Saturday, July 02, 2005

The Uniqueness of the Miracles of Jesus (Part 1)

Since there's no reasonable way to deny the historical probability of some of the miraculous events surrounding Jesus' life, critics of Christianity often cite miracle claims associated with other belief systems as a parallel. The intent seems to be to suggest that since contradictory systems have such alleged miracles associated with them, then either all of the miracle claims must be false or there's no way for us to know which system, if any, is true.

These alleged parallels to the miracles of Christ all have something in common. They aren't parallels. But critics will make the comparison anyway, acting as if the vaguest of similarities justify overlooking broad differences in the details.

An eyewitness account of the life of Christ will be compared to an account of some other alleged miracle worker written 200 years after the fact. Accounts from eyewitnesses who suffered for their testimony will be compared to accounts from second generation sources who suffered little or nothing. Differences in societal standards, personal background, potential motives, hostile corroboration, and other contexts will be ignored or underestimated because there are some vague similarities.

In terms of the quantity and quality of the miraculous, there is no life in history that's comparable to the life of Jesus. As supernaturalists, Christians have no obligation to prove that every miracle claim made by every non-Christian is false. If a Jewish man living 50 years before Jesus' birth claims to receive a miraculous answer to prayer, a naturalist may want to dismiss the claim, but a Christian has no need to dismiss it. And if a Hindu claims to heal a man, a Christian may want to disprove that claim, but he still has reason to maintain his faith in Christ if the healing is authentic. If God is the most powerful being in the universe, then we should look for the miracle worker who carries the biggest stick. That's Jesus.

What I want to do in my next post is quote a few scholars commenting on the evidence for and uniqueness of Jesus' miracles. Keep in mind, though, that these scholars are presenting only a portion of the evidence. For example, some of the categories of miracle that Jesus performed aren't mentioned, such as fulfilling prophecy, reading people's minds, and foretelling the future. But what I'll be quoting does give the general thrust of what I'm getting at.

We need to keep in mind what conditions the early Christians were living and writing under. They had many motivations for being realistic and honest. We should remember what sort of death Jesus died, and we should remember that the early Christians followed in His footsteps:

“Jesus did not die a gentle death like Socrates, with his cup of hemlock, much less passing on 'old and full of years' like the patriarchs of the Old Testament. Rather, he died like a slave or a common criminal, in torment, on the tree of shame. Paul’s Jesus did not die just any death; he was 'given up for us all' on the cross, in a cruel and a contemptible way.” (Martin Hengel, Crucifixion [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Fortress Press, 1977], p. 90)

That’s the historical context of early Christianity. The New Testament was written in that context, not in the context of some twenty-first century fideistic, postmodern American religion that people would rather ignore than persecute. The early Christians would have wanted evidence for the alleged miracles surrounding Jesus' life, such as His resurrection. And the guards at Jesus’ tomb (Matthew 28:4), James (1 Corinthians 15:7), Paul (1 Corinthians 9:1), and Paul’s travel companions (Acts 22:9), for example, weren’t even Christians, so their experiences can’t possibly be dismissed as the delusions of undiscerning believers. When we look at details like these, the large majority of alleged parallels cited by skeptics don't even survive the initial stages of scrutiny.