CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

After reading through the chapter on miracles in The Jesus Legend again it seems to me that Boyd and Eddy are conflating two distinct skeptical challenges to the miracle claims of the Gospels. The first uses the mere presence of miracle stories in the Jesus traditions as evidence that the evangelists or their sources concocted them out of thin air, either as a free creative composition or modeled on Old Testament or pagan miracle accounts. They write: "The Gospels claim that Jesus and his disciples performed miracles such as healing the sick and disabled, casting out demons, and even raising the dead. To the thinking of many historical-critical scholars, this is enough to demonstrate that they are substantially legendary." (pp.39-40) According to this line of thinking, the Gospel accounts cannot possibly have their source in the actual eye-witness experience of the disciples, even if they merely record their (confused?) reaction to an unusual event. This amounts to the claim that no one has ever experienced anything which they even believed to be a miracle, so the actual content of the miracle stories must have come, not from direct experience, but from prior literary sources or the evangelists' imagination.

This claim is easily rebutted on the basis of the anthropological evidence that Boyd and Eddy marshal on pp.67-78; clearly throughout history innumerable people have experienced events that they believed to be miraculous, which today we would call 'supernatural', such as possessions, epiphanies from angelic or demonic beings, rapid and remarkable healings, etc. There is absolutely no reason to think that in all or even the majority of cases of reported miracles the accounts originated with the conscious decision of the teller to fabricate an event without any external stimulus whatsoever. It seems undeniable to me that many accounts resulted (and continue to result) from an actual event which took the teller by surprise. A person was going along their merry way when a sudden bright light in the form of (what seemed to them to be) a person stopped them in their tracks, for example. Moreover, even if some miracle stories have a purely literary origin, modeled after previous accounts, we would still wonder where the previous accounts themselves come from. It is hard to imagine miracle stories springing into existence without even one antecedent experience of what seemed to a person or community to be a miracle.

However, acceptance of these facts does not automatically confer the status of eyewitness testimony on any specific miracle story. Many or perhaps even most reported miracle stories result from eyewitness experience, but we still do have miracle stories that are the product of the creative imagination and were either never meant to be taken seriously as a factual account or were deceptively promulgated as such. To complicate things even further, some miracle stories might be fictional but are ultimately based on the memory of a real event or series of events (in the case of Jesus, for example, we might have fictional miracles attributed to him precisely because he was remembered as a miracle worker; Jesus may not have performed the specific miracles attributed to him in, for example, the Proto-Evangelium of James, but that doesn't mean he didn't perform any miracles, and that the miracles he did perform didn't serve as the basis for the new fictional ones).

But distinguishing between fact and fiction, regardless of whether the event described was an actual miracle or only interpreted as such, and only on the level of authorial intent, should be possible regardless of prior world-view commitments. One doesn't have to believe in the possibility of miracles to analyse a miracle story and conclude that it most likely records eyewitness testimony. Alternatively, even if one believes in the possibility of miracles it should be possible to recognize a miracle story as fiction based entirely on historical and literary criticism of the text. For example, even though I believe in miracles I am 100% confident that Randal Flagg's levitation in Stephen King's The Stand never happened anywhere at any time because The Stand is a work of fiction through and through, and there are plenty of external and internal indicators of that fact.

Or for another more relevant example, if it should turn out that we've been misreading the Gospels all along and that originally they were meant to be read as fiction, as some critics like Randal Helms argue, that judgment should result from a careful analysis of the texts themselves, not from an a priori belief that miracles cannot happen. The judgment that the Gospel miracle stories are fictional should only be based on a careful argument to the effect that either: 1) the author never intended the stories to be read as factual, 2) the author did believe they were factual but lacked the resources and ability to verify his sources as going back as close as possible to the life of Jesus and the testimony of eye-witnesses or 3) the author did intend them to be read as factual but he didn't have any good sources and fabricated his accounts for polemical purposes. The point here is that the mere occurence of miracle stories in the Gospels should not prejudge or even cause us to suspect more than usual that we are dealing with any of the above three cases. This is a common skeptical bias: the conviction that fraud, deception and fiction tend to concentrate in a higher proportion around claims to paranormal experience than other claims. I highly doubt this is true in general, as there would seem to be just as many reasons for fabrication or embellishment of ordinary events, such as marital infidelity or incompetence, as for occurrences of the paranormal. Even if the skeptics are right, we should note that the same claim cuts both ways. In fact research shows that if there are many documented cases of fraud or embellishment in paranormal testimony arising from wishful thinking or polemical purposes, there are equally many cases of intellectual dishonesty, trickery and bias resulting from fervent skepticism and the desire to debunk, either as a result of intellectual pride, personal animosity, etc.

But Boyd and Eddy also discuss and critique another skeptical claim, going back to Hume's famous argument against miracles, roughly that eyewitness testimony to miracles could never be sufficiently strong enough to convince the critically thinking listener (or reader) that something actually transcending the natural order has taken place, much less that this something is most plausibly interpreted as the action of a specific religious being, such as God. If someone tells me that they saw another person levitate, I should weigh the likelihood that my friend witnessed an actual levitation against the nearly uniform testimony of my and others' experience that people cannot levitate.

The force of this argument, of course, depends on many questionable assumptions: whether human experience really is as uniformly void of supposed levitation events as Hume and other skeptics think, whether our understanding of the natural order is really stable and comprehensive enough to rule out or at least make highly unlikely the actual occurrence of paranormal events, whether all or even most of the reports of such events are the result of fraud or misperception, etc. The discussion of the merits of Hume's argument is too involved to enter into here. My point for now is that these two skeptical challenges should be kept distinct, and Boyd and Eddy are not so successful at this. At times they seem to be referring to the first challenge, and at other times the second. The question of whether historians are ever justified in inferring that a genuine supernatural event occurred on the basis of written testimony to that event, and whether the mere presence of supernatural events in a story should incline us to think that it is deliberately fictional (or factual but without good sources behind it) are two distinct questions. The answer to the former question depends on the interpretation we give of an unusual event, the latter on features of the textual evidence.

17 comments:

We can discuss miracles in the abstract all we like but I don't think its most useful to discuss such things in the context of actual miracle claims.

What, for example, do you consider the miracle claim, in all of history, with the best evidence in its favor?

as to the issue of what it would take to be convinced the testimony of a historical record claiming that a miracle occurred I can give one example of what I think would be sufficient to be convinced that the supernatural had, indeed, occurred.

Imagine the story of the the angel dictating the Koran to Muhammed but with one added detail. The angel tells him that the Koran will be dictated to others in distant lands so that all the world can know the Word of The Lord. If it then turned out, over the course of history as the world was explored, that this exact same book was found throughout the world, on tiny islands in the Pacific and among tribes in South American jungles and other remote places such that it could not plausibly have been transmitted by ordinary means, going back to this very same time, with the same story of it being dictated by an angel, then I think it would be reasonable to consider the story true.

That's just one example where the mundane explanation would be more implausible than the supernatural one.

Unfortunately, unlike the example I gave, I don't think any record of a miracle actually recorded in history is well supported by evidence such that the supernatural explanation is more plausible than a naturalistic explanation.

I'd love to hear an argument otherwise though.

Ellis,

It just so happens that I am researching several very impressively attested miracles cases now. Look up St. Joseph of Copertino as one example, but there are quite a few more. I'm working on a post right now summarizing the findings as collected by philosopher Stephen Braude in his book "The Limits of Influence," pp.161-168

'The first uses the mere presence of miracle stories in the Jesus traditions as evidence that the evangelists or their sources concocted them out of thin air, either as a free creative composition or modeled on Old Testament or pagan miracle accounts.'

They do indeed, using the rules of historical enquiry worked out by Christians when examining the Book of Mormon or the Koran.

My article Miracles and the Book of Mormon has all the detailed proof of the plagiarism and frauds of the Gospel miracle stories.

Proofs that Eddy and Boyd can not lay a finger on.


For much the same reasonm that Mormons and Muslims cannot explain away the evidence of plagarism in their Holy Texts.

JD WALTERS
Look up St. Joseph of Copertino as one example, but there are quite a few more....

CARR
I wonder why God could provide well attested miracle claims about St. Joseph of Copertino, but not for Jesus, who is rather more important than somebody 99% of people have never heard of.

In fact, the Gospels look just like the frauds all religions produce, hence the attempts to claim that there might have been miracles even if the Gospel stories are plagiarised accounts of other stories.

Why should anybody believe Jesus worked miracles just because modern Christians want to say he did, but know the Gospels are pretty much sunk as well-attested accounts?

There is no reason at all to give any credibility to Jesus as a miracle-worker until there is something to actually discuss.

And the Gospel accounts don't even start to count as something to take seriously as 'well-attested' accounts of miracles.

Why are the impressive miracles, the flying monks, always long ago and far away?

Is it more implausible that the case of this flying monk was fraud, deception or legend than that it is fact?

An interesting case study--worth looking into. Though I'd really like to see something more recent.

Another thought about levitation. I don't know if you've ever been to see a magician but one visited my school when I was a kid and gave a performance that included levitation.

I still have no idea how the guy did the trick. It was very convincing though and, if I hadn't known he was a stage illusionist, if he had instead claimed to be a psychic, I probably would have believed he was the real deal.

typical atheist circular reasoning. Miracles don't happen because there is no evidence for them, we know there is no evdience because the claims that have been made can be readily dismissed on the grounds that there is no evidence for miracles.

Where in the Bible does it say "miracles exist?" Where is anything Jesus did called "miracle?" That term in itself is the product of an age in which doubt is the norm and faith is suspect. It's the product of the age that screwed up the concept of supernature and changed it from the power of God to elevate human nature, to a strange realm of ghosties and things things that go bump in the night.

It's obvious form Lourdes that something happens in proximity to faith that changes the way things work. That is well documented scientifically and no atheist has ever refuted it.]

Look at the petty little refutations atheists use when confronted with a vast aray of studies. They mock bibliographies. They think that is attacking a study.

"Why are the impressive miracles, the flying monks, always long ago and far away?"

Depends on where you live in the world whether the event is 'far away'. But this question has no bearing on whether these events actually happened. The same goes for Carr's wondering why God would provide more evidence for St. Joseph than for Jesus. Actually the historical attestation to Jesus' miracles is superb compared to most other miracle workers in antiquity, and NOT just because Christians destroyed some pagan documents.

"Is it more implausible that the case of this flying monk was fraud, deception or legend than that it is fact?"

Yes. As you will see in my upcoming post, his feats were attested on many different occasions by over 70 different people, including a famous Lutheran nobleman, a patron of Leibniz, who was so impressed that he converted to Catholicism as a result. The inquisition also tried to debunk his feats because they feared he would use them to promote his own idiosyncratic theology, but failed.

"I don't know if you've ever been to see a magician but one visited my school when I was a kid and gave a performance that included levitation."

Ah, yes, because a magician's feats in a controlled, staged setting are in any way analogous to levitation occurences that would happen anywhere, whether outdoors or indoors at the oddest of times, performed by a monk who was widely attested to be fairly dumb and anti-social.

"An interesting case study--worth looking into. Though I'd really like to see something more recent."

Why? Because, y'know, everyone was stoopid back in the 17th Century and weren't capable of distinguishing between genuine levitation events and...what? Stage magic? There are in fact more recent cases but for now I'm looking at this one.

typical atheist circular reasoning. Miracles don't happen because there is no evidence for them, we know there is no evidence because the claims that have been made can be readily dismissed on the grounds that there is no evidence for miracles.
A typical Hinman strawman version of the argument of an atheist. When you decide to discuss our actual position feel free to let us know.

Actually the historical attestation to Jesus' miracles is superb compared to most other miracle workers in antiquity....
In both cases the evidence for the claims is extremely paltry.

As you will see in my upcoming post, his feats were attested on many different occasions by over 70 different people, including a famous Lutheran nobleman, a patron of Leibniz, who was so impressed that he converted to Catholicism as a result.
And, again, I probably would have become a believer in psychics had that stage magician claimed to be levitating by his psychic powers rather than stating clearly, from that outset, that he was performing illusions.

Because, y'know, everyone was stoopid back in the 17th Century and weren't capable of distinguishing between genuine levitation events and...what?
Because they didn't have photography or video cameras and other tools by which to collect evidence back then. And because we are forced to rely on the testimony of others when it comes to a flying monk 400 years ago but if we had a flying monk today we could go see for ourselves (which I, for one, most certainly would, even if I had to travel all the way to Europe to do so).

In reading this story of a the flying monk the response of the church in his time seems pretty weird as well. You have a flying monk, how could do so on a regular basis, thus providing hard, ironclad proof of the existence of supernatural forces of some kind.....but, instead of parading him as evidence of the power of Christ over that of "false religions", you hide the guy away and send the Inquisition after him?

Sounds a bit hinky to me. I suppose its POSSIBLE that they were afraid he'd try to usurp the power of the church or the pope. But something about it doesn't really smell right.

As you will see in my upcoming post, his feats were attested on many different occasions by over 70 different people, including a famous Lutheran nobleman, a patron of Leibniz, who was so impressed that he converted to Catholicism as a result.
All the more odd that he was, according to what I've read, largely hidden away by the church rather than celebrated. One would think the church would want him to do more of this to bring more protestants back into the fold.

The thing I most want to know is what our sources of information about these claims is. The only record I can find so far in googling him is a biography written after his death---and there are many examples of biographies written about famous people filled with falsehoods and outright fabrications. I hope there's a lot more than this that you're basing your information on. Specifically, who are these 70 eyewitnesses and what are the sources in which we find their testimony recorded?

"An interesting case study--worth looking into. Though I'd really like to see something more recent."

I think JD needs to cite some cases from the future–preferably around the 23-24C AD or later. After all, anything "recent" or even contemporary will be old hat in a centuryh or so. So the only reliable evidence for a miracle is evidence which is future to the individual demanding the evidence. To keep one step ahead of the past, when testimonial evidence becomes instantly worthless, only future evidence will suffice.

Actually, Steve's facetious remark brings to mind one example of how miracle claims can overcome the problem of reasonable uncertainty about the reliability of eyewitnesses.

Prophetic foreknowledge. If some religion had been able to consistently and accurately make detailed predictions about the future then I'd consider that sound verification of the supernatural. So long as the documents recording the prediction could be shown to be from before the events predicted took place we'd really be getting somewhere then. Of course, the predictions would need to meet certain reasonable criteria. Like they would need to be detailed, predict the time of the event with precision, would need to be something that couldn't be reasonably guessed and couldn't be something that could be turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, etc.

Yeah, when it comes to past events, prophetic fulfillment is a much better example to work with than levitations, healings and most other classes of miracles. Though those would work fine as solid evidence when contemporary.

An interesting case study--worth looking into. Though I'd really like to see something more recent."

I think JD needs to cite some cases from the future–preferably around the 23-24C AD or later. After all, anything "recent" or even contemporary will be old hat in a centuryh or so. So the only reliable evidence for a miracle is evidence which is future to the individual demanding the evidence. To keep one step ahead of the past, when testimonial evidence becomes instantly worthless, only future evidence will suffice.


Spock died and came back to life. I think if we check the Legion of Super heroes they have some miracles. That's 30th century will that do?

Why are the impressive miracles, the flying monks, always long ago and far away?

why would you not be impressed by a tumor that totally vanishes with no trace as though it never existed?

why would you not be impressed with something that would totally freak out an emergency medical team?

Isn't it only becasue you haven't trained in medicine and you don't know what's involved in such things?

Ellis,

All your questions will be answered when I get my post up. I don't blame you for raising these issues because you don't know the facts yet. But I will say that all of your objections don't apply to this case.

All this talk about "miracles" seems to me to be totally beside the point.

In what way would a miracle, if proved to the hilt, relate to a proper understanding of religious belief? For a start, I am not sure we know what we are talking about. I have heard “miracle” defined in all sorts of ways: ranging from a direct contradiction of an established “law” of nature (Hume’s definition), right through to an old woman in an African village placing a chicken wing under a house.

Suggests that the topic itself is doubtful, a non-topic, where a word has mesmerised us into thinking we are talking about something real.

But, not wishing to spoil the party, let’s take a common-sense religious definition, leaving Hume’s definition to one side.

Let’s define a miracle as anything taken by a believer to indicate direct intervention by God.

To my mind, miracles in this sense would have a bearing on science, as their existence would cast doubt on the more positivistic notions of scientific method. But I deny that they would have any bearing on the validity or otherwise of religious belief, rightly understood.

Consider, for a start, just why the writers of sacred texts felt moved to record miracles in the first place. In my view, it was because they believed that God, or the gods, acted directly in this world. Therefore, miracles were looked for everywhere as signs of this activity. When man is convinced of a thing, he will generally succeed in finding it - or "constructing" it. This is not to say that the evidence or examples are consciously invented, or trumped-up. They are genuinely believed in, since the religious belief demands that such things are to be expected.

Most of the biblical writers (though not those responsible for the more rationalist wisdom writings) seemed to have lived with this “interventionist” understanding of God. So of course they included examples in their writings. Given the power, driving force, and un-opposed nature of this fundamental attitude, it is to be expected that signs of this divine activity would be found all the time.

If what I have said is true, then the growth of scientific method, with a fuller and more penetrating understanding of history, of anthropology, and of the human psychology of belief, will show that this belief in miracles is not a basic or essential ingredient in religious belief; but a hang-over from cultural attitudes which need have nothing to do with religion. As God reveals more and more of himself through scientific advance, and through the development of a wider appreciation of his creation, the supernaturalistic expectation of His direct intervention can be allowed to die away with no essential loss to faith.

The biblical texts reveal a cautious attitude towards the “miraculous”, downplaying “miracles.” The paucity of “miracles” in the canonical NT, and its overwhelming moral & theological emphasis, is one of the features that gives us confidence in its validity over against the other allegedly sacred writings which the church eventually decided to reject.

The gospels themselves record comparatively few miracles, and those that are recorded are presented without detail of the “cure” itself. Everything is angled towards faith in the one who stands there as the bringer of the Kingdom of God. It seems almost as if the gospel writers were hesitant about miracles, sensing that their accounts could be abused by the impious.

These are some of the reasons (there are others of a more strictly theological and philosophical nature) why I believe all the talk of miracles is a distraction from the church’s more pressing concern with witnessing to God’s real involvement in His creation.

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