Testing Miracle Claims

Over the past several weeks I’ve been working through my comprehensive examinations for my PhD. Part of my course of study has taken me through the topic of miracle claims and how we might go about evaluating them.

One of the best studies concerning miracles comes from Graham Twelftree in his work Jesus the Miracle Worker which explores, critically, the topic of miracles and the ministry of Jesus Christ. In the text, Twelftree explores four areas of inquiry concerning miracles: the contemporary views of miracles, surveying the miracles of Jesus in the Gospels, evaluating miracles in historical Jesus research, and some specific miracle categories.

Part of the discussion that Twelftree develops are historical tests for miracle claims. Since there are some other miracle claims from antiquity which often are compared to the miracles of Jesus, some historical criteria are important for comparison and evaluating miracle claims. Part of Twelftree’s discussion presents seven tests for miracle claims, taken in part from Robert J Miller’s work with the Jesus Seminar.

Twelftree’s seven criteria for testing miracle claims (specifically of Jesus but this can be applied broadly) are:

1. Burden of Proof – this helps formulate neutrality on the part of the testifier, it also prevents questions from being decided prior to inquiry or based on insufficient evidence.

2. Demonstration – shows how a valid position arises when the reasons for accepting it far outweighs the reasons for not accepting it.

3. Historicity – as Twelftree notes, this essentially is a default position, for it notes there is no other way to account for a story arising in history unless thoroughly discredited by a lack of affirmation from these tests.

4. Multiple Attestation – a story which arises in multiple, independent sources.

5. Dissimilarity – this is a preliminary evidence for historicity if the story is not essential to the narrative design and does not employ specific Christological themes that are distinctive to the Gospel in which the story arises.

6. Plausibility – is the scene plausible given the reconstructions of the text in which the scene is found and its relation to the overall narrative.

7. Coherency – is the saying or scene presupposes an authentic saying or if act is independently established, it is historical.

In these seven tests, Twelftree provides a helpful method for application to not just New Testament miracles, but others from antiquity. With many other claims of miracles that exist in antiquity, through these tests the miracle stories of Jesus are able to vetted alongside those others to evaluate if they are historical and probable.

I would add an additional criteria of evaluation to these, which has been noted by others include Dr Gary Habermas:

8. Timeliness – is the recording of the event done within an appropriate historical time frame of the actual story or event itself. Is it within a generation or two?

The issue here is that for many competing claims of miraculous works in antiquity, the recording of the event is done within reasonable proximity to the actual event and was able to survey eyewitnesses and primary sources to communicate the event reliably. For instance, in the scene where Pythagoras healed the sick and removed pestilence is reported by Porphyry in The Life of Pythagoras which was written in CE 223 whereas Pythagoras lived in 582-500 BCE. The event is recorded over eight hundred years later.

Jesus’ miracles are attested to by individuals who wrote about them within a generation and had access to the eyewitnesses to the events and, perhaps, primary source data. As Luke describes in his own Gospel, there was a plan of consulting these sources Luke 1:1-4. Likewise, the other Gospel writers and early New Testament documents have been widely established to have been written within close proximity to the death and resurrection of Jesus as to be faithful to meet this test.

So, these tests for miracle claims are helpful when we begin to compare the works of Jesus to others and also as we test the claims of the New Testament. Twelftree’s methodology is a fine framework that can be applied generally to this kind of historical research.

Even if one takes away possibly dubious miracle claims for Jesus work and ministry (which we don’t have to do) you are left with a suitable set of miracles that stand apart from other messianic claimants and humanly figures in antiquity. These tests provide a helpful lens for evaluating such claims.

Later on I’ll summarize my research comparing Jesus’ miracles with Vespasian. I’ve found Vespasian to be, possibly, the best test case outside of Jesus’ stories in the Gospels for encountering miracles in antiquity.