How to Judge Historical Miracle Claims Without Being Closed-Minded
Christian doctrine is predicated on Jesus’ miracles. This is especially true concerning the resurrection. But don’t other religions make miracle claims too? With so many miracle claims in so many other faiths, how can anyone use miracles as evidence for a particular religion?
This was one of the famous 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume’s favorite arguments against Christianity. His essay Of Miracles is still considered by many to be the death-knell to anyone who would try and argue for signs and wonders as an evidential basis for their faith. Hume wrote:
“…that there is no testimony for any, even those which have not been expressly detected, that is not opposed by an infinite number of witnesses; so that not only the miracle destroys the credit of the testimony, but even the testimony destroys itself. To make this the better understood, let us consider, that, in matters of religion, whatever is different is contrary, and that it’s impossible the religions of ancient Rome, of Turkey, of Siam, and of China should, all of them, be established on any solid foundation. Every miracle, therefore, pretended to have been wrought in any of these religions (and all of them abound in miracles) as its direct scope is to establish the particular system to which it is attributed, so it has the same force, tho’ more indirectly, to overthrow every other system: in destroying a rival-system, it likewise destroys the credit of those miracles on which that system was established: so that all the prodigies of different religions are to be regarded as contrary facts, and the evidence of these prodigies, whether weak or strong, as opposite to each other.”
David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Chapter X, 95
You still hear this kind of sentiment echoed by many modern skeptics like Sam Harris. But is this really a good way to think about miracles? It would seem that the proper way to arrive at reasonable belief is to examine the evidence in detail, not just say “oh no, there’s a conflict here…I guess they must all be fake” and move on. But because there’s so much religious noise out there concerning miracles, this does make for some powerful rhetoric. But what if we said we can answer this objection?
John Douglas’ Criterion: A Religiously-Neutral Miracle Test
Enter John Douglas. Most critics act as if Hume’s argument was such a slam-dunk in argumentation that no one dared to respond to him for centuries, but that’s just not true. Many contemporary Christian thinkers took up the challenge of rebutting Hume, and Douglas was one of them. In his book The Criterion, Douglas argued that false miracle claims in other religions are not at all a good basis to reject all miracle claims whole cloth. Here’s Douglas:
“ Counterfeit coin supposes that there is such a thing in the world as good money, and nobody would pretend, outwardly, to be virtuous, unless some were really so. In the same manner, the false miracles, about which so much work is made, suppose the existence of real ones; and the cheats that have been imposed upon the world, far from furnishing us with reasons to reject all miracles in general, are, on the contrary, a strong proof that some, of which they are imitations, have been genuine.”
The Criterion, John Douglas, p. 19
Douglas isn’t a fan of having a dogma against all miracle claims, but he’s not suggesting hapless credulity, either. Not in the least bit. But how do we separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to miracle claims? Could there be a religiously neutral criterion to filter out unpromising candidates?
Douglas proposes a common-sense, three-point filter as a way of judging miracle claims. He isn’t saying that if miracles don’t pass all three criteria they’re necessarily false, but that they can be reasonably doubted. Here’s Douglas’ criterion:
“First, we suspect miracles to be false when the accounts of them are not published to the world till long after the time when they are said to have been performed. Secondly, we suspect them to be false when the accounts are not published in the place where it is pretended they were performed but are propagated only at a great distance from the supposed scene of action. Thirdly, supposing the accounts to have the two foregoing qualifications, we still may suspect them to be false, if in the time when, and at the place where they took their rise, the circumstances were such that they might be suffered to pass without examination.” The Criterion, John Douglas, p. 28
Running Miracle Claims in Other Religions Through the Filter
Test #1 — The Test of Time
I think it’ll be helpful to run a few famous miracle claims through this filter and see how they fare. One of the skeptics’ favorite Jesus comparisons is Apollonius of Tyana. Apollonius, a Neo-Pythagorean philosopher, was born into a wealthy Greek family. He was known to be a teacher and a great miracle-worker. Although the precise dates of his birth and death are uncertain, most scholars agree that he was a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth. To jar some of his incoming students, Bart Ehrman often sets him up as a direct parallel to Jesus. Says Bart:
“Even before he was born, it was known that he would be someone special. A supernatural being informed his mother the child she was to conceive would not be a mere mortal but would be divine. He was born miraculously, and he became an unusually precocious young man. As an adult he left home and went on an itinerant preaching ministry, urging his listeners to live, not for the material things of this world, but for what is spiritual.
He gathered a number of disciples around him, who became convinced that his teachings were divinely inspired, in no small part because he himself was divine. He proved it to them by doing many miracles, healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead. But at the end of his life he roused opposition, and his enemies delivered him over to the Roman authorities for judgment, but unlike Jesus was not crucified, as he vanished from the courtroom and reappeared in another place days later where he was seen by his followers and convinced them that he was not really dead, but lived on in the heavenly realm. Later some of his followers wrote books about him.”
(Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth pp. 208–209)
Here’s the rub: Apollonius’ biographer Philostratus didn’t write about him until about 225 AD, well over 100 years after his death! On the other hand, the first gospel was written within a generation of Jesus and we have creeds that mention his resurrection that scholars date back within the first three years of the church. (1 Cor. 15:3–7)
Robert Funk, a non-Christian scholar and founder of the Jesus Seminar says that: “ …The conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead had already taken root by the time Paul was converted about 33 C.E. On the assumption that Jesus died about 30 C.E., the time for development was thus two or three years at most.” (Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus, p. 466.) Funk is certainly no friend of conservative Christianity. His verdict is in line with virtually all modern scholarship, liberal or conservative.
So Apollonius flunks the first test, while the resurrection of Jesus passes with flying colors.
Test #2 — The Distance Test
We all knew that guy in college who had that smoking-hot model girlfriend that nobody ever has really seen…from Canada. Right. Sure thing, man. That picture you’re carrying around looks like you cut it out of a magazine, but if you say so…The point is it’s easy to lie about something reported from a great distance away with little to no corroborating evidence.
Going back to the critics’ darling, Apollonius prolific travels and miracles happen all over the known world: Greece, Rome, Spain, North Africa, and also Mesopotamia and India. Philostratus was writing from Greece. So not only were Apollonius’ miracles reported from a great distance of time apart, but they’re also reported from far away. This is starting to sound more like Star Wars — a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Contrast Jesus’ resurrection. It was proclaimed abroad in the streets of Jerusalem, the very city where he was judicially murdered. So to keep score, Apollonius 0. Jesus 2. Maybe he’s not a very good Jesus comparison after all.
Test #3 — Critical Examination
There’s fishiness we could talk about Apollonius here as well. Philostratus was requested to write his biography by the empress Julia Domna, the mother of the emperor Caracalla, who had donated funds to build a temple dedicated to Apollonius. So it’s possible that Philostratus had some motive to fudge things to make Apollonius seem a lot grander. It’s not a full-proof, but there’s a motive we can establish here. Strike three for Apollonius.
Hume also brings up Emperor Vespasian’s healing a blind man to make his case. Hume claims that it’s “One of the best-attested miracles in all profane history, is that which Tacitus reports of Vespasian, who cured a blind man in Alexandria, by means of his spittle, and a lame man by the mere touch of his foot…” This miracle is found in Tacitus, who Hume says is known for his “candor and veracity”. Hume concludes: “If we add the public nature of the facts, as related, it will appear, that no evidence can well be supposed stronger for so gross and so palpable a falsehood.”
But obviously not a historian in the world today believes that Vespasian had the power to heal the blind. Game over, right? Not a chance. This also fails Douglas’ third criterion. In The Blackwell Companion for Natural Theology, Tim and Lydia McGrew tag team to demolish this comparison:
The entire affair bears on its face the marks of obvious imposture. It was conducted in Alexandria, the first major city to declare in favor of Vespasian’s imperial aspirations, and it was done in honor both of the emperor, for whom a divine sign would be most convenient, and of the local deity. At Vespasian’s request, physicians examined the two men who claimed to have received visions in the night telling them to appeal to Vespasian to be cured; the physicians reported that the blind man was not totally blind, nor the lame man totally lame, and added that any glory for a successful cure would redound to Vespasian himself, while any blame for a failure would fall back upon the two supplicants for having fraudulently represented the oracle of Serapis.”
The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, Kindle Location 17155
So that’s another fail. Now let’s run our comparison with Jesus. Did the resurrection fit in with known prejudices? While the disciples certainly believed in Jesus’ miracles, they were slow to believe the resurrection. Even when the women at the empty tomb told them about it, they said they were telling “idle tales”. (Luke 24:11) The Jewish expectation was that all the righteous dead would be raised at the end of time, not that the Messiah would be raised before anyone else. (Daniel 12:2–3, Isaiah 26:19)
Paul certainly didn’t think that Jesus rose until he had his encounter on the Damascus Road. And even while Jesus was alive, we know that his brother James didn’t believe there was anything special about Jesus until after he received an appearance himself.
The disciples proclaimed this message of Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem, shortly after the crucifixion, where their opponents could have uncovered the body of Jesus and squashed the whole charade right then and there. But they said that his body was stolen. (Mt 28:13–15) In the face of extreme prejudices against their claim, they would not shut up, even under threats of death.
Now think about it for a second — if you’re going to start a cult based on miracles, are you going to go to Miami or are you going to go to Mecca? You’re obviously going to go where your message will attract as little danger and prejudice as possible.
Hume’s Abject Failure
Another respondent to Hume’s essay was William Adams. His response to this “miracles in other religions cancel each other out” objection fits well here:
“There is a wide difference betwixt establishing false miracles, by the help of a false religion and establishing a false religion by the help of false miracles. Nothing is more easy than the former of these, or more difficult than the latter.”
William Adams, An Essay in Answer to Mr. Hume’s Essay on Miracles, 3rd ed. , pp. 73.
The bottom line is that Hume was trying to stack the deck by suggesting that miracle claims in other religions cancel each other out. Douglas’ filter is religiously-neutral and commonsensical. They give us reason to doubt many of the same miracles that skeptics reject, but they don’t leave room for wholesale, prejudiced dismissal of every miracle claim. And in the case of the resurrection, it passes the test with flying colors. If you’re interested, give Douglas’ book a read. It won’t cost you a dime.
Originally published at https://isjesusalive.com on November 13, 2019.