Miracle Investigator, Professor Craig Keener, on the Historicity of Jesus’ Miracles.

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Keener has arguably set forth the lead academic investigation into the nature of supernatural miracles of healing. In his book, Miracles, he recounts how he discovered that hundreds of millions of people today claim to have experienced miracles. He also argues that it is time to rethink Hume’s argument in light of the contemporary evidence available to us. According to the book’s description, “This wide-ranging and meticulously researched two-volume study presents the most thorough current defense of the credibility of the miracle reports in the Gospels and Acts. Drawing on claims from a range of global cultures and taking a multidisciplinary approach to the topic, Keener suggests that many miracle accounts throughout history and from contemporary times are best explained as genuine divine acts, lending credence to the biblical miracle reports.”

But, his book aside, the following content, specifically focusing on Jesus’ miracles and the historicity concerning them, is from Keener that I’ve simply put under different headings. I hope it proves informative.

1. The Historical Evidence

Although limited in kind (i.e., no artifacts), the available evidence for Jesus as a miracle worker is substantial. Although the evidence is limited concerning most particular miracles, all of the many ancient sources that comment on the issue agree that Jesus and his early followers performed miracles: Q, Mark, special material in Matthew and Luke, John, Acts, the Epistles, Revelation, and non-Christian testimony from both Jewish and pagan sources If anyone were to object that Q includes only one complete narrative about a miracle (Matt 8:5–13//Luke 7:1–10; not including miracle summaries, in Matt 11:5//Luke 7:22; Matt 12:28//Luke 11:19), it is noteworthy that this narrative comprises perhaps half or all the narrative usually assigned to Q. Jesus’s summary of his miracle working in Matt 11:5//Luke 7:22 clearly indicates that he believed himself a miracle worker.

2. Hypothetical Q

Moreover, given the extreme unlikelihood of Jesus’s later followers making up obscure sites of his ministry like Chorazin or using the early name Bethsaida, the Q material in Matt 11:21//Luke 10:13 is widely regarded as bedrock tradition, yet it refers to these Galilean villages being judged for not responding radically to Jesus’s extraordinary miracles among them. Moreover, Mark would hardly have invented the idea that Jesus could not heal where faith was lacking (Mark 6:5).

3. Contemporary Scholarship

Most scholars today working on the subject thus accept the claim that Jesus was a healer and exorcist. The evidence is stronger for this claim than for most other specific historical claims that we could make about Jesus or earliest Christianity. Scholars often note that miracles characterized Jesus’s historical activity no less than his teaching and prophetic activities did. So central are miracle reports to the Gospels that one could remove them only if one regarded the Gospels as preserving barely any genuine information about Jesus. Indeed, it is estimated that more than 31 percent of the verses in Mark’s Gospel involve miracles in some way, or some 40 percent of his narrative! Very few critics would deny the presence of any miracles in the earliest material about Jesus.

4. Jesus’ Reputation as a Miracle Worker is Very Likely Based on Historical Tradition.

If followers would preserve Jesus’s teachings, how much more might they and especially those who experienced recoveries, spread reports about his extraordinary acts of power?Because miracle claims attach to a relatively small number of figures in antiquity (itinerant or not), there is little reason to suppose that Jesus would have developed a reputation as a wonder worker if he did not engage in such activities. Jesus’s ministry to the afflicted also coheres with his care for the marginalized in contrast to his frequent conflicts with the elite. As historical Jesus scholars Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz put it, “Just as the kingdom of God stands at the centre of Jesus’s preaching, so healings and exorcisms form the centre of his activity.”

5. Hostile, Non-Christian Sources

Among non-Christian sources, the rabbis and Celsus are clear that Jesus performed miracles, although both sources are hostile to these miracles. (Many of these later non-Christian sources attribute the miraculous works to sorcery, which probably constitutes the earliest anti-Christian explanation for Christian miracles.) This unanimity is striking given the conversely unanimous silence in Christian, Jewish, and even Mandean tradition concerning any miracles of respected prophetic figures like John the Baptist. None of the ancient sources respond to claims of Jesus’s miracles by trying to deny them.

It is thus not surprising that most scholars publishing historical research about Jesus today grant that Jesus was a miracle worker, regardless of their varying philosophic assumptions about divine activity in miracle claims. For example, E. P. Sanders regards it as an “almost indisputable” historical fact that “Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed.” Using traditional historical-critical tools, John Meier finds many of Jesus’s reported miracles authentic. Raymond Brown notes that “scholars have come to realize that one cannot dismiss Jesus’s miracles simply on modern rationalist grounds, for the oldest traditions show him as a healer.” Otto Betz regards it as “certain” that Jesus was a healer, arguing “even from the Jewish polemic which called him a sorcerer.” The miracles, he notes, are central to the Gospels, and without them, most of the other data in the Gospels are inexplicable. Even Morton Smith, among the recent scholars most skeptical toward the Gospel tradition, argues that miracle working is the most authentic part of the Jesus tradition, though he explains it along the magical lines urged by Jesus’s early detractors.

6. Being Open to Jesus’ Miracles as a Fact of History

These observations do not resolve the question of individual miracle stories in the Gospels, but they do challenge one basic assumption that has often lodged the burden of proof against them: against some traditional assumptions, one cannot dismiss particular stories on the basis that Jesus did not perform miracles. One need not, therefore, attribute stories about Jesus’s miracles purely to legendary accretions. Nor should one expect that the church’s later Christology led them to invent many accounts of Jesus’s miracles; it may have influenced their interpretation and shaping of the accounts, but there was little reason to invent miracles for christological reasons. We lack substantial contemporary evidence that Jewish people expected a miracle-working messiah, and nonmessianic figures like Paul were also believed to be miracle workers (2 Cor 12:12). Rather than Christology causing miracle claims to be invented, claims already circulating about Jesus’s miracles, once combined with other claims about Jesus, undoubtedly contributed to apologetic for a higher Christology. Some of the offending “Christology,” moreover, could apply to Jesus as a great eschatological prophet or ruler, roles not without analogies among contemporary figures.

7. Personal Remarks.

Having myself looked at this facet of Jesus’ ministry over the last four years (yes, this site turned four years old a few days ago!), and currently being occupied in writing a book on this subject, that Jesus was a miracle worker stands as the most convincing thing I know about him and saying so is no hyperbolic expression. In my mind it is practically on par with some of the bedrock facts we have concerning his crucifixion, ministry, post-mortem resurrection appearances, and so on. I take this for absolutely granted. I am certainly not saying that there are no recollections about Jesus as reported in the gospels that I do not question or do not have my reservations about. I sure do, but that Jesus was a miracle healer who did extraordinary feats in front of massive crowds of people is historical bedrock tradition.


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