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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Miracles

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In this article we may consider the meaning of the words used in the NT for ‘miracles,’ and the evidence for the apostolic belief in them; the evidence will then be compared with that for miracles in the succeeding ages, and the evidential value of miracles will be weighed. But the limits assigned preclude a general investigation of the a priori credibility of miracles as such. As, however, this has been done very fully by Bernard in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) iii., it is scarcely necessary here to repeat what has there been well said.

1. Meaning of the words used.-(a) The principal NT words for what we should now call a ‘miracle’ are σημεῖον, τέρας, δύναμις, ἔργον. Of these, σημεῖον, ‘sign,’ denotes that which conveys spiritual and symbolic instruction; τέρας, ‘wonder’ or ‘prodigy,’ denotes a work above the ordinary working of nature; δύναμις denotes a work showing ‘power’; while ἔργον, ‘work,’ is in itself a neutral word, the context of which in many passages, especially in Jn. (John 5:36 etc.), shows it to denote a ‘miracle’ (so Matthew 11:2; but in John 17:4 the word includes the whole of Jesus’ deeds). It is noteworthy that the mighty deeds of our Lord and His disciples are never called ‘prodigies’ (τέρατα) alone; the only apparent exception to this rule is in Acts 2:19 (‘I will show wonders in heaven’), which, however, is a quotation from Joel 2:30, and ‘wonders in heaven’ are coupled with ‘signs on earth,’ and both are interpreted by St. Peter as ‘powers and wonders and signs’ in Joel 2:22. A Christian miracle is not a mere prodigy exciting astonishment, but is intended for instruction; and here we see at once the great difference between the NT miracles and most of those of the apocryphal Gospels, which are mere exhibitions without any teaching purpose, and are often repulsive to the Christian sense of reverence. It must be added, also, that herein lies the difference between the NT miracles and most of those commonly known as ‘ecclesiastical’ (see below, 4). The mighty deeds related in the NT did, indeed, excite wonder and fear (Mark 2:12; Mark 4:41; Mark 6:51; Mark 7:37, Luke 7:16, Acts 3:10 f.), but this was not their only or even their chief object. Hence, when τέρας is used it is always combined with σημεῖον (John 4:48, Acts 2:19; Acts 2:43; Acts 4:30; Acts 5:12; Acts 6:8; Acts 7:36; Acts 14:2; Acts 15:12, and [of false prophets] Matthew 24:24, Mark 13:22, and [with δύναμις added] Acts 2:22, Romans 15:19, 2 Corinthians 12:12, 2 Thessalonians 2:9, Hebrews 2:4); δύναμις and σημεῖον are joined in Acts 8:13. It may be noticed that θαῦμα is not used in the NT of miracles, but θαυμάσια (‘wonderful things’) is used in Matthew 21:15, παράδοξα (‘strange things’) in Luke 5:26, ἔνδοξα (‘glorious things’) in Luke 13:17.

(b) Turning to the English versions, we are struck by the confusion occasioned by the indiscriminate use of the word ‘miracle.’ In Authorized Version it often represents σημεῖον (in the singular in Luke 23:8, John 4:54, Acts 4:16; Acts 4:22, and in the plural in John 2:11; John 2:23; John 3:2; John 6:2; John 6:26; John 7:31; John 9:16; John 11:47; John 12:37, Acts 6:8; Acts 8:6; Acts 15:12, Revelation 13:14; Revelation 16:14; Revelation 19:20); in these passages Revised Version rightly substitutes ‘sign’ except in the text of Luke 23:8, Acts 4:16; Acts 4:22, where ‘miracle’ is with some inconsistency retained. Again, in Authorized Version ‘miracle’ represents δύναμις in Mark 9:39, Acts 2:22; Acts 8:13; Acts 19:11, 1 Corinthians 12:10; 1 Corinthians 12:28 f., Galatians 3:5, Hebrews 2:4, while in these passages there is an unfortunate confusion even in the Revised Version text (though Revised Version margin gives ‘power’), as we find ‘mighty work’ in the first two passages, ‘miracle’ in the next five, and ‘powers’ in the last; if ‘powers’ was thought somewhat unintelligible, ‘mighty works’ or ‘mighty deeds’ might with a little ingenuity have been used in all these places. The confusion in Authorized Version is increased by σημεῖα being translated ‘wonders’ in Revelation 13:13 and ‘miracles’ in v. 14, and by δυνάμεις being translated ‘mighty deeds’ in 2 Corinthians 12:12; in Mark 6:52, Authorized Version unnecessarily inserts ‘the miracle,’ which is not in the Greek. It is a serious misfortune that ‘miracle’ should be so much used in the Authorized Version to represent σημεῖον, for the connotation of the English word is exactly what that of the Greek word is not, and it has given the English reader an erroneous idea of the purpose of the works of our Lord and the disciples; it was not so much to produce wonder as belief.

2. Evidence for miracles in the Apostolic Age.-(a) The Gospels are all full of the mighty deeds worked by our Lord, nor is it possible to separate the miraculous from the non-miraculous in these histories. The Synoptic Gospels do not profess to be written by eye-witnesses, but the Fourth Gospel does claim to give first-hand testimony (John 21:24, confirmed by many internal indications), though it was written more than half a century after the events which are recorded. It narrates healings (John 4:16 ff., John 5:8, John 6:2), giving sight to the blind (John 9:6 f.), raising the dead (John 11:44), and several ‘miracles of nature’-water made wine (John 2:9), feeding the five thousand (John 6:11 f.), walking on the sea (John 6:19), the miraculous draught of fishes (John 21:8); also the Resurrection (20, 21) and ‘many other signs’ (John 20:30). It is to be noted that in all the Gospels the evidence for ‘miracles’ of nature is as strong as that for miracles of healing, and that the evidence of Jn. does not differ in kind from that of the Synoptists. For the evidence of the Gospels, reference may be made to Sanday’s article ‘Jesus Christ’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) ii. 625 f. Though the witness of the Synoptists is not in form at first hand, it still rests on very good authority, and there is excellent reason for believing that the evidence of Mk. is in effect that of St. Peter himself (see Dict. of Christ and the Gospels ii. 121 f., and, for the autoptic character of the Second Gospel, ib. 124). Also the first-hand evidence of St. Paul that he himself had the power of working miracles (see below) indirectly gives good testimony to the fact that our Lord worked them, for we can hardly imagine that St. Paul could have thought that he himself had the power from Christ unless his Master also had it. For a classification of the Gospel miracles see Dict. of Christ and the Gospels ii. 186 ff. (T. H. Wright).

Further, in the Gospels it is recorded that our Lord bade the disciples heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils (Matthew 10:8); and that they would have power to do so if only they had faith is implied in 17:20. So in the appendix to Mk. (16:17f.) the signs which would follow believers are said to be casting out devils in Christ’s name, speaking with new tongues, taking up serpents, drinking poison without hurt, and healing the sick by laying on of hands.

(b) We may proceed to consider how these predictions are borne out by the Acts and Epistles. It will be convenient to separate the evidence which is at first hand from that which is at second hand.

(i.) Under the former head will come those mighty deeds and outward charismata which are attested by those who claimed to see, or to do, or to possess them. In the ‘we’ sections of Acts (accounts of events in which the author took part) and in St. Paul’s Epistles we read of several mighty works, prophecies, and visions, attested at first hand. In Acts 16:18 the Python is cast out of the ventriloquist girl; in Acts 16:26 there is an earthquake, the doors of the prisons are opened, and the prisoners’ bonds are loosed; in Acts 20:12 we read of the raising of Eutychus (q.v. [Note: .v. quod vide, which see.] ), though it is not said that he was dead (the reverse seems to be implied in Acts 20:10); in Acts 21:9 of the prophesying of Philip’s daughters; in Acts 21:11 of the prophecy of Agabus; in Acts 28:5 of St. Paul’s shaking off the viper without hurt (cf. ‘Mk’ Acts 16:18 as above); and in Acts 28:8 f. of the healing of Publius’ father by St. Paul by the laying on of hands; and of the healing of others, in which St. Luke himself seems to have taken part (see Acts 28:10 : ‘honoured us’). Further, the narratives in Acts 9:3 ff; Acts 22:6 ff; Acts 26:12 ff. of the appearances of our Lord to St. Paul at his conversion are brought almost to the level of first-hand evidence by the corroboration of Galatians 1:1-16. St. Paul claimed that Christ worked miracles through him (Romans 15:18 f., 2 Corinthians 12:12), and testifies to the fact that some (not all) of his converts also had the power (Galatians 3:5, 1 Corinthians 12:9 f., 1 Corinthians 12:28-30, 1 Corinthians 14:22). These works, which are instances of πνευματικά or spiritual [gifts], include healings and other ‘powers,’ speaking with tongues and interpretation of tongues, and prophecy. We have it at first hand that the Jews expected such signs of Christian preachers (1 Corinthians 1:22). The visions of St. Paul are attested by himself in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4.

(ii.) Of other works and charismata in the NT, we have not, outside the Gospels, first-hand evidence; yet even what we have must be pronounced exceptionally good when we remember the opportunities which St. Luke had of converse with those who actually saw the events. At the outset we note that St. Peter in his speeches attributes to our Lord ‘power and wonders and signs’ (Acts 2:22), and the healing of demoniacs (Acts 10:38). Then, signs and wonders, healings of the sick and of demoniacs, are attributed to the apostles generally (Acts 2:43, Acts 5:12; Acts 5:16). In Acts 3:7, Acts 9:34 St. Peter heals the lame man and aeneas; in Acts 5:5; Acts 5:10 he inflicts sudden death on Ananias and Sapphira; in Acts 9:40 he raises Dorcas from the dead; and in Acts 5:15 the sick are brought so that his shadow may fall on some of them, though it is not said that they were thereby cured. In Acts 6:8 Stephen works wonders and signs; in Acts 8:6; Acts 8:13 Philip works signs and powers at Samaria. In Acts 15:12 Barnabas and Paul relate to the Apostolic Council how signs and wonders had been worked by them. In Acts 13:11 St. Paul strikes Elymas blind; in Acts 14:10 he heals the impotent man at Lystra; in Acts 19:11 he works ‘special’ (οὐ τὰς τυχούσας) powers at Ephesus, and even his garments taken to the sick and the demoniacs heal them. In Hebrews 2:4 the first preachers of the gospel are said to have worked signs and wonders and powers. Divine interpositions are recorded in Acts 5:19; Acts 12:10, where an angel opens prison doors. We read of speaking with tongues and prophesying at Pentecost (Acts 2:4) and at Ephesus (Acts 19:6), and the same thing is probably implied in Acts 8:17 f., because Simon Magus saw that the Holy Ghost was given at Samaria. Another prophecy of Agabus (this time at second hand) is quoted in Acts 11:28. Numerous visions of our Lord are recorded: in Acts 1:3 ff. (between the Resurrection and the Ascension), Acts 9:3 ff. etc. (to St. Paul at his conversion), Acts 9:10 (to Ananias), Acts 22:18, Acts 23:11 (to St. Paul at Jerusalem); and something of this sort is implied by the direction of the Spirit in Acts 16:6 f. Visions of angels are recorded in Acts 8:28 (to Philip), Acts 10:3 (to Peter), Acts 27:23 (to St. Paul on his voyage to Italy); in Acts 16:9 St. Paul sees the ‘certain man of Macedonia.’

Miraculous deeds are ascribed to non-Christians and also to Satan and his ministers. The Jewish exorcists might expect to cast out demons, though as a matter of fact they were not successful in doing so (Acts 19:13 f.). Simon Magus by his ‘magic’ did wonderful things, so that he was named ‘that power of God which is called Great’ (Acts 8:10). The Lawless One in 2 Thessalonians 2:9 is marked by ‘power and signs and lying wonders’; in Rev. the second beast (Acts 13:13 f.), the spirits of demons (Acts 16:14), the false prophet (Acts 19:20), who is apparently to be identified with the second beast (see H. B. Swete, Apoc.2, 1907, p. 206), work signs, just as our Lord had said that false Christs and false prophets should show signs and wonders (Matthew 24:24, Mark 13:22).

3. Examination of the evidence.-In considering the facts enumerated above, it is quite possible, and even probable, that we must deduct several of the incidents mentioned as not being in any real sense miraculous, even though they might have seemed so to the bystanders. It is, for instance, probable that Eutychus was not really dead. Agabus’ prophecies may have been but shrewd forecasts of events. The viper in Malta may not in reality have been poisonous. It is conceivable that Dorcas was in a state of coma and not really dead. The visions, the gift of tongues and of prophesying may not belong properly to the category of the miraculous. Yet when all possible deductions have been made, there can be no doubt that the NT is saturated with miracles, and that the writers were firmly persuaded that Jesus and His disciples had worked them.

How, then, are we to interpret the ‘signs,’ ‘powers,’ and ‘wonders’ of the NT? There is an increasing disposition at the present time among those who formerly would have denied all miracles to accept as genuine many of the NT narratives, especially those of healings and of expulsions of demons; and this is due to the greater knowledge which we now have of the power of mind over matter. But much depends on what we mean by a ‘miracle.’ To the man in the street it usually conveys the idea of a contravention of nature. This, however, is not a good definition. Augustine, in an often-quoted passage, remarks that a miracle (portentum) is not against nature, but against known nature (de Civ. Dei, XXI. viii. 2). What may appear to one eye to be a contravention of the laws of nature is often found in a later age to be in reality in accordance with them. As an example, wireless telegraphy would have seemed in the 1st cent. to be a miracle, whereas we now know it to be a natural phenomenon. Many, therefore, of the ‘signs’ of the NT, not only those which we are now beginning to see are no contravention of nature, such as the healings in nervous cases, but also others, may before long be found to be in accordance with law. When we ourselves shall have risen from the dead, and see ‘face to face,’ we may find that our Lord’s resurrection and our own are the necessary outcome of law. The theory of ‘relative miracles’ was propounded by Schleiermacher, and has perhaps hardly been done justice to, though it is not possible to assent to all his reasoning. The theory substitutes for a contravention of nature a miracle of knowledge. Certain persons had a greater hold on the secrets of nature than their contemporaries; but this was by a Divine interposition. Even in the case of Jewish and heathen magicians this may to some extent be true; it is not necessary to brand men like Simon and Elymas and Apollonius of Tyana (a Cappadocian of the 1st cent. of our era) as mere impostors. It follows, then, that while the stories of miracles are narrated in the way that was best suited to the comprehension of the Apostolic Age, several of them, had they been written in our day, would have been given in different language (Sanday, Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) ii. 625a).

It is answered to what has been suggested here, that this reasoning makes the miracles to be no miracles at all. But this is not a substantial objection, and is based only on the presupposition that miracles are contraventions of nature. A miracle of knowledge implies Divine intervention as much as-nay, more than-a breach of natural law. Sanday remarks: ‘The essential point is the Divine act; and that, I think, is proved. We are beginning to learn the lesson that an act is not less Divine because it is fundamentally in accordance with law’ (Life of Christ in Recent Research, p. 218).

It may be that what has been said does not directly apply to all the ‘signs’ recorded in the NT. Yet these suggestions may at least give us pause if we are inclined to think that the excellent evidence which we possess cannot stand against the a priori improbability of a miracle happening.

4. Miracles in the sub-Apostolic and later ages.-It is important to compare NT records with those of subsequent ages in this respect.

(1) Let us first examine two actual miracles which have been thought to have happened in the 2nd century.

(a) Miracles at Polycarp’s death (see Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers, pt. ii.: ‘Ignatius’2, 1889, i. 614 ff., iii. 392 f.).-The Letter of the Smyrnaeans (Martyrdom of Polycarp), written c. [Note: . circa, about.] a.d. 156 immediately after the event, relates (§§ 9, 15 f.) that on the saint’s entering the stadium, a voice was heard from heaven, saying, ‘Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man’; no one saw the speaker, but the bystanders heard the voice. A little later, they saw a marvel-the flame enveloping the martyr like a sail, and a fragrant odour was perceived. When the executioner stabbed Polycarp to death ‘there came forth [a dove and] a quantity of blood, so that it extinguished the fire. Here the only real ‘miracle’ is the dove; but all mention of it is omitted by Eusebius, who quotes the letter at length (Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.) iv. 15). It is therefore probable that περιστερὰ καί is either, as Lightfoot thinks, an insertion by a later writer, perhaps by pseudo-Pionius, a 4th cent. biographer of Polycarp, or else a corruption, perhaps of περὶ στύρακα, ‘about the sword-haft’ (Christopher Wordsworth), or of περὶ στερνά (Ruchat), or of ἐπʼ ἀριστερᾷ (Le Moyne). The life of pseudo-Pionius (for the text and translation of which see Lightfoot, ‘Ign.’2 iii.) describes several miracles, but themanuscript breaks off in the middle, and does not give Polycarp’s death: the Life is followed in themanuscript immediately by the Letter of the Smyrnaeans.

(b) The Thundering Legion (circa, about a.d. 174).-A letter of Marcus Aurelius details the incident of the Christian soldiers praying for rain, and of its falling in abundance. The letter, however, is ‘a manifest forgery’ (Lightfoot, ‘Ign.’2 i. 488). There may be elements of truth in the story, but it can hardly be called a miracle, unless every answer to prayer be deemed such. Thus the two descriptions of actual miracles fail us.

(2) Next, let us examine the testimony of the writers who succeeded the apostles.

(a) Papias, a ‘hearer of John and companion of Polycarp’ (Iren. Haer. V. xxxiii. 4), in words quoted by Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.) iii. 39), says that in the time of Philip the Apostle one rose from the dead, and that Justus Barsabbas (Acts 1:23) drank deadly poison without hurt. This, however, was in the Apostolic Age.

(b) The writer of the Didache (10 f.) and Hermas (Mand. 11) speak of the existence of true and false prophets in the Christian Church in their time.

(c) Justin testifies to the healing of demoniacs in his day (circa, about a.d. 150; Apol. ii. 6, Dial. 30, 76: in the last passage he apparently speaks of this as the fulfilment of the promise that they should tread on scorpions, etc., Luke 10:19); he says that one received the gift of healing, another of foreknowledge, etc. (Dial. 39), and that ‘prophetical gifts remain with us even to the present time’ (82).

(d) Irenaeus (circa, about a.d. 180; Haer. II. xxxii. 4) says that Christians ‘in Christ’s name perform [works] … some cast out devils … others have fore knowledge and see visions and prophesy, others heal the sick by laying on of hands.… Even the dead have been raised up and remained among us for many years.’ Note the change of tense here. The raising of the dead in Irenaeus’ own time is not alleged, and the reference may be to Dorcas or to such a case as is mentioned by Papias. Irenaeus ascribes the miracles of heretics to magic.

(e) At the end of the 2nd cent. Tertullian speaks of the healing of demoniacs in his day: Apol. 23, 37 (‘without reward or hire’), 43 (heathen demoniacs healed).

(f) In the 3rd cent. Origen says (c. Cels. i. 2) that traces of the signs and wonders of the First Age were still possessed by those who regulated their lives by the precepts of the gospel; and (ib. iii. 24), speaking of heathen ascriptions of healings to aesculapius, that by the invocation of Jesus’ name some Christians of his time had marvellous power of healing; he would seem to speak chiefly of mental diseases.

These passages show that healings, especially in nervous cases, continued in the 2nd cent. and later; but there are indications that even they were not very frequent, and there is no good evidence of the other miraculous works of which we read in the NT being continued. In the Church Orders we read of the benediction of oil for healing and for the exorcism of candidates for baptism, and these features may probably be due to the lost original of several of the Orders, which may be dated about the beginning of the 3rd century. But here we have passed from the stage of miracle to that of ordinary liturgical usage. At the end of the 4th cent. Chrysostom implies that miracles had ceased-and this in the face of the fact that that century saw the rise of miracle-loving hagiography. He says (de Sacerd. iv. 6 [416]) that his contemporaries, though they all came together with myriads of prayers and tears, could not do as much as the ‘aprons’ (σιμικίνθια) of St. Paul once did (Acts 19:12).

The evidence, then, seems to show that miracles gradually died out, and that after the Apostolic Age they scarcely went beyond ‘healing by suggestion.’ The case is very different after the 4th cent., when lives of the saints and martyrs are full of miracle, and eventually the power of working miracles became a test of saintship, in direct contrast with the restraint of Holy Scripture, in which it is said that ‘John did no sign’ (John 10:41), and no miracle is ascribed to the great majority of the heroes of the OT. Moreover, most of the ‘ecclesiastical’ miracles are mere prodigies, and can in no sense be called ‘signs.’ In many cases they are demonstrably the invention of later biographers, and contemporary writers show no knowledge of them. But we cannot a priori deny the possibility of miracles happening in any age of the Christian Church, and it is quite probable that some mighty deeds of later times, notably healings, may have a modicum of truth in them, and may be such as would have been termed σημεῖα in the NT. (For miracles in the Columban Church see J. Dowden, Celtic Church in Scotland, London, 1894, ch. viii.)

5. Evidential value of NT miracles.-The object of the miracles was to arrest attention (John 2:23; John 3:2); they were not, however, faith-compelling (Matthew 11:20, John 12:37). Since the apostles believed (see above, 3) that even evil men and evil spirits could work miracles, they would not have said that a miracle-worker must be a true teacher. Now a miracle, because of its anomalousness, requires more proof than an ordinary event. The latter, if properly vouched, at once becomes probable; not so the former, unless it has a certain degree of a priori likelihood. Such we find in the belief in the spiritual world. If we believe in a God who is not aloof from the world, but loves His creatures, it is not improbable that He should, for good cause, intervene. The method of intervention may be unusual, and not in accord with the ordinary course of nature as we know it (cf. Augustine, above, 3); but if an unusual event such as the Incarnation happens, it is not improbable that such interventions should accompany it. It follows, however, that we cannot rest our argument for the existence of God, or for the truth of Christianity, merely on the fact that miracles happened, and it was a mistake in the reasoning of the 18th cent. apologists that they to a large extent did so. If for other reasons we believe in the Godhead of our Lord, we can also believe that He worked miracles, and empowered His disciples to do so-whether for one generation or for longer we need not stop to discuss.

It was never professed that miracles were worked to make those who were without any faith believe. The Risen Christ appeared only to believers, though this does not mean that the disciples believed merely because they wished to believe; here their ‘hardness of heart’ is of great evidential value. And miracles were only worked when there was a certain amount of faith (Mark 6:5, Matthew 13:58; cf. Luke 16:31). Indeed, it is seen that miracles did not make the great impression on the First Age that they would make now. Did they happen now, the impression would be so great that they would be almost faith-compelling, and this is a very good reason for their having ceased. Even the disciples were not so much impressed by the Resurrection that they believed it without any doubt. Some of those who had seen the Risen Lord at first believed, then disbelieved (Matthew 28:17 : ‘some doubted’), and only after a time were fully confirmed in the faith. So, again, though the story of the raising of Lazarus made a stir at the time in Jerusalem, it is quite intelligible that the impression did not extend very far or last very long. To say, therefore, that St. Mark could not have known of the raising of Lazarus because he does not mention it in the account of Jesus’ ministry in another part of the country is to import 20th cent. ideas into the narrative of the Apostolic Age.

The conclusion would seem to be that miracles have never been intended to be a direct proof of the truth of the gospel, or of the holiness of those who worked them; and their absence does not imply want of authority or of saintliness. But when at great crises of the world’s history they were worked, they at once arrested attention, and so led men on to believe in doctrines which for other reasons commended themselves to the sense of humanity.

Literature.-Out of a voluminous literature may be mentioned: W. Sanday, Life of Christ in Recent Research, Oxford, 1907, ch. viii., and article ‘Jesus Christ’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) ii. (section on the ‘Miracles of Jesus’); J. H. Bernard, Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) iii., article ‘Miracle’; T. H. Wright, Dict. of Christ and the Gospels ii., article ‘Miracles’; J. R. Illingworth, Divine Immanence, London, 1898; R. C. Trench, Notes on the Miracles of our Lord9, do., 1870, which is never out of date; G. Salmon, Non-Miraculous Christianity, London, 1881. For other works see Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) and Dict. of Christ and the Gospels as above.

A. J. Maclean.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Miracles'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/m/miracles.html. 1906-1918.

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