Historian and the miracle claims in the Gospels: Interesting Encounter from my Boring Past

I was always attracted to controversial things from the past. Numerous years ago (time really flies!) I was lecturing in a Church about the historical Jesus and early Christianity. I was still a student – looking for my Master’s degree in history. Nevertheless, I had built my confidence up to that point, meaning I didn’t have any problems standing before an audience of 50-60 people explaining how historians investigate the Gospels in search of a historical Jesus. What do we really know about him? Where is the line between the post-Eastern tradition and authentic episodes from Jesus’ life? Needless to say, my knowledge back then was much modest but I was radically motivated to read anything I could get my hands on. I would even read stuff in French despite the fact that my knowledge of French was limited to “Bonjour” and “Au revoir”. Fortunately, google translate was available so I would patiently translate articles from French to English. You can imagine the time it took me to translate for example 10 or 20 articles. Anyways, after the lecture, elderly women approached me with a few kind introductory words of encouragement only to illustrate the old saying about the calm before the store. Sooner than later, she verbally attacked me claiming that everybody should be able to prove, on the basis of historical records, Jesus’ resurrection. Asserting that historians can’t prove the supernatural events is a heresy – especially if a historian is a Christian. She even mentioned the possibility that the hell will be my final address.

Years have passed since that curious encounter. I’ve changed my take on a lot of things related to the historical Jesus and early Christianity (as should be the case if you are developing your skills and knowledge). However, my opinion on miracles has not changed. I’m still convinced that historians can’t decide on the truthfulness of supernatural events recorded in history. Recently, I started to read (my life is boring, I know!) a new book on the resurrection of Jesus by a renowned historian and New Testament scholar Dale Allison (Princeton University) entitled “The Resurrection of Jesus: Apologetics, Polemics, History“. In it, Allison takes a closer look at all the possible approaches historians have taken on the greatest story of our civilization. I do find myself in agreement with most things Allison states, especially with regard to the position historian must take on miracle claims. Can the historical method alone establish a miracle claim? First, this depends on your definition of a miracle. For our purposes here, we can use the conventional definition: a miracle is something done by divine intervention that is otherwise inexplicable. When I think about this question, I think we should break it in a half. The first part of the question should be: Are there any things out there that are inexplicable, any sort of historical events that simply baffle historians? Secondly, if there are such events, can we say (as historians) that it is an act of God indeed? To answer the first part, I’m sure there are really things in history for which I have no explanation at all. Allison gives two prime examples of that. The first one is Joseph of Cupertino (17th century) – an Italian Conventual Franciscan friar who is honored as a Christian mystic and saint. He was said to have been prone to miraculous levitation and intense ecstatic visions that left him gaping. His beatification procedure involved interviewing hundreds of people who knew him personally. They all said that they saw him levitate. Without going into the details here, I think the historical evidence for this is actually overwhelming. If it were the evidence for anything else non-supernatural it would be a slam dunk case. If several hundred different people who knew this guy in different times and places, different sorts of people (political leaders, a pope, common people, etc.) agree on something, you should be able to say that this really happened. However, since it involves something absolutely unnatural (levitating), I think there is no way of explaining it. The most recent skeptical (natural) explanation said that Cupertino was actually a really good gymnast and that he was able to jump high and deceive people into thinking that he was levitating. Really? Does that mean people in the 17th century couldn’t differentiate between jumping real high and levitating? Not just one guy, but several hundred people, and not a single soul was able to see that Cupertino was just jumping high, and that’s it. A highly unlikely scenario but for some, it is more probable than to concede that Cupertino could really levitate. The other example in Allison’s book is related to the appearance of Mother Mary. He gives a famous example from Zeitoun (Egypt) at the Coptic Church between 1968 and 1971. Again, without digging deep into the details, I’ll just say that we have literary hundreds of thousands of people who saw this thing over periods of months, even years. It was even photographed for God’s sake! (see: here). Muslims saw it; Christians saw it, skeptics saw it, and journalists saw it! Actually, there are a lot of Coptic Christians in New Jersey and some of them were there in Zeitoun. They personally told Allison (who also lives in Jersey) all about it. They swear on their life that they saw Mother Mary. At the end of the day, historians have no way of explaining the data.

I think there are certainly incredible events in history that I don’t think have any rational explanation. But then again, how do you decide what agency was behind it? Was it really a God or something else we still don’t understand? Certainly, historians can’t invoke God as an explanation since they are, by the definition of their craft, bound within the materialistic explanations (see: here). Could you imagine if that boundary was open? Then we would have to, as historians, consider all the other miracles – not just from the Christian tradition. What about Baal Shem Tov (18th century) – a founder of Hasidic Judaism? Our principal source of information about him comes in a series of anecdotes about his life written fifty-four years after his death and titled In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov.  Its author was Rabbi Dov Ber, who, as it turns out, was the son-in-law of a man who had been the personal scribe and secretary of Shem Tov! Throughout the tales, the Shem Tov heals the sick, exorcises dybbuks (restless souls of the dead who possess other people), and helps barren women conceive. He can even ascend to heaven and miraculously shorten a journey. Furthermore, on a philosophical level: how do you go from “unexplained” to “God did it”? Why don’t you say that we can’t explain it and leave it with that? Or maybe, we’ll be able to explain it in 100 or 200 years! As a historian, I feel guilty about dismissing the evidence for Cupertino’s ability to levitate or the ability to ascend to heaven related to Baal Shem Tov. But, as a historian, I have to do that. At the personal level (if we remove our historian’s cap), it all depends on your worldview. For someone who is a believing Christian, it is certainly possible that Cupertino flew around. For a Jew, it is absolutely possible that Shem Tov has done all of those miraculous things ascribed to him. However, if you are an atheist, you would probably just say that these stories don’t make any sense to you and that they can’t fit into your worldview, or even that they are contrary to the modern scientific approach.

Finally, do I think that the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection or his ability to walk on water or to turn water into the vine (an exceptional power!) is as strong as the evidence for John Cupertino’s levitating ability or as strong as the appearance of Mother Mary in Egypt or as strong as the miraculous abilities of Baal Shem Tov? As a historian, I have to say it is not! Does that mean Jesus wasn’t resurrected? Of course not. It is in my opinion a matter of historical fact that the earliest followers (e.g. Peter, Paul…) truly believed they saw him after his death. What is your take on their claims – depends on your worldview. In the end, it depends on whether you believe it or not. History can’t help you there!

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