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What Can We Do About Presuppositions?

QUESTION:

Would you mind expanding on the issue of presuppositions, either in an article or in the readers mail bag?  What are presuppositions? Why we all have them. And how do we make sure we have the right ones, or at least good ones. Having come out of Fundamentalist circles I heard so much about “presuppositions”, “worldviews”, “presuppositional apologetics” and so on.  Seems the argument goes “Well, we all have presuppositions. No one is free of them. Therefore it is just as valid to come to historical and scientific issues with the presupposition that the claims are all true. Just as unbelievers come to the evidence with the presuppositions that there are no such things as miracles.”

 

RESPONSE:

This is a huge question (and a very important one), and requires a long answer.  I can’t answer it any better than I already tried to do in my book How Jesus Became God.  This is what I say there, in response to a particular issue, of how presuppositions can or should affect our ability to discuss ancient texts such as the Gospels that are chock-full of miracle-stories.

 

************************************************************************

 

The view I will be mapping out here is that none of these divine miracles, or any others, can be established historically.   Conservative evangelical Christian apologists are right to say that this is because of the presuppositions of the investigators.  But not for the reason they think or say.

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Paul and the Historical Jesus
Jesus, the Law, and a “New” Covenant Lecture

55

Comments

  1. Avatar
    jhague  October 30, 2016

    Scholars sometimes write that Jesus was a healer and miracle worker. What does that mean in the first century? I do not believe that Jesus made the lame walk or the blind see and I do not think that he was able to cause situations to occur that went against nature.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2016

      It would have meant that he could in fact have done such things.

      • Avatar
        jhague  November 1, 2016

        I know that regular church going Christians take the Bible literally (as they read it) and believe what they are told from the pulpit. But are there critical scholars who actually think that Jesus (or anyone for that matter) could actually perform miracles or heal people?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 2, 2016

          Yes, there are certainly fine scholars who are Christians who think Jesus could do miraculous deeds.

      • Avatar
        webattorney  November 3, 2016

        I used to place a great weight on the “fact” that Jesus performed these miracles until I read that it is said that some other charismatic religious/cult leaders also performed these miracles. Is there anything in particular about what Jesus did that differs from what other miracle workers did? Other than rising from the dead that is.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 4, 2016

          Not really: healing the sick, casting out demons, predicting the future, doing “nature” miracles, raising the dead — all are attested for others.

          • Avatar
            webattorney  November 4, 2016

            That’s what I thought, which leads to my next question. If it is written that other charismatic religious leaders have also performed the similar miracles, then is there a particular reason why Jesus’ miracles should be believed more than the miracles performed by others?

          • Bart
            Bart  November 5, 2016

            Not really, unless you are already a believer in Jesus for other reasons.

  2. Avatar
    desire_Knowledge  October 30, 2016

    In the subject of historical research, how was this idea of shared presuppostions among scholars developed? How can one know the reason why it was determined that these methods/criteria became necessary to do historical research that is respected in the academic world?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2016

      There is a long history of historians writing about history. I suppose I was first introduced to this way of thinking through the works of Ernst Troeltsch.

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 30, 2016

    I’ve observed that you’re never (at least to my knowledge) willing to use the term “objective.” You use the synonym or near-synonym “disinterested” instead. I suppose it can be justfied if it’s taken to mean a person has no *known* reason to be biased. But is the difference in meaning between that and most other people’s preferred term,”objective,” really all that great?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2016

      It’s because I think the “objective-subjective” dichotomy is a modern myth.

      • Avatar
        judicata  November 1, 2016

        I think there’s also a meaningful distinction between “objective” and “disinterested.” Someone who is “disinterested” doesn’t stand to gain from the outcome, but still views the situation through his or her experiences, biases, prejudices, etc. Put another way, a “disinterested” observer doesn’t care who wins, but still makes subjective judgments to determine who wins. I suspect a lot of people use “objective” to mean the same thing, which is probably fine most of the time, if a bit imprecise.

        • Avatar
          gamros  December 6, 2016

          I don’t think “disinterested” works either. Bart clearly gains from taking the position he does: status in the academy, book sales, speaking gigs, etc. Were he to espouse different views, he would lose much of that. He may be right in everything he claims, but he’s not disinterested.

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  October 30, 2016

    Speaking of presuppositions, the one that drives me up the wall the most is when arguing with believers in the “supernatural”. I’ll say something to the effect of: “Okay, I’ll bite. What is the supernatural?” And they say something like the supernatural is “beyond” nature; it is that which “transcends” nature. So I reply, okay, what is nature then? And they say something like “nature” is “nature”. Ignoring the obvious tautology for a moment, I’ll ask them to clarify that a bit: “At what point does ‘nature’ stop and the ‘supernatural’ begin?” So they’ll tell me something to the effect that nature is “everything we see around us”. I attempt to clarify: “Is it literally everything that we see, or is it everything that we are able see?” Everything we are able to see, they tell me. Okay, I tell them, what it is that we are able to see? They are usually stumped by this, and if they haven’t given up talking to me at this point, they’ll often say something like “everything we can see in the universe, like, through telescopes”. “How do you know that we can see everything through telescopes?” I ask them. Of course, they don’t have an answer, so they usually say something to the effect of “because science”. “Where in science does it say that nature is ‘everything that we can see’?” I ask.

    Anyway, you can see where this is all headed. Eventually, if they stick around long enough, after they’ve spent some time twisting their minds into little knots trying to explain what, exactly, does it mean for something to be “beyond” nature, they’ll simply give up, because thinking hurts. That’s why most people would be content to merely be told what to think rather than hurt their heads by trying to think for themselves.

    That’s what I think about presuppositional apologetics.

  5. Avatar
    mjt  October 30, 2016

    I realize that your position is that historians, as historians, cannot make a determination as to whether the resurrection occurred…but if you could step out of a historian’s shoes, do you think that a physical resurrecion is a reasonable hypothesis? Or do you think miracle is never a good hypothesis?

  6. tompicard
    tompicard  October 31, 2016

    regarding the psychosomatic explanation for a Oral Roberts supposed healing.

    is it any more or less appropriate for a historian to claim a psychological explanation than a miraculous?

    What I mean is can this statement be proposed
    “The PSYCHOSOMATIC explanation, on the one hand, cannot be appealed to as a historical response because (a) historians have absolutely no access to the PSYCHOLOGICAL realm and (b) as a result, the PSYCHOLOGICAL explanation requires a set of PSYCHOLOGICAL beliefs that are not generally held by all historians doing this kind of investigation.” ?

    or is it a degree of ‘generally held by all’ which seems rather vague.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2016

      I’m not sure. It seems to me that psychosomatic events are known to happen and are completely possible.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  November 2, 2016

        one person positing the miraculous healing is no different than another positing a psychosomatic healing,
        So why should a historian object to a heavenly explanation but not a psychological one?
        Or if he does, isn’t he showing his bias?

        suppose the other explanations are eliminated, based on all good available evidence. those mentioned are
        a) person was only apparently heale; or
        b) he was not really sick in the first place; or
        c) it was a hoax, or,
        d) lots of other explanations

        Just as there is NO EVIDENCE that could possibly be presented to ‘falsify’ the claim by the believer that the cure was NOT miraculous, there is likewise no possible evidence that could be presented to the unbeliever that the cure was NOT psychosomatic.
        Or maybe someone who understands psychology better than me can correct me.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 2, 2016

          Yes, if you think the intervention of God into the world is just as likely as psychological processes that we can study and analyze, then both are … equally likely.

          • tompicard
            tompicard  November 2, 2016

            yes you are correct, but I wouldn’t state it exactly as you have.
            I would say it this way, or rather a believer could say

            Given a healed illness that occurred at a Oral Roberts festival that can’t be explained any other way
            It is equally likely that
            A) It was cured by God, as
            B) it was previously diagnosed as psychosomatic illness and was only coincidentally cured at the Oral Roberts festival with no real help by the diagnosing physician.

            just my opinion . . .

          • Bart
            Bart  November 4, 2016

            You may want to read my discussion of “miracle” in my textbook The New Testament (I have a whole chapter on the question) or in my book How Jesus Became God.

  7. Avatar
    Samuel Riad  October 31, 2016

    I was wondering something, I need your opinion.
    Can Jesus’ unrealistic ethical teachings be made sense of with the supposition that he was an apocalyptic prophet? Imagine that you know and are certain that this world will ‘end’ or come to a massive change very, very soon, then someone mugs you in the street, you wouldn’t really care, because it will all be over very soon anyway. If he steals your wallet and walks away you may even call him back and remind him that he forgot your watch. Is that why Jesus taught things like ‘and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt?’ I can feel a very strong sense of irony in Jesus’ words, as if he was ridiculing possessions because soon everything will be turned upside down anyway. Do you think such sayings date back to Jesus indeed? And do you agree with my understanding of its context? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2016

      Yes, the apocalyptic context does make sense of Jesus’ teachings. But the idea of pacifism is not unheard of outside apocalyptic contexts and is not necessarily unreasonable.

  8. Avatar
    Tempo1936  October 31, 2016

    Great video on Jesus and the law, thanks for sharing.
    However I don’t think the beatitudes show that Jesus is re-interpreting the law.
    He is Setting the standards so high that it is impossible to obey the law and therefore to be saved.
    Therefore you must rely on grace and mercy do you have a relationship with God.
    Yes with this interpretation, Jesus came to establish a new religion, one of grace and mercy
    This is completely different from the Jewish mosaic law where you are blessed only if you keep the Commandments.

  9. TWood
    TWood  October 31, 2016

    I obviously agree that historical evidence cannot “prove” Jesus rose from the dead (I’m using prove to mean highly probable [e.g. you’ve *proved* Paul wrote Galatians]). But as you say some elements surrounding the claim can be proved (e.g. Jesus was crucified under Tiberius and Pilate, was buried, and some of his earliest followers really believed they saw him bodily alive not many days later).

    My question is, isn’t it true that even though the belief that God raised Jesus from dead cannot be proved by the historical evidence, the claim God raised Jesus from the dead is *consistent with* the historical evidence (the provable elements)—Isn’t it one of many other theories that are consistent with the established evidence (e.g. his twin pretended to be Jesus, he “kinda died” but was resuscitated, his followers hallucinated, his followers had real yet incorporeal visions of him, etc.)?

    In other words, it’s different than the 19th century LDS claims (the claim that Jesus appeared around 30 CE in the Americas is not consistent with the historical evidence, for example). I don’t mean the theory that God raised Jesus is true because it’s consistent with the historical evidence, but I mean the theory cannot be *falsified* by the historical evidence. The theory must be falsified on other grounds (e.g. it requires a miracle and miracles don’t happen). Do you agree with this, and if not, what part of the historical record is the theory not consistent with?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2016

      Yes, history cannot (always) disprove claims of the miraculous.

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 31, 2016

    Wow! Another great post! I have certainly had many Fundamentalists argue that we all have presuppositions and their presuppositions are just as good as my scientific ones. This is a difficult argument to counter.

    It does seem possible, but not likely, that using cell phone videos one could, in theory, document a miracle, such as an angel or the Virgin Mary appearing.

  11. Avatar
    llamensdor  October 31, 2016

    This to me is the great tragic dimension of Christianity. I’ve heard and read great numbers of ministers, priests,
    regular folks state that if Jesus was not resurrected and he is not divine, their religion is meaningless. This despite the undeniable fact that Christianity (or as some would have it, Judeo-Christianity) is responsible for enormous good in this world. Of course there have been errors and disasters attributable to individuals and groups professing fervent Christian belief, but down through approximately 2000 years the progress of Christians and Christian-led nations has created freedom, wealth, science and great art and literature. Muslims have it easy (comparatively); they don’t claim their founder is God so they aren’t faced with the possible contradictions that many Christians face. You are willing to base your ethics on Christian thought and practice, but not theology. I don’t know whether that’s a credible compromise for a couple of billion Christians. Actually, you’ve done a magnificent job of surviving despite your “confession,” which is attributable to your brilliant scholarship and personal integrity–and a pretty good sense of humor.

  12. Avatar
    JR  October 31, 2016

    Great post. Random question but sort of relating to presuppositions: I always thought that jesus was crucified on a cross – as in 2 planks of wood forming a sort of T shape. But I gather the Greek word means stake and early wrtiers like Jusin Martyr thought it was a long pole.

    Not that it really matters but is there any historical evidence or basis in the Greek to have a view either way? Do churches need to change their logo???

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2016

      Justin describes the cross and it is clear that he has a “T” shape in mind.

  13. Avatar
    Hume  October 31, 2016

    In your opinion, does the Church of the Holy Sepulchre house the tomb of Jesus? Is this church located on Golgotha? Or has this been made up?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2016

      I don’t think anyone has any idea where Jesus was actually buried.

  14. Avatar
    joks  October 31, 2016

    Dr Ehrman,
    Sorry I’m a little off topic from your current post. I guess this goes back to your Michigan lecture and your post about Marcion. Do we have any evidence when the decision was made to include the Old Testament as part of the Christian Bible?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2016

      It was debated starting in the second century, but pretty much everyone (except the followers of Marcion) accepted the OT as part of the Christian Scriptures from the get-go.

  15. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  October 31, 2016

    I am very skeptical of miracles, especially those from ancient history. However, I don’t understand why, in principle, a God-caused miracle couldn’t be the best explanation of an event.

    What if Oral Roberts was praying over someone who, in the space of an hour, immediately grew a new leg (to replace one that had been amputated) while Roberts was still praying? Suppose that dozens of PhD biologists and MDs (and maybe those who expose magician tricks too) were present and investigated it and all agreed that it happened without being able to give an explanation based on current scientific knowledge? And the event was broadcast live (on Public TV) all over the world and also videotaped?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2016

      Yes, if you want to hypothesize that a miracle has happened, then obviously, with that hypothesis, a miracle could happen!

      • Avatar
        clipper9422@yahoo.com  November 2, 2016

        I think I want to say that miracles are possible and that a miracle would at least be a plausible explanation in the situation I described. The question would be whether it’s the best explanation of what happened.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 2, 2016

          Yes, if miracles are possible then … they are possible! How you would establish the “probability” of a divine intervention into nature is hard for me to know!

          • Avatar
            clipper9422@yahoo.com  November 3, 2016

            What reasons would a person have for rejecting the possibility of miracles? Without good reasons, it seems like the question should remain open – at least for philosophers if not for historians and especially not for ancient historians.

            Reasons for rejecting the possibility of miracles would include: concluding that supernatural agents do not exist independent of their alleged involvement in extremely unusual events; or, leaving open the possible existence of such agents, the fact that those agents have never in the past been the best explanations of such events.

            The question in my mind is whether it’s philosophically coherent to consider alleged miracles to be possible evidence of supernatural agents unless one already has other reasons for believing that such agents do exist.

          • Bart
            Bart  November 4, 2016

            You should read my discussion of miracles in How Jesus Became God. The question for the historian is not simply whether miracles are possible, but whether, even if they are, we can establish them as probably having happened.

  16. Avatar
    XanderKastan  October 31, 2016

    Scientific presuppositions lead to things like computers, modern medicine, longer life expectancy, a powerful way to get beyond our biases and understand ourselves better. In that context, today there is no reason to think that any presupposition is as good as any other. The ironic thing about presuppositionalism is that it seems post-modern, so it’s quite funny that it’s used in service of establishing the Bible as foundational to absolute truth. The reason scientific presuppositions are superior to magical thinking is that science actually works. Not perfectly and maybe not in all areas of our lives, but amazingly and powerfully. And in science, it’s OK to speak about what we don’t know and admit that we don’t know it. For example, we don’t know what happened before the Big Bang. Therefore God? Maybe or Maybe not — so why not just admit we don’t know?

  17. Avatar
    dragonfly  October 31, 2016

    “Similarly, it is not appropriate for the historian to treat evidence as irrelevant when it does not happen to be convenient to his personal views.”
    … You mean like saying all of Paul’s letters were written in the second century by someone else?

  18. Avatar
    Hume  November 1, 2016

    How do you feel about nihilism? I cannot help but think this life is a brief moment in the sun lived for the moment or decades we have.
    The Andromeda Galaxy is on a collision with the Milky Way. The Universe will expand so that entropy will maximize. Our star’s luminosity increases 10 percent every billion years, which will boil our oceans away. Where is the LONG term meaning in that?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2016

      Yes, I think our world will definitely disappear, along with all life forms in the universe. When I think of “nihilism” though I conjure up a corollary of despair. I definitely do not feel that myself.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  November 1, 2016

        “I think our world will definitely disappear, along with all life forms in the universe.”

        Of course! *This* universe. But…some scientists now speculate that “Big Bangs,” creating new universes, result from the eruptions of supermassive black holes in older universes. The eventual “death” of the future “Milkomeda” Galaxy – when *all of it* is sucked into its central supermassive black hole – may be an event on a large enough scale to create a universe. Whether or not that’s the case, new universes may, for all we know, be coming into existence – somewhere – every day! New universes…and ultimately, new life forms.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 2, 2016

          Well, if we can figure some way to transport ourselves into another part of the multiverse, then we’ll be in good shape.

          • Avatar
            Wilusa  November 2, 2016

            Personally, I incline to the belief that we reincarnate…*and* that ultimately, all the “Mind-streams” that reincarnate are *parts* of the central Mind of the Cosmos. *If* that’s true, there’s a sense in which our “Mind-stream” will never just cease to exist; it will be (re)absorbed into a larger Consciousness. And that Consciousness will at some point send more tendrils of itself out to experience lives – quite possibly, in other universes!

  19. Avatar
    VaulDogWarrior  November 1, 2016

    Thanks for answering my question Bart. Any Evangelical half literate and half serious about his religion will be aware of the use of this type of argumentation, and will probably have used it against “The Secularists” and their “program of destructive liberalism.”

    I’ll have to grab me a copy of that book you quote from. Just as soon as I get through the other 3 books of yours im reading at the moment. ?

  20. Avatar
    JRH  September 13, 2018

    Question about Matthew 16:18

    “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church.”

    Bart, What does this mean? The church didn’t get started until after Jesus died so how could Jesus have used the word “church.” Did churches exist before Christianity? Is a better translation “synagogue” or “temple”?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2018

      Yes, this is one of those verses in teh Gospels that scholars have long pointed to as making no sense in Jesus’ own day; these are words put on his lips later by Christian story tellers (or matthew himself) who know all about the church and Peter’s formative role in establishing it.

      • Avatar
        JRH  September 14, 2018

        Well after asking my question I got the idea to look up “church” on Wikipedia. It says that in ancient Greek the word ecclesia means “congregation” or “gathering.” So basically Jesus is saying that “upon this rock I will build my congregation.” Now the verse makes much more sense.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 16, 2018

          Well, yes, it does. But it became very early (the wriitngs of Paul) specifically the term used to refer to the Christian communitiy/congretation, and since Jesus says “my” church, that is almost certainly what he has in mind.

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