New Testament Scholar Craig Keener on the Historicity of Christ’s Miracles

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Professor Craig Keener

New Testament scholar Craig Keener has arguably provided the leading academic investigation into the scope of supernatural miracles of healing. This he has set out in his book Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (2011) where he combs through the philosophical questions, testimonies, and evidences of miracles of healing in the contemporary and historical world (by continent) and in the biblical accounts. The book is self-described as a,

“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.”

Craig has provided some important commentary on the historicity of Christ’s miracles, of which this article breaks down into several succinct points.

1. The Historical Evidence

Although limited in kind (i.e., no artifacts), the available evidence for Christ as a miracle worker is quite substantial particularly because it is found within a wide range of source material,

“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

Given the unlikelihood of Christ’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 Christ’s extraordinary miracles among them. Moreover, according to the criterion of embarrassment Mark would unlikely have invented the idea that Christ could not heal where faith was lacking (Mark 6:5). The fact that Christ’s miracles can be found in Q suggest that they are early and not explainable as mythological embellishments or later fabrications.

3. Contemporary Scholarship

What would perhaps be striking to many readers is that most scholars today working on the subject accept the claim that Christ was a miracle healer. According to Keener,

“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. Christ’s Reputation as a Miracle Worker is Very Likely Based on Historical Tradition.

If followers would preserve Christ’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 Christ 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.”

Keener notes that 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 Christ’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 Christ’s early detractors.

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

Keener believes that these observations challenge the basic skeptical assumption against miracles,

“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).”

Article first published 12/23/2016. Edited 26/4/2019


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