Selective Supernaturalism

Selective Supernaturalism December 6, 2012

If one looks online for sources discussing the date of the Book of Daniel (and a number of other Biblical texts where the same issues arise), one is bound to come across conservative works which inevitably accuse scholars who date those works later than they do of “anti-supernaturalism.” Unless one rejects the possibility of predictive prophecy from the outset, they claim, then one will not exclude the possibility that these works genuinely predict the events they purport to, rather than having been written later in light of them.

That apologists of a certain stripe would attempt to cast the matter in this way is unsurprising. But it should not be found persuasive.

To understand why, one merely needs to consider the Ethiopic Book of Enoch, or the Sybilline Oracles, or the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, or IV Ezra, or any number of other works outside the Bible which scholars – including conservative Christian ones – seem to universally agree do not contain genuine prophecies but offer pseudoprophecies written after the fact – precisely what mainstream scholars say about Daniel.

Why does the alleged openness of conservative Christian scholars to the supernatural not lead them to defend those works from skeptical critical scholarship casting doubts on the authenticity of their prophecies? After all, the Epistle of Jude in the New Testament quotes the Book of Enoch as though it were really by Enoch.

The truth is that the situation is falsely represented when it is depicted as one pitting “antisupernaturalists” against those open to the possibility of the miraculous and the prophetic.

The situation is rather one in which mainstream scholars critically evaluate the alleged prophetic character of any and all texts, irrespective of whether anyone happened to include them in their canon of Scripture, while conservatives engage in special pleading for only a subset of those texts which claim to be prophetic. And they do so, not on the basis of evidence or distinctive traits those particular texts have, but merely on the basis of their prior disposition to view them in a certain way.

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  • Dustin

    If Daniel was written by a historical person in the 6th century, why did he get so many facts wrong, as the critical commentaries point out? If he was indeed predicting the future, wouldn’t the litmus test be perfection in all of the points of data and history? The end of Dan. 11 has Antiochus coming to his end in a way that is different than history reports….followed by the universal resurrection of the dead! Collins’ commentary on Daniel is the best for critical matters.Stick with 164 BCE folks.

    • Paul D.

      Collins’ commentary is indeed excellent.

  • I haven’t read the other works, so I don’t know why they were not included in the canon. I assume that there is something qualitatevly different about them or about Daniel that would exclude the former or include the latter. So if there is a significant qualitative difference, then the question of why accept Daniel as being prophetic while rejecting the others may be more than a case of special pleading.

    • Until Daniel was included in a canon of Scripture, these works were not placed in these distinct categories. To use the later distinction created by their categorization by rabbis or church leaders to short-circuit the matter doesn’t help. And the scholars who study the works both within and outside the canon find them to be comparable in these respects.

      • But why did rabbis and church leaders decide to place Daniel in the canon, but not the other works?

        • The rabbis largely put a seal of approval on a agroup of writings that had become widely used over time, with some debates around the fringes. That they placed Daniel not among the prophetic books but among the writings is testimony to the fact that it was known to be later.

          • Yes, but why did they think Daniel merited their seal of approval and not the others that were left out?

          • Because there were enough people who thought it should be in, and who believed it was written before the time of Ezra, to get it included. That cut off date seems to have been key in the deliberations by the rabbis. But the absence of Daniel from the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sira is telling and suggests that those who argued on this basis were wrong, just as those who argued for the inclusion of Hebrews in the NT based on Pauline authorship were wrong.

            Would I be right in guessing that this is not the sort of answer you are likely to find satisfying?

          • Yes, you would be right, because I’ll ask you why enough people thought it should be in and that it was written before Ezra, but not enough thought the other books should be in or that they were written before Ezra.

            How much longer before you are willing to admit that there was some sort of qualitative difference between Daniel and the other apocalyptic literature? I’m not asking you to admit that Daniel was indeed written during the Babylonian exile. Just that there was something different about it, to the point that even if it wasn’t authentic, it was able to fool enough people that it was.

          • I think you are looking for a simple answer about a very complex process. That Daniel and 1 Enoch both claimed to be written before Ezra is far from the only consideration. The Book of Daniel was more widely read, it would seem, and it may have actually incorporated in the first half of the book older and familiar stories, to get acceptance for the second half which is more clearly Maccabean in date.

            It is easy to look at a text which is read often as sacred Scripture and to detect a qualitative difference from other texts which were not included in the canon. The problem is that the very familiarity resulting from a text’s canon, and the longstanding assumption that it is distinctive and inspired and superior, can make it hard to do a fair comparison. I don’t doubt that the Ethiopic churches that have 1 Enoch in their canon would not detect the same difference between it and Daniel that you might.

          • Okay, you’ve got me curious enough to make me start reading the Pseudepigrapha. I’ll start with 1 Enoch.

          • I’ll be interested to hear what you think of some of the works. For online versions and information, this site is particularly useful:

  • MarkP

    But everybody does have to draw the line somewhere. I read a blog by a very smart Unitarian who argues against the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection by saying, basically, “that’s not the way the world works.” But, if your criterion for believing something really is “the way the world works” systematically applied, then you are de facto an anti-supernaturalist. If belief in the miraculous is an option, then that’s going to mean believing that sometimes the world doesn’t work the way it normally does, so, yes, you’re going to have to be selective. I’m not sure critical scholarship can work without the presumption of anti-supernaturalism (look how mushy Raymond Brown gets when discussing the virgin birth!). Why not just say so up front, then discuss people’s options for selectivity? I think lots of non-scholars read scholarly works and believe they’re being misled (“this guy’s method is based on not accepting the possibility of the miraculous!”). It’s a little like the “criterion of embarrassment” — it seems unfair that the things we can say the most about are the negative things, and it would help if scholars simply acknowledged that unfairness up front.

    • If we are talking about historical questions, then historical study deals in probability. And so it is never going to be more probable that a miracle occurred than that a story about a miracle came about some other way. That is an inherent component of historical study, and it is not merely acknowledged but emphasized by scholars up front.

      • In that case, if a miracle did occur, then historian would never be able to determine that it did occur. But that doesn’t mean that it didn’t occur. It just means that historians have decided ahead of time that it didn’t occur. So we shouldn’t depend upon historians to determine if a miracle did or did not occur.

        • Indeed, one should not expect historians to confirm miracles. The question then becomes whether anyone else can if historians cannot – and if so, how.

          • I found C.S. Lewis’s book, Miracles; a Preliminary Study, very helpful in this regard.

        • Paul D.

          I suspect you have no problem with historians discounting all the miracles that Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Mormons, etc. claim their teachers and prophets performed in the past.

          • You suspect incorrectly. I do not deny miracles in other religions simply because I don’t accept other religions.

    • smijer

      On the criterion of embarrassment, I can understand why you feel that it is “unfair” in a way.

      On “the way the world works”, I don’t think it is unfair to presume that the world works the way it does. That it does work the way it does is tautological. It never fails to work as it is working. It may be that the world works in a way that includes the possibility of the virgin birth or resurrection, and that your Unitarian friend is mistaken in thinking that it does not. But how it really does work is how it really does work. And there are means of determining, at least probabilistically whether or not that includes virgin births and resurrections. Or, more to the point, prophetic foreknowledge.

      Unfortunately, some apologists use supposed prophetic foreknowledge in Daniel (for instance) as evidence for the miraculous status of the Bible, and the propositional truth of all claims derived (using 21st century conservative hermeneutics) therefrom. All of this depends on it being dated early, and the early date is only possible (and then only barely so) if one finds prophetic foreknowledge in the Bible to be far more probable than it is generally found to be outside the Bible (or in it, by non-conservatives). This comes dangerously close to assuming what you set out to prove.

      The accusation from conservatives is that mainstream scholars are doing the same: assuming that prophetic foreknowledge in Daniel is improbable in order to prove that Daniel is late… in order to prove that Daniel doesn’t contain prophetic foreknowledge. They misunderstand the agenda of mainstream scholarship, but they do have a point. In order to give due consideration to the early/supernatural hypothesis, one needs to recognize that late dating on the basis of the contrary assumption doesn’t constitute relevant evidence. Other evidence contributing to a late dating, and other evidence about the probability of literature containing prophetic foreknowledge should still be considered (and should sway the honest and curious investigator against the early/supernatural hypothesis).

  • James wrote: “The Book of Daniel was more widely read, it would seem, and it may have actually incorporated in the first half of the book older and familiar stories, to get acceptance for the second half which is more clearly Maccabean in date.”

    That’s what I found in my study:

    First part (Ch1-6) Written 323-301 (early Hellenist era, during Perdiccas’
    regency or Antigonus’ attempt to be sole ruler of the empire)

    Second part (Ch7-12) written mostly in 167 (one year after Antiochus IV second “visit” to Jerusalem) but “updated” up to 164. Chapter 7 was written in 169. Some “updates” were made also within the first part.

    More details here: