Review of Craig Keener, “Miracles,” Continued: Keener’s Complaints about the “Bias” of Biblical Scholars

Keener, MiraclesAs 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:

  1. 99.999…999% of the dead are not supernaturally interfered with by God, and, thus, not raised by Him.
  2. Jesus was dead.
  3. 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.”

Scholars William Telford and Richard Horsley discuss these pericopes further here and here.

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.”

Conclusion: 

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.

-Matthew Ferguson

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16 Responses to Review of Craig Keener, “Miracles,” Continued: Keener’s Complaints about the “Bias” of Biblical Scholars

  1. ratamacue0 says:

    Let’s take the example of Jesus’ resurrection, for example.

    The example…for example – awkward.

    Likewise, there are many miracles that in the Gospels that I doubt,

    Remove the first “that”.

    Feel free to delete this comment.

  2. ratamacue0 says:

    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.

    What’s the antecedent of “these”, and how does that support the legendary development hypothesis?

    • “These” refers to the pre-Markan miracle collections that were based off of the feeding miracles of Moses.

      The reason that it supports the legendary development hypothesis is that it shows how literary fiction, such as Midrash, was even taking place before the Gospel of Mark was written. You can see similar material borrowed from the Septuagint books, such as Psalms, in what scholars identify as the pre-Markan Passion Narrative.

      What this shows is that literary inventions were taking place before the Gospels were even written. So, the legendary development, I argue, long precedes the Gospels and even goes back into the first couple decades of Christianity.

  3. David Tidley says:

    I enjoyed reading your work. Thank you.

  4. Patrick says:

    Matthew Ferguson: “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!).”

    My impression is that whether or not New Testament scholars regard the Gospels and Acts as historically reliable depends to a large extent on whether they believe in the possibility of miracles. Two scholars who did and regarded the Gospels and Acts as historically reliable were Martin Hengel (1926-2009) and Colin J. Hemer (1930-1987). As for their attitude towards the possibility of miracles one can read about it in the following references:

    Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 49), Tübingen 1989, p. 428-443.

    Martin Hengel, Die vier Evangelien und das eine Evangelium von Jesus Christus: Studien zu ihrer Sammlung und Entstehung (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 224), Tübingen 2008, p. 155-158.

    Matthew Ferguson: “First, the interdependence between the Gospels in their source material causes them to lack independent corroboration.”

    This would only be true if the differences between the Gospels are only due to redaction. However, as the following quote from a New Testament scholar suggests, this is most likely not the case:

    „[It] is recognizably not possible to account for all that is in Matthew, Mark and Luke solely on the basis of relationships between them – the nature of the data is such that there must be some other source(s).“

    B. Ward Powers, The Progressive Publication of Matthew: An Explanation of the Writing of the Synoptic Gospels, Nashville, Tennessee 2010, p. 532.

    The same view can also be found in the following references:

    Robert H. Stein, The Synoptic Problem: An Introduction, Grand Rapids 1987, p. 125-127, 138, 165, 167-168.

    Rainer Riesner, Jesus als Lehrer: Eine Untersuchung zum Ursprung der Evangelien-Überlieferung (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2/7), 3rd ed., Tübingen 1988, p. 4-5.

    Mark Goodacre, The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze, London 2001, p. 93-96, 134, 138-139.

    Matthew Ferguson: “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.

    […]

    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.””

    There are good arguments in favour of the view that Mark is not the earliest, but the latest of the Synoptic Gospels, a view that is called “Markan posteriority”. Such arguments can be found in the following books:

    Hans-Herbert Stoldt, History and Criticism of the Marcan Hypothesis, Edinburgh 1980.

    David B. Peabody et al. (eds.), One Gospel from Two: Mark’s Use of Matthew and Luke: A Demonstration by the Research Team of the International Institute for Gospel Studies, Harrisburg 2002.

    B. Ward Powers, The Progressive Publication of Matthew: An Explanation of the Writing of the Synoptic Gospels, Nashville, Tennessee 2010.

    A very strong argument for Markan posteriority can be made on the basis of the order of pericopae in the Synoptic Gospels. With respect to it Mark always is in agreement either with Matthew or with Luke, and the latter two are never in agreement against Mark. If one nevertheless wants to keep the view that Matthew and Luke are dependent on Mark on has to put this fact down either to coincidence or one could argue that the authors of Matthew and Luke deliberately arranged their material so that this outcome would come about. To me both explanations seem rather unlikely to be correct.

    However, it is not only with respect to the order of pericopae that one can see this pattern of agreement and discrepancy between the Synoptic Gospels, but also when looking at a specific pericope. B. Ward Powers in his book mentioned above has shown that this pattern can be seen in the pericope of the Rich Young Man (Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31; Lk 18:18-30).

    There can also be made a good case that Luke preceeded at least one of the other Synoptic Gospels. As for arguments for this view the following references are very informative:

    Matthias Schneckenburger, Beiträge zur Einleitung ins Neue Testament und zur Erklärung seiner schwierigen Stellen, Stuttgart 1832, p. 16-23.

    August Friedrich Gfrörer, Die heilige Sage (Geschichte des Urchristenthums 2), Stuttgart 1838, p. 78-81.

    Martin Hengel, Die vier Evangelien und das eine Evangelium von Jesus Christus: Studien zu ihrer Sammlung und Entstehung (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 224), Tübingen 2008, p. 274-350.

    Robert K. MacEwen, Matthean Posteriority: An Exploration of Matthew’s Use of Mark and Luke as a Solution to the Synoptic Problem (Library of New Testament Studies 501), London et al. 2015.

    Schneckenburger and Gfrörer hold the view that Luke was written before Mark and Matthew, Hengel and MacEwen that Luke was written only before Matthew.

    Now from Luke 1:1-4 one can draw the conclusion that this Gospel is based on eyewitness testimony and that its author examined the matter carefully. He may have gathered at least some of the pieces of information during his stay in Jerusalem (see Acts 21:18, 27:1). Looking at Acts 21:18 one can see that the author of Luke and Acts even met James, the brother of Jesus, and he may have gathered from this man pieces of information concerning Jesus’ familiy life.

    • Patrick,

      “My impression is that whether or not New Testament scholars regard the Gospels and Acts as historically reliable depends to a large extent on whether they believe in the possibility of miracles.”

      You make this assertion at the beginning of your comment, and yet none of the books that you have cited support it. Which New Testament scholars, who are alive today (Keener quotes old scholars like Bultmann), say that the historical reliability of the New Testament depends on the existence of miracles? I study a lot of modern, secular NT scholars, and the only author who can think of who even makes an argument similar to this is philosopher Stephen Law (who isn’t even a NT scholar) in what he calls the contamination principle.

      The secular NT scholars that I have studied who discuss the issue of miracles, such as Bart Ehrman, and even Christian NT scholars, such as Dale Allison and James McGrath, argue that miracles are issues that extend beyond ordinary historical epistemology, because they involve underlying metaphysical assumptions that are not agreed upon by all historians. Such secular scholars, therefore, tend to bracket miracles as questions that cannot be answered the same as mundane historical questions. But these same scholars also make arguments both for and against the New Testament’s historical reliability that depend on a ton of different issues, such as some of the ones that I have discussed, like Midrash, redaction criticism, etc. These historical problems would remain an issue regardless of the question of whether miracles actually exist.

      Regarding Martin Hengel, I actually plan on critiquing a lot of his arguments for the reliability of the New Testament in my Ph.D. dissertation (particularly his arguments regarding the Gospels’ authorship). I have also already critiqued a number of Hegel’s arguments in this essay.

      As for B. Ward Powers, I am familiar with his work and even ILL’d the book you cite last quarter when I was doing work towards my dissertation. The view he takes is a minority view in NT scholarship, though I also don’t want to get bogged down in a discussion of the Gospels’ interrelations that extends beyond the scope of this essay.

      For the purpose of this essay, the order of the Gospels’ composition, and which authors made use of previous authors or shared source material, extends beyond the basic point that is being made, which is this: beyond the order in which the Gospels were composed, they still reflect a huge amount of shared source material, and they interact with, redact, and use that material in different ways. This is very different from how authors like Tacitus and Suetonius, for example, write, because their method of composition reflects far more of an individual style, rather than redaction of previous accounts, or shared source material. This still creates a problem with reliability, because, as L. Michael White has pointed out, the different Gospels are telling stories in different ways, regardless of the order in which they are written, which creates redactional-critical issues that are not common among most Greco-Roman biographers and historians.

      “Now from Luke 1:1-4 one can draw the conclusion that this Gospel is based on eyewitness testimony and that its author examined the matter carefully. He may have gathered at least some of the pieces of information during his stay in Jerusalem (see Acts 21:18, 27:1). Looking at Acts 21:18 one can see that the author of Luke and Acts even met James, the brother of Jesus, and he may have gathered from this man pieces of information concerning Jesus’ familiy life.”

      There are more problems going on with this statement of yours. First off, many NT scholars have pointed out that the first four verses of Luke are atypical of the rest of the narrative. As scholar Marion Soards (Oxford Annotated Bible, pg. 1827) notes:

      “The initial four verses of the book are a single Greek sentence that forms a highly stylized introductory statement typical of ancient historical writings … After this distinctive preface, however, the narrative shifts into a style of Greek reminiscent of the Septuagint.”

      Because these verses are stylistically different from the rest of the narrative, you might call this a pseudo-historiographical introduction, since the rest of the narrative isn’t written in this way. Furthermore, Luke 1:2 states that the accounts that the author was using were based on materials that were only παρέδοσαν (“handed down”) by eyewitnesses. The author doesn’t identify any by name, so there is a considerable amount of ambiguity going on here. Also, even if the author suggests that he is “carefully examining” his materials, that is a common rhetorical trope in ancient literature. Tacitus (Ann. 1.1), for example, claims that he wrote without his history without partiality or resentment, though few modern scholars would accept that characterization of his work, given his blatant bias against several of the Roman emperors.

      Likewise, you claim that the author of Luke knew Paul and Jesus’ brother James, but this is based on a reading of the controversial “we” passages that you have assumed. Not all scholars agree that the use of the first person plural in Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16 refers to the experiences of the author. As William Campbell in The “We” Passages in the Acts of the Apostles (pg. 13) argues:

      “Questions of whether the events described in the “we” sections of Acts are historical and whether Luke or his source/s witnessed them are unanswerable on the basis of the evidence currently available, as even the staunchest defenders of historicity and eyewitnessing acknowledge. More important, the fact that Acts provides no information and, indeed, by writing anonymously and constructing an anonymous observer, actually withholds information about a putative historical eyewitness, suggests that the first person plural in Acts has to do with narrative, not historical, eyewitnessing.”

      Finally, what passage in Acts are you claiming suggests that the author gathered information about Jesus’ family tree from James? In the case of Matthew’s genealogy, a pretty solid case can be established that he fabricated it based on the Septuagint:

      https://isthatinthebible.wordpress.com/2014/07/19/whats-the-deal-with-matthews-genealogy/

  5. Travis R says:

    Excellent discussion. Does Keener actually insinuate racism? That’s a big claim; so, you might want to cite more thoroughly to back that up.

    Regardless, I know what he’s referring to and I think he is correctly identifying a reason that is often given for distrust of ancient miracle claims – it’s the “gullible people” objection. Rather than reject his criticism as an irrelevant strawman, I think it would be more appropriate to argue that he has missed the point of that objection. For any miracle claim M, we can start with a dichotomous probability distribution, where P(M) + P(~M) = 1.0. On the P(~M) side, we can then split that up into a plethora of different causes, the majority of which come down to some sort of human error (misperception, misinterpretation, miscommunication, misrecollection, wishful thinking, etc…) or even outright deception. Not only that, but if the miracle claim comes to us through a chain of transmission, the potential for those errors increases exponentially. So, given that human error is a primary contributor to P(~M) and given that P(M) = 1.0 – P(~M), it actually makes sense to say that P(M) is lower if environmental factors favor an increase in P(~M). It isn’t ethnocentrism to acknowledge that a scientifically ignorant culture or person is more likely to give an errant report than somebody who has a strong understanding of the regularity of nature and the causal framework that science has uncovered. This actually in complete harmony with requiring “rigorous medical documentation”, as you suggest would be needed to validate resurrection claims. You trust those who are trained in scientific judgement. We’re dealing with two sides of the same coin.

    I suspect that he engages this topic as he does is because he recognizes that his modern-day miracle evidence is highly biased to third-world reports. As such, there is a vested interest in upholding the legitimacy of the claimants and their cultural context. Playing the “ethnocentrism” card is a seductively effective way to do that, but when it comes down to it, this concern is not something to ignore but is a genuine factor to consider in the overall assessment.

    • Hi Travis,

      There are a number of passages in the book in which Keener suggests that ethnocentrism is behind the rejection of miracle claims in other cultures. For example, on page 222, he states:

      “The danger of reading biblical narratives solely through the grid of modern Western assumptions is not merely a theoretical one. Traditional Western academic approaches to other cultures have often proved ethnocentric, including through derogatory Western assumptions about “religion.” If research is guilty of ethnocentric assumptions when addressing cultures contemporary to us, we run an even greater risk of compounding that ethnocentrism with anachronism as we study ancient cultures.”

      To be fair, Keener on page 166 appears to add a qualification:

      “A second observation is that Hume’s explicit exclusion of beliefs of “ignorant and barbarous nations” reflects ethnocentric bias that the vast majority of scholars would reject as unacceptable today.”

      I think that Keener is acknowledging that most people/scholars aren’t racist today, but he is arguing that their rejection of miracles stems from racist origins. Note, however, that he is referring to the 18th century arguments of David Hume, and I doubt that most skeptics today would express their rejection of miracles in the same way.

      I also brought up the issue of ethnocentrism, because both Don Johnson (here) and Nick Peters (here) tried to accuse me of it, when I was debating with them, both of whom were inspired by Keener’s book.

  6. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival – December 2015 |

  7. Bryan says:

    This series might be the most devastating review published. It’d be cool to see you take on Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses sometime.

    • Hi Bryan,

      While I appreciate your positive comment, my goal in reviewing Keener is not necessarily to be “devastating.” I have been asked to take a look at Keener’s evidence by multiple people, so I am critically evaluating his volumes. Whether the review proves to be devastating depends on how fairly I do the evaluation, and how well the evidence stands up to that evaluation.

      Regarding Bauckham, yes, I would like to write an extensive review of his arguments about eyewitness testimony in the Gospels. Right now, my planned dissertation topic is on the authorship of the Gospels, so I plan to critique him down the road, either in the writing of my dissertation, or alongside my dissertation.

      Until then, however, here is a very good critical review of Bauckham written by a Religious Studies student:

      http://godlesshaven.com/jesus-and-the-eyewitnesses/

  8. R.N. Carmona says:

    Your work is thorough and engaging. David Marshall, like other apologists or what I dub wannabe apologists, throws a bunch of sources at people without showing any real grasp or understanding of the source(s) in question. Marshall touted this book as ironclad proof of miracles in my exchange with him over on Loftus’ blog. Unlike you, I do not have the patience to sift through 1248 pages of nonsense attempting to prove an unquestioned predilection. I’m glad you call Keener out on his hypocrisy, which is a hypocrisy pervasive in most apologists. Moreover, it’s not simply hypocrisy; it’s projection. They’re the ones with predilections and a lack of skepticism toward their own claims, so to give audiences the impression that their opponents are intellectually dishonest or merely assuming their conclusions, apologists project their tendencies onto their opponents. In other words, William Lane Craig, Lee Strobel, David Marshall, and the like assume that Christianity is true without doing any legwork to prove that. They then project that onto skeptics and atheists, and say that we’re the ones assuming that Christianity is false. Truth is, they don’t want to deal with our reasoning–reasoning you make all too clear here. I like how you treat the mundane claims in the Gospels; I also like that you mention paranormal phenomena having nothing to do with Christianity, e.g., UFOs and abductions. I would also add cryptozoology and psychic phenomena. My reasons for rejecting Nessi and Sylvia Brown’s psychic capacities having nothing to do with dogma or philosophical assumptions. The dogma and philosophical assumptions are on their side of the fence.

    One quibble, I don’t get why people take a priori and assumption, and then put them together into the notion of “a priori assumptions.” Kant showed that a priori judgments are necessary and universal and every example he and later philosophers used have nothing to do with *assuming* that, for example, vixens are female foxes. I think the proper term is *predilection*. A priori does not mean something “assumed in the prior” or whatever people are getting at when they say a priori assumption. Keener clearly lacks philosophical acumen, so we should correct his foul terminology wherever possible. It’s not the first time I’ve heard “a priori assumption.” The phrase makes me uncomfortable. As someone who studies philosophy, I still don’t know what people mean by that. Yet every time I hear it, it comes from a Christian wanting to make some (oh the hypocrisy!) *assumption* about me or atheists in general.

    • “One quibble, I don’t get why people take a priori and assumption, and then put them together into the notion of “a priori assumptions.””

      Yeah, I think there are two issues that are often conflated here. There is the Bayesian concept of prior probability, in which past data affects how we assess the initial probability of certain events occurring. That isn’t an “assumption,” however, but is explicitly based on past observation. An a priori assumption is an assumed truth without further proof or the need to prove it. E.g. 1+1=2. I’m not sure, outside of the realm of analytical knowledge, like mathematics, that naturalists make a priori assumptions too often. Skepticism against miracles, in contrast, is based on prior probability.

  9. Patrick says:

    Matthew Ferguson: “You make this assertion at the beginning of your comment, and yet none of the books that you have cited support it. Which New Testament scholars, who are alive today (Keener quotes old scholars like Bultmann), say that the historical reliability of the New Testament depends on the existence of miracles?”

    Even if New Testament scholars don’t make such a statement explicitely, they may nevertheless proceed according to it. I find it very difficult to imagine that a scholar rejects the possibility of miracles, but nevertheless arrives at the conclusion that the Gospels are historically reliable, since the miraculous parts take such a large place in them.

    Matthew Ferguson: “I study a lot of modern, secular NT scholars, and the only author who can think of who even makes an argument similar to this is philosopher Stephen Law (who isn’t even a NT scholar) in what he calls the contamination principle.”

    As for the “contamination principle”, I think it is a good point. Either someone is trustworthy or he isn’t. But I don’t think that someone can be trustworthy with respect to mundane matters and not trustworthy with respect to claims concerning the miraculous. Being an atheist and therefore rejecting the possibility of miracles Stephen Law rejects the view that the miraculous parts in the Gospels are historically reliable and, applying the „contamination principle“ to the Gospels, arrives at the conclusion that the mundane parts in the New Testament Gospels must be rejected as well. But, following the “contamination principle”, if one accepts the mundane parts of the New Testament Gospels, one consequently must accept the miracle accounts as well.

    Matthew Ferguson: “The view he takes is a minority view in NT scholarship, though I also don’t want to get bogged down in a discussion of the Gospels’ interrelations that extends beyond the scope of this essay.“

    Your argument depends to a large extent on Markan priority, as you write: “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.“ Well, accounts of Jesus’ burial in Matthew and Luke can only be embellishments of the respective account in Mark, if Matthew and Luke were written after Mark. So, you have to engage in arguments questioning Markan priority.

    • Dear Patrick,

      As I said in another comment, I need to focus on graduate work right now, so I don’t have time to answer all of the points in your comments.

      A few points about this comment:

      1) I will be discussing the issue of Markan priority in more depth, not only in the work I am doing on my PhD dissertation, but also in my upcoming debate with Craig Evans.

      2) Even without Markan priority, there are still a number of issues that can be raised with redaction criticism. I will be interacting at some point in the future with George Kennedy’s arguments that the Gospels’ interrelations are caused by shared notes (hypomnemata) that they used in their composition. Even if Luke and Matthew weren’t directly redacting Mark, therefore, they could have been redacting common source materials shared with Mark in different ways, which would still pose historical-critical issues, regardless of Markan priority.

      But I don’t have time to write on this at length, at the moment, so I’ll be returning to this topic in while (possibly not until this Summer, but I’ll see if I can get my work done sooner). Until then, I’ve approved your comment, so that people can read your thoughts.

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