Can History “Prove” a Miracle?

The overwhelming consensus in secular circles seems to be no, that whether or not a supernatural and miraculous event occurred in the past is simply outside the purview of history, and history is literally incapable of establishing an event as being “miraculous” in nature. But is that really the case?

Imagine if we were to simultaneously discover hundreds of ancient documents, unearthed from all around the world, each one dated conclusively to approximately 2,500 years ago, and each document corresponding with one of the civilizations which possessed writing during that time (including ones which had no possible means of communication with each other). Each document is written in the native language of that civilization, and on each one the message is essentially identical: “On this day, every single person in our region received a psychic message, which said to write down these numbers, and said that one day thousands of years from now we would understand the meaning of the numbers”. And when you take all of those hundreds of number strings from the different civilizations and assemble them into one long string, it matches the digits of pi starting at the billionth digit…

Yeah, it doesn’t really look 2,500 years old. But we’re talking miraculous documents here.

Of course, there’s a big difference between the above scenario and the supernatural claims in, for example, the Bible. No number of historical attestations could possibly prove the resurrection of Jesus actually occurred, right? Well let’s consider the following scenario. Instead of four grossly contradictory and plagiarized accounts written decades after the fact by anonymous sources (i.e. the Gospels), imagine if we had consistent, clear, signed accounts by known historical figures who claimed to be witnesses to the crucifixion and the resurrection, and each claimed to have spoken with Jesus afterwards firsthand. And imagine if, in these accounts, Jesus told them that while he was dead he visited God, who told him to provide each of his disciples with a different string of numbers, and each of these numbers were recorded in the documents, and when you assemble those numbers into one long string…

Such a scenario wouldn’t necessarily prove that Jesus was the Son of God or any such nonsense, but as much of a staunch atheist and proponent of naturalism as I am, if documents such as those above were discovered I would be more than willing to admit that something supernatural/miraculous occurred, based simply upon those documents alone.

Now to those who have read this blog in the past it should be rather obvious, but just to be absolutely clear: I’m not saying any of this to suggest that we should give greater credence to the Gospel accounts, or somehow be more “open-minded” to the possibility that Jesus was resurrected. Quite the opposite. What I’m saying is that it is possible–at least in principle–for “history to prove a miracle”, in the sense that it is possible to prove anything, through historical means or otherwise (in other words, not proof with absolute 100% certainty, but sufficient proof to establish a claim as true). And instead of just dismissing the “historical” claims of supernatural events in the Bible with a simple hand-wave, these hypothetical scenarios show just how high that bar should be in order to meet the evidentiary standard of historical proof for a supernatural event. And they show just how far the Bible’s gospel accounts fall short of reaching that bar.

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Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 6

“Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John”. What are the four Gospels of the New Testament? Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John of course. Which matches their order in the Bible, and matches the order they were written in according to the Catholic church and Christian tradition. The only problem: It’s wrong. And not only is it wrong, but the fact that it’s wrong is surprisingly devastating to the credibility of the gospel accounts and the Bible overall. And yet, despite this, you will often (if not always) hear even atheists referring to the gospels in the “stock” order, thereby perpetuating the myth of when they were actually written, and obscuring–however slightly–precisely what the church has tried to obscure.

In actuality Mark was written well before Matthew (which copied extensively from Mark), yet Mark has no birth narrative; it mentions nothing of Jesus being born of a virgin; it has the fewest miracles, the least-grandiose miracles, and presents the most “human” characterization of Jesus. Even the way Jesus speaks in Mark is dramatically different than in the later gospels. And perhaps most damning, Mark does not even contain a “resurrection” of Jesus per-se (Mark ends at the discovery of an empty tomb, and mentions nothing about Jesus appearing to anyone afterwards; of course that didn’t prevent early Christians from tacking-on a resurrection story to Mark, many years after it was written).

All of these issues are far less problematic if Matthew was written first, and if Mark were simply a condensed account of the “original” gospel… which is precisely the excuse that Christian apologists claim. But for Mark to be the first gospel account, and for it to leave out such critical details? That’s much harder (and probably impossible) to explain without acknowledging that those elements were later fabrications.

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Mark, Matthew, and Luke never got to do this.

“I have better sources of morality than a 2,000 year-old book”. I’ll often hear people emphasize how ridiculously outdated the Bible is by referring to it as “2,000 years old”. But not only is that not accurate, it actually does the Bible a favor by obscuring the fact that the Bible’s origins do not even come close to coinciding with the events that it purportedly describes. In actuality the books of the New Testament were written beginning approximately 50 CE (decades after Jesus’ death) and were finished at some point in the 2nd (perhaps even 3rd) century. The books were then collected into what we now know as “the Bible” at some point well into the 4th century.

Obviously calling the Bible a “2,000 year old book” is much easier to write and say than “a collection of books written somewhere between 2,800 and 1,960 years ago which were collected for the first time in their current form about 1,650 years ago”. But the use of the “2,000 year old” shorthand suggests that the Bible goes all the way back to the lifetime of Jesus–as if it provides a contemporaneous account of his words and deeds–as opposed to being separated from them by at least a full generation. And by doing so, the Bible’s critics are unintentionally implying a greater degree of legitimacy to the Bible than it actually deserves.

For the rest of the series:

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 1

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 2

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 3

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 4

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 5

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 7

The “Historical Records” for Jesus?

I had a friend recently ask me, “Where does one go to find the historical records that can be used to make a case for or against the scriptures?”

I explained to him, in as respectful a way as possible, that the simple and honest answer is that you don’t go anywhere because there are none. Certainly not when it comes to the New Testament and anything remotely relating to the supposed life (or resurrection) of Jesus, and certainly not when it comes to the most significant stories of the entire Old Testament. There is simply no contemporaneous historical or archaeological evidence whatsoever to back up any of those stories in any meaningful way.

When it comes to Jesus, the unaminous consensus among historians and Biblical scholars is that there is literally not a single existing document or shred of archaeological evidence from the lifetime of Jesus which makes any reference to Jesus whatsoever. And that includes the Bible itself.

The writings of Paul, the very earliest of the New Testament books and literally the earliest written documents of any kind which reference Jesus, were not written until at least a decade after Jesus died (and, incidentally, Paul’s writings did not include any details whatsoever of Jesus’ life, made no mention of when/where he lived, said nothing about anything Jesus did during his lifetime, and said nothing about how/when/where the crucifixion took place).

The Gospels of the New Testament (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John), the very earliest written documents of any kind which actually contain any details of Jesus’ life, were not written until several decades after Paul’s writings and thus decades after Jesus’ death.

You have to go all the way to 93 AD (at least 60 years after Jesus’ death) to find the first historical reference to Jesus from a legitimate historical source, in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus; unfortunately that reference has been severely tampered with if not entirely fabricated (i.e. added to the historical text decades later). And that one reference is the only reference to Jesus’ existence from a historical source in the entire 1st century.

You have to go well into the 2nd century to find the earliest undisputed historical references to Jesus, and even those are more references to the beliefs of the early Christians than to the actual figure of Jesus (and even if they did attest to the historical validity of Jesus, they were written so long after Jesus’ lifetime that none could have possibly been written by actual witnesses).

Incidentally it’s worth noting that there were several other messiahs and so-called “Christs” around the time of Jesus, and several of them did manage to make their way into the historical records. There were also several historians during the lifetime of Jesus who kept detailed historical records of events throughout the region, yet none of them made any reference whatsoever to Jesus. One of them, Philo, even lived in the same region (if not city) where the most significant events of the New Testament allegedly took place.

Per John E. Remsberg, in The Christ:

“Philo was born before the beginning of the Christian era, and lived until long after the reputed death of Christ. He wrote an account of the Jews covering the entire time that Christ is said to have existed on earth. He was living in or near Jerusalem when Christ’s miraculous birth and the Herodian massacre occurred. He was there when Christ made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He was there when the crucifixion with its attendant earthquake, supernatural darkness, and resurrection of the dead took place — when Christ himself rose from the dead, and in the presence of many witnesses ascended into heaven. These marvelous events which must have filled the world with amazement, had they really occurred, were unknown to him. It was Philo who developed the doctrine of the Logos, or Word, and although this Word incarnate dwelt in that very land and in the presence of multitudes revealed himself and demonstrated his divine powers, Philo saw it not.”

Now to be clear, I’m not saying any of this to make the case that Jesus did NOT exist; the writings of the New Testament certainly constitute enough evidence to affirm Jesus’ basic existence, and (as I’ll be discussing further with my next post) some of the strongest evidence that Jesus existed is also evidence against his supposed divinity.

However, with the state of the evidence for Jesus’ mere existence being as it is, it certainly draws into question ANY claims regarding his life, and shows how absurd it is to believe that the evidence in any way supports the miraculous and supernatural claims regarding him.

Further Reading:
The Case Against The Case For Christ by Robert M. Price
Godless by Dan Barker
Challenging the Verdict by Earl Doherty