The Tentative Apologist
3/2/11 at 03:17 PM 0 Comments

On the general skepticism about ancient miracle reports

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Many highly educated ancient historians (by which I mean historians that study ancient history, not historians that are really old) believe that the historical evidence supports the conclusion that Jesus was resurrected. For example, they point to the strong evidence for the empty tomb, post resurrection appearances, and the beliefs of the earliest followers of Jesus that he was in fact resurrected. In addition they note the extraordinary phenomena of some of the most devout monotheists the world has ever known — people who would submit to having their tongues cut out by Antiochus Epiphanies rather than eat pork — becoming convinced not only that Jesus was resurrected but that he was God incarnate. (To get a sense of how radical this is, it is like key members of Planned Parenthood suddenly becoming prolife and suppording Sarah Palin for president. If that happened I'd certainly countenance the possibility of extraordinary events as the occasional cause!)

And that is not all. These historians would also note the evidence that key people in this early group of disciples included Paul and James, brother of Jesus, both of whom were skeptics during their life time. Finally, they take note of the rigorous rabbinic context of the earliest disciples in which one does not add or pad the teachings or life of one's rabbi but rather faithfully passes on that which was received (1 Cor. 11:2, 11:23, 15:3; Gal. 1:8-9). This was not a milieu in which the passing on of tradition can be marginalized by an analogy with grade two students playing the old "Telephone game".

And yet despite all this, there is a remarkable incredulity among many skeptics toward even considering the possibility of a miraculous resurrection. Far from consideration as the best explanation of all the data, it is not even considered as a remotely plausible explanation. Why not?

In many cases the dismissal appears to be rooted in a general incredulity toward ancient miracle claims. This is, in effect, the perfect storm. You start by being incredulous toward miracle claims generally. But throw in an enormous span of time and a pre-scientific age and the incredulity cuts off at the knees any and all miraculous reports no matter what the evidence.

C.S. Lewis dealt with the suspicion that ancient peoples were particularly gullible, and their reports subject to a debilitating skepticism, in his classic book Miracles:

"the idea that the progress of science has somehow altered this question is closely bound up with the idea that people 'in olden times' believe in them [miracles] 'because they didn't know the laws of nature.' Thus you will hear people say, 'The early Christians believed that Christ was the son of a virgin, but we know that this is a scientific impossibility.' Such people seem to have an idea that belief in miracles arose at a period when men were so ignorant of the course of nature that they did not perceive a miracle to be contrary to it. A moment's thought shows this to be nonsense: and the story of the Virgin Birth is a particularly striking example. When St Joseph discovered that his fiancee was going to have a baby, he not unnaturally decided to repudiate her. Why? Because he knew just as well as any modern gynaecologist that in the ordinary course of nature women do not have babies unless they have lain with men. No doubt the modern gynaecologist knows several things about birth and begetting which St Joseph did not know. But those things do not concern the main point—that a virgin birth is contrary to the course of nature. And St Joseph obviously knew that. In any sense in which it is true to say now 'the thing is scientifically impossible,' he would have said the same: the thing always was, and was always known to be, impossible unless the regular process of nature were, in this particular case, being over-ruled or supplemented by something from beyond nature." (74)

In the twenty-first century a young man that finds his fiancee pregnant and knows he didn't do it doesn't immediately leap to the conclusion of divine action. But neither, as Lewis points out, would a young man in the first century. In both cases extraordinary evidence would have been required to overcome the general incredulity toward miracles (and the general suspicion of infidelity). As Lewis puts it, "Nothing can seem extraordinary until you have discovered what is ordinary. Belief in miracles, far from depending on an ignorance of the laws of nature, is only possible insofar as those laws are known." (75) So if some evidence persuades a person today that a particular event is miraculous we should heed that evidence. And this is likewise the case when the reports come from the first century.

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