Friday, April 2, 2010

Thoughts on Miracles

One of the charges levelled at the ancients is that they can't be trusted to report miracles because they were credulous and superstitious.

Glenn Miller discusses such matters and reaches a completely different conclusion.

* "In antiquity miracles were not accepted without question. Graeco-Roman writers were often reluctant to ascribe miraculous events to the gods, and offered alternative explanations. Some writers were openly skeptical about miracles (e.g. Epicurus; Lucretius; Lucian). So it is a mistake to write off the miracles of Jesus as the result of the naivety and gullibility of people in the ancient world." [GAJ, rev 2, p.235, Stanton]

* "This period [Hellenistic] may well have been the least superstitious period of antiquity, even if we have to allow for the continued existence in concealment of an undercurrent of the usual superstitions and belief in miracles. However that may be a change sets in with the beginning of late antiquity. Popular belief in miracles and superstition revived." [MSECT:269, Theissen]

* "On the other hand it must be admitted that in the relatively peaceful and stable period of the first two centuries the irrationalism which first appeared at the beginning of the first century was unable to strike roots. There continued to be rationalist movements alongside it. In his dialogues Lucian mocked his contemporaries' belief in the miraculous. Oenomaus of Gadara mocked the oracles, and Sextus Empiricus once more brought together all the arguments of scepticism. Even where increased irrationalism was notable--for example in Plutarch's development--it remained within bounds, without eccentricity or fanaticism. There was no decisive change before the great social and political crisis of the 3rd century. AD. [MSECT:275, Theissen]

* "Primitive Christian belief in the miraculous thus has a crucial role in the religious development of late antiquity. It stands at the beginning of the 'new' irrationalism of that age. Our brief outline of this development may have done something to correct the widespread picture of an ancient belief in the miraculous which has no history. What we have found here is not a rampant jungle of ancient credulity with regard to miracles, but a process of historical transformation in which forms and patterns of belief in the miraculous succeed one another. If we accept this picture, we must firmly reject assertions that primitive Christian belief in the miraculous represented nothing unusual in the context of its period." [MSECT:276, Theissen]

* "particularly in the Augustan age, when intellectual life was inspired by the example of Alexandrian scholarship, there was a general desire for increasingly exact knowledge, and historians, like poets, were always on the alert to correct their predecessors." [X02:RCH4S:93, Woodman]

* "It is in this light that we must judge the accounts we possess of other miracle-workers in Jesus' period and culture. We have already observed that the list of such occurrences is very much shorter than is often supposed. If we take the period of four hundred years stretching from two hundred years before to two hundred years after the birth of Christ, the number of miracles recorded which are remotely comparable with those of Jesus is astonishingly small. On the pagan side, there is little to report apart from the records of cures at healing shrines, which were certainly quite frequent, but are a rather different phenomenon from cures performed by an individual healer. Indeed it is significant that later Christian fathers, when seeking miracle workers with whom to compare or contrast Jesus, had to have recourse to remote and by now almost legendary figures of the past such as Pythagoras or Empedocles." [X:JATCH:103]

* "In the second century C.E. there is a fair amount of evidence to support the thesis that philosophers were generally inclined to be less critical in assessing extraordinary phenomena than in the centuries immediately preceding and more cordial toward religion generally and mainstream piety and its wonders specifically." [X04:PCCM:104]

* "In the Second-Sophistic period [beginning 2nd century AD] the pagan gods were extraordinarily active. They not only appeared to humankind in person or in dreams. They were also diligent in giving out oracles. The paganism of the High Empire does indeed have a vibrant feel to it." [HI:AREPJC:167]

* "The rituals we studied [exorcism, love rites, alchemy, and deification] all point to the importance of the first three centuries [AD]. Ideas which only appeared in embryonic form before the turn of the millennium undergo tremendous development by the beginning of the fourth century [AD]". [HI:MRW:98]

The easy acceptance of miracles was foreign to that world. The complete opposite of what sceptics claim... no surprises there of course.

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