Much like is the case within the scientific enterprise, biblical scholars operate according to the constraints of methodological naturalism. As a methodology, methodological naturalism favours naturalistic explanations. Operating from within this paradigm one must wonder if justice is done to reconstructive efforts for the historical Jesus.
Biblical criticism attempts to study the biblical documents scientifically and with a naturalistic outlook. The scholar Raymond Brown (1928-1998) explains that “scientific biblical criticism, is expected to yield “factual results” that are intended to be presented as “scientifically respectable” (1).
If Brown’s understanding holds true then approaching biblical texts, including those which speak of Christ, will be constrained by methodological naturalism. How does Christ then factor into these constraints? According to New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson,
“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” (2).
What Johnson suggests is that it is fine and well for many scholars to accept non-supernatural events and sayings (for some of Christ’s purported sayings come after his death, which are ruled out as historical) but not so concerning the overtly supernatural events recorded. That leaves the obvious issue of having to account for the supernatural claims within the gospel biographies because it is clear that Christ does not at all fit nicely within these constraints. Historians have to deal with resurrection accounts, numerous miracle narratives which not only include Christ healing (and raising from the dead) people but also that he had power over nature (calming the storm, walking on water, turning water into wine etc.), and many more.
Why is this a challenge? It simply is because overtly supernatural events cannot be constrained or limited to within the methodological naturalism that scholars are working with.
What is quite surprising is that most biblical scholars have noted that many of Christ’s miracles, as well as his resurrection appearances are well attested historically. Many of them are attested to within early and independent sources, and often satisfy several criteria of authenticity. But if this is the case then why not follow through to the logical conclusion that Christ really wielded supernatural power?
The answer to this is that there seems to be something more than methodological naturalism at play. There appears to be a philosophy, particularly philosophical or metaphysical naturalism, that is being factored into interpretive measures. Whereas methodological naturalism looks only for naturalistic explanations for things (thus never ruling out the possibility of a miracle), many scholars approach the texts with a philosophical naturalism which does rule out miracles. Philosophical naturalism is predicated on the belief that the supernatural does not exist, and therefore miracles do not and cannot occur.
This philosophy filters into the scholar’s work. Take Christ’s resurrection as a clear example. If the historical evidence is there and the resurrection adequately accounts for the already accepted facts surrounding Christ’s life and the early Christian movement then why do some scholars still yet seek naturalistic explanations no matter how improbable or incredible they appear to be? The answer might be found in Gerd Ludemann’s claim that “one ought not to begin with the assumption that miracles occur” (3). As such, Ludemann does the opposite: he begins with the assumption that miracles do not and cannot occur.
But as critics have noted, this is a philosophical position, and therefore opens itself to critique. Professor Craig Keener defines this as an “anti-supernaturalism” which, he writes, is “little more than a presupposition, rarely argued and rarely seeking to marshal evidence” (4).
Philosopher William Lane Craig says that it is unacceptable to reject a supernatural explanation, especially if it seems the best explanation for events,
“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” (5).
In response to the question posed in this article’s heading it would seem that there is a bias within scholarship and on behalf of many scholars. Many scholars come to conclusions which are underpinned by their already existing philosophical convictions rather than letting the historical evidence speak for itself. Sometimes this had led scholars into the realms of confusion, unable to account for the resurrection evidence because it can’t be made sense on philosophical naturalism’s convictions. Perhaps this is why E.P Sanders concluded,
“That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know” (6)
[Article first published 08/13/2016. Edited and revised 28/04/2019]
1. Brown, R. 1973. The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus. p. 11.
2. Johnson, L. 1997. The Real Jesus. p. 144.
3. Gerd Ludemann quoted by Craig Keener (2011) in Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts.
4. Keener, C. 2011. Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament. p. 114
5. Craig, W. The Problem of Miracles. Available.
6. Sanders, E. 1995. The Historical Figure of Jesus. p. 279-280.