Many skeptics assert that the early Christians believed in miracles because theirs was a primitive, prescientific culture where people were ignorant of the course of nature. As such, it is argued, they were not able to perceive a miracle as being contrary to nature and thus readily accepted miracle claims.
For instance, in his work An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, eighteenth-century Scottish skeptic philosopher David Hume argues for a strong presumption against the supernatural and miraculous based on the idea that miracles “chiefly abound among ignorant and barbarous nations.”
There are three ways to respond to this claim.
St. Joseph’s plan to divorce Mary quietly when she turned up pregnant showed he knew as well as any modern gynecologist that, in the ordinary course of nature, women do not have babies without having had sexual relations with a man. It is only after the angel appeared to him and told him the baby was of the Holy Spirit that he took Mary in. As C.S. Lewis writes:
When St. Joseph finally accepted the view that his fiancée’s pregnancy was due not to unchastity but to a miracle, he accepted the miracle as something contrary to the known order of nature (Miracles, 74).
It is unreasonable to believe Joseph would not have known it is contrary to the course of nature for a virgin to have a child.
The early Christians’ testimony about miracles itself necessarily implies they understood the laws of nature. How can one recognize something is a miracle or an extraordinary event unless one knows what is ordinary?
The Gospels speak of the audiences responding with fear and awe to Jesus’ marvelous deeds (Mark 6:2, 51; 7:37; Luke 5:26, 7:16). Why would they have this reaction unless they recognized that such deeds were contrary to the ordinary course of nature? Again, C.S. Lewis notes:
If they were not known to be contrary to the laws of nature, how could they suggest the presence of the supernatural? How could they be surprising unless they were seen to be exceptions to the rules? And how can anything be seen to be an exception till the rules are known? (Miracles, 74-75).
The bottom line is, if the early Christians did not know the basic laws of nature, they would have no idea of what constitutes a miracle, and consequently such events would in no way pique their interest.
The doubt of the miraculous embedded in the Gospel narratives is another example that disproves that the early Christians accepted miracles because they were a prescientific people.
Take for example St. Luke’s narrative of Zechariah’s encounter with the angel (Luke 1:18). Zechariah, who was a priest and thus a religious man, refused to believe the angel’s announcement that his wife, Elizabeth, would conceive a son. Why such doubt? The answer is because Elizabeth was beyond childbearing years. Zechariah knew that conception of a child at such an old age would run counter to the laws of nature. This is precisely the reason why he initially refused to believe the miracle. St. Luke makes it evident that first-century Jews were not so unaware of the laws of nature that they were prepared to believe any sort of miraculous claim.
St. Luke’s narrative of the Resurrection serves as another example. According to Luke, the first ones to oppose the Christian message of the Resurrection were not atheists but the Sadducees, the high priests (see Acts 4:1-24). They were God-fearing Jews and the religious leaders of the day. If they were unaware that dead men stay dead, then why did they reject the Christian confession of the Resurrection of Jesus?
We also see doubt concerning the Resurrection in the other Gospels. Mark recounts that the apostles doubted the Resurrection on two different occasions (see Mark 16:9-13). According to Matthew, some of the apostles doubted when Jesus appeared on the mountain in Galilee right before his Ascension (Matthew 28:16-17). Finally, St. John records how Thomas doubted and would not believe unless he saw the risen Christ: “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).
So there is ample evidence that, contrary to the skeptic’s assertion, the people of first-century Judaism were far from ignorant of the ordinary course of nature. The idea that early Christians believed miracles because they were prescientific is unfounded.
This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Catholic Answers.