Saturday, October 30, 2010

Historical Intent and the Pervasiveness of the Miraculous

There are two sets of facts that, I think render a naturalistic account of Christian origins difficult. They are what you should expect if there were real miracles but not what you should expect if there were none. One is that it seems clear to me that the Gospels were written with the intent to be represent reality, and that they were written by people who, if not eyewitnesses themselves, were in a position to interview eyewitnesses. In the case of the later parts of Acts, I think it very clear that Luke WAS an eyewitness to at least some of the events he discusses.  I think the archaeological evidence, along with other types of evidence, shows that the New Testament has at the very least a significant historical core. I realize that this doesn't buy you inerrancy, but it does undercut any theory that the whole thing was made up. People didn't write novels at that time, and a comparison between the Gospels and other literature at the time shows that, whatever else the Gospels and Acts were, they were attempts to represent reality. Call this the Attempt to Represent Reality Thesis.

Of course it is open to the skeptic to say, at this point that OK, there was a significant historical core, but all the miracle reports were legendary. However, these documents seem to be pervasively supernaturalist, so that it doesn't seem even possible to isolate that naturalistically explicable historical core from the elements which, in one way or another, imply a supernatural character to the founding of Christianity. The passages used to back up the "Liar, Lunatic or Lord" argument are cases in point. Not just the healings, the claim to forgive sins, but also the claim to supersede the Law with "I say unto you," and Jesus' more explicit assertions like Mark 14: 61-62 make it difficult to isolate a naturalistically acceptable element. This is the thesis of the Pervasiveness of the Miraculous.

But the pervasiveness isn't just in the Gospels. In one debate on Acts, I had been pointing to the archaeological confirmation of later Acts. The event-to-writing gap is less, and, as I indicated, we have good reason to suppose that some of it is eyewitness testimony. So, someone who believes in a naturalistic account would expect a downturn in the element of the miraculous. Skeptic GearHedEd indeed floated just such a hypothesis, which is perfectly reasonable on naturalistic assumptions:

I submit that everything before Acts 9 is stage-setting, and that everything after the infamous "Road to Damascus" incident is probably historical, at least as much as anything is considered "historical" in any other early "historical" writings.

Things that make you go, "Hmmmm..."


Before Acts: 9? Many

After Acts 9:? Almost nothing, save vague statements of the "Holy Spirit descending on them" in Acts 11, and Peter's "miraculous" escape from prison in Acts 12 (who was there to record the circumstances of Peter's escape? And didn't he at first think he was "seeing a vision (Acts 12:9)? He should have trusted his first impression).

Only, as Tim McGrew pointed out subsequently, miracles don't drop off at this point. 

It is completely unclear to me why GearHedEd thinks it would be a point in his favor if the latter part of Acts contained no reported miracles. The suggestion that the gospels and the earlier parts of Acts are entirely fabricated does not warrant serious discussion.

But for the record, here is a partial list of miracles recounted in Acts from chapter 10 onward:

* Peter is liberated from prison by an angel (Acts 12:5-11)

* Paul temporarily blinds the sorcerer Elymas (Acts 13:9-12)

* Paul and Barnabas work miracles on their missionary journey (Acts 14:3)

* Paul cures the lame man of Lystra (Acts 14:7-9)

* Paul exorcises girl possessed of a divining spirit (Acts 16:16-18)

* Chains fall from Paul and Silas in prison (Acts 16:25-30)

* Paul raises Eutychus from the dead (Acts 20:9-12)

* Paul shakes off a viper from his arm and suffers no hurt (Acts 28:3-6)

* Paul heals Publius’s father of dysentery (Acts 28:7-8)

* Paul heals all the sick brought to him on Malta (Acts 28:9)

In addition, Tim could have also pointed out that the presence of signs and wonders was used as one of the major reasons which justified the Gentile ministry of Paul and Barnabas to the Council of Jerusalem. 

In other words, you should expect it to be the case that the more you find support for historicity, the less likely you are to find miracle claims, if naturalism is true. But this is not the case, so that disconfirms the naturalistic hypothesis.


Gregory said...

Even beyond the Apostolic era, miracles were a part of the Church's experience throughout "history".

On the more lurid side, two examples come to mind. Julian the Apostate and Arius of Alexandria.

In the case of Arius: after the Nicean Council had condemned his views, he persisted in his way. Although he scored an overwhelming defeat at Nicea, he had hoped to rally sympathy from other Bishops. After a formal recanting and restoration to communion, he had been advised to seek aid from the Bishop of Constantinople. The Bishop had little desire for his audience and, as tradition has it, had prayed that anything, even death, would prevent such a meeting. One fateful Sunday, in a bathroom stall in Constantinople, Arius was utterly relieved of his bowels and died. A true "bowel movement", if ever there was one. Judas Iscariot, Ananias and Saphira come to mind, in this regard.

In the strange case of the Emperor Julian, Julian's denunciation of--and vicious opposition to--the Church has been noted by many historians. His attempt to rebuild the Temple of Apollo where the relics of a 3rd Century martyr lie was met by a bizarre and inexplicable series of fires that mysteriously erupted around the build site. Things got so bad that all attempts at it's re-construction were put on permanent hiatus. The temple was completely burnt to the ground, never to be rebuilt. Sorry Apollo, but Christ is God.

And even his campaign against the Persians saw more than just military cost him his life. It has been said that his dying words, given shortly after receiving his mortal wound from battle, were "you have won, Galilean" (i.e. referring to Christ). What is notable is that Julian was the last of the persecuting Caesars; which meant a final and decisive victory of Christianity over the Roman Republic. Some might say that Julian's final words foreshadowed the end of Roman Imperialism, as well as peace for Orthodox Christians from the earlier brutalities they faced from Rome.

"Upon this Rock I build My Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it."

Meaning: God is tearing down those gates and marching victoriously over and upon the last domain of darkness...having already conquered death by His death.

Concerning ongoing "miracles", I would like to quote the words of Francis Schaeffer:

"He is there and He is not silent"

Blue Devil Knight said...

The Gospels are Fox News (and that's being kind to the Gospels), not CSPAN.

So the more crazy there is mixed in with a historical core, the more we should believe the crazy? I could take a perfectly good history text, and scramble it with some crazy miracle stories, and that would make it compelling?

It isn't hard to differentiate propositions in the NT involving miracles from those that do not. Not sure what the big deal is. Jefferson Bible and all.

I would agree, though, that we have texts descended from advocates who strongly believed (from my understanding, the earliest was Mark, which was likely written ~35 years after Christ's death). It is important to remember they also strongly wanted others to believe. This wasn't some neutral history text, but works of persuasion, propaganda. You don't convince by throwing out geopolitical facts that the audience will know are BS. Such obvious mistakes would have made them stupid, which they were not.

Your argument works just as well if we replace 'miracle' with 'propaganda.' How can you differentiate the history from the propaganda?

You write as if these are just attempts to diligently get out the historical facts, in an objective way. But this is false. They were works of historical propaganda. That doesn't make them false, but it should make us more skeptical.

When I read works of UFO devotees I am much more skeptical than when I read the work of a dispassionate reporter.

Victor Reppert said...

BDK: Comparing ANYTHING to Fox News is unkind.

unkleE said...

"DK: Comparing ANYTHING to Fox News is unkind."

What about a bag of prawns left out in the sun for a week? : )

Mr Veale said...

C John Sommerville's "How The News Makes Us Dumb" is worth a read, as is Nick Davies "Flat Earth News".

Fox News might be a little more honest about it's product than many news outlets.

Is it possible that, once in a while, Fox News might latch onto the right cause? Could it occasionally get things right?

And, presumably, a critical analysis could reconstruct some of the truth from Fox broadcasts? This would be possible even if you ONLY had access to Fox. In fact, Foxes blatant bias might prove helpful. Anything that Fox broadcast that was embarrassing to the Fox agenda would be likely to be true.

GearHedEd said...

Digging pretty deep for subject matter, eh Victor?

Steven Carr said...

I must admit to being rather startled by the accuracy of Luke's information.

I'll concede that if Luke got all the names of the brothers of Jesus correct then I'll get baptised.

You can't say fairer than that.

If Luke got such basic stuff as the names of the brothers of Jesus right with 100% accuracy, then he obviously knew what he was talking about.

Steven Carr said...

It appears that Christians concede that 'Luke' couldn't even get the names of the brothers of Jesus accurate.