How does one define a miracle? Is it simply something  extraordinary? Does it have to break the laws of nature? Someone once told me I had a problem in believing in miracless. Do you have a problem in believing in miracles? Have you ever witnessed an actual miracle?

“Hannibal ante portas!” When the Punic warlord Hannibal son of Hamilkar Barka had made his extraordinary march with elephants and all to Italy from Hispania across the Pyrenees and the Alps many miracles were witnessed in Rome and in Roman held cities of Italy. Clearly they were signs from gods for the Romans to be wary of this new adversary. Among these miracles were  such things as a child of only six months of age shrieking: “Triumph!” Other miracles mentioned were an oxen climbing to a three storey high building just to jump from the roof to the ground, and a burning ship in the sky, a lightning strike on the temple of Hope. In the city of Lavunium the holy spear had moved by itself and a raven had flown into the temple of Juno to sit down on the bed of the goddes. Near Amiternum people reported to have seen ghosts in the human shape that wore white clothes. In Picenum a hail of stones had fallen and in Caere the staffs with oracle quotations inscribed into them had shrinked. In Gaul a wolf had taken a sword straight out of a scabbard of a soldier and ran away after that. Clearly all these are portents of a disaster. Are they not? They were passed by to us by Polybius, a historian whose accounts of the second Punic war (among other events of the time)  is the major source on what happened, since he lived through it and was a close personal friend of Scipio Africanus who defeated Carthago.

Do you my reader have difficulties to believe, that all these things told to Polybius really happened? It is not know why any of the people who claimed to have witnessed had to gain from telling these stories and their faith in their own stories was never tested in any way we know of. Exept, that many of these could have been witnessed by other people who would have had the opportunity to deny having been there and not having witnessed anything of the sorts. Some of these miracless are of religious type, so it is quite possible that some people had invested their faith in them. Events that happened in temples were most propably witnessed by priests of some sort, and their word was of course undisputable. Others were events that happened in public places so the amount of witnesses and possible counter claims would have been great indeed. No counter claims however appear in the text by Polybius.

Let us take them one by one. The very young child sreaming a singular word that does not refer to anything, exept if one is very keen on finding a connection to the on going attack by Hannibals forces. It took for several years before any triuphs could be arranged in Rome, for Hannibal if anyone was a victorious general. It is an extraordinary event, but not an impossible one. Wether there is any divine guidance behind such an event is a matter of opinions and taste. And of course it depends on ones own faith on Juppiter and other Roman gods, how one is inclined to interprete the event.

Now, the oxen committing suicide alledgedly happened near the cattle market so it must have had a multitude of witnesses. It is a very unlikely event. We may assume that it is possible that an oxen got scared of something and escaped to the insula only to run of from its roof, but because the event is such a strange one, a person with deep faith in the gods could easily come to the conclusion, that it was a sign of something. And as we know something very special was going on in the world at the moment.

The burning ship in the sky is my personal favourite among these. Was it a UFO? Well, the burning object was identified as a ship. This gives it a tubular form as most ships of that era were such, but wether or not it had any rigging is not mentioned by Polybius. Something wisible in the sky certainly had to be witnessed by several people, was it their common opinion that the burning object resembled a ship, we do not know.

The lightning hitting the temple of Hope is a nasty portent of course, but as we today know lightning is an athmospheric phenomenon caused by electricity and does not require any gods or spirits to make it. This is actually a major point about miracless. There are a lot of natural phenomenons that could not be explained by any other reason, than as an act of gods by the ancient people, who had no way of knowing what were these terrible powers that presented themselves in the nature. It is quite natural that they were percieved from human perspective and given reason according to human logic. To me all gods are simply humanizations of nature. It is human not to percieve them as random, but as meaningfull by our own standards. Such random force is much more frightening, than to think it acts on behalf of some reasonable diety, that is willing to save me from it, if I pay homage to this entity. In that sence all gods are andropomorphic.

There could be several naturalistic explanations as to how the holy spear moved by itself and why did the raven fly into the temple of Juno, but for centuries and even in our own day there are many people to whom such things bear special meaning. Typical for such interpretations of random events is, that people are often ridiculously sure of their meaning, even though it is quite hard to find the connection between the raven, the bed of Juno and Hannibal. It is also typical that when such stories first appear they soon develope forms that make the connection more obvious. As rumours do. And as rumours allways have been, people who spread them assure their audience that they heard them from a very reliable source.

The human shaped ghosts in white clothes is a typical story that seems to repeat itself throughout history and it appears in many cultures. Does this reveal that there are in fact ectoplasmic manifestations of human spirits whose host bodies have perished? No, it tells us that people get easily frieghtened of other people, if they have cultural indoctrination to believe human spirits could walk without their bodies. That is all, but of course the person who told this story and who claimed to have witnessed to have seen these “ghosts” could well believe they were indeed ghosts. It is hard to imagine that such a claim would have brought any materialistic profit to the eyewitness. If this was a case of the faith, or identity of this person, it is even possible he/she could have propably even given his/her life for the matter, given that said person was fanatical enough. It is entirely dependant on the state of mind of the crowd that first learned this story wether the eyewitness was regarded as a bit bonkers, or as someone with special relationship to the supernatural.

The hail of stones is interresting in connection to the burning ship. Could it be that there was a meteor shower, that was seen as a burning ship in the sky in one place and felt as minor meteors in a nother? Is it likelier that neither of these were seen and it was the shock and exitement of the army of Hannibal suddenly appearing in Italy that caused a social stress wich in turn gave birth to these extraordinary rumours? Or was it actually the attempt of divine forces to warn Roman people of the perils of a coming war? As allways gods have great difficulties in keeping connection to mankind. Wether it is by miracles, or by oracles, or by ancient scriptures, gods regardless, if they are the misstresses of mustard, or even the creators of entire universe, allways fail to communicate with humans so that their meaning would be clear to most people. I wonder why? One would expect that creatures with divine powers could manage a little better.

What was the srinking of the holy staffs with oracle quotations supposed to mean? What was the message? How much did they loose from their original size? Who the hell measured them, before and after? No, matter how silly that srinking might sound like, Polybius who was a man of sound reasoning took this and other portents conveyed to him at their face value. He found no reason to doubt these stories. He put his personal dignity and authority to act for these fancifull stories by telling them as true. Imagine, what would have happened, if he was later in his life ridiculed by someone claiming all those stories to be simply rumours and even by proving them to be such. Would Polybius have lost face? Would he as good Roman have committed suicide as a result of losing face? Would his death have proven these stories to be true?

Then there is the wolf running of with the sword.  Once again the laws of nature have not been broken so the story is so much more plausible. The event itself is certainly extraordinary, even to the extent that though something such as described could have happened, it seems more likelier that the entire story was fabricated to explain a lost sword. However there are a lot of people in the world even today who would choose to believe in the version of ancient events that were far more fancifull than this. Why is it? Why would we find it more plausible that a man in the Roman province of Iudaea could turn water into wine or that he died and resurrected after a crucifixion? Is there some significant testimony for these miraculous events that make them more believable in comparrison to say the wolf running of with a sword in Gaul?

Roman historian Tacitus mentions that “Christus” the originator of the christian cult religion was executed few decades before his time. Should we take this at the face value? He also mentions that christians were not persecuted in Rome only because emperor Nero blamed them for the burning of Rome, but because they were known to have all manner of hideous and shamefull rituals and habits. Should we take that as well on face value?

A nother historian, who actually lived during the days of Jesus in Jerusalem, a jew called Josephus who was a friend of the local Roman dignitary also mentions Jesus, though much of the description of him has been argued having been added later by christian copyists. If we assume, that all Josephus tells us of Jesus is how he as a contemporary knew Jesus, we might come to the conclusion that here we have an outsider confirming the miracless alledgedly performed by Jesus and his death on the cross. (Bear in mind however, the source has been contested from as early as the 17th century.) Josephus also described how a man could survive the crucifixion. He tells of few men he recognized to have been crucified and asked for his influental Roman friend to give mercy on these men. They were taken down, but alas only one survived. We do not know how long these men had been up there, but long enough for a couple of them to die. On the cross death is actually caused by slow drowning, when one has hands in such an upright position, it may take days and days, but eventually the lungs of a crucified person fill in with fluids and cause death. Before that they are naked for all to see and soil themselves several times.  We need to remember that the whole point of crucifixion is to make the death horryfying, undignified, extremely painfull and especially to last long. 

The main source for the miracless performed by Jesus of Nasarea are the Gospels. There has been much debate as to when and by whom these were written and historians have not reached any consensus on this matter, but let us assume they were actually later written by those apostoles to whom they were attributed to. It is possible that these shepherds and fishermen learned how to write in their later days. The Gospels do not agree on everything, wich is quite strange, as they are supposed to be inspired by the creator of the universe. For example only one of them mentions that Jesus was not the only person ever to have resurrected. Matteus claims that when Jesus died on the cross, graves opened up in Jerusalem and the dead were raising. Since Josephus, our historian in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus does not mention in any of the version of his histories such an event, and since other Gospels remain omniously silent about such an event, we may assume that it was some feeble attempt by Matteus to emphasize the meaning of Jesus and had nothing to do with reality. Or could there be a nother explanation?

One thing that the Gospels do agree upon, is that Jesus was taken down during the same day as he was crucified. Also there is a note among the history by Josephus (though disputed, because his accounts have only survived through christian copyists work), that such a man was crucified, and that his followers claimed him to have been alive only three days after the crucifixion. Now, if we assume Josephus is a valid source on this matter, we easily come to the conclusion, that Jesus did not necessarily die on the cross. The Gospels maintain that he did and that he resurrected afterwards. The Gospels are also the only source we have that claim Jesus lived after his execution, and that he was recognized by his followers, altough not without some trouble as with Thomas, who only believed it was actually Jesus after putting his finger to the wounds made by the crucifixion. It is easy to understand that the resurrection was the natural explanation to what had happened by the people of the antiquity. They had no knowledge of how much a coma patient might resemble a “stiff”. It is just as understandable as the fact how the Romans less than hundred years before believed the lightning hitting the temple of Hope was a sign from god. However, as mentioned by Josephus a crucified person could survive, if he was taken down early enough and certainly Jesus was taken down early in comparrison to few weeks that was the standard for victims of crucifixion.  He was stabbed to the side by a spear just prior taking down and he was still bleeding, but as we know today the dead do not bleed.

So, did Jesus die on the cross and resurrect, or did he simply faint? Was it actually Jesus that appeared as him after the execution? If it was, why did one of his followers who had known him for quite a while and was supposed to know his miraculous powers, not immediately recognize him? Even if we assume all these contested sources are actual accounts written during those days by the people who had their little parts in the story, the question remains, what is the most likeliest explanation to these events? Did the wolf run of with a sword, or was the story a fabrication? It is far more likelier that a wolf might come take the sword from a scabbard to run of with it, than that a particular man was the only son of the creator of the entire universe and resurrected after being executed, yet people choose to believe the one and not the other. And they have every right to do so, as they have every right to believe in prophesies by tarot cards, or coffee stains. There are still today also people who maintain faith in thunder gods, though science has explained the natural cause and random nature of lightning. There are also very many of those who maintain faith in the originator god of the universe, just because they think that from nothing comes nothing. How a perfect entity such as the alledged creator god came to be, if the random universe could not produce itself, is a question beyond me.

I suppose it really requires faith to believe in the most fancifull stories, even when quite natural explanations are available to the miraculous events that are the base of a religion.