Saturday, June 27, 2009

Anti-Supernatural Bias

Vinny, it's no surprise you don't think the evidence is convincing. I'll say again: I don't think there could be any evidence that would convince you. ChrisB, Homeward Bound.

Evangelical Christians frequently accuse me of possessing an anti-supernatural bias that prevents me from objectively evaluating the historical evidence for Christianity. The funny thing is that we usually aren’t discussing some miraculous event when they level this charge. Often, we are discussing some fact that is entirely amenable to historical inquiry.

For example, did Jesus' early followers willingly die for their belief that he was the Messiah? That seems like a fact that I could accept or reject based purely on the historical evidence regardless of how I feel about the supernatural. After all, I don't have any trouble believing that there were people at Waco or Jonestown who willingly died as a result of a sincere belief in the outlandish claims made by David Koresh or Jim Jones. I can recognize as historical fact that some people willingly followed these men to their deaths regardless of whether I believe in miracles because it was in all the papers at the time

The early evidence that the apostles died for their beliefs isn’t nearly as strong though. Writing late in the first century, the Jewish historian Josephus reports that James was put to death for some unspecified unlawful conduct. It is seventy-five years before Christian sources start reporting that James was specifically executed for refusing to renounce his beliefs. The Roman historian Tacitus reports that Nero scapegoated the Christians in 67 A.D. for the fire in Rome that he was suspected of starting. If in fact, Peter and Paul were put to death at this time, it had nothing to do with their beliefs. Some of the traditions that have the apostles dying for their beliefs can only be dated to centuries after the fact

Even where there is evidence of persecution, it is difficult to establish as historical fact the specific belief for which early Christians were willing to die. The Romans didn’t persecute Christians because they believed that Jesus was the Messiah or because they believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. The Romans didn’t care what the Christians believed. The Romans persecuted Christians for refusing to make the sacrifices that were necessary to maintain the favor of the pagan gods. The Jews occasionally encountered problems for the same reason without believing in Jesus at all. The historical record is not clear about the specific belief that inspired the Christians to martyrdom regardless of whether one believes in the supernatural.

It is even hard to establish what most of the foundational beliefs of the first Christians were, much less their willingness to die for them. It is not an aversion to miracles that makes me question whether the initial spread of Christianity was based on Jesus’ works and teachings. It is the historical fact that the most prolific writer and missionary of the early church says almost nothing about what Jesus said or did. Paul’s theology seems to be based exclusively on his personal interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection In fact, all the first century letters, including Clement’s letter to the Corinthians, are practically bereft of references to anything Jesus himself taught or did. As a question of historical fact, most of what the first followers of Jesus believed about him isn't clear.

Sometimes I get charged with an anti-supernatural bias for questioning the traditional authorship of the gospels. I doubt that anyone thinks that non-belief in miracles causes English literature scholars to conclude that William Shakespeare didn't write all the plays that are attributed to him. Nevertheless, some Christians seem to think that such bias can be the only motive for doubting whether first-century Palestinian peasants could have written Greek as well as the authors of the gospels did. According to them, only an atheistic hyper-skeptic would doubt that Irenaeous actually had any evidential basis for identifying Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as the authors of the canonical gospels a century after they were written.

Perhaps scholars in all fields should consider the possibility of the supernatural in their work. Wouldn’t a little miraculous intervention go a long way to explain how an uneducated commoner became the Bard of Avon? Supernatural explanations could be a great boon to military historians. They would not longer have to reconcile contradictory accounts that put a key commander at two different places on the battlefield. Simply invoke the supernatural and he’s at both places at the same time.

Christian apologists like to claim that allowing for the supernatural best explains all the evidence about Jesus of Nazareth, but I don’t think that this is true. It is the historian who applies methodological naturalism who has to find an explanation for the fantastic stories that are found in the gospels. The apologist doesn’t have to explain anything. Since he is not bound by any natural laws, he can just accept everything at face value.

For that matter, why do apologists feel bound to try to harmonize the contradictions in the different gospels? As long as natural law and natural reason don’t define the parameters of what is possible, why can’t both John and Mark be right even though they say the crucifixion took place on different days? Why couldn’t God have performed a little miracle that made both Acts and Matthew true in their accounts of Judas’ death? Do the apologists betray their own anti-supernatural bias when they insist upon harmonizing away the contradictions in the Bible?


  1. why do apologists feel bound to try to harmonize the contradictions in the different gospels?

    Because once you acknowledge that ANY of it is open to loose interpretation or question, you open up the possibility that ALL of it is.

  2. I think that the attempt to harmonize in effect acknowledges that it is open to interpretation. Doesn't it show greater faith to simply declare that each account is fully true in all its details despite the contradictions? It seems as reasonable as declaring that Jesus was both fully man and fully God or that the three persons of the Trinity are both one and separate.

  3. Of course I have an anti-supernatural bias. The supernatural is the nonexistent. Unless we're at some kind of sci-fi/fantasy convention, all talk of ghosts, goblins, angels, or faeries must be banished from discourse. It's getting near impossible to tolerate any kind of magical talk in a discussion of philosophy.

  4. I was out of town when you posted this, so sorry for the late comment. Quickly:

    "Evangelical Christians frequently accuse me of possessing an anti-supernatural bias that prevents me from objectively evaluating the historical evidence for Christianity."

    I did not mention, nor did I mean to imply, anti-supernatural bias. There are many kinds of bias. The most common stems simply from emotional investment in the contrary position.

    "For that matter, why do apologists feel bound to try to harmonize the contradictions in the different gospels?"

    Very few think miracles invalidate the law of non-contradiction. But this phenomenon is becoming less common as people have begun to rethink what inspiration of scriptures requires.