Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 18d

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

Bauckham writes:

“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!!!

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 18d”

  1. I can only take this review in small doses. I have been patiently looking for real objections to Bauckham’s argument other than your own intellectual dogmatism and faux outrage at his ‘medieval’ scholarship (actually, I’d like to see you make half the intellectual achievement of the great medieval scholars like Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus or Hugo Grotius). And then to pat yourself on the back for your ‘virtue’ at spewing mindless venom at a superior scholar-well, that’s almost more than I can stand.

    But lest you think I am just spewing venom myself with no substantial objections to offer, you can expect within the next few days a full rebuttal of your posts on Bauckham’s chapter on testimony, at http://www.christiancadre.blogspot.com

  2. Alas, it appears JD has not found time or space to relax.

    I suppose I should speak here on behalf of JD and let anyone interested know that he has posted “the first two” responses to my comments on Bauckham’s book at the site he linked in his above post. He did send a notice to this effect to some unrelated, albeit my most recent post here — and he did say he would welcome comment from me especially if I felt he had misunderstood me. It could be some days at least before I get any opportunity to do so, since I am currently in travel mode in relation to work — and my thoughts are mostly centred right now around issues to do with my metalogger blog.

  3. Neil,

    I am touched that you are so concerned about my rest and relaxation. You will be delighted to know that my rebuttals did not take much time at all and that since I am still on summer vacation I still have plenty of time to laze around reading the final Harry Potter book, watch movies and work out to my heart’s content. Still, you’re one to talk about relaxation, devoting such a long series of posts to one of those ‘medieval fundamentalist’ books you so despise.

  4. Come, let us have a relaxed discussion and intellectual debate together. Why so angry? Why so accusatory? Why so sarcastic? Where’s my venom? What have I spewed? Where’s my dogmatism? Where’s my mindlessness? Where’s my despising? My “faux outrage”?

    Hey, do try and take it easy. Stay clear of those horrid bible authors like Jude and Peter and Paul and John who accuse those who disagree with them of all sorts of nasty vices and bad attitudes. Get to know people as they are, not as you interpret them through some unfriendly biblical passages. Judging people through the Bible has caused enough terrible scourges en masse and on individuals throughout history. Judging and “understanding” other people, especially those who criticize your fundamentals, via the insights of some revealed “divine word”, is Taliban mentality. It’s like ignoring the evidence of science and believing the earth does not move or humanity descends from Adam and Eve because the bible says so. That’s fine for belief, but it doesn’t help one advance one’s understanding of the way the world is and what we are very much.

    You may find nonbelievers, even ex-believers, do sometimes even have respectable motives. But maybe your faith forbids you from admitting that about me if I write a critique of a popular book that seems to have enamored so many Christians.

    Someone else once said my lack of hostile tone indicated a “superciliousness”. Maybe the bible is true when it suggests we sometimes project ourselves, or judge others to be the way we ourselves really are. You may recall I did exactly that when I began reading Bauckham’s book — assuming he took at least some partway rational and humanistic view of history and only slowly being obliged to learn chapter by chapter that he was really arguing for nothing like that at all.

  5. Well, for someone who is trying to warn me against jumping to conclusions about other people you sure seem to think you have me pegged. I made very clear why I got so angry, and it has nothing to do with blind dogma or thinking in the categories of those ‘horrid bible authors’ like Jude and Peter. I got angry because I think you have grossly misrepresented and misunderstood Richard Bauckham’s argument and you have attributed to him attitudes and characteristics which do not match anything I read in that book. It’s like when scientists get so frustrated with ID supporters who constantly misinterpret what they say.

    I have certainly come across nonbelievers and ex-believers with respectable motives. I have quite a few nonbelieving friends who I greatly respect and admire. But in my ‘conversations’ with you all I have got in return is condescension, constant accusations of close-mindedness and exaggerated rhetoric about how horrible religion is.

    And I wouldn’t have cared less about your review of Bauckham if I didn’t know that there are people out there who read your blog and very uncritically pronounce that you have ‘destroyed’ Bauckham’s argument.

    It’s very sad when skeptics try to take the moral high ground and paint themselves as free, enlightened, critical thinkers while thinking that all religious people have the wool pulled over their eyes and are blinded by dogma and hatred. Jesus had the right response to that: take the beam out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to take the mote out of your brother’s.

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