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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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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