Friday, March 13, 2009

A history of miracles

Over the next few days or weeks I plan to review Bart Ehrman’s new book, Jesus, Interrupted (HarperOne 2009). I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to review the whole thing. The basic problem with his book is that Ehrman is recycling a lot of hackneyed objections to the Bible that have been repeatedly addressed by conservative scholars. And he’s either too ignorant or too dishonest to engage the opposing argument.

Today I’ll confine myself to an analysis of his historiography:

“There is something historically problematic with his [Jesus] being raised from the dead, however. This is a miracle, and by the very nature of their craft, historians are unable to discuss miracles…But that is not why historians cannot show that miracles, including the resurrection, happened. The reason instead has to do with the limits of historical knowledge. There cannot be historical evidence for a miracle” (172-73).

“Historians more or less rank past events on the basis of the relative probability that they occurred. All that historians can do is to show what probably happened in the past” (175).

“That is the problem inherent in miracles. Miracles, by our very definition of the term, are virtually impossible events. Some people would say they are literally impossible, as violations of natural laws: a person can’t walk on water any more than an iron bar can float on it. Other people would be a bit more accurate and say that there aren’t actually any laws in nature, written down somewhere, that can never be broken; but nature does work in highly predictable ways. That is what makes science possible. We would call a miracle an event that violates the way nature always, or almost always, works so as to make the event virtually, if not actually, impossible. The chances of a miracle occurring are infinitesimal. If that were not the case it would not be a miracle, just something weird that happened. And weird things happen all the time” (175).

“By now I hope you can see the unavoidable problem historians have with miracles. Historians can establish only what probably happened in the past, but miracles, by their very nature, are always the least probable explanation for what happened. This is true whether you are a believer or not. Of the six billion people in the world, not one of them can walk on top of lukewarm water filling a swimming pool. What would be the chances of any one person being able to do that? Less than one in six billion. Much less” (176).

“If historians can only establish what probably happened, and miracles by their definition are the least probable occurrences, then more or less by definition, historians cannot establish that miracles have ever happened…Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past. They cannot show that a miracle, the least likely occurrence, is the most likely occurrence” (176).

To see what’s wrong with this argument, let’s begin with an illustration. Human beings are rational agents. One thing we do with our rationality is to make tools. Design machines. Invent appliances.

We do this for various reasons. We may do it because the machine can do something we can’t. We may do it because, even though we’re able to perform certain tasks, we find them tedious to perform, and so we delegate them to a machine. Or we may do it because a machine is more reliable. It yields a uniform result.

What makes the machine reliable is that it’s impersonal. It can’t think for itself. It can’t exercise personal discretion. It can’t change its mind or vary its routine.

Machines are designed to work within certain parameters. A device, left to its own devices, can’t operate outside specified parameters–unless it malfunctions.

Take an automatic card shuffler. Why would we invent an automatic card shuffler? One motivation is that we don’t trust the dealer. The dealer might be a cardsharp. He might be on the take.

The dealer can do things with a deck of cards that an automatic card shuffler cannot. And that’s the problem. In a high-stakes poker game, we don’t want a dealer who can stack the deck. So we may use an automatic card shuffler instead, since that gizmo is designed to randomize the order of the deck.

By the same token, we might prefer a machine count of the vote to a hand count. The machine is nonpartisan. It doesn’t discriminate between one party and another, one candidate and another, one voter and another.

Nature has a mechanical quality to it. A number of inanimate, impersonal agencies that effect various events without a thought, forethought, or afterthought.

God designed nature that way to ensure a level of stability to human existence. An ability to plan for the future. Seedtime and harvest. That sort of thing.

Now let’s draw some distinctions:

i) It would be quite illogical to infer that if an automatic card shuffler can’t do certain things, then a dealer is subject to the same restrictions. The fact that certain outcomes are impossible or improbable for an impersonal process doesn’t mean the same outcomes are equally impossible or improbable for a personal agent.

History is simply the record of what happened. While it may be impossible for natural forces to do certain things, that doesn’t mean a rational agent is just as limited in his sphere of influence.

ii) Certain patterns indicate intelligent direction or personal intervention. If one player receives a string of winning cards while his opponent receives a string of losing cards, we conclude that the deck is stacked.

Either the dealer is a cardsharp, or the automatic shuffler has been reprogrammed to stack the deck.

While that falls outside the standard operating parameters of an automatic card shuffler, this doesn’t mean it’s impossible for an automatic card shuffler to stack the deck. What it means, rather, is that, if left to its own devices, an automated card shuffler is unable to stack the deck. But it’s possible for the device to be reprogrammed.

iii) To verify a miraculous event is a step-process.

a) First, you verify the occurrence of the event. You don’t need to verify the miraculous character of the event to verify the occurrence of the event. That’s a separate issue.

b) Given the occurrence of the event, you then interpret the event. Are the internal resources of an impersonal process sufficient to account for the event? Or does the event exceed the standard operating parameters of natural causation?

It’s like a game of cards. You can verify that each player was dealt a particular hand. You can verify which cards he was dealt.

But depending on the outcome, there are cases in which cheating is far and away the most likely explanation for the outcome. The odds against that pattern occurring at random are astronomical.

The chances of that happening are only infinitesimal if the automated card shuffler is working within standard parameters. But that’s quite distinct from the chances of reprogramming its parameters. And that, in turn, is also distinct from the chances of what it can do once the machine is reprogrammed.

To infer that just because it’s improbable that an automatic card shuffler will deal a royal flush in every game–given its standard operating parameters, then it’s equally improbable that someone would reprogram its operating parameters to yield a desired result, is quite illogical. Those are separate issues. The probability of the one is irrelevant to the probability of the other.

Probability is a relative concept. Probable relative to what? In relation to what background conditions?

In this instance we attribute the outcome to the dealer’s sleight-of-hand, or–in the case of an automated card shuffler–to the hidden hand of an engineer who reprogrammed the machine.

Just as there can be probative evidence for cheating, there can be historical evidence for miracles.


  1. The automatic card shuffler is a good illustration. I would add that Ehrman has been corrected on this point repeatedly. William Lane Craig corrected him in a debate in 2006, and Mike Licona corrected him in a debate in 2008. Does Ehrman make any effort to interact with arguments like Craig and Licona's in his book?

    Licona recently completed his doctoral work. He'll be debating Ehrman again, on the topic of the resurrection, on April 2 of this year.

    A video of Licona's 2008 debate with Ehrman is available here. I posted a review of the debate here.

  2. The problem here is that miracles are not defined as improbable events. Miracles could happen more frequently. If 3 000 000 000 people walked on water it would still be a miracle. Ehrman sees it as a quantitative difference with natural events whereas it is a qualitative difference.