A friend of mine recently wrote the following:
” [I]f scholars admit divine explanations for historical events, then we get a lesser grade of scholarship as a result. Scholars don’t get to reach for divine explanations under any circumstances, regardless of what they personally believe about the past. As products of scholarly labor, such explanations aren’t accepted by the guild, and that’s a good thing.”
He has studied at Harvard and the University of Chicago so I assume he knows what he is saying. I have studied at a confessional institution where one must affirm the resurrection so I could be ignorant. Nevertheless, it seems to me that this is a bit of an over generalization. What about individuals such as Wolfhart Pannenberg of the University of Munich; N.T. Wright who has been as Oxford and Cambridge; Simon Gathercole of Cambridge; Richard Bauckham of the the University of St. Andrews; James D.G. Dunn(?), Francis Watson, and John Barclay of Durham fame; Richard Hayes and Stan Hauwerwaus at Duke; Bruce Longenecker at Baylor; David Aune at Notre Dame and on and on and on. If his definition stands then none of these brilliant minds can be considered legitimate scholars because all allow for the bodily resurrection of Jesus (as far as I understand).
What do you think? Does legitimate scholarship necessarily equate to a denial that we can outright affirm belief in the resurrection on scholarly ground? Or must we resort to what he said that we must wear “two hats”: one of faith; one of scholarship?
Don’t assume that he knows what he’s saying; clearly he doesn’t! I’ve reproduced this quote from Craig Evans a number of times on my blog but it bears repeating here:
A lesser grade of scholarship is the one that denies the possibility of divine explanations a priori.
I’m with Nick. Though it’s scholar-chic to deny the possibility of supernatural phenomena, it’s usually only an affirmation of trying to tickle certain ears, or an effort to further undergird the ivory tower.
What your friend says is a common view among historians, just as it is among scientists: that scholarship must adhere to the principle of methodological naturalism. The problem is that this is just an arbitrary restraint on both disciplines, and it evinces a philosophical presupposition/bias that ought to be questioned rather than slavishly adhered to. If the goal of history is to discover what happened, and when possible, why it happened, then they should be open to the possibility of divine causal agency in the spatio-temporal world should the evidence point in that direction.
Mike Licona, a historian specializing in the resurrection of Jesus, argues the conclusion that Jesus came back to life after having been killed by the Romans is a historical conclusion. What is debatable is whether the conclusion that God caused Jesus to rise from the dead is a historical conclusion since it appeals to an causal agent beyond the physical realm, and thus beyond confirmation (e.g. Bart Ehrman argues that while it may be true that God raised Jesus from the dead, and thus it would be a historical event, that conclusion cannot be verified through historical means and thus is beyond the reach of historians). Licona argues that in principle divine causal agency ought to be considered a historical conclusion if it is the best explanation of the historical facts (since the method of inference to the best explanation is a standard way of historical reasoning). Licona further argues that in the same way scientists are justified in postulating entities they have never seen because such entities are causally adequate to explain the behavior/effects of what they do see, likewise the historian is justified in postulating God as the cause of certain historical events if that was the explanation offered by the witnesses, and if divine causal agency best explains the historical data (outstripping all rival, naturalistic hypotheses).
I don’t buy the two-hat idea either. However, I think it is also wise to recognize the fact that if you do want to “talk” to the “guild”, you need to speak their language. That’s why I appreciate guys like NT Wright or William Lane Craig (who studied under Pannenberg) who can actually engage critical scholarship toe to toe. Even some of my profs tell me when they present papers at a place like SBL, the phraseology and terminology they use drastically change as opposed to papers presented at say… ETS.
“The problem is that this is just an arbitrary restraint on both disciplines, and it evinces a philosophical presupposition/bias that ought to be questioned rather than slavishly adhered to. ”
That restraint is far from arbitrary, and you can thank that restraint for modern, Western culture (the good and the ill), and for miracles of science like antibiotics, Apple products, and the A-bomb.
Put another way, in terms of the whole “civilization” thing, that very non-arbitrary restraint has a lot better track record than its equally non-arbitrary alternative.
At any rate, I have no problem with someone who rejects the foundations of the modern sciences (natural and human), but to suggest that they’re arbitrary is pretty shockingly ignorant and disrespectful. People have died for these principles, and I suspect they will again before it’s all said and done.
If you are talking about historical scholarship, then it seems clear that no one, believer or not, could ever conclude using the tools of historical inquiry, that the resurrection of Jesus is the most probable way to account for the rise of Christian belief in his resurrection. Will it not always be more probable that some events with historical parallel converged to give rise to these beliefs? It isn’t clear to me how a historian as historian could pronounce the resurrection of Jesus ‘probable.’
This doesn’t mean that the resurrection has thereby been disproven. It does mean that we face difficult challenges if historical study cannot provide the sorts of answers Christians long for, since it isn’t clear that other disciplines can step in and succeed in answering historical questions when historical study itself cannot.
It seems to me that the problem with this approach is it is a de facto denial of the resurrection at the very time it discusses the possibility of a resurrection. So we ask, “Did Jesus rise again from the dead?” but one of the rules to the game is to say, “Historically, people do not rise from the dead”. Well, we have our answer now don’t we?!
It would be like me trying to introduce basketball to a bunch of baseball players. If I am not even allowed to bring a hoop into the arena we probably won’t get very far.
That is neither fair nor accurate. Historical study always deals in probabilities. That is not specific to discussions of the resurrection. And I don’t think anyone would say that a resurrection, a person who died entering bodily into the life of the age to come, is in any sense “probable” or “likely.” If you don’t like the tools history provides, feel free to suggest others that might address this issue. But the problem is that you are choosing a method that cannot do what you ask (choosing a venue that doesn’t have a hoop) and then complaining that it doesn’t do what you want it to. Even from a Christian perspective, miracles are unusual, improbable events, and thus I don’t see how it would be possible to redefine the historical investigation of probabilities in such a way that it would ever be able to conclude that it is more likely that a miracle occurred than that a story about a miracle arose by some other means.
But if you disagree, by all means explain why, and offer a suggestion on how else we might go about investigating such things. But complaining that an already-existing discipline doesn’t provide the kinds of certainty modern Christians want doesn’t seem to be either fair or helpful.
James: I fail to see on what basis (other than philosophical naturalism which isn’t a necessary component of historical inquiry) you’d conclude that resurrection is less likely than any other explanation. The testimony of those closest to the event say resurrection. It seems to me that the historian as a historian would want to rely on the best sources and the best sources don’t say grave robbers or some other allegedly more probable explanation. Unless you’ve already concluded before examining the evidence that resurrection doesn’t happen there would be no reason to even ask by what other means a “story about a miracle arose”.
BTW, unless you presuppose philosophical naturalism you can’t say the game doesn’t have a hoop. But why should anyone presuppose any such thing? By what standard do we judge that presupposition as valid and others as invalid for historical inquiry? It’s fine and dandy to sit there and state with confidence how historical study works but that’s far different than actually arguing how or why it should work that way.
Also, why the reference to modern Christians and certainty? Last time I read the Gospel of John it seemed that Thomas wanted to be certain of the resurrection and that was a long time ago. 😉
Yes, historical investigation deals with probabilities, but no one is claiming historical investigation can provide 100% certainty that Jesus rose from the dead, or that God caused it. What we would say historical investigation can do is provide good evidence to believe that Jesus probably did rise from the dead (and perhaps, secondarily, provide evidence that God was the probable cause of this extraordinary event).
Are resurrections improbable? In general, yes! We all know most dead people stay dead. But there is a difference between this observation and the conclusion that dead people cannot come back to life. While improbable, it’s possible (since there is nothing incoherent or self-contradictory about the idea). Can the improbable be true? Of course. Most historical events are improbable. The real question, then, is not whether an event is improbable, but whether we have good evidence to believe an improbable event occurred. For example, it is extremely improbable that a golfer get 3 holes-in-one in a single round of golf, but if you’ve got good evidence that it happened, then you should conclude that it happened. The same is true of the resurrection. If all the evidence points to the improbable as having probably occurred, then the historian can conclude that it probably did occur. Such a conclusion would not be on the probability of the event in isolation, but on the probability of the event with respect to the evidence.
You seem to be arguing the same thing Bart Ehrman does: historians can only establish what probably happened in the past, and since miracles by definition are the least probable occurrences, then a historian can never conclude that a miracle probably occurred since that would be to say the most improbable event is the most probable event. This line of reasoning is fallacious, however. Yes, miracles are improbable, but to think there cannot be historical evidence for an improbable event is not true. If the way historians establish what is most probable is by the presence of multiple, early, independent attestation (among other things), and if we have that kind of evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, then, although improbable in itself, the resurrection becomes the most probable event given the evidence.
The only reason to dismiss this conclusion is if one imposes an arbitrary definition on “history” that requires naturalistic explanations for historical events. But as Nick pointed out, why should we accept this? History should be the study of determining what actually happened in the past. It should be concerned to reconstruct the actual events of the past, not just to reconstruct the right kind of events (purely naturalistic ones). If there is good evidence to conclude that a crucified man came back to life, then we should conclude he did. Our reconstruction of the past should not be shackled by some arbitrary philosophical presupposition or methodological definition that excludes the supernatural a priori. It is foolish to say in advance of the evidence what can and cannot happen in history.
Why conclude that Jesus’ resurrection is improbable? We judge improbability given our background knowledge. What is improbable under a set of circumstances X, may be quite probable under a set of circumstances Q. There is no inherent probability or improbability of a resurrection in itself. The probability is based on our background knowledge. If there is no God, I think we could say with confidence that Jesus’ resurrection is highly improbable. But if there is a God, and if He wanted to raise Jesus from the dead, then it is not at all improbable that Jesus rose from the dead. In fact, it would be quite probable. The question, then, would become what evidence we have for believing there is a God, for believing He wanted to raise Jesus from the dead, and for believing Jesus did rise from the dead.
For a historian to conclude the resurrection of Jesus is the most improbable explanation requires that he show God’s existence to be improbable. But if historians are prohibited from dealing with the metaphysical, then they cannot speak to the issue of the probability or improbability of God’s existence. And if they cannot speak to the issue of the probability or improbability of God’s existence, then they do not have sufficient background knowledge against which to determine whether God’s having raised Jesus from the dead is a probable or improbable event. It is self-refuting to claim historians cannot deal with the metaphysical, and yet conclude that Jesus’ resurrection is improbable.
I think your “friend” (Jon Stokes who gives a false link to his website) only claimed that using divine explanations when doing history resulted in a lesser grade of [historical] scholarship. He is not saying that none of those big shots can’t be considered legitimate scholars. He is rightfully accusing them of “confessional scholarship”. It is like food nutrition labels, maybe their “scholarship” should come with warnings. Stokes is not saying you can’t affirm the resurrection, he is saying that you don’t affirm from a historical scholarly basis but only a faith basis. So, yep, you should be clear which hat you have on.
Modern historical criticism cannot be separated out from philosophical naturalism. Otherwise it isn’t modern historical criticism; it’s just my truth is as valid as your truth. Historical criticism can only speak to what can be verified in the world using the tools of scientific discovery. By its very definition it can only verify what is within the realm of what is knowable and possible in the natural world.
Of course it can accurately report that biblical writers believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. We have their written record. We can even say accurately that this belief though not common was an occasional feature of the pre-modern worldview. We have records of other such stories.
But that doesn’t lead us to be able to say that they were right in their beliefs: that a dead corpse came back to life. Unless we have scientifically verifiable evidence that this kind of thing happens and can be explained within the bounds of the natural world no critical historian can say it happened then. If he or she does they are no longer doing history. They are making a faith statement. Which is fine, but it isn’t critical history.
Can you just define “arbitrary” for us? You keep using that word.
My personal website isn’t up yet. I’m trying to get a splash page up this month. If you want to follow my professional work, which isn’t church-related, you can go to http://arstechnica.com/.
I do not deny that the concept of resurrection is “improbable”. Even those who has claimed it since the beginning understood this to be true. What I am wondering is if probability in other areas is given as much weight.
For instance, with Paul, I think his testimony is more probable than that he envisioned something so odd and terrible, and contrary to his desires, as Jesus appearing to him alive from the dead. So while resurrection, as a concept and a historical probability, in and of itself, is not “probable”, likewise I do not find other explanations of Paul’s conversion as probable as that he really saw Jesus.
My proposal is that, if anything, we examine the other minor details which it seems that some like Nick and Jason are proposing. Sure, the “big idea” of resurrection is not normal. Neither is a vengeful Pharisee who kills Christians becoming an Apostle normal.
If this is so that we must also approach the scholarship of others with warnings. If philosophical naturalism is one of the ingrediants I want to know because I can assume that somethings are going to be dismissed forthright. Likewise, confessional scholarship should be forthright that we are coming from the perspective of “faith seeking understanding”. What we must get on with is this mumbo-jumbo about so-called “objectivity” which neither party brings to the table.
Jason, thank you for your reply. You seem to be backtracking on you claim earlier that resurrection is only improbable if God doesn’t exist. Here you seem to acknowledge improbability.
Of course amazing golf shots and even a series of them is improbable, yet possible. Surely you are not suggesting that the resurrection of Jesus is a comparable event, in which we are merely witnessing a convergence of known physical properties and behaviors, impressive human skill, and good luck.
We accept methodological naturalism in a comparable discipline to historical investigation, namely the attempt to use evidence to determine what happened in a criminal investigation. Is it ever appropriate for detectives to conclude that, since they have failed to find a human murderer, God must simply have wanted this person dead? Is it not for them rather to leave the case open as unsolved?
My biggest issue with what is being claimed here, however, is that I have never seen it applied in a fair way across traditions. Would any of those who want history to be able to demonstrate Jesus’ resurrection accept it if historians concluded that the angel Gabriel most likely appeared to Muhammad? The evidence from early Christian sources includes an individual who places his own visionary experience in the same category as that of Peter and others (whose experiences he can only give us second-hand information and in some cases we do not know how long the chain of transmission is), a Gospel which lacks any appearances of Jesus, and later ones in which the person identified as Jesus seems not to look like him. None of this disproves the resurrection, but neither do I see how a fair consideration of such evidence makes it “probable.”
Is methodological naturalism appropriate? If not, in what sort of case would it be appropriate to conclude that a miracle is not only possible but most likely?
I’d really appreciate if we could discuss examples from outside the Biblical tradition, since otherwise it will be hard to escape the accusation of special pleading…
My wife once met a woman who claimed that God had made her invisible. My wife heard the story at a luncheon at an Assemblies of God church that she attended at the invitation of a friend. It seems this woman had gone to visit a friend who was in the intensive care unit. The rules at this hospital only allowed relatives in the ICU, but this woman walked right past the nurses’ station without being noticed. As she sat praying with her friend, doctors and nurses came in and out of the room without noticing her. She therefore concluded that God must have made her invisible so that she could visit her friend.
I have no evidence whatsoever that this woman was not made invisible other than my knowledge of how things normally happen in the world. Nevertheless, I do not believe that my skepticism is solely the result of my anti-supernatural bias.
Let us take something odd like Rosewell for example. Most of us do not believe anything happened and that it is merely mythical because aliens landing here on earth is not only strange, it is also unlikely and unprecedented. Now if the U.S. Government supplied a bunch of “evidence” that such an odd thing occured (an alien body, a space ship, et cetra) we could still doubt it (maybe it was fabricated) but we couldn’t dismiss it a priori simply because it doesn’t fit into our system of what happens and does not happen or what has happened and has not happened.
We may contiue we ought to be skeptical because it doesn’t fit our experience or because we think the U.S. Government has an agenda. I do not think that because it has never happened before or since that this would be sufficient evidence alone for dismissing something.
Likewise, we can be skeptical of the resurrection because, well, that doesn’t happen! We may also be skeptical because we think the disciples had an agenda. But I don’t think we can simply dismiss it if there are other factors and I believe there are other factors.
OK, but it is hard to extrapolate from your example what the implications are for historians and the resurrection of Jesus. Someone involved in the events that gave rise to Christianity stepping forward to share new evidence seems unlikely at this stage. Or am I just being naturalistic in my presuppositions again? 🙂
My own training is as a scientist, so of course I was trained to hold the humanities in contempt. I came to revise this view to a degree when I found that some of those involved in the discipline really were doing objective work, data-driven rather than theory-driven, and trying to exclude their own biases and those of others.
Then I encounter stuff like this, and I remember why it is that scientists sneer at the humanities.
The question is simple, and the issue is not rocket science. Can the humanities determine things objectively or not — did X or Y happen? Yes or no?
If the answer is “only when we already know that it can happen”, then the humanities is a pile of crap decorating the prejudices of some over-paid tax-suckers. If we already know such things happen, we have already answered the argument; if we can’t find out anything we don’t already know, then we aren’t doing anything useful.
If no scholarly method can detect the resurrection of Jesus, even if it happened, because “we know such things can’t happen” (or whatever weasel-wording surrounds this), then scholarship is fake.
There is also a strong smell of petitio principi hanging around this; “research can’t prove that Jesus rose from the dead because we know that no-one — including Jesus — ever rose from the dead”.
“Scholarship” is a word, not an incantation. It only means “can we find out objectively”.
None of which should be considered as a religious statement, for or against. But I am tired of the manner in which religious prejudice is disguised in these sorts of “questions” in the first place. Every time I see this one being trotted out, it diminishes the respect I feel for the humanities.
Any respectable discipline must be able to find out facts, regardless of the prejudices (for or against) of those turning the taps on the apparatus. Never mind what we believe, damn you — what happened?
Eschatologically speaking, yes! 🙂
It is difficult to come up with something as drastic in its implications as the resurrection. At the moment the “revelations” of the Quran to Muhammad come to mind. We known that people do not receive revelations from God in that manner. It is simply unhistorical. Nevertheless, I do not reject the authority of the Quran, or Muhammad’s claims, on this basis. There are other factors involved that make me think his experience can be better explained.
I don’t care if someone insist that the disciples “saw” the resurrected Christ out of their own deep grief. I do disagree with them, but it is a fair explanation. To dismiss it because it “doesn’t happen” seems a bit circular to me. Of course resurrection does not happen! If it was common we wouldn’t make such a fuss about it.
So maybe Paul was overcome with guilt for killing Christians and maybe this led to some odd “encounter” with something or someone he perceived to be the resurrected Jesus. That is one possible objection. I happen to think it is a better objection that “resurrection didn’t happen because resurrection doesn’t happen” which is how the approach you and Jon are presenting comes across.
I can see what you are trying to say but it may be a whole different story if several people claimed to see her at one moment and gone the next. While it would still be easy to doubt it would not be the same as some left field claim that she alone experienced. Sure, resurrection is odd and not very scientific, but there are other factors.
I think Roger really gets to the heart of the issue and puts the matter well. The appropriate historical viewpoint is that our tools deal with probabilities and evidence, and there may be certain types of claim that the tools of historical investigation or scientific research cannot answer, either because of the nature of the claims or because of the available evidence. It is legitimate to either acknowledge our lack of certainty or to point out that a particular scholarly method cannot really address a particular question.
But to say “Because I’ve never seen X happen, and/or because X doesn’t normally happen, therefore X cannot have happened is problematic on so many levels, among which not least its circularity.
For me as a Christian, the issue regarding the resurrection is not that either the natural sciences or historical study can disprove it a priori or even a posteriori. The key issue is, given historical study’s inability to do better than say, in a “best case scenario”, Jesus may have risen or even probably rose from he dead, on what basis if any do we get from there to the confident proclamation “Christ is risen”?
Actually, the comment you are replying to was my first response, but this comment system is whacky, and somehow it got put under my second comment.
My point was that resurrections in general are unlikely just statistically speaking. Everyone you and I know who dies stays dead, so even if we admit it is possible for someone to rise from the dead, we’d say it is highly improbable that they do. But what if we encounter someone who says they were raised from the dead, or says they knew a man who was raised from the dead? Is his/her resurrection probable or improbable? It wouldn’t do any good to say “You couldn’t have been raised from the dead because that’s improbable” anymore than it would do you any good to tell the golfer “you couldn’t have gotten three holes-in-one because no one in the history of the world has ever done that before.” When we have an actual claim to resurrection, and we need to assess whether the specific claim is probable or improbable, we have to take into account both the evidence given for the claim, as well as our background knowledge. Since the theist and naturalist both agree that it’s unlikely that every cell in a person’s body would simultaneously come back to life by purely natural processes, a resurrection requires some supernatural intervention. So to assess whether it was possible that the person in question was resurrected, we have to assess how probable it is that God exists.
No, my golf analogy was only to show that extremely improbable events can happen, and thus the extreme improbability of X happening is not in itself evidence against X happening, and it should not be used as a trump card against positive evidence presented for X happening.
Actually, homicide detectives do not accept methodological naturalism as a guiding principle for their work. If they did, they could never conclude that someone was murdered, because murder involves personal agency rather than naturalistic processes. As for your other point, of course it is fine for them to leave the case unsolved, but knowing the precise identity of the murderer is not the issue. The important point to grasp is that homicide detectives invoke personal agency in their historical reconstructions when the evidence (testimony from eyewitnesses, circumstantial evidence, empirical evidence) warrants it. Likewise, when it comes to Jesus, if the eyewitnesses claim to have seen Jesus die, and then seen Him alive again three days later, a historian should be allowed to conclude (given sufficient evidence) that Jesus rose from the dead, and perhaps even conclude that a personal agent (though unseen) was responsible for doing so.
Actually, I think it is applied to other religious traditions. Take Mohammed. Is there multiple, independent witnesses who can testify that he encountered an angel? No. It’s just Mohammed’s word. Can anyone testify to seeing the golden plates of Joseph Smith? No. It’s just his word. Can anybody check the accuracy of his “translation” of those plates? No, it’s just his word. Compare this to the multiple, independent lines of evidence we have for Jesus’ resurrection. Many people saw Him in many different circumstances. Some were disciples, some were enemies. And some of them preserved their testimony for us.
I agree with Brian. In your story, all we have is the testimony of the woman herself. We would need other independent lines of evidence to verify her claims. We would need the testimony of the doctors. We would need to corroborate her claim that the doctor’s came into the room at the time she says she was there (perhaps checking the patient’s chart). Etc. Not all historical claims are equally evidenced.
I have never seen a pig fly. I have never heard or read of a report about pigs flying. Furthermore, because of their physical properties, they are not designed to fly. I have never seen it happen; it doesn’t normally happen. It can’t happen.
If someone tells me they saw a pig fly I will assume that they thought they saw a pig fly but it was really something else. Or perhaps the person who tells me this was “flying” in which case they may very well have seen a pig fly.
I have also never seen a dead body come back to life. Outside of biblical and other religious accounts I have never heard or read about dead bodies coming back to life. If someone tells me they have seen a dead body come back to life what am I to assume?
I have no doubt that some disciples of Jesus, Paul, and many Christians since have seen their risen Lord. But there is a big difference between that and seeing and touching a re-animated or resuscitated corpse.
Thanks for replying and for the clarifications. In Paul’s case, who do we really have that can verify his experience? We don’t have the testimony of anyone who was with Paul at the time he became a Christian, do we? In both cases, it isn’t clear how much credence we ought to give to later accounts (e.g. Acts and the Hadith).
But let’s return to the resurrection. We have Paul’s first-hand testimony that he had the experience of seeing Jesus that other early Christian leaders also claimed. I don’t see any reason to doubt that he had such an experience. Whether Luke had accurate information and it happened while travelling on the road, or if it was in a dream or some other context, I don’t think we can say. But there are no early accounts that involve a corporeal element – those only appear in our latest Gospels, Luke and John. And even if there is some connection between these works and the people who had the experience of “seeing Jesus”, the precise nature of the connection is not obvious, and the added emphasis on the physicality of Jesus’ resurrection body may have an apologetic aim and reflect the fact that others did not understand the experiences to be corporeal in nature.
As a Christian, I did not want to or expect to find myself reaching such conclusions about the state of the evidence in the New Testament. But in seeking to evaluate my own tradition and its claims in the same way I have critically evaluated the claims and traditions of others, I found that the evidence provided a much less clear-cut situation than I had expected, and indeed hoped, that it would.
“”[I]f scholars admit divine explanations for historical events, then we get a lesser grade of scholarship as a result. Scholars don’t get to reach for divine explanations under any circumstances, regardless of what they personally believe about the past. As products of scholarly labor, such explanations aren’t accepted by the guild, and that’s a good thing.””
The biggest question I have with this is: how are these statements actually provable? What exactly is “a lesser grade of scholarship”? I don’t feel this claim has ever been substantiated, either from the original post or from the interaction here.
That is all fine and dandy, but if I heard of a man who had a state sponsored permit to arrest anyone who claimed to have seen pigs fly, only to hear that he became the foremost proponent of the reality that pigs do indeed fly, even when beaten senseless for his proclamation, and there was no evidence he had gone insane or had anything to gain from this (actually instead he had much to lose), then I admit, I may think he had seen a pig fly.
I agree. It is a presupposition. Thus far one group has said that historical research cannot be good research if it permits something that we know from our experience with reality to never happen. The rest of us are saying that even if something has never happened before or since, but we have good reason to believe it may have happened once, then we can say it is likely a historical event. In some sense it is a dead-end discussion when we are told that you cannot try to prove something that is predetermined impossible.
Certainly if someone’s presuppositions are such that their argument is circular, “we know X didn’t happen because X doesn’t happen,” the argument is open to being challenged. But that principle doesn’t mean that it isn’t legitimate to expect a very high standard for claims that X happened, if there is no well-documented instance of X happening. Wouldn’t you agree? Whether we’re talking about Roswell or Resurrection, it is in no way unfair to expect a high standard of evidence, higher than we’d require for a claim to have seen a Volkswagen Beetle earlier today.
You are correct that a high standard of evidence is demanded. Thus far it seems like there are many who are (1) using the circular argument you mentioned or (2) setting the bar ridiculously high. I am not saying that the evidence we have is a open and shut case–not a chance. What I am saying is that it is not insane or ridiculous to examine what evidence is available and to conclude that either (a) something very much like the resurrection occurred or even (b) what these people claimed to have occurred has indeed occurred. I admit it may take a “faith” element to jump from (a) to (b), but (a) is not all that absurd.
The scholar that Jon mentioned in the post that spawned this one(http://imgood.me/2010/03/normal-blog-post/#comment-42)–Helmut Koester–is willing to say “something” happened. While I think we can say more it is apparent to me that we can say this confidently. For some we can’t even say this much because the rules won’t allow it.
@Brian, I think it’s a bold assertion. What I’m asking for is 1) what are the criteria we can use to determine what “lesser grade” and “greater grade” are, and 2) how do we objectively compare both sides? It would be helpful to me, for instance, to take what would be considered “lesser grade” and something that would be “better grade” and put those side-by-side and explain where the lesser is lesser and the greater is greater. I see the other sub-discussions as more peripheral until this is first established.
I have no idea. This was an assertion by Jon. James seems to agree. Maybe they can weigh in.
I probably should have made it more explicit that this is all directed to Jon. But I do want others’ thoughts on it too.
UPDATE: I’m making this a whole new post, since it is somewhat in a different direction than what’s being discussed here.
E. P. Sanders would likewise say that “something happened.” But given that so many people today are persuaded by a born-again experience that Jesus is alive, even without ever encountering Jesus as a physically-present, bodily-raised individual, we do need to seriously consider whether the same sort of experience could explain the similar convictions in the early Christian community.
It is all together possible that this is how the disciples experienced the resurrected Christ. There is nothing apparent that they understood this to be true. In fact, their concept of resurrection seems to disallow such experiences to be similar. In part we may suggest that the evangelist included stories of Jesus being touched and eating to make the very point that the witnesses didn’t claim an experience like seeing the “ghost of Samuel” or something akin.
As I have said elsewhere I think this accusation could be leveled against Peter, John, et al. If Thomas was really a doubter his story makes a little less sense from this paradigm. If James did not believe his brother was Messiah before the crucifixion it seems to me he would have had no reason to assume he was resurrected and to seemingly have claimed to have seen him. Finally, Paul make no sense to me at all. He was not emotionally invested. He killed Christians and suddenly he changed on a dime to preach Christ.
Paul didn’t change because it benefit him in any way. He seems to have been just fine. He didn’t make any financial gain. He got beat up a lot. He was martyred for it. He was convinced (as we see in 1 Cor 15) that this was a bodily resurrection. He doesn’t seem to have even considered that he saw some “Jesus-ghost”. Frankly, I can make sense of Paul’s motives if he didn’t really see something and I believe he saw what he said he did.
Brian, I don’t see why someone having a dream about Jesus sitting at the right hand of God, in which Jesus says “I am the firstborn from among those who sleep,” it couldn’t give rise to belief that Jesus had been bodily raised. And if Jesus predicted that he would die and after that the kingdom of God would dawn and the dead would rise, and then they had dreams of him being vindicated at God’s right hand, the early Christians might have drawn the conclusion that he had been raised ahead of others. Is this likely? Perhaps. Is it more likely than that they encountered Jesus bodily? Again, perhaps, especially when none of our earliest sources indicates that a corporeal component was part of the experience.
As for Paul, he is certainly not the only person to have gone from being an opponent to being a true believer. If we knew for certain how much of Acts is derived from Paul’s testimony, and how much is Luke’s own attempt to turn Paul’s experience into a narrative, we might be able to draw firmer conclusions. If Luke rearranges material in Acts much as he and the other Gospel authors do in their Gospels, then is it not possible that Paul became blind, was prayed for by a Christian even though he was a persecutor of the Christians, recovered, and was moved both by the healing and by the love of enemy to become a Christian himself, some time subsequently having a dream or vision that he understood as Jesus appearing to him and his call to proclaim the Gospel? Is there anything in Paul’s own letters that would invalidate the possibility of rearranging the order of events in Acts into a more familiar chronology of religious “conversion”?
I don’t know if it is me or what but I have a difficult time here following the chronology of posts as they pop up on my email out of order. This is a reply to Brian about Paul’s conversion and the way he has nothing to gain by it. First of all we really don’t know enough about Paul pre-conversion to say whether he had something to gain by his conversion or not.
When I was in seminary in the early 80’s in Chicago one of my classmates had been the largest Mercedes dealer in the Chicago metro area. He was rich, had his name plastered all over the Chicago area, and by his own description a happy and very nonreligious man. Then he had a conversion experience brought on by a near-death experience on a freeway. He gave up his dealership, lost his wife who left him over his conversion, all his money that he gave away, and unfortunately a decade later his own life to cancer. Although I shared not a bit of his theology I volunteered some time to him at an inner city church where he ran a mission. He was an awesome salesman and a wonderful man.
There are lots of conversion experiences that make no rational sense. But then humans aren’t known for always acting rationally.
There is more to Paul’s testimony than Luke’s take on the matter. In fact, Philippians 3.1-11 echoes Paul’s testimony in Acts 22 & 26. It almost sounds like it could have served as source material for Luke. In Phil 3 Paul speaks of having a fairly good life until it was interrupted by Christ. He even speaks of persecuting the church. He ends this section hoping he too can obtain the resurrection of the dead.
While it is “possible” that you reconstruction happened it is also “possible” that we can reconstruct a lot of historical event, ad nauseum, using this approach. I think Luke has validity to his story, especially when one sees the primacy of resurrection in Paul’s writings. Something shook him to the core and altered his whole understanding of reality. I am not sure why he would feel obligated to speak about resurrection in the manner than he does throughout his epistles if Luke’s story doesn’t have at least a seed of historicity as regards Paul’s collision with the resurrected Christ.
It is all together possible that this is true. What we do have is his own words in Phil 3 where he speaks of how good things were and how he persecuted the church. Sure, if we discount Luke this is less substantial but the way Acts 22 and 26 sounds like Phil 3 suggest, at least, that there may be a core to the Lukan narrative in Acts. It is also possible that Acts 22 and 26 help us fill out some of the activity that Paul alludes to in Phil 3.
If he was as happy a chap as he says he was in Phil 3 it would be a bit of a surprise for him to change sides if something very drastic did not occur. The primacy of resurrection in Paul’s theology makes me think that Luke has something valuable to add.
I’ve removed the “threaded comment” option so it may be a bit difficult to backtrack on this discussion, but it seems this was already the case. If anyone wants to continue just make sure to name the person you are addressing. On the other hand, JohnDave has an excellent post that is a spin off of this one that seem to be addressing the heart of the matter.
Frankly, I can make sense of Paul’s motives if he didn’t really see something and I believe he saw what he said he did.
Why would you expect to make sense of Paul’s motives? Can you make sense of Joseph Smith’s motives? Can you make sense of Tom Cruise’s motives for becoming a Scientologist (other than him being mad as a hatter)? Could you make sense of my motives for embracing evangelical Christianity back in high school? I’m still not sure of them. I don’t think that any person can claim to fully understand all the psychological and sociological factors at work in any particular person’s decision to embrace any particular religious beliefs, much less the factors at work in a decision made 2000 years ago. History may be able to tell us that someone did convert, but to declare that it could not have been motivated by anything other than an actual supernatural occurrence strikes me as nothing more than wishful thinking.
BTW, what exactly is it that Paul said that he saw?
In the context of 1 Corinthians 15 it is claimed that he saw the Christ that he preached and then he spends a lot of time reemphasizing the content of his gospel. It is his experience with the resurrected Christ that leads to his hope in the resurrection which is why he proclaimed it as a central piece of his gospel.
Sure, it may be that Paul is like Joseph Smith and Tom Cruise. Altogether possible, but unlikely. I see no reason to dismiss Paul as some crazy fool. He seems perfectly sane to me and he still found his gospel worth being beaten for.
Don’t you think that Joseph Smith seemed perfectly sane to a lot of people? He endured many hardships on account of his beliefs as did his followers. Doesn’t this show that we cannot infer the truth of a religious visionary’s claims from the appearance of sanity and the willingness to suffer?
It seems to me that the similarities are surface level. Joseph Smith was a bit nutty from the beginning. He was always on search for something outrageous and it is no surprise he “found” it.
Paul was dead bent against the Christians. Sure, theoretically there may be some other factor to Paul’s conversion, but it feels like skepticism for the sake of skepticism. If Paul admits to persecuting Christians, if the stories told about him say something similar (in Acts), and if his whole proclamation centered around the resurrection to the point where he was willing to go from a place of prestige (something Smith doesn’t appear to have had) to being utterly rejected, then I think we must come up with better reasons for rejecting Paul than he was nuts.
Paul does claim to get direct revelations from God. Such claims can sometimes be caused by mental illness. Paul flipped from being a violent opponent of Christianity to a dedicated practitioner. That doesn’t seem to me to be a sign of mental stability. I don’t pretend to know whether Paul was suffering from some form of mental illness, but I cannot imagine how I could assess the probability of that as being less than the probability that he actually had a supernatural encounter with the risen Christ.
While I am well aware that it could be a case of this or that it simply does not seem to be the most logical conclusion for me. I think the most simple answer is that in the tense religious political world, in which Saul of Tarsus sought to kill Christians as a Pharisee, such a conversion is beyond abnormal. As I read his writings I do not get the impression that I am reading an insane man. In fact, it seems to me he may be one of the most sane men who ever penned a letter. While we could go all day saying “what about this possibility” and “what about that possibility” I must admit that I am very comfortable with believing his testimony to be true. Since I believe it is true I believe everything in world history has shifted, that the climax of Jewish expectations has occurred, and that the Holy Spirit that we experience is moving us toward the eschaton.
Is there a step of faith? Sure. There is a step of faith for everything–even looking in the mirror and believing I am experience bodily existence here and now can only be “proven” so far before I have to look the world in the eye and say, “Listen, it seems to me to be the best explanation, so I believe it”.
It is statements like these that tend to make me agree with your friend’s assessment of confessional scholars.
I realize that no one can be completely unbiased, but a statement like “I do not get the impression that I am reading an insane man” strikes me as too unabashedly subjective to be taken seriously in an academic discussion. I do not see how a statement like “it seems to me he may be one of the most sane men who ever penned a letter” could be subjected to peer review.
I think the problem for the confessional scholar is that he is forced to resort to those kinds of subjective assertions because he is unable to argue by analogy. The secular scholar can always point to similarities between Paul and someone like Joseph Smith whose supernatural claims are generally agreed to be demonstrably false or implausible. The confessional scholar may deem the similarities to be superficial, but he can offer no analogies of his own, not only because there are no supernatural claims whose truth is generally agreed, but because he himself doesn’t allow for the truth of supernatural claims other than the ones he confesses.
I am not sure whether I would call looking in the mirror a step of faith or not, but at least I can bring you over to the mirror and you can see an image of me and I can see an image of you. That gives us some common starting point. Your faith based assessment of Paul’s state of mind does not leave us any way to proceed because it depends on a subjective spiritual experience that I do not share.
I do not see how it is possible to avoid subjectivity on this matter. We do not have access to Saul of Tarsus except through his letters. Even if we did have access to him in person you may walk away thinking he was a mad man and I may walk away thinking he was a genius. This is exactly how the author of Acts describes him–as a man whom some could say “much learning has made you mad” while others saw him as a model of pure Christianity.
Those scholars without any confessional adherence cannot be any more objective than I can. I have presuppositions; they have presuppositions. There is no such thing as a purely objective approach to matters of history, biography, and especially theology. What value is there is comparing Paul and Joseph Smith until the sun goes down? Where does such a study lead? So someone can write an interesting journal article for others to read, set aside, and go on their merry way? If this approach makes for better “scholarship” then I am not sure what the value of scholarship is. If Paul and Joseph Smith are good for nothing else than observing in a lab there are many other things I would like to do with my life.
On the other hand there is a sense in which this very discussion makes it into scholarship. E.P. Sanders saw Paul as a man of contradictions with subjective opinions that fluctuated with his mood and the circumstance. James D.G. Dunn read Paul and openly disagreed with Sanders believing Paul seemed to coherent to be so easily dismissed. He even went as far as to compile a ‘Theology of Paul the Apostle’. The starting point for Sanders and Dunn, both respected scholars, is essentially how they view Paul as a person. From this starting point we have two different trajectories. Neither one of these men are necessarily “confessional” scholars.
So in the end your lack of faith is as much a hindrance to discussion as my faith. How can I pretend to empty my mind of my respect for Paul in order to dissect him as someone in whom I have no investment? Honestly, I don’t think such an endeavor is actually possible.
Brian: It’s not possible and even if it were it wouldn’t be desirable. If you were to set aside your distinctly Christian presuppositions and worldview in order to find some kind of common ground with those opposed to your views then you would have already undermined your position and any argument you could make in favor of it. Vinny mentioned a common starting point but no such thing exists as long as your presuppositions and his differ. You’ll both see a reflection but the reasons why each of you believe that reflection is there will be completely different; it has to be since as a Christian you have to ultimately credit God with your existence and as an agnostic Vinny can at best say that he doesn’t know exactly how or why he exists. There’s no such thing as “brute facts” or uninterpreted data. All interpretation proceeds according to our presuppositions and if we pretend that it does not then we’re only deceiving ourselves.
I agree. While I may respectfully dialog with Vinny it would be unfair to my position if I were to act as if it was no position at all.
Nick, your statement makes it sound like there is no way one could ever become a Christian, that the only way to draw Christian conclusions is by starting with Christian presuppositions.
I didn’t get the impression that Nick was saying any such thing. In context we are discussing whether or not the Apostle Paul is a trustworthy witness to the resurrection.
Vinny thought that my confessional stance, as one who accepts Paul as a valid witness, prohibited us from moving forward. He wanted me to be more “objective” seeing Paul as someone who claimed to hear from God just like Joseph Smith. What Nick has rightly noted is that to even attempt such a thing is disingenuous if even possible. How can I pretend to see Paul as someone like Joseph Smith. For better or for worse I cannot. It would be like trying to convince me I must believe there is a elephant in my room right now. I simply do not see an elephant.
When it comes to “becoming a Christian” one may not have to line up with every doctrine of Christianity. That was not what was being discussed though.
Surely it is possible either to make a good case that Paul is more trustworthy than Joseph Smith, or vice versa, or that both are comparably trustworthy or untrustworthy? Of course being a Christian may already incline one to think positively about an individual and his or her claims. But if we can’t offer a strong case that doesn’t require a person to already have Christian faith for it to be persuasive, then the standpoint of faith becomes like that of the mother of an accused person: because of our committment, we express confidence in our child’s innocence, but that expression of devotion carries no weight, nor should it, for those trying to solve the crime.
I agree that we should be able to show why we think Paul is more trustworthy or as trustworthy as Joseph Smith (or less?). Equally, I am sure there are many reasons to respect Paul more. But I do not think this is a task that can get us very far. As I said above, it seems that there were people who met Paul in person who thought he was insane and there were others who thought he was the most sane man ever. After we look at all the data I have my doubts that it will be all that convincing either way.
Likewise, I am not sure how it is possible to say, “Listen, you should trust Paul and here are reasons why Paul is trustworthy and especially more trustworthy than Joseph Smith” in any objective sense. The minute I say “here is why I think Paul is trustworthy” I have stepped beyond what it seems you and Vinny are suggesting. At that moment I disply a sense of “committment”.
How do you suggest one goes about explaining why one think Paul is more trustworthy while putting aside one’s loyalties?
I’m not sure how one can accomplish that apart from the very basic method of listening to others’ perspectives. If the best we can respond with when someone says “Paul and Joseph Smith look comparable to me” is “If you were a Christian but not a Mormon, you wouldn’t think so”, that seems to me pretty lame. Is the Christian proclamation a circular argument?
Academic study in all its varieties involves trying to deal fairly with evidence. Our biases influence us, and presumably we want our biases challenged so that we are made aware when we have prejudices that simply cannot be justified on the basis of evidence. If our biases cannot withstand close scrutiny, we should at the very least acknowledge that they have the character of assumptions or values that cannot be proven or disproven, and treat them accordingly and certainly not expect anyone else to adopt them. Why should they, if we don’t have any reason for holding them other than our having been brought up with them?
It doesn’t seem to me to be necessary to abandon beliefs that have this arbitrary character. But if there is nothing that objectively makes Paul’s religious experiences seem inherently different than those of Joseph Smith, or Rumi, or Theresa of Avila, or anyone else, then I personally would not consider it appropriate to praise and revere one of them while denigrating the others.
When you say “objectively” what do you have in mind? I am not sure there is anything we can bring forth that “shows” that Paul is different than Joseph Smith is different that Rumi and so forth and so on. If this is the final word on the matter than being “objective” is simply impossible. We cannot interview them. We cannot have them take lie detector tests.
If “scholarship” is limited to these rules that may be one thing. But if I am trying to discuss the truth of the gospel with someone I am not limited to so-called “scholarship”. There is a huge difference between writing a journal article for some society of religious studies and being a Christian which includes a much larger, multi-facted approach to reality.
The initial question was in regards to scholarship. The discussion between Vinny and myself blurred the lines a bit since it seemed a bit more personal. As regards scholarship it would be a great waste of time trying to “prove” Paul is more trustworthy than Joseph Smith. In testifying to the truth of the gospel there is more to the matter.
It may be that historical study cannot provide any evidence for accepting any one individual in the past’s claim to divine revelation or religious experience over any other. But surely that is something we need to take seriously in our thinking about Christianity in our own time. It may be that the appropriate way to discuss religions is to compare texts with texts, and share our own personal experiences that have changed our lives. But there too, if we find that others have had an experience comparable to ours in the context of another tradition, would that not potentially be a good reason to acknowledge a breadth in God’s workings and to view that other tradition in a way that is at least somewhat positive? If not, why not?
Good questions, I am going to direct them to a whole new post since I think it has become a whole new discussion.
James: The only way I know for anyone to become a Christian is by being drawn to the Son by the Father and convicted of their sin by the Holy Spirit and then responding in faith. People don’t become Christians because they accept some mythical common ground that believers and unbelievers share.
That’s all well and good Nick, but it doesn’t explain why I’ve been foreordained to draw so many of the right conclusions about the Bible and doctrine while you have not! 🙂
Does that mean that believers and unbelievers cannot reach some common ground on what they see reflected in a mirror or on how to best assess the probability that some event occurred in the past?
Is there a single first-person source for Jesus’ resurrection aside from Paul saying in 1 Cor. “Jesus appeared to me?” That seems to be it for first person sources. Pretty brief and well, doubtful.
Note also the growing number of words allegedly spoken by the resurrected Jesus over time with the story’s retelling:
James: Sorry, I didn’t get the memo that April 5th was opposites day. 😉
Vinny: At the foundational (= presuppositional) level there is no common ground. This isn’t to say that they can’t draw similar conclusions—of course they can!—but that’s only because of some inconsistency on one or the other’s part. The unbeliever borrows from the believer’s worldview all the time to make sense out of anything (since nothing makes sense without God). And some believers compromise their position in order to find some kind of common ground upon which to dialogue with unbelievers. This happens all the time too.
Nick, how do you know that your conviction that nothing makes sense without God, and that there is no common ground between believers and unbelievers, isn’t a satanic deception aimed at preventing you from being an effective witness for your faith (which would involve utilizing the common ground the existence of which you deny)?
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