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Were the ancients gullible concerning miracles?

July 17, 2013

Miracles stand as a common objection to the Christian faith. Jesus‘ ministry, according to the Gospels, was characterised by many miracles. Indeed at the very heart of the Christian faith stands the resurrection of Jesus, if true, an astonishing miracle. Yet miracles are inconsistent with a naturalistic worldview because their very definition requires a supernatural event which transcends ordinary happenings.  Atheists are consistent in their rejection of miracles.

Yet this rejection stimulates many questions over what would convince someone that a miracle occurred. At times it’s difficult for the atheist to avoid rejecting miracles ‘a-priori’. Hence I often ask atheists, what would convince you of a miracle?

A common comment from atheists is that the ancients more readily accepted miracles and the supernatural than we do today. This was the nature of a conversation I enjoyed in a recent interaction with an atheist on this forum. He made several thoughtful points on how the ancient people perceived miracles. I’ll use these as a springboard for further discussion on this topic. His three contentions were:

1. That the people who witnessed the event saw something that was outside their normal experience.
2. Being from an environment and a time in which superstition was commonplace in the attitudes of most people, it was normal, dare I say ‘natural’, to overlay some supernatural explanation to the unusual events seen.
3. Re-telling and propagation of the account added further supernatural significance and embellishment to the original event.

In response I want to make several points with a particular emphasis on the miracles recorded in the Gospels about Jesus.

1. I agree entirely with point 1 – the ancients did see and experience something that was outside their normal experience. In the Gospels we see a wide variety of miracles performed by Jesus – he heals the sick, casts out demons (if you believe in demons), calms storms and feeds multitudes. This was certainly outside the experience and expectations of the ancient people. The Gospel writer Mark uses the word thambeō (astounded, amazed) to describe the reaction of the crowds to Jesus’ amazing works (Mark 1:27) – they were amazed at his words and works.

2. Superstition was more commonplace in the ancient world. In general I agree with this point as well. Yes, people in the ancient world were more superstitious, ‘religion’ was more a part of the culture of the day.

3. Yet the presence of this superstition doesn’t preclude the occurrence of miracles. Whilst it might have been natural to overlay an event with  supernatural explanation, this still requires there to be an event in the first place. This comment begs the question, what caused the ancients to consider this a miracle? Remember, as I outlined earlier the ancients did believe that these events were extraordinary.

4. Furthermore, the ancients could distinguish between miracles and ‘blind’ superstition. Not everything in the ancient world was accepted. 2 Peter 1:16 is an interesting passage because here the author distinguishes between what he considers to be truthful history and cleverly devised myths. Hence there was a degree of critical thinking amongst ancient people.

Furthermore, not everyone accepted the miracles unreservedly. Consider Acts 17 where Paul describes the resurrection of the dead. The passage clearly identifies a group of people who ‘scoffed’ at the very suggestion of a ‘resurrection’.

There are two further pieces of evidence that need to be explained before rejecting miracles wholesale.

First, Jesus is recorded as a performer of ‘amazing deeds’ in hostile records. The Jewish historian Josephus describes Jesus this way. Though this passage is likely to have been interpolated, most scholars believe the reference to Jesus as a performer of amazing deeds is genuine.

Secondly, if the miracles were false, why did the people constantly bring their sick to Jesus to be healed? They were likely to be desperate, but it seems as though Jesus really did have some extraordinary healing ability.

5. Finally, contrary to what was claimed it isn’t true that the biblical miracle stories were embellished. We have a great example of the healing of a paralysed man. General scholarly opinion agrees that Mark was the earliest Gospel finished. Hence when we compare a parallel account of the same healing in Mark (2:1-12) and Matthew (9:2-8), we find that the story has been simplified rather than embellished. The Markan account is longer and more ‘sensational’ than the Matthean one. Hence in Mark, the friends lower the paralytic through the roof, where this sensational detail is dropped on Matthew. Matthew’s version is simpler and less embellished, which indicates that there isn’t a tendency to embellish and ‘improve’ the miracle stories of Jesus. It seems that the miracle stories remained intact as they were transmitted.

Overall, I think this analysis gives us reason to trust the ancients as they recorded these miraculous events. Whilst they lived in a superstitious age they did posses critical faculties, they didn’t embellish the stories (about Jesus) and Jesus was widely known as a miracle worker. It seems that a ‘miracle’ was the best way of describing these remarkable deeds of Jesus.

  1. Yes. See Christopher Hallquist’s free book UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God: Debunking the Resurrection of Jesus

    Fallacies of Healing
    Rationalizations such as the one just described are frequent in faith
    healing. Understanding them is an important part of understanding
    claims of cures that extend beyond the excitement of the faith-healing
    service. These do exist—just because much of faith healing is a matter
    of failure to follow up does not mean all of it is. Nolen, in his investi-
    gation, did find people who affirmed their cures after the service and
    could not be merely dismissed as clinging to a delusion. As described
    by a scientific observer, they don’t sound like they amount to much.
    In the examples he gives, there were four patients with slight improve-
    ments in naturally variable conditions, one woman whose varicose
    veins disappeared—right when her doctor expected them to—and one
    man who had a cancer cure/remission but was also being given plenty
    of conventional treatment for his disease. Unimpressive as they may
    seem, a couple of well-known logical fallacies can make them seem
    like powerful proof of a healer’s abilities.

    The first of these fallacies is called post hoc ergo proptor hoc, Latin
    for “after this, therefore, because of this.” It is the mistake of think-
    ing that because one event followed another, the one caused the other.
    Mark Twain died before WWI broke out, but it is unlikely that his
    death caused the war. On the other hand, it is no surprise that people
    get in the habit of thinking this way, since it often does lead to correct
    inferences. If a person is shot and dies an hour later, it is likely that the
    gunshot wound caused the death.

    Some excellent examples of this fallacy can be found in the world
    of medical quackery. On State Street in Madison, Wisconsin there’s a
    “community pharmacy” whose storefront site boasts a wide variety of
    alternative cures. The employees of the pharmacy tell me that one of their
    most popular products is homeopathic sleeping pills. A key principle
    in homeopathy is that diluting a treatment makes it more powerful. In
    some cases, the treatments are so dilute that the average pill will not
    contain a single molecule of the active ingredient. Yet people take the
    pills and fall asleep, so the pills must be the cause of the sleep, right?
    Such reasoning sounds silly when the problem is mild insomnia,
    but it gains power when wrapped up in the anguish of a serious disease.
    In June of 2005, the New York Times ran a pair of articles on parents
    of autistic children who claim that thimerosal, a vaccine preservative
    containing small amounts of mercury, causes autism, and that certain
    alternative therapies could cure this supposed poisoning. Several angry
    letters were received in response:

    To the Editor:
    What concerns me most is not whether or not thimerosal causes
    autism. It is that the ‘‘experts’’ feel they have the authority to label
    parents of autistic children as lacking credibility just because there
    is no scientific evidence, they say, of the harmfulness of thimerosal
    in vaccines.

    These children are the evidence, and their parents are the experts.
    Pretending that a problem doesn’t exist because it hasn’t reached
    some statistically significant number is disturbing.
    How about asking the scientific community for evidence of the
    complete safety and efficacy of these and all drugs? Without such
    evidence, most parents will just have to rely on gut feelings. We
    can’t wait for the science to catch up.9

    The fact is that if enough children get autism and enough are vac-
    cinated, there’s bound to be some overlap between the two groups.
    Statistics, which this parent derides, are necessary to tell the difference
    between a real connection and the fallacious reasoning of “my son was
    vaccinated and then got autism, so the vaccination caused the autism.”
    When the Institute of Medicine examined the evidence, no connection
    was found.10 When it’s your son, though, the logic of post hoc ergo prop-
    tor hoc can be quite compelling. Here’s another letter that appeared:

    To the Editor:
    Your dismissive tone toward parents and alternative therapies is
    Some years ago, we tried sauna and vitamin therapy for our
    autistic son. The improvement was dramatic, and I am grateful
    to his doctors. The alternatives–special schooling, poor quality of
    life and Ritalin—were far more expensive.
    All parents care about is that their child gets well. Our son got

    Again, without well-controlled experiments, it is impossible to
    say whether the alternative therapies caused the recovery. Sometimes,
    children with autism improve considerably without any treatment.12
    Few attempts to test any of the treatments mentioned in the letters
    have been made. But what research has been done on vitamin therapy
    has shown no benefit.13

    In order to fall prey to such reasoning, one does not even have
    to end up better. It has been noted that even ultimately fatal diseases
    have their ups and downs. A patient who winds up at a faith healer in
    a “down” period may find genuine improvement afterwards, in spite
    of the fact that he or she will die eventually.14

    Another psychological mechanism that can support a belief in
    faith healing is confirmation bias: counting the hits and ignoring the
    misses. To get a picture of how powerfully this can work, try finishing
    the following story: a young man, recently converted to Christianity,
    wants to show one of his friends the power of God. It’s raining, so he
    tells his friend he’ll pray for the rain to stop and it will. Then…
    Well, what happens? Many people, looking at this story, will think
    the proper end is that the rain doesn’t stop and the young man learns
    not to pray for childish things.

    It doesn’t have to end that way, though. In his book Why I Rejected
    Christianity, John W. Loftus tells just such a story from his youth. He
    admits it may have gotten distorted in his memory with time, but the
    basics are probably true to life. A friend told him that he was a Satanist,
    and would demonstrate the power of Satan by making it rain. They
    pulled into a car wash, and when they came out it was drizzling, then
    raining full force. Loftus responded by saying “In the name of Jesus I
    command it to stop raining! And don’t rain the rest of the night!” The
    command worked.15

    Loftus says that looking back, he realizes that people have won
    at casinos against equally long odds, so the story proves nothing. But
    the really interesting thing is that if it had continued raining, it would
    have been the story of how he got rid of some silly ideas about prayer.
    As it happened, though, it became a miraculous story that he told time
    and time again during career as a minister. Odds are that few people,
    hearing his story, immediately thought of all the other times when a
    young convert learned his lesson about prayer. Odds are they counted
    the hit, and didn’t give a thought to countless misses.
    An example of confirmation bias which ends up seeming somewhat
    silly when closely examined is the shrine at Lourdes. The Catholic
    Church claims to have confirmed 67 medically inexplicable cures
    resulting from visits to the shrine. Who can doubt that? A medically
    inexplicable cure is a medically inexplicable cure, right?
    This becomes problematic, though, when one considers the huge
    number of people who visit the shrine each year, hoping for a cure
    yet getting none. Millions have visited the shrine since 1860. If there
    were 67 truly inexplicable cures, this would only mean that medical
    science is capable of understanding upwards of 99.99% of what hap-
    pens there. Medical science has as good a claim to miraculous results
    here as anyone. It gets worse, though. The portion of visitors that are
    healed is so small that, according to a calculation done by Carl Sagan,
    visiting the Lourdes shrine actually seems to reduce the rates of cancer

    It’s hard to imagine a faith healer being treated as charitably as
    the Lourdes shrine. This, however, is why the ability to rationalize
    convincingly—as Dan Barker did—is so important. If someone goes to
    a faith healer and improves, even a little, by post hoc ergo proptor hoc
    a miracle is proclaimed. A hit is counted. If someone fails to improve,
    they must not have been lacking in faith, or suffering from some other
    spiritual malady. The miss is ignored.

    So far, I have focused on the means by which faith healers can
    convince others (and sometimes themselves) of their powers without
    doing a bit of good. Of course, they may sometimes do good through
    non-supernatural means. One example of this is the story of how the
    Roman emperor Vespasian supposedly healed two paralytics. This case
    is famous in part because it was employed by Enlightenment-era skeptics
    such as Hume and Thomas Paine as an example of a miracle which their
    Christian opponents would quickly reject in spite of the good evidence
    for it. Hume’s treatment is particularly amusing; he mounts a virtual
    apologetic for Vespasian, but then remarks “no evidence can well be
    supposed stronger for so gross and palpable a falsehood.” Now, however,
    it is generally suspected that this was a genuine psychosomatic cure.
    Interestingly, Hume scholar Anthony Flew has noted that when one
    reads Tacitus’ account of the feat, one finds that Vespasian’s physicians
    realized at the time that the patients had no organic lesions.17 A hint at
    what really happened was preserved by history, even if historians went
    centuries without noticing it.

    Also, in between cases of completely bogus cures and genuine
    psychosomatic ones are those where a patient gets genuine pain relief
    but nothing more. Consider this case, reported by William Nolen: a
    fifty-year-old woman has stomach cancer that has metastasized to her
    spine, making walking painful and only possible with a back brace. She
    attends a faith-healing service held by Kathryn Kuhlman. Kuhlman
    announces that someone with cancer is being healed. At that point, the
    woman later reported, she “could just feel this burning sensation all over
    my body and I was convinced the Holy Spirit was at work.” She goes up
    front, takes off her brace, and runs around the stage, miraculously no
    longer needing the thing. She “felt wonderful” and “didn’t have a pain
    anywhere.” That night, she goes to bed convinced she’s cured.
    Then she wakes up the next morning in terrible pain. A bone in
    her spinal column had collapsed because of the running around she
    did. The woman died two months later.18 No miraculous cure had been
    affected, only a temporary pain relief. Terence Hines, commenting on
    this case, argued that the body is known to release endorphins in time
    of stress or excitement, and this is likely responsible for the apparent
    cure.19 Because emotions often run so high at faith healing services,
    such excitement-induced “cures” are probably not uncommon.

    ### The Healings of Jesus

    Jesus lived in a time when faith healing was widely accepted and
    medical knowledge was scarce. Likely, none of Jesus’ followers had the
    medical training of Vespasian’s court physicians. They wouldn’t have
    been examining paralytics for organic lesions. Remember, even the
    court physicians didn’t realize they had seen psychosomatic cures, a
    concept that just didn’t exist in those days. But Jesus would have made
    Kathryn Kuhlman look knowledgeable; at least she knew of hysterical
    disorders even if she didn’t know much about them. Lack of medical
    knowledge means a large potential for error in reports of healing cases.
    Distortions would be a major problem even if the gospels were written
    by eyewitnesses.

    Relevant to understanding the shape of Jesus’ career are the passages
    in the Bible where huge groups of people gather around him: Matthew
    15:29-31, Matthew 21:14, Mark 1:32-34, Mark 6:53-56, and Luke 6:17-19.
    Without any details, we have no reason to suppose these events were
    any more impressive than the modern faith healing services where
    many are pronounced cured but few cures can be confirmed on the
    spot. The specific, more memorable stories likely represent some of the
    more impressive alleged cures (and of course may go beyond anything
    that actually would have been claimed by eyewitnesses). The claim
    that a “whole city” showed up at Jesus’ door may be exaggerated, but
    reports of huge crowds need not be taken as complete fabrications.
    They fit with what we know about how sick people will jump at any
    chance to be healed.

    Indeed, the portrait one gets of the crowds is one of desperate
    people who badly want a cure—perhaps so badly that they would believe
    they’d gotten one against all evidence, as modern people have been
    observed to do. The story of the paralytic whose friends dug through
    a roof, the story of the hemorrhaging woman who would do anything
    just to touch Jesus’ cloak, and the reports that people clamored just to
    touch him (Mark 3:10 and Luke 6:19) all speak to how badly the people
    around Jesus wanted—wanted to believe in—miracles.

    When we turn to specific stories of people Jesus healed, we might
    expect exaggerations, but many stories are unimpressive on close exami-
    nation. Matthew (8:5-13) and Luke (7:1-10) tell the story of a centurion
    with such faith that he believes Jesus can heal his servant without even
    meeting the boy. We are told that the healing was successful, but how
    did Jesus’ followers learn that if they didn’t go with Jesus to see him?
    We aren’t told. A very similar story is told of a royal official and his
    son in John 4:46-54. Could it be that these cases were a simple matter
    of failing to see if the healing happened, as often happens today?
    These two distant healings are the most troublesome cases, but
    there are others that leave us wondering if anything really happened.
    Jesus had no William Nolen following him around, trying to follow
    up cures. Important tools used in Nolen’s follow-ups, such as the U.S.
    Postal Service, were nonexistent at the time. We do not even have evi-
    dence that Jesus’ followers examined people before hand to make sure
    they had the conditions people thought they had.

    Take the example of the paralytic brought in through the roof (Mark
    2:1-12). Did his friends explain his exact ailment, or did those present
    simply assume he was paralyzed? It’s possible that he was like the man
    who Nolen saw get up out of a wheelchair at the Kuhlman service. He
    may have been brought in on a mat because he found walking painful
    or with difficulty, rather than not at all. If so, Jesus telling him his sins
    were forgiven may have been just what he needed to get up and walk
    without pain, if only for a few moments.

    Or, look at the hemorrhaging woman (Mark 5:24-34). Was she
    bleeding so profusely that it would be immediately obvious that the
    bleeding had stopped? The Bible says “immediately her hemorrhage
    was stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her dis-
    ease,” but what if she “felt in her body” without any real improvement?
    In this, she would be like the woman who took off her back brace for
    Kathleen Kuhlman only to die later. Furthermore, it is unlikely that
    the hemorrhaging woman would go around denouncing Jesus if her
    cure turned out to be illusory. Jesus would become just another entry
    in the long list of things that she tried that didn’t work. On the other
    hand, if her bleeding stopped over the course of the following week or
    even lessened a little she’d be sure to tell everyone. There’s confirma-
    tion bias at work.

    This criticism can be applied even to one of Jesus’ most impressive
    healings, the resurrection of Jarius’ daughter (Mark 5:21-24, 35-43). She
    is not reported dead until Jesus is en route to heal her of her disease. In
    the heat of the moment, perhaps someone made a mistake. It is even
    possible that, with no one following up, she in truth died only after Jesus
    had gone to see her. It’s worth noticing how Matthew 9:18 changes the
    story by having the girl dead from the start, perhaps trying to counter
    worries about heat-of-the-moment confusion.

    Some of Jesus’ miracles, true, cannot be explained in natural
    terms. Here, though, not only is there the possibility that such stories
    are legendary, there is evidence that miracle stories were exaggerated
    as they were retold. In Mark’s version of the withering of the fig tree
    (verses 11:12-14, 20-21), Jesus curses the tree one day and the disciples
    are amazed to see it withered the next morning. In Matthew’s version
    (21:19), the tree withers “at once.” Such instances of embellishment help
    make sense of stories such as the healing of the leper in Mark 1:40-45.
    Mark says that the healing happened immediately. The truth may be
    that the man recovered several days later, and the story was changed
    just as the story of the fig tree was changed. His recovery might have
    happened without Jesus’ help, or Jesus may have managed to work a
    psychosomatic cure (as William Nolen notes,20 people with skin diseases
    sometimes benefit from placebos or hypnotherapy).

    Given the nature of our sources, it is not at all surprising that cures
    would be exaggerated beyond the facts of the case, and that miracles with
    no basis in fact (such as the walking on water) would be added to Jesus’
    story. It would make no sense, however, for later Christians to make up
    stories of Jesus failing. Nevertheless, failing is exactly what Jesus does
    when he returns to Nazareth in Mark 6:1-6. In response to this failure,
    he rationalizes away: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their
    hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”
    With this statement, Jesus has clearly placed himself with Dan
    Barker and every other person who has falsely claimed healing pow-
    ers. This is not an entirely isolated statement either. When Jesus tells
    the hemorrhaging woman, “Daughter, your faith has made you well,”
    there is an implied message of “those who do not have faith will not
    be made well.” This constitutes positive evidence that 1) Jesus had no
    miraculous healing powers and 2) he sincerely believed he did. Fail-
    ure is hard to account for on the orthodox hypothesis: why should
    Omnipotence incarnate be unable to do miracles in his home town?
    The evidence may not be as conclusive as what we’d get if we could go
    back in time and examine alleged cures, but given the nature of our
    sources, it is striking.

    • Wow, what an extensive comment. I’ll read the book in question and get back to you. It will be the source of many interesting blog posts I’m sure.

  2. Paul M. permalink

    Were the ancients gullible concerning miracles?
    If modern folks, with all of our current understanding of the world and knowledge of history are gullible concerning modern miracles, then the answer is an overwhelming “yes”.

    I would gather, Rob, that you understand that your arguments above will have absolutely zero impact on those with even a slightly sceptical nature. There is absolutely no case made for the sceptic to answer.

    The only folks who will feel moved by it are those that have already decided that miracles must be true, because to challenge this is a complete anathema to their entire personal account for own existence. “If I doubt the resurrection, or indeed any biblical miracle, then I doubt the divinity of Jesus. If the bible is wrong about Jesus, then… oh no – la la la la la – I’m not listening to this – no no no no….”

    Forgive the caricature. But unfortunately that tiny proportion of the devout that will even bother to read through Nick’s comprehensive collection of examples and arguments above, then take the time to reflect on their significance and apply it to the context of 2000-odd years ago, will either wave the special-pleading flag, or stick their fingers in their ears like a four-year-old.

  3. Yes definitely. How could you not be with such a limited view of the natural world? Obviously they saw lightning striking down for no apparent reason, it’s not that much of a stretch to believe that there was a superhuman throwing them down.

    • Thanks, I agree that the ancients certainly did have a limited view of the natural world – yet this doesn’t deal with the arguments I raised in this post. Any particular reflections on anything I wrote?



  4. John permalink

    You are not really talking about miracles in any real sense here. You are talking about mythological religious stories which may or may not have happened. Stories which belong in the same child-hood cartoon category as the easter rabbit, the tooth fairy and santa claus characters which are not really believable to an informed adult consciousness, and certainly providing no where near enough substance upon which to base an intelligent adult life.
    Perhaps a better more relevant question in 2013 is are any of the normal dreadfully sane people who call themselves Christians in sense spiritually sensitive and thus open to the posiibility of experiencing miracles or extraordinary psychic and/or spiritual phenomenon.
    See for instance an essay which was originally titled The Psychosis of Doubt
    Also The Purification of Doubt at:

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