Believe me it really helps if you are familiar with one or two examples of miracles from the Old Testament and one or two examples of miracles from the New Testament.
The text book tends to lump them all together and in my opinion makes poor choices of biblical stories.
Let’s take it slowly and introduce one or two guidelines which should enable you to distinguish one sort of miracle from another.
Generally it would be wise to avoid stories in Genesis, the first book in the Old Testament.
Events like the Flood and stories in Genesis 1-11 are riddled with Near Eastern myth elements. Even an event like the destruction of Sodom Genesis 19 is tied up with something scholars call aetiological legend – a story constructed to explain a natural phenomenon.
Many miracle stories in the Old Testament reinforce heilsgeschichte – history written for the Jews which showed that they were the chose people of God.
- So God drowns the pursuing Egyptians at the Red Sea while the Israelites cross in safety Exodus 14
- The river Jordan parts to allow the Israelites cross after 40 years in the wilderness. Joshua 3
- The walls of Jericho tumble down when the circulating Israelite forces shout Joshua 6
- The sun stands still so that the Israelites can defeat their enemies Josh10. This is a particular favourite of your examiner. (I can’t think why) Make sure you sort out the intricate details. Find a good modern translation of the story.
Other miracle stories in the Old Testament centre around charismatic characters like the prophets Elijah and Elisha.
Elijah and the widow of Zarephath 1Kings 17:8-16
Elisha and the curing of Naaman the leper 2 Kings 5
There are sort of miracle stories in the late part of the Old Testament – what is called apocalyptic literature. Namely Daniel in the lions’ den and Daniel surviving the fiery furnace. Not surprisingly these appear in the book of Daniel. Frankly I would give them a miss.
Here I seek to put these into categories rather than pass judgement on them.
Miracles in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke
There are two birth stories of Jesus – both containing miracle elements at the beginning of the gospels of Matthew and Luke.
Stories where Jesus casts out demons
Healing of the man in synagogue Mark 1:21-28
Healing of the man in the tombs Mark 5:1-20
Stories of raising from the dead
Raising of Jairus’ daughter Mark 5:21-24 & 35-43
Raising of the Widow of Nain’s son Luke 7:11-17
Two points to note here. The first is about motive. Jesus seems to perform miracles when he is faced with people who come and ask for his help. He does not initiate the events. The second point that you need to consider is, what is the nucleus of the “miracle”? after all people do get better from leprosy. People do overcome mental illness. The miracle seems to be the speed with which they make their recovery not the fact that they do recover.
Then there are a number of nature miracles
Jesus calms the storm. Mark 4:35-41
Jesus feeds 5000 people Mark 6:30-44 This is the only miracle story found in all four gospels.
Jesus walks on water Mark 6:45-52
In addition all four gospels record the event of Jesus’ resurrection Mark 16 Matthew 28, Luke 24 and John 20-21.
Miracles in St John’s Gospel
The pundits will tell you there are 7 – the 7 signs in St John’s Gospel. In fact there are 8 (excluding the resurrection) – but don’t let that worry you. You would do well not to worry too much about St John’s Gospel. For a start he doesn’t call these miracles, they are described as “signs”. The events which they describe often lead to a more advanced teaching about the nature of God revealed in Jesus.
Summing up – a few final points to consider about biblical miracles.
- To what extent are many of the Old Testament miracles contrived in order to reassure readers of God’s power or purpose? They are heavily laden with myth, legend and enhancement. They are complex stories disguising layers of meaning.
- In the first three gospels, with the exception of the nature of miracles, the stories are far less complex. Jesus responds to human needs, using his power. Interestingly these stories, which often seem farfetched or incredible to us in the 21st century, are very mild by 1st century standards. If the gospel writers were seeking to prove a point with these narratives, they were wasting their time. Non-Christian miracle stories from this period, and a little later, are far more lurid, spectacular and shocking. Jesus and/or the gospel writers were rank amateurs in providing convincing narratives about the nature of divinity.
- By the time the later apocryphal gospels got going and early Christian Church miracles one can see how the miracles took on a more challenging nature. They challenge not only science, but also credibility and reason. Read for example accounts of the early Christian saints – even those in the UK. Patrick who banished the snakes from Ireland, Columba who terrified opponent kings and Cuthbert who changed tides by prayer and himself became protected from decay after death!
So from where you select your examples of miracles, needs to be quite precise. It may affect the relevance of points made by those who oppose the idea of miracles.