George I. Mavrodes
The idea of the miraculous, and reports of miracles, are prominent elements in some religions. Christianity is one of those religions. In this chapter I discuss this idea primarily in the context of Christianity, though much of what I have to say will also apply to its occurrence in the other theistic religions. From the very beginning, the accounts of the life of Jesus seem to include miraculous elements. In the four Gospels that are now part of the New Testament, Jesus is reported as having done many strange and amazing things. Most of these involve the healing of various diseases and disabilities, many of them apparently of long standing. There are also other incidents, such as walking on the water, calming a storm, and changing water into wine at a wedding feast, that do not involve healings. There is at least one striking case of a resurrection attributed to Jesus, the raising of Lazarus (John, ch. 11). And finally there is the miracle that, for many Christians anyway, overshadows all of these others in importance. That is the resurrection of Jesus himself several days after his death by crucifixion. As we might imagine, the strange things that Jesus did often resulted in awe and amazement among those who saw them. They contributed greatly to Jesus' reputation, and they drew large crowds to him wherever he went throughout Galilee and Judea. No doubt they had a significant effect on the way his preaching was received, and on people's reaction to him personally, both before and after his death. The idea of the miraculous, of course, was not invented by Jesus nor by the writers of the Gospels. The Judaic tradition within which Jesus began and carried out his ministry already included the idea of the miraculous. The Hebrew scrip end p.304
tures (now often called the Old Testament by Christians) include many such accounts of strange things being done by prophets of past time. We should beware, however, of hastily assuming that all these strange things that Jesus did can properly be lumped together into any single convenient and useful category, such as that of miracles. After all, there is probably no one who thinks that everything that Jesus did was a miracle. And it is possible that even some of the strange things were not miracles. Of course, that raises the question of just what a miracle is, or what it is supposed to be. And that might lead to some understanding of the ways an event, even if surprising, might fail to be a miracle. That is one of the topics I discuss below.
The Concept of Miracle
What is a miracle? The most significant and influential attempt in Western philosophy to define the idea of the miraculous is probably that of David Hume. This is found in his essay “Of Miracles,” which constitutes section X of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1777), first published in 1748. Indeed, this whole essay is probably the most provocative and influential philosophical discussion of miracles in the history of Western philosophy. It touches on most of the philosophically significant questions related to this topic. I will not discuss Hume's essay systematically, but I will refer to it from time to time as a convenient way of introducing the questions that I will discuss. Hume's definition is found in a footnote in part I of the essay. There Hume says, “A miracle may be accurately defined, a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent” (1777, 115). This definition seems to me to be basically correct, in the sense that it captures and expresses what most Christians seem to have meant...