Jesus's miracles prove... nothing
by: George Bethune English, A.M.
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JT's introductory note: I've been dipping into George Bethune English's 1813 book, The Grounds of Christianity Examined by Comparing The New Testament with the Old. (The Gutenberg Project's pdf of the book is attached.) What English is trying to do with this volume is show that if the Old Testament is viewed as divinely inspired, then the New Testament is in sufficient conflict with the Old, that it cannot be divinely inspired. As English writes in the Introduction:
"Because they set the Old and New Testament in opposition, and reduce Christians to this fatal dilemma.—Either the Old Testament contains a Revelation from God; or it does not. If it does, then the New Testament cannot be from God, because it is palpably, and importantly repugnant to the Old Testament in doctrine, and some other things. Now Jews, and Christians, each of them admit the Old Testament as containing a divine Revelation; consequently the Jews cannot, and Christians ought not to receive and allow any thing as a Revelation from God which flatly contradicts a former by them acknowledged Revelation: because it cannot be supposed that God will contradict himself. On the other hand — if the Old Testament be not from God, still the New Testament must go down, because it asserts that the Old Testament is a revelation from God, and builds upon it as a foundation. And if the foundation fails, how can the house, stand?: The Author pledges himself to the Reader, to prove, that they establish this dilemma completely. And he cannot help thinking, that there is reason to believe, that if both sides of this strangely neglected controversy had been made public in times past, and become known, that the consequences would have been long ago fatal at least to the New Testament."
However, the extract republished below from Chapter 2 addresses a side issue - whether or not the miracles reportedly performed by Jesus in the New Testament provide evidence he was the Messiah - and this is a claim many Christians make today, though as English notes in the footnote (an interesting read in its own right), it was not a claim made by the earliest Christians.
Extract from Chapter 2 of Christianity Examined
...Nor can miracles, said to have been wrought by Jesus, and his Apostles in behalf of Christianity, avail anything in the case. For miracles can never render a foundation valid, which is in itself invalid; can never make a false inference true; can never make a prophecy fulfilled, which is not fulfilled; and can never designate a Messiah, or Jesus for the Messiah, if both are not marked out in the Old Testament; no more than they could prove the earth to be the sun, or a mouse a lion.
Besides, miracles said to have been wrought, may be often justly decided false reports, when attributed to persons who claim an authority from the Old Testament, which they impertinently alledge to support their pretentions. God can never be supposed often to permit miracles to be done for the confirmation of a false, or pretended mission. And if at any time he does permit miracles to be done in confirmation of a pretended mission, we have express directions from the Old Testament (acknowledged by Christians to be of divine authority) Deut. xiii. 1, 2, not to regard such miracles; but to continue firm to the antecedent revelation given by Himself, and contained in the Old Testament, notwithstanding any “signs or wonders;” which, under the circumstance of attesting something contrary to an antecedent revelation, we are forewarned of as being no test of truth. No new revelation, however supported by miracles, ought ever to be received as coming from God, unless it confirms, or at least does not contradict, the preceding standing revelation, acknowledged to be from God.
Accordingly, we find from the New Testament, that all the recorded miracles of Jesus could not make the Jews believe him to be the Messiah when they thought that he did not answer the description of that character given by the Prophets; on the contrary, they procured him to be crucified for pretending to be what to them he appeared plainly not to be.
Nor had his miracles alone any effect on his own brethren, and kindred, who seem (Mark vi. 4; Jo. vii. 6,) to have been more incredulous in him than other Jews. Nor had they the effect, they are supposed to have been fitted to produce, among his immediate followers, and Disciples; some of whom did not believe in him, but deserted him, and particularly had no faith in him when he spake of his sufferings; and thought that he could not be their Messiah when they saw him suffer, notwithstanding his miracles, and his declaration to them that he was the Messiah. And so rooted were the Jews in the notion of the Messiah's being a temporal Prince, a conquering Pacificator, and Deliverer, even after the death of Jesus, and the progress of Christianity grounded on the belief of his being the Messiah, that they have in all times of distress, particularly in the apostolic sera, in great numbers followed impostors giving themselves out as the Messiah, with force, and arms, as the way to restore the kingdom of Israel. So that the Jews, who it seems mistook in this most important matter, and after the most egregious manner, the meaning of their own Books, might, till they were set right in their interpretation of the Old Testament, and were convinced from thence that Jesus was the Messiah, might I say, as justly reject Jesus asserting his mission, and Doctrines with miracles, as they might reject any other person, who in virtue of miracles would lead them into idolatry, or any other breach of their law.
In fine, the miracles said to have been wrought by Jesus, are, according to the Old Testament, the gospel scheme, and the words of Jesus himself, no absolute proof of his being the Messiah, or of the truth of Christianity; and Jesus laid no great stress upon them as proving doctrines, for he forewarned his disciples, that “signs and wonders” would be performed, so great and stupendous, as to deceive, if possible, the very elect, and bids them not to give any heed to them.*
* There are a great many persons who conceive that Christianity is sufficiently proved to be true, if the miracles of Jesus are true, even without any regard to the prophecies, so often appealed to by him. But supposing the miracles to be true; yet no miracles can prove that which is false in itself to be true. If therefore Jesus be not foretold as the Messiah in the Old Testament, no miracles can prove Jesus to be the Messiah foretold. Nay, it would be a stronger argument to prove Jesus to be a false pretender, that he appealed to prophecies as relating to him, when in fact they had no relation whatever to him; and by that means imposed upon the ignorant people; than it would be that he came from God, merely because he worked miracles; for “False Christs and false prophets may arise, and may show such great signs and wonders as to deceive, if it were possible, the very elect.” Matt. xxiv. 24. Yet no Christian would allow it to be argued from thence, that those false Christs were true ones: nor would any one conclude; that a man came from God, (notwithstanding any miracle he might do) if he appealed to Scripture for that which is no where in it. In fine, if miracles would prove the Messiahship of Jesus, so also they would prove the Messiahship of the false Christs, and false prophets spoken of above. Nay more, they would demonstrate the Divine mission of Antichrist himself; who, according to the epistle to the Thessalonians, (2 Thes. ch. ii. 8, 9,10) and the Revelations, ch. xiii. 13, 14, was to perform "great signs and wonders," equal to any wrought by Jesus, for the same Greek words are used to express the wonderful works or “great signs and wonders” of Antichrist, which are elsewhere used to express the miracles, or “ great signs and wonders” of Jesus himself.
It is a striking circumstance, that the earliest apologists for Christianity laid little stress upon the miracles of its founder.
Justin Martyr, in his Apology, is very shy of appealing to the miracles of Jesus in confirmation of his pretentions; he lays no stress upon them, but relies entirely upon the prophecies he quotes as in his favor. Jerome, in his comment on the eighty-first Psalm, assures us, “that the performance of miracles was no extraordinary thing: and that it was no more than what Appollonius, and Apulias, and innumerable impostors had done before.”
Lactantius saw so little force in the miracles of Christ, exclusive of the prophecies, that he does not hesitate to affirm their utter inability to support the Christian religion by themselves. [Lactan. Div. Inst. L. v. c. 3.]
Celsus, observing upon the words of Jesus, that “false prophets and false Christs shall arise, and show grant signs and wonders," sneeringly observes, " A fine thing truly! that miracles done by him should prove him to be a God, and when done by others should demonstrate them to be false prophets and impostors.”
Tertullian, on the words of Jesus, here referred to by Celsus, says as follows;
“Christ, foretelling that many imposters should come and perform many wonders, shews, that our faith cannot without great temerity be founded on miracles, since they were so early wrought, by false Christians themselves.” [Tertul. in Marc. L. ii. c. 3.]
Indeed, miracles in the two first centuries were allowed very little weight in proving doctrines. Since the Christians did not deny, that the heathens performed miracles in behalf of their gods, and that the heretics performed them as well as the orthodox. This accounts for the perfect indifference of the heathens to the miracles said to have been performed by the founders of Christianity. Hierocles speaks with great contempt of what he calls " the little tricks of Jesus," And Origen, in his reply to Celsus, waves the consideration of the Christian miracles: “for (says he) the very mention of these things sets you heathens upon the. broad grin.” Indeed, that they laughed very heartily at what in the eighteenth century is read with a grave face, is evident from the few fragments of their works written against Christianity which has escaped the burning zeal of the fathers, and the Christian emperors; who piously sought for, and burned up, these mischievous volumes to prevent their doing mischief to posterity. This conduct of theirs is very suspicious. Why burn writing they could so triumphantly refute, if they were refutable? They should have remembered the just reflection of Arnobius, their own apologist, against the heathens, who were for abolishing at once such writings as promoted Christianity.—"Intercipere scripta et publicatam velle submergere lectionem, non est Deos defendere, sed veritatis testificationem timere." [Arnob. contra Gentes. Liber ni.]—E.
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