Distinguished Professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary
For some people, the miracles in the Gospels form the most incredible part of the New Testament accounts. Modern science, they say, has demonstrated that the universe is a closed continuum of cause and effect. The ancients may have believed in the possibility of supernatural forces in the world but we know better today.
In fact, this cluster of opinions proved more common a half-century ago than today. Philosophers of science have stressed that by definition all science can adjudicate is that what is repeatable under controlled conditions. If there is a God of the kind in which Jews, Christians and Muslims have historically believed, then we would expect him occasionally to bypass the laws of nature. The real question becomes whether there is good reason to believe in God in the first place.
One of the most exciting and encouraging developments in recent years in this respect is the intelligent design movement.1 Pointing to numerous examples of fundamental entities in the natural and biological worlds that display irreducible complexity, even some scientists who are not Christians at all have acknowledged that there must be an intelligent being behind this creation. The entire "big-bang" theory for the beginnings of the universe leads to the question of what or who produced that "bang."
For others, philosophical arguments like those of the famous seventeenth-century Scotsman, David Hume, turn out to be more persuasive. While not alleging that miracles are impossible, the claim now is that the probability of a natural explanation will always be greater than that of a supernatural one. Phenomena could mislead, witnesses could be mistaken and, besides, explanations of events must have analogies to what has happened in the past. But it is not at all clear that any of these arguments mean that the evidence could never be unambiguous and the witnesses unassailable. And if every event must have a known analogy, then people in the tropics before modern technology could never have accepted that ice exists!2
Today, perhaps the most common scholarly objection to the credibility of Jesus' miracles is that stories and myths from other religions that competed with Christianity in the first-century Roman Empire are similar enough that it makes best sense to assume that the Christian miracles stories likewise teach theological truth through fictional narrative. It is curious how often laypeople and even some scholars repeat the charge that the Gospel miracles sound just like the legends of other ancient religions without having carefully studied the competing accounts. For example, it is often alleged that there were virgin births and resurrection stories all over the ancient religious landscape. But, in fact, most of the alleged parallels to special births involve ordinary human sexual relations coupled simply with the belief that one of the persons was actually a god or goddess incognito. Or, as with the conception of Alexander the Great, in one legend almost a millennium later than his lifetime, a giant Python intertwined around Alexander's mother on her honeymoon night, keeping his father at a discrete distance and impregnating the young woman.3
In the case of resurrections, there are stories about gods or goddesses who die and rise annually, often corresponding to the seasons and the times of harvesting and planting respectively. Greco-Roman writers use the term metaphorically at times to talk about the restoration to health of someone who was gravely ill or about the restoration to status of someone who was disgraced or deposed for a time from some position. But there are no stories from the ancient world (or the modern world, for that matter) of people known to have been real human beings, which began to circulate during the lifetimes of their followers, in which those individuals died completely, rose bodily to life again, and were declared to have atoned for the sins of the world.4
In fact, the closest parallels to Jesus' miracle-working activity in the ancient Mediterranean world all come from a little after the time during which he lived. Apollonius of Tyana, who lived in the late first century, was said to have worked two or three miracles very similar to Jesus' healings and resurrections. The charismatic Jewish wonder-worker Hanina ben Dosa, whose stories appear in the later rabbinic literature, likewise reportedly worked a couple of miraculous healings similar to Christ's. The second-century Gnostic myth of an ascending and descending redeemer sometimes explicitly inserted Jesus instead of (or as) Sophia or "Wisdom" as its hero. Mithraism began to resemble Christianity only in the late second and early third centuries. But all of these developments are too late to have influence the first Christian writers; if anything, they may have been born out of a desire to make their heroes look more like Jesus and therefore more credible in a world in which Christianity was coming to have ever greater influence.
If all the main reasons for not believing in the Gospel miracle stories fail to convince, what are positive reasons for believing in them? To begin with, they are deeply embedded in every layer, source and finished Gospel in the early Christian tradition. Jewish sources likewise attest to Jesus' miracles. Faced with the opportunity to deny the Christian claims that Jesus performed such amazing feats, Josephus and the Talmud instead corroborate them, even though they don't believe he was heaven-sent. The rabbis often made the charge that Jesus was a sorcerer who led Israel astray, much like certain Jewish leaders in the Gospel accounts (Mark 3:20-30) accused Christ of being empowered by the devil.
In addition, the nature of Jesus' miracles contrasts markedly with most of those from his milieu. There are a fair number of exorcisms and healing accounts from Jewish, Greek and Roman sources but none where a given wonder-worker consistently and successfully works his miracles without the use of magical formulae, paraphernalia, or proper prayer to God or the gods.5 The more spectacular miracles over nature have fewer parallels in the Greco-Roman world; where similar accounts exist there are also often reasons for disbelieving them. For example, the fountain in the temple of Dionysus in Ephesus flowed with wine once a year rather than with water. But Lucian explained that the priests had a secret underground tunnel that enabled them to enter while the building was locked at night and replace the water supply for the fountain with one of wine. This is hardly the background for Christ's miracle of turning water into wine.
Apocryphal Christian miracles form part of narratives that tend to fill in the gaps of the gospel record. What was Christ like as a boy? How did the virgin birth occur? What happened when Jesus descended to the dead? The answers at times are quite frivolous compared to those in the canonical Gospels—Jesus the child fashioning birds out of mud and water and breathing life into them so that they might fly away, or cursing a playmate who has been mocking him so that he withers up. Indeed, even within Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the primary purpose for Jesus' miracle-working activity is to demonstrate that the kingdom is arriving, that the Messianic age has come (Luke 12:28 par.). But if the kingdom is coming, then the King must be coming. If the Messianic age has arrived, then the Messiah must be present. The miracles are not primarily about what God can do for us.
The closest parallels to the miracles of Jesus are in fact in the Old Testament. Feeding the multitudes with miraculously supplied bread, God's sovereignty over wind and waves, Elijah and Elisha raising people from the dead all appear as crucial background for understanding the New Testament texts. If anything, such parallels should inspire confidence in the reliability of the New Testament accounts.
At the same time, nothing in Christian theology requires one to argue that only the biblical miracles ever occurred. Nothing in the Bible requires us to imagine that God uses only his people to work the supernatural, and both demonic inspiration and human manufacture can account for other preternatural works. Nothing requires them to be without parallel in later Christian tradition either. At the same time, historians should not and need not have a more credulous attitude toward biblical miracles than toward extra-biblical ones. When we apply the same criteria of authenticity to both, the biblical miracles simply enjoy more evidential support.
When all is said and done, one of the most meticulous historians among contemporary biblical scholars makes the following significant observation:
Viewed globally, the tradition of Jesus' miracles is more firmly supported by the criteria of historicity than are a number of other well-known and often readily accepted traditions about his life and ministry. . . . Put dramatically but with not too much exaggeration: if the miracle tradition from Jesus' public ministry were to be rejected in toto as unhistorical, so should every other Gospel tradition about him.6
1See esp. Michael J. Behe, Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York and London: Free Press, rev. 2006).
2See Joseph Houston, Reported Miracles: A Critique of Hume (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
3See esp. J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (New York: Harper & Row, 1930; London: James Clarke, repr. 2000).
4For full details, cf. Ronald H. Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks: Did the New Testament Borrow from Pagan Thought? (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, rev. 2003).
5See esp. Graham H. Twelftree, Jesus the Exorcist (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991); idem, Jesus the Miracle Worker (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1999).
6John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 630.