Wednesday, March 14, 2012

John Meier on Miracles

In my last two readings of volume 2 of John Meier's A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Meier talks about miracles.

Since the time of the Enlightenment, there has been skepticism about miracles among scholars. According to Meier, that skepticism during the Enlightenment was not due to atheism, but rather (at least in part) to a belief that an orderly God would not violate his orderly rules.

How does Meier treat the miracles in the Gospels? Does he regard them as historical? My impression is that Meier acknowledges that extraordinary things such as healings may have happened during the time of Jesus, as they occur today at Lourdes and in hospitals. But Meier does not think that we can say for certain that God was the one behind those healings, for that is a theological claim that is inaccessible to history, plus atheists would probably have their own explanations of or approaches to those kinds of events. Meier also notes that the idea that Jesus performed miracles passes certain scholarly tests for historicity, such as multiple attestation (as the idea appears, not only in independent sources in and behind the New Testament, but also in Josephus).

In my reading yesterday, Meier highlights the differences between the miracles in the Gospels and the supposed miracles in pagan and Jewish sources. For example, he notes that the story of Apollonius was written in the third century (which is later than the Gospels) and argues that it may be drawing from the Gospels in some of its miracle stories; that the story of Honi the circle-drawer is an example of a developing tradition, as we start with Josephus' claim that Honi prayed for rain to end a drought (Antiquities 14.2.1) and observe rabbis adding details (i.e., placing the story in Galilee, giving a role to Hanina)----and Meier's point here may be that the story of Honi is not multiply attested; that Josephus does not present contemporaries who actually performed miracles themselves, for these figures expected for God to do something extraordinary; and that Vespasian did not do a miracle but rather applied a medicinal treatment.

Why does Meier highlight these differences? He says that he believes that pagan and non-Christian miracles can provide a context for the miracles in the Gospels, and that he is merely pointing out differences so that we accept the sources as they are. At the same time, he appears to think that Jesus was unusual within his own historical context, and he also does not seem to be overly receptive to the idea that the early Christians invented the miracles that Jesus did for missionary purposes, in a culture that valued miracles.


  1. It is strange that there are not many miracles happening now involving Christians. The New Testament here and there would seem to suggest there should be a lot. There are in fact claims nowadays that many miracles happen here and there or associated with some person or other, but investigation does not seem to corroborate it. I think Jesus, on having a special experience (of the Spirit) at his baptism, expected powerful things to happen (the Old Testament does give warrant for healings and other miracles) and in the heightened atmosphere around him many miracles were perceived that investigation would not have tended to accept at face value. I am inclined to reckon that miracles are not a significant component of what God is doing in the world, and Christians, and even Jesus, are just humanly mistaken on the matter.

  2. I don't know how many miracles are corroborated. I remember talking about miracles to the late Ken Pulliam (a Ph.D. from Bob Jones who left Christianity), and he recommended to me a book called In Search of a Miracle, in which someone looked for a miracle but could not find one, one reason being that the alleged miracles failed to be corroborated. Yet, Meier refers to Lourdes as a place that documents miracles.

  3. I suppose you mean the book by William A. Nolen

    if God really proves his existence to us through the healing water of Lourdes, we could say he is as generous as Las Vegas casino managers. Only 67 cases have been recognized as authentic miracles by the Church after its thorough investigation process; the last one in 2005). Those are low odds considering that the place has been visited by around 200 million people since 1860.

  4. Yeah, that's the book he suggested.


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