What can a historian say and what can’t a historian say—as a historian—about the claim that Jesus was resurrected from the dead? The late Geza Vermes wrote this paragraph in Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels (p. 41):
…in the end, when every argument has been considered and weighed, the only conclusion acceptable to the historian must be that the opinions of the orthodox, the liberal sympathizer and the critical agnostic alike—and even perhaps of the disciples themselves—are simply interpretations of the one disconcerting fact: namely that the women who set out to pay their last respects to Jesus found to their consternation, not a body, but an empty tomb.
This was his summary statement in a section where he examined the Gospel’s claims regarding Jesus’ resurrection. He limits the “facts” to Jesus being crucified and place in a tomb that was known by some of his followers. That is all he will say of the matter as a historian. This statement is not to say that one cannot have an opinion about whether or not Jesus resurrected. Rather, it is to say that whatever opinion may be presented is based on something other than the strict criteria that ought to be used by a historian. Therefore, on the one hand, folks like N.T. Wright or Micael Licona would be perceived as going too far in defending the resurrection of Jesus as historians whereas someone like J.D. Crossan who proposed that Jesus’ body was tossed in a ditch somewhere goes too far the other way in undermining the resurrection of Jesus.
Of course, where one stops being a historian and begins being a philosopher or theologian can be a difficult differentiation to make, but Vermes statement does seem to present wise caution when we speak of the resurrection from the perspective of a historian. What do you think of the limitations set by Vermes? Is further speculation permissible or should the historian stop with these details (assuming one agrees with Vermes conclusions that Jesus was killed and his tomb identifiable) and let the philosopher, theologian, and lay reader decide what they believe about the missing body?
Great question, Brian.
It seems Vermes is following the criterion of multiple attestation, which presents the least common denominator of the four gospel accounts as 1) an empty tomb 2) discovered by women 3) early on the first day of the week. To give too much weight to the theological embellishments of the fourfold witness is to abdicate one’s distance from the subject as a historian (though this is perfectly reasonable as a theologian or worshiper), while perspectives like that of Crossan ignore the gospels as even remotely plausible historical documents.
It is my understanding that there are problems with this particular criterion, but I am not qualified to speak to them. Perhaps Anthony Le Donne or Chris Keith should weigh in?
In my opinion, I think that Vermes’ assertion as a historian is—and I am wording this very carefully and intentionally—a safe one.
Reblogged this on Sunday School on Steroids-The Seminary Experience.
While he does observe that the stories regarding women coming to the tomb appear in all the Gospels (with differences) his main reasons for affirming that the women went to the right place are as follows (p. 40):
“For these various records two reasonably convincing points emerge, one positive and another negative. First, the women belonging to the entourage of Jesus discovered an empty tomb and were definite that it was the tomb. Second, the rumor that the apostles stole the body is most improbable. From a psychological point of view, they would have been too depressed and shaken to be capable of such a dangerous undertaking. But above all, since neither they nor anyone else expected a resurrection, there would have been no purpose in faking one.”
As far as the suggestion goes that the women went to the wrong tomb, Vermes finds this unlikely, insisting that it seems given that the women went where Jesus was buried when he was buried. They returned with no doubt that they were going to honor his body. He just doesn’t seem convinced that in that short a time span the women could have gone to the wrong tomb or that they thought they knew the tomb but had not actually seen where his body was placed.
It would be interesting to hear how this jives with the memory theory work being done by Le Donne and Keith.
Good thoughts. James McGrath has recently engaged Eldad Keynan’s theory of why the tomb was empty. Might be an interesting supplement to this post.
Thanks for the link! If I’m not mistaken, James has written a whole book on the subject of Jesus’ burial, but I haven’t had the opportunity to read it. A friend of mine is doing his dissertation of Jesus’ burial through the University of Bristol. It is a subject that has not received enough attention in my view. Many deal with the crucifixion. Many deal with the empty tomb. Fewer address the burial of Jesus.
Yeah, McGrath’s book is titled The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith. I think I have it on Kindle, but just haven’t had the chance to read it yet. I agree that the burial of Jesus deserves more attention. It’s my understanding that Craig Evans has done a little work in that arena though, correct?
I imagine he has, but trying to read everything that man has written seems impossible. He is a flesh-and-blood printing press! I’d have to look through his CV to see if he’s dedicated a specific work or chapter to it. He is the one supervising my friend’s dissertation so I assume he knows enough about Jesus’ burial to do that.
Here’s this one. I thought it looked familiar; there’s a brand-new (shrink-wrapped!) copy at our local Half Price Books: Jesus and the Ossuaries: What Burial Practices Reveal About the Beginning of Christianity.
Not quite the same subject, but pretty close.
That’s right. I think he may have done a whole other book on the James Ossuary as well.
These kinds of questions seem to come up quite frequently for me, especially while working in a multi-cultural, multi-religious world where most people are growing accustomed to think they are evaluating truth claims around empirical evidences – that “science is the whole show” as one writer put it. Each encounter brings to mind an experience I had thirty five years ago when I was an engineering major at Penn State University, having just become a “born-again” Christian. For an elective course, I chose the New Testament, not knowing about the “slant” that would be taken by the instructor. She was Jewish and seemed to know what the New Testament was teaching, more than the Christians in the room. Being Josh McDowell had recently visited the campus with his three apologetic lectures, one of which was on the resurrection, I was sure I could eventually squash any resistance by the “doubters.” Problem was, she wasn’t going to tow the line that would allow me to so easily (in my own mind, mind you) demonstrate the “proof.”
Near the end of the course, dealing with the resurrection narratives, she asked a general question of the class: “Who would be the most reliable ‘witness’ to persuade you of an event like this?” A student raised their hand and said “one who did not have a vested interest in it.” That was what she was looking for and commended the student for his answer. I sat there wondering if that had settled everything – that because I believed in the resurrection of Jesus I could not be reliable in my testimony. Then I thought, how is that student’s answer an option? I raised my hand, asking that question. Puzzled, the teacher asked me to explain. I said, “Well, if someone you knew that was dead a couple of days ago was now standing in front of you alive, there would really be only two ways of looking at it: the first would be ‘what did I drink last night to cause me to hallucinate this?’ The other would be that this is real, and I would need to deal with it as real.” Then I called the teacher out: “Only the one who reported it as real would be the ‘objective’ witness you are looking for to substantiate a real resurrection. And that would be the one who believed in it.” She was stunned, and I thought I had just won a victory for my faith.
Walking home, I realized something. While I felt I undermined her reason for disbelieving the testimony, I really did not prove anything about the resurrection of Jesus. This took me back to rereading the narratives in the gospels, as well as Paul’s writings and experience on the topic. It seems the appearances only remained with those who were believers, and no one else (please correct me here if you see anyone else involved in witnessing the resurrection). Even Paul is talking from the other side of the appearance of Jesus to him – the believing side. I then thought about Thomas’ questioning and Jesus’ answer to him, basically “You believe because you see; blessed are those who believe and don’t have the chance you have.”
I thought wouldn’t it have been grand if Jesus, having risen from the tomb, would have immediately knocked on Pilate’s door and said, ‘What are you going to do now?” Might have settled a whole lot of things going forward.
It just seems that this is something that is revealed to the heart that is moved by the narrative of what God has done and is doing in Jesus, and that God intends it to be this way for a reason.
A little while ago, Scot McKnight had a blog post on a survey taken of former Muslims on what moved them to embrace Jesus. Most testimonies centered around forgiveness of sins offered, or the love they saw in those they met along the way who followed Jesus. But one responder struck me: it was a man who said that while most of the testimonies he could understand, he was not persuaded himself in that way. He felt his Islamic obligations were an act of love for Allah, not merely duty. He didn’t “fit” the mold of Christian perception that Islam was “graceless.” However, he could not deal with the Islamic teaching that Jesus did not actually die a real death on the cross, while most all historical authorities affirm it. That was the touching point for him.
It goes without saying that embracing the resurrection of Jesus has to follow as a point of confession and faith on the heals of his death if he is to be confessed as one appointed by God as “son-of-god-in-power according to the Holy Spirit” (Romans 1:4). This makes sense of Paul’s stating that one has to “confess with one’s mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in one’s heart God raised him from the dead” in order to be saved. The death is a fact; the resurrection is a matter of faith. And it appears, to me anyway, that that is the way God wants it.
Brian, why does he (apparently) reject/not consider the personal appearances of Luke, Matthew and John? I could see rejecting John altogether for historical reasons. Also, I would think a historian would primarily be concerned with the events and not just certain documents…so that he would not make a call on an ancient event based on only part of the evidence. Paul’s letters and Acts provide more details and evidence for the resurrection, though it appears his book has just the Gospels in view.
A historian should consider all the history relating to a subject.
As a historian, Geza had to know the culture that the death of Jesus occurred in made that event a laughable event to all but the small crew following Jesus. “Imagine that”! “The big Messiah guy hanging here dead on the goyim cross, sure is impressive”! “Yea, this is the man who knocked over our money tables”!
With more respect and sorrow, that’s what Peter and the 12 also thought. It’s why the men on the road to Emmaus were devastated and returning to the site of the big Maccabee victory over Epiphanes. It’s what a pagan would have said, “some king”!
Knowing that would be the attitude and no one believed in individual bodily resurrection( the Jews alone believed in corporate resurrection), to have the eyewitnesses go wild proclaiming they had seen Jesus alive again and to be willing to die for that testimony “is part of history”. A huge part of history.
Adding in the oddity of James and Paul believing post resurrection( and possibly Thomas), the alternative to faith in Christ isn’t very historically appealing. They were all willing to die for a story they made up or they all were on LSD or what?
That’s history and Geza left out that crucial part of it in that polemic.
One other part of history is 70 AD Geza should have factored in.
Matthew 23-24 coupled with historic data of Josephus and a couple of other ancient scribes makes 70 AD a powerful “semeion” that Jesus was right. I know it still falls to faith, but, he wrote as a historian and all the data needed consideration.
I think Vermes has it about right. Historians probably can’t say much more. As to possible explanations of the empty tomb (going on the assumption that indeed it was, roughly 36 hrs later), probably the most plausible one I’ve encountered comes from an accomplished archaeologist/biblical scholar, James Tabor. He covers it in the 2012 “Paul and Jesus”, probably in his earlier “The Jesus Dynasty” and has updated it on his blog recently. It probably isn’t his view alone, but I don’t know who else holds the same basic one.
He goes into a lot more detail than this, but basically suggests this: Joseph of A. hurriedly arranges for a tomb, to get the body buried before sundown and beginning of Sabbath. But it’s purposely temporary. He then goes, right after end of Sabbath, (sundown next day) and, with minimal helpers, moves the body to the permanent grave. I forget the various details he adds, but Joseph apparently isn’t involved enough with the disciple group (who had probably scattered anyway, per the texts) to look them up and discuss his plans… perhaps too restricted re. travel on Sabbath, too busy making arrangements or ?. So when the women show up the next morning for the rest of proper burial, they are unaware why the body has disappeared and shocked, of course.
Anyway, I do think an “empty tomb” can be true, in the above or a similar sense, and yet the Resurrection not be a bodily resuscitation. Tabor’s is one plausible explanation. Yet Jesus was “seen” post-burial, I do believe. I see Paul quite unconcerned with the physical details or apologetics about the physical aspect, but very eager to support some kind of (primarily spiritual, I think) resurrection, evidenced by appearances of Jesus to many. Such were apparently the same visionary and/or auditory kind he had (NOT hallucination, but probably not hand-in-the-side physical, either). We really don’t have any direct words, that I can see, from any eye-witnesses of the burial and/or empty tomb. We have only much-later reports of supposedly their experiences and words… big difference that is generally either overlooked or underplayed by most of the “historical” evidences group.
I may be wrong, but I was under the impression that James Tabor isn’t taken very seriously by much of the academic community. Brian, can you speak to this?
While his is a possible (plausible?) explanation, I think that it is a bit too speculative in nature. There’s certainly no textual evidence to support it. Incidentally, Tabor’s hypothesis is the same as Eldad Keynan’s (see my comment above).
I am by no means any real scholar or expert and I depend on Craig, Licona, Wright and Habermas. But I think Howard Pepper is wrong on a couple of accounts:
1) That Paul was not interested in a physical resurrection does not jive well with either 1 Corinthians 15, his Pharisaic background, any Jewish resurrection expectations at that time, or the fact that as far as you can trace back Christian doctrine the assumption was a bodily resurrection (as far as I know).
2) I’m not sure an airtight case can be made for eyewitness accounts to the resurrection other than Paul’s more mysterious one, but from what I understand the first part of 1 Corinthians 15 that talks about all of the resurrection appearances is dated back as an early church creed to within 2-3 years after Jesus died. That is old, early, and assumed to be from eyewitnesses (Paul’s first trip to Jerusalem to meet with Peter and James).
Good points, @clbirch. It looks like you’ve read Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God?
Those are good observations. There is some strange and unique about the Christian confession that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. It appears something that is meant to be believed and proclaimed rather than proven. People don’t come back to life and stay alive for ever after dying. Therefore, there is nothing analogous to the resurrection for the historian to reference. If it is an event it is an apocalyptic event.
Of course, I find many reasons to think that the proclamation is true, but theologically speaking I don’t know that I came to believe the resurrection because at some point I sorted all the facts and came to some sort of objective conclusion. We need a strong Pneumatology here to understand how one comes to believe.
I’ve never read Tabor. I’ve seen some of his book titles. They seem strange to me. I don’t foresee myself seriously engaging his work. I’ve never seen any serious discussion among other scholars of his work, though I’m sure there has been some, somewhere. So, in essence, obviously his book titles and topics seem too fringe to me to take seriously, but, to be fair, I can’t speak from experience. I may be wrongly judging his books by their covers!
It doesn’t sound like Tabor’s work lies in the spirit of Vermes’ statement. It seems like it would be more along the lines of Crossan or Borg. More speculative. Vermes stops where the evidence stops and doesn’t confuse evidence with interpretation or hypotheticals. Even people like Wright and Licona—both who affirm views of the resurrection that I’d share—seem to me to make a similar move from a confessional standpoint when speaking of the “historicity” of the resurrection. Personally, I agree with Wright and Licona that God did raise Jesus from the dead, but that is a theological statement, not one that can be proven through the restrictions of historiography. Likewise, where in the world do we find evidence for Joseph moving Jesus’ body? We don’t. That’s speculation. It is valid speculation, but only speculation.
I’d agree 100%. That Paul is not interested in a physical resurrection is a silly proposition. Paul’s talk about resurrected bodies in 1 Cor 15 is complicated, but the idea that he thought that Jesus was just alive as a spirit makes little sense of Paul’s argument.
That said, I think as a historian we can say that Jesus’ disciples believed they saw Jesus, heard Jesus, and touched Jesus. We can’t say as a historian that this happened. That is where interpretation comes in to play. As I noted in an above comment, personally, I do believe Jesus was raised from the dead by God. I do believe his disciples saw him. I believe he remained alive and he has ascended into the realm of God. I can’t prove that using a historiography that needs to be methodologically naturalistic to function. So, while I think there are reasons to believe I don’t think those reasons can be grounded solely in historical research. The very statement, “God raised Jesus…” moves beyond historiography into metaphysics.
I would highly recommend Andy Johnson’s (Nazarene Theological Seminary, Kansas City, MO) work on 1 Cor 15 for those interested. He wrote his dissertation on it. Excellent work.
To the responding group in general: I won’t go into further detail much now. It’s hard to express these nuanced issues in short comments (mine often not-so-short as it is). But I was pretty careful to nuance my wording above, thus: that Paul was “…unconcerned with the physical details or apologetics about the physical aspect, but very eager to support some kind of (primarily spiritual, I think) resurrection.” That got turned some in some of the responses. Frankly, Paul’s real thinking IS confusing to me (and perhaps confused?) re physical/spiritual in the I Cor. 15 passage particularly. I appreciate you, Brian, saying that there Paul’s “talk… is complicated”. It does make it tough to build much on it one way or another. Anyway my point was not to say Paul saw the Resurrection as ONLY spiritual, but that he had little concern about the physical “details” (or proof beyond that of seeing and/or hearing Jesus by the individuals and the large group of “over 500” he cites… and his inclusion of the 500+ has long been puzzling to me… when and where might that have been, if prior to the ascension when all the other (than his) sightings were to have been? How does that many “brethren”, if before Pentecost, fit with the about 120 gathered on that day (realizing Luke doesn’t say there were few if any others, specifically)? (I could go on with q’s, but won’t.)
As to Tabor, I don’t myself know how much attention he’s paid by other scholars… maybe not so much partly bec. a lot of his time and expertise is in archaeology and in teaching, tho he’s written a fair amount and is a deep student of the texts. I concur on the speculative aspect, but think he’s usually careful to label when he is purposely creating what could be explanations vs. what is pretty solid fact (which actually isn’t much, as Vermes has said, with many others.) I do highly recommend “Paul and Jesus” — a real contribution in how sensible and taking account of the data it is, in my view… check reviews on Amazon or my own on my blog to get some sense of it if that helps.
I say it is complicated because (1) Paul doesn’t want his readers to think that the resurrected body of Jesus is as fragile as our bodies now, especially since it is supposed to preview our own but (2) neither does he want readers to think of it as immaterial like a departed spirit or an angel. So, I wouldn’t say he is “confused” but I do think he struggled to find language that would convey something with absolutely no analogy if we assume the resurrection of Jesus occurred. Even those who don’t affirm Jesus’ resurrection must approach reading Paul with the knowledge in mind that he is juggling common Jewish eschatological expectations regarding resurrection on one hand with what appeared to him to be the apocalyptic in-breaking of God for one person, Jesus, prior to the Great Resurrection. Add to that the testimonies of others and he must proclaim a theologically dense message to the world. This has been no easy task for the Church ever since.
I don’t find it necessary to reconcile numbers. Paul has his testimony. Luke relays the stories he discovered in his search. To try to reconcile these various points seems to me the goal of Fundamentalist types. One can affirm the resurrection as something to which all these imperfect testimonies point without forcing them to be perfect. I’d be more skeptical if every testimony in the Gospels and those relayed by Paul all sounded alike. There is something “neat” in my estimation to the scattered, messiness of the testimony of the early Church. If something like the resurrection happened then this is exactly what one should expect: people trying to understand and interpret their very odd, very unique experiences from a variety of vantage points.
John Meier, who maintains a rigorous historical method simply declares that the resurrection goes beyond where the historian may go. The last volume isn’t out (although he’s summarized it), but those are his conclusions until now. I would hope he would at least respond to what Vermes has to say, and would prefer that he deal with the resurrection accounts when it comes to deciding how far the historian may go.
Vermes is somewhat committed to a Rankean view of history as simply knowing ‘history as it
actually happened’. If we similarly commit ourselves to Vermes (and Von Ranke)’s view – then yes Vermes is correct. Who says this is the only way we can know history however?
Not N.T. Wright. Not Gerd Theissen, Dagmar Winter, and Anne Merz in “The Quest for the Plausible Jesus“.
N.T. Wright (hypothesis-verification method) and others instead propose in a similar way that history is best understood as the assessment of plausible scenarios which means the facts themselves are not the only criteria we use to gauge history, but also the historian must consider the criteria we use to select these facts.
In the case of Jesus, Vermes accepts the eye-witness testimony of the women who found the tomb empty, yet these same women provide testimony that they saw Jesus physically raised from the dead afterwards, in person.
On what basis did Vermes accept that testimony that the tomb was empty but reject the testimony that Jesus was seen in person afterwards resurrected? As a convert to Judaism, Vermes is committed to rejecting a resurrected Jesus – yet he provides no reason for arbitrarily accepting some eye-witness accounts while rejecting others.
This shows that his position is based on bias.
Thanks for the further comments, Brian. I agree on most of your points… and the “reconciling” issue I believe would be one (from what I think you are saying). My view of what I think the Resurrection may have been is actually still open and even a bit in flux, 46 adult years (from 18… I turn 64 later this mo.) of study along!
But I do think it’s important to set parameters, as you highlight via Vermes’ statement; and to get categories increasingly clear (which the Fundy approach, as you mention, tends to get real confused about. And that includes a LOT of Evangelicals, in my past experience and ongoing observation, who would eschew the Fundy label). I guess, subconsciously and indirectly, that approach finds historical verification of a physical resurrection to be central to not only Christian theology, but to the foundation they feel they need, of a thoroughly “historical” Old Testament… an accurate record of the selection of Israel as the people of God, and how he protected, guided, punished them, etc.
So, when it comes to the Resurrection (and ascension), I think we only treat the sources properly in NOT pushing them into a “reporting” or “history” category where they don’t belong. (That is, the NT texts mainly and maybe some Jewish and/or Christian apocrypha…. All other same-era texts, the little we have, are nearly silent re. Jesus and fully silent, that I know, as to resurrection claims or a “buzz around Jerusalem” which the whole Gospel accounts would certainly lead to be expected, especially combining the details of Matt. and John… major miracles among both many–at least 600–Roman soldiers and all of Jerusalem and environs.) In other words, the genre broadly, plus the details within it, just do not amount to historical material, or lead to that which can easily be distilled out as historical. And, to the best I can see, Acts is not much help re. that. So attempts to tie spiritually-interpreted events surrounding the death/resurrection/ascension of Jesus to verifiable history I think is seriously misguided and a mixing of categories that leads to lots of problems.
One of the key issues here is whether or not historians and academics should be methodological-naturalists in our academic work. I have yet to encounter any persuasive arguments for allowing supernatural explanations in our own explanations — and, to clarify, one of the areas that I study as a scholar of religion is Evangelical biblical and apologetics scholarship; so I am quite familiar with a slew of such arguments.
Once such explanatory considerations are permitted, critical and empirically-constrained inquiry effectively ends. This does not mean that anyone who uses a supernatural explanation in parts of his/her work has invalidated all of his/her other work…just that at that point one’s argument is no longer operating in the realm of communal-critical interaction where it can be assessed, criticized, and even falsified…which I take to be basic characteristics of any kind of academic historical endeavor. Sure, a semblance of argument and interaction can take place with others who likewise accept the basic supernatural consideration in question, but that is like saying that a special Math society, whose members all hold that 2+2 = 3 every third Saturday of the month and adduce a supernatural explanation for that claim, is still engaging in standard academic Mathematical inquiry.
Thus I can see where Vermes seems to be coming from here.
One further clarification about some points made in this thread. In these discussions we often (unintentionally) equivocate about “considering” or “taking seriously” all the historical evidence. The fact that certain people believed X (and even acted in costly ways on the basis of X) is, to be sure, evidence — it is evidence for our descriptions of what those people believed and how they interpreted and explained their actions. It is not automatically a constraint on our explanations of their actions or descriptions of plausible historical events.
Perhaps there is a way for academic historians, sociologists, and so on to use supernatural explanations in ways that allow critical interaction and assessment of all parts of those explanations, but I have yet to see it.
I think I agree with Meier. As I’ve stated, I affirm the resurrection of Jesus, but not through a rigorous historical-critical approach to the evidence. I don’t think that we can think our way up to affirming the resurrection. Theologically speaking, it is an act of grace.
We may need to differentiate between knowing about what has happened in the past (I define “knowing” very loosely here) and asking what we can “know” when we approach the evidence using the same strict criteria that we’d apply to any other event. I don’t deny that there are good reasons to believe the resurrection happened, but I don’t think that is the same as doing rigorous historical research. As much as I appreciate Wright, et al., we must ask whether or not we’d allow people to beg the question the same way if we were to discuss the entry on Muhammad’s ascension in a critical history on Islam. I don’t know that we would.
And that may be the most important point. It isn’t that one cannot believe the resurrection happened, but I think that to arrive at that conclusion we must venture into philosophy and theology, not the discipline of history.
Very good and helpful points.
Your comments reminded me of something I should have indicated in mine. Theologically, I also affirm the resurrection. I just do not think there is an avenue open to me as an “academic” historian to argue for this without venturing into the realm of theology. I also worry that if I tried to argue for the resurrection just as an academic that I would correspondingly get distracted from (and inhibit myself from) all manner of fruitful and important analytical explorations of our extant data from various historical, sociological, anthropological, etc., angles.
Also, and I suspect you agree with me on this, I do not see this situation as “bad” or unfortunate. Among other things, it urges us to be more reflective about our own practices and commitments — about where and when we are handling the evidence differently and holding positions based on our theology and religious commitments. IMO, this aids us in becoming more accurate and responsible as academic historians…and in our theology. This kind of approach only needs to be problematic when religious folks want a full identification between their religious ideas/theology and “the (critical) academic.”
Hopefully this comment makes sense.
Rats! I meant for the third sentence of my last comment should start with, “Like you, I just do not think…” Did not mean to come across as disagreeing with you.
Sigh…sometimes I suck at blogging communication!
No worries, I didn’t read it as you disagreeing with me. The broader context of your comment indicated that we’re on the same page here. I agree that when we are intentional about recognizing where our historical study ends and our theology begins it will make things clearer and more honest.
“One of the key issues here is whether or not historians and academics should be methodological-naturalists in our academic work. I have yet to encounter any persuasive arguments for allowing supernatural explanations in our own explanations.”
Stephen, while I completely agree I similarly have not seen a compelling case that academics should be methodological-naturalists. In fact historically, the appearance of true methodological-naturalists in academia is a recent exception, certainly not the norm. There were great historians not committed to naturalism (Bede), as well as academics in other fields (Newton, Bacon, Ockham, Copernicus, Kepler etc).
We’ve not seen a persuasive argument for allowing supernatural explanations in our own explanations for the simple reason this debate isn’t happening and arguments aren’t being made one way or the other. Modern academia is simply assuming its academics must be committed to naturalism and it is left at that.
Jesus’ resurrection from the dead however flies in the face of this. If history allows for eye-witness testimony and testimony of his resurrection is taken as credible, the only possible explanation is supernatural (as William Lane Craig effectively points out). Again, even historically Jesus is uniquely positioned to force people to into 1 of 2 camps ….
Not that this is the key point here, but I am curious, we have “eye-witness testimony” for Jesus’ resurrection?
Unless a person’s passionate interest in some historical event doesn’t automatically invalidate the truth of what he’s saying – yes of course. We have more eye witness testimony that Jesus was alive after his crucifixion than we do for the existence of Alexander-the-Great, most of the Cesars, indeed all of the Pharaohs. Even sceptics generally acknowledge this (yes – there is a difference between a testimony claims to witness a resurrection itself, and one which asserts that Jesus was seen alive after he was seen to die. Nevertheless there is eye-witness testimony to the actual resurrection of Lazarus while in testimony about Jesus’s life after death – resurrection is implied)
However, if we exclude people from being eye-witnesses because they possess a passionate interest in some historical event – we would have to deny the Holocaust because its eye-witnesses all have a passionate interest in its historicity. It is a fallacy that having a passionate interest in something means one cannot be objective about it.
So do we count the testimony of Mark and Luke, or not?
@ Stephen and Brian,
I appreciate being able to “listen in” to your exchange and appreciate both your points (as I indicated re. Brian’s). I find I can learn from and communicate with thinkers/believers (corresponding to scholarship/personal belief) like you.
But I can’t recall all the times I’ve put a challenge of “historical critical” nature to some radio preacher (a Cavalry Chapel station airs several in my area), an Evangelical friend, etc., and I get usually no response, despite my care to be respectful and polite; or at best I get a dismissive or defensive one. Granted these are not professional scholars, but I do feel that a number of Evangelical PhDs and ThDs have similar kinds of thinking and their “answers” to skeptical questions miss the point. My own “hobby horse” (due largely to my formal and informal education) is that lack of factoring in of one’s own psychology and of general psych of religion principles aids in even scholarly people needing to find “defenses” for what amount to conversion experiences (or emotionally loaded childhood/adolescent learning). A certain theology gets associated with a relatively sudden or “fast moving” experience that helped an adolescent or young adult find meaning or purpose in life, or turn their life away from addictions, etc. Thereafter the two seem firmly glued together, the person failing to see that correlation is not causation, or that one’s theological interpretation of one’s “conversion” (or “deeper commitment”) experience is not necessarily the whole picture.
I know we’re getting away from the specific focus of Brian’s post, but it IS within the larger frame… where the last few comments, including Andrew’s are going as to methodologies of academia. Methodologies generally reflect broader paradigms. Andrew mentions being sort of “forced into 1 of 2 camps”. Indeed, the last 200 or more years have involved almost all disciplines getting pushed, in this metaphor, into naturalistic methodologies AND assumptions, or presuppositions (not exactly the same things).
When even our language (and I believe every major European one, tho I only know a very little Koine Grk., Spanish and German) makes a split like natural/supernatural we tend to think in just 2 categories…. have trouble creating any possible 3rd one. But is a particular healing – rapid or unexpected and unexplained – natural or supernatural? How about some combination? (If supernatural only, then God seems to favor the hand-on and/or intercessory prayer work of many non-Christian healers as much as that of Christians. If natural only, then we are still a long way from a “material” explanation of the faith effect, the placebo effect, the what-I’d-call “subtle energy” effect, etc. This example could be multiplied with several others.) I think we HAVE to entertain “some combination” of natural and supernatural in order to even productively investigate a number of key areas such as prayer, healing, out-of-body and other “paranormal” experiences, including NDE’s, reincarnation evidences, etc. Currently they are very little investigated… largely ignored by churches (except when personally experienced), and certainly carefully avoided by a good 99% of scientists (but not all!). And these investigations, relative to this post, will tend to reflect back to improving our understanding of what the earliest Jesus followers and Christians may have experienced with Jesus.
Am I wrong or is there indeed no other developed model (or paradigm) of theology/science than Process philosophy/theology that allows for and actively encourages investigations of the type I just mentioned? That, relatedly, suggests we create a mental category in which “natural” and “supernatural” can mix in a unified system? And that system can take miracles seriously rather than dismissively, but also suggests they can be studied rather than just accepted by faith.
@Howard you raise a good point.
If history is naturalistic by default does it even possess the tools to deal with non-naturalistic things? (I should note incidentally that mathematics could never be forced to become naturalistic. All of its objects and reasons are metaphysical, unobservable in reality (such as infinite sequences and abstract objects) – so decidedly unnaturalistic).
On the other hand, if history were to allow for the supernatural is there some type of methodological approach that could deal with the two and differentiate the two? Even those currently studying ‘brain’ and ‘mind’ recognize one is physical and the other metaphysical and have methodology that differentiates, but not history (or historians) …
Here’s a little information on burial practices that may bear some influence on the post. But first, had the disciples stolen the body of Jesus, why would they have presumable sent women to witness this as the testimony of women was second-rate at best?
Josephus (War 4.5.2) relates that the Jews buried the bodies of Roman crucifixion victims as they would any other deceased. “Nay, they proceeded to that degree of impiety, as to cast away their bodies without burial, although the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the going down of the sun.” M. Sanh. 6.5 prohibits the bodies of criminals executed under Jewish law to be buried with their families until the bones were collected after the flesh decayed (typically one year). However, no such prohibitions were applied to victims of execution by foreign authorities. Tobit made the same claim of himself in Tob. 1.18-19. In Luke 23.54, the impetus was to bury Jesus quickly both before the sundown of the day at hand and with the particular consideration of completing it before the Sabbath that followed that evening.
J. Magness (“What did Jesus’ tomb look like?” in K. E. Miller, S. Murphy, S. Feldman, & S. Laden (eds.), “The burial of Jesus,” BAS, 2007) says that wealthy Jews such as Joseph of Arimathea could afford rock-hewn family tombs cut into rock outside of the Jerusalem city walls, but poorer Jews, as such status is supposed of Jesus’ family, were buried in individual trench graves. The time constraints of His burial being after the ninth hour (Luke 23.44) would not have allowed for digging a trench grave. Earlier, C. W. Wilson (“Remains of tombs in Palestine,” Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement 1(3), 1869) described rock-hewn tombs of the two types described by Magness, noting that the non-trench tombs were either cut into rock or made use of a natural cavern; masonry tombs, mainly in the north of the Land; and sarcophagi. No Gospel account calls this tomb specifically a ‘family’ tomb belonging to Joseph. A. Kloner (“Did a rolling stone close Jesus’ tomb?” in K.E. Miller et al., “The burial of Jesus,” 2007) speculates that it is possible, though neither implicit nor explicit in the Gospels, it was intended to be used as only a temporary tomb for Jesus. Sem. 13.5 states “Whosoever finds a corpse in a tomb should not move it from its place, unless he knows that this is a temporary grave.” If C. A. Evans (“Assessing progress in the Third Quest of the Historical Jesus,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 4, 2006) and Kloner are correct, it is possible the women were also coming to make preparations for re-burying Jesus’ body in a permanent tomb.
On the third day after a person had died, it was Second Temple era custom to check on the condition of the body in a (rock-hewn) tomb. M. Sem. 8.1 (per S. Safrai, “Home and family,” in S. Safrai & M. Stern (eds.), “The Jewish people in the first century – historical geography, political history, social, cultural and religious life and customs, Vol. 2,” Fortress Press, 1976) states “One should go to the cemetery to check the dead within three days, and not fear that such smacks of pagan practices. There was actually one buried man who was visited after three days and lived for twenty-five more years and had sons, and died afterward.”
@ Andrew T
Thanks for the “good point” comment, first. Second, this may be missing a lot, but one factor of difference between the brain/mind study and typical history is that the former is way, way closer to “real time” in the report of experiences or the measurement of brain activity, etc. History is always at least one, and usually 2 or more steps removed from “real time” and actual events. (Now, the former is not “real time” either, but there is very little, if anything, we can do in real time, “really”…. Apparently anything we DO do in any minuscule instant affects whatever we are trying to “objectively” observe…. Line those up end-to-end and we may not be “creating” our own reality, but we surely are affecting it! And “history’s” observation of that is further affected by who-knows-how-many observers until we get some codified form.)
Further @ Andrew T
As to methodologies. I don’t think that neuroscience (which I’m fairly close to though not up on many of its details) does have any good criteria for distinguishing the “boundary line” which may not even be “stable” between physical and metaphysical, or brain and mind. That’s the very issue with the mind/body “problem”… how does (if it does) the cross-over happen? But you may well be right in a general sense, in that measuring instruments have gotten pretty sensitive and we seem to be fairly close to PERHAPS “getting” what links material with immaterial. Incidentally, sub-atomic physics, especially in the R.C. Hoagland et al model of “hyperdimensional physics”, seems to, itself, indicate that there IS indeed (said to any pure materialists reading) a non-material as well as a material realm… or at the least, any of our current concepts of “material” are woefully inadequate if that is all there is.
Why do you keep talking about Mr. Hizzlebubb’s 3rd grade Science class on this thread? It is not germane to the discussion.
@ Rick Carpenter
Thanks for this very specific, relevant info. I imagine James Tabor is familiar with those same sources/info. He has highly specialized in such issues and what I recall (fairly clearly) of his arguments, they line up very well with what you’ve shared as well as the scriptural story… which he also has studied very closely. His work is indeed speculative in one sense, but I’ve only found him to base speculations on very solid foundations and that reading him is both instructive and stimulating (at least to me). I don’t think we can relegate him to the fringe (meant negatively) in any valid sense. He’s digging up (literally and figuratively) hidden or obscured stuff that I think needs to be paid attention to.
‘Brain’ is seen to be physical and ‘mind’ metaphysical.
Scientists (with whom I’m personally familiar) have seen evidence the two can work against each other.
For example, functional MRI can ‘see’ the physical brain activity of say day-dreaming about a pretty girl, or remembering the experience of playing baseball. This activity is the same whether or not one is ‘experiencing’ the pretty girl or playing baseball.
Yet, tell someone to control their lusts for a girl and something non-physical is able to control the physical reflexes of the brain. They call this ‘mind’. They see it’s influence but not its physicality. Likewise, tell someone to do something unpleasant such as clean a toilet rather than play baseball, and they still see evidence the brain is focusing on the pleasant task (baseball) but something non-physical is forcing it functionally to focus on the unpleasant task (such as toilet cleaning) even if in un-proportionate degrees.
So brain-mind scientists appear able to recognize that it is possible for something metaphysical to influence something physical without explanation for the ‘metaphysical component’. Thus brain and mind are called orthogonal parameters.
@Stephen – typically as an idea is discussed arguments are advanced and explored. Dialogue is a dynamic thing, not a static thing.
If you read the entire thread, you’ll have seen that the issue of naturalistic explanations for history was raised as part of what historians can consider or not. Howard raised the issue of whether or not was a true dichotomy between naturalism and supernaturalism. As part of that comment he questioned this dichotomy in the study of brain-mind study (to which I responded).
Which part of this progression do you feel smacked of Mr. Hizzlebubb’s 3rd grade Science class (and since when did Mr. Hizzlebubb’s 3rd grade Science class become irrelevant)?
You’re being quite anti-supernatural in your own reading of this thread. As the god Zora-Zora-TarTar revealed to me, whenever you write about “naturalists” you are, in fact, talking about Mr. Hizzlebubb’s 3rd grad Science class. The fact that you can ‘read’ this thread without attention to such an important supernatural consideration clearly illustrates your commitment to newfangled anti-supernaturalism…
@brian – I am a little reticent to draw such a distinct line between history and theology. They are separate disciplines to be sure – but the core of historic orthodox Judea-Christian theology is very dependant on certain historical realities, the resurrection being the most important example. If the resurrection is not a historical reality then Christian doctrine is false. I appreciate the difference between a truly historical event and the ability to verify that event historically and am OK with many important historical events of some degree of importance being beyond reasonable certainty in regards to historial investigation.
That being said, if something really did happen in the past, whether “natural” of “supernatural”, it should be at least possible to demonstrate it to some degree of certainty (or uncertainty) through right historical method. It may be that the resurrection is beyond historical verification, but that shouldn’t be the case by default just because it is labeled supernatural.
You said that at most we have evidence that people believed they had experiences with the risen Christ and not evidence of the risen Christ. But, 1) isn’t this true of all written historical evidence in that it is evidence of the writers’ belief in the things they tell about and not evidence the reality of the things themselves? And 2), isn’t someone’s belief in some experience or event they witnessed indeed evidence of the historical nature of their experience or of the event?
The Craig/Habermas/Licona approach has been to look at all of the evidence and hypothesize the explanation that makes the most sense of all of the data. Jesus’ death, burial, empty tomb, resurrection appearances, and self defeating belief the resurrection by his disciples – what makes the most sense to correlate all of these relatively well established historical facts?
I think Stephen’s first comment is worth reading if you haven’t see it yet (http://nearemmaus.com/2013/09/10/the-historian-and-the-resurrection-of-jesus/#comment-37091). I need to differentiate between “the past” and the discipline of history. Now, historians try to give the most reasonable explanation of the past, but there are methodological restrictions to keep the guild honest. As I’ve said in a variety of comments, I believe Jesus did rise from the dead, therefore along with Craig, Habermas, Licona, et al., I do believe Jesus was really resurrected in space-time, but I find that if they are going to engage the discipline of history to invoke the supernatural is begging the question. There are many things we can say that make us pause and wonder whether there is a metaphysical explanation but to invoke a metaphysical explanation automatically places one outside the work of a historian.
Obviously, as this thread has made apparent, not everyone agrees with that, but I think Stephen’s recent comments get at the core of the matter: how to we differentiate, as historians, between allowing the metaphysical claims associated with the resurrection into a historical conversation and say Muhammand’s ascension into heaven, the Buddha’s enlightenment, the truthfulness of an oracle from Delphi about Alexander’s future greatness, and so forth and so on. Does Christianity get a pass because we’re Christians? If not, how do we differentiate between Christian metaphysical claims being allowed into the discipline of history and those of others? That is something we must strongly ponder.
@brian and stephen –
I guess I just do not follow the argument why academic investigation has to be strictly naturalistic – at least historical investigation. If something indeed happened in the past it should be subject to historical investigation whether supernatural or not. There will be some degree of evidence for it or against it. You both talk as if admitting the possibility of supernatural occurrences results in de facto acceptance of all supernatural claims – but that does not follow to me. Follow the evidence. My understanding of historical method is that its results are always in terms of probabilities based on the evidence. If there is evidence for a supernatural claim why would that be thrown out? If reality includes what we call “supernatural” today then why aren’t our methods able to deal with reality? Supernatural acts can have effects in the natural world. Why are these beyond historical investigation? I’m not asking for a pass for Christianity – I realize this opens up the question to include other religious claims. My question in regards to those claims is – what is the evidence and resulting probability to them? why is this a big problem?
Supernatural tend to be extremely subjective. Let’s imagine that tonight I have a vision where I think I see an angel and tomorrow I write a letter to my brother describing my experience. Then after two thousand years someone finds my letter to my brother in a heap of old documents buried in a garbage heap in a place that was known as “Napa, California”. What that archaeologist would have is my letter: physical evidence that I thought I had a certain experience, but how could that archaeologist and the historians that examine his/her discover determine my mental state (was it an angel? did I eat bad pizza the night before? did I have a drug problem? was a profuse liar?) or reconstruct the event itself? It would not be possible. Unless there were other elements that could be discovered like my psychologist’s note or my stay at a mental health institution it would be impossible to know what I was thinking and why I thought I had said vision of an angel.
Now, some future historian who is open to the supernatural and maybe a Christian might read it and think, “I think he is being honest. I think he saw an angel.” That’s fine, but how could it be proven with any confidence that I saw an angel. Also, historians use analogy. If I wrote in my letter that I ate pizza and historians investigated whether or not Americans in Texas ate pizza in 2013 there would be something that corresponds. It wouldn’t be easy to prove I ate pizza, but it would be something that corresponds to the customs of the day and it would have probability. For the most part people don’t see angels, that’s why even contemporary claims are seen as rare and accepted with great caution even by those who have room in their metaphysics for angelic appearances.
So this future historian would lack corresponding data and analogy. It would be appropriate to say I wrote a letter and I thought I saw an angel. It would be inappropriate to try to reconstruct my physic state-of-being and whether or not something extremely rare and unlikely actually happened to me. Again, this doesn’t mean it didn’t, or that you can’t believe me personally, but how do you argue for the authenticity of my experience without begging the question? How do you differentiate my claims without accepting all the others who say they saw angels?
If we believe Jesus rose from the dead we have no analogy for this. Dead people stay dead. If it happened it was a one time, absolutely unique event. God intervened in a way that goes beyond our categories. As historians we can say that the earliest Christians believed Jesus rose from the dead, so much so that many of them died because of their claim, but it would be even harder to test the evidence as historians for Jesus’ resurrection that it would for future historians to test my claim in my hypothetical letter to have seen an angel. This is why I don’t think the discipline of history can bring us to the resurrection. It is a unique, one time, act of God.
I’d be open to hearing any ideas you may have regarding how one may develop a methodology that could show that the resurrection is probable while Muhammed’s ascension is not. Maybe I’m overlooking something, but my above comment is a narrative way of explaining why I think it goes beyond the work of historians to speak to the resurrection of Jesus.
This just dawned on me, Brian: Maybe even tougher than the Mohammed example might be that of the “Golden Plates” of Joseph Smith. While almost all non-Mormons reject the “evidence”, isn’t it that case that 8 or so people signed sworn statements that they saw the mysterious plates before their equally mysterious disappearance? Of course, they may or may not have been subjected to pure fraud by Smith, which I think likely, but hey… it was, way back close to the actual event, and still for many Mormons, adequately convincing, with other “evidence”, to believe God revealed something new to Smith.
Honestly, I don’t know enough about Mormonism to know whether or not the Golden Plates make for a good analogy. I used Muhammad’s ascension because it is a one time event with no observable analogy (though it does compare to stories about Enoch, Elijah, and to a less extent Jesus). Do Mormons present these Plates as heavenly objects that have gone back into the divine realm or is it theoretically possible in their dogma that someone might stumble across the Plates again here on earth?
One thing about early Mormons is their story does temper the claims of Christians who suggest that because the earliest disciples were willing the be persecuted and killed for their beliefs their message must be true. It does prove that they deeply believed their message, but not that it is true. While the spread of early Christianity is astonishing, and something worth considering, Christians must be very careful about using this as a central proof for the resurrection’s authenticity lest we want to admit that Mormonism may be onto something.
There may be a crucial difference that I’m missing there, but it does seem to me that the history of Mormonism is similar in this regard.
First, thank you for being patient with me and giving an involved reply. I hope I haven’t made a social blunder by suddenly appearing on the blog’s comments without an introduction. I really enjoy and appreciate the site and its content. Also, you are in San Antonio and I live in Austin and travel to San Antionio once a week for my third semester of Koine Greek currently.
Your hypothetical story helps me to see where you are coming from and perhaps helps me to bridge the gap. I would agree that the historical evidence in your story is pretty thin for the following reasons: 1) we only have one source regarding the event though it is early and likely eye-witness, and 2) the event is entirely subjective – their exists no other possible source for validating it.
But this is not the case with the resurrection of Jesus, I don’t think. First, we have multiple related facts (Jesus existed, Jesus foretold his own resurrection, Jesus died, Jesus was buried, the empty tomb, there were multiple individual and group resurrection experiences). Granted, not all of those are given the same historical probability, but the most important ones are generally granted by all. Second, the event in question is not merely a matter of an individual’s subjective experience. The resurrection is reported to have happened physically multiple times to individuals and groups – appeals are made to eye witnesses still living (1 Cor 15). Third, there are multiple early independent sources that attest to the facts listed above (the earliest being the creed in 1 Cor 15 that likely has eye witnesses as its source, no one really doubts Paul went to Jerusalem to meet with Peter and James to validate his story, that is dated by 35-36AD). Paul, Mark, ‘Q’, Luke, Matthew and even John, though he is the latest and given less historical credibility, all contain independent witness to some of the facts above and are dated within a few years to within 70 years of the events in question.
The only explanations that seriously take into account the facts that I’m aware of are multiple individual and group hallucinations or that Jesus actually resurrected. From what I understand there are not close analogies to either explanation – both would appear to be supernatural.
Does this prove the resurrection? No…but I think, as others I cite argue, that there is serious evidence for it that makes it a reasonable belief based on historical inquiry if one doesn’t reject the supernatural a priori. But yes I’m very biased and perhaps this is influencing me.
As for other and competing supernatural or religious claims…let’s look at the evidence. I’m not sure the evidence would be nearly as good but I’m not sure…we should be open to investigating it. I think I heard the accounts of Muhammad’s ascension came 100 years+ after his lifetime. I’m not sure if there are multiple independent witnesses or not. Joseph Smith and golden tablets…the eight witnesses might have seen golden tablets but I’m not sure exactly if that validates the story of how Joesph Smith got them or what was written on them.
Thanks for you time and discussion…
@Brian, Stephen’s recent reply isn’t really helpful. Stephen supposes that no criteria exists for assessing the merit of other metaphysical claims, as if all metaphysical claims are equal. This is a tired position that has has been addressed (but not counter addressed) by defenders of the historicity of miracles.
As it turns out the criteria for assessing metaphysical claims need not be all that different from the standard criteria for assessing the validitiy of historicity itself, but one would have to be open to the possibility that history is not merely natural; indeed even that scholars have asked and answered this question already.
No need to apologetic. It’s been an enjoyable, profitable conversation thus far. Where are you doing your studies here in SA?
The argument you present is a tricky one for me because (1) many of your points are personally convincing to me, but (2) I maintain a historian shouldn’t use them. Also, I confess that my affirmation are more fides quaerens intellectum or “faith seeking understanding” than evidence that led to my conversion. Now, I am sure there are people who have been brought to the point of conversion by this evidence, but that is apologetics, not the work of a historian.
For example, of the broad points you made about Jesus the following are necessary for establishing Jesus’ resurrection, but do not prove it: Jesus existed, was buried, and the tomb was empty. Jesus’ predictions are troublesome because there is no way to verify them from a historian’s perspective. There is no way to tell the difference between Jesus’ words and the testimony of the Evangelists. For example, some have proposed that like the martyrs of 2 Maccabees Jesus did predict his resurrection, but as part of the final Great Resurrection of all the faithful. Then once it was believed that Jesus had been resurrected individually people retrospectively interpreted his statements to be about his own personal resurrection. How can a historian prove either way? I don’t know that one can.
The greatest evidence would be for testimonies, though it must be noted we don’t have all of those testimonies. We have the Gospel narratives and we have Paul speaking of five-hundred people. Again, while I believe there were many who saw the resurrected Jesus, a historian must ask how verifiable these arguments are for multiple witnesses. A historian must ask, “What if Paul was told an exaggerated number? What if Paul exaggerated himself?” A historian must ask whether or not it is possible to verify that many people saw Jesus after death, and even if they did how does a historian verify the theological claim that Jesus’ body was physical and not ghostly. In other words, we don’t get to orthodoxy through the limitations of historical criteria. We get as far as the testimony of the early Church and their interpretation of these experiences then we must make a personal choice which is by nature beyond what a historian can offer.
As far as written sources are concerned I think Paul is our best bet. There remains much debate over the existence of Q. Matthew and Luke appear reliant on Mark. At best, we have three independent sources: Paul, Q, and Mark. At worst, we have two: Paul and Mark. Paul doesn’t claim to be an eyewitness. Neither does Mark. John does, but historians struggle to use his Gospel for historical work because it is so blatantly a liturgical Gospel. I say all that as someone who does accept Paul’s testimony, who does accept that of the Fourth Gospel, but not as someone intentionally limiting myself to what historians should or should not claim.
Ok, but what would we say to Andrew’s claim that a deity we don’t believe exists has spoken to him and why would that seem beyond verification if Stephen was claiming insight into an event? I agree that we can think about metaphysical things, but I say that is for the discipline of philosophy, not history. As humans synthesizing information to make truth claims that bear on our lives we do not need to limit ourselves to one single field of study. History can take us so far, philosophy further, still theology even further when discussing the resurrection, but we need multiple approaches to make sense of such an odd, rare, supernatural event if it happened. We are hard pressed to argue that it would be better for historians to take a more open approach to supernatural claims in general than a critical approach. I don’t want my history textbooks to be full of legends about Greek gods, King Arthur, unicorns, and the Yetti, even if that means their restrictiveness causes them to overlook authentic supernatural events and/or personalities. I’d prefer to wrestle with those matters of a philosophical and theological level once historical criteria has taken us as far as it can take us.
I want to reiterate my confessional commitment to the resurrection of Jesus. Although I have been arguing that one can’t arrive at the truth of the Gospel through historical criteria alone that doesn’t mean I don’t believe or that I don’t have reasons for believing. I do. In fact, if I ceased believing in the resurrection tomorrow I’d also walk away from the field of biblical studies and likely close this blog. I admit that I am sort of a nihilist who happens to believe in the resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection gives meaning to the world and it gives me hope. I’d be a very different person without this hope.
I think historical argument can sometimes play a part in bringing people to follow Christ, but only a part. They can point someone in the direction of believing in the resurrection, but ultimately it is a faith commitment as you said, and people making historical arguments need to be careful not to overstate their case. At least in his more popular-level treatments of the subject (I haven’t read his mega-tome), NT Wright is actually careful to acknowledge that historical argumentation can only get you so far. I’m not if Craig, Licona, etc. do.
Don’t forget that many people follow Christ (though probably not in the way you mean) who don’t even believe he was raised from the dead. And
I can understand and accept you structuring meaning and hope around the resurrection as well. I think the Progressives I refer to gain a similar kind of hope from Christ, even while viewing the Resurrection as only symbolic. I’m not exactly in either camp… sort of an optimistic but realistic panentheist, believing in the action of God, but as slow and subtle; not seeing real evidence for “supernatural” intervention, but open as to which form of action was talking place in Jesus.
OK Brian good question. Before I address your question
To your point, I agree that our knowledge should be informed by many branches of knowledge. However, have you considered how arbitrary it is that History has chosen (recently) to exclude metaphysics from its repertoire? Few other branches of human knowledge have done this (not logic, science, math, economics, philosophy, theology – so why history? It’s arbitrary. Can you provide a compelling reason history should so restrict itself, unlike most other branches of human knowledge?)
History should do (with metaphysical claims) what philosophy does. Here are some presuppositions and criteria for judging metaphysical claims about god(s).
– contradictory claims about god cannot all be true – therefore any criteria used to gauge claims about god must discern between true and false claims
– different claims about god posit different attributes of that god (contradictory claims show not all to be true)
– descriptions of god or god(s) by different religions generally do not posit the same god (notwithstanding superficial similarities)
– there is one god
– If God is the creator, God is logically necessary
– if God is the creator, God is experientially evidenced through creation (since all created things reflect properties of their creator)
With such axioms we can infer attributes of God apart from what the bible says using reason and observation.
No created things is greater than its creator – therefore if God is creator God must be greater than all created things. An actual thing is greater than a potential thing – etc. This type of exercise leads not to some arbitrary deity but a very specific one with very specific attributes.
You say what do we do with Stephen’s’ claim a deity spoke to him historically or otherwise? We process his claim rationally as above. I have no problem with a persons claim a deity spoke to him. I don’t know that not to be true. Nevertheless I can process it. What were the attributes of the deity who spoke to him and what information was conveyed? Was it rational and in accordance with our collective experience?
If Stephen calls “Zora-Zora-TarTar” exhibits the same attributes as the deity the Hebrews called YHWH and who we call ‘God’, the same deity whose existence is testified through reason and experience – I’ll accept that this deity told him something (and will ignore the trap of nominalism . Then I’ll process his claim about the information he claims was conveyed. If the message conveyed is logically self refuting and irrational (as it is) so contradictory of the character of God, either something other than the deity conveyed it, or he got the message wrong …
Even so, his claim itself is not irrational or beyond rational critique. That people believe in many gods does not mean many gods exist or that these claims are beyond reason.
Death is the most disturbing aspect of human existence for me, especially when life is short or lived in a time or a place where life is miserable, like many of the children suffering in Syria right now. The thought that this is it and we just “have to make the best of it” doesn’t work for me. Often, I’ve remarked that for me it is either Nietzsche or Jesus, either truth is power or truth is resurrection. I get how other people can come to some other sort of understanding of reality that helps them sleep at night, but it is the resurrection of Jesus that gives me hope. Even if I can’t explain so much about the world around me, or God, or the Bible if God vindicated Jesus by resurrecting him from the dead then maybe just maybe what people remember of Jesus’ teachings has been approved of by God and if so, maybe just maybe our Creator does have a plan that will all make sense when death is annihilated. I am well aware that one day I might close my eyes and that will be the end of consciousness, just another animal breathing my last breath, but I hope and believe that Jesus’ resurrection signals that us that there is more to our existence.
I’m a bit confused. In what sense do you see math, science, and economics as including metaphysics? I guess I can see math in that a number is “real” even if we can’t see it, but how else?
And what do we do if a historian doesn’t believe all the things you listed? What if the historian is an atheist? How will those premises factor into his/her historical research?
Math employs logic, which is metaphysical. Can you actually hold a ‘true’? Math also posits infinities which do not exist in nature. Numbers are metaphysical concepts applied to physical ones.
Science presupposes math and logic so obviously the foundation of science is metaphysics even if science ‘observes nature’. Science cannot function without metaphysics. A ‘field’ for example is a multidimensional array of mathematical objects, clearly a metaphysical thing, but scientists use it to ‘describe’ nature.
Economics is based up from a theory of ‘value’ and ‘choice’ which are metaphysical concepts. Consider supply and demand, do supply and demand exist apart from this concept of ‘value’? Can you hold value? If value exists physically, why do we need monetary units and mediums (such as gold) to represent it? I think you see where this is going.
With respect to if a historian is an atheist – you mistake me. I don’t assert that all history and all historians must consider metaphysics. I have no problem with methodological naturalism of itself – except for this expectation that all history must only conform to methodological naturalism.
That position is an extreme position, hardly representative of most of the world’s historians before the 21th century (I cited Bede who I admire but I could also cite others (Newton who was also a historian but best known for his work in science, or Isaac Milner, whose second love was Mathematics for which he obtained a reputation. Isaac Milner’s history of the Church awoke the anti-slavery passions of a guy name <William Wilberforce.
Only recently has methodological naturalism taken such hold of history as a profession.
Here’s an example of an allowance for ‘metaphysics’ in history:
Historical question: “Was Jesus alive after he was crucified?”
If, after examining this question using the standard criteria for history (eye-witness accounts, best explanation, explanatory power, explanatory scope, plausibility etc) we conclude ‘yes‘ – then there can be no way we could assert merely a naturalistic history since there is no natural way to become alive after being dead.
Thanks, I appreciate those further comments. Maybe I’ve not made a clear statement to this effect, and been misleading re. my own thoughts about “more to our existence”, about “life after death”, etc. While I remain uncertain about what happened with Jesus (in either “spiritual realms”, as to some kind of redemptive process, or with his physical body) despite extensive study and musing, I have solid “faith” re. continuation of consciousness. I say “faith”, not being sure if that is the right term or maybe “trust”, or even “conviction”, as it is based in both intuition AND in multiple evidences I consider of scientific nature (though not many people do). To stick with just “soul” or spirit ongoing existence, my ambivalence about a unique “resurrection” in Jesus does not mean I doubt that he lived on, or that we live on. I also believe he probably DID appear to Paul, Peter, other men and women, in some manner. Perhaps the reason these views can all be held coherently, I believe, is my broad and open look at the “data” from tradition, copious reports and fairly recent scientific study of things like NDE’s and proximate brain function, report validation, comparisons, long-range-effect studies, etc. This is just one of several avenues that I think can and do validate a reasoned solid conclusion, if not complete “proof” (It, with other areas I won’t get into, are at least approaching “scientific” proof, if not fully there quite yet… I personally feel it is quite adequate to produce belief.)
One other research avenue I will mention, as it is directly tied to “what’s it all about?” and continuation of consciousness, is reincarnation. I don’t refer to any ancient belief-set re. it… I think an evidence-based and philosophically/metaphysically sound theory of it is just now slowly being worked out (without a lot of directly coordinated effort, but some… one key site for this is http://www.reincarnationexperiment.org). Reincarnation theory need not include “transmigration” (back and forth, animal-human) and need not be a “requirement” (something we have no choice in). I think it includes neither, from available evidence and reasoning. I don’t see ANY form of reincarnation theory, that I know of or can imagine, as providing answers to all the thorny questions, but some forms of it DO make a lot of sense to me, and I find there IS substantial evidence for some form of reincarnation being a regular thing, even if not all of us have more than one human lifetime…. THAT issue is very tough to study. For one tightly-reasoned book that covers not only reincarnation but other disputed “paranormal” or “spiritual” phenomena, I highly recommend “Parapsychology, Philosophy and Spirituality” by David R. Griffin, altho it’s now a bit dated… doesn’t include the great “soul genome” work of Paul Von Ward, for example. You may recognize Griffin as a Christian Process theologian, and in this book, he’s appealing to naturalists, not to the supernaturalists within his own Christian faith. I think it helps to recognize and factor this in… but his evidences and logic are very tight… the guy COULD be a scientist as easily as a theologian. One reason I particularly appreciate this book is that it is a well-argued illustration of the possibility of a theology which deals “evenly” (as much as possible) with science and spirit in a unified system (as do some other Process books or ones like “Thank God for Evolution”).
It seems as if you espouse a form of Platonism where there are metaphysical realities behind our language. So “1” is real, though not physical, as a “thing,” but not everyone works from those philosophical assumptions. Some limit these things to being linguistic phenomenon. So “1” isn’t a “thing” out there, but a convention of language to explain a singular object. I’m not arguing either way. I don’t know how metaphysics “works,” but even if we were to agree that there are metaphysical realities that make the world go round that doesn’t necessarily mean we know enough about these things to use them when doing historical research. For example, I believe God sustains all things, but if someone was studying how to make airplanes fly I hope they wouldn’t stop with “Well, God will make it fly or he won’t.” The metaphysic might be true, but if we stop with the metaphysical assumption we may not discover important naturalistic explanations. Similarly, when I study history, if I work from naturalistic presuppositions it causes me to dig deeper to see how much I can discover.
There is no law saying you have to agree that all history be free of metaphysical presumptions, but to assert these things will make it harder to communicate with others who are doing historical work. So, Licona challenged common received historiography in his book on the resurrection and Keener did the same with miracles. That is their prerogative, but those books have audiences limited mostly to Christians who share their theology. One can challenge the guild, but the guild functions best when people begin with shared assumptions.
Sorry… I note I didn’t get back to concluding my sentence at the end of the 1st paragr. above: I meant “… if not complete proof [of continuation of consciousness].”
When I was an adolescent I called myself a “Deist” because I thought something like a god must exist for their to be natural laws and cosmic order (I came to this conclusion after reading about our nation’s Founding Fathers). I guess you might have called me a hopeful Agnostic, since I wasn’t sure what made “god” or whether there was any usefulness in using language that indicated personality. My father is an Atheist (maybe he has softened to some form of agnosticism as he has aged, but he hasn’t said that) and my grandfather was an Atheist until right before his death when he began to explore Christianity after he discovered he had cancer. So, I come from a few generation’s worth of agnostic/atheistic types. I tend to be quite skeptical, which is why concepts like Reincarnation don’t interest me. For me, there remains a big “so what” because these things seems to speculative. If I am conscious after death what does that mean?
Now, that may seen strange when you consider I affirm the resurrection of Jesus, but the resurrection provides a different sort of meaning. It would seem to indicate Jesus was vindicated by God. It would mean that as hard as it is to find God in the cosmos the Creator did at least this thing for humanity. It would show some care for the physical world in which we live (contra gnostic escapism). It would mean our bodies and our existence are good though imperfect. I could continue, but the basic idea is that if Jesus was resurrected it sends a message that seems to indicate God cares and that God has some sort of plan for this mess.
On the other hand, if Jesus is a floating spirit, and we all might be floating spirits, cool, but ok, that’s the best God can do? I don’t know. That disinterests me. If god/God is that impotent then que sera, sera. It might give a little more hope to some that maybe just maybe something good comes after death, like disembodied bliss, but that doesn’t comfort me. It is numbing. No one has every came back from death, God has never intervened, we have no model for the future, and that seems to present as much as existential crisis for me as Agnosticism.
I should clarify that I am not opposed to others studying these subjects to try to gain meaning from them. I’m just explaining why I am not motivated to abandon the idea of the physical resurrection of Jesus—a confession shared by the Church catholic for most of her history—for some interesting hypotheticals about post-mortem existence and consciousness.
Thanks again… that’s instructive as to where you “are” and why. I won’t go into more about my own progression at this point, but I do want to add a bit that may not have come through adequately in my last comment, that does speak to some of your statements. I guess the main thing is that there is more “solidity” (science-wise) and specificity to certain areas of study and resulting “theory” (or even “theology”) that is more than merely “hypotheticals”, at least as that comes across to me in your usage. For example, at the link I gave re. reincarnation, and especially in his book “The Soul Genome”, Von Ward is actually relying mostly on PHYSICAL measurements, things that are testable, statistical tests for probabilities, and other scientific approaches, rather than on anecdotal evidence, airy theories, etc. His main objective is to move ahead on and hopefully achieve, with help from others, the level of scientific proof of reincarnation’s existence considered adequate for typical conclusions of science. I think he is pretty darn close already. Building on U. of Virginia’s Stevenson and others, the case is strong.
While Von Ward is NOT a “process” thinker particularly, that I know (I’ve had correspondence on and off and a lengthy in-person conversation with him a few yrs. ago), his work on this and other areas overlaps with the perspectives and priorities of Process and with the purpose of Griffin’s book just cited (and similar works).
But aside from reincarnation evidences specifically (which do NOT rule out even a physical resurrection for Jesus, in my view), might you be willing to read 8.5 pages by Griffin to see if him laying out broad paradigm issues might pique your interest? That is, interest in not any specific issue but why he, myself and others see aspects of parapsychology or the “paranormal” as being wrongly and very unfortunately ignored (and purposely resisted), while holding a significant key to a better understanding of God and reality; how it also is key in the religion-science battles. If you are willing to read that amount, here is my suggestion: go to Amazon, look up his “Parapsychology, Philosophy and Spirituality” and read the intro to the SUNY series there and then the intro to the book, just following. (I just checked and both are fully there.)
If you enjoy that, another very short but powerful work on “big picture” issues of paradigms, as touched on in those several pages, is Griffin’s “Two Great Truths: A New Synthesis of Scientific Naturalism and Christian Faith” — just 114 pages.
It is possible that some day I’d find the time to read those sorts of books, but I have to admit, I am skeptical of it all. I see you are connecting it with science, and I enjoy reading about neuroscience, but I’ve never seen anyone give much serious attention to things like physical evidence for the soul (though I’ve heard good philosophical arguments for the soul) let alone something like reincarnation. I have to admit that I am not trustful of those whose agendas leads them to postulate “scientific” evidence for these things. Testimony is something different, but again, I have never heard someone speak about their own reincarnation in any way that I found remotely believable.
Also, going back to my previous comment, vague ideas about reincarnation still result in a “so what?” for me. If people do reincarnate then most of us (assuming we’ve experienced this?) don’t remember any previous existence, so that would seem to indicate far too much discontinuation to make it relevant. If the child in Africa dies of stomach worms and she reincarnates as a wealthy, privileged French child, but she has no recollection of her life as an impoverished, sick child in Africa doesn’t the discontinuation basically nullify the value of the event? If I had a previous life I don’t remember it. If it was good I don’t benefit from it. If it was terrible I don’t feel gratitude in this life because things are better. To me there appears to be no practical value to the dogma.
If the Great Resurrection is true then what Christians have claimed for generations is consciousness, familiarity, attachment to the past, sameness, physicality. I’m interested in a hopeful future where I may be able to see, know, and recognize loved ones in the redeemed physical reality that I adore because a personal God cared enough to bring about eschatological renewal. I can’t prove this hope, but it is a hope that answers the “so what?” question for me.
@Brian – yes, you’re correct – I am more Platonic than Nominalistic (for the simple reason nominalism was shown to be self-refuting (paradoxical) and self-contradictory by Chrysippus in 200 BC, a fact moden nominalists conviently forget: google ‘The Puzzle of Theseus’s Ship’)
However, your point about understanding airplanes flying is exactly the point I was trying to make, but allow me to say it differently: If we stop with naturalistic assumptions about how a wing flies we may not discover important physical explanations for how the airplane flies (we need to resort to the metaphysics of logic and mathematics to understand nature).
No one argued we stop ever stop with supernatural explanations for history (so you and I agree), but likewise neither should we restrict ourselves from considering them. As with a flying airplane wing if we only see the naturalistic elements we miss the (metaphysical) laws that make it work (so we miss the most important bit). So too with history.
Ok so the Wikipedia credits Plutarch rather than Chrysippus. I am wrong if the article is correct …
This is interesting considering our current conversation:
I don’t know much about this current situation, but this isn’t the first time I’ve seen other scholars (see McClellan, Cargill, Wright, and Goodacre in these two posts) challenge Tabor.
I understand the point you are making. In essence, we need metaphysical things like our mind and our soul to observe metaphysical realities like “the law of non-contradiction” which we use to determine that Abraham Lincoln couldn’t have both been killed by an assassin and died peacefully in his sleep. The problem though is not everyone agrees how mind/brain and soul/body function or differentiate and even fewer people would say logic is a metaphysical category rather than a phenomenological or linguistic one. So, again, while I’m not interested in arguing whether the “law of non-contradiction” is “out there” is a world of forms or something like that it must be noted that even if true it is rarely acknowledged and even more difficult to prove, though philosophers have tried. It may be true that historians need metaphysical realities to function (e.g., if a human needs a soul to be alive then by default all historians need souls do their task), but that doesn’t result in a methodological correlation (one does not need to affirm their own soul to research whether Lincoln was shot in the head on the evening of April 14th, 1865) and while there may be metaphysical realities out there it is impossible for a historian to use physical evidence to make a metaphysical deduction about the past (e.g., did Lincoln’s soul depart his body at death, stay near the body like a ghost, go to Purgatory, or Heaven, or Hell?) so historians leave those things alone. Historians are limited to physical evidence like letters, graffiti, ruins of buildings and cities, etc., so their methodology is also naturalistic. Historians must work with what they have available, that is observable. Then historians must be very cautious when creating a reconstructed narrative that explains available observations. Metaphysical realities may be essential for this process to function, but our knowledge is too limited to factor those realities into historical work.
Thanks for the links. I did spend some time reading parts of both and perusing further. Given more time, I’d enjoy digging into the arguments on both sides re. especially the Talpiot tomb issue. I’ve never explored that much, beyond seeing a tiny bit of the academic debate earlier and now on these sites and having read (some time ago) about it in, I think, “The Jesus Dynasty” (if I recall). Actually the proper identification of the supposed “Jesus family tomb” hasn’t interested me particularly… I’d not felt a particular need to validate or invalidate Tabor’s claims on that. My larger and more focused interest has actually been in his exegetical and interpretive work on the NT texts. And, at least on Paul (“Paul and Jesus”, 2012) in relation to Christian origins, I found his work careful and impressive. (And I happen to agree quite closely if not fully, because of much prior study, including a strong line of accomplished scholars, from various traditions and vantage points, who have made similar points and come to similar conclusions. I’ve mentioned some of them before.)
I do also find at least a lot to consider and look at closely in his contention and carefully-built case of a sort of messianic dynasty in the family of Jesus. At the very least, there is something pretty puzzling going on with James, his apparent brother, seeming to be the immediate and long-term (till his death) leader in Jerusalem despite his position and near invisibility in the Gospels (for those not well-versed, this is not James, brother of John [“the sons of thunder”], nor James, son of Alpheus, another of the Twelve.)
As to the issues about the possibility of reincarnation, I can well relate to your comment. The question of “learning from it” was a major one that probably helped keep me ignoring it for a long time, too. That and seemingly everyone claiming a discovered “past life” having been somebody quite important or exotic. (Actually, the more serious lit on the subject counters that surface impression and goes much deeper than those who probably ARE deluded or faking.)
I can’t be sure just how you mean “vague ideas” about reincarnation, but I don’t consider what has been written about and “pieced together” by people like Von Ward and psychologist, Dr. Michael Newton, to be vague. Put together (and supported by numerous other related researchers), they create a pretty specific picture on several levels… one which is very little known in the broader culture (outside of people who read on reincarnation and past lives, soul existence “between lives”, etc.). And they do at least begin to answer the “what’s the point?” question and other common ones. And for me as well as at least some other Process thinkers, the inclusion of reincarnation as part of the process of soul “evolution” or “development” does not preclude the action of God in Jesus Christ or in all our lives in the growth process during our lifetime (the only one most of us have any awareness of, at least after the age of 3 to 6 or so, and thus later memory of)…. Similarly Jesus’ role in the development of society and all of humanity.
To address your “physical evidence for the soul” comment briefly, I don’t know I’d say the physical evidences (or maybe, better, “empirical, based on measurable physical and other characteristics”) are for soul existence, that I’m aware. However, they DO seem to be good evidence for continuity or very striking, highly improbable correspondences between one lifetime and another (often when “the subject” has no personal sense of or claim to a connection that OTHER people first begin to notice and dig further into)….
Again, part of this is physical and measurement oriented… and Von Ward’s concept of “genome” is fascinating in that it seems to potentially begin to unveil more of how encoded genetic information may be BOTH “material” and “immaterial” (or so subtle energetically we so far can’t trace it) and carry things we think of as “traits” or “skills” across lifetimes, via a postulated “soul”, as well as through sexual reproduction. In other words, though we generally lack CONSCIOUS recall of our earlier identity (on the assumption we have one), we do have an ongoing personal identity, in my view… and I’m frankly expecting further confirmation of this within THIS lifetime of mine (so I guess I’m not now fully objective, but I have only come to this position slowly, beginning mainly about 6-8 years ago.)
And I must reinsert the particular reincarnation issue into the larger category of “parapsychology” (for lack of a more precise category term, other than maybe “paranormal” or “extra-normal”); and reiterate that this entire realm is systematically dodged by both orthodox Christianity and by modern/postmodern science, and apparently only because it does not easily fit into either the supernatural paradigm or the natural paradigm (in the predominant form of each, not the only existing forms). I’m with Griffin when he says that if supernaturalist (classic) theism and naturalistic atheism were the only options, he’d call himself a theist. These days, we are thankfully able to create a more satisfactory “third (or more) way” model, that quite elegantly accounts for much more of all that we observe and study, spiritually (including internally) and scientifically.
Maybe my lack of familiarity with all those ideas has me stereotyping people who affirm or investigate them. It feels very X-Files to me. I may be wrong. If my studies lead me in a direction where I find that it may be valuable to engage the writings of those you’ve mentioned them I’ll make sure to let you know.
Thanks for the humility and kind acknowledgment. You are far from alone. “Parapsychology” and anything considered “psychic” particularly (which is only a sub-set), has long been painted as “unscientific” (and indeed it is more tough to “pin down” with normal proofs and clear categories, but not impossible). As well, it has been basically “out of bounds” for Christians on a different basis, though significantly in play for Christians, especially charismatics. But, indeed there are some top scientists as well as theologians and others (MD’s, anthropologists, etc.) who have done and are doing rigorous work in these areas, taking it out of the X-files category. For your potential future ref., one solid basic intro by a scientist team (father/daughter) is “Miracles of Mind” by Russel Targ and Jane Katra (though it’s now several years old).
Just remembered: another interesting person, to many, who wrote about both his astronaut/moon-landing experiences and his own work on an “in-between” paradigm is PhD astronaut, Edgar Mitchell. That book is “The Way of the Explorer”. He was raised as a traditional Baptist in Texas (if I recall); has a fascinating account about his own mother’s beliefs in relation to a profound healing she gained, with his help, and then “lost”.
Gotta love the way this thread devolved into extra-physical speculations about soul continuity and reincarnation, after bouncing around philosophically tenuous arguments about the “metaphysical” nature of logic and math–talk about crossing wires, or is that shorting out synapses?–into post-historical, trans-scientific, intellectual gobbledy-gook.
The conclusion we could all reach just now is that there is an awful lot we don’t yet know about the nature of the actual physical universe in which we exist–if dark matter constitutes 85+ % of the “physical” world we’re in a predominantly speculative phase of learning about what we are and what we experience, including what is still being categorized as “supernatural.”
An historian should perhaps be open to the possibility, however speculative it may be today, that what we call spiritual and what are still appropriately characterized as “supernatural” experience like those narratized in the Bible are valid experiences of things nevertheless “natural.” All the experiences we will ever know are part of the created order, part of the “physical” nature of things, and can properly be assessed, recorded, analyzed, organized, and reflected on by historians. As an historian one need not stop at the borderland of what most academics may consider the limits of the natural order. One may want to limit historically oriented speculations to what one can reasonably expect at least some others might find comprehensible–we do all live within communities of meaning–but comparison of the experiences of “super-natural” phenomena of different communities can be historically revealing. Experiencing the appearance of the dead, or those believed to be spiritual entities, is not limited to one particular community of meaning. The experience of psychical phenomena that reflect more symbolic meaning than objective physical reality need nevertheless to be analyzed by historians. The study of psychical, “trans-physical” experiences can’t establish the ultimate nature or significance of such phenomena just yet, but it can establish the universality of it among human cultures and the way it functions in particular matrices of meaning, and that it is therefore worthy of historical investigation and conclusions, however speculative the latter may seem to some.
Your comment seems to differentiate studying these claims in order to understand whether they happened from studying these claims to glean insights into how these experiences—whether real or not—function in various groups. Is that what your saying or do you think all these experiences should be fair game for the historian when discussing “what happened”?
Evidence is an effect from which we infer a cause. If we find a body with a knife in its back and the knife has little swirly patterns on the handle, we infer that the person whose fingerprints match those patterns is the person who put the knife there. We can do this because we understand the natural processes of cause and effect that cause those little swirly patterns to appear on objects and we believe that those natural processes are overwhelmingly consistent, if not invariable. If we thought that those little swirly patterns appeared randomly or by divine fiat, they wouldn’t be evidence of anything. We could not say it was Professor Plum with the knife in the library.
The intellectual tools by which we draw inferences from evidence use the consistency of natural processes of cause and effect. As a result, they can not identify supernatural causes regardless of whether our world view allows for them. We do not know what effects require supernatural causes and we do not know what effects supernatural causes are likely to produce.
I like and agree with what your are saying. In case you or anyone here has read him, Rodney Stark is a sociologist/historian who has gradually moved (from my perception of just a sliver of his work) to leaving “room” for the supernatural, it seems. However, I found his discussion of Luke as historian and on the Gospels and Acts as to historicity (in “The Triumph of Christianity”) to be very sub-par and superficial as an examination of that issue…. which WAS germane to his subject. I presume there are more “successful” examples of the work you refer to.
You quite rightly say within a particular world view:
“We do not know what effects require supernatural causes and we do not know what effects supernatural causes are likely to produce.”
This is valid within a mostly scientific worldview. My point is that from a scientific perspective we don’t know what we mean when we say “supernatural.” We don’t fully comprehend what nature is so we can’t very meaningfully speak of what is “supernatural. 85% plus of PHYSICAL MATTER is still “DARK” to us because we don’t yet know what causes it to act the way it does or how it makes the 15% or less of the physical matter we do tend to understand act the way it does in relation to the dark matter we don’t have much of a clue about yet. So, to clarify, we don’t yet know much about the scope of what may acually be “natural causes” in the physical universe, despite the fact that we nevertheless at least know it exists. So, to make statements about things we know so little about is mostly speculative, including statements about what may be considered “supernatural.”
I think what happened and how what happened effected the people who experienced those events are fair game for the historian. Historians aren’t limited to the testable repeatable phenomena constrained in the physical scientists’ labs.
In what work and where does Rodney Stark leave “room” for the supernatural?
Would you say that there must be some guidelines for dealing with the supernatural as a historian? It seems like a Pandora’s Box. Once you’ve opened it, and you’ve ventured into metaphysical speculation, how do you prevent things from getting downright weird?
It’s not a function of worldview. It’s just a question of the intellectual tools that are available. If all I have is a yardstick, I cannot measure the temperature, but that doesn’t mean that my worldview doesn’t include the concept of temperature. It just means that I lack a tool with which to measure it.
On the other hand, if I didn’t observe any effects of temperature, if I had no sensation of temperature, and I had no way to measure it, there would be some point at which I was justified in concluding that no such thing existed. However, science assumes that all knowledge is provision and everything we know is subject to challenge upon further discovery.
Your question got me rechecking In “The Triumph of Christianity” which I was referring to. The section in question (and I haven’t read much beyond this) is Ch. 3, “Jesus and the Jesus Movement”. I don’t know if I’d defend the wording of leaving room for the supernatural, but something to that effect I think is fair. He is discussing, on and off thru this chapter, the issue of historical info and reliability in the Gospels and Acts, esp. the section beginning on p. 54. He takes pains to correct the more extreme skeptical views — that basically all of the Gospel material is fanciful — which in itself is fair and fitting within his material.
He also cites several examples in support of accuracy on geography, historical names and such in Acts (mainly) and some in the Gospels; covers other related issues as well… too much to summarize, but it all seems to amount to this, to me: He seems to carefully build a general case for Gospel/Acts accuracy (with some disclaimers also) and to knock down the more extreme “opposite” views, concluding that we have a “quite reliable report of the Christ story as it was believed and told by the original eyewitnesses–members of what is now known as the Jesus Movement.” (p. 57) So the implication, given his complete silence, in this ch. at least, about the miraculous aspects and how they should be taken, is that he is willing to take these as much as historical as he does the more mundane aspects of the “Christ story”. I suppose he might object to that in terms of his scholarship, though I imagine on a personal level, he would not.
I say that because Stark apparently returned actively to his Christian roots in about 2007 (I forget the source on this– maybe just Wikipedia, but have read something by him in an article or another book that seems to support that), and now calls himself a Christian. The 2007 date lines up well with comments in the intro to the book about his deeper study of early Xn history, etc., since the much earlier pub. of his “The Rise of Xnty”. Anyway, again, I’m not sure how to describe his treatment of the supernatural as a historian, in that he pretty craftily skirts the issue, as to anything direct at least. However, I personally think his way of treating the historicity issues in this ch. 3 is as misleading as it is helpful and does NOT even well identify, much less discuss the deeper issues and some of the important details. I’m not sure how I think he SHOULD have handled it as just one chapter in a long book focusing more on later Christian history, but the confusing nature of what he said and didn’t say left me frustrated.
It seems each historian sets her/his own guidelines, and they are important and necessary. I am just inclined to think that historians, especially if they think they should be “scientific” about their craft, should be particularly aware of and explicitly recognize that what constitutes physical as opposed to metaphysical shouldn’t be constrained by what science has so far been able to account for as physical. Again, if more than 85% of what is now known to be _physical_ has yet to be accounted for within scientific processes–dark matter just now beginning to be investigated–then just what we might characterize as physical versus metaphysical, natural versus supernatural, is open to debate. One need not get mythological, but the metaphorical Pandora has long had her box opened– the universe in which be live and work is already weird. No getting around it, so embrace the weird, study it, include it in your historical investigations and tentative conclusions. The least scientific thing one can do it exclude possibilities because they don’t seem possible within some current conceptions of what is metaphysical or supernatural. There are more things to be discovered in heaven and earth, Horatio …..
my point was exactly what you said:
“science assumes that all knowledge is provision[al] and everything we know is subject to challenge upon further discovery.”
There is, however, no point at which we should conclude that things we haven’t personally experienced therefore don’t exist; that would be imposing a world view inappropriate to the task. We are awaiting discovery regarding 85+% of what is already known to be physical, so the intellectual tool that gives me is one that enables considerable openness to what is natural versus “supernatural.”
I find that you’re advice is useful for living life, but not for the craft of the historian. While the historian does aim to discuss “what happened” the only way to remain safe against the accusation that the work of the historian is essentially storytelling is to consciously impose restraints upon what one says in the capacity of a historian. As I’ve said in this thread, personally, I affirm the resurrection of Jesus. When engaging the craft of a historian one must limit oneself to as little speculation as possible. It is fair game as a historian to point out what we can know: Jesus died, Jesus was buried, his disciples were convinced that he had appeared to them, there were many reports of this, people willingly died rather than recant their proclamation that these events happened. The historian does her/his job best when this is the stopping point: present the data that has analogy, even present that various interpretations as interpretations, but let the reader decide. What I personally believe about the complexities of the universe cannot be proven when researching the past.
I’m pretty sure that I’ve reached the point that at which I conclude that leprechauns don’t exist, but it’s not simply a matter of not having personally encountered them. It is also because I cannot imagine the leprechaun hypothesis ever having any explanatory power. While it is true that all knowledge is provisional, I don’t think that means that I cannot think that I know anything. Regarding some of the conclusions I have reached, I deem the probability that they will be set aside to be very low, although I doubt that I could ever deem it to be zero.
Moreover, when prevailing conclusions are superseded by new discoveries, I think it is reasonable to expect that it will occur as a result of the same process by which the prevailing conclusions were reached, i.e., discernible patterns will yield testable predictions which will lead to a new understanding of the rules that govern reality. That seems to me to be a methodology (rather than a worldview) that is entirely appropriate to the task at hand.
If I am precluded from ever concluding that anything that I haven’t experienced doesn’t exist, then I would have to say that Einstein was wrong about God not playing dice.
@Vinnyjh57 – good insight. Regarding your comments about rationalizing the non-existence of Leprechauns.. the process goes both ways too about the rational belief in something or the rational disbelief in something.
People once disbelieved in the existence of atoms, believing instead in the existence of ‘knotted ether’. Now people rationally disbelieve in knotted ether but believe in atoms. Similarly many people currently believe in ‘blackholes’ but doubt about their existence is starting to shift towards the alternative believe in the existence of gravistars and the non-existence of black-holes (as being logically incoherent and physically impossible).
Rational belief and disbelief in something as a result of prevailing conclusions is a function of methodology (as you say), though I would say not necessarily always observable (not all rational conclusions are). Belief in the big-bang is rational, but not observable directly (only its effects are observable). Similarly, naturalistic science posits the emergence of life from non-life, the emergence of order in the universe from chaos, and the emergence of the rational mind from irrational substrate of matter – none of these naturalistic positions are observable or repeatable, either directly or indirectly.
What I find amazing is that people mindlessly compare belief in God to belief in spaghetti monsters as though both notions are rationally equivalent and unassailable intellectually …
The reason I consider myself an agnostic rather than an atheist is that while I am not convinced that God’s existence, I do still see the potential explanatory power of the God hypothesis when if comes to questions like why there is something rather than nothing and why there is consciousness.
However, when it comes to the attributes and purposes of whatever God might exist, I am hard pressed to come up with a strong reason to think that the biblical God is any more likely than the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
I can accept that .. though there are rational arguments about the attributes of God, if he exists …
I am aware of some of those arguments but I figure that an omnipotent and omniscient God is pretty much above my notions of what’s rational and what’s not.
What can the historian know or not about resurrection, or any other subject of historical inquiry? I would draw a circle that represent all possibilities without a horizon, and then draw a smaller circle inside that. While the absolute center of the target would be the Truth, the smaller circle represents the range of reasonable likelihood. Your criteria will determine the boundaries of that smaller circle. For example, if you follow scientific limits, you might automatically exclude the possibility of a physical resurrection. If you allow for divine in-breaking into reality, you might allow for specific god-driven actions.
I value the advice given to me by my teachers, to follow the human hands in historical inquiry while remaining open to the possibility of divine force behind those human hands. Who are we to say whether God should have formed the Bible in this way or that way, or established such-and-such relationship with humanity? A good historian remains open to what could be.
Would you differentiate between the work of a professional historian who must be as cautious as possible with what s/he says “happened” and someone just searching for what they believe personally? That is the point I’m making. I affirm the resurrection, but historians are limited to explaining things naturalistically. While there may be cases where a supernatural explanation makes a lot of sense, once a historian starts down that road, there is no way to prevent it from going from cautiously accepting to weird, so historians tend to err on the side of methodological naturalism. Do you think it shouldn’t be this way?
Brian said “.. but historians are limited to explaining things naturalistically.
How so? Does reason begin and end with the material, natural world? This assertion needs justification.
Physicists (cosmologists) recognize that the natural world and events within cannot be adequately explained without reference to metaphysics. Hard-core scientist don’t restrict themselves like this. For example, cosmologists asks questions about the first moments of the big-bang. This is a supernatural questions since space-time had only begun to exist and the entirety of the universe occupied hardly any space at all then. So to stand outside of space-time is to wander into the realm of the unrepeatable, unobservable but scientists don’t find this un-doable.
If historians are content to provide only the veneer of what happened (in a type of sequential description of events one-by-one) than fine, historians are limited to explaining things naturalistically. However, few historians actually seem interested in doing this, so on what basis can we argue the reality of history can be adequately described without reference to metaphysics?
From the perspective of critiquing human reason, this (modern) supposition hails from the secular world which suggests that events in the natural world can be understood without reference to metaphysics. However there seems to be no evidence this is true.
I only ask because the claim above is very reminiscent of an ‘old boys club’ claim:
You need to be a naturalist to be a historian” is like “You need to be a naturalist to be a philosopher.”
That second attitude dominated philosophy for more than a century, pretty much much from Bertrand Russell onwards. A natural consequence was that it was irrational to defend God philosophicaly. Then Alvin Plantinga came along, disproving it and all but starting something of a resurgence.
Now, not only are there brilliant Christian philosophers, but they seem to be the only ones producing anything of relevance (so says even secular philosophers).
@ Andrew T
In relation to your last comment: “Now, not only are there brilliant Christian philosophers, but they seem to be the only ones producing anything of relevance (so says even secular philosophers)”, I don’t read much academic philosophy but a couple brilliant ones I know mostly 2nd hand overlapped with Russell and were Christian, yet not classic theists: Teilhard de Chardin, A. N. Whitehead, and Charles Hartshorne (representing 3 nationalities of origin). I wonder how many Christian theologians interact much with these three?
It may be that the accepted historiography is the rules of a “good ol’ boys club,” but until there is broadly embraced justification for removing these safeguards when doing historical-critical work that will not result in special pleading (e.g., the resurrection sort of supposes a deity like that of Christians, which is not an accepted premise for many, so how does not go about doing historical-critical work where the resurrection is fair game without asking people to suspend their religious beliefs and “just accept” the reality of the Christian deity?) it seems safest to me for the historian to stop at what is verifiable and falsifiable (which the resurrection if it happened seems impossible to verify or falsify using the evidence available to us outside of the Parousia, which would be the ultimate verification!) or has analogy to the reality we know. I think it is fair game for philosophers because they’re not limited to the same sources of evidence as the historian, likewise for the theologian.
That said, you may be correct that many historians go further than what I am suggesting here and they do so while claiming to wearing their historian’s cap. Those historians will have to give their own justification for doing so. Historians are often under much scrutiny for not being cautious enough, for moving too far from the data and too close to a narrative wherein what is proposed is too theoretical, too close to historical-fiction. This is good reason for historians to err on the side of being cautious.
I take Greek at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s extensnion campus there in San Antonio, currently hosted at Castle Hills Baptist Church at 1604 and 281 taught by Dr. Rudy Gonzalez every Monday morning. I’m considering attending the lecture you posted about at Trinity next Monday – it would be cool to see you there.
I have not been able to keep up in my own responses though I have tried to read the others – even if just skimming. I would probably side closest with Andrew T in my thoughts. I would say that Matthew and Luke present possible different sources because, even though they do seem dependent in Mark in many places, use sources independent of Mark as well – some that may be quite early. In any case I see why Mark and the possible ‘Q’ would carry more weight. I think I would agree with in by saying saying that a purely historical investigation doesn’t definitively prove the resurrection – but I would differ by saying it does provide evidence for it. Regarding the resurrection the evidence can only be silent, in favor or against it. It can’t be completely out of the question and something the evidence can’t weigh on at all. But now we are rehashing what’s already been said so its probably best to leave it at that.
Very cool, I don’t know what institutions offer what classes around here. I knew that SWBTS had an extension here, but I hadn’t seen their class listings.
I think I plan on attending the lecture if possible.
FWIW, to clarify, I don’t think the evidence that we do have that would be useful to a historian goes against Jesus’ resurrection. Honestly, I think it points toward it, but I find that something as unique and apocalyptic as the resurrection itself goes beyond what a historian can say happened while abiding by the generally accepted restrains of modern historiography.
@ Howard, yes Whitehead indeed, and also let’s not forget the eminently quotable G. K. Chesterton …. (A Roman Catholic I might add .. one of my favorites)
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