Posted by: ken98 | November 24, 2009

Unnecessary Miracles

Day 75 – Ken here
(DEF v.1, ch.15, pp.510-520)

Well, back to my old ways and typing deep into the night.

Again, a pretty dry set of pages right here. We finish Chapter 15 and the general history of Christianity and begin a specific history of Christians and persecution (Chapter 16). Once we leave the general, introductory statements (or I cease typing/reading in my sleep), maybe my interest will perk up somewhat.

The Story
Socio-Economic rundown of early Christians

  • Christianity absolutely rejected by almost all notable persons of the 1st, 2nd centuries
  • Gibbon maintains early church gained converts through prophecy, not miracles – he says this because of the silence about notable miracles in contemporary pagan histories/literature
  • Gibbon notes the darkness occurring at the time of Jesus death (the Passion) is nowhere noted in contemporary history (oh, that must’ve gone over well with the 18th century Anglican hierarchy)
    Chapter 16 and the History of Christian Persecutions

  • Gibbon’s initial question – why would an accepting polytheistic state like the Roman Empire object to another theism (Christianity) so strenuously?
  • Is it because of monotheism? Then what of the Jews – the Jewish religion and Jewish nation were accepted by Rome as long as the nation held no contrary, belligerent political aspirations
  • Gibbon concludes – No, the Jews were a nation, the Christians, a sect. A Christian by definition were born into a pagan nation and so, to become Christian, had to consciously desert the religion and customs of their forefathers (while still living among ther fellow countrymen – not a comfortable situation – either for Christians, or pagans)
  • Gibbon goes on – what’s more, Christianity forced believers to cut their ties with their own nation’s customs and religion, and despise any beliefs not Christian
  • Pagans, naturally, concluded Christians were atheists
  • El Greco's Christ on the Cross - Jesus during the Passion, and the darkness that fell over the whole earth

    El Greco's Christ on the Cross - Jesus during the Passion, and the darkness that fell over the whole earth

    Gibbon on Miracles
    As a man of the Enlightenment, Gibbon responded well to reason, less favorably to appeals to the supernatural. With a smiling reasonableness he mounts an attack on superstitious Christianity by questioning miracles in the Bible. His quibble is not with the Christian God, but with the unnecessary, and inelegant use of miracles to support Jesus’ divinity.

    Besides, any good philosophe who was trying to figure out why Christianity took off so quickly, had to come up with some conclusion other than the supernatural. After all, there is NO supernatural, by definition you cannot be above, below, outside, or beyond nature, and miracles are by definition, beyond nature. So the miracles have to be discounted – and Gibbon comes up with prophecy. It was the prediction of future events (esp. the imminent end of the world) that made Christianity the hit it was in the 1st and 2nd centuries. This is Gibbon’s rational solution, given a rational world, and given the reasonable men trying to make sense of Christianity’s unusual history.

    Karel Dujardin's St Paul healing the cripple at Lystra (1663) - the point where Paul is recognized as the god Hermes in disguise

    Karel Dujardin's St Paul healing the cripple at Lystra (1663) - the point where Paul is recognized as the god Hermes in disguise

    Actually, I think Gibbon is all wet, and has the whole problem upside down. Miracles were a dime a dozen in Antique and Late Antique literature. Even in the Bible (Acts 14:8-20), Paul is mistaken for a god (Hermes) or at least a wizard when he performs miracles. Peter Brown makes this point in The Making of Late Antiquity that in the first and second centuries it was common knowledge that invisible supernatural forces surrounded, permeated, and enveloped everyday life as inescapably as did the invisible air, and that for good or for ill these forces could be channeled through men, had they the skill and knowledge to use them. Raising the dead was a commonplace. Transmutation of elements was an established fact. So miracles, for that reason, and NOT their non-occurrence were hardly the faith-makers that modern, post-Enlightenment men consider them.

    At least that’s my opinion.

    The Last Word (Gibbon’s of course)

    Sharp. Acerbic. Not Succinct. You could easily set this passage to music – I envision a kind of Handel oratorio.

    Gibbon on the Passion (Jesus’ death, and the time of darkness that accompanied it) “But how shall we excuse the supine inattention of the Pagan and philosophic world to those evidences which were presented by the hand of Omnipotence, not to their reason, but to their senses? During the age of Christ, of his apostles, and of their first disciples, the doctrine which they preached was confirmed by innumerable prodigies. The lame walked, the blind saw, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, daemons were expelled, and the laws of Nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the church.

    General silence concerning the darkness of the passion
    But the sages of Greece and Rome turned aside from the awful spectacle, and, pursuing the ordinary occupations of life and study, appeared unconscious of any alterations in the moral or physical government of the world. Under the reign of Tiberius, the whole earth, or at least a celebrated province of the Roman empire, was involved in a preternatural darkness of three hours. Even this miraculous event, which ought to have excited the wonder, the curiosity, and the devotion of mankind, passed without notice in an age of science and history. It happened during the lifetime of Seneca and the elder Pliny, who must have experienced the immediate effects, or received the earliest intelligence, of the prodigy. Each of these philosophers, in a laborious work, has recorded all the great phenomena of Nature, earthquakes, meteors, comets, and eclipses, which his indefatigable curiosity could collect. Both the one and the other have omitted to mention the greatest phenomenon to which the mortal eye has been witness since the creation of the globe. A distinct chapter of Pliny is designed for eclipses of an extraordinary nature and unusual duration; but he contents himself with describing the singular defect of light which followed the murder of Caesar, when, during the greatest part of a year, the orb of the sun appeared pale and without splendour. This season of obscurity, which cannot surely be compared with the preternatural darkness of the Passion, had been already celebrated by most of the poets and historians of that memorable age.” (DEF, v.1, ch.15, p.512).

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