of making humans was so that they wouldn’t make the same mistakes as their creators and, because of death, it ironically allows us preserve society for the better. 

We can see this in the human characters. Virtually everyone who was only self interested in their survival was killed brutally, (the geologist who only did for the money, Vickers etc.) and this especially pertains to Weyland, whose whole goal was to extend his life and thus angered the engineer into wanting to kill all of humanity (because they were making the same mistakes as the engineers, by finding immortality).

The only characters who were spared or portrayed heroically were those who gave up their lives or came to terms with death. The best example of this is Shaw, who, because of the religiosity, came to terms with her eventual death. For David, death was irrelevant because he was an android. 

Another good reason to suspect this is the Prometheus myth, in the myth, Prometheus gives fire to humans and as punishment has to get his liver pecked out by birds forever, thus making him “immortal” in a sense as well. In the analogy, immortality is both the fire and the punishment as well.

Scott Did The Same Thing In Blade Runner

Blade Runner can be thought of as a microcosm of the themes in Prometheus.  In it, replicants only have four-year lifespans seeking out their “creator” to solve the problem and in this case they were the villains as well.
Why Care About Immortality?

It would seem odd to make a film about immortality since humanity has tried for thousands of years to accomplish it and has failed (and are still nowhere near to getting it). But lifespans are increasing and although immortality is a long way away, extremely long lifespans (like 200 years) are perhaps not that far into the future.

What’s odd is the fervor with which Scott’s message is conveyed: even if you only live for four years, no matter what religious delusions you have to convince yourself of: don’t live forever, it will end society.  



Why Sapolsky’s Take on Schizotypal Personality Disorder and Religion is Problematic

Millicent and Carla Fran

Dear CF,

BoingBoing posted one of Robert Sapolsky’s (Stanford neurobiologist and author of Monkeyluv, The Trouble with Testosterone and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers) lectures on schizophrenia and schizotypal personality disorder today. It’s an hour long, but makes for pretty interesting listening if you have the time to give it. In this installment he starts off speculating about the possible selective evolutionary advantages of schizophrenia, which—unlike cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia, which protect heterozygotes (carriers, usually with one good copy of the gene) from cholera and malaria, respectively—hasn’t been thought to confer any kind of selective advantage.

He suggests an advantage exists, and that it lies in schizotypal personality disorder—sufferers who display milder schizophrenic symptoms and are labeled “half-crazy.” A group of scientists studying adoptive and biological schizophrenics in Denmark discovered, after interviewing all the parties concerned over a period of (I think ten years) that many relatives…

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The Conservative Fantasy of Godzilla (Analysis and Spoilers)

Some people have looked at the political message of Godzilla (2014) because of how surprising frequent it is, given it’s a giant monster movie. On the one hand there is the heavy handed anti-nuclear message: literally, giant monsters emerged because of nuclear submarines and the past 50 years of tests were secret attempts to pacify them. In fact, one of the complaints was that there was not enough Godzilla and too much story. But on the other is the hidden symbolic message that this supposedly progressive movie has.

To put it simply, the film argues that we’ve angered the gods. Humanity was doing fine until nuclear power came about which led to an “imbalance” by attracting giant monsters. As Ken Watanabe says explicitly:

“The error in man is thinking nature is in our control and not the other way around.”

Thus the solution is Godzilla, as the “Alpha Predator.” As Watanabe says, his role is to restore order and the only thing humans can do is to “let them fight.”

Human Responsibility for Our Actions

One of the great appeals for having a mythical “natural order” is that it alleviates human responsibility. It’s something that Eric Fromm pointed out in Escape From Freedom, if we are no longer the agents in control of events, then we are not responsible for them.

Surprisingly, even though Godzilla tried to make nuclear power look bad it ironically did the opposite. Instead of just having disasters and fallout because of horrific policies and technology, in the film’s universe they were defenses against giant monsters. That is, the injuries from nuclear power was out of self-defense, rather than a catastrophe in-itself (If the movie went one step further, it might have negated the 1954 original by arguing that the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were really just attempts to kill Godzilla.)

In a sense this is an easier story to take, instead of governments and corporations inflicting pain on their own people (as the US and USSR did in their nuclear tests), they can be rationalized as defensive measures, as almost all horrific crimes are.

Return To a “Natural” (Read: Overtly Patriarchal) Order  

Nuclear power is in many ways the perfect folly because it gets liberals on board with “restoring nature.” The problem is what kind “nature” is movie is implying. One is overt male hierarchy, as Wantabe illustrates there is a prophecy for the “Alpha” Predator to kill the other Muto monsters: a smaller male and larger (read: dominant) female.

If that symbolism wasn’t obvious enough image this: Godzilla is a giant MRA rampaging through San Fransisco while the male Mutto is a fedora-wearing Nice Guy and the female Muto is an All Powerful Feminist. This follows a slew of recent sci fi/action films of men “taking back” control from women like Doghouse (2009) or Wanted (2008).

This of course is usually a chauvinistic fantasy which in real life leads to things like the recent Santa Barbara shooting. The only science fiction film that accurately portrays men “taking back” control is Chronicle (2012) where the main character uses telekinesis to become an “Apex Predatory” (not unlike the Alpha Predator of Godzilla) and essentially became a murderer.

Restoration of Fatherhood

As Zizek pointed out, if there is one thing any conservative/patriarchal movie needs it’s a restoration of paternal authority. Godzilla doesn’t just have one father restoring himself in the eyes of his children but two. The first is Bryan Cranston, who through Malcom in the Middle to Breaking Bad, is sort of the epitome of fathers taking back respect. Anyways, he goes from conspiracy-theory cook to justified in proving that that were actually giant monsters! (and to insult to injury, he was the only decently acted character in the whole film). Next is Aaron Taylor-Johnson who is too aloof and removed from his kid. Ultimately, he helps save the city and is reunited with his family by the end.

Did I mention that in addition to two fathers reconciling that are three kids that end up getting fathered? In addition to Taylor-Johnson and his son, there’s also a separated kid in San Fransisco that Taylor-Johnson basically fathers on the side.

The Director Made A Film About Immigrant Space Aliens Destroying Society

But wait, maybe I’m looking too deeply into this. Well that would be the case if Gareth Edwards wasn’t so on the nose reactionary. In Monsters (2010) the whole premise is that space aliens crashland on the US-Mexico border (Get it? Space/Mexican Aliens!) and have “infected” and essentially destroyed the US (oh…).

It just goes to show how a progressive premise (nuclear power bad!) can be executed in such an absurdly reactionary way.

The “Teleportation Experiment” Actually Invented A Tricorder, Not Teleportation

The internet is abuzz about how Delft University scientists created the transporter from Star Trek took the first steps to teleportation by supposedly moving a particle from one place to 10 feet away. As much as I love science fiction this unfortunately is not what the internet is making it out to be.

First, what the experiment actually did was move information about a particle 10 feet away without any physical aid. That is, the particle itself was not moved, only information about it was.

So what does this gathering information and then transmitting it remind you of? It’s a closer to a Tricorder, that sensor the federation uses to pick up whatever quantum science-jargon is happening. That’s not say this is a let down, good sensors could revolutionize technology in itself; and it’s even conceivable be a pre-step to actually moving the article from one place to another, after which we would have a microcosm of  what it would take to make a teleporter.

Christ Myth Debate: On Jesus’s Giant Family

I’ve recently been interested in the Christ myth debate, something which still seems to be a white hot issue. I’m more in the “mythicist” camp for various reasons, and thought I should offer my lay opinion on one piece of supposed “historicist” evidence: Jesus’s siblings.

Jesus was alleged to have many “brothers,” one of which, James the Just, can be confirmed as a historical person. As Carrier already pointed out, “brethren” was an honorary title given to all Christians with no real way to distinguish between literal biological brothers and metaphorical ones. This is so common that the Oxford dictionary actually defines Brethren as “Fellow Christians or members of a male religious order.”

Jesus’s Improbably Large Family  

One piece of evidence that’s not looked at is just how big the literal family would have to be. In Mathew 13:55-56 it mentions the four “brothers” (James, Joseph, Simon and Judas) and unnamed “sisters.” Taken literally, this means that Jesus had, on minimum, six siblings.

How likely would this be in ancient Israel? According to a study by Zorn, the best estimates we have of family size is 4-5.5 people. This is actually not much larger than families today but for a different reason: very high infant mortality rates and maternal health dangers making it unlikely that mothers would go higher than the norm. Jesus’s alleged family of nine (Mary, Joseph and seven kids) would at the very least be close to double that.

Another estimate by Perdue puts the theoretical limit on nuclear family size at seven based on the available resources and home sizes. Put another way: Jesus’s “historical” family would have been (at least) larger than what was economically possible in ancient Israel.

This could only be possible if (1) family compounds were used for two generations (something we do not clearly know) and (2) Jesus’s family used a two-family compound for a single family. Again, this would be like if a single person today (in both senses of the word) owned a family home. Again, it’s not impossible but absurdly unlikely.

Of course, we don’t have evidence to definitively prove or rebuff this claim but it’s clear in which direction the evidence goes.