How Likely is it that Jesus is the Messiah (Part IV)?
This is the fourth part of a series on the Messiah. This article looks at the development of a Bayesian model (using Genie software) to estimate the likelihood of Jesus being the Messiah based on the three previous articles in the series. The model looks at the following factors:
- the probability of theism or naturalism — since this is likely to be an important factor influencing whether Jesus or anyone else, was the Messiah
- the prior probability of a Messiah — Bayesian approaches start with a prior probability which is then updated with evidence in the model
- how likely Jesus was the promised divine Messiah
- how likely Jesus was the promised suffering Messiah
- how likely Jesus lived during the period predicted for the Messiah’s arrival
- evidence against Jesus being the Messiah
- how likely the evidence for Jesus would be if he wasn’t the Messiah
1. Probability of Theism and Naturalism
There are three main options when thinking about the existence or non-existence of God:
- theism (one God)
- polytheism (many gods of finite power)
- naturalism (no gods)
a) Following Swinburne, I have argued polytheism is much less likely to be true than theism. For example (for further details, see here):
- Theism (one God) is more simple than polytheism (more than one god)
- Laws of nature are more likely if there is one God than if there are many competing gods who must cooperate in some way
Therefore, naturalism and theism are considered in the model.
b) We assume naturalism and theism have an equal prior probability — i.e. we do not know if theism is more likely than naturalism and vice versa. This is a common assumption similar to atheist philosopher Paul Draper’s argument for naturalism:
p(T)=0.5 — the probability of theism (God’s existence) is 0.5 (50%) and the probability of naturalism (God’s non-existence) is 0.5 (50%)
This is a conservative assumption for theists. For example, Swinburne’s Existence of God shows that theism has greater explanatory power than naturalism in accounting for the existence of the universe, the laws of nature, and consciousness. Even when accounting for the problem of evil.
2. Prior Probability of a Messiah
The concept of the Messiah — a rescuer sent by God — is common in many theistic religions. The Hebrew Bible is the basis for understanding the Messiah (‘anointed one’) in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Differences in how these religions understand the Messiah are of limited importance. The argument only assumes how likely God would send a representative to teach, intervene in a suffering world, and provide an example.
Given this is a common theme across many religions, if theism is true, it is not unlikely that God will send a Messiah. However, to be conservative, we will assume p(M|T)=0.25, the probability of a Messiah if God exists is 0.25 (25%) and the probability of a Messiah if God does not exist is 0.
Therefore, the prior probability of a Messiah p(M) is 12.5%:
- p(M|T)=0.25 probability of Messiah if there is a God, multiplied by
- p(T)=0.5 probability of a God
3a. Hebrew Bible on the Messiah
The previous three parts of this series summarised key criteria for the Messiah:
- The divinity of the Messiah: he will be the divine son of man (Daniel 7), and will be called Mighty God (Isaiah 9)
- The suffering Messiah: the Messiah will be killed (Zechariah 12–13), and his death will take away the sins of his people (Daniel 9, Zechariah 12–13, Isaiah 53). His people will reject him, but non-Jews from all nations will believe in him (Isaiah 49, 53; Haggai 2)
- The Messiah will come before the destruction of the second temple: Daniel 9, Haggai 2, and Malachi 3 all suggest the Messiah will come before the destruction of the second temple. In addition, genealogical records that were kept to identify the sons of David (the Messiah) were destroyed with the second temple.
3b: How likely Jesus was the Divine Messiah?
For the Bayesian model, we have to estimate how likely is the evidence about Jesus, given that he was the Messiah:
p(E|M), where E=evidence about Jesus, M=messiah.
If Jesus was the Divine Messiah, it is likely:
i) Jesus would claim to be the Son of Man and Messiah:
Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”
“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven [citing Daniel 7].” (Mark 14:61–62, NIV)
ii) His followers would claim he was the divine word (Logos or Memra) who uniquely revealed God the Father:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1, NIV)
All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. (Matthew 11:27, NIV)
iii) His followers would claim he did miracles to justify his claims to divinity.
The Gospels claimed Jesus did many miracles as a sign that the Messianic kingdom was coming (Isaiah 35: 5–7; Isaiah 49:6–7; Isaiah 61:1–3). Such as walking on water (e.g. Mark 6), raising the dead (e.g. John 11), and his own resurrection (e.g. Luke 24).
3c: How likely was it that Jesus was the suffering Messiah
Part II in the series shows if Jesus was the suffering Messiah, it was likely:
i) His people would reject him, but non-Jews would believe in him.
In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him. (Mark 15:31–32, NIV)
We can see in our own time evidence many non-Jews believed in him. Approximately 1.5 billion people from almost every nation of the world claim to be a Christian.
While these definitions of a Christian may vary widely. It’s unlikely that the Gospel writers could have expected Jesus would have such an international influence.
ii) The Roman authorities would kill him, predicted by Daniel 9.
When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere…he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. (Matthew 27:24–26, NIV)
3d: Jesus and the timing of the Messiah
As we’ve seen in part III of the series, the Messiah must come before the destruction of the second temple (70 CE) according to Daniel 9, Haggai 2, and Malachi 3.
According to almost all scholars, Jesus died at approximately 33CE. Of course, mythicists descent from this view. However, there are many responses to Jesus mythicism that render it very unlikely to be true.
3e: Evidence against Jesus — no eternal peace…yet
There is a major challenge to Jesus’ claim to be Messiah. Both Jews and Christians agree the Hebrew Bible promised the Messiah will reign forever and bring eternal peace (e.g. Isaiah 11, 65, 66).
We are not living in the “new heavens and new earth” of Isaiah 65–66. For this reason, Rabbinic Jews claim Jesus cannot be the Messiah — the victorious king.
In response, Christians argue this promise is in the process of fulfilment. As we’ve seen, if the Messiah is both a suffering servant and a victorious king, then he may accomplish this in two missions.
3f: How likely is the evidence for Jesus if he was the Messiah?
I will give a very conservative assumption: 0.1 probability that there would be the type of evidence summarised above if Jesus was the Messiah: p(E|M)=0.1 (10%)
4: How likely is the evidence for Jesus — if he wasn’t the Messiah?
There are three key factors to consider:
- How does Jesus compare with other claimants to the Messiah?
- How likely would a Messiah claimant live before 70CE?
- How likely is it a future Messiah will better fit the criteria?
4a: No one else comes close to meeting the criteria
Table 1 summarises candidates for the Messiah identified in an article from the My Jewish Learning website. Of course, none have brought world peace yet. Therefore, reflecting Rabbinic Judaism, the article considers all false Messiahs. For Christians, Jesus will fulfil this criterion when he returns.
Yet, Jesus meets all other criteria. Although most people in Table 1 claimed to be the Messiah — they fulfilled almost none of these criteria. In over 2000 years, no one has come close to matching Jesus. If he was not the Messiah, this would be surprising, although not impossible. Therefore, we suggest a 0.1 (10%) chance of this evidence if Jesus was not the Messiah:
p(E1|~M)=0.1, E=evidence that Jesus met criteria for the Messiah, ~M=Jesus was not Messiah
4b:How likely a Messiah claimant would live before 70CE?
Before the time of Jesus, religious Jews expected the Messiah to come before the destruction of the second temple (70 CE). Dositheos the Samaritan is the only other major Messiah claimant during this period. However, he wasn’t Jewish, let alone a son of David. He could not be the Messiah.
If Jesus was not the Messiah, it would be surprising that:
- the Hebrew Bible predicted the Messiah’s death during the time he lived.
- Jesus met so many of these criteria during this historical period.
As above, we suggest a 0.1 chance of this evidence if Jesus was not Messiah:
4c: How likely is a future Messiah?
As I’ve argued in part III of this series, there are two main reasons to think a future Messiah is very unlikely:
- Daniel 9, Haggai 2, and Malachi 3 suggest the Messiah would come before 70 CE.
- We can no longer verify one of the primary criteria for the Messiah (son of David). David’s descendants have been untraceable since the 11th century.
Given these data, a future Messiah is very unlikely. This is surprising if Jesus, nor any other past claimant, was not the Messiah:
4d: How likely was Jesus not the Messiah?
Each of these pieces of evidence on their own is unlikely. However, taken together, this evidence is very unlikely if Jesus wasn’t the Messiah:
p(E1&E2&E3|~M)=0.1x0.1x0.1=0.001(0.1% or 1 in 1000)
5: Probability that Jesus is the Messiah
Entering these probabilities into Bayesian network software (Genie) leads to the following conclusions:
- the probability of Jesus being the Messiah updates from a prior probability of 12.5% to a posterior probability of 93%.
- the probability of theism updates from an agnostic prior (50%) to near certainty that theism is true (96%).
Of course, these estimates depend on the validity of our assumptions. You will not be persuaded that Jesus is the Messiah.
- you’re gnostic that the theistic God does not exist (even an assumption that there is only 5% that God exists still results in Jesus being more likely than not the Messiah).
- you think Jesus cannot be the Messiah since he didn’t bring world peace in the first century.
However, if you think it is possible God exists, and possible that the Messiah may have suffered before returning as a victorious king, then Jesus is likely to be the Messiah and God is likely to exist.
This article summarises the previous three articles on evidence for the Messiah. We can find further justification for the probabilities used in the model in earlier articles in the series:
How Likely Is It That Jesus Is the Messiah? Part I
Are there passages on the divinity of the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible?
A Suffering Messiah: Consistent with the Hebrew Bible or a Christian Invention?
Part II: A suffering Messiah in Judaism and Christianity