So, what is a miracle, anyway?

Prof. Scott K. Taylor, guest blogger

My article on historians and miracles never addresses this question, but it is fundamental in a discussion of whether miracles could ever take place. And historians of religion have interesting things to say about it, too. One observation made is that what we think of as a miracle today – an act of God, an event that takes place completely outside the realm of the normal possibilities of the natural world that only God could perform – has not always been the standard definition.

Indeed, in scholars’ study of the Reformation, the terms for “miraculous” were closely related to the words for “marvelous” or “a wonder.” Something more like our “Miracle on Ice” than Lazarus raised from the dead. In pre-modern times, miracles like St. Francis of Assisi’s stigmata sat comfortably side by side with the births of two-headed calves, the appearance of comets, and the raining down of frogs.

Indeed, this is why Prof. Carlos Eire of Yale, whose work I cite in my essay, chose Joseph of Cupertino’s levitation to study: because it is so dramatic and supernatural, and because it is so hard to fake. It stands in contrast to the apparition of the Virgin Mary who appears before a solitary shepherd, or the crying, bleeding, or sweating statues of saints, which might be the result of monks applying a little water or blood, or just condensation viewed in a certain light. Eire wants to make the case for the most unlikely of miracles, one that cannot be easily explained away.

Of course, if a category can encompass things as dissimilar as levitation and comets, it begs the question: what are miracles for? I will address that tomorrow.

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