By now it ought to be obvious I can only handle Bauckham in very small doses. Maybe it’s age. I used to love downing a whole bottle of whisky straight in very short shrift but have learned to cut it back to occasional nips if I want my brain and body to survive a bit longer. Maybe that’s a metaphor for my misspent youth in the coffin of religion, leaving me nowadays only ever able to spend occasional minutes at best engaging in silly (ir)rationalizations that pass as scholarly arguments for belief in miracles and semi-human miracle performers. Anyway, if sticking at something one has promised oneself to do is a virtue then my ongoing sticking with this review bit by bit proves I am at least not totally bereft of virtue whatever my other faults. And addressing these final parts of B’s argument calls for every ounce of virtue I can muster. Must reward myself with another whisky when finished.
Testimony and its reception contd. (pp 492-493)
Bauckham claims that if a historian or a reader of history encounters a report that “transcends their common experience” then they will “reduce it to the measure of their own experience”. This is because we will be “puzzled” or “provoked to disbelief” in the face of testimony that is about an “exceptionally” uncommon event — according to Bauckham. The solution, B asserts, is that the historian or reader must make a special effort to “resist” the “pressure of our own experiences and expectations” to deny this testimony about events beyond our common experience.
What utter rubbish!
Of course, what B is attempting to argue is that our scepticism towards the accounts of miracles in the Bible is not justified. But:
- Only a miniscule handful of people have any trouble believing and accepting the testimony of the moon-landing — a report that “transcends common experience”.
- Only von Daniken types are “provoked to disbelief” that the Egyptian pyramids — another “exceptional” event — were built by humans.
- Only those who have lost touch with reality are truly “puzzled” that natural geological chance activity can carve out a human face like shape on Mars.
- Is it even permissible to ask about testimonies of the survivors of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan?
- No-one wants to dwell in gruesome detail on the “transcendentally exceptional” reports of Romania’s Vlad III’s cruelty or equally cruel scenes depicted in Assyrian or Roman sculpture and mosaics — but no-one suggests that this reluctance is a symptom of our refusal to believe such things may well have really happened.
Yet Bauckham singles out the Holocaust as such a “uniquely unique” event in the following pages to argue that if we can believe survivor testimonies about this, then the only rational consequence is that we should equally believe the “uniquely unique” miracles we read about in the NT. The two may be at polar opposites on a continuum — one the unspeakable horror and the other the unspeakable wonder — so if we are consistent in bringing ourselves to believe one we need to bring ourselves to believe the other, too.
By this logic, it should be just as obligatory to believe the stories of the pagan miracles too, of course.
And the same logic would also mean that we can believe the Holocaust testimonies BECAUSE we can also believe in miracles!
Now some may be beginning to understand more why I have slowed down considerably in finishing off this last part of Bauckham’s book.
No one disbelieves in miracles on the grounds that they “transcend common experience”. They are disbelieved because they do not conform with the laws of nature on which both common and uncommon experiences depend. Contrary to Bauckham’s claim, disbelief has nothing to do with the “exceptionality” of the claim. It has to do with the natural impossibility of the claims.
The very reason people do believe in Holocaust testimonies, despite their exceptionality or “transcendence” of common experience, is because we know what is possible given human nature and history. Genocide was not unique to the Holocaust. What was “unique” was the empowerment of old-fashioned barbarism with modern technology and organizational principles — and the reminder that the most cultured white “race” was still as much human as any other “race” in any other place and time, before and since.
“Holocaust testimonies are not easily appropriated by the historian, since they are prima facie scarcely credible and since they defy the usual categories of historical explanation.” He does not cite this claim or explain it or give examples. He is constructing a straw man as a foil in order to argue that a rationally consistent person who believes in the Holocaust testimonies should believe in “miracles”. Contra Bauckham, historians are not alone in being well able to explain the Holocaust and the experiences of the victims.”
Bauckham further writes:
“In almost everything except the sheer historical exceptionality of the event, the Holocaust and the history of Jesus have nothing in common.”
Well that’s one way to argue for the historicity of the miracles. Tertullian revisited: “I believe BECAUSE it is absurd!” But not quite. Bauckham is arguing that miracle stories are “historically exceptional” — not historically or naturally impossible. One can not accuse Bauckham of being shy of circular logic.
So the fact that Hitler has followed in a long line of murderous monsters from miscellaneous ‘races’ (albeit with the benefit of modern technology and organizational science) gives us reason to believe that Jesus, too, followed in a long line of miracle workers from miscellaneous ‘religions’?? Or were Hitler’s acts so unlike anything ever and so were Jesus’ miracles??
So we can equate the ability to kill huge numbers of people with modern technology with the ability to resurrect them!
And we can equate the difficulty of believing survivors of that genocidal attempt with the difficulty of believing the biblical story of the resurrections from the dead!
That is Bauckham’s argument (true!)
Quick, where’s that whisky!!!