John P. Meier, The Marginal Jew,
v.2, ch. 17 : Miracles and Modern Minds,
pp 509-534

(Detailed summary)

Can we reasonably determine the existence of miracles?


Let us define a miracle as an event perceived by an interested and unbiased observer as unusual, astonishing, or extraordinary, an event for which there is no reasonable explanation from human abilities or other known forces exerting influence in the space-time of our world, an event arising from a special action of God doing something beyond the reach of human power. But in attributing this event to God, we are on the theological plane, not simply on the historical. For example, at Lourdes, the medical board made up of believers and unbelievers simply determines whether a healing can be explained within the current medical and physical sciences, and only the ecclesiastical authorities will go so far as to affirm that it is a miracle. Determining whether or not miracles are possible is a matter of theological and philosophical positions, and these positions have varied in human history according to the vision of the physical universe. Our purpose is much more modest and limited strictly to the historical plane and simply wants to answer different questions around this one: are the stories about Jesus performing miracles a pure invention of the early church, or can we trace at least some of the stories back to the historical Jesus?

  1. What is a miracle?

    In a general way, we could define the miracle in three points: a miracle is

    1. An event perceived by an interested and unbiased observer as unusual, surprising, or extraordinary

      A miracle must involve an event that is perceptible to people, e.g. a man known to be blind from birth, then regains his sight and performs actions that imply that he sees

    2. An event for which there is no reasonable explanation from human abilities or other known forces exerting influence in the space-time of our world

      Let's avoid talking about miracle in the context of "law of nature" or talking about what defies the laws of nature, a concept totally foreign to antiquity.

    3. And an event coming from a special action of God doing something beyond the reach of human power

      Of course, the cause of the event is attributed to God, because we are in a religious context. A historian, within the limits of his discipline, can never make such an assertion. For it is an essentially theological statement. All a historian can say is that an event has no sufficient explanation in terms of human activity and physical forces, and that some people claim it is a miracle.

  2. A concrete example

    A concrete example can be found at the Lourdes Shrine in France, where many claim to have been miraculously healed. The Lourdes Shrine has established a board of physicians, composed of both believers and non-believers, whose role is to determine whether the healings can be explained within the scope of current medical knowledge and physical science. When the office, after examining the patient's file, establishes that a serious physical pathology existed and that a healing has taken place without medical intervention, an instantaneous or rapid healing that lasts after one year, the case is then referred to the International Medical Committee, located in Paris, which continues the study of the case and produces a detailed report. The work is so rigorous that from 1948 to 1993, out of 1,300 cures, only 18 were declared miracles by the ecclesiastical authorities. But the committee itself can only conclude that the healing is unexplainable. Privately, a member of the committee can say that it is a miracle if he is a believer, or that it is not a miracle if he is a non-believer, but he cannot say so as a doctor.

    Two points from the example of Lourdes can enlighten our study of Jesus.

    1. In the name of the principle of historical analogy, one can state that if phenomena like those of Lourdes can occur in a modern religious context, similar phenomena may have occurred in the past under similar religious circumstances. Clearly, one cannot deny a priori that Jesus performed inexplicable healings, which some claim to be miracles.

    2. But the miracles attributed to Jesus present a particular difficulty: we have no access to medical records that would allow us to have data on the patient's situation before and after his healing.

  3. Remain modest in our questions

    Four questions can reasonably be asked.

    1. Are the stories about Jesus performing miracles purely an invention of the early church as it developed its apologetic mission and propaganda in the Greco-Roman milieu, or can at least some of the stories be traced back to the historical Jesus?
    2. Are some types of supposed miracles more typical of the accounts of Jesus' activity, while other types are rather absent, if compared to what is reported in antiquity?
    3. Did Jesus in fact perform amazing and extraordinary actions that his followers interpreted as miracles?
    4. What did these supposed miracles mean to him, his disciples and his audience?

      On the other hand, the historian as historian cannot answer the question: Did God act directly through the ministry of Jesus to produce miracles?

  4. Two observations to conclude

    Is the question of miracles a waste of time? For some, a modern educated person cannot take the question of miracles seriously, even without believing in them.

    1. Let us recall that the theoretical question of the possibility of miracles is a philosophical, not historical, position. In the 17th and 18th centuries, philosophers such as Spinoza (1632-1677), Voltaire (1694-1778) and David Hume (1711-1776) took a position against the possibility of miracles. In particular, Voltaire asserted that if God ever performed miracles, he would contradict his own laws of nature that he had enacted. We know today that these positions are based on a simplistic vision of nature, coming from Newtonian physics which saw the universe as an immense well-regulated mechanics, a vision contradicted today by the uncertainty principle found in quantum physics explained by Werner Heisenberg. As we can see, these philosophical positions are dependent on a vision of the physical universe that varies according to the periods of history. While recognizing the value of all these discussions, we must recall that our purpose is much more modest and limited to the historical level.

    2. In contemporary academic circles, it is fashionable to smirk contemptuously when the question of miracles is mentioned. Even someone like Bultmann has written that one cannot use electricity and wireless, and take advantage of recent medical discoveries, while still believing in the New Testament world of miracles. However, this misrepresents the contemporary mindset, since a 1989 Gallup poll showed that 82% of Americans believe that, even today, miracles are performed by the power of God.

Next chapter: Can we classify Jesus among the great magicians of antiquity?

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