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?