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Miracles As Narrative Constructions, Miracles In Sacred Scriptures, Bibliography

Miracles, miracle workers, and their stories are found in the life and literature of all ancient societies and are not limited to religious texts. In ancient Greece figures like Epimenides, Pythagoras, and Apollonius of Tyana were all renowned for working miracles. To this day, healing remains the form that most claimed miracles take, and many of these miracles are associated with visitations to the shrines of saints. In Africa, India, parts of Asia, and Latin America, miracles remain an important and powerful dimension of "primal" religions and cults. Indeed, miraculous healings and exorcisms are the characteristic features of the world's fastest-growing form of Christianity: Pentecostalism. Contrary to secularization theorists, belief in God—and in miracles—have not disappeared with the advance of science and the rationalization of Western societies. For example, opinion polls at the close of the second millennium showed that nearly 90 percent of Americans believed in God, 84 percent believed in miracles, and nearly half (48 percent) said they had experienced a miracle in their own lives or in the life of someone else (Newsweek, 1 May 2000, p. 57).

Viewed historically, miracles and their stories were recognized and accepted long before systematic efforts to define what a miracle is. This is not surprising since the cultures that produced the scriptures sacred to the world's major religions—in this entry, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—did not regard nature as a closed system operating according to its own laws and therefore impervious to the action of God or the gods. Nonetheless, they recognized miracles as extraordinary occurrences. Thus, one classic definition, from Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, holds that "those things are properly called miracles which are done by divine agency beyond the order commonly observed in nature." The medieval Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides (1135–1204) thought that miracles—especially those in the Bible—were designed by the creator for very specific purposes and, though contrary to the observable laws of nature, were instituted at the beginning of creation as part of God's divine plan. For Deists and other Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century, nature was considered to be subject to immutable laws that even God cannot abrogate. As Voltaire famously put it: "It is impossible that the infinitely wise Being has made laws in order to violate them. He has made this machine [the universe] as good as he could." Still influential is David Hume's argument that not only are miracles impossible, but also that "No testimony is sufficient to establish" that a miracle has occurred.

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