The MOST Theological Collection: Catholic Apologetics Today: Answers to Modern Critics
"Chapter 12: Signs and Wonders to Believe"
The Roman Emperor Vespasian was sitting on a throne at Alexandria in Egypt before returning to Rome. There, reports the Roman historian Tacitus, "Many miracles happened."59 He gives two instances: A blind man came and threw himself at the feet of Vespasian, and said the god Serapis had told him to come to have Vespasian heal his blindness. "He asked the prince to sprinkle his cheeks and eyes with his spittle."
A second petitioner had an ailing hand. At the insistence of the same god Serapis, "He begged that he be stepped on by the foot of Caesar." Vespasian at first laughed and refused; he feared a charge of vanity if he failed. But the two victims kept pleading, and his courtiers kept flattering. So Vespasian asked the doctors for an opinion: "The power of the eyes was not completely gone, and would return if obstacles were removed; for the other, the joint had slipped the wrong way, could be corrected if salutary force were applied." So Vespasian did as requested: "At once the hand became usable; the day returned for the blind man."
Many other marvels or miracles are reported in paganism. We chose this one because it is reported by Tacitus, a careful historian.
What should we think of them? Some cases are apt to be the result of suggestion, which has such great power that the Catholic Church will not take up a case for consideration as a miracle unless suggestion can be ruled out. As we saw earlier at Lourdes, only those claims are examined for which there is a medical certificate before, to testify that there is an incurable condition, and of course, examination by several doctors after the alleged cure. Commonly there will be 25 to 50 doctors with the pilgrimages, sometimes even a hundred.60 Even so, in the more than 100 years since Lourdes, the Church has accepted only about 50 miracles as authentic out of a far greater number claimed.
In the case Tacitus reports, we note that the afflictions according to doctors were naturally curable. But may we or should we just reject all pagan claims of miracles? St. Thomas Aquinas thinks not. He observes that evil spirits have great powers, which are natural to them but marvelous to us. He even thinks God might at times work a miracle for some good pagan, and mentions especially the case of a Vestal Virgin in ancient Rome who was accused of unchastity. The penalty was that she was to be buried alive. She claimed innocence and was given a chance to prove it by bringing water from the river in a sieve. She did it.61
So we can see that merely working a miracle will not of itself prove anything. More is needed. A special connection of miracle and claim is required. For if a miracle is to be used to prove a false claim or a lie, God, who is Truth itself, cannot work a miracle or provide the power to do so, for then He would no longer be the Truth.
Therefore, the mere fact that Jesus worked miracles is not enough to prove He was a messenger sent by God. We need, in addition, a tie or a connection made between the miracle and the claim.
It is just such a connection that was present many times in the miracles of Jesus. For example, in Luke 8:41-56 (cf. Mark 5:21-43), Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue, fell at the feet of Jesus and begged Him to come to his dying daughter. But a man came from the ruler's house and said, "Your daughter is dead, do not trouble him. And Jesus hearing this word, answered the father of the girl: Fear not; just believe and she will be well."
So they went into the house, "and Jesus took her by the hand and called out saying: Child, arise. And her spirit returned, and she got up at once."
The case of the centurion in Matthew 8:5-13 (cf. Luke 7:1-10) is even more striking. At Capernaum the centurion begged Him to help his sick servant. Jesus said He would come. "And the centurion answering said: Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof but only say the word, and my servant will be healed." He said he knew the effect of a word from one having authority.
"When Jesus heard this he marveled, and said to those who followed him: Amen I say to you, I have not found such great faith in Israel ... And Jesus said to the Centurion: Go, and be it done to you as you have believed. And the servant was healed at the same moment."
Again, Matthew 9:27-29 (cf. Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-43) tells of two blind men asking for their sight. Jesus said, "Do you believe that I am able to do this? They said, Yes Lord. Then he touched their eyes saying: Be it done to you according to your faith. And their eyes were opened."
In Luke 11: 14-20 (cf. Matt. 12:22-30) Jesus cast out a devil from a dumb man, and the dumb man became able to speak. But some charged, "He casts out devils by Beelzebul, prince of devils. Jesus replied, 'If I cast out devils by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if by the finger of God I cast out devils, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you.'"
There are, of course, many similar incidents in the Gospels. Let us take just one more case, an especially striking one, reported in all three Synoptics (Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26; Matt. 9:1-8). Jesus was in a crowd when some men came, carrying a paralytic on a stretcher. They could not get near Jesus, so they opened the roof over Him, and let the paralytic down before Jesus. According to Mark, "When Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, 'Son, your sins are forgiven' And some of the scribes were sitting there and thinking in their hearts: What does this man say' He blasphemes. Who is able to forgive sin, but God alone? ..."
They had not learned to see that there could be delegated authority to forgive sins, so they understood the words of Jesus as a claim to divinity: "Jesus at once knowing in his spirit that they were thinking these things within themselves said to them: Why do you think these things in your hearts? What is easier: to say to the paralytic, your sins are forgiven, or to say: Get up and take your bed and walk? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins, he said to the paralytic: Get up and take your bed and go to your house. And he got up at once and took his bed and went out before them all, so that all wondered and glorified God saying: We never saw the like."
Here is indeed a tremendous display! The scribes thought Jesus claimed divinity by forgiving sins. Yet Jesus, reading their hearts, asked which was easier to say: Your sins are forgiven; or, take up your bed. He meant, of course, that they could not check to see if sins were forgiven, but they could see if the man got up and walked. So, He would perform one act to prove He had done the other. And the man did get up and walked at once. So, Jesus proved He could forgive sins and thus also proved He is far more than just a messenger from God. In fact, we could make a claim to His divinity here, for in the minds of the onlookers, that was the claim that was being proved. But for our purpose we need only claim this shows He is a messenger from God, even though, of course, He actually is divine.
Therefore, we see that again and again Jesus worked miracles in order to establish a connection with a point He wished to make. He raised the dead on condition of belief in Him, at least, as a prophet or messenger from God. He healed the centurion's servant from a distance by a mere command when seeing the faith the centurion had that He was a messenger from God. Similarly with the blind man, and most dramatically of all in the case of the paralytic whose sins Jesus forgave and whom He healed as a visible proof that He really had forgiven sins.
As we said previously, there is no need here to consider the fancies of the historicists. Anyone, regardless of his culture or period of history, can see and report when a dead person comes back to life, when a sick man is healed by a mere command, when the blind suddenly see, and the paralyzed walk. And with equal ease they can hear that these things were done in connection with a statement of belief that He had special power. Anyone can understand the connection when He causes a paralytic to jump up as proof that He had forgiven the man's sins.
Someone may object: Are there not cures by suggestion? Yes, there are such cures, in ancient times and in our own. But we can be sure that at least some of the miracles and cures Jesus performed are not due to suggestion. No suggestion will multiply loaves and fishes to feed thousands; no suggestion will calm a storm at sea; no suggestion will cure a man born blind. Hysterical blindness might be cured by suggestion; but an organic failure in a man from birth is not the kind of defect open to suggestion. Leprosy cannot be cured by suggestion. Nor can suggestion bring a man out of the tomb who has been dead for four days.
Still further, would God, who is Truth, allow so monstrous a hoax on so large a scale to be used to prove a false teaching with such immense consequences for the entire world, for all later centuries? Hardly.
Further, the miracles of the Gospels are really in continuity with certain modern miracles, such as those of Lourdes, of which we read in Chapter 3. No suggestion could make a withered optic nerve operant-as happened in the case of Madam Biré. No suggestion could produce the host of Lanciano, or the image of Guadalupe. The miracles of Lourdes are normally worked precisely when the Blessed Sacrament passes, thereby confirming the Presence in that Sacrament of the same Divine Healer, and confirming the transmission over the centuries of the power of orders needed to confect that Sacrament.