Sense and Goodness Without God: Part 9

Can miracles work with the historical method? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

We’re going to return today to our look at Carrier’s Sense and Goodness Without God. This one will largely focus on history.

Carrier chooses to look at a number of miracles. The first is the rain of Marcus Aurelius. Let’s look at some statements.

Carrier says it is incredible that there would be Christians in the army, let alone an entire legion of them, but saying something is incredible is not the same as showing that it is. In fact, we do have testimony from church history of Christians in the army.

Let’s start with Eusebius.

8. This persecution began with the brethren in the army. But as if without sensibility, we were not eager to make the Deity favorable and propitious; and some, like atheists, thought that our affairs were unheeded and ungoverned; and thus we added one wickedness to another.
And those esteemed our shepherds, casting aside the bond of piety, were excited to conflicts with one another, and did nothing else than heap up strifes and threats and jealousy and enmity and hatred toward each other, like tyrants eagerly endeavoring to assert their power. Then, truly, according to the word of Jeremiah, “The Lord in his wrath darkened the daughter of Zion, and cast down the glory of Israel from heaven to earth, and remembered not his foot-stool in the day of his anger. The Lord also overwhelmed all the beautiful things of Israel, and threw down all his strongholds.”

Here we have testimony from Eusebius that there were in fact Christians in the army.

We can go further here.

Others passed through different conflicts. Thus one, while those around pressed him on by force and dragged him to the abominable and impure sacrifices, was dismissed as if he had sacrificed, though he had not. Another, though he had not approached at all, nor touched any polluted thing, when others said that he had sacrificed, went away, bearing the accusation in silence.

Now the situation in all of this is that the Roman army was running out of water and needed the rain in the face of the enemy and the Christians prayed causing rain to come and a storm routed out the enemy. There is no reason to question the rain and storm came. There is a monument depicting that that is soon after the event by the emperor himself. Christians at the time said a Christian legion prayed. Others said it was Egyptian magic.

Which is it? I couldn’t tell you honestly. I wouldn’t even rule out magic if you could show some evidence for it. Is it any shock though that the emperor would attribute it to Jupiter? The emperor is going to defend his honor and he has the power to shape the story the way he thinks it should be shaped as well. Will he go with a belief with honor or a belief with dishonor?

Also discussed is the healing of Vespasian. Again, I have no problem with saying this healing could happen. Yet there is a problem here. The healing took place in Alexandria where Vespasian healed a blind man by spitting on his eyes. What is not mentioned normally is that even the doctors were not convinced the man who was healed was fully blind. Also, the healing took place in Alexandria whose patron deity was Serapis. Wanna guess what one of the first cities was to endorse Vespasian on the throne? If you guessed Alexandria, give yourself bonus points. They had something to gain from this.

Moving on, when we get to Carrier on historical methodology, I do agree with much of what Carrier says. He starts with textual analysis making sure the document is handed down accurately. I agree. He also says this on page 237.

We must ascertain what the author meant, which requires a thorough understanding of the language as it was spoken and written in that time and place, as well as a thorough grasp of the historical, cultural, political, social, and religious context in which it was written, since all of this would be on the mind of both author and reader, and would illuminate, motivate, or affect what was written.

I find this highly agreeable. I just wish Carrier would do this. As we see later on when we see his view on certain biblical passages, he doesn’t. In fact, this is advice I would give to atheists wanting to understand the text, and of course to Christians. Both groups consist of fundamentalists who too often read a modern American context onto the text.

The second recommendation of Carrier is

always ask for the primary sources of a claim you find incredible. Many modern scholars will still get details wrong or omit important context or simply lie.

I would hesitate to say a modern scholar is lying. One needs really good evidence to make an accusation of moral turpitude. It’s important to also realize that sharing information that is false is not the same as lying. Sharing information as true you KNOW to be false is lying. I also would disagree at the start. Don’t ask for primary sources on claims you find incredible. Ask for primary sources on any historical claim!

Carrier also says the historian must try to gather all the evidence and not just rely on one item. I agree. Of course, one could never truly say they’ve examined ALL the evidence, but one must try to find as much as they can.

Carrier also gives characteristics of a good explanation.

First, it has explanatory scope. It explains more facts than other explanations. I have no problem with this.

Second, explanatory power. This means the explanation will make the facts more likely than any other.

Third is plausibility. It is historically reasonable that such a thing happened, which Carrier wishes to add even if it was improbable.

Fourth is ad hocness. It will rely on fewer undemonstrated sources. Most theories will have some aspects that are ad hoc, but not entirely. The fewer, the better.

Fifth, it fits the evidence. It will not contradict other facts that we know about the event and the context.

I have no problem with these.

Next time, we’ll get to see some of this at work as Carrier deals with the claim that the resurrection has more evidence than the crossing of the Rubicon. It is my plan to finish this chapter on that and move on then, but it is a lengthy section so I will save it for the next time.

In Christ,
Nick Peters