Historians and Miracle Claims

in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus
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Most biblical scholars and historians hold that the investigation of a miracle report lies outside of the rights of historians acting within their professional capacity. In this essay, I challenge this position and argue to the contrary. A definition of history should not a priori exclude the possibility of investigating miracle claims, since doing so may restrict historians to an inaccurate assessment of the past. Professional historians outside of the community of biblical scholars acknowledge the frequent absence of a consensus; this largely results from conflicting horizons among historians. If this is the present state among professionals engaged in the study of non-religious history, it will be even more so with historians of Jesus. Finally, even if some historians cannot bring themselves to grant divine causation, they, in principle, can render a verdict on the event itself without rendering a verdict on its cause.

Historians and Miracle Claims

in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus




Brian Fay‘Nothing but History?’ History and Theory 37.2 (1998) pp. 83–93 (83). See also Mark T. Gilderhus History and Historians: A Historiographical Introduction (6th edn; Upper Saddle River nj: Prentice Hall 2007) p. 124.


David D. Roberts‘Postmodernism and History: Missing the Missed Connections’History and Theory 44.5 (2005) p. 252.


Aviezer TuckerOur Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography (New York: Cambridge University Press2004) p. 1.


Michael OakeshottExperience and its Modes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press1933) p. 107 cited by Rex Martin ‘How the Past Stands with Us’ History and Theory 44.2 (2005) p. 140; Luke Timothy Johnson The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco 1996) pp. 81–82.


Webb‘Rules’ p. 4; cf. Webb ‘The Historical Enterprise’ p. 17.


Webb‘Rules’ p. 78.


Webb‘Rules’ pp. 78–79.


Webb‘Rules’ p. 79.


Webb‘Rules’ pp. 83–84; cf. Webb ‘The Historical Enterprise’ p. 48.


Gerd LüdemannThe Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry (Amherst, NY: Prometheus2004) p. 114. For a similar remark see Donald Wayne Viney ‘Grave Doubts about the Resurrection’ Encounter 50.2 (1989) pp. 125–40 (135–36).


James D. TaborThe Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus His Royal Family and the Birth of Christianity (New York: Simon and Schuster2006) p. 234.


Geza VermesThe Resurrection: History and Myth (New York: Doubleday2008).


VermesThe Resurrection p. 141.


VermesThe Resurrection p. 101.


Michael J. BeheDarwin’s Black Box (New York: Free Press1996) p. 192.


Raymond E. BrownThe Death of the Messiah (2 vols.; New York: Doubleday1994) I p. 1468; Gary R. Habermas ‘The Resurrection of Jesus and Recent Agnosticism’ in Norman L. Geisler and Chad V. Meister (eds.) Reasons for Faith: Making a Case for the Christian Faith (Wheaton il: Crossway Books 2007) pp. 281–94 (290–91); Ben F. Meyer The Aims of Jesus (London: scm Press 1979) p. 102 although like Webb he goes on to allow methodological naturalism as long as it renders no statements pertaining to ontology; Alan G. Padgett ‘Advice for Religious Historians: On the Myth of a Purely Historical Jesus’ in Stephen Davis Daniel Kendall and Gerald O’Collins (eds.) The Resurrection (New York: Oxford University Press 1998) pp. 287–307 (294–95).


Webb‘The Historical Enterprise’ p. 19.


Webb‘Rules’ p. 79 n. 38.


John PolkinghorneQuarks Chaos and Christianity: Questions to Science and Religion (rev. edn; New York: Crossroad2005) pp. 116–17.


Webb‘Rules’ p. 80. See also Webb ‘The Historical Enterprise’ pp. 46–47.


Webb‘Rules’ p. 81.


Webb‘Rules’ p. 81.


Francis H. Crick and L. E. Orgel‘Directed Panspermia’Icarus 19 (1973) pp. 341–46.


Donald L. Denton Jr.Historiography and Hermeneutics in Jesus Studies: An Examination of the Work of John Dominic Crossan and Ben F. Meyer (London: T&T Clark International2004) p. 99. Scot McKnight Jesus and His Death (Waco tx: Baylor 2005): ‘everyone has an agenda a motivation and a purpose whenever studying the historical Jesus… What is needed is not so much frank admission and then a jolly carrying on as usual as if admission is justification but instead the willingness to let our presuppositions (Subject) be challenged by the evidence (Object)’ (33); Brad S. Gregory ‘The Other Confessional History: On Secular Bias in the Study of Religion’ History and TheoryTheme Issue 45.12 (2006) pp. 132–49: ‘The first prerequisite is one of the most difficult: we must be willing to set aside our own beliefs—about the nature of reality about human priorities about morality—in order to try to understand them’ (147 emphasis original); Thomas L. Haskell ‘Objectivity is not Neutrality: Rhetoric vs. Practice in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream’History and Theory 29.5 (1990) pp. 129–57: The pursuit of history ‘requires of its practitioners that vital minimum of ascetic self-discipline that enables a person to do such things as abandon wishful thinking assimilate bad news discard pleasing interpretations that cannot pass elementary tests of evidence and logic suspend or bracket one’s own perceptions long enough to enter sympathetically into the alien and possibly repugnant perspectives of rival thinkers. All of these mental acts—especially coming to grips with a rival’s perspective—require detachment an undeniably ascetic capacity to achieve some distance from one’s own spontaneous perceptions and convictions to imagine how the world appears in another’s eyes to experimentally adopt perspectives that do not come naturally’ (132 emphasis original). ‘The demand is for detachment and fairness not disengagement from life. Most historians would indeed say that the historian's primary commitment is to the truth and that when the truth and the “cause” however defined come into conflict the truth must prevail’ (139); Paul R. Eddy and Greg A. Boyd The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Grand Rapids mi: Baker Academic 2007): ‘in the name of epistemological humility and the ideal of objectivity…critical scholars [should] be open-minded and humble enough to try to seriously entertain claims that others find plausible regardless of the fact that their own plausibility structures prejudice them against such claims’ (85; cf. 81).


 For references see LiconaThe Resurrection of Jesus pp. 134–36 n. 3.


Rudolph BultmannJesus and the Word (London: Collins/Fontana1958) p. 173.


David J. BartholomewUncertain Belief (New York: Oxford University Press2000) p. 81.


BultmannJesus p. 124; John Dominic Crossan The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: Harper Collins 1991) pp. 311 332; Bart D. Ehrman Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (New York: Oxford University Press 1999) p. 198; Richard J. Evans In Defense of History (New York: W. W. Norton and Company 1999) p. 12; Robert W. Funk and The Jesus Seminar The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do? (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco 1998) p. 527; John P. Meier A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. II: Mentor Message and Miracles (New York: Doubleday 1994) p. 970; E.P. Sanders Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia pa: Fortress 1985) p. 11; E.P. Sanders The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Allen Lane—Penguin 1993) p. 157; Theissen and Merz The Historical Jesus p. 281.


Graham H. TwelftreeJesus: The Miracle Worker (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press1999) pp. 258 345; Graham H. Twelftree ‘The History of Miracles in the History of Jesus’ in Scot McKnight and Grant R. Osborne (eds.) The Face of New Testament Studies: A Survey of Recent Research (Grand Rapids mi: Baker Academic 2004) pp. 191–208 (206).


Theissen and MerzThe Historical Jesus pp. 512–13.


Michael R. Licona‘Did Jesus Predict His Death and Vindication/Resurrection?’ Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 8.1 (2010) pp. 47–66.


PlutarchRomulus 26.4–5.


Julius DesingKing Ludwig II: His Life—His End (Lechbruck: Verlag Kienberger1976) pp. 30–35.


Webb‘Rules’ p. 82. See also Meier Marginal Jew pp. 513–14 and Allison Resurrecting Jesus pp. 350–51.


LapideThe Resurrection of Jesus p. 125.


Webb‘The Historical Enterprise’ p. 39.


David Hackett FischerHistorians’ Fallacies (New York: HarperPerennial1970) p. 62.


Haskell‘Objectivity’ p. 153 cf. pp. 168–69.


Peter NovickThat Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession (New York: Cambridge University Press1988) p. 628. Gilderhus History and Historians writes ‘The body of literature on almost any historical subject takes the form of an ongoing debate… By the very nature of the subject history tends to divide scholars and set them at odds… We no longer possess a past commonly agreed upon. Indeed to the contrary we have a multiplicity of versions competing for attention and emphasizing alternatively elites and nonelites men and women whites and persons of color and no good way of reconciling all the differences. Though the disparities and incoherencies create terrible predicaments for historians who prize orderliness in their stories such conditions also aptly express the confusions of the world and the experiences of different people in it’ (86 113).


David Gary Shaw‘Modernity between Us and Them: The Place of Religion within History’History and Theory Theme Issue 45.12 (2006) pp. 1–9 (1 3–4). See also Jon Butler ‘Theory and God in Gotham’ History and TheoryTheme Issue 45.12 (2006) pp. 47–61 (53); Mark Cladis ‘Modernity in Religion: A Response to Constantin Fasolt’s “History and Religion in the Modern Age”’ History and TheoryTheme Issue 45.12 (2006) pp. 93–103 (esp. 93–94 96).


 See especially Shaw‘Modernity’ p. 4; Butler ‘Theory’ p. 53; Cladis ‘Modernity’ p. 94.


Cladis‘Modernity’ p. 96.


Ben Witherington IIIWhat Have They Done With Jesus? Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History—Why We Can Trust the Bible (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco2006) p. 5.


Brad S. Gregory‘No Room for God? History, Science, Metaphysics, and the Study of Religion’History and Theory 47.12 (2008) pp. 495–519 comments that ‘scholars of religion who want to try to move beyond secular confessional history should reject the status quo. They should dare to be intellectually nonconformist and counter-cultural’ (519). Tor Egil Førland ‘Historiography without God: A Reply to Gregory’ History and Theory 47.12 (2008) pp. 520–32 answers ‘So here is my challenge to Gregory and to those inclined to agree with him. Make full reference to the active—miraculous or less spectacular—influence of God in a work in which you attempt to explain actions or events in the past or contemporary world. Then gauge the reaction of readers in the discipline and the wider scientific community to the integration in your narrative of this significant part of your worldview. My contention is that such a work will meet with a mixture of amusement and bewilderment. I further contend that whatever other merits it might have…it will bring its author no scientifically respectable awards’ (532; cf. 529). Førland is correct. And I am in agreement that historians may not be able to claim that ‘God’ is the certain cause of a particular event. However if what I have been arguing throughout this essay is correct and historians may sometimes render a positive judgment on a miracle claim academic integrity rather than fear and intimidation should rule in the minds of historians who are unconvinced by the present arguments of Førland and others for barring the investigation of miracle claims by historians.

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