The Historian and Miracles

Received wisdom is that the historian can say nothing about miracles. This statement can take one of several different forms. For example, Bart Ehrman says of the Resurrection that “Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past, and by definition a miracle is the least probable occurrence. And so, by the very nature of the canons of historical research, we can’t claim historically that a miracle probably happened.”[1] In other words, historians are prohibited from affirming the historicity of any miracle claim by the rules of history. This approach to history is rooted in methodological naturalism, an approach which also dominates the natural sciences.

One approach to this would be for the believer to relegate miracle claims to some realm other than history – something described by words like “faith,” “religion,” or “theology.” Sociologist Peter Berger seems to advocate this position for the believer when he writes that “there is more than one way to perceive reality”[2] other than the scientific approach. The believer can simply view miracles as something other than history in this scientific sense, and we can all get along fine. This is reminiscent of the “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA) approach advocated by the late Steven Jay Gould, for example. Science is over here, faith is over there (or out there), so let’s stop arguing.

One problem that immediately arises is when the pronouncement of historians is taken as the sine qua non of what constitutes history. In other words, if historians don’t pronounce on it, then it isn’t history. And if it isn’t history, then of course it didn’t actually happen. But we’ll let you religious folks pretend that it happened if it makes you feel good just as long as you keep that to yourselves. At this point some believers might legitimately feel that they’ve been had – or at least they should. This is basically a form of stacking the deck on the part of naturalists.

Several questions can be raised about the preceding scenario. First, if a historian is prohibited from affirming a miracle claim, are they also prohibited from denying it? In other words, a historian can’t say that miracle M happened, but do they have a basis for denying that it happened? If so, the basis for that can’t be a historical one. So the historian qua historian is left in a position of agnosticism. But in that case the skeptic can’t appeal to history as an argument against miracles.

Second, this whole discussion amounts to little more than a discussion about whether a miracle claim is historical when historical is defined as something like “that which is or can be affirmed by a historian operating under the rules of methodological naturalism.” But in that case “historical” means something other than “what actually happened in history.” Rather than historical ontology, this is a discussion about historical epistemology. For most people, however, historical means “that which actually happened in the past,” not “that which can be affirmed by a historian to have happened in the past.” While the latter might be an interesting question, it is a less interesting question to the believer when the rules are laid out in such a way as to prohibit the possibility of divine intervention at the outset.

Third, is it really the case that the historian can never say that an event as improbable as a miracle probably happened? Historians talk about events all the time which are highly improbable, yet still affirm that they probably occurred. Consider the sinking of the Titanic on its maiden voyage. The ship was believed to be virtually unsinkable, constructed in such a way that it could withstand  a severe hull breach and yet remain afloat. The Titanic going down on its very first Transatlantic crossing would have been considered next to impossible. But of course historians affirm that this highly improbable event actually happened. The reason for that is that the evidence for the sinking of the Titanic on its maiden voyage simply overwhelms the presumptive improbability of the event. So historians can in fact say that an improbable event probably happened.

The skeptical response might fall along these lines: you’re comparing apples and oranges – we know that ships can and do sink, and there is nothing supernatural about that. That might be true, but it’s beside the point. The argument has to do with probabilities, and whether or not the historian can say that an improbable event probably happened. They can, and they do all the time. But, says the skeptic, maybe there can be enough evidence in the case of an event like the sinking of the Titanic to overcome the low prior probability, but in the case of a miracle claim that can never be the case. This is essentially the argument used by David Hume against miracle claims. However, the argument is demonstrably false as shown by philosopher John Earman who uses Bayes’ Theorem to refute it.[3] It’s simply not true that a miracle claim can never be said to have probably happened – whether by a historian, a philosopher, or anyone else. Interestingly, the key to the argument from Bayesian probability is the power of multiple eyewitness testimony. Hume, writing before the advent of the probability calculus, also understood the importance of multiple eyewitnesses. However, without the benefit of the calculus, he underestimated it.

One of the remarkable features of the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus – the central miracle claim of Christianity – is the evidence for multiple eyewitness testimony. Thus the kind of evidence which the probability calculus would show centuries later was crucial to establishing a miracle claim is the kind of evidence which is found at the heart of the Christian message. This also puts Christianity on a much different footing than any other religion or worldview. Christians should not be shy about saying so.

In the end, the view that historians can never affirm a miraculous event is simply a presumption of naturalism. It’s philosophy under the guise of history, and eliminates certain kinds of explanations (namely supernatural ones) at the outset. That this way of thinking has been accepted for so long in the academy is more a reflection of the political and cultural forces that have dominated the West since the Enlightenment than it is of truth. It is time for those assumptions to be challenged head-on.


[1] http://www.reasonablefaith.org/is-there-historical-evidence-for-the-resurrection-of-jesus-the-craig-ehrman

[2] http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/berger/2011/12/21/miracles-and-the-historians/

[3] John Earman, Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

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  • jimsbox1-passion

    Great article. I would go on to say that this methodological naturalism applied to historical events is directly responsible for natural evolution holding the door closed to alternate theories that may hold more explanatory power but are dogmatically confined to religious belief and thereby rejected out of hand as even possibly scientifically valid. Remember, evolution and common decent is a matter of history. At any rate, the idea of excluding the miraculous is an illegitimate position. There is no evidence to prove that a miracle has never happened, but there is substantial evidence in its favor. Of course, Craig Keener has recently published a two volume work on this very subject to clear up any doubts.