Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Richard Purtill on the fantastic element in ancient miracle reports

A redated post. 

One possible way of generating a case for the Christian miracles is to envision what we should expect from a man-made religion. There are, I think, features of Christianity which we should not expect to find if there were not reality behind it.

There is a very interesting discussion of Apollonuis of Tyana, written by Philostratus in 220, found in Richard Purtill’s contribution to the second edition of Louis Pojman’s Philosophy or Religion volume. It’s on pp. 330-331 of that volume. Purtill is a both a professional philosopher and a fantasy and science fiction writer.

RP: It might be worthwhile to take a quick look, for purposes of comparison, at the closest thing we have around the time of the Gospels to an attempt at realistic fantasy. This is the story of Appollonius of Tyana, written about 220 A. D. by Flavius Philostratus, which is sometimes referred to by controversialists as if it were a serious rival to the Gospel accounts of Christ’s ministry and miracles. Penguin Classics publishes an excellent little paper back edition of this story, to which you may go for details, but let me note a few points in passing.
The story concerns a wandering sage who allegedly lived from the early years of the first century until about A. D. 96 or 98. Philostratus mentions some earlier sources for his work but at least some of those sources are probably his own invention. For one thing, Philostratus’ account contains serious historical inaccuracies about things like dates of rulers, which seem to rule out reliance on any early source. (Contrast with the Gospels duly noted-VR). The work was later used to discredit the uniqueness of Christ’s miracles by setting up a rival miracle worker, as Socrates was sometimes set up as a rival to Christ as a martyr and teacher of virtue.
Still, there is some evidence that a Neo-Pythagorean sage named Apollonius may have really lived, and thus Philostratus’s work is a real example of what some have thought the Gospels to be: a fictionalized account of the life of a real sage and teacher; introducing miraculous events to build up the prestige of the central figure. It thus gives us a good look at what a real example of a fictionalized biography would be like, written at a time and place not too far removed from those in which the Gospels were written.
The first thing to notice is the fairy-tale atmosphere. There is a rather nice little vampire story, which inspired a major poem by Keats, entitled Lamia. There are animal stories about, for instance, snakes in India big enough to drag off and eat an elephant. The sage wanders from country to country and wherever he goes he is likely to be entertained by the king or emperor, who holds long conversations with him andsends him on his way with camels and precious stones.
Interspersed with picturesque adventures there are occasional accounts of miracles, often involving prophecy and mind reading. A ruffian threatens to cut Apollonius’s head off and the sage laughs and shouts the name of a day three days hence; on thatday the ruffian is executed for treason. Here is a typical passage about healing miracles;
There came a man about thirty who was an expert lion-hunter but had been attacked by a lion and dislocated his hip, and so was lame in one leg. But the Wise Man massaged his hip and this restored the man to an upright walk. Someone else who had gone blind went away with his sight fully restored, and another man with a paralysed arm left strong again. A woman too, who had had seven miscarriages was cured through he prayers of her husband as follows. The Wise Man told the husband, when his wife was in labor, to bring a live rabbit under his cloak to the place where she was, walk around her and immediately release the hare: for she would lose her womb as well as thee baby if the hare was not immediately driven away (Bk. 3, Sec. 39).
RP again: Now the point is not that Appollonius no serious rival to Christ; no one ever thought he was except a few anti-Christian polemicists about the time of some of the early persecutions of the Church. The point is this is what you get when imagination goes to work on a historical figure in classical antiquity; you get miracle stories a little like those in the Gospels, but also snakes big enough to eat elephants, kings and emperors as supporting cast, travelers’ tales, ghosts and vampires. Once the boundaries of fact are crossed we wander into fairyland. And very nice too. But the Gospels are set firmly in the real Palestine of the first century, and the little details+ are not picturesque inventions but the real details that only an eyewitness or a skilled realistic novelist can give.

VR: This is part of reason for thinking the evidence we have is more like what we should expect if the story were true than if it were false. There seems to be a reality check on the scope of the miraculous element; Jesus doesn’t to miracles to show off, but only to advance His mission.

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44 comments:

Jason said...

One of the most interesting speculations about Philostratus, is that at the end of his book he may be making a subtle recommendation that his Imperial patroness should accept Jesus as a divine hero, rather than Apollionus!

JRP

Hallq said...

Vic... Hate to say this, but I'm having trouble believing you mean this to be taken seriously... where the hell is the "reality check" in a yarn that involves a miraculous birth involving distant kings, walking on water, turning water to wine, conversing with Satan, meeting Moses and Elijah, seeing angels, etc?... All I can say this is more evidence of the human ability to hold the beliefs we were raised with to a much lower standard than beliefs we're unfamiliar with. Have you read John Loftus' essay The Outsider Test? If not, it might do you some good.

Bilbo Bloggins said...

Victor,

I have to agree with you (and Purtill) here. There is alot of miraculous stuff in Philostratus' Life, that, when lined up against the miraculous in the Gospels, stands out as particularly more crude, primitive, arbitrary, and nonsensical. Demon-possessed vampires, an herbivorous lion possessed by the spirit of a recently deceased human king, men who are convinced not to marry statues by Apollonius' teachings on love, demons coming out of men, apparently in a physical form, and then being stoned by people in the town. All miracles are going to be extraordinary, and extend beyond or go against the grain of what we percieve to be normal reality, but some miraculous claims are just initially more fantastic and seemingly fictional than others. That's not to say Christians need really *deny* a supernatual element to any of the ancient pagan miracle-working, or even that the ancient pagan deities were supernatural personages. Indeed, the New Testament confirms this.

Bilbo

Bilbo Bloggins said...

Loftus's "The Outsider Test" (the point about place of birth applying to atheists who are just as much a product of their socio-cultural spacetime as all manner of theists) is not really a test; its more of a sensible rule of guidance, and I tend to agree with him. Instead of writing an "essay", or calling it a "test", he could have just said "Try to be objective", and I would've nodded to that.

Bilbo

Hallq said...

I suppose what John has argued with the outsider test should go without saying, but it amazes me how easily many arguments can be deflated by asking "would you accept this evidence if presented in favor of another religion?" And you haven't really delt with my main point--why are demon-possed vampires silly but conversations with the devil credible?

Bilbo Bloggins said...

Hallq: I suppose what John has argued with the outsider test should go without saying, but it amazes me how easily many arguments can be deflated by asking "would you accept this evidence if presented in favor of another religion?"

Bilbo: On the face of it, I don't see how asking questions really deflates anything. I'd be interested to see you develop this into an argument. Is this an implied reductio? What answer to this question on the part of the theist is supposed to deflate an argument? Or, what dilemma does this create? I suspect most people would say that if the *balance* of the evidence were in favor of another religion (which is really what would create a problem for said person), they would be a member of that religion. When it comes to *individual* arguments, I don't see why it should be a problem for any member of any religious tradition (or philosophical tradition for that matter) to say "Yes, *if* this evidential argument could be mounted w/the equivalent force by another religious tradition, then I'd accord it equal weight in favor of that tradition as I currently do in favor of my own."

Hallq: And you haven't really delt with my main point--why are demon-possed vampires silly but conversations with the devil credible?

Bilbo: I would say, in this specific instance, there are an abundance of reasons, but I'll mention one for now. I wouldn't contrast these particular two in stark categories as "credible" vs. "silly". I would say that profound transformational and empowering spiritual experiences at the pinnacle of long periods of fasting, isolation, and other forms of sensory deprivation that typically induce altered states of consciousness, often involving trials and temptations, undergone by 'holy men', shamans, etc., in which the participant converses with, challenges/is challenged by, and aims to ultimately overcome, an opposing spiritual entity, are cross-culturally ubiquitous, and more accurately described as mundane than "nonsensical". We can sidestep the whole matter of the ontological status of such events and the matter of emic/etic distinctions and just simply note that they at least have a plausible context in human experience. Now, to my knowledge, the same can't be said for human vampires, especially in the time period we're discussing. But I *could* be wrong here and I'm open to being corrected.

Bilbo

Hallq said...

Point taken on Jesus' experience--though I think what you've said tends to call it into question in a different way.

For an example of where the OT is devestating: some Christian apologists are quite unfazed by the thought that the gospels are far from being eyewitness accounts. They might not quite agree that they aren't, but they think they'll have no difficulty making their case without them being eyewitness accounts. But then look at it as if we were talking about some other religion: as Richard Carrier put it, "Can you imagine a movement today claiming that a soldier in World War Two rose physically from the dead, but when you asked for proof all they offered you were a mere handful of anonymous religious tracts written in the 1980's? Would it be even remotely reasonable to believe such a thing on so feeble a proof? Well--no."

John W. Loftus said...

Bilbo,

Would you believe me if I told you I heard a donkey talk? How about if I claimed I saw an axe head float? How about if I said I saw a woman turned to salt? How about if I told you a star specifically pointed out a house in Chicago? Or that people were healed in the Pool of Siloam (John says a "multitude" of people sat at it and waited for the waters to be stirred so that the first one in got healed)? Would you believe me in today's world?

No?

...not without some pretty hard evidence. right?

You'd be skeptical wouldn't you?

Okay, now let's got back in time, you and me.

You'd be just as skeptical in their time as you are now, because you are a modern person with a modern scientific perspective on these kinds of things, wouldn't you? Think about this.

And yet, you believe the Bible which is based upon things you'd be skeptical about. You believe something recorded in history when we cannot be sure they were writing history, which is far less persuasive to us than personal exoerience is.

Dots connect the.

Jason said...

{{You'd be just as skeptical in their time as you are now, because you are a modern person with a modern scientific perspective on these kinds of things, wouldn't you? Think about this.}}

Hm. Yes, I see. The modern person would be sceptical about it, even back then, even if it did happen.

(Sauce the gander cooks. {g})


Come to think of it... I seem to recall more than a few devout believers in God and miracles (per se) being sceptical of all this in the story, too. Up to and including one of the Twelve. (Well, actually, when it finally came down to brass tacks, up to and including _all of the Twelve_. Plus the prosecutor who in effect became the 13th apostle.)

Since the story contexts themselves don't depend upon, much less describe, universal credulity, could we perhaps please stop pretending that they do? (Heck, I couldn't even level that as a crit against the Apollonius story!)

JRP

John W. Loftus said...

Yes, that's correct Jason. Given our present skeptical mindset we could still reject an event if it did in fact happen! Let's say I told you my dog spoke in Greek last night to me, but he never speaks again. Would you ever believe me? Let's say I translated it and he said nothing out of the ordinary, like "love one another."

Now it might be considered evidence if he said who would win the Super Bowl this year, but still not enough for you to believe correct?

Bilbo Bloggins said...

hallq: Point taken on Jesus' experience--though I think what you've said tends to call it into question in a different way.

Bilbo: I'm not sure how.

hallq: For an example of where the OT is devestating: some Christian apologists are quite unfazed by the thought that the gospels are far from being eyewitness accounts. They might not quite agree that they aren't, but they think they'll have no difficulty making their case without them being eyewitness accounts. But then look at it as if we were talking about some other religion: as Richard Carrier put it, "Can you imagine a movement today claiming that a soldier in World War Two rose physically from the dead, but when you asked for proof all they offered you were a mere handful of anonymous religious tracts written in the 1980's? Would it be even remotely reasonable to believe such a thing on so feeble a proof? Well--no."

Bilbo: I can agree with this on certain levels, but, unless a Christian has embraced a very rigid and naive evidentialism, I don't think it has much impact on Christian belief. Firstly, where I agree is that, *if* a certain Christian holds that he is justified in believing Christian claims on the basis of an argument for the resurrection alone, independent of any background considerations about God and Christianity, he/she is being naive. That does not even seem to be the biblical model for accepting the resurrection. Paul is much closer to a view in which the justification for the resurrection is bound up with the testimony or "deposit" of the Spirit of God. If that is the case, both the target of Carrier's analogy and the analogy itself miss the mark. Reinforcing this, I doubt that there is any significant percentage of Christians who *came* to belief in Christianity or the resurrection based on evidential considerations regarding the latter. I tend to agree with Dale Allison that background beliefs are going to play the definitive role in one's ultimate weighting of the evidence here. That's not to say such an argument has no utility or role in justifiction for its defender. I come pretty close to Reppert's views on the matter where I've seen him state them.

Now, is Carrier's really even a good analogy? I don't think so; its more of a caricature. Anyone can present an unordinary claim in a vacuum or from a severely restricted vantage point, and make it look implausible. Would it be remotely reasonable for physicists to conclude that there are an infinity of worlds parallel to our own based solely on the fact that they have some puzzling restrictions in measurement? Well--no. But that doesn’t' really summarize the situation well. Let's complete the analogy a bit. Suppose the soldier adhered to a particular sacred tradition, went about trying to bring reform within this tradition, and was percieved as teaching profound spiritual truths, embodying compassion, and performing amazing, seemingly supernatural, deeds in the process. Suppose then that a body of new tradition grew up around this person, and communities started to form. In interacting with this tradition, and this particularly community, one experiences a radical and positive transformation of character and interpersonal relationships, and what seems to be an extremely powerful mediation of the transcendent -- even a transcendent Person. If it is within this context of experiencing a radical and unordinary re-orientation towards reality, a person might find it much more reasonable to accept the testimony of foundational members of this community about foundational events in which they initially experienced such radical and unordinary re-orientations themselves, *especially* if found within a sacred text that itself has been a vehicle of their own transformation. Now, of course, I don't expect any non-religious person to really understand or accept all or any of these conditions. I just think this is more of an accurate (but very rough and incomplete) analogy or even description of how some segment of Christians (or members of any religious tradition) might *come* to belief (not necessarily justify it to a non-believer). Judging what is or is not "reasonable" for someone *else* from an outsider's perspective is always very difficult (if not impossible), given the lack of direct access to the multitude of personal and experiential aspects of worldview choices.

Bilbo

Jason said...

{{Now it might be considered evidence if he said who would win the Super Bowl this year, but still not enough for you to believe correct?}}

Not especially, no. See the remainder of my reply, btw, for the actual gist of why I said what I did. (I'm _not_ trying to make the same case you are but applied in the opposite fashion. That would be as ridiculous as the thing I'm cautioning against. {s})

If all you're trying to establish is that the sceptic isn't being unreasonable in being sceptical, especially in regard to the data simply as disconnected bits of data here and there, then you ought to already be aware that I am _extremely_ sympathetic to that, if you remember anything at all about what I write on this board.

If what you're trying to argue (which seems to be the case) is that belief in a story of the miraculous can be simply explained away as a result of cultural conditioning to believe the miraculous (which is rather like saying that they believed miracles because they believed miracles, as an explanation, btw), then the same cultural conditioning principle would 'explain away' modern scepticism as a knee-jerk reaction to cultural conditioning, too. I don't consider either position to be fair to level against believers _or_ sceptics. But if you're going to try levelling it anyway, your apperance of cogency might fare better if you didn't conveniently forget actual story details that count against such oversimplified claims. (Bilbo's contextual exposition of the proposed WWII vet story is much to the point, but could be carried even further--did the chief proponents of this new belief cataclysmically fail in their own loyalty to this man, as part of the story they're telling? Did the US Army commission a judge advocate to hunt down these renegades for court marital, only to have this judge advocate turn around later and become one of the most outspoken proponents for the belief?)

If it comes to WWII stories, for that matter, I recall hearing there was (among living participants) a fairly strong belief that the "miracle at Dunkirk", where the British Expeditionary Force could have been annihilated by the blitzkrieging Nazi invaders while trying to evacuate to safety across the Channel, was literally a 'miracle', with people seeing angels warring in the skies to protect the retreating troops. Personally, I have no opinion (other than that I have no constraint I can think of against this actually having happened). But I can easily see and understand why someone with a philosophical constraint against the existence or operation of angels would be _required_ to explain it some other way. Nor would I hold that against them. But some serious and sober self-critical reflection by the sceptics would be appreciated, too. {s}


In my recent report of various 'miraculous' events near (and in) my own experience, I was careful to admit that other explanations could in theory (and maybe even in practice) be proffered for them, and that my evaluation of them (even if only potentially) was strongly colored by what I already believe to be true about reality.

What I'm commenting about here, on the sceptical side, is a total lack of such self-critical reflection. Otherwise you wouldn't be playing the cultural conditioning card so strongly _against_ someone else. (And yes, that crit can be given to people on my side, too.)

Cultural conditioning is real, and it happnes, and it ought to be soberly taken into account; but it applies to all sides, and so assessing it as being only a con for one side logically entails assessing it as being only a con for the other side, too.

When people set up mutually assured destruction situations and then try to tacitly exempt themselves from the result, then I'm pretty brisk about calling coup. {s} And that's what looks to me to be happening here.

Jason Pratt

Anonymous said...

Appolonius has an interesting summary of sources, confirming that Appolonius was considered a healer.

Miracles has some interesting miracles.

Jason said...

Interestingly, at least one of those earlier sources was _explicitly_ interested in comparing Jesus disfavorably with Apol. Makes Philostratus' peculiar comment at the end of his own later work even more peculiar. I'm becoming even more suspicious that his biography was a subversive attempt at playing down Apol in order to carefully promote Jesus instead to Philo's imperial patroness.

Gord Wilson said...

Dr. Purtill was reading your post about his views, and suggested I send you a review copy of his latest book, the Ignatius version of Lord of the Elves and Eldils. I am a former student of his, and maintain his official site at alivingdog.com. If you'd like a review copy, please supply a mailing address to Gord Wilson at gordrw@yahoo.com, and put "Richard Purtill" in the subject line. Thank you, Gord Wilson, gordrw@yahoo.com, alivingdog.com

8 said...

why angels at Dunkirk, and not, say, a few years earlier, when the panzers rolled into Russia (or for that matter, when stalinists slaughtered Kulaks..auschwitz, etc)?? OR when Mao and the Red Army liquidated a few million... Why no angels during spanish influenza...or AIDS, etc.


As James Keller pointed out, any G*d who can perform miracles, and intercede, but allows only a few glimpses of a weeping Mary, or some angels, yet does not manifest Himself during horrible atrocities would be ...synonymous with Eevil itself.

Bilbo said...

Thinking about some of the miracles in the Gospels:

Walking on water: only the disciples witness it. At first, they think it's a ghost. Only Peter has the nerve to say, "If it's really you, master, then bid me to walk out to you." And of course, Jesus bids him to come, and of course, Peter starts out okay, then sinks, just like we would expect. When they get to the other side, the crowd, which had taken the long way, asks Jesus, "How did you get here?" Which is what we would expect the crowd to ask. Jesus doesn't answer their question, which is just like Jesus (I would have answered, "I walked on water, you fools!")
The story of the miracle has the feel, that had it really happened, the people involved react the way real people would have reacted.

The same can be said of the other miracles in the Gospels. -- the other Bilbo.

Bilbo said...

I should add, Jesus doesn't answer the crowd's question of how he got there. Instead, Jesus focuses on why they followed him there: the previous miracle of the multiplying of the loaves and fish. "Hey! You guys only came all this way because you want more free food!" And of course, that's exactly what we would expect the crowd to do. That's exactly what we would do!

Mark said...

Probably the author of the Gospel of Mark was something approximating "a skilled realistic novelist." Big deal.

Blue Devil Knight said...

One friend claims to have created a perpetual motion machine. Another friend claims to have trained pigs to fly.

Whom do you believe?

Bilbo said...

According to C.S.Lewis, the realistic novel was invented until much later...I think the 18th century. So it was a big deal to him.

I trust my friends not to lie to me, so I would think they were deluded about both the machine and the pigs.

The disciples didn't believe it was Jesus walking on the water until he got in the boat. And even then they were dumbfounded. They didn't believe he rose from the dead until they saw and heard him for themselves. And that's probably how I would have reacted, also.

Steven Carr said...

I see.

So Jesus told his friends how to get free money by looking in the mouth of a fish, and nobody thinks this is out of the ordinary.

Steven Carr said...

' For one thing, Philostratus’ account contains serious historical inaccuracies about things like dates of rulers, which seem to rule out reliance on any early source.'

And when was Quirinius governor of Syria?

'But the Gospels are set firmly in the real Palestine of the first century, and the little details+ are not picturesque inventions but the real details that only an eyewitness or a skilled realistic novelist can give.'

I guess those pigs possessed by demons are 'real details', not 'picturesque inventions'


And, of course, Jesus flew off into the sky , disappearing into a cloud on his way to Heaven, after many people rose from their graves and appeared to many in the city of Jerusalem.

Does Mr. Purtill thinks sceptics don't read the Gospels, and he can bluff them as to their contents?

Steven Carr said...

Not to mention stories of Paul being stoned to the point where people thought he was dead, and they dragged him out of the city.

But Paul gets up and walks away and continues his journey next day.

Broken bones? Internal injuries?

Purtill swallows it all because it is in the New Testament.

Mark said...

According to C.S.Lewis, the realistic novel was invented until much later...I think the 18th century. So it was a big deal to him.

I said, "something approximating." One of the literary themes of the Gospel of Mark is how those closest to Jesus constantly failed to grasp who Jesus really was - only figures on the margins of the story are successful in identifying him. Is it your position that an ancient author couldn't have had this as a literary theme, and wouldn't have woven skepticism about Jesus' miracles into the story if he had?

Mark said...

Err, whoops. That should've read, "only figures on the margins of the story, and eventually Peter, are successful in identifying him."

Ken Jacobs said...

Bilbo: Walking on water.

Ken: The human reactions to Jesus water walk are slightly plausible, as they are often in fiction, then again I wouldn't have behaved as Peter did.

But let's analyze the miracle itself. A common mistake in fiction is to depict an extraordinary event which does not make sense even in the context of the story's fictitious physics. A classic example is an immaterial ghost walking through walls. If a ghost can walk through walls then how are they supported by the ground? They even made the same mistake in a Star Trek:NG episode where two crew members became "phase shifted", were invisible to the rest of the crew and soon found they could walk through walls. But they stood firmly and walked around normally on the floor boards of the ship. And if they weren't interacting with regular matter in a normal way, how could they breathe?

The same kind of thing happens in the tale of Jesus' water walking. If he was supported by the water, then the water must have been in a solid form (not necessarily ice but having the appearance of motionless liquid water, yet solid.) The apostles might have noted that the water was motionless. But Peter was said to have "seen" the wind, which probably meant he "saw" the waves were high and moving and that's what frightened him. So the water probably wouldn't have been solid.

Perhaps Jesus' solidified the water exactly around the perimeter of his feet as he walked, but that would mean an ever changing surface contour as the waves undulated on windy day. There is no account of Jesus stumbling about, negotiating the moving crests and troughs. He certainly would not be walking normally.

Yet another method would be a miraculous structure just beneath the surface to permit normal walking. Here again there is no report about any structure made visible by the waves breaking over it. This would be true if the structure was at an average water level i.e. between crest and trough of the waves. If the miraculous structure was below below the trough, Jesus would have gotten awfully wet.

The only other option is that Jesus was going through the motions of walking, but in fact he was flying at just the water level. But why the charade of walking and why stop there? Why not just fly a few feet above the water and not even get his feet wet?

Even if there is a sensible explanation that fits the account, the whole idea of water walking strikes me as being a charade, like a showy magician's trick and lacking in practicality -- in one word -- fanciful. If I were there, I would say to Jesus, "If you please, let's see you fly across!" That would be simpler.

Anonymous said...

Which Bilbo is the Bilbo who used to post on internet infidels?

I'm the luvluv who used to post on internet infidels and I'm just saying hi.

J said...

Also consider that if a supernatural Jee-zuss really existed, and he was capable of creating big-time miracles (ie walking on water..then did he do it, or G*d??), THEN He would have been quite capable of fleeing the authoritays, or even stopping his crucifixion, or, in effect, ANYTHING. So as He hangs on his cross, he could stop at it at any point, but chooses not to.......


ERGO, He must have dug pain.

Blue Devil Knight said...

J illustrating that we need a Poe's law to apply to nutty skeptics as well as nutty Christians. If you are not a parody of a silly atheist, J, then you should know that Jesus willingly went forward to die. Of course he could have avoided this fate. That's sort of the point.

And if I know that, then you are on thin ice as a religion-mocker.

Steven Carr said...

J
So as He hangs on his cross, he could stop at it at any point, but chooses not to.......

BDK
If you are not a parody of a silly atheist, J, then you should know that Jesus willingly went forward to die. Of course he could have avoided this fate

CARR
J gives an exact description of what allegedly happened, and BDK chides him for mocking Christianity by describing it.

Why is an exposition of Christianity the same as an expose of Christianity?

It is interesting that Paul is so calm about how the Jewish crowd bayed for the blood of Jesus.

Romans 3
What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way!....What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God's faithfulness?

'Some did not have faith' - An interesting euphemism for killing the Son of God.

To get back to the topic of miracles, Paul chides Jews for being people who wanted Christianity to be a religion accompanied by miracles.

1 Corinthians 1
Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified....

Silly Jews, asking for miraculous signs!

What did they expect? A Jesus who walked on water?

Blue Devil Knight said...

Steven: no, J's "description" leaves out the point of the entire story. If someone reads the NT and concludes that Jesus is a masochist, then they have missed the take-home message of the text. That would be like concluding that Giordano Bruno (burned at the stake by the Roman Catholics) liked the smell of cooking meat based on his life story. It's insulting to everyone involved.

Skeptics need not resort to silliness and mockery to make their point (note of course I am not above making fun, parody, and such--my point was that sometimes it is hard to differentiate the nutty skeptic from the parody of the skeptic, just as stated in Poe's Law for the kooky Christian).

Steven Carr said...

So the pain was not part of the Christian message?

And Mel Gibson was parodying Christianity when he made The Passion of the Christ?

Why did Paul chide Jews for expecting Christianity to be a religion accompanied by miraculous signs?

J said...

Satire of any form tends to bother intellectual frauds, whether they are religious or not.

And the point holds, however "nutty" BDK finds it: given that Jeezuss had (allegedly) the ability to enact/bring about serious miracles (ie walking on water, raising the dead), he would therefore have had the ability to...like know the future, wouldn't he? Or to stop the proceedings, or even prevent Judas from ratting him out avoid the trial, or avoid the crucifixion.

I don't lose sleep over it--since I believe that Hume was sort of correct that we cannot accept any testimony, especially ancient testimony regarding supposed supernatural events, given the uniformity of experience (to be brief)--unless perhaps you've seen someone walking on water, raising the dead, BDK? The point is that given Christ's supposed miraculous nature, anything follows (ie he could have, at any time, fly off into the skies....)

Bilbo said...

Steven Carr: So Jesus told his friends how to get free money by looking in the mouth of a fish, and nobody thinks this is out of the ordinary.

If I remember, the only people involved in this story were Jesus and Peter. And Jesus wasn't telling him how to get free money. He was resolving a quandary that Peter had gotten Him in -- whether he should pay the Temple tax. It's not easy to imagine a context where there would be a need to invent this story, except for a pre-Temple Palestinian context. And even in that context, why would the question come up, unless the early church was already claiming a higher status for Jesus than for the Temple? Thanks for bringing up that story, Steven. I never realized its historical significance before.

And when was Quirinius governor of Syria?

Wasn't that Luke's only historical mistake? And it's about an event that happened at least 30 years earlier. Not bad for a guy trying to be historically accurate.

I guess those pigs possessed by demons are 'real details', not 'picturesque inventions'

At least they didn't fly.

But Paul gets up and walks away and continues his journey next day.
Broken bones? Internal injuries?
Purtill swallows it all because it is in the New Testament.


Or maybe because Paul also refers to the stoning (II Cor.11:25)

Mark: Is it your position that an ancient author couldn't have had this as a literary theme, and wouldn't have woven skepticism about Jesus' miracles into the story if he had?

I don't know enough about literature to have an opinion on that. I just know that Lewis, who did know a lot about literature, ancient and modern, was impressed. But it wasn't just the skepticism. It was the reaction of people when it's reported that he's healing people: Jesus is surrounded and nearly crushed by large crowds wanting healing. But then the constant stories of Jesus noticing individuals in the crowd: the woman with the issue of blood; Zacchaeus climbing a tree; the blind man by the side of the road; the old woman putting two cents in the Temple coin box. It seems quite possible to me that this is all just literary invention. But it is very well done and altogether consistent.

Bilbo said...

Ken Jacobs, I think you make a good point about the implausibility of walking on water. Why not just fly? Though if I were in the boat, I don't think I would have challenged Jesus to fly. But the point of Jesus walking on the water in first place was not to perform a miraculous sign. It was because he saw that his disciples were in trouble. They were rowing against a strong wind, and making little headway, and the weather was getting worse. So Jesus was coming to help them. Why walk on the water, instead of fly? I can't find it, but I think there's a Psalm that makes reference to Yahweh's walking on water. There's certainly a Psalm that makes reference to Yahweh helping those who do business on the seas (Psalm 107:25-30). So if it happened, it may have been Jesus' way of letting the disciples know who he was. But then couldn't the story have been made up later, inspired by the Psalms? That's plausible. But again, the reaction of the disciples, and the later puzzlement of the crowds is what we would have expected if it really did happen.
Back to the implausibility of walking on water, C.S.Lewis, in his Miracles, makes a distinction between miracles of the old creation (turning water into wine is just a speeded up version of what nature already does), and miracles of the new creation (walking on water, apparently going through solid walls to see the disciples after the resurrection). The idea is that our resurrected bodies would have new properties that our old bodies didn't have. Maybe we'll be able to fly. I'd like that.

luvluv: I think it's the other Bilbo. I was at arn.org most of the time. I only went to infidels occasionally, usually when arn was down.

Steven Carr: Why did Paul chide Jews for expecting Christianity to be a religion accompanied by miraculous signs

I'm not sure, but I think Paul was referring to the reaction of the Jewish religious leaders, who demanded, but never got to see grandiose signs (perhaps like falling from the top of the Temple, and landing safely on his feet).

Steven Carr said...

Bilbo simply denies that the story is about how to get free money.

Matthew 17
When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. "What do you think, Simon?" he asked. "From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own sons or from others?"

"From others," Peter answered.

"Then the sons are exempt," Jesus said to him. "But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours."

What a ridiculous story!

Almost as ridiculous as the anonymous author of Luke claiming Paul was stoned to the point where he appeared dead , and his body was dragged out of the city.

Acts 14
Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe.

'The next day'! I guess stones were a lot softer in those days, and dragging people along the stony ground resulted in almost no injuries at all.

B. Prokop said...

I've pointed this out many times before, but (sigh), it probably needs to be repeated.

One absolutely gigantic difference between the Gospels (and the works of the Early Church Fathers which followed) and the various mythological and/or legendary figures in literature and culture is that, while the story of a legendary figure (e.g., King Arthur) will be embellished and elaborated upon over time, with various supporting characters being thrown into the mix and more and more fantastic detail included, the orthodox Christian account of the life of Christ remained over the generations precisely what was told to the community by the Apostles - nothing more, nothing less.

Not that there weren't attempts galore to embellish the narrative. Just look at the plethora of Gnostic so-called "gospels" circulating in the first few centuries. If Jesus were just another legendary or mythic figure, all of these accounts would have found their way into the accepted story, just as the tales of Lancelot, Taliessin, Gawain, and the Grail (originally all quite separate legends) were appropriated by the Arthurian mythos, eventually becoming an integral, and indeed essential, part of it.

And I'm serious - take a good look at these spurious writings. They're chock full of fantastic stories that make the miracles recorded in the Gospels seem tame (such as the adolescent Jesus amusing Himself by fashioning clay pigeons, breathing upon them, and watching them fly away). But rather than absorbing all this embellishment into the orthodox narrative, they were ruthlessly spurned and excluded from the canon. There is no other instance in all of human history of such a thing happening. The standard rule is to emulate the Borg. ("Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated!")

And this preservation of the purity of the original narrative continued right into the Middle Ages, when all sorts of pious stories were told about the lives of the Magi, the wanderings of Joseph of Arimathea, or the grail legends themselves. But at no time did such tales gain wide acceptance as fact.

No, the very nature of the Gospels as "story" is qualitatively different from that of myth or legend. They are as alike as apples and bicycles.

Jezu ufam tobie!

Gyan said...

Let's talk about fantasy elements in the Old Testament, shall we.

Yahwah told Moses to make a serpent figure (Moses made this serpent from bronze). Why?
Because Yahweh Himself sent serpents to bite disobedient Hebrews. Then the Hebrews complained to Moses.And Moses to Yahweh.

And whenever a serpent bit a Hebrew, Moses would show the bronze serpent to that person and that person would be cured.

This is the general tenor of the Hebrew Bible. The folkloric elements get even more prominent in the original Hebrew with its word-plays and puns.
That's why it is very illuminating to read a modern translation from Hebrew such as Robert Alter's.

Dave Duffy said...

"Bilbo simply denies that the story is about how to get free money"

Lord help me, there is something about this take on the story that makes me laugh.

Joe Hinman said...

Man good old Purtill. I discovered him right after I got saved. I was elated to see a real actual Christian philosopher! As an atheist I had told myself there weren't any. This brings back the days of hippie Christians the end of the pre-Reagan charismatic movement, the second chapter of Acts before they were too middle class to listen to. I feel like I've seen an old friend hearing about Purtill. I wonder, Dr. R did you know him?

Victor Reppert said...

Dick's a longtime personal friend going back to the 80s when I was in grad school doing a dissertation on the Argument from Reason. He's 84 now, apparently now best known for SF.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Purtill

Joe Hinman said...

that is cool

Joe Hinman said...

It never occurred to me to look for a home page for him. I knew he retired I quite thinking about him years ago. I'm going to try and get in touch with him. I respect him. I put him in the group I think of as the "holders of the fort." Before Hartshorne, Malcom, and Plantinga put respectability back in philosophical God talk guys like Purtill and in an eairler generation, E.L. Mascall and Copleston where holding down the fort.