Craig Keener - "Miracles"
2:31AM Jun 26, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
It is our tremendous honor today to be speaking with Dr. Craig keener. Dr. keener earned his PhD degree from Duke University in 1991, and is currently professor of New Testament studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is the author of many books, including the IVP Bible background commentary, which is sold in its various forms over half a million copies. also author of the historical Jesus of the Gospels and the monumental four volume Exegetical Commentary from Baker Academic Press. The book that we'll be discussing today is a two volume set, Miracles, the Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, also available from Baker academic. Dr. Keener, thank you for being with us today.
It's my privilege,
Dr. keener as we understand from the introduction of this text miracles, this two volume set work began as a footnote to your larger acts and exegetical commentary. Now, other scholars have approached the book of Acts from a standpoint of faith and understood that the works they're reported are historical events. But they didn't necessarily mount an 1100 page study to demonstrate that miracles in the book of Acts should be accepted as historical accounts. What was it if you'd be willing to share was your motivation for for launching this study?
I think because I had been an atheist before my conversion. I was kind of sensitive to the questions that skeptics raise. And so I wanted to at least, you know, sometimes people were saying these were just legends that arose over the process of time, and I wanted to show that they could have eyewitness accounts, firsthand accounts that we can out the same kinds of events and experiences that we have in the Gospels and acts. And so I thought I could do that in the footnote, you know, because I expected. I mean, I knew of people who'd experienced these things. I'd experienced some myself not as dramatic as some of the others. But I thought, well, I'll just find some works that summarize these. But in the process, I kept finding more and more works before I found any that summarized a large number of them. And the footnote grew and grew and wasn't intended to be 1100 pages, but it's good it got published when it did, it would have been even longer. Huh, huh, excellent.
Dr. Keener, in your book miracles, the credibility of the New Testament accounts, you place the miracle stories of Jesus and the Gospels in their ancient context and compare them to extra canonical accounts of miracles both ancient and modern. First of all, In what ways are the miracle accounts of Jesus and the apostles, perhaps different from those of other miracles miracle workers in antiquity?
I wanted to show that sometimes people just lump them together because they're considered supernatural. So that, you know, actually it's it's modern Western anti supernaturalism. That's idiosyncratic culturally. I mean, most cultures in the world, believe in some sort of extra human, you know, whether it's divine or something else. Power for for healing and what we call miracles. Oh, and that's been true throughout history. So, if you actually compare some of the accounts of ancient healers among among Greeks, and Romans, for example, in some of these are mythical healers of the distant past like Asclepius, where I mean it's so many centuries earlier, we don't have that much knowledge whether they even exist. As opposed to first generation reports, and sometimes eyewitness reports we have about Jesus or his disciples in the Gospels and acts. And also we have when you compare some of these other accounts, I mean you have like a hyperborean magician flying in a magic arrow and see that in the New Testament visibility. Well, that's that's not quite so problematic. Then heroes showing their golden thighs or you have a lot of love magic. seducing people away from their spouses and things like that. You have a 57 year old 57 year nap. So Rip Van Winkle, you know, Washington Irving was somewhat original but you know, he had he had precursors, you have a continual fast. You have Pythagoras teaching in two places at one time. I mean, you have a lot of things. These are not the mean the New Testament the bulk of the of the reports now All of them, but the bulk of them are about healing seed deliverances. And that shows you also something that God cares about. Now you do have the gentle healing shrines, like of Asclepius. And there we do have sometimes contemporary accounts of people who had recovery, sometimes extraordinary recoveries. However you explain that whether, you know, in some cases we might see psychosomatic in some cases, we may look for spiritual explanations for those things. But but but we don't have like a traveling Sage as a healer. We have, you know, some traveling magicians who did magic tricks and things like that. But in terms of, you know, the closest parallel we have among Gentiles is, are the stories about apollonius of Diana and these are recorded in the third century by philosophers. Now, what's striking about that is the Christian stories were widespread by that point. So makes much more historical sense to say that the stories of apollonius were influenced by the Christian stories that were already circulating, rather than to say that the first century gospels are influenced by a work that wouldn't yet be written for over a century. Now there are Jewish parallels. Honey, the circle jar, known in Josephus is Alliance and also Canadian bin dosa. He comes a little bit later, where he comes later in the first century. Most of our miracle stories about them actually appear about half a millennium after they lived. But I don't doubt it. I mean, I think there's a core to them. I think that God probably did answer some of their prayers. But the model for them, I think, was often the same model we have in the New Testament and they were especially known for praying for rain to fall. But the bear model, I think, is especially the model we have explicitly, and, and often implicitly in the New Testament that Jesus could draw on the model of Elijah and Elijah. And that's that's just a model that the gospel writers could draw on. That's something Jesus could draw on, as well. So I think those those parallels are much closer than any parallels that we have in pagan literature, or, you know, Greco, larger Greco Roman literature. Yeah.
Excellent. What one of the things that many scholars have commented on about your scholarship as the thoroughness that you work through the Greco Roman sources, how would you characterize the difference between some of these ancient Greco Roman stories about miracles and what we find in the Bible?
Well, some some of this I've already mentioned, but they're also having the difference. terms of the accounts of a particular healer not not people recovering and healing shrines, but of a particular healer, the accounts are really quite different. I mean, you have you have some stories in the Gentile world, about people who lived many hundreds of years before. Eyewitnesses are all dead. No direct lineage back to any written sources that we know of. whereas in the case of Jesus, we're talking about first generation sources. Virtually all scholars agree that Mark was written within a generation of Jesus public ministry some some did a little bit earlier, but usually most scholars dated between 64 and 75. And on average about 70 among critical scholars, I tend to date at around 64. But whenever mark is within a generation of Jesus public ministry, and yet about one third of Mark's gospel consists of a miracle stories, healings and exorcisms. Now, that's quite extraordinary when you consider that marks genre is that of an ancient biography, ancient biographies within a generation or two. Normally were just full of historical information, accurate historical information about the person I've actually tested this by going back and, and looking at some ancient biographies from from within that span of time and, and comparing them with other historical sources and it's just just clear that that they saw their work is reporting historical information. Well, in the case of of the Gospels, I mean, we have these reports about Jesus. They're in what scholars consider every layer of gospel tradition, you know, scholars are talking about Mark talked about shared source between Matthew and Luke, that's not all scholars, but for the scholars that hold that including myself and, and then for other other sources, and it's an evolution That in the, in that shared material between Matthew and Luke, which is often considered the earliest of the gospel sources, certainly within that first generation, you have Jesus sending a message to john the baptist and talking about all these different categories of miracles. He's been working, healing the blind, healing the death, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers, you know, dramatic, visible miracles, in many cases. And, you know, you, it's hard to categorize all this psychosomatic, especially being dead is usually not sex man. But anyway. But then you have in the book of Acts, where the majority of scholars think that the we, in the book of Acts represents an eyewitness source, I think it also represents the author, himself, Luke. But in any case, whatever view scholars holding that most scholars think that it represents an eyewitness and you Whereas the eyewitness I mean, the eyewitness is with Paul, when you dicus falls out the window and after 220 and gets raised. The eyewitness is with Paul in Acts chapter 28, verses eight and nine, where Paul is people who just streaming the Paul in the island of Malta, and he's praying for them and they're getting healed. And so, we have eyewitness accounts. Paul in Second Corinthians 1212. talks to the Corinthians and appeals to their eyewitness knowledge of the of the miracles and signs and wonders that were performed through him, as well as talking about it elsewhere and talking about these things happening within the churches in First Corinthians 12 Galatians. Three is on ministry thing these things happen regularly, Romans 1519 but in Second Corinthians 1212, he actually appeals to bear eyewitness knowledge of what, you know, the miracles that were done through his ministry. Hmm, we have we have other other sources as well. By the Way, the detractors of early Christianity didn't deny that Jesus performed miracles. The the rabbi's who didn't agree with Christianity and Colossus, in the in the late second century who attacked Christianity. They, they spoke of Yeah, well, he did miracles. We just believe he did them by sorcery. But they couldn't deny that he did miracles. back some of the leader rabbis talked about some of his followers during miracles 111 story, a rabbi was on his deathbed and said,
you know, oh, there's a follower of Jesus at the door. Let him in. Let him pray for me. So, we have that in perhaps most compellingly Josephus, the Jewish historian in the first century. In his antiquities, I think it's 1863 and 64. The the original form of that, he talks about Jesus as a sage Who was a worker of wonders using the same term that's used for another Sage? Elijah, elsewhere in Josephus talks about him working wonders, miracles. So even even people who weren't Christians acknowledge that Jesus is a miracle worker. And for that reason, most historical Jesus scholars today, whether they actually believe in real miracles, divine activity or not acknowledge that Jesus was experienced by his contemporaries as a miracle worker. Hmm.
Dr. Keener, thank you for that. Dr. Keener, would you be willing to respond to David Humes classic critique of miracles and one version of that critique would be a miracle is the breaking of the laws of nature or a violation of the laws of nature and we construct the laws of nature based on empirical observation. So an immune a miracle is impossible by definition, because even if we were to experience something extraordinary to us, it would only help revive Our understandings of the laws of nature, how do you respond?
There are actually two major parts of Humes argument, although I think that they're related. But the first part is the one about miracles is violations of the laws of nature. Now, nobody up until that time and called them violations of the laws of nature, it sounds like you're breaking a law, whereas everybody, theists actually don't understand God is breaking those laws, but God is, is ordering those laws and God is free to adjust them. Isaac Newton, on whom he had to had to depend on ideas of laws of miracles. I mean, Isaac Newton in the early Newtonian, all believed in miracles, they didn't deny miracles, they said, you know, the universe God set it up in an orderly way, but God is is not bound by those rules. Today also we usually understand laws of nature descriptively rather than prescriptive leads Tell me what can't happen. Now in terms of causation. You know, we, we try to come up with hypotheses for the best cause for something human is just a priori, ruling out a theistic explanation. You know, if you are a priori, I say, Well, you can't use God as an explanation, then you're going to look somewhere else for an explanation. But sometimes the evidence, I think, is very strong, that God is the best explanation. I mean, he talks about somebody being raised from the dead, who's eventually sometimes people will raise the bar of evidence, you know, they say, give me somebody raised from the dead, you give them that evidence, and then they, they raise the bar higher, and eventually they're talking about, you know, if God writes his name in the sky, you know, and they're asking for things they think God is not gonna stoop down and give, I mean, he's already done so much. But, but there's so much evidence, and I can maybe I'll just give one example of that. I mean, unless we're bearing a lot of people prematurely, we shouldn't expect that most of us know somebody who just was misdiagnosed as dead, and happened to resuscitate A little while later. I mean, maybe we'd say maybe one chance in 10 that we'd know somebody like that one chance of 100. Even if it's as high as one chance in 10. When I started talking with friends in my own circle, my circle and my wife circle, we knew about 10 people. So I mean, if it's one chance in 10, the odds of me finding 10, in my immediate circle is something like one in 10 to the 10th power, one in one in 10 billion or so. And that's higher than the world's population. And I just happen to writing this book, and I know other people who have the same sphere of experience. So I mean, sometimes, you know, you're saying, well, it's just a coincidence, but Sometimes, there are other explanations that are more compelling that are more probable than coincidence. And Humes second argument is actually the argument in which I think he bases his argument for nature and that is that we don't have any reliable eye witnesses for miracles. Now, if somebody claims to be a witness for miracles, he probably consider them unreliable. So there's a there's a major circularity in his argument. And that's actually one of the major things that my book was meant to challenge was just showing we have lots of credible eyewitnesses. You know, we can't say every claim to a miracle of which, statistically, it's been shown We have hundreds of millions of those claims around the world today. But we can't say all of those are actual miracles we don't Well, I think none of us would say those are all actual miracles at the same time, We have many credible eyewitnesses. We have medical documentation and so on. There was a case where Hume cited, actually medical documentation. And this was the healing of Blaise Pascal is nice. Blaise Pascal is kind of the father of the modern computer, brilliant mathematician. And briefly a theologian before I passed away, but his his niece was healed of a of a stinky, long term running eyesore. And she was it was public, the healing was public. Now, most of us today wouldn't agree with how it happened. I mean, she was touched with the holy Thorn from Jesus crown. You know that it was one of the many relics that was circulating at that time. And I think I agree with Luther when he said that we're probably enough nails from the Holy Cross circulating to shoe every porcelain Saxony. And he complained. How is it that we have
18 of the original 12 apostles buried in Germany, you know, but, but it was a contact point for her faith. And she was instantly and publicly healed. The Queen, mother of France center on physician to check it out. And the physician confirmed this. So Hume actually cites this case, and says, Well, this one is better documented anything we have in the Bible. Look, I mean, it's medically documented, it was public, it was visible, basically all the things he asked for, for a reliable witness. And he said, Well, we know this didn't happen. So why should we believe anything else? What kind of argument is that? I mean, that's the kind of argument for which the phrase non sequitur is created. I mean, that's just a very circular argument.
Dr. keener I remember as a teenager in the mid 90s Going with a amateur Bible smuggling mission to mainland China and I had the opportunity of meeting believers from the underground church, some evangelists there who told us some amazing reports about how they would go to these rural villages and pray for miracles. And God in many cases would respond. They reported even people being raised back from the dead. What is it that we're supposed to learn positively from these miracles? What is God teaching us?
Now, the example you get from China is very interesting, because there was a study done in the year 2000. And someone from within the China Christian Council, which is affiliated with the church, suggested that about half of all new conversion is 20 years. So millions of people converting to Christianity over that period. About half of those were due to what they called faith healing experiences, and source from within the underground church, the house church movement, movements at that time, suggested in the rural areas might be closer to 90%. Now, I have no way to verify those kind of statistics. But we know we're talking about lots of people. These are people coming not from Christian presuppositions, but people who actually in some cases had to abandon centuries of certain kinds of traditions, to become followers of Jesus. So, you know, they, in often there's a social price. I mean, in India, you have a lot of people being healed. A lot of them becoming followers of Jesus, and a lot of them are not becoming followers of Jesus because of the social price, but still recognizing that Jesus is a healer. So in the Gospels and acts, and today, most often, these most dramatic or extraordinary healings are taking place and other kinds of miracles are taking place is the gospel is going forward. Especially in new areas. Now, that's not to say God doesn't answer prayer anywhere else he does. And I have a number of accounts of that. But but but they're not always dramatic. I mean, you can have elders pray the prayer of faith, somebody recovers, or God works through medicine, God works through doctors, we can be grateful for all of that. But sometimes it's dramatic. And that does happen. Many places, but it especially most often happens when God is getting people's attention for the gospel, and I could give so many examples of that. So many people movements around the world but that began with. With that,
Dr. Keener, would you be willing to share with us what is a biblical theology of signs and wonders?
Sure. In terms of Jesus ministry, Jesus, he sends a message to john the baptist. This isn't Again, it's in material that Matthew and Luke share. So it's considered some of the earliest, traditionally back to the earliest memories about Jesus, that he sends a message back to john the baptist. And he says the blind see, the disabled walk, the deaf here, the lepers are cleansed, the dead erased.
And the good news is preached to the poor.
But the language that he uses in sending a message to john the baptist also sends another message to john who is biblically literate, and would therefore have known that Jesus was making allusions to Isaiah 35. And Isaiah 61. Indeed, the language that Jesus frames this message in is is about God restoring people in these in these times, with context of that has to do with the ultimate restoration. God is going to make a new heavens and a new earth is going to restore his people and so forth. And so what that suggests is that Jesus was saying, john, you know, I'm not baptizing people with fire. It's true. I'm not doing all the things you expected me to do yet. But the signs are a foretaste of the kingdom. The signs demonstrate God's ring, they demonstrate God's power, they also demonstrate God's character because the most of these miracles were acts of compassion, towards towards the broken. And so I think something we can learn from that. First of all, is God's reign. God God is in charge. But secondly, I think we can also learn from that, that when when God when God heals people, even if he doesn't always answer all of our prayers, but if he answers someone's prayers in a dramatic way, and we look at that we recognize that That's good news for all of us, not just for the person who receives it, because it's a confirmation of God's promise of becoming consummation of the kingdom. So that in the present, we, we suffer, but we recognize there's coming a day, when God is going to heal all the sicknesses, his death is going to be no more, he's going to wipe away every tear from our eyes. So the signs are a foretaste to the kingdom. At the same time, we need to recognize there's something even deeper here than the signs, the foretaste of the kingdom is wonderful. I don't want to play that down at all. At the same time, even deeper than that, in the theology of the Gospels is the message of the cross. Because in the cross we see, even in the midst of suffering, in the midst of brokenness, in the in the midst of injustice, God is still at work to bring about his purposes. God is still faithful. God reigns. And he doesn't always do things the way we expect. But God has a plan, and his plan will not fail.
thank you. In your book miracles, the credibility of the New Testaments, you Chronicle hundreds of miracle stories from around the world from the contemporary period. Would you be willing to share one or two of these miracle stories that are perhaps most significant to you personally?
Now, the most significant miracle stories and the most significant miracle stories for me, and maybe two separate things, but since you asked for me, yes. One of the ones that was kind of a you know, I was I was trying to approach these questions in my head, okay. You know, I used to be an atheist, so coming at this from a skeptical viewpoint, asking hard questions, what are the things that that I can do to try to explain this away? Which unfortunately, I'm very good at that I practiced it too much when I was an atheist. But But eventually, I came across so much that I wasn't able to explain away that just the burden of proof shifted, because it just was overwhelming.
In one of the one of the cases.
And again, there, I mean, there are cases that are medically documented, something like over half of a US physician surveyed said that they have seen miracles, you know, so there are a lot of things like that. But for me, the turning point especially was when I was interviewing Antoinette mulamba in Congo, and she, she was sharing the story I'd already heard, but I hadn't heard it from Her the witness so she didn't have all the detail she explained it to me. She said that when her daughter Torres was about two years old, she cried out that she was being bitten by a snake. Her mother got to her found her not breathing. There was no medical help available in the village. So she's strapped to rest to her back, and she ran to a nearby village where a family friend Coco Goma, Moyes was doing ministry. Coco movies prayed for the child. She started breathing. The next day, she was fine. Torres is now in her 50s she's about my age, had no brain damage. She finished her master's degree and, and so on. But, but Torres This was significant to me for a couple reasons. First, I asked Antoinette Milan Bay, how long was she not breathing. And she had to stop and think to get from this village to that village. She said about three hours. Now, I had cases that were much longer than that, but This one really got my attention. Because Antoinette Milan Bay is my mother in law. Torres is my sister in law. And so, you know, this was like close to home. And not to that one's mother in law. But we did confirm the story also with Coco Molly's who was also a witness. That was that was rather dramatic for me. Now, there's another one where I was there been a number where I've been a witness, but where I've experienced it. But one of these was actually when I was helping in a nursing home Bible study. I was I was still an undergraduate. This was a long time, you know, just become a Christian a few years before that. And the there was this woman named Barbara, she always said, I wish I could walk I wish I could walk. And one day, the Bible study leader who was a seminary student, walked over to her and did something. I wouldn't recommend seminary students do, unless you're absolutely sure it's God because otherwise there could be serious consequences. He, he grabbed me by the hand and said in the name of Jesus Christ rise up in the walk, and lifted her out of the chair and started walking around the room. Now, if faith is a bias, I can't be accused of it in this case, because I thought she was gonna fall flat on the side on the floor. And from the look of horror on her face, I think she thought that too. But from then on, Barbara could walk. And she would always say I love my Bible study. I love my Bible study. So that gave me a bit of a bias towards believing in miracles. But, you know, really the turning point for really, really saying, I need to take these more seriously was was when I got the account of my sister in law. Hmm.
Dr. Keener, thank you so much for those rich and very powerful reflections. Thank you. Dr. Keener, you and your wife, Mei Dean are engaged in reconciliation work all through Africa. What is the key to Biblical reconciliation?
There are a lot of important things about reconciliation. But I think the biggest key for us as believers in Jesus is to recognize that Jesus is Lord. If Jesus matters more to us, if he's more central to us than anything else, then he's he's got to be more central in our unity with others share that commitment has to be more central than any other connection. So that means it's not my ethnicity. It's not my culture. It's not my language. It's not my denomination. It's not my fraternity or sorority. Not that I was in one. But But none of these other kinds of connections. I mean, it's not to say they don't matter obviously, language matters. You have trouble communicating. Otherwise, and, and certainly in the United States, and in my wife's country where they had a civil war, ethnically based, you know, ethnicity matters. I mean, there's the the reality of racism, we need to talk about justice and all these things. But if Jesus matters more to us than anything else, then we're going to love our brothers and sisters across all these other lines. And if we really love one another across all these other lines, will begin to listen to one another, hear one another out. And even if we disagree, even if we don't come to a consensus, we're going to keep loving one another and working together.
I don't think our views will change as we really listen to one another.
Dr. Keener, if I may ask one final question In conclusion, and that is this. What would it mean for the church to be united? How would we recognize this unity today and what is it that we can do to foster Christian unity.
Jesus said, this is how everyone will know that you're my disciples, if you love one another. And earlier in that chapter, he talked about serving one another, even giving the example of Washington disciples feet, kind of as a foretaste of him going to the cross, if we love one another, and not just in Word, but indeed, in being willing to sacrifice for one another. That's what we see the early church did next to 44 and 45. I mean, they, to 41 to 47. You have you're praying together, they're eating meals together. And right in the end, on either side of it, you have people coming to Christ, first from Peter sermon, and then finally, from the way the church is living, but right in the middle of that you have, you have believers, even sharing their possessions. I mean, when Jesus gets your pocketbook, you know, it gets your wallet, you know, that is really Lord. But we care for one another. Jesus went on and chapter 17 in the same book to talk about that unity being how people would people would know that he was really simply the Father. It shows the world. It's not it doesn't mean we always agree on everything. Sometimes we may challenge one another vigorously on points. But it means we love one another. enough to be able to hang in there when we disagree or hang in there when when things are inconvenient or hang in there when somebody needs help. So I think that that's the long answer for a long answer. But the most concise way to say it is just unity is loving one another, and and serving one another. No matter what.
It has been our extraordinary privilege today to be speaking with Dr. keener professor of New Testament study. At Asbury Theological Seminary and author of many books, including the book that we've been discussing today, miracles, the credibility of the New Testament counts. Dr. Keener, thank you for joining us.
Thank you so much.