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Beckwith on Historiography

(1999, 2005)

[Part 4A of a larger Review of In Defense of Miracles.]

The Project

Beckwith’s chapter has one objective: to answer the question “can history be inspected for the occurrence of miracles?” (87) Of course, this question must follow the prior question of whether any miracle can ever be recognized at all (see The Problem with Miracles), since the answer to that will also define key limitations faced by historians. But when Beckwith turns to the more specific question of what historians think and can do, he suffers from a serious lack of acquaintance with actual historians or their methods. Consider, for example, when he says that “a number of scholars…persuasively argue that one can detect through the investigation of history various aspects of the supernatural agency of an alleged miraculous event” (88) he does not cite even a single historian. Instead, his footnote lists seven Christian apologists, five of whom are contributors to this book–and who are definitely not historians. Indeed, isn’t it a forgone conclusion that Christian apologists would believe this? And if they are the only ones who believe it, one is left to wonder why. Is it because their “persuasive arguments” are ignored by all historians, or because their arguments aren’t persuasive? Considering how fallacy-riddled Corduan’s argument is in this book, it does not look good for the apologist.

Taking the Times into Account: Learning from Gibbon

Thus, it is worthwhile to examine what actual historians conclude about this subject. Hume was an historian, but these authors only address his logical arguments. His numerous historical objections (which are evidential, not philosophical) are all but brushed aside. Anyone who has not read them will find his arguments in full at the beginning of this book. Hume was an expert on British history, not ancient, but one of the most famous historians of ancient times was Edward Gibbon, a contemporary of Hume, and he has much to say on the subject of miracles, and it is worth quoting him at great length. Reflecting on the frequent “fraud and sophistry in the defense of revelation” found in antiquity,[1] Gibbon issues a withering rhetorical question:

But how shall we excuse the supine inattention of the Pagan and philosophic world, to those evidences which were presented by the hand of Omnipotence, not to their reason, but to their senses? During the age of Christ, of his apostles, and of their first disciples, the doctrine which they preached was confirmed by innumerable prodigies. The lame walked, the blind saw, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, demons were expelled, and the laws of Nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the church. But the sages of Greece and Rome turned aside from the awful spectacle, and pursuing the ordinary occupations of life and study, appeared unconscious of any alterations in the moral or physical government of the world.

Under the reign of Tiberius, the whole earth, or at least a celebrated province of the Roman empire, was involved in a preternatural darkness of three hours. Even this miraculous event, which ought to have excited the wonder, the curiosity, and the devotion of mankind, passed without notice in an age of science and history. It happened during the lifetime of Seneca and the elder Pliny, who must have experienced the immediate effects, or received the earliest intelligence, of the prodigy. Each of these philosophers, in a laborious work, has recorded all the great phenomena of Nature, earthquakes, meteors, comets, and eclipses, which his indefatigable curiosity could collect.[2] Both the one and the other have omitted to mention the greatest phenomenon to which the mortal eye has been witness since the creation of the globe. A distinct chapter of Pliny is designed for eclipses of an extraordinary nature and unusual duration;[3] but he contents himself with describing the singular defect of light which followed the murder of Caesar. (Gibbon, vol. 1, ch. 15, p. 512)

Then, in a later chapter, Gibbon revisits the issue:

The satisfactory experience, that the relics of saints were more valuable than gold or precious stones, stimulated the clergy to multiply the treasures of the church. Without much regard for truth or probability, they invented names for skeletons, and actions for names….they added myriads of imaginary heroes, who had never existed, except in the fancy of crafty or credulous legendaries…a superstitious practice, which tended to increase the temptations of fraud, and credulity, insensibly extinguished the light of history, and of reason, in the Christian world.

But the progress of superstition would have been much less rapid and victorious, if the faith of the people had not been assisted by the seasonable aid of visions and miracles, to ascertain the authenticity and virtue of the most suspicious relics. In the reign of the younger Theodosius, Lucian, a presbyter of Jerusalem…[dug up the remains of the martyr Stephen]…and when the…remains of Stephen [were] shewn to the light, the earth trembled, and an odour, such as that of paradise, was smelt, which instantly cured the various diseases of seventythree of the assistants. The…relics of the first martyr were transported, in solemn procession, to a church constructed in their honour on Mount Sion; and the minute particles of those relics, a drop of blood, or the scrapings of a bone, were acknowledged, in almost every province of the Roman world, to possess a divine and miraculous virtue.

The grave and learned Augustin, whose understanding scarcely admits the excuse of credulity, has attested [in The City of God] the innumerable prodigies which were performed in Africa, by the relics of St. Stephen…[indeed, he] enumerates…seventy miracles, of which three were resurrections from the dead, in the space of two years, and within the limits of his own diocese. If we enlarge our view to all the dioceses, and all the saints, of the Christian world, it will not be easy to calculate the fables, and the errors, which issued from this inexhaustible source. But we may surely be allowed to observe, that a miracle, in that age of superstition and credulity, lost its name and its merit, since it could scarcely be considered as a deviation from the ordinary, and established, laws of nature. (Gibbon, vol. 2, ch. 28, pp. 92-93)

It should be clear that Gibbon is not issuing a philosophical argument, but stating a simple case demonstrated by historical evidence: we observe so much fraud and credulity in those days, it would be irrational to believe anything that smelled of the same character. Moreover, there were so many miracles all over the Roman Empire in those times that they became as common as natural events. What, then, can explain their sudden disappearance in the past few centuries? Observing the first fact, Gibbon, like all sound historians, sees in it an ideal explanation of the second fact: fraud and credulity were far more common, or far more successful, then than they are now. Isn’t that a very reasonable conclusion? For more evidence supporting this very point, you can read Hume’s many examples, as well as another essay of mine on this subject, “Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire” (1997).

The Standard Historical Problems: the Rain Miracle

What about current historians? Consider the astonishing “rain miracle” which rescued the army of Marcus Aurelius in 172 A.D., complete with the enemy army being zapped to death by lightning balls hurtling from a clear sky, while the “good guys” were at the same time rescued from a desperate thirst when clouds gathered and sent down a torrential rain, despite a long period of summer drought. Everyone claimed responsibility, from advocates of the god Jupiter, to proponents of Neoplatonic magic-working, to, of course, Christians. It even appears on the column of Marcus Aurelius, where some rain god is seen sweeping across the battlefield, toppling the enemy while filling the Roman soldiers’ shields with life-giving water (a clear depiction of lightning striking the enemy appears in a different but related scene, which has been badly damaged by weathering).

The Rain Miracle on the Column of Marcus Aurelius (Rome)

Giovanni Becati, Colonna Di Marco Aurelio (1957)

Garth Fowden skillfully reviews how these stories changed over time, and how the Christian version won not because it was true, but simply because its proponents won the ensuing propaganda war, a lesson that is instructive in itself.[4] The successful use of propaganda by Christians, especially in the exploitation of miracle stories, is also demonstrated by Thomas Matthews in his excellent book The Clash of the Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art (1993), and analyzed by Rodney Stark in his recent book The Rise of Christianity (1997). Stories were told, and images carved, in order to sell the faith. Truth is an easy casualty in this process.

But there are other lessons here. About eight years later, the Christian apologist Apollinarius began to recount the Christian version as if its truth were a certainty,[5] even though there are demonstrable factual errors in his account, including one hallmark of rumor-built legend: the claim that the Roman legion called “Fulminata” (“Thundering”) was so-named because of this very event, to honor the all-Christian unit for having gained the aid of their god. Of course, the very notion that an entire legion, whose men had to worship Jupiter Optimus Maximus, could be composed entirely of Christians under an intolerant Emperor,[6] and at so early a date, is absurd. But one other thing is certain: the legion named “Fulminata” had already been so-named since the time of Augustus over a century before. This proves that lies could spread, and be believed, very quickly–even in the very same generation. This should not surprise us. There were no newspapers, and what few records of any kind that existed were off limits to the masses, who had neither the social savvy nor the requisite literacy to access them, even if they had the desire to. And we see that lies can win out: Eusebius, writing in the early 300’s, believes Apollinarius’ story is true, and includes it in his definitive world chronicle [7].

Tertullian, writing only 25 years after the actual event, also thought the Christians were credited,[8] even though it is dubious that there even could have been Christians in the army at that time, whereas Marcus Aurelius himself dedicated a statue in honor of the event to Jupiter Lightning-maker,[9] and issued coinage celebrating “the emperor’s religion,” with the aid of Egyptian magic (see below), hardly a tip of the hat to Christians. On the other hand, pagans had their own wild stories, believed with equal gusto. Cassius Dio, writing about half a century later (about the same time that passed between the death of Christ and the writing of the first gospels), tells us that an Egyptian sorcerer named Harnouphis had summoned Hermes (the equivalent of Thoth) and, using this divine aid, saved the day.[10] This story has material evidence in its support: an inscription attests to such a man traveling with the army at the time, and coins after the battle honor the “Religion of the Emperor” in connection with Hermes (Mercury) standing in an Egyptian temple.

Fowden’s conclusion is instructive:

The historian who approaches the rain miracle must suppress any concern he may feel for what actually happened on that unknown battlefield, and seek his rewards instead in comparison of the different versions, in the hope of reading between the lines something of the period’s ideological tensions.[11]

This is the historical reality. So little is known, and the sources we have are so biased and flawed, that it would be ludicrous to set our belief too firmly on any version of events, much less on whether a genuine miracle occurred that day. Fowden, a real historian, knows full well the ubiquity of propaganda, falsehood, rumor, error, credulity, and agenda which plagued all sources of the time, especially in the sphere of religion.[12] We can learn far more about the politics and mindset of the people who wrote and believed such accounts, than we can about the events themselves, which are shrouded in uncertainty and obscurity and ultimately inaccessible to us. This is why miracle accounts from antiquity cannot be proved miraculous–for we can barely be sure they even happened, and we have no chance at all of ruling out natural explanations. We simply don’t have the necessary evidence.

This point is further made by Michael Sage, who also examines the falsehood about the “Thundering Legion” noting that “These types of errors fit easily, however, into a schema of proof common to apologists in the period.”[13] He cites as examples Justin’s false claim that an inscription proved that Simon Magus was venerated in Rome, or Tertullian’s credulous citation of the bogus Acts of Pilate or the forged letters of the emperor Tiberius (in which he supposedly claimed that he supported Christianity and made a speech about it in the Senate). Though Sage does not mention it, one of my favorites is a letter written by Jesus, cited in its entirety by Eusebius, who does not doubt its authenticity (Ecclesiastical History 1.13). Thus, the “error” about the Legio Fulminata “fits comfortably into the preoccupations and methods of his period.” In other words, the ancients lied so much, or got it wrong so often, that we can hardly ever trust anything they say without additional reasons, and Christians were demonstrably no exception–indeed, given their obvious desire to always be right, to justify their suffering and sacrifice, to win converts at all costs, and to persuade persecutors of the validity of their faith, Christian sources are even less trustworthy still.

Understanding Cultural Background is Essential

Another contemporary expert on ancient history and religion, Robin Lane Fox, writes the following informative paragraph:

Here, too, we touch on patterns of psychology which our own modern case histories may not do much to illuminate: in antiquity, unlike our own age, “appearances” were part of an accepted culture pattern which was passed down in myth and the experiences of the past, in art, ritual and the bewitching poetry of Homer…In the ancient world, as in our own, the evidence suggests that people were most likely to see something when under pressure or at risk, though there is also a visionary current in their moments of peace with the natural world.[14]

He cites many examples, as well as other experts who write at even greater length on this subject.[15] He adds, referring to all kinds of visions and healings and other miracles, Pagan and Christian, “convinced disbelievers were very few, and it is worth comparing the belief in faeries which flourished in Northern Europe until only recently.”[16] In fact, visions were so common that the Epicureans had to devise elaborate theories of hallucination in order to dismiss them, ultimately showing no doubt in their ubiquity (Lucretius The Nature of Things 4.724-48). This analogy is instructive, since “while Marx and Darwin wrote, faeries lived for many more who never read such books,” emphasizing the fact that the vast majority of people did not read any of the skeptical books written in antiquity and had no real acquaintance with science or natural explanations of wonderful phenomena.

One grand example is the eclipse, where the masses show no awareness of the correct explanation, but respond instead with horrible fear at the dire omen, even clanging pots to scare away the monsters eating the sky, or to confuse the spells of the wizards and witches who were working their awful magic.[17] Does this sound like the kind of people, or the kind of age, whose records of the incredible can ever be trusted? Unlike today, in ancient times there was almost no critical examination of amazing claims, and even those who deigned to criticize a story almost never had the education, knowledge, or tools to be effective, or were so distant in time or place that they had little chance of getting the goods. The exceptions are so rare that they prove the rule.

This is all the more so because the Christian miracles were no different than any that went before. The carrying of holy relics into battle for their miraculous aid, or making pilgrimages to them in order to be healed, had been done since the days of the Spartans (Herodotus 1.68, 5.75; Pliny, Natural History 7.2.20). Miraculous healings were a regular feature of temples of Serapis in Egypt and of Asclepius in Greek and Roman towns, and attended many other statues and altars (see my essay “Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire” and also [18]) and were the mainstay of sorcerers who were always near at hand, their services for hire–they even specialized in the dispelling of demons (Lucian, Lover of Lies 9-17; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 8.44-9). Turning water into wine was a typical pious trick (Pausanias 6.26.1-2). Resurrection was not unprecedented (Lucian, Lover of Lies 26′ Pliny, Natural History 26.8.17, 7.52) and the magical multiplication of food from a single item was also a claim made by magicians (Pliny, Natural History 26.9).

How, then, are we to put any greater faith in Christian reports of exactly the same things? Given this survey, the Christian stories become very suspicious: why did Jesus turn water into wine, multiply loaves, heal ailments with no obvious lesions, dispel demons, and resurrect people from the dead? Why these miracles instead of other, original deeds? The turning of water into wine is especially curious, since there is no moral or scriptural justification for it. The similarity of these claims with those made of pagan sorcerers strongly suggests either that Jesus was using the same tricks as they, or that later followers wanted to attribute to Jesus what was commonly expected of all divine men. This is the best explanation for the uncanny similarity, for surely a real divine man would want to do things that were unique and unprecedented, not repeat what were already widespread magic tricks.

You Must Learn the Lessons of History

Above is the lesson that history teaches us. The skepticism of historians like Hume, Gibbon, Fox, Sage, or Fowden is not based on any a priori positivist rejection of miracles like Beckwith thinks. Rather, it is based on years of experience with the sources, and a thorough understanding of the time and culture in question–which, despite the many human similarities, was undeniably different in important respects from today. Apologists, never examining these issues in any depth, remain oblivious to the compelling case made by the evidence, and assume that they can defend only Christian miracles by arguing in a vacuum, as if only their sources mattered, and as if these sources could be examined on their own, regardless of their cultural, historical, and literary contexts. This focus on the now, and the corresponding neglect of the past, is commonplace in modern apologetics. For instance, Beckwith rightly destroys the notion of absolute historical relativism among modern historians, but fails to see that it is the features of relativism and other questions of method in ancient writers that poses the greatest problem for the Christian apologetic mission. Yet he does not write a single word about ancient historiography.

How Does a Real Historian Work?

Beckwith offers an example at one point of what he thinks is proper historical method. From this example, it would seem that he has little acquaintance with the unreliability of journalism, much less with historical sources. I will use this example to illustrate how a historian actually approaches evidence of the unusual.

Beckwith cites a case in which fifteen people all had different and unique reasons for being late to a church choir rehearsal, and because of this none were killed in an explosion that went off shortly after they were supposed to have arrived. From this he concludes that “opponents of miracles claim that we should reject the reliable testimony and circumstantial evidence that has substantiated the event described in this anecdote, even though it would seem perfectly reasonable to believe” it (92). Here he is betraying his uncritical acceptance of incredible accounts, assuming that a display of his credulity will be sufficient to make his case for how historians should do their job.

To begin with, anecdotal evidence is always regarded as less reliable by all historians, because they are intimately familiar with how anecdotal evidence gets made and transmitted, and inevitably distorted, even when there is a kernel of truth. This is even more so when we know that the story is old, and has passed through several different formulations, and its present incarnation is not coming from a very reliable source. Beckwith’s example is a perfect case of all of these factors: he cites Readers Digest, a source which is far from a hallmark of critical acumen or journalistic vigor, and the storyteller in that source was in turn citing an unnamed issue of Life magazine, for he only says it was “once reported” there, never mentioning when or in what context, except to say that the event happened on March 1, 1950, thirty-seven years before the version Beckwith is citing. We cannot know if this author had that issue of Life magazine, or whether he, too, was relying on some other intervening source. Thus, on the face of it, this is not a reliable account, especially considering its sensational nature.

The account would become more reliable if, after more investigation, we could corroborate some of the details. Does the city that is named actually exist? Can we confirm the explosion or anything else in local or other newspaper sources? Can we find the original Life story and confirm that he has gotten it right? If all of these methods were open to us, and proved the reliability of our second-hand account, then it would be reasonable to believe it.[19] But notice that Beckwith never mentions such an investigation. He is ready to believe it right away. How is that a “historical method”? Clearly he has little notion of what historians actually do. He is mistaking a question of whether a story is plausible (as this story certainly is) with the more important question of whether it is to be believed. Mere plausibility does not suffice to convince a historian of a story’s truth, unless the story is so typical or mundane that there is no reason at all to doubt it.

Beckwith’s second example shows more problems in his thinking: “according to opponents of miracles, if Mark is dealt…a royal flush, none of us would be justified in accepting as true the testimony of several reliable witnesses” (93). First of all, if you are going to discuss “historical method” you must identify what a “reliable witness” is. Without knowing what he means by “reliable” it is impossible to say whether his proposition is true. Maybe historians would have grounds to believe it, maybe not. His example does not give us enough information. This again betrays an ignorance of what historians do. In reality, we need to assess whether the witnesses are biased, what they actually said they saw, whether they can be corroborated and in what details, whether they can be shown to actually have been there, or that they actually know what a royal flush is–in short, we want to look for any details we can find that can test the reliability of the account, either by bolstering or undermining the basic story. This is the same method of verification and falsification employed by scientists. That is what it means to do history.

A second problem with this example is that it is not sufficiently incredible to be compared with a miracle. We know that royal flushes are dealt, and may have seen one dealt ourselves. Moreover, we can calculate that such things must have happened, since so many hands of poker have been dealt in human history. So there is nothing here that can be compared with a miracle, since we do not know whether a “miracle” can happen, much less what the odds of it are. And as I note in my own lengthy essay on the resurrection of Jesus (see Adding Things Up as well as the General Case for Insufficiency), if an event has a natural explanation that is as probable as a royal flush, or even more probable than that, then it would not be improbable enough to justify using “miracle” as an explanation, precisely because royal flushes are relatively common and entirely natural, so even something as unusual as that does not justify appealing to miraculous causes.

Beckwith’s third example displays a similar mistake: a woman is faced by five reliable witnesses who claim to have seen her commit a murder, and her lawyer presents hundreds of witnesses who claim that they have never seen her murder anyone before. Beckwith is arguing against the premise that “no evidence is sufficient for…believing…a highly improbable event,” which is a silly proposition anyway, since there is always a point at which the improbability of an event will be overtaken by the number of genuine opportunities for the event to occur, as in the case of a royal flush. Thus, no historian holds to this premise. But notice what Beckwith also does here: he assumes that, according to this premise, the hundreds of character witnesses render the murder improbable. But in actual fact, these hundreds of witnesses have no weight whatever as to whether the act itself occurred, since they were not there when it happened. Beckwith tries to use this example as a case where a lot of evidence of something not happening (murder by a particular person) would, adopting the straw man’s premise, trump the evidence of fewer eyewitnesses. But this is a false analogy when applied to miracles, because we already know, from many prior cases, that people can murder after living an otherwise innocuous life, and so evidence of “living an otherwise innocuous life” has little bearing on the probability of any person committing murder. But we do not know of any good cases of miracles happening (see my analysis of Purtill and Corduan). Thus, the abundant evidence that miracles are never seen to occur under trustworthy conditions remains as relevant as always, and is to be compared with the fact that we have never seen a winged snake, nor any evidence of such, so we are fully justified in inferring from this that Herodotus’s record of such a creature is not to be believed.

The Use of Natural Explanations

Historians appeal to natural explanations because they know that such explanations have always worked before, in every case that could be thoroughly tested. I repeat: they have always worked in every other case that could be thoroughly tested. This is no small point, and it stands as very compelling evidence in favor of natural explanations. And the case is secured when there are other good reasons that support a particular natural explanation. The healing miracles of the New Testament are an excellent case in point. Edward Shorter is an historian of medicine in the modern age, and in his book From Paralysis to Fatigue: A History of Psychosomatic Illness in the Modern Era (1992) he describes a problem faced by any historian of psychosomatic illness:

With the exception of those in the last chapter, the patients described in this book are all dead. Is it certain that their symptoms were not caused by an organic disease? Retrospectively, it is not. There is only the presumption of psychogenesis, based on (a) the history of the illness, such as paralysis after seeing a frog in the road, and (b) the response to what was essentially placebo therapy, such as hydrotherapy or administration of a laxative. These two circumstances give certain symptom patterns a flavor of psychogenesis. (p. 4)

Thus, if there are signs in the accounts of an illness that fit with the psychogenetic explanation, then it is a reasonable conclusion, even if it might be wrong on occasion. Shorter’s objective was to illuminate the history of this phenomenon and thus he aimed to eliminate as many doubtful cases as possible. But what if a historian suspected that psychosomatic illness may be responsible for some of those doubtful cases, too? If he had some reason to believe that the illness was not organic–if it looked just like a psychosomatic illness, and responded to placebo treatment–then it would be acceptable to explain the illness as psychosomatic. It would not only be plausible, but it would have ample support in countless similar cases, and thus would be a perfectly reasonable explanation. Moreover, if we hypothesize that “miracle healing” was a placebo treatment–based on the observations that (a) any expectation of a treatment’s effectiveness can cause healing (the placebo effect has, after all, been scientifically proven), and that (b) miracle healing was commonplace in antiquity and was by no means restricted to Christian healers–then we are justified in concluding that miraculous healing in antiquity (Christian and Pagan) was not miraculous if all the best cases could have been, by their description, psychosomatic. And David Clark, Beckwith’s fellow contributor to this book, in fact concedes essentially this point on page 210.

Consider some analogies. Pliny describes an Italian tribe whose members “walk over a charred pile of logs without being scorched” and for this miraculous feat were exempted from all taxation and military service (Natural History 7.2.19). The modern historian is fully justified in regarding this as unmiraculous, based on the contemporary proof that fire-walking has a natural explanation–anyone can do it, so long as they walk quickly, since the coals or logs do not conduct heat fast enough to burn human skin after only a short period of contact. Since what Pliny describes certainly sounds like fire-walking, and since we know fire-walking can have a natural explanation, there is no need nor rationale for proposing that this was a genuine miracle. Pliny also reports that a certain explorer saw in India “a forest tribe that had no speech but a horrible scream, hairy bodies, sharp grey eyes, and the teeth of a dog” (Natural History 7.2.24). Are we to suppose that some other race of men is meant? Or aren’t we justified in recognizing this as a baboon, a creature which lives in “tribes,” is known to have inhabited India, has dog-like teeth, screeches, is hairy, dwells in forests, and looks somewhat like a man? Although baboons were known to the ancients (one species was even deified by the Egyptians), Pliny is merely reporting someone else’s account. It is natural to expect that his source was not as educated as Pliny (since most men were not), and that Pliny was not clever enough to see the mistake (since he shows similar gullibility in many other places). Thus, it is more than reasonable to take this as an account of baboons, and not proof of a freak race of men. A similar line of reasoning allows us to dismiss the pagan water-into-wine event described by Pausanias as a magic trick (6.26.1-2), since we know from modern magicians that this is a relatively simple one to pull off–and indeed, its simplicity accounts for its repeated appearance in antiquity.

In the case of psychosomatic illness, the apologetic trend of thinking only in the now, and disregarding historical change, is again a major handicap. In his research, Shorter discovered two important facts which perhaps only a historian is apt to notice and appreciate. First, the symptoms of psychosomatic illness change with the culture. As Shorter discovered, what a culture regards as “legitimate evidence of organic disease” will change, and a person’s subconscious will strive to present such symptoms, since it wants to be taken seriously and not ridiculed. Consequently, a culture may perceive certain symptoms as indicative of a serious disease, which to us are clearly too bizarre to be a common illness. In other words, it is the popular perception of what is a real disease that determines psychosomatic symptoms.

For instance, Shorter observes that psychosomatic paralysis, once extremely common, has fallen out of favor in this century. Our emphasis on “individual dynamism” leads us to perceive unexplained paralysis and “sudden coma” as “inappropriate” and thus illegitimate signs of disease (p. x). I think even more important to this change is the technological advances we have made, which make it much harder for psychosomatic illnesses to go undetected, and thus to avoid being found out our subconscious minds strive to present symptoms which are expected to be hard to pin down, such as stress disorders, chronic fatigue, pains, and other things which are known to have real causes that are difficult even for our modern technology to identify. The point is that things like psychogenic paralysis were once very common, even though it seems so unusual today, which can lead a myopic thinker to dismiss psychogenetic explanations based on incorrect assumptions about what is ‘normal’.

Second, Shorter explains why he studied psychosomatic illness only in the modern era: “traditional doctors did almost nothing by way of clinical examination or investigation, and accordingly were far less capable of differentiating somatogenic from psychogenic illness” than even the doctors of the 17th century (p. 13). In other words, psychosomatic illness was far more likely to be regarded, and thus described, as a genuine illness in antiquity. This is an important fact to consider when examining the sources. For Shorter, it means that he cannot isolate possible cases of psychogenesis for his study. For the rest of us, it means we cannot isolate possible cases of genuine disease from the psychogenetic, which should be of major concern to an apologist.

Now let’s consider the “symptoms” of those whom Jesus or Paul healed, when symptoms are described at all: In Galilee “those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed” came to Jesus “and he healed them” (Matthew 4:24). This list is exactly the same list of symptoms Shorter found most likely to be psychosomatic. Indeed, he finds in the 17th through the 20th centuries that cases fell into one of four categories of psychogenesis (which he surveys briefly on pp. 5-9):

  • “Pseudoepilepsy,” often with the additional symptoms of “screaming, cursing, and attempting to bite those nearby,” which certainly sounds like being demon possessed, and given a culture that actively molded perceptions of what a demon-possessed victim was supposed to act like, a victim of psychosomatic illness would be able to play the part quite well.
  • “Paralysis,” which could include partial or total paralysis, coma, “crippled limbs” (i.e. limbs permanently seized and contracted or contorted), or loss of one of the senses, e.g. blindness, deafness, or even anasthesias, a condition in which all sensation of physical pain is lost, which would have results identical to the symptoms of the modern illness called leprosy. Another form of psychosomatic illness is the condition of being mute, which almost never has a real cause and is thus a good sign of psychogenesis.
  • “Pain,” which can be present anywhere or everywhere, or even move about, and for which it is notoriously difficult to prove a genuine cause.
  • “Autonomic nervous” disorders, which involve unconscious control of the digestive system (Shorter says that bowel disorders were very common in the 18th and 19th centuries), but can also involve other autonomic systems, from our heartbeat to the immune system. In fact, if affected by depression, as we all know, our immune system can actually cause real disease to flourish, or present symptoms like fever or pimples that have no real disease-based origin. By removing the depression, with the subsequent strengthened immune response, coupled with high expectation and, in turn, better habits of diet and hygiene, one can defeat the real illness or subvert the symptoms. This is relevant to many cases of ancient “leprosy,” a term which was not limited to the modern ailment, but included all cases of scaly, scabby, or rough skin–symptoms which are likely to accompany a depressed immune system or a depressed person who is not taking care of himself. A rise in spirits can lead to healing or better care. This is of great interest because of the unusual multitude of lepers that appear in the gospels, indicating that this was seen by that culture as a legitimate illness, making it a certain target for the subconscious to mimic.

All those healed by Jesus show classic psychosomatic symptoms: severe “pain,” “pseudoepilepsy” (the “demon-possessed” and some of those having seizures), and “paralysis” (which would also include some of those suffering seizures, since permanently seized limbs would be placed in this category). Not only do the illnesses cured fit psychosomatic conditions, but we have reason to believe that Jesus was a placebo, since faith in his ability was necessary for successful healing, e.g. “he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith” (Mt. 13:58, Mk. 6:5), while Jesus often healed with statements that primed patients for a placebo response: e.g. “daughter, your faith has healed you” (Mk. 5:34), “don’t be afraid, just believe” (Mk. 5:36), “everything is possible for him who believes” (Mk. 9:23). It follows that, given what little we know, we are sufficiently justified in regarding these healings as unmiraculous.

Consider the evidence: none of the illnesses cured possessed any clearly organic ailments, e.g. no severed limbs, no bloody wounds, no visible sores, etc. The closest the accounts come is: Jesus heals the severed ear of a man who came to arrest him (Lk. 22:51), but in all the other accounts Jesus does not heal the ear (Mt. 26:51, Mk. 14:47; and the most detailed account, Jn. 18:10), which any historian regards as sufficient grounds to reject a story as an embellishment; “a man with leprosy” who was “cleaned” by Jesus (Mt. 8:2-3, Mk. 1:40, Lk. 5:12; cf. also the ten lepers 17:12ff.), but as I’ve already noted “leprosy” tells us little about what the actual symptoms were, and the use of the terminology of “cleaning” fits with a psychosomatic skin ailment; “a woman subject to bleeding for twelve years” (Mt. 9:20, Mk. 5:25, Lk. 8:43), although a symptom like this which persists for so long yet does not kill the patient is suspiciously like a psychosomatic condition (the term can also be used to refer to hemorrhoids or a chronic period, both of which can have a psychogenic origin), and we have no record of whether the bleeding was genuine beforehand, or whether it continued again later, or even whether it was an organic ailment that healed naturally, responding to placebo treatment. Similar problems stand for the “man blind from birth” (Jn. 9:1) since we have no way of knowing whether that is a true description of his symptom–indeed, it seems we have the account from the blind man and his family (9:20), and since he was making a living as a beggar (9:8), they might all be inclined to exaggerate or invent his condition. Moreover, the Jews who investigate (9:13ff.) never even touch upon issues of evidence or diagnosis, but are just as superstitious as the believers (9:34), so we know there was no useful critical examination of the claim.

Even despite these cases, all the other “illnesses” healed fall solidly within the camp of psychogenesis: a “paralyzed” servant “in terrible pain” (Mt. 8:6; note how these symptoms are thought to entail that he was “about to die,” Lk. 7:2), a “fever” (Mt. 8:14, Mk. 1:30, Lk. 4:39; for another case, cf. Jn. 4:52), “demon-possessed men” (Mt. 8:28, Mk. 1:23-26, 1:32, 5:2-10, Lk. 4:33, 4:41, 8:27ff., ), “a paralytic” (Mt. 9:2, Mk. 2:3, Lk. 5:18), a girl in a coma (“sleeping” Mt. 9:24, Mk. 5:39, Lk. 8:52), “blind men” (Mt. 9:27, 20:30, Mk. 8:22-5, 10:46ff., Lk. 18:35ff.), a man who was “demon possessed and could not talk” (Mt. 9:32), another whose symptoms are all classically pseudoepileptic (Mk. 9:17-8, Lk. 9:39), a boy who “has seizures and is suffering greatly” (Mt. 17:15), “a man who was deaf and could hardly talk” (Mk. 7:32), a man “whose right hand was shriveled” (which is a perfect description of a psychogenically “seized” limb, Lk. 6:6), and a woman who was “bent over and could not straighten up” (Lk. 13:11). Jesus even goes to a regular “placebo” healing center (a magic “pool”) where “the blind, the lame, and the paralyzed” go to be healed, and there he cured an “invalid” (Jn. 5:1ff.).

There were also “dead men” brought to life (Lk. 7:15; and Lazarus, Jn. 11:44), but we are not told how they died or what condition they were in and thus cannot count on the diagnosis of death. It was fairly easy to be mistaken for dead (Shorter describes psychosomatic cases of apparent death, pp. 130-4; and see How Do We Know He was Dead? from my article on the Resurrection of Jesus), and the scene described in Luke 7:15 is actually identical to various stories told about famous doctors to justify their renowned skill (Pliny Natural History 7.124, Apuleius Metamorphoses 2.28, 3.24, 10.12 and Florida 19). In the case of Lazarus, the witnesses anticipate a rotting smell (Jn. 11:39), but there is no evidence that such a smell was confirmed after the tomb was unsealed. Thus, we can reasonably conclude that these accounts have plausible natural explanations. We would only be able to prove it if we had a time machine, but that does not prevent us from adopting what amounts to a ready and reasonable explanation (see also my discussion of the Lazarus Example As Used by Corduan). Certainly, there is insufficient evidence here to justify calling these events “miracles.” And this shows how scientific and historical analysis, not philosophical arguments, can lead someone to conclude that natural explanations are better than supernatural ones.

Yet this is merely one line of thought. Many other issues must be explored, such as post hoc reasoning (see my review of Corduan), a common means by which faith healers and psychics today gain renown: people often naturally recover from illness, or symptoms naturally go into remission, and when this corresponds in any way with some special event, like a visit from a faith healer or a psychic, the events are associated as if they were causal. Indeed, by standing out from the norm, such events tend to be recalled more frequently and with greater awe than the more abundant but ordinary events. In addition, memory is unreliable and hunts for patterns, so people can later relate events as being nearer to each other in time than they actually were, or revise their sequence–hence even if the recovery preceded the visit, a person may be so impressed by events that they recall it differently. There is a lot of literature on human memory and fallacies of reason, which is available to be considered and taken to heart, but apologists rarely even approach their project with such scholarly discipline. Then there are issues of hallucination, as well as matters of cultural influences, where the propensity for visions, “demon possession” and pseudoparalysis are just three examples among many. For more on hallucination and memory, see my review of Habermas; for more on post hoc reasoning, see my review of Corduan.

When is the Evidence Enough?

It is true that the reliability of many witnesses could conceivably change this conclusion, but I don’t think Beckwith understands the magnitude of what would be required. Consider the case of Cold Fusion, which to this day its “discoverers” swear they actually observed. No other witnesses can reproduce the effect, thus we are all correct to disbelieve it, even though it may be true and may yet be confirmed. And this is not to say that repeatability of a specific event is needed–it would suffice, in the case of miracles, that miracles in general be repeatable, even if no one miracle is ever repeated in specific detail. Consider also the construction of the pyramids: even though for a long time we could not reproduce any method that would work, we knew that such megalithic structures could be, and had been, repeatedly built by men. Thus, it is necessary to distinguish between evidence for the particular (i.e. what actually happened) and evidence for the general (what can happen). Beckwith does not make this distinction and thus misses its importance.

Moreover, Beckwith fails to apply his own standards to the Christian miracles (like the Resurrection), or else he fails to see why he can’t do so, since the evidence is far too sparse. Consider the remarks by Gaskin, a Humean scholar whom Beckwith quotes: “there is an uncomfortable sense that by means of [the historical argument against miracles] one may well justify disbelieving reports of things which did in fact happen” (94). Why is this an objection to historical skepticism? Of course there are true things that we will be forced to disbelieve due to a lack of evidence. It may be true that Julius Caesar shaved every day of his adult life, but am I justified in “believing” that he did? There simply comes a point where we cannot know the truth and must disbelieve in something even though we are not certain it is false. Our disbelief is justified by the lack of sufficient reason to believe. Certainly Beckwith applies this principle every day of his life. If he didn’t, he would be forced to believe a lot of queer things, not to mention a great multitude of falsehoods. Indeed, he would have more false beliefs than true ones. This is because of all the things that cannot be shown to be true or even likely, most of them will be false (see my essay on Proving a Negative for more on this reasoning). We know this, again, from prior experience with all the cases which we have been able to explore in greater depth–and historians are especially well-accustomed to finding things false upon close examination, so much so that we have every right to be skeptical of all those cases which we cannot examine more closely.

The example that Gaskin offers of what makes him uneasy about this principle is our disbelief in his own “report of seeing water turned into wine” given that his “report had also been vouched by numerous other good and impartial witnesses” (94). But again the actual factors of interest to a historian are missing here: why are any of these witnesses to be regarded as “good” and “reliable”? For example, how can these witnesses know they did not just see a magic trick? If I cannot answer that question, then I cannot know if water was actually turned into wine even if I believe the report of these witnesses. This is how a historian thinks. Why doesn’t Beckwith realize that? I suspect it is because he has very little acquaintance with doing history. And that’s not even a typical example. In the case of early Christian miracles, we already face grave problems attempting to establish that any of the surviving records come from “witnesses” at all, much less witnesses reliable enough to trust. How does Beckwith intend to overcome that problem?

Hence we end up back where I left us in my examination of Corduan’s argument: there is no miracle in all of antiquity for which we have a “good” and “reliable” witness. For the common apologetic comparison with Caesar crossing the Rubicon, see my review of Geivett. Thus, even when we correctly solve Gaskin’s concern, we will still have to face the fact that we do not have such evidence in the case of the ancient Christian miracles. Even if they genuinely happened, we have insufficient evidence to justify believing that they did. The same goes for Beckwith’s next example of a miracle (a modern-day resurrection) that we would most likely be justified in believing (95), since this example is too good to make his point. Indeed, it is far better than any actual miracle account, and thus it works in showing how miracles “could” be believable, but utterly fails to show us that we ought to believe in any miracles that have actually been reported. In short, when it comes to evidence, Beckwith makes the same mistake as Purtill and Corduan.

Where Lies the Burden of Proof?

Beckwith concludes his chapter with this astonishing claim: the historian who disbelieves all miracle accounts “assumes without proof that miracles are not occurring in the present” (97). In other words, they “must show that there are no present miracles and not merely assume” it. This is unsound reasoning. The burden of proof always lays with the positive. It is not my job to prove that Cold Fusion is not happening today. Rather, it is the claimant’s job to prove that it is, and if he cannot produce that proof, that fact in itself is sufficient reason to disbelieve the claim.

This is where this book really fails the reader. For this is an absolutely crucial point. It is so essential for their argument to show that miracles happen now (since that is a major requirement for believing they are possible) that it is shameful to claim such evidence exists and then not present one jot of it. Yet that is just what Beckwith does: he cites in a footnote a book by Geisler which purportedly presents this evidence. But why didn’t Beckwith present it here? I must confess I am bewildered–is the evidence too poor for him to present and still maintain his dignity? I expected these authors to address the history of miracle accounts throughout the middle ages and the rise of modernity and into the present day, because this is so crucial to their stated mission. But they avoid this issue as much as possible–stopping only to address miracle accounts in competing religions (on which, see my discussion of Clark’s Chapter).

In the end, all that Beckwith has accomplished is to show that it is possible in principle for miracles to be a proper subject of historical study, which is all his chapter was apparently designed to do. He claims that other chapters will present the evidence that is “sufficient to warrant a belief that miracles have occurred” (96). But he has failed to show the correct conditions under which it would be proper. And therefore we find here yet another fatally weak link in the chain of this book’s cumulative argument.

Return to this review’s Table of Contents to read more detailed critiques of specific chapters in In Defense of Miracles.

[1] This and following quotations from Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wr. btw. 1776 and 1788, Womersley edition, 1994 (vol. 1, ch. 15, p. 511). Regarding the “darkness” that Gibbon refers to, see my article Thallus: An Analysis (1999).

[2] Seneca Natural Questions 1.1.15, 6.1, 7.17; Pliny Natural History 1.2.

[3] Natural History 2.30.

[4] Garth Fowden, “Pagan Versions of the Rain Miracle of AD 172,” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 36 (1987), pp. 83-95. See also [12].

[5] Quoted by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.5.1-4.

[6] Despite the fact that some Christians later believed Aurelius to be a “good” emperor, his reign saw the martyrdom’s of Polycarp, Justin, and a multitude of others at Lugdunum (Lyons), and two lengthy apologetic letters begging the Emperor to treat Christians with more respect (“Christianity,” Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed., p.327). Other evidence that he was harsh on Christians is presented in T.D. Barnes, “Legislation against the Christians,” Journal of Roman Studies 58 (1968) pp. 39-40.

[7] Eusebius, Chronicon 1.206-7, 2.619-21.

[8] Tertullian, Apologeticus 5.6, Ad Scapulam 4.

[9] Michael Sage, “Marcus Aurelius and ‘Zeus Kasios’ at Carnuntum,” Ancient Society 18 (1987) pp. 151-72. I provide a more complete bibliography on this subject in my book Sense and Goodness without God (2005), pp. 230-31.

[10] Cassius Dio 71.8.10 (in the epitome of book 72).

[11] op. cit. p. 86.

[12] cf. Michael Grant’s exposition on the nature of historical unreliability even in the most reliable sources, Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation (1995).

[13] Michael Sage, “Eusebius and the Rain Miracle: Some Observations,” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 36 (1987), p. 111.

[14] Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (1987), pp. 117-18.

[15] e.g. E.R. Dodds, Greeks and the Irrational (1951).

[16] op. cit., pp. 119-20.

[17] Richard Carrier, “Cultural History of the Lunar and Solar Eclipse in the Early Roman Empire,” PDF of Master’s Thesis, Columbia University (1998).

[18] For more see: Wendy Cotter, Miracles in Greco-Roman Antiquity: A Sourcebook (1999); David Frankfurter Religion in Roman Egypt (1998), pp. 46-52; Robert M. Grant, Miracle and Natural Law in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Thought (1952); Harold Remus, Pagan-Christian Conflict over Miracle in the Second Century (1983).

[19] I conducted the required investigation. The story actually comes to us through three layers of sources: the 1987 Reader’s Digest version is condensed from an article in Games magazine from November, 1983, which in turn cited a 1982 reprint of Warren Weaver’s 1963 textbook on probability called Lady Luck. It is only in that book that the full citation of the original article is given (Life magazine, March 27, 1950, pp. 19-23). The original article, entitled “Why the Choir was Late,” was by a freelance photographer, George Edeal, who also provided photos of the church before and after the explosion, and of thirteen of the fifteen people involved.

       The details as quoted by Beckwith are correct (and the city does exist), but we would not have known that had I not checked the sources–so had none of those sources survived, we would remain in the dark about the reliability of the story. But I also discovered that there is one crucial piece of information that got lost in the shuffle: it was unusually cold that day. This was in fact the cause of the explosion (the minister turned on the furnace, a pipe cracked, and the resulting gas leak filled the church, which was then ignited by the furnace), as well as the cause of the absence of 6 of those involved (two cars could not start and one lady’s daughter would not get out of bed–all likely because of the cold). Of the remaining 9, three were late for a single reason (a stained dress), and the other three couples each had their own reason (one couple was listening to a radio program that they did not want to miss, etc.). In fact, there were only five separate causes of the mass lateness, not fifteen (nor ten, as Weaver states). Weaver estimated that a reason to be late occurred once in every four meetings, making this a 1 in 1000 event. For comparison, the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are 1 in 500,000, and yet about 500 people are struck each year in the U.S. alone.

       The local newspaper (The Beatrice Daily Sun) never answered my requests for further details from their archives, so I was unable to check Edeal’s account for accuracy. But on my behalf, Nebraska local Les Lane generously looked up the original press coverage of the explosion in the Sun and forwarded to me copies of the original article: “Big Blast Wrecks Church,” Beatrice Daily Sun, Thursday Evening, 2 March 1950 (front page). This provides more details that lessen the miracle even further, exposing elements of legendary embellishment in later versions: the explosion occured five minutes before anyone was due to arrive (thus, being late was not in fact what saved everyone, but simply not showing up early); it reports the Reverend said only twelve people, not fifteen, were due to arrive that evening; the only one who was expected early, besides the Reverend and his wife, was the pianist, who fell asleep but woke and started toward the church just when it exploded–and since she lived only a block away, she still would have arrived early; and the ultimate precipitating cause of the explosion (turning on the heater) took place at 5pm, hours before the blast. Finally, March 1st was a Wednesday, and choir practice was set for 7:30pm. I imagine evening on a Nebraksa workday was not exactly ripe for attendance.

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