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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 Godand in miracleshave 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 religionsin this entry, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islamdid 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 (11351204) thought that miraclesespecially those in the Biblewere 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.

Miracles as Narrative Constructions

But "nature" and its "laws" are notoriously loose, historically conditioned concepts, and the constructs of contemporary sciences correspond to no one's sense of "the order commonly observed in nature." Far more useful and descriptive in any cultural context is the biblical understanding of miracles as "signs and wonders" (Hebrew, otot u-mofetim ). Viewed this way, a miracle (from the Latin miraculum ) is an event that astonishes beholders (wonder) and at the same time conveys meaning (sign). Absent the sign factor, it is impossible to distinguish miracle from mere coincidence. Since signs are always signs of something, we can say that a miracle is an unusual event that discloses the meaning and power of the transcendent within the world of time and space.

From this definition it follows that miracles are always narratively constructed. To take a common example: if a terminally ill patient is suddenly cured and attendant physicians can find no cause in medicine or science to explain the cure, the patient or others may claim that the patient's sudden restoration to health is the result of prayer to God for a miracle. That is, they explain the otherwise inexplicable by fashioning a story. This is precisely what happens within the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the most rigorously methodological source of contemporary miracles and their stories. Once church officials are satisfied that a candidate for sainthood exhibited extraordinary virtue, they require two posthumous miracles attributed to the intercession of the candidate as a sign from God that the deceased candidate truly is now with God in the afterlife. Only after a board of physicians concludes that an unexpected healing has no known scientific cause does a board of theologians consider whether the healing is also a "divine sign."

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 miraclesdivine rescues, healings, feedings, punishments and blessings, even raisings of the dead and one ascension (of Elijah) into heaventhat 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 traditionsto a large extentdetermine 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 (1500500 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 teachingsit is the last and greatest of illusionswhich 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."

See also Mysticism ; Religion ; Sacred Texts .


Aquinas, Thomas. The Summa Contra Gentiles of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Translated by the English Dominican Fathers from the latest Leonine edition. Book 3. London: Burns, Oates and Washburn, 19231929.

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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MIRACLES. Miracles were a vital feature of Christianity in the early modern period. Issues surrounding the possibility and impossibility of miracles were enthusiastically discussed in many theological, devotional, and scientific works, even as most Europeans actively sought divine intervention when harsh circumstances threatened. In his theological and historical work, The City of God, the fifth-century theologian St. Augustine (354430) had outlined many of the teachings concerning miracles that were to play an important role in Europe for centuries to come. Augustine had stressed that the greatest of all miracles was the daily re-creation of the earth, sustained and controlled by a benevolent God, who used nature as a mirror to display his power over every aspect of his Creation. In this view, seemingly inexplicable events that occurred in the natural order were not to be feared, but rather to elicit awe as signs of God's dominion. At the same time, The City of God also enthusiastically recounted many wonders the saints had worked in recent years, using these as signs to confirm the truth of orthodox church teachings. These dimensions of Augustine's theology of miracleshis emphasis on nature's wonders and his insistence that the miracles of the saints confirmed the church's truthcontinued to exert a powerful influence on the religious piety of the early modern world.

Around 1500, though, it was the miracles of the saints that most often captivated the European imagination. The keeping of records of miracles worked by the saints was a common practice, one whose origins stretched back into late antiquity and found at least partial inspiration in the teachings of Augustine. A vast network of pilgrimage shrines sustained the practice, and the manuscript records that survive from these places reveal that an exchange mentality largely governed Europeans' appeals to the saints. When life's trials threatened, the faithful approached the saints with prayers and vows of pilgrimages and gifts. With their requests granted, pilgrims journeyed to the saint's shrine, often describing their miracle to a scribe, who carefully recorded their testimony. These miracle records were often proclaimed to those who visited these places. By the later fifteenth century, such accounts were increasingly being committed to print and circulated among a broad readership. Church authorities and humanist critics sometimes condemned these practices, seeing in them an indulgence in forms of magic and barter they believed bordered on idolatry. At the same time, the tens of thousands of miracle records that survive from the period point to the widespread popularity of the practice.


During the sixteenth century, Protestant reformers stepped up criticisms long voiced about the saints and their miracles, unleashing a war against pilgrimage and the cult of the saints in an attempt to rid the European countryside of these practices. In turning to oppose the long-standing popularity of the cult of the saints, Protestants faced several dilemmas. First, they needed to explain the seeming effectiveness of the saints to their sixteenth-century audience. In some cases the reformers accused the medieval clergy of having promoted fraudulent miracles. More often, however, they admitted that the miracles that had long been attributed to the saints were real, but that they had actually been worked by demonic, rather than divine, agency. A second issue involved the role that miracles had played in confirming not only a specific pilgrimage or saint but all church teachings. From the early days of the Reformation, reform-minded preachers and theologians responded that miracles were unnecessary to those who possessed faith, since faith was in and of itself its own self-confirming miracle. Even as they made such a claim, though, most sixteenth-century reformers were anxious to exploit wonders that seemed to confirm their own religious positions. Like Augustine before them, they turned to nature, where they found wonders that confirmed their teachings. The fashion for natural wonders in Protestantism emerged early, beginning even with Martin Luther, who in 1524 exploited a dramatic misbirth in print. Luther treated the appearance of a hideously deformed calf in Saxony, the so-called Monk Calf of Freiberg, as a divine pronouncement on the degenerate state of monasticism and the church. Numerous similar readings of natural miracles followed, and by the later sixteenth century hundreds of short broadsides and pamphlets filled with tales of recent celestial apparitions, earthquakes, floods, and deformed births poured from the presses of Europe. While accounts like these were consumed everywhere, the fascination with reading natural wonders as divine signs was far more pronounced in Protestant than in Catholic regions. Here, natural wonders came to satisfy the appetites of readers for signs of God's continued intervention in the world, an appetite that early modern Catholics indulged, by contrast, through the miracles of the saints. Even in the generally restrained and often rationalistic climate of John Calvin's Geneva, natural wonders played a role in shaping piety. Although on occasion Calvin held out the possibility that miracles had long since ceased to occur, he endorsed the publication of Luther's treatment of the Monk Calf in Geneva, and in the dedication to his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536) he insisted that a steady stream of wonders had long confirmed the Reformation message. Thus a curious paradox surrounded miracles in the Protestant tradition. On the one hand, most Protestant commentators insisted that miracles were not necessary to those who possessed a saving faith. On the other hand, wondersif not full-fledged miracleswere enthusiastically tracked and commented upon and continued to shape piety in Protestant Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


Miracles also entered into the heated religious rivalries of the time. The reformers' attacks of the early sixteenth century had sent pilgrimage and the recording of saintly miracles into a temporary decline in many parts of Europe, but in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries these practices experienced a dramatic resurgence. Catholic propagandists enthusiastically promoted the miracles recently worked by their saints or by the Blessed Virgin Mary as a vivid testimony to Roman Catholicism's truth. These renewed efforts sparked bitter confessional rivalries and polemic, prompting the Protestant charge that pilgrimage and the intercession of the saints was nothing more than a form of sorcery. In the overheated disputes of the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, miracles of healing, successful exorcisms, and any seeming violation of the natural order might be used alternately by Protestants or Catholics to condemn their opponents. At the same time, the popular demand for miracles of healing persisted particularly in the Catholic countryside and inspired the foundation of numerous new pilgrimage shrines, many of which grew to heights of popularity far beyond any pre-Reformation precedent. While the saints did not survive in Protestant territories except as vestigial models for piety, the fashion for visiting sites where great miracles had occurred was shared by Protestants and Catholics alike. At the end of the seventeenth century, for example, a spate of miracles involving images of Martin Luther inspired new pilgrimages among Lutherans to his one-time residences. As a result, the reformer's birthplace, Eisleben, was celebrated as Germany's "New Bethlehem" and was sought out by the pious well into the eighteenth century.

Even as the hunger for the wonders persisted, though, new forces were at work that questioned the possibility of God's supernatural intervention in the world. One important development in this regard was the appearance of the doctrine of the cessation of miracles, a teaching pioneered by Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466?1536) and endorsed by seventeenth-century Calvinists, alleging that wonders had been necessary only for the foundation of the Christian religion in ancient times. Once Christianity had been successfully established, the Holy Spirit had ceased to work miracles. While this notion did not find general acceptance among most religious thinkers at the time of its appearance, the doctrine pointed to a new skepticism that would eventually result in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment's denials of miracles. The most famous of these appeared in the work of the Scottish empirical philosopher David Hume (17111776). In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1758), Hume argued that miracles were impossible because nature's laws operated according to ironclad regularity and inevitability and could not be violated. A similar debunking spirit pervaded Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary (1752), in which he argued that miracles had functioned throughout Europe's history only to sustain fanaticism and intolerance. Even as these elite attacks on supernatural beliefs flourished, accounts of miracles remained vital to the religious life of the eighteenth century, particularly in the Catholic countryside where the cult of the saints and pilgrimage retained great popularity. At the same time, the attacks of elites were not without an eventual impact. By the later eighteenth century, Europe's Catholic princes often viewed the appetite for miracles as an archaism and many reform efforts focused on weaning people away from the long-standing customs of pilgrimage and the veneration of the saints.

See also Erasmus, Desiderius ; Hume, David ; Reformation, Protestant .


Eire, Carlos M. N. War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin. Cambridge, U.K., 1986.

Scribner, Robert W. Popular Culture and Popular Movements in Reformation Germany. London, 1988.

Soergel, Philip M. Wondrous in His Saints: Counter-Reformation Propaganda in Bavaria. Berkeley, 1993.

Walker, D. P. "The Cessation of Miracles." In Hermeticism and the Renaissance: Intellectual History and the Occult in Early Modern Europe. Edited by Ingrid Merkel and Allen G. Debus. Washington, D.C., 1988.

Philip Soergel

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Miracles, in the biblical sense are signs and wonders, the extraordinary events that inspire awe and open the world of the divine. By the Middle Ages the differentiation between the natural and supernatural had been made and miracles were redefined as the invasion of the supernatural into the world of the natural. As the concept of natural law and an orderly universe developed, the word miracle gradually took on the meaning it has had for the last three centuriesan event that occurs outside the laws of nature as we know them. Christian theologians tended to view a miracle as an event caused by God laying aside one of his own laws out of his concern for humanity.

David Hume (1711-76), the great Scottish philosopher, defined a miracle as "a violation of the laws of nature." The idea that nature follows certain laws and the consideration of whether or not those laws can be violated set the issues of a modern debate. Alfred Russel Wallace, prominent nineteenth-century scientist, in his book On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism (1881), assumes the existence of natural law and objects to Hume's skepticism by arguing that since we do not know all the laws of nature we cannot rule out the possibility of an unknown law overcoming a known one. He suggests that a miracle is "any act or event necessarily implying the existence and agency of superhuman intelligences."

Contemporary observers of the progress of science have developed a different approach to the question of miracles. They note that the idea of natural law is a concept imposed upon nature by scientists, who have observed its regularities. A miracle, they say, is a religious affirmation in the face of an extraordinary event that affects the individual positively. Calling an event a miracle is but one evaluation among several (e.g., coincidence, trickery) that can be made about the occurrence.

According to Hume, no amount of human testimony can prove a miracle. Hume's philosophy created a scientific environment in which the evaluation of an anomalous extraordinary event could only be explained as a phenomenon already understood. It is on this basis that, in spite of a popular belief in the paranormal, many scientists generally refuse to investigate the nature and evidence of so-called miracles. This resistance is odd since the history of human progress demonstrates that, as Charles Richet stated, "the improbabilities of today are the elementary truths of to-morrow." The truth of his statement was amply demonstrated in the lives of great scientists, many of whom had to fight an entrenched scientific community for recognition of their discoveries in an era in which the process of accepting new facts was very slow. Galileo (1564-1642) was persecuted and declared "ignorant of his ignorance;" the evidence of his telescope was rejected without examination; Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), born the year Galileo died, had to fight for so long for recognition of his theory of gravitation that he nearly resolved to publish nothing more and said; "I see that a man must either resolve to put out nothing new, or become a slave to defend it." Modern science is replete with stories of people who were ridiculed by their contemporaries for their extraordinary ideas and discoveries and otherwise outstanding scientists who thought the ideas of their younger colleagues to be mere ridiculous flights of fancy.

Belief in the reality of miracles has always been a cornerstone of religion. In former times it was sufficient to have faith that the divine power that created the universe of matter could also transcend its laws either directly or through the agency of particular humans. However, the religious skepticism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuriesbuilt in large part by the emergence of science and later sustained by its obvious success in changing the world through technologythrew doubt on the reality of all miracles, sacred or secular.

Part of the present-day opposition to claims of the paranormal is based on the brilliant achievements arising from applied scientific laws, reinforcing confidence in the logic of the material world. From this viewpoint, many agnostics and atheists deny the possibility of either religious miracles or secular paranormal happenings, claiming that both are the result of malobservation, superstition, or fraud. Meanwhile many religious authorities have upheld the validity of biblical miracles as indicating God's omnipotence and intervention in human affairs. For example, Vatican Council I(1870-71) denied that miracles are impossible. However, many theologians, responding positively to the world of natural science, have taken the view that miracles are no longer necessary in modern times as evidence for religious faith. Even the Roman Catholic church, informed by its own experience as much as by modern scientific worldviews, champions the idea of caution in evaluating apparent miracles in modern times, since it would be foolish to ignore the possibility of misunderstanding or deception. Ever since the claimed miraculous healings associated with pilgrim centers like Lourdes, the church has been careful to insist on satisfactory scientific and medical evidence over a prolonged period of time before placing official confirmation on any claimed miracle.

Through the twentieth century a spectrum of approaches to the question of miracles have been put forth. Older supernatural worldviews have survived and are still championed by conservative Christians. Paranormal events are judged to be either godly miracles (within the context of the Christian community) or devilish deceptions (occurring elsewhere). More liberal Christian leaders have suggested that while miracles are possible, they are rare, and tend to occur spontaneously.

A growing body of believers, members of metaphysical, Spiritualist, ancient wisdom, and other occult religious groupsas well as many parapsychologiststend to accept the existence of genuine paranormal events, but define them as purely natural events that science is slow in defining. Some would accept basic ESP, but not take the additional step and offer a positive evaluation of evidence for spirit communication or human survival. Of course, a small but vocal group deny the existence of all paranormal or supernatural events.

The problem of the distinction between religious and secular "miracles" remains a matter of polemics between conservative Christians and other religionists. Parapsychologists, Spiritualists and liberal Christians may point to the many reported miraculous events in the Bible as descriptions of paranormal events that also occur in modern times. Conservative believers accept as miraculous only those events with a clearly established religious purpose and reject all other claimed paranormal happenings. Some conservative Christians claim that all psychic phenomena are mere simulacrum of the miraculousthe work of devils or deceptive spirits counterfeiting real miracles. Of course, non-Christians resent such accusations.

Extraordinary eventsmiracles to the believerare the common property of all religious traditions and the nonreligious alike. Every religious community can produce accounts of extraordinary occurrences to strenthen the faith of their believers. Most religious traditions also de-emphazize miracles as secondary to the development of a mature relationship to the transcendent and the performance of spiritual, moral, and social duties within the human community. In such a context, miraculous events may be helpful signposts or motivators at some point, but they do not take the place of spiritual development. In fact, too much attention to the miraculous (or long-term focus on psychic events) may actually be a hindrance to spiritual progress.


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According to a Gallup poll taken in 1988, 88 percent of the people in the United States believed in miracles. In the results of a survey on spirituality published in the December 1997 issue of Self magazine, 91 percent of the readers who responded answered that they believed in miracles. In that same month and year, a poll commissioned by the Pew Research Center found that 61 percent of Americans believed in miracles and that such acts originate from the power of God. The May 1, 2000, issue of Newsweek carried the result of that news magazine's poll that stated 84 percent of American adults said they believe that God performs miracles and 48 percent claimed to have witnessed one.

Jon Butler, a Yale University professor of American history who specializes in American religion, defined miracles as physical events that defy the laws of nature. "Most miracles have some physical manifestation that is evident not only to the individuals involved, but may be evident to the people around them," he said. "The catch is, how do you explain it?"

Father James Wiseman, associate professor of theology at Catholic University, said that there are always going to be some people "who see immediately the hand of God in every coincidence, and those who are going to be skeptical of everything. And there is a great in-between."

Miracle stories are found in all the world religions, and while accounts of wonder-working saints and sages and the ancient acts of divine intervention in human affairs are celebrated regularly by the faithful who gather in churches, synagogues, and mosques throughout the world, contemporary Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, and Muslims still pray for and expect miraculous occurrences in their own lives today. And, according to the Newsweek survey, 43 percent of those polled who belonged to no religious body at all admitted that they had on occasion prayed for God's intervention.

Both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible are filled with miracles and wonders performed by prophets, angels, and God. So, too, does the Qur'an contain accounts of countless miracles, thus enabling the contemporary followers of Islam to expect such occurrences as proof of the validity of their faith. Islamic theologians have established two basic kinds of miracles: the mu'jizat, or prophetic miracles; and the karamat, those wonders performed by holy people and saints.

The Roman Catholic tradition contains many healing miracles performed by saints and popesboth alive and in spirit. Early in 1967 the Irish Independent of Dublin carried the account of a miracle healing that had brought a dying nun "from death's door to a healthy normal life" after the spirit of Pope John XXIII (18811963), who had died in 1963, appeared and spoke to her.

Sister Caterina Capitani (b. 1943 or 1944), a nun of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, suffered from varicose veins of the esophagus, a condition thought to be incurable and surgically inoperable. However, because the unfortunate sister endured continual hemorrhages, physicians decided to attempt an operation at Medical Missionaries of Mary of the Clinca Mediterranea in Naples, Italy. Two surgeries were performed, but they were unsuccessful; and when the incision on her stomach opened, Sister Caterina's condition steadily worsened to the point where she collapsed. Desperate to attempt any new therapy, her doctors sent the nun south for a change of air, but she was soon returned to Naples when it was decided that she had only a brief time to live.

Sister Caterina lay in her room alone. She had turned on her side when she felt someone place a hand on her stomach. Summoning all her strength, she turned to see Pope John XXIII standing beside her bed. He was not attired in his papal robes, but she easily recognized him. In a quiet yet authoritative voice, the ethereal image of the pope, who had died on June 3, 1963, spoke words of great comfort: "Sister, you have called to me so many timesthat you have torn out of my heart this miracle. Do not fear. You are healed."

The spirit of Pope John then told Sister Caterina to call in the sisters and the doctors so that a test could be performed. But before she did so, he assured her once again that no trace of her illness would remain. Just before the image vanished, he told Sister Caterina to come to Rome and pray at his tomb.

The moment the spirit of the deceased pope disappeared, Sister Caterina rose from her bed and was elated that she felt no pain. When she summoned the sisters and doctors into her room, they were astonished to find that the scar on her abdomen, which had been open and bleeding, was now completely healed. No other physical sign indicated that moments before there had been a gaping wound. The sisters declared the healing a miracle. Sister Caterina had not been expected to survive the day, yet that evening she was up and eating her supper with the community.

According to the Irish Independent, ever since her miracle healing by the apparition of Pope John XXIII, Sister Caterina lived a normal, healthy life in every way. "This is a phenomenon that cannot be explained in a human way," the account concluded.

Contrary to those skeptics who suggest that the Roman Catholic Church is likely to accept nearly all claims of miracles as genuine, many serious steps are taken by various committees to authenticate a miracle. Father Frederick Jelly, professor of systematic theology at Mount Saint Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, has served on miracles committees and has listed the questions asked to authenticate a miracle as the following: What is the psychological state of the person claiming the miracle? Is there a profit motive behind the miracle claim? What is the character of the person who is claiming the miracle? Does the miracle contain any elements contrary to scripture or faith? What are the spiritual fruits of the miracledoes it attract people to prayer or to acts of greater charity?

Once these questions have been determined and reviewed, the committee makes its decision as to whether or not the event was heaven-inspired. If the committee decides the event is miraculous and its implications have national or international effect, the case may be referred to the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. The Sacred Congregation has the authority to institute a new investigation and make its own ruling and recommendation to the pope, who is the final arbiter of the validity of miracles.

Rather than miracles, Philip Hefner, professor of systematic theology at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, stated in an essay in Newsweek (May 1, 2000) that he would rather talk about blessings. "We receive blessings, often quite unexpectedly, and we want to praise God for them. We know we cannot claim the credit for these blessings. Even though we cannot predict their arrival, nor understand why so much of human life involves sorrow and evil, we can be grateful and render praise."

Delving Deeper

Glynn, Patrick. God: The EvidenceThe Reconciliation of Faith and Reason in a Postsecular World. Rocklin, Calif.: Prima Publishing, 1997.

Humphrey, Nicholas. Science, Miracles and the Search for Supernatural Consolation. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

Lewis, C. S. Miracles. New York: Macmillan, 1970.

Schroeder, Gerald L. The Science of God: The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom. New York: Free Press, 1997.

Steiger, Sherry Hansen, and Brad Steiger. Mother Mary Speaks to Us. New York: Dutton, 1996; Signet, 1997.

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The idea of miracles was not invented by Christians; the terminology is endemic to theism and has always formed part of the language of religious discourse, in other religions and in paganism, meaning the wonder caused in man by events beyond his understanding. Since the Gospels contain accounts of miracles, an understanding of the miraculous is central to Christianity, but because of its use in other theistic contexts, it has always been a point of discussion. In the early twenty-first century the word miracle is given a limited meaning by dictionaries which generally describe a miracle as: an event exceeding the known powers of nature owing to special intervention by a deity or of some supernatural agency. This is to stress the etymology of the English word miracle, which derives its meaning from the Latin mirare, meaning to wonder. Exclusive stress is thereby laid on that which causes wonder and amazement. Popular use of the word unfortunately suggests that the more that is known about the laws of nature the less room there is for intervention by God. Miracle is then seen as opposed to nature, in terms of inexplicable wonder, but that is not the basic understanding of miracle within the Christian church. In the ancient world, the statement the world is full of miracles would not have meant the constant infraction of the course of this world principally because the notion of the law of nature was not used; it would have meant everything created is a wonder issuing from the hand of God.

The ideas underlying the English word miracle are complex. In the Bible it translates more than one synonym in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. In the New Testament, certain words and actions of Christ are called miracles, and the same word is used at times in English translations of the Old Testament. But in Hebrew the words translated by miracle are mopet (a prodigy), ot (a sign), and nipla (a marvel), and in Greek these events are called by other names, such as dunamis (an act of power) and, most often of all, semeon (a sign). The Latin Bible did not use miraculum for any of these; they were rendered mainly as signum, though virtus, mirabilia, prodigia, or portentum were also used. The word miraculum entered Christian vocabulary from another source; its root, miror, I marvel, was widely used in classical literature in describing any event that gave rise to this reaction, but the main word used both in Scripture and in the writings of the early church fathers was signa, a sign, stressing theological meaning rather than psychological reaction. For the early church there is only one miracle, that of creation, with its corollary of re-creation by the resurrection of Christ. God, they held, created the world out of nothing in six days, and within that initial creation he planted all the possibilities for the future. All creation was, therefore, both natural and miraculous. Everyday eventsthe birth of children, the growth of plants, rainfallwere all daily miracles, signs of the mysterious creative power of God at work in the universe. But it was always possible that people would become so accustomed to these daily miracles that they would no longer be moved to awe by them and would need to be provoked to reverence by unusual manifestations of Gods power. Such events were also within the original creation, hidden within the nature and appearance of things, which at times caused miracles that seemed to be contrary to nature but were in fact inherent in it. The most usual channel for these hidden causes to be made manifest was the prayers of the saints, living and dead, through whom the re-creating work of Christ was revealed. Events happened in nature or miraculously, but both were equally the work of God.

To pose only the question How does this happen? to any event need not exclude the older question Why does this happen, what does it mean? The why and the how questions about miracles can be equally useful. Miracles and nature were for centuries put on an equal footing as signs from God to man. However, in the twelfth century a distinction was found possible in the relationship between miracles and events of other kinds. While miracles were an accepted way in which Christians were in touch with the supernatural, other modes of supernatural contact to some extent were distinguished from miracles. Most of all, a distinction was made between miracle and magic. The arts of magic were consistently forbidden in the Christian church as being a manipulation and distortion of creation by mankind. Edicts of church councils and disciplinary directions in penitentials alike forbade magical practices to Christians throughout the Middle Ages. The churchs teachings on magic did not change, nor did the disregard for those teachings at a popular level decrease. In fact, in the twelfth century the revival of learning, and the interest in how things happened rather than why, led to an increase in the amount of magic practiced, and discussion of the question of the mechanics of events began to predominate over the question of their significance.

Modern-day miracles are often connected with the saints, those who are thought to have most clearly embodied the love and power of God in their lives. Miracles are recognized as signs that God is able to work uniquely through those nearest to Him in charity, especially in healing sickness; such signs of this work of God will be seen both in the lives of saints and also after their deaths. This view is connected with the theology of Christ as the Second Adam, re-creating all the world in a redeemed form so that a new relationship is set up between redeemed humanity and Gods mercy. Such a perspective is often seen in the stories about the new relationship of love and respect between the saints and the four elements of air, earth, fire, and water; the life of plants, animals and birds, as well as humans, were then seen to be miracles in both senses of the word. Miracles can then be understood as both natural and significant, as a normal part of redeemed creation.

SEE ALSO Roman Catholic Church


Cavadini, John C., ed. 1999. Miracles in Jewish and Christian Antiquity: Imagining Truth. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Chenu, M. D. 1968. Nature, Man, and Society in the Twelfth Century. Eds. and trans. Jerome Taylor and Lester K. Little. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lewis, C. S. 1950. Miracles: A Preliminary Study. London: Geoffrey Bles.

Ward, Benedicta. 1982. Miracles and the Medieval Mind: Theory, Record, and Event, 10001215. London: Scholar Press.

Benedicta Ward

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273. Miracles

See also 79. CHRIST ; 151. FAITH ; 252. MAGIC ; 349. RELIGION ; 359. SAINTS .

the study or lore of miracles.
the working of wonders or miracles; magie. thaumaturgist, thaumaturge, thaumaturgus, n. thaumaturgic, thaumaturgical , adj.

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