Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts

Written by Craig S. Keener Reviewed By Michael J. Kruger

Every once in a while a book comes along that is long overdue within the academic community. Craig Keener's Miracles is just such a book. Ever since the rise of the Enlightenment, academic circles have been inculcated with a naturalistic, anti-supernatural bias that pervades almost every discipline, from sociology to anthropology to psychology. And the discipline of biblical studies is no exception to that rule. When it comes to the miracles contained in the NT accounts, scholars have been chronically skeptical of their veracity and credibility. Keener's work is designed to challenge that bias. His intent is not to prove the truth of the NT miracles, nor of modern ones, but simply to show that the accepted predisposition against the possibility of miracles is intellectually indefensible. Of course, Keener's book is not the first to challenge the modern predisposition against miracles. But his book is unique in that it is up-to-date on the latest scholarship, vast in its detail and documentation (over 1,000 pages!), pays particular attention to ancient historiography, and offers an impressive catalog of modern (and ancient) miracle testimonies.

Keener offers two main arguments in the book, a historical one and a philosophical one. (1) The historical argument is that the miracle reports in the Gospels and Acts are based on eyewitness testimony (not legendary accretions or the invention of the later church). Put simply, we have solid historical evidence that the earliest followers of Jesus (and the apostles) thought they were witnessing miracles. Such ancient testimony to miracles, argues Keener, is analogous to what happens today when we receive reports that people have witnessed miracles. (2) The philosophical argument is that supernatural explanations for these miracle claims should not be ruled out from the very start. Instead, many of these miracle claims are best explained by supernatural causation, and the modern historian should at least be open to that possibility.

In order to address the historical question, Keener devotes the first three chapters to an in-depth investigation of the miracle accounts in the Gospels. Chapter one examines the Gospel accounts directly and argues that the miracle accounts of Jesus are central to the narrative of Jesus' life and are present in the earliest layers of the tradition (and thus unlikely to be later, mythical additions). Chapters two and three compare and contrast the miracle accounts in the Gospels with the miracle accounts in other Greco-Roman and Jewish literature. Keener demonstrates that although there are broad similarities between these extra-biblical miracle accounts and those of the Gospels, there are also significant differences. Thus, we have no reason to think that the miracle stories in the Gospels are due to the influence of pagan stories of magic and divination. Instead, the influence is often the other way around. Given Keener's extensive background in historical Jesus studies, his analysis in these chapters is first-rate: thorough, insightful, and attentive to the complex historical details.

Chapters 4-6 address the philosophical question of whether modern historians ought to reject miraculous explanations a priori. After a fascinating survey of the history of anti-supernaturalism in chapter four, Keener devotes the next two chapters to the most significant proponent of anti-supernaturalism: David Hume. Although modern philosophers have largely debunked Hume's arguments, some biblical scholars still appeal to these arguments to support their anti-supernatural bias. The problem, as Keener so deftly points out, is that Hume's argument is fallaciously circular: “[Hume] argues, based on 'experience,' that miracles do not happen, yet dismisses credible eyewitness testimony for miracles (i.e., others' experience) on his assumption that miracles do not happen” (p. 109, emphasis his). Put differently, Hume's argument is based on the “uniformity of human experience against miracles” (p. 112); a uniformity that he can establish only if he rejects, a priori, all eyewitness claims to miracles. Thus, he assumes what he is trying to prove.

One of the reasons Hume was able to appeal to the supposed “uniformity of human experience against miracles” is because of the “lack of many comparable modern claims” (p. 209) in his own day. In other words, Hume and his contemporaries did not have access to the abundant miracle claims in the world around them. Keener seeks to remedy this problem by devoting a significant portion of his book, chapters 7-12, to cataloging the variety of miracle reports available in our modern time. This is a most fascinating section of the book and stunningly rich in detail and documentation. Keener offers accounts from all over the world, but focuses mainly on the “majority world,” including Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Not only does this survey effectively refute Hume's appeal to the uniformity of human experience against miracles, but it also effectively challenges traditional Western assumptions about religion in the developing world. Anti-supernaturalists will often dismiss miracle claims from these parts of the world due to the fact that they view the inhabitants as primitive, uneducated, and, to some extent, gullible. But Keener points out that such an approach is blatantly “ethnocentric” and “derogatory” (p. 222). Thus, the academic elite in America and Europe find themselves in an ironic dilemma. While they are often quick to critique others for being ethnocentric, they find themselves guilty of these very charges when they reject the miracle claims of the non-Western world on the basis of its so-called “primitive” culture.

Of course, Keener is well aware that not all of these miracle claims around the world are valid instances of miracles; some have other (and better) explanations. Thus, chapters 13-14 discuss other possible explanations for such claims, such as fraud, genuine anomalies, psychosomatic cures, the placebo effect, and the power of suggestion. While acknowledging that sometimes these factors can account for eyewitness miracle claims, it is not intellectually credible to think that such things can explain all miracle claims. Indeed, chapter 14 demonstrates that there have been formal investigations into miracles claims that have sought only to find alternative explanations, rather than being genuinely open to the possibility of divine intervention. These investigations, he argues, are overtly prejudiced against religion and use unreasonable standards for what can count as a “credible” miracle claim-standards that would not be sustained in other areas of life (e.g., a court of law).

In the end, Keener has written an impressive and well-argued work on a very important subject. Not only has he reiterated the long-standing critiques against Hume in a fresh way, but he has broken new ground by exploring modern miracle claims with unprecedented documentation. Any future discussions of miracles in the NT or in the modern day will surely have to reckon with the arguments of this book.

Michael J. Kruger

Michael J. Kruger
Reformed Theological Seminary
Charlotte, North Carolina, USA

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