Those who like to think themselves scientific often make the claim that the Bible was written before the days of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, and so people were more prone to ascribe supernatural explanations to events which can now be explained by science.
For example, such people might delight in pointing to Christopher Columbus’ knowledge of a coming eclipse in 1504. Columbus was trying to entice the natives of Jamaica to supply his men with provisions.
When they refused, he threatened to remove the moon, knowing that an eclipse was imminent. Sure enough, the moon was eclipsed, and the natives became compliant.
It is a dangerous story, precisely because it tends to make us feel superior. Critics – with or without much knowledge of biblical times – tend to assume that the same sort of approach can explain the readiness of ancient people to believe the miracles in the Bible.
The truth is that these miracles were performed in the face of scepticism, not gullibility. When, at 89, Sarah was told that she would bear a son, she laughed (Genesis 18:12).
In the New Testament, when Zacharias was told that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son in their old age, responded: ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years’ (Luke 1:18).
Despite the fact that he is described as righteous, obedient and blameless, Zacharias was struck dumb for his scepticism (Luke 1:6, 20). Only when the child (John the Baptist) is named are Zacharias’ powers of speech restored.
When Mary is told that, while remaining a virgin, she will bear a son, she asks: ‘How can this be, since I do not know a man?’ (Luke 1:34). When Joseph, her betrothed, found out that Mary was expecting a child, he moved to put her away secretly (Matthew 1:19).
His first explanation was not the supernatural one but the natural one – not that the Holy Spirit had caused Mary to become the mother of the Messiah but that she had been unfaithful.
That is ever the way in Scripture – even believers opt for the natural explanation. There is no weak-minded and gullible expectation of an avalanche of miracles.
When Elisha tells the Shunammite woman that she will bear a son, she rebukes the prophet for mocking her: ‘No, my lord, man of God, do not lie to your maidservant!’ (2 Kings 4:16).
When Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego were about to be cast into the fiery furnace, they knew that a miraculous deliverance was a possibility but had no sure expectation that it would be so (Daniel 3:17-18).
Jonah, tossed overboard, expected not the miraculous refuge of a great fish’s belly but death (Jonah 1-2).
In the feeding of the 5000, it is clear that neither Philip nor Andrew expected the miracle. On the contrary, all they could see was the enormous amount of money needed to buy food and the paucity of their resources (John 6:5-9).
When Jesus walked across the Sea of Galilee, the people did not immediately grasp what he had done, but assumed that there was a natural explanation (John 6:25).
Even when the disciples obeyed Christ, and expected something extraordinary, they seem to have felt the tug both ways. On one occasion, Jesus told Simon to launch out into the deep and let down his nets for a catch. Simon seems ready to debate the point, but believes and obeys (Luke 5:5).
This attitude becomes especially obvious at the resurrection of Christ. The disciples saw Jesus, and worshipped him, but some doubted (Matthew 28:17). The two disciples on the road to Emmaus are downcast, while Mary sees Jesus and thinks he is the gardener.
Thomas will not believe unless he can touch the risen Jesus, and the disciples see him on the beach but do not recognise him (Luke 24; John 20-21). The truth is that the disciples were very reluctant to believe in Christ’s miracles.
On the other hand, there is little evidence that gullibility vanished when an apple fell on Isaac Newton’s head (itself a myth, of course). In 1999 Pastor Arnot was still reporting, in the aftermath of the ‘Toronto Blessing’, that people were fulfilling Psalm 81:10 (‘Open wide your mouth and I will fill it’) by having their tooth fillings miraculously turned to gold!
Human nature has not changed. There are always those who are prone to rationalism and those who are prone to gullibility.
That was true in the ancient world and it is true in the modern world. The assertion that all miracles are impossible is unscientific, since by definition science can make no comment on miracles. The assertion that all people in the ancient world were gullible is unhistorical.
What remains true is that Christ’s miracles were so obvious and clear that they could not be denied (e.g. Mark 3:22-27; John 11:47-48; Acts 4:16).
Hence Jesus’ words: ‘If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would have no sin; but now they have seen and also hated both me and my Father’ (John 15:24).
The overwhelming picture in the Bible is that believers were sceptical of miracles until convinced by the clear weight of evidence – applied to their minds by the Holy Spirit.