Historical Jesus and miracles – of course historians have to address miracles

Over on the new Duke Newt, Maxim Cardew has an interesting post discussing how and whether the issue of “miracles” can be addressed in historical Jesus studies.  I won’t take the time to fully engage the many issues Maxim raises in connection with Hume, Strauss, and others.  What I want to state simply and clearly is: of course an historian has to deal with “miracles.”  Who cares if this has to do with Jesus or with some other person or persons in another time period.

What I mean by that is that the historian of any period is focussed on understanding that particular period and the worldviews and practices of those living in that period (I would hope).  So, for instance, an historian studying relics in medieval England or Europe would have a hard time if she wasn’t permitted to discuss the notion of “miracles” or “healings” as though this was historically off-bounds.  In some respects, a person would be at a loss to explain things without the acknowledgment that the historical subjects in the medieval period did indeed believe that “miracles” took place and that there were people and objects with access to miraculous powers.  Similarly, if one is studying Lucian of Samosata’s critique of Alexander of Abonuteichos (in the second century), the historian has to face the fact that Alexander was viewed by some as performing “miracles” even though some contemporaries like Lucian (in a Hume like fashion) called it all bunk.  It even seems that Lucian is in the minority in rejecting Alexander’s supposed “miracles” (methinks he dost protest too much).  So there’s another “miracle-worker” from the perspective of the historian.

It is one thing to say people in a period believed that such and such could perform miracles (that he or she was a “miracle-worker” or “healer” or “god” by reputation among contemporaries) and quite another to say that the miracles did happen and can be confirmed historically (not at all what the historian can do, in my opinion). To turn to the modern period, would an historian of modern Christianity not be allowed to designate Benny Hinn (spelling?) a “miracle-worker” or “healer” or whatever insofar as his followers believe he can perform “miracles” and he is perceived to be a “miracle-worker” (or have access to miraculous powers from God, or whatever) by some of his contemporaries.  However, this is not to say that the “miracles” are real and that they really took place (I don’t always compare Jesus to Benny Hinn, so don’t worry).

The historian needs to deal with the fact that some contemporaries of Jesus believed that Jesus was a “miracle-worker” or “healer” (and we need to clearly define what we mean by those terms).  To avoid the subject because we (the modern historians) know or think we know that “miracles” don’t exist will lead us towards historical misunderstanding.  This is not to say that “miracles” exist for the historian (so Hume and Strauss can give a sigh of relief).  Nonetheless “miracle-workers” exist for the historian if historical subjects have the category (or one like it) and apply it to another historical subject we are studying (e.g. Jesus).

To clarify, I do not believe that the statement “Jesus was perceived as a miracle-worker” or “Jesus performed miracles from the viewpoint of some of his contemporaries” is in the least bit theological or problematic for the historian.  Historical Jesus researchers, just like historians of the Venerable Bede or Alexander of Abonuteichos, must deal with what they find in their sources and place that in cultural context, developing categories that work best for the period in question.

(We’ll see if this makes any sense in the morning — listening to Van Morrison’s Saint Dominic’s Preview with beer in hand here).

UPDATE: Maxim Cardew now has a second post further delving into the issue and clarifying Maxim’s points.  By the way, my post was never meant as a “refutation”; moreso these were my midnight ramblings in connection with the issue of miracles and Jesus;)  You may have noticed how much I avoided talking about Hume — he reminds me too much of my logic and argumentation course in second year undergrad (not that I have anything against logic).

2 thoughts on “Historical Jesus and miracles – of course historians have to address miracles

  1. Sabio Lantz

    I was hoping that Cardew was saying something scholarly abstract which was escaping me. For as your post makes clear, if he wasn’t then a refutation is simple — as you illustrated. I am wondering what his reply will be.

  2. Søren T. Svendsen

    I think that Hector Avalos gave a perfect example on why the modern historian should address miracles in his introduction in “Health Care and the Rise of Christianity”. It’s not interesting whether ‘miracles’ had any physical effect or not, it’s interesting cause contemporary people thought ‘miracles’ to exist and to have an effect. Avalos illustrates this with the story about the Mexican woman Maria Atkinson (1879-1963) who converted from Catholicism to the Pentacostal, ‘Church of God’, because of the healing narrative in the Pentacostal branch. She was diagnosed with cancer, and conventional medicine had not succeded. The religious healing in reality did not succed either, but it probably provided Maria with other comforting elements and she probably believed to have a positive effect. These elements tells important aspects of this specific individual personal beliefs and of the cultural environment she lived in and communicated with.

    And that’s one reason why ‘miracles’ is interestint for the modern historian.

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