Posted by: John Vandivier | May 8, 2013

Defining a Biblical Miracle

A Christian miracle is not the same as a Wiccan miracle, an Islamic miracle, a Buddhist miracle, or many other kinds of miracles. There are a set of specific words with distinct meanings that are translated to “miracle” and they are different words than many other languages have used in their writings which are translated to the same modern English word. Unfortunately this has resulted in a confounding of the modern English term. To prevent fallacies of equivocation a Christian should know what is meant by word miracle when it appears in his or her Bible.

I have had a long-standing definition of a miracle being “Any supernatural intervention of God into the natural realm.” I laid out this definitions in an old Youtube video of mine:

Two problems exist with my old definition. One would be that I never did an intensive word study so I couldn’t justify whether or not my definition was actually in line with biblical definition. The second would be the false dichotomy of natural vs unnatural vs supernatural and so on. I have revised my definition to be more simply that a miracle is “anything God does or anything which evidences the existence of God.” The reason for this definition is the purpose of this article, which basically consists of a word study of the biblical words translated in English to the term miracle.

According to this article, the English term “miracle” derives from the Latin “miraculum,” meaning an object of wonder. “So, in English, a miracle is something that people are amazed at,” that author accurately surmises.

However “miraculum” is never used in any original text. The aforementioned article as well as this detailed article agree that three greek words are translated in the Bible to the word miracle. The first article also states that there are three Hebrew words translated to miracle. The latter article also covers use of the word “ergon” usually translated as “work” or “working.” However, despite being translated as the word work, it is used in ways that people often consider as miracles. The author of the second article states:

“When Jesus healed the lame man at the pool of Bethesda in John 5, the Jews began to persecute Him because the healing took place on a Sabbath. In response to them Jesus says, “My Father is working [ergon] until now, and I am working [ergon].” There a many miraculous healings and supernatural acts of Jesus where ergon/works is used in the New Testament, but his verse shows something else. With ergon meaning ‘active’ work, this attributes God as a proactive, non-passive God. He was actively working supernaturally in behalf of His people before the time of Jesus, and continues to do so. He is not a passive God who sits on His throne and waits around with no earthly intervention, and I believe this was Jesus’ point here.”

I think another point Jesus was making was that people can do work on Sundays under certain conditions, while the Jews thought all manor of labor or significant effort was forbidden on the Sabbath. The point is simply that the term ergon, meaning work, is also often considered to describe miracles, although the term in no way implies mystery, supernaturalism, exclusivity to God, or any of the other meanings we often hear imputed into the word miracle.

To surmise words and definitions of the term miracle from the two articles:

Greek
1 dunamis – ability. Eg My ability to make lemonade.
2 semeoin – indication. Eg When a light turns red.
3 teras – Something you desire to consider. A curiosity.
4 ergon – labor or the product thereof. Eg Actually making lemonade, or the lemonade itself.

Hebrew:
1 pala’ – an accomplishment which requires great power
2 ‘owth – indication
3 mowpheth – Something you desire to consider. A curiosity.

I agree with John, the author of the Custardy blog word study, who basically said that the three Hebrew words translated well to the three Greek words for miracle.

The term mowpheth has its origin in the word yaphah according to biblestudytools.com, however the term also implies conspicuousness which yaphah does not. Yaphah means something beautiful or pleasurable to consider. I would interpret this to mean a curiosity or a mystery that you are taking pleasure figuring out. It is usually translated “(a) wonder.” Something you like to consider but feel as though there is something hidden to it, especially as in a hidden meaning.

Every time mowpheth is used it is paired with ‘owth. ‘Owth means an indication, sign or evidence, just like semeoin. The pairing implies that the thing described is at once both an indication and a curiosity. Semeoin, when used in the greek, is also paired on every occasion with the term teras.

Dunamis and pala’ are also highly related. Dunamis means power or ability. Pala’ means a difficult or impressive work. To do pala’ you must of course have great dunamis, but dunamis is potential while pala’ is actual. Furthermore, dunamis can be high or low (easy vs hard) while pala’ implies high dunamis (if it’s not hard it’s not pala’).

I agree with David Causer, author of the second article, who makes the point that because there are distinct words with distinct meanings, we shouldn’t force them into a single concept of a miracle. Rather, there are 3 or 4 different kinds of Biblical miracles:

1 – Abilities, especially above common abilities. Ability in and of itself, that is, free will, is a miracle. Higher then normal ability, and taken to its extreme point perfect power, also reflect God’s nature and are miracles.
2 – Indications of God are miracles. Anything which is evidence for God’s reality can be called a miracle.
3 – Curiosities are reflective of God’s nature. The desire to want to know more which always ends in an indication of God’s reality.
4 – Labor can be miraculous but it is not necessarily so. It’s opposite, rest, can also be miraculous.

I think the bottom line is that the terms translate as “miraculous” all reflect the Christian idea of God’s nature. That Biblical miracle description falls into 3, or 4 if you include labor, general categories and should not be confounded with inappropriate straw men definitions.

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