Sunday, October 23, 2011

John Loftus Is Wrong About Early References To Jesus' Miracles

John Loftus recently posted an article about Jesus' miracles. There are too many problems with his post for me to discuss all of them here. I'll make several points in response to some of his claims:

The earliest texts of the New Testament were written by Apostle Paul, and in I Corinthians 1:22-23 he said the “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” It seems as though Paul is claiming the gospel message is not supported by miracles at all, but rather by the foolishness of preaching. It’s also instructive to note that Paul never specifically attributes any miracle to Jesus in all of his writings. It seems as if Paul just doesn’t think Jesus did any of them, even if miracle workers who used the name of Jesus as a magician’s charm did exist in the early church….

There is still more, as G.A. Wells informs us, “there is no mention of any miracle of Jesus even in the writings of the earliest Fathers (Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smryna—known at the ‘Apostolic Fathers’ because they were believed to be the immediate successors of the apostles).”…

What Strauss, Wells, and Price argue is that these facts suggest the miracle stories represent later mythic additions based on evolving church traditions to the story of Jesus. At least some, if not many, or even most of these miracle stories can be explained in this way. And while their conclusions represent a minority opinion among biblical scholars today, these considerations do at least provoke some doubt. How can we be sure otherwise? We can’t, because we can never accept the majority opinion just because it’s in the majority.

Probability is sufficient. We don't need to be "sure".

The scholarly majority Loftus is questioning has presented arguments in support of its conclusion. He isn't interacting with those arguments. Who claims that we should agree with the majority just because it's a majority?

Loftus doesn't explain why we should expect the historical sources he cites to mention Jesus' miracles in the contexts in question. Writing a letter to people who are already Christians isn't the same as writing a biography for a wider audience. The letters of Paul, Clement of Rome, etc. come from a significantly different context than the gospels.

Paul's letters are commonly dated from the late 40s to the mid 60s. Mark is commonly dated to the late 60s. Most scholars think Mark relied on earlier sources, and the earliest comments we have on the origins of Mark's gospel tell us that he did so. But even if we ignored Mark's use of earlier sources, the time gap between Paul and Mark is insignificant. And the early reception of the gospels, including among Pauline churches in so many locations, suggests that the gospels' view of Jesus isn't much different than Paul's. One of the gospel authors was a close companion of Paul who presents a high view of the apostle in Acts, the sequel to his gospel. Is it likely that Luke's view of Jesus was as different from Paul's view as Loftus' argument suggests?

In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul is concerned with the inclusion of disreputable things in Christianity, namely crucifixion and preaching, not the exclusion of miracles. He goes on to refer to miracles he performed among the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 2:4-5, 2 Corinthians 12:12). He refers to Jesus' fulfillment of prophecy, foreknowledge, and resurrection (1 Corinthians 11:23-26, 15:3-4). He attributes apostolic miracles to Jesus (Romans 15:18-19). That attribution makes more sense if Jesus was perceived as a miracle worker during His time on earth. If the apostles performed authenticating miracles as a normative part of their ministry, and those miracles were attributed to Jesus, is it likely that Jesus was thought to have performed no miracles previously? Miracles like the ones we see in the gospels provide a better explanatory background to the apostolic miracles. Similarly, Paul's belief in an Antichrist figure who performs signs and wonders (2 Thessalonians 2:9) makes more sense if Jesus was thought to have performed miracles. And Paul's apparent reference to Luke's gospel as scripture in 1 Timothy 5:18 suggests that he accepted Luke's portrayal of Jesus as a miracle worker. As the gospels and some ancient Jewish sources tell us, there was a common expectation that the Messiah would perform miracles. Paul probably held the same view.

Josephus, the Jewish opponents of Justin Martyr, Celsus, and other early non-Christian sources refer to Jesus' performance of apparent miracles. See here.

Many early Christian sources refer to Jesus' miracles indirectly by means of their high view of the gospels. See, for example, the early use of the gospels documented in Bruce Metzger's The Canon Of The New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) and Clayton Jefford's The Apostolic Fathers And The New Testament (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006). When men like Papias and Aristides speak highly of the gospels in general, their acceptance of the gospel accounts of Jesus' miracles is implied.

Other early sources affirm Jesus' miracles more directly. Concerning Polycarp, Irenaeus wrote:

"Whatsoever things he had heard from them [the apostles] respecting the Lord, both with regard to His miracles and His teaching, Polycarp having thus received information from the eye-witnesses of the Word of life, would recount them all in harmony with the Scriptures." (Fragments, 2)

Ignatius refers to Jesus' prophecy fulfillment, virgin birth, and resurrection (Letter To The Smyrnaeans, 1). He makes an apparent reference to the star of Bethlehem (Letter To The Ephesians, 19). Elsewhere, he refers to Jesus' raising of individuals from the dead, most likely a reference to Matthew 27:52-53 (Letter To The Magnesians, 9).

Some other examples:

"then shall appear the world-deceiver as the Son of God, and shall do signs and wonders" (The Didache, 16)

"But the works of our Saviour were always present, for they were genuine:— those that were healed, and those that were raised from the dead, who were seen not only when they were healed and when they were raised, but were also always present; and not merely while the Saviour was on earth, but also after his death, they were alive for quite a while, so that some of them lived even to our day." (Quadratus, cited in Eusebius, Church History, 4:3)

"Moreover, teaching Israel, and doing so great miracles and signs, He [Jesus] preached the truth to him, and greatly loved him." (The Epistle Of Barnabas, 5)

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