Sunday, January 17, 2016

Honi the circle-drawer

In his recent debate with Dr. Timothy McGrew, Zachary Moore cited a counter-miracle. He referred to a story about Honi the Circle-Drawer (c. 60 BC). He attributed the story to Josephus.

As Moore relates the story, there was a drought in Judea.  Honi drew a circle in the dust, stood in circle, and refused to move unless and until God brought rain. At first, God responded with drizzle. Honi said that was too little, so God responded with a downpour. Honi said that was too much, so God moderated the precipitation. Some people were upset by his ordering God around, but he got away with it due to his piety. 

I'm summarizing. You can listen to his verbatim remarks (at the 56-57 min. mark). 

i) Why does Moore imagine that's a problem for belief in miracles? From a Christian standpoint, what's problematic about God answering the prayer of a pre-Christian Jew? Wouldn't we expect God to answer the prayers of some OT Jews and Intertestamental Jews? How is that inconsistent with a Christian theology of miracles?

ii) This further illustrates a problem with Moore's effort to discredit miracles by attempting to draw parallels between reported miracles in religiously diverse cultures. Given that humans have stereotypical needs, we'd expect humans to have similar "stories". Jewish farmers, Christian farmers, and pagan farmers all pray for rain during drought. It's hardly surprising that you might find cross-cultural "stories" like that, because it happens in real life. Even if some of the stories are fictional, people tell stories like that because they wish their God or gods would answer prayers like that. 

To take a comparison, there are lots of fictional love stories. But that's because some men and woman fall in love in real life, and most men and women hope to do so. The fact that some of these stories are fictional doesn't cast doubt on any story in particular. There's no presumption that a love story is fictional. Some are and some aren't.  

iii) Finally, Josephus doesn't contain the version of the story that Moore attributes to him. This is all Josephus says about Honi:

Now there was one named Onias, a righteous man and beloved of God, who, in a certain drought, had once prayed to God to put an end to the intense heat, and God had heard his prayer and sent rain. Antiquities 14.2.1 21.

That's it! And that comes from the Antiquities (c. 93)–which is about 150 years after the alleged event. 

So where do the details of the story come from that Moore is citing? From the Mishnah:

They said to Honi, the circle drawer, "Pray for rain."
He said to them, "Go and take in the clay ovens used for Passover, so that they not soften [in the rain which is coming]."
He prayed, but it did not rain.
What did he do?
He drew a circle and stood in the middle of it and said before Him, "Lord of the world! Your children have turned to me, for before you I am like a member of the family. I swear by your great name–I'm simply not moving from here until you take pity on your children!"
It began to rain drop by drop.
He said, This is not what I wanted, but rain for filling up cisterns, pits, and caverns."
It began to rain violently.
He said, "This is not what I wanted, but rain of good will, blessing, and graciousness."
Now it rained the right way, until Israelites had to flee from Jerusalem up to the Temple Mount because of the rain.
Now they came and said to him, "Just as you prayed for it to rain, now pray for it to go away."
He said to them, "Go, see whether the stone of the strayers is disappeared."
Simon b. Shatah said to him, "If you were not Honi, I should decree a ban of excommunication against you. But what am I going to do to you? For you importune before the Omnipresent, so he does what you want, like a son who importunes his father, so he does what he wants. J. Neusner, ed. The Mishnah: A New Translation (Yale 1991), 312-13. 

According to Jacob Neusner, the Mishnah dates to c. 200 AD (ibid. xvi). So the Mishnaic story of Honi is about 250 years after the fact! Perhaps it reflects a legendary embellishment of Josephus, or maybe it's an independent, but very late tradition–which could still be legendary. So the story cited by Moore is of very dubious historicity on chronological grounds alone.

iv) Assuming my information is correct, how did Moore misattribute to Josephus a story from the Mishnah? The obvious explanation is that he relied on some thirdhand source, and didn't bother to check his sources. You have to wonder where he got it. Is this from some village atheist collection of comparative mythology? 

v) Keep in mind that this was in Moore's opening statement. He even has a display. It's not like the  rebuttal or cross-examination, where debaters are talking off the cuff. One can make allowances for inaccuracies that creep in when speakers have to give unrehearsed responses. But this wasn't some offhand comment. These were prepared remarks. It tells you something about Moore's standards that he's that slipshod. And it's ironic that he himself is guilty of legionary embellishment. Intentionally or not, he embellished Josephus.  


  1. From a Christian standpoint, what's problematic about God answering the prayer of a pre-Christian Jew? Wouldn't we expect God to answer the prayers of some OT Jews and Intertestamental Jews? How is that inconsistent with a Christian theology of miracles?

    Exactly! Moore's citing this alleged miracle is just plain stupid. And even if this occurred in a pagan situation it wouldn't be surprising since, as the Apostle Paul said, "Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness" (Acts 14:17). The Lord Jesus Christ Himself said, "so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matt. 5:45 cf. Luke 6:35).

    It seems to me that the only reason Moore would cite this miracle is because he himself finds the story so unbelievable that he assumes we should or naturally would share his incredulity.

    Or maybe Moore thinks that Christians would naturally be offended by Honi's boldness in prayer. Sure, some Christians might, but not all. But such boldness isn't completely foreign to the Bible or Christian history. John Knox famously prayed, "Give me Scotland, or I die!" [cf. Gen. 30:1].

    A.J. Gordon wrote concerning Luther's prayer for Melancthon:
    The story continues: "Luther arrived and found Philip about to give up the ghost. His eyes were set; his consciousness was almost gone; his speech had failed, and also his hearing; his face had fallen; he knew no one, and had ceased to take either solids or liquids. At this spectacle Luther was filled with the utmost consternation, and turning to his fellow-travelers said: `Blessed Lord, how has the devil spoiled me of this instrument!' Then turning away towards the window he called most devoutly on God."

    Then follows the substance of Luther's prayer: "He besought God to forbear, saying that he had struck work in order to urge upon Him in supplication, with all the promises he could repeat from Scripture; that He must hear and answer now if He would ever have the petitioner trust in Him again."

    Or Luther's prayer for Myconius:
    Luthardt furnishes this version of the event: "Myconius, the venerated superintendent of Gotha, was in the last stage of consumption, and already speechless. Luther wrote to him that he must not die: `May God not let me hear so long as I live that you are dead, but cause you to survive me. I pray this earnestly, and will have it granted, and my will will be granted herein, Amen.' `I was so horrified,' said Myconius, afterwards, `when I read what the good man had written, that it seemed to me as though I had heard Christ say, "Lazarus, come forth."' And from that time Myconius was, as it were, kept from the grave by the power of Luther's prayers, and did not die till after Luther's death." Luthardt, "Moral Truths of Christianity," p. 298.


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    2. Or the case of John Scrimgeour:

      We give verbatim one incident of healing as recorded in this book, admonishing the reader that this story, as well as several others, has been somewhat softened in later editions of the work, with the avowed purpose of making it accord more exactly with modern religious sentiments. It is from the life of John Scrimgeour, minister of Kinghorn in Fife, and "an eminent wrestler with God":

      "Mr. Scrimgeour had several friends and children taken away by death: and his only daughter who at that time survived, and whom he dearly loved, being seized with the King's evil, by which she was reduced to the point of death, so that he was called up to see her die; and finding her in this condition he went out into the fields (as he himself told) in the nighttime in great grief and anxiety, and began to expostulate with the Lord, with such expressions as, for all the world, he durst not again utter. In a fit of displeasure he said -- 'Thou, O Lord, knowest that I have been serving Thee in the uprightness of my heart according to my power and measure: nor have I stood in awe to declare Thy mind even unto the greatest in the time; and Thou seest that I take pleasure in this child. Oh that I could obtain such a thing at Thy hand as to spare her!' and being in great agony of spirit at last it was said to him from the Lord -- 'I have heard thee at this time, but use not the like boldness in time coming for such particulars.' When he came home the child was recovered, and sitting up in the bed took some meat: and when he looked on her arm it was perfectly whole." Edinburgh Ed., 1812, pp. 89, 90.

    3. I was wrong to say that Moore's citing of the Honi miracle is just plain stupid. I realize now that he was (among other things) making a cumulative case for why it's difficult or nearly/actually impossible to historically identify a case of a genuine miracle.

      But that doesn't prove such miracles don't happen. In fact, for all he knows, polytheism is true and most (if not all) of the cases he cited actually occurred. Even in atheism doesn't necessitate or entail an orderly uniform universe. Technically, it's possible for an atheist to admit that it's logically possible that no gods exist and that strange events happen all the time. As Cornelius Van Til often said regarding any non-Christian worldview that excludes the kind of omnipotent and omniscient providential God like that in Christianity, "Submit it to 'Ripley's Believe It or Not!'" The reason being that given any worldview that allows for the possibility of chance/chaos (e.g. atheism) there's no reason for the presumption of the uniformity of nature. That's why Van Til often quoted Aristophanes' statement "Whirl is King, having driven out Zeus"

      No, a thousand times no! The ruler of the world is the Whirlwind, that has unseated Zeus.


      "There is not, no; for Vortex reigns having expelled Jupiter."


      "Vortex is king, and has deposed Zeus."]

    4. Atheists are in no epistemological position to affirm or deny either uniformity OR NON-uniformity.

    5. For the Christian: Christ is the reigning King having deposed/expelled/unseated/driven out Zeus, Jupiter, Baal, Moloch, Dagon, Vortex, Whirlwind chance, chaos, fate, Destiny, Anaximander's apeiron etc.