Jesus Without Miracles and The Rational Problems of Rejectionist Philosophies

Blogger Joe Geisner once reported on a book he was reading called The Life of Jesus. The author, Heinrich Paulus, reviews the miracles of Jesus in a ‘scholarly study’ (Joe’s words not mine) and addresses non-miraculous means for each of them:

In this book Paulus tries to explain the miracles from a natural point of view. When it comes to the loaves of bread and fish Paulus points out that Jesus has the disciples organize the congregation into small groups and also has the disciples get him the fish and loaves, when the people see this they realized it was time to eat and opened up their own baskets of food. By doing this there was plenty of food with baskets of food left over.

For the walking on water Paulus writes that because of the storm and it being night it caused the disciples not to realize that they had not travel much off shore. Jesus really walked in ankle deep water and Peter didn’t realize that they were in such shallow water, he panicked and Jesus had to lift him up so that he could get his composure.

The raising of the dead is much more complicated but he comes from a medical point of view for the time. What is interesting is Paulus also makes an argument for the rising of Jesus from the dead as being a explainable natural occurrence. There actually is accounts from antiquity of people surviving the crucifixion though the Romans thought they were dead.

This quote explains well my main concern with Rejectionist philosophies. Think about all the miracles in the New Testament subscribed to Jesus and then think about ‘natural explanations’ for each of them. Then here is my question for you. Just how rational is Paulus’ point of view?

Think about the extreme comedy of errors we are talking about here. Jesus manages to find ankle deep parts of the water and even invites Peter in who then accidently jumps into the deep end. Jesus has to save him. This story quickly becomes a story about walking not in the shallows of a Sea, but across the Sea itself.

Then Jesus just happens to try to raise a ‘dead man’ that happens to naturally recovers because he was in a comma. What are the odds? Then he does it again multiple more times.

Then Jesus commands a boy to give out a few loaf of bread and everyone, seeing how kind the boy is being, breaks out their own hidden stores. This then happens again not long later. (And what was Jesus planning to do if it happened played out that way?)

And each time the story gets retold and blown out of proportion and recorded as a miracle even though it was a natural occurrence.

Pardon me, but this story just went well past rational or believable. Just how many lucky breaks can one guy get? It’s like winning the lottery every time you play and then trying to claim that isn’t a miracle in and of itself!

(And while we’re at it, maybe we can address the ethical problems of continually encouraging people to think these false thing about Him and seemingly never trying to correct them.)

If you are hell bent on not accepting Jesus as being Divine, it’s far more rational to just claim that none of the miracles happened at all and that the disciples ‘made them all up’ generations later. (Which is, of course, a rational possibility.) So why the need to try to take all these reported miracles and try to make up natural explanations for them post facto like this when it requires us to basically surrender our rationality at the door?

This is an interesting question, because it tells us something very important about Rejectionist Psychology, I think.

It’s not hard to see how one starts down the path to Rejectionism. Religion and Spirituality clearly have real human value. But miracles (and many other things about religion) seem to defy rationality. So the desire to try to merge these two sides of oneself together seems perfectly understandable to me.

But is there really any doubt that in Paulus’ quest to merge rationality and spirituality that he has all but abandoned rationality? 

Worse yet, his beliefs ‘spiritual power’ seems questionable too. Can a non-miraculous Jesus truly fill our spiritual human needs? Or do they require a heavy dose of “Rejecting” other people’s beliefs to keep them feeling like there is real meaning in their life? (i.e. Such as the need to write whole books rejecting other people’s faith in the miracles of Jesus?) It seems to me that Paulus’ “Rejectionism” fills a spiritual gap in his life that his beliefs alone can’t fill.

So in the end, Paulus’ Rejectionist solution ends up with a ‘worst of both worlds’ sort of solution to the need to merge rationality and spirituality.

22 thoughts on “Jesus Without Miracles and The Rational Problems of Rejectionist Philosophies

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  2. I agree that such “rejectionist” explanations are ridiculous. If there were no real miracles involved in the related situations, why does the New Testament present them as miracles?

    I think you are right on with this paragraph:

    “If you are hell bent on not accepting Jesus as being Divine, it’s far more rational to just claim that none of the miracles happened at all and that the disciples ‘made them all up’ generations later. (Which is, of course, a rational possibility.) So why the need to try to take all these reported miracles and try to make up natural explanations for them post facto like this when it requires us to basically surrender our rationality at the door?”

    It is as if the author is claiming that all these events actually did happen, but those who are retelling the events are either so dense that they didn’t notice that what was happening was clearly not a miracle and missing the fact that Jesus himself didn’t mean for any of it to appear miraculous. I wonder how he explains Jesus’ claim to having been resurrected and his ascension into heaven.

    I wish people like this would stop insulting everyone’s intelligence (including their own) and either accept the New Testament for what it is or reject it and stop arguing for some disenchanted modernist middle-ground.

  3. It is worth mentioning that there are those who maintain that miracles are properly considered miraculous, require divine intervention, but do not ultimately violate natural law (as it really is). James E. Talmage is well known for this, and I think he is right.

  4. I agree the argument is silly, but I tend to hope that the rejectionists spend so much time reading the NT that they will eventually come around. I have faith, perhaps naïve, that some people will change.

  5. I agree with Talmage’s view. Probably more so then most. Miracles are not a violation of law, though possibly defy the laws of physics as we currently understand them. Or… maybe not… we just don’t know yet.

  6. Paulus is a bit of a straw man. No one takes him seriously. He belongs to a rationalist school which wanted to understand the gospels as literal history, not myth. People who reject the miracles of Jesus are a lot more sophisticated and reasonable that theories from 150 years ago. Try reading more contemporary people like Spong or Borg, or more about the history of the quest for the historical Jesus.

  7. Well, the blogger who made the original post seemed to enjoy Paulus. So “no one takes him seriously” probably goes too far.

  8. Sorry, no one with a brain takes him seriously. The issue is that this post seems to suggest that the miracles must have occurred because Paulus is so obviously silly. The problem is that argument is not very good.

  9. “Sorry, no one with a brain takes him seriously”

    Probably true.

    “The issue is that this post seems to suggest that the miracles must have occurred because Paulus is so obviously silly.”

    Then you probably need to not read your own biases into the post. ;)

  10. Bruce, perhaps I have a bias that I’m reading into the post, but you’ll have to explain to me what it is. You have suggested that Paulus is symptomatic of “rejectionist philosophies” and an example of what is wrong with “rejectionist psychology,” that attempts to explain the miracles in any other way than absolute literal history leave “no ground.” You have suggested that because he is wrong, even those who think that these stories are later legends suffer from the same fundamental problem as Paulus, and questioned whether any attempt to explain the miracles other than literalism are simply evidence of psychological imbalance in the lives of those who think otherwise.

    I have suggested that Paulus is a pretty easy punching bag from 150 years ago and not really representative of those who do not understand the gospels to be literal history. Showing why he is wrong is not exactly a strong argument in favor of your view that the miracle accounts are real miracles (not “lucky breaks”). What is the bias that I’m reading into your post?

  11. TT,

    First, let me establish beyond doubt that you are reading me wrong.

    What TT says Bruce said: “You have suggested that because he is wrong, even those who think that these stories are later legends suffer from the same fundamental problem as Paulus, and questioned whether any attempt to explain the miracles other than literalism are simply evidence of psychological imbalance in the lives of those who think otherwise.”

    What Bruce actually said: “it’s far more rational to just claim that none of the miracles happened at all and that the disciples ‘made them all up’ generations later. (Which is, of course, a rational possibility.)

    I trust you see the problem. You are, without a doubt, misreading me.

    If I might, I am going to venture a guess that you aren’t aware that this is part of a greater series about “rejectionism.” I did not attempt to define ‘rejectionism’ in this post and you seem to be thinking it a synonym for ‘atheism.’ It is not. (Though atheists *can* be rejectionists, but they don’t have to be. And a theist can be a rejectionist too — often are.)

    Rejectionism is a person that has come to define themselves by what they are not (i.e. what they reject) rather than by what they are.

    I am asserting — for critical discussion — my belief that the reason Paulus is (as you say) ‘obviously silly’ is because he came to define himself by what he didn’t believe rather than making any serious attempt to define his own beliefs even to himself.

    Specifically, I believe Paulus came to believe in “disbelief of miracles.” Coming up with a personal world view was no longer important to him and he failed to do so. Plus he lost the ability to follow his ‘beliefs’ (such as they were) to any sort of logical conclusion. (Well, at least on this subject. Perhaps Paulus had good things to say in other aspects of life.)

    The net result is that he stopped being either rational or spiritual. He merely ended up with a world view where by he was so anxious to be ‘rational’ about ‘miracles’ that he ended up being utterly silly about them instead.

    I do not believe the problem is that Paulus is an idiot (though you are entitled to your opinion.) I believe the problem is epistemological. “Rejectionism” is a poor epistemology and leads to massive rational problems. It *always* does.

    In short, I’m afraid you are agreeing with me entirely. But thanks for making my point for me. :P

  12. Bruce,
    Thank you for clarifying. I think that helps clear up the confusion by defining “rejectionism.” While the category as you define it seems exceedingly arbritrarily applied, I understand that you did not mean by it any reason for the rejection of miracles per se (which is not atheism, nor is that what I understood you to mean), but the idea that someone rejects something. As I say, I’m not sure that this category has any analytical weight whatsoever, but I am at least glad that we agree that there are better reasons for not taking the gospel stories as literal history than Paulus provides.

  13. TT,

    Glad I could clarify.

    “As I say, I’m not sure that this category has any analytical weight whatsoever…”

    Tut tut. You shouldn’t judge a theory before you know what it is. Are you reading my epistemology posts over on Wheat and Tares?

    “Rejectionism” is a catchy word that maps directly (in my mind anyhow) to David Deutsch’s Popper based (Popper extended?) concept of “Explanations” vs. “Explanation Spoilers.”

    In short, I assert the concept (no matter what we call it) has not only analytical weight, but might be the single most important analytical factor when it comes to critical/rational discussion.

    Of course when I give it a catch name like “Rejectionism” I have to confess it probably ruins it for many people. I’m afraid I don’t really care. :P

  14. Sorry, I’ve not been following it. Perhaps there is something more to it. I guess I’d say that my hesitation is that the category is entirely semantic or rhetorical rather than descriptive of any particularly distinctive phenomenon. That is, one could just as easily say that Paulus was an “Acceptantist” because he accepted Enlightenment rationalism, or say that you are a “Rejectionist” because you reject “rejectionism.” Basically, anyone that is something is also not something else, so I’m failing to see how saying that I am a Mormon is not equivalent to saying I am not any other religion but Mormon, or I am not not Mormon. Oh well, I will let you get back to the series.

  15. TT,

    I agree that no matter what you are, you are also “not” something.

    But there is also a class of that is “not anything.” By that I mean they advance no ‘explanations’ at all but only ‘explanation spoilers.’

    The easiest example I can think of (and it’s bound to be controversial) is Creationists vs. Evolutionists.

    Evolution is a full attempt to explain all sorts of things. Creationism (particularly in it’s young earth variety) makes no attempt to explain anything and instead just concentrates on what’s wrong with evolution. In other words, it’s not an explanation, just an explanation spoiler.

    I’m sure creationists do NOT think of themselves as Rejectionists. But that is what usually they are. (At least on this topic.) That is to say, they define themselves (whether they realize it or not) as NOT being evolutionists.

    Of course they think they are being rational as they carefully point out all the problems with evolution. But that isn’t how rationality functions. Rationality is the comparison of one explanation to another — one pardigm to another. It is not a contest between explanations and explanation spoilers.

    On the other hand, I think rationality is over rated, so I’m fine with creationists. They aren’t wrong in their criticisms, but they are wrong to think that you can dislodge a scientific theory by merely point out gaps in it. But then again, usually they are doing it for religious reasons, so we can often just leave it at that. If they don’t intend to go on to be biologists, where’s the harm? In any case, I’m not saying ‘creationists are bad.’ I’m saying they are classic rejectionists. (And I’m not saying ‘rejectionists are bad’ either, just not rational.)

  16. There are several problems with this post:

    1) H. Paulus is an example of Post-Enlightenment Naturalism (where did you get the term “rejectionism”?) and Joe Geisner brought it up as an allusion to how this form of thought influenced biblical scholarship back in the 18th and 19th century. This Naturalist movement was a major break with the absolutist and literalists approaches to scripture reading, and paved the way to much of modern scholarship, so it did indeed play an important role.

    2) This, however, has absolutely no bearing on modern biblical scholarship. NO serious scholar takes this type of argumentation as valid or usable. As a matter of fact, serious scholars have moved onto reading the text much less literally for the past 100-130 years, and therefore have abandoned all need for such less-nuanced techniques.

    3) On a side note, attacking an argument that has been debunked by scholarship of the past century must be the most ludicrous example of straw-man anyone could ever hope for.

    4) Current scholarship deals with the textual signs of creative liberties that indicate the authors of the New Testament texts are much more interested in proving theological ideas than retelling historical events. Therefore, the majority of New Testament scholars, nowadays, read the miracle stories as “pious fiction”, narrated with the express purpose to prove religious points.

    5) Miracle working was a staple of religious texts in the Greco-Roman world. From Heracles’ wondrous prowesses to Apollonius healing the sick and blind and lame, casting out demons, and raising the dead. Everybody who was anybody in the Mediterranean was born of a virgin! We now understand that this was literary and cultural convention of the time, which Paulus and friends did not know 200 years ago.

    6) Having demolished an outdate hypothesis, and admitting the rationality of the current “consensus”, Bruce then asks why would anyone subscribe to this Naturalistic approach. And the answer is: Nobody does, and I know for a fact that Joe Geisner doesn’t (and not because I know him, but by reading carefully the blog post Bruce quotes from). It was, however, important to help 18th and 19th century scholars to approach the scriptures from a vantage point and to tackle them more rationally and less literally. And, like other unsound scholarly hypotheses, it was laid aside for more robust and comprehensive ones.

    (My apologies if this has been stated in previous comments. I have not taken the time to read all of them.)

    On a more positive note, Bruce will be proud to hear that the creme de la creme of biblical scholarship for the past century wholeheartedly agrees with his position! ;-)

  17. Marcello,

    No offense, but you are doing a awful lot of reading in. I’ll ask that you back off the preconceived notions, please.

    “1) …so it did indeed play an important role”

    Did I claim otherwise?

    “2) …This, however, has absolutely no bearing on modern biblical scholarship. NO serious scholar takes this type of argumentation as valid or usable”

    Did I claim otherwise?

    “3) On a side note, attacking an argument that has been debunked by scholarship of the past century must be the most ludicrous example of straw-man anyone could ever hope for”

    So let me get this straight. Attacking someone’s real position (but 19th century) position is wrong if you personally happen to think it is somehow related to modern scholarship even though you claim it isn’t. Did I get that straight? :P

    It’s obvious you feel personally attacked over the fact that I attacked a position that you claim is obviously wrong. I just don’t get that, but okay.

    “4) …Current scholarship”

    Wait? What part of my post was about current scholarship?

    Oh wait, it was the one part TT already objected and I had to correct him on too… see comment #12

    “6) …Bruce then asks why would anyone subscribe to this Naturalistic approach”

    If my ‘this naturalistic’ you mean ‘Paulus” then, yes, this is what I asked. Your answer is ‘no one would today.’

    Okay, fair enough.

    As for what Joe’s position is, I can’t say. Joe is always very careful to never state what he believes personally. (Though he’s often quite clear on what he does not believe.)

    However, here is Joe’s own explanation for why he made the post about Paulus and what he was hoping to accomplish:

    I have been studying the New Testament from people who are not Mormon and who have a completely different take than we do. In one of the books I have been reading this question is asked. Because of this I wanted to see what Mormon’s think of this issue, how do we deal with these miracles from a historical point of view.

    In other words, Paulus is what inspired him to ask how Mormons would react if the Gospel on tape showed no miracles had occurred. He never claims this is his personal beliefs.

  18. Bruce,

    I am not reading anything into your original post, and I honestly don’t understand why you would think I have brought “preconceived notions” to the table. My “notions” are “conceived” on the arguments you elaborate on.

    Perhaps I wasn’t being clear enough, so I will try to be more to the point.

    What I meant to say is that you were flailing a dead horse.

    You waxed on eloquently for 600 words railing against this “rejectionist philosophy” (or what scholars term ‘Naturalism’) that NO ONE embraces any more (in terms of biblical scholarship).

    Put yet an other way, you are more than welcome to wear garlic on your neck to ward off vampires. They don’t exist, but whatever suits your fancy…

    By your own admission on your comment above, the “rejectionist philosophy” you so verbosely refuted has been abandoned for a long time, is completely irrelevant in modern intellectual circles (re: biblical scholarship), has a name other than the one you invented, and was never embraced by the blogger you had so happily quoted, mentioned by name, and misrepresented in the original post.

    By now you must have also realized your original essay was completely pointless, and that is why you are so personally offended by my comments, which excuses the combative (“back off”), the projecting (“it’s obvious you feel offended”), the sarcastic (“Did I get that right?”), and the passive-aggressive (“I just don’t get that, but okay”) tone of your reply.

    I understand and empathize. It’s a hard pill to swallow. I know. We all go through it.

    All the best.

  19. Marcello,

    Now you just told me that I shouldn’t have made this post because to you it was a dead horse. Nice. ;)

    Don’t be offended, Marcello. I understand what you are trying to say, I just think you are missing the point, that’s all. You are misunderstanding.

    Paulus may no longer be considered good scholarship today (well, but many anyhow, still not convinced that Joe didn’t think it was good scholarship. Hard to tell. His review comes across a bit too glowing to be as strong a dismissal as you’ve given Paulus.) But Paulus’ whole approach of dwelling on the problems of someone else’s explanation but failing to analyze his own is still very common today.

    Modern scholarship has moved to the more simple approach of just dismissing the Bible’s stories of Jesus altogether (be that right or wrong) precisely because Paulus’ approach was so bad.

    I’m attempting a personal analysis of where I think Paulus went wrong. I am not writing about anyone else at the moment. And, for this post at least, I was not concerned with what the relationship is between Paulus and modern scholarship. (Not that I know what the relationship is or am claiming to know.)

    But everyone, even modern scholars, sometimes fall into this trap of thinking you can build a case against something by coming up with reasons it can’t be right but without offering a full blown alternative explanation and excepting the logical consequences of that alternative. It’s easy to say that good scholars don’t do this. But in fact we call are susceptible to this error at times. So, yes, this lesson from Paulus does apply to moderns as well. Even modern scholars.

    And, yes, I have explained this at length in the comments already. I even gave the example of creationists vs. evolutionists that should have made it pretty darn clear this wasn’t a blanket attack on modern scholarship or modern science. Anyone can make the mistake of Paulus.

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