Thursday, January 30, 2014

Christian Miracles Through The Centuries

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of posts about a book Craig Keener published on the subject of miracles. In that series, I mostly addressed miracles in the modern world. And Keener makes some comments about modern miracles in his commentary on Acts. He refers to some individuals who provided him with eyewitness reports of nature miracles (n. 396 on 363). He discusses modern miracles done specifically in Jesus' name (367-8, 370). He mentions some miracle reports he received after the publication of his book on miracles (n. 505 on 375). "Moreover, even some investigators who use the most stringent criterion (i.e., of no possible alternative natural explanation) have noted a few cases that meet it." (379) But I've already written a lot about Keener's material on modern miracles, so I want to focus here on some of his comments about miracles in the ancient world:

early Christian literature emphasizes an abundance of miracle workers not attested to this degree in other first-century movements…

That third-century miracle narratives are much more complete than accounts in earlier historians probably suggests that pagan propagandists suited their accounts to existing Christian parallels. Thus parallels between first-century Christian stories of Jesus raising the dead and third-century accounts of first-century Apollonius of Tyana doing the same may tell us more about Christian influence on paganism in late antiquity than about the reverse….

No other source reports as many miracles concerning an individual as the Gospels do regarding Jesus, and Jesus stands alone among prior miracle workers in using miracles, in his case healings and exorcisms, to indicate the coming of the eschatological order….

Rabbinic sources associated some Christian contemporaries with healing miracles. Before the 300s, exorcisms proved to be a major factor in the spread of Christianity; in the 300s, exorcisms and miracles are the most explicit cause of conversion to Christianity mentioned in early Christian sources. Christians appealed to them for evidential value in public discourse. Thus Origen, arguing against Celsus and addressing pagans, in the first half of the third century claimed that Christians were still expelling evil spirits and performing cures and that he had seen some of these incidents (Cels. 1.46, 67). Similarly, Athanasius in the 350s (Vit. Ant. 80) portrays Anthony confronting skeptics by challenging them either to cure these demoniacs with their ideas and idols or to just observe Christ's power; Anthony himself then cured them.

Far from being merely incredulous about a distant and unverifiable past, various church fathers noted that miracles and healings continued in their own day. Cyprian noted that Christians were sometimes cured by baptism (Ep. 75.15); Tertullian named prominent pagans who had been cured from evil spirits and became grateful to Christians (Scap. 4). Irenaeus offers the fullest list of signs, almost the same range as in Acts, noting that such signs were converting pagans….

In City of God, Augustine noted that a depository of documents recording miracles in Hippo had been established only two years earlier, that it already had more than seventy published documents, and that he knew of many miracles not recorded among these. Another shrine in the area, having kept records longer, had a much larger collection. Augustine recounts numerous healings, including some where he was an eyewitness. Previously more skeptical, he had grown in his openness to continuing healings….

Some scholars argue that the rabbis' earlier respect for rule miracles (miracles confirming particular legal interpretations) diminished further in response to the much greater Christian use of authenticating miracles. Christian miracles authenticating Jesus were problematic for later rabbis; Ephraim Urbach suggests that this may be why the rabbis stressed that one should depend on the God of Abraham, not on Abraham as a miracle worker himself. From Paul's letters through rabbinic literature, Christians and outsiders alike continued to perceive early Christianity as confirming itself with signs like those of Jesus.

(Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, Volume I [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2012], 325, 331, 341, 372-3, 548-9)

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