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Let me share with you an article that I enjoyed. And when I say “enjoyed,” I mean, “was baffled by.”

The article is “The Bible and Miracles: Fact or Fantasy?” and it proposes rules for separating history from myth and legend. It concludes that the Bible’s miracles are history.

Four simple rules

The author proposes four rules for identifying historical accounts.

1. Unlike myths, biblical miracles are presented in a historical context, that is, in conjunction with actual historical events, many of which can be verified by archaeology.

Yes, myths are often unconnected with human history, but that’s a quibble for this conversation (more on the distinctions between myths and legends here). Let’s consider legends instead, which typically are presented in a historical context. For example, the legend of King Arthur and Merlin the shape-shifting wizard was set in England around 600. The legend of William Tell was set in Switzerland around 1300. The legend of Jesus the miracle worker could be set in Palestine around 30.

Archeology supports biblical miracles no more than it does the supernatural stories in the Iliad. Yes, there was a Jericho and yes, there was a Troy, but archeology gives no support to the supernatural.

2. Miracles are presented in a simple, matter-of-fact style. No fanfare, sometimes not even a comment.

I don’t think that Jesus’s miracles are treated any more matter-of-factly than Merlin’s magic, the gods’ supernatural actions in the Iliad, or Paul Bunyan’s overlarge feats.

Fiction can also be presented in a matter-of-fact style. Witches and wizards can do magic (Harry Potter), and vampires and werewolves fight (Twilight).

3. Miracles occur in a framework of reason and logic. There are no miracles just for the sake of miracles. They are not performed for show; they are not “magic tricks” designed to entertain the reader.

The Bible’s miracles are not entertainment, but they are done as demonstrations. Jesus performed his miracles “so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matthew 9:6).

4. Miracles are performed in the presence of hundreds, sometimes thousands of witnesses; and many of the witnesses are still alive at the time the events are written down.

No, the stories claim that miracles were performed in the presence of many eyewitnesses. There is no independent historical documentation of a single miracle. I discuss the weakness of Paul’s claim of 500 eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus here.

Let’s test drive these rules

To illustrate a false claim, the author gives this example:

Even now, over 200 years after the fact, would anyone believe someone today who wrote that George Washington calmed the Delaware River and walked across it while his soldiers rowed?

We have the author’s own foolproof 4-part method to separate miracle from legend. Let’s try it out on this example.

1. “Washington walked across the Delaware River” is in a historical context. No one doubts that the Continental Army crossed that river the night of December 25, 1776 to attack enemy forces in Trenton.

2. Matter of fact style? Check. It’s easy to imagine the story told in this style.

3. Not performed as a trick or entertainment? Check. Washington had to get across somehow, and he could’ve walked across the water as a morale booster for the troops.

4. Performed in the presence of hundreds of witnesses? Check. History records 2400 soldiers in the group that crossed with Washington.

You might argue that Washington walking on water is nonsense, and those soldiers would rebut the claim. But if that’s the case, show me the letters from these men saying, “There’s a crazy rumor going around that General Washington walked on water. Let me make clear: I was there, I saw Washington, and it didn’t happen like that.” You can’t provide those letters? Then you begin to understand the weakness in the Naysayer Hypothesis, the idea that a claim that lasted until today must not have been defeated by any contemporary naysayers and so must be true (more here).

According to the author’s own checklist, he would be obliged to accept this account of Washington walking on water as an actual miracle. Since this account about Washington would be written in Modern English, it would be more reliable and accessible than gospel stories written in 2000-year-old Greek from an ancient culture (more here).

Parallel the gospel story with a modern analogy

The author bristles at the concern that the gospel story is unreliable history because it was initially passed on as oral history and written long after the events. He proposes a parallel. Compare Jesus known only through gospels written decades after his death with Mahatma Gandhi known only through the film Gandhi (1982), which was produced decades after his death.

To understand the early readers of the gospels, consider ourselves learning about Gandhi only through the film. But the author wants us to imagine a very different Gandhi. This Gandhi does the things that Jesus did: he proclaims himself divine, heals the sick, and multiplies loaves and fishes. Would you believe it?

Now go further. Would you believe that this Gandhi died and resurrected? That He died for your sins? Would you drop everything to accept this Gandhi’s call to follow Him?

Of course not. That’s a helpful parallel, and this Christian author has nicely demonstrated that the gospel claim is ridiculous. If you wouldn’t believe an account of Gandhi doing miracles, produced decades after his death, why believe the same thing for Jesus?

[SFX: record scratch]

Nope, that’s not the conclusion of this author. He tries to salvage his situation, not by running from, but actually embracing his ridiculous situation:

No one could have fabricated a story as that told in the gospels with the expectation that people would believe it. Yet believe it they did. Why? Because it happened, that’s why! And the apostles that preached the gospel must have demonstrated its truth by performing the same miracles. It’s the only answer that makes sense. No one in their right mind would have concocted those stories,* because no one in their right mind would believe them without reason.

* I argue that the gospel story is legend, not that it was deliberately invented.

Wow—you can’t make this stuff up! This author admits that the gospel story is crazy but tries to salvage his position by spinning this as a good thing. It’s so crazy it has to be true. It’s like early church father Tertullian who is quoted as writing, “I believe because it is absurd.”

Yeah, seek out the absurdity. That’s a good way to find truth. Or maybe not.

This reminds me of Sathya Sai Baba, an Indian spiritual leader who died in 2011 with millions of followers. He is claimed to have performed almost all of Jesus’ miracles, including raising from the dead. That the absurd stories are true is the only answer that makes sense, right?

The Son of God died:
it is wholly believable because it is absurd;
he was buried and rose again,
which is certain because it is impossible.
— Tertullian, early church father

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 6/25/14.)

Image via See-ming Lee, CC license


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CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...