The Book of Miracles: The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam
By Kenneth L. Woodward
Imagine, if you will, a time when human beings lived in intimacy with God, and so with all other living beings and with one another. Imagine, then, that humankind emerged and separated itself from God, and from intimacy with other living beings. Imagine further that in their separateness, individuals imagined themselves as autonomous beings, distant not only from God but from their own common humanity. Imagine, finally, that these autonomous individuals were to rediscover their common humanity, their connections to other living beings-and eventually reunite with God.
This could be the story of the religions of the West. It could also, with important modifications, be the story of the religions of India. It might, perhaps, even be the story of the world. In that case, it would be the story of stories, the myth of all myths-and no less true for that.
In one form or another, this is the basic story we will be examining in this book. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the two major world religions originating in India, the story is wed to a cyclical view of time, so that God or the gods-or the Buddha or the bodhisattvas - are continually returning and reuniting with other beings. These Indian variations of our basic story will be discussed in "Introduction to Hinduism and Buddhism," in Part Two.
Here we will consider the three monotheisms that originated in the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In the Hebrew Bible, we will see, God is very much with the Israelites as He leads them-pushing and pulling-to the Promised Land. But as we will also see, the figure of God as a palpable presence gradually disappears over the course of the Hebrew Bible, so that in the end He is no longer seen or heard or even spoken of. In the Christian New Testament, we will find, God Himself takes human flesh as the only begotten Son of the Father, but then dies and returns to the Father. In the Quran, we will discover, God becomes present in the words of the Quran, dictated to his Prophet, Muhammad, but does not appear Himself. He remains wholly transcendent to His creation, beyond time but not beyond acting in history.
When God is present in history, miracles occur. Miracles, therefore, signal the presence of God. In this book, our interest is not in the miracles God works-that, after all, is what God does-but in the miracles that human beings work in the name of God, which signal His presence and power. In the Hebrew Bible, the Lord makes Moses "like a God" by giving His prophet the ability to work miracles. Gradually, as God disappears from the Bible, His prophets begin to work miracles themselves. In the New Testament, Jesus is a human being whose miracle working is a sign that in him God is present, "reconciling the world to Himself." In the Quran, the Muslim sacred scripture, the Prophet Muhammad assumes the more humble role as the reciter of Gods definitive revelation, which supersedes the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. But in the oral traditions (ahadith) of the Prophet, Muhammad does indeed work miracles, and his birth is taken as a sign of a new dispensation.
In each tradition, therefore, there is a time when God is present to the world in ways that later He is not. And in each tradition, the withdrawal of the palpable presence of God is followed by the emergence of saints who are seen as the friends of God in ways that the rest of humankind is not. Although the meaning of sainthood differs in each tradition, its function is much the same. Saints witness to the continuing power of a God who otherwise often seems distant-even absent-from the world. The saints whose lives we will examine have one thing in common: they all work miracles. But just as the meaning of miracles in sacred texts requires an understanding of those texts, so the meaning of the miracles of saints requires an understanding of the communities of believers in which miracles are recognized as such. Moreover, as we will see, it is the miracle stories of each sacred scripture that enable believers to recognize the miraculous when it occurs outside the scriptures' own sacred time. Thus, in the six chapters that follow, the miracles that occur when God is palpably present are followed by those worked by His saints when God has, for different reasons, withdrawn His presence-but not His power.
The Hebrew Bible and Its Interpreters
Without doubt, the most influential book in Western culture is the Bible. Indeed, unless we have at least some understanding of this collection of texts, we will never understand the religious imagination of the West. As scripture, the Bible (derived from the Greek word biblia. meaning simply "books") is sacred to three contemporary world religions: Judaism, Christianity, and-to a much lesser extent-Islam. But the Bible is not the same set of books in all three traditions. Each tradition has determined for itself which books of the Bible it regards as canonical, or authoritative.
In Jewish tradition, the Bible is known as the Tanakh, an acronym derived from the Hebrew names for the three principal parts of the Jewish scriptures: the Law (Torah), the Prophets, and the Writings. Altogether, the Tanakh includes thirty-nine books, arranged in a sequence that differs significantly from that of the Old Testament in the Christian Bible. Most important, the interpretation of the Tanakh is guided by an oral Torah, or teaching that complements and completes the written Torah contained in the Tanakh. According to tradition, the oral Torah was first delivered to Moses and transmitted by memory through a succession of prophets and sages. Eventually this body of interpretation (sometimes called midrash, which means "search" or "inquiry") was written down between the second and seventh centuries C.E. in a series of documents known as the Mishnah and the Talmud. In short, for Judaism the stories of the Bible are to be understood in light of the commentaries and insights of its great sages and judges. In this way, the Bible remains a living book, one that continues to speak to those who accept it as God's word.
The Christian Bible includes the New as well as the Old Testament. As these terms suggest, the theological interpretation of the earlier Hebrew scriptures is guided by the revelation contained in the books of the later testament. The Christian Old Testament differs from the Tanakh in two important ways: First, the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles include a number of books not found in the Jewish canon. Second, even those books that are the same are arranged differently, so as to tell a story that culminates in Jesus and the revelations contained in the New Testament. Even among Christians, moreover, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant traditions differ on which Old Testament books they accept as authoritative, or divinely revealed.
Like Jews and Christians, Muslims regard themselves as spiritual descendants of Abraham, whose story is told in the book of Genesis. But for Muslims, the Quran is the last and definitive revelation from God (Allah), and on its authority, Muslims regard only three sections of the Bible as divinely revealed: the Pentateuch (first five books), the psalms, and the gospels. But as a practical matter, the psalms and the gospels are virtually unknown to and ignored by Muslims.
Despite these differences, contemporary Biblical scholarship has become in recent decades a shared intellectual enterprise. Most scholars recognize that the Hebrew Bible is sacred history-that is, that the Tanakh's anonymous authors and editors took material that was originally passed on orally and fashioned it into a set of scrolls revealing the will and actions of God on behalf of the people of Israel. Some of that material, we now realize, was clearly borrowed from other Near Eastern lore. For instance, the story in Genesis of Noah and the great flood parallels in many ways a similar story from the epic Gilgamesh. Moreover, few scholars now believe-as was thought for more than two thousand years-that Moses himself wrote the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. For believers, what matters is that these stories reveal something essential about who God is and how He has acted in relation to those He has called to be His people.
Among those acts are events that can be called miraculous.