Is Our Historical Evidence Powerful Enough to Suggest that the Gospel Miracles Occurred?
Most historical Jesus scholars today, whether or not they believe in God, believe that Jesus’s contemporaries experienced him as a healer and an exorcist. That is because it is attested in all the Gospels and what we can reconstruct of their different sources. Jesus’s ancient critics did not deny that he performed wonders; instead they challenged them as demonic or from sorcery. Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, describes Jesus’s wonders in the same terms he had also used for the miracles of Elisha.
Moreover, this distinctive feature did not stop with Jesus. Acts, some of it reporting direct eyewitness testimony (as in the raising of Eutychus and healings on the island of Malta), reports continuing healings and other miracles. An early second century bishop reports that some of those Jesus raised from death remained alive into the bishop’s own lifetime. Reports continue; around the year 180, Irenaeus boasts about a church where the dead are often raised; after that, Tertullian appeals to the emperor by citing prominent pagans grateful to Christians for exorcising them. And so forth through history.
Some critics today a priori deny that miracles can happen, often ultimately based on an essay by David Hume in the 1700s that denies adequately credible witnesses. But global surveys today find hundreds of millions of people who claim to have witnessed miracles, and these witnesses include many medical doctors, research scholars and the like.
For each discipline, one must use the method appropriate to it. Some want to investigate miracles by the standard of replicability used in experiments in physics and chemistry, but experimental replicability is not suitable for studying events in history: one does not, for example, kill someone again to test how they died. Miracles do not happen predictably on command like cyclical events in nature; they are specific signs to get our attention. For, we depend heavily on witnesses, just as we do for other nonreplicable events in historiography, journalism, law, anthropology, and sociology. An increasing number of works document these, some for example collecting medical documentation.
Thus, for example, a doctor who was himself raised has posted his medical documentation openly online. My own sister-in-law had such an experience, apparently returning to life and wholeness only when, after three hours, a minister prayed for her. Although I have published 1400 pages of material, my investigation barely scratches the surface. If we have some credible accounts today, why should we a priori dismiss events from Jesus’s ministry?
Craig S. Keener, PhD. is the F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary.
For Professor Keener's full treatment of the question:
Craig Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts
Craig Keener, Miracles Today: The Supernatural Work of God in the Modern World