Monday, July 3, 2017

The Nature Of The Claim


From *The Skeptical Review*, 1997/March-April:

by Farrell Till
Christian apologists argue that skeptics are unreasonably illogical when they reject biblical miracle claims. They disdainfully refer to this as an "anti-supernatural bias." In my debate on the resurrection with Michael Horner, he said in concluding his first speech, "One cannot rule out the resurrection because of a prior assumption that miracles are impossible," and went on to say, "As long as it's even possible that God exists, miracles are possible" (The Horner-Till Debate, Skepticism, Inc., 1995, p. 8). Of course, Horner himself was arguing from "a prior assumption," because he was assuming that if a god exists, it is a god who intervenes in human affairs to perform miracles. Such a view would be contrary to Deism, a religious philosophy that believes in a creator who made the world to operate according to the natural laws instituted at the time of creation, so if assumptions are not allowed skeptics, we have to wonder why Christians think that they should be entitled to argue from an assumption that a god does exist and that he/it is their particular god. There is an inconsistency here that they need to explain.

The fact is that Christian apologists accuse skeptics of having an "anti-supernatural bias," when they themselves have the same bias. The only difference is that their bias is a selective one in that they reject nonbiblical supernatural claims and then uncritically accept all miracle claims in the Bible. In my debate with Michael Horner, I cited various nonbiblical miracle claims during the cross-examination periods and asked if he believed that they are historical facts. I referred to the Mormon claim that an angel delivered to Joseph Smith golden plates on which the Book of Mormon had been transcribed in ancient Egyptian script, and Horner said that he didn't believe that this had happened. I cited the various claims that Elvis Presley has been seen alive, and Horner said that he considered them so unbelievable that he was surprised I would even bring them up. I cited various miracle claims that Josephus recorded in Wars of the Jews, 6:5.3, and Horner, apparently realizing by then the impression his answers could be leaving with the audience, said that he didn't know about these; he hadn't yet "checked into that one" (p. 9). I cited Suetonius's claim that two "divine forms" came down and set fire to the funeral couch of Julius Caesar while Roman officials were arguing over where to cremate the body, and Horner said, "Same response, Farrell. I don't know where this is leading" (Ibid.). I suspect, however, that Horner knew exactly where this was leading, and so he was trying to give the audience at least an appearance of consistency by stating that he would have to "check into" these matters before he could state an opinion. 


Finally, I ended this line of questioning by asking Horner if he could give us an example of even one nonbiblical miracle that he accepted as historical fact, and he answered with one word-- "No" (p. 16). By then, Horner's selective bias was rather evident. If a miracle claim was recorded in the Bible, he routinely accepted it; if a miracle claim was recorded in nonbiblical literature, he either rejected it or didn't consider it important enough even to "check into." Yet he criticized me for dismissing miraculous claims on the grounds that miracles don't happen.

Now along comes Dr. Price with the same complaint: "Only radical skeptics who insist on the validity of their theological presuppositions in spite of objective evidence will deny this conclusion" [that Jeremiah made a valid prophecy]. I suppose it has never occurred to Dr. Price that if radicalism is present in a controversy like this, it is to be found in the inerrantists and not in the skeptics. A skeptic who rejects a biblical miracle claim is doing nothing more than applying to the Bible the same standard he would apply to miracle claims in the Book of Mormon, the Qur'an, and other documents. If there are no sound reasons to believe the claims, the skeptic rejects them regardless of whether they are recorded in the Bible or some other documents. Inerrantists, on the other hand, apply a double standard. If a miracle is recorded in the Bible, they accept it as historical fact; if it is recorded anywhere else, they, with few exceptions, reject it. 

If Dr. Price or any other inerrantists dispute this, they may be interested in accepting a challenge that has gone unanswered, although it has been posted on the internet several times where inerrantist subscribers have surely seen it. The challenge is to list just one miracle claim in nonbiblical literature that inerrantists accept as historical fact. I will even suggest some that they may wish to consider. In The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius stated that the emperor Vespasian once healed a blind man and a lame man by just touching them (Penguin, 1979, p. 284). This miracle is parallel to some of the miracles attributed to Jesus in the New Testament, so it would be interesting to see if any of our inerrantist readers accept this claim as historical fact and if not, why not. In defending the resurrection claim in the gospel narratives, Matthew Perman has argued that I should accept Aristotle's dictum that "the benefit of the doubt should be delegated to the document itself, not arrogated by the critic to himself" (TSR, November/December 1996, p. 2), so I wonder if he is willing to give the benefit of the doubt to Suetonius and accept Vespasian's miracle cures as historical fact. Is Price willing to do the same? Are other inerrantists willing to do the same? If not, they should explain why not. 

If they don't like this example, I can cite others. In Wars of the Jews, Josephus made these miracle claims: (1) a heifer being led to the temple altar gave birth to a lamb, (2) one night the temple altar glowed with such brilliance that it gave the appearance of daylight for half an hour, (3) the eastern gate of the temple, which had taken twenty men to shut "with difficulty," opened one night of its own accord, and (4) soldiers and chariots were seen surrounding the city of Jerusalem in the clouds (6:5.3). Of this last "certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon," Josephus said, "I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those who saw it" (v:297). 

We can analogize these miracles with the New Testament resurrection claim. Christian apologists argue that it is rational to believe the resurrection happened, because we have the testimony of witnesses. The "testimony" of these witnesses is flimsy indeed, but be that as it may, the Christian claim is that witnesses testified to the resurrection of Jesus, and so this claim should be accepted. Josephus likewise stated that his miracle claims had been witnessed, so shouldn't Christians be consistent and say that Josephus's claims should also be accepted as historical fact? It will be interesting to see if any inerrantists will respond to the challenge to tell us whether they accept or reject nonbiblical miracle claims like these. 

The glaring inconsistency in the way Christian apologists defend biblical miracles can best be illustrated by comparing the claims of two major religions. Like Christianity, Islam is a religion with a holy book. Muslims believe that their Qur'an is, in fact, the verbatim word of Allah, and also like the Bible, the Qur'an contains various miracle claims. Suran 54:1 refers to a time when the moon was "rent asunder," and Muslims believe that this is an allusion to an actual historical event, when the prophet Muhammad rent the moon into two pieces. In my English version of the Qur'an, there is a long footnote affixed to this verse, which identifies several Muslims who testified that they actually saw this event. They agreed that when it happened, they could see the peak of Mount Hira "interposing between the two parts." I receive e-mail messages from Muslims who have accessed some TSR articles at its internet site, and one of them sent me a long commentary on this event that they claim is a historical fact. Muslims, then, apparently consider this claim as much a historical fact as Christians consider the resurrection a fact of history. 

Both of these alleged events are such that if they actually happened, they would have received hemispheric notice. If the light of the sun failed for three hours at midday as Luke said (23:44), then by necessity this would have been noticed all over the hemisphere, which the sun had been shining on when it suddenly went out. Likewise, if the moon was rent asunder, this should have been an event that was witnessed throughout the hemisphere. In this case, I say should, because we can imagine the possibility that if this occurred at night, people could have been inside their homes and not observed it, although it would certainly be unlikely that people throughout the hemisphere would have been inside homes, where the event would have passed unnoticed. With the midday darkness, however, whether people were inside or outside, the event would have been noticed, because people in their homes couldn't have helped seeing that the light of the sun had suddenly vanished. So of the two alleged events, we must consider the midday darkness to be the one that would have been more widely noticed. 

So we have two very extraordinary claims that both have their roots in holy books considered by their respective adherents to be the divine word of God or Allah, yet neither religion considers the other's miracle claim to be historical fact. Muslims don't believe that a midday darkness occurred when Jesus was crucified, and Christians don't believe that Muhammad once rent the moon asunder. Neither claim has anything to support it except the dubious "testimony" of the biased followers of each religion. Christians can produce no non-Christian contemporary witnesses who claimed that they personally experienced the midday darkness, and Muslims can produce no non-Islamic contemporary witnesses who claimed that they personally saw the moon divided into two pieces. Each rejects the other's claim. 

The reasons why each religion rejects the other's claim is essentially the same as the skeptic's reason for rejecting both. I have repeatedly stated that reason in past articles, and Perman and Price have both ridiculed it as an "anti-supernatural bias." If, however, it is an anti-supernatural bias to reject a miracle claim in the absence of exceptionally good evidence--and mere testimony, especially the testimony of religious adherents, is not exceptionally good evidence-- on what grounds do they justify their rejection of the Qur'anic claim that Muhammad once rent the moon asunder? Apologists like Perman and Price argue that if the resurrection is rejected, then skeptics have no grounds for accepting anything from the distant past as valid history, but this is a ridiculous position. When Christians reject the claim that Muhammad rent the moon asunder, do they surrender all grounds for accepting anything else from ancient documents as valid history? Certainly not, for with the exception of what they read in the bible, they evaluate historical claims the same way that skeptics do. If a historical document makes a mundane claim that common sense tells the reader is something that could have easily happened because it or something similar to it has been known to happen many times, he/she simply applies Aristotle's dictum and accords the benefit of the doubt to the document. If, however, the claim is something that the reader knows is completely out of the ordinary, he/she rejects it if there is nothing but the mere word of the writer to support the claim. 

In the case of the Qur'anic claim, I have noted that it is an event that could have happened without the widespread attention that the midday darkness would have necessarily received, because it could have been an event that happened at night when many people were inside their homes and possibly even sleeping. Yet Christians reject the more believable claim but accept the less believable claim of their own holy book. So who is it that has a "bias"?

It is the very nature of the claim that makes the resurrection and prophecy fulfillment unbelievable. Christians are the biased ones, not skeptics. Why can't they see it? 

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