Review of Craig Keener, “Miracles,” Continued: Why Is There a Greater Frequency of Miracles in the Gospels than in Greco-Roman Biographies and Historiography?

Keener, MiraclesAs we close the year 2015, I will be writing the third installment of my review of Craig Keener’s Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts here on Κέλσος. After this part I will also probably take a break from writing this review for a period of time. The reason why is that I have a number of graduate school projects to work on with the beginning of the new year. However, I plan to return to this review periodically throughout the year 2016, and will be writing several additional installments to cover all the issues that Keener raises.

The topic of today’s installment will be about Keener’s observation that the Gospels and Acts cite miracle reports far more frequently than Greco-Roman biographies and histories, including those about historical figures reputed to work miracles, such as Vespasian. Keener creates the impression that there must have been some special, miraculous nature surrounding Jesus and Christianity’s origins that made miracle working a greater part of their “history.” I think that a closer look at the Gospels’ sources, however, betrays another culprit.

In the previous part of this review, I discussed Keener’s assertion that biblical scholars allegedly treat the sections of the Gospels and Acts that contain miracles differently than how they interpret other portions of the texts. As I explained in that post, critical scholars actually have several reasons to doubt even the mundane sections of these narratives, due to issues such as Midrash, redaction criticism, allegorical characters, fulfillment of scripture citations, and more. As such, doubting the historical reliability of the Gospels and Acts stretches into many other issues and considerations beyond just miracles.

During that discussion, however, I gave Keener something of a free pass when he made the following claim (pg. 14):

“Some scholars who grant that the Gospels are biographies or that Acts is a historical monograph containing much accurate information nevertheless find the miracle reports in those same narratives problematic. This apparent inconsistency in approach stems not from a change in genre but from philosophic assumptions about what is possible for intelligent people in other cultures and eras to believe that they have seen.”

As many readers of this blog will know, Greco-Roman biography is one of my major areas of research in Classics. (I completed my M.A. thesis on the Roman biographer Suetonius.) I am not against the comparison of the Gospels to Greco-Roman biographies, but I also think that there are considerable nuances and considerations relevant to this comparison, including the fact that simply belonging to the genre of ancient biography is no sure proof of historical reliability.

I have written a considerable amount on the subject here on ΚέλσοςIn particular, my essay “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament” contrasts the Gospels with the genres of Greco-Roman historiography and historical biography, based on a number of structural and stylistic considerations, such as the citation of sources, comparisons of different traditions, and the level of critical analysis. I also discuss in my essay “Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies?” how there was a broad spectrum of biographical exempla in antiquity, and how simply being a Greco-Roman bios, for example, does not mean that a text is historically reliable, or even historical in genre. Finally, in my essay “The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod and the Gospels: Some Comparanda” I discuss how the Gospels most resemble the novelistic Greco-Roman biographies of popular legendary figures, such as Aesop, Homer, and Alexander the Great, which included large amounts of fabulous elements and creative liberties on the part of their authors (who actually functioned more as editors). I have also had a conference paper accepted, based on this last essay, to the Pacific Coast SBL meeting at Claremont Graduate University in March 2016.

Much of this earlier discussion will be relevant to an observation that Keener makes about the frequency of miracles in the Gospels and Acts compared to other biographical and historiographical exempla from the same period. Authors like Herodotus, for example, would record several miraculous events in their histories, such miracles associated with the Temple of Delphi (8.38.1) and cooked fish rising from the dead (9.120). However, Keener (pg. 15) points out that, while Greco-Roman biographers and historians would include miracles in their narratives, such miracles occur at a much smaller frequency than in the Gospels and Acts:

“Historians in antiquity often include miraculous elements in their works, as earlier in much of ancient Israel’s historiography, so acknowledging the presence of such claims does not shift the presumed genre of the Gospels and Acts away from ancient biography and historiography. Yet the Gospels and Acts report signs more often, given the amount of space available, than typical extant historians from their period. Still, they do so in a proportion comparable to certain sections of Israelite narratives, and perhaps with a lower concentration than parts of the Elijah-Elisha cycle.”

The observation in bold above stood out to me, since one of the features of the Gospels and Acts that likewise stands out to me, as a Classicist, is the considerable frequency with which they cite the Old Testament, in the form of fulfillment of scripture citations, for example. It should be noted that this form of citation is a considerable blow against the historical reliability of these texts, since it shows that a large amount of their stories and depictions of Jesus were derived from earlier literature, and especially religious scripture, rather than historical sources and documents.

Once more, this consideration has implications for many of the stories in the Gospels, besides just miracles. For example, it has long been recognized among biblical scholars that the infancy narrative in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 2) was by and large derived from earlier Jewish literature, rather than historical events. As Bart Ehrman (“Matthew’s Fulfillment of Scripture Citations”) explains:

“What is perhaps most striking about Matthew’s account is that it all happens according to divine plan. The Holy Spirit is responsible for Mary’s pregnancy and an angel from heaven allays Joseph’s fears. All this happens to fulfill a prophecy of the Hebrew Scriptures (1:23). Indeed, so does everything else in the narrative: Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (2:6), the family’s flight to Egypt (2:14) Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem (2:18) and the family’s decision to relocate in Nazareth (2:23). These are stories that occur only in Matthew, and they are all said to be fulfillments of prophecy.”

It can easily be shown, however, that Herod’s slaughter of the infant boys in Bethlehem (Mt. 2:16-18) was derived from Pharoah’s slaughter of the Hebrew boys in Exodus 1:22-2:8. Likewise, even evangelical scholars, such as Robert Gundry, have argued that there are other fictional elements in Matthew’s nativity, such as the visit of the Magi being used as an allusion to Daniel 2:2. Fellow blogger Paul Davidson has also written an excellent summary of how Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus was almost entirely derived from the Old Testament, providing a summary of many previous scholarly observations, in “What’s the Deal with Matthew’s Genealogy?

I also think that the above analysis can answer a great deal about Keener’s observation of there being a greater frequency of miracles in the Gospels. First, here is Keener’s (pg. 16) explanation:

“Yet this difference is likely especially because most other extant historians were writing about political or social events, not the early history of a miracle worker and a “charismatic” movement known in that period for its signs.”

First off, if Keener wants a greater frequency of miracles in a Pagan text, one place to turn for that is ancient paradoxography, which were Pagan compilations of miracles and paranormal events that were composed long before the life of Jesus, by authors such as Callimachus, Philostephanus, Antigonus of Carystus, and Myrsilus of Methymna. (Strangely, looking through the index of Keener’s volumes, I don’t see much attention paid to paradoxography, except for a brief footnote about Callimachus on pg. 777, which is about his Hymns and not paradoxography.) Historians like Herodotus would report many similar miracles and marvels as these authors, but at a lower frequency, due to the emphasis on other issues like political history. In this sense, Keener is correct, but I think he misdiagnoses (pun intended) the cause of the greater miracle frequency in the Gospels and Acts.

As I explain in my essay “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament,” one of the most striking features of the Gospels compared to historical biographies, such as those of Plutarch and Suetonius, is the near complete absence of times in which they cite their historical sources. Consider, for example, the various historical sources that the Roman biographer in his Life of Caligula (8.1-5) pertaining to the subject’s birth:

“Gaius Caesar was born the day before the Kalends of September in the consulship of his father and Gaius Fonteius Capito. Conflicting testimony makes his birthplace uncertain. Gnaeus Lentulus Gaetulicus writes that he was born at Tibur, Plinius Secundus among the Treveri, in a village called Ambitarvium above the Confluence. Pliny adds as proof that altars are shown there, inscribed “For the Delivery of Agrippina.” Verses which were in circulation soon after he became emperor indicate that he was begotten in the winter-quarters of the legions: “He who was born in the camp and reared amid the arms of his country, gave at the outset a sign that he was fated to rule.” I myself find in the gazette that he first saw the light at Antium. Gaetulicus is shown to be wrong by Pliny, who says that he told a flattering lie, to add some lustre to the fame of a young and vainglorious prince from the city sacred to Hercules; and that he lied with the more assurance because Germanicus really did have a son born to him at Tibur, also called Gaius Caesar, of whose lovable disposition and untimely death I have already spoken. Pliny has erred in his chronology; for the historians of Augustus agree that Germanicus was not sent to Germany until the close of his consulship, when Gaius was already born. Moreover, the inscription on the altar adds no strength to Pliny’s view, for Agrippina twice gave birth to daughters in that region, and any childbirth, regardless of sex, is called puerperium, since the men of old called girls puerae, just as they called boys puelli. Furthermore, we have a letter written by Augustus to his granddaughter Agrippina, a few months before he died, about the Gaius in question (for no other child of the name was still alive at that time), reading as follows: “Yesterday I arranged with Talarius and Asillius to bring your boy Gaius on the fifteenth day before the Kalends of June, if it be the will of the gods. I send with him besides one of my slaves who is a physician, and I have written Germanicus to keep him if he wishes. Farewell, my own Agrippina, and take care to come in good health to your Germanicus.” I think it is clear enough that Gaius could not have been born in a place to which he was first taken from Rome when he was nearly two years old. This letter also weakens our confidence in the verses, the more so because they are anonymous. We must then accept the only remaining testimony, that of the public record, particularly since Gaius loved Antium as if it were his native soil, always preferring it to all other places of retreat, and even thinking, it is said, of transferring there the seat and abode of the empire through weariness of Rome.”

Here, the historical biographer Suetonius cites an abundant amount of historical sources for his biography, such as earlier historians, poetic verses, inscriptions, personal letters, and public records. There is nothing near this level of analysis in the Gospels or Acts. The closest example is the prologue of Luke (1:1), which anonymously mentions earlier accounts about Jesus:

“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us…”

Such a statement is rather vague and does not tell us a great deal about the written sources that the author consulted. We can tell, however, from source analysis that the author of Luke derived a large portion of his material from the Gospel of Mark (another anonymous text even more silent about where it obtained its material). Moreover, the first four verses of Luke (1:1-4) have a highly different style from the rest of the narrative. As scholar Marion Soards (Oxford Annotated Bible, pg. 1827) notes:

“The initial four verses of the book are a single Greek sentence that forms a highly stylized introductory statement typical of ancient historical writings … After this distinctive preface, however, the narrative shifts into a style of Greek reminiscent of the Septuagint.”

Once more we are back to the Old Testament scriptures, and here I think is where the smoking gun can be found for why there is a greater miracle frequency in the Gospels and Acts. Some scholars have argued that the number of citation formulas in the Gospels and Acts matches those of Greco-Roman biographies and historiography. Andrew Pitts, for example, whom I met recently at the 2015 SBL meeting in Atlanta, has recently been doing research on citation formulas in the Gospels, such as in his article “Source Citation in Greek Historiography and in Luke(-Acts).” A major point that should be made, however, is that overwhelmingly these source citation formulas are to the Jewish scriptures in the Old Testament, rather than to earlier historical documents or oral sources, which are more commonly cited by Greco-Roman biographers and historians.

The number of literary citations in the Gospels can be compared with the number of historical citations in Greco-Roman biographical texts. For a summary of the Old Testament citations in the Gospels and Acts, see here. The total number is that the Gospel of Matthew cites the OT 43 times, Mark 18 times, Luke 21 times, John 15 times, and Acts 29 times. These citations likewise do not include several other scriptural allusions to the Old Testament in these texts. Now, in contrast, consider how many times Plutarch cites historical sources in his Life of Alexander. As J. Powell in “The Sources of Plutarch’s Alexander” (pg. 229) explains, “Plutarch cites by name no fewer than 24 authorities.” Note, again, that these are historical citations and not merely citations of religious scripture.

Moving back now to Keener’s observation about the greater frequency of miracles in the Gospels and Acts compared to Greco-Roman biographies and historiography, I think that a very large part of that disparity can be explained by the sources they were relying on. As Keener (pg. 15) even pointed out:

“Yet the Gospels and Acts report signs more often, given the amount of space available, than typical extant historians from their period. Still, they do so in a proportion comparable to certain sections of Israelite narratives, and perhaps with a lower concentration than parts of the Elijah-Elisha cycle.”

The origin of the miraculous reports, therefore, may have much more to do with the earlier Jewish literature that the Gospels and Acts were using as their literary models, rather than actual historical events. I also discussed in my previous post how there are several miracles of Jesus that can be shown to derive from Midrash of the Old Testament.

As R. C. Symes (“Jesus’ Miracles and Religious Myth”) explains:

“Gospel stories about Jesus’ miracles are a type of midrash (i.e., contemporizing and reinterpreting) of Old Testament events in order to illustrate theological themes. Among the many miracles in Mark’s original narrative, there are two sets of five miracles each. Each set begins with a sea-crossing miracle and ends with a miraculous feeding. He uses this literary construct so his readers will recall the role of Moses leading his people through water towards the promised land, and feeding them with manna from heaven. Jesus does something similar. And with each water and feeding miracle, there is one exorcism and two healing miracles that are to remind readers of the works of the prophets Elijah and Elisha and how Jesus surpasses them. The parallels between events in Jesus’ life to those in the lives of Moses, Elijah, and Elisha and others are too close for a coincidence. This points more to constructing religious myths in the gospel for theological reasons, than to reporting historical facts.”

And so, the feeding miracles in Mark were probably invented to parallel the miracles of Moses. In fact, many other (if not most) of Jesus’ miracles can be shown to have Old Testament antecedents. Elisha, for example, was said to raise the dead (2 Kings 4:8-37), and Elijah was said to have ascended to heaven (2 Kings 4:8-37). Keener has even pointed out that the Elijah-Elisha cycle in some parts has a greater frequency of miracles than the Gospels and Acts, and even evangelical scholar Craig Blomberg (despite my many disagreements with him) points out, “The closest parallels to the miracles of Jesus are in fact in the Old Testament.”

So, the mystery behind Jesus as a miracle worker may lie more in earlier literature rather than historical events. This can also answer some of the observations that Keener makes later in the book. For example, Keener (pg. 65) argues that there were few individual miracle workers in antiquity before Jesus:

“The most common means of seeking divine healing in the ancient Mediterranean world involved healing sanctuaries, where supplicants often received healing through dreams on the sacred grounds. This method, however, has nothing more in common with Jesus and his first followers than the notion of healing by a deity, a widespread conception throughout history. More relevant, then, would be individual healers, especially those who were also sages; unfortunately, historical Gentile examples of this category do not become common in our extant sources until a later era, when stories about Jesus were widely circulated.”

I have a lot of problems with the claims in this passage, and I plan to return to critique it in more detail in a later part of this review. However, I don’t think that this observation, even if true, would make Christianity as unique as Keener seems to want to imply. For example, Keener points out that there were other individual healers, but that they simply didn’t heal to the same extent as Jesus. In discussing the Roman emperor Vespasian, for example, Keener (pp. 45-46) states:

“Political propagandists made good use of two healings associated with Vespasian. These might represent genuine recoveries, but these are the only two healings associated with him.”

To begin with, the theological propagandists who wrote the Gospels made good use of modeling Jesus off of figures such as Moses, Elijah, and Elisha in the Old Testament scriptures, all of whom were associated with miracles. In depicting Jesus as the Davidic King and Messiah, therefore, they had a literary model based on previous miraculous figures. But furthermore, the authors who wrote about the life of Vespasian, such as Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio were not (like the Gospels) merely lifting a ton of their details from earlier literature. Instead, these historical authors were basing their narratives far more on historical sources. So, the literary sources may be what’s making the big difference here, and not the number of “historical” miracles performed by Jesus.

All that being said, however, I would like to qualify that I do think that the historical Jesus had an association as a miracle worker during his own day. Keener repeatedly emphasizes throughout this book that most NT scholars today agree that Jesus was thought of as a miracle worker by his contemporaries. There is still a considerable amount of nuance to this conclusion, however. Last year when I attended the 2014 SBL meeting in San Diego, I saw an interesting paper given by Daniel Frayer­-Griggs, titled “By What Authority Do You Do These Things? The Origin of Jesus’ Reputation as Healer.” Frayer­-Griggs argues that Jesus probably acquired his reputation as a miracle worker through his association with John the Baptist, and there are even indications in the Gospels that those who knew Jesus prior to meeting John did not consider him a miracle worker, such as his rejection in his home town in Mark 6:1-6. However, Frayer-Griggs argues that through modeling himself after the charismatic movement of John the Baptist, Jesus was able to use similar techniques to garner his own reputation as a miracle worker.

This could provide the historical kernel behind how Jesus’ miracle working began. I think that Jesus’ miracles, as they are depicted in the Gospels, however, are largely embellished, especially since they can be shown to be modeled after figures like Moses, Elijah, and Elisha. Furthermore, the multitude of Jesus’ miracles occurs at a similar frequency as these Old Testament figures, which is probably the cause of the number of miracles attributed to Jesus. Earlier literature, therefore, may play a much greater role in many of the observations that Keener makes about Jesus’ “uniqueness” as a miracle worker than actual historical events.

-Matthew Ferguson

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5 Responses to Review of Craig Keener, “Miracles,” Continued: Why Is There a Greater Frequency of Miracles in the Gospels than in Greco-Roman Biographies and Historiography?

  1. Biblical Studies scholar Hector Avalos has stated on Facebook that he too plans to write a critique of Keener, this time on Keener’s discussion of faith healers in Mexico, of whom Avalos (now an atheist) used to be one:

    I look forward to Dr. Avalos’ contribution to the discussion!

  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

  3. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival – December 2015 |

  4. Patrick says:

    Matthew Ferguson: “The observation in bold above stood out to me, since one of the features of the Gospels and Acts that likewise stands out to me, as a Classicist, is the considerable frequency with which they cite the Greek Septuagint, in the form of fulfillment of scripture citations, for example. It should be noted that this form of citation is a considerable blow against the historical reliability of these texts, since it shows that a large amount of their stories and depictions of Jesus were derived from earlier literature, and especially religious scripture, rather than historical sources and documents.”

    I don’t see your point. Why is the fact that the authors of New Testament books cite the Greek Septuagint supposed to be an argument against the historicity of these books?

    Matthew Ferguson: “We can tell, however, from source analysis that the author of Luke derived a large portion of his material from the Gospel of Mark (another anonymous text even more silent about where it obtained its material).”

    In an earlier comment I provided arguments for the view that Luke is not dependent on Mark.

    Matthew Ferguson [R. C. Symes:]: “Among the many miracles in Mark’s original narrative, there are two sets of five miracles each. Each set begins with a sea-crossing miracle and ends with a miraculous feeding.”

    One of the arguments for the historicity of Biblical accounts is based on a phenomenon that has been called “undesigned coincidences”. This term refers to agreements between texts, whereby these agreements appear not to have been intended by the author(s) of these texts. Examples of identifications of “undesigned coincidences” in the Gospels are presented in the following link, and one of these examples is about the miraculous feeding of the five thousand mentioned in the Gospels:

    Matthew Ferguson: “And so, the feeding miracles in Mark were probably invented to parallel the miracles of Moses. In fact, many other (if not most) of Jesus’ miracles can be shown to have Old Testament antecedents. Elisha, for example, was said to raise the dead (2 Kings 4:8-37), and Elijah was said to have ascended to heaven (2 Kings 4:8-37). Keener has even pointed out that the Elijah-Elisha cycle in some parts has a greater frequency of miracles than the Gospels and Acts, and even evangelical scholar Craig Blomberg (despite my many disagreements with him) points out, “The closest parallels to the miracles of Jesus are in fact in the Old Testament.””

    Another possible explanation is that Jesus’ miracles as well as those mentioned in the Old Testament really happened. The fact that there are parallels concerning the descriptions of actions performed by two or more persons doesn’t necessarily mean that one of these descriptions has been modeled after another one.

    Matthew Ferguson: “All that being said, however, I would like to qualify that I do think that the historical Jesus had an association as a miracle worker during his own day. Keener repeatedly emphasizes throughout this book that most NT scholars today agree that Jesus was thought of as a miracle worker by his contemporaries.”

    If there are no miracles how can Jesus have gained the reputation of being a miracle worker among contemporaries? The same question could be asked with respect to Blumhardt.

    Matthew Ferguson: “However, Frayer-Griggs argues that through modeling himself after the charismatic movement of John the Baptist, Jesus was able to use similar techniques to garner his own reputation as a miracle worker.”

    In the New Testament John the Baptist never is presented as a miracle worker, and the passage Mark 6:14 Frayer-Griggs points to in favour of the view that he nevertheless was one in my view doesn’t support such a view.

    • Dear Patrick,

      As mentioned in another comment, I’m busy with graduate work right now for the upcoming months, so I won’t have time to answer all the points in this comment, at the moment.

      One thing that I will address:

      “I don’t see your point. Why is the fact that the authors of New Testament books cite the Greek Septuagint supposed to be an argument against the historicity of these books?”

      The point that I was raising in this essay was not directly related to historical reliability, but rather *genetic criticism*. It is widely recognized among Classicists that ancient authors did not write literature in a vacuum. They drew upon literary antecedents. In this way, Vergil shaped the Aeneid out of imitation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

      The reason I brought up the Septuagint is because it is obvious that the NT accounts were shaped out of imitation of the Septuagint, not only through source citations, but also in their language and style. Since there is a similar frequency of miracle reports in some of the books of the Septuagint and the Gospels, therefore, this shared aspect may owe itself to the *genetic* relationship between the two.

      Also, on the issue of undesigned coincidences, I have actually been working with philosopher of religion Evan Fales on refuting that argument. But, I won’t be posting about it here for a while. One thing that I will note is that the McGrews are not biblical scholars and I am not aware of them presenting their case for undesigned coincidences at any professional organization like the SBL. It’s a very old idea that scholars studying the Synoptic problem have been familiar with for a while, and have largely rejected.

      As for Frayer-Griggs, he discusses more the evidence for John as a miracle worker more in his article “‘More than a Prophet’: Echoes of Exorcism in Markan and Matthean Baptist Traditions.” He notes that the Gospels seek to supress the view that John was a miracle worker (citing John 10:41), but here is what he says regarding Mark 6:14:

      “The word δυνάμεις itself recalls Mk 6.1, where the people of Nazareth exclaim, ‘What deeds of power [δυνάμεις] are being done by [Jesus’] hands!’ (cf. 6.5). More importantly, the δυνάμεις at work in Jesus are attributed to John the Baptist and arouse rumors that John has been raised from the dead. This tradition, which is difficult to imagine as a creation of the early church, provoked Bultmann to ask, ‘does not Mk. 6.14 imply that reports of the Baptist’s miracles were current?’ That Jesus’ own miracles were attributed to John would not only suggest that John had a reputation as a healer, but that – at least in some circles at this time – his reputation superseded that of Jesus.”

      I’ll have more to say about this when I return to blogging. I apologize for the delay in responding to you, but I really need to focus on graduate work right now, and my time is limited. Until then, I have approved this comment, so that other people can read your thoughts, if interested.

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