Wednesday, February 8, 2012

This is the fourth in a series of posts on how to judge historical evidence on the life of Jesus. Please see the third post here. It contains links to the first two posts.

Since the Enlightenment one of the issues that has lead any number of biblical scholars, and ordinary readers, to reject the historicity of many of the Gospel accounts regarding Jesus are the miraculous events described. They reject the possibility of miracles, which include Jesus’ healing miracles and nature miracles, such as multiplying food or walking on water, as contrary to reason and scientific laws. Other events, such as exorcisms, might be rejected on separate grounds, such as the rejection of the reality of spiritual beings that one could cast out: you cannot exorcise what does not exist. This is related philosophically to other miraculous events described, such as the resurrection of Jesus and the very notion of God acting in history through sending his son to earth. That is, to accept that God could send his son, raise him from the dead, and have him brought up to heaven indicates not only the acceptance that God exists, but the implication that God acts in history, cares for humanity and has acted and is acting on our behalf. These claims, however, necessitate a number of philosophical presuppositions which are essential to hold before one can even judge the historicity of certain, ancient, strange events, called by us "miracles."  

Bart Ehrman, for instance, argues that the historian must reject the historicity of these events:

“Historians deal with past events that are matters of public record. The public record consists of human actions and world events – things that anyone can see or experience. Historians try to reconstruct what probably happened in the past on the basis of data that can be examined and evaluated by every interested observer of every persuasion. Access to these data does not depend on presuppositions or beliefs about God.  The historian’s conclusions should, in theory, be accessible and acceptable to everyone, whether the person is a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, an atheist, a pagan, or anything else.”[1]
Some of what Ehrman says here is true, I think, and some of what he says here is false, both of which I want to touch on later, but for now one claim must be rejected as demonstrably false immediately:  the claim that for anything to be historically true, all people must agree that it is so. If I do not think that Lord Krishna is an avatar of the god Rama it is not so and I have the ability to determine, as a Christian, how Hindus should think about this historically? Atheists should determine for all theists whether God exists? If a Muslim does not believe that the Buddha received enlightenment under the Bodhi tree this proves it did not happen historically? Muslims believe that Muhammad made a night ride to heaven on a winged horse and that God revealed the Quran to him, but if pagans and atheists  do not believe it is so, it cannot be so? I am not making arguments on behalf of the historicity on any of these events, only to suggest that the acceptance of many historical events implies philosophical presuppositions and my acceptance or rejection of certain historical events is going to be based upon my philosophical presuppositions.  When Ehrman says that a “historian’s conclusions should, in theory, be accessible and acceptable to everyone,” what it actually means is that any historical event which implies, insinuates or suggests the presence of divine action will be a priori judged ahistorical, since everyone, including the atheist, must accept that such an event could be historical. What Ehrman is saying is that history is not written by the winners, but by the atheists.

Now, I do not object to atheists rejecting the historicity of miracles, God acting in history, God sending his son, God revealing a book to humanity, as they must maintain the integrity of their own beliefs as well. All I ask is that the integrity of theists, mono- and poly-, be respected as well. Our historical conclusions cannot help but be colored by our philosophical presuppositions.

“Historians try to reconstruct what probably happened in the past on the basis of data,” says Ehrman. I think this is true, but I am not certain Ehrman does as he excludes from consideration a priori any consideration of the miraculous as historical. He is in a long line of thinkers, though, who have tried to reconcile history and faith from the Enlightenment to the present and found faith wanting in the intellectual realm.  Ben F. Meyer wrote that some Christians have decided that along the way, faith did require the renunciation of intelligence (sacrificium intellectus), but far more numerous have been the people who believed that “intelligence –better, intellectual integrity – required the renunciation of faith.” [2] So, like Bart Ehrman, Van Harvey asked,

How one is ‘even to get into the position of asking’ whether a miracle is a possible solution to a historical problem.[3]

Meyer answers,

There is, however, a counter-question at least equally valid: how is one to get out of the position of regarding miracles as an a priori impossibility? The issue is not whether ‘miracle’ is to be made a commonplace principle of explanation. The issue is whether persons testifying to miracles are by that very fact shown to be incompetent or dishonest or self-deceived, and this without reference to their credentials or to the particulars of the case but by ineluctable a priori law.[4]

Does that fact that someone witnesses to events which are strange, odd, irregular and rare indicate that their witness is, a priori, unbelievable? So, when Ehrman says that “historians deal with past events that are matters of public record. The public record consists of human actions and world events – things that anyone can see or experience. Historians try to reconstruct what probably happened in the past on the basis of data that can be examined and evaluated by every interested observer of every persuasion,” does this rule out as historical events which in the Gospels many claim to have been seen publically and which were performed, in some cases, in front of many people by virtue of the miraculous character described? There is always reason for skepticism when presented with strange and odd and (supposedly) miraculous events, but does it mean that all such events must inevitably be ahistorical?

Again, Ehrman remarks that “access to these data does not depend on presuppositions or beliefs about God,” but what if the witnesses say that in the events and persons witnessed they have seen events and people who witness to the reality of the divine? The whole of the Gospel witnesses to the presence of God in history. Once again, if someone does not believe in God, I do not see how they can accept the historicity of certain of these events, as their philosophical presuppositions do not allow it , but they ought not pretend it is historical evidence that is driving their historical project: it is belief in the non-existence of God or of a Deist-like God, who is uninvolved in human affairs. 

For those who do share some or all of the same philosophical presuppositions as the Gospel authors, the possible data for the history of Jesus and the events surrounding him expands as they answer this question: what counts as historical data in reconstructing the life of Jesus?  The Gospels attest to miraculous events and the question, for those who do not reject this material as ahistorical out of hand, is whether the members of the Church which gathered and collected these accounts and some of whom had witnessed these events, are not trustworthy on this basis?  They believed they witnessed Jesus’ miracles and Jesus’ resurrection: is this not data now for the historian? Do we have to disbelieve because such things do not usually happen? The heart of the  Gospel story is that something new has taken place with Jesus, something never seen before, and the story is certainly and utterly dependent upon belief in God and belief in a God who acts in history.

Bart Ehrman and Van Harvey, amongst many others in the past and many others today, say  that only those things which science can approve, empirical information, which can be examined by our five senses, and better yet, subject to scientific testing, is proper data for the historian.

There are two things to say about this. Did not the first believers see Jesus’ miracles? That is what they say. Is this now not proper material for the historian? It is important for us to realize that to be a historian and to be a believer are proper and not contradictory positions; the question is determining what is proper for the historian to believe and what evidence is acceptable. Second, most historians deal with evidence which reports events, words, and deeds which they never witnessed, which no one alive ever witnessed. The issue of faith is prominent for all historians. Do we trust the data in front of us as being a genuine attempt to pass on reality, which we may or may not after serious study accept or dismiss? Or do we say that if the account contains certain types of reports and information, we can say in advance of historical study, “these people are lying to me, because I have never seen such a thing before.” A historian studies the evidence in front of himself or herself; they do not dismiss it prior to that study as ahistorical.  

One might say that a Christian historian is biased and prejudiced in favor of the Gospel material on the basis of his or her own philosophical presuppositions and this is true, but all of the evidence will at least be considered. The historian who rejects certain historical evidence without even subjecting it to historical study has  also shown evidence of bias and prejudice, on the basis of his or her own philosophical presuppositions, but not all of the evidence has been subjected to historical scrutiny. There is no way to escape our own points of view, but all of the data must be accounted for and explained.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens 

[1] Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) 15-16.
[2] Ben F. Meyer, The Aims of Jesus (San Jose: Pickwick Publications, 2002) 95.
[3] Meyer, Aims, 101.
[4] Meyer, Aims, 101.


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