Jesus, Historian, and the Miracles: A Personal Story

“Do all people, in the dark of a sleepless night”, David Wolpe wrote, “wonder if they made the right choice with their lives?” Do they ever poke the greatest question of all? All philosophizing on life’s purpose is ultimately founded upon two fundamental assumptions, or conclusions. The first is, Does God exist? and the second, If God exists, what is His character or nature? It was 2013 and I was at a friend’s dinner party. We used to meet there and discuss all sorts of intellectual topics: from religion to philosophy and science. Don’t get me wrong, that wasn’t the only thing I was doing back then. But to be honest, we were young students (I was a third-year undergraduate) with a passion for books, knowledge, and debates. So naturally, we loved to discuss these issues all night. Drinks, food, and books on the table – and everything was ready to go. It usually ended early in the morning trying to catch a tram back to the apartment I was living then.

There I met a girl who was (I think!) studying psychology and she asked me what’s my background story. I told her that I’m pursuing my bachelor’s degree in history with a special interest in early Christianity. She instantly replied: “Then, you are an atheist for sure!”. I was a little bit confused. Why would studying early Christian history make someone atheist (or theist for that matter)? So naturally, I asked her for an explanation. She told me that I must know that everything in the early history of Christianity is a hoax (beginning with the idea of Jesus’ resurrection) and that I can’t really believe in all those miracles reported in the Gospels. “Surely, as a history student, you know of other miracles attributed to various gods and goddesses”. I have to say I was surprised because I didn’t see the connection she did. And I was quite familiar with the philosophical topics due to the fact that already then, I’ve read practically all of the famous atheists: from Friedrich Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell to Christopher Hitchens. Although, Nietzsche was too much for me back then. I had to read it again a few years ago. Actually, for a brief period of time Russell was an intellectual hero of mine. I remember sitting in a room of my small apartment in Zagreb, trying to find my own answer to the greatest question of all time: Does God Exist? In front of me Hitchens’s book “God is not great”, on my right some sloppy PDF version of Bertrand Russell’s book “Why I’m not a Christian”, and on my left, Ravi Zacharias “Can Man Live Without God”, C.S. Lewis “Mere Christianity” and David Wolpe’s book “Why faith matters”. I started my journey with Russell’s book which directed me towards other stuff he wrote. He was the voice of reason with a tone of certainty that I was looking for. Eventually, I ended up reading anything I could get my hands on. Whether or not I finished my intellectual journey with Russell isn’t that important. The point of all this is that I was familiar with these kinds of topics (miracles, supernatural, God’s existence, philosophy, etc.). Nevertheless, I just didn’t see the connection she did.

Needless to say, there are a whole bunch of reported miracles in the works of authors from antiquity. Just read what Suetonius, Tacitus, or Plutarch have to say about Romulus, Julius Caesar, Augustus, Alexander the Great, etc. After all, Augustus was called the savior of the World, Son of God, and bearer of the Good News. But, to do history, one doesn’t have to be an atheist. This is just a non sequitur. The conclusion she drew was based on the mistake of failing to see the difference between methodological and philosophical naturalism. This brings us back to the much wider discussion of a stance that historians must take vis-à-vis miracles reported in the primary sources.

I suppose most of the people interested in the New Testament are Christians who have been taught that it is the inspired word of God. So, there is a natural question to be asked: How can a Christian who is committed to the Bible affirm that its authors have a wide range of perspectives and that they sometimes disagree with one another? More specifically, how can a believer investigate New Testament documents from a historical point of view if they are full of reported miracles? New Testament, in addition to being a document of faith, is rooted in history; New Testament is written in particular historical contexts and has always been read within particular historical contexts. The first crucial point is this: Historians deal with past events that are maters of the public record. The public record consists of human actions and world events – things that anyone can see or experience. This is the meaning of the notion of methodological naturalism. This means that historians, as historians, have no privileged access to what happens in the supernatural realm; they have access only to what happens in this, our natural world. And this access is limited at best! Consequently, conclusions drawn by historians have to be (in theory) accessible and acceptable to everyone, whether the person is a Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Christian, atheist, or anything else. To illustrate the point, a colleague of mine is an expert in the Second World War. I’m not sure if he is a Christian, but (for the sake of the argument) let’s say he is. He can’t write an article (as a historian) claiming that the Allies won the war because God helped them. Maybe God helped them or maybe He didn’t. But he can’t make a historical argument about God’s involvement in the Second World War. That article would never pass a peer-reviewed process. Getting back to early Christianity, historians can say where and when people started to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead (whether or not it was something that occurred decades after Jesus’ dead; whether or not it was something that emerged in Judea). But, they can never say whether Jesus did really rose from the dead. Furthermore (the second crucial point!), that doesn’t mean Jesus didn’t rose from the dead. In other words, methodological naturalism doesn’t logically lead to philosophical naturalism – a belief that only natural laws and forces (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual ones) operate in the universe.

This conclusion is supported by the simple fact of people who are Christians as well as historians of early Christianity. Also, there are historians of early Christianity who are atheists or agnostics. One can compare this with the situation in the scientific community: there are (for example) biologists who are atheists, Christians, agnostics, Jews, Muslims, etc. Moreover, a study done by a sociologist from Rice University has shown that the main reason why atheistic scientists reject the notion of God has nothing to do with their scientific work (most of them list philosophical or sociological reasons). Anyways, I tried to explain this to a girl from the beginning of the story. She was a little bit surprised but later on accepted the arguments I presented. I’m well aware that a lot of people could have questions and doubts regarding the historical investigation of the early Christian world. On the one hand, there are hard-core atheists who think that in some way history disproves Christianity. On the other hand, there are believers who are afraid to accept historical methods in dealing with the early Christian documents. To the latter part of the equation, I can only quote the words uttered by Clement of Alexandria 1700 years ago: “But if the faith which they possess be such as to be dissolved by plausible speech, let it be by all means dissolved, and let them confess that they will not retain the truth.” After all, wasn’t St. Augustin the one who wrote that all truth comes from God and that Christians shouldn’t be afraid of the truth!

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