Tag Archives: Miracles

Stories of Walking on Water — Looking for Sources

In The History of the Synoptic Tradition by Rudolf Bultmann there is the following passage beginning page 236. But there’s a catch. I have not had the opportunity to track down any of the references I have cast in bold type — removing the bold as we locate them as per the comments. If you happen to be a person with an opportunity to identify any of those bolded references and point to where I can locate/read/translate them you are more than welcome to share that information in the comments section below.

Dio Chrysostom: “Socrates,” said he, “you know perfectly well that of all men under the sun that man is most powerful and in might no whit inferior to the gods themselves who is able to accomplish the seemingly impossible — if it should be his will, to have men walk dryshod over the sea, to sail over the mountains, to drain rivers dry by drinking — or have you not heard that Xerxes, the king of the Persians, made of the dry land a sea by cutting through the loftiest of the mountains and separating Athos from the mainland, and that he led his infantry through the sea, riding upon a chariot just like Poseidon in Homer’s description? And perhaps in the same way the dolphins and the monsters of the deep swam under his raft as the king drove along.”

There must also have been stories of walking on water in Hellenism. Admittedly it is hyperbole when Dio Chrysost. speaks of the power of Xerxes, that when he so wishes he is able πεζεύεσθαι μέν την θάλατταν, πλεϊσθαι δέ τά δρη. But the capacity to do so is often attributed to demons. P. Berol., I, 120 thus describes the power of the δαίμων πάρεδρος: πήξει δέ ποταμούς καί θάλασσα[ν συντ]όμως(?) καί οπως ένδιατρέχης (Reitzenstein, Hellenist. Wundererzaehlungen, p. 125). Also A. Dieterich, Abraxas, p. 190, 13: εγώ είμι ό έν ούρανω σχολήν έχων φοιτώμενός τε έν ύδατι, and on another tablet (Rhein. Mus., 55, 261, cp. 264): qui solus per mare transis. But according to Lucian, Philops., 13 the same things are reported of human wonder workers: είδες . . . τόν Ύπερβόρεον άνδρα πετάμενον ή έπ’ι τοϋ ϋδατος βεβηκότα. Further material may be found in A. Gercke, Jahrb. f . Philol. Suppl. X X II, 1895, pp. 205ff.; A. Abt, ‘Die Apologie des Apuleius von Madaura und die antike Zauberei’, Religionsgesch. Vers, u. Vorarb., IV, 2, 1908, pp. 129, 2. We may add from the Christian tradition: Hist. Aegypti monachorum XI, 18, p. 58; cp. XX, 16, p. 75, Preuschen; Ps. Cypr., Confess., 12.1 Indian parallels also come up for consideration in this regard, and there are stories of walking or flying over the water, which could even have influenced Hellenistic literature: cp. R. Garbe, Indien und das Christentum, 1914, pp. 57f. Most notable is a Buddhist parallel to Matt. 14 28-31 (the text is in J. Aufhauser, Jesus und Buddha, Kl. Texte, no. 157, p. 12). It tells of a disciple ‘who wanted to visit Buddha one evening and on his way found that the ferry boat was missing from the bank of the river Aciravati. In faithful trust in Buddha he stepped on to the water and went as if on dry land to the very middle of the stream. Then he came out of his contented meditation on Buddha in which he had lost himself, and saw the waves and was frightened, and his feet began to sink. But he forced himself to become wrapt in his meditation again and by its power he reached the far bank safely and reached his master.’ (Garbe, pp. 56f. and Buddhist. Maerchen, pp. 46f.) Garbe thinks that the gospel story was borrowed from the Buddhist tradition.2

Jesus Walking on Water
Jesus Walking on Water (Ivan Aivazovsky)

1 In the language of Christian edification this miracle motif may have attained a symbolic significance and the walking on the water become the treading of the mythical waters of death, which Christ and his mystic followers achieve. Cp. Dibelius (Formgeschichte, p. 86) who adduces Od. Sol. 39: ‘He walked and went over them on foot, and his footprints stayed on the water and were not obliterated. . . . And a path was prepared for those who followed him.’ What the relation of Mand. Ginza R., II, 1, pp. 4ggf. Lidzb. is to this (Christ the seducer says, ‘I walk over the water, Come with me; you shall not drown’) can well be left undecided here.

2 Cp. W. Brown, The Indian and Christian Miracles of Walking on the Water, 1928. Saintyves, who again traces these stories to cultic origins (initiation rites) amasses a wealth of material, [P. Saintyves,  Essais de Folklore Biblique, 1923], pp. 307-63. Cp. also Indianermaerchen aus Nordamerika, p. 31; Turkestan. Maerchen, p. 69; Muellenhoff, Sagen, etc., p. 351.

I did locate the reference to Brown, Indian and Christian Miracles… — it is available on archive.org –  http://archive.org/details/MN40274ucmf_2


Bultmann, Rudolf Karl. 1963. The History of the Synoptic Tradition. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Dio Chrysostom. n.d. “Discourse 3.” LacusCurtius. Accessed March 13, 2019. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Dio_Chrysostom/Discourses/3*.html#ref11.


“In Most Worlds, You Don’t Even Exist” — Miracles and Probability

Jesus Walking on Water
Jesus Walking on Water (Ivan Aivazovsky)

Recently, while watching our favorite apoplectic antimythicist discuss “The Case of the Historical Jesus,” something the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature said caught my ear. Here’s what he said:

Historians tend to discount miracle claims and those kinds of things right off the bat, because even if they were to investigate them, the things that people call miracles tend to be things that are inherently improbable . . . But talking about things like walking on water, turning water into wine — most historians won’t even bother discussing those things, because the most a historian ever does is say something is probable. And a historian is never going to tell you that something inherently improbable is probable. And so those kinds of things can be set aside from the outset. (James McGrath, 2016)

Actually, two things drew my attention here. The first is the term inherently improbable, and the second is the claim that historians set aside miracle claims.

Inherently improbable

If you search among books, articles, and academic papers, you’ll find the term inherently improbable used quite frequently in the sciences, liberal arts, religious studies, and the law. But in philosophy (especially logic), you’ll also find people writing about it with some ambivalence.

What exactly do we mean by inherent probability? In his book, Acceptable Premises: An Epistemic Approach to an Informal Logic Problem, James Freeman cites John Nolt’s definition. read more »

Why were Jesus’ miracles told “plainly” in the Bible but “fancifully” in the Apocryphal Gospels?

One common argument of Christian apologists — both lay and scholarly — in favour of the Gospel accounts being based on “authentic” historical traditions and written by authors motivated by, or limited to, telling “the truth” as they understood it, is that the miracles of Jesus are told “plainly”, “matter-of-factly”, without any garish flourish. Miracles of Jesus in the much later “apocryphal gospels”, on the other hand, are rightly said to be told quite differently and with much embellishment that serves to impress readers with the wonder and awesomeness of Jesus’ power.

The difference, we are often told, is testimony to the historical basis of the Gospel record.

I used to respond to this challenge with a dot-point list of miracle types. What? Are you really suggesting that walking on water or stilling a storm or rising from the dead are not “fanciful” acts?

But I was trying to kid myself to some extent. Of course they are fanciful, but being fanciful in that sense is the very definition of a miracle, however it is told.

The point the apologist makes is not that miracles are indeed miraculous, but that the Bible relates them most simply and matter-of-factly quite unlike the presentations of miracles we read in the apocryphal gospels.

Read the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and one quickly comes face to face with an infant from a horror movie. A child strikes mockers dead on the spot for mocking. His art-work steps out into reality and disbelievers are struck dead or blinded with no thought of asking questions later.

And the Gospel of Peter knows how to narrate a resurrection. None of this “Joseph sealed the tomb and they all went off to keep the sabbath and by the time Sunday-morning came around . . . .”. Nope. Let’s have Jesus emerge from the tomb with guards being awakened and rushing to call their commander to witness the spectacle, and great angels descending and re-ascending with their charge fastened between them and his head exalted through the clouds, all accompanied by a great voice from heaven and responses from below . . . . Now that’s a resurrection scene!

There is a difference in tone between the miracles of Jesus in the canonical gospels and those found in their apocryphal counterparts.

The apologist — even the scholarly one as I mentioned above — jumps on this difference as evidence that the “plain and simple” narration of the gospels is evidence of intent to convey downright facts.

Unfortunately, this conclusion is evidence of nothing more profound than the propensity of the faithful to fall into the fallacy of “the false dichotomy“. read more »

Miracles and Historical Method

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? read more »

Why Jesus healed the leper in anger — another explanation?

The second healing miracle in the Gospel of Mark was that of the leper.

And there came a leper to him, beseeching him, and kneeling down to him, and saying unto him, If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus, moved with anger (orgistheis), put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean. (Mark 1:40-41)

Most Bible translations follow manuscripts that read splanchistheis, meaning compassion, in place of orgistheis (anger) for obvious reasons. But the authors of Matthew and Luke who copied Mark here omit this word, strongly suggesting that what they found in the original also sounded offensive to them.

And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.  And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. (Matthew 8:2-3)

I don’t think the Gospel of Mark was written in some sort of relationship with Marcionism.  But a comment about the motives for Jesus healing people that I came across in Sebastian Moll’s The Arch-Heretic Marcion cannot avoid opening up the question of what might have been behind Mark’s original text.

Moll writes that Jesus healed not so much to help mankind but in order to thumb his nose at the Creator God. (Marcion taught that Jesus came from an Alien God who was all good, a higher God than the Creator God.) He came to defy the creator God who owned mankind and to purchase humans from that god in order to belong to the Good God.

Many parts of Tertullian’s discussion of Marcion’s Gospel demonstrate this. When we consider Christ’s attitude towards the Sabbath for example (Lk. 6:1-11), Marcion believed that Christ attacked the Sabbath “out of hatred” (odio). We can detect a similar notion in the story of the healing of the leper (Lk. 5:12-14). Not with one word does Tertullian mention Christ’s healing of the leper as an act of love or goodness in Marcion’s view. The reason [Marcion] treated this matter “with special attention” (attentius) was rather his wish to emphasise that Christ performed this healing as someone who is “hostile to the Law” (aemulus legis). The term aemulus is particularly interesting in this context, for it is exactly the emotion of aeumulatio (jealousy/resentment) which the Marcionites attribute . . . to the Creator. (pp. 67-8)

As I said, I cannot find any reason to attribute Mark’s gospel to any sort of dialogue with Marcion, but the coincidence of Mark here attributing the attitude of Jesus toward healing as was taught by Marcion is interesting.

 

 

 

Why Matthew changed the way Mark wrote about Jairus’ daughter and the hemorrhaging woman

(Edited with additional headings and discussion of the different kinds of Jesus portrayed - an hour after original posting.)
(Again edited 8 Dec 2011)
Ressurection of Jairus' daughter
Image via Wikipedia

As someone rightfully said in relation to my earlier post on this theme, Matthew’s “Misunderstanding” of Mark’s Miracle Stories,

It’s interesting what you can discover when you closely compare the two. Nothing beats a close reading of the texts.

In discussion following a recent post the question was raised why Matthew lacks Mark’s reference to Jairus being a synagogue ruler. (He also omits the name Jairus).

I don’t know if I have a definitive answer to that particular question, but in searching for possible explanations I did notice a number of other interesting differences between the two miracle narratives that indicate quite different agendas of the two authors. One detects not an interest in recording historical detail but in creating a Jesus who fulfils certain quite different expectations and narrative functions. (This is a tendency well known to historical Jesus scholars. But the implications for historicism or mythicism is a separate question from what I am addressing here. I am interested in understanding the nature of the Gospels more fully, in this instance by comparing the way two of them treat a particular narrative.) read more »

Jesus out-spitting the emperor

An interesting thing happened to me while I was on my way to write this post this evening. (I was intending to expand on the discussion relating to another post but now have something much more interesting to write about.) I saw a reference online to a scholarly article that was suggesting that Mark’s account of Jesus’ healing the blind man by spitting on him may have been written in response to the rumour circulating that Vespasian had not long before performed the same miracle by spitting. Was Mark drawing the readers’ attention to a contrast between Vespasian using the miracle to declare his universal authority and Jesus using it to lead into his message about humble service?

Eric Eve of Oxford had the article published in New Testament Studies in 2008, titled “Spit in your eye: the blind man of Bethsaida and the blind man of Alexandria“.

Eric Eve knows scholars have offered multiple reasons to consider the story a fiction: read more »

Reasons to entertain a smidgen of doubt about Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus

Is this story a unique historical event that was related by eyewitnesses or do we have evidence that the author was basing this narrative on a similar story or stories well known to him? What is the more rational belief: that the dead rise or that authors imitate and adapt stories well known to them?

2 Kings 4:8-37

Mark 5:21-43

The woman grasps Elisha by the feet

Jairus falls at the feet of Jesus

Her son has just died

His daughter is at the point of death

The mother has faith all will be well

The father has faith all will be well

While Elisha and the mother are travelling to the child Elisha’s servant brings news that the child is dead.

While Jesus and the father are walking to the child Jairus’ servants bring news that the child is dead.

Elisha makes himself alone in the room with the child.

Jesus puts all the others out of the room so only he and his closest associates are with the child.

Elisha makes physical contacts with the child and he is restored to life

Jesus takes the child by the hand and she is restored to life

The woman responds with worship

The parents are amazed.

There’s more

John Shelby Spong observes even additional points of contact between the stories than I have listed there, such as the fact that in both cases the one requesting the healing had to travel some distance to find Elisha/Jesus who was walking that way, and that there were delays in each case before their arrival.

See also another set of details set out in a table on Michael Turton’s commentary.

Uncharacteristic control over crowds

While imitating the Elisha story the author of Mark’s gospel has found it necessary to break his habit of showing Jesus at the mercy of crowds. Until now Jesus has been forced out into the wilderness or into a boat because of crowds flocking to see him (1:45; 3:9). But with the Elisha story as his template he now has Jesus quite capably commanding the crowds not to follow him on his way to Jairus’ house (5:37) and once there he even “puts” others out of a room (5:40) so he and his closest can be alone with the child.

Some people experienced with crowd management issues might consider Jesus’ crowd control demonstrations a greater miracle than raising the dead. read more »

Reasons not to doubt the historicity of Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus

In Chapter 7, I give reasons why there should be no doubt that the whole of this healing narrative [the raising of the daughter of Jairus in Mark 5] is literally true, and that it is dependent ultimately on an eyewitness account by one of the inner circle of the three of the Twelve, who were present throughout, and who accordingly heard and transmitted exactly what Jesus said. (p. 109 of Jesus of Nazareth by Maurice Casey; a footnote here directs the reader to pages 268-69 in that chapter 7.)

Things about Jesus in the Gospels that are “literally true” — that is what this historical Jesus scholar believes he can establish. Not only that, Casey will give reasons why there should be no doubt that we find this healing recorded in the Gospels because of the direct eyewitness testimony of one of Jesus’ own disciples. read more »

Historical proof that Isis healed more than Jesus

Originally, the goddess Isis was portrayed as ...
Image via Wikipedia

First of all, let’s apply sound historical method, that of biblical historians which is no different, so biblical historians assure us, from historical methods practiced by any other historians.

So to begin with, we will dispense with that cynical, hypersceptical, anti-supernaturalistic, post-Enlightenment hermeneutic of suspicion, and follow the dictates of the progressive, pre-Enlightenment (middle-dark age?), Christian ethic of the hermeneutic of charity. This means that if we read a statement by a fellow brother or sister then it is only a matter of civility at the very least to give his or her words the benefit of the doubt. That means that we can assume that the author of our text was, like ourselves of course, zealous to tell nothing but the truth, and to convey accurate historical information for the edification of their own and future generations.

Next, we will bring into play various criteria of authenticity as they may apply to our text in question.

So here is the text. It was written around fifty years before Jesus began his preaching and healing career by Diodorus Siculus. I copy the passage from the LacusCurtius site:

In proof of this, as they say, they advance not legends, as the Greeks do, but manifest facts; for practically the entire inhabited world is their witness, in that it eagerly contributes to the honours of Isis because she manifests herself in healing. For standing above the sick in their sleep she gives them aid for their diseases and works remarkable cures upon such as submit themselves to her; and many who have been despaired of by their physicians because of the difficult nature of their malady are restored to health by her, while numbers who have altogether lost the use of their eyes or of some other part of their body, whenever they turn for help to this goddess, are restored to their previous condition.

Now how is a historian to respond to this testimony?

Note that here we have a historian appealing to “proof” and “manifest facts” as opposed to mere “legends”, and above all to “the entire inhabited world [as] their witness”! Obviously no historian could have written such words, and to have others preserve them until this very day, if there had been any attempt at exaggeration or outright falsehood. Obviously there were witnesses, or if you are hypersceptical, readers who were not witnesses who would obviously have called the author to account for such a statement unless it were known to be true! read more »

3 types of miracles: Mark’s, Matthew’s and Mary MacKillop’s

Comparing miracles in Mark and Matthew

Getting physical

The first healing miracle narrated in the earliest canonical gospel (Mark) says that Jesus physically lifted the patient up before she was healed:

But Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick of a fever, and anon they tell him of her. And he came and took her by the hand, and lifted her up; and immediately the fever left her, and she ministered unto them. (Mark 1:30-31)

For the author of the Gospel of Matthew, who copied much of his material from the Gospel of Mark, this was apparently not a fitting way for a god on earth to do things. To his mind, a mere touch ought to suffice:

And when Jesus was come into Peter’s house, he saw his wife’s mother laid, and sick of a fever. And he touched her hand, and the fever left her: and she arose, and ministered unto them. (Matthew 8:14-15)

Through spiritual warfare

The second healing miracle in the Gospel of Mark was of the leper.

And there came a leper to him, beseeching him, and kneeling down to him, and saying unto him, If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus, moved with anger (orgistheis), put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean. (Mark 1:40-41)

Bible translations follow other manuscripts that read splanchistheis, meaning compassion, in place of orgistheis (anger) for obvious reasons. But the authors of Matthew and Luke who copied Mark here omit this word, strongly suggesting that what they found in the original also sounded offensive to them.

And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.  And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. (Matthew 8:2-3)

Newcomers to this original text (according to more than one criteria used, including priority being given to the more difficult reading) of Mark’s gospel will find it easier to embrace when they recall Mark’s Jesus from the beginning is unlike any found in the other gospels. Thus from the first Mark’s Jesus is possessed (entered into, not “lighted upon” as in Matthew) by the spirit at baptism and is then “cast out” by that same spirit into the wilderness. At every point subsequently this Jesus is seen breaking apart the present “cosmos”, or world order — whether by

  • casting out demons with violence and torment,
  • wrestling with the very elements of nature (waves, storms, wind),
  • restoring physical wellness by strange charms, physical applications or conflict with contrary (demonic, spiritual) forces in the background
  • denying death through crucifixion.

Healing only Many or healing All?

Gospel of Mark’s next reference to healing is a less personal en masse occasion:

And at even, when the sun did set, they brought unto him all that were diseased, . . . And all the city was gathered together at the door. And he healed many that were sick of divers diseases, . . . (Mark 1:32-34)

Matthew’s author is apparently offended by the suggestion in Mark that of “all” who came to Jesus only “many” were healed, so he changed that to a more satisfying:

When the even was come, they brought unto him many that were possessed with devils: and he cast out the spirits with his word, and healed all that were sick . . . (Matthew 8:16)

We get the picture

Where Jesus in the Gospel of Mark heals either

  • through strenuous or dramatic physical actions and applications
  • or through conflict with spiritual ‘attitudes’ and forces,
  • or heals only “many” but never “all” of those who come to him,

Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew heals like a serenely supreme being

  • with a mere touch,
  • or in a context where “bad attitudes” and evil forces are nothing more than a foil for the goodness of Jesus,
  • or he heals all who come to him, leaving none behind.

Matthew was helping Mark’s Jesus evolve into the supremely aloof being we associate with him today. Mark’s Jesus was the being who came to tear apart and overturn the old order as one possessed from the beginning. Matthew’s Jesus was heavenly aloof and all compassionate while in the flesh and only had to show up for evil fell to fall away before him or for all to be healed.

Enter Mary MacKillop read more »

Eddy and Boyd – miracles and global human experience

Continuing from previous post’s notes on Eddy’s and Boyd’s The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition . . . .

Comparing the world views of ancients and moderns

It is difficult to get a clear handle on exactly what Eddy and Boyd are arguing against when they complain that “modern Western academics” are misguided over the differences between ancient and modern worldviews and beliefs in miracles.

They charge “modern Western academics” with falsely believing that there is a huge divide between ancient and modern worldviews.

A False Dichotomy

. . . We are told that the reason people in the past could believe in and claim to experience miracles, while modern Western people supposedly cannot, is because, unlike us, ancient people were “naive and mythologically minded.” Ancient people supposedly had little or no awareness of the laws of nature . . . (p.64)

Ancient people “supposedly had little or no awareness of the laws of nature . . .”? I would have been interested in reading how E and B might have explained exactly what they meant here.

It is through generalized statements like this that E and B are actually the ones who are constructing “a false dichotomy”. Many major academic studies have been dedicated to understanding the minds and worldviews of both ancient and present day peoples. It is simply nonsense to suggest that when someone speaks generally of a modern worldview based on a scientific paradigm contrasting with worldviews from a pre-scientific era, they are to be somehow blamed for failing to understand the extents and nuances of human experiences. The former claim is a generic claim about social norms in a modern western culture, while the latter is a statement about actual behaviours and beliefs at an experiential level. The fact that social institutions (not just a narrow slice of academia) legitimize the scientific world view for social educational purposes is a separate issue from the personal beliefs of many individuals and sub-groups of society.

From the same “modern Western academics” about whom Eddy and Boyd complain are out of touch with “global human experience” come sociological and anthropological studies demonstrating the universality of beliefs in the supernatural. (See Human Universals compiled by Donald E Brown.)

So the studies of “modern Western academics” belie E and B’s sweeping generalization about “modern Western academics”.

Is present human experience on a global scale saturated with experiences of the supernatural?

Of course not. Unless one defines an experience of the supernatural to be whatever one believes to be a supernatural experience.

I can say that present human experience on a global scale is saturated with untimely tragic deaths, with weddings, with buying and selling, with home-building. Such experiences are open for all to see and witness. And we can all read and hear of people reporting supernatural experiences and fulfillments of astrological or other occult predictions. But of course the latter category merely represents beliefs about experiences.

Eddy and Boyd obviously know this, and concede that most such reports can be explained naturally.

Thus, a recovery from an illness or a pay-rise can be both be “experiences of the supernatural” to one who believes they are answers to prayer. The same people often, I think, also consider failure to recover from an illness as a negative answer to prayer, so even that may be defined as a supernatural experience, too. Or even a calamity, like a car crash, as a message or punishment from the supernatural.

And in Asia countless people offer prayers before Buddhist and other shrines, presumably very often in thanksgiving for “supernatural” favours.

And many people believe that their gambling wins and losses are the results of omens, charms or little rituals. I suppose they could also be defined as “supernatural experiences”.

So Eddy and Boyd don’t put the proposition quite like that, but rather as:

. . . present human experience on a global scale is saturated with reported experiences of the supernatural.

Well, of course. And they cite no “modern Western academic” who disagrees with THAT claim, despite their laboured efforts to give  just that impression.

And of course the difference between reported experiences of the supernatural and actual experiences of the supernatural is the same as difference between those believing a cure from an illness was an answer to prayer and those believing it was a natural or medically assisted process. In other words, the issue at stake is not the experience itself, but the belief about the experience.

Eddy and Boyd are in fact asserting nothing more than that present human experience on a global scale is saturated with supernatural interpretations of experiences.

Are academics really out of touch when they assign different interpretations to such experiences? One presumes that levels of education would correspond with levels of understanding about how the world works.

Eddy and Boyd are not really arguing about experiences, but interpretations of experiences. Their choice of words is misleading or confusing, however. Consider their complaints against “secular academics”. E and B charge them with defining “‘present human experience’ too narrowly” (p.67). But instead of pointing to the vast areas of human experience that their “narrow definitions” exclude, they can only bring themselves to point to what is “commonly reported” across cultures. So it seems the bottom line of Eddy and Boyd’s complaint is that “modern secular academics” do not include “common reports” or interpretations of experiences on the same level as common experiences themselves. It was once commonly reported that left handed people and eccentric women were in league with evil powers. It was once commonly reported that the earth was flat.

A demon haunted world

Eddy and Boyd don’t cite cross cultural experiences with good angelic beings, nor even cross cultural experiences of a single deity. I would have found such a discussion more interesting than the one they do cite. They cite instead the “cross-cultural” report of “demonization” as evidence that the vast bulk of humanity experience the supernatural. (I thought demonization means to actually turn something or someone into a demon, literally or figuratively, and that the more appropriate term for what E&B are describing is “demon possession”. But I’ll use E and B’s term, assuming they know the literature on this topic better than I do.)

E and B list some of the “cross-cultural characteristics” of this “demonization” (p.68):

  • being seized by a demon so that they fall into a trance or seizure
  • frequent outbursts of violent behaviour, sometimes exhibiting strength beyond the normal
  • the ability to recite information that the one demonized is not expected to know
  • the ability to speak some words of a language they did not learn
  • the ability to contort ones muscles and limbs in an unnatural way
  • objects move and fly near the demonized person

There is nothing new here, and these characteristics might have been more persuasive if E&B had taken the trouble to actually cite the details of just one report of the several they footnote that actually defy possible natural explanation. Disappointingly, on page 70 they write:

We do not wish to dispute that some, if not the majority, of these reports may be explained in naturalistic terms.

They continue:

But what justification is there for assuming that all such reports of the supernatural can be explained in naturalistic terms?

Firstly, there are no “reports of the supernatural” in any of this. There are only reports of bizarre and seemingly inexplicable human experiences that are interpreted by some observers as being caused by demons. In a pre-scientific age lightning and earthquakes and illness and even accidents were interpreted in many quarters as being caused by supernatural forces. Many people even today still interpret them the same way.

In our scientific age we still have much to learn. We don’t look at each remaining unsolved question and assume it is unsolved because it is forever beyond the possibility of a natural explanation. Maybe we will even find more evidence in time that not all problem events were fully (or fully honestly) reported. Reporting shortcomings, or even fraud, are not entirely unknown.

But back to the point. If most can be explained naturalistically, then why not single out just one that must surely prove not to be the case for us all to see and consider? Why resort to an argument from credulity? If I keep hearing of alien abductions so often, do I really suddenly encounter one that is so totally different from the rest that it is in a class of its own? If so, then let’s cut to the chase and identify and discuss those singular cases only!

Secondly, if most of the cases of the above behaviours can be explained in naturalistic terms, what is left of Eddy and Boyd’s complaint that “modern scholars” define “present human experience too narrowly”? If most cases can be naturalistically explained, then E&B’s complaint surely falls flat.

The fact that some academics themselves believe in the supernatural is neither here nor there, notwithstanding E&B’s efforts to see this as significant. Time and peer-review assessments and investigations will test their claims.

Epistemological humility?

After having shown the poverty of postmodernism for establishing “truth and fact” in historiography, E&B turn to postmodernism to argue that non-secular beliefs should be treated on an equal footing with religious ones. They are of the view that to do otherwise is a kind of “cultural imperialism” and smacks of intellectual arrogance.

I suggest that the secular worldview is really the spin-off from it being thoroughly and repeatedly tested and proven in the field of the natural sciences. This success rate gives a priori validity to approaching the rest of human experience through the same mindset.

A supernatural worldview has no comparable a priori validity to appeal to.

“The world view” and an American view?

E&B disagree strongly that the “Western worldview” is basically a naturalistic one. They contend that only a narrow clique of secular academic culture has embraced naturalism. “The majority of Western people”, they claim, are as believing and experiencing of the supernatural as the ancients ever were. They cite polls taken within the United States to support this claim (p.74). Over 80% of Americans believe God performs miracles today. This is apparently enough for E&B to believe that  over 80% of humanity experience “miracles”. They do not clarify if they would include a pay-rise as a miracle if that supposedly followed someone’s prayer request. But even if they mean only miracles of the kind where the dead are raised, it is good to keep such statistics in global perspective:

There have, for years, been comparative studies of religious fanaticism and factors that correlate with it. By and large, it tends to decline with increasing industrialization and education. The US, however, is off the chart, ranking near devastated peasant societies. About 1/2 the population believe the world was created a few thousand years ago . . . (Chomsky, 1999)

Eddy and Boyd, The Jesus Legend. Overview impressions.

Eddy and Boyd’s book, The Jesus Legend, reminds me of Intelligent Design literature. It is an attempt to guise faith in serious sounding academic garb. While ID aspires to be accepted as an equal explanation beside evolutionary theory, The Jesus Legend aspires to be accepted as an alternative scholarly historiographical hypothesis to explain Christian origins. (Indeed, at least one of the authors is associated with a website promoting Intelligent Design.)

It is also a book that could only have been written by religionists from the USA. The authors at times appear to equate surveys of U.S. beliefs regarding miracles and the supernatural with the experience of the vast bulk of all human experience at all times, against which are pitted only a few sheltered Western academics. They seem oblivious to the implications of applying their reasoning to anything other than their religious interests, such as popular beliefs in astrology, common superstitions and folklore, aboriginal dreaming, etc. They also naively (regularly) equate a gospel narrative and reported sayings with direct tangible evidence that such and such was really seen or experienced as historical fact.

In a recent post I showed how Eddy and Boyd misrepresented David Hume’s argument against the rationality of believing in miracles, and only subsequently noticed that E & B hinge the relevance of their entire book on their supposed demonstration of the fallaciousness of Hume’s argument.

Hume’s argument renders all possible historical arguments in favor of Jesus’s rising from the dead virtually irrelevant. For no conceivable historical evidence could possibly overturn such an overwhelmingly improbable claim — if, again, Hume’s argument is valid. (p.42)

So until someone can demonstrate that their argument about David Hume’s sceptical position is indeed valid, I can conclude that it’s entire argument is a waste of time.

Another fatal flaw in Eddy’s and Boyd’s argument is its inflexibility in the range of alternative naturalistic explanations they appear willing to consider. Finding a weakness in one naturalistic explanation for the origins of Christianity would normally prompt historical researchers to refine that explanation or consider alternative (naturalistic) hypotheses. Eddy and Boyd, however, drive home their supernaturalistic hypothesis at each and every sign of a weakness in a single naturalistic hypothesis.

This is a bit like Renaissance astronomer Kepler discovering that the model of circular orbits of planets did not fit the recorded observations, and deciding to opt for angels interfering with planetary orbits from time to time in preference to testing the evidence against a model of eliptical orbits instead. Fortunately for us it was Kepler who was working at giving us the understanding of how planets orbit the sun and not Eddy and Boyd. The latter may well have decided that since God can cause the sun to stand still and a star to stand over a manger that there was no need to attempt any naturalistic explanation of planetary movements — their supernaturalistic hypothesis had the power to explain everything!

Another feature of “interest” is the way Eddy and Boyd massage the naive reader with word-play. They emphasize, with italics, that the assumptions of the naturalistic approach to historical enquiry are not proven.

This assumption . . . does not have to be proven: it is presupposed. (p. 44)

Naturalistic assumptions are a fatal flaw in the whole naturalistic enterprise? Eddy and Boyd complain that by approaching the world through naturalistic assumptions one tends to be able to explain the world naturally. There remains no room for the miraculous, they protest. (Assumptions are generally of the nature of values and perspectives that by nature are not “provable”, but “recognized”, in scholarly discourse.)

Not surprisingly, the results “worked out in the whole field of her activity” serve to demonstrate the validity of the assumption. (p.44)

But the fact is that the naturalistic approach to historiography is not as circular as E&B imply. The assumptions of naturalism rest on the successful testing of the model in the field of the physical sciences. This success gives very strong grounds for viewing the entire world of human experience through the same presumption of naturalism.

Consistently applied, this reasoning of E&B would need to find even stronger grounds for the reality of miracles (that questions of nature are more generally best explained by miracles than by natural law) to justify replacing the naturalistic presumption underlying modern historiography.

As time permits I’ll try to address various other aspects of The Jesus Legend hypothesis in some detail. It does, after all, appear to be something of a ‘standard’ to which many fundamentalists appeal.

Miracles 2: another misrepresentation of David Hume’s sceptical argument

This post should be Part 2 of my ‘reviews’ or notes re “God, Actually” by Roy Williams (1).

The subtitle of Roy Williams’ book is “Why God probably exists, Why Jesus was probably divine, and Why the ‘rational’ objections to religion are unconvincing”.

Roy Williams wishes to define a miracle in terms that do not presuppose a god, so embraces English philosopher Brian Davies’ definition of a miracle as

an event that cannot be explained in terms intelligible to the natural scientist or observer of the regular processes of Nature. (p.163)

That’s hardly a very good definition. It would mean that any event that is not currently understood by science is miraculous. It would mean that if Einstein had not been born or no-one had postulated the theory of relativity at the time that a star’s light was seen to actually bend around the sun at the time of an eclipse, then that bending of starlight would have to be defined as even more miraculous than the bending of Uri Geller’s spoon. Did lightning only cease to be a miracle after the discovery of electricity? The role of science has been to uncover natural explanations for things that once could not be explained naturally. Still a wee way to go too.

Roy Williams distils David Hume’s argument against the possibility of a true miracle being honestly reported into four points (p.165):

  1. no such testimony has ever been given by enough people of adequate learning and intelligence;
  2. people are naturally gullible and untrustworthy;
  3. reports of miracles tend to emanate from ‘ignorant and barbarous nations’;
  4. and different religions report different miracles, and this invalidates all such reports.

Of the first three points Williams writes:

they amount to saying that no human observer can ever be completely trusted. This seems to me a cynical generalisation, a prime example of reductionism.

With this dismissal, Roy Williams’ dismisses David Hume from the remainder of his discussion of miracles, apart from a later section where he treats point 4 separately.

Williams depicts David Hume’s scepticism as extremist and even unnatural in its relationship to the rest of humanity. My own scepticism has been accompanied by a deeper sense of affinity with the rest of human kind, and David Hume’s argument never struck me as so cynical. Compare Roy Williams’ rationalization for dismissing David Hume with what Hume actually wrote in his famous section on miracles:

. . . we may observe, that there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men, and the reports of eye-witnesses and spectators. . . . It will be sufficient to observe that our assurance in any argument of this kind is derived from no other principle than our observation of the veracity of human testimony, and of the usual conformity of facts to the reports of witnesses.

Far from coming within two miles of even suggesting that “no human observer can ever be completely trusted”, Hume flatly states from the start that acceptance of eye-witness testimony is the most common, useful and even necessary of “species of reasoning” we all have.

Were not the memory tenacious to a certain degree; had not men commonly an inclination to truth and a principle of probity; were they not sensible to shame, when detected in a falsehood: were not these, I say, discovered by experience to be qualities, inherent in human nature, we should never repose the least confidence in human testimony. A man delirious, or noted for falsehood and villainy, has no manner of authority with us.

There is no room in the passage from David Hume for Roy Williams to dismiss his writing as a “cynical generalization” against the normal course of eyewitness testimony of fellow human beings. On the contrary, Hume begins with “the charitable” position that most people are generally inclined to tell the truth about what they witness throughout life. Most people, Hume asserts, have no wish to be disgraced by being found out to be liars.

This passage from David Hume pulls the rug from beneath Roy Williams’ reasons for dismissing Hume’s arguments, and obliges Williams to seriously return to engage with the detail of Hume’s actual argument.

So if Hume asserts that it is natural and necessary to rely on eyewitness testimony as a general rule, under what circumstances does Hume then open the way to doubting others? He explains:

We entertain a suspicion concerning any matter of fact, when the witnesses contradict each other; when they are but few, or of a doubtful character; when they have an interest in what they affirm; when they deliver their testimony with hesitation, or on the contrary, with too violent asseverations. There are many other particulars of the same kind, which may diminish or destroy the force of any argument, derived from human testimony.

So how does Hume treat accounts of miracles in books that have a reputation of being authored by historians, or even just from any person with a reputation for being of good character?

The reason why we place any credit in witnesses and historians, is not derived from any connexion, which we perceive a priori, between testimony and reality, but because we are accustomed to find a conformity between them.

Hume argues that the reason we tend to believe historians and others is because our experiences have conditioned us to expecting them to tell the facts.

But when the fact attested is such a one as has seldom fallen under our observation, here is a contest of two opposite experiences; of which the one destroys the other, as far as its force goes, and the superior can only operate on the mind by the force, which remains.

But if an historian or otherwise honourable person proclaims a miracle, then our experience that miracles do not happen is enough to alert us that in this case the otherwise trustworthy person is mistaken. Hence most readers of Josephus today may take many of his details of the history of the Jewish war as factual, but will not treat his reports of miracles as having the same level of credibility. Similarly ancient historians like Herodotus and Livy pass on many historical details that we are at liberty to assume as factual, but no-one embraces their tales of miracles with the same certainty.

Hume argues for consistency:

The very same principle of experience, which gives us a certain degree of assurance in the testimony of witnesses, gives us also, in this case, another degree of assurance against the fact, which they endeavour to establish; from which contradiction there necessarily arises a counterpoize, and mutual destruction of belief and authority.

The reason we generally accept certain information from historians as factual is the same reason we dismiss their reports of miracles.

Many fundamentalists and other Christians who dismiss the miracles in pagan histories yet believe in the Bible’s miracles are being inconsistent. They treat the “facts” in pagan histories as historical for the same reason most people do — readers are accustomed to finding correlations between the writings of historians and true facts. And they find it as easy as any sceptic to dismiss as untrue any event (a miracle) that goes against their experience of nature and the world. But they treat the Bible differently (as a book whose words are permitted to assume greater authority than our own personal experiences) and therefore the miracles of the Bible must be accepted.

David Hume does not write cynically or with sweeping generalization against the trustworthiness of people. I have quoted his writings on how he approaches normal eyewitness testimony to show that he is hardly a reductionist (as Williams suggests).

In the first part of his essay on miracles Hume presented the rational argument against believing in them. In the second part of his essay he discusses four reasons for disbelieving the testimony that does exist for miracles. Williams dot-pointed these 4 (above) and Hume’s discussion of each of them can be found in part 2 of his essay.

Disappointingly, after dismissing David Hume’s scepticism as cynical and reductionist, Williams discusses the miracles of Jesus as if they are known to us all from multitudes of eyewitnesses. Of course, we only have four gospels, with at least two and very likely three all largely mutations from the original one (GMark) — not multitudes of eyewitnesses at all.  The fact that one author wrote a story about multitudes of witnesses, and that that story was modified by others, and that it was not testified till the second century c.e., is scarcely credible evidence for miracles being performed a century earlier. We have more reason to believe the historian Tacitus who “reported” miracles by the emperor Vespasian within a decade or two of his lifetime.

But I will leave the last word to Roy Williams here and leave it to readers to ask the obvious follow up questions it leaves hanging. Roy Williams argues against Hume’s fourth point as follows:

My own view is that the consistency of such reports through human history is suggestive that miracles do — rarely — occur. Has the Catholic Church always been wrong when, as a precondition to conferring sainthoods, it has accepted reports of miracles? I doubt it. (p.293)