The Historian and Miracles
by J. R. Fraser
Received wisdom is that the historian can say nothing about miracles. This statement can take one of several different forms. For example, Bart Ehrman says of the Resurrection that “Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past, and by definition a miracle is the least probable occurrence. And so, by the very nature of the canons of historical research, we can’t claim historically that a miracle probably happened.” In other words, historians are prohibited from affirming the historicity of any miracle claim by the rules of history. This approach to history is rooted in methodological naturalism, an approach which also dominates the natural sciences.
One approach to this would be for the believer to relegate miracle claims to some realm other than history – something described by words like “faith,” “religion,” or “theology.” Sociologist Peter Berger seems to advocate this position for the believer when he writes that “there is more than one way to perceive reality” other than the scientific approach. The believer can simply view miracles as something other than history in this scientific sense, and we can all get along fine. This is reminiscent of the “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA) approach advocated by the late Steven Jay Gould, for example. Science is over here, faith is over there (or out there), so let’s stop arguing.
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One problem that immediately arises is when the pronouncement of historians is taken as the sine qua non of what constitutes history. In other words, if historians don’t pronounce on it, then it isn’t history. And if it isn’t history, then of course it didn’t actually happen. But we’ll let you religious folks pretend that it happened if it makes you feel good just as long as you keep that to yourselves. At this point some believers might legitimately feel that they’ve been had – or at least they should. This is basically a form of stacking the deck on the part of naturalists.
Several questions can be raised about the preceding scenario. First, if a historian is prohibited from affirming a miracle claim, are they also prohibited from denying it? In other words, a historian can’t say that miracle M happened, but do they have a basis for denying that it happened? If so, the basis for that can’t be a historical one. So the historian qua historian is left in a position of agnosticism. But in that case the skeptic can’t appeal to history as an argument against miracles…
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