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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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