Were the ancients gullible concerning miracles?
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.