Anti-Supernatural Bias

The other day I had someone throw the charge of “anti-supernatural bias” at me. It’s a common accusation that tries to explain why the consensus of historians do not accept the historicity of Jesus’ miracles or his resurrection. The argument goes that secular historians have an “anti-supernatural bias” that causes them to throw out all supernatural claims from the past without considering the evidence, and therefore they cannot be relied on to accurately judge the historicity of the gospels.

I would argue with the bias part. I feel that it isn’t a prejudice, it’s a stance based on sound historical principles. However, I must admit that that in effect it is accurate.

First, I am highly skeptical of supernatural claims, and it would take a massive amount of evidence for me to accept their validity.

Second, it is probably impossible for such evidence to survive from ancient times in both sufficient quantity and quality.

So the upshot is that I almost automatically dismiss miracle claims from ancient times. It’s my default stance.

I could go into why I think this stance is justified, but I don’t think it’s worth it right now. I’d just like to point out that everybody accepts this stance when dealing with claims from other religious traditions.

I’ve yet to meet a Christian who accepts both the virgin birth that we read in Matthew and the conception of Cesare Augustus by the God Apollo that we read in Suetonius. They also reject the miracle stories of Muhammad, Buddha, and other religious figures. If they’re Protestant, they generally reject miracles in the stories of Catholic saints.

Shouldn’t we all try to apply the same standards to our own stories that we apply to everybody else’s stories? As James McGrath once pointed out, that’s not just a historical principle, that’s the golden rule:

And so what does it mean to do history from a Christian perspective? It doesn’t mean to allow for miracles in the Biblical stories while assuming that, when the cookies are missing and your child says he or she doesn’t know what happened to them, that you’re dealing with a lie and theft rather than a miracle. It doesn’t mean defending Christian claims to miracles and debunking those of others, nor accepting Biblical claims uncritically in a way you never would if similar claims were made in our time.

It means doing to the claims of others what you would want done to your claims. And perhaps also the reverse: doing to your own claims, views and presuppositions that which you have been willing to do to the claims, views and presuppositions of others