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In defence of miracles

 

In defence of miracles

by Ronald Nugent

 

If you saw Episode Three of the series “The Bible and History” on SBS Television last Friday evening, you will have seen the conservative British MP, Ann Widdecombe, a committed Christian, ask a number of people in the streets of an English town whether they read the Bible. Two answers were typical of many. A man with a little girl holding his hand replied: “Wrong person to ask. Don’t believe in any of it.” And a young woman with an American accent responded: “I think it’s a novel. I don’t think people should base their lives around it.”

Today this view that the Bible is largely fiction is not only accepted by many ordinary people, who are usually totally ignorant of the Bible, but is even advocated by some biblical scholars, such as Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar. Indeed, the view that the Bible, and especially the Gospels, are largely myths and legends has become the liberal theological orthodoxy. In some circles this view is put forward as the only responsible intellectual option and all other views are ridiculed.

What can we say in response to those biblical scholars who dismiss the biblical miracles and who reject this particular miracle of the calming of the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35-41) as nothing but fiction? There is much that could be said, but for now I want to say just three things very briefly.

First, while some biblical critics reject the biblical miracles as myths or legends, there are eminent scholars who disagree with them. I will mention just one such dissident. C.S. Lewis was Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Magdalen College in Oxford University for twenty-nine years and then held the chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Magdalene College in Cambridge University for nineteen years. As an expert literary critic he was scornful of those biblical critics who dismissed the Gospel stories as romances or legends. Let me read what Lewis said of such critics:

I distrust them as critics. They seem to me to lack literary judgment, to be imperceptive about the very quality of the texts they are reading. ... If [a critic] tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavour; not how many years he has spent on that Gospel. ... I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this [i.e., the Gospel stories]. ... These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight (C.S. Lewis, Fern Seed and Elephants, Glasgow: Fontana, 1975, 106-111).

Secondly, as Christians, we insist that we must examine the evidence. Sometimes (such as in the case of pagan claims to miracles) the evidence suggests that the claim is false, or at best unsupportable. But sometimes (notably in the Gospel accounts of miracles) the evidence points to a genuine miracle.

In the miracle we are looking at (the calming of the storm on the Sea of Galilee) Mark’s manner of writing suggests that his story is not a myth or a legend but the account of an eyewitness. You see, eyewitness accounts contain vivid details: details that are often incidental, sometimes irrelevant and sometimes embarrassing. And these sorts of details are missing in ancient legends and myths. In the seven short sentences of Mark’s account there are six such details.

  • There is the precise statement of time: “when evening came.”
  • There is the incidental mention of others: “there were also other boats.”
  • There is the irrelevant detail of how Jesus slept: “on a cushion.”
  • There is the disciples’ rough question: “Don’t you care if we drown?”
  • There is Jesus’ sharp rebuke: “Do you still have no faith?”
  • There is the disciples’ awed response: “Who is this man?”

These vivid and artless details are not the sort of thing we read in myths and legends but they are just the sort of thing we hear in eyewitness accounts. The second-century church father, Papias, tells us that Mark was the companion of Peter and that he wrote down what Peter had told him concerning Jesus. Peter was one of those in the boat that night, so what we have here is quite probably Peter’s recollection of the incident, which Mark has recorded for our benefit.

Thirdly, Mark’s account of this miracle is in accord with what we know of the Sea of Galilee, which was (and is) notorious for its sudden and ferocious storms. The Sea of Galilee is in the deep cleft of the Jordan Valley, 210 metres (680 feet) below sea level. To the west and north are the Hills of Galilee, with mountains reaching to over 1,000 metres (3,300 feet) above sea level. For most of the year the prevailing wind is from the west or north-west and it is funnelled through the valleys and gulleys of the Hills of Galilee, the air becoming compressed, before rushing down upon the Sea of Galilee with surprising suddenness and frightening force.

The nineteenth century missionary to Palestine, William Thomson, has described his personal experience of a storm on the shores of the Sea of Galilee:

On the occasion referred to, we subsequently pitched our tents at the shore and remained for three days and nights exposed to this tremendous wind. We had to double-pin all the tent ropes, and frequently were obliged to hang with our whole weight upon them to keep the quivering tabernacle from being carried up bodily into the air. ... The whole lake, as we had it, was lashed into fury; the waves repeatedly rolled up to our tent door, tumbling over the ropes with such violence as to carry away the tent-pins. And, moreover, these winds are not only violent, but they come down suddenly, and often when the sky is perfectly clear. I once went to swim near the hot baths, and, before I was aware, a wind came rushing over the cliffs with such force that it was with great difficulty that I could regain the shore (W.M. Thomson, The Land and the Book, London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1884, 374-5).

To sum up: this story of the miracle of the calming of the sea bears the marks of an eyewitness account and is true to what we know of the geography and meteorology of Galilee. The evidence that we have supports the conclusion that Mark is a reliable reporter of the events that he records in his Gospel.

Why, then, do some scholars say the accounts of miracles in the Gospels are not historical but mythological? The reason that they deny the historicity of the miracles is not because of any evidence they can adduce but because of their presuppositions. They start with the presupposition that there is no God (at least, no God like the God of the Bible) and obviously, if there is no God, there cannot be any miracles. Their logic is very simple:

  1. For a miracle to happen God must exist.
  2. God does not exist.
  3. Therefore a miracle cannot happen.
  4. Therefore the Gospel accounts of miracles must be myths.

If you accept their presupposition, the logic is flawless. But what if their presupposition is wrong?

We ought not to be troubled, therefore, by the criticism of liberal scholars or the mockery of militant atheists, who dismiss this and the other Gospel accounts of miracles as fiction. Our faith, unlike theirs, is firmly founded on fact.

This article is an edited extract from a sermon on Mark 4:35-41 titled “The Ruler of the Waves” preached at Maylands Baptist Church, Western Australia on November 24, 2013.

 

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