A redated post.
One possible way of generating a case for the Christian miracles is to envision what we should expect from a man-made religion. There are, I think, features of Christianity which we should not expect to find if there were not reality behind it.
There is a very interesting discussion of Apollonuis of Tyana, written by Philostratus in 220, found in Richard Purtill’s contribution to the second edition of Louis Pojman’s Philosophy or Religion volume. It’s on pp. 330-331 of that volume. Purtill is a both a professional philosopher and a fantasy and science fiction writer.
RP: It might be worthwhile to take a quick look, for purposes of comparison, at the closest thing we have around the time of the Gospels to an attempt at realistic fantasy. This is the story of Appollonius of Tyana, written about 220 A. D. by Flavius Philostratus, which is sometimes referred to by controversialists as if it were a serious rival to the Gospel accounts of Christ’s ministry and miracles. Penguin Classics publishes an excellent little paper back edition of this story, to which you may go for details, but let me note a few points in passing.
The story concerns a wandering sage who allegedly lived from the early years of the first century until about A. D. 96 or 98. Philostratus mentions some earlier sources for his work but at least some of those sources are probably his own invention. For one thing, Philostratus’ account contains serious historical inaccuracies about things like dates of rulers, which seem to rule out reliance on any early source. (Contrast with the Gospels duly noted-VR). The work was later used to discredit the uniqueness of Christ’s miracles by setting up a rival miracle worker, as Socrates was sometimes set up as a rival to Christ as a martyr and teacher of virtue.
Still, there is some evidence that a Neo-Pythagorean sage named Apollonius may have really lived, and thus Philostratus’s work is a real example of what some have thought the Gospels to be: a fictionalized account of the life of a real sage and teacher; introducing miraculous events to build up the prestige of the central figure. It thus gives us a good look at what a real example of a fictionalized biography would be like, written at a time and place not too far removed from those in which the Gospels were written.
The first thing to notice is the fairy-tale atmosphere. There is a rather nice little vampire story, which inspired a major poem by Keats, entitled Lamia. There are animal stories about, for instance, snakes in India big enough to drag off and eat an elephant. The sage wanders from country to country and wherever he goes he is likely to be entertained by the king or emperor, who holds long conversations with him andsends him on his way with camels and precious stones.
Interspersed with picturesque adventures there are occasional accounts of miracles, often involving prophecy and mind reading. A ruffian threatens to cut Apollonius’s head off and the sage laughs and shouts the name of a day three days hence; on thatday the ruffian is executed for treason. Here is a typical passage about healing miracles;
There came a man about thirty who was an expert lion-hunter but had been attacked by a lion and dislocated his hip, and so was lame in one leg. But the Wise Man massaged his hip and this restored the man to an upright walk. Someone else who had gone blind went away with his sight fully restored, and another man with a paralysed arm left strong again. A woman too, who had had seven miscarriages was cured through he prayers of her husband as follows. The Wise Man told the husband, when his wife was in labor, to bring a live rabbit under his cloak to the place where she was, walk around her and immediately release the hare: for she would lose her womb as well as thee baby if the hare was not immediately driven away (Bk. 3, Sec. 39).
RP again: Now the point is not that Appollonius no serious rival to Christ; no one ever thought he was except a few anti-Christian polemicists about the time of some of the early persecutions of the Church. The point is this is what you get when imagination goes to work on a historical figure in classical antiquity; you get miracle stories a little like those in the Gospels, but also snakes big enough to eat elephants, kings and emperors as supporting cast, travelers’ tales, ghosts and vampires. Once the boundaries of fact are crossed we wander into fairyland. And very nice too. But the Gospels are set firmly in the real Palestine of the first century, and the little details+ are not picturesque inventions but the real details that only an eyewitness or a skilled realistic novelist can give.
VR: This is part of reason for thinking the evidence we have is more like what we should expect if the story were true than if it were false. There seems to be a reality check on the scope of the miraculous element; Jesus doesn’t to miracles to show off, but only to advance His mission.