The Hidden Meaning of Miracle Stories

Why miracles must be viewed within the religious context from which they are drawn.

In his introduction to "The Book of Miracles," author Kenneth Woodward surveys the place of miracles in a changing world of faith and science.

The Book of Miracles

is not another anthology. Anthologists collect texts by removing them from the contexts in which they find their meaning. This is questionable enough when what is being anthologized is isolated sayings, or sound-bite wisdom of the spiritually advanced. But miracles are by definition stories that make sense only within larger narratives. What I offer here is a guide to miracles as they unfold within the sacred scriptures of each tradition and are amplified in the sacred biographies of the saints, sages, and spiritual masters. My aim has been to show how those stories function within each tradition and what they reveal about those who perform them.

For example, when the Buddha walks on water, that story discloses to a Buddhist (or should) something quite different from what a Christian sees (or should) in the similar story of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee. But when the apostle Peter raises a dead man to life, his miracle echoes not only what Jesus did, but also what the prophet Elijah did several centuries before. And when the Prophet Muhammad ascends to heaven, it is both like the Ascension of Jesus and something very different. In other words, to understand the meaning of a miracle, one must know the tradition out of which it comes. One must also know what earlier tradition is being challenged or superseded. Thus, to read a miracle story literally is-inevitably-to miss the point. To ignore the literal meaning, however, is to fail to understand why the miracle story was told in the first place. Why should a story told of Jesus or the Buddha be less complicated than a story by Kafka or Joyce?


On the other hand, the reader might well ask why he should bother with religions not his own. The answer, I suggest, is because we must. We live in an age of convergence. In small towns now as well as urban centers, mosques and shrines and ashrams appear where once only churches and synagogues could be seen. The people Christian missionaries once went abroad to convert are now their children's playmates in the school yard back home. Diversity, in other words, has moved well beyond the categories of race, class, and gender to include the richer, more challenging, and more comprehensive category of religion. Religions are powerful symbol systems that define reality for those who live in their embrace. Jews and Christians, Muslims and Hindus all share the same experiences; what makes them differ one from the other is the insight into the meaning of those experiences. We cannot afford ignorance of what our next-door neighbors, or even the Bombay sales manager just an e-mail away, may believe about the nature and destiny of humankind.

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