Book Plunge: The Miracle Myth

What do I think of Lawrence Shapiro’s book published by Columbia University Press? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

It’s been said before that when Christian Philosopher Alvin Plantinga gets a critique of the Christian worldview, he likes to take his opponent’s argument and reshape it, not to make it weaker, but to remove any problems he sees in it. He wants to make it as strong as he can. When that is done, he goes and then deals with the argument.

Shapiro seems to take the exact opposite approach of taking arguments of his opponents and making them as weak as possible in this book.

This is a book that does not deal accurately with any of the ideas that it wishes to critique. The author takes straw man after straw man and then announces with joy that the hideously weak case has been knocked down. Unfortunately, Shapiro has knocked down a sand castle while a powerful fortress stands there untouched.

In fact, a striking problem of Shapiro’s book is how little time he spends discussing actual miracle claims. There are many times he argues against the idea of miracles and in fact painting them as ridiculous as claims of alien abductions or Bigfoot. The only two claims of a miracle he takes on are the Book of Mormon and the resurrection of Jesus, and while I disagree with the former entirely, even then Shapiro does a horrible job dealing with this.

Fortunately, at the start Shapiro does make clear what he’s arguing against. He says “Miracles, I argue, should be understood as events that are the result of supernatural, typically divine, forces.” Now at this point, I still wonder what is meant by this term supernatural. I don’t see atheists and skeptics define it a lot and the supernatural/natural dichotomy makes no sense to me.

I can’t help but wonder how familiar Shapiro is with some miracle arguments when he says “Why do we think that it’s perfectly natural that a stone falls when dropped or that metal expands when heated or that days are shorter in the winter than in the summer? We do so because these events and others like them happen all the time.” Of course, Hume himself said that dropping a stone 1,000 times and watching it fall will not prove that it will fall the 1,001st time.

At the start of his story The Man Who Was Thursday, Chesterton wrote about a man who was amazed about all that did happen like that. It is amazing when a train reaches the correct stop or a letter reaches the correct address because there was a potentially infinite number of places it could have gone to. All of these are a way of establishing order in the universe.

Why bring this up? Because unknowingly to Shapiro I suspect, when he makes statements like this, he’s upholding the theism he would be arguing against. This is, in fact, part and parcel of the fifth way of Thomas Aquinas. The fact that there is expected order at all is something that needs to be explained and with more than “We see it happen every day.” You may see a man kiss his wife every day, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to know of a reason behind it.

Right after this, Shapiro does bring up the natural/supernatural distinction which he thinks that nearly everyone accepts. Perhaps they do, but for what reason? I contend that it is not a good one as I have questioned Christians and atheists on this one and never received replies that make sense of the distinction. I prefer to speak of objects acting according to their nature unless other objects or forces or beings intervene.

I’m not surprised when I get to Location 571 in my Kindle reading and read “If science tells us anything, it’s that the dead tend to stay that way.” Normally, this kind of statement isn’t really spelled out which makes it all the more humorous. Perhaps Shapiro just isn’t aware that man in the past has always tended to bury or dispose of the dead in some way. We learned pretty quickly that they’re not coming back. If this is the discovery of modern science, then please tell me which scientist discovered this and when it took place. We know more scientifically about death, but you don’t have to be a scientist to know that dead people stay dead.

Shapiro then says something about the inference to the best explanation. It’s understandable that when you see something science can’t seem to explain, such as a statue crying, you can infer that the cause must be something outside the realm of science (Which is what he would call supernatural.). There’s nothing wrong with the reasoning per se. We do it all the time with what we can’t observe.

At this point, I wonder about the question of goodness. Do we observe goodness? Hume would have said we didn’t. You talk about how the action feels to you and you impress that onto the action. Myself being a Thomist, would prefer to say that the goodness is in the action itself and you recognize it as such. Science cannot explain this goodness. It’s a metaphysical quality. This is not to insult science. It’s just properly recognizing the limits of science.

At 841, Shapiro tells us that whatever we assume about God’s nature is purely speculative. Really, they’re guesses. Somehow, Aristotle and Aquinas and other thinkers didn’t get that memo. They used reasoning about metaphysical matters to arrive at a conclusion about God they could argue for. Sadly, Shapiro never bothers to look at such arguments.

Shortly after, he starts to say something about the resurrection. He tells us that there is a better natural explanation, that for instance, the women went to the wrong tomb or the body was stolen by grave robbers. These would surely explain the data better.

Except they don’t. Kirsopp Lake tried the wrong tomb explanation long ago. It never got much ground. Anyone would have been happy to point out the right tomb. As for grave robbers, grave robbers would normally not steal the whole body but only the parts they needed. None of these would explain either the appearances or the conversion of skeptics like Paul and James.

But hey, Shapiro just needs a just so story. Just throw it out and boom, you’ve shown what a better thinker you are. Obviously, this is something that has never crossed the mind of Christians ever.

It’s ironic he says this in response to Licona’s book on the resurrection where counter-theories would be dealt with. He also says Licona cannot say that this is a miracle. Unfortunately for Shapiro, Licona regularly speaks about what a miracle is. It’s described as an event that goes beyond the laws of nature and takes place in an atmosphere charged with religious significance.

A blind man sits at home one day and all of a sudden, BOOM!, his eyes are open and he can see. Is this a miracle? Maybe.Maybe not. On Licona’s terms, it wouldn’t look like it just yet. Meanwhile, a blind man is at a church service and people gather around him and pray in faith that in the name of Jesus the man’s eyes would be opened. The man can then see. This would be a miracle.

Shapiro also gives an account of Sally. Sally is a little girl who is amazingly accurate with all she says. Unfortunately, she’s also boring. She talks about mundane things regularly. Then one day you see Sally and she talks about how she’s been an alien hostage for twelve years and had gone through a wormhole and because of that, it will seem to us like she was never gone. After all of the description, he asks if we should believe her. His reply is we shouldn’t.

I have a different reply. I understand skepticism. By all means, be skeptical, but instead, ask “Okay. What is the evidence?” Could we take Sally to a doctor to check her for bruises? Could we see where the abduction took place to see some residue? Could Sally tell us facts about the universe and such she would not have known otherwise that we can verify?

Does that seem bizarre to you? Why should it? What is wrong with receiving a strange claim and just asking “What is the evidence?” I’m skeptical of alien abductions, but I am sure that if someone was abducted by aliens, they would want to talk about it. Should I discount the story immediately without seeing the evidence they have?

Shapiro also gives an account of a disease that can only be treated if caught early. The disease is a deadly one, but the treatment leaves one in a horrid state. The test for the disease is accurate when it says someone has it 999 out of 1,000 times. The test says you have it. Should you get the treatment?

Shapiro argues that there is in fact overall a 1 in 10,000,000 chance of getting the disease. Since I am not a specialist on probability, I spoke to my friend Tim McGrew on this, who is a specialist on this. According to him, this means that at the start, the probability you have the disease is .0000001. If the test makes it a thousand times more likely that you have it, your odds are still ,0001.

McGrew says that in that case, it might not be wise to get the treatment regardless of what the test says, but what if there are other tests? What if you can go to other doctors and find other means? Each of these will increase the odds. Should you not at least consider doing this?

McGrew also points out that events like miracles are not like catching a disease where one in a certain population will get it as a random event in the universe. A miracle is a deliberate action by an agent. It is not as if we bury people and one out of every 10,000,000 will rise from the dead.

Shapiro also says with other events, we have more independent sources and other evidence, such as if we take the account that a volcano destroyed Pompeii. I find this one quite amusing since for Pompeii, we only have one direct reference to it. We have allusions to it, but it’s only mentioned by Pliny to Tacitus telling about why his uncle died in an off-the-cuff remark. It’s not until Cassius Dio centuries later that we learn that Herculaneum was destroyed.

Amazingly, Shapiro does concede that if God exists and He is omnipotent, this raises the probability that the resurrection happened to one. You would think that someone would want to look at theistic arguments at that point, but it looks like Shapiro doesn’t. Shapiro in fact asks why not believe in aliens or other entities that raised Jesus. If Shapiro wants to make a case for any of those, he’s welcome to it. We will make our case for a theism consistent with the Aristotelian-Thomistic arguments and see which explanation makes the better case.

It’s sadly not much of a shock when Shapiro goes also to “the historian Richard Carrier.” (Cue Yakity Sax playing in your head right now.) I could repeat all that Carrier says here in comparing Jesus’s resurrection to the crossing of the Rubicon, but I have done that elsewhere. Keep in mind also that in historical statements about this event, Shapiro says “We have the written reports that historians produced a couple hundred years after the event.” Keep this in mind because this tells us right now that a couple of hundred years isn’t a problem.

Doug Geivett was also the one who made the claim originally that the evidence of Jesus rising from the dead is comparable to that of Caesar crossing the Rubicon. Shapiro says Geivett would be disappointed to learn that Carrier thinks the Biblical miracles are made up. No, I quite contend that Geivett would not be at all disappointed, other than disappointment for the possible salvation of Carrier. Carrier’s positions are getting more and more to the extreme that it looks more and more that if Carrier says something is true, the opposite is far more likely to be true.

A story Shapiro goes on to deal with then is the account of the Book of Mormon. Now I have done some reading on Mormonism including all of their Scriptures, but it’s hardly a specialty area. Still, while Shapiro makes a good case, it’s just a decent one. Much more could have been said. What is interesting is that he makes a case with something he thinks many of us would readily agree on to show us that the case for the resurrection is just as bad.

Oh really?

In all of this, Shapiro has been wanting to compare Jesus to the story of a frog in India who heals pets who are brought to him, except for ferrets. For some reason, he does not like ferrets. The person telling you about this frog is convinced. Now it’s time to see how well this holds up.

The frog believer tells you at this point that not until decades later did someone think to write down anything about the accounts. Yes. Decades later. This is a man who just recently said a couple of hundred years wasn’t a problem for crossing the Rubicon. Now decades later is a problem for Jesus.

Shapiro also doesn’t ask why the accounts were never written down. He never pauses to think that he lives in a society where books are easily made, inexpensive generally, and everyone can read them. I got his book sent to me immediately on my Kindle and it didn’t cost a lot. Did the ancients have it the same way? Not at all.

In the ancient world, you had two choices. You could go with oral tradition for one. This was free, quite reliable, (Shapiro would have to say that as oral tradition would be necessary for those historians writing a couple hundred years later) and could reach everyone who could speak the language. You could also write. Writing was timely and expensive, not seen as reliable when compared to oral tradition, and could only reach those who could read unless someone read it to them.

This would have been a good thought for Shapiro to consider, but he never does. Instead, he just assumes that the culture was just like his and writing makes the most sense. To us, it does. To them, it didn’t.

Shapiro also says before researching this book, he was profoundly ignorant of the New Testament. I think Shapiro is in a worse position now. He is still profoundly ignorant of the New Testament, but now he thinks that he is informed on it. This isn’t a big shock since he tells us his sources are Bart Ehrman and Richard Carrier. After all, when you want to learn about a view, there’s nothing like going to people who will already agree with the ideas that you hold.

At the start, he is skeptical about written records because the people who were Jesus’s disciples couldn’t write anything. Perhaps, but perhaps not. Some fishermen would need a basic literacy, especially being in charge of a business. Tax collectors would definitely need a basic literacy. Also, the people we attribute the Gospels to does not mean they themselves sat down and wrote the account. Most writings were done through scribes. The Gospel according to Matthew could mean that Matthew was the main source of the account, for instance. We know there were well-to-do people in the early church and they’d just need to give some funding for the writing of the Gospel and it would be made.

Speaking of authorship, Shapiro says that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not the original authors. Unfortunately, you will not see him interacting with any positive case. He thinks it sufficient to show that Irenaeus said there were four Gospels because there were four corners of the Earth and four principle winds. Never mind that this says nothing about authorship and even only makes sense if it is already accepted that there are four Gospels. Never mind there’s no interaction with someone like Dr. Charless Hill who wrote Who Chose The Gospels? Just make the assertion and that’s enough. Of course, any case will sound good if you only present the evidence for your side.

For enemy assent, he says you would think that if Jesus returned from the dead, some Roman or Jew would write about it to express their disappointment. Why? Why would you expect that? In fact, we did have one Jew who wrote about it. That was Paul. His opinion won’t count though because He became a Christian. We have no evidence that Jesus appeared to the Romans or the Jews en masse so why would they give a testament of it? They would want to shut this up immediately.

Shapiro does tell us that Josephus mentions Jesus twice, but we can’t be sure if the writings are authentic since Christians passed them down. This is news to Josephus scholars who are quite convinced that the Testimonium has an authentic core to it with information about Jesus and the second reference is really not questioned at all. It would have been nice for Shapiro to actually look at real scholars on these issues specifically, but he doesn’t.

For physical evidence, Shapiro thinks it’s interesting that square stones were used to seal tombs instead of round ones so they couldn’t be rolled. Shapiro thinks that since this basic fact is wrong, we can’t trust the accounts. Is this accurate? I spoke to Greg Monette about this who I have interviewed on this before. Monette has spent time in Israel and is doing his Ph.D. on the burial of Jesus.  This is what he told me about it.

Simple answer: even if it were a square stone what do you call it when you move it into place? You ROLL IT!!! It’s true that many tombs discovered have square stones but not all. Rachel Hachlili and L. Y. Rahmani provide numerous references to round doors. I’ve personally seen some in Jerusalem.

For reliable accounting, he tells us our information ultimately comes from two sources. It comes from Mark and from John. He makes no mention of Paul and he makes no mention of material unique to Matthew and Luke and no mention of Q.

Amusingly, in the middle of this, he says that we today “have a sophisticated medical science that explains what happens in death and why death is irreversible, except very rarely and certainly not after a period of three days.” It’s as if the ancients just didn’t know that dead people stay dead. Sorry, but this is hardly breaking news.

He goes on to say that New Testament scholars recognized long ago that the Gospels as they are today would be unrecognizable to the original authors? Really? What scholars are these? In talking about this, he refers to Bart Ehrman. That sounds like a good idea. Let’s see what Bart Ehrman says about this.

If the primary purpose of this discipline is to get back to the original text, we may as well admit either defeat or victory, depending on how one chooses to look at it, because we’re not going to get much closer to the original text than we already are.… At this stage, our work on the original amounts to little more than tinkering. There’s something about historical scholarship that refuses to concede that a major task has been accomplished, but there it is. Novum Testamentum Graecum Editio Critica Maior: An Evaluation: TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism, 1998, a revision of a paper presented at the Textual Criticism section of the 1997 Society of Biblical Literature in San Francisco. http://rosetta.reltech.org/TC/vol03/Ehrman1998.html

 

In spite of these remarkable [textual] differences, scholars are convinced that we can reconstruct the original words of the New Testament with reasonable (although probably not 100 percent) accuracy. Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 481.

Shapiro also tells us that within a couple of centuries of the writing of the Gospels, hundreds of distinct Gospels had to exist. Okay. Show them? What’s the evidence for this? Go with the manuscripts we have and show me the vastly different manuscripts.

He also wants to bring out some discoveries that will be absolutely shocking! Now if you’ve read this blog any, none of this will shock you, other than Shapiro’s ignorance about it and the ideas he brings from it. As I said earlier, Shapiro moved from being profoundly ignorant to being profoundly ignorant and thinking he’s not.

His first major shock for you is that 1 John 5:7-8 is not in the original manuscripts. (Shapiro has John 5:7-8 and nothing about it being 1 John) So what do we draw from this? It’s that the author of John never accepted the Trinity.

Yes. I’m serious. That’s exactly what he says.

Of course, there will be no interaction with scholars like Tilling, Bauckham, Hurtado, and others. Never mind you can see the full deity of Jesus in the Gospel of John plain as day. Never mind the early church never had this verse and they still had no problem condemning Arius. Never mind that technically this verse doesn’t even go with the Trinity. Arians and modalists could still interpret it a different way. The ignorance of Shapiro is astounding.

Next major shock. The Gospel of Mark did not originally have the last twelve verses which means the first witness we have did not mention the resurrection. Well, no. The first witness we have is Paul who did talk about the resurrection. Second, it would be a mistake to think that Mark has no resurrection. Who would disagree with him on this? Bart Ehrman. Check footnote 280 on p. 226 of How Jesus Became God.

It is sometimes said that Mark does not have a resurrection narrative, since the final twelve verses (16:9–20) are lacking in our best and earliest manuscripts. It is true that Mark appears to have ended his Gospel with what is now 16:8, but that does not mean that he lacks an account of Jesus’s resurrection. Jesus is indeed raised from the dead in Mark’s Gospel, as the women visiting the tomb learn. What Mark lacks is any account of Jesus appearing to his disciples afterward; in this it is quite different from the other three canonical Gospels.

And finally, the account of the woman caught in adultery is not in the original writings. Of course, no doctrine hangs on this one at all, but what is amazing is how amazed Shapiro is by these discoveries. He thinks he’s found something that blows apart the idea of the reliability of the Bible. Question for Shapiro. How do you know that these weren’t in the originals? Could it be you know that because we do in fact have great information on what is in the originals?

But nope, Shapiro thinks this destroys any idea that the Gospels are reliable. The only matter destroyed here is the idea that anyone should pay attention to anything Shapiro says. I can take him to the best conservative scholars who have no problem thinking the text is reliable and know these problems already. Perhaps my interview with Dan Wallace would suffice.

In good scholarly humility, Shapiro decides to interact with N.T. Wright and say “It seems that Wright’s case for the resurrection—consisting of more than seven hundred pages of learned and dense analysis of the historical context in which Jesus and the authors of the New Testament lived—can be easily disassembled with the philosophical tools that I have illustrated in the preceding pages.”
Never underestimate the ego of modern day atheists.

He goes on to say that to grant that Jesus’s tomb was found empty and that people claimed to see Him alive after his crucifixion is to beg the question. No, Shapiro. It is not. It is to go with the conclusion of Biblical scholars across the board who have studied this. While Ehrman is a rarity who discounts the burial, let’s look at what he says on the appearances.

“We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that . . . he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead.” (Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, pg 230).

Shapiro wants to argue also that all that is necessary is just the belief that Jesus rose from the dead. Unfortunately, belief will not explain what happened to the body or the appearances or the conversion of skeptics like Paul and James. Shapiro gives an explanation that explains nothing and then thinks he’s defeated Christianity. You honestly don’t know whether to laugh or cry. In fact, he’s so desparate for a solution that he even goes with the twin hypothesis and says maybe Jesus had a twin named Kanye.

Shapiro gives an explanation that explains nothing and then thinks he’s defeated Christianity. You honestly don’t know whether to laugh or cry. In fact, he’s so desparate for a solution that he even goes with the twin hypothesis and says maybe Jesus had a twin named Kanye.

To top things off, Shapiro thinks that if we are strong conservatives, his arguments should be found very troubling. The only troubling matter is Shapiro actually thinks they’re troubling. Shapiro actually makes me thankful that atheists are getting more and more uninformed and thinking they are informed.

He also has an appendix asking what the supernatural is. The oddity is that he never really answers the question the whole time through. I searched and searched and found nothing. It’s also worth pointing out that not once in this book is Craig Keener’s work interacted with.

In conclusion, Shapiro’s book leaves me tempted to be an environmentalist. It’s a shame so many innocent trees will die. I hope in the future we’ll see a better class of skeptics than this.

  • old nassau’67

    “The only two claims of a miracle he
    takes on are the Book of Mormon and the resurrection of Jesus, and
    while I disagree with the former entirely, even then Shapiro does a
    horrible job dealing with this.”

    Why is the Gospel’s resurrection of Jesus more credible than the Book of Mormon’s miracles? Or the resurrection of Sri Yukteswar claimed by his disciple, Paramahansa Yogananda? Disciples have often claimed their master’s resurrection (i.e.., two Rabbis – Judah First and Sabbatai Sevi).

    Or so claim today: “There continues to be a strong messianic strain that runs through Chabad. Some followers refer to the Rebbe (spiritual leader Menachem Mendel Schneerson) as if he were still alive or refuse to characterize his passing as death.”
    (http://www.timesofisrael.com/chabad-still-carving-its-path-20-years-after-leaders-death/)

    In short, what criterion, or -ia, makes the miraculous mundane?

    • For one thing, the BOM has zero archaeological support whatsoever and Joseph Smith was a known fraud as best illustrated by the Book of Abraham which we now have.

      As for other miracles, present the evidence for them. If they’re good, we should believe them.