There is always a negative reaction to any serious discussion of miracles that I have in the classroom (virtual or real). The gut reaction that people have is: who is to tell me that miracles don't happen or couldn't have happened. And behind this lurks the claim that God can do anything God wants to do. Let's unpack this even though it makes people so uncomfortable (and as a warning, there will probably be a lot of things I am going to say in this long series of posts that will make for discomfort).
The claim to the miraculous is not the same as the claim to the unexplainable. Something might happen to me that I can't explain (in fact things happen to me quite often that I don't have a ready explanation for), but it doesn't become a miracle until I make it a miracle, a manifestation of the supernatural, by my interpretation of the event.
This is a very important distinction to make. Humans experience events all the time that have no ready explanation for them. But it is only our move to
those events as "miracles" and then as "religious miracles" and then as "religious miracles of a particular religious kind" that make the event supernatural and grant it miraculous meaning.
This is why I emphasized in so many of my ground rules that our sources are humanly-authored and reflect human experience and very particular interpretations of those experiences. We are NOT to assume what is said by these authors is what actually happened, could have happened, might have happened, or should have happened. Our sources are records of how the Christians came to understand their experiences and frame them religiously and yes, miraculously, in very very particular and even peculiar ways.
Traditional Greek Icon: Jesus Walks on Water
Let's take the example of Jesus walking on water. What are reasoned (or critical) explanations for the story?
1. The Christians made it up whole cloth to make a theological statement about Jesus: that what he could do was so miraculous that he could walk on water which no normal human being could do. This proves his divinity. Only gods walk on water.
2. There was an event that was remembered and interpreted as miraculous. This sort of miraculous embellishment happens all the time in storytelling. Need I remind us of a very recent event in which Eilan Gonzalez, the five-year old boy who survived a sea journey from Cuba on a homemade raft, became "The Miracle Child" over the course of a couple of days. His story became a story about dolphins protecting him from sharks so that he was in perfect condition when he got to Florida (they forgot to mention that his mom had wrapped him in her coat, tied him to an inner tube and gave him a bottle of water which allowed him to survive the elements). Then the Santerian priests began to embellish the "miracle" by saying that Eilan had been saved by "angels at sea." Although this is a religious miraculous interpretation, apparently it had developed from the five-year old's "eyewitness" testimony that he thought an angel kept him company at night. Finally his story was keyed to Catholic interpretation: Castro became Herod, Clinton became Pilot, and Elian became the Messiah. This is an example of a modern miracle during an age when we can document what actually happened and interview the eyewitnesses. I hope you can see from this the problems with eyewitness testimony even a few days after the event.
If the story of Jesus walking on water was completely fabricated or had its roots in some historical event, we can never know. We can conjecture all we want about a terrible storm in which Jesus and his disciples were caught on a boat and Peter almost drowned and Jesus was able to rescue him against all odds, but the fact remains that Jesus' walk on water is an interpretation that makes it a miracle. The miracle is framed in such a way that Jesus does something a normal human can't do. This works to prove to the audience that Jesus is a god.
So the ground rule remains the same: we must say "no" to the miraculous as history. The move to the miraculous is interpretative and theological. So while miracles might interest us as historians because they will tell us a lot about how Jesus was interpreted by the early Christians, they are not historical events - not in Christianity, not in Judaism, not in Islam, not in Buddhism, not in Hinduism, not in any religion.