Anti-supernaturalism versus anti-rationalism in biblical studies

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by Neil Godfrey

I am expressing the impressions of an outsider, a layman, who has read more than an average layperson has read of biblical scholarly literature. One paradox that struck me very early on in my reading was something I would never dream of finding in any other reputable scholarly discipline.

There are biblical scholars who write entirely from a secular, rationalist, naturalist viewpoint. They appear to restrict their discussions to colleagues of a like-minded predisposition.

There are biblical scholars who include in their scholarly output expressions that lend some level of credence to the miraculous and divine intervention. That may take the form of anything from arguing outright for a miraculous event (as N. T. Wright does) to accepting the theoretical possibility or remote mathematical probability (e.g. Ehrman) of a miraculous event. The less mathematically or logically gifted among these simply say that they will allow for an “unknown” or “unexplained/inexplicable” event.

Then there are scholars who express no such sentiment themselves but nonetheless engage in serious scholarly discussion with those who do.

In what other discipline do either the second or third category of scholars exist? If they are known to exist, I would be interested to know also the scholarly impact such scholars have in their field.

Is not arguing for the mere possibility of the miraculous (even if at reduced probability ratios) in any serious post Enlightenment, rationalist area of study deserving of immediate censure? In other fields what room is there for a scholar whose hypotheses are stretched to include the possibility of the supernatural?

Why let the threat of “You have an anti-supernaturalistic bias” worry anyone? Of course it’s good to have an anti-supernaturalistic bias. That’s the bias that got us out of the Dark Ages or superstition and ignorance!

How can any serious rationalist flirt with probabilities (theoretical or mathematical) of miracles? The probability of a resurrection may be set at so many billion to one. Why? Why play the supernaturalists’ game? There is no more probability of a resurrection than there is of Hubble finding a teacup and saucer orbiting Saturn or of my mentally ill friend being possessed by a demon. Doctors may give a patient certain odds of recovery. They don’t (I hope) give odds that a client may have a supernatural cause of a disease.

There are certain things that sit outside the realm of probability. Probability only makes sense within the laws and experience of what is probable. Probability is ascertained by extrapolations from facts of experience. That excludes outright the probability that there really exists a pixie under a toadstool in your back yard.

But this nonsense is encouraged by scholars who accept the works of colleagues who peddle such pseudo-scholarly gobbledygook. Here is a pertinent few words from Niels Peter Lemche that I like. I have bolded some of the text. Fuller quotations and a link to their source can be found here.

Now days, biblical scholarship is dominated by American scholars, presenting a much more colorful picture. Historical-critical scholarship has no monopoly like it used to have in Europe; academic institutions may be – according to European standards – critical or conservative, but in contrast to the European tradition, these very different institutions will communicate, thus lending respectability also to the conservative position.

This definitely represents a danger to biblical scholarship as an academic discipline in the European tradition. Entertaining a dialogue with an opponent who has different goals from the ones of the critical scholar means the same as diluting one’s own position: in the universe of the critical scholar, there can be no other goal than the pursuit of scholarship – irrespective of where his investigations may lead him or her.

Can anyone truly be so naive as to think that a scholar who believes Jesus is alive today or who is prepared to accept the possibility of miracles in his or her heart (though poorly “hiding” behind statements like “something unknown” happened to explain the Easter experience) has the same ultimate goals as a secularist or naturalist “critical scholar”? Is the former ever seriously likely to question their fundamental assumptions or hypotheses if it means jettisoning completely all attachments to the supernatural?

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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Anti-supernaturalism versus anti-rationalism in biblical studies”

  1. “In its place [i.e., the traditional historical-critical method] we have advocated an open historical-critical method that, among other things, is open to the possibility that evidence from history might require scholars to conclude that an event that defies plausible naturalistic explanation—a super-natural occurrence—has happened.”

    Boyd, Gregory A.; Eddy, Paul Rhodes (2007-08-01). The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (p. 90). Baker Books. Kindle Edition.

    To your point, Neil, is there any other discipline where tenured, esteemed academics can publish stuff like this and be taken seriously?

    If we experience an event defies plausible a naturalistic explanation in the real world, we will presume our witnesses or our instruments are in error before we would ever claim that little green men, elves, Apollo, or Yahweh is responsible. Is that an unwarranted assumption? Of course not, because instruments can be faulty and our senses are easily fooled. Humans make mistakes in perception and judgment all the time. In science we discard such data points as outliers. In forensics we set them aside as either noise or nonsense. In history, we assume they’re myths or legends.

    Beyond all that, there is always insanity. I’m not trying to be funny. How many people in asylums think they are Jesus? It’s almost certain that none of them actually is, and we take their protestations to the contrary as a sign of delusion. We’re not helping anyone get closer to the truth (or to an effective treatment plan) by pretending that we’re keeping an open mind by entertaining that tiniest sliver of a possibility that John Smith from Fresno is really Jesus.

    My point is this: Before resorting to supernatural explanations, there are any number of natural explanations that are more likely.
    “A low posterior probability of any hypothesis, including a miracle hypothesis, is no sufficient reason for rejecting it. It is rational to go on accepting and using a low-probability hypothesis as long as there is no better explanation for the evidence.”

    Boyd, Gregory A.; Eddy, Paul Rhodes (2007-08-01). The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (p. 90). Baker Books. Kindle Edition., quoting A. Tucker, “Miracles, Historical Testimonies, and Probabilities,” History and Theory 44 (2005): 381.

    The only rational response to such nonsense is, “No, it isn’t.” It is irrational to think that a supernatural event is the best explanation for a claim found in an ancient book by an anonymous author. I say this unequivocally. Even if you yourself witnessed a bodily resurrection today, it is far more likely that you’ve been fooled, you’ve misunderstood what you saw, or you’re hallucinating. Why? Because such things happen all the time, while we have no corroborated record of a bodily resurrection ever happening.

    Finally, there is no shame in saying, “I don’t know.” If you can’t come up with a plausible explanation for an event (and supernatural events, being impossible, are not plausible), then it’s OK to admit you don’t understand it. Pleading ignorance is at least honest. The Volcano God Theory was never a useful theory, even before we understood plate tectonics. In fact it was less than useful, because it explained nothing and it was wrong.

    This isn’t even “hard math” like Bayes’ Theorem. So what’s the excuse for this silliness among educated adults who surely must know better?

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