New Testament and Origins of Christianity scholar Craig Keener of Asbury Theological Seminary has engaged the topic of the supernatural in his Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (2011). In Miracles, Keener’s interest is wide and ranges from examining the philosophical contestations over the supernatural to the many testimonies of alleged miracles in the contemporary and historical world and in the biblical stories. The book is 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.”
For our purposes here, we want to look at some of the commentary Keener has provided on Jesus’ miracles, in particular what historical evidence Keener claims we have for them. To do this, we will break this entry into several points.
The Historical Evidence
What is the nature of the historical evidence that we have for Jesus and his miracles? Keener maintains that although limited in kind (i.e., we do not have any physical artifacts), the available evidence for Jesus as a miracle worker is substantial. This is simply because his miracles are found in a wide range of source materials; Keener explains,
“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.”
So here we have Jesus’ reputation as a miracle worker being affirmed in various historical sources. Further, we also have Jesus believing himself to be a miracle worker.
For more on Q, see this entry. As noted, we find Jesus reputation as a miracle worker being in attested in Q. Given the unlikelihood of Jesus’ 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’ extraordinary miracles among them. Moreover, according to the criterion of embarrassment, Mark would unlikely have invented the idea that Jesus could not heal where faith was lacking (Mark 6:5). Jesus’ reputation as a miracle worker in Q is important because it suggests that it is early and not the result of late mythological embellishment or fabrication.
What would surprise many readers is that most historians working on the subject accept that Jesus was a miracle healer, or at least widely known in his time to be one. 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.”
Likely Based on Historical Tradition
If followers would preserve Jesus’ 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.”
Among non-Christian sources, the rabbis and Celsus affirm that Jesus performed miracles, although both sources are hostile. Many of these later non-Christian sources attribute the miraculous works to sorcery, which probably constitutes the earliest anti-Christian explanation for Jesus’ miracles. According to Keener,
“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 observes that Scholar E. P. Sanders regards it as an “almost indisputable” historical fact that “Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed.” Many scholars finds this basic fact uncontroversial. Using traditional historical-critical tools, John Meier finds many of Jesus’ reported miracles to be 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 is 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’ early detractors.
Being Open to Miracles
Keener maintains 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).”