Thursday, 12 January 2012

"Miracles and supernatural religion" 1903

SYNOPSIS.—Arbitrary criticism of the Biblical narratives of the raising of the "dead."—Facts which it ignores.—The subject related to the phenomena of trance, and records of premature burial.—The resuscitation in Elisha's tomb probably historical.—Jesus' raising of the ruler's daughter plainly a case of this kind.—His raising of the widow's son probably such.—The hypothesis that his raising of Lazarus may also have been such critically examined.—The record allows this supposition.—Further considerations favoring it: 1. The real interests of Christianity secure.—2. The miracle as a work of mercy.—3. Incompetency of the bystanders' opinion.—4. Congruity with the general conception of the healing works of Jesus, as wrought by a peculiar psychical power.—Other cases.—The resurrection of Jesus an event in a wholly different order of things.—The practical result of regarding these resuscitations as in the order of nature.

Of resuscitation from apparent death seven cases in all are recorded,—three in the Old Testament and four in the New. Some critics arbitrarily reject all but one of these as legendary. Thus Oscar Holzmann, in his recent Leben Jesu, treats the raising of the widow's son, and of Lazarus. But he accepts the case of the ruler's daughter on the ground that Jesus is reported as saying that it was not a case of real but only of apparent death,—"the child is not dead, but sleepeth." But for the preservation of this saving declaration in the record, this case also would have been classed with the others as unhistorical. And yet the admission of one clear case of simulated death, so like real death as to deceive all the onlookers but Jesus, might reasonably check the critic with the suggestion that it may not have been a solitary case. The headlong assumption involved in the discrimination made between these two classes, viz. that in a case of apparent but unreal death the primitive tradition can be depended on to put the fact upon record, is in the highest degree arbitrary and unwarrantable.

The scepticism which lightly contradicts the Biblical narratives of the raising of the "dead" to life is seemingly ignorant of facts that go far to place these upon firm ground as historical occurrences. Catalepsy,or the simulation of death by a trance, in which the body is sometimes cold and rigid, sensation gone, the heart still, is well known to medical men. In early times such a condition would inevitably have been regarded and treated as actual death, without the least suspicion that it was not so. Even now, the dreadful mistake of so regarding it sometimes occurs. So cautious a journal as the London Spectator a few years ago expressed the belief that "a distinct percentage" of premature burials "occurs every year" in England.

The proper line of critical approach to the study of the Biblical narratives of the raising of the "dead" is through the well-known facts of the deathlike trance and premature burial. Where burial occurred, as in the East, immediately after the apparent death, resuscitation must have been rare. Yet cases of it were not unknown. Pliny has a chapter "on those who have revived on being carried forth for burial." Lord Bacon states that of this there have been "very many cases." A French writer of the eighteenth century, Bruhier, in his "Dissertations sur l'Incertitude de la Mort et l'Abus des Enterrements," records seventy-two cases of mistaken pronouncement of death, fifty-three of revival in the coffin before burial, and fifty-four of burial alive. A locally famous and thoroughly attested case in this country is that of the Rev. William Tennent, pastor in Freehold, New Jersey, in the eighteenth century, who lay apparently dead for three days, reviving from trance just as his delayed funeral was about to proceed. One who keeps a scrap-book could easily collect quite an assortment of such cases, and of such others as have a tragic ending, both from domestic and foreign journals. A work published some years ago by Dr. F. Hartmann exhibits one hundred and eight cases as typical among over seven hundred that have been authenticated.

Facts like these have been strangely overlooked in the hasty judgment prompted by prejudice against whatever has obtained credence as miraculous. Some significant considerations must be seriously entertained. It cannot be that no such facts occurred in the long periods covered by the Biblical writers. Occurring, it is extremely improbable that they should have altogether escaped embodiment in popular tradition and its record. Furthermore, while on one hand the custom of speedy burial rendered them much rarer than they are now under other conditions, and so much the more extraordinary, the universal ignorance of the causes involved would have accepted resuscitation as veritable restoration from actual death. As such it would have passed into tradition. In cases where it had come to pass in connection with the efforts of a recognized prophet, or through any contact with him, it would certainly have been regarded as a genuine miracle.

Among the raisings of the "dead" recorded in the Scriptures probably none has been so widely doubted by critical readers as the story in the thirteenth chapter of the second book of Kings, in which a corpse is restored to life by contact with the bones of Elisha. Dean Stanley's remark upon the suspicious similarity between the miracles related of Elisha and those found in Roman Catholic legends of great saints here seems quite pertinent. Let the record speak for itself. "And Elisha died and they buried him. Now the bands of the Moabites invaded the land at the coming in of the year. And it came to pass, as they were burying a man, that, behold, they spied a band; and they cast the man into the sepulchre of Elisha; and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet."

The bizarre character of such a story excusably predisposes many a critic to stamp it as fabricated to enhance the glory of the great prophet who had been a pillar of the throne. Yet nothing is more likely than that tradition has here preserved a bit of history, extraordinary, but real. There is not the least improbability in regarding the case as one of the many revivals from the deathlike trance that have been noted by writers ancient and modern. It is entirely reasonable to suppose that the trance in which the seemingly dead man lay was broken either by the shock of his fall into the prophet's tomb, or coincidently therewith; and stranger coincidences have happened. Such a happening would be precisely the sort of thing to live in popular tradition, and to be incorporated into the annals of the time. Here it may be rejoined that this is only a hypothesis. Only that, to be sure. But so is the allegation that the story is a mere fantastic fabrication only a hypothesis. Demonstration of the actual fact past all controversy being out of the question, all that can be offered for the attempt to rate the narrative at its proper value, either as history or as fiction, is hypothesis. The choice lies for us between two hypotheses. Surely, that hypothesis is the more credible which is based on a solid body of objective facts, and meets all the conditions of the case.

Will it be replied to this that the critics can show for their hypothesis the admitted fact of the human proclivity to invent legends of miracle? The decisive answer is that the burden of proof rests on him who contests any statement ostensibly historical. If such a statement be found to square with admitted objective facts, it must be accepted notwithstanding considerations drawn from the subjective tendency to invent extraordinary tales.Were raisings of the "dead" recorded in the Old Testament alone, objection would less often be offered to this transference of them, along with other occurrences once deemed miraculous, to a place in the natural order of things. The statistics of premature burial and of the resuscitation of the apparently dead before burial are sufficiently strong to throw grave doubt on any contention that the resuscitations narrated of Elijah and Elisha do not belong in that historical series. It has been frequently observed, however, that there is much reluctance to apply to the New Testament the methods and canons of criticism that are applied to the Old. It will be so in the present case, through apprehension of somehow detracting from the distinctive glory of Christ. That fear will not disturb one who sees that glory not in his "mighty works," the like of which were wrought by the prophets, but in the spiritual majesty of his personality, the divineness of his message to the world, and of the life and death that illustrated it.

One case, at least, among Jesus' raisings of the "dead," that of the young daughter of the ruler of the synagogue, is admitted even by sceptical critics to have been a resuscitation from the trance that merely simulates death. But the fact that there is a record of his saying in this case, "the child is not dead, but sleepeth," and no record of his saying the same at the bier of the widow's son, is slight ground, yet all the ground there is, against the great probabilities to the contrary, for regarding the latter case as so transcendently different from the former as the actual reëmbodiment of a departed spirit recalled from another world. Were these the only two cases of restoration to life in the ministry of Jesus, it is most probable that they would be regarded as of the same kind. The raising of Lazarus presents peculiar features, in view of which it is generally regarded as of another kind, and the greatest of miracles, so stupendous that the Rev. W. J. Dawson, in his recent Life of Christ, written from an evangelical standpoint, says of it: "Even the most devout mind may be forgiven occasional pangs of incredulity." But the considerations already presented are certainly sufficient to justify a reëxamination of the case. And it is to be borne in mind that the question at issue is, not what the eye-witnesses at that time believed, not what the Church from that time to this has believed, not what we are willing to believe, or would like to believe, but what all the facts with any bearing on the case, taken together, fully justify us in believing as to the real nature of it.

What Jesus is recorded as saying of it is, of course, of prime importance. "Our friend Lazarus is fallen asleep, but I go that I may awake him out of sleep." Were this all, the case might easily have been classed as one of trance. The disciples, however, understood Jesus to speak of natural sleep. "Then Jesus therefore said unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead." Tradition puts the maximum meaning into this word "dead." But if this word here qualifies the preceding word, "fallen asleep," so also is it qualified by that; the two are mutually explanatory, not contradictory. These alternatives are before us: Is the maximum or the minimum meaning to be assigned to the crucial word "dead"? For the minimum, one can say that a deathly trance, already made virtual death by immediate interment, would amply justify Jesus in using the word "dead" in order to impress the disciples with the gravity of the case, as not a natural but a deathly, and, in the existing situation, a fatal sleep. For the maximum, no more can be advanced than the hazardous assertion that Jesus must have used the word with technical precision in its customary sense; an assertion of course protected from disproof by our ignorance of the actual fact. But whatever support this view of the case derives from such ignorance is overbalanced by the support supplied to the other view by the long history of revivals from the deathly trance, and by the probabilities which that history creates.

Many, to whom the view here proposed seems not only new, but unwelcome, and even revolutionary, may reasonably prefer to suspend judgment for reflection; but meanwhile some further considerations may be entertained. Aside from the unwillingness to abandon a long-cherished belief on any subject whatever, which is both a natural, and, when not pushed to an unreasonable length, a desirable brake on all inconsiderate change, no practical interest is threatened by the adoption of the view here suggested. Religious interest, so far as it is also intelligent, is certainly not threatened. The evidences of Jesus' divine character and mission resting, as for modern men it rests, not on remote wonders, but on now acknowledged facts of an ethical and spiritual kind, is altogether independent of our conclusion whether it was from actual or only apparent death that Lazarus was raised. Since all the mighty works wrought by Jesus, and this among them, were identical in type with those wrought by the ancient prophets, with whom his countrymen classed him in his lifetime, their evidential significance could be, even for the eye-witnesses at that tomb, no greater for him than for an Elisha,—signs of a divine mission attesting itself by works of mercy.

As works of mercy these raisings from the "dead," including that of Lazarus, rank far higher in the view of them here proposed than in the traditional view. This regards them as the recall of departed spirits from what is hoped to be "a better world." Yet this, while it turns sorrow for a time into joy, involves not only the recurrence of that sorrow in all its keenness, but also a second tasting of the pains preliminary to the death-gate, when the time comes to pass that gate again. But in the other view, a raising from the death that is only simulated is a merciful deliverance from a calamity greater than simple death, if that be any calamity at all,—the fate of burial alive. In the former view, therefore, the quality of mercy, distinctive of the mighty works of Jesus, is imperfectly demonstrable. In the present view, as the rescue of the living from death in one of its most horrible forms, it is abundantly conspicuous. The onlookers by the tomb of Lazarus doubtless regarded his awakening as revival from actual death. Their opinion, however, does not bind our judgment any more than it is bound by the opinion of other onlookers, that Jesus' healing of the insane and epileptic was through the expulsion of demons that possessed them. In each instance it was understood as a sign of control over beings belonging to another world. But such an attestation of Jesus' divine mission, having been superseded for us by proofs of higher character, is now no more needful for us in the case of the "dead" than in the case of the "demons."

The power of breaking the deathly trance, of quickening the dormant life, reënergizing the collapsed nervous organism, and ending its paralysis of sensation and motion, may be reasonably regarded as power of the same psychical kind that Jesus regularly exerted in healing the sufferers from nervous disorders who were reputed victims of demoniac possession In this view these resuscitations from apparent death appear in natural coherence with the many other works of mercy that Jesus wrought as the Great Physician of his people, and may be regarded as the crown and consummation of all his restorative ministries. Jesus' thanksgiving after the tomb had been opened—"Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me"—shows that he had girded himself for a supreme effort by concentrating the utmost energy of his spirit in prayer. Physically parallel with this was the intensity of voice put into his call to the occupant of the tomb. This is better represented in the original than in our translation: "He shouted with a great voice, 'Lazarus, come forth.'" The whole record indicates the utmost tension of all his energies, and closely comports with the view that this stood to the sequel in the relation of cause to effect. Another circumstance not without bearing on the case is the energizing power of the intense sympathy with the bereaved family that stirred the soul of Jesus to weep and groan with them. And it is not without significance that this strong factor appears active in the larger number of the Biblical cases,—three of them only children, two of these the children of the pitiable class of widows.
Peculiar, then, as was the case of Lazarus, our examination of it reveals no substantial ground for insisting that it was essentially unlike the previous case of the ruler's daughter, that it was the bringing back into a decaying body of a spirit that had entered into the world of departed souls. The actual fact, of course, is indemonstrable. Our conclusion has to be formed wholly upon the probabilities of the case, and must be formed in a reasonable choice between the greater probability and the less.

The restoration of Dorcas to life by Peter, recorded in the book of Acts, needs no special discussion beyond the various considerations already adduced in this chapter. The case of Eutychus, recorded in the same book, requires mention only lest it should seem to have been forgotten, as it is not in point at all. The record makes it highly probable that the supposed death was nothing more than the loss of consciousness for a few hours in consequence of a fall from the window.

If one should here suggest that no mention has yet been made of the resurrection of Jesus himself, it must be pointed out that this is a fact of a totally different kind from any of the foregoing cases. To speak, as many do, of the "resurrection of Lazarus" is a misuse of words. Resuscitation to life in this world, and resurrection, the rising up of the released spirit into the life of the world to come, are as distinct as are the worlds to which they severally belong. We here consider only the raisings which restored to the virtually dead their interrupted mortal life. The rising from the mortal into the immortal state belongs to an entirely different field of study.

Apart, then, from traditional prepossessions, examination of the Biblical narratives discloses nothing to invalidate the hypothesis which one who is acquainted with the copious record of apparent but unreal death must seriously and impartially consider. The reputedly miraculous raisings of the "dead" related in both the Old and the New Testament may, with entire reason, and without detriment to religion, be classed with such as are related outside of the Scriptures, in ancient times as well as modern, and as phenomena wholly within the natural order, however extraordinary. The practical result of such a conclusion is likely to be a gain for the historicity of the Scripture narratives in the estimate of a large class of thoughtful minds.


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