Are Jesus’ miracles credible? Former agnostic writes a book to say yes

Adriano Virgili published “On the trail of the Nazarene. Introduction to the historical Jesus ”to offer the public a popular essay on the state of the art in historiographical research on Christ.

Often when one approaches historical research on the figure of Jesus, one encounters such a forest of methodological prejudices that one has the impression of being placed at the crossroads: “take everything as a whole, uncritically” or “deny everything as a whole, hypercritically “.

Indeed, there is a part of this literature that operates in such a acrid and corrosive way (by exposing itself to the due hermeneutical counter-indictments) that it discourages readers, especially (but not only) the neophytes: even among the ranks of thoroughbred theologians, in fact, and of rank (from Ratzinger downwards), a certain skepticism winds cyclically about the real usefulness of the contribution of historical research on Jesus. In fact, if we deny that the Gospels have (also) a historical content, then it is necessary to resign oneself to declaring credible about Jesus only the not very few but not even full-bodied extra-biblical information. However, perhaps we are not forced to reject the contribution of historical criticism as a whole …

A book by Adriano Virgili has recently been published, embellished by the preface by Gabriele Boccaccini, in which we read, among other things:

Virgili’s book has the great merit of bringing the non-specialist reader closer and involved in the work of those who are specialists, of showing both the acquisitions and the still unresolved questions, and of doing it with great respect, inviting all readers who are interested to the figure of Jesus (Jews, Christians and Muslims, believers and non-believers) a | do the same, without prejudice and fear. History has no definitive certainties but neither is it the realm of indistinct vagueness where every hypothesis is worth the other and every conclusion – even the most impromptu – is equally legitimate and possible.

Gabriele Boccaccini, Preface in Adriano Virgili, On the trail of the Nazarene. Introduction to the historical JesusPalermo 2022, iii-iv

Boccaccini’s observation is confirmed by the same author:

My aim was to make accessible to readers without any specific training a branch of historical research that has very important implications both for the faith of many and, more generally, for the understanding of one of the essential roots of our culture.

Adriano Virgili, Introductory note in Id., On the trail of the Nazarenev

In July I had the personal pleasure of interviewing Virgili about his work on Radio Maria frequencies: during the dialogue (whose audio is available below), and in particular by answering a listener’s question, it emerged that the research on the historical Jesus was one of the ways that led the author, but above all man, Hadrian, from a militant agnosticism to the joy of faith.

Virgili is very serious in the application of his method of historical investigation, sometimes even severe (even in the eyes of people who are not completely unfamiliar with these studies): if a fact is reported from a single source or if it knows too clearly of construction theological apt to narratively illustrate some convictions of the nascent Christian community, he prefers not to take it as an element for research historical (without however denying its dogmatic relevance). Let’s say that he prefers to work with a few less tools rather than with someone “too many”.

Faced with this, a surprising chapter in his book is the one on miracles: first of all because, yes, he has dedicated a specific chapter to this topic, which is often rejected by historians (based on the positivistic assumption that a supernatural event is by definition impossible, and therefore nothing historical can be miraculous). And then because, in this case, the discussion of him offers important insights to better understand the significance of the miracles narrated in the Gospels.

There is no other character in ancient history – says Virgili in the second paragraph of the chapter – with as many stories of miracles associated with his figure as the Nazarene. That being a miracle worker was of central importance to him and to those who knew him clearly emerges from a few factors: every evangelical tradition links the large crowds that Jesus attracted with his reputation as a miracle worker […]; for Mark, the oldest gospel, the reason Jesus attracted large crowds to him is mainly his reputation as a miracle worker […]; in all four canonical gospels Jesus is asked to authenticate his status by means of a miracle […], a request that he refuses because cosmic or eschatological signs were associated with the promises of false prophets; the Nazarene was remembered as a miracle worker, so much so that others tried to heal in his name […] and even Flavius ​​Joseph | he remembers him mainly as an operator of extraordinary things […]; Jesus was basically a miracle worker […] and these miracles gave rise to conflicts with the authorities.

Id., On the trail of the Nazarene202-203

If Jesus hadn’t truly performed miracles, Virgili therefore observes, he could not have received the success that completely independent traditions (and even in conflict with each other as to the interior) attribute to him: that Jesus performed miracles is therefore not simply “possible”, it is a postulate of his history, it is historically necessary.

Or rather: it is historically indubitable – because it is a narrative postulate without which the character of the Nazarene cannot stand – that around Jesus a large number of people were convinced that they were witnessing miracles. Whether those were miracles or not, on the other hand, it is evidently not up to the historian to say, and this by statute: the affirmation “this is a miracle!” it is the prerogative of the single individual and not of any community, because it is the privilege of faith to issue it.

At this point Virgili observes that precisely because of theirs advertisingand therefore of the involvement of the people in them, miracles must be distinguished into two main types:

  1. miracles of healing (predominantly, of exorcism); And
  2. miracles on nature (miraculous fishing, sedated storm…).

Those belonging to the second group are normally narrated in less wide frames than those of the first, usually taking place among a few witnesses or even among the disciples alone, “which, as has been noted by some, does not speak much in favor of their historicity” (therein204).

Virgili recalls that in the late ancient age extraordinary facts and thaumaturgical powers were preached also in relation to other characters (the case of Apollonius of Tiana, contemporary of Jesus, is well known – but whose life was written by Filostrato in the third century), however in no case is this peculiarity found:

What is particular in the accounts of miracles attributed to Jesus, in addition to their particularly high number, is that these, from what we can deduce from the Gospels, assumed a particular role in his ministry. Through such powerful works, in fact, the Nazarene believed to manifest the relevance of the kingdom of God […]claiming that these, as manifestations of the kingdom, testified in favor of his ministry […]. Miracles were not merely signs or proofs of the coming of the kingdom of God; but the kingdom of God coming to life in the healed people […].

Ibid206

Virgili gives a succinct synthesis of the story of how, from Karl F. Bahrdt onwards, passing above all through the contemporary demystifying work of Rudolf Bultmann, miracles have been riddled with hyper-rationalistic criticisms:

[…] to explain the miracle of Jesus walking on the water, imagines that in reality he was standing on a piece of wood that floated on the surface, but that the disciples on the boat did not notice it because from their perspective the above piece of wood was not visible.

Ibid207

How much rational there is in this “rationalism” can be understood by anyone who has ever seen a sea just moved: Christ must have been an Olympic gold surfer, if he could stand on a wreck adrift where his friends weren’t safe on the boat. Partly justifying Bahrdt is the fact that, of the many cities for which his temper led him to wander (before ending his life as a pool manager, secret society entertainer and pornographic writer) some sea was Halle, however several hundreds of km from sea water.

Here the presentation with Don Gianmario Pagano (â € œBella Prof! Â €) of 21 September 2022

Virgili does not rage on these characters corroded by hyper-rationalistic prejudice, which gives his volume a refinement and a readability that would otherwise have been clouded by the suspicion of apologetic intent. The author then focuses on the (very distant) positions of Bultmann and Verbes, and then indicates in John P. Meier one “among the scholars who in recent times have devoted more attention to the stories of miracles starring Jesus”:

He concludes that some of these, such as that of Bartimaeus’ healing, have a historical basis in an event in which witnesses believed that Jesus had restored sight to a blind man. Other stories, such as the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, may have a symbolic basis, in this case a meal that Jesus shared with a large crowd, a meal that was perhaps only later considered miraculous.

Ibid210

The basic problem, when we talk about miracles, is always the conception of the supernatural that lies behind them, or the previous judgment that admits (or denies) that some phenomenon of suspension or overcoming of the laws of nature can intervene in the world. If this possibility is admitted, turning water into wine or placating a body of water shaken by the wind shouldn’t be any more difficult than allowing a blind person to see.

It is no coincidence that Virgili, in the presentation of the volume, wanted to deviate a little from the tendency of historians to disqualify “miracles on nature” as a whole.

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Adriano Virgili, On the trail of the NazarenePalermo 2022, € 23.00

Are Jesus’ miracles credible? Former agnostic writes a book to say yes