A few thoughts on handling miraculous passages in ancient texts

While I was thinking about Geza Vermes’ The Nativity, I realised that part of his difficulty with the text was his starting assumption that miracles did not happen.  But this didn’t just affect the miraculous bits of the text.  It actually led him into a strange wilderness of subjectivism, even with respect to non-miraculous events. The end result was a mess that rendered his book worthless as anything but a guide to its author’s beliefs and wishes.

That author grew up during a time when materialism was endemic in academia.  Miracles did not happen.  We are less certain of that, these days.  But we might ask ourselves how we would deal with an ancient or medieval historical text that contained them, where we really didn’t believe that any of them were true.

Say that we had before us the biography of some Muslim holy man, or Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana.  I think that all of us would be inclined to regard all the miracles in the text as fake; for such is the climate of our times, and perhaps our predisposition.  Say that we did so regard them.  How then do we deal with the text?  How do we get at the useful content?  What methods might we adopt?

 Firstly, we might simply omit the miracles, or see if they could be related to some natural event of the time that would “explain” why contemporaries saw a miracle.  We would adopt a minimal approach to the problem, and hold onto everything we could.  The author of the work is not a modern writer, with reference textbooks and the internet to keep him straight, but a man who could do little more than collect what he was told, or what he saw.  So we could comfortably say that some of his sources were storytellers, and that he lacked the judgement to recognise them.  Of course some of the non-miraculous material will be fiction too.  Even an eyewitness will be likely to include material from others.  St Adomnan wrote the Life of St Columba and knew the man personally. But Adomnan continued to collect material and augment the work throughout his life.  Not everything in that life is from personal knowledge.

But we could accept everything which we don’t have positive evidence against, and which is not miraculous.  That is a workable position.

Secondly we might simply reject the work in toto, as a piece of fiction.  If it contains miracles, everything in it is unreliable.

Now that’s fine, but presumably there is a reason why we are reading this thing at all.  We need historical data.  Something is causing us to read this text.

The difficulty with this approach becomes acute when you find clear references to historical events and personages, which are probable, attractive, and hard to resist including.  In the latter case it will be very hard to justify using any material, and very hard to justify not doing so.  Which inevitably means that we will end up with the third way.

 And the third way? Well, there isn’t one.  Or rather, there isn’t one that can be operated objectively.  The third way is to pick and choose what suits you, assert how excellent your own judgement is (and that of your allies, if you have started a school) and just blame the poor quality of the author as an excuse for ignoring inconvenient but non-miraculous material.  This approach is adopted by nearly all polemicists.  Indeed we saw Vermes do just this in The Nativity, where he rejected all sorts of stuff – in Matthew and Luke – that he didn’t like, while using the Protevangelium of James without even a whisper of critical warning.  But the method leads to the outcome.  It’s just fiction.

Anyone seeking objectivity will inevitably try to avoid this mess of subjectivism.  He will seek to have some objective reason for his choice, some principle that has evidence behind it.  There is a very good reason why some writers go for the first option; that it is consistent.  There seems no satisfactory way, unfortunately, to do anything else.  The alternative is simply subjectivism.

Once we have a text, produced by the first method, I think we probably need to treat it with the same respect that we would any other ancient source.  It will of course contain errors and mistakes, as every work of man does.  But we ought to treat our output as an artefact, as something that actually exists.  Rushing on, rushing to point out other failures, is where we are liable to come unstuck.  Producing a text which is non-miraculous is one step.  After that, we can listen to it, and see what if anything it has to teach us.  Let’s keep the two stages very distinct.

4 thoughts on “A few thoughts on handling miraculous passages in ancient texts

  1. Thanks for the reminder on objectivity. It seems to me that some who mock Christianity and claim to produce superior ideas (as to objective claims at least) are just as subjective as those they mock. We need to unearth the truth no matter where it takes us or who said it, but we also need to expend much energy to truly understand the presenter’s positions. Perhaps ‘do unto others as thou would have them do unto thee’ is a good start?

  2. Do what Suetonius did in “Life of the Caesars” with miraculous events and the more outrageous gossip associated with the Caesars, and qualify the report with the preface “some say” or “so and so claimed that” or something similar.

  3. I think there may indeed be a third path: we could conclude that we may not be hearing what the text said when it was written. Herodotus (III 102-5) tells us that furry ants larger than foxes dug gold out of riverbanks near what may now be Kabul. Furry marmots still do that in the same place – was “myrmix” for ant just a transliteration of the name of the beast in the tale Herodotus told? If so, the miracle of the giant ants dissolves peaceably into the erosion of the precision of language over time…

Leave a Reply