Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts
Denver Journal Book Review by Denver Seminary Professor Craig Blomberg
Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. 2 vols. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011. $59.99. xxxviii + 1172 pp. ISBN 978-0-8010-3952-2.
This phenomenal two-volume work belongs in the library of every person who is seriously interested in whether or not events akin to the New Testament miracle stories have occurred at other times and places and/or still occur today. Craig Keener, professor of New Testament at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky, is a well-known atheist-turned-Christian New Testament scholar with what is most likely the world’s most extensive compilation of ancient texts that compare or contrast in some way with any verse anywhere in the New Testament. As a result he is known for major commentaries on Matthew, John, and Acts (forthcoming) and significant, smaller ones on Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation, with copious footnotes or endnotes, surveying astonishingly broad and deep bibliographies of primary and secondary literature alike. He is known at times for scarcely writing more than a sentence without documenting his claims, and his Miracles is no different. The text occupies 768 pages. Five appendices span 116 pages. The two-column-per-page, small font bibliography of secondary literature comprises 166 pages. Information about 268 personal interviews or pieces of correspondence follows, while 115 pages of indices round out this work that Ben Witherington on the back book jacket rightly labels “perhaps the best book ever written on miracles.” I suspect the “perhaps” is unnecessarily cautious.
Keener states his work’s purposes on page 1: “The book’s primary thesis is simply that eyewitnesses do offer miracle claims, a thesis simple enough but one sometimes neglected when some scholars approach the accounts in the Gospels. The secondary thesis is that supernatural explanations, while not suitable in every case, should be welcome on the scholarly table along with other explanations often discussed.” But the reader is rewarded with far more than an articulation and defense of these two theses. Early on, Keener succinctly summarizes previous key research on New Testament miracles, and compares and contrasts them with other accounts of the apparently miraculous from the ancient Mediterranean world, noting that almost all of the closest parallels emerge no earlier than the third century A.D.; making impossible widespread borrowing by Christians from pagan or Jewish sources (except the Old Testament). Unlike many evangelical scholars, however, Keener finds no reason for denying the historicity of all non-Christian miracle stories, ancient or modern, since throughout Scripture and history God works through whomever he wants. The demonic world can also produce certain kinds of miracles, and still others may be of human manufacture. Keener stresses, contra many, that the ancients were frequently skeptical of miraculous claims, distinguished between more and less plausible accounts, and certainly knew enough “science” to recognize that events like instantaneous healings of medically intractable diseases, resurrections of the dead, walking on water, and the like, could not and did not normally happen.
Keener gives readers unfamiliar with eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume’s classic arguments against miracles an introduction to Hume’s work and the history of reaction to and interaction with it. Probably the most famous and lasting part of Hume’s case is that one cannot accept accounts of something happening for which there is no known analogy in human experience and that it is always more probable that eyewitness claims to have experienced something miraculous are mistaken than that they are accurate. The burden of Keener’s work is to show that while it is understandable that someone in Scotland in the 1700s might be unfamiliar with credible eyewitness accounts of miracles, anyone who makes such a claim today can do so only by overlooking the experiences of more than 200,000,000 people on our planet! This number comes from a Pew Forum, ten-country survey of Pentecostal and charismatic church experience undertaken in 2006, and extrapolations based on it.
Indeed, Keener recounts numerous examples of the astonishing “fundamentalism” and prejudice of committed naturalists who have grasped at the most ridiculous straws to explain away what any fair-minded observer would acknowledge as supernatural. Add to this their censoring of and discriminating against colleagues who have dared to speak contrary to those non-negotiable a priori presuppositions. Because science, by definition, studies the repeatable, that which can be tested under laboratory conditions; it therefore is unable to rule out that which is unique. History, recounting the actions of free human agents, contains all manner of unique and non-repeatable events. Most of these require no supernatural agency, but all of them would be excluded as incredible by a strict application of Hume’s criteria. Hume also failed to observe that “not all religions equally claim miracles” (p. 197) and that the one other main world religion for which miracles are at all as prevalent as in Christianity (Hinduism) has quite different roles for them (i.e., they are not central to vindicating that religion’s overall claims).
All the more astounding is the extent to which scholars like Van Harvey, Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, Gerd Lüdemann, and many others rule out at least the most dramatic miracle accounts of the New Testament via a Humean naturalism in this age. This is an age in which we have otherwise come increasingly to appreciate the contributions of all the major cultures of the world, especially in the Majority World. Hume’s anti-Jewishness has been documented elsewhere, and his views that non-Western civilizations were “ignorant and barbarous” would be given no hearing in most of the same circles today who otherwise appeal to Hume. As to the frequency of miracle claims in sub-Saharan Africa, Hume wrote, “I am apt to suspect the Negroes and in general all of the species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation.” In the same context, Hume continues, “Not to mention our colonies, there are Negro slaves dispersed all over Europe, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity. . . . In Jamaica they indeed talk of one Negro as a man of parts and learning, but ‘tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly” (pp. 223-24)!
The largest section of Keener’s work then proceeds to itemize a few hundred of the most carefully documented, medically and scientifically inexplicable miracles. Most of them are healings that include not a few resurrections from the dead. Keener discusses at length the stringent criteria he employed to eliminate numerous other possible accounts he could have included even though he believes they are most likely true. He describes his travels to dozens of countries in all major parts of the world, his interviews, and what he personally witnessed. He limits his second-hand accounts to testimonies from people of the highest integrity and character, many of whom are longtime personal friends or acquaintances. After surveying a wide variety of alleged, well documented miracles (especially healings) throughout church history; the bulk of his treatment proceeds, according to sections of the world, to describe those he has personally investigated.
Next Keener re-categorizes the miracles he has presented according to kind rather than location. While there is a somewhat diminished frequency in the Western world compared to the rest of the world, perhaps due to our readier access to medicine and/or greater amount of disbelief, there are far more accounts than most people are aware of. Miracles are prevalent in, but by no means limited to, Christian circles open to such practice; some of the most dramatic have occurred in cessationist contexts, converting those who previously insisted that God didn’t do such things today. Virtually every category of New Testament miracle is represented—healing blind, deaf, and paralyzed people, resuscitations after all vital life signs had ended for hours; along with the immediate and sometimes visible disappearance of all manner of cancers, cysts, burns, swelling, fractures, and numerous other maladies. The constant factor in each case was that the miracle occurred immediately after or during concerted prayer by Christians, often after long periods of suffering that responded to no other available treatments, whereas the recipients of the benefits of the miracle were by no means uniform—sometimes Christian, sometimes not, sometimes healed partly or gradually, sometimes wholly or all at once, of all different ages, walks of life, worldviews, degrees of education, and so on.
Keener includes an account of his Congolese (Brazzaville) wife’s sister who recovered without any ill effects after showing no breathing or pulse and with all the accompanying signs of physical death for about three hours at age two, immediately after an evangelist-healer prayed for her. A recent Floridian counterpart involves renowned heart surgeon Chauncey Crandall praying in Jesus’ name for non-Christian patient Jeff Markin on October 20, 2006 in a West Palm Beach Hospital to come back to life after all other methods to revive him had repeatedly failed. His face, toes, and fingers were already turning black (see p. 577, nn. 467-68 for on-line documentation, both Christian and secular). Keener quotes Rex Gardner (Healing Miracles: A Doctor Investigates [Darton, Longman & Todd, 1986], 165) approvingly: “That God does heal in the late twentieth century should be accepted on the evidence of all these Case Records. If you do not accept those two statements, you may ask yourself what evidence you would be prepared to accept. If the answer proves to be “None,” then you had better face the fact that you have abandoned logical inquiry” (p. 434).
So-called nature miracles prove far more rare, but then they are rarer in Scripture also. There are only a few well-attested parallels to feeding miracles, walking on water, and turning water into wine; and some uncertainty surrounds the latter two categories. Clearer are instances of rain starting or stopping, or leaving certain areas dry while everything around was drenched, directly in response to prayer. In our modern media-saturated age, some ask why we do not have actual videotaped accounts of miracles. The answer is that we do, but this then leads the same skeptics to suggest that the tapes have been doctored! Keener rounds out his study by rehearsing again all the possible counter-explanations—fraud, deception, misdiagnosis, misperception, exaggeration, and so on—recognizing that all of these have at times accounted for false claims concerning the miraculous. He again reminds readers of the care that he took to reject for inclusion in his volumes all but the most indisputable of accounts. If religious people have sometimes proved overly gullible, naturalists have far more often proved far too biased in rejecting legitimate evidence. Keener recounts a conversation with a university professor who dismissed all miracle stories as a two-thousand-year-old superstition incompatible with science (even his dating was wrong; they go back well before that!) and said it would be a waste of scientists’ time even to investigate modern-day claims of the miraculous. Keener then asks, as it were, now who was functioning on “blind faith” (pp. 690-91)?
In numerous other instances, Keener records what could be called a “naturalism-of-the-gaps” approach. Scholars closed to the possibility of theism admit that there is no known explanation for an event that happened immediately and only in the context of fervent Christian prayer, but they dogmatically insist that we just have to assume that someday there will be a naturalistic explanation found for it! Nevertheless in a 2004 national study of 1100 physicians, 74% believed that miracles occurred in the past and 73% believe that they occur today. 59% prayed for their patients and 55% personally observed healing they would deem miraculous. It’s too bad that the high-profile atheist philosophers, writers, and bloggers of our world don’t spend more time making the rounds with some of these physicians!
In a “Concluding Unscientific Postscript,” Keener acknowledges that what he now wrestles with most is not if God exists or if he works miracles, but why so many times he doesn’t. He recognizes that the answer lies with inaugurated eschatology. We live in between the times, with the already but the not yet. God is sovereign; the Bible itself provides a long catalogue of reasons of why God permits evil. But Keener’s work certainly raises the tantalizing question of how many more miracles Westerners might experience if we prayed more and with less skepticism! The appendices work through the issues of demon possession and exorcism (with many of the same categories of discussion that the book itself did for miracles more generally), comment briefly on dreams and visions, and make comparisons and (more telling) contrasts with ancient hagiography.
Keener’s work deserves the widest possible audience. Anyone who claims that events akin to New Testament miracles do not happen today but who has not carefully read and evaluated these volumes must be pointed to them. Anyone who does read them but opts for naturalistic explanations for all of them has far more for faith in an unverifiable ideology than I do in Jesus!
Craig Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament