In the two-volume work Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, Craig S. Keener argues for two theses. The first thesis is that eyewitnesses do offer miracle claims. The second thesis is that supernatural explanations of miracle accounts should be on the table in scholarly discussions.
The theses tie into the historical study of the New Testament miracle accounts (found primarily in the Gospels and Acts). If the first thesis is true then the mere fact that the NT contains accounts of miracles is not a reason to doubt that such accounts can be traced back to eyewitnesses. If the second thesis is true then one may be able to argue that Jesus of Nazareth (and others) worked true miracles.
Keener proves the first thesis beyond doubt. Much of the book is a compilation of miracle accounts the author has come across from his social circles (the accounts primarily involve healings but there are a few nature miracles and the appendices address exorcisms). The main point to take home, based on a number of surveys, is that hundreds of millions of people alive today claim that they have witnessed or experienced miraculous healings (p. 205; cf. pp. 238-239, 313, 342, 505-506). Again, it is not that hundreds of millions of people believe in miracles (though that is true too), it is that hundreds of millions of people have witnessed or experienced miracles. The main limitation of this part of the book is that Keener focuses mainly on miracles witnessed by Christians. But it should also be noted that many conversions to Christianity are in response to miracles done in the name of Jesus (pp. 277, 289, 297, 318, 340, 353).
The second thesis will surely be hotly contested. He argues persuasively against those who follow David Hume in presupposing that miracles cannot occur. “It is impossible to prove a negative by induction when one has observed a limited range of data, and it is precarious to infer an inflexibly negative rule by induction when abundant eyewitness claims exist that one merely refuses to admit as evidence” (p. 167). The truly open-minded historian will at least consider a supernatural explanation a possibility.
The weakness in this argument is that the author does not explicitly outline specific criteria on which to determine whether a supernatural explanation is the best explanation. However, I discern some criteria. The first is that events which contradict the laws of nature (where the term “laws of nature” can be defined in multiple ways) may have supernatural explanations. The second is that if a number of occurrences meeting the first criterion cluster around a particular factor (e.g., one person’s prayers) then this is statistically significant and increases the probability of there being a causal link between the event and the factor in question (p. 687). The third criterion is that if certain kinds of events meeting the first criterion occur more readily in religious contexts (e.g., in response to prayer) then it is more probable that religion plays a causal role in such events.
Despite such criteria not being laid out as clearly as I would like, I cannot offer any remotely plausible natural explanations for many of the events mentioned in this book. I am talking about body parts regrowing quickly in public view, goiters disappearing quickly in public view, blindness cured, deafness cured, broken bones being healed nearly instantly and being confirmed by X-rays, and the raising of the dead. And this does not appear to be due to my (or Keener’s) medical ignorance. Fifty-five percent of physicians claimed to have seen treatment results in their patients that they would consider miraculous (p. 721).
Craig S. Keener summarizes his hypothesis like so (pp. 740-741): “Since too many of the examples above seem implausible to me as pure coincidence, particularly cumulatively, I prefer a different hypothesis: a personal God ready and able to heal, but one who also often allows created nature to take its own course and who is not manipulated by formulas, as perhaps an impersonal or merely psychological force could be. Although miracles are consistent with the character of the biblical God, we cannot always predict a personal deity’s future actions, especially when our knowledge about the factors involved in those actions are limited. If miracles happened with absolute regularity, we would view them as part of the course of nature; their occurrence beyond providence in nature allows them to function more specifically as signs revealing God’s activity and character.”
Overall, I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in NT history and/or miracles. It may also edify Christian believers.