Sunday, July 03, 2005

The Uniqueness of the Miracles of Jesus (Part 2)

I'm going to be quoting the comments of Craig Keener, a New Testament scholar, and Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, two scholars who specialize in the evidence for Jesus' resurrection. Then I'll be quoting the philosopher Richard Swinburne. And, last, I'll quote some comments from the former atheist philosopher, now deist, Antony Flew.

“all ancient sources which comment on the issue agree that Jesus and his early followers performed miracles: Q, Mark, special material in Mark and Luke, John, Acts, the Epistles, Revelation, and non-Christian testimony from Jewish and pagan sources. (The non-Christian sources attribute the miraculous works to sorcery, which must represent the earliest anti-Christian explanation for Christian miracles.) This unanimity is striking given the conversely unanimous silence in Christian, Jewish, and even Mandean tradition concerning any miracles by respected prophetic figures like John the Baptist….Sanders regards it as an ‘almost indisputable’ historical fact that ‘Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed.’ Using traditional historical-critical tools, Meier finds many of Jesus’ miracles authentic. Raymond Brown notes that ‘Scholars have come to realize that one cannot dismiss Jesus’ miracles simply on modern rationalist grounds, for the oldest traditions show him as a healer.’ Otto Betz regards it as ‘certain’ that Jesus was a healer, a matter which ‘can be deduced even from the Jewish polemic which called him a sorcerer.’ The miracles are central to the Gospels, and without them, most of the other data in the Gospels are inexplicable. For that matter, there are no contemporary accounts which transform Jewish teachers into miracle workers. Morton Smith thus argues that miracle working is the most authentic part of the Jesus tradition….Some scholars have also pointed to ‘matter-of-fact restraint’ rather than amplification in most miracle stories in the canonical gospels….After carefully comparing the accounts of Jesus’ miracles with those of others, Meier concludes that ‘the early dating of the literary testimony to Jesus’ miracles, that is, the closeness of the dates of the written documents to the alleged miracles of Jesus’ life, is almost unparalleled for the period.’…Comparisons of Jesus’ miracles with those attributed to the rabbis are more difficult because of striking differences in genre….some rabbinic miracle stories are plainly not historical descriptions, but homiletic illustrations….miracle stories are quite ‘frequent in the Gospels and almost totally lacking’ in rabbinic texts….Given our modern distinctions between miracle and medicine, and between miracle and placebo cures of psychosomatic ailments, we may recognize that much of the ancient evidence is not what we would call miracle (i.e., it can be explained without recourse to supernatural intervention). Many ancient people did not recognize the typical modern line between medicine and supernatural healing. In contrast to Epidauros, at a shrine located on the island of Cos archaeologists have found medical instruments rather than votive tablets, suggesting that the shrine’s priests used medical knowledge or worked together with doctors in effecting cures. Some of the practices at Epidauros also correspond to medical procedures of the time. Although a few wealthy people were reported healed by Asclepius at Epidauros, most of the suppliants were poor – people who could not afford physicians on their own. The intense need may have created the proper emotive state for psychosomatic healings….one could explain away most of the miracles. But the modern need to explain away widespread reports of supernatural healings may say more about modern culture’s presuppositions than those of antiquity. This is not to deny that skeptics and skepticism existed in antiquity as well; as noted above, some degree of skepticism accords well with much of the evidence, and questions abounded in antiquity….Jewish texts contain many accounts of pious Jewish rainmakers, although again these accounts are significantly later than those they depict and do not reflect the same careful process of traditioning employed for [Jewish] sayings….Given the few decades that passed between Jesus’ earthly activity and the earliest Gospel accounts, the attribution of nature miracles to Jesus is noteworthy, and less easily explained by the development of legend than those accounts attributed to much earlier figures.” (Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], pp. 257-262, 264)

"In fact, many critical scholars hold that Paul received it [the creed of 1 Corinthians 15] from the disciples Peter and James while visiting them in Jerusalem three years after his conversion [Galatians 1:18-19]. If so, Paul learned it within five years of Jesus' crucifixion and from the disciples themselves. At minimum, we have source material that dates within two decades of the alleged event of Jesus' resurrection and comes from a source that Paul thought was reliable. Dean John Rodgers of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry comments, 'This is the sort of data that historians of antiquity drool over.'...On the one hand, the lack of evidence for supposed resurrections in other religions, the late reports of the alleged events, and the fact that opposing theories can account for them makes any claims of true resurrection implausible. On the other hand, the strong evidence and the fact that opposing theories completely fail to account for all of the evidence places Jesus' resurrection in an entirely different category....resurrection claims in other religions are not well-attested....Never in history has there been such a unique combination of events, along with additional criteria…Historian Edwin Yamauchi, one of the foremost scholars on ancient world cultures and religions, argues that the reports relating to miracles by Jesus and the accounts of his resurrection are unique....miracle accounts in other religious writings are unanimously inferior in historical credibility to the New Testament reports of the appearances of the risen Jesus. They are not usually multiply attested, and the records are normally very late when compared to the time the miracle was supposed to have taken place. The first reports of these miraculous events were written long after the time when the alleged events took place....Not only were accounts of the 'mystery religions' uncommon in first-century Israel, but miracle workers were uncommon in the period. Graham Twelftree writes, 'In the period of two hundred years on each side of the life of the historical Jesus the number of miracle stories attached to any historical figure is astonishingly small' (Graham H. Twelftree, Jesus: The Miracle Worker [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1999], 247). Citing Werner Kahl's research, Twelftree states that 'of approximately 150 miracle stories from antiquity that we know of only one other case in the entire miracle story tradition before Philostratus's Life of Apollonius (written after A.D. 217) of an immanent bearer of numinous or preternatural power (and then in only a singular version of his miracle) - Melampous, according to Diodorus of Sicily (writing c. 60-30 B.C.). Other Jewish and pagan miracle workers of the period he categorizes as petitioners or mediators of numinous power' (ibid.). There is no information from the extant literature of the period to indicate that miracle workers like Jesus were common." (Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2004], pp. 52-53, 92, 141-143, 147, 170, 297)

"No other of the major (or medium-sized) religions is founded on a purported miracle for which there is even a moderate amount of historical evidence….And, I now add, there is no significant evidence of a super-miracle culminating the life of any major figure in world history, with again one possible exception [Jesus]....Thiessen and Merz comment that ‘Nowhere else are so many miracles reported of a single person as they are in the Gospels of Jesus.’ Given that the ‘nowhere else’ concerns serious historical reports, this is surely no exaggeration." (Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate [New York: Oxford University Press, 2003], pp. 62, 64, 86)

"The evidence for the resurrection [of Jesus] is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity, I think, from the evidence offered for the occurrence of most other supposedly miraculous events." (Antony Flew, interview with Gary Habermas)

In conclusion, I want to clarify some of the comments made by Swinburne and Flew, since they could be misunderstood. When Swinburne refers to medium-sized and major religions, he's not saying that there are parallels to Jesus' miracles in smaller religions or lesser known individuals. Swinburne's book addresses, in part, philosophical arguments for Jesus' deity and resurrection. Part of his argument involves the individual in question being well known, which is why Swinburne refers to medium-sized and major religions. Just as there aren't any parallels to Jesus in medium-sized and major religions, there aren't any in smaller groups or other individuals either.

Some people might misunderstand Flew's second sentence in the quote above. The first sentence refers to "any other religion", but the second sentence refers to "most other supposedly miraculous events". However, the second sentence begins with the qualifier "outstandingly different". What Flew seems to be saying is that Jesus' resurrection has better evidence than all other miracle accounts, but the degree to which that evidence is better ("outstandingly" better or just better) differs from case to case.