From Jonah surviving a week in a fish’s belly to Jesus’ resurrection itself, the Christian scriptures are full of miracles. By definition things that do not happen naturally, these fantastic events defy the laws of physics and point to God’s intervention in history.
In the Hebrew Bible, God sends plagues to Israel’s oppressors, a man parts the sea, and food manifests for the hungry. These miracles demonstrate Yahweh’s steadfast commitment to Israel against more powerful enemy kingdoms who worship other gods. In the New Testament, Jesus heals the sick and even raises the dead, miracles which largely revolve around Jesus’ authority as Lord and compassion towards society’s most marginalised and vulnerable.
Interpreting these fantastic stories of miraculous events is a matter that divides biblical scholars. To our modern sensibilities, these events that go against our scientific, rational approach seem ridiculous, the intervention of a God willing to break the laws of physics in ways that never happen nowadays.
In keeping with this, a number of theologians hold that miracles never happened. Instead, they suggest, the stories that the Bible contains are better understood metaphorically, describing a deeper truth in poetic ways.
While this approach is far from universal, it is a widespread way of understanding the creation narratives in Genesis.
Another way of approaching scripture’s miracles is looking to the deeper significance of the narratives themselves. Rather than being caught on the likelihood of whether or not the Bible’s events happened, this approach asks what they mean.
Karl Barth is one famous proponent of this approach. After delivering a lecture, Barth was once asked “Is it true that the serpent really spoke?” The heavyweight Swiss theologian replied, “It does not matter whether or not the serpent really spoke; all that matters is what the serpent said.”
Wendy Cotter is a Professor of New Testament at Chicago’s Loyola University. She writes that the Bible’s miracles “can be read to reflect the mercy and compassion of God.”
As Professor Cotter further suggests, Jesus’ miracles in the Gospels
depict Him as meeting the needs of people who step forward as petitioners.
“The New Testament authors intended these stories to teach their audiences: even if the would-be Christian is unable to perform miracles, he or she could reach out and show mercy and compassion, like Jesus, to others”
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor.