Review: Miracles by Craig S. Keener

@Keener.jpgKeener, Craig S. Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. 2 vols. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011.

Craig Keener is one of the most prolific New Testament scholars of our day, known for his thick, well-documented tomes and encyclopedic knowledge of ancient sources. Keener delivers once again in Miracles. The overarching goal this work is to put to rest the argument (à la David Hume) that the miracles recorded in the New Testament could not have happened because enlightened moderns now know that miracles do not happen. To this end, Keener advances two theses: (1) “eyewitnesses do offer miracle claims” and (2) “supernatural explanations, while not suitable in every case, should be welcome on the scholarly table along with other explanations often discussed” (1).

Keener accomplishes the task with characteristic thoroughness; the book weighs in at two volumes totaling nearly 1,200 pages and includes copious footnotes, five appendices, and a bibliography of almost two hundred pages. The body of the work consists of four parts: (1) The Ancient Evidence, (2) Are Miracles Possible? (3) Miracle Accounts beyond Antiquity, and (4) Proposed Explanations.

In Part 1, Keener situates early Christian miracle accounts on the map of ancient miracle claims as a whole. While he finds some broad similarities between Christian and non-Christian miracle accounts (certain formal characteristics, the report of supernatural activity, etc.), he notes several significant differences including genre (the Gospels and Acts are biography/history, not myths or novels) and dating (the Gospels and Acts were written much closer to the events they report than most ancient miracle accounts were). Such differences lead Keener to conclude that “we should generally expect less legendary accretion in these first-century Christian sources than in many of the documents to which scholars have often compared them” (82).

Part 2 addresses the philosophical questions related to miracles. The primary burden of this portion of the book is to destabilize the a priori skepticism of miracles stemming from David Hume that has become so prominent in the modern West. In my view, one of the highlights in this section is chapter 4 (“Antisupernaturalism as an Authenticity Criterion?”). Here Keener makes two valuable points. The first is that ancients were hardly gullible about miracles. Rather, many ancient writers exhibit a healthy skepticism toward miracles yet report some miracles nonetheless. Second, Keener emphasizes that “antisupernaturalism emerged from specific historical circumstances no less than ancient or modern, Western or non-Western supernaturalist approaches” and therefore should not be presupposed (97). In chapters 5 and 6 he goes on to respond in detail to David Hume and others who argue against the possibility of miracles on the basis of human experience (i.e., miracles can’t happen because we know miracles don’t happen). Keener’s basic reply to Hume is that his argument is circular: “[Hume] argues, based on ‘experience,’ that miracles do not happen, yet dismisses credible eyewitness testimony for miracles (i.e., others’ experience) on his assumption that miracles do not happen” (108, emphasis original). Another valuable point Keener makes is that Hume’s assertion that miracles do not occur, which might have seemed self-evident in Hume’s eighteenth-century, Western context, is much harder to make today, when miracle claims proliferate from both the West and the majority world.

In Part 3, Keener goes on to argue that modern eyewitnesses do, in fact, claim to have observed miracles. In essence, here Keener says to Hume, “So miracles don’t happen, you say? Let me give you four hundred pages of eyewitness testimony to show that they do.” Keener provides examples from Asia (chapter 8), Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean (chapter 9), earlier Christian history leading up to the early twentieth century (chapter 10), and the recent West (chapter 11). He also includes a chapter on more dramatic miracles (healing from blindness, raising of the dead, etc.).

Having demonstrated his first and primary thesis (that eyewitnesses report miracles), in part 4 Keener turns to his secondary thesis (that supernatural explanations such claims deserve a place in scholarly discourse). Here he argues for the relatively cautious conclusion that one must at least keep an open mind toward supernatural causation when considering miracle claims: “Observers not committed to a methodology that a priori privileges any remotely possible naturalistic explanation over any supernatural . . . will not foreclose the possibility of supernatural explanations” (663).

Miracles is a tour de force with which any subsequent treatment of miracle claims in the New Testament must reckon. In my view, Keener’s greatest contribution is his careful documentation of modern miracle accounts in Part 3, which constitutes a creative and compelling response to Hume and the a priori skepticism toward miracles in the New Testament studies that depends on Hume. This portion is well worth the price of the book. And by prefacing it with a robust discussion of the historical (Part 1) and philosophical (Part 2) issues surrounding miracle claims, Keener prevents the eyewitness accounts he reports from being easily dismissed. In short, with Miracles Keener has made it impossible for any serious scholar to deny the validity of New Testament miracle accounts a priori.

With respect to critique, there is one area where I found myself wanting less from Miracles and another where I found myself wanting more. In the first place, Keener’s arguments against Hume and company in Part 2 become redundant. Keener rightly notes that Hume’s argument is circular However, he returns to this point over and over (e.g., 108, 157, 162), leaving the impression that this section might have been shortened considerably. (After all, the real evidence against Hume is in Part 3.) Second, in Part 4 I was disappointed not to find a substantive discussion of how to make sense of miracle claims in religions other than Christianity or by non-religious people. In Keener’s defense, this is not necessary to his two overarching theses. Nonetheless, since Miracles will presumably be the standard treatment of this topic for years to come, and since Keener does address the issue of causation, the question of who/what might be causing miracles outside of Christianity is a matter that would seem to merit at least a few pages.

In conclusion, Miracles is a magisterial work that I would recommend to anyone—layperson, pastor, or scholar—interested in miracle claims in the New Testament. For those who find the page count daunting, I would suggest skimming Parts 1, 2, and 4 and digging into the modern miracle accounts in Part 3.

My thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s