As I stated in my previous post, I will be writing a multi-part review of Craig Keener’s Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts here on Κέλσος. Since Keener’s two volumes are very long, and there are a lot of issues that I would like to address, I will be breaking this review into several smaller posts.
It is very likely that I will also blog about other issues during the process of writing this review, and I likewise do not plan to write my review of Keener in any particular order. As such, my organization may be somewhat sporadic in the order of topics that I discuss. For this reason, I will not be calling the subsequent portions of this review “part 2” and “part 3,” etc., but will instead title each subsequent post under the label “continued.” When I am finished with this review, I will then write a table of contents that organizes each post into a more logical organization.
Those organizational issues aside, I will be writing the second installment of this review on Keener’s repeated assertion that there is a bias in Biblical Studies against the historical authenticity of miracles.
Reading the “Introduction” (pp. 1-17) of Keener’s volumes, I was amazed by how much he started out with complaints against other biblical scholars, most of whom are unnamed (though he does name Rudolf Bultmann on pg. 8, who died in 1976, at that), for their alleged bias against the historical authenticity of miracles in the Gospels and Acts. Allegedly, these scholars treat the miracles of these accounts completely different from how they treat the other portions of the narrative. The repeated assertion that these scholars are “antisupernatural” is pervasive throughout this book (pp. 10, 85, 108, 123, 200, 429, 656, 667, 686, 702, 711, and on more pages than just these!).
Keener (pg. 4) starts by making the assertion that scholars treat the miracles in the Gospels and Acts as legendary, primarily on the a priori assumption that such events simply don’t happen:
“Because some scholars have treated miracle claims in the Gospels and Acts as purely legendary on the premise that such events do not happen, I intend to challenge their instinctive dismissal of the possibility of such claims by referring to a few works that catalogue modern eyewitness claims of miracles.”
Keener (pg. 13) goes on to describe this assumption as “dogmatic” and lacking “self-critical reflection” of its historical origins:
“Moreover, one might ask why openness to the possibility that some events are miraculous is more critical than their a priori dismissal. This question seems particularly pertinent for scholars whose dismissal is dogmatic and lacks self-critical reflection about the origin and formation of their own beliefs.”
For much of this book, he then traces the origin of this so-called “antisupernatural” bias to the Enlightenment and (old) philosophers such as Hume (despite the fact that modern naturalism really has more of a mid-20th century origin).
To begin with, I think this is a complete mischaracterization of why historians are more skeptical of certain historical claims that others. As I explain in my essay “History and the Paranormal,” historians do not just single out miracles or supernatural claims as the only kind of historical claims towards which they exercise greater caution. There are other kinds of paranormal claims that have nothing to do with religion or the supernatural, rather than empirical phenomena that exceeds existing scientific knowledge. This can include claims about technology that from a modern standpoint would be impossible, such as mirrors that can reflect rays of the sun to burn ships, unverified animal species, such as phoenixes, and even simple trade and navigation routes that would be implausible as literally described, or legendary geographical locations, such as the island of Thule.
In modern times, most skeptics likewise exercise equal skepticism towards other paranormal phenomena that would still be purely natural, such as UFO abductions. The operating principle has little to do with “antisupernatural” assumptions, but rather with what historiographer C. Behan McCullagh calls “existing knowledge.” As McCullagh explains in Justifying Historical Descriptions (whose methodology is summarized here), historians cannot make claims with good probability about the past that involve too many unproven, ad hoc assumptions. Such existing knowledge does not need to be a priori, but can be drawn simply from previous observation.
Let’s take Jesus’ resurrection, for example. As theologian William Lane Craig (Knowing the Truth about the Resurrection, pg. 15) explains:
“Resurrection is not resuscitation. The mere restoration of life to a corpse is not a resurrection. A person who has resuscitated returns only to this earthly life and will die again.”
And (pg. 127):
“Jesus rose to eternal life in a radically transformed body that can be described as immortal, glorious, powerful, and supernatural. In this new mode of existence, he was not bound by the physical limitations of the universe, but possessed superhuman powers.”
To approach such an event as unlikely is not “dogmatic,” does not stem from a “lack of self-critical reflection,” and is not based “on the premise that such events do not happen,” as Keener asserts. The initial unlikelihood of such an event can simply be calculated by observing how many human beings die, remain dead for three days, and then rise into immortal and imperishable bodies. Bayesian expert Robert Cavin (slide 108) calculates the prior probability of such a resurrection event as follows:
- 99.999…999% of the dead are not supernaturally interfered with by God, and, thus, not raised by Him.
- Jesus was dead.
- Jesus was [probably] not supernaturally interfered with by God, and, thus, not raised by Him.
None of this requires the a priori dismissal of resurrection events, nor does it even require the metaphysical belief in naturalism. As Cavin explains, this statistical syllogism would be the same, even if we assume the existence of God. Instead, historians approach all historical claims by taking into consideration the past observation of data. Now, I realize that Keener wishes to provide modern evidence of miraculous phenomena, in order to update our background knowledge to include the existence of miracles, which I welcome, but I still think that he has set up a straw man for why most skeptics and biblical scholars treat miraculous reports in ancient texts with greater caution.
But, what I actually think lacks self-reflection in this book is the degree to which it betrays Christian biases. For example, Keener (pg. 11) states:
“In challenging some traditional Western paradigms as inadequate, I am not personally embracing all possible alternative paradigms or dismissing everything that Western academicians, of whom I am one, have argued. On this issue I could make common cause with claimants from various religions and nonreligious perspectives, although I have restricted my examples primarily to the Christian ones I am best connected to locate and best equipped to explore.”
Why restrict this book to primarily Christian examples? I want to see miracles from all contexts and religions explored with equal depth and consideration. Likewise, which biblical scholars here are actually operating under dogmatic assumptions here? Let’s take a look at the academic institution in which Keener is employed. Here is the doctrinal statement of Asbury Theological Seminary:
“[We believe] That Jesus Christ is God’s Son incarnate, born of the Virgin Mary. He died for the sins of all, taking on Himself, on behalf of sinful persons, God’s judgment upon sin. In His body he rose from the grave and ascended to the right hand of the Father where He intercedes for us.”
So Keener accuses other biblical scholars of being “dogmatic,” when he works for an institution that has a doctrinal statement affirming miraculous events? Let’s also look at what his institution says about the ancient texts that Keener seeks to prove the “credibility” of:
“[We believe] In the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both the Old and New Testaments, the only written Word of God, without error in all it affirms. The Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith and practice.”
Now, can Keener show that secular biblical, classical, and historical scholars work at institutions that doctrinally claim that miracles cannot happen, that Jesus’ resurrection is impossible, and that the New Testament must be fallible? None that I can think of. In fact, having worked at secular institutions in both Arizona and California, the only statement that I have had to sign is an oath of loyalty to the states of Arizona and California! Keener is likewise publishing these volumes through Baker Academic, which “serves the academy and the church by publishing works that further the pursuit of knowledge and understanding within the context of Christian faith.”
Now, none of these signs of Keener’s bias mean that I won’t take a look at his evidence. I just find it rather hypocritical for Keener to come in swinging at other biblical scholars for their “dogma,” when he demonstrably works at and publishes through institutions that have dogmatically oriented commitments. If Keener wants to make a case for the modern occurrence of miracles, then just make it, and leave these gripes about other scholars “lack of self-critical reflection” aside.
By framing the issue in this way, however, I think that Keener likewise sets up a straw man for why many scholars doubt the contents of the Gospels and Acts. Keener (pg. 14) sets it up to seem like it is primarily due to their inclusion of miracles:
“Some scholars who grant that the Gospels are biographies or that Acts is a historical monograph containing much accurate information nevertheless find the miracle reports in those same narratives problematic. This apparent inconsistency in approach stems not from a change in genre but from philosophic assumptions about what is possible for intelligent people in other cultures and eras to believe that they have seen.”
First off, the charge of dismissing “other cultures” and “ethnocentrism” is another pervasive theme throughout this book, which is likewise a straw man. I don’t treat a report of a man rising into an immortal and imperishable body with caution because of “culture,” but due to the simply fact that billions of people have been recording dying, all over the world, and yet no one in the age of rigorous medical documentation has exhibited this kind of phenomena. If documented evidence of such an immortal resurrection occurred in any culture, I would believe it. But, the repeated insinuations of racism is another major complaint that I have about this book (Christian apologist Don Johnson likewise tried to make the same insinuations in our recorded debate, part two 46:56).
But, likewise, Keener’s description here creates the impression that scholars trust a ton of other material in the Gospels and Acts, but single out the miracles purely due to “philosophical assumptions” (despite the fact that people never seem to rise immortally from the dead is simply a scientific and medical observation). Keener (pp. 14-15) goes on to argue that this manner of reading the texts requires special pleading:
“Scholars can explain most such incidents in either naturalistic or supernatural terms, depending on their assumptions, but reducing them to novelistic flourishes or legendary accretions require reading them in a manner different from the rest of the works’ narratives.”
As someone who has written at length about the genre of the Gospels (see here and here), as well as their historical reliability (see here and here), I think that this is a pretty big mischaracterization. This is primarily due to the fact that there is a ton of material in the Gospels and Acts that I doubt for reasons having nothing to do with miracles. Here is an outline that I wrote recently of other literary-critical and historical-critical reasons that I doubt much of the material in the Gospel narratives:
1. Redaction criticism: The Gospels are highly unusual, compared to other Greco-Roman biographies, in the way that they borrow and redact material from earlier sources (Matthew borrows from much as 80% of Mark’s material, and Luke borrows from 65% of the material of the earliest gospel). This is not how historical biographies, such as those of Plutarch and Suetonius, are written, since higher literary works tended to be written in a more unique style that distinguished an individual author.
There are a number of historical-critical problems that arise from how the Gospels redact their source material:
First, the interdependence between the Gospels in their source material causes them to lack independent corroboration. Independent corroboration is a historical criterion that argues for a common tradition between two texts, when they both relate the same story, without collaborating with each other. However, because the authors of the Gospels were copying each other for a number of the same stories, we cannot assume that these stories are independently attested between the authors. This severely limits the extent to which the Gospels can provide multiply attested information.
Second, because of *how* the Gospels redact each other, there are a number of contradictions that arise between their different accounts. Many of the changes that the later Gospels make to Mark, for example, not only borrow Mark’s material, but also change the order of events. As NT scholar L. Michael White (Scripting Jesus, pp. ix-xi) explains:
“[E]ach of the Gospel authors has woven such episodes into the story in distinctive ways, changing not only the running order of the narrative, but also certain cause-and-effect relationships within each story. For example, in the Synoptics–especially the Gospel of Mark–it is the cleansing of the Temple that serves as the immediate cause of Jesus’ arrest and execution. In the Gospel of John there is no connection between these events, as the cleansing is two full years earlier. In contrast, for the Gospel of John the immediate cause of Jesus’ execution is the raising of Lazarus (11:38-44), an event never discussed in the Synoptics. Thus, the story works differently in each of these versions because of basic changes in narrative…
[T]he Gospel writers … reshape and recombine both old and new episodes, teachings, and characters that circulate[d] about the central figure, Jesus. Storytelling was essentially an oral performance medium in the ancient world, even when those stories were eventually written down. Thus, any particular performance might highlight different elements in the light of the circumstances of the author and the audience. It is similar to what happens with each new performance of a play, whether by Shakespeare or Neil Simon. Different actors, different settings, different periods of history–all of them create a different climate. Even when a script gets written down, the performances and emphases can change or be reinterpreted…
In this sense, the authors were playing to an audience. They are ‘faithful’ in that they were trying to instill and reaffirm the faith of those audiences, albeit sometimes in new and different ways. Even so, the stories are just that–stories–and not ‘histories’ in any modern sense.”
Because of this rearrangement in material, therefore, which often includes re-ordering of events, we cannot assume that any individual Gospel gives an accurate chronological narrative. There are simply too many discrepancies between the texts.
Likewise, redaction criticism can reveal legendary development and other forms of embellishment between earlier and later texts. For example, even Christian scholars, such as James McGrath, have acknowledged that Jesus’ burial is embellished in the later Gospels–Matthew, Luke, and John. As McGrath (The Burial of Jesus: History and Fiction, pp. 69-79) explains:
“Our earliest account of Jesus’ burial, the Gospel of Mark, records a fundamental truth that later Christian authors tried desperately to ignore: Jesus’ disciples were not in a position to provide Jesus with an honorable burial. Mark tells us that a pious Jewish leader named Joseph of Arimathea made sure that Jewish law was observed, and, learning that Jesus had died, got the permission to take the body and bury it.”
However, McGrath points out that the later Gospels make a number of changes to Mark’s version of the story. Luke (23:53) adds the detail that the tomb had never been used before, making the burial more honorable, and Matthew (27:59-6) adds both the detail that the tomb was unused and that it was even Joseph’s own tomb. John (19:39-41) even further adds the detail that Jesus was anointed with 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes before his burial, even when this explicitly contradicts Mark 16:1, which states that Jesus was not anointed before his burial. John also adds the detail that Jesus was buried in a garden.
These kinds of embellishments suggest that Jesus receiving a private burial in a tomb that had never before been used is probably a later embellishment (McGrath, for the record, supports the view that Jesus was buried in a common, criminal cemetery). Because of this, historians can thus doubt the accounts of Jesus’ burial in Matthew, Luke, and John.
It should also be noted that, because the later Gospel authors derived so much material from Mark (which itself is based on earlier Greek pericopes and oral traditions), it casts strong doubt on whether any of their narratives are based on “memories.” Instead, the borrowing and redaction of materials suggests that the Gospels were stitched together based on material that had been circulating for some decades, which was likewise redacted at multiple stages of composition. Because of this, we have to treat the Gospels as received material, rather than first-hand accounts.
2. Midrash: Another peculiarity about how the Gospels are written is the fact that they owe a considerable amount of influence to the earlier Jewish scriptures in the Old Testament. In fact, through the literary convention known as Midrash, in which NT characters and episodes are designed to mimic OT characters and episodes, we can tell that whole sections of the Gospels’ narratives are derived from earlier literature.
For example, there are two sets of miracle collections used in Mark’s gospel, both of which are designed to model Jesus after Moses. As R. C. Symes (“Jesus’ Miracles and Religious Myth”) explains:
“Gospel stories about Jesus’ miracles are a type of midrash (i.e., contemporizing and reinterpreting) of Old Testament events in order to illustrate theological themes. Among the many miracles in Mark’s original narrative, there are two sets of five miracles each. Each set begins with a sea-crossing miracle and ends with a miraculous feeding. He uses this literary construct so his readers will recall the role of Moses leading his people through water towards the promised land, and feeding them with manna from heaven. Jesus does something similar. And with each water and feeding miracle, there is one exorcism and two healing miracles that are to remind readers of the works of the prophets Elijah and Elisha and how Jesus surpasses them. The parallels between events in Jesus’ life to those in the lives of Moses, Elijah and Elisha and others are too close for a coincidence. This points more to constructing religious myths in the gospel for theological reasons, than to reporting historical facts.”
This actually means that Mark’s narrative is being built around earlier outlines of Jesus’ miracles (meaning that even the mundane narrative details may have been invented to narrativize the miracles). But we can tell further that these miracles were themselves based on parallels with the OT, such as the alleged miracles of Moses. That speaks strongly *in favor* of the hypothesis of legendary development, since we can tell that stories about Jesus were being made up to parallel him with OT figures. It should also be noted that these are pre-Gospel traditions, meaning that we can detect legendary development surrounding Jesus before the Gospels were even written.
Likewise, NT scholar Dennis MacDonald has argued, through mimesis criticism, that a number of the episodes in the Gospels may be based around earlier Greek mythology, particularly episodes in the Odyssey. It should be noted that, while Midrash is widely accepted among NT scholars, mimesis criticism is far more controversial. However, if MacDonald is correct that a number of characters and episodes within the Gospels are based on earlier Greek literature, then this would also cast doubt on whether such content is derived from actual historical events.
3. Allegorical characters: Another aspect of the Gospels that points towards legendary development is the presence of a number of characters, who appear to be solely allegorical in their role. For example, in this earlier essay I argue that the character Barabbas (whose name means “son of the father”) is probably a fictional character. Barabbas appears right before the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion, when Pontius Pilate asks the crowd to choose one prisoner for release as part of the Passover festival. Not only is this custom to release one prisoner unattested among secular sources, but there is also strong reason to think that this scene was invented for allegorical purposes.
During the Yom Kippur sacrifice, there were two identical goats selected each year. One was released into the wild bearing the sins of Israel, and was eventually pushed off a cliff. The other was sacrificed in blood to atone for those sins. Hebrews 8-9 outside of the Gospels already attests to how the early Christians viewed Jesus as the ultimate Yom Kippur sacrifice where Jesus is the atonement for sins. Thus, in this allegory, the Gospel authors are telling their readers to reject the sins of violence and rebellion represented though Barabbas and instead to embrace Jesus’ ultimate atonement sacrifice.
This can be further demonstrated by the fact that the early church father Origen even recognized the symbolism of the allegory in Homily on Leviticus (10.2.2):
“You see! You have here the goat who is released alive into the wilderness, bearing in himself the sins of the people who were shouting and saying “Crucify! Crucify!” He [Barabbas] is therefore the goat released alive into the wilderness, while the other [Jesus] is the goat dedicated to God as a sacrifice to atone for those sins, making of himself a true atonement for those who believe.”
Because the character of Barabbas may have been invented for allegorical purposes, it casts doubt on whether this story ever actually took place. Such allegorical characters, therefore, are another historical-critical problem for the Gospels’ reliability.
4. Fulfilment of Scripture Citations: Another historical-critical problem with the Gospels is the way that they invent material, in order to have Jesus fulfill prophecies in the Jewish scriptures. For example, I discuss in section 2 above how there are a number of contradictions between the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. The differences between the two accounts point towards the conclusion that each author invented a different way to get Jesus born in Bethlehem. This makes sense, because the Gospel authors were seeking to depict Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, and it had long been believed that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. However, since this is an obvious theological motive for depicting Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, it casts doubt on whether the infancy narratives are based on real events (most historical Jesus scholars agree that Jesus was probably born in Nazareth).
NT scholar Bart Ehrman (“Matthew’s Fulfillment of Scripture Citations”) explains how the author of Matthew, for example, invented large amounts of material, in order to fulfill prophecies in the Jewish scriptures:
“What is perhaps most striking about Matthew’s account is that it all happens according to divine plan. The Holy Spirit is responsible for Mary’s pregnancy and an angel from heaven allays Joseph’s fears. All this happens to fulfill a prophecy of the Hebrew Scriptures (1:23). Indeed, so does everything else in the narrative: Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (2:6), the family’s flight to Egypt (2:14) Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem (2:18) and the family’s decision to relocate in Nazareth (2:23). These are stories that occur only in Matthew, and they are all said to be fulfillments of prophecy.”
Because the author of Matthew probably based Joseph’s flight to Egypt, as well as Herod’s slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem, off of earlier passages in the Jewish scriptures, it casts strong doubt on whether any of these events ever actually took place. Instead, these stories probably derive from earlier literature, rather than real events, which casts doubt on their overall historical reliability.
Notice how very little of the above has to do with “philosophical assumptions,” but plain old literary-critical and historical-critical methodology by which I evaluate ancient texts, including Pagan and classical ones.
Likewise, there are many miracles in the Gospels that I doubt, due to the very same criteria that I use to doubt mundane claims. I will discuss four examples below:
1) As I explain above, there are several details in the Gospels and Acts that I doubt, because they are derived from the Jewish scriptures. This can include mundane claims, such as the soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ clothing (Mt. 27:35; Mk. 15:24; Lk. 23:34; Jn. 19:23). The reason that I doubt this detail is not because of “philosophical assumptions,” but because this detail can be shown to derive from earlier literature, namely Psalm 22:18.
The same logic applies to the feeding miracles in Mark 6:35-44 and Mark 8:1-10. Each feeding miracle is set alternately on Jewish and Gentile soil, and is accompanied by two sea miracles (Mk. 4:35-41; 6:45-52), and two crossings of the lake (Mk. 6:45; 8:1). A major reason why I doubt these stories, beyond their miraculous character, is because they are probably derived from a Midrash of the feeding miracles of Moses in the Old Testament. I doubt mundane claims, such as Joseph’s flight into Egypt, for the same reason of mimicking Moses. So there are other reasons besides “philosophical assumptions” to doubt many of the miracles in the Gospels and Acts.
2) Take also the claim that there was a three hour darkness at Jesus’ crucifixion (Mt. 27:45; Mk. 15:33; Lk. 23:44). Not only can this event be doubted because no other non-Christian source seems to have any knowledge of it (see Richard Carrier’s “Thallus and the Darkness at Christ’s Death”), but the scene of the darkness is likewise probably derived from references to earlier Jewish literature, such as Joel 2:1-2, Amos 5:18-20, and Zephaniah 1:14-15.
3) Likewise, redaction-critical considerations can cast doubt on the depiction of miracles in the Gospels. As I explain in my essay “Knocking Out the Pillars of the “Minimal Facts” Apologetic,” the story of Jesus’ resurrection becomes more and more embellished the later you go in the New Testament sources. Here is a diachronic analysis of Jesus’ resurrection reported between the NT sources and the apocryphal Gospel of Peter:
- Paul (c. 50’s CE), the earliest source, has no empty tomb and just “appearances” of Jesus.
- Mark (c. 70’s CE), half a century after Jesus’ death, then has an empty tomb.
- Matthew (c. 80’s CE), after Mark, then has Jesus appear to his disciples in Galilee.
- Luke (c. 90’s CE), even later, instead has Jesus appear to his disciple in Jerusalem (a different story than Matthew’s), and likewise this Jesus can teleport and is not at first recognizable to his followers.
- Finally, John (c. 90-100’s CE) has Thomas be able to touch Jesus’ wounds.
- If you go even later into the Gospel of Peter (2nd century CE), Jesus emerges as a giant from the tomb with giant angels accompanying him (verses 39-40).
Because the story of Jesus’ resurrection keeps being redacted and added to by subsequent authors, beyond considerations of its miraculous nature, I have literary-critical and historical-critical considerations to be skeptical towards at least some of the later accounts. As NT scholar L. L. Michael White explained in Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite above, these same types of redactional-critical considerations are taken into account for mundane details in the Gospels, as well. So it is not like the miracles alone are being treated by a separate methodology.
4) There are also strong arguments that some of Jesus’ miracles are copied from Pagan miracles in circulation around the time that the Gospels were composed. For example, in Mark 8:22-25, Jesus’ cures a blind man through spitting his eyes. The Gospel of Mark was also composed c. 70 CE, around the time when the Roman emperor Vespasian was likewise making a bid for imperial power during the Roman civil war of 69 CE. At least three independent historians — Tacitus (Hist. 4.81), Suetonius (Vesp. 7.2), and Cassius Dio (65.8) — record this miracle in which Vespasian, through the aid of the god Serapis, is said to have cured a blind man by spitting in his eyes before a whole crowd of people. As I have discussed in my academic paper “The Propaganda of Accession of the Roman Emperor Galba,” many of the claims made about the signs and miracles of the competing Roman emperors during this war were in wide circulation across the Mediterranean.
NT scholar Eric Eve in “Spit in Your Eye: The Blind Man of Bethsaida and the Blind Man of Alexandria” has argued that the miracle of curing the blind man with spit in Mark 8:22-25 was probably derived from this earlier miracle of Vespasian. Since there is a case to be made that his miracle was copied from an earlier report, we thus have historical-critical reasons for doubting it, beyond mere “philosophical assumptions.”
The point to be made from the examples and analysis above is that secular biblical scholars are not merely cutting out the sections of the Gospels and Acts about miracles, such as the Jefferson Bible, and then treating the rest of the content in a different exegetical manner. Many of the miracles in these texts can be doubted for literary and historica-critical considerations, beyond just their miraculous nature. Now, I am sure that Craig Keener, as a biblical scholar, is aware of these nuances and probably has even discussed many of the examples above in his other writings (he is a voluminous author, and I have written about his massive commentary on Acts in this previous post).
Nevertheless, by framing so much of his discussion in terms of “antisupernaturalism” and “dogma” and “ethnocentrism,” Keener sets up a straw man caricature of why secular biblical scholars and skeptics alike treat the miracles reported in the New Testament with caution. I think that the real reasons why people are skeptical of the New Testament accounts is far more nuanced and complicated than what Keener portrays to his reading audience of primarily evangelical Christians. I will be discussing more examples of this, as I move forward with this review.