Monday, September 28, 2009

Miracles and the Historical Jesus 2

Thank you, all, for your feedback, especially the discussion on Phil Harland's blog. Here I would just like to offer a couple of clarifications, and possibly point towards some responses to people's comments.

Harland's argument
On the whole I agree with Harland - and I did not read his remarks as intending to supply a 'refutation'! I especially agree with the remark that historians should recognize the fact that Jesus and others were regarded as 'miracle workers' (something which I did not deny in my original post). In fact, this acknowledgement leads on to the very question that I wanted to ask, namely, that if we acknowledge that Jesus was regarded as a miracle-worker, why was he thus regarded? To me this seems like a normal historical question, and I was asking why this is 'off-limits' in the case of Jesus. In the case of Alexander of Abonuteichos (mentioned by Harland), for instance, I doubt anyone would deny that he was regarded by some as a miracle worker. And I expect that few historians would refuse to ask why he was regarded as a miracle-worker, on the basis of the limitations of the historical method.

Possible explanations for belief in Jesus as a miracle-worker
When we are faced with the question of why Jesus was regarded as a miracle-worker, there seem to be three main alternatives: the supernatural explanation (that he really was a miracle-worker), the rationalistic (e.g., that he successfully employed basic medical techniques), or the mythical (that Jesus was not actually a miracle-worker and that these stories were attributed to him at a later date for theological reasons). This tripartite division of possible solutions of course derives from Strauss, and the purpose of my original post was not so much to make a new contribution to this discussion as to ask why more recent scholars reintroduce 'miracle' as a category appropriate for talking about Jesus (at least with regards to his reputation), and rarely (if at all) discuss these three candidates for explaining this reputation.

At least two of these explanations (the rationalistic and the mythical) would not seem to be especially controversial as explanations in themselves (even if we would question the plausibility of some 'rationalistic' explanations). I expect that one or the other of these would normally be invoked in discussion of ancient (or even more modern) figures to whom miracles have been attributed - and yet scholars do not frequently invoke either of these explanations in connection with Jesus, but stop with his 'reputation'.

The 'supernatural' explanation and Hume's view
The 'supernatural' explanation would seem to be the most controversial, for the reason that few would regard it in most cases as an adequate historical explanation of a miracle report in the case of most historical figures (though, of course, many believers would regard it as appropriate in the case of Jesus). One reason we might reject the supernatural explanation is Hume's view. As I read Hume, his argument is not circular (or at least it is not obviously so). At the very least, we can state a weaker form of his argument that is not circular:

(1) Supernatural events (like 'miracles', if they occur) do not occur very often (they are 'very unusual'; I hope this is uncontroversial!).
(2) Very unusual events require extremely strong verification, especially if there is an alternative explanation that would require less strong verification.
(3) Therefore, we would need extremely strong verification to assert with justification that a miracle had occurred.
(4) If this extremely strong verification is absent, we should accept a non-supernatural explanation as more probable.

These premises all seem to be quite plausible, and if the argument is circular I do not see where it begs the crucial question. And even if the argument is not true in general terms (so as to rule out a miracle ever verifying that a miracle had occurred), it would surely be valid in the case of ancient texts such as the reports of the miracles of Alexander of Abonuteichos. If it is valid in cases such as this, then if we are treating the Gospels as historians normally treat other historical texts then this judgement should apply to them as well: and therefore we would be obliged to accept a rationalistic or mythical explanation of the origin of Jesus's reputation as a miracle worker.

The option remains open to the reader of the Gospels to reject Hume's argument (and any similar argument) and suggest that Jesus was regarded as a miracle-worker because he was a miracle worker (though I think this would have to be done on theological grounds rather than on any logical charge of circularity). Some scholars do this quite openly - for instance N.T. Wright. But many scholars do not, and instead choose to stop at Jesus's 'reputation' as a miracle-worker without asking the question of why he was so regarded. The purpose of my previous post was to suggest that the history of scholarship has provided us with at least two historically possible explanations of why Jesus was regarded as a miracle-worker (the rationalistic and the mythological), and therefore if some scholars choose not to examine this question they need to do so for reasons other than that it is not an historically proper question, or that an historically proper explanation cannot be provided.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Miracles and the Historical Jesus

We have recently been reading through a number of classic Historical Jesus texts - including D.F. Strauss's famous Life of Jesus Critically Examined (originally published in 1840; available online at Google Books), and a question has come up from Strauss that has been troubling me.

Strauss is of course famous for his application of the category of 'myth' to the Gospels - especially in connection with Jesus's miracles. As an Enlightenment historian, he rejects supernatural explanations of Jesus's miracles, but also any 'rationalist' explanations (which 'explain' Jesus's miracles non-supernaturally). The 'third way', for Strauss, is the category of myth: that the miracles attributed to Jesus are to be regarded as creations of the early church, often on the model of similar Old Testament 'miracles'.

With this argument, Strauss is said to have knocked miracles out of the arena of historical discussion of Jesus - at least until the Third Quest (see Dunn, Jesus Remembered). Many Third Quest scholars, however, argue that we cannot understand Jesus historically unless we pay proper attention to his 'deeds' - and in particular, his miracles (especially his healings). This re-raises the problem of Strauss's challenge to the miraculous.

A position adopted by Dunn (and I think by a number of other scholars) is that we can state with confidence that Jesus was 'remembered' as a miracle-worker - and we can go no further than that (by, for instance, asserting that Jesus actually was a miracle worker). I have been wondering, however, whether this limitation can actually successfully reintroduce 'miracles' into the discussion of the historical Jesus.

My main reason for this derives from Hume's famous argument against the possibility of ever verifying (with a degree of probability sufficient for justified belief) that a miracle has occurred: the evidence that a miracle has not occurred will always be greater. Regardless of whether we want to follow Hume all the way, it seems that the Gospels do not provide the kind of evidence that would be sufficient, from an historical point of view, to reasonably hold that a miracle had occurred (and this seems to be the kind of argument presupposed by Strauss in his discussion of miracles).

I presume that the reason that most historians wish to stop at 'reports' of miracles is that they accept an argument similar to Hume's. But if this is the case, we can and should go one step further, and say that regardless of the reports concerning Jesus's miraculous activity, from an historical perspective these must be regarded as false (unless we opt for a rationalist interpretation) - it is unjustified to stop at the reports and not go beyond these to consider the events being reported. Therefore I cannot see how Third Questers (or anyone interested in the historical Jesus) can 'rediscover' Jesus's miracles from an historical point of view: if they are regarded as miracles, they must be regarded as unhistorical (so Strauss, on the strength of a Humean argument).

The obvious retort to this is that the Strauss/Hume position presupposes an Enlightenment paradigm that the historian needn't accept (so, for instance, N.T. Wright). But unless we want to abandon any claims to 'historical' study altogether, I do not see how we can get round the anti-miracle argument put forward by Hume, and presupposed by Strauss. Any thoughts?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Other Duke Blogs

Duke University has two blogs of note and relevance for students in Duke's Graduate Program in Religion:

The Duke University Religion Department blog; and

Spotlight, the Duke Divinity School Library blog.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Gospel of the Hebrews: Did I just say something dumb?

In his Dialogi contra Pelagionos 3.2 Jerome quotes a gospel which he calls the Gospel according to the Hebrews. Here is A. F. J. Klijn’s translation:

In the Gospel according to the Hebrews which was written in the Chaldaic and Syriac language but with Hebrew letters, and is used up to the present day by the Nazoraeans, I mean the Gospel according to the Apostles, or, as many maintain, the Gospel according to Matthew, which is also available in the Library of Caesarea, the story runs: “Behold, the mother of the Lord and his brothers were saying to him: John the Baptist is baptizing for the remission of sins. Let us go and be baptized by him. But he said to them: ‘How have I sinned, that I should go and be baptized by him? Unless perhaps something which I said in ignorance.’”
Jewish-Christian Gospel Tradition (Leiden: Brill, 1992), 103.

And the Latin:

In evangelio iuxta Hebraeos, quod Chaldaico quidem Syroque sermone sed Hebraicis litteris scriptum est, quod utuntur usque hodie Nazareni, secundum apostolos, sive ut plerique autumant iuxta Matthaeum, quod et in Caesariensi habetur bibliotheca, narrat historia: Ecce, mater domini et fratres eius dicebant ei: Joannes baptista baptizat in remissionem peccatorum; eamus et baptizemur ab eo. dixit autem eis: Quid peccavi, ut vadam et baptizer ab eo? nisi forte hoc ipsum quod dixi ignorantia est.

The thing that interests me is Klijn’s translation of the last sentence. Klijn interprets the words nisi forte hoc ipsum quod dixi ignorantia est as an admission that Jesus may have sinned in ignorance, translating it “Unless perhaps something which I said in ignorance.” Assuming that hoc ipsum quod dixi refers to hypothetical past sins of ignorance, Klijn’s translates it as “something which I said.” This assumption seems questionable to me for a number of reasons: 1) hoc (this) is used to describe a thing close to the speaker, as opposed to illud (that). 2) hoc is not indefinite. One would expect aliquid or quoddam or the like if “something” were the correct translation. 3) ipsum intensifies the definiteness of hoc. 4) The use of est rather than erat also points to the immediate context rather than past sin, unless it’s a historical present. 5) hoc is restricted by quod dixi, so according to this interpretation hoc would refer only to past sins of speech.

For these reasons it seems far more likely to me that hoc ipsum quod dixi refers to Jesus’ immediately preceding words. Thus, the sentence may be paraphrased “Unless that which I just said is incorrect.”

Recently I stumbled on J. K. Elliot’s translation in The Apocryphal New Testament: “But he said, ‘What have I committed, that I should be baptized of him, unless it be that in saying this I am in ignorance?’” Sounds good to me.

Here’s why this question is interesting to me: according to my favored translation, Jesus dithers almost comically, objecting to the thought of baptism but then shrugging his shoulders and admitting that he might be speaking nonsense. This depiction would be at loggerheads with that other Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus overcomes John the Baptist’s objection with the words, “Let it be so now, for it is fitting for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (3:15).

Would anyone like to defend Klijn’s translation? Am I missing something?

Duke Newt?

I had to acknowledge the goofiness of the name. I promise to stick to NT stuff from now on.

Welcome to Duke Newt

Greetings. This is a new blog that is intended to provide an informal forum for students and others associated with the PhD in New Testament at Duke University to share their questions, concerns, opinions, or anything else related to the New Testament. So, if you feel you have something to say, please do share it - and hopefully this will prove to be a useful resource. All the best!