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?


  1. I think the purpose of asking whether Jesus was reputed to be miracle-worker rather than whether Jesus actually was a miracle-worker is to prevent just the "one step further" you're talking about.

    The existence of reports of miracle working is relevant to Jesus's public reputation as a miracle worker. The truth or falsity of these reports, if not widely known, on the other hand, is not relevant to Jesus's miracle-working public reputation.

  2. Harland's refutation seems right on target. Unless Maxim is saying something deeper, more abstract or more scholarly than I am grasping.

  3. Moreover, I've always thought that this argument of Hume's is tremendously circular: we shouldn't believe in miracles if we think the probability of a miracle is vanishingly small. But, of course, that's the question.

  4. Brian - "moreover"?

    Did you mean to say more?

  5. If "historical" denotes a type of explanation that is equally acceptable to all, whether one believes that miracles are possible or not, then I grant that "historical study" must find non-miraculous explanations for phenomena that are claimed to have been miraculous.

    However, while I (as someone who accepts the possibility of miracles) might find such an explanation to be plausible, I see no reason to think that it is therefore inherently more likely to be true. In fact, based on my own theological commitments, I would suspect that there is a good chance it is false. Therefore, it would hold little interest for me, although I could definitely understand how it might be of great interest to someone who did not share my theological commitments.

    In other words, I don't think that an explanation of historical phenomena--especially phenomena that is claimed to have been miraculous--that is "theologically neutral" is possible or even desirable.

    If that means I have to abandon all "historical" study, then I think that is an inadequate definition of "historical."

  6. I tend to agree that Hume is circular: "we should not believe that miracles happen, because the universal experience of mankind testifies that they do not happen" lacks something (among other things, it's factually false: lots of people DO believe that miracles happen -- doesn't mean they're right, but it does knock Hume's basis reasoning into a cocked hat).

    Reality has a way of slipping into closed ideological systems with vastly disruptive force...

  7. Bart Ehrman believes that the miracles of Jesus, as well as the resurrection, as they are deviations from the natural world, are not "study-able" in the academic discipline of history. He limits history as to say that such claims exist outside of what history can claim to do. Of course, you know where Ehrman ends up in regard to all of this personally. I think Richard Hays might be a middle ground of sorts. He affirms mostly all of the same outcomes that Wright works toward, and he employs a fairly similar model of history that Ehrman does, at least in terms of what we can claim to prove and subsequently what is even worth trying to prove. It seems that NT Wright is not a way past the Enlightenment paraidgm, but a very straight-foward reactionary against it. They disprove us with history so he disproves them and proves us WITH history. Hays would claim that in the end, the reconstruction of history was never going to deliver us. For example, the Gospels are less than historically factual but are true to the theological thrust of a historical person and God's acting in history.

  8. I am partial to the view that "miracles" are outside the domain of ancient history. I qualified history purposefully because as far as the life of Jesus goes, our sources are sparse and simply not reliable enough to warrant belief that the laws of Physics were suspended during parts of his ministry. I suppose in the case of an overwhelmingly documented incident (eyewitness testimony from a thousand different witnesses, video tape footage, physical remnants, etc.) we might be able to come to belief in something miraculous. Though I find myself, paradoxically, not being naive enough to accept miracles or dogmatic enough to dismiss them.

    Hume, in my humble opinion, demonstrated how cause and effect is not a logical necessity. No matter how many times two events occur in succession, there is no logical necessity in positing the same sequence will occur or needs to occur next time. Everybody has faith in something, whether they believe in miracles or not.


  9. "Historical Jesus"?!?

    Just using this contra-historical oxymoron (demonstrated by the eminent late Oxford historian, James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue) exposes your Christian-blinkered agenda--dependent upon 4th-century, gentile, Hellenist sources.

    While scholars debate the provenance of the original accounts upon which the earliest extant (4th century, even fragments are post-135 C.E.), Roman gentile, Hellenist-redacted versions were based, there is not one fragment, not even one letter of the NT that derives DIRECTLY from the 1st-century Pharisee Jews who followed the Pharisee Ribi Yehoshua.
    Historians like Parkes, et al., have demonstrated incontestably that 4th-century Roman Christianity was the 180° polar antithesis of 1st-century Judaism of ALL Pharisee Ribis. The earliest (post-135 C.E.) true Christians were viciously antinomian (ANTI-Torah), claiming to supersede and displace Torah, Judaism and ("spiritual) Israel and Jews. In soberest terms, ORIGINAL Christianity was anti-Torah from the start while DSS (viz., 4Q MMT) and ALL other Judaic documentation PROVE that ALL 1st-century Pharisees were PRO-Torah.

    There is a mountain of historical Judaic information Christians have refused to deal with, at: (see, especially, their History Museum pages beginning with "30-99 C.E.").
    Original Christianity = ANTI-Torah. Ribi Yehoshua and his Netzarim, like all other Pharisees, were PRO-Torah. Intractable contradiction.
    Building a Roman image from Hellenist hearsay accounts, decades after the death of the 1st-century Pharisee Ribi, and after a forcible ouster, by Hellenist Roman gentiles, of his original Jewish followers (135 C.E., documented by Eusebius), based on writings of a Hellenist Jew excised as an apostate by the original Jewish followers (documented by Eusebius) is circular reasoning through gentile-Roman Hellenist lenses.

    What the historical Pharisee Ribi taught is found not in the hearsay accounts of post-135 C.E. Hellenist Romans but, rather, in the Judaic descriptions of Pharisees and Pharisee Ribis of the period... in Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT (see Prof. Elisha Qimron), inter alia.

    The question is, now that you've been informed, will you follow the authentic historical Pharisee Ribi? Or continue following the post-135 C.E. Roman-redacted antithesis—an idol?

  10. please may somebody explain what you are discussing in a more simple format, as i am having trouble understanding, but i would like to learn more about this subject.