Assessing the probability of miracle claims

This is the first part of a response to Michael Martin's article, "Why the Resurrection is Initially Improbable," Philo, 1, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 1998): 63-73. Mr. Martin's article is being reprinted this spring in a book by Prometheus Press. For those interested in reading the remainder of the response to Martin, further installments will be published on this blog. The entire response is also available here.

In his introduction Mr. Martin outlines an argument which begins plausibly enough: that a miracle claim is initially improbable, and in light of this, miracle claims should be disbelieved unless the evidence is strong. I agree that miracles of that kind are not events we see every day and that miracle claims should be met with skepticism at first. But are all miracles equally unlikely? Mr. Martin acknowledges that miracle claims should be assessed relative to our background knowledge and to the probability of alternative explanations.

Probability and Background Knowledge

Let's look at assessing the probability of a miracle claim in light of background knowledge. For example, who would believe that I could perform a miracle myself? In my case, some important background knowledge is that I have never done a miracle, never claimed to have done a miracle, and have never had anyone say that anything I did was something supernatural. It is right to conclude that the probability that I would do a miracle is very, very small; negligible, really. But what about another example, such as a leader at any of the various touring ministries that claim to do miracles? On the view that an assessment of probability depends partially on our background knowledge, the first thing we should do is look at that background knowledge. Who can say they actually saw a miracle? Where is their account of what happened, and are they willing to swear to its truthfulness? If people were healed, then who knew the people involved beforehand, and whether they were really sick or disabled in the first place? Where are they now, and have they really recovered? What are their names and where do they live? Were there any hostile witnesses, and what do they say? Were any of the miracles investigated? If past miracles done by a person could be solidly supported, this would increase the plausibility of the claim of a future miracle associated with the same person.

In the case of Jesus, some of his healings are recorded as taking place in crowd settings or while traveling, so that the people recording the miracles may not have known the exact identities of the people who were healed. But other miracles involved people who were known. One person raised from the dead was the twelve-year old daughter of Jairus the synagogue ruler. One blind man who received his sight was Bartimaeus from Jericho. One of the sick healed was Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. Another person raised from the dead was Lazarus from Bethany. Other healings either took place with hostile witnesses present or prompted an investigation from those hostile to Jesus. A man with a crippled hand was healed in a synagogue on the Sabbath in front of hostile witnesses. One of the blind men healed in Jerusalem was a well-known beggar; his healing on the Sabbath resulted in an investigation on the charge of Sabbath-breaking. We know the view of those who followed Jesus; the New Testament records that for us. But what did Jesus’ enemies make of all this? The Talmud records that official charges against Jesus included practicing sorcery (Sanhedrin 43a) – that is to say, performing supernatural acts. Even his enemies were not able to dismiss the evidence that these supernatural things had actually occurred even with access to the people involved; yet because of their opposition to Jesus they construed these healings as somehow evil. As for the later availability of the people who benefited from Jesus’ miracles, the early Christian writer Quadratus mentions their continuing witness value: "Our Savior’s works were always there to see, for they were true – the people who had been cured and those raised from the dead, who had not merely been seen at the moment when they were cured or raised, but were always there to see, not only when the Savior was among us, but for a long time after his departure; in fact some of them survived right up to my own time." (quote preserved in Eusebius’ History 4.3). When we assess the background knowledge for whether a future miracle claim involving a person is plausible, we find that Jesus is already surrounded by miracle claims that are far stronger than the average miracle claim. Unless claims of similar strength could be made for "miracles" which did not actually happen, we must consider at least the possibility that the reason for the unique strength of these claims is that they are true. I will comment on relationships between Jesus’ earlier miracle claims and the resurrection in another post (available when viewing this article as a whole), in the section specifically on Jesus' resurrection rather than miracles in general.

Some skeptics try to brush off the issue of Jesus’ miracles by saying that the people belonged to such an unenlightened time and such a superstitious age that their reports simply cannot be believed. Yet no matter what their state of advancement, they still knew the difference between blind and sighted, crippled and whole, dead and alive. If someone blind from birth received sight without medical intervention, even in our modern age we would likely consider the possibility of a miracle; the state of advancement of society has not changed our evaluation of that. It is also important to remember that there were people present in that day who were hostile to Jesus and who were motivated to dismiss any evidence which made Jesus appear unique. The opponents of Jesus who were his contemporaries did not manage to refute the miracle claims and ended by conceding that supernatural things had happened, reinterpreting the miracles as evil acts of sorcery (see Sanedrin 43a); Jesus’ modern opponents lack comparative credibility in trying to maintain that such things never happened when their predecessors who lived in Jesus’ day could not do the same. One factor that causes miracles in general to be considered improbable is that solid claims are in fact so rare; on the other hand, a history of solid claims changes the probability. In light of the strength of evidence for Jesus’ earlier miracle claims, which is part of our background knowledge for assessing the probability of the resurrection, further miracle claims associated with Jesus of Nazareth are not initially improbable. The previous miracle claims had such strength that when people came to see Jesus, they often came expecting a miracle.

The Irrationality of Hume's Argument

When discussing the probability of miracles, Hume’s argument against miracles is often mentioned. Martin himself does not subscribe to Hume’s argument, but he does cover it in passing; I will do the same here. Martin mentions different ways of understanding Hume’s argument against miracles, and considers the right understanding of it to be this: that for any possibly-miraculous event, some other explanation is always more likely than a miracle; so that while a miracle is not impossible, belief in a miracle is always irrational. Looking at that view of miracles, is that view itself rational? To classify belief in something as irrational when the thing itself is not impossible is a misclassification. Such a view would necessarily result in the non-recognition of the possible when it occurs. It necessarily results in a willful denial of evidence or distortion of facts when what is possible – a miracle – does in fact happen. Someone who cannot see this inconsistency does not have much credibility trying to instruct others on what is rational. Please note that I am not here referring to Mr. Martin, who mentions that he does not subscribe to that view himself and goes on to contrast his own view with Hume’s. I am referring only to this interpretation of Hume’s argument, and those who do not see how affirming a thing’s possibility but denying the rationality of believing it, is itself irrational. I would also disagree with Hume on whether some other explanation is always more likely than a miracle. An exception would occur when no other explanation of the events is possible without resorting to the distortion of facts which, as noted above, is an inherent risk in this somewhat irrational anti-miracle view. If a proposed alternative explanation distorts the facts, it lacks full validity as an alternative explanation of those facts and cannot be given the same consideration as a view which accounts for the facts without distortion. The view that a miracle occurred is more reasonable than a distortion of the established facts; or, from the other side, when any alternative explanation requires distortion of established facts, that is the point at which it becomes increasingly rational to believe a miracle and increasingly irrational to disbelieve it.

The response to Mr. Martin will be continued here. For those interested in reading the remainder of the response to Martin at this time, the entire response is also available here.


Anonymous said…

That's interesting about the Talmud. Do you know if it records any other reports of supernatural events and whether it records that any of these other reports were ever examined and dismissed?


Weekend Fisher said…
Hi Gadfly

The Talmud's references to "supernatural events" in general are usually in reference to events recorded in the Old Testament (i.e. long enough ago that they're just taking the records for granted and aren't in any position to assess or investigate the records left by earlier generations, whom they considered reliable).

References to magic/sorcery in particular are just a handful or so, and most of those are discussing the law -- when the death penalty is called for, and matters concerning the witnesses. The discussions concerning witnesses show that the usual Jewish laws about needing witnesses was not waived in the case of accusations of magic/sorcery; Jewish law typically did not punish an offender without some sort of investigation and hearing witnesses. There are very few particular cases mentioned; the witnesses were talked to but there don't seem to have been always enough witnesses to make the charges stick. At any rate I did not find an actual punishment mentioned all of those cases, and that seems to have corresponded to how many witnesses were mentioned. Of course the mentions of actual magic/sorcery are few enough that it would probably be over-quick to generalize from this.

Btw I didn't put in all the applicable references even to Jesus because of space considerations. Jesus is also referred to as one who "practised magic" (Sanhedrin 107b). But this is a less useful historical reference than the one I included since it contains serious anachronisms. If anything, it just generally reflects the Jewish tradition that Jesus was performing wonders by evil means, not as miracles.

Take care & God bless
Lurchling said…
Occam's razor demands the simplest explanation to fit the given evidence in a situation. All our earliest sources on Jesus speak of him performing miracles (many of which we would see as miraculous today from how they are described in the NT) or they discuss his resurrection. From all our evidence, the simplest explanation without distorting facts or omitting information is that Jesus was known as a miracle worker and worshipped as the resurrected messiah by his earliest followers. Believing Jesus performed miracles is the most rational explanation for the numerous data we have.

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