The third question Wilkins and Moreland use to introduce Jesus Under Fire concerns miracles. All scholars of historical Jesus have to ask, “Is the supernatural possible in ancient and modern times?” To me, this is two questions, are miracles possible, and if they are, were they present in the ministry of Jesus and his followers? (For the purpose of this post, I do not really want to deal with the second half of the question, are they present in the modern world.)
All four of the Gospels present Jesus as a miracle worker. He demonstrates his control of nature (walking on water), he heals, casts out demons from possessed people, and even raises the dead. In a pre-modern worldview, miracles can and do happen. God heals or reveals himself in extraordinary ways. Until the modernist worldview was applied to the Bible, there was no reason to doubt Jesus’ miracles.
A worldview based on the Enlightenment would never accept these stories because the supernatural simply cannot happen. Or maybe a better way to say this it is that the record of an ancient miracle can never be submitted to a scientific test to determine if it is really a miracle. Think of the Mythbusters as a classic example of rationalism. If someone walks on the water, Adam and Jamie are going to look for the rocks, proving that there is a rational reason for the apparent miracle. They will “bust the myth” since they assume that miracles are impossible. The same rational mind that dispensed with “ghosts and goblins” also got rid of waking on the water.
Post-modernism is more open to the supernatural. Although someone with a postmodern worldview might be antagonistic toward Jesus, they would not rule out the possibility of the supernatural occurring. The problem with postmodern approaches to the Gospels is that the historical value of the text really does not matter for much. The literary meaning of the text is more important, what the read draws out of the text that is meaning.
For the evangelical Christian there should be no problem with the idea that God did miracles in the biblical materials. The definition of a miracle is important. A miracle is a supernatural event which reveals something about God. A miracle is outside nature, something which by definition the Mythbusters can’t test. But it is also something which reveals God, not simply a strange event which has no real explanation. (Please note: this does NOT mean that God is going around appearing on moldy tortillas in Guadalajara to reveal himself!)
In the gospels, Jesus does miracles in order to reveal something about himself and his relationship with God, specifically that he is the Messiah. If a messiah appeared in the first century and he did not do miracles, he would not have been taken seriously as a messiah. In Matthew 12:38, for example, the Pharisees ask Jesus to do some sort of sign. This indicates that for the Pharisees, the messiah ought to be giving a sign of some kind. (Ironically they do not believe the miracles he has done, and when asked, Jesus does not give them a sign.)
Of the three questions I have used to introduce historical Jesus studies, this is the one that requires a certain amount of faith. I can show rationally that there was a Jesus and that much of what is said about him in the Gospels is accurate. I can show that the gospel writers were not creating myth but explaining who Jesus was and what he claimed to be. But it is very difficult to show that Jesus did miracles without falling back to my pre-conceived view that God can do miracles if he wants to.