Saturday, November 29, 2014

Is the argument from miracles circular?

Attempting to use the evidence of miracles in this way presents two serious problems. One problem is the need to avoid circularity in argument. By the "Christian Revelation" Clarke presumably means the Bible or at least central parts of the Bible. But the evidence for the authenticity of the Christian Revelation cannot be drawn from the pages of that revelation itself without circularity. For one would be appealing to the authenticity of the revelation, the accurate account it proves of miracles, to authenticate it as a revelation, actually and immediately sent to us from God.  
But perhaps a distinction could be made between the revelation as immediately sent from God, and the revelation as historically trustworthy. If the Bible could be established as historically trustworthy, and if its historical trustworthiness could be initially granted then, it might be argued, its account of miracles can be taken as giving additional authentication of itself as a divine revelation. Paul Helm, "The Miraculous," Science & Christian Belief, 3/1 (1991), 82.

There are various problems with the charge of circularity:

1. As a rule, narrated miracles aren't cited to attest the narrator. If the narrator cited his own miracles to validate his claims, that would be circular. Mind you, even in that case, there's a distinction between vicious and virtuous circularity. 

Typically, narrated miracles attest a character within the narrative, not the narrator himself. At that level there's not even prima facie circularity. 

2. It isn't viciously circular to judge a witness by his own testimony. Take a witness whose testimony is so dubious that we conclude that he can't be trusted. Before he opened his mouth, we had no opinion regarding his character. If self-testimony can undermine a witness's credibility, it can enhance his credibility. 

3. Moreover, the evidence for miracles isn't confined to testimonial evidence. There are men, women, and children who claim to have personal experience with the miraculous. Even if their claim is secondhand for us, it is firsthand for them–assuming it really happened to them. They don't believe it because they heard someone else say it. 

4. Apropos (3), this isn't something all of us just encounter in literature. Some of us have friends or family members who recount miraculous incidents in their lives. 

5. By the same token, if there's credible evidence for miracles throughout church history, then there's nothing presumptively fictitious or suspect about Gospel miracles, NT miracles, or OT miracles. 

6. The canonical Gospels are quite restrained in the miracles they relate. Mark's Gospel, which is usually thought to be the first one written, has the highest proportion of miracles. By contrast, Matthew and Luke deemphasize miracles in relation to Mark by the amount of additional teaching material they include. And John has fewer miracles than the Synoptic Gospels. Moreover, it's not as if John's miracles are more spectacular. So there's no pattern of legendary embellishment. 

7. In addition, some Biblical miracles have inherent credibility. For instance, some Biblical miracles pass the criterion of embarrassment:  

i) Take the scene of Jesus walking on water, which turns into a scene of Peter walking on water (Mt 14:28-31). Only Peter humiliates himself. Why would Matthew invent that story?

ii) Likewise, a story recounting the failure of the disciples to exorcise a hard case (Mt 17:14-20; Mk 9:14-29; Lk 9:37-43). Why would the Synoptic narrators invent a story or preserve a fabulous tradition which makes the disciples look impotent? Why would Christian writers fabricate stories which portray leaders of the Christian movement in such an unflattering light? 

iii) Or take the unintentionally comical scene of Christians praying for Peter's deliverance. When, however, their prayers are answered, they are incredulous (Acts 12:12-16).

iv) Even more dramatic is the episode where Jesus is rejected by those who know him best. As a result, he "cannot" (or "will not") perform many miracles there, due to their unbelief (Mt 13:58; Mk 6:5). Why would the narrators fabricate a story which, at least superficially, makes Jesus seem limited in his power to work miracles? 

v) In addition, you have reported miracles which bring Jesus into physical contact with ritually impure patients–like lepers (Mt 8:1-4; Mk 1:40-45; Lk 5:12-16), or the women who suffered from menorrhagia (Mt 9:20-22; Mk 5:25-34; Lk 8:43-48). That would grate against Jewish sensibilities. Why invent stories in which Jesus is defiled by contact with those he heals?  

vi) On a related note is the use of spittle in some healings (Mk 7:33; 8:23; Jn 9:6). Why does Jesus use spittle in a few healings, but heal directly in most other cases? Why concoct that anomalous detail? 

Although there's evidence that spittle was sometimes used in Hellenistic folk medicine, that's the sort of invidious comparison we'd expect Jewish writers to studiously avoid–unless it really happened. They tell it that way because they are constrained by the facts on the ground.

Moreover, spittle has ambivalent connotations in Jewish usage, a la ritual defilement (Lev 15:8). Although Jesus wasn't in that condition, why write something that invites unwanted associations?–unless the narrator had no choice because that's how it happened.  

vii) You also have stories that just don't seem to be the kind of thing a narrator would make up, like healing the Canaanite's daughter (Mt 15:21-28; Mk 7:24-30). A desperate mother who seeks him out. Realistic dialogue. 

Likewise, transferring evil spirits from a demoniac to pigs, who proceed to drown themselves after they were maddened by possession (Mt 8:28-34; Mk 5:1-20; Lk 8:26-39). Why would anyone start from scratch with a fictional story like that? It's one of those angular encounters that happens in real life. Not something you make up if you're inventing inspirational literature. Real life is quirky. Unexpected. Incongruous. 

To be sure, I'm only discussing some Gospel miracles. But they lend independent credibility to the Gospels in which they occur, and to other miracles by association. 

viii) Then there are Biblical miracles which unbelievers love to mock, like the fate of Lot's wife (Gen 19:26), or Balaam's donkey (Num 22:28-30). But if these are so ridiculous, why would the narrator concoct anything that ridiculous? 

ix) Or take the exploits of Samson. A critic might dismiss this as something out of a comic book about superheroes. Yet it occurs in a book that's notorious for its grim, horrific realism. And Samson himself is a tragic figure. An abject moral failure. In an honor/shame culture, we wouldn't expect the narrator to invent a national hero who's an embarrassment to his own people. 

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