Thursday, April 28, 2011

We Can Explain Ancient Miracles

If only you believe like I believe, baby, we’d get by.
If only you believe in miracles, baby, so would I.

If you actually believe in miracles, as opposed to nominally believing in them, then you don't really believe in reality.

I hear this awful claim often enough to be annoyed by it:
Scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries spent much time rationalizing and attempting to explain the miracles of Jesus. These miracles cannot be removed or explained away. They are fundamental to the message as perceived by the audience of Jesus. As people of the 21st century believe in science, people then believed in magic. Although contemporary people may not accept that such miracles occurred, the age in which Jesus lived believed in miracles. The miracles have a progressive character, from curing Peter's mother-in-law of a fever to bringing a girl back from the dead. The miracles prompted people to deal with the question of God and he was speaking through this prophet or whether Jesus was a false prophet. In the narrative of the Gospel of Mark, these miracles are essential to authenticating the message of Jesus. [emphasis added]
A fair parsing of the above is to understand it not as a defense of miracles per se or as an affirmation of Jesus as god or demigod, but rather as an assertion that miracles are constitutive content of Jesus message. A real Jesus who didn't perform miracles was not Jesus, in other words. 

However, I want to focus on a different but also fair reading, the annoying reading. This is the one that blithely accepts miracles in the case of Jesus (though never, to my knowledge, in non-Christian contexts) and devotedly affirms Jesus as a singularly special personage. It is true, as the claim above suggests, that even today some modern scholars try to rationalize and explain the miracles of Jesus.

My point is that the explanations fall flat not because miracles are beyond explanation but rather because the most likely explanation is rarely considered, that the miracles are invented. The miracles are embellished. They are fabricated.

And the invention is indeed fundamental to the larger message. Jesus's miracles authenticate the divine claims about him. Similarly, the miracles of Sinai, manna, plagues, the parting of the waters--all these validate and justify the claims people make about the Torah and the Judaism they say is based on Torah. They are not lies but fantasies of the truth.

Nevertheless, although we today try to be careful in defining truth and fantasy, we can always find claims presented as fact that are badly, baldly incorrect. For example, our quote above states incorrectly that "As people of the 21st century believe in science, people then [in the time of Jesus] believed in magic." We people today do not believe in science. We do not claim that people with scientific powers can violate laws of nature, wipe out nations in response to our supplication, or save us the final fate of all organisms. We do not believe that science belongs exclusively to a hereditary cabal of social elites. We do not believe that people can walk into the wilderness and acquire full-blown scientific powers, as from a burning bush, that decipher the invisible yet perceptible patterns of a universe in motion. We cannot, therefore, allow a facile equation between the mindsets of people in the first and twenty-first centuries. 

Neither can we presumptively grant special status to the miracles of Jesus or the Torah because miracles abound in the religions of the world:
  • Muslims consider the Koran itself to be a miracle.
  • Muslims also point to the miracles of Mohamed's splitting of the moon, his journey to Jerusalem, and his ascension to heaven.
  • The Buddha is reported to have created a golden bridge in the air, using only his mind. He walked up and down the bridge for a week.
  • The Buddha also is said to have produced flames from the upper part of his body and streams of water from the lower part of his body, alternating this, and doing similarly between the left and right sides of his body. This is the "twin miracle."
  • In Hinduism, Sathya Sai Baba produces ash for skeptical onlookers as a symbol of his divinity. Sri Ramakrishna proved his divinity to Swami Vivekananda by touching him on the chest, thereby revealing the true nature of the universe to him
  • Also in Hinduism are the miracles of Sri Krishna, ranging from instances in his childhood in which his mother, Yashoda, saw the whole of creation in his mouth, to the revealing of his true nature to Arjuna during the Mahabharata.
To accept the existence of bona-fide miracles is to require a level of credence to all miracle claims. You cannot blithely state that the miracles of Exodus are true but not the miracles of Jesus. You cannot argue that the miracles of Jesus are true but not the miracles of Mohamed. You cannot say that the miracles of Exodus and Jesus are true but not those of the Buddha. And so on....

Thus: if you believe, really believe, in miracles, then you disbelieve in reality. To believe in miracles is to hypothesize that normal reality can at any time be fundamentally altered: the sun can stop, the dead can become alive again, the world can be made to act like a single living thing, and so on.

In this light, perhaps it should be unsurprising that people declare with puffed-out chests that the miracles of [insert religious figure here] cannot be explained through reason or science or common sense or whatever. People don't like the boredom and lack of drama that is most of reality most of the time. Miracles are sexier, more dramatic, more conducive to our natural solipsism.

Writer William Saroyan famously said, "Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case." The miracle apologists suffer from adopting this line of thinking seriously. They live and move in reality throughout their days and yet steadfastly believe that reality can be excepted in the case of how they wish it would be.


  1. Anonymous10:41 AM

  2. Interesting.

    I wonder, however, how a miracle could happen in 750 at "the Church of St. Francis" when St. Francis (i.e., of Assisi, I assume) was not yet born.

    But that's OK, I assume they mean the so-called miracle occurred in what later became the Church of St. Francis.

    I like how the miracle allegedly occurs in 750 and the inscription comes nearly a millennium later. A lot of history happened between 750 and 1700, including invasions, heresies, plagues, and social/political upheavals.

    In England, the Venerable Bede was reporting about different miracles that occurred in his land before the 8th century.

    The pre-modern world was a world of miracles.


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