Δευτέρα, 6 Μαρτίου 2017

Richard Carrier ; Review of In Defense of Miracles (3)

Beckwith on Historiography (1999, 2005)

Richard Carrier


[Part 4A of a larger Review of In Defense of Miracles.]

The Project
Beckwith's chapter has one objective: to answer the question "can history be inspected for the occurrence of miracles?" (87) Of course, this question must follow the prior question of whether any miracle can ever be recognized at all (see The Problem with Miracles), since the answer to that will also define key limitations faced by historians. But when Beckwith turns to the more specific question of what historians think and can do, he suffers from a serious lack of acquaintance with actual historians or their methods. Consider, for example, when he says that "a number of scholars...persuasively argue that one can detect through the investigation of history various aspects of the supernatural agency of an alleged miraculous event" (88) he does not cite even a single historian. Instead, his footnote lists seven Christian apologists, five of whom are contributors to this book--and who are definitely not historians. Indeed, isn't it a forgone conclusion that Christian apologists would believe this? And if they are the only ones who believe it, one is left to wonder why. Is it because their "persuasive arguments" are ignored by all historians, or because their arguments aren't persuasive? Considering how fallacy-riddled Corduan's argument is in this book, it does not look good for the apologist.
Taking the Times into Account: Learning from Gibbon
Thus, it is worthwhile to examine what actual historians conclude about this subject. Hume was an historian, but these authors only address his logical arguments. His numerous historical objections (which are evidential, not philosophical) are all but brushed aside. Anyone who has not read them will find his arguments in full at the beginning of this book. Hume was an expert on British history, not ancient, but one of the most famous historians of ancient times was Edward Gibbon, a contemporary of Hume, and he has much to say on the subject of miracles, and it is worth quoting him at great length. Reflecting on the frequent "fraud and sophistry in the defense of revelation" found in antiquity,[1] Gibbon issues a withering rhetorical question:
But how shall we excuse the supine inattention of the Pagan and philosophic world, to those evidences which were presented by the hand of Omnipotence, not to their reason, but to their senses? During the age of Christ, of his apostles, and of their first disciples, the doctrine which they preached was confirmed by innumerable prodigies. The lame walked, the blind saw, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, demons were expelled, and the laws of Nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the church. But the sages of Greece and Rome turned aside from the awful spectacle, and pursuing the ordinary occupations of life and study, appeared unconscious of any alterations in the moral or physical government of the world.
Under the reign of Tiberius, the whole earth, or at least a celebrated province of the Roman empire, was involved in a preternatural darkness of three hours. Even this miraculous event, which ought to have excited the wonder, the curiosity, and the devotion of mankind, passed without notice in an age of science and history. It happened during the lifetime of Seneca and the elder Pliny, who must have experienced the immediate effects, or received the earliest intelligence, of the prodigy. Each of these philosophers, in a laborious work, has recorded all the great phenomena of Nature, earthquakes, meteors, comets, and eclipses, which his indefatigable curiosity could collect.[2] Both the one and the other have omitted to mention the greatest phenomenon to which the mortal eye has been witness since the creation of the globe. A distinct chapter of Pliny is designed for eclipses of an extraordinary nature and unusual duration;[3] but he contents himself with describing the singular defect of light which followed the murder of Caesar. (Gibbon, vol. 1, ch. 15, p. 512)
Then, in a later chapter, Gibbon revisits the issue:
The satisfactory experience, that the relics of saints were more valuable than gold or precious stones, stimulated the clergy to multiply the treasures of the church. Without much regard for truth or probability, they invented names for skeletons, and actions for names....they added myriads of imaginary heroes, who had never existed, except in the fancy of crafty or credulous legendaries...a superstitious practice, which tended to increase the temptations of fraud, and credulity, insensibly extinguished the light of history, and of reason, in the Christian world.
But the progress of superstition would have been much less rapid and victorious, if the faith of the people had not been assisted by the seasonable aid of visions and miracles, to ascertain the authenticity and virtue of the most suspicious relics. In the reign of the younger Theodosius, Lucian, a presbyter of Jerusalem...[dug up the remains of the martyr Stephen]...and when the...remains of Stephen [were] shewn to the light, the earth trembled, and an odour, such as that of paradise, was smelt, which instantly cured the various diseases of seventythree of the assistants. The...relics of the first martyr were transported, in solemn procession, to a church constructed in their honour on Mount Sion; and the minute particles of those relics, a drop of blood, or the scrapings of a bone, were acknowledged, in almost every province of the Roman world, to possess a divine and miraculous virtue.
The grave and learned Augustin, whose understanding scarcely admits the excuse of credulity, has attested [in The City of God] the innumerable prodigies which were performed in Africa, by the relics of St. Stephen...[indeed, he] enumerates...seventy miracles, of which three were resurrections from the dead, in the space of two years, and within the limits of his own diocese. If we enlarge our view to all the dioceses, and all the saints, of the Christian world, it will not be easy to calculate the fables, and the errors, which issued from this inexhaustible source. But we may surely be allowed to observe, that a miracle, in that age of superstition and credulity, lost its name and its merit, since it could scarcely be considered as a deviation from the ordinary, and established, laws of nature. (Gibbon, vol. 2, ch. 28, pp. 92-93)
It should be clear that Gibbon is not issuing a philosophical argument, but stating a simple case demonstrated by historical evidence: we observe so much fraud and credulity in those days, it would be irrational to believe anything that smelled of the same character. Moreover, there were so many miracles all over the Roman Empire in those times that they became as common as natural events. What, then, can explain their sudden disappearance in the past few centuries? Observing the first fact, Gibbon, like all sound historians, sees in it an ideal explanation of the second fact: fraud and credulity were far more common, or far more successful, then than they are now. Isn't that a very reasonable conclusion? For more evidence supporting this very point, you can read Hume's many examples, as well as another essay of mine on this subject, "Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire" (1997).
The Standard Historical Problems: the Rain Miracle
What about current historians? Consider the astonishing "rain miracle" which rescued the army of Marcus Aurelius in 172 A.D., complete with the enemy army being zapped to death by lightning balls hurtling from a clear sky, while the "good guys" were at the same time rescued from a desperate thirst when clouds gathered and sent down a torrential rain, despite a long period of summer drought. Everyone claimed responsibility, from advocates of the god Jupiter, to proponents of Neoplatonic magic-working, to, of course, Christians. It even appears on the column of Marcus Aurelius, where some rain god is seen sweeping across the battlefield, toppling the enemy while filling the Roman soldiers' shields with life-giving water (a clear depiction of lightning striking the enemy appears in a different but related scene, which has been badly damaged by weathering).
The Rain Miracle on the Column of Marcus Aurelius (Rome)
Giovanni Becati, Colonna Di Marco Aurelio (1957)
Garth Fowden skillfully reviews how these stories changed over time, and how the Christian version won not because it was true, but simply because its proponents won the ensuing propaganda war, a lesson that is instructive in itself.[4] The successful use of propaganda by Christians, especially in the exploitation of miracle stories, is also demonstrated by Thomas Matthews in his excellent book The Clash of the Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art (1993), and analyzed by Rodney Stark in his recent book The Rise of Christianity (1997). Stories were told, and images carved, in order to sell the faith. Truth is an easy casualty in this process.
But there are other lessons here. About eight years later, the Christian apologist Apollinarius began to recount the Christian version as if its truth were a certainty,[5] even though there are demonstrable factual errors in his account, including one hallmark of rumor-built legend: the claim that the Roman legion called "Fulminata" ("Thundering") was so-named because of this very event, to honor the all-Christian unit for having gained the aid of their god. Of course, the very notion that an entire legion, whose men had to worship Jupiter Optimus Maximus, could be composed entirely of Christians under an intolerant Emperor,[6] and at so early a date, is absurd. But one other thing is certain: the legion named "Fulminata" had already been so-named since the time of Augustus over a century before. This proves that lies could spread, and be believed, very quickly--even in the very same generation. This should not surprise us. There were no newspapers, and what few records of any kind that existed were off limits to the masses, who had neither the social savvy nor the requisite literacy to access them, even if they had the desire to. And we see that lies can win out: Eusebius, writing in the early 300's, believes Apollinarius' story is true, and includes it in his definitive world chronicle [7].
Tertullian, writing only 25 years after the actual event, also thought the Christians were credited,[8] even though it is dubious that there even could have been Christians in the army at that time, whereas Marcus Aurelius himself dedicated a statue in honor of the event to Jupiter Lightning-maker,[9] and issued coinage celebrating "the emperor's religion," with the aid of Egyptian magic (see below), hardly a tip of the hat to Christians. On the other hand, pagans had their own wild stories, believed with equal gusto. Cassius Dio, writing about half a century later (about the same time that passed between the death of Christ and the writing of the first gospels), tells us that an Egyptian sorcerer named Harnouphis had summoned Hermes (the equivalent of Thoth) and, using this divine aid, saved the day.[10] This story has material evidence in its support: an inscription attests to such a man traveling with the army at the time, and coins after the battle honor the "Religion of the Emperor" in connection with Hermes (Mercury) standing in an Egyptian temple.
Fowden's conclusion is instructive:
The historian who approaches the rain miracle must suppress any concern he may feel for what actually happened on that unknown battlefield, and seek his rewards instead in comparison of the different versions, in the hope of reading between the lines something of the period's ideological tensions.[11]
This is the historical reality. So little is known, and the sources we have are so biased and flawed, that it would be ludicrous to set our belief too firmly on any version of events, much less on whether a genuine miracle occurred that day. Fowden, a real historian, knows full well the ubiquity of propaganda, falsehood, rumor, error, credulity, and agenda which plagued all sources of the time, especially in the sphere of religion.[12] We can learn far more about the politics and mindset of the people who wrote and believed such accounts, than we can about the events themselves, which are shrouded in uncertainty and obscurity and ultimately inaccessible to us. This is why miracle accounts from antiquity cannot be proved miraculous--for we can barely be sure they even happened, and we have no chance at all of ruling out natural explanations. We simply don't have the necessary evidence.
This point is further made by Michael Sage, who also examines the falsehood about the "Thundering Legion" noting that "These types of errors fit easily, however, into a schema of proof common to apologists in the period."[13] He cites as examples Justin's false claim that an inscription proved that Simon Magus was venerated in Rome, or Tertullian's credulous citation of the bogus Acts of Pilate or the forged letters of the emperor Tiberius (in which he supposedly claimed that he supported Christianity and made a speech about it in the Senate). Though Sage does not mention it, one of my favorites is a letter written by Jesus, cited in its entirety by Eusebius, who does not doubt its authenticity (Ecclesiastical History 1.13). Thus, the "error" about the Legio Fulminata "fits comfortably into the preoccupations and methods of his period." In other words, the ancients lied so much, or got it wrong so often, that we can hardly ever trust anything they say without additional reasons, and Christians were demonstrably no exception--indeed, given their obvious desire to always be right, to justify their suffering and sacrifice, to win converts at all costs, and to persuade persecutors of the validity of their faith, Christian sources are even less trustworthy still.
Understanding Cultural Background is Essential
Another contemporary expert on ancient history and religion, Robin Lane Fox, writes the following informative paragraph:
Here, too, we touch on patterns of psychology which our own modern case histories may not do much to illuminate: in antiquity, unlike our own age, "appearances" were part of an accepted culture pattern which was passed down in myth and the experiences of the past, in art, ritual and the bewitching poetry of Homer...In the ancient world, as in our own, the evidence suggests that people were most likely to see something when under pressure or at risk, though there is also a visionary current in their moments of peace with the natural world.[14]
He cites many examples, as well as other experts who write at even greater length on this subject.[15] He adds, referring to all kinds of visions and healings and other miracles, Pagan and Christian, "convinced disbelievers were very few, and it is worth comparing the belief in faeries which flourished in Northern Europe until only recently."[16] In fact, visions were so common that the Epicureans had to devise elaborate theories of hallucination in order to dismiss them, ultimately showing no doubt in their ubiquity (Lucretius The Nature of Things 4.724-48). This analogy is instructive, since "while Marx and Darwin wrote, faeries lived for many more who never read such books," emphasizing the fact that the vast majority of people did not read any of the skeptical books written in antiquity and had no real acquaintance with science or natural explanations of wonderful phenomena.
One grand example is the eclipse, where the masses show no awareness of the correct explanation, but respond instead with horrible fear at the dire omen, even clanging pots to scare away the monsters eating the sky, or to confuse the spells of the wizards and witches who were working their awful magic.[17] Does this sound like the kind of people, or the kind of age, whose records of the incredible can ever be trusted? Unlike today, in ancient times there was almost no critical examination of amazing claims, and even those who deigned to criticize a story almost never had the education, knowledge, or tools to be effective, or were so distant in time or place that they had little chance of getting the goods. The exceptions are so rare that they prove the rule.
This is all the more so because the Christian miracles were no different than any that went before. The carrying of holy relics into battle for their miraculous aid, or making pilgrimages to them in order to be healed, had been done since the days of the Spartans (Herodotus 1.68, 5.75; Pliny, Natural History 7.2.20). Miraculous healings were a regular feature of temples of Serapis in Egypt and of Asclepius in Greek and Roman towns, and attended many other statues and altars (see my essay "Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire" and also [18]) and were the mainstay of sorcerers who were always near at hand, their services for hire--they even specialized in the dispelling of demons (Lucian, Lover of Lies 9-17; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 8.44-9). Turning water into wine was a typical pious trick (Pausanias 6.26.1-2). Resurrection was not unprecedented (Lucian, Lover of Lies 26' Pliny, Natural History 26.8.17, 7.52) and the magical multiplication of food from a single item was also a claim made by magicians (Pliny, Natural History 26.9).
How, then, are we to put any greater faith in Christian reports of exactly the same things? Given this survey, the Christian stories become very suspicious: why did Jesus turn water into wine, multiply loaves, heal ailments with no obvious lesions, dispel demons, and resurrect people from the dead? Why these miracles instead of other, original deeds? The turning of water into wine is especially curious, since there is no moral or scriptural justification for it. The similarity of these claims with those made of pagan sorcerers strongly suggests either that Jesus was using the same tricks as they, or that later followers wanted to attribute to Jesus what was commonly expected of all divine men. This is the best explanation for the uncanny similarity, for surely a real divine man would want to do things that were unique and unprecedented, not repeat what were already widespread magic tricks.
You Must Learn the Lessons of History
Above is the lesson that history teaches us. The skepticism of historians like Hume, Gibbon, Fox, Sage, or Fowden is not based on any a priori positivist rejection of miracles like Beckwith thinks. Rather, it is based on years of experience with the sources, and a thorough understanding of the time and culture in question--which, despite the many human similarities, was undeniably different in important respects from today. Apologists, never examining these issues in any depth, remain oblivious to the compelling case made by the evidence, and assume that they can defend only Christian miracles by arguing in a vacuum, as if only their sources mattered, and as if these sources could be examined on their own, regardless of their cultural, historical, and literary contexts. This focus on the now, and the corresponding neglect of the past, is commonplace in modern apologetics. For instance, Beckwith rightly destroys the notion of absolute historical relativism among modern historians, but fails to see that it is the features of relativism and other questions of method in ancient writers that poses the greatest problem for the Christian apologetic mission. Yet he does not write a single word about ancient historiography.
How Does a Real Historian Work?
Beckwith offers an example at one point of what he thinks is proper historical method. From this example, it would seem that he has little acquaintance with the unreliability of journalism, much less with historical sources. I will use this example to illustrate how a historian actually approaches evidence of the unusual.
Beckwith cites a case in which fifteen people all had different and unique reasons for being late to a church choir rehearsal, and because of this none were killed in an explosion that went off shortly after they were supposed to have arrived. From this he concludes that "opponents of miracles claim that we should reject the reliable testimony and circumstantial evidence that has substantiated the event described in this anecdote, even though it would seem perfectly reasonable to believe" it (92). Here he is betraying his uncritical acceptance of incredible accounts, assuming that a display of his credulity will be sufficient to make his case for how historians should do their job.
To begin with, anecdotal evidence is always regarded as less reliable by all historians, because they are intimately familiar with how anecdotal evidence gets made and transmitted, and inevitably distorted, even when there is a kernel of truth. This is even more so when we know that the story is old, and has passed through several different formulations, and its present incarnation is not coming from a very reliable source. Beckwith's example is a perfect case of all of these factors: he cites Readers Digest, a source which is far from a hallmark of critical acumen or journalistic vigor, and the storyteller in that source was in turn citing an unnamed issue of Life magazine, for he only says it was "once reported" there, never mentioning when or in what context, except to say that the event happened on March 1, 1950, thirty-seven years before the version Beckwith is citing. We cannot know if this author had that issue of Life magazine, or whether he, too, was relying on some other intervening source. Thus, on the face of it, this is not a reliable account, especially considering its sensational nature.
The account would become more reliable if, after more investigation, we could corroborate some of the details. Does the city that is named actually exist? Can we confirm the explosion or anything else in local or other newspaper sources? Can we find the original Life story and confirm that he has gotten it right? If all of these methods were open to us, and proved the reliability of our second-hand account, then it would be reasonable to believe it.[19] But notice that Beckwith never mentions such an investigation. He is ready to believe it right away. How is that a "historical method"? Clearly he has little notion of what historians actually do. He is mistaking a question of whether a story is plausible (as this story certainly is) with the more important question of whether it is to be believed. Mere plausibility does not suffice to convince a historian of a story's truth, unless the story is so typical or mundane that there is no reason at all to doubt it.
Beckwith's second example shows more problems in his thinking: "according to opponents of miracles, if Mark is dealt...a royal flush, none of us would be justified in accepting as true the testimony of several reliable witnesses" (93). First of all, if you are going to discuss "historical method" you must identify what a "reliable witness" is. Without knowing what he means by "reliable" it is impossible to say whether his proposition is true. Maybe historians would have grounds to believe it, maybe not. His example does not give us enough information. This again betrays an ignorance of what historians do. In reality, we need to assess whether the witnesses are biased, what they actually said they saw, whether they can be corroborated and in what details, whether they can be shown to actually have been there, or that they actually know what a royal flush is--in short, we want to look for any details we can find that can test the reliability of the account, either by bolstering or undermining the basic story. This is the same method of verification and falsification employed by scientists. That is what it means to do history.
A second problem with this example is that it is not sufficiently incredible to be compared with a miracle. We know that royal flushes are dealt, and may have seen one dealt ourselves. Moreover, we can calculate that such things must have happened, since so many hands of poker have been dealt in human history. So there is nothing here that can be compared with a miracle, since we do not know whether a "miracle" can happen, much less what the odds of it are. And as I note in my own lengthy essay on the resurrection of Jesus (see Adding Things Up as well as the General Case for Insufficiency), if an event has a natural explanation that is as probable as a royal flush, or even more probable than that, then it would not be improbable enough to justify using "miracle" as an explanation, precisely because royal flushes are relatively common and entirely natural, so even something as unusual as that does not justify appealing to miraculous causes.
Beckwith's third example displays a similar mistake: a woman is faced by five reliable witnesses who claim to have seen her commit a murder, and her lawyer presents hundreds of witnesses who claim that they have never seen her murder anyone before. Beckwith is arguing against the premise that "no evidence is sufficient for...believing...a highly improbable event," which is a silly proposition anyway, since there is always a point at which the improbability of an event will be overtaken by the number of genuine opportunities for the event to occur, as in the case of a royal flush. Thus, no historian holds to this premise. But notice what Beckwith also does here: he assumes that, according to this premise, the hundreds of character witnesses render the murder improbable. But in actual fact, these hundreds of witnesses have no weight whatever as to whether the act itself occurred, since they were not there when it happened. Beckwith tries to use this example as a case where a lot of evidence of something not happening (murder by a particular person) would, adopting the straw man's premise, trump the evidence of fewer eyewitnesses. But this is a false analogy when applied to miracles, because we already know, from many prior cases, that people can murder after living an otherwise innocuous life, and so evidence of "living an otherwise innocuous life" has little bearing on the probability of any person committing murder. But we do not know of any good cases of miracles happening (see my analysis of Purtill and Corduan). Thus, the abundant evidence that miracles are never seen to occur under trustworthy conditions remains as relevant as always, and is to be compared with the fact that we have never seen a winged snake, nor any evidence of such, so we are fully justified in inferring from this that Herodotus's record of such a creature is not to be believed.
The Use of Natural Explanations
Historians appeal to natural explanations because they know that such explanations have always worked before, in every case that could be thoroughly tested. I repeat: they have always worked in every other case that could be thoroughly tested. This is no small point, and it stands as very compelling evidence in favor of natural explanations. And the case is secured when there are other good reasons that support a particular natural explanation. The healing miracles of the New Testament are an excellent case in point. Edward Shorter is an historian of medicine in the modern age, and in his book From Paralysis to Fatigue: A History of Psychosomatic Illness in the Modern Era (1992) he describes a problem faced by any historian of psychosomatic illness:
With the exception of those in the last chapter, the patients described in this book are all dead. Is it certain that their symptoms were not caused by an organic disease? Retrospectively, it is not. There is only the presumption of psychogenesis, based on (a) the history of the illness, such as paralysis after seeing a frog in the road, and (b) the response to what was essentially placebo therapy, such as hydrotherapy or administration of a laxative. These two circumstances give certain symptom patterns a flavor of psychogenesis. (p. 4)
Thus, if there are signs in the accounts of an illness that fit with the psychogenetic explanation, then it is a reasonable conclusion, even if it might be wrong on occasion. Shorter's objective was to illuminate the history of this phenomenon and thus he aimed to eliminate as many doubtful cases as possible. But what if a historian suspected that psychosomatic illness may be responsible for some of those doubtful cases, too? If he had some reason to believe that the illness was not organic--if it looked just like a psychosomatic illness, and responded to placebo treatment--then it would be acceptable to explain the illness as psychosomatic. It would not only be plausible, but it would have ample support in countless similar cases, and thus would be a perfectly reasonable explanation. Moreover, if we hypothesize that "miracle healing" was a placebo treatment--based on the observations that (a) any expectation of a treatment's effectiveness can cause healing (the placebo effect has, after all, been scientifically proven), and that (b) miracle healing was commonplace in antiquity and was by no means restricted to Christian healers--then we are justified in concluding that miraculous healing in antiquity (Christian and Pagan) was not miraculous if all the best cases could have been, by their description, psychosomatic. And David Clark, Beckwith's fellow contributor to this book, in fact concedes essentially this point on page 210.
Consider some analogies. Pliny describes an Italian tribe whose members "walk over a charred pile of logs without being scorched" and for this miraculous feat were exempted from all taxation and military service (Natural History 7.2.19). The modern historian is fully justified in regarding this as unmiraculous, based on the contemporary proof that fire-walking has a natural explanation--anyone can do it, so long as they walk quickly, since the coals or logs do not conduct heat fast enough to burn human skin after only a short period of contact. Since what Pliny describes certainly sounds like fire-walking, and since we know fire-walking can have a natural explanation, there is no need nor rationale for proposing that this was a genuine miracle. Pliny also reports that a certain explorer saw in India "a forest tribe that had no speech but a horrible scream, hairy bodies, sharp grey eyes, and the teeth of a dog" (Natural History 7.2.24). Are we to suppose that some other race of men is meant? Or aren't we justified in recognizing this as a baboon, a creature which lives in "tribes," is known to have inhabited India, has dog-like teeth, screeches, is hairy, dwells in forests, and looks somewhat like a man? Although baboons were known to the ancients (one species was even deified by the Egyptians), Pliny is merely reporting someone else's account. It is natural to expect that his source was not as educated as Pliny (since most men were not), and that Pliny was not clever enough to see the mistake (since he shows similar gullibility in many other places). Thus, it is more than reasonable to take this as an account of baboons, and not proof of a freak race of men. A similar line of reasoning allows us to dismiss the pagan water-into-wine event described by Pausanias as a magic trick (6.26.1-2), since we know from modern magicians that this is a relatively simple one to pull off--and indeed, its simplicity accounts for its repeated appearance in antiquity.
In the case of psychosomatic illness, the apologetic trend of thinking only in the now, and disregarding historical change, is again a major handicap. In his research, Shorter discovered two important facts which perhaps only a historian is apt to notice and appreciate. First, the symptoms of psychosomatic illness change with the culture. As Shorter discovered, what a culture regards as "legitimate evidence of organic disease" will change, and a person's subconscious will strive to present such symptoms, since it wants to be taken seriously and not ridiculed. Consequently, a culture may perceive certain symptoms as indicative of a serious disease, which to us are clearly too bizarre to be a common illness. In other words, it is the popular perception of what is a real disease that determines psychosomatic symptoms.
For instance, Shorter observes that psychosomatic paralysis, once extremely common, has fallen out of favor in this century. Our emphasis on "individual dynamism" leads us to perceive unexplained paralysis and "sudden coma" as "inappropriate" and thus illegitimate signs of disease (p. x). I think even more important to this change is the technological advances we have made, which make it much harder for psychosomatic illnesses to go undetected, and thus to avoid being found out our subconscious minds strive to present symptoms which are expected to be hard to pin down, such as stress disorders, chronic fatigue, pains, and other things which are known to have real causes that are difficult even for our modern technology to identify. The point is that things like psychogenic paralysis were once very common, even though it seems so unusual today, which can lead a myopic thinker to dismiss psychogenetic explanations based on incorrect assumptions about what is 'normal'.
Second, Shorter explains why he studied psychosomatic illness only in the modern era: "traditional doctors did almost nothing by way of clinical examination or investigation, and accordingly were far less capable of differentiating somatogenic from psychogenic illness" than even the doctors of the 17th century (p. 13). In other words, psychosomatic illness was far more likely to be regarded, and thus described, as a genuine illness in antiquity. This is an important fact to consider when examining the sources. For Shorter, it means that he cannot isolate possible cases of psychogenesis for his study. For the rest of us, it means we cannot isolate possible cases of genuine disease from the psychogenetic, which should be of major concern to an apologist.
Now let's consider the "symptoms" of those whom Jesus or Paul healed, when symptoms are described at all: In Galilee "those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed" came to Jesus "and he healed them" (Matthew 4:24). This list is exactly the same list of symptoms Shorter found most likely to be psychosomatic. Indeed, he finds in the 17th through the 20th centuries that cases fell into one of four categories of psychogenesis (which he surveys briefly on pp. 5-9):
  • "Pseudoepilepsy," often with the additional symptoms of "screaming, cursing, and attempting to bite those nearby," which certainly sounds like being demon possessed, and given a culture that actively molded perceptions of what a demon-possessed victim was supposed to act like, a victim of psychosomatic illness would be able to play the part quite well.
  • "Paralysis," which could include partial or total paralysis, coma, "crippled limbs" (i.e. limbs permanently seized and contracted or contorted), or loss of one of the senses, e.g. blindness, deafness, or even anasthesias, a condition in which all sensation of physical pain is lost, which would have results identical to the symptoms of the modern illness called leprosy. Another form of psychosomatic illness is the condition of being mute, which almost never has a real cause and is thus a good sign of psychogenesis.
  • "Pain," which can be present anywhere or everywhere, or even move about, and for which it is notoriously difficult to prove a genuine cause.
  • "Autonomic nervous" disorders, which involve unconscious control of the digestive system (Shorter says that bowel disorders were very common in the 18th and 19th centuries), but can also involve other autonomic systems, from our heartbeat to the immune system. In fact, if affected by depression, as we all know, our immune system can actually cause real disease to flourish, or present symptoms like fever or pimples that have no real disease-based origin. By removing the depression, with the subsequent strengthened immune response, coupled with high expectation and, in turn, better habits of diet and hygiene, one can defeat the real illness or subvert the symptoms. This is relevant to many cases of ancient "leprosy," a term which was not limited to the modern ailment, but included all cases of scaly, scabby, or rough skin--symptoms which are likely to accompany a depressed immune system or a depressed person who is not taking care of himself. A rise in spirits can lead to healing or better care. This is of great interest because of the unusual multitude of lepers that appear in the gospels, indicating that this was seen by that culture as a legitimate illness, making it a certain target for the subconscious to mimic.
All those healed by Jesus show classic psychosomatic symptoms: severe "pain," "pseudoepilepsy" (the "demon-possessed" and some of those having seizures), and "paralysis" (which would also include some of those suffering seizures, since permanently seized limbs would be placed in this category). Not only do the illnesses cured fit psychosomatic conditions, but we have reason to believe that Jesus was a placebo, since faith in his ability was necessary for successful healing, e.g. "he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith" (Mt. 13:58, Mk. 6:5), while Jesus often healed with statements that primed patients for a placebo response: e.g. "daughter, your faith has healed you" (Mk. 5:34), "don't be afraid, just believe" (Mk. 5:36), "everything is possible for him who believes" (Mk. 9:23). It follows that, given what little we know, we are sufficiently justified in regarding these healings as unmiraculous.
Consider the evidence: none of the illnesses cured possessed any clearly organic ailments, e.g. no severed limbs, no bloody wounds, no visible sores, etc. The closest the accounts come is: Jesus heals the severed ear of a man who came to arrest him (Lk. 22:51), but in all the other accounts Jesus does not heal the ear (Mt. 26:51, Mk. 14:47; and the most detailed account, Jn. 18:10), which any historian regards as sufficient grounds to reject a story as an embellishment; "a man with leprosy" who was "cleaned" by Jesus (Mt. 8:2-3, Mk. 1:40, Lk. 5:12; cf. also the ten lepers 17:12ff.), but as I've already noted "leprosy" tells us little about what the actual symptoms were, and the use of the terminology of "cleaning" fits with a psychosomatic skin ailment; "a woman subject to bleeding for twelve years" (Mt. 9:20, Mk. 5:25, Lk. 8:43), although a symptom like this which persists for so long yet does not kill the patient is suspiciously like a psychosomatic condition (the term can also be used to refer to hemorrhoids or a chronic period, both of which can have a psychogenic origin), and we have no record of whether the bleeding was genuine beforehand, or whether it continued again later, or even whether it was an organic ailment that healed naturally, responding to placebo treatment. Similar problems stand for the "man blind from birth" (Jn. 9:1) since we have no way of knowing whether that is a true description of his symptom--indeed, it seems we have the account from the blind man and his family (9:20), and since he was making a living as a beggar (9:8), they might all be inclined to exaggerate or invent his condition. Moreover, the Jews who investigate (9:13ff.) never even touch upon issues of evidence or diagnosis, but are just as superstitious as the believers (9:34), so we know there was no useful critical examination of the claim.
Even despite these cases, all the other "illnesses" healed fall solidly within the camp of psychogenesis: a "paralyzed" servant "in terrible pain" (Mt. 8:6; note how these symptoms are thought to entail that he was "about to die," Lk. 7:2), a "fever" (Mt. 8:14, Mk. 1:30, Lk. 4:39; for another case, cf. Jn. 4:52), "demon-possessed men" (Mt. 8:28, Mk. 1:23-26, 1:32, 5:2-10, Lk. 4:33, 4:41, 8:27ff., ), "a paralytic" (Mt. 9:2, Mk. 2:3, Lk. 5:18), a girl in a coma ("sleeping" Mt. 9:24, Mk. 5:39, Lk. 8:52), "blind men" (Mt. 9:27, 20:30, Mk. 8:22-5, 10:46ff., Lk. 18:35ff.), a man who was "demon possessed and could not talk" (Mt. 9:32), another whose symptoms are all classically pseudoepileptic (Mk. 9:17-8, Lk. 9:39), a boy who "has seizures and is suffering greatly" (Mt. 17:15), "a man who was deaf and could hardly talk" (Mk. 7:32), a man "whose right hand was shriveled" (which is a perfect description of a psychogenically "seized" limb, Lk. 6:6), and a woman who was "bent over and could not straighten up" (Lk. 13:11). Jesus even goes to a regular "placebo" healing center (a magic "pool") where "the blind, the lame, and the paralyzed" go to be healed, and there he cured an "invalid" (Jn. 5:1ff.).
There were also "dead men" brought to life (Lk. 7:15; and Lazarus, Jn. 11:44), but we are not told how they died or what condition they were in and thus cannot count on the diagnosis of death. It was fairly easy to be mistaken for dead (Shorter describes psychosomatic cases of apparent death, pp. 130-4; and see How Do We Know He was Dead? from my article on the Resurrection of Jesus), and the scene described in Luke 7:15 is actually identical to various stories told about famous doctors to justify their renowned skill (Pliny Natural History 7.124, Apuleius Metamorphoses 2.28, 3.24, 10.12 and Florida 19). In the case of Lazarus, the witnesses anticipate a rotting smell (Jn. 11:39), but there is no evidence that such a smell was confirmed after the tomb was unsealed. Thus, we can reasonably conclude that these accounts have plausible natural explanations. We would only be able to prove it if we had a time machine, but that does not prevent us from adopting what amounts to a ready and reasonable explanation (see also my discussion of the Lazarus Example As Used by Corduan). Certainly, there is insufficient evidence here to justify calling these events "miracles." And this shows how scientific and historical analysis, not philosophical arguments, can lead someone to conclude that natural explanations are better than supernatural ones.
Yet this is merely one line of thought. Many other issues must be explored, such as post hoc reasoning (see my review of Corduan), a common means by which faith healers and psychics today gain renown: people often naturally recover from illness, or symptoms naturally go into remission, and when this corresponds in any way with some special event, like a visit from a faith healer or a psychic, the events are associated as if they were causal. Indeed, by standing out from the norm, such events tend to be recalled more frequently and with greater awe than the more abundant but ordinary events. In addition, memory is unreliable and hunts for patterns, so people can later relate events as being nearer to each other in time than they actually were, or revise their sequence--hence even if the recovery preceded the visit, a person may be so impressed by events that they recall it differently. There is a lot of literature on human memory and fallacies of reason, which is available to be considered and taken to heart, but apologists rarely even approach their project with such scholarly discipline. Then there are issues of hallucination, as well as matters of cultural influences, where the propensity for visions, "demon possession" and pseudoparalysis are just three examples among many. For more on hallucination and memory, see my review of Habermas; for more on post hoc reasoning, see my review of Corduan.
When is the Evidence Enough?
It is true that the reliability of many witnesses could conceivably change this conclusion, but I don't think Beckwith understands the magnitude of what would be required. Consider the case of Cold Fusion, which to this day its "discoverers" swear they actually observed. No other witnesses can reproduce the effect, thus we are all correct to disbelieve it, even though it may be true and may yet be confirmed. And this is not to say that repeatability of a specific event is needed--it would suffice, in the case of miracles, that miracles in general be repeatable, even if no one miracle is ever repeated in specific detail. Consider also the construction of the pyramids: even though for a long time we could not reproduce any method that would work, we knew that such megalithic structures could be, and had been, repeatedly built by men. Thus, it is necessary to distinguish between evidence for the particular (i.e. what actually happened) and evidence for the general (what can happen). Beckwith does not make this distinction and thus misses its importance.
Moreover, Beckwith fails to apply his own standards to the Christian miracles (like the Resurrection), or else he fails to see why he can't do so, since the evidence is far too sparse. Consider the remarks by Gaskin, a Humean scholar whom Beckwith quotes: "there is an uncomfortable sense that by means of [the historical argument against miracles] one may well justify disbelieving reports of things which did in fact happen" (94). Why is this an objection to historical skepticism? Of course there are true things that we will be forced to disbelieve due to a lack of evidence. It may be true that Julius Caesar shaved every day of his adult life, but am I justified in "believing" that he did? There simply comes a point where we cannot know the truth and must disbelieve in something even though we are not certain it is false. Our disbelief is justified by the lack of sufficient reason to believe. Certainly Beckwith applies this principle every day of his life. If he didn't, he would be forced to believe a lot of queer things, not to mention a great multitude of falsehoods. Indeed, he would have more false beliefs than true ones. This is because of all the things that cannot be shown to be true or even likely, most of them will be false (see my essay on Proving a Negative for more on this reasoning). We know this, again, from prior experience with all the cases which we have been able to explore in greater depth--and historians are especially well-accustomed to finding things false upon close examination, so much so that we have every right to be skeptical of all those cases which we cannot examine more closely.
The example that Gaskin offers of what makes him uneasy about this principle is our disbelief in his own "report of seeing water turned into wine" given that his "report had also been vouched by numerous other good and impartial witnesses" (94). But again the actual factors of interest to a historian are missing here: why are any of these witnesses to be regarded as "good" and "reliable"? For example, how can these witnesses know they did not just see a magic trick? If I cannot answer that question, then I cannot know if water was actually turned into wine even if I believe the report of these witnesses. This is how a historian thinks. Why doesn't Beckwith realize that? I suspect it is because he has very little acquaintance with doing history. And that's not even a typical example. In the case of early Christian miracles, we already face grave problems attempting to establish that any of the surviving records come from "witnesses" at all, much less witnesses reliable enough to trust. How does Beckwith intend to overcome that problem?
Hence we end up back where I left us in my examination of Corduan's argument: there is no miracle in all of antiquity for which we have a "good" and "reliable" witness. For the common apologetic comparison with Caesar crossing the Rubicon, see my review of Geivett. Thus, even when we correctly solve Gaskin's concern, we will still have to face the fact that we do not have such evidence in the case of the ancient Christian miracles. Even if they genuinely happened, we have insufficient evidence to justify believing that they did. The same goes for Beckwith's next example of a miracle (a modern-day resurrection) that we would most likely be justified in believing (95), since this example is too good to make his point. Indeed, it is far better than any actual miracle account, and thus it works in showing how miracles "could" be believable, but utterly fails to show us that we ought to believe in any miracles that have actually been reported. In short, when it comes to evidence, Beckwith makes the same mistake as Purtill and Corduan.
Where Lies the Burden of Proof?
Beckwith concludes his chapter with this astonishing claim: the historian who disbelieves all miracle accounts "assumes without proof that miracles are not occurring in the present" (97). In other words, they "must show that there are no present miracles and not merely assume" it. This is unsound reasoning. The burden of proof always lays with the positive. It is not my job to prove that Cold Fusion is not happening today. Rather, it is the claimant's job to prove that it is, and if he cannot produce that proof, that fact in itself is sufficient reason to disbelieve the claim.
This is where this book really fails the reader. For this is an absolutely crucial point. It is so essential for their argument to show that miracles happen now (since that is a major requirement for believing they are possible) that it is shameful to claim such evidence exists and then not present one jot of it. Yet that is just what Beckwith does: he cites in a footnote a book by Geisler which purportedly presents this evidence. But why didn't Beckwith present it here? I must confess I am bewildered--is the evidence too poor for him to present and still maintain his dignity? I expected these authors to address the history of miracle accounts throughout the middle ages and the rise of modernity and into the present day, because this is so crucial to their stated mission. But they avoid this issue as much as possible--stopping only to address miracle accounts in competing religions (on which, see my discussion of Clark's Chapter).
In the end, all that Beckwith has accomplished is to show that it is possible in principle for miracles to be a proper subject of historical study, which is all his chapter was apparently designed to do. He claims that other chapters will present the evidence that is "sufficient to warrant a belief that miracles have occurred" (96). But he has failed to show the correct conditions under which it would be proper. And therefore we find here yet another fatally weak link in the chain of this book's cumulative argument.
Return to this review's Table of Contents to read more detailed critiques of specific chapters in In Defense of Miracles.

[1] This and following quotations from Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wr. btw. 1776 and 1788, Womersley edition, 1994 (vol. 1, ch. 15, p. 511). Regarding the "darkness" that Gibbon refers to, see my article Thallus: An Analysis (1999).
[2] Seneca Natural Questions 1.1.15, 6.1, 7.17; Pliny Natural History 1.2.
[3] Natural History 2.30.
[4] Garth Fowden, "Pagan Versions of the Rain Miracle of AD 172," Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 36 (1987), pp. 83-95. See also [12].
[5] Quoted by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.5.1-4.
[6] Despite the fact that some Christians later believed Aurelius to be a "good" emperor, his reign saw the martyrdom's of Polycarp, Justin, and a multitude of others at Lugdunum (Lyons), and two lengthy apologetic letters begging the Emperor to treat Christians with more respect ("Christianity," Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed., p.327). Other evidence that he was harsh on Christians is presented in T.D. Barnes, "Legislation against the Christians," Journal of Roman Studies 58 (1968) pp. 39-40.
[7] Eusebius, Chronicon 1.206-7, 2.619-21.
[8] Tertullian, Apologeticus 5.6, Ad Scapulam 4.
[9] Michael Sage, "Marcus Aurelius and 'Zeus Kasios' at Carnuntum," Ancient Society 18 (1987) pp. 151-72. I provide a more complete bibliography on this subject in my book Sense and Goodness without God (2005), pp. 230-31.
[10] Cassius Dio 71.8.10 (in the epitome of book 72).
[11] op. cit. p. 86.
[12] cf. Michael Grant's exposition on the nature of historical unreliability even in the most reliable sources, Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation (1995).
[13] Michael Sage, "Eusebius and the Rain Miracle: Some Observations," Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 36 (1987), p. 111.
[14] Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (1987), pp. 117-18.
[15] e.g. E.R. Dodds, Greeks and the Irrational (1951).
[16] op. cit., pp. 119-20.
[17] Richard Carrier, "Cultural History of the Lunar and Solar Eclipse in the Early Roman Empire," PDF of Master's Thesis, Columbia University (1998).
[18] For more see: Wendy Cotter, Miracles in Greco-Roman Antiquity: A Sourcebook (1999); David Frankfurter Religion in Roman Egypt (1998), pp. 46-52; Robert M. Grant, Miracle and Natural Law in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Thought (1952); Harold Remus, Pagan-Christian Conflict over Miracle in the Second Century (1983).
[19] I conducted the required investigation. The story actually comes to us through three layers of sources: the 1987 Reader's Digest version is condensed from an article in Games magazine from November, 1983, which in turn cited a 1982 reprint of Warren Weaver's 1963 textbook on probability called Lady Luck. It is only in that book that the full citation of the original article is given (Life magazine, March 27, 1950, pp. 19-23). The original article, entitled "Why the Choir was Late," was by a freelance photographer, George Edeal, who also provided photos of the church before and after the explosion, and of thirteen of the fifteen people involved.
       The details as quoted by Beckwith are correct (and the city does exist), but we would not have known that had I not checked the sources--so had none of those sources survived, we would remain in the dark about the reliability of the story. But I also discovered that there is one crucial piece of information that got lost in the shuffle: it was unusually cold that day. This was in fact the cause of the explosion (the minister turned on the furnace, a pipe cracked, and the resulting gas leak filled the church, which was then ignited by the furnace), as well as the cause of the absence of 6 of those involved (two cars could not start and one lady's daughter would not get out of bed--all likely because of the cold). Of the remaining 9, three were late for a single reason (a stained dress), and the other three couples each had their own reason (one couple was listening to a radio program that they did not want to miss, etc.). In fact, there were only five separate causes of the mass lateness, not fifteen (nor ten, as Weaver states). Weaver estimated that a reason to be late occurred once in every four meetings, making this a 1 in 1000 event. For comparison, the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are 1 in 500,000, and yet about 500 people are struck each year in the U.S. alone.
       The local newspaper (The Beatrice Daily Sun) never answered my requests for further details from their archives, so I was unable to check Edeal's account for accuracy. But on my behalf, Nebraska local Les Lane generously looked up the original press coverage of the explosion in the Sun and forwarded to me copies of the original article: "Big Blast Wrecks Church," Beatrice Daily Sun, Thursday Evening, 2 March 1950 (front page). This provides more details that lessen the miracle even further, exposing elements of legendary embellishment in later versions: the explosion occured five minutes before anyone was due to arrive (thus, being late was not in fact what saved everyone, but simply not showing up early); it reports the Reverend said only twelve people, not fifteen, were due to arrive that evening; the only one who was expected early, besides the Reverend and his wife, was the pianist, who fell asleep but woke and started toward the church just when it exploded--and since she lived only a block away, she still would have arrived early; and the ultimate precipitating cause of the explosion (turning on the heater) took place at 5pm, hours before the blast. Finally, March 1st was a Wednesday, and choir practice was set for 7:30pm. I imagine evening on a Nebraksa workday was not exactly ripe for attendance.
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Geivett's Exercise in Hyperbole (1999, 2005)

Richard Carrier


[Part 4B of a larger Review of In Defense of Miracles.]

Going Too Far
Douglas Geivett's basic conclusion that it is possible to use miracles as evidence for the existence of God is formally correct (as is his reversed version of the argument, which I address in my conclusion below). I have acknowledged and expanded on this in my review of Corduan and Purtill. But it simply does not work when given the actual evidence that we have. Geivett tries to defeat this problem with an unusual rhetorical tactic: constant repetition of ridiculous exaggerations. Since I will be addressing the actual evidence in my reviews of Newman and of Craig and Habermas, and have already covered the relevant historiographical issues in my review of Beckwith, and since I already agree with Geivett that the argument from miracles is at least logically sound, I will use this space here to exhibit his strange penchant for hyperbole. For there is no better sign of a man's desperate situation than a resort to a blatant overstating of his own case.
The Argument from Miracles
First, I will describe where Geivett is basically correct. Given that an event is accepted as having no explanation in natural causes, he describes the logical dilemma that arises: either there is no cause at all, or the cause is nonnatural (i.e. "supernatural"). The problem of defining "natural" is something I address in my review of Nash, but the dilemma here is linguistically correct, whatever the definition of "natural" may be. Of course, if it means what many scientists actually use the term to mean (i.e. anything that can be observed is a part of this universe and hence "natural"), then the dilemma collapses into a single option (the absence of any cause). But what Geivett has in mind is what would be better stated as follows: Given that an event is accepted as having no unintentional cause, either there is no cause at all, or the cause is intentional. This would divide all events that "merely" follow the laws of physics from all events which proceed from an intentional agent, namely humans and, in his argument, God.
In other words, if it becomes reasonable to believe that a certain event (e.g. the resurrection account) has no explanation in terms of unintentional causes, then we must believe that the event was not caused at all (that it just happened out of the blue), or that it was caused deliberately (either by human or divine methods)--unless of course we reserve all judgment entirely. Since regarding an event as complex as this as totally "uncaused" requires believing something about the universe that we are least justified in believing (having never seen such a random occurrence), we are most justified in believing in an intentional cause. This is where the argument must go from here: given that the event is accepted as having no explanation in human causes, either there is an alien cause, or there is a divine cause. If we subsume all possible alternatives to God under "alien" (such as demons, or other gods, or people with superhuman powers, etc.), then this dilemma is as linguistically valid as the first. If there is no evidence of any particular "alien" origin (as there is not in the case of the resurrection), but some evidence of a divine origin (as there is in the case of the resurrection, however weak), then it is reasonable to believe the event was of divine origin.
So far so good. But notice the two catches: first, the evidence must be such as to lead us to reasonably accept that a particular event has no explanation in either unintentional or human causes. This is essential for the actual success of the "argument from miracles." In other words, to use the argument from miracles so as to convince someone to believe in God, it is necessary to demonstrate that there can be no other explanation. As long as there are plausible explanations in the laws of biology and physics or in human design, which cannot be eliminated, the argument from miracles cannot succeed. It is not enough that "natural" explanations be improbable, because improbable things happen all the time. Rather, it is necessary that there be positive evidence against these natural explanations sufficient to compel us to reject them as impossible in the specific case at hand.
Now, this is the argument as Geivett presents it, and it can be summed up simply as follows: if an event is such that only a god could have caused it, then the event is evidence for the existence of a god. The trick is in establishing the "only" part (which equates to a similar difficulty in Purtill's Definition). But there is an even better argument: if we saw God regularly acting today, it would automatically be reasonable to believe that he has acted before. This argument is even more difficult to launch, however, since it requires what isn't the case: namely, that God be acting regularly today. And this brings up an important defeater to Geivett's approach: why isn't God more visible and active today? One can speculate at whim, but no one will be able to offer any proof to support one speculation over another. And insofar as the most reasonable answer is that there is no god to act in the first place (since there is a collection of evidencing reasons to support that theory, as even theists must acknowledge--for example, see my book Sense and Goodness without God 2005), the attempt to appeal to the divine is undermined even if there is a good evidential case for a miracle, since the second dilemma (alien or divine) will no longer be so easy to resolve--unless the divinity theory can be so revised as to explain all the other facts about the universe which seem to contradict it, and these revisions have some evidential support other than the sole fact that they rescue the theory. But as it is, no real case ever gets that far.
In the process of all this, Geivett makes an argument that is not only correct, but absolutely precious, and should be paraphrased in every relevant debate: "Failure to eliminate the possibility of a naturalistic explanation does not entail that a naturalistic explanation currently exists or is close at hand" (184). Substitute "theistic" for "naturalistic" in this sentence and you will have something that atheists have been trying to drill into the heads of theists for centuries. He is quite right, and naturalists should take heed, to avoid committing the "naturalist fallacy" which I address in my review of Corduan. But theists should take heed, too: concocting an unfalsifiable definition of God does not make belief in God rational. It is perfectly reasonable to disbelieve in the existence of a God that you cannot prove doesn't exist, so long as you have no other good reason to believe it (see my article Proving a Negative for more on this point).
Slow Down, Pal!
But when it comes time to apply this argument to reality, Geivett goes overboard. For instance, in defending the possibility that it would be reasonable to accept that there is no unintentional or human cause for an event, he brings up Quine's notion of a "recalcitrant" experience which is "one that stubbornly resists explanation within the framework of a given paradigm or web of beliefs" (182). All well and good. But then he doesn't show even a hint of sarcasm or qualification when he calls the resurrection of Jesus "a recalcitrant experience of the highest order," so "bodacious" that "if [it] doesn't count as a violation of presumed natural law, then nothing does" (183). This is an astonishingly absurd statement. Certainly even he can think of something that is more obviously a violation of natural law than a mere resurrection, which is accomplished on a regular basis today using CPR and electric defibrillators, and which is also known to happen naturally, however rarely (see How Do We Know He was Dead? from my article on the Resurrection of Jesus). And something cannot be a recalcitrant experience of the "highest" order when I can think of a dozen experiences that would be even more recalcitrant still (and that's just off the top of my head), and when Geivett's colleagues and I myself have described just such events (from my talking "fish" example to Corduan's "regrown hand" and modern "holy man" examples--see my review of Corduan and Purtill). Hence, Geivett is far overselling the resurrection here, and that reflects badly on either his objectivity or his honesty. He sounds more like a preacher or a sophist than a scholar.
This is no isolated slip. Nor is it trivial, for his "evidence" for this magnificent recalcitrance is cleverly couched in a false dilemma which excludes a crucial state of affairs. Geivett says that "given a choice between treating the...resurrection as an anomaly that will eventually be explained by science and repudiating the historicity" of the account, "today's naturalist will generally opt for the latter" and "this is presumably because of the recalcitrant character of the event" (183). It is curious that he would think such a dilemma valid, when I know of no naturalist today who actually thinks it likely that the resurrection "will eventually be explained by science," simply because there is no good prospect that we will invent the needed time machine to investigate the matter "scientifically" in the first place. Rather, most naturalists think there are already good, plausible, natural explanations which are consistent with their total worldview, and that if we could go back in time to test them, we would find one of them correct.
Moreover, naturalists, such as myself, who favor the "unhistorical features" explanation as a more likely account of the record as we have it, base this on the obvious fact that historical error or deception, or both, is already so very likely, having such a vast amount of repeated examples to prove its frequency, that there is hardly any need to resort to other explanations, even though there are many for the taking (see my article on the Probability of Survival vs. Miracle and my two chapters, "The Plausibility of Theft" and "The Burial of Jesus," in the book The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond The Grave). This is all the more so because we actually have positive evidence of error or fabrication in the accounts themselves and in the history of the church, which we can use to build hypotheses from, whereas we are unable test any natural explanations of the event itself, either to prove or refute them, since all physical evidence is lost, and what little we do know comes to us from late, biased, and uncritical sources. Geivett is thus not only vastly overplaying the recalcitrant nature of the resurrection, but he is using his own hyperbole as if it were "proof" that naturalists actually believe the account to be recalcitrant. Does Geivett understand skeptics so poorly? Or is he simply eager to invent a straw man?
Julius Caesar Crossed the Rubicon,
But Was Jesus Resurrected from the Dead?
Geivett tries to press this tactic further with the assertion that "if one takes the historian's own criteria for assessing the historicity of ancient events, the resurrection passes muster as a historically well-attested event of the ancient world" (185). Of course, as is typical of Christian apologetics, he never cites a single historian or explains what these "criteria" are, or who actually uses them and why (I give a good accounting of what historical method really looks like in my review of Beckwith). He then issues a comparison, in the voice of a mock critic, asserting that the resurrection of Jesus is as historically evidenced as Julius Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon in 49 B.C. But let's examine that claim:
  • First of all, we have Caesar's own word on the subject. Indeed, The Civil War has been a Latin classic for two thousand years. On the other hand, not only do we not have anything written by Jesus, but we don't even have anything written by anyone who actually knew him--unless we accept the questionable authenticity of some of the non-Pauline epistles, but they don't describe the resurrection and thus present no direct evidence of that event anyway.
  • Second, we have many of Caesar's enemies, including Cicero, reporting the event, whereas we have no hostile or even neutral records of the resurrection until long after the Christian's own claims had been written down and widely spread across the whole Empire.
  • Third, we have coins and inscriptions produced in the very same years of the Republican Civil War, and shortly after, which serve to corroborate the event. But we have absolutely no physical evidence of any kind in the case of the resurrection.
  • Fourth, we have the story of the Rubicon crossing from several historians of the period, including the most prominent scholars of the age: Tacitus, Suetonius, Appian, Cassius Dio, and Plutarch. Moreover, these scholars have at least some measure of proven reliability, since a great many of their reports on other matters have been confirmed in material evidence and in other sources. In addition, they all quote and name many different sources, showing a wide reading of the witnesses and documents, and they show a regular desire to critically examine claims for which there is any dispute. If that wasn't enough, all of them cite or quote sources which were written by witnesses, hostile and friendly, of the Rubicon crossing and its repercussions. Compare this with the resurrection: we have not even a single prominent historian mentioning the event, and of those few people who do bother to mention it, none of them show any wide reading, never cite any other sources, show no sign of a skilled or critical examination of conflicting claims, have no other literature or scholarship to their credit (which could in turn be tested for accuracy by comparison with other evidence), and have an overtly declared bias towards persuasion and conversion.
  • Fifth, the history of Rome could not have proceeded as it did had Caesar not physically moved an army into Italy. Even if Caesar could have somehow cultivated the mere belief that he had done this, he could not have captured Rome or conscripted Italian men against Pompey's forces in Greece. On the other hand, all that is needed to explain the rise of Christianity is a belief that the resurrection happened. There is nothing that an actual resurrection would have caused that could not have been caused by a mere belief in that resurrection. Thus, an actual resurrection is not necessary to explain all subsequent history, unlike Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon.
It should be clear that we have a huge number of reasons to believe that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, all of which are lacking in the case of the resurrection. In fact, when we compare all five points, we see that in four of the five evidences of an event's historicity, the resurrection has no evidence at all, and for the one kind of evidence it does have, it has not the best, but the very worst kind of evidence--a handful of biased, uncritical, unscholarly, unknown, second-hand witnesses.
Indeed, you really have to look hard to find another event that is in a worse condition than this as far as evidence goes. And this is the case even before we consider the relative probability of the event. In other words, I have not even mentioned the fact that an "actual" resurrection--in light of the incredible paucity of evidence that any miracle has ever really happened--is very, very improbable. It is so improbable, in fact, that even a very unlikely natural explanation would still be more probable, as I explain in Adding Things Up. For more on the relevant issues of historical method in general, see my review of Beckwith. But I discuss the Resurrection issue at great length in my collection on Why I Don't Buy the Resurrection Story, especially the Main Argument thereof, where I improve and expand on the Rubicon comparison, as again in my book Sense and Goodness without God.
If a Lie is Big Enough, Suckers will Believe It
Even though this is the real status of the evidence, Geivett pretends that the exact opposite is the case, and continues with a stream of hyperbolic assertions that are so blatantly false even the Pope would be ashamed to repeat them. For instance, in Geivett's world, "it is unlikely that...the resurrection would otherwise enjoy such historical authentication according to the highest standards of historical inquiry" [emphasis added] "if the tomb was not in fact empty and Jesus was not observed alive again" (186). Geivett calls this a "modest" suggestion! How on earth can he claim that the New Testament, or any of the post-biblical literary evidence, meets the "highest standards" of historical inquiry? Am I to believe that he thinks the unnamed author of the Gospel of Matthew is to be ranked with Thucydides, Polybius and Tacitus? That having no physical or contemporary evidence of any kind is somehow the epitome of "historical authentication"? Does he smell what he's shoveling?
Just in case you think he just slipped once into a bit of an exaggerative mood, he does not let up: there are "numerous observations" of the "relatively innocent facts" of the empty tomb and the post mortem appearances of Jesus, making them "supremely well attested historically" (186). Indeed, he even dares to say that "there is no compelling reason to dispute their historicity." Yet we have no eyewitnesses, no mention of an empty tomb or physical appearances in any of the epistles--the earliest literature--and of the four gospels that were chosen as orthodox, two of them unmistakably copied from the first, and the fourth is the last of them all to appear.
Maybe Geivett does not understand the difference between numerous sources and what those sources (and only those sources) claim to have been numerous observers, although no historian would make such a mistake. But that is not all that is wrong here: remember that skeptics do not regard natural explanations as implausible. Even if we were to accept, on such feeble evidence (as we sometimes may, for less incredible things), that there may have been an empty tomb and post-mortem appearances, this would still not demonstrate a miracle, since these are indeed "relatively innocent facts" which do not necessarily follow an actual death, for if the appearances are genuine, we have no real proof that Jesus died. Moreover, these things still have a natural explanation even if he did die: for there are several reasons that his tomb might end up or be mistaken as empty, no matter how odd they may be, and there are good reasons to believe that the earliest appearance traditions could have been of a spiritual, not a physical nature (for example, see my collection on Why I Don't Buy the Resurrection Story and my contributions to The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond The Grave).
Geivett even makes the absurd claim that the empty tomb and physical appearances are "as well attested historically as the crucifixion itself" (187). Does he really think that the crucifixion is not more widely attested than the resurrection? After all, the crucifixion story is repeated in at least one early-second-century non-Christian source (Tacitus), whereas no details of the resurrection get such a publication, and although both the crucifixion and the resurrection appear in the pre-gospel epistles, none of those letters ever refers to an empty tomb, and none of them make any clear reference to physical post-mortem appearances (this I will discuss at greater length in my review of Craig). Thus, even Geivett must concede that the crucifixion is at least somewhat better attested than the empty tomb and the post mortem appearances.
Geivett also thinks that a miracle "may be the best explanation for first-century belief in the resurrection." But if we regard as "best" that explanation which is most consistent with what we are all (believer and unbeliever) certain to be true about the universe and the period and place in question, then credulity and fanaticism is clearly the "best" explanation for that belief (see my review of Beckwith). Geivett is correct, however, in noting that a proper theory must say more than merely "they were mistaken" or some such dismissal, but he never cites or addresses or even mentions the existence of any of the developed theories which have been set out by various historians (such as Hermann Reimarus, Ernest Renan, David Strauss, Bruno Bauer, Maurice Goguel, A.E. Harvey, H.C. Kee, W.H.C. Frend, and W.S. Kissinger, just to name a few). Thus, his argument gives the appearance that no such theories exist.
The Top-Down Approach
Geivett concludes with what is definitely a correct argument: that if we had sufficient reason to believe that a God exists who is capable of working miracles, then "miracle" would become a more accessible explanation for unusual events, especially if said events could be shown to have some definite connection with God. But this is of little use when there are insufficient reasons to believe there is a God, for on this approach miracles cannot be appealed to as evidence. Rather, miracles only serve to identify the ways and purposes of the actions of a God already accepted as real. This of course explains why believers are quick to attribute anything orthodox and Christian as genuinely miraculous (while disparaging all other miracles as false), but it does little to justify their belief in God in the first place. But the idea is that once you believe in God, miracles become the stamps of approval of God, confirming which revelations or deeds He advocates (hence one can, Geivett suggests, argue from miracles that a theist of any other creed ought to be a Christian in particular).
But a new and decisive problem arises even with this argument: why the heck would a superbeing only communicate his revelations by using historically isolated miracles? Can't he just talk, like any normal sentient being? Or at least establish a permanent miracle which continually confirms his approval? For instance, if Catholic churches were mysteriously impregnable to all forms of harm, that would be a useful proof of God's approval for that creed. So why would a God, who is capable of this, ask us to trust (let's imagine) that a single, miraculous resistance to one harmful event by a single Catholic church centuries ago is just as good? Likewise, if all true Bibles, and all faithful translations, were indestructible--unharmed by fire or water or pencil or ink--or instantly reconstructed whenever injured or destroyed or soiled or marked, that would be a useful proof that it contained God's word. So why would a God, who is capable of this, ask us to trust in his approval of a compendium that we can't even get straight--owing to thousands of variant readings and hundreds of translations, each carrying a different nuance of meaning, and whose books' canonicity is questioned and debated even among Christians--all on the weight of certain isolated, ancient, and questionable events? Geivett must think his God the most dimwitted divinity in all the pantheons ever envisioned by man, or at least the most impotent. His is a God who chooses the most feeble and ambiguous means of reassuring us of what he wants. One wonders why it would ever be advisable to follow such a deity. I couldn't trust the sanity of such an engineer, much less his ability to save me.
A second, and related problem arises: if it really is so reasonable to accept miracles as proof of divine approval, doesn't that mean that fraud will be far more rampant in the case of miracles than in any other event? In other words, since it is accepted that miracles confer approval, anyone who wants their ideas to be adopted will naturally want to demonstrate divine approval by inventing miracles, either physically or in persuasive rhetoric. This presents an awful problem for the theist: how is a fraud to be distinguished from a genuine miracle? If in most cases it cannot be distinguished, owing to lack of evidence, yet we know fraud must inevitably be most common in the case of miracles, it follows that identifying genuine miracles will be even more difficult than might otherwise be the case, and even more difficult than identifying genuine historical events of any other kind. In other words, Geivett's argument actually provides a strong reason for treating miracles with greater skepticism than other historical events.
==============

Clark's Survey of Other Religions (1999, 2005)

Richard Carrier


[Part 4C of a larger Review of In Defense of Miracles.]

The Problem of Competing Claims
David Clark aims to tackle a particular problem defined by Hume: as Clark puts it: "If Christian televangelists and New Age cultists both appeal to miracles in support of their religions, do these conflicting claims cancel each other out?" (199). Clark's description of the problem is well-put and informative, and the structure of his chapter rests upon sound philosophical distinctions, with some budding ideas on how stories get invented and believed, among other things. With a very brief survey of miracle traditions in non-Christian religions, Clark attempts to show that Christian miracles have better evidence and philosophical support than any others. But problems mainly arise, once again, when it comes time to play the role of historian, especially in his inept treatment of ancient pagan miracle-working. It is also disturbing to see a modern scholar who really thinks demons exist and that demonic magic is real.[1] But in the end, when every thread of evidence is carefully analyzed, there really is little difference between Christian and non-Christian miracle beliefs.
Clark's chapter centers on a triad of questions about all non-Christian religions with miracle traditions: is the religion "really open to the supernatural?" Are there effective "naturalistic arguments" that explain the miracle claims of that religion as spurious? And are any of the miracle claims "historically well authenticated?" (202) He can remove all contenders if he can dismiss all their miracle claims in one of these three ways. Of course, when turned against Christianity, he thinks the answers to these same questions will vindicate his faith instead. But this is where his brevity, which is forced upon him by the format of this book, hurts his case: although he begins the chapter with an analogy with New Age religions, he never brings them up again--nor any of the issues of psionics, e.g. psychometry, telekinesis, clairvoyance, spiritualism, etc., all of which have droves of proponents and believers even today (as does astrology, crystal healing, etc.). Instead, Clark only discusses Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, and hardly touches upon any other creeds, such as the all-important pagan competitors to Christianity in antiquity (the marvels of Asclepius being the most prominent and well-attested), examples of which I present in my essay "Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire." I also discuss the historical ramifications of such traditions in my review of Beckwith.
Rigging the Game
The first issue is whether competing religions really are open to the supernatural. Clark's idea is that if miracles have no logical place in a religion's worldview, or the founders or early proponents of that religion "depreciate" miracle claims, then "we have a prima facie reason to expect a naturalistic explanation" for all the miracles believed by followers of that creed. But the presence of reasonable skeptics in the origin of a religious system has nothing whatsoever to do with whether miracles observed by believers are genuine. Indeed, it does not even entail that the skeptics themselves disbelieved all miracles. In fact, a display of suitable skepticism would actually increase the believability of an author reporting miracles, since it would argue against credulity as a cause of their belief. On the other hand, even if a system of religious beliefs is inconsistent, it does not follow that historical events in that religion's history are natural, for the followers may be responding to genuine phenomena, but drawing the wrong conclusions. Clark acknowledges both points (204), yet, inexplicably, he still thinks he is making a useful argument. But this approach really has no place at all in any investigation of miracle claims. It will always come down to actual evidence in the end, regardless of these two factors. This section of Clark's argument is thus a red herring, and amounts to little more than a chance "to pick on" opposing faiths.
Clark also pulls a dirty trick here. Watch closely: "since miracle is partly defined as an act of a supernatural personal being(s)...any religion that lacks the idea of such a being(s)...has no conceptual place for a miracle" and in that case "one could hardly defend the belief structure of such a religion" by appeal to miracles (202). Does he really think that Christians get to define "miracle" in such a way that competing religious marvels can be excluded from all consideration? That is nothing more than linguistic legerdemain. For it does not matter that the Buddha's ability to teleport came from his understanding of the natural order. If he actually teleported, that would still be proof of the truth of his religious system, and that is the problem Clark must address. He cannot dismiss this by simply defining such proofs as "natural" and then conclude that Christianity wins the contest.
The fact is that within the Buddhist point of view miracles stem from the realization that all reality is illusion, powered by our desires, which allows someone who achieves true enlightenment to play with the laws of the universe, since it is all in his mind anyway (more correctly, it is all in "the mind" since Buddhism holds that our perception of a multitude of individual minds is also an illusion). If this were true--if achieving this state of understanding were possible, and it did in fact result in the ability to play with the laws of the universe (such as by teleporting)--then this would be a very serious challenge to the truth of Christianity. Indeed, it would even be possible to explain Christian miracles as products of an accidental manipulation of reality by ordinary people whose notion of reality is their reality.
This is just one example of how Clark cannot dodge the bullet so easily as he pretends, for every religious tradition containing marvels holds those marvels to be, in some fashion, proof of that system's correct understanding of reality. It does not matter whether they conceive of those marvels in the same way that Christianity does. Indeed, Clark misses the obvious fact that this is exactly why scientism is the most widely believed worldview--for in the game of "marvels that prove the validity of the system" science squashes all creeds like a bug. One need only observe airplanes, surgical lasers, moonwalks, radios, lightbulbs, and other wonders, from cloud-seeding to vaccines and supercrops, to see that in "the marvels game" no religion holds a candle to science. But observe that Christians in turn explain these marvels in terms of their own world view, just as Buddhists and every other religion can do the same with Christian marvels--with all the same attendant problems.
For instance, if humans, via science, can create a lasting cure for disease with vaccinations and careful management of water and sewage, why couldn't God do anything comparable when he walked the Earth? Why was this revelation absent, even though it is perhaps among the most important and compassionate revelations in all of history? However Christians weasel out that problem, a similar circumlocution will exist for every other creed as well. This is because, as A.J. Ayer observed, "so long as we take suitable steps to keep our system of hypotheses free from self-contradiction, we may adopt any explanation of our observations that we choose" since "any particular instance in which a cherished hypothesis appears to be refuted can always be explained away."[2]
The point is that it is futile to try and show that your enemy's view is wrong simply because it is inconsistent, for if he is determined to preserve his belief at all costs, then he can adjust his system to explain away any challenge to it. This then becomes a game, where each side tries to arrange the pieces of the puzzle so that they all fit. The problem is that this game has no winner--there is no "one way" in which they all fit, especially since we are required to invent numerous missing pieces. If we are to decide that this game can be won, some other conditions of victory must be established. As it happens, I think science has hit upon the right conditions: that system which fits all those observations that are the most certain, and does so with the fewest additional elements.[3] But one will quickly see how Christianity loses, along with all other supernaturalist religions, if we play by those rules, because their evidence is not up to snuff. It can otherwise never win unless it cheats, by setting up the rules in its own favor. But then how is that a real victory? You can't really be a winner unless you win by rules that all parties agree to, and I think the only rules that all reasonable people can equally agree to are those which actually make science the winner. Christians would do better not even playing this game.
The Infamous Double Standard
When it comes time to talk about actual evidence that throws miracle traditions into doubt, Clark is a bit of a hypocrite. For instance, he uses statements like "even Muslim scholars acknowledge that the vast majority" of miracle claims in Islam "are inauthentic" (204), as if the exact same statement wasn't just as true of his own creed, unless he wishes to affirm that the vast majority of miracle claims in Catholic hagiography and Gnostic and heretical Christian literature are actually authentic. But of course no one in this entire book even dared to touch, much less mention, the problem that this vast collection of claims poses for Christian miracle beliefs (as I explained in Part 1 of this review).
Another example: Clark says that "outside of the hadith, there are no reported sightings of the moon dividing, even though many ancient peoples carefully watched the sky" (204). This, of course, is just like the previous statement, since he has the equally vexing problem of the eclipse at the death of Christ, which went equally unnoticed by the very same "ancient peoples carefully watching the sky" (see my essay on Thallus and my discussion of Beckwith). I wonder if Clark even bothered to research this claim. I have read of split moon observations in records from various ages, in Pliny and Plutarch, and in modern records as well, where it is usually interpreted as UFO phenomena. To my understanding it is an optical illusion. I did not bother to go back and research the issue myself since I consider it moot, but my recollection of such records demonstrates to me that Clark did not do this research, either. That is not a good sign, if we are to regard his contribution as a carefully-researched scholarly argument. He should not make assertions that he has not checked for accuracy.
Another example is so carefully constructed I wonder if he has fooled himself, or deliberately engineered his argument. It begins with setting forth "four major sorts of hypotheses to explain the rise of spurious miracle stories" (205), one of which being the possibility of fraud. But he only describes the fraud theory in this manner: "magicians concoct miracle stories or perform marvelous acts in order to attract attention to themselves." This is a curious generalization, because it excludes what amounts to a very important alternative: the pious fraud. The possibility of employing wonders to draw attention to and build faith in the correctness of a particular moral belief is simply too tempting for many to pass up, especially when it is a real option--as it is in any age or place where skepticism and scientific knowledge are almost universally lacking. But Clark never mentions this possibility.
Instead, Clark argues that the attribution of fraud "does not fit the case of Jesus" because he "neither catered to his audience nor lusted for the attention of crowds" (206), citing John 6:60-71 as an example. But this does not eliminate the possibility of pious frauds. It is also rather weak to argue that we can dismiss fraud in the case of Jesus by referring to the propaganda of his own faction--for naturally the authors would want to avoid charges of "catering," and would want to discredit that charge by constructing just such a story as we see in John 6, a good example of counter-propaganda. Such stories were useful in explaining why people disbelieved or left the movement: they are "unable to accept the truth" and therefore unworthy. Clark also cites the case of Simon Magus, unaware of the fact that it seems his treatment by Christian authors is a deliberate rhetorical attack on a competitor and thus among the most untrustworthy ad hominem arguments in the entire New Testament. This is another sign of poor historical acumen--a good historian learns to identify likely features of propoganda. A real historian would not be so gullible as Clark.
Moreover, Jesus himself could have been playing the crowd like a fiddle, telling witnesses to keep things quiet, knowing all along that they would talk anyway. This would allow him to deny the charge of "catering," while getting to cater all the same. Indeed, if Jesus really did do this stuff, I have no doubt that he did it not to seek glory for himself, but to seek approval for his teachings, which I'm sure he did believe were superior. Finally, it is a little disingenuous to cite propoganda supporting a hypothesis that Jesus did not "cater to his audience" or lust "for the attention of crowds" when this actually undermines the whole purpose of miracles in the first place. If these wonders were not intended to gather crowds to hear the Gospel, and to convince those crowds of the Gospel's truth, what were they for? As long as it is within human nature to effect a fraud in order to gather an audience and convince them to adopt some belief, it will remain plausible that Jesus succumbed to just such a temptation. But Clark has carefully avoided this issue, by framing the fraud question in a peculiar way, and then citing biased evidence to exclude Jesus from the possibility of fraud. That's simply dirty pool.
Other Weak Arguments
Some of Clark's analyses are very odd. For instance, he argues that "despite superficial similarities" between Jesus and other holy men of antiquity, "Jesus is quite distinct from all these" (207). But that is a vacuous point--for many other holy men were equally unique, including Apollonius of Tyana, one of those whom Clark mentions, who also "corrected the teachings of his contemporaries" (there are many others: see my essay "Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire"). This uniqueness does not allow us to conclude that the similarities were not mapped onto these men after the fact, based on the expectations of later believers (who all expected certain things of holy men), or that these holy men did not adopt similar methods for this same reason, or for the simpler reason that the most common set of tricks was the easiest, or the only, set of wonders that could be pulled off by mere mortals on a regular basis.
Clark also throws out a claim, without argument, that all these holy men are only described in post-Christian sources and thus could not have influenced the Christian narratives. But he forgets to mention Elijah and Elisha and Moses and other miracle-working holy men described in the Old Testament. Moreover, even though "holy man" literature begins to rise in popularity in the same centuries, it does not follow that they were not all influenced by a common written or oral tradition that preceded them, and this is confirmed in cases where similar patterns appear in sources which could not have been influenced by Christian themes and thus prove a common cultural background, such as Pliny's account of the doctor Asclepiades resurrecting a dead man, and Herodotus' account of the resurrected Zalmoxis, and the description in Josephus of the ancient tradition of exorcism and divine healing practiced by Jewish holy men since the time of Solomon.[4] We also have things like Plutarch's mention of Romeo-and-Juliet-style returns from the dead as a popular theme in 1st-century theatre.[5] Moreover, Christian literature only appears to be the oldest because the Church won the power to suppress much of the competition's literature (or simply not copy it, which guaranteed its extinction). If we had a fuller library of ancient works, we would have, for instance, 1st-century accounts of Apollonius by his own apostles. Philostratus, whose biography of Apollonius is the only one to survive (with the vitriolic critique of the 4th-century Christian historian Eusebius attached), cites several such sources, none of which survive.[6] Ultimately, contrary to Clark's assertion, records of pre-Christian holy men do survive in several pre-Christian sources.[7]
Hit and Run
Clark finishes his chapter with a bunch of hit-and-run assertions. He declares that the Gospels were "composed within a generation" of the life of Jesus "by people who claimed to see the events" (211) even though virtually no qualified scholar believes either is true.[8] Clark does not present any evidence, nor does he address the contrary opinions of mainstream historians--all he does is cite in a footnote one author "supporting an early date." He claims that the Gospels are "consistent without being identical" yet they are not always consistent,[9] and even if not identical, the first three Gospels are certainly so similar that copying is assured. But Clark does not say a word about the Synoptic Problem.[10]
Clark also says the Gospels "have many characteristics of eyewitness accounts" yet I doubt Clark has actually examined any ancient eyewitness accounts--indeed, I doubt he could even name one outside of Christian literature. Instead of basing this conclusion on a comparison with other eyewitness accounts, he bases it instead on the sole fact that Jesus is depicted as having human fears (Matthew 27:46) which the authors were "unlikely" to report if they wanted to support the claim that he was the Messiah. But this argument doesn't even make sense from within the Christian point of view: it was key to their rhetoric that Christ was not only God's son, but was a man "just like us," so there would have been a reason to invent such humanizing features. But it is also typical of all reports of famous men in antiquity to include correct information and then surround it with embellishments. For example, Plutarch's Life of Alexander the Great contains a lot of correct information, but his account of the Battle of Granicus is clearly a romantic fiction when compared with the more plausible account given by Diodorus.
Not Telling the Whole Story
Then Clark asserts that the Gospels "faithfully reflect the cultural conditions of first-century Palestine and correctly identify many people and places of that era" as if that information were not available to the authors unless Jesus performed miracles! Needless to say, this is a rather moot point--the authors could have all that information even if Jesus did not exist. By analogy, just because Plutarch gets the same things right in his biography of Alexander, it does not follow that all his information is correct. In fact, the more fantastic the information, the less likely it is to be true, and so it is with all literature--to expect the Gospels to be different amounts to special pleading. But Clark's assertion is not entirely correct to begin with.
For example, the depiction of Pontius Pilate as a timid quasi-sympathizer bears no resemblance at all to the actual man, who was brutal and cruel and had no qualms about silencing unruly crowds by charging cohorts of club-wielding soldiers at them. One need only read the account of his term of office in Josephus to see there is something wrong with the Gospel account of the same man. To fill the gaps in their ignorance, the Gospel authors even invented conversations to which there could not have been any witness available to them, such as Matthew's account of priviledged conversations between the priests and Pilate, and then secret ones between the priests and their guards that no Christian could have known about (Matthew 27:62-65, 28:11-15). This material actually eliminates the possibility that the Gospels are entirely eye-witness accounts.
Clark goes so far as to conclude that "among ancient documents, the New Testament accounts of Jesus' life are uniquely reliable" (211). I address such absurd hyperbolic statements in my review of Geivett's Chapter. It is quite silly to suppose that the Gospels are "more reliable" than, say, the history of Thucydides, or Cicero's letters. Indeed, by using the word "documents" Clark is being even more absurd still--for this entails that the Gospels are more reliable than inscriptions and papyrus letters and records, which is a really stupid thing to say. I must suppose that Clark did not mean this, which tells me that he did not give this sentence much thought, and was content to say what was more impressive than true.
Another typical claim that Clark repeats is the assertion that "foes" could have refuted the miracle claims--a statement only one who is ignorant of the realities of ancient history could possibly make, much less believe. As he puts it, "Jesus' opponents could have made a stronger claim, denying that he performed apparent miracles. Yet practically, they could not deny the events" (211-2). Clark, of course, believes in demons and magic, so I guess he thinks that Athenagoras was describing reality when, in his Legatio pro Christianis (26), he does not deny the contemporary healing powers of the statues of pagan divine men such as Neryllinus, Proteus and Alexander of Abonuteichos, but merely ascribes their powers to demons. Likewise, Eusebius does not challenge the truth of the miracles of Apollonius, but merely ascribes them to demonic magic. It is extremely rare to find any Christian actually challenging the truth of pagan miracle claims--it was much more common to attribute them to demons, as is the case in the treatment of the powers of Simon Magus in all post-biblical Christian literature. This is further proof that people in antiquity were gullible and superstitious. For it sooner occurred to them that miracles were the real effects of demons and gods than that miracles were fake or mythical.
Because of the abundant evidence of pagan miracles, which comes from sources just as reliable as any early Christian claim, Clark's argument backfires: the evidence he offers for the truth of the miracles of Jesus, when examined in the light of their total context, actually undermines the truth of those miracles.[11] It is also undermined by the fact that the miracles of Jesus occurred in a region that was universally regarded as backward by Greek and Roman scholars, and was soon ravaged by a massive war. Thus, the ability of any hostile witnesses even to be alive once Christianity started to grow to any significant size, much less to have the means to check their claims and get them published widely enough to be noticed, is slim--even supposing they cared. This is further compounded by the Christian lust for destroying hostile literature. We only know of the critiques of Celsus and Porphyry and Hierocles and Julian, for instance, because some Christian rebuttals to them survive--the books themselves were destroyed. This makes appeals to "missing critical literature" a rather shameless argument on the part of Christians like Clark.
Conclusion
Clark's entire chapter was supposed to show that the existence of competing miracle claims does not undermine the truth of Christian miracle claims. But the ubiquity of miracle claims in numerous religious traditions proves that witnesses and sources are not reliable. If people are willing, by the billions, to believe in miracles that are poorly supported by evidence, this presents an insurmountable problem for Christianity, whose "believers" at all stages of the creed's history were just as human as those of other creeds. And Clark has not succeeded in surmounting this obstacle. It remains that Christian testimony is no more reliable than any other. Consequently, Christian miracle claims are no more reliable than any other.
Return to this review's Table of Contents to read more detailed critiques of specific chapters in In Defense of Miracles.

[1] Clark asserts that "from a Christian viewpoint, it is best to interpret demonic acts as supernormal but natural events, since demons are part of the natural order that God created" (201) and "magical events caused by demonic spirits are possible" (210). He explains "the rope trick of India" as being an illusion "apparently create[d]" by a "hypnotic Hindustani patter," and says that other "yogic powers are apparently real," since "by mastering certain higher laws of nature" yogis can "perform supernormal acts" (209-10). Clark is apparently unaware of the literature debunking the legends and tricks of modern Indian "godmen." Just for starters, you can examine the resources provided by The Indian Skeptic and the Science and Rationalists Association of India.
[2] A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic (1946) p. 95.
[3] I explain this fact in my discussions of science and method in my book Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism (2005), esp. § II.3 (pp. 49-62) and § IV.1 (pp. 209-52).
[4] Pliny, Natural History 7.124; Herodotus, Histories 4.94-6; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 8.44-9.
[5] Plutarch De Sollertia Animalium (Moralia 973e-974a). See discussion in the Main Argument, and attached footnotes, of my collection on Why I Don't Buy the Resurrection Story (6th ed., 2006).
[6] Eusebius refers to them himself, in his Treatise Against the Life of Apollonius § 3.
[7] See E.R. Dodds, Greeks and the Irrational (1951), as well as the sources on ancient sorcerers and magic that I list in endnote 5 of "The Plausibility of Theft" in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond The Grave (2005): p. 365. In addition to the examples given in those sources, there is the Wizard of Apamea described by Diodorus Siculus (34/35.2.1-26), and of course numerous biblical wonder workers, like Moses and Elijah, the Witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28) and the Pharaoh's Magi (Exodus 7:11-8:7), and contemporaries of Jesus, like Simon Magus and Elymus the Sorcerer (Acts 13), who clearly represented a tradition that was in place and respected before the example of Jesus arose.
[8] See Eberhard Nestle's Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (1901); Bruce Metzger's Early Versions of the New Testament: Their Origin, Transmission, and Limitations (1977); and for the most up-to-date work, Edward Ellis, The Making of the New Testament Documents (1999). See also [10].
[9] Dan Barker's challenge to all Christian scholars to produce a consistent account of the arrest, passion, and resurrection without discarding a single verse in all the accounts available--see Losing Faith in Faith (1992), pp. 178-9--has never been successfully answered, because it cannot be met without revealing several irreconcilable contradictions, e.g. Luke 23:26 and John 19:17. Also, Matthew and Luke present irreconcilably different dates for the birth of Jesus, as I demonstrate in my article The Date of the Nativity in Luke (2000). These are just two examples. The number of contradictions of either kind is legion (see the Secular Web libraries on Biblical Errancy and Biblical Criticism).
[10] Peter Head, Christology and the Synoptic Problem: An Argument for Markan Priority (1997); and Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (1997).
[11] See my review of Beckwith's Chapter for more on the historical context--and for even more detail, see my discussion of legendary development in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond The Grave (2005): pp. 165-82. Otherwise, the best treatments of these matters are Harold Remus, Pagan-Christian Conflict Over Miracle in the Second Century (1983), whom Clark cites but apparently has not read carefully, and Robert Grant, Miracle and Natural Law in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Thought (1952).
================

Newman on Prophecy as Miracle (1999, 2005)

Richard Carrier


[Part 4D of a larger Review of In Defense of Miracles.]

When is Prophecy Miraculous?
Robert Newman contributes a chapter on Old Testament prophecy, with the general idea that certain predictions found there are so uncanny that they are in themselves miracles. He begins by outlining the usual criticisms of this idea and then presents four criteria that establish a prophecy as miraculous (215): there must be good evidence that...
  • (1) "the text clearly envisions the sort of event alleged to be the fulfillment"
  • (2) "the prophecy was made well in advance of the event predicted"
  • (3) "the event actually came true"
  • (4) "the event predicted could not have been staged by anyone but God"
  • (5) and the "evidence is enhanced" if "the event itself is so unusual that the apparent fulfillment cannot be plausibly explained as a good guess"
This is a structurally sound approach, and would nearly work if any prophecy actually met all these conditions. But despite his attempt to argue the contrary, none do. And to be thorough, there is something Newman misses here which would also have to be eliminated: if a prophet was likely to say some particular thing for cultural or traditional reasons, then any "hits" (outcomes that match what was said) cannot be distinguished from accidents. This is not addressed by his "good guess" axiom, because this is not a guess, but an accidental correspondence. For example, if I was liable to say over and over again that a bird will land on my head, because it was a chant I inherited from my father, and then a bird landed on my head, it cannot be said that I predicted this. It cannot even be said that I guessed it. My reason for issuing this prediction had an entirely separate cause, and because it is always repeated, its success can have nothing to do with my prescience. We see this phenomenon in Judaic prophetic tradition, when the doom of the Jews or their enemies (the "punishment" of God) is constantly proclaimed for cultural reasons (it is a threat aimed at encouraging piety and morality, etc.), and thus when it comes true it cannot, by itself, be counted as a prediction.
Another concern is retrofitting: if a prediction is suitably vague, then any future event which can be made to fit the prediction can then be claimed as a success. This is a common trick well known to those who investigate psychics. Newman escapes this with his first axiom, but he does not properly apply his own method, and falls victim to the retrofitting bug himself. In effect, if any event that will fulfill the prediction is likely to happen anyway, then it cannot be called a miraculous prediction--even if it was neither staged nor a guess. For example, if I said that Zimbabwe would suffer under an evil ruler who would start a war with a great nation, that would never become a miraculous prediction, since that might happen anyway. Since I have not specified a time, even if Zimbabwe's history meets with such an event in the next two or three thousand years I can claim I predicted it--but given thousands of years, who would be surprised? And even if the event were to happen tomorrow my prediction would not be miraculous, since I allowed that it might happen any time, meaning that my prediction was deliberately loose enough that I could claim any such event at any time as a success. We will see how all these problems return to haunt Newman as he proposes three examples of miraculous prophecy: Hosea 3:4-5, four "twin cities" prophecies (Tyre and Sidon, Babylon and Nineveh, Memphis and Thebes, and Ekron and Ashkelon), and two messianic prophecies (Isaiah 40-56 and the "seventy sevens" of Daniel 9:24-6).[1] Also key to Newman's failure is his astonishing incompetence as an historian, as we will eventually see.[2]

Hosea
Hosea 3:4-5 predicts that Israel will live "many days" without a king, prince, sacrifices, sacred stones, ephod, or idols. As Newman says, "it is astonishing that this brief description accurately portrays the condition of the Jewish people for nearly two thousand years, from the time of Jesus until the present" (216). But is it astonishing? The first thing that should be clear is that it is too vague--it does not "clearly" envision the event, because it does not say how many "days" Israel would suffer this way, and since these sorts of doom-and-wrath predictions for Israel are the bread and butter of the prophets, not only are we able to retrofit any fulfillment of this prediction, but the prediction was also guaranteed to be made even if it never came true (it is like the bird landing on my head example above).
Newman thinks all the details make it a "clear" envisionment, but he needs to brush up on his analytic logic: since any conquest of Isreal would entail the loss of kings, princes, sacrifices, sacred stones, ephods, and idols, these details do not add anything to what amounts to nothing more than a prediction that "Israel will be conquered and oppressed for many days" which is as vague as any prediction can get--not to mention almost certain to frequently happen, given the belligerent nature of the Israelite nation, and its small size and fertile and strategic location at a major nexus of two major ocean trade routes, between several superpowers. This prediction thus fails to be miraculous.
Newman shows three other classic signs of the retrofitting fallacy: first, Jewish holy men had been on a campaign against idolatry for ages--thus the claim that idols would vanish is hardly any more a prediction than a plan. Second, Newman dismisses the age of Maccabean Kings with the argument that "these puppet kings lacked the full regal splendor to which Israel had been accustomed in Hosea's day" (216). But where is that in the prediction? The prediction only says "without kings," so Newman is taking liberties of interpretation--but that allows any excuse for a missing king to be a success. Newman just happens to find "lack of splendour" as an excuse to make this event equivalent to a missing king, but we could find any other metaphor that suited the facts and thus retrofit almost any outcome to the prediction. With this methodology, it would be amazing if this prediction did not succeed in describing something. Third, Newman thinks the prediction is only fulfilled if Israel never gets these things back, but again Hosea does not say that--even if Israel had been without these things only for a month ("many days"), that would count as a success, and this means that almost any event at any time in the future could be claimed a success. This does not establish the prediction as a marvel.
If Hosea had said that in twenty-five centuries the Israelites would have communities in a land across a great sea that lies past the mouth of the Mediterranean, that they would build a weapon that flies through the air and lays waste to entire kingdoms, and that the people of Britain would help them reclaim their Holy Land against a people who pray to only one God, that would have been miraculous. But we do not get predictions anywhere near that good or precise (and this hypothetical example isn't even all that good or precise itself).

The Twin Cities
Newman borrows from John Bloom four "twin cities" prophecies, concerning Tyre and Sidon, Babylon and Nineveh, Memphis and Thebes, and Ekron and Ashkelon (218).[3] The approach aims at countering the argument that "nearly every city will be destroyed eventually" with the reasoning that "if we could interchange the names of the two cities without affecting their fulfillment" then no miracle would exist, but "if a real difference results, then this is concrete evidence of fulfilled prediction." He uses the analogy of an experimental control group. Too bad he did not think this through, because a control must have all things the same except the variable to be tested--otherwise, differences of outcome could be the result of some other difference that has nothing to do with the tested variable. In other words, prophecies about different cities will always be different from each other because all cities will have different locations, politics, history, and topography, and so predictions about them can be expected to differ even before we examine those predictions for their accuracy. Thus, the control group analogy fails here.
Indeed, this method is entirely unsound. Compare it with pundit predictions of the actions of political candidates: by Newman's (or Bloom's) reasoning, if we could interchange the names of two candidates (say, a Republican and a Democrat contender for office) without affecting the fulfillment of predictions made about them, then no miracle would exist, but if a real difference results, then this is concrete evidence of fulfilled prediction. But wait--is that true? Won't predictions about a Republican often be different than those about a Democrat? Newman thinks these differences will validate the predictions made about them, when in fact the differences have nothing to do with the accuracy of the predictions, but have to do with immediately obvious differences in the candidates being second-guessed. Worse, the cities he pairs are not always naturally paired in the text, and this allows the tactic of data-mining, i.e. only choosing examples that fit your expectations. Thus, Newman is supposed to stick to the original five-point plan he started with, and show that the predictions were clearly envisioned, made well in advance, actually came true, could not have been staged, and cannot be a good guess (and cannot be an inevitable accident, nor retrofitted). If he cannot meet those requirements, then this city-pairing plan will not save him.

Tyre and Sidon
An improved version of the following discussion of Newman's treatment of the Tyre prophecy can be found in my book Sense and Goodness without God (2005), § IV.1.2.7, pp. 247-52.
Ezekiel issues the most vague of predictions about Sidon (28:22-3) which could never be counted as miraculous. That a city should be sacked and its people slaughtered in antiquity is already a highly likely event, and that a prophet should declare such a doom upon a city is likewise commonplace, so that the one is certain to follow the other by chance alone. On the other hand, Ezekiel 26:3-14 predicts that Tyre will be attacked by many nations, its walls torn down and its rubble cleared away, and it will be a bare rock. Then "out in the sea she will become a place to spread fishnets" and will never be rebuilt. The passage specifically predicts that Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (26:7) will do this, and his army will throw the stones, timber and rubble into the sea--and there can be no mistake here, since Ezekiel says he will break into the city, not someone else: every verb from 26:7 to 11 is in the 3rd person singular, and the use of the 3rd person plural in 26:12 clearly refers to the troops--the "horsemen" (parash) and "charioteers" (rekeb), i.e. the "men entering the city"--in verses 10 and 11 which Nebuchadnezzar leads into the city. They are the first available plural antecedent of the verb in 26:12, and the whole passage is clearly about this invasion.[4] Note as well that 26:10 includes chariots in the invading force--but Alexander (whom Newman claims fulfilled the prophecy) did not use chariots. They ceased to be used by Greeks and Macedonians after the 6th century B.C.
Ezekiel was a captive of Nebuchadnezzar since the sack of Jerusalem in 597 B.C. and this explains the prediction: he is issuing propaganda favoring his captor, no doubt to get on his good side, and Ezekiel could easily have intelligence about the king's plans since he would see the preparations. While Ezekiel died sometime after 571 B.C. (the year of his last prophecy, cf. 40:1) and his book was edited shortly after that, the Tyrian prophecy was made, so Ezekiel claims, in 586 B.C. (26:1). As it happens, Nebuchadnezzar began the siege of Tyre a year later. Tyre came to terms with him in 573 and he did not sack the city after all--forcing Ezekiel to retract his prediction (29:18) and instead predict a victory against Egypt after Nebuchadnezzar turned against that country. So what do we have here? We have a man who sees the world's most powerful army besieging a city and then predicts it will be taken and destroyed--hardly something he could not guess would happen. Yet even his guess failed, and so did the prediction! A failed prediction can hardly be a miracle.
What is Newman thinking? He obviously has never picked up a history book. He claims that Nebuchadnezzar "took" the city in 573 B.C., but we have no evidence of that. As far as we know, the city submitted to Babylonian rule without being sacked. Indeed, since it was a trade powerhouse with two outstanding naval ports, a conqueror would be a fool to destroy it (even Alexander's successors rebuilt it for that purpose). So Nebuchadnezzar surely got a sweet deal. Then Newman says that the inhabitants resettled inland during the siege, forcing Nebuchadnezzar to "settle for very little plunder" (219)--evidently his explanation for Ezekiel's retraction, although Newman never mentions this. Not only is this false (there had been a mainland suburb since before 800 B.C., and it was not called Tyre but Ushu), it is absurd: people are supposed to defeat Nebuchadnezzar by leaving an island city, with a huge wall, to resettle, with no fortifications, on the mainland, in open ground and with no port, while the Babylonian army apparently twiddles their thumbs? Newman is clearly the worst historian I've ever seen. Never mind that he has absolutely no basis for this claim--it is already extraordinarily absurd!
Newman goes on to claim that Alexander the Great's use of the mainland city's rubble to cross the strait fulfills the prophecy, but as I've already noted Ezekiel leaves no doubt that he means Nebuchadnezzar's men will do this, not some other guy centuries later.[5] This is a classic case of retrofitting--indeed, it is worse than that, since the prophecy as stated actually forbids attributing this event to anyone else but Nebuchadnezzar. We might as well call the Israeli rocket attack on the ruins in the war of 1981 as a "fulfillment." Newman then says the mainland site was "scraped clean" by Alexander and has "never been restored" while "parts of the former island are used even today for spreading fishnets." This is all irrelevant. First, Ezekiel specifically says the nets and scraping will happen not on the mainland but "in the midst of the sea" (26:5, vs. 26:6, 8). Indeed, the mainland site was Ushu, not Tyre. The mainland site Ezekiel always refers to as among the "daughters" of Tyre, never as Tyre itself. And that is to be expected. Ushu was neither rich nor powerful, since it had no ports--unlike Tyre, which had two ports situated to allow annual sorties, making it one of the most powerful military and trade cities in the world at that time. It would be silly to make elaborate claims about the fall of "mighty" Ushu. Second, fishnets have no doubt always been stretched over bare rocks in every city with a fishing industry since the invention of the net, and they were no doubt stretched across the rocks of Tyre long before Ezekiel was even born. Finally, the city of Tyre was rebuilt immediately after Alexander's attack, and remained a powerhouse of trade for the next two thousand years. Was it ever a "bare rock"? I doubt it--and we have no evidence that it was.
What we see here is that Newman is so entirely wrong it is astonishing that his colleagues even let this inept chapter remain in the book. Was Tyre ever destroyed? No. It prospered under the successors of Alexander and under Roman rule and then under Islamic rule. The ruins, abandoned (but not destroyed, contrary to Ezekiel's predictions) in the Middle Ages, were badly damaged during Arab-Israeli Warfare in 1982, but the core of the city still had a population in 1991 of 70,000 (almost twice the population in Alexander's day), and the ruined sections are actually threatened by thriving urban growth. It is still there today, and it is still a major Lebanese financial center.
Ruins of hot springs and a Roman arena at Tyre, with the modern city in the background (Archivo Iconogr·fico)
Ruins of the famous hot springs and a Roman arena at Tyre, with the modern city in the background (image from the Archivo Iconográfico).
As the picture above shows, Newman is full of it. This hardly looks like a "bare rock" to me, and the populated section of the city can be seen in the background, dispelling any notion that only a small fishing village remains. The 1999 Encyclopedia Britannica paints the true picture: "Excavations of the ruins have uncovered remains of the Greco-Roman, Crusader, Arab, and Byzantine civilizations, but most of the remains of the Phoenician period lie beneath the present town." Not only that, but among these ruins is one of the largest Roman hippodromes ever discovered--built in the 2nd century A.D., it seated 20,000. In other words, the city thrived under all these periods, and only became abandoned after the Arab conquest. Yet the majority of the original city is still heavily populated. So Ezekiel got it way wrong. Indeed, Ezekiel actually went on to predict that Tyre would be covered by the sea (26:19), and would never be found (26:21), two more incredibly false predictions. There is definitely no miracle here!

Babylon and Nineveh
Since the doom of a city is a highly likely event, I will not count any claims of predicted ruin (at some undisclosed future time) as miraculous--we know that claims of doom were always made, and sometimes turned out to be false, as in the case of Tyre. On the other hand, Newman calls attention to predicted details like "no rock will be taken" from Babylon (Jeremaiah 51:26). As proof of fulfillment, he tells us that today Babylon is quarried for brick, not stone. What he does not tell us is that Babylon was never quarried for stone, because there is no stone there. All the rock used in construction at Babylon was taken from distant mountains, and the vast majority of buildings, especially on the periphery, were made of brick, making this a much more available and portable commodity for modern looters. It is not very surprising that Jeremaiah's exaggerated threats of doom should happen to correspond to facts known even in his own time. Moreover, the date is wrong, for Jeremaiah predicts that Babylon will be desolated in the conquest by the Medes (51:11), as does Isaiah (13:17), but Babylon remained mighty even through the conquest of Alexander the Great centuries later, and only began to decline in the reign of Seleucus Nicator in 312 B.C. He and later kings could no longer afford to maintain the expensive irrigation system needed for the city's water supply, so the population was deliberately transferred in 275 to the new city of Seleucia on the Tigris. Babylon was never destroyed by war, even though Jeremaiah and Isaiah (13:3-8) both said it would be. This therefore cannot count as a miraculous prediction. It is shoddy guessing at best.
Newman then recounts a prophecy of Nineveh's demise made by Zephaniah, but Zephaniah wrote in the reign of King Josiah of Judah (1:1), who ruled from 640 to 609 B.C., and Nineveh was destroyed in 612. Although some of Zephaniah refers to events in Josiah's reign before 623 B.C., we have no way of knowing that Zephaniah did not add the "prediction" of Nineveh's demise after the fact. He could also have predicted it as an intelligent guess when, after the death of Ashurbanipal in 627, Assyria was quickly attacked from all sides by a coalition of hostile nations. There is thus no miracle here. Newman tries to play up details like the prediction that sheep would graze over Nineveh (but not Babylon), even though it would have been obvious, even to the prophets of the time, that Babylon, entirely dependent upon an artificial irrigation-based economy, would never be suitable for grazing once desolate, whereas Nineveh lies right on the highlands of the Tigris along a major grazing circuit. There is nothing amazing, then, about this prediction--it follows automatically from any assumption of ruin.
Newman tries desperately to make a mountain out of this molehill, saying that Babylon has never been restored, whereas Nineveh "is now in the suburbs of the city of Mosul" (220), but this is moot, since Zephaniah did not predict that Nineveh would be populated again, so this does not count as a prediction (indeed, it is closer to a miss, since Zephaniah gives the impression that the desolation will be permanent). It is also wrong, for Mosul is on the other side of the Tigris. No part of ancient Nineveh is populated today. Although there are signs of Seleucid and Greek habitation, and of a rise to momentary prosperity under Arab control in the 13th century, the site ceased to be inhabited after the 16th century, and this accounts for the remarkable condition of the entire city after extensive excavation. It is presently a government archaeological preserve, so occupation is illegal--one of the few worthwhile things Saddam Hussein did for scholars.

Memphis and Thebes
All Newman cites for Memphis is a prediction that the idols and images would be destroyed in Memphis (Ezekiel 30:13), and that "the hordes of Thebes" will be "cut off" (30:14-15). How he thinks either of these constitutes a "clear envisioning" of the events being predicted is beyond me. Certainly, there is no prediction here about Thebes--this is a generic, vague declaration of doom. In the case of Memphis, he claims that the 10th century Islamic relocation of the population from Memphis to Cairo is a fulfillment of the first prediction, and "as a result the pagan idols of Memphis were recycled to become building materials" and "only a handful of statues have been found on or near the modern site" (220), although he also tries to assert the opposite (221), that Memphis is a "suburb" of Cairo (when in fact it is not populated at all, and Cairo is 25 miles away).
First of all, Newman has to reach over a thousand years into the future to find a fulfillment, yet Ezekiel is clear on the date--the prediction was for Nebuchadnazzar (30:10-11)--so this is disallowed. Moreover, Ezekiel predicts that the Nile canals will become dry (30:12), which never happened. Worse, his prophecy about Memphis includes the prediction that Egypt will "no longer" have a prince, a word which Newman earlier asserts was equivalent to "any ruler or government official" (216),[6] so this is a definite failure, too--Egypt has never been without officials. It didn't even lack pharaohs until the Roman conquest, five centuries after Ezekiel.
Worst of all, when Newman claims that "only a handful of statues have been found on or near the modern site" of Memphis, he is flat wrong: the Memphis suburbs are the location of the greatest pyramid ranges, those of Gizeh and Saqqarah, to name the best-known, and numerous temples and palaces have been excavated right in the city center, including the great temple of Ptah, the palace of Merneptah, and a small temple of Ramses II. There are droves of statues there, not a "handful" as Newman claims, clearly refuting any chance this had of being a fulfilled prediction.

Ekron and Ashkelon
Zephaniah again predicted that Ekron "will be uprooted" and in Ashkelon "none will be left" but "shepherds and sheep pens" and the latter city will belong to Jews (2:4-7). Of course, this prophecy begins, even as quoted by Newman, by asserting that "Gaza will be abandoned" but Gaza has been continuously inhabited for 3000 years, a clear and palpable failure for this prediction. In the case of Ekron, this is a vague, generic prediction of doom, and thus not a prediction at all, especially since it was never "uprooted" but merely abandoned, and then only in the Middle Ages, over a thousand years after the prediction, an easy case of retrofitting. In the case of Ashkelon, that city actually lies inside Israel, so there can be nothing miraculous about predicting that Jews would occupy the site. Zephaniah is, again, not describing a prediction, but a plan.
Moreover, Newman's claim that its port was ruined by debris cast into it by Crusaders, and that it then became a grazing area, does not fit the fact that it is today a wealthy resort town with a huge textile industry, and remains a major Israeli oil port, as oil from the Red Sea is pumped to Ashkelon and then shipped West across the Mediterranean. Whether it was ever a grazing area is beyond me. I can find no sources that state this, but I do know that Herod the Great lavished the city with buildings, and this does not fit the idea of a pastoral economy. Newman's other claim (that Crusaders deliberately ruined the port) is also probably false, for they actually used the port until the Muslim Saladin sacked the city, which marked the beginning of its desertion in 1191. Newman, of course, cites no sources, but the Biblical Archaeology Review reports that the debris scattered in the Ashkelon bay was dumped into the sea when the modern marina was constructed.[7] This leaves little room for Newman's claim that it became a grazing area after the port was destroyed by the debris.
This concludes Newman's pathetic foray into miraculous prophecies involving pairs of cities. It should be quite clear by now that he has not presented a single prophecy that qualifies as miraculous, even by his own standards.

Salvation to the World
Isaiah 40-56 is the first messianic passage that Newman thinks is "miraculous." The only thing he points to as amazing is the prediction that the anointed will become "a light to the Gentiles" (42:6 and 49:6) and bring "salvation to the ends of the earth" (49:7). But this is merely a longed-for dream: not only will Israel be redeemed, she will become the center of glory. It is a wish for the exact opposite of the present reality. This is already likely for a prophet to declare, even without any concern for whether it was certain to come true. It simply says that Israel will redeem herself and, instead of being despised by all nations (49:7), she will become a model of justice for all other nations to emulate, and all roads will lead to Israel and people of all nations will go there (49:11-12). To "reinterpret" this so loosely as to make it apply to Christianity is to allow any metaphorical reinterpretation, so this is retrofitting once again.
Moreover, it is precisely this kind of Jewish ideal that Jesus sought to encourage, and he or his disciples reinterpreted this concept of salvation into the Christian meaning. Christianity is thus a human creation inspired by just such passages. In other words, that Christianity should be at all like what this passage longs for is actually inspired and therefore caused by this passage, and causation is not prediction. This is like predicting that there will be world peace, and then people inspired by your prediction fight for world peace and declare you a prophet when they succeed. But it actually does not follow in such a case that you had a divine premonition--it only shows that you had a plan. So this passage in Isaiah cannot be regarded as a miracle--it is too vague, it is too much like what a prophet would say no matter what (because it is a universal human hope, just as everyone says they want world peace), and it is too causally related to Christianity to be regarded as a prediction rather than a cause.
On the other hand, Newman also thinks Isaiah 49:7 means that the savior would be abhorred by Israel, such that this would be fulfilled in the Jewish rejection of Jesus as the messiah, but that is taking a lot of liberty with the text. The whole chapter tells of the nation of Israel being despised now but in the future will be looked up to and bowed down to--there is nothing here about a permanent rejection of the messiah, but rather a prediction that the messiah will at first be despised but then will be bowed to, which would allow any peasant reformer to "retrofit" the passage to support his own program.
The key passage here says, "The Lord, the one redeeming Israel and the Holy One, says to him whom man despises and nation abhors, to a servant of rulers, 'Kings will see and arise, princes will worship, because the LORD is faithful and the Holy One of Israel, and he shall choose you." The language here is so vague that it does not even entail that Israel will abhor the holy one. Just as "man" is used in the collective singular, it follows that "nation" is probably a collective singular, in order to preserve poetic symmetry, in which case it means "nations" in general, not Israel in particular. That would make this a passage spoken to the despised Israelites (not to the messiah), promising that they will be bowed to some day. On the other hand, even if "nation" means Israel, the passage is clearly going from the past tense ("despised") to the future tense ("Kings will see and arise"), and thus definitely does not predict a lasting Jewish rejection of the messiah, but the reverse: the inevitable acceptance of the messiah by Israel. Thus, this prophecy does not "clearly envision" the event supposedly being predicted, so it fails to meet Newman's own criteria for a miraculous prediction.

Seventy Sevens
Last but not least is the ever-popular seventy-sevens prophecy in Daniel (9:24-27).[8] This did indeed spawn "savior fever" in Palestine, and Josephus records the numerous "messiahs" who rose up, claiming to be this predicted savior of the world (see my essay Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire for some of the examples), and in fact he partly blames the Jewish War on messianic hopes of victory caused by this very prophecy.[9] Josephus eventually became a privileged member of Vespasian's entourage precisely when the imperium of Rome was fortuitously up for grabs, and he is no doubt responsible for the notion that this prophecy predicted Vespasian's ascension to king of the world (as it was conceived at the time), a fitting thing to claim of someone who has a real chance of winning and who can then bestow favors on those who supported him. There is one obvious conclusion to be had here: since there were so many people using this prophecy to justify attempts at claiming and "becoming" the messiah, the fact that one of them should succeed is no longer surprising enough to be regarded as miraculous. In other words, this is another case of a self-fulfilling prophecy, which caused the rise of Christianity rather than "predicting" it. This makes it a poor candidate for a miracle.
Nevertheless, Newman trudges on with his own view, although he admits it is open to numerous interpretations (224). What is clear is that Daniel predicts that the anointed will be "cut off" 69 "sevens" after the decree to rebuild Jerusalem is issued. Newman reasonably concludes that this "69" starts from the decree to build the walls of Jerusalem, which occurred in the 20th year of Artaxerxes, or 445 B.C. (Nehemiah 2:1-9), and that it measures the "seven-year sabbatical cycle for land use" so that 7x69 produces 483 years, bringing the prediction to an exact year of 38 A.D. For an unexplained reason, Newman thinks it is a hit if it falls anywhere within the 69th "seven" and thus any 'cut-off anointed-one' between 31 and 38 A.D. counts as a fulfillment (actually, he says 28 and 35 A.D., but he must have made an error in his arithmetic, for I cannot see how he gets that result). But the prophecy very specifically says that the anointed will be cut off after the 69 "sevens" have passed, not before, so Newman's attempt to salvage the prediction fails to fit what the prophet actually said. According to Newman's own interpretation, Jesus would have to have been crucified in or after 38 A.D. in order to fulfill the prediction, but since Pontius Pilate was deposed in 36 A.D., Jesus could not have been crucified by Pilate in 38. So Newman fails to show us a miraculous prophecy even here.[10]
In fact, this is the end of his chapter--so he has failed to show us any miraculous prophecies whatsoever. "Next!"
Return to this review's Table of Contents to read more detailed critiques of specific chapters in In Defense of Miracles.

[1] Another problem peculiar to this book, which I won't need to mention in the main text, is that Purtill has established that something is only a miracle if we can show that God was a necessary cause of the event (see my discussion of Purtill's Chapter). But since amazing predictions could be the result of some sort of human psychic power, one must prove somehow that God is a better explanation. This is something Clark should have done (see my discussion of Clark's Chapter), since psychic premonitions and healing and other powers are a validating component of New Age religion, a major competitor to Christianity in America--indeed, the competitor, with more adherents and influence than naturalism or any other religion. For example, see the polemic of James Herrick, The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition (2003).
[2] Newman cites absolutely no sources for any of his historical claims. It is a testament to the shoddiness of his research that all of the facts that I cite here and below (unless otherwise stated) are taken from the Encyclopedia Britannica and thus constitute general knowledge available to anyone. Newman failed even to examine these resources. As long as he refuses to argue for a different conclusion than is established by the mainstream facts available in a current academic encyclopedia, I see no obligation to look any further than this myself.
[3] "Truth via Prophecy," Evidence for Faith: Deciding the God Question ed. John Montgomery (1991), pp. 173-92. This is similar to material in Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands a Verdict (1972), pp. 267-319, for which see The Jury is In: Chapter 11--Prophecy Fulfilled in History. Also, see the Secular Web collection of essays on Prophecy.
[4] Some apologists ignorant of Hebrew think, incorrectly, that these words refer to horses and chariots only--in fact, they often mean the men riding them (i.e. the meanings are interchangeable), as can be ascertained by anyone with a Hebrew dictionary or a Strong's concordance.
[5] Josh McDowell (op. cit.) and others explain this as fulfilling Ezekiel's prediction that "many nations" will come against Tyre. Never mind that this is too vague to count as a "clear envisioning" of the event being predicted--it is already explained by the Babylonian attack. For Nebuchadnezzar is described by Ezekiel as a "king of kings," with good reason: he is leading "many nations" against Tyre (the armies of the defeated Assyrians and his allies the Medes, among others). Indeed, Ezekiel had already observed the Egyptian siege of Tyre no more than three years earlier (Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq, 3rd ed., 1992, p. 379). But the language is not even that precise, since rab gowy can mean "many nations" or "many people" or "great swarms." Either way, the context is clear: they are the many under the command of Nebuchadnezzar.
        As further proof, observe the logical format of this passage: 26:1-2, introduction of the prophecy; 26:3-6, summary of what will happen; 26:7-14, elaboration and details. Note how the third section draws on the second: compare vv. 3 "many nations" or "great swarms" and 7 "king of kings" and "great army"; vv. 6 "your daughters slain" and vv. 8 "slay your daughters"; vv. 4 there will be a siege resulting in a bare rock, vv. 8-14 description of a siege resulting in a bare rock; vv. 5 "nets will be spread" and 14 "spreading of nets"; vv. 5 "spoil for nations" and 12 "they will despoil." Clearly, the logical connection at 26:7 is transferring thought from the summary to the specific proof of the siege of Nebuchadnezzar. How, then, does it make sense to suddenly drop out of this logical sequence at verse 12 and attribute the rest to some other event that Ezekiel does not bother to specify? Why specify Nebuchadnezzar's role, begin an elaboration of that role, but give no hint that the subject has changed at verse 12? This makes no sense. It cannot be what Ezekiel intended, unless he was a very poor author. If he had wanted to say this, he would have used a logical transition phrase, at the very least, to signify a change of scene, or even named the second attacker (which, if he were truly foretelling the future, he should have been able to do).
[6] The two words are different, but have nearly identical meanings. In Hosea, it is sar or "one who keeps or is in charge, an overseer" and in Ezekiel it is nasi or "one lifted up, a leader," and both are as generic as can possibly be.
[7] "Just Dive In: Underwater Parks to Feature Antiquities," Biblical Archaeology Review 25.4 (1999), p. 16.
[8] Daniel is a forgery, which undermines any pretense it could have to being an honest book of prophecy. It claims to have been written by a man who lived in the Babylonian Exile of the 6th century B.C., but was in fact written under Antiochus IV Epiphanes between 175 and 163 B.C. This is especially clear because it gets historical facts wrong that could not have been gotten wrong if it was written when, and by whom, it claimed to be written. For instance, Daniel dates the fall of Jerusalem to the 1st or 2nd year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (1:1-6, 2:1), but in fact he did not capture the city (and King Jehoiakim) until 597 B.C., in the 8th year of his reign. Daniel claims that Belshazzar was king, and was the son of Nebuchadrezzar (5:2, 10, 11, 22, etc.), but he was actually the son of Nabonidus (though he may have been the grandson of Nebuchadrezzar, through his mother) and was never actually king, only regent. Daniel says that Darius is the son of Xerxes and a Mede (9:1), but he was actually a Persian (Persians come from some distance south of Babylon, Medes from some distance north), and was the son of Hystaspes, and the father of Xerxes (not the other way around). Daniel also says that Darius succeeded Belshazzar (5:30) and was followed by Cyrus (8:1 vs. 10:1), when in fact Darius followed Cyrus, as well as Cambyses, the son of Cyrus, whom Daniel completely fails to mention. On the other hand, Daniel accurately "predicts" many events in the reign of Antiochus up until 11:39, at which point he gets everything wrong, suggesting that the book was completed around this time [for more, see Revealing Daniel by Curt van den Heuvel].
[9] The main reason the Jews made war on Rome, he says, "was an ambiguous prophecy found in their sacred writings, announcing that at that time someone from their country would become ruler of the world," Josephus, Jewish War 6.312-16. This same prophecy is alluded to by Suetonius in Life of Vespasian 4 ("an ancient superstition was current in the East, that out of Judaea at this time would come the rulers of the world") and Tacitus in Histories 5.13 ("in most there was a firm persuasion, that in the ancient records of their priests was contained a prediction of how at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers, coming from Judaea, were to acquire universal empire" and "these mysterious prophecies had pointed to Vespasian and Titus, but the common people, with the usual blindness of ambition, had interpreted these mighty destinies of themselves, and could not be brought even by disasters to believe the truth"). The prophecy's interpretation as anticipating Christ's death in 30 A.D. is attested by Julius Africanus, a Christian chronologer who laid it out two centuries later (§ 18.2, preserved by George Syncellus). Clearly, everyone was retrofitting this prophecy to fit whichever "ruler" they wanted, and so there can be nothing miraculous in Jesus being one of them.
[10] The more usual interpretation is that of Julius Africanus, a Christian chronologer who laid it out in the early 220's A.D., quoted here (from section 18.2 of the works of Africanus as preserved by George Syncellus):
From Artaxerxes 70 weeks are reckoned up to the time of Christ, according to the numeration of the Jews. For from Nehemiah, who was sent...in the 20th year of Artaxerxes (445 B.C.)...to the 16th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar (30 A.D.), there are given 475 years, which make 490 Hebrew years, since they measure the years by the lunar month...the annual period according to the sun consisting of 365 and 1/4 days, while the lunar period of 12 months has 11 and 1/4 days less. For which reason the Greeks and the Jews insert three intercalary months every eight years. For 8 times 11 and 1/4 days make 3 months [of 30 days]. The 475 years, therefore, contain 59 periods of 8 years and three months over: thus, the three intercalary months for every 8 years being added, we get 15 years [i.e. 14 years and 9 months], and these together with the 475 years make 70 weeks.
This entails a predicted date of the crucifixion of 30 A.D. But there is a problem here. Daniel says the anointed is cut off after 69 weeks, not 70. But 69 weeks of Jewish years would be 483 instead of 490, or roughly 468 solar years, for a date of 23 A.D., which is now too early--for Pontius Pilate was not in Judaea until 26 A.D., so 23 cannot be the date of the crucifixion of Christ. Thus, the seventy weeks prophecy fails to be a prediction of the death of Christ even according to Africanus.
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