Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Gospels, Historians, and Presuppositions

A number of times I have been asked if I would be willing to accept the consensus of the "majority of historians" when it comes to various conclusions about the biblical gospels, including the time of their writing and their claims about the miracles of Jesus. On the surface, this seems like a reasonable request. After all, aren't historians the experts when it comes to understanding history? Shouldn't we accept their conclusions?

When it comes to most subjects of science, I accept the consensus of the majority of scientists. As a scientist myself, I am well aware that the scientific method provides a reliable method for determining the truth about nature. For instance, it is clear from the evidence that the climate on the earth is changing and becoming overall warmer. There are disagreements about the extent to which this is occurring and the role that human activity has contributed to climate change, but the evidence that the climate is changing and warming is strong, accepted by the majority of climate scientists, and accepted by me as a scientist.

Both scientists and historians have ground rules on which the practice of their discipline is based. One of the ground rules that most historians hold to is that miracles cannot be affirmed as historical events. In the lecture series "The Historical Jesus," the historian Bart Ehrman states, "Because historians can only establish what probably happened, and a miracle of this nature is highly improbable, the historian cannot say it probably occurred."1 In a debate with William Lane Craig in 2006, Ehrman said, "Historians cannot establish [a] miracle as the most probable occurrence because miracles, by their very nature are the least probable occurrence."2 

If a ground rule, or presupposition, of a discipline like history precludes a certain conclusion, then by definition, the majority of those practicing the discipline cannot come to that conclusion. This presents a real problem if a miracle did actually occur in history. For if a miracle occurred in the past, the majority of historians still would not decide that a miracle transpired because the ground rules of their discipline require that they cannot confirm a miracle.

Suppose in science, I had a ground rule that subatomic particles could not pass through an energy barrier higher than the energy of the particle. This ground rule makes sense in the macroscopic world that we live in. If I can throw a ball 20 feet up into the air, then it will never go over a wall that is 25 feet high. But in the world of particles that are the size of atoms or smaller, such an occurrence can happen. We have observed particles that can pass through barriers which have a higher energy threshold than the particle itself. It's as if the ball only went 20 feet high but is found on the other side of a 25 foot high wall. We call this "tunneling" because the particle seems to have tunneled through the barrier. Now, if my presupposition in science was that such a thing was always the least probable explanation, then regardless of how strong the evidence for that phenomena was, I would come to some other conclusion. The physical process of tunneling would have never been discovered simply because my presupposition precluded such a conclusion.

There are a number of problems with regarding miracles as the least probable explanation and, thus, eliminating them as a reasonable historical conclusion.

One problem is that the historian seems to be confusing a prior probability with a posterior probability. A prior probability is the probability assigned to something based on what is known beforehand, usually through past experience or lack or experience, before all of the data is collected. If I have a coin that I know nothing about, then the prior probability is that it will come up 50% heads and 50% tails when I flip it. If I flip the coin 1000 times and 600 or more of those flips are heads then the new data should revise my expectation about the coin. Since getting 600 or more heads out of 1000 coin flips has a probability of about 1 in 10 trillion, I could confidently predict that my next coin flip is more likely to be heads than tails. This posterior probability, based on more data, is a better informed conclusion than the prior probability, even though it is "less likely." The philosopher Alan Rhoda has a nice short blog post on the difference between prior and posterior probabilities and miracles that includes details using the Bayes theorem of probabilityand William Lane Craig gives a very detailed rebuttal of the probability argument that historians use in his debate with Bart Ehrman,which is based largely on the book Hume's Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles,4 by the agnostic John Earman. 

David Hume's argument that miracles are always the least probable explanation, repeated by Bart Ehrman and other historians, has been debunked by many philosophers. The first page of Earman's book reads, 

"So to be blunt, I contend that [Hume's] "Of Miracles" is an abject failure. It is not simply that Hume's essay does not achieve its goals, but that his goals are ambiguous and confused. Most of Hume's considerations are unoriginal, warmed over versions of arguments that are found in the writings of predecessors and contemporaries. And the parts of "Of Miracles" that set Hume apart do not stand up to scrutiny. Worse still, the essay reveals the weakness and the poverty of Hume's own account of induction and probabilistic reasoning. And to cap it all off, the essay represents the kind of overreaching that gives philosophy a bad name."5 

So not only do historians impose a presupposition that disallows the conclusion that a miracle occurred in the past, but also that presupposition is based on the easily refutable claim that, given all the evidence, a miracle is still the least probable explanation.

Let me give a concrete example of how this presuppositional bias influences the historians' conclusions. An important question to answer is when the gospel accounts of Jesus' life were written. There is a general assumption that the closer the accounts were written to the actual events that took place, the more accurate the accounts are likely to be. Most historians contend that the gospel of Mark was written just after 70 AD, though there is abundant internal and external evidence that it was written much earlier, sometime between 50 and 55 AD. There is really only one reason why most scholars date the writing of Mark to after 70 AD, because Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem as recorded in Mark 13:1-2,

"As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, 'Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!' 'Do you see all these great buildings?' replied Jesus. 'Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.'"

The temple in Jerusalem was totally destroyed in 70 AD by the Roman general Titus, with every stone torn down. Of course, if Jesus actually predicted that the temple would be destroyed before it was, that would be a miracle since no one can predict the future. Because the historian has, a priori, ruled out any miracles, the historian can not conclude that Mark was written before 70 AD. So despite many other lines of evidence that Mark was written well before 70 AD, the "consensus" of historians is that it was not. This conclusion is not so much based on the preponderance of the evidence as it is the presupposition that miracles are the least probable explanation of the facts and are, therefore, dismissed as a viable possibility.

If you have followed this post up until now, then you have perhaps already perceived of another problem with regarding miracles as the least probable explanation and eliminating them as a reasonable historical conclusion, a priori: the conclusion of the historian is wrong if a miracle did actually occur. Thus, since the majority of historians dismiss miracles as a viable option outright, if a miracle did occur, the consensus of historians is wrong, and it is reasonable not to accept that consensus as the most likely explanation for the facts. If the truth is that a miracle did occur, then the consensus of historians is promoting a lie, not the truth.

As a thinking person who has the capability to investigate the evidence myself, I prefer to look at all the evidence and base my conclusions about what most likely happened in history on all the evidence without presuppositional bias: the posterior probability. Of course, I do respect the expertise and training of historians, and I don't flippantly dismiss their consensus. But in questions that involve miracles, I will put much more weight on the conclusions of good historians who are willing to accept the best explanation of all the evidence, even if that explanation is a miracle. If we look at only those historians, then we will likely find there is a different consensus about issues such as the date that the gospel of Mark was written and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

If a person wants to determine the truth, whether in scientific or historical matters, then biases and presuppositions must be minimized, which cannot happen if a possible conclusion is eliminated even before any of the data is collected. If a consensus is based on an unfounded presupposition, one that can be demonstrated to be false using posterior probability theory, then such a consensus is not very reliable. 

1Bart Ehrman, "The Historical Jesus," (The Teaching Company, 2000), Part II, page 50.
2accessed at Debate held at College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts on March 28, 2006.

4John Earman, Hume's Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles, (Oxford University Press, 2000).
5Ibid, p.3.
The opening figure shows the painting The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by David Roberts (1850)

1 comment:

  1. Excellent explanation of a priori as opposed to post priori probability of any statistical event. I recall from Dr. Burwell's undergrad Nuclear Physics (text by Dr. Howard, the then Chairman at OU) classical explanation of tunneling as a very small single instance probability made possible by a huge number of instances/second. Then I received further education at the M.S. level by Dr. Harry Lass (his book on Tensor Analysis is almost comprehensible by normal human beings). Harry was Gell-Mann's go to mathematicians at Cal Tech/JPL and a demanding instructor.

    Clarifying this difference in the context of presuppositions and bias is very important in apologetics writ large.

    The big bang is the consensus scientific view for the existence of the universe. It had a definable point of beginning. There is no recorded effect in human experience that does not have an antecedent cause. Like all the other miracles in scripture the effect ( blindness to sight, withered hand to whole, cripples to mobile, etc.) if attributed to a variety of possible explanations of cause they fail by both theoretical and experiential methods of analysis. Thus the only cause lies outside the methods available to the known laws of physics, mathematics and science writ large. In such cases the best explanation, most probable, is that OF an agent acting outside such laws as the cause of the observed effect. A strictly rational analysis should conclude a "miracle" is the only remaining explanation. I conclude that a priori one should say a miracle is the least likely explanation of an observed event, but after through examination of all the data be intellectually honest and conclude a miracle is the most likely if not certain explanation with a cause originating ultimately from an agent outside our universe.

    I appreciate your ministry to the believing and unbelieving community.