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What counts as history?

July 17, 2010

Can the resurrection of Jesus Christ be considered a historical fact?  What I mean by this is the following: is there any way to argue that the resurrection actually occurred in the past?  This seems like a fairly straightforward question, but I’ve encountered some interesting positions against the idea that the question even has any meaning.  One argument runs something like this:

By definition, the Resurrection is a supernatural event – an event inexplicable given only the laws of nature.  Modern methods of historical analysis (the practice of which is what I’ll call “History”) explicitly exclude supernatural events for explanations of any phenomena.  Therefore, the Resurrection cannot be considered a historical event.

This argument seems weak, for two reasons.

First, the current, predominant method of historical analysis presumes naturalism as its metaphysic.  So of course miracles (types of supernatural events) will not be seen as historical events – they are defined out of existence by the chosen historical method.  In this way the argument assumes that which it seeks to prove.

Second, the argument relies on an equivocation between “History”, which is a field of inquiry practiced with a particular method (or methods), and “history”, which is the sum total of all events that occurred in the past.  Many historians of the past employed historical methods different than those used today.  For example, neither Plutarch nor Eusebius were naturalists, and Hegel employed the dialectic in his method.  So the defender of this argument should offer some reasons for thinking that “History” is the only available method for determining what actually occurred in the past.

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6 comments

  1. Hi Reidish.
    I think both your criticisms are on target here, given the sort of crude argument you’re criticizing. But it’s not hard to see how a more sophisticated version can do better. I’m thinking something like:

    1. Historical analysis is to be constrained by, and conducted in the light of, our present-day knowledge of how the world works.
    2. Our present-day knowledge of how the world works is given in the scientific worldview.
    3. So, historical analysis is to be constrained by, and conducted in the light of, the scientific worldview.
    4. The scientific worldview incorporates the assumptions of Naturalism.
    5. So, historical analysis is to be constrained by, and conducted in the light of, the assumptions of Naturalism.
    6. The Resurrection is a supernatural hypothesis which runs afoul of the assumptions of Naturalism.
    7. So, historical analysis cannot support the Resurrection hypothesis.
    8. We should refrain from believing in historical hypotheses which are not supported by historical analysis.
    9. We should not believe in the Resurrection hypothesis.

    Your first worry was that this sort of argument would have to beg the question against supernaturalism. But although I have to make use of naturalistic assumptions in the above, I support these by pointing out that they are scientific assumptions also. And I manage to link scientific assumptions to historical analysis by taking the scientific understanding of the world as the background knowledge for analysis.
    Your second concern was about equivocation. I think the challenge is easily met by something like 7-9: all that has to be done is to link our epistemic method with the ethics of belief. I hesitate to say that I’ve arrived at the same conclusion as the crude argument, but I think my conclusion is in the spirit of it.

    So the defender of this argument should offer some reasons for thinking that “History” is the only available method for determining what actually occurred in the past.

    This might be a third worry, I’m not sure. In any case, I don’t really take this request seriously: perhaps historical analysis is not the only method for investigating the past, but what should matter is that it’s the best method, the method which gives us the best chance of acquiring true beliefs. If it is, then it deserves our trust over less truth-conducive alternatives.

    (BTW, I think the site looks great, and I much prefer the comment system to blogger).


  2. TaiChi,
    I agree the argument you present packs a little more punch. Suffice it to say I’m dubious about #2, as I think one runs right into begging the question against supernaturalism trying to justify it.

    (BTW, I think the site looks great, and I much prefer the comment system to blogger).

    Thanks!


  3. Yeah, that’s where I thought you’d disagree. I may not have quite captured it in the premise, but one of my thoughts about 2 was that the scientific worldview describes how we think the world works today, and in historical analysis we extend this understanding into the past. So I don’t mean 2 to stand in contradiction to the Resurrection on its lonesome, but rather to say that everything we know about the current workings of the world is described by science. Only when we extend that understanding into the past as part of our historical method do we get to rule out the Resurrection.
    So what I think it comes down to is this: it may be reasonable to believe in the Resurrection iff the case can be made for present-day miracles, which would falsify 2. I doubt that it can be, but I haven’t looked into the matter, either.


  4. I agree with TaiChi that you seem to be setting up a strawman.

    The resurrection claims in the gospels (contradictory though they be) have largely empirical (seeing him, toughing him, dead people walk the street, eclipse and much more). The method (going to hell, rising from the dead, lifted into heaven) are done supernaturally, but still the consistency of other stuff can still be subjected to historical analysis. No?


  5. Hi Sabio,

    If only I were setting up a straw man. I’ve had recent conversations with people where this was essentially the argument.

    The method (going to hell, rising from the dead, lifted into heaven) are done supernaturally, but still the consistency of other stuff can still be subjected to historical analysis. No?

    I’m not sure I understand you here – could you expand this?


  6. No, I don’t think Reidish is setting up a strawman. I think there is a better argument than the one he gives, but I’ve no doubt that the argument he criticizes has been made – there’s no argument so fallacious that someone, somewhere, won’t offer it as a serious consideration in favor of their own opinions.



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