Friday, September 15, 2006

The presence of the past

Bill Curry said:

“Well Matthew claims the earth shook and the rocks split. Don’t you think that numerous saints rising from the dead and visiting a major city would cause some historian to take note? Again I am not saying it is impossible that none would, but the apparent implausibility certainly this enters into my assessment.”

1.I can think of at least one historian who did take note of this event. He goes by the name of St. Matthew.

2.Since Jerusalem was dominated by the religious establishment, which was hostile to Christ, is there some reason to expect that a Jewish writer unsympathetic to the Messianic claims of Jesus would, in fact, record this vindicatory episode for posterity?

After all, the unspoken assumption of Curry’s objection is that we can discount Matthew since Matthew is a sympathetic source. We can only trust a hostile witness.

But, by definition, a hostile witness would be disinclined to report an incident unfavorable to his own cause.

3.Assuming, for the sake of argument, that someone like Josephus corroborated this event, unbelievers routinely discount the reported miracles in Josephus—just as they discount the Testimonium Flavianum.

4.Finally, Curry fails to draw an elementary distinction between what was written and what was preserved.

As Martin Hengel has pointed out:

“The basic problem in writing a history of early Christianity lies in the fragmentariness of the sources and haphazard way in which they survived. However, this situation hampers not only research into the origins of our faith, but also the study of ancient history generally, in both the political and the cultural and religious spheres.

“What we know is largely dependent on often quite chance circumstances…Our knowledge is even more fragmentary when it comes to the fortunes of individual areas and provinces. How very little we really know about Syria in the 1C BC and the 1C AD, above all about the religious atmosphere prevailing there in that period, or about Judaea under the Roman prefects between AD 6 and AD 41 (which is even closer to the heart of the NT scholar)! Our knowledge of the Roman province of Judaea (which in the meantime had become independent) in the period between the Jewish War of AD 66-74 and the Bar Kochba revolt (AD 132-135) is even slimmer…What is true of Syria can be said to b even more true of tiny Palestine…Here our knowledge is essentially based on what rats and worms happen to have left on the scrolls in the caves of the wilderness of Judaea.

“We have already seen that our lack of sources is often due to the fortuitous and apparently external circumstances. Another factor is the whole complex of problems associated with the nature of books in antiquity and the transmission of ancient texts. The writing and reproduction of books was a much more wearisome business than it is today. As a rule, for technical reasons alone, an author was compelled to keep his material within strict limits. He had to make careful plans in advance so that his work would be the right length, since there was comparatively little room on papyrus scrolls and they were very expensive indeed, given the wages earned by the majority of the population. By and large, only rich people could afford a large number of books.

“A further problem is the copying and handling down of early historical works, where chance, external difficulties of transmission and various questions of content have all contributed to the destruction and reduction of sources. Hardly any of the great historical works of the Hellenistic and Roman period have come down to us unabbreviated. Extensive gaps in the text and abbreviation in the form of summaries are the rule here.

“I need mention only the three most important Greek historians of the Hellenistic and Roman period in this connection. These were Polybius and Diodore, each of whom wrote a history of the world in forty volumes…and Dio Cassius…whose History of Rome extended to eighty books. WE have only about a third of Polybius’ work, with the first five books in their entirety; sixteen books of Diodore, and some very fragmentary excerpts; while from Dio Cassius we have books 36-60, fragments of books 78 and 79, and some very abbreviate summaries from the Byzantine period.

“The 144-voume history of the world written by Nicolaus of Damascus, a friend of king Herod, who composed his work in Jerusalem, ahs been lost completely—presumably, like most ancient histories, because of its excessive length.

“However, even smaller works did not escape unscathed. Of the sixteen books of Tacitus’ Annals, which are fundamental to our knowledge of Roman history in the 1C AD, books 7-10 are missing. They are important for the history of the NT period as they covered the years 37-47 and also dealt with the situation in Judaea under Tiberius and Caligula. Of the sixteen books of his Histories, about the period from the death of Nero to Nerva, we have only books 1-4 and the beginning of 5 with its notorious anti-Semitic account of the Jews and the conquest of Jerusalem,” Acts & the History of Earliest Christianity (Fortress 1980), 3-7.

9 comments:

  1. We know, from the gospels, Josephus, the Talmud, and other sources, that both the early Christians and their early Jewish opponents widely agreed that Jesus performed apparent miracles. The dispute was over how He did it, whether by the power of God or by the power of Satan. When early Jewish sources refer to Jesus as a miracle worker, sorcerer, or magician, we don't know what all they had in mind. Events like the ones recorded in Matthew 27 could be included. There had to be some details known to these Jewish sources that would lead them to make such comments, yet they don't give us all of those details that led them to their conclusions.

    The idea that we should expect men like Josephus and Tacitus to record any supernatural occurrences they were aware of related to Christianity, just because such events would be significant, is overly simplistic. Significance isn't the only relevant factor. If a Jewish or Roman source views an event as something that's favorable to Christianity, or thinks that it might be perceived as such, he may refrain from mentioning it out of a desire to avoid furthering the cause of Christianity or to avoid undermining his own belief system. An event can be significant and known to a source like Josephus or Tacitus, yet that source can decide not to mention it. In my earlier reply to Bill Curry, I gave some examples of how the same thing occurs with natural events. Why couldn't it occur with the supernatural?

    When early non-Christian sources do refer to Jesus' performance of miracles or the darkness at the time of the crucifixion, for example, do critics of Christianity accept the accounts? No, they don't. As they dismiss the Christian accounts, they look for reasons to dismiss the non-Christian corroboration as well.

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  2. Whoa. "Proof" for supernatural occurences? That's a tall order to fill, not to mention categorically impossible.

    How would one determine if something is "supernatural" or not in order to further decide that it should or should not be reported? This, of course, is the sticking point, and makes the conversation really quite irrelevant. No one will ever be able to prove that a miracle happened, nor that a miracle could happen, nor even that a miracle has the potential to happen--an affirmation in favor of either of these options would require the ability to precisely quantify the nature of a miracle. However, if such identification is possible, one is suddenly no longer dealing with the "supernatural," but rather with phenomenological oddity (if there is such thing).

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  3. How would one determine if something is "supernatural" or not in order to further decide that it should or should not be reported?

    Calling it 'supernatural' just frames the discussion within naturalistic assumptions to begin with.

    No one will ever be able to prove that a miracle happened, nor that a miracle could happen, nor even that a miracle has the potential to happen

    1. On an epistemological level, Christ's miracles occurred because Scripture, which is true, said they occurred. If an infallibly reliable source says something happened, then it happened.

    2. But forget about calling it a 'miracle' for a moment. Does it really take an extraordinary level of evidence to prove that a miracle (the event, not the classification) has occurred? As Steve has pointed out with Christ's resurrection, does it take extraordinary evidence to prove that a man was alive, that he was dead, and then that he was alive? Whether or not this event is classified as 'miraculous,' the occurrences of the event (though certainly falling in an unique sequence) are not in themselves unique.

    an affirmation in favor of either of these options would require the ability to precisely quantify the nature of a miracle

    I'm not exactly sure what you mean by this.

    However, if such identification is possible, one is suddenly no longer dealing with the "supernatural," but rather with phenomenological oddity (if there is such thing)

    Like I said, calling the event 'supernatural' or 'a violation of the laws of nature' merely begs the question in favor of the naturalist worldview. A miracle is special because it is an unique occurrence of (extra)ordinary providence, not because either the actor is different (God is active in both the miraculous and the ordinary) or because it violates some ‘law of nature’ (natural laws are merely man’s neat way of understanding ordinary providence).

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  4. Expire~congeal9/16/2006 4:23 AM

    ED: Whoa. "Proof" for supernatural occurences? That's a tall order to fill, not to mention categorically impossible.

    EC: ED knows the limits of the possible.

    ED: How would one determine if something is "supernatural" or not in order to further decide that it should or should not be reported?

    EC: ED cannot determine when an event is supernatural or not.

    ED: No one will ever be able to prove that a miracle happened, nor that a miracle could happen, nor even that a miracle has the potential to happen

    EC: But, since ED, I assume, grants that we have in fact proved *some* things, and since he cannot know that what we have proved is *not* a miracle, then he doesn't know that we haven't proved a miracle.

    ED: However, if such identification is possible, one is suddenly no longer dealing with the "supernatural," but rather with phenomenological oddity (if there is such thing).

    EC: It appears that ED has enough knowledge of the supernatural to know what would happen if we identified it. But, he said we can't have this knowledge, thus all his claims are simply his unjustified opinions on the matter.

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  5. evanmay--

    Calling it 'supernatural' just frames the discussion within naturalistic assumptions to begin with.

    Exactly.

    1. On an epistemological level, Christ's miracles occurred because Scripture, which is true, said they occurred. If an infallibly reliable source says something happened, then it happened.

    This doesn't really provide evidence, but merely pushes the issue back another step. After all, appealing to Scripture as an "infallibly reliable source" would require the ability to determine not only the nature of infallibility, but also to show that the Scriptures obtain to such a determination. However, as such proof of infallibility would seem to be beyond the scope of any formal sets of criteria available to human epistemology, an appeal to the Scriptures does not function in the way that you intend them to in response to my objection.

    2. But forget about calling it a 'miracle' for a moment. Does it really take an extraordinary level of evidence to prove that a miracle (the event, not the classification) has occurred? As Steve has pointed out with Christ's resurrection, does it take extraordinary evidence to prove that a man was alive, that he was dead, and then that he was alive?

    Probably not. However, "not being dead" is not what the Christian belief of resurrection is all about, at least not entirely. The Christian doctrine of resurrection is not about mere recusitation--it is about Christ entering into a completely transformed mode of existence, a mode of existence that is entirely beyond the scope of human experience, epistemology and--therefore--criterion for proof. Therefore, I have always thought that it is curious that so much effort is spent to try to "prove" that Jesus was resurrected. As such cannot be objectively determined, what exactly is it that is trying to be proven?

    Whether or not this event is classified as 'miraculous,' the occurrences of the event (though certainly falling in an unique sequence) are not in themselves unique.

    If this is true, then you are not talking about resurrection, but only reanimation.

    "an affirmation in favor of either of these options would require the ability to precisely quantify the nature of a miracle"

    I'm not exactly sure what you mean by this.


    In order to determine whether or not a miracle has occured, one must first have criteria in place by which to measure such a thing. However, as human epistemology can only measure that which is proper to itself, the categorizing of the "miraculous" from the "natural" is merely double-speak for "natural phenomenon of which we have a reasonable understanding" and "natural phenomenon which we don't understand." The point is not that the miraculous does not exist, but rather that our ways of talking about it and "defining" the miraculous inevitably deceive us. The moment one has proven a miracle is the same moment that the miraculous-so-called ceases to be miraculous.

    Like I said, calling the event 'supernatural' or 'a violation of the laws of nature' merely begs the question in favor of the naturalist worldview.

    I agree. This is precisely why I question any thinking which suggests that miraculous events can be "proven."

    A miracle is special because it is an unique occurrence of (extra)ordinary providence, not because either the actor is different (God is active in both the miraculous and the ordinary) or because it violates some ‘law of nature’ (natural laws are merely man’s neat way of understanding ordinary providence).

    But again, my question is how one determines whether one event is or is not an "occurence of extraordinary providence"? Upon what objective criterion does one make this assertion?

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  6. I can think of at least one historian who did take note of this event. He goes by the name of St. Matthew.

    So, you can find no other source which attests to this alleged event? You just believe it, just because?

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  7. Folks, why is this so hard?

    Its in the Book. Talking snakes, plants, and donkeys.

    Book says it. Case closed.

    Believe it, because if you don't, you can't know anything!

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  8. This doesn't really provide evidence, but merely pushes the issue back another step

    No more than the word 'prove' itself pushes the issue back a step. How can anything be proven?

    The Christian doctrine of resurrection is not about mere recusitation--it is about Christ entering into a completely transformed mode of existence, a mode of existence that is entirely beyond the scope of human experience, epistemology and--therefore--criterion for proof.

    Regarding the miracle of the Resurrection, sure, the full contents of the miracle cannot be proven by empirical means. But the original context of this discussion regarded scientific and historical evidence, and I was answering the claim on its own terms.

    But again, my question is how one determines whether one event is or is not an "occurence of extraordinary providence"? Upon what objective criterion does one make this assertion?

    Admittedly, categorizing events as 'ordinary' or 'extraordinary' is merely conventional to human understanding. The only way I objectively know whether or not an event should be classified as miraculous (in the strictest sense of the term) is revelation. Since Scripture classifies Christ’s Resurrection as the ultimate miracle, I do the same.

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  9. Suffering Servant9/16/2006 7:42 PM

    "Believe it, because if you don't, you can't know anything!"

    That does it for me! It's in the Bible, so I know it's true, because the Bible is true. Whatever the Bible says is true by definition of 'truth'. Truth is a Biblical concept. There is no truth without the Truth of God, and the Bible is the True Word of God. That's the only argument one needs. It's short, simple and logical.

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