Bart Ehrman and the “strictly historical point of view”
12 September 2020
I recently read the book Jesus, Interrupted by Bart Ehrman. It’s a very nice book. However, he has the following very strange thing to say about the method historians follow: “If historians can only establish what probably happened, and miracles by their definition are the least probable occurrences, then more or less by definition, historians cannot establish that miracles have ever probably happened.”
This is the sort of statement that causes me to scratch my head and re-read several times because I get the strong feeling that it has to be wrong. Ehrman claims that historians must accept methodological naturalism. In other words, a historian can never conclude on the basis of their evidence that a supernatural event occurred. They must always conclude (whatever their personal convictions) whatever is most likely, and what is most likely by definition cannot be a miracle.
While this requires some unpacking already, it seems to me to be based on seriously mistaken notions of both supernatural events and likelihood itself. Before getting into that I think it’s worth considering the implications of such a view.
If I read Ehrman correctly, should he miss the second coming, even extensive video evidence of Jesus Christ returning through the clouds to rule the nations would not convince him of its happening. A supernatural event of any kind is simply above the pay grade of historians to comment on. These events are purely the realm of faith. (One wonders if he would believe his own eyes.)
Not only is this odd, it’s already directly in conflict with Ehrman’s own claims about other supernatural events. For example, this excerpt I’m commenting on is from a book which argues “if the findings of historical criticism are right, then some kinds of theological claims are certainly to be judged as inadequate and wrong-headed. It would be impossible, I should think, to argue that the Bible is a unified whole, inerrant in all its parts, inspired by God in every way.”
Let’s consider what the evangelical claim that the Bible was verbally inspired by God entails, counting the instances of miraculous activity. Conservatives claim that each word of the Bible was inspired by God in the original autographs (1), the books were sufficiently preserved by scribal copying over time (2), and the correct books were canonized by the winning side in the theological battles of the early church (3). Ehrman is on the record as thinking these claims are untenable in the light of the historical evidence (e.g. in light of contradictions in the text), and in fact has dedicated this very book to proving that point. How is this possible if all claims of miracles are the proper domain of faith and not history?
In the book, Ehrman also pokes some well-deserved fun at the fundamentalist KJV-only movement. But what this sect claims, on any intelligible version of their views, is that God inspired the work of the translators. If this is a faith-claim, as it certainly must be, what are we to make of Ehrman and other historians hastening to point out that the translators of the KJV based their work on inadequate sources and made many mistakes? Why should that matter?
To try to clarify this, let me quote extensively what Ehrman has to say about miracles.
Miracles, by our very definition of the term, are virtually impossible events. Some people would say they are literally impossible, as violations of natural law: a person can’t walk on water any more than an iron bar can float on it. Other people would be a bit more accurate and say that there aren’t actually any laws in nature, written down somewhere, that can never be broken; but nature does work in highly predictable ways. That is what makes science possible. We would call a miracle an event that violates the way nature always, or almost always, works so as to make the event virtually, if not actually, impossible. The chances of a miracle occurring are infinitesimal. If that were not the case it would not be a miracle, just something weird that happened.
I think this quote points up the problem quite nicely. Ehrman is begging the question by slipping in the assumption of naturalism into what ought to be a defense of methodological naturalism. Ehrman’s definition of a miracle is quite acceptable, actually. I’ll quote it again: “[a miracle is] an event that violates the way nature always, or almost always, works…” His conclusion from this is that “The chances of a miracle occurring are infinitesimal.”
This simply does not follow. One cannot simply assume that “the way nature … works” is the same as what actually happens. Miracles are by definition supernatural occurrences! If you assume that the story of what happened at some point in the past can be filled out entirely by causal or quasi-causal chains in the natural order of the universe, you’ve simply assumed that miracles do not happen. That, of course, assumes far too much for Ehrman.
What Ehrman can safely conclude is that the chances of a miracle occurring naturally are infinitesimal. To get from there to the claim that historians are justified in rejecting these explanations in all cases requires much more work. I can think of several ways to do so.
For example, maybe Ehrman wants to position the historian as a sort of scientist, who can’t consider supernatural occurrences precisely because they’re supernatural — they’re in the wrong domain. On this view the job of the historian is to reconstruct the best possible naturalistic explanation for what happened in the past.
One problem with this interpretation is simply that Ehrman doesn’t seem to be saying this. He repeatedly asserts that the problem with miracles for the historian is their unlikelihood. He writes:
Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past. They cannot show that a miracle, the least likely occurrence, is the most likely occurrence.
The bigger problem with this view is that it’s just a silly and arbitrary restriction of the historian’s task. Surely the job of the historian is not like that of the scientist at all! The scientist must construct the most plausible account of the behavior of the natural world. The historian, on the other hand, is tasked with giving the most plausible account of what actually happened in the past.1 If the most plausible account involves some supernatural activity (recall the example I gave of video evidence), so be it.
I think the most likely explanation for Ehrman’s reticence to consider supernatural explanations is that they’re an enormous unknown. In order to get from the claim that miracles are extremely unlikely to happen naturally to the claim that they’re extremely unlikely, one has to have a prior for how likely non-natural events are. In other words, do miracles happen? It is not impossible to imagine a world in which miracles happen all the time; indeed, some evangelicals believe we live in such a world. Accounts of miraculous healings and near-death trips to heaven appear regularly in media targeted at conservative Christians. Ehrman (as an agnostic) does not take these accounts seriously. He (and I) don’t believe we live in a world where miracles are common. That said, there’s an enormous difference between the claim that miracles are (at least) uncommon, and the claim that a miracle is always “the least likely occurrence”.
This leaves a vast gray area. For Ehrman, we have no convincing evidence of miracles that would lead him to set a high enough prior for them to figure in many historical explanations. On the other hand, he is unwilling to take the materialistic stance that miracles are impossible and always ruled out as possible accounts of what really happened. Thus he tries to bracket off these concerns as completely as possible from the historian’s task.
If this is really the best reading of what Ehrman wants to do, it’s hard to have methodological objections. It would be an enormous issue for historians if at every turn they had to speculate endlessly about the appropriate prior likelihood of supernatural intervention in the normal course of the universe. Given that miracles are at least not every-day occurrences, historians seem to be justified in attempting to find straightforward scientific accounts of past events. I have no objection to this.
What I continue to object to is the specific defense offered by Ehrman. He writes about the resurrection of Jesus, as a purported historical miracle:
The resurrection is not least likely because of any anti-Christian bias. It is the least likely because people do not come back to life, never to die again, after they are well and truly dead.
In other words, he follows up his claim that his assignment of low probability to the resurrection is not the result of anti-Christian bias with what’s probably the only blatant expression of anti-Christian bias in the whole book! If it is simply a fact that people do not come back to life, then Jesus did not come back to life.2 No wonder the resurrection has such a low probability in his estimation!
What Ehrman presumably means is that under some unclear historian-centric notion of probability, the probability of the resurrection of Jesus is extraordinarily low. This is a notion of probability that makes naturalistic assumptions, not because the probability of supernatural events is low (which would beg the question), but because it is appropriate for historians to bracket off these types of considerations. In other words, it is because the likelihood of a supernatural explanation’s being true is indeterminable that historians must steadfastly refuse to speculate about them.
This passage remains remarkably unclear. If something like this is what Ehrman means, he would do well to say so directly. Meanwhile, those interested in more general answers to these questions must consider the matter more holistically. What one has to think about is quite simply the plausibility of two more or less complete descriptions of the entire world. Which makes more sense: the view that miracles sometimes occur and are the best explanations for some past events? Or that there have never been miracles and all past events are explained in a naturalistic fashion? This is a difficult question to answer — but it is not a question from which reason must be banished as a matter of faith.
After writing this, I subsequently read one of Ehrman’s other books, How Jesus Became God. In this book, written about five years after Jesus, Interrupted, Ehrman has a more nuanced take on the historian’s role. For example, Ehrman writes,
It is not appropriate for a historian to presuppose a perspective or worldview that is not generally held. “Historians” who try to explain the founding of the United States or the outcome of the First World War by invoking the visitation of Martians as a major factor of causality will not get a wide hearing from other historians—and will not, in fact, be considered to be engaging in serious historiography. Such a view presupposes notions that are not generally held—that there are advanced life-forms outside our experience, that some of them live on another planet within our solar system, that these other beings have sometimes visited the earth, and that their visitation is what determined the outcome of significant historical events.
This is a useful comment. Something about the historian’s task prevents them from invoking beings or phenomena that are not accepted already by a majority of other historians and scientists. In perhaps the best version of his view in the book, Ehrman continues:
The supernatural explanation, on the other hand, cannot be appealed to as a historical response because (1) historians have no access to the supernatural realm, and (2) it requires a set of theological beliefs that are not generally held by all historians doing this kind of investigation.
Here Ehrman drives the cleanest wedge between the question “what actually happened?”, and the historian’s question, which is (here) seemingly “what is the most plausible historical-naturalistic reconstruction of what happened?” This confirms that my previous suggestion that Ehrman wants to bracket off supernatural concerns from history may have some truth to it.
Unfortunately, Ehrman is not always so clear is this book. Later, he returns to making almost exactly the same claim that he made in Jesus, Interrupted:
But simply looking at the matter from a historical point of view, any of these views is more plausible than the claim that God raised Jesus physically from the dead. A resurrection would be a miracle and as such would defy all “probability.” Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a miracle. To say that an event that defies probability is more probable than something that is simply improbable is to fly in the face of anything that involves probability. Of course, it’s not likely that someone innocently moved the body, but there’s nothing inherently improbable about it.
Here Ehrman returns to the concern with probability and the strange claim that miracles are inherently the most improbable explanation. This suggests, contra the statements made earlier in the same chapter, that the historian is concerned with the question “what actually happened?” and is simply inferring to the most plausible explanation. As I argued above, anyone truly committed to answering this question cannot simply forswear any non-naturalistic explanations, because there’s simply no way to show a priori that the supernatural will never figure in the most reasonable account of historical events.
As philosophers of science have pointed out, there is some overlap between the fields in Biology. ↩
Paul noticed this with remarkable clarity. “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” (1 Cor 15:12-14 NRSV) The argument here is straightforward and if Paul is right, then the assumption that people do not come back to life is certainly an anti-Christian one. Likewise, Paul would no doubt be surprised to hear that “Believers believe that all these things are true. But they do not believe them because of historical evidence.” Paul (and the Gospel authors) regularly offer such evidence, as Ehrman himself points out in the book. * * ↩