A Review of Craig Keener’s "Miracles", Part 1

In my discussions with my Christian friends at Theology Web regarding the alleged historicity of the bodily Resurrection of Jesus, I have repeatedly been informed that one cannot intelligently comment on the probability of a miracle such as the Resurrection unless one has read Christian scholar Craig Keener’s two volume work entitled, “Miracles“.  My Christian friends assert that if there is good evidence that miracles occur today, then the probability for Jesus’ bodily resurrection must be given serious consideration.

I have finally agreed to read this two volume work.  I intend to review the books here on my blog.

In the introduction to the book, Keener makes no apologies for having an agenda:  to demonstrate that the bias against the supernatural by western academia is unfounded and that western scholars should not dismiss miracles a priori as he asserts they currently do.  The purpose of the book is to demonstrate the “massive” number of miracle claims all over the world and that based on such a large quantity of claims, the possibility of divine intervention in the world must be considered.  Ultimately, it is Keener’s goal to demonstrate that the miracle claims of the Gospels are not the far-fetched claims of wild-eyed, ancient, superstitious people, but serious claims by serious, devout people whose world view should be taken seriously. 

Keener goes on to admit that he is not a medical expert and that detailed medical confirmation of the medical cure claims in his book are limited.  He admits that he had no research assistants and no research funds.

Chapter One

In this opening chapter, Keener reviews the miracles attributed to Jesus.  I agree that most NT scholars believe that Jesus was viewed by both Christians and Jews as a healer.  However, Keener’s choice of language in describing this view is disturbing and frankly very biased.  Instead of making the statement I have just made; that Jesus was viewed/believed to be a healer, Keener makes these statements of fact and repeats them frequently:

“Most scholars today working on the subject thus accept the claim that Jesus was a healer and an exorcist.”  p. 23

“It is thus not surprising that most scholars publishing historical research about Jesus today grant that Jesus was a miracle worker.”  p. 25

If the claim that Jesus was a healer and an exorcist is a fact…why write the book?  The truth is, we have no proof that Jesus truly healed anyone or truly exorcised any demons out of anyone (if such beings even exist)!  All we can say is that many people in first century Palestine believed he performed such supernatural acts.

Mr. Keener is making an assumption.

And here is another assumption that is extremely common among Christians, repeated by Mr. Keener:

“Writing within the lifetime of some witnesses and some who knew them, Mark’ portrait of Jesus as a miracle worker makes sense only if those who knew him believed him to be such.”  pp. 32-33

Most scholars date Mark’s Gospel to circa 70 AD.  What proof does any Christian have that even one witness to any of Jesus’ alleged miracles, or to the alleged Resurrection, were still alive in 70 AD?  Answer:  None.

Chapter Two

In this chapter, Keener describes the miracle claims in Greco-Roman culture.  The evidence Keener presents satisfies me that the miracle claims attributed to Jesus were not based on pagan miracles.  But I did find interesting this statement:  In Greco-Roman culture healings were usually performed at “healing sanctuaries”, often situated near “healthy springs”.

Interesting.

We know that the story of healings at the Pool of Bethesda, which occurred when an angel descended from heaven and stirred the waters, is a scribal addition to the original Gospel.  Was this story added to the original text to attract pagans to Christianity??

Hmmm.

Chapter Three

In this chapter, I found this statement by Keener intriguing:

“The Gospels are ancient biography about a recent character for whom many sources remained; they are thus not analogous to collections of mythography or novels.  They do not report fictions about exotic lands, do not report internal workings of divine courts, and do not report monsters or other fabulous creatures.” p. 69

The first sentence is a repetition of Keener’s previously identified major assumption!  We have no idea if any witnesses remained in the 70’s 80’s, and 90’s of the first century when the Gospels were written.  Secondly, I agree that Jesus’ miracle claims show little similarity to pagan mythology, but, even Keener admits that Jesus miracles share a striking resemblance to Jewish mythology…I mean …alleged history:  Jesus’ miracles bear a striking resemblance to the miracles of Elijah and Elisha!

I ask Readers to consider this:  Isn’t it possible that the detailed miracle claims of Jesus developed either during his lifetime or shortly thereafter based on a core truth of actual attempted healings, in which Jesus attempted to emulate Elijah and Elisha?  Jesus very sincerely believed that he had been sent from God and sincerely believed that he could heal people by the power bestowed upon him by Yahweh, but any “cures” that occurred were simply coincidence.  This happens to Pentecostal preachers today.  These Christians hold a healing service where they pray over the sick and some of those sick do get better.  It’s a miracle!  …or was it?  We know that some very sick people do spontaneously get better.  But since they were prayed over, Pastor Jones gets the credit.  The same could have happened with Jesus.

And what was the purpose of Jesus’ miracles?  Answer:  To verify that Jesus was who he claimed to be:  the Messiah.  Without Jesus’ miracles, no Jew was going to believe that a man preaching non-violence and obedience to Caesar was the Messiah.  Therefore, Jesus’ miracles were for a Jewish audience, that is why his miracles do not resemble pagan miracles.  However, once the overwhelming majority of Jews rejected the executed-resurrected messiah story, attention turned to converting the Gentiles.  Isn’t it possible that later additions to the original story of Mark, such as a virgin birth and detailed post-death appearances of a god, which Mark never once mentions, were added to the story for the express purpose of convincing Gentiles that Jesus was at least equal if not superior to the Greco-Roman gods??

And the claim that the Gospels do not contain any mythological language or mythological beings is only true if you do not consider angels and demons to be mythological; or that voices of gods speaking out of the clear blue sky (This is my beloved Son…) are non-mythological; or that a “Devil” who can transport a human being from the top of a mountain to the top of the highest point of the temple at the snap of the fingers or wiggle of the nose is not mythological; or dead bodies who can walk out of their tombs with superhero bodies in blinding white garments and later levitate into outer space are not mythological.  Only a Christian would consider these events and beings as non-mythological.

Keener:

“People in the ancient Mediterranean world valued prodigies and omens…Among prodigies reported before Jerusalem’s fall were armies clashing in the skies and a voice declaring the “gods” departure from the temple.  Tacitus follows Josephus, who reports that people saw heavenly chariots moving through the clouds and surrounding cities, and priests heard voices in the temple.  Some scholars regard these apparitions as collective fantasies, but in principle they could also be authentic celestial images (which we are tempted to regard as very unlikely); a misrepresentation of celestial phenomena; especially among those new to the region; the sun playing tricks on the eyes at dusk; propaganda to justify Jerusalem’s fall after the event, which Josephus has accepted; Josephus’ own propaganda  (he is the only extant witness concerning witnesses apart from sources dependent on him); or a combination of such elements.”

Wow!  These are the exact same arguments that we skeptics put forward for the alleged post-death appearances of Jesus; alleged appearances to individuals and groups, but arguments which Christians, such as Keener, say are implausible…for their supernatural claim!

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