Thursday, April 27, 2017

Problems with Ferguson's Presuppositions against Miracles

In my last post, I described several problems I perceive at least with the "short" version of the Minimal Facts approach to proving the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  (Which appeals to scholarly consensus to support those points.  But John Fraser, who has studied with Gary Habermas for several year, argues that Habermas, at least, does not really relying on authority so strongly as I was assuming.)  But the original question posed was actually in regard to Matthew Ferguson's critique of that approach.  So I posted that first thought experiment (it may not rise to the category of "essay"), in view of the danger of allying on this point with Ferguson, who of course is an opponent of Christian thought (and, in the past, of mine). 

So now let me critique part of Ferguson's argument.  

Ferguson's essay is dozens of pages long.  As he correctly guesses, though, my interest is primarily in his introductory remarks.  Ferguson begins with more philosophical arguments, which if correct, would undermine any historical arguments for the Resurrection, and indeed for the gospels and for the notion that God acts in the world.  So let us focus on those few paragraphs.  If anyone else chooses to respond to his overall critique of MF, and does so well, I'll be happy to link to that article. -- DM

For the sake of time, I will limit myself to Ferguson's actual remarks in this introduction, not following links or tackling the entire essay as a whole.   If any of these points are strongly supported later in the essay, I'll try to consider such arguments later.  What I want to do here is put the miracles of Jesus, and the Resurrection, in to a context that relates more happily to the disciplines of history and philosophy.  

Knocking Out the Pillars of the “Minimal Facts” Apologetic

"When investigating virtually every other past event outside of the origins of Christianity, professional historians recognize that ancient texts — both Pagan and Christian — are generally incapable of proving paranormal claims about the past.  This is due to no special bias against the supernatural, as I explain in my essay “History and the Paranormal,” but would apply equally to natural paranormal claims, such as alien abductions, sasquatch sightings, and so on.  The operating principle has to do with ad hoc assumptions and “existing knowledge.”  As historiographer C. Behan 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 that exceed ordinary background knowledge."

Christians like William Lane Craig maintain that the Resurrection need involve only one "ad hoc" assumption: that God exists.  If miracles happen sometimes -- and Craig Keener has offered mountains of evidence that seems cumulatively to overwhelmingly support that contention -- then the Resurrection need involve no ad hoc assumptions after all.  I have argued here that the Resurrection of Jesus is surprisingly probable a priori.  In that essay, I assume two extra hypotheses: that God exists, and that He may wish to affirm justice and help the human race.  Like Craig, I think both those hypotheses are well-supported by other bodies of data.  

Ferguson seems to be assuming that the probability of God acting in the world must be so low that evidence derived from ancient texts (being itself inherently limited) can never make up that deficit.  But such an assumption is unwarranted, certainly not by the claim "historians agree."  I'm an historian, and I don't agree.  Neither have many other Christian, and even one or two Jewish, historians.  And if we all did agree, how would mere consensus prove a universal negative -- that evidence from ancient history can never be strong enough to surmount whatever barriers philosophy and probability may place before a miracle?  

It can be argued that human testimony may, under rare circumstances, provide evidence for a claim that exceeds the universe's absolute probability bound, as William Dembski figures it: 10^150 to one.  (And certainly much greater than, say, the probability that the universe is a series of experiences in our minds or on a computer, a possibility that would render all calculations moot.)  

If God exists, and miracles occur, it would be arbitrary and intellectually prejudicial for historians to exclude the miraculous from the realm of "ordinary background knowledge."  Millions of human beings claim to have experienced miracles (properly defined).  I do not see why we historians have any right to dismiss all such historical claims a priori as proper objects of demonstration 

Probability is a function of the prior likelihood of a given claim, combined with the posterior strength of evidence for that claim.  

Better to concentrate on the actual a posteriori evidence, along with rational a priori factors which may dispose us to accept or reject that evidence, than simply declare the job hopeless, like a 4 minute mile, or the cleaning of stables, or fetching of golden wool from violent lambs.

Furthermore, if the gospels contain the dozens of markers of historical integrity that I claim, then they may provide evidence of a nature and force which exceeds what mere "ancient historical texts" can usually provide.  So we will have gotten both variables wrong, and the sum of them even more mistaken.  

"One way of identifying this 'background knowledge' is through the distinction of the paranormal.  A 'paranormal' event is defined by the Parapsychological Association (Glossary) as:
“Any phenomenon that in one or more respects exceeds the limits of what is deemed physically possible according to current scientific assumptions.'”
One might challenge whether biblical miracles meet this definition of the paranormal.

Science speaks of closed systems and physical causes and effects.   It makes no assumptions about whether God outside this universe can raise the dead.  Science doesn't even make any assumptions about whether future high-tech races will be able to bring life back to the dead, so far as I know.  Since God by definition lies outside of the material realm and is not limited by it, science can make no statement on whether it is "physically possible" for the Creator of matter to return life to a body which it has forsaken.

A miracle, in the New Testament, is most often spoken of as a "sign."  In other words, it is a marker or evidence pointing to God's handiwork in Nature.  If science could proscribe the work of God, then he would not be God, he would be a creature inside the Cosmos.  So this definition is only relevant if we begin by knowing that God is not God -- if we begin by begging the question in favor of atheism, in other words.

I know Ferguson means to avoid such circular reasoning, but without it, I don't think one can reach this conclusion in advance.

In addition, should we really conflate "current scientific assumptions" with "what we can know about the universe?"  We are told every day that it is the glory of science to advance and leave old assumptions behind.  Scientific claims should be falsifiable or amenable to alteration, given new data.  So the word "current" here seems especially peculiar.

"Events like extraterrestrial UFOs abducting humans, or a man resurrecting to life after crucifixion and multiple days of brain death, certainly fit this description."

Image result for aliens simpsons
Meet your public, secretive aliens!
Odd that skeptics should conflate two such obviously different kinds of explanations.  (I explained the problems with Richard Carrier's similar UFO analogy in an earlier post.)  Naturally evolved beings from other planets who travel quadrillions of miles to abduct a few random, carpet-level human beings (not the president, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, or even a famous basketball player), traveling for millennia through radiation and asteroids just to get their visits recorded in the National Inquirer (which either is smarter than these high-tech geniuses, or is for some odd reason their chosen media outlet), is a purely materialistic explanation that faces numerous barriers to credibility.  (Hugh Ross describes some of those problems here.)

God may exist or He may not.  He may wish to give humanity hope by raising the greatest man who ever lived from the dead, or He may have other plans.  But if He does exist, and brought the universe into being, he presumably is not bothered by the vastness of space, or cosmic rays, or asteroids, all of which He created.  There seems therefore to be little parallel between these two "paranormal" claims, except that most atheists doubt both.  (One can't even say that they are as rare as, say, claims that an heiress has been murdered!)  "This seems weird (para-normal) to me" is a psychological statement, and should not be taken as a proscription on ontological realization.  

"To assume that such events could have occurred in the past, one has to make ad hoc assumptions about kinds of phenomena that have not been scientifically confirmed.   For example, in order to claim that a particular alien abduction had historically occurred in the past (especially if the only evidence available is literature, with no testable physical evidence), one must first make general ad hoc assumptions that aliens even exist, visit the earth, and occasionally abduct humans.  These are assumptions that historians are unable to verify or investigate (absent the aid of modern scientific evidence), which cannot be assumed as sound premises in historical analysis. The same applies to the resurrection of Jesus.  In order to justify the particular claim that Jesus resurrected, one often has to assume a slew of untestable metaphysical assumptions about miracles, divine wills, and other unproven phenomena [1], which cannot be regarded as bona fide historical background knowledge (explained by Bayesian expert Robert Cavin here, slides 325-351)."

But miracles are not merely "metaphysical assumptions," they are experiential realities.  I have met probably hundreds of people who claim to have experienced them: I may have even experienced a minor miracle or two myself.  I have never met anyone who claims to have been abducted by aliens.  And there are strong positive reasons to doubt aliens would visit Earth in such a fashion, which do not apply to divine action.  

If Jesus was raised from the dead, then one can deduce divine will in the event.  While there is an element of metaphysics here, the Resurrection is a conclusion, not an "assumption."

Here disproving aliens and disproving God do share something in common, though.  In both cases, the being subject to proof or disproof is, by hypothesis, vastly more intelligent than we human beings.  Therefore He or they can remain hidden if they like.  Proof may still be possible, but not disproof.  And relations, friendship even, a meeting of minds, is the most likely form the relationship will take, not "scientist and object of science."  We would, by hypothesis, the object of any experiment going on.

"It should also be noted that I am unaware of any professional Classicist, who has published a book in an academic press or a peer-reviewed journal, that has made the argument that ancient literature can be used to prove miracle claims (even when there are several Pagan miracle claims attested in antiquity)."

These seem to me artificial constraints.  Certainly NT Wright and C.S. Lewis were deeply familiar with classical literature, and made such arguments in erudite and (in Wright's case) detailed forms.  (Though perhaps the word "prove," which I generally avoid for historical arguments, is too strong.)

And are we assuming that if there is no strong evidence that the Romans ever did any miracles, there can't be any such evidence for Jesus?  I have read numerous ancient pagan accounts of the supernatural, and describe them in several of my books.  But I find none that shares the qualities I find in the gospels which I argue make for strong historical credibility.  

I wouldn't dare argue for the historicity of any "miracle" in Apollonius, or Honi, or Vespasian, or Herodotus.  But I do dare argue for the historicity of the Resurrection, because the evidence seems vastly better, and the prior probability is vastly higher.

No Christian is claiming that the Resurrection was an every-day matter.  On the contrary, if miracles are exceptions by definition, the resurrection of Jesus was the greatest exception of all, one however which proves many great rules.  C. S. Lewis alludes to this in his book on Miracles, and I talk about it in the last chapter of Jesus is No Myth a bit.

"This observation should be applied to the standards of New Testament Studies. Classics and New Testament Studies deal with the same historical period, working with the same languages, and using the same historical methodology.  If Classicists are not in the business of seeking to prove miracles using ancient texts, then this provides a good outside model for the limitations of New Testament Studies.  Attempting to “prove” (or demonstrate the high probability of) the resurrection of Jesus, therefore, using nothing but ancient literature, is unlike any professional pursuit that I am aware of in the study of ancient history."

I have explained why this analogy does not work.  No historian has found any credible parallel to Jesus in the ancient world, as I have demonstrated.  By hypothesis, if Jesus is the Son of God, or even "merely" the Jewish Messiah, one would expect him to work miracles without parallel -- as the crowds around him already recognized.  "No one has ever opened the eyes of a man born blind."  "Get away from me, Lord!  For I am a sinful man!"

Despite his intent, Ferguson is thus begging the question with an added appeal to social consensus.   Serious historians have, in fact, argued for the historicity of the Resurrection.  That they make no similar case for other ancient figures, is precisely what Christians have been pointing out for thousands of years.  Why is the uniqueness of Jesus' experience supposed to be a surprise to us, now?

Meanwhile, scholars like Crossan and Borg argue against Christianity on the basis of (poor) alleged parallels to the miracles of Jesus from the likes of Apollonius and Honi.  (Which, true, these skeptics do not believe themselves.)  So it seems that if one finds parallels (however tortured) to the miracles of Jesus, we can take that as an argument against them.  And if we find no parallels, we can take that also as an argument against them!  All the bases are covered, and the Christian faith is doomed by definition!

"Normally historians, at the very least, bracket paranormal claims about the past, particularly those of a supernatural character, as philosophical questions that extend beyond the scope of the historical method."

In the strict sense, all historical questions presuppose philosophical beliefs that in themselves "extend beyond the scope of the historical method."  All historical reasoning involves bracketing, as does all scientific reasoning.  For instance, if you say "I released an apple and it fell to the ground," you presuppose the truthfulness of your sense impressions, the accuracy of your memory or notes, the ability of your readers to understand English, the analogy between your narrative capabilities and their abilities to follow story-telling, and so on, all of which take for granted weighty issues in brain science, philosophy, philology, human evolution or creation, and so on. 

Which only means that no historian or scientist can be merely an historian or scientist.  Disciplines are not air-tight or hermetically-sealed.  We are curious and ignorant humans before we are anything else, straining all our faculties, critical as well as physical, to find truth.

When writing for a general audience and general historical purposes, I, too, would undoubtedly "bracket" the Resurrection of Jesus.  I probably would not see it fitting, in a textbook on ancient history, to say baldy, "The third day, Jesus rose from the dead and showed himself to his disciples by many infallible proofs."  I would say, perhaps, "The earliest records of Jesus' life claim that Jesus rose from the dead the third day, a claim which is intensely debated to the present."

But if I am arguing for the Gospel, it is as appropriate to make the historical case for what I believe as it is for a Marxist, a heliocentrist, a believer in electricity or the dental value of chlorine in the water, to make a robust case for what I believe.  The scholarly procedure is to bracket for one discussion what one argues in detail for in another.\

There is, therefore, nothing at all improper in theory about arguing from history for the resurrection of Jesus, or any other miracle.  Whether the argument itself is sound, is another question.

"If they did not responsibly limit historical epistemology in this way, as I have discussed before, paranormal events such as witchcraft at Salem in the late 17th century would be fair game for being considered 'historical' and we would have far greater evidence to support such miracles than the resurrection of Jesus (for more information about the Salem comparison, see Matt McCormick’s article 'The Salem Witch Trials and the Evidence for the Resurrection' in The End of Christianity)."

McCormick's argument, and analogy, just do not work, I demonstrate here.  (At least, as given in his book.)  He seems to forget that he promised to offer evidence for witchcraft, and never explains, if there is such evidence, why he won't believe it.

In fact, on neither side of the equation -- prior probability, or posterior evidence -- does Salem witchcraft seem to approach the Resurrection in strength.  But perhaps someone else will seize the baton from McCormick and explain what that evidence is, and why she still doesn't believe it.

"We can all see the absurdity of the former example and yet apologists (who often exercise the same skepticism towards supernatural events outside of their religion) consider it an unfair bias to bracket Jesus’ resurrection as a religious, rather than historical, matter."

If by "bracket" you mean "assume cannot be true," why yes.  If you exclude opposing world views a priori, you are indeed being narrow-minded.  But McCormick gives no reason to believe either that witchcraft reported in Salem might be a priori probable, or that there is good evidence it occurred.  Christians have shown both for the resurrection. 

But let us not impose a false dichotomy (based on Steven Gould's NOMA) on the categories "religious" and "historical."  Christianity opens itself to falsification: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain!"  Some skeptics complain that it never does that.  Again, damned if you do, damned if you don't.

We do.  We welcome attempts to falsify our faith, which have been coming in for two thousand years, so far.

And by the way, why do "we all" recognize claims that the devil turned certain New Englanders into animals or made them fly through the air, are ridiculous?  Drill down at that point, and you'll hit pay-dirt.

(cut, one somewhat repetitive paragraph)

"Such apologists, seeking to use the field of ancient history, are eager to slap the label 'historical' onto the resurrection.  This goal is not really derived from academic concerns, but instead is born primarily out of the desire to evangelize.  Once Jesus’ resurrection is considered a 'historical fact,' you just have to accept it and apologists can accuse non-believers of being ill-informed or dishonest for not converting to their religion.   It was to avoid such non-academic agendas that historians bracketed such religious questions in the first place.  I myself was originally content with letting the resurrection be a religious, rather than historical question, but since apologists have fired the first shot in attempting to invade the field of ancient history, targeting lay audiences with a variety of slogans aimed at converting the public, my duty here on Κέλσος is to rebut their arguments."

Ferguson may again be operating from the same, admittedly popular, false dichotomy here, I fear.  Both William Lane Craig and John Crossan have opinions about Easter that they would like others to share.  There is no genuine contradiction between "academic concerns" and "desire to evangelize," which in this context means "desire that others accept my views and act on them."  If scholars have no opinions that they wish to persuade people of, why do they write so many books? 

Yes, we believe there is strong evidence for Christianity.  We are not ashamed of that, and we welcome attempts to seriously engage that evidence. 

"One such slogan is the so-called 'minimal facts' apologetic, spread by apologists such as Gary Habermas and William Lane Craig.  Both apologists use different sets of 'minimal facts' in order to provide a minimal case for proving just one of Jesus’ miracles: the resurrection."

Habermas is also an historian, and Craig a philosopher. 

"The strategy behind the “minimal facts” apologetic is based on the fact that apologists realize that there are many problems with defending the historical reliability of the Gospels and the other books of the New Testament.  Therefore, the “minimal facts” approach is to not argue that every claim found in the New Testament is true, but to base the case for Jesus’ resurrection solely on “facts” allegedly agreed upon by a consensus of scholars. Nevertheless, all of these “facts” are ultimately based solely on claims found in the New Testament and Christian literature, and some of them are not even accepted by all scholars [2]. Furthermore, the interpretation of these facts varies drastically between scholars [3]."

Here Ferguson may have a point.  I prefer to defend the truth of the gospels as a whole.

"Professional apologists (who often work as faculty at faith-based universities with doctrinal statements affirming the truth of Christianity) claim that these “facts” cannot be explained through any other cause besides the resurrection of Jesus. They use such rhetoric to attack non-believes for allegedly being 'hyper-skeptical' or even 'intellectually dishonest' for not converting to their religion. However, a closer analysis will reveal that all of the 'minimal facts' can easily be accounted for in purely natural terms, and have likewise been explained by multiple scholars at secular universities without any appeals to miracles.  As such, non-believers can accept all of the conclusions of mainstream NT scholarship, and yet still be perfectly rational in doubting the resurrection of Jesus."

I expect non-believers can indeed rationally accept what "mainstream' scholars admit about Jesus and still deny the Resurrection, since "mainstream NT scholarship" is effectively defined as "what an unbeliever can accept of the New Testament."  The whole purpose of secular NT scholarship seems to be to make Jesus safe for people who doesn't wish to believe.   

"This apologetic takes a variety of forms, but William Craig’s variation used in his debates about the resurrection of Jesus is perhaps the most popular. Craig claims that there are “four facts” about Jesus’ resurrection (taken from his website here):
  1. After his crucifixion Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb.
  2. On the Sunday after the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.
  3. On different occasions and under various circumstances different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.
  4. The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.
"Craig uses the term “facts,” in order to treat these premises as non-negotiable. The reality, however, is that his first two facts are not even accepted by many mainstream scholars. Scholars like Bart Ehrman and John Dominic Crossan, for example, doubt the historicity of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. For Ehrman’s case against the historicity of Joseph’s tomb, you can consult his blog series “Did the Romans Allow Decent Burials?.” Likewise, Ehrman also doubts the discovery of the empty tomb by women, which he discusses in his article 'The Women and the Empty Tomb.'

This is why I think a broader approach, which begins by showing how eminent scholars like Crossan and Ehrman err in their use of logic and facts, is useful.   In practice, if not necessarily in theory, Minimum Facts appeals to liberal scholars as if they were fair brokers of truth.  But I don't think they are.  I think that is psychologically naive, and ignores what we actually find.  I respect many skeptical scholars in some ways (though my respect for Ehrman has lessened, of late).  But I think the "mainstream" of NT scholarship has strong dogmatic and social reasons for fearing that Christianity is demonstrably true.  Indeed, Ferguson has hinted at those reasons himself.  They will be cut off from their colleagues in the Academy.  Classicists might look down their noses at them.  They will be violating basic rules of scholarship in a Copernican world -- indeed, the Jesus Seminar makes this appeal overtly. 

Indeed, I show that the Jesus Seminar committed at least twelve fundamental errors in their scholarship.  Among those are a philosophical bias against miracles (which we have also seen here), faulty chronology, poor logic, reliance on shaky sources, neglect of contrary arguments, and a preference for far-fetched skeptical theories over orthodox conclusions.  I find similar, or worse, problems in the work of Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels.  Ehrman gets almost every "fact" he adduces dead wrong when writing about Apollonius of Tyana, for instance, twisting raw data like an inquisitor to make it confess, "Jesus is not unique!" 

The name "Ehrman" has thus become, for me, something of a flashing red light warning "Tendentious arguments and gross misrepresentations of the texts ahead!" 

So I feel we must advance from a second-order argument, relying on authority, to first-order analysis of the gospels themselves, appealing to the evidence directly, at least when scholars who differ in biases, come to distinct conclusions.  (We may at least tentatively accept facts upon which scholars on all sides of the philosophical divide tend to agree.)

"Furthermore, even apologists Habermas and Licona (The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, pgs. 69-70) acknowledge that the discovery of an empty tomb is not a 'fact' accepted by all scholars, so that Craig’s first two premises cannot be treated as non-negotiable (to see my case against Habermas and Licona’s minimal facts, which are focused more on 'facts' derived from Paul’s Epistles rather than the Gospels, see my discussion in footnote 4)."

I would be surprised, anymore, to find any facts "acceptable to all scholars."  One could stop at that stoplight for a lifetime, and never get anywhere.  

Thus Jesus is No Myth focuses entirely on the gospels, and attempts to rescue seekers from being held hostage to dogmatically skeptical scholarship.  (Though, to be fair, one of Habermas' students, John Fraser, points out that Habermas' MF argument is not so dependent on scholarly consensus, and appeals more directly to evidence, than I supposed in my earlier post.)  

Scholarly consensus is a useful concept, and citing scholarly opponents is often a powerful way to make an argument, which I often attempt in my books.  But one must also bear in mind that scholars are human, not mere objective thinking machines or "angels from heaven" as Thomas Jefferson put it.  I really do doubt that one could derive an adequately strong Christian conclusion from premises that ALL or even most scholars admit.  Fortunately, the evidence speaks for itself, for those who have ears to hear, as Jesus put it.    
"I will explain why many scholars doubt Craig’s first two facts, and then address how the second two can easily be explained through purely natural explanations."

Ferguson may make useful points in what follows.  I will leave that to others, however, to discover.  


Matthew Wade Ferguson said...


I am working on a peer-reviewed article at the moment, so I will only make a few points right now to respond to this:

First off, the reason why I brought up the distinction of the “paranormal” was to focus on the phenomenon itself, not whatever its cause may be. A phenomenon is paranormal if it exceeds ordinary physical limitations documented by scientific observation.

A body after 3 days of brain death physically returning back to life exceeds all current medical documentation of human death and decay. It would therefore be a “paranormal” event. It doesn’t matter if it was caused by a miracle of God, or if God’s intervention would make the event more probable. The event itself would still be categorically paranormal, and different from a claim like a body being stolen from its place of burial, which does not exceed ordinary physical limitations documented by science.

It’s also wrong to frame this as if I am “presupposing” that such an event is outside the realm of ordinary physical limitations. That billions of human beings die and don’t rise from brain death back to life on the 3rd day has been documented by ample medical evidence. It is an observed conclusion that has been reached a postiori, and not a priori.

It’s also worth noting that Jesus’ resurrection, according to standard Christian theology, involves more than just a body resuscitating to life. Jesus rose into an immortal and imperishable body, not just into his old body, which would eventually die again. As William Craig (Knowing the Truth about the Resurrection, pg. 15) argues:

"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."

That makes the kind of event described in the Gospel even further paranormal, and outside the realm of what has been documented in medical science about human anatomy.

Matthew Wade Ferguson said...

Now, I bring up this distinction, because it shows that when we discuss the resurrection “historically,” we are dealing with a kind of claim that is categorically different from an event like Caesar crossing the Rubicon. It is not a paranormal phenomenon that generals cross rivers during times of war to invade a country. Nor is it paranormal that bodies might be stolen from their graves, or that false stories might be spread about a dead man returning to life.

I bring this up because it is wrong to frame historical apologetics for the resurrection as just doing ordinary history. It’s not ordinary history, even if the methods used might be similar. It’s a very exceptional kind of history that has no parallel in Classical Studies, in that it seeks to prove a kind of (paranormal) phenomenon that no Classicist that I am aware of seeks to prove.

I’m also not talking about “proscribing the work of God.” I’m just talking about science documenting what ordinarily happens physically and what ordinarily does not happen physically. All of this can be answered empirically without making any theological assumptions.

With regard to the UFO example, it doesn’t matter if aliens would face difficulties traveling the vast distance of space naturally, whereas God would have no problem raising Jesus supernaturally. Both events would still be paranormal phenomena, wholly apart from their cause, and its affect on their probability. Plus, one could even argue that the aliens were given supernatural aid by God to reach earth, and make the same kind of argument that a skeptic is “presupposing” that God can’t give aliens access to earth in order to abduct humans.

While the article mentions “scientific assumptions” (not my wording in including the quotation), I am not talking about assumptions in terms of what God can or cannot do, or what a super advanced race might be able to technologically do or not. I am talking about assumptions reached according to current scientific documentation. It is documented that no human being has ever risen from the dead on the 3rd day after brain death, and so you might call it an assumption (a postiori) that this is a physical limitation on human anatomy.

What I would like apologists to do, if they want to treat the resurrection as an ordinary historical claim, is find an example of a Classicist or ancient historian who argues that we can use ancient texts to prove a paranormal event (it doesn’t have to be supernatural). I have never seen one do so, and that makes resurrection apologetics look quite different in terms of the content of historical claim that they are focusing on.

Craig Keener has not shown scientifically that miracles occur in the world. The claims that he has compiled have not been vetted by a peer-reviewed scientific, medical, or parapsychological publisher. Keener also hasn’t even provided an anecdote for the kind of remarkable resurrection (not just resuscitation) described in the case of Jesus.

Matthew Wade Ferguson said...

When I referred to “bracketing” claims of such content, I did not mean “assume they cannot be true.” What I meant is that we acknowledge that they involve kinds of phenomena that are categorically different from ordinary claims (in that the one has never been documented by current scientific observation, while the other has), and that we therefore acknowledge that there is an added component of philosophy or theology (or at least parapsychology) when dealing with these special kinds of questions. I would categorize resurrection apologetics under “philosophy of religion.” I would not categorize it under “history,” even if it makes use of some of its methods.

I also do think there is a significant difference from ordinary “academic concerns” and the “desire to evangelize” when the latter seems to spend far more time targeting a general audience, and likewise has influenced university doctrinal statements. You don’t see historians of Julius Caesar eagerly trying to reach the public, repeatedly challenging others to public debates, and trying to get people to change their worldview. You also don’t see faith-based universities with doctrinal statements that pertain to historical claims about Julius Caesar. There seems to be a dogmatic and evangelistic component to resurrection apologetics that is usually absent from most of academic history.

The closest parallel that I can think of is a historian trying to reach out the public in combating Holocaust denial or 9/11 conspiracy theories, but even then, those issues haven’t resulted in faith-based universities with doctrinal statements about such things, and they only pertain to particular claims about the past, not attempts to get people to change their worldview. The added theological component, I would argue, makes resurrection apologetics and evangelism once more different from ordinary historical research. I’m willing to engage its arguments, but I won’t operate under the pretense that we are doing just ordinary history. We would at the very least be doing an usual kind of history.

Matthew Wade Ferguson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew Wade Ferguson said...

Also, I would add that when I talk about “existing knowledge,” bear in mind that I am operating from the minimal facts framework. It is not a “minimal fact” accepted by a consensus of scholars that God exists or miraculously intervenes in the world. To assume so, therefore, would be ad hoc, in that it exceeds the minimal premises that the apologetic is based on.

It should also be pointed out that, while existing scientific knowledge is usually not brought up as part of the “minimal facts,” I think all scholars would agree that it is within the realm of documented physical phenomena that bodies can be stolen from their graves and that people can spread false rumors about a resurrection. It is not a general ad hoc assumption, therefore, to argue that these things could have possibly occurred in the case of Jesus.

I realize that you prefer to operate from more than a minimal facts approach, but I bring this up to contextualize what I meant by “existing knowledge” and ad hoc assumptions, within the framework of the argument.

(I deleted these same remarks in the previous comment, due to a typo.)

Matthew Wade Ferguson said...

Typo in the third comment, last sentence: "We would at the very least be doing an *unusual* kind of history."

David B Marshall said...

Matthew: Thanks for commenting. I'm at the airport waiting to board a flight to Shanghai, so it'll be a couple weeks or more before I can read your comments more carefully and respond. (Their firewall keeps Blogger mostly out.)

Matthew Wade Ferguson said...

As a note, I would revise the definition from the Parapsychological Association (Glossary):

“Any phenomenon that in one or more respects exceeds the limits of what is deemed physically possible according to current scientific assumptions.”

To state:

“Any phenomenon that in one or more respects has not been documented by current scientific observation."

I think the words "possible" and "assumption" are problematic, since I am not trying to say what would be possible or impossible here. I'm trying to highlight what kind of physical phenomena we have actually documented through modern scientific observation and testing.

Note also that I have deliberately avoided the words "natural" and "supernatural." What matters to me is the fact that Jesus' resurrection (in orthodox theology) was a physical event. Science studies the physical world, and could tell us if a body physically returning to life after 3 days of brain death has ever been documented in modern medicine. If it has not been documented, I would describe that kind of phenomenon as "paranormal."

Matthew Wade Ferguson said...

It also doesn't matter to me if Jesus' body, all things being equal, would have remained dead, had God not intervened. Even if bodies don't normally resurrect on the 3rd day after death, forensic science and medicine could still hypothetically tell us if, in an exceptional circumstance, a particular body had done so. Regularity and what naturally takes place (without the supernatural) is not my concern here. What is my concern is whether there has *ever* been an event of the sort described with Jesus that has been documented by modern science and medicine. If not, I would describe such an event as "paranormal."