|"Healing Stories" conference sponsored by SFTS and University of Frankfurt|
New Testament miracle stories are important for the everyday life of the church. They are endlessly preached on and referred to in pastoral care and Bible study.
At the same time, skepticism is inevitable. Are these “miracles” fact or fiction? And is this distinction integral to the text or an invention of modernity?
San Francisco Theological Seminary teamed up with the University of Frankfurt to sponsor a conference on Nov. 17-18 that focused on New Testament miracle stories and their reception from antiquity to the Middle Ages. This question was pursued in light of ancient narratives, pilgrimages, medical texts and visual images, the latter especially from the Catacombs and Byzantine art.
The conference was led by SFTS Associate Professor of New Testament Dr. Annette Weissenrieder, who also teaches at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Dr. Stefan Alkier, professor of New Testament at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, was co-convener.
Since David Hume in the 1700s, if not earlier, the interpretation of miracle stories has been dominated in the West by the binary distinction of fact vs. fiction. Even the latest research accepts this modern opposition as self-evident. The resulting ontology continues to underlie the form-critical study of NT miracle stories, leading to interpretive nuances that presuppose the distinction of fact vs. fiction but have no basis in either the texts in question or their concepts of reality. Thus Gerd Theissen, for example, distinguishes between stories with a historical basis and therefore a claim to facticity (e.g. healings interpreted in terms of psychosomatic therapies, or exorcisms in terms of social therapy) and stories invented out of whole cloth as fictional expressions of childlike desires (e.g. miraculous gifts or favors).
The conference examined critically this extraneous mixing of modern concepts of reality with interpretations of miracles. To this end, the conference addressed how ancient concepts of reality, always complex, came to expression in stories of miraculous healings and their reception in medicine, art, literature, theology and philosophy, from classic antiquity to the Middle Ages. Only through such bygone concepts can contemporary interpretations of ancient healings gain plausibility.
It is likely that the relationship between accounts of healings and concepts of reality applies not only to New Testament healing narratives, but equally to ancient medical discourse. This is suggested by a further and likewise dubious binary opposition, one rooted in the distinction between fact and fiction, namely that between religious healing narratives on the one hand and rational medical discourse on the other.
Weissenrieder presented a paper on “The Proper Care of the Sick: Medical, Social and Theological Meanings of Healing Miracles.” The conference papers will be published by de Gruyter in a volume called Miracle Stories Revisited.