Monday, November 26, 2007

Talking about miracles

Okay, I have to chime in on the miracle discussion that seems to have enchanted the Christian Origins list serve as the result of Crossley's and Bauckham's discussion at SBL. But I'm going to be brief.

First, if biblical scholars were more concerned about operating as historians than theologians this wouldn't even be a discussion. Historians do not begin with the position that miracles can happen (because God can do anything he wants to do) therefore Jesus performed (or: could have performed) miracles.

When miracles are attributed to famous people in historical writings - and there are many examples beyond Jesus - historians start with the position that these are stories meant to attribute certain superpowers or status to the famous person, or are being used to show the ancient reader that the person being described was thought to be extra-ordinary, divine or godlike. Why should the historical study of Jesus be any different in terms of method?

Second, the fact that this IS a discussion, and that some biblical scholars actually approached James Crossley, maintaining that we can't rule out that Jesus could have performed miracles, should not come as a surprise. The issue at stake is really not about miracles, is it? It is about apology and having it dominate and control our discourse as biblical scholars. It is no wonder that classicists and archaeologists and ancient historians look at our work with suspicion.

I am not going to get into the discussion about whether or not miracles can or cannot happen. I am tired of that discourse and all the false labeling that goes on with it. What I want us to face is the fact that we, as biblical scholars, are willing to suspend what we know about our world when it comes to Jesus and so-called historical research about him, but we are not willing to do so for other figures.


steph said...

It is amusingly ironic that James' paper has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not miracles can happen.

James Crossley said...

Personally, I couldn't agree more (with both of you)

JohnO said...

I've been following the Christian Origins mailing list discussion. So, with your comment about biblical scholars not being theologians, theologians aren't allowed to exist? Or they aren't allowed to be scholars? Or... ?

Nick Kiger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nick Kiger said...

You make a good point about how we approach other figures. It is true that there is more at stake to say Jesus didn't perform miracles than there would be to say Asclepius didn't perform miracles. I think biblical scholars need to decide where their responsibility lies. Is it in apologetics or is it in responsible research. One is better for both lay people and fellow scholars alike, and I'm sure we can all guess which one. Good post April!


I think what April is saying is that biblical scholars are (or should be doing) different work than theologians in the sense that there should be no theological bias connected to their work and research. Theologians can be scholars, but they are usually theologians first and their motivation is different. This issue brings that statement to light. The mission of the biblical scholar is to look at Jesus, knowing that miracles are unlikely and to see how those miracle stories fit into the narrative about Jesus. The theologian on the other hand will look at the miracles with the assumption that they really happened and try to figure out how Jesus' miracles fit in with his purpose.

This is just one example of how the two different disciplines would view the same issue. I'm in no way suggesting that all biblical scholars and all theologians would take these respective approaches, but what the scholar presumes and what the theologian presumes are often very different.

JohnO said...

I think all people, even of faith, would say that miracles are unlikely. I'm unsure how many know about William Lane Craig, theologian, philospher, and apologist - who basically predicates the entire origin of Christianity on a miracle: the resurrection of Jesus.

No other theory supports all the data. Notice, he makes no presumption about miracles, but merely observes that the best explanation is a miracle happened.

I think the real problem is that people of faith, and those not of faith (obviously) have conflicting worldviews. The great part about a worldview is that you cannot leave it behind when you think. And either worldview is threatened by the other. said...

And some historians are prepared to believe something did happen simply because it might possible and it is in the holy books of Josephus - like the walls of Jerusalem falling down after Titus marched around the city - as depicted recently in a laughable UK TV documentary whose historical advisor was one Martin Goodman.

gdelassu said...

I think what April is saying is that biblical scholars are (or should be doing) different work than theologians in the sense that there should be no theological bias connected to their work and research.

How is "miracles do not happen" an absence of theological bias? The claim "miracles do not happen" is every bit a theological claim as "miracles do happen." They both represent theological biases, albeit in two different directions. I can agree that historians and theologians are doing different work, but please, spare us the pretension that the theologians have a "bias" which is a absent from the historians.

John Shuck said...

Dr. DeConick did not say miracles do not happen. She purposely avoided that argument. The point is about being consistent and not giving special pleading to Jesus' miracles over the miracles of any other figure.

BTW, not all theologians base theology on fantasy. The miraculous is not a requirement for theology.

JohnO said...

"BTW, not all theologians base theology on fantasy. The miraculous is not a requirement for theology."

Well, leaving "fantasy" undefined, if a theologian is talking about anything super-natural - then it is free to be called "fantasy" by those who deny anything beyond the natural.

So, I don't see how that statement is useful at all. "Fantasy" in that statement is subjective to the person stating it. For a theologian to talk only about the natural puts him more in the category of a philosopher, sociologist, or anthropologist (in a practical practice). And then for most reading here, a theologian who talks about the super-natural should not be listened to because he is daft?

José Solano said...

What both historians and theologians lack is a monopoly on thinking and reasoning. What they both need to work on is objectivity so as to come to an understanding of truth: What really did happen in a particular time and place? From this understanding certain interpretations relevant to our lives today may be derived. That in itself is another discipline from mere historical establishments.

When examining ancient documents the full cultural circumstances as well as the intent and perspective of the authors need to be considered. Even the possible psychological state of the authors and society may need to be examined and this is yet another discipline. What did occur? What is being said? How is the truth of both being measured? Are all declarations of truth equally valid? Must the historian, for a presumed sense of objectivity, approach all such declarations as equally valid or may she take a cautious questioning position? “Hmm. This statement is suspect?”

The human being will not be able to fully divorce himself from all of his prejudices. It is arrogant to imagine one has. Scholars, whether theologians or historians retain their share of ego-inflation and often, as we know, the more learned the greater the problem. Neither the historian nor the theologian should live within the isolation of a single discipline. Reality is multidisciplinary, holistic if you will. The single discipline is the specialization of the particular scholar but not the means by which anyone may determine objectively the plausibility of such a staggering subject as the miraculous. Once the issue is brought up, and the documents under study repeatedly bring it up, it cannot be simply and always ignored in the interest of being an objective scholar. Circumstances will arise when the discussion will be inescapable. Apparently this occurred at the SBL conference. If you don’t isolate and insulate yourselves through philosophically untenable assumptions and unwholesome restrictions, it will happen again. A little salt may help you enjoy it.

JohnO said...

Of course, the terribly ironic part about all of this wrangling over "certainty" is that all of us live our lives each day working on much larger chances of error and untruth than we "require" in this discipline.

Mystical Seeker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Deane said...

“When I find, for example, that some of the nature miracles of Jesus seem as well evidenced as other events in the Gospels that are widely regarded as historical, I regard them as reasonably probable events.”
- Richard Bauckham, Panel Review of Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, SBL Meeting, 17 November 2007

Apparently, thousands in history departments worldwide have realised the past shortcomings of their methods, and are now rewriting their histories to include all those miracles which they had previously excluded (merely on the grounds of prejudicial presuppositions).