A Few Notes and Questions About Eddy and Boyd’s The Jesus Legend (Part 1)
This week, I finished reading Paul R. Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd’s The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. In this book, Eddy and Boyd draw together many general observations to argue that skeptics who maintain that the Synoptic Gospels mostly or entirely consists of legendary elements are incorrect. One of these general observations involves what Eddy and Boyd regard as naturalistic presuppositions held by these skeptical scholars. According to Eddy and Boyd, these naturalistic presuppositions prevent these scholars from fairly assessing the texts, leading them to disqualify conclusions and explanations which invoke the supernatural not on the basis of evidence, but on the basis of prior belief.
This is a criticism that appears to be fairly common among Christian apologists and writers. One example in the books I’ve covered before can be found in William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith. (For example, “If we begin by presupposing naturalism, then of course what we wind up with is a purely natural Jesus. This reconstructed, naturalistic Jesus is not based on evidence, but definition.” (Craig, p. 278)) Obviously, insofar as those scholars maintain what Eddy and Boyd dub an ‘unequivocal naturalism’ – which is a presupposed naturalism that continuously explains away evidence of the supernatural – I think they (and Craig) are correct to point out that such a presupposition could function as an impediment to the truth, so long as it actually skewing the conclusions of those scholars.
It is difficult for me to say if this is the case. Eddy and Boyd discuss many other points (such as the reliability of oral traditions) which have little to do with naturalistic presuppositions, and more with potential ignorance of other academic fields (assuming Eddy and Boyd accurately represent those fields).
In any case, Eddy and Boyd believe that if one allows “the Western naturalistic assumptions to be called into question, and thus if one remains open to the genuine historical possibility that the Synoptic portrait(s) of Jesus is substantially rooted in history, one will find there are compelling grounds for concluding that this portrait is historically plausible – that is more probable than not that this general portrait is rooted in history.” (Kindle Location 249-260). These naturalistic assumptions, Eddy and Boyd argue, are “to a large extent, what leads legendary-Jesus theorists to conclude that the Gospels’ portrait of Jesus is not rooted in history.” (Kindle Location 249).
It was not clear that these remarks would serve as a kind of introduction to the rest of the book, in which the authors would proceed to show how exactly these presuppositions were distorting the results of legendary-Jesus theorists, or if they were simply an expression of a potentially misguided optimism that thinks, just because miracles are admitted as possible explanations, most of the work is complete. I’ve encountered this attitude in Craig’s Reasonable Faith, when he wrote, “In my own case, the virgin birth was a stumbling block to my coming to faith – I simply could not believe such a thing. But when I reflected on the fact that God had created the entire Universe, it occurred to me that it wouldn’t be too difficult for him to create the genetic material necessary for a virgin birth!” (Craig, p. 280)
The obvious objection, in this case, is that a commitment to naturalism is not the only stumbling block for believing in the virgin birth, and the same may apply to other aspects of Eddy and Boyd’s case. Now, that I’m finished with the book, I’m still not entirely sure what to think about it. I don’t know if it should go into the bibliography. On one hand, it could act as a counterpoint to G. A. Wells’s Cutting Jesus Down to Size, but, on the other hand, its arguments feel too thin. For the most part, Eddy and Boyd stick to arguing about general features of the Gospels or their context (such as how resistant were the Jews to non-Jewish beliefs, how reliable oral tradition is, and so on), without touching upon any single episode – supernatural or otherwise – and arguing for its historicity. They usually do this by citing many authorities that agree with them, providing very brief summaries of the arguments they’re objecting to, and sometimes, I suspect, by ignoring objections to certain parts of their case. (For instance, they favorably adduce the Papias tradition, without considering problems that other scholars have pointed out. They merely delegate this to cited authorities.)
And, it seems that to some extent, they expect the miraculous to automatically and adequately explain what the claim cannot be explained naturally.
In any case, reading this book has prompted a few questions which I hope will be answered one way or another as I read more and more. Some of these questions might seem strange or stupid, but they are at least indicative of my current wonderings. The first question, which I will discuss in this post, is below.
- Do Eddy and Boyd (and Christian apologists in general) give naturalism enough credit?
I find it somewhat irksome that the most of the apologetic works I’ve read so far evoke naturalism as a presupposition on the part of the skeptics, destroy it, and then move on, never mentioning it again. I’ve yet to find one serious defense of ontological naturalism in these works, even as part of an attempt to demonstrate its failures. One might charge me with looking for defenses of naturalism in the wrong places, but I’m almost always struck by the ease with which it is set aside in these works. The most I’ve seen from Eddy and Boyd is this little paragraph:
“Given the empirical observation that the world generally operates by natural laws of cause and effect, it is reasonable when investigating history to first look for natural explanations for events and to exercise caution when entertaining explanations that involve appeals to the supernatural. And, given this empirical observation, it is certainly reasonable to prefer natural explanations over supernatural explanations, all other things being equal.” (Eddy and Boyd, Kindle Location, 770-782)
I have no quarrel with this and it is gratifying to see. But the possibility that the world does not only generally operate naturally, but rather, that it always does so, warrants a more serious consideration (at least in my unqualified opinion). One can easily see the above empirical observation Eddy and Boyd point out being used as a confirmatory piece of a posteriori evidence for naturalism, refreshingly represented as a hypothesis, rather than a presupposition. I have no idea how good a justification this would be, and I’m sure I’ll find this argument being discussed as I read more and more, but, at first glance, it seems far stronger a position (and thus more charitable) than the mere presupposition of naturalism. It also has important implications for Eddy and Boyd’s entire book as well as the assumptions they bring to it. (These, in their own words, include a belief in a “personal Creator God” and his supernatural interventions or acts in the world and are not tackled in any way in the book. (Eddy and Boyd, Kindle Location, 256-267)) I think such an approach would entail seriously engaging with ontological naturalism as a potentially true metaphysical description of the world, with all its concomitant implications.
At one point, in order to bring out the shortsightedness of those who would use absence of miracles in the present-day world to argue for the absence of miracles in the world in the past, Eddy and Boyd adduce the example of “demonization”, or demon possession. It is, in their words, a “commonly reported cross-cultural, supernatural phenomenon”, both in the past and present. (Eddy and Boyd, Kindle Location 1084). I’m not entirely clear if they find it problematic for those who only presuppose naturalism, or if they also believe it poses difficulties for those who also argue for it. Either way, they point out that the demonized exhibit traits which “are hard to explain on a strictly naturalistic terms.” (Eddy and Boyd, Kindle Location 1084). The implication of this and the commonness of the phenomenon are meant to make naturalists pause and reconsider. As Eddy and Boyd write, “To the thinking of most who witness phenomena like these – and the authors of this work count themselves among them – attempts to explain some of these phenomena in strictly natural terms are implausible, to say the least.” (Eddy and Boyd, Kindle Location 1908). This is, as I see it, Eddy and Boyd wedging a foot in the door to stop naturalists from closing it on them without considering them. Insofar as this is their only intention, I think they have succeeded.
But they add, “We do not wish to dispute that some, if not the majority, of these reports may be explained in naturalistic terms.” (Eddy and Boyd, Kindle Location 1108). In making this necessary concession, I think that Eddy and Boyd have also stopped the door from being closed on naturalism. The problem that faces them is that they do not have a single undisputed example of a supernatural event; they can only refer to reports of them, many of which they admit can be explained naturally. And thus, the possibility remains open that all of the purportedly miraculous events one adduces are not, in fact, miraculous events. In some cases, there may be no events (and the reports we have are false or legendary), and the others may be class of events that are consistently or systematically misinterpreted by human beings (owing to any number of factors and their combinations). When we concede that the majority of these kinds of events are actually natural events, we are enforcing the idea the all of them are natural events. Eddy and Boyd rhetorically ask:
“But what justification is there for assuming that all such reports of the supernatural can be reductively explained in naturalistic terms?” (Eddy and Boyd, Kindle Location 1119).
There is none, at least for the kind of assumption that would not be dropped when shown certain kinds of evidence. But I think the above concession is more than enough to justify adopting naturalism as a useful working hypothesis and a potentially true one. The knowledge that most of these experiences are not, in fact, taken as supernatural experiences by believers and non-believers alike, would, at the very least, undermine my confidence even in my personal experiences of what I take to be supernatural.