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Richard Carrier Indef 4c

Clark’s Survey of Other Religions (1999, 2005)

Richard Carrier


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


The Problem of Competing Claims

David Clark aims to tackle a particular problem defined by Hume: as Clark puts it: “If Christian televangelists and New Age cultists both appeal to miracles in support of their religions, do these conflicting claims cancel each other out?” (199). Clark’s description of the problem is well-put and informative, and the structure of his chapter rests upon sound philosophical distinctions, with some budding ideas on how stories get invented and believed, among other things. With a very brief survey of miracle traditions in non-Christian religions, Clark attempts to show that Christian miracles have better evidence and philosophical support than any others. But problems mainly arise, once again, when it comes time to play the role of historian, especially in his inept treatment of ancient pagan miracle-working. It is also disturbing to see a modern scholar who really thinks demons exist and that demonic magic is real.[1] But in the end, when every thread of evidence is carefully analyzed, there really is little difference between Christian and non-Christian miracle beliefs.

Clark’s chapter centers on a triad of questions about all non-Christian religions with miracle traditions: is the religion “really open to the supernatural?” Are there effective “naturalistic arguments” that explain the miracle claims of that religion as spurious? And are any of the miracle claims “historically well authenticated?” (202) He can remove all contenders if he can dismiss all their miracle claims in one of these three ways. Of course, when turned against Christianity, he thinks the answers to these same questions will vindicate his faith instead. But this is where his brevity, which is forced upon him by the format of this book, hurts his case: although he begins the chapter with an analogy with New Age religions, he never brings them up again–nor any of the issues of psionics, e.g. psychometry, telekinesis, clairvoyance, spiritualism, etc., all of which have droves of proponents and believers even today (as does astrology, crystal healing, etc.). Instead, Clark only discusses Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, and hardly touches upon any other creeds, such as the all-important pagan competitors to Christianity in antiquity (the marvels of Asclepius being the most prominent and well-attested), examples of which I present in my essay “Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire.” I also discuss the historical ramifications of such traditions in my review of Beckwith.

Rigging the Game

The first issue is whether competing religions really are open to the supernatural. Clark’s idea is that if miracles have no logical place in a religion’s worldview, or the founders or early proponents of that religion “depreciate” miracle claims, then “we have a prima facie reason to expect a naturalistic explanation” for all the miracles believed by followers of that creed. But the presence of reasonable skeptics in the origin of a religious system has nothing whatsoever to do with whether miracles observed by believers are genuine. Indeed, it does not even entail that the skeptics themselves disbelieved all miracles. In fact, a display of suitable skepticism would actually increase the believability of an author reporting miracles, since it would argue against credulity as a cause of their belief. On the other hand, even if a system of religious beliefs is inconsistent, it does not follow that historical events in that religion’s history are natural, for the followers may be responding to genuine phenomena, but drawing the wrong conclusions. Clark acknowledges both points (204), yet, inexplicably, he still thinks he is making a useful argument. But this approach really has no place at all in any investigation of miracle claims. It will always come down to actual evidence in the end, regardless of these two factors. This section of Clark’s argument is thus a red herring, and amounts to little more than a chance “to pick on” opposing faiths.

Clark also pulls a dirty trick here. Watch closely: “since miracle is partly defined as an act of a supernatural personal being(s)…any religion that lacks the idea of such a being(s)…has no conceptual place for a miracle” and in that case “one could hardly defend the belief structure of such a religion” by appeal to miracles (202). Does he really think that Christians get to define “miracle” in such a way that competing religious marvels can be excluded from all consideration? That is nothing more than linguistic legerdemain. For it does not matter that the Buddha’s ability to teleport came from his understanding of the natural order. If he actually teleported, that would still be proof of the truth of his religious system, and that is the problem Clark must address. He cannot dismiss this by simply defining such proofs as “natural” and then conclude that Christianity wins the contest.

The fact is that within the Buddhist point of view miracles stem from the realization that all reality is illusion, powered by our desires, which allows someone who achieves true enlightenment to play with the laws of the universe, since it is all in his mind anyway (more correctly, it is all in “the mind” since Buddhism holds that our perception of a multitude of individual minds is also an illusion). If this were true–if achieving this state of understanding were possible, and it did in fact result in the ability to play with the laws of the universe (such as by teleporting)–then this would be a very serious challenge to the truth of Christianity. Indeed, it would even be possible to explain Christian miracles as products of an accidental manipulation of reality by ordinary people whose notion of reality is their reality.

This is just one example of how Clark cannot dodge the bullet so easily as he pretends, for every religious tradition containing marvels holds those marvels to be, in some fashion, proof of that system’s correct understanding of reality. It does not matter whether they conceive of those marvels in the same way that Christianity does. Indeed, Clark misses the obvious fact that this is exactly why scientism is the most widely believed worldview–for in the game of “marvels that prove the validity of the system” science squashes all creeds like a bug. One need only observe airplanes, surgical lasers, moonwalks, radios, lightbulbs, and other wonders, from cloud-seeding to vaccines and supercrops, to see that in “the marvels game” no religion holds a candle to science. But observe that Christians in turn explain these marvels in terms of their own world view, just as Buddhists and every other religion can do the same with Christian marvels–with all the same attendant problems.

For instance, if humans, via science, can create a lasting cure for disease with vaccinations and careful management of water and sewage, why couldn’t God do anything comparable when he walked the Earth? Why was this revelation absent, even though it is perhaps among the most important and compassionate revelations in all of history? However Christians weasel out that problem, a similar circumlocution will exist for every other creed as well. This is because, as A.J. Ayer observed, “so long as we take suitable steps to keep our system of hypotheses free from self-contradiction, we may adopt any explanation of our observations that we choose” since “any particular instance in which a cherished hypothesis appears to be refuted can always be explained away.”[2]

The point is that it is futile to try and show that your enemy’s view is wrong simply because it is inconsistent, for if he is determined to preserve his belief at all costs, then he can adjust his system to explain away any challenge to it. This then becomes a game, where each side tries to arrange the pieces of the puzzle so that they all fit. The problem is that this game has no winner–there is no “one way” in which they all fit, especially since we are required to invent numerous missing pieces. If we are to decide that this game can be won, some other conditions of victory must be established. As it happens, I think science has hit upon the right conditions: that system which fits all those observations that are the most certain, and does so with the fewest additional elements.[3] But one will quickly see how Christianity loses, along with all other supernaturalist religions, if we play by those rules, because their evidence is not up to snuff. It can otherwise never win unless it cheats, by setting up the rules in its own favor. But then how is that a real victory? You can’t really be a winner unless you win by rules that all parties agree to, and I think the only rules that all reasonable people can equally agree to are those which actually make science the winner. Christians would do better not even playing this game.

The Infamous Double Standard

When it comes time to talk about actual evidence that throws miracle traditions into doubt, Clark is a bit of a hypocrite. For instance, he uses statements like “even Muslim scholars acknowledge that the vast majority” of miracle claims in Islam “are inauthentic” (204), as if the exact same statement wasn’t just as true of his own creed, unless he wishes to affirm that the vast majority of miracle claims in Catholic hagiography and Gnostic and heretical Christian literature are actually authentic. But of course no one in this entire book even dared to touch, much less mention, the problem that this vast collection of claims poses for Christian miracle beliefs (as I explained in Part 1 of this review).

Another example: Clark says that “outside of the hadith, there are no reported sightings of the moon dividing, even though many ancient peoples carefully watched the sky” (204). This, of course, is just like the previous statement, since he has the equally vexing problem of the eclipse at the death of Christ, which went equally unnoticed by the very same “ancient peoples carefully watching the sky” (see my essay on Thallus and my discussion of Beckwith). I wonder if Clark even bothered to research this claim. I have read of split moon observations in records from various ages, in Pliny and Plutarch, and in modern records as well, where it is usually interpreted as UFO phenomena. To my understanding it is an optical illusion. I did not bother to go back and research the issue myself since I consider it moot, but my recollection of such records demonstrates to me that Clark did not do this research, either. That is not a good sign, if we are to regard his contribution as a carefully-researched scholarly argument. He should not make assertions that he has not checked for accuracy.

Another example is so carefully constructed I wonder if he has fooled himself, or deliberately engineered his argument. It begins with setting forth “four major sorts of hypotheses to explain the rise of spurious miracle stories” (205), one of which being the possibility of fraud. But he only describes the fraud theory in this manner: “magicians concoct miracle stories or perform marvelous acts in order to attract attention to themselves.” This is a curious generalization, because it excludes what amounts to a very important alternative: the pious fraud. The possibility of employing wonders to draw attention to and build faith in the correctness of a particular moral belief is simply too tempting for many to pass up, especially when it is a real option–as it is in any age or place where skepticism and scientific knowledge are almost universally lacking. But Clark never mentions this possibility.

Instead, Clark argues that the attribution of fraud “does not fit the case of Jesus” because he “neither catered to his audience nor lusted for the attention of crowds” (206), citing John 6:60-71 as an example. But this does not eliminate the possibility of pious frauds. It is also rather weak to argue that we can dismiss fraud in the case of Jesus by referring to the propaganda of his own faction–for naturally the authors would want to avoid charges of “catering,” and would want to discredit that charge by constructing just such a story as we see in John 6, a good example of counter-propaganda. Such stories were useful in explaining why people disbelieved or left the movement: they are “unable to accept the truth” and therefore unworthy. Clark also cites the case of Simon Magus, unaware of the fact that it seems his treatment by Christian authors is a deliberate rhetorical attack on a competitor and thus among the most untrustworthy ad hominem arguments in the entire New Testament. This is another sign of poor historical acumen–a good historian learns to identify likely features of propoganda. A real historian would not be so gullible as Clark.

Moreover, Jesus himself could have been playing the crowd like a fiddle, telling witnesses to keep things quiet, knowing all along that they would talk anyway. This would allow him to deny the charge of “catering,” while getting to cater all the same. Indeed, if Jesus really did do this stuff, I have no doubt that he did it not to seek glory for himself, but to seek approval for his teachings, which I’m sure he did believe were superior. Finally, it is a little disingenuous to cite propoganda supporting a hypothesis that Jesus did not “cater to his audience” or lust “for the attention of crowds” when this actually undermines the whole purpose of miracles in the first place. If these wonders were not intended to gather crowds to hear the Gospel, and to convince those crowds of the Gospel’s truth, what were they for? As long as it is within human nature to effect a fraud in order to gather an audience and convince them to adopt some belief, it will remain plausible that Jesus succumbed to just such a temptation. But Clark has carefully avoided this issue, by framing the fraud question in a peculiar way, and then citing biased evidence to exclude Jesus from the possibility of fraud. That’s simply dirty pool.

Other Weak Arguments

Some of Clark’s analyses are very odd. For instance, he argues that “despite superficial similarities” between Jesus and other holy men of antiquity, “Jesus is quite distinct from all these” (207). But that is a vacuous point–for many other holy men were equally unique, including Apollonius of Tyana, one of those whom Clark mentions, who also “corrected the teachings of his contemporaries” (there are many others: see my essay “Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire“). This uniqueness does not allow us to conclude that the similarities were not mapped onto these men after the fact, based on the expectations of later believers (who all expected certain things of holy men), or that these holy men did not adopt similar methods for this same reason, or for the simpler reason that the most common set of tricks was the easiest, or the only, set of wonders that could be pulled off by mere mortals on a regular basis.

Clark also throws out a claim, without argument, that all these holy men are only described in post-Christian sources and thus could not have influenced the Christian narratives. But he forgets to mention Elijah and Elisha and Moses and other miracle-working holy men described in the Old Testament. Moreover, even though “holy man” literature begins to rise in popularity in the same centuries, it does not follow that they were not all influenced by a common written or oral tradition that preceded them, and this is confirmed in cases where similar patterns appear in sources which could not have been influenced by Christian themes and thus prove a common cultural background, such as Pliny’s account of the doctor Asclepiades resurrecting a dead man, and Herodotus’ account of the resurrected Zalmoxis, and the description in Josephus of the ancient tradition of exorcism and divine healing practiced by Jewish holy men since the time of Solomon.[4] We also have things like Plutarch’s mention of Romeo-and-Juliet-style returns from the dead as a popular theme in 1st-century theatre.[5] Moreover, Christian literature only appears to be the oldest because the Church won the power to suppress much of the competition’s literature (or simply not copy it, which guaranteed its extinction). If we had a fuller library of ancient works, we would have, for instance, 1st-century accounts of Apollonius by his own apostles. Philostratus, whose biography of Apollonius is the only one to survive (with the vitriolic critique of the 4th-century Christian historian Eusebius attached), cites several such sources, none of which survive.[6] Ultimately, contrary to Clark’s assertion, records of pre-Christian holy men do survive in several pre-Christian sources.[7]

Hit and Run

Clark finishes his chapter with a bunch of hit-and-run assertions. He declares that the Gospels were “composed within a generation” of the life of Jesus “by people who claimed to see the events” (211) even though virtually no qualified scholar believes either is true.[8] Clark does not present any evidence, nor does he address the contrary opinions of mainstream historians–all he does is cite in a footnote one author “supporting an early date.” He claims that the Gospels are “consistent without being identical” yet they are not always consistent,[9] and even if not identical, the first three Gospels are certainly so similar that copying is assured. But Clark does not say a word about the Synoptic Problem.[10]

Clark also says the Gospels “have many characteristics of eyewitness accounts” yet I doubt Clark has actually examined any ancient eyewitness accounts–indeed, I doubt he could even name one outside of Christian literature. Instead of basing this conclusion on a comparison with other eyewitness accounts, he bases it instead on the sole fact that Jesus is depicted as having human fears (Matthew 27:46) which the authors were “unlikely” to report if they wanted to support the claim that he was the Messiah. But this argument doesn’t even make sense from within the Christian point of view: it was key to their rhetoric that Christ was not only God’s son, but was a man “just like us,” so there would have been a reason to invent such humanizing features. But it is also typical of all reports of famous men in antiquity to include correct information and then surround it with embellishments. For example, Plutarch’s Life of Alexander the Great contains a lot of correct information, but his account of the Battle of Granicus is clearly a romantic fiction when compared with the more plausible account given by Diodorus.

Not Telling the Whole Story

Then Clark asserts that the Gospels “faithfully reflect the cultural conditions of first-century Palestine and correctly identify many people and places of that era” as if that information were not available to the authors unless Jesus performed miracles! Needless to say, this is a rather moot point–the authors could have all that information even if Jesus did not exist. By analogy, just because Plutarch gets the same things right in his biography of Alexander, it does not follow that all his information is correct. In fact, the more fantastic the information, the less likely it is to be true, and so it is with all literature–to expect the Gospels to be different amounts to special pleading. But Clark’s assertion is not entirely correct to begin with.

For example, the depiction of Pontius Pilate as a timid quasi-sympathizer bears no resemblance at all to the actual man, who was brutal and cruel and had no qualms about silencing unruly crowds by charging cohorts of club-wielding soldiers at them. One need only read the account of his term of office in Josephus to see there is something wrong with the Gospel account of the same man. To fill the gaps in their ignorance, the Gospel authors even invented conversations to which there could not have been any witness available to them, such as Matthew’s account of priviledged conversations between the priests and Pilate, and then secret ones between the priests and their guards that no Christian could have known about (Matthew 27:62-65, 28:11-15). This material actually eliminates the possibility that the Gospels are entirely eye-witness accounts.

Clark goes so far as to conclude that “among ancient documents, the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life are uniquely reliable” (211). I address such absurd hyperbolic statements in my review of Geivett’s Chapter. It is quite silly to suppose that the Gospels are “more reliable” than, say, the history of Thucydides, or Cicero’s letters. Indeed, by using the word “documents” Clark is being even more absurd still–for this entails that the Gospels are more reliable than inscriptions and papyrus letters and records, which is a really stupid thing to say. I must suppose that Clark did not mean this, which tells me that he did not give this sentence much thought, and was content to say what was more impressive than true.

Another typical claim that Clark repeats is the assertion that “foes” could have refuted the miracle claims–a statement only one who is ignorant of the realities of ancient history could possibly make, much less believe. As he puts it, “Jesus’ opponents could have made a stronger claim, denying that he performed apparent miracles. Yet practically, they could not deny the events” (211-2). Clark, of course, believes in demons and magic, so I guess he thinks that Athenagoras was describing reality when, in his Legatio pro Christianis (26), he does not deny the contemporary healing powers of the statues of pagan divine men such as Neryllinus, Proteus and Alexander of Abonuteichos, but merely ascribes their powers to demons. Likewise, Eusebius does not challenge the truth of the miracles of Apollonius, but merely ascribes them to demonic magic. It is extremely rare to find any Christian actually challenging the truth of pagan miracle claims–it was much more common to attribute them to demons, as is the case in the treatment of the powers of Simon Magus in all post-biblical Christian literature. This is further proof that people in antiquity were gullible and superstitious. For it sooner occurred to them that miracles were the real effects of demons and gods than that miracles were fake or mythical.

Because of the abundant evidence of pagan miracles, which comes from sources just as reliable as any early Christian claim, Clark’s argument backfires: the evidence he offers for the truth of the miracles of Jesus, when examined in the light of their total context, actually undermines the truth of those miracles.[11] It is also undermined by the fact that the miracles of Jesus occurred in a region that was universally regarded as backward by Greek and Roman scholars, and was soon ravaged by a massive war. Thus, the ability of any hostile witnesses even to be alive once Christianity started to grow to any significant size, much less to have the means to check their claims and get them published widely enough to be noticed, is slim–even supposing they cared. This is further compounded by the Christian lust for destroying hostile literature. We only know of the critiques of Celsus and Porphyry and Hierocles and Julian, for instance, because some Christian rebuttals to them survive–the books themselves were destroyed. This makes appeals to “missing critical literature” a rather shameless argument on the part of Christians like Clark.


Clark’s entire chapter was supposed to show that the existence of competing miracle claims does not undermine the truth of Christian miracle claims. But the ubiquity of miracle claims in numerous religious traditions proves that witnesses and sources are not reliable. If people are willing, by the billions, to believe in miracles that are poorly supported by evidence, this presents an insurmountable problem for Christianity, whose “believers” at all stages of the creed’s history were just as human as those of other creeds. And Clark has not succeeded in surmounting this obstacle. It remains that Christian testimony is no more reliable than any other. Consequently, Christian miracle claims are no more reliable than any other.

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

[1] Clark asserts that “from a Christian viewpoint, it is best to interpret demonic acts as supernormal but natural events, since demons are part of the natural order that God created” (201) and “magical events caused by demonic spirits are possible” (210). He explains “the rope trick of India” as being an illusion “apparently create[d]” by a “hypnotic Hindustani patter,” and says that other “yogic powers are apparently real,” since “by mastering certain higher laws of nature” yogis can “perform supernormal acts” (209-10). Clark is apparently unaware of the literature debunking the legends and tricks of modern Indian “godmen.” Just for starters, you can examine the resources provided by The Indian Skeptic and the Science and Rationalists Association of India.

[2] A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic (1946) p. 95.

[3] I explain this fact in my discussions of science and method in my book Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism (2005), esp. § II.3 (pp. 49-62) and § IV.1 (pp. 209-52).

[4] Pliny, Natural History 7.124; Herodotus, Histories 4.94-6; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 8.44-9.

[5] Plutarch De Sollertia Animalium (Moralia 973e-974a). See discussion in the Main Argument, and attached footnotes, of my collection on Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story (6th ed., 2006).

[6] Eusebius refers to them himself, in his Treatise Against the Life of Apollonius § 3.

[7] See E.R. Dodds, Greeks and the Irrational (1951), as well as the sources on ancient sorcerers and magic that I list in endnote 5 of “The Plausibility of Theft” in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond The Grave (2005): p. 365. In addition to the examples given in those sources, there is the Wizard of Apamea described by Diodorus Siculus (34/35.2.1-26), and of course numerous biblical wonder workers, like Moses and Elijah, the Witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28) and the Pharaoh’s Magi (Exodus 7:11-8:7), and contemporaries of Jesus, like Simon Magus and Elymus the Sorcerer (Acts 13), who clearly represented a tradition that was in place and respected before the example of Jesus arose.

[8] See Eberhard Nestle’s Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (1901); Bruce Metzger’s Early Versions of the New Testament: Their Origin, Transmission, and Limitations (1977); and for the most up-to-date work, Edward Ellis, The Making of the New Testament Documents (1999). See also [10].

[9] Dan Barker’s challenge to all Christian scholars to produce a consistent account of the arrest, passion, and resurrection without discarding a single verse in all the accounts available–see Losing Faith in Faith (1992), pp. 178-9–has never been successfully answered, because it cannot be met without revealing several irreconcilable contradictions, e.g. Luke 23:26 and John 19:17. Also, Matthew and Luke present irreconcilably different dates for the birth of Jesus, as I demonstrate in my article The Date of the Nativity in Luke (2000). These are just two examples. The number of contradictions of either kind is legion (see the Secular Web libraries on Biblical Errancy and Biblical Criticism).

[10] Peter Head, Christology and the Synoptic Problem: An Argument for Markan Priority (1997); and Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (1997).

[11] See my review of Beckwith’s Chapter for more on the historical context–and for even more detail, see my discussion of legendary development in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond The Grave (2005): pp. 165-82. Otherwise, the best treatments of these matters are Harold Remus, Pagan-Christian Conflict Over Miracle in the Second Century (1983), whom Clark cites but apparently has not read carefully, and Robert Grant, Miracle and Natural Law in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Thought (1952).

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