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Miracles In Sacred Scriptures

The best-known miracles are those found in the scriptures of the major world religions, and in the sacred biographies of the saints, sages, and spiritual masters who embody and extend scriptural precedents. When experienced as events embedded in religious traditions, miracles tend to define themselves as stories that in some way repeat or echo previous miracles within the same tradition. For example, the Hebrew Scriptures (for Christians, the Old Testament) contains so many and various kinds of miracles—divine rescues, healings, feedings, punishments and blessings, even raisings of the dead and one ascension (of Elijah) into heaven—that it can fairly be regarded as the repository of most of the forms that miracles take in the later Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions.

Within the Hebrew Scriptures themselves, later books deliberately recall earlier miracle stories. For example, there are 120 repetitions and allusions to the ancient Israelites' divinely provided crossing of the sea of reeds, the great deliverance miracle in the Book of Exodus. When the prophet Elisha picks up the mantel of his predecessor, Elijah, the power to produce similar miracles passes with it. When Jesus heals the sick and raises the dead, these miracle stories echo the miracles of Elijah and Elisha, though Jesus does them on his own authority. Likewise in the Book of Acts, the apostles Peter and Paul work the same kind of miracles that Jesus did, but they do so in his name and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Although in the Koran the prophet Muhammad notably refuses to work miracles, the story of his ascension (mi'raj) into heaven, a narrative developed out of a Koranic verse (Q. 17:1), replicates and surpasses the ascensions of Elijah and Jesus. This same story also provides the model of the mystical path followed by later Muslim mystics who are the chief miracle-workers in Muslim tradition.

In Buddhism, miracle stories are tied directly to Buddhist teachings as manifestations of their power to liberate. Thus the Buddha's first disciples collectively repeat the miracles of the master as they progress along the path to perfect enlightenment. In the Puranas ("ancient tales"), a vast and very popular collectin of sectarian scriptures composed and edited between the second and seventeenth centuries C.E., the miracles of Lord Krishna not only echo previous stories of earlier Vedic gods but also have the power to establish in his devotees the ability to replicate the experiences of Krishna, in some cases by becoming Krishna himself.

From this it can be seen that miracles achieve their meaning as signs through specific narrative traditions. Conversely, narrative traditions—to a large extent—determine which kinds of extraordinary events are recognized as miracles and which are not. Thus, in order to understand the significance of many scriptural miracles, one most know what previous miracles are being replicated, echoed, or superceded. But there are important exceptions in Islam. In the Koran, Muhammad says "the signs [ aya, meaning miracles] are with God alone;" the greatest sign is the Koran itself, every Arabic verse (sura) of which Muslims regard as the actual words of Allah. But the miracles attributed to Muhammad (mu'jizat) are all found elsewhere, chiefly in the hadith (roughly, "the traditions") of the Prophet, considered second only to the Koran in importance. However, in the various authoritative collections of the hadith, Muhammad's miracles tend to be merely listed apart from any interpretive narrative context. This arrangement suggests that miracles were incidental to the life and importance of the Prophet and may have been included in the hadith for the apologetic purpose of demonstrating that Muhammad, like Jesus, Moses, and other prophets of Allah before him, possessed the power to work miracles. Thus, among the three monotheistic traditions, Islam makes a formal and linguistic distinction between the miracles produced as signs by God and the miracles attributed to the prophets, whereas in Judaism and Christianity the distinction is informal: in the Bible, the power to work miracles belongs to God as the creator and sustainer of the world, but beginning with Moses that power passes to the prophets. In the New Testament, Jesus not only heals and raises the dead, like earlier Jewish prophets, but also exercises power over nature (as in calming storms and walking on water), a sign of his divinity since the power to control nature belongs to God alone.

In the various religious and philosophical traditions collectively known as Hinduism, miracles are usually understood as manifestations of innate divine power. Here we must distinguish between the miracles of God or gods, principally Shiva, Vishnu, and the latter's many avatars (especially Krishna and Rama) and the miracles of the saints or renunciates in a long line of ascetics reaching back to the fabled sages (rishi) of the Vedic period (1500–500 B.C.E.) Stories of the gods and their avatars belong to the great and complex tapestry of Hindu mythology and need not concern us here. Far more relevant to the Hindu understanding of miracles are the stories told of the saints.

Just as the Hindu deities can descend in human forms (avatars), so the Hindu saints can, through the practice of asceticism (tapas), rise to godlike status. Thus the saint is often understood to be a "god-man" or a "goddess woman" by virtue of having "realized" the divinity innate in all human beings. In this context, a miracle is a manifestation of supernormal powers (siddhi) acquired as a function of attaining ever purer forms of consciousness (samadhi) through meditation and physical austerities. A classic treatment of the siddhi is the Yoga Sutra of Pantanjali, where the list of supernormal powers includes knowledge of previous lives; clairvoyance; knowledge of the moment when one will die; control over and thus freedom from one's bodily systems; the ability to levitate and transverse great distances in a moment's time; the power to expand or shrink one's body; and so forth.

Although the Buddha rejected the traditional practices of Indian ascetics, Buddhism incorporates the same understanding of miracles as supernormal powers that Pantanjali outlined. The main difference is that there is no "self" to be realized in Buddhist teachings—it is the last and greatest of illusions—which is why the Buddha taught his disciples not to display their acquired powers before the laity: to do so would manifest pride and so trap them in yet another form of attachment to self. Yet after his own enlightenment the Buddha did perform many miracles, some of them more fantastic than any attributed to Hindu god-men. But he did so for evangelistic purposes, secure in the knowledge that he had liberated himself from all attachments.

Although miracles are found in all religions, in none of them are they considered a substitute for faith or commitment to a spiritual path. As signs, they point to different meanings according to traditions, and so may be seen as boundary stories separating one religious tradition from another. As wonders, miracles continue to elicit curiosity, if not always belief. An old Hasidic saying nicely captures the ambivalence that has always attended miracles and their stories: "He who believes all these tales is a fool, but anyone who cannot believe them is a heretic."


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Gallup, George, Jr., and Jim Castelli. The People's Religion: American Faith in the 90's. New York: Macmillan, 1989.

Hume, David. "Of Miracles." In Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge. 3rd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

Meier, John P. "Miracles and Modern Minds." In A Marginal Jew: Rethinking The Historical Jesus. Vol. 2: Mentor, Message, And Miracles. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Voltaire. Philosophical Dictionary. Translated and edited by Peter Gay. New York: Basic Books, 1962.

Woodward, Kenneth L. The Book of Miracles: The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

——. "The Science of Miracles and the Miracles of Science." In his Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn't, and Why. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Kenneth L. Woodward

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