Thursday, May 13, 2010

Miracles, Historiography, and Historical Jesus Research

One of the most common reasons scholars often raise questions about the historical veracity of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life is the simple fact that they include reference to miraculous healings. [1] In fact, it should be noted that this objection, strictly speaking, actually has nothing to do with the use of any of the “criteria of authenticity” typically used by historical Jesus scholars. Is this rejection of miraculous reports fair?

Here I am not going to launch into a detailed explanation.[2] Let me just make two points.

First, while historical work necessarily demands a certain critical judgment, the outright a priori denial of the possibility of such occurrences represents no less of a metaphysical commitment than one which accepts them. To rule out a priori the possibility of inexplicable events can hardly represent a truly critical methodology.[3]

Along these lines I must recommend the recent discussion by Eddy and Boyd concerning the importance of an “open-historical critical method” (The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007], 39–90). They explain that, “The claim that the natural world and its history constitute a ‘closed continuum’ of natural causes and effects is a metaphysical claim” (49). As such they go on and state why an open historical-critical approach that makes no a priori decisions about the possibility of miracles is superior to the alternative:

“In our estimation, this methodology is not less critical than the naturalistic historical-critical method; rather, it is more critical. For . . . this method requires that Western scholars be critical of their commitments to their own culturally conditioned naturalistic presuppositions. . . It requires that scholars not be uncritically committed to any metaphysical stance, but rather, in the name of critical scholarship, always bring a certain inquisitiveness to their presuppositional commitments” (53).
This seems eminently fair to me.

The second point I’d like to make is this: it must be observed that for the text to have historical value it is not necessary for a historian to prove that Jesus actually accomplished a miracle, something which by definition one would be hard-pressed to do.[4] Instead, the question here is this: does the account relate an event not created by the early church but rather an actual event which occurred during the public ministry of the historical Jesus?

To answer this question we need not answer the question of whether or not a miracle per se was involved. Rather, the question which lies before us in establishing the historicity of the accounts is whether or not it is probable that, e.g., a leper came asking Jesus for healing and received what was thought to be a true cleansing of his disease.

I like how Davies and Allison put it:
“For our immediate purposes, which are strictly historical, it does not matter
at all what explanation(s) one might offer for apparent miracles―God, coincidence, conscious deception, the placebo effect, or little recognized human powers. It also does not matter precisely how one defines a miracle. . . All that counts is the undeniable fact that many people have thought themselves to be witnesses to events resembling those in the NT gospels (including the so-called nature miracles). It follows that if a synoptic pericope recounts a miraculous deed, that by itself is not sufficient cause for supposing that pericope to have no foundation in the earliest tradition or even in the life of Jesus. Put simply, there is no reason, whatever one’s philosophical or religious disposition, to deny that people could have perceived Jesus doing seemingly miraculous things.”[5]

So is the a priori rejection of the historicity of accounts relating Jesus' miraculous deeds fair? I don't think so.

In fact, Josephus talks about other figures contemporary to Jesus who were known to work “marvels and signs” [τέρατα καὶ σημεῖα] (A.J. 20.168; cf. B.J. 2.258–60; 6.286–87), a term he associates with the miraculous works of Moses in the Exodus (cf. A.J. 2.327). Interestingly, Josephus relates that Jesus was known for performing "wonderful works" (παρὰδοξα ἔργα) (A.J. 18.63), the same term he uses to describe the miracles of Elisha earlier in his work (A.J. 9.182). It is worth noting that even the reconstructed versions of Josephus' testimony about Jesus offered by scholars include this as authentic. See, e.g., John P. Meier [A Marginal Jew, 1:56–88; idem., “Jesus in Josephus: A Modest Proposal,” CBQ 52 (1990):76–103] and Joseph Klausner [Jesus of Nazareth, 55–56]. Evans goes on to support Klausner’s reconstruction, citing the Arabic version found in Agapius’ Book of the Title (cf. Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies, 180).

Given all of this I think it is rather difficult for historians to insist that the Gospels' portrait of Jesus as a worker of inexplicable healings merely reflects the faith of the early community and that it must be seen as simply owing to Christian theology.

What do you think? I'd love feedback. . .

NOTES
[1] John Dominic Crossan is representative of an approach which denies a priori the possibility of the miraculous. For example, in commenting on the historical value of the account in John 11 where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, Crossan states: “I do not think this event ever did or could happen. . . I do not think that anyone, anywhere, at any time brings dead people back to life” (Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography [San Francisco: HaperSanFrancisco, 1994), 94–95. Of course, the very definition of the word “miracle” has been debated. For a survey of a variety of options see Meier, Marginal Jew, 2:524–25 n. 5. We shall take Thomas Aquinas’ definition as our own: Haec autem quae praeter ordinem communiter in rebus statutum quandoque divinitus fiunt, miracula dici solent. . .” (Summa Contra Gentiles 3.101.1). In other words, a miracle is a work which is a divinely accomplished work which occurs apart from the ordinary order of the natural things.
[2] For a full discussion, see Colin Brown, Miracles and the Critical Mind (Pasadena: Fuller Seminary Press, 2006). The literature on miracles and historical Jesus research is overwhelmingly immense. Some of the most helpful studies include also Graham H. Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 17–37; idem., “Miracle Story,” in Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus (ed. C. A. Evans; New York: Routledge, 2008), 416–20; Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2:62–65; Loos, Miracles of Jesus, 3–106; Theissen and Merz, Der historische Jesus, 256–284; Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 29–34, 102–4; Meier, A Marginal Jew, 2: 617–40, as well as the vast bibliography on 522, n. 4.
[3] See Meier, Marginal Jew, 2:517–18: “To judge a priori, before an examination of a particular case, that no matter what the evidence may be a particular action of Jesus could not possibly have been a miracle is a philosophical judgment, not a historical one.” Here we agree with much of what is said by Boyd and Eddy (Jesus Legend, 39–90) concerning the importance of an “open-historical critical method”. They explain that, “The claim that the natural world and its history constitute a ‘closed continuum’ of natural causes and effects is a metaphysical claim” (49). As such they go on and explain why an open historical-critical approach that makes no a priori decisions about the possibility of miracles is superior to the alternative: “In our estimation, this methodology is not less critical than the naturalistic historical-critical method; rather, it is more critical. For . . . this method requires that Western scholars be critical of their commitments to their own culturally conditioned naturalistic presuppositions. . . It requires that scholars not be uncritically committed to any metaphysical stance, but rather, in the name of critical scholarship, always bring a certain inquisitiveness to their presuppositional commitments” (53). See also Aviezer Tucker, “A Theory of Historiography as Pre-Science,” in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 24 (1993): 633–67; idem., Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography (New York: Cmabridge University Press, 2004).
[4] The conclusion that the cause of an event or occurrence is inexplicable in terms of natural cause and effect does not equate to proof for divine causality. See Meier, A Marginal Jew, 2:514–15: “[T]he historian can ascertain whether an extraordinary event has taken place in a religious setting, whether someone has claimed it to be a miracle, and, if there is enough evidence―whether a human action, physical forces in the universe, misperception, illusion, or fraud can explain the event. If all these explanations are excluded, the historian may conclude that an event claimed by some people to be miraculous has no reasonable explanation or adequate cause in any human activity or physical force. To go beyond that judgment and to affirm either that God has directly acted to bring about this startling event or that God has not done so is to go beyond what any historian can affirm in his or her capacity as a historian and to enter the domain of philosophy or theology.” Interestingly Meier goes on to discuss the contemporary example of healings at Lourdes, pointing out that even though numerous cases have been certified by impartial medical examiners as inexplicable (1,300 between 1948 and 1993), only 18 have been recognized by the Catholic Church as legitimately “miraculous” (cf. Meier, Marginal Jew, 2:528, n. 528). See also Geert Van Oyen, “Markan Miracle Stories in Historical Jesus Research, Redaction Criticism and Narrative Analysis,” in Wonders Never Cease: The Purpose of Narrating Miracle Stories in the New Testament and Its Religious Environment (LNTS 288; eds. M. Labahn, B. J. L. Peerbolte; London: T & T Clark, 2006), 87–88, who agrees with Meier, making the case that not only can the historian affirm that witnesses believed they had observed an extraordinary (i.e., miraculous) event but also that those who saw it attributed what had happened to God. It is worth noting that even the Catechismus Catholicae Ecclesiae makes a distinction similar to Meier’s, recognizing that miracles are only a motiva credibilitatis, not the cause of faith (no. 156).
[5] See Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2:63, who make a similar point. Their comments are worth quoting in full: “For our immediate purposes, which are strictly historical, it does not matter at all what explanation(s) one might offer for apparent miracles―God, coincidence, conscious deception, the placebo effect, or little recognized human powers. It also does not matter precisely how one defines a miracle. . . All that counts is the undeniable fact that many people have thought themselves to be witnesses to events resembling those in the NT gospels (including the so-called nature miracles). It follows that if a synoptic pericope recounts a miraculous deed, that by itself is not sufficient cause for supposing that pericope to have no foundation in the earliest tradition or even in the life of Jesus. Put simply, there is no reason, whatever one’s philosophical or religious disposition, to deny that people could have perceived Jesus doing seemingly miraculous things.” See also the full discussion in Meier, Marginal Jew, 2:509–34. Aside from Meier, it is surprising to note the scant attention paid to the miracles of Jesus in works written by scholars associated with “Third Quest”. See the comments to this effect in Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker, 19.

6 comments:

Joshua said...

Well written Michael. It surprises me that these arguments aren't already understood by all scholars. Your arguments (and I'm especially referring to number 1) are so obviously true! Keep up the good work brother!

Ken Pulliam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ken Pulliam said...

Michael,

You say: To rule out a priori the possibility of inexplicable events can hardly represent a truly critical methodology.

I agree completely; but, I would maintain that in order to believe a supernatural explanation is required, one would have to have overwhelming (I am avoidng the word extraordinary) evidence. For example, see Chapter 11 in the new book, The Christian Delusion . Its by Richard Carrier and is entitled: Why the Resurrection is Unbelievable.
Chapter Ten of the same book, is a critique of Eddy's and Boyd's book by Robert Price.

Second, you argue that the reports in the Gospels can be historical without necessarily involving a miracle. You quote Davies and Allision: there is no reason, whatever one’s philosophical or religious disposition, to deny that people could have perceived Jesus doing seemingly miraculous things. I agree with that as well. I believe that some strange events took place in the First Century and that the early Christians explained these events as supernatural occurrences. I just don't find any good reason to believe they were right.

BTW, Gresham Machen wrote almost a century ago that the NT would be easier to believe without the miracles but it would not be worth believing ( Christianity and Liberalism). I fully agree.

John Hobbins said...

Thanks, Michael. You caught the essence of the debate among NT scholars.

As for anti-Christian apologetics a la Pulliam, it's impossible to take them seriously. He raises the bar to an unreachable height and then exclaims: look, it can't be jumped.

All that evidence will ever be able to show is that the facts are compatible with a supernatural explanation. They will never require it.

In the same was, I would assume that the facts of the case are compatible with the notion that Pulliam loves his mother. But they cannot require it. Perhaps his supposed love for his mother can be explained on the basis of evolutionary biology and psychology. Perhaps, then, it is just an expression of a complex quid pro quo.

I still his love for his mother is genuine. But then, I am a fideist.

Pulliam became a rationalist vis-a-vis the Christian faith and lo and behold, he lost his faith. Fancy that. Here's hoping he will not go on and become a rationalist about his other relationships.

James said...

I’m about as skeptical as they come--probably believe a small fraction of what Michael Barber does-- but I’ve never discredited the healing “miracles” of Jesus. That is, I’ve no doubt he had a reputation for healing, that this reputation augmented his following, and that, for instance, it’s likely true that “a leper came asking Jesus for healing and received what he thought was a true of his disease.” Similar remarks could be made of Bennie HInn today, though of course leprosy is not often what he’s presented with.

I’d speculate that days or weeks or even hours or minutes after Jesus laid his healing hands on many hopeful believers, they found only frustration and despair. That seems to be part of the miracles of healing business today, why should it not have been so also in the first century? But, from what I know of the placebo effect and reports of the effectiveness of alternative medicine today, nor would I deny that Jesus did effect cures. (I’m not suggesting that Jesus’s moral character bears any resemblance to Hinn’s.)

Like Gregory Dawes I see no way that one could a priori exclude he possibility that a cure might be explained theistically. A plausible conception of the existence of pure spirit and its causal efficacy present rather formidable obstacles to a well constructed explanation. But a priori it can’t be shown they cannot be overcome. If one inquires of the report of a healing “what’s best explanation can be inferred?” it can’t be concluded on philosophic grounds that a theistic explanation is to be ruled out.

The best explanation is to be sought in the way skilled historians seek explanations. “God did it--effected the cure, say” isn’t likely to be found to be a very satisfactory explanation. It comes too easy and tells too little. And we know the limits of curative medicine, not to mention divine healing, before Koch and Fleming. Such are the limits of medicine and treatment before sulfa and penicillin that (as any standard history of medicine instructs us) few accounts of a cure of any sort can be credited. The few that can are those that anticipate contemporary practice or some other form of treatment consistent with science-based standards of practice. (I don’t mean to deny that before
penicillin, medical intervention helped people get well. I do mean that it had severe limits and often did more harm than good, and that either the placebo effect and kindred causes, or anticipations of modern science, account for those cures that were effected.)

Of Jesus’s cures, we have only barebones accounts written by credulous and prejudiced men decades after the event. These provide little in the way of an explanandum, let alone the beginnings of a a credible explanation.

Jeremy Priest said...

Save James' critique, what the other critical comments fail to recognize is the genre of Gospel literature vis-a-vis the miracles.

The ground of the post is that, based on what the gospels are (i.e. some form of Greco-Roman biography), there is no reason to a-priori dismiss these miracles as untenable.

This methodological critique is essentially about good exegesis and so reading the text as it presents itself to us. This critique gets us further because it brings us closer to the narrative function of the miracles themselves, which is to present who Jesus is and help us to answer for ourselves, 'What say you of Christ Jesus?'

Mr. Pulliam wants to get behind the text to the event (which can't be done)...and since he can't he's perfectly willing to dismiss the event. He can't believe the witnesses b/c they don't give the kind of evidence he wants. Yet, I give you credit, Mr. Pulliam: you read the text as it presents itself and choose not to believe. At least you read the text as it presents itself.

However, Mr. Pulliam is trying to demand of the gospels the equivalent of the type of investigation that the Vatican does on today's miracles. That isn't unreasonable to ask for such proof. Yet, the gospels aren't going to give that. The gospels use the miracles as a way of presenting Jesus and who he is. So, again, the question is, 'what do you say of the Christ?'