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Sunday, July 09, 2006

Jesus Dynasty, the supernatural and history

In response to reviews of the Jesus Dynasty, James Tabor writes:

More than one evangelical Christian reviewer or reader of my book The Jesus Dynasty has objected to the exclusion of the so-called “miraculous” as a part of an investigation of the “historical” Jesus. As Christianity Today’s Darrell Bock put it: “James Tabor’s historical assumptions that reject God’s activity on Earth force him into odd arguments to explain the birth of Christianity.” Bock is referring particularly to my observation that historians assume that all humans have two biological parents and that dead bodies don’t rise to life. Ironically, to most historians the “odd arguments” are characteristic of those who take the assertions that Jesus had no human father or that he walked out of his tomb and ascended into heaven as literal scientific statements of fact. Whether I personally reject “God’s activity on Earth” is another matter entirely that I don’t address directly in my book.

This has been an issue which has turned up on this blog more than once and sometimes lead to some entertaining hate (e)mail. It is an old and well worn issue but it hasn't gone away. As ever don't get me wrong, I have no problem with people who want to argue that the miraculous explains Christian origins no matter how misguided I think that is but who is really odd? I find it difficult to imagine that a historian in a history department would explain the emergence of a new religion or movement in terms of supernatural and the divine in history. It may not be odd in theology and biblical studies but in 'secular' discipline it would be, right?

The historian EH Carr was not always on the side of the angels in many ways (to put it mildly) but his stress that resorting to God is the joker in the pack of cards that a historian is not allowed to use seems to me to be completely mainstream among historians in history departments.


Blogger Jim said...

As your colleague there in Sheffield, and our dinner partner at the SBL has so pointedly, and rightly, observed,

"Many people accept as fact things reported in their Bibles that they would simply not believe if they saw them with their own eyes". -- Philip Davies

July 10, 2006

Blogger steph said...

How can Christian scholars who appeal to miracles to explain the origins of Christianity, but not allow the origin of Islam to lie in a miracle of divine delivery of the Qur-an to Muhammed?

Stupid question but then I find the appeal to miracles in history an odd escape in this discipline.

July 10, 2006

Blogger Danny Zacharias said...

Bart Ehrman in the Duke podcast with Richard Hays gave a short and sweet answer that satisfied the crowd on this matter- historical investigation of its nature has to deal with probabilities and available evidence. Miracles cannot enter into historical reconstruction because by their very nature they are improbable and beyond reason. I'm not sure why this scares evangelicals so much- it doesn't bother me. I think there are good reasons to believe in the resurrection, but I recognize that in using the methods of historical inquiry the resurrection cannot be 'proven'.


July 10, 2006

Blogger J. B. Hood said...

Ditto what Danny said, I think anyways.

I know I've learned a great deal from non-supernatural studies of all kinds, including those on conversion theory, Xian origins, etc.; and it could easily be argued that most of this knowledge wouldn't have been gained, or would have been hard to obtain, coming from a position that stresses supernaturalism to the exclusion of natural processes (not that most Xian scholars who allow for supernaturalism do this).

July 10, 2006

Blogger James Crossley said...

That's interesting, Danny and Jason (and Jim and Steph but for different reasons!). So here are some questions to you both, largely out of curiosity but I think it is a potential area for a dialogue of different perspectives. If you were going to write a history of Jesus or Christian Origins would you then say something like the issue of the miraculous etc. is going to be excluded not because it did not happen but it is more or less beyond historical enquiry and produce a work that could be perfectly at home in (say) a history dept?

And what then would you both make of Wright's (implied?) claim that Christianity would not have happened if the resurrection did not take place? This view has to involve the supernatural in history. Would you both part company with Wright on that one (even if you both believe that the resurrection took place)?

I'd be interested to know what you both think.

July 10, 2006

Blogger J. B. Hood said...


Tough question, no easy answers. There's a reason I'm not doing a historical Jesus dissertation, and that I focus on literature. (Not that I think the view I'm holding out in my research on Matthew's Gospel isn't historically viable.)

There are certainly individual studies I could undertake along those lines, sure, but I'm not entirely sure in the long-run I'd stick with the program. It's hard for me to imagine a career or a body of research confined to those parameters, largely because it would form a strange disconnect between my personal life, driven by the texts in question in many respects, and my career. That's why Wellhausen quit his post training ordinands--too much disconnect.

Most evangelical scholars I've read don't say outright that the supernatural writ large is beyond historical investigation (too much epistemology assumed in saying that); rather they leave that question to one side, often never returning to it, NTW being an exception.

Not sure how to answer your question about rez. in history. I'll give it some thought.

Question: where and how do we draw the line between what is supernatural and what is not?

July 12, 2006

Blogger Peter M. Head said...

Probably James Tabor is just trying to get an argument going with conservatives as part of a marketing exercise (why does he never link to what the 'evangelical' reviewers have said?).

July 12, 2006

Anonymous Christopher Shell said...

Tabor is among the group identified by Peter Head as leaving aside the supernatural question and never returning to it. This practice, we must agree, is (if deliberate) less than honest.

The very terms 'miracle' and 'supernatural' are in the view of some merely products of Enlightenment dualism: a worldview no-one (that I know of) can defend.

To speak of 'miracle' requires a belief that we can already give a full account of what the laws of nature are, even assuming that we can speak of 'laws' in the first place, which I think to an extent we certainly can.

To speak of 'supernatural' implies a double decker universe. So why are people who do not believe in a double decker universe using the term? Presumably because they are about to eliminate the upper layer from the argument.

We can never say that something cannot happen, only that it has never been observed to happen before (to our knowledge), and/or that it does not fit in with the way that evidence has led us to view the world.

Science progresses precisely by unpredicted data being taken at face value instead of explained away. Harmonisers be blowed!

July 13, 2006

Blogger James Crossley said...

Thanks for that Jason. It is a problem and I've always wondered if what you say is a broader problem. And I think there may be fear of career prospects etc. Not unrelated: I know one atheist scholar who is dead against Wright on Jesus but thinks his stuff on Paul is good stuff and I suppose that is because a final form reading rules out several of those flashpoints (e.g. supernatural, historicity). For what it is worth I'd like more Wright-style of being open and let's just get on with it, though whether it would work in practice I dunno.

Peter: well does that not show that this is the place to be for the not-for-profit discussion!??

On the issue of the supernatural (Jason and Christopher) there are of course all sorts of problems in definition etc and ultimately, though historically speaking I work more or less with an Enlightenment world view, I don't go the whole way largely for reasons that it potentially excludes people from the debate (evangelicals etc.). But I would respond with an old criticism that if we have a more chaotic or open view of the universe, does potentially accepting the strongly miraculous apply to non-Christian texts? It would take a brave soul to write about the historical accuracy of strange events attributed to non-Christian (don't pull me up on that definition anyone, you know what I mean) figures in the ancient world. It is for these reasons too that I'm a bit reluctant to get involved in definitions of supernatural. Put another way, we all roughly know what we mean on this.

July 13, 2006

Blogger J. B. Hood said...

"But I would respond with an old criticism that if we have a more chaotic or open view of the universe, does potentially accepting the strongly miraculous apply to non-Christian texts?"

You're right that in regard to history it's difficult to tackle these things, or even know where to start. I personally have no problem with my epistemology allowing for such events; I've seen/heard too many things, particularly in pantheistic and animist cultures, to rule this out. And in principle studies of such events/phenomena and characters could take place at present. But history is the problem, isn't it, proving abnormal ancient events or attributing supernatural phenomena to ancient characters is difficult. Unless in some way the effects of this carried forward in the present...

July 14, 2006

Blogger James D. Tabor said...

For Peter's information I often refer to evangelical reviews of my book and several are archived on my Web site as well as hypertexed in my Blog...including Witherington's 29 page single-spaced four part review! I think this observation by Peter is a kind of low blow. Anyone who has read my book knows the tone is gentle and accommodating. Most of my students are evangelical Christians yet they find my classes comfortable and enlightening.

July 15, 2006


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