Craig Keener discusses whether miracles can be taken seriously, and what purpose the miracle stories have in the gospels.
A 2015 video interview between CPX’s Simon Smart and Craig Keener, Professor of New Testament Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and author of Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. In this interview, Craig Keener discusses whether miracles can be taken seriously, and what purpose the miracle stories have in the gospels.
This is a short segment from a longer interview. To watch the full interview, click here.
SIMON SMART: I’m speaking with Professor Craig Keener, an author and New Testament scholar. Craig, I wanted to ask you about miracles. Don’t the miracle aspects of the Jesus story bring the whole thing into question?
CRAIG KEENER: That’s what people a lot of times used to argue. The majority of scholars today actually acknowledge that Jesus was a healer and an exorcist. Now, they may not believe that people were actually supernaturally healed, but they believe that people experienced Jesus in that way.
SIMON SMART: That people believed that he was a healer, is that right?
CRAIG KEENER: Right, that’s how people approached him, and some of the people must have gotten better obviously or they wouldn’t have continued approaching him that way. And Josephus, even, in the very little clip that he has about Jesus, Geza Vermes a Jewish scholar at Oxford points out that Josephus is best interpreted as not only speaking of Jesus as a teacher, but a worker of paradoxa, of miracles. And again, it’s in every stratum of gospel tradition, every stratum of early Christian tradition, it was acknowledged by Jesus’ opponents – it’s not something that’s very easy to doubt by historical means. Now the question is, what do those things mean? Historically, people have said, “Well, we don’t believe these things happened, because we just know from modern experience that these things don’t happen.” David Hume formulated that argument, but it’s actually kind of a circular argument, even when David Hume formulated it, because what Hume said was, “We can discount witnesses if they claim to have seen miracles, because we know from uniform human experience that true eyewitnesses would not claim the experience of miracles.” In his own essay on miracles, he actually dismissed some pretty good evidence that already existed in his day. Pascal’s niece was healed, at a Jansenist monastery, from a running sore in her eye. It was clearly organic, people could smell the sore, and the results were so dramatic and so instantaneous that the Queen Mother of France sent her own physician to investigate and he came back with a report that this was a miracle. Hume acknowledged all this, and then simply dismissed it by saying it’s against uniform human experience to believe in miracles.
Now, after Hume, this was developed into a principle that has often been used by New Testament scholars – the principle of analogy, saying that we know from analogy, from modern times that miracles don’t happen, therefore they couldn’t have happened back then. The problem with that argument today is many scholars are arguing that the argument from analogy is better stood on its head, because today we have multiple eyewitness claims that miracles took place. Now you can explain them however you want to, but you can’t deny that eyewitnesses claim to have seen miracles. And this is not a few eyewitnesses. According to a 2008 Pew Forum survey of just 10 countries, somewhere around 300 or 400 million people claimed to have witnessed or experienced divine healing. Now that’s a lot of people. However we explain those things, we can’t deny that credible eyewitnesses claim these things, something that Hume said should not have happened.
SIMON SMART: Hume’s idea comes from a worldview, doesn’t it, that’s already ruled out the possibility of miracles. If you believe in the possibility of a god, then I guess these thoughts of miracles are actually kind of small things, really, easily achieved. Nonetheless, we’re right to critique these claims, both the modern claims and the more ancient ones, aren’t we?
CRAIG KEENER: That’s true, because not every claim is an accurate claim. One thing you have to look at is how reliable the witnesses are. And another thing you have to look at is, well, if you’re asking whether it’s a miracle or not, because that’s a separate question from whether people experienced these things or not, if you’re asking whether it’s a miracle or not you need to look at whether this is something that could just naturally happen on its own.
SIMON SMART: What purpose do the miracle stories play in the gospels?
CRAIG KEENER: The most important is the Christological purpose, emphasising the greatness of Jesus. Another purpose of the miracles I think is to encourage people to have faith in the God who did these miracles – both when we approach him for our own needs and, whether or not God does a miracle for us, we can approach him with faith because He’s the God who can, and who cares, He’s not some distant God who doesn’t act in history. And I think that also the miracle stories sometimes teach us about things, for instance the word ‘save’ that appears in the gospels, the world that’s translated ‘save’ most often, it can mean physical restoration, but of course it can also mean spiritual restoration. And I think the gospel writers are also teaching us that the Lord who has the power to restore people physically is also the Lord who has the power to bind up the brokenhearted and to transform people and make them new.