Much like is the case within the scientific enterprise, Historical Biblical Criticism (HBC) operates according to the constraint of methodological naturalism (MN). As I’ve show elsewhere methodological naturalism is a methodology that assumes naturalistic explanations, however, it is not of the same cloth as that of philosophical naturalism. I’d recommend the linked article for more on that question. The question of MN is quite pertinent to our purposes here.
Since the Christian believes that the Bible is God’s word it would be quite obvious that he would assume so when he reads it. In other words, the Bible is the product of God’s divine revelation to mankind. However, it is quite apparent that the expert in HBC would not assume that. He would either fully reject that the Bible is God’s word or he will at least bracket that belief while he performs his investigations. Instead, the expert intends to study the Bible scientifically. The late scholar Raymond Brown explained that “scientific biblical criticism” (1) is expected to yield “factual results” (2) that are intended to be presented as “scientifically respectable” (3). According to this line of thinking to study the Bible scientifically is to study it in a way that is constrained by MN (4).
How does Jesus factor into this equation? In answer scholar Luke Timothy Johnson explains that “The Historical Jesus researchers insist that the ‘real Jesus’ must be found in the facts of his life before his death. The resurrection is, when considered at all, seen in terms of visionary experience, or as a continuation of an ‘empowerment’ that began before Jesus’s death. Whether made explicit or not, the operative premise is that there is no ‘real Jesus’ after his death” (5). Van Harvey agrees by noting that as “far as the biblical historian is concerned… there is scarcely a popularly held traditional belief about Jesus that is not regarded with considerable skepticism” (6). In other words, an event that is inexplicable naturally cannot be considered as historical beneath the constraints of MN. And if that is the case then it would follow that Jesus’ resurrection, his nature miracles, his post-mortem appearances and speeches, and everything else supernatural about him is automatically thrown out the window.
My own view would be that this is quite unwarranted since I think we have persuasive evidence supporting the resurrection, a fact of history that no less than six independent sources attest to. But if historians are quite happy to accept historical events based on just two independent sources (7), then why dispute a supernatural event affirmed in six of them? One wouldn’t be off the mark to conclude that we are dealing with an a priori rejection of the supernatural, a viewpoint we could define as anti-supernaturalism. Case in point being historian Gerd Ludemann’s argument that “one ought not to begin with the assumption that miracles occur” (8). However, in response Professor Craig Keener replies that such “Antisupernaturalism is little more than a presupposition, rarely argued and rarely seeking to marshal evidence” (9). To prove his case Keener has chronicled a very large body of miracle evidence. He too has considered the most common arguments against miracles from the likes of Hume and others, and shown them to come up short. So why, in response to Ludemann, should we begin with the assumption that only a natural explanation should be accepted?
I also deem the MD constraint unwarranted because as far as I know no-one has ever provided a compelling case against the supernatural and the possibility of miracles. I also think that we have persuasive evidence to actually support the existence of the supernatural. I think that to deny a supernatural explanation, even if it would be the best explanation, is simply unacceptable in the pursuit of truth (historical or theological) whether that be in the sciences or history. Philosopher William Lane Craig concludes that “The presupposition of the impossibility of miracles should, contrary to the assumption of nineteenth and for the most part twentieth century biblical criticism, play no role in determining the historicity of any event… The presupposition against the possibility of miracles survives in theology only as a hangover from an earlier Deist age and ought to be once for all abandoned” (10).
1. Brown, R. 1973. The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus. p. 6
2. Brown, R. 1973. Ibid. p. 9.
3. Brown, R. 1973. Ibid. p. 11.
4. Levenson, J. 1993. “The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism” in The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism. p. 109.
5. Johnson, L. 1997. The Real Jesus. p. 144.
6. Harvey, V. 1986. “New Testament Scholarship and Christian Belief” in Jesus in History and Myth. p. 193.
7. Craig, W. 2009. Independent Sources for Jesus’ Burial and Empty Tomb. Available.
8.Gerd Ludemann quoted by Craig Keener in Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (2011).
9. Keener, C. 2011. Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament. p.114
10. Craig, W. The Problem of Miracles. Available.