This review is a guest piece by longtime Tekton reader D. Neiman. I'll have my own thoughts on Keener's book on Wednesday.
Craig Keener is professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary and has recently completed a two-volume work on Miracles. I pre-ordered the work in November of 2010 because, at the time, I was looking into alleged “parallels” between the miracles of Jesus in the canonical Gospels, and miracles attributed to the Buddha in various strands of Buddhist literature. Since Keener is one of the most prolific, learned, and thorough evangelical scholars alive today in the field of historical Jesus research, I took the title of this work as indicating the primary purpose would have something to do with historical considerations for the miracles of Christ.
Fortunately this was a happy mistake. Miracles is something new in many respects. In it, Keener surveys everything from critiques of Hume’s famous essay of the same name, to miracle claims in antiquity, to claims of miracles in our own modern context. Characteristic of Keener’s other works, Miracles is meticulously footnoted, allowing the reader exhaustive access to an absolute smorgasbord of primary and secondary material. Before getting into the actual review it is important to try to briefly outline what Keener is looking to do for NT studies.
Since the so-called Enlightenment, and the development of historical-critical methods with reference to the Biblical documents (not to mention the much-cited essay by that ol’ Scottish skeptic), secular scholars have routinely assumed that it is far more likely that most (or even all) of miracle-material preserved in the Gospels and Acts is based on legendary accretions, decades removed from the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Of course, they would say, miracles do not actually happen. Since miracles do not actually happen, the evangelists and other later Christians either 1) made up the miracle accounts completely, 2) preserved traditions from the first Christians who were tricked by Jesus (and possibly his disciples) into believing he really could work miracles or 3) a position somewhere in between the two.
Option 2 has long been viewed as ridiculous. Many scholars already argue (or just assume) that the authors of the Gospels and Acts were not eyewitnesses (or even people who knew eyewitnesses) to Jesus’ ministry. Indeed the fact that these texts contain miracle accounts at all could be used as evidence that eyewitnesses did not author them. The celebrated early 20th century NT scholar Rudolph Bultmann, for example, uses the presence of such material in other Jewish texts as a criterion for inauthenticity (The History of the Synoptic Tradition, 58). Keener shows throughout his work that these tendencies are not due to advances in science or any other such thing. Rather, these presuppositions owe their prestige to the lasting influence of Hume’s essay. So what does Keener attempt to show in Miracles?
The primary thesis of the book is “simply that eyewitnesses do offer miracle claims” (1). On it’s face, this seems like a fairly mundane observation. “So what?” We might hear the skeptic ask. “Of course people who are not familiar with science or logic, whether a thousand years in the past or yesterday in central Africa, believe that such things happen.” But that is not the point. The point is that today, as we speak, people all over the world claim they have encountered the miraculous in their own Christian context. If that is the case, then there is no reason to assume, or even argue, that the Gospels cannot be based on the testimonies of eyewitnesses just because they associate Jesus with miracles. The second thesis (which Keener repeatedly calls the “more controversial” of the two) is that “supernatural explanations should be welcome as possible” explanations when academics discuss these historical miracle claims.
First, Keener goes through the ancient evidence useful for placing the Gospels and Acts in their proper social-historical contexts. As noted above, scholars hostile to the suggestion of miracles actually taking place in history would be forced into endorsing a position in between one of the two extremes. But Keener notes that the wide consensus of ancient historians like Theissen, Mertz, and Sanders is that both the early Christian and early hostile evidence shows that Jesus was associated with healings, exorcisms, and what the enemies of Christianity would call “magic” (24-5). Though the cult of Asclepius, with its emphasis on “healing shrines” and other such Hellenistic movements provide weak comparisons to Jesus’ activity in the Gospels, Keener concludes that the work of Philostratus on Apollonius provides the strongest parallels. Of course, this is most likely due to the fact that Philostratus deliberately sought to provide an “anti-magic apologetic” against Christianity (53).
The material provided in chapter 4 is best used for those skeptics who are so fond of playing the “but those ancient people were so dumb” card. Keener reminds us that even two thousand years ago there were people, like Diognetus (a teacher of Marcus Aurelius), Galen, and Petronius (who thought a certain merchant a “fool” for believing a werewolf story) who were critical of miracle claims (87-91). Further, even ancients who did believe that miracles were conceptually possible disagreed over what was miraculous and what was not. Diodorus Siculus, for example, accepted some miracle accounts but preferred non-supernatural ones, even seeking to “demythologize” some (92).
In chapter 5 Keener shows just how dark the shadow of Hume continues to be in the academic world. Contrary to popular assumption Keener declares that the, “assumption the suprahuman activity is impossible is an interpretive grid, not a demonstrative fact,” and that history “does not support a linear evolution of all cultures toward this perspective” (107). Indeed, Hume’s characterization of the nature of miracles was seen even in his own day to be anachronistic, imposing 18th century rationalistic philosophy onto sources from Antiquity (131).
This is one of the places in Miracles where Keener’s extensive bibliography comes in handy. Showing that recent philosophical work has determined that Hume, at least in his essay on miracles, was mostly bark without bite (167-9) he also demonstrates that Hume’s essay puts forth such radicle epistemic demands that it would render any interpretive testimony (history, legal) worthless (147-51).
Historically, Keener shows that Hume’s influence spread into theology because Deists of the 18th and 19th centuries were only too happy to absorb and adapt Hume’s skepticism. Men like Paulus, Bahrdt, and Venturini started the trend of separating the historical Jesus from the supernatural. Unlike their later counterparts of course, these men assumed that Jesus (or his disciples) were deceivers (176).
In chapter 7 Keener finally starts to unravel miraculous evidence from the Majority World. Having shown in previous chapters how Hume’s view of pre-18th century, non-Europeans is not merely ethnocentric, but also quite racist (166), he suggests that the seeker of truth ought to try learning from the people of this planet who, somehow, live day-to-day without the need of an iPad (226). He further shows that even in the 20th century people like Simon Kimbangu, William Harris, and the so-called “mad monk” Rasputin of Russia had thousands of supporters who claimed to have been eyewitnesses to miracles (227-8). Even several modern anthropologists, many of whom came to their work with anti-supernaturalistic presuppositions, are quoted as having had dramatic worldview-shifts as they continued in the field (246-7).
Chapters 8 and 9 are dedicated to listing specific examples of general miracle claims that come from Christian contexts in Asia, Latin America and Africa. To give several examples of the kinds of information listed, entities like the Chinese government are willing to note that a massive amount (upwards of 50% by many estimates) of Christian converts within the Communist country list “witnessed a miracle” as a primary reason for conversion (296-7). Indeed Christians are, apparently, so well known for healing miracles in China that they are sought out for their prayers by the families of the sick (298-9)! From Africa Keener gives accounts of Christian churches who regularly claim to experience healings from things like AIDS, epilepsy, tumors, and general illness and injury. Nevertheless, throughout these chapters, Keener is careful to note that the claimants admit that not all those prayed for are healed (330).
Chapter 10 is an interesting, if seemingly out of place, chapter on miracles in early Christianity beyond the apostolic era down through the Reformation. Interestingly, the conflict between the Protestants and the Catholics in the centuries after the Reformation may have contributed to the eventual acceptance of Hume’s ridiculous standards, as both sides sought to discredit the others miraculous claims (375-7).
Chapter 11 is a direct assault on Hume’s ridiculous claim that miracles abound chiefly among the “ignorant and barbarous” peoples of the world who “received them from ignorant and barbarous ancestors.” Even in Hume’s day such a claim was patently false as shown by the activities of Catholics and Protestants described in the 10th chapter. In our own modern world, the naturalistic-materialist/atheist is even more alone as miraculous claims continue to circulate in abundance.
Professors (430), pastors (431), physicians (433-5), individuals like Father DiOrio (468-70) and Corrie Ten Boom (472), and Keener’s own family and friends (438-51) are all cited as either miracle workers or eyewitnesses to miraculous events in the modern church context.
Chapter 13 is devoted to exploring possible non-miraculous explanations that may be offered by skeptics. Keener admits upfront that there are thousands who receive prayer and who die or continue to be sick or lame anyway. Many have, in fact, died because they were convinced that they would be miraculously saved (605)! After addressing basic epistemic problems (on both sides of the fence) Keener concludes that we cannot accept miraculous claims simply because they are offered. Neither, however, can we reject them just because they are offered. As every budding Christian apologist asked to demonstrate reproducible evidence for miracles should know, miracles can be “no more subject to experimentation than other historical events like Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo” (608).
Chapter 14 challenges the skeptics’ frequent claim that she is the one who proceeds without bias. In preparation for criticisms of his own work, Keener notes that while medical documentation is a plus, it cannot be the end-all fix-all for determining what claims are true. Some claims come from places where medical help cannot be secured to begin with, should we ignore these people just because of metaphysical presuppositions that rest on a very shaky base (657)? Anyone who has ever dialogued with an atheist online knows what cases with medical evidence look like to the nonbeliever who is committed to not believing: “The doctors must have been secret Christians conspiring to ruin science!”
In the last few chapters Keener summarizes the evidence that he has presented and concludes that there are very good reasons to accept that many of the claims are legitimate. In the absence of good, logical reasons to a priori reject miracles, Keener at least sees no reason why academics should have any problem letting go of Hume’s corrosive, and poorly constructed essay.
The first two of the five appendices, Keener looks into possession and exorcisms in both the ancient and modern world. Wisely separating this data from the book proper, I was pleased to see Keener include an analysis off it nevertheless. Even mentioning his own encounter with what he perceived to be a demon (853)! The third appendix is a comparison of the Gospels and Acts with later Christian hagiography. Apparently (an argument that I have not yet heard) some have argued that these stories of the Saints may provide insight as to how Jesus and the Apostles came to be associated with miracles. This, I thought, was the most interesting and helpful of the five. Keener concludes that these stories, created in many cases centuries after the lives of the Saints themselves, exhibit a level of elaboration that does not fit well with the Gospels and Acts, which appeared fairly quickly after the lives of the people they record (885-6).
So what can be said of Keener’s two-volume work? First, it is a pleasure to read. Keener’s work in the area of historical Jesus studies is some of the best for a good reason. He is knowledgeable, thorough, and able to relate his research in clear writing. Throughout Keener notes that many of his accounts come from people he is close to personally, and some from his own experiences (Mama Jeanne on pp. 336-8, his own encounter with a “spirit” on p. 853). These, to me, were some of the most impressive simply because Keener, being as critical as he is, is so confident in them.
It is certainly not what I expected. Being that my primary interest is history, those like me would do well to note that most of the work is devoted not to the ancient world, but to the modern one. Discussions of philosophical and theological considerations abound, as Keener examines sources from all over the world and, by extension, all over Christianity (Protestant denominations/Catholicism). But the pay off in suffering through these is that Keener is able to show, as a historian, that Hume’s standards, and the standards of those who follow him, reduce historical inquiry to absurdity.
A recent illustration of this is relevant here. About a month ago I went a few rounds with a skeptic who claimed that he very much doubted Jesus existed because “he is said to have done too many miracles, and that is just stupid.” Try as I might have, I could not get him to understand that the association of a historical figure with one, or many, miracle account(s) tells us zero about their historicity. When I mentioned Honi and Hanina Ben Dosa, he replied that if they were “mentioned in the Bible” and were said to have “worked miracles,” then he was equally skeptical of their existences as well! This is Hume on steroids, and it is the future of the popular secular web.
This is where Keener’s work comes in very handy for the apologist. Eminent ancient historians, like Tacitus and Suetonius on Vespasian (91), had no problem mentioning miracle accounts in association with the Emperor. As noted above, within the last century healers like Kimbangu, Harris and Rasputin were seen by thousands of people who claimed they worked miracles. Does this affect their historicity? Does this not merely mean that we must be critical in our appraisal of their lives? But, shouldn’t that already be our goal as good historians?
As to Keener’s two primary theses, the first he has established beyond all reasonable doubt. Contra Hume, millions of Christians claim to be eyewitnesses of miracles. These people come from North America, South America, Africa, Europe and Asia. They come from poor and rich contexts, contexts where things like education and decent medical aid are plentiful and contexts where they are not, and they have come from these contexts since Paul was planting churches and “opposing Peter to his face in Antioch” (Gal. 2:11).
As to his second, I believe he did a good job responding to objections that will no doubt be leveled against him. There is no reason, apart from dogmatically adhering to a rigid, ethnocentric, irrational worldview that rests on easily disputable grounds, to reject all miracle claims.
As to major complaints, I will say that I was disappointed that there were not a few more accounts corroborated by medical evidence. At the very least, it may have been worth waiting to publish the book when more documentation was available. Despite this, I think the data provided is more than enough to make up for what was not provided. Hopefully, in further research by Keener himself, or others using Miracles as a springboard, the arguments can be further sharpened. All in all, Miracles is worth checking out.