Tuesday, April 7, 2009

On the Reporting of Miracles

I once met a man who said that God had fixed his vacuum cleaner. He told this story at a men’s retreat I attended at a Catholic church. He didn’t explain what was wrong with the vacuum and he did not suggest any purpose God might have had for performing this miracle. He insisted, however, that given the nature of the malfunction, there was no possible explanation other than divine intervention for the fact that the vacuum began working again.

The thing is that other than believing that God did not share nature’s antipathy towards vacuums, the guy seemed like a perfectly sane and sober person. He was just one of those people who had the propensity to see God’s supernatural hand in every quirk and coincidence in his life. One reason I am skeptical about the miracle stories in the gospels is that I cannot help but think that the first people who told the stories as well as the people who passed them along may not have looked very hard for a natural explanation for whatever it was they had observed.

I am always fascinated by the reasons Christians give for believing in the accuracy of the gospels. One fellow suggested that Luke “comes across as delivering a very careful second hand account of the events in question.” Another said that the New Testament writers “state the miracle of Jesus' Resurrection as an actual historical event and talk about it with the same candidness they do about other events they record.” In The Case for Christ, Craig Blomberg asserted that the gospels are written in a “sober and responsible fashion.”

I cannot help but wonder how the historical or literary criteria were established that enable apologists to distinguish between an account of a first century miracle that is based on careful investigation and eyewitness testimony and an account of a first century miracle that is based on a story that has been told and retold multiple times before reaching the person who writes it down. Wouldn’t you need a sample of verified miracle accounts whose characteristics could be compared with a sample of unverified accounts? On what other basis could you assert that any particular miracle story sounded true?


  1. Sorry to call you out, but I couldn't let another "nature abhors a vacuum pun" to go unpunished, even if it was subtle.

  2. Great questions. Of all the arguments for the historicity of Jesus' miracles, that is probably the most subjective. I think what I had in mind was similar, at least in part, to your comment about comparing verified miracles with verified apocrypha. The first may be in dispute, but we have plenty of the second from the apocryphal gospels and Acts of the second through sixth centuries, the vast majority of which are trivial, self-serving, consistent with post-NT theological distinctives, disciple-glamorizing, and/or self-contradictory. In comparison, the canonical miracles are for the most part sober and restrained. But that observation by itself certainly doesn't mean they happened. One has to take the entire case for them cumulatively before trying to make a decision. Keep up the good blogs!

  3. Thanks for stopping by Craig. I am honored.

    As for you pokey, I was aware of the risk I was running and I deemed it reasonable.

  4. Here is another question Craig.

    Is there any reason to believe that someone who had actually witnessed a miracle would report it in a sober and restrained manner?

  5. Craig Bloomberg,

    Thank you for responding to this blog. It was kind of you. I am curious about two things:

    1) What method do you use to differentiate miracle accounts? For example—what makes a miracle account “trivial” as compared to “non-trivial”? Or “self-serving” as compared to “not self-serving?” “Contradictory” as compared to “self-contradictory”?

    2) You indicate (correctly, in my opinion) we take the “entire case for them cumulatively.” What do you propose we must consider, in addition to the accounts themselves?

  6. The miracle stories in the Gospels are as obviously forged as the stories in the Book of Mormon and stories in the Koran

    the vast majority of which are trivial, self-serving, consistent with post-NT theological distinctives....

    How trivial is telling your friends where to find free money by looking in the mouth of a fish?