One of the issues that often comes up is whether there is any evidence for God. Miracles are the most common and direct form of evidence requested in both modern and ancient times. Definitions of a miracle can vary but the one provided by Macmillan dictionary seems most in tune with the philosophical model. “an event that cannot be explained according to the laws of nature and is considered to be an act of God”
In modern times many agnostics and atheists ask for miracles as proof or evidence. Whether it’s N.R.Hanson’s having God appear after a thunder-clap causing everyone in the world to fall to their knees before the heavens open and a giant radiant Zeus like figure appears and “exclaims for every man woman and child to hear ‘I have had quite enough of your too-clever logic-chopping and word-watching in matters of theology. Be assured, N. R. Hanson, that I do most certainly exist’” Then there is the common notion that God could rearrange the stars to spell something like “I exist” to those who question. Although there will always be some holdouts[i], most atheists are willing to agree that such miracles would be fairly compelling evidence of God.
The author of the Gospel of John explains why he records the signs (miracles)
“Jesus performed many other signs [miracles] in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” John 20:30
But the hope for miracles dates even earlier. The ancients thought along the same lines as we read in Isaiah. He wished God would show himself by rending the heavens and coming down and do awesome things so that people would believe in him and turn from their sin. But because he has “hidden [his] face” people continue to sin. [ii] I will just say that I find it interesting that it appears throughout time some humans have expected/hoped that God would reveal himself through miracles. Some issues seem new but you can often find they have been asked before.
Is there historical evidence of miracles? Years ago I listened to Bart Ehrlman’s lectures entitled “Historical Jesus.” He repeats several times that in determining what historically happened one must use criteria.. The criteria he proposes are more or less these:
1) Multiple sources
2) Preferably Independent sources
3) Non biased sources
4) Contextual credibility
5) Close in time to the events
6) No contradictions/internally consistent
So far so good. He goes through 17 lectures explaining, using, and emphasizing the importance of these criteria. Then in lecture 18 he addresses miracles. Needless to say I was somewhat excited to hear how they would hold up under historical criteria.
Unfortunately he then launches into some confused and contradictory explanations which I will quote at length below. But at the outset I want to say that I do not intend to bash Professor Ehrman here. I learned a lot about the historical Jesus from listening to his lectures and books. And I greatly appreciate his work and his ability to introduce and explain many of the issues in this very interesting field. I don’t agree with everything he says but I learned a great deal from him and think he is an excellent author and professor.
Before I quote him I want to point out how he uses 2 different definitions of the word “miracle.” 1) an event that violates the law of nature. And 2) and improbable or rare event. But it’s important at the outset to know these are two very different definitions. We might say the Yankees winning in the ninth inning was a miracle comeback. But we don’t really mean any laws of nature were violated.
In the same token several Christians believe a miracle happens at communion when the bread becomes Christ’s body and blood. This is literally confirmed by hundreds of thousands of believers every day at Catholic Masses. So according to them at least, it’s an event that violates the laws of nature, but it’s not exactly rare or improbable.
Consider that there are two meanings for the word duck. One is a bird that likes water and the other is to bow down in order to dodge something. These are also two very different concepts that happen to share the same word. If I were to say a duck is a bird that likes water and often bows down to avoid attacks that would be conflating the two meanings. People would be right to point out that I am misunderstanding the terms. You will see that is what Bart Ehrman does.
I will try to transcribe exactly what he says. However, the parts in brackets and blue are are my own comments. He says:
The reports of Jesus’s miracles create a special problem for historians who are committed to establishing to the best of their abilities what probably happened in the past. On the one hand the miracles of Jesus are virtually ubiquitous in our gospel traditions. [traditions which Ehrman believed were sufficient to establish historical facts] Nearly everywhere you turn Jesus is healing the sick, casting out the demons, raising the dead, multiplying the loaves, walking on the water and so on. These traditions infiltrate our gospel traditions.
Some people since the enlightenment in Europe have insisted that such miracles cannot happen. For people like this, since miracles don’t happen, Jesus necessarily did not do miracles. This view can be called the “philosophical problem of miracle” I want to state emphatically that this is not the issue that I want to address in this lecture. I am not dealing with the philosophical problem of whether miracles are possible. That’s not what I want to deal with. For the sake of the argument I am willing to concede that miracles can and do happen. For the sake of the argument Ill concede that they happen.
But there still remains a huge and I’d say insurmountable problem when discussing Jesus’s miracles. Even if miracles are possible, there is no way for the historian to show that they ever happened. I’m going to call this the historical problem of miracle. As opposed to the philosophical problem. Let me explain the historical problem of miracle at some length.
One way to approach the question is by reflecting for a moment on the ways in which historians engage in their craft in contrast say to the ways scientists engage in theirs. The natural sciences operate through repeated experimentation as they seek to establish predictive probabilities based on past occurrences. To illustrate on just the most simple level suppose I wanted to demonstrate that a bar of iron will sink in a tub of lukewarm water but a bar of ivory soap will float. I could prove my thesis simply by repeated experimentation with tubs of water and with bars of both iron and soap. Line up the tubs with water and the bars of iron will sink every time and the bars of ivory soap will float every time and this would provide an extremely high level of what we might call presumptive probability. Namely that if I keep repeating the same experiment I’m going to keep getting the same results so that we can predict that in the future that is probably what is going to happen. This is what natural science does it makes predictions about what is going to happen based on repeated experimentation of what already has happened.
In common parlance a miracle within this schema would involve a violation of this known working of nature. It would be a miracle for example if a preacher prayed over a bar of iron and chucked it into a vat of lukewarm of water and it floated. We would call that a miracle.
The historical disciplines are not like the natural sciences, in part, because they are concerned with establishing what has happened in the past as opposed to predicting what will happen in the future and in part because the historical disciplines cannot operate through repeated experimentation. An occurrence is a one-time proposition once it happened; it is over and done with.
Since historians cannot repeat the past in order to establish what probably happened there will always be less certainty than there would be in the natural sciences where you can actually demonstrate things through repeated experimentation. It’s much harder to convince people that John F Kennedy was the victim of a lone assassin than it is to convince them that a piece of ivory soap will float. Because you can repeat one but you can’t repeat the other.
And the farther back you go in history the harder it is to mount a convincing case. It’s one thing to mount a convincing case of an event that happened in 1963 where you actually have video. But to try to convince somebody of what happened in 63 is extremely difficult. You can not only not repeat it, but the sources available to you are highly problematic. This all though is what makes alleged miracles so hard for historians, so difficult, in fact why they pose an insurmountable difficulty for historians. [But this seems to have nothing to do with something being a miracle, there are ancient and modern alleged miracles. Clearly he so far has only described a problem that all of history has and especially ancient history.]
On one level of course, everything that happens, that happens at all is improbable but most things that happen are not so unlikely as to defy the imagination. [Earlier he claimed he would concede miracles do happen, it seems he is now reneging.] Because they happen more or less all the time. If you five years ago had tried to calculate the probability of your sitting right now where you’re sitting. I think probably it would be a remote probability five years ago but there is nothing improbable about the fact itself I mean you have to be sitting somewhere if though five years ago you tried to predict the probability of our right now levitating 20 feet in the air, well how would you even calculate the probability of that since you don’t levitate. [But I thought he said “For the sake of the argument I am willing to concede that miracles can and do happen.” he seems to be reneging] You see both are improbable but the improbability of you levitating at this point is so infinitesimally remote that you can’t even calculate it. [I’m not sure I could calculate the probability that I would be sitting here five years before either, he just seems to want to say that he thinks miracles are improbable so regardless of the historical analysis he is always going to give them the thumbs down] Events that don’t happen all the time defy probabilities. [But as he said himself all events from history only happen once. Plus he clearly is just claiming they don’t happen all the time what about the eucharist?.] That’s why miracles create an inescapable dilemma for historians.
Let me put it like this since historians can only establish what probably did happened in the past and the chances of a miracle happening by definition are infinitesimally remote a miracle can never be the most probable occurrence. [Notice this is a different definition of miracle than what he said earlier. Earlier he was using the definition of a violation of the laws of nature. That definition is what christian’s should properly understand miracles to be. Now he has switched to a completely different definition that describes a completely different concept.] That means historians can never show by the very nature of the case given the constraints imposed by them by the historical methods that miracles probably happened. [Why not apply the historical method/criteria he claimed to use? Answer: he has philosophical reasons to reject miracles.] This is not a problem for only one kind of historian, for example for atheist for agnostics or Buddhists or Roman Catholics or Baptists or Jews or Muslims it’s a problem for all historians of every stripe. Even if there are otherwise good sources for a miraculous event the very nature of the historical discipline prevents the historian from arguing for its probability by their very nature miracles are the least probable occurrence in any given instance. [Clearly he is deciding this using something other than the historical criteria he set out and claimed to use. If it is not the use of his historical criteria then what is the grounds for saying they are so unlikely? It seems that, although he denies it, he is in fact letting his philosophical views simply trump his historical methodology. Sadly his philosophical views are both not well supported and caused by a conflation of two completely different meanings of the word miracle. ]
He offers some very confused thoughts and no longer wants to apply the same historical criteria he applies to other events. It is obvious to anyone looking that issue that we can in fact take the miracle events described in the gospels and apply the historical criteria just like we can to any non – miraculous event.
He offers nothing specific as to why any of the 6 historical criteria themselves would not work to evaluate historic miracle claims. So at the outset I see no reason why his normal criteria for historical analysis cannot be employed. Sadly he does not address any of these criteria or attempt to show why they don’t work with miracles. It seems very much to be a situation of special pleading.
Ok lets move on to what he does say. He claims he is not referring to a philosophical problem, but instead a “historical problem of miracle.” Given that he never mentions any problems with applying the historical criteria to these events, it seems a strange claim. Despite his claim to the contrary the “miracle problem” he refers to seems to be very much a philosophical misgiving. It is a conflation of 2 distinct definitions of miracle, and a confusion over predicting probabilities in the future or the past.
It’s unclear to me whether his disparate thoughts are intended to mount several different arguments as to why normal methodology of a historian can’t be used. Or if he thinks they support one global argument. That said lets go through some of his points:
Why does he mention scientific method and how it’s distinct from the methods of the historian in the context of miracles only? Clearly that distinction applies equally well to all sorts of historical evaluations and not just to miracles. It seems he agrees history is not science regardless of whether we are discussing claimed miraculous events or non-miraculous events. So why raise this distinction in this context? He seems to be going adrift.
He indicates that it is harder to prove something that happened farther in the past with problematic sources than it is to prove something closer to the present when we have video tape. I don’t disagree with that. But this is true of all history and has nothing to do with the event being a possible miracle or not. So again he seems to be going adrift when he brings this up in the context of why miracles can’t be examined with historical analysis.
He goes on to offer even more confused thinking:
“Another way to look at this problem is to point out ways that the historical disciplines are like the natural sciences. Both Historical and natural disciplines deal with phenomena that can be observed by all interested parties apart from their ideological or religious beliefs. The historian can only look at evidence in other words that is available in the public record. As a historian the person who is a historian has no access to supernatural forces. Only to events that can be observed and interpreted by any reasonable person of whatever religious persuasion.
If a miracle requires belief in the supernatural realm but historians as historians have access only to the natural realm then they can never even discuss the probabilities of a miracle because it requires belief in the supernatural. Let me emphasize that historians don’t have to deny the possibility of miracles or deny that miracles happen. I’m not saying that.”
A miracle does not require anyone to believe in the supernatural. It is a supernatural occurrence but the possibility of it happening is not dependent on our subjective beliefs. It happened or it didn’t, regardless of whether we believe it happened. Some miracles are better supported by historical criteria than others. It’s difficult to know what he could mean when he says:
“If a miracle requires belief in the supernatural realm but historians as historians have access only to the natural realm then they can never even discuss the probabilities of a miracle because it requires belief in the supernatural.”
What is he talking about? Discussing the probability of miracles does not require belief in the supernatural. Lots of people who do not believe in the supernatural assign a probability to miracles. Often these probabilities are low but very few people who do not believe in the supernatural claim there is absolutely no chance they are wrong. But even if they do assign a zero probability they are assigning a probability.
What does he mean accessing the supernatural realm? Miracles are supernatural events that happen in this realm. People who believe the miracles as recorded in the bible do not think they happened in some other “realm.” He is begging the question when he says Historians as historians cannot access the supernatural. They can access them the same way they access non-miraculous events. By looking at their sources and using their historical criteria.
When we examine the reasons for his claims, they do indeed make it clear that his issues with miracles are only philosophical ones. I think his comments about how often miracles are recorded and from how many different sources makes it clear that if he used actual historical analysis he would find they are historically supported. It’s just too bad that his philosophical views are so confused that he doesn’t even realize they are in fact philosophical, and have nothing to do with historical analysis.
[i] For example Matt McCormick is an atheist philosophy teacher who apparently does not consider miracles to be evidence of God.
[ii] “Why, O LORD, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance. For a little while your people possessed your holy place, but now our enemies have trampled down your sanctuary. We are yours from of old; but you have not ruled over them, they have not been called by your name.
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.” Isaiah 63-64