Testing Historical Hypotheses and the Inference to the Best Explanation

An implication of the lack of direct access to the past concerns the testability of historical hypotheses.

The historian cannot perform experiments on his work like the scientist in a laboratory. And if this is the case, then how can the historian test his theories? One may, however, argue that even the historian’s hypotheses are testable through examining logical consistency and their ability to explain historical evidence. We argue that the supposed lack of the historian’s direct access to the data is not a stumbling block for testing truth in history and gaining an accurate knowledge of the past.

It may be that the historian tests a hypothesis in a similar manner to a scientist. For example, there seems to be congruency between a model, the hypothetico-deductive model, that one adopts in the sciences that can also apply to the historical domain. This model formulates a hypothesis in a manner that could conceivably be falsified by a test on observable data (1). The scientist produces a hypothesis to explain available facts and then infers from the hypothesis specific conditions that would either confirm or disprove the hypothesis.

The historian can follow this same method. He can reconstruct a picture of the past constituting his hypothesis. He is then able to deduce certain conditions from his hypothesis that will either confirm or disprove his hypothesis. As the historian and archaeologist Robin Collingwood explained, “The historian’s picture of the past stands in a peculiar relation to something called evidence. The only way in which the historian can judge of its truth is by considering this relation” (2).

The historian’s hypothesis must be corroborated by the evidence, for example, archaeological and/or documentary evidence. William Debbins notes that “By treating coins, pottery, weapons, and other artifacts as evidence the historian raises his study to the level of a science. What happened in the past is what the evidence indicates as having happened” (3).

Beyond the hypothetico-deductive model, one can infer to the best explanation. Gilbert Herman explains that,

“In making this inference one infers, from the fact that a certain hypothesis would explain the evidence, to the truth of that hypothesis. In general, there will be several hypotheses which might explain the evidence, so one must be able to reject all such alternative hypotheses before one is warranted in making the inference. Thus one infers, from the premise that a given hypothesis would provide a “better” explanation for the evidence than would any other hypothesis, to the conclusion that the given hypothesis is true” (4).

Importantly, historical knowledge emphasizes probability rather than mathematical certainty. One accepts a hypothesis as historical when it corresponds to the evidence in such a way that any reasonable person ought to accept it. Essentially, one accepts something that has sufficient evidence to make it probable.

From the inference to the best explanation model, one begins with the evidence already available and infers what would provide the best explanation of that evidence. A scientist may test his hypothesis by conducting experiments while the historian can test his theory by seeing how well it explains historical evidence.

There are several elements to be considered in the historian’s reconstruction of the past through the inference to the best explanation. This was succinctly presented in C. Behan McCullagh’s book Justifying Historical Descriptions (1984) in which he outlines several points historians can use in testing historical hypotheses: (5)

1. The hypothesis, together with other true statements, must imply further statements describing present, observable data.

2. The hypothesis must have greater explanatory scope (that is, imply a greater variety of observable data) than rival hypotheses.

3. The hypothesis must have greater explanatory power (that is, make the observable data more probable) than rival hypotheses.

4. The hypothesis must be more plausible (that is, be implied by a greater variety of accepted truths, and its negation implied by fewer accepted truths) than rival hypotheses.

5. The hypothesis must be less ad hoc (that is, include fewer new suppositions about the past not already implied by existing knowledge) than rival hypotheses.

6. The hypothesis must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs (that is, when conjoined with accepted truths, imply fewer false statements) than rival hypotheses.

7. The hypothesis must so exceed its rivals in fulfilling conditions (2)–(6) that there is little chance of a rival hypothesis, after further investigation, exceeding it in meeting these conditions.

From McCullagh’s points it is clear that some historical hypotheses will be stronger than others in that they offer greater explanatory scope and power, plausibility, are less ad hoc, and so on. It could be that a hypothesis fulfills several of these conditions but is deficient in other areas, which means that applying the inference to the best explanation model can prove tricky.

Nonetheless, if one hypothesis can be shown to outmatch other explanations given McCullagh’s model, then it is likely to be true. The historian should accept the hypothesis that best explains all the evidence.


1. Thomas, B. 1993. The Philosophy Behind Physics. p. 86

2. Collingwood, R. 1956. The Idea of History. p. 246.

3. Debbins, W. “Introduction” in Essays in the Philosophy of History. p. xiv.

4. Gilbert Herman quoted by The Information Philosopher. Available.

5. McCullagh, B. 1984. Justifying Historical Descriptions. p. 19.



  1. So we should start by separating the eyewitness testimony from the hearsay. How many possible NT authors tell the reader that they themselves saw the risen Jesus? I count three: Matthew, John and Paul. Nothing else in the NT constitutes the author telling the reader about his own seeing of a resurrected Jesus. If you feel more NT authors than these three qualify, please list them.

    • Although he didn’t witness the actual Resurrection himself I thoroughly believe Luke should be added. He records various miracles by Paul and the disciples through Acts 13-28 as an eyewitness. In other words, he witnessed the effects of the Resurrection (the works of the Spirit that Christ left). Remember, his Gospel was written after the book of Acts. He was confident in what he witnessed. Because of this, I believe he is the most important author in regards to the Resurrection’s historicity. Through him, we have an account of what happened after the Resurrection. Matthew, John, and Paul claimed to see the resurrection, but Luke’s writings verified it.

      • Well, let’s just be thorough in an academic way at this point, and like historians and courts of law, be sure to keep separated that NT resurrection testimony which comes down to us today in first-hand form, from that NT resurrection testimony which comes down to us today only in hearsay form.

        If you cannot think of any more resurrection testimony in the NT that comes down to us today in first-hand form, than the testimonies of Matthew, John and Paul, please acknowledge.

        If you wish, I can offer arguments against Luke’s honesty, which are sufficient to rationally and reasonably justify withholding the benefit of the doubt and remaining skeptical of Luke’s general credibility. His bias as an author transcends normal expect authorial bias and becomes so extreme that he should be viewed more as a purveyor of campaign propaganda, than as a serious historian.

        • 1). “If you cannot think of any more resurrection testimony in the NT that comes down to us today in first-hand form, than the testimonies of Matthew, John and Paul, please acknowledge.”

          The author of 1 and 2 Peter should fit this. Not only did he state first hand he was an eyewitness to Christ’s majesty (2 Peter 1:16-17) the Apostle Peter was also Mark’s main source for his Gospel as his teacher and mentor.

          On Luke, all of my sources say he is a credible historian. Here are a few,

          “Both and form and the matter of his work place Luke among the historians;….he shared, as it were by instinct, and brought to his task, the Hellenistic historian’s conception of historiography.” – Biblical scholar C.K. Barret in Luke the Historian in Recent Study.

          “I began with a mind unfavorable to it [Acts], for the ingenuity and apparent completeness of the Tubingen theory had at one time quite convinced me.
          It did not then in my line of life to investigate the subject minutely; but more recently I found myself often brought into contact with the Book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities, and society of Asia Minor.

          It was gradually borne in upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth.”–Skeptic William Ramsay in St. Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen

          “Any attempt to reject its [Acts] basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd,” – Roman historian A.N. Sherwin-White in Roman Law in the New Testament,”

          Even granting a theological agenda in each Gospel (some Gospels focused more on certain theological points than others) the charge of bias to the point of not documenting history is quite absurd. (see here http://christianthinktank.com/nuhbias.html).

          • Lucas,

            2nd Peter 1:16 does not qualify as Peter telling the reader that he saw a risen Jesus. According to the immediate context, what Peter meant by “majesty” was the transfiguration (v. 17), where, according to the story, Jesus showed his “majesty” with a temporary transfiguration. Worse, Matthew has Jesus characterize the transfiguration event as a “vision” (Matthew 17:9, Greek: ὅραμα/horama, used to characterize a 100% mental “vision” in Acts 9:10, 10:17 and 18:9).

            Furthermore, neither James nor John, who were allegedly at this transfiguration, ever give their account of this rather theologically and spiritually important event, suggesting they experienced no such thing. An argument from silence is more forceful if one can show that the character WOULD have mentioned it, had it really happened to him. The Transfiguration is in all three Synoptics, so apparently the early Christians found the story sufficiently important to record, so why didn’t 2 of the 3 alleged witnesses to it feel the same way? Or you can argue from silence that they testified to it, but this is now lost to history. John’s gospel is overflowing with high Christology, and had John been its true author and/or had John truly experienced the Transfiguration, well, nothing could be a higher Christology than this Transfiguration, so skeptics are justified to say he doesn’t mention such a clearly useful story, because he never experienced any such thing.

            Assuming Papias got it right and Mark’s gospel is a written record of Peter’s preaching, that doesn’t qualify as Peter testifying to having seen a risen Jesus. If the majority scholarly opinion about canonical Mark ending at 16:8 be true, then the most you can link back to Peter’s preaching is that he preached that an anonymous man told a group of women Jesus rose, and planned to meet them in another place, and these women ran away so afraid they nothing nothing to anyone (Mark 16:6-8). Worse, Papias says Mark was careful to “omit nothing” of which he remembered from Peter’s preaching, and we’d naturally expect that if Peter had personally seen the risen Jesus with his physical eyes, he would surely have made it a sufficiently substantial part of his preaching that Mark the follower likely would have found it important enough to ‘remember’ such a detail and accordingly made it substantially clear in his written gospel. He does not. Mark words things in ch. 16 in a way that makes it unlikely he ever heard Peter personally allege having physically seen a risen Jesus. With the controversy over the Mark’s ending and most scholars saying the long endings are forgeries, there is too much debate about exactly what Mark alleged, and your predictable insistence that he surely said more in a now-lost ending about Peter’s memories of seeing a risen Jesus, will not convince anyone outside of those groups already predisposed to emphasize any possibility that would support a resurrection argument.

            As far as Luke’s bias is concerned, let me ask you: Suppose you surfed to an atheist blog. The atheist-owner had attended an atheist/Christian debate some weeks prior, a debate that wasn’t otherwise recorded, and nobody else has talked about it, so this blogger’s account of it is all you solitary source for what happened. This atheist-blogger represents the Christian speaker’s position with nothing more than two nearly identical sentences in which the Christian merely summarizes his basic position. No actual argument of this Christian is reflected, only the basic summary of his overall position.

            But this blogger then writes more than 25 paragraphs describing in detail the atheist arguments. The blogger supplies nothing more from the Christian speaker, and ends by saying the atheists in town applauded the atheist speaker and were encouraged by his obvious win.

            Would you conclude this blogger clearly intended to hide, with his silence, the true extent and persuasiveness of the Christian speaker’s arguments? Wouldn’t you conclude that the amount of bias/prejudice in this atheist blogger’s account of the debate leaves the reader with an inaccurate impression of what really happened at that debate?

  2. “2nd Peter 1:16 does not qualify as Peter telling the reader that he saw a risen Jesus.”

    Ok, although I believe it is sufficient testimony that Peter witnessed miraculous events, we need not consult that verse for an explicit testimony of the risen Jesus. For that, we can turn to Acts 3:15, as well as Acts 10:40-41. I believe Peter still applies as an eyewitness. Furthermore, you are correct in pointing out that ὅραμα/horama is defined by a mental vision, however, it is also defined as “that which is seen, a sight, spectacle” from Thayer’s Greek Lexicon. Thus we need to define the usage by the context. The verses in Acts you give can be read no way apart from a mental vision, but what of Acts 7:31, which uses the same word? (see here http://biblehub.com/interlinear/acts/7-31.htm) Obviously, the context suggests the latter definition, and I believe Matthew’s verse does as well.

    “Furthermore, neither James nor John, who were allegedly at this transfiguration, ever give their account of this rather theologically and spiritually important event, suggesting they experienced no such thing. An argument from silence is more forceful if one can show that the character WOULD have mentioned it, had it really happened to him.”

    This strikes me as odd, considering your bio reads your mission is to refute Holding. Your last sentence tells me you have not heard of something J.P. as often pointed out, that the social world of the Bible was a “high context” society rather than a “low context” one, which we have today. So it isn’t a question of WOULD they have mentioned it, but SHOULD they have mentioned it. Regarding James, was there a need to mention it? Why would James’s audience need to hear of it? Why would it need to be mentioned in James’s arguments?

    Regarding John’s omission, I believe that it is BECAUSE of the high Christology of his Gospel that the narrative isn’t included the same way it is in the Synoptics. The transfiguration, being such an important event, is interspersed throughout John’s Gospel. Jesus is always transfigured in what John wrote (John 1:4, 14, 18) and the miracles he records reflects a revelation of God’s glory in the activity of Jesus. The most important record, I believe, is 11:1-44 which records Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus’s words to Martha were, “Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” George Ladd has said that “John differs from the Synoptics in making the entire ministry of Jesus a manifestation of glory.” Thus is it too far to argue that the whole Gospel could be viewed as a ‘transfiguration’ story? His theological agenda suggests this is so. There are other arguments, but I think the above is the most reasonable.

    Regarding your comments on Mark, I find it distasteful say, “your predictable insistence that he surely said more in a now-lost ending about Peter’s memories of seeing a risen Jesus….” I have never suggested that. If you’re going to see your opponent as a stereotype I don’t feel this debate will be fruitful. I agree with the scholarly consensus that Mark ended his Gospel at 16:8 and that the church added the additional verses based on the tradition established in the Synoptics, Acts, and Hebrews. A lost end COULD be possible, but as said, it’s lost to history. OUR earliest texts end at 16:8, and there’s a good reason for this.

    Mark’s Gospel is often named “The Gospel of Action,” its theological point focuses more on discipleship than a document of history. With that in mind Mark’s ending is quite purposeful, even significant, so I don’t feel the need to argue any further. (a good source is David DeSilva’s “Introduction to the NT, which explores Mark’s ending in p.224-226)

    On Luke, I don’t see anything refuted in that link I referred, neither do I find your allusion to be persuasive in regards to Luke. On a final note, I must point out an error I made in my first comment after checking my sources. Luke actually predates Acts, so I must apologize.

    • We should probably pick a more narrow topic, of your choosing, since, as you can see, these types of debates can become very long. And yet the constant refrain of the bible (i.e., that unbelievers have no excuse and are fools) might seem to be true unless I respond in direct point-by-point fashion. I respond that way as follows:

      “For that, we can turn to Acts 3:15, as well as Acts 10:40-41. I believe Peter still applies as an eyewitness.”
      ————–Acts was not written by Peter. It’s not eyewitness testimony, it’s hearsay. I’m not saying hearsay can never properly support a historical hypothesis. Again, let’s leave the hearsay for now, and stick to just those places in the NT where the witness’s claim to have seen a risen Jesus comes down to us today in first-hand form.
      So far its still only Matthew, John and Paul.

      You are correct that horamo can also mean physically seeing, and you are correct that we must use the context to determine the precise nuance. Although you were not wrong to establish cognate usage with your example cite to Acts 7:31, I can make arguments that are closer to Matthew’s own context and this transfiguration story as it originally circulated.
      ——First, in Matthew 17:2 (tell the horama to no one…) the rendering “vision” is given by the KJV, NAS, NAU, RSV, NRSV and Young’s Literal, which is an impressive scholarly support from the majority of the most respected English bibles. In the opinion of those translators, what comes to the modern mind when we read “vision” is what the gospel author intended, when in fact “seen” would have been the more appropriate word if the translators had felt Jesus was talking about things they physically saw.
      ——Second, the parallels in Mark 9:2/Luke 9:36 use the slightly different Greek word “horao”, and the NAU, despite rendering the parallel in Matthew 17:2 as ‘vision’, renders Mark’s and Luke’s horao as “seen”. The NAU’s inconsistency here can only be explained by saying its scholars thought these two words have difference nuances.
      ——Third, the one author who uses the word making it more difficult for you to describe their experience in physical terms(Matthew, horamo) was allegedly one of the original 12 disciples, and thus historically closer to the 4 people involved in the event, than were the secondary witnesses of Mark and Luke. Under conservative assumptions, Matthew’s being one of the original 12 favors saying he had more and earlier access to Peter’s version, than non-eyewitness Mark ever did.
      ——-Fourth, as I said, John and James were also allegedly at this event (Luke 9:28), yet despite its perfect suitability to support a high Christology, they never mention this despite their allegedly having authored the NT books bearing their names. You respond that my argument from silence seems to at odds with my mission to refute J.P. Holding, who says NT people lived in a high-context society, as if no secret could be kept in that society (i.e., as if inability to keep secrets must mean the Synoptics’ triple tradition on the transfiguration is necessarily accurate fact-reporting), but in Matthew 17:9, Jesus specifically orders his three apostles with him to tell nobody about the vision until he rises from the dead, and in Luke 9:36, Luke put it more generically that these three actually didn’t report “in those days” any of the things they had seen. In other words, Jesus himself and Luke necessarily implies that secrets about who saw what, could remain secret for more than a year. J.P. Holding’s error is not in saying that first-century Jerusalem was a high-context society. His error is in drawing the conclusion that secrets couldn’t remain secret for very long in such high-context society. Luke reports that Peter James and John actually didn’t tell that secret “in those days”, so apparently, “high-context society”, without more, doesn’t justify concluding that any secret would surely soon become known.

      Furthermore, “would” implies questions of motive and “should” implies questions of moral duty, so since they implicate different questions, your attempt to make one swallow the other (i.e., argue that the only question is whether they “should” have reported it) is fallacious, although the fact that all three Synoptics report this event would seem to justify the view it was found to be of immense importance to some of the main players.

      You rhetorically ask why James’ audience would “need” to hear about the transfiguration. See Matthew 28:20, the resurrected Jesus allegedly required all of the apostles to teach future Gentiles to obey ALL of his pre-Cross teachings. So if John really did say that he intentionally excluded other teachings of Jesus (20:30, 21:25), that’s a blow to his credibility. John’s credibility cannot be rehabilitated by saying he was writing to a church for whom he didn’t need to repeat the already believed Synoptic traditions, because John’s statement that he wrote for the purpose of motivating the reader to believe in a way that brings salvation (20:30-31) indicates his originally intended audience was unbelievers…who would not be presumed to have already known and believed the Synoptic Jesus-traditions.

      Furthermore, Peter, James and John were allegedly early Christian leaders (Paul refers to them as the three “pillars”, Galatians 2:6-9), and their authority would be graphically supported with a story that among all 12 apostles, only they were chosen to share in this “vision”. Again, this story would work wonders for John’s purpose in
      a) upholding his unique authority to author a gospel and
      b) demonstrating high Christology, yet he never mentions it despite allegedly having written a gospel specifically to support high Christology, among other goals. I believe the situation is more obscure with James, but the argument from John’s silence is powerful.

      Your asserting that Jesus is always “transfigured” in John’s gospel, as your way of accounting for John’s own silence about the high-Christological transfiguration event he allegedly personally participated in, can do nothing but backfire: It is precisely John’s desire to present Jesus as God, that would justify us to expect he would have found his own personal memories of this Transfiguration even perfect material for his gospel-writing purposes. The very idea that because he wished to present Jesus as “transfigured”, that he would likely “chose to exclude” the one particular physical event in his memory that would most forcefully support his claims that Jesus is God, is absurd in my opinion. John’s silence toward an event so allegedly near and dear both to him personally and his know theological agenda, continues to scream.

      I had no intention of stereotyping you, and I apologize if you took it that way, but at the same time, you cannot blame me for grouping you in my mind to some degree with other fundamentalists given your attempts to do what fundamentalists are characteristically known for…trying to defend the historical veracity of miracle claims in the bible. Nobody is perfectly objective, and there are degrees of stereotyping, and one could plausibly argue that if I called you wrong, it was not necessary for you to suggest ending the debate, but that it would have been sufficient and objective for you to simply point out that I called you wrong. I’ve been more academic than personal in this debate, so any quitting on your part will likely be seen by the others as having been motivated by something other than incorrect stereotyping on my part.

      If it is true that you agree “with the scholarly consensus that Mark ended his Gospel at 16:8”, then Mark clearly ended his gospel without providing any resurrection appearances. If the scholarly consensus is similarly correct to say Mark is the earliest published gospel, then the earliest published gospel did not record any resurrection appearances, which supports the skeptical position that the later gospel authors, who give us fully developed resurrection appearance narrative, are merely embellishing history with fiction. Can you so forcefully explain Mark’s silence here that you can show that the skeptical conclusive, given above, is unreasonble?

      You say “On Luke, I don’t see anything refuted in that link I referred, neither do I find your allusion to be persuasive in regards to Luke.”
      ———–Read Acts 15:1-31. Like my hypothetical atheist-blogger who devotes a mere two sentences to telling the reader what the Christian side of the debate was in heavily summarized non-detailed form, Luke devotes merely two sentences to telling the reader what the Judaizer side of Council of Jerusalem was (Acts 15:1, 5), in heavily summarized non-detailed form. Like my hypothetical atheist-blogger who contra-wise devotes more than 20 paragraphs of quoting the atheist, his specific arguments and how he was approved of by his followers, Luke contra-wise devotes more than 20 paragraphs to quoting the apostles, their specific arguments and how the apostolic position was approved by their followers (15:6-31).

      My point is that, obviously, most Christians would not be impressed by the argument that this atheist-blogger has a “right” to engage in such slanted biased reporting…they would still argue that the atheist has clear motive to give the reader the false impression that the atheist-speaker had the better position. Why shouldn’t a similar conclusion follow from Luke’s identically biased reporting.

      Luke’s prejudice rising to a level justifying skepticism of his accuracy, is most graphically seen in how easily the Judaizers, at that point in time, could have trounced the apostles on the question of Gentile circumcision. The Judaizers likely would have pointed out that because Jesus condemned those who would abolish or nullify the least of the law, while he said those who follow even the least of the law will be great in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:17-20), he clearly approved of his followers continuing to obey Exodus 12:48 (Gentiles are not in covenant with God without circumcision).

      “F. F. Bruce aptly draws together what can be inferred from a mirror reading of Paul’s defense on this matter, and so speculates that the Judaizers must have argued as follows:

      “The Jerusalem leaders are the only persons with authority to say what the true gospel is, and this authority they received direct from Christ. Paul has no comparable authority: any commission he exercises was derived by him from the Jerusalem leaders, and if he differs from them on the content or implications of the gospel, he is acting and teaching quite arbitrarily. In fact,” they may have added, “Paul went up to Jerusalem shortly after his conversion and spent some time with the apostles there. They instructed him in the first principles of the gospel and, seeing that he was a man of uncommon intellect, magnanimously wiped out from their minds his record as a persecutor and authorized him to preach to others the gospel which he had learned from them. But when he left Jerusalem for Syria and Cilicia he began to adapt the gospel to make it palatable to Gentiles. The Jerusalem leaders practised circumcision and observed the law and the customs, but Paul struck out on a line of his own, omitting circumcision and other ancient observances from the message he preached, and thus he betrayed his ancestral heritage. This law-free gospel has no authority but his own; he certainly did not receive it from the apostles, who disapproved of his course of action. Their disapproval was publicly shown on one occasion at Antioch, when there was a direct confrontation between Peter and him on the necessity of maintaining the Jewish food-laws” (Galatians, 26).”
      Longenecker, Richard N., Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 41: Galatians, (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, Publisher) 1998.

      Those are all arguments Judaizers could have, and likely did, make at the Council of Jerusalem, so it is clear that because Luke records NONE of the Judaizer arguments (but only records a mere singular specific summary-point), that Luke was using silence to hide or paper over a severe problem in the apostolic position. That’s a blow to his credibility.

      You’ll notice that the apostles unexpectedly leave Jesus completely out of their arguments. Seems to me it’s because the author of Acts is more interested in slanting actual history to make Paul appear more orthodox than he really was, and less interested in recording actual facts. His “right” to so report does not insulate his credibility from being impeached.

      • Barry,

        I’ve read through your comment multiple times. You’ve made a very interesting and strong case and it’s one I’d like to ponder and study a bit more. To be completely honest, I cannot answer you sufficiently as I simply do not know the answers to your objections, at least, not at present. You’re clearly familiar with scholarship and historical matters, and for that, I have massive respect for you. You’ve been very polite and civil and I greatly appreciate that. Please know that your words are not falling on deaf ears and I will take them into serious consideration.

        Thank you for your time, Barry.

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