Thursday, May 07, 2009

Dealing with "miracles" in Historical Jesus Class

April DeConick currently has an interesting series running headed Creating Jesus and there are several points where I have been tempted to comment but have not found a moment.  Comments from Rafael on Verily, Verily on the post about the miraculous reminded me of some comments I was going to make about the way that I approach the miraculous in my historical Jesus classes. 

In Historical Jesus classes I try to avoid the terms "miracle" and "miraculous".  As soon as the terms are out there, one is obliged to enter the complex and unwieldy philosophical debate about miracles, and it becomes difficult to make any serious progress in Jesus research.  And if I am honest, I don't have the necessary philosophical credentials to be able to make a genuinely informed contribution in that debate.  

Moreover, the term "miracle" is unhelpful in describing the way that the ancients perceived the world.  The early Christians saw God's activity in everything.  A dunamis, a "mighty work" or a "work of power" was different from God's everyday activities in scale rather than in kind.  When they talked about a dunamis, they did not see it as an event that lay outside the laws of nature but as something that specially manifested God's power, a signature event that differed from the repeated God-ordained events like the sun coming out and the rain pouring down.  

In other words, the earliest Christian writers do not appear to have had a special category of "miracle" that was different in kind from other activities of God.  The use of the term "miracle" can tempt us to think that they thought in those categories.  Now of course that does not settle the key questions about what lies behind the Gospel traditions about Jesus' healing activity, but it does help to refocus the terms of the discussion in a useful way.  

1 comment:

Rafael said...


Your point is so obvious that I'm actually gutted I wasn't the one to make it. Miracle, like so many other things, is our category.

And I have been thinking that Twelftree's rehabilitation of exorcisms to the center of historical Jesus research ought to remind us that, if we bracket out what seems to us as "miraculous," we risk bracketing the core of Jesus' program in order to accommodate him to our worldview (making him a teacher, or a social reformer, or whatever). Easy rejections of dynameis should probably, then, be avoided just as are credulous affirmations of them.