Miracles and Historical Method

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by Tim Widowfield

Is the sun a ball of dung?

Unknown species of Aphodius (Dung-beetle).
Image via Wikipedia

The ancient Egyptians believed that Kephri, a god with the head of a sacred scarab, pushed the sun along its path, just as the dung beetle pushes a ball of dung across the ground. They were convinced that the beetle existed in male form only, and reproduced by fertilizing its dung ball with beetle semen. This life-giving attribute relates to Kephri’s ability to resurrect the sun each morning.

The irrational anti-supernaturalist would dismiss these beliefs out of hand, while the credulous, unlearned person might simply accept them without question. But the reasonable, wise, modern scholar takes the middle road and declares, “How do I know? Neither the scientific method nor the historical-critical method can account for miracles.”

Methodological Naturalism

We call this perspective “methodological naturalism.” It skirts the issue of whether the world in reality is affected by supernatural forces. Rather, it asserts that having only naturalistic tools in our bag, the only things we can measure and be sure of from a scientific standpoint are natural phenomena. We don’t assert radical materialism; we just operate that way.

But let’s be honest. We’re not talking about just any supernatural forces. Egyptologists don’t have to calm down their students by telling them “we’re just not sure” about how the sun moves and whether dung beetles have no wives. No, we invoke methodological naturalism only when existing religions with existing beliefs in the supernatural intersect with historical studies.

We don’t do it for other ancient gods and defunct ancient religions. We don’t do it in modern forensic science. We don’t do it in scientific research. We only do it when we look at ancient texts that are revered by modern people.

If we don’t drill a hole in your head, then how will the demon get out?

Close-Up: Trepanning in Neolithic times
Close-Up: Trepanning in Neolithic times (Photo credit: NeuroWhoa)

Many conservative scholars (e.g., Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd) argue strongly for a new “Open Historical-Critical Method,” wherein we give our ancient “witnesses” the benefit of the doubt when it comes to little things like the resurrection of the dead, but surely they do not also argue for an “Open Theory of Disease.”

Maybe you have a chemical imbalance, or maybe you have a demon. Perhaps you have cataracts, but let’s leave open the possibility of some supernatural creature that’s living inside your eyes.

They wouldn’t argue that, would they? I mean, this is the 21st century, right?

Right? Guys?

Consider, for example, one commonly reported cross-cultural, supernatural phenomenon—demonization. This phenomenon is found throughout history up to the present time in a remarkably wide variety of cultures. There are a number of things that typically characterize demonized people across cultures, and some of these characteristics are hard to explain on strictly naturalistic terms. Interestingly enough, most of these features also parallel New Testament reports of demonization and exorcism. Some of these cross-cultural characteristics are the following:

  • Demonized people are sometimes “seized” by a demon, causing them to fall into seizures or trances. 
  • Demonized people frequently engage in uncontrollable and uncharacteristic outbursts of violent behavior, sometimes exhibiting strength seemingly beyond their natural capacities. 
  • Demonized people sometimes recite information whose acquisition is difficult to explain by natural means. 
  • Demonized people sometimes exhibit a temporary ability to speak in languages they did not learn. 
  • Demonized people on occasion manifest bizarre physical behavior that seems to go beyond anyone’s natural capacities—for example, fantastic facial contortions and physically improbable limb rotations. 
  • People involved in exorcisms sometimes report objects moving, or even flying, in the vicinity of the demonized person. 

To the thinking of most who witness phenomena like these — and the authors of this work count themselves among them — attempts to explain some of these phenomena in strictly natural terms are implausible, to say the least. The same could be said about a host of other supernatural phenomena that “present human experience” includes—if we step outside the shallow pool of experience represented by the naturalistic Western worldview. [emphasis mine]

Boyd, Gregory A.; Eddy, Paul Rhodes (2007-08-01). The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (pp. 67-69), Baker Books, Kindle Edition.

Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, I always thought I’d be living on the moon by now, looking forward to the conquest of the planets — terraforming Mars, exploring Titan for signs of life, mining the asteroids for gold. But here we are in the real future. And what do I find myself doing? I’m fighting a rearguard action against the enemies of the Enlightenment.

Our demon-haunted world

I know we’ve hashed through this subject before on Vridar, but while doing research on Wrede, I was struck yet again by the startling fact that there are those among us who believe in this sort of stuff, and think that people like me are somehow hobbled by our worldview, that we’re tainted by our bias toward reality. I keep coming across badly written summaries of the Messianic Secret in which evangelical scholars and students say that one of “Wilhelm” [sic] Wrede’s “problems” is that he didn’t believe in miracles and assumed that demonic possession was better explained by mental illness. And they point to Boyd, Eddy, and N.T. Wright as scholars who frown on our modern sensibilities — especially our naturalistic bias.

We are all biased

But we all have a naturalistic bias. It’s normal. It’s healthy.

Imagine you’re a mid-level manager at an electronics firm. A guy who works for you, Stan, doesn’t show up to work one day. He doesn’t call in; he just never shows up. You find it odd, because you know he’s a hard worker, and he’s never been out sick in the two years he’s worked for you.

The next day he comes to work. You spot him in the hallway, and motion for him to come into your office. “What gives, Stan?” you ask.

“Well,” says Stan, “you’re never going to believe this.” He checks behind him and closes the office door. “I was abducted!”

“You were . . .”

“I was watching TV the night before last, when suddenly they smashed in through the window. They dragged me onto their ship and took me on a journey through space and time!”


Stan nods. “Them!” Then in a whisper he adds, “Aliens.”

“Now, Stan . . .”

“I’m not lying!” he shouts. “I was gone for what seemed like a year, but now I see it was only a day.”

You stare at each other for several seconds. Stan doesn’t blink.

Breaking the awkward pause you say, “Are you serious?”

“Yes!” he hisses. “They . . . did things to me. Things I don’t want to talk about.”

No amount of questioning can shake Stan from his story. You tell him you need to think about what he has said, and ask him to go back to his cubicle. Later, as you’re walking down the hallway to the vending machines your boss notices you and calls out, “Hey, so where was Stan yesterday?” What do you say? Pick one.

  1. Stan played hooky yesterday and he’s come up with a crazy story. But he’ll probably come clean after lunch.
  2. I worry about Stan. Do you know if Stan has any sort of psychological “issues”? Is he on medication?
  3. Stan was abducted by aliens.
  4. I have no idea.

Keep in mind that you know Stan. He’s normally trustworthy. You’re not getting his story second-hand from an anonymous source. However, it’s far more likely that he’s either lying or he’s lost his marbles. These things happen. People do hallucinate; people do lie.

And let’s be clear: Alien abduction is possible. There really could be aliens visiting our planet. It’s just extremely unlikely. In fact, it’s so unlikely that “I have no idea” is a better answer than “Stan was abducted by aliens.”

Our shared naturalistic bias

By definition miracles are impossible. They are not simply highly improbable; they are events that cannot happen in the natural world without the intrusion of supernatural forces. Iron bars do not float in water. People who have been dead for days do not come back to life. If such things could happen, even rarely, they wouldn’t be miracles. And if alien abduction is highly unlikely (but possible, nonetheless), then resurrection is surely many orders of magnitude much less likely — so unlikely that “I don’t know” will always be a better answer than divine intervention.

Finally, if Stan told you the reason he was late was that he was dead yesterday, you’d make sure he got the help he needs. He’s nuts. Because, let’s face it, in the real world we know what can and cannot happen. We’re all anti-supernaturalists.

Let’s stop tiptoeing around the subject. Let’s stop with the “methodological naturalism” and embrace the natural world. Dung beetles can be male or female. Kephri does not resurrect the sun each morning, and he doesn’t push it along the sky like a ball of poop. People cannot walk on water. Demons are fairy tales. Resurrection is impossible. And if people believe in such things, it isn’t our job to bend over backwards and pretend that we don’t know; it’s their job to come up with the extraordinary proof that backs up their extraordinary claims.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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21 thoughts on “Miracles and Historical Method”

  1. The most fervent opposition I see to probability theory (at least, on the web) is from supernaturalists.

    In the early days of the web I got the same opposition when trying to introduce logical argumentation to discussions revolving around the supernatural. Actually laying out your premises and following them deductively to see where they lead and questioning unfounded premises. They would object to being shown logical fallacies like affirming the consequent because you’re not supposed to apply cold, stuffy logic to things like the supernatural or psi.

    If one is already a critical thinker, then one can already see that the sort of arguments that the alien abduction guy or Eddy & Boyd use is wrong. But using probability theory really shines a light on where exactly they are failing. Most discussions about the supernatural are simply base rate fallacies. This happens when you ignore the probability of your hypothesis before looking at the evidence and only rely on your conditional probability.

    Base rate x conditional probability / probability of the evidence = how probable your hypothesis is given the evidence.

    Sure, given that aliens abducted you or given that the supernatural exists, there would be a high probability of you missing work/demon possession. This is the conditional probability. But if the base rate is zero or near zero, it doesn’t matter. There are other hypotheses that are more mundane that can also explain the evidence even if they have a lower conditional probability. That’s why Arnold was probably right when he said it’s not a tumor. There’s no need to posit an extraordinary (extraordinary = low probability; ordinary = high probability) claim to explain relatively mundane evidence. Not showing up to work is pretty ordinary. Stories about demon possession are also relatively ordinary, and the modern stories of demon possession are already explained by neurological issues.

    In the probability formula above you can see exactly why extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. They would cancel each other out leaving behind the conditional probability. The missing part of that phrase is that the conditional probability also has to be high.

    The example I always give is that of winning the lottery. The probability of winning the lottery is extremely low; it’s extraordinary evidence. Does this mean that if someone wins the lottery they must have cheated? Of course, given that someone cheated to win the lottery then they would win. But what is the probability of cheating to win the lottery period? This is why people aren’t thrown in jail for winning the lottery. Cheating the lottery is much less likely than winning the lottery by chance; in proportion to cheating the lottery, winning the lottery by chance is relatively mundane.

    The existence of the supernatural is highly, highly unlikely. As far as I’m aware, all supernatural beings thus far have been described as disembodied minds that are perpetual motion machines. Where is the energy coming from for these disembodied minds to do their supernatural deeds? Where is the unused energy going? What about the energy that they should be generating by moving around? Supernatural beings basically break every single law of thermodynamics. You would need to posit some supporting hypothesis of unknown/other laws of physics. But then what is the probability of that hypothesis being true? And so on and so forth. There’s no need to posit perpetual motion machines to explain stories of demon possession. How is any other explanation more “implausible” than perpetual motion machines according to Eddy & Boyd? They seem to only be going by their conditional probability and comparing it to other conditional probabilities.

    I would say there is a 1 in a billion chance that the supernatural exists. As a comparison, I would say there’s a 99.9% chance that my mother loves me. There’s uncertainty in both, but just because there’s “uncertainty” doesn’t mean that all uncertainty is equal. That is just the Fallacy of Gray:

    The Sophisticate: “The world isn’t black and white. No one does pure good or pure bad. It’s all gray. Therefore, no one is better than anyone else.”
    The Zetet: “Knowing only gray, you conclude that all grays are the same shade. You mock the simplicity of the two-color view, yet you replace it with a one-color view…”
    —Marc Stiegler, David’s Sling

  2. Ehrman is instructive on just this point:

    “There can be little doubt that whether or not there exist supernatural evil spirits that invade human bodies to make them do all sorts of vile and harmful things, Jesus was widely thought to be able to cast them out, restoring a person to health. Scholars who believe in demons, of course, may well actually think that Jesus did exorcise them. Scholars who don’t believe in them have come up with their own explanations … ”

    From Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet

    The idea that someone who believes in demons is a scholar is a live option in biblical studies.

    1. Replace the word “scholar” with “scientist” and “demons” with “pink unicorns” (or any mythological being that strikes your fancy).

      Hey, it’s a new game! Mad Libs with NT scholar quotes.

      Particle physicists who don’t believe in leprechauns will have to come up with their own explanations . . . “

    2. EHRMAN
      There can be little doubt that whether or not there exist supernatural evil spirits that invade human bodies to make them do all sorts of vile and harmful things, Jesus was widely thought to be able to cast them out, restoring a person to health.

      Just like Elvis was widely thought to be able to do tap-dancing.

      Wait, I hear you say.No members of the Elvis fan club mentioned his tap-dancing?

      Well, Paul, Hebrews, James , 1 Peter , 1 Clement never mention Jesus exorcising people, yet Jesus was ‘widely’ thought to be able to cast out demons.

      1. This is a strange belief. Not very long ago Professor Stevan Davies visited this blog and we unfortunately had a disagreement. I respect the way he has demolished the rationale for assuming Jesus was ‘widely’ thought to be a great teacher, but he appeared to take umbrage when I suggested that there was nothing but “the narrative claim” to lead us to think that Jesus was an exorcist. It’s a story, but who told the story, when, for whom, for what purpose or intent? Another tract tells another story, one about Jesus appearing as a heavenly being to pass on lots of instructions to his followers. Again, who told the story, when, for whom, for what purpose and intent? We have no way of knowing, of course.

        But when I attempted to suggest that the words on the page are only words on a page and that we have no external clue that can help us establish the who or for whom, the what, why, where, of a narrative — and that to merely take for granted the self-testimony of a text as all the assurance we can hope to have and therefore is all the assurance we need is a little bit without validity, or just plain naive — after attempting to suggest all this, there was a certain gruff dismissal, so that was that.

        It’s a story. When a young child I seem to think I recall asking my father if the bedtime story he read to me was true. Dad usually disappointed me, but I still had enough imagination to wonder if at least some part of it might really have happened. To whom do the scholars turn to to ask that question when they read the Gospels?

        1. I don’t have a lot of time right now, but I wonder if the Jesus being known as a healer idea has roots in the Essenes being widely known for healing. Vespasian’s healing (and fulfillment of scripture) also comes to mind, and he was contemporary with the time of gospel production. Whether or not the Essenes, Vespasian and Jesus really did heal, it seems like it was a trendy idea.

        2. Neil, You turn to conclusions arrived at by the Guild’s present historical methods and knowledge. E.g. None of the writings of the NT are witness to the man Jesus, they image the Christ of faith, a mythical figure.

  3. I am just as dismayed by the absurd attempt of those theologians who sit in public universities as “public intellectuals” trying to appear to be so rational by having it both ways. They say “we can say nothing about the resurrection” as historians, or “as historians we cannot explain what exactly happened that persuaded the disciples Jesus was resurrected.” What an anti-intellecutual cop-out! Of course we can say as historians that there was no resurrection and that the belief in the resurrection was no different from ancients believing in any other sorts of miraculous things their various gods did.

    Theologians insist that Christianity and early Christians were unique. If they were unique we would have no way of explaining them at all. All analogies would break down.

    1. NEIL
      Theologians insist that Christianity and early Christians were unique.

      No , they insist that because there are no cases of people turning characters found in scripture into recently deceased criminals, that could not have happened because that would be a unique case.

      And they insist that because it was unprecedented to turn a recently deceased criminal into God’s agent, that must have been what happened, because the lack of precedence proves how embarrassing it was,

  4. New Testament studies, during the period of the 1980’s, was subjected to a radical reconstruction in approach and content under the force of present historical methods and knowledge. I am aware of only several of our top scholars who have fully accommodated to it. Merrill Miller’s “Beginning from Jerusalem -” takes a good number of popular NT scholars to task for yet following the leads of Acts, including Dom Crossan, E. P. Saunders, Paula Fredrickson, Jack T. Sanders, and a dozen others. As outsiders secular critics seem uniformly fixed to traditional approaches..

    The axiom crucial to NT studies: If you begin with Paul, you will misunderstand Jesus. If you begin with Jesus, you will understand Paul differently. To begin NT studies with Paul is to begin with the writings of the NT, the letters of Paul the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the NT. To begin with Jesus is to begin with the Jesus-kerygma. Ogden: “- – today we have to locate this norm (the apostolic witness), not in the writings of the NT but in the earliest stratum of tradition assessable to us.”

    The best treatment of a reconstruction to identify this earliest stratum that I am aware of is set forth in a clear and straightforward manner in the article: “The Real Jesus of the Sayings “Q” Gospel”, by James M. Robinson, online. The portion of the article describing the reconstruction: the first two pages ending with the penultimate paragraph, then to page 11 beginning with section V, How Can One Get From the Sayings Gospel to Us? Continue to end of article. Responsible engagement with this work would seem to require printing, to have it in hand, to permit some level of “intense preoccupation”. We are dealing here with ultimate truth, no place for the superficial reader.

  5. Tim has come up with the named article from a different site from the one I referred to so I need to redescribe my suggestions for a first reading of “the portion of the article describing the reconstruction”.
    From the beginning through the paragraph which begins:”This Old Sayings Gospel – -” scroll to the section: V. How Can we Get From the Sayings Gospel to Us? through to the end of the article..

  6. I’m not sure that it is necessarily a complete anti-intellectual copout. There are lots of things in the past that we cannot know simply because we have insufficient data. Most of the time this is a trivial point because no one is running around claiming that such things can be known by supernatural means. However, when it comes to something like what it was that originally gave rise to the belief that Jesus was raised from the dead we are in somewhat the same case as we are when are faced with Steve’s claim to have been abducted by aliens: we are unable to establish with any degree of certainty what really did happen even though we are justified in assigning an exceedingly low probability to the story that is being told.

    1. Not Steve. Stan.

      The difference in cases is twofold:

      1. Proximity and provenance of the source. With the gospels we have stories of witnesses. We have no access to the actual witnesses.

      2. Stan’s reported event was highly improbable. The Resurrection is by definition impossible, otherwise it wouldn’t be a miracle. It is impossible to reanimate a human two days after brain death. Resurrection would require supernatural intervention. There are any number of naturalistic explanations that can explain how we came into possession of these stories. (By the way, Christianity itself does not ask you to accept to the Resurrection as a rational proposition, but to believe it as an act of faith.)

      The first difference is quantitative. The second is qualitative.

      But the most important point I was trying to get at in my post is that this coy pretense of “golly-gee-we-don’t-know” about miracles comes into play only when dealing with extant religions. We know that Gilgamesh, if the historical figure really existed, was not two-thirds god and one-third man. So why do we hem and haw when we talk about equally absurd claims in the NT?

      And let’s be clear. I’m not saying historians have to hit believers over the head with it. What I’m saying is that we need to stop apologizing for looking for naturalistic answers in the naturalistic world.

      1. Sorry. No intense intended towards Steve.

        I think the problem is an inherent limitation of methodological naturalism. I think the fact that it provides a convenient out for those who are afraid to offend supernaturalists is an unfortunate side effect.

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