Not unlike scientists operating within the scientific enterprise, biblical scholars construct theories according to the constraints of methodological naturalism. Methodological naturalism, despite being a methodology, favours naturalistic explanations over the supernatural and miraculous. Given this approach, one must wonder how this influences reconstructive efforts on the historical Jesus given so many stories about Jesus contain miracles.
Biblical criticism attempts to study the biblical documents scientifically and with a naturalistic outlook. 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 then approaching biblical texts, including those which speak of Jesus, 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).
Johnson suggests that it is acceptable in the eyes of many scholars to accept the non-supernatural events and sayings (some of Jesus’ sayings come after his death, which are ruled out as being historical) of Jesus, but not to accept the supernatural events recorded of him. That leaves the obvious issue of having to account for the supernatural details in the gospels. It is clear that taken at face value, the Jesus of the gospels does not fit comfortably within the constraints of methodological naturalism. For example, the historian has to somehow deal with resurrection accounts, numerous miracle stories that not only have Jesus healing people (including raising people from the dead) but also that he had power over nature (calming the storm, walking on water, turning water into wine, etc.), and more
Because of the methodological naturalism, it is surprising that most biblical scholars, which includes non-Christian scholars, have claimed that many of Jesus’ miracles and his resurrection appearances are well attested on historical grounds. Many miracles are attested within early and independent sources, and often satisfy several criteria of authenticity. Jewish scholar Paula Frederickson states that,
“[W]e note that Jesus as exorcist, healer (even to the point of raising the dead), and miracle worker is one of the strongest, most ubiquitous, and most variously attested depictions in the Gospels. All strata of this material–Mark, John, M-traditions, L-traditions, and Q–make this claim. This sort of independent multiple attestation supports arguments for the antiquity of a given tradition, implying that its source must lie prior to its later, manifold expressions, perhaps in the mission of Jesus himself.” (3)
Agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman says that “Whatever you think about the philosophical possibility of miracles of healing, it’s clear that Jesus was widely reputed to have done them” (4).
Luke Timothy Johnson states that,
“Even the most critical historian can confidently assert that a Jew named Jesus worked as a teacher and wonder-worker in Palestine during the reign of Tiberius, was executed by crucifixion under the prefect Pontius Pilate and continued to have followers after his death.” (5)
But if this is the case then why not follow through to the logical conclusion that Jesus really did wield supernatural power? Isn’t that what the evidence suggests?
An answer to this question is that there is more involved here than mere methodology. Accompanying methodological naturalism is a philosophy that we can call “metaphysical naturalism”. There is a difference between the two: whereas methodological naturalism looks only for naturalistic explanations for events (thus never explicitly ruling out the possibility of a miracle or the supernatural), philosophical naturalism does rule out miracles. As a philosophy, naturalism is predicated on the belief that the supernatural does not exist and that miracles do not and cannot occur.
It is metaphysical naturalism that filters into the work of many scholars. Consider the case of Jesus’ resurrection. If the historical evidence is adequate and the resurrection adequately accounts for the already accepted facts surrounding Jesus’ ministry 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? Ehrman remarked that “We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that… he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead.”
It is metaphysical naturalism that filters into the work of many scholars. Consider the case of Jesus’ resurrection. Of the resurrection, Ehrman, who is of a skeptical mindset as it is, remarks that “We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that… he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead” (6).
But if the historical evidence is adequate and the resurrection accounts for the already accepted facts of Jesus’ ministry and the early Christian movement, then why do some scholars still yet seek naturalistic explanations? I suggest that the answer is found in atheist scholar Gerd Ludemann’s assertion that “one ought not to begin with the assumption that miracles occur” (7).
Ludemann’s approach is one shared by many scholars that begins with the assumption that miracles do not and cannot occur. But as critics of metaphysical naturalism have noted, this is a philosophical position and therefore opens itself to criticism. New Testament scholar Craig Keener defines this approach as an “anti-supernaturalism” which, he writes, is “little more than a presupposition, rarely argued and rarely seeking to marshal evidence” (8). It is often just assumed. Philosopher William Lane Craig is also critical of anti-supernaturalism and finds it mistaken to reject a supernatural explanation 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” (9).
So, is there a philosophical bias against Jesus in biblical studies? However one may answer this question, it seems clear that the Jesus of the gospels proves difficult to fit into a methodological and metaphysical naturalistic paradigm. Too many miracles are attributed to him in too many sources to merely reject these out of hand as late legends. Sometimes this fact has led scholars to a state of confusion. E. P. Sanders is perhaps reflective of this when he remarked 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” (10).
1. Brown, Raymond E. 1973. The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus. Paulist Press. p. 11.
2. Johnson, Luke Timothy. 1996. The Real Jesus. HarperOne. p. 144.
3. Frederickson, Paula. 2000. Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Vintage. p. 114.
4. Ehrman, Bart. 1999. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford University Press. p. 199.
5. Johnson, Luke Timothy. 1996. Ibid. p. 123.
6. Ehrman, Bart. 1999. Ibid. p. 230-231.
7. Ludemann, Gerd., and Hall, Tom. 2005. The Acts of the Apostles: What Really Happened in the Earliest Days of the Church. Prometheus Books. p. 23.
8. Keener, Craig. 2011. Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament. Baker Books. p. 114
9. Craig, William Lane. The Problem of Miracles. Available.
10. Sanders, E. P. 1995. The Historical Figure of Jesus. Penguin UK. p. 279-280.