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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Ehrman vs. Craig on Miracles.


After William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman debated the Resurrection of Jesus in 2006, someone in the audience asked if many reports of miracles make them more likely to be true.  I'm not satisfied with how the question was worded (though otherwise it's a great question), or with either gentleman's reply.  I find Ehrman's reply most problematic of the three, but also the most revealing, partly because of the Humean dogmatism Ehrman reveals, but even more because of his failure, despite his great learning, to notice the obvious about the gospels and their "rivals." 

Question for Dr. Ehrman: What I wanted to ask is does the report of occurrence of miracles over time make the probability higher than the historians think?

The main problem here is that the questioner seems to assume that historians think that miracles must be unlikely.  This may be because Ehrman has framed the debate as being between an historian (himself) and a philosopher (Craig), and argued that history per se can't affirm miracles.  Craig replied by saying, even if historians can't affirm miracles as historians, they can when they come home and take their historian hats off. 

But how probable do historians think miracles are?  That depends, of course, on the historian.  I think they're pretty probable.  Richard Carrier thinks they're unlikely. 

Other problems are hidden within the question.  What is a "miracle?"  The word is notoriously hard to define, leaving lots of room for misunderstanding.  Need a miracle defy the laws of physics?  Or merely be highly improbable?  Is any supernatural act a miracle, or only those that conform to a particular (say, New Testament) pattern?  How does the word relate to the biblical terms "signs and wonders?" 

The issue is commonly confused by conflating, say, a statue of Mary crying drops of blood, with Jesus healing a leper.  And then it is confused again by calling the blossoming of tulips in the spring a "miracle."  Of course this is not the questioner's fault: he is asking a good question, and leaves it to the debaters to define and reply.  But beware of mines in this rice paddy.   

Anyway, here's how Ehrman replied:

Yes, that’s a good question. The question is: does the report of occurrence of miracles over time increase the probability? I’d say the answer is probably “no” because in every single instance you have to evaluate whether it’s a probable event or not. And it never can be a probable event.

Wow!  Notice that Ehrman doesn't even say, "Miracles never turn out, after you have done your historical review, to be credible events," which would be amazing enough.  Instead, "it never can be a probable event."  Despite Ehrman's claim to speak as an historian, clearly he is donning the cap of a philosopher, here.  The philosopher whose cap he dons is that of David Hume.  As Craig pointed out earlier in the debate, Ehrman appears to be assuming a Humean critique of miracles, which has been debunked by philosophers like John Earman and Timothy McGrew (see 3.1.2).  Like Hume, Ehrman seems to be just begging a very big question. 

So that, if one thinks so, that it is a probable event, what I would like Bill to do is to tell us why he doesn’t think that Muhammad did miracles because we certainly have reports of that. Why doesn’t he think Apollonius of Tyana did miracles? He quoted Larry Yarbrough, who, in fact, probably has never read the Life of Apollonius. I know this because I had an argument with Larry Yarbrough about it. He has never read the texts. I don’t know if Bill has read the texts. They’re very interesting; they are Greek texts; they are widely available. They report Apollonius of Tyana did many of things that Jesus did; he could cast out demons, he could heal the sick, he could raise the dead, at the end of his life he ascended to heaven. And Apollonius of Tyana was just one of the hundreds of people about such things were said in the ancient world.

Why, if Apollonius was one of hundreds, do skeptics always mention him, instead of those hundreds of others who did the same things Jesus did?  Carrier brought up Apollonius in our debate, too.  So did Robert Price, when we debated.  Indeed, I had already analyzed Apollonius of Tyana in detail in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, precisely because he had attained (if no other miraculous powers) a seeming omnipresence in the minds of skeptics.

So maybe Life of Apollonius of Tyana really is a miracle text!  Even though there are "hundreds" of people in the ancient world who worked miracles just like those of Jesus, somehow, Apollonius always gets picked!  If, say, there are three hundred, equally valuable to this argument, and Apollonius gets picked at random at least those four times I just mentioned, this would seem to beat odds of hundreds of millions to one!

Look what I grew!
Craig offers what I see as a very partial response below, similar to but more substantive than I gave Price, stressing the raw historical facts.  But the truth of the matter is, while Apollonius may have been a copy of Jesus, he was a poor copy, as I explain in detail here.  Even just focusing on miracles, read the book critically, and Ehrman is wrong: even though it was written hundreds of years after the fact, sponsored by an opponent of Christianity, and with probable motive to discredit the gospels, Apollonius really is not even claimed to have done many of the same kinds of miracles reported of Jesus.  And there are many reasons to distrust Philostratus' reports, which are full of fantastic details about the various species of dragons in India, pepper-farming monkeys, cloaking devices around cities, and such, and are in general at variance with known geographical facts.  

But Ehrman thinks he can get away with this, because he assumes Christians have not read Apollonius of Tyana.  And he has read the book, without noticing the most childishly, crushingly obvious things about the text.       

So if we allow for the possibility of Jesus, how about allowing the possibility for Apollonius? Or Honi the Circle-Drawer or Hanina ben Dosa or the Emperor Vespasian?

These are the other three perennial fall-back personalities for people making this argument.  Crossan also brings the first two up, which is why I also discuss them in Why the Jesus Seminar Can't Find Jesus.  They are fall-back positions because, if anything, they provide even worse parallels than Apollonius.  One would think skeptics would mention the first two instead of Apollonius, if they were not so lame, since these stories were probably not told by people trying to copy or undermine Jesus.  But they are such weak "miracles," this is really just an admission that Ehrman can't find any genuine parallel.  The first two, being Jews, basically just pray, and maybe receive a little timely rain or the like. 

C. S. Lewis was already commenting on skeptical use of Vespasian, before the midway point of the last century. 

What are the odds that, with hundreds of examples to draw from, skeptics would always focus on these four?  It's a miracle! 

So Ehrman's claim appears to be mere bluster.  Despite his deep knowledge of ancient literature, he can find no real parallels to even just the miracles of Jesus.  That is a remarkable, if back-handed, confession.  (Richard Carrier brings up even more far-fetched "parallels," which I analyzed in recent posts, here, here and here.)   

Or you could name the list as long as your arm of people. Now the reason we don’t know about these people is because, of course, the only miracle-working Son of God we know about is Jesus. But in fact in the ancient world there are hundreds of people like this, with hundreds of stories told about them. We discount them because they’re not within our tradition.

No.  We ignore them because the skeptics only bring them up elliptically, like this, and hope no one actually reads the darn things and laughs out loud. 

Let me state the obvious: Ehrman cannot name even one genuine parallel to Jesus, let alone provide a list "as long as your arm." 

That’s why my alternative explanation of Zulu sounded implausible to Bill because in his tradition it’s the God of Jesus, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who must be involved in the world. And, of course, people from other religious traditions say other Gods are involved. So this isn’t just a question about whether God is involved. Which God is involved? And as I pointed out earlier, it’s just a very happy circumstance that it happens to be the God, the God that Bill can historically demonstrate its existence, who happens to be the God that he converted to when he was 16.

While I, as a comparative religion scholar, have not found a single strong parallel to the Jesus of the gospels in all of world literature, even after hunting up claimed parallels up and reading them closely, as a long-term if occasional hobby.  (Skeptics do their best to help with this research project.)   Nor has Ehrman named any.  Nor could Carrier, also a widely-read historian of the period, name any, when I challenged him, at least not any that stand up to analysis.  The closest parallel I have found so far is Confucius in the Analects.  But he does not do miracles.

So this is all just a bluff.  The skeptics really prove just the opposite to what they want to convince us.  Jesus is unique. 

Now here is William Lane Craig's response:

The reason that we don’t believe in many other miracle claims is not because one is not open to them. On the contrary, I am completely open to the idea that God has done miracles apart from Jesus. But with respect, for example, to Muhammad, there isn’t any evidence for such things. There’s no claim in the Qur’an that Muhammad performed miracles. The first biography we have of Muhammad comes from at least 150 years after his death, and I am not sure that even there, there are miracle claims. With Apollonius of Tyana, these are myths and legends that have no historical value whatsoever. They are post-Christian inventions, where Apollonius is a figure that is deliberately constructed to compete with early Christianity. So the reason one doesn’t believe in miracles in those cases is because there isn’t any good evidence for it. But by contrast, most New Testament scholars, as Bart Ehrman knows, do believe that Jesus of Nazareth carried out a ministry of miracle-working and exorcisms. Whether you believe they’re supernatural is an additional step. But there’s no doubt today that Jesus of Nazareth was what he thought was a miracle worker.

I agree with most of Craig's points, here.  They are, as usual, put succinctly and persuasively, as far as they go.  But I don't think they go far enough.

In my opinion, evangelical apologists often understate the power of Christian evidence by concentrating too much on just one of two sides of the historical coin.  There is the evidence itself -- when reports come in, from how many people, the strictly historical evidence.  But there are also other factors that make it more or less reasonable to trust a given body of evidence.

That includes other good reasons to prefer the miracles of Jesus, some probably even stronger than the ones Craig gives. 

For one thing, Mohammed was a hugely different person from Jesus.  There are reasons to believe God would work miracles through Jesus, and that he wouldn't be caught dead (as the saying goes) abetting the lies, murders, rapes, and enslavements of Mohammed.  At the very least, Mohammed is a far less credible vehicle of God's grace than Jesus.  The same is true of Apollonius: aside from the scantiness of the specifically historical evidence for Apollonius' alleged miracles, there are positive reasons to disbelieve even mundane reports in his "biography," and to doubt that the "sage" was even a good man.  For instance, Rene Girard cites his actions in Ephesus, where he egged on a crowd of citizens to stone a beggar to death.  (Claiming the beggar was really a monster in disguise, who was causing an epidemic.) 

Jesus, by contrast, stopped a mob from stoning a woman to death.  So which is more likely to be a channel of God's grace?  That is just one of many examples one could give. 

I also cite passages in Apollonius that read like an out-take from the old Saturday Night Live, with a pompous Steve Martin as Apollonius.  Anyone who can mistake Apollonius for Jesus, is being very silly. 

In addition to which, the character of the miracles Jesus did makes them intrinsically more credible than the supposed miracles reported of many other alleged miracle workers.  Unless you think God is into triviality, silliness, ego, and black magic. 

Besides which yet again, Apollonius was a silly blabbermouth.  "Yakamashii (ๅ–งใ—ใ„)" as they say in Japanese.

But to avoid being yakamashii myself, I'll stop here.  

4 comments:

WHU4ever said...

It's hardly fair to claim that Mohammed is unlikely to be a vehicle of God's grace because of murders and enslavement but Moses is a likely candidate. I'm sure I don't need to point you to the relevant scriptures.So do you believe biblical infallibility? Or more specifically that the Bible is reliable in regards to Moses and Joshua?

David B Marshall said...

WHU4ever: I didn't make any claims about Moses. Nor do I recall Moses enslaving or raping anyone. Perhaps you're thinking of Joshua? But again, I didn't make any claims about him, either.

WHU4ever said...

I don't know if Moses personally owned slaves but there were provisions for slavery throughout the Pentateuch, plus a whole lot of bloodshed. I've heard convincing arguments from Paul Copan about how this may still be reconcilable with a good God but there are muslim apologetics who do the same with the Quran. As you point out this doesn't affect your argument which is good for establishing "mere Christianity" but if (like most Christians) you also want to move beyond that and have biblical infallibility (or at least inspiration) and not 'just' Jesus then this argument will come back to bite you.

David Marshall said...

The point here is that the character of Jesus makes his miracles more credible, while that of Mohammed would make any such claims(though as Craig points out there were few if any early ones anyway) less credible.

How would that apply to Moses? Historically speaking, I don't think Moses' life is in the same ballpark. One can believe the OT stories about Moses for theological reasons, but there's not much historical reason to believe them. So as an historian, I don't make any claims about whether they happened, or not. And that is the relevant point.

As for my view of the OT, that's another issue for another day. I'm certainly not committed to any doctrine of inerrancy -- a bad idea, strategically, and not really the way my mind works, either. I resist reading Copan's book.