Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts
Reviewed by Louis Markos, English, Houston Baptist University
C. S. Lewis knew his Aquinas well. Not only was he familiar with Aquinas’s proofs for the existence of God; he was well aware that the Angelic Doctor could only conceive of two possible reasons to doubt God’s existence. In Part I, Question 2, Article 3 of his Summa, Aquinas identifies those two reasons as: 1) the problem of pain; 2) that everything can be explained by natural processes.
As a way of addressing this dual challenge, Lewis consciously devoted two of the three books in his apologetics trilogy (Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, Miracles) to defending God’s status as all-powerful and all-loving and to presenting the miracles recorded in the Bible as violating neither the Laws of Nature nor the sovereignty and dignity of God. Although the scores of great apologists who have followed in Lewis’s wake have been aware of this dual challenge, very few have devoted their energy to defending the latter. Many have tackled the problem of pain in numerous ways and from numerous perspectives. Alvin Plantinga has done such a fine job that few serious philosophers consider the presence of pain and suffering in our world to constitute proof against the existence of God. When it comes to miracles, however, most apologists—especially those in academia—prefer to remain silent or to confine themselves to defending one specific miracle (the resurrection) or the overall reliability of the gospel accounts.
Enter Craig Keener, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. Already well known for his The Historical Jesus of the Gospels and for his fine commentaries on numerous New Testament books, Keener has now graced both Church and Academy with a monumental, carefully researched, highly-scholarly-but-still-accessible study of the subject of miracles. In Miracles, Keener not only explodes the logical flaws in David Hume’s famous dismissal of miracles, but documents, with painstaking accuracy, eye-witness accounts of miracles from the ancient world to today, with heavy focus on Asia and the Global South.
Thankfully for the reviewer of Keener’s two-volume, 1000-page tome, the author explains the unique purpose and focus of his book in two cogent sentences from his conclusion:
The Western intellectual tendency is to regard most cultures in history and in today’s world as precriti-cal, without so much as undertaking a critical analysis of any of their claims. Yet it seems to me that such disdain for vast numbers of claims (apparently hundreds of millions of them) from other cultures, purely on the basis of unproved presuppositions inherited from the radical wing of the Enlightenment, risks the charge of ethnocentric elitism. (761-762)
To substantiate his thesis, Keener first offers an exhaustive survey of miracles from the ancient world. Quoting or referring to all the relevant primary and secondary material, Keener compares and contrasts the miracles in the Old and New Testament with those in the surrounding pagan societies of the Mediterranean world. It is vital that Keener begins his work with just such a comparative analysis, for many critics of the gospels (particularly those in the Jesus Seminar) have argued that their insistence on separating the Jesus of faith from the Jesus of history rests upon their greater knowledge of the near eastern culture in which Jesus was raised and taught.
Thoroughly versed in the many dimensions of that culture, Keener is able to show that, though there are many similarities, the miracles recorded in the Gospels and Acts are better attested, more closely linked to human agents (Jesus and the apostles), and less subject to legendary accretion than those from Greece or Asia Minor. For example, the many miraculous cures attributed to Asclepius in ancient Greece were “performed” via dream visions received by patients who flocked to Asclepius’s healing sanctuary in Epidauros in southern Greece. Furthermore, whereas many near eastern miracle accounts are linked to divine intervention from removed gods, the miracles of Jesus, like those of Elijah and Enoch, are personal. As it turns out, the main connection between biblical and pagan miracles is that both are supernatural, a connection that American and European academics may find suspicious but which would have been considered common fare, not only in the ancient world but in most of the world today.
With this as his foundation, Keener then tackles the anti-supernaturalist bias which rose up out of the Enlightenment and which is best summed up in the writings (and attitudes and presuppositions) of Hume. Along with other apologists, Keener shows that Hume’s arguments are circular in at least two ways. First, Hume’s contention that miracles violate the laws of nature begs the question. There is no reason to suppose that a Creator who made nature and her laws would be either unable or unwilling to intervene in the workings of the world he created. Only by defining the laws of nature as being inherently incapable of divine intervention can Hume arrive at his conclusion that miracles cannot occur.
Second, Hume’s insistence that no amount of eyewitness testimony can ever overcome the purportedly overwhelming evidence against miracles is equally circular. Hume cannot succeed in proving that miracles violate uniform human experience when he begins his argument by assuming that very thing. Perhaps fifty years ago, when the academic world was quite monolithic in its rejection of miracles, Hume’s “proofs” might have seemed convincing, but that is no longer the case. In offering these two arguments against Hume, Keener does not exactly break new ground, but the fullness of his argument and the way he sets it within two centuries of debate on the matter does give his presentation considerable authority.
But Keener does not stop here. In addition to showing the circular nature of Hume’s arguments, Keener boldly exposes Hume’s shaky faith in a now-defunct secularization theory. According to this once-popular theory, a clear (if unproven) link exists between the “primitive” mind and religion. Rather than possessing an inherent, inbuilt sense of religion (many modern apologists have come to refer to the human race as homo religiosus), mankind, so the secularists argue, will naturally evolve away from belief in, and reliance upon, the supernatural. As society becomes more educated, sophisticated, and “scientific,” people will simply stop believing in miracles and other forms of divine intervention.
Not only has this “evolution” away from religion not occurred (as documented by Philip Jenkins and others), but reports of miracles are on the rise all over the world. Indeed, the bulk of Keener’s book is devoted to giving his readers just a taste of the hundreds of thousands of miracles attested to by reliable eyewitnesses, many of whom Keener knows personally. And these miracles are not limited to faith cures that could conceivably have been brought about by the power of positive thinking. They include radical healings (blindness, paralysis, rising from the dead), as well as alterations of nature, that cannot be simply dismissed as psychosomatic.
In a fascinating chart taken from a 2006 Pew Forum study of Pentecostals and charismatics from ten countries, Keener documents the astounding numbers of Christians who have personally witnessed divine healings. In the United States, 62% of Pentecostals and 46% of charismatics have been eyewitnesses to a miracle. In Brazil, the figures are 77% and 31%; in Kenya, they are 87% and 78%; in (parts of) India, they are 74% and 61%; and in South Korea, they are 56% and 61%. By adding up the numbers for all ten countries, Keener comes to a figure that exceeds 200 million! Then, by extrapolating the average percentage for Pentecostals and charismatics, he theorizes a world-wide number of some 300 million. If we add to that the number of Catholics and non-charismatic Protestants who have witnessed miracles, the number becomes even more staggering (236-238).
In a fascinating chart taken from a 2006 Pew Forum study of Pentecostals and charis-matics from ten countries, Keener documents the astounding numbers of Christians who have personally witnessed divine healings. In the United States, 62% of Pentecostals and 46% of charismatics have been eyewitnesses to a miracle. In Brazil, the figures are 77% and 31%; in Kenya, they are 87% and 78%; in (parts of) India, they are 74% and 61%; and in South Korea, they are 56% and 61%. By adding up the numbers for all ten countries, Keener comes to a figure that exceeds 200 million! Then, by extrapolating the average percentage for Pentecostals and charismatics, he theorizes a world-wide number of some 300 million. If we add to that the number of Catholics and non-charismatic Protestants who have witnessed miracles, the number becomes even more staggering (236-238).
To round off his study, Keener adds a number of appendixes in which he surveys and documents demonic possession and exorcism in both the ancient and modern world. Though the focus of his study remains miracles of healing, Keener adds these appendixes to provide a fuller understanding of the interaction between the physical and spiritual world and a wider context for the exorcisms performed by Jesus. The book then concludes with a 150-page bibliography of secondary sources and four helpful indexes.
As stated above, Keener’s book is magisterial and is backed up by prodigious research and well over 2,000 detailed textual notes. Keener has gone above and beyond the call of duty, and yet, as a Christian academic, I worry that the very thoroughness of Keener’s work will militate against it. Despite the lucidity of its prose, Miracles is difficult to plow through; it will be treated by most readers as a reference book and will thus spend most of its time gathering dust on a shelf. And that is a shame, for an unread book cannot open the eyes of skeptical westerners to the ubiquitous nature of miracles and the supernatural.
Although Keener argues valiantly against the constrictive nature of Enlightenment rationalism and its tendency to give credence only to “scientific” analysis, the overly-scholarly, excessively-annotated nature of his book perpetuates that very rationalism. It is high time that Christian academics had the courage to break the chains of academic specialization with its insistence on perpetual qualification and insular, if not incestuous, dialogue between secondary sources. I often wonder if the obsessive-compulsive proliferation of notes in the work of Christian theologians does not mark an embarrassment over the possibility that the Holy Spirit might actually inspire a scholar toward wisdom and insight.
I am thankful for Keener’s impressive research, but I do not think it is going to convince secular academics who are predisposed to a naturalistic worldview. Meanwhile, those who might be convinced by a rhetorical approach grounded in truth rather than data will put down the book before reaching the second chapter. Academia needs a breath of fresh air, and it is the Christian academics who should be opening the window.