The National Catholic Review
J. Patout Burns

This study of miracles draws upon excellent contemporary scholarship in the study of religion; its acknowledgment of interpretative assistance reads like a who’s who of academics working in the various fields; its bibliography is extensive. Kenneth Woodward’s intention, however, is to make the study accessible to the lay reader. The objective is to determine the meaning or function of miracles in five religious traditions, which are divided into two groups: Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the West; Hinduism and Buddhism in Asia. (Placing Islam last in the title is unexplained, since it comes third in the book.) Miracle itself is used only as a descriptive category (though a definition is offered on p. 28) for kinds of events that are specific to each tradition. The focus is on deeds performed by human beings, though Jesus and avatars of the Hindu deities are allowed under that rubric. In each of the five sections, one chapter is dedicated to the founders and a second to saints or adherents of the tradition.

The study of miracles in the Hebrew Scriptures provides an excellent introduction, particularly for the reader whose prior contact with miracles has been through Christianity. Only four Israelites are recorded as performing miracles in the Bible: Moses, his assistant Joshua, Elijah and his assistant Elisha. While God performs all the miracles in Genesis and continues to be an active presence in Exodus, human beings gradually take over, and God no longer acts directly as the history of Israel progresses. The human agents themselves gain increasing control over the performance of miracles and simultaneously tend to exercise the power in private and for individuals rather than publicly and for the community as a whole. Miracles themselves do not produce and maintain faith in God; indeed they can be performed even by enemies, such as the magicians of Pharaoh, though these are recorded to show the even greater power of God’s agents.

In the classical rabbinic period, miracles are discounted as proofs for an interpretation of the Law, so that human arguments gain control over the significance of the divine presence in Torah. In both the classical period and the 18th century, the power of miracle-working is usually but not always benevolent; it can also be used to punish the refusal to recognize the divine power in a particular saint. As in the later prophetic period, the miracles themselves tend to be private rather than communal.

The sheer volume of miracles produced by Jesus and their public character, particularly in contrast to the later books of the Old Testament, is striking. Even when the actions performed by Jesus might be taken as acts of compassion for human suffering, they carry a fuller message about the significance of the agent himself and his message. Other miracles are recognized as highly symbolic, such as the feeding of multitudes, the control of the sea and the giving of sight to the blind. All the miracles identify Jesus as the agent of God and bearer of the Holy Spirit, but in the Gospel of John the authority and power of Jesus himself is the focus. The miracles manifest his heavenly identity.

Luke links the Acts of the Apostles to the Gospel by having the disciples of Jesus receive the Spirit, as he had done, and perform miracles like his, though in his name rather than their own. In this the pattern of Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha is repeated, with a change required by the identity of Jesus himself. The disciples perform no nature miracles, which by implication belong only to God and thus identify Jesus. In this way the miracles of the disciples continue to manifest the person and presence of Jesus, as well as his absence. In the post-Apostolic period, the miracle-working power of holy men has to be restricted so that it does not pose a threat to the structures of the communities and the authority of their bishops. The Life of Anthony of Egypt, written by St. Athanasius (296?-373), assigns the healing power at work to Christ rather than to Anthony and focuses on exorcism of demons. In medieval Europe, miracles are regularly worked through the bodies of the saints. While living, the extraordinary mortifications that they endure become a sign of divine power in them, culminating in the imprinting of the wounds of Christ on the body of Francis of Assisi. Healings through contact with the bodies of saints after death became so regular a course of events that their absence, rather than their occurrence, required explanation. The miracles of healing are characteristic of Christianity and manifest its understanding of the fallen human condition and the power of Jesus to transform it.

Like both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, the Qur’an does not present signs as an effective motive for faith. Instead the ahadith, the traditions concerning the life and works of the Prophet himself, regard miracles as signs of the prophetic office. Not unlike the wonders of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, the signs tend to focus on healing, the production of water or multiplication of food and battle miracles. The narrative of the Ascension of Muhammed does not clearly fit the announced plan of this study: it is not a miracle performed by a human being that was witnessed by others. The literature dealing with the miracles of Muslim saints disapproves signs whose only function is to demonstrate their powers. Instead, preference is given to acts of compassion and, especially, to participation in God’s governance of the world by aiding the just and punishing the evil.

Throughout the first part of the book, the Western reader will feel much at home, generally recognizing the kind of actions that function as signs and the purposes they serve. The second part, dealing with the religions of Asia, and in particular of South Asia, introduces a religious culture whose sensibilities are radically different. Woodward, the longtime religion editor of Newsweek, makes every effort to set the context by succinct and generally effective reviews of the development of the religious systems and their literature. He chooses to focus on the miracles of Krishna, through which the cult of the older gods of India are challenged and displaced. The miracle stories themselves help to introduce the religious system that uses them to characterize the nature of the divine and its relationship to the human world.

The miracles of the Buddha which Woodward considers focus on the identity of the person and therefore on his way of understanding and responding to the suffering of the worldhis teaching of a way of release from suffering. The stories of his conception, birth, death and funeral are included, along with various demonstrations of power that are used to win converts. These are all acts attributed to the Buddha himself rather than to a distinct godas they were in the case of Moses and Jesus (if one excludes the resurrection in the Gospel of John). Miracles of compassion, for the alleviation of suffering, are missing, since the Buddhist way is not to set this world aright but to escape it. Like the miracles of the Buddha himself, those of his disciples serve principally to demonstrate their spiritual powers and to win others to their teaching. Woodward points out that the often flamboyant nature miracles, in which reality rapidly changes forms, are used to demonstrate the insubstantiality of the world itself.

In a final chapter, Woodward considers four miracle-workers in contemporary culture. These provide both continuity and contrast and include the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, Oral Roberts and Mata Amritanadamayi. While Catholicism and Hasidic Judaism restrict miraculous power to the special friends of God, Pentecostalism and this contemporary form of Hinduism would utterly democratize it.

Woodward’s project is an ambitious one and should not be faulted for its limitations. The reader who lacks familiarity with non-Abrahamic religious traditions will find the second part of the book difficult. The author labors for accuracy and clarity, but he does not enjoy the comprehensive understanding of the Asian traditions that would be necessary to make their logic and sensibility more easily accessible to the novice.

J. Patout Burns is the Edward A. Malloy Professor of Catholic Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Nashville, Tenn.