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Did First Century Christians Believe in Miracles Because They Were Pre-Scientific?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I just finished reading a wonderful book by New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg, called The Historical Reliability of the Gospels.  In his chapter where he discusses the miracles recorded in the Gospels, he had this to say about the scientific objection to miracles.

In short, the scientific objection to the credibility of miracles is that the discovery of the natural, physical laws by which the universe operates has proved them impossible.  Those who hold this view sometimes go on to explain that people used to believe in miracles because they had only a primitive scientific understanding.  The Christian doctrines of the virgin birth and resurrection, for example, could spring from just such a pre-scientific milieu.  Only a moment’s thought is required, however, to realize that people of every age have known that two human parents are needed for conception and that death is irreversible! (emphasis mine)

Well put, Dr. Blomberg.  Well put.


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Comments

  • http://suddenlyatheist.wordpress.com/ morsec0de

    “In short, the scientific objection to the credibility of miracles is that the discovery of the natural, physical laws by which the universe operates has proved them impossible. ”

    Well, that, and the fact that there’s never been anything better than anecdotal evidence supplied for them.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ Vinny

    That doesn’t even make any sense. Nobody is suggesting that they didn’t recognize the resurrection and the virgin birth as miracle stories.

    The problem wasn’t that they didn’t understand how things normally happened. The problem was that they didn’t recognize the extent to which everything that happens can be explained by the laws of nature. Therefore, they willingly accepted supernatural explanations for events that were out of the ordinary and they willingly accepted stories of the occurrence of supernatural events.

  • http://www.toughquestionsanswered.org/ Darrell

    Good thought Billy.

    Anyone who says the writers of The Gospels simply mistook natural occurances for miracles because of their ignorance to natural laws and science has an uphill battle dealing with the resurrection. There is absolutely NO WAY to explain the resurrection by natural laws… no way.

    In addition, I love Habermas’s arguments for the resurrection. IMO, he has pretty much demonstrated that the only logical explanation for what happened to Christ is what is recorded in The Bible… He is risen!

    Darrell

  • Bill Pratt

    Vinny,
    How do you explain the resurrection and virgin birth by natural laws? You give 1st century folks a hard time for willingly accepting supernatural explanations, but what should they have made of the those two events?

  • Bill Pratt

    Morsecode,
    Funny thing is that you believe countless things based on other people’s testimony (anecdotal evidence as you put it). If you didn’t, you couldn’t function even one day. For some reason, you are inconsistent in applying this criteria when it comes to the Bible.

    God bless,
    Bill

  • http://suddenlyatheist.wordpress.com/ morsec0de

    So you are comparing normal everyday occurrences to miracles?

    Your miracles must not be miracles then. Not by any sensible definition of the word, anyway.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ Vinny

    I think the resurrection stories probably originated in some sort of hallucination that one or more of the apostles experienced.

    I suspect that the author of Matthew probably came up with the virgin birth story when he was looking in the Old Testament for information about the Messiah’s life to supplement what had been passed on through oral tradition.

  • http://www.toughquestionsanswered.org/ Darrell

    Vinny,

    Good thought but there are many problems with saying it was a hallucination.

    First, hallucinations don’t happen to multiple people (400 to be exact) at the same time.

    Second, if one has a hallucination they do not appeal to the knowledge of their listening audience about it. “Men of Athens! You know I had this hallucination and you had it too.” Doesn’t make sense. Yet this is exactly what The Apostles did… they appealed to the knowledge of their listening audience in regards to Jesus being resurrected, performing miracles, etc. It would have been easy for their listening audience to call them out if it were simply a hallucination. Yet that did not happen.

    Third, you still have the problem of the empty tomb to deal with. Where did Jesus’s body go? The tomb was being guarded by Roman soldiers who would not DARE let the apostles in to steal it. Punishment for failure to perform duty to Rome was SEVERE. They would have been KILLED for letting the apostles even near the tomb. In addition, if it was a hallucination, all Rome would have had to do in order to squash the Apostles claim is produce Jesus’s body. Yet they didn’t.

    Too say it was a hallucination is simply a claim of faith and due to its utter lack of congruence with the events that transpired, it is actually a claim that takes more faith to believe than the resurrection itself.

    Darrell

  • http://www.toughquestionsanswered.org/ Darrell

    No, we are just pointing out your inconsistency, as was pointed out in the previous post.

    Over there you said empirical evidence is the only reliable evidence to prove anything physical (i.e. God). However, I pointed out that there are many things we accept in life without empirical evidence (i.e. The Incas actually existed). Yet you are unwilling to denounce the existence of the Incas. INCONSISTENT!!

    Now on this post you say that anecdotal evidence is not sufficient. Yet, once again, we have demonstrated how you accept this type of evidence in other areas of your life. INCONSISTENT!!

    Seems like you want more to prove God than you require for most everything else in lilfe. Could it be that your lack of willingness to accept that God exists is a matter of WILL and not MIND?

    Darrell

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ Vinny

    On October 13, 1917, anywhere between 30,000 to 100,000 people were reported to have seen the sun dancing in the sky at Fatima so I am not convinced that multiple people can’t have the same hallucination.

    In any case, there is a difference between twenty people saying that they saw the same hallucination and one person saying that twenty other people saw the same thing he did. Second hand (or third, fourth, fifth, etc.) claims of what multiple people saw don’t mean much.

    The empty tomb isn’t a problem. It’s a story that someone made up three or more decades after the event. Why should that bother me?

    The idea that the Romans would have made any effort to refute the apostles’ claims seems pretty silly to me. The way that Rome dealt with troublemakers was to round up a bunch of them and nail them to crosses. If you have any evidence of the Romans ever trying to logically refute their opponents’ claims with evidence, I would love to hear it.

  • http://www.toughquestionsanswered.org/ Darrell

    Sorry Vinny, the empty tomb is a major problem for your faith claim, as the textual evidence demonstrates it was not made up 3 or more decades after the event. The evidence that the most critical scholars agree on (those least friendly to the authenticity of scripture) demonstrates that the resurrection was a common belief amongst Christians 3 to 5 years after Christ’s death on the cross. You cannot say it was made up 3 or more decades later. It does not line up with the facts.

    You really should check out Gary Habermas. He goes into great detail on the evidence for the resurrection. And there is a LOT of evidence for it. However the evidence pointing to mass hallucinations is, to be quite generous, lacking.

    Darrell

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ Vinny

    I do not dispute that the resurrection was a foundational belief of the Christian movement. Nevertheless, the story of the empty tomb does not have the same pedigree. It is not found in Paul which is the earliest Christian source.

    I have read Habermas and I do not find his arguments persuasive.

  • http://www.toughquestionsanswered.org/ Darrell

    To believe Jesus was resurrected necessarily implies a belief that the tomb was empty. Therefore, to say that someone made up the belief of an empty tomb 3 decades later flies in the face of logic. Again, all this was being thrown in the face of a hostile listening audience. The apostles were appealing to the knowledge of people who did not like what they were saying. If it was all a hoax or a hallucination then all the Jewish authorities or Rome had to do was present the body. Yet they didn’t.

    Another problem with your hallucination theory is that it makes no sense with Paul. Paul hated the Christian movement and is the least likely candidate in all of scripture to have his mind create a hallucination regarding Christ’s resurrection. He wanted Christianity dead. Yet he made a dramatic, sudden conversion and became one of the most prominent figures in the early Christian church.

    Darrell

  • Bill Pratt

    Vinny,
    1 Cor 15, written by Paul, strongly implies an empty tomb.

    ”For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

    The Holy Bible : New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, c1984), 1 Co 15:3-8.

    If he was buried and then raised, there had to be an empty tomb. It logically follows. This creed from 1 Cor 15 has been acknowledged by most scholars to date within a few years of the death of Jesus. Again, if the tomb had Jesus’ body in it, then where is the body? Everybody knew where the tomb was. Why no body? Hallunications don’t solve the problem.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ Vinny

    Jesus could have been given a new body by God while the old body decayed in the grave. Therefore, it does not logically follow that the tomb was empty.

    Although Paul does say that Jesus was buried, he says nothing to indicate that he or anyone else knew where Jesus was buried or that his faith was in any way dependent on anyone finding a tomb without a body in it. For Paul, the evidence for the resurrection was the appearances, not the empty tomb.

    The notion that we can say anything meaningful about Saul’s susceptibility to hallucinations is what makes no sense. He was a highly volatile person with a seemingly irrational hatred for early Christians. There is no reason to think that he was less likely than anyone else to experience a hallucination.

    The Jewish authorities dealt with heretics by stoning them to death. The Roman authorities dealt with troublemakers by crucifying them. There is no reason to think that either group would have tried to defeat the early Christians in the court of public opinion by logically refuting their beliefs.

  • Bill Pratt

    Both the Jews and Romans wrote and spoke against Christianity. We know this because we have Jewish writings in the Talmud speaking against Jesus. We have several Roman writers mentioning Christianity and some of them speaking of it negatively and trying to refute it. (Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, Lucian of Samosota, Celsus). To say that people were not interesting in refuting Christianity is just false.

    I find it strange that you have no explanation for where the body of Jesus is. Again, early Christians surely would have marked the burial tomb, as it was common to return to the tomb of great teachers or prophets in the Jewish culture. Are you saying that nobody cared where Jesus’ tomb was? Why?

  • http://suddenlyatheist.wordpress.com/ morsec0de

    “However, I pointed out that there are many things we accept in life without empirical evidence”

    Not really.

    You don’t understand the idea of conditional acceptance. If we only have a limited amount of evidence for something (like the Incas), we can conditionally accept their existence. Why? Because it doesn’t matter whether we believe in them or not. So based on the evidence we do have, we can conditionally accept it, given the fact that there are no fantastical claims made about them. The Incas would be just one other tribe of humans at a certain level of advancement. As we have evidence of the existence of thousands of those, one more isn’t a huge jump.

    But again, if people were claiming the Incas had the ability to fly, we don’t have enough evidence to even conditionally accept it.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ Vinny

    What grounds do you have for your surety that Jesus followers would have marked his tomb? The common practice among the Romans was to toss the bodies of executed criminals into common graves. It is possible that no one other than the men who were assigned to bury the body would have known exactly where it was. Since Jesus’ followers were cowering in fear at the time, it is also possible that no one would have tried to find out where the body was for fear of being exposed as one of Jesus’ followers. At the time of Jesus’ death, his followers thought that he was a failure, not a great prophet and teacher.

    If you are correct, then surely Saul himself would have looked for the body prior to his conversion to see whether or not it was in the tomb. Why doesn’t he mention that in any of his letters?

  • Bill Pratt

    The only evidence we have for how Jesus was buried was that Joseph of Arimathea (one of the Sanhedrin) buried him in his tomb (all four Gospels report this). Obviously then, his followers did know where he was buried, as they went to his tomb on the Sunday after his crucifixion. There is no other competing evidence that I know of.

    If you say that you don’t accept the testimony of four different Gospels on this point, I ask why? Why in the world would the Gospel writers lie about who buried Jesus, especially since early Christians would have been shocked that one of the Sanhedrin buried him. They were the very group that had Jesus executed! It also makes the disciples of Jesus look very bad to have had someone else bury Jesus instead of them. Why would they report this if it weren’t true?

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ Vinny

    When the Romans buried executed criminals, the normal practice was to throw their bodies in a common grave, however, the normal practice with crucified criminals was to leave their bodies on the cross to rot as a warning to other potential troublemakers. Therefore, in order to explain how Jesus came to be buried at all, Mark needed a character of some stature in the community to be responsible so he chose a member of the Sanhedrin, albeit a pious one.

    The other evangelists apparently were as distressed as you seem to think by the idea that Jesus was buried by one of the men responsible for his crucifixion rather than one of his disciples. Luke makes it clear that he wasn’t involved in having Jesus put to death, and Matthew changed him from a member of the Sanhedrin into a rich disciple while John changed him into a secret disciple.

  • Bill Pratt

    The other disciples didn’t change anything. They just reported different details about Joseph. That is what you would expect from 4 independent reports of an event. Each writer will stress different things about Joseph. He was a disciple of Jesus, he was a member of the Sanhedrin, he had to be secretive about his admiration for Jesus, he was from Arimathea, he was wealthy, and he was against killing Jesus. All of that makes perfect sense. Why all the suspicion that they were changing the facts?

    Again, there is no other historical evidence for anything but Joseph burying Jesus. You are, therefore, unfairly throwing out all the testimony that you don’t like and concocting a story whereby all four Gospel writers are complicit in a complete fabrication, but you have absolutely no evidence for that. You are just guessing, unless I am missing something.

    Why did Mark “need” Joseph to bury Jesus at all? What was Mark’s motive? If he wanted to make something up, he could have chosen any of the apostles, or perhaps Jesus’ mother Mary, or Jesus’ other family members. Where in the world did Joseph of Arimathea come from? For you to say that he needed a character of stature is something you have just made up. Where is your evidence for that?

    Isn’t it just easier to accept that the Gospel writers were telling the truth?

  • Danny

    To even “see” the empty tomb in that passage that you quoted, you’d have to read it in the light of later gospel stories. Sorry but that’s what Vinny is pointing out, that Paul did not have an empty tomb story. And it takes a forceful removal of the passage from its historical context to make it say what you want it to say.

  • Bill Pratt

    Danny,
    Paul reports a death, a burial, and a resurrection. It seems entirely reasonable to conclude an empty tomb from these facts. In fact, why would Paul even mention the burial if there was no tomb? Why doesn’t he just say that Jesus died and then rose again? Why the burial?

    In addition, I am not alone. The majority of all critical scholars (around 75%) accept the empty tomb as historical fact. Scholars have been wrong before, but that counts for something, as there is rarely strong consensus about anything among critical scholars.

    In any case, Vinny and I have been off debating whether Jesus was even buried at all for the past several posts. He believes Jesus’ body was thrown in a common grave, again a position which virtually no scholars believe.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ Vinny

    When you consider the fact that 75% of scholars studying the resurrection are conservative Christians, the fact that 75% of scholars accept the empty tomb as historical fact really isn’t all that impressive. Moreover, if you were to read the works of the other 25%, I think you would find that many of them mention the possibility that Jesus’ body might have been buried in a common grave.

  • Bill Pratt

    Vinny,
    If you’ve read Habermas, you know that he isn’t surveying conservative scholars. He is surveying all of the scholars who study the New Testament, which covers a wide array of academia. He specifically names the scholars in the endnotes of one of his books who support the empty tomb. They are not mostly conservatives, as you say. The only scholar I know of who believes in the common grave is Crossan, who is about as out of the mainstream of New Testament scholarship as you can get. His view has gained virtually no support among other scholars.

  • http://www.youthpastor.co.za Quinton Smith

    Hi guys, one of the most appealing things, in my mind is the human element that takes pace in nature.

    Simply put people don’t die for a cause that there not sure of. For Centuries Christians have been martyred for their believes. Jesus’ disciples where martyred for there believe that Jesus was the res erected messiah. To top it of their deaths where groosom long painful executions.

    The second thing is that at the time if you where going to make up a story then you woudl not use a womans testemony. A womans testemony was not even heard in a court durring that time. Mary was the first witness on the sence and bassed on her testemony of the missing body the desiples react.

    Just my 2 cents
    Quinton Smith
    http://www.youthpastor.co.za

  • http://www.wallsofjericho.info T Crosthwaite

    You may find these articles on virgin birth of interest and coming from an unusual angle

    http://www.wallsofjericho.info/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=14&Itemid=26

    and, similarly TheologyWeb:

    Forum — General Theistics 101
    Thread — Does the Bible teach that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived?

    http://www.theologyweb.com/campus/forumdisplay.php?f=160

    (Best to click on arrow on the right which will take you to the last post. Posts by Antony and Ben Lomond relevant.)

  • Ron

    The Miracles as Parables

    Craig L. Blomberg

    In short, the nature miracles and the parables closely cohere with each other. …..it therefore follows that the earliest forms of these miracle stories should be recognized as most probably historical (that is to say factual accounts of deeds from the life of Christ).

    http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/gp6_miracles_blomberg.pdf

  • Levas

    A true scientist can imagine can desire and are able to come down. I told her everything and anything you can not add their own, so comments are not necessary. Yet in the absence of the opinion it would not be human.

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