Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts
by Craig S. Keener
Baker Academic, 1172 pages, $59.99
On October 13, 1917, seventy thousand Portuguese witnessed the sun dancing in the sky at Fátima, the conclusion of a series of visitations of the Virgin Mary to three shepherd children. In 1964, a teenage woman evangelizing in the Dominican Republic fainted from shock when she healed an elderly man’s shriveled hand through prayer. In 1994, a friend recounted to me the healing of her shattered knee through the laying on of hands. Having inherited the Enlightenment’s a priori rejection of the supernatural, many people would reject these claims outright. But would they be justified in doing so?
In Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, Craig S. Keener demonstrates that those who take their cues from David Hume and say miracles cannot happen are wrong, and then in a second step proceeds to show why they are wrong. And as Keener, a professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, shows in great detail, the reasons are not pretty.
The rise of critical biblical studies is bound up with the rise of modernity, as the Reformation reliance on the sensus literalis became the modern historical-critical method performed according to the canons of secular academia. It was thus an enterprise divorced from the faith and life of the Church, even while it demanded the Church accept its so-called “assured results.”
But, as often observed, the method became more of an ideology with the advent and dominance of “scientific history,” which operates within a closed universe of material cause and effect. The high-water mark of the historical-critical method is the approach of the early-nineteenth-century scholar H. E. G. Paulus, who sought purely natural explanations for biblical miracles. To this day, major denominations’ Sunday School curricula teach that the miracle of the fish and the loaves is best explained to children by telling them that Jesus’ example in sharing what little he had inspired the five thousand to share the fish and loaves hidden under their tunics.
Even conservative, believing scholars often operate according to the canons of the historical-critical method. Believing exegetes who would interpret the gospels theologically, for instance, usually seek what the evangelist was thinking or, using a narrative hermeneutic, what the story suggests about God and the work of the Church. Rarely do they engage head-on the possibility that the miracles happened.
Either the miraculous dimension is dismissed as legend (by those who don’t believe in miracles) or treated in terms of story outside normative late-modern reality (by those who do). It was this dearth of belief in the reality of the miraculous that precipitated Keener’s work. What became a two-volume, 1,172-page book began a decade ago as a footnote in a commentary on Acts. “Because some scholars have treated miracle claims in the Gospels and Acts as purely legendary on the premise that such events do not happen, I intended to challenge their instinctive dismissal of the possibility of such claims by referring to a few works that catalogued modern eyewitness claims of miracles.”
He found precious few works of value, and a book was conceived. Keener’s primary thesis is thus modest: “that eyewitnesses do offer miracle claims, a thesis simple enough but one sometimes neglected when some scholars approach accounts in the Gospels.” He supports this with extensive documentation and discussion of miracle claims—well over five hundred pages’ worth, covering antiquity to the present.
Keener is correct. The majority of New Testament scholars now readily concede that Jesus was a thaumaturge, as his working of miracles is woven into the Jesus tradition.
Many of them do not merely say Jesus was perceived to work miracles but speak of his wonder-working as a positive fact. For instance, E. P. Sanders says it is “almost indisputable” that “Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed,” while the cheerful apostate and self-described “happy agnostic” Bart Ehrman believes scholars of any persuasion can affirm that Jesus performed healings and exorcisms without evaluating the claim that Jesus did so with supernatural power.
On the other hand, commentaries on the gospels written in the last several decades offer a curious distinction between the respective treatments of parables and miracle stories. The former are evaluated for their historicity and interpreted for their meaning. The latter are often presented “as straightforward narratives of events,” as modern interpreters often find “exclusively non-physical spiritual significance in these accounts” and even engage in allegory while leaving historical questions of facticity at the margins.
Keener’s secondary thesis is even more ambitious and will prove much more controversial in biblical studies and the wider culture, given the recent outbreak of jejune New Atheism. He posits “that supernatural explanations, while not suitable in every case, should be welcome on the scholarly table along with other explanations often discussed,” for “antisupernaturalism has reigned as an inflexible Western academic premise long enough.” (Keener mentions in passing that he himself is a former atheist.)
This second thesis necessitates dethroning David Hume. Now, there’s nothing much new about that, as believers have endeavored to refute Hume and his disciples since the publication of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding in 1748.
Not a philosopher himself, Keener offers little that is novel or groundbreaking in the way of refutation, but he nevertheless marshals an impressive host of thinkers as he painstakingly shows how Hume’s argument must assume atheism or deism to work and how Hume’s metaphysics fails in light of modern physics. In short, like many others, Keener demonstrates that Hume is merely operating in a “deductive circle.”
The extensive documentation of miracle claims is impressive, but what’s really new and useful is Keener’s claim that rejection of the miraculous is ethnocentric, particularly Eurocentric. One might even say Teutonocentric.
Rudolf Bultmann famously declared that we could not use electric light and the wireless and modern medicine and still believe in “the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.” His “modern world” is a white, male, technocratic world, and the global phenomenon of nonwhite Pentecostalism had barely begun when Bultmann was writing. As far as German scholars of that era go, though, he was one of the good guys, a member of the Confessing Church who spoke out against the mistreatment of Jews, whatever negative Marcionite opinions he had regarding the relevance of the Old Testament.
Hume, however, not so much. Keener notes that Hume possessed an expressly and virulently ethnocentric outlook. In his essay “Of National Characters,” Hume writes: “I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation [of any other complexion than white], nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences.”
Not only did Hume’s racism affect his argument, as it was those outside of his white, genteel world who made miracle claims, it left a lasting legacy, as Keener notes that it was explicitly adopted by none other than Kant. Here one may observe that the “four horsemen” of New Atheism, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, are white Anglo-American males. Perhaps their truth claims concerning a certain species of reason function (unwittingly) in the service of white male power over women and people of color in the majority world.
Western skepticism may in fact be a terminal patient rallying one final time before expiring. Craig Keener’s work should prove a compelling witness to those who doubt miraculous claims both ancient and modern.
Leroy Huizenga is director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary.