Miracles and Science (My Great, Great, Great, Great Grandfather’s Book)

Francis Jones Lamb wrote one the best books on the subject of miracles that I have ever come across. I might be biased, but I don’t think so—the family connection is not that close. Born in 1825, Lamb is my great grandfather’s great grandfather. I learned about him and his 1909 book, Miracles and Science, only this year.

He was a lawyer. His book draws on this background to address the question of the credibility of the Bible’s accounts of miraculous events. Specifically, he notes that the Bible satisfies our own society’s legal definition of a document that qualifies as credible evidence.

The Bible is not like other religious texts. It does not claim to have been delivered from beyond or above. The New Testament, in particular, is not made up of claims of revelation (the sole exception being the one book that goes by that name), but instead it consists of accounts and letters that refer to events that were known to witnesses at the time.

Our own system of law occasionally refers to documents of just this sort. In Lamb’s 19th century, for example, land that had been in one family’s possession for generations might have had no documentation formally detailing the ownership, and no living witnesses to describe how and under what terms the land was obtained. Legal disputes related to this ownership were therefore resolved by looking to ancient letters and other accounts, to try to fathom what people at the time seemed to believe about the property. With regard to ancient questions, the law considers this to be reasonable proof, because it is the highest-quality evidence that we can expect to obtain across a large gulf of time.

Similarly, the New Testament’s gospels and letters constitute reasonable proof of the events to which they refer. We would certainly have far better evidence of these events if we had camera footage from 2,000 years ago or a 2,000-year-old eyewitness who was still alive to speak. But because this kind of evidence does not exist and cannot exist, it is unreasonable to demand it. The most reasonable response to the long-accepted accounts of Jesus’ life is to regard these accounts as credible, including the accounts of the works that he and his followers did. Thus we can reasonably assume that the people in the first century saw miracles.

Meanwhile, we do not see miracles. This is the other major issue Lamb confronts. Christian writers and speakers often try to close the distance between biblical times and our time by leaving open the question of whether miracles can occur today. They do this by softening the definition of what constitutes a miracle. However, an event that is merely unlikely, even if it is an answer to prayer, does not match the miracles the Bible portrays. Jesus and his immediate followers did not do the unlikely; they did the impossible. Water turned to wine, people spontaneously healed, and one man (actually two men, for a brief moment) walked on the surface of a lake. Moreover, these events were not in dispute. Many of these events were performed publicly in front of numerous witnesses, and the miraculous nature of the events was so undeniable that doubters were turned around by what they saw (John 10:38). Today, supernatural events of this kind of clarity and renown are not happening. Why this difference?

Why do miracles occur in the Bible but do not seem to occur within the lives we live today?

The interesting thing about this question is that it contains its own answer.

In the Old Testament, when God spoke a message for Moses to give to Pharaoh, God expected Pharaoh to ask for a miracle as proof. He prepared Moses to answer this request. In Pharaoh’s sight, Moses was to turn a rod into a living snake (Exodus 7:9).

In the New Testament, when Jesus drove moneychangers from the temple, the Jews asked him, “What miracle do you do to show that you have this authority?” (John 2:18).

Throughout the Bible, in other words—in Old Testament and New—this one principle related to God speaking seems deeply established. Namely: If God expresses his will, there is a miracle to confirm that this is indeed God speaking.

At the temple, Jesus answered the Jews’ question. It was apparently a valid question to ask.

And with Moses, God did not regard Pharaoh as impudent for asking for confirmation. On the contrary, he readied Moses to give this confirmation.

The picture that emerges from these two biblical episodes, and from other passages Lamb cites, is that looking for a miracle to confirm God speaking is reasonable and necessary prudence. If there is no miracle to accompany a divine message, then it is not a divine message.

Why did the people living in biblical times experience miracles? Because they were living in biblical times! The Bible was being written. While God did not speak the Bible in terms of dictating it, its text is God-infused or “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Bible's contents, these certain documents out of the first century and before, contain timeless truth and spiritual truth, ultimately conveying more and providing for more than what their authors imagined when they were writing or dictating them. The miracles of the first century, performed in many cases by biblical authors, serve to ratify that these were inspired times. That inspiration reaches us today through texts that were recorded within this period.

In a small way, my ancestor’s book also came to stand for something more than what its author imagined it to be, because I am now left with the awareness that publishing books after thinking about scripture is a quirk that recurs in my bloodline. The book is old enough that it's in the public domain—modern editions consist of just image after image of the pages of someone’s original 1909 copy. (Actually, I love this.) A free digital version of these images-as-pages is available through Google, but I found the book hard to read in this form. I purchased a print edition, which is essentially a softcover stack of high-quality photocopies of the original pages. The publisher, Nabu Press, apparently specializes in reprinting public-domain works in this way. I am not affiliated with the publisher and know nothing more than this about the company, but the edition that I purchased is available here.