No, it is literally a foreign concept.
Ludwig Wittgenstein compared language to a game woven into the fabric of life, and explained the process of using words as a series of interrelated “language-games,” which we learn by observing as they are played and inferring the rules. The meaning of any particular sentence (or word within that sentence) is determined by the particular language-game being played, since each has its own rules for understanding. Telling a joke, for instance, is a particular type of language-game, and it follows quite different rules than formulating a hypothesis, describing an object, testifying in court, or composing a poem. Individual words can acquire vastly different meanings when used in certain language-games. Irony and satire are two obvious examples. In a recipe book, “chill” means one thing, but it has a totally unrelated meaning in everyday slang. Even the simple act of putting quotes around a “word” alters the way that we interpret its meaning. For our purposes, then, Wittgenstein’s thought has three important implications:
- Meaning is dependent on genre.
- Meaning is determined by usage.
- As usage changes, meaning changes.
First, we should notice that the words employed in the language-game of the Bible were vastly different than the words employed in the language-game of philosophy. As philosophers then and now are wont to do, Augustine of Hippo sought a general term to discuss a multitude of particulars under one convenient umbrella. He chose the Latin miraculum, which became “miracle” in English, and subsequently redefined the vocabulary used to describe and debate the concept to this day. The Greek of the New Testament does not have a term corresponding to miracle; its vocabulary consists of signs (semeion) and wonders (teras), which have a distinct meaning within the language-games of the Bible. Augustine created a new language-game – the theology of miracles. As Wittgenstein said, philosophy stirs up trouble for itself when it interprets one language-game according to the rules of another.
A similar thing happened when later philosophers coined the term “supernatural” from Latin and applied it to events recorded in the Bible. Again, the word had no Greek or Hebrew counterpart. Perhaps this is because the very category of “supernatural” would have had no meaning to a first-century individual. For the ancients, existence enveloped both the seen and the unseen – two sides of the same coin. We cannot see the spiritual realm, but it is so present that Paul (taken as a representative first-century Jew) could tell the philosophers of Athens that “we live and move and exist” within it. Where moderns see an effect and attribute it solely to a physical cause, the ancients could see that same effect and attribute it to both a physical and a spiritual cause, simultaneously. Their worldview embraced a spiritual realm intimately involved in everyday existence. To a Jew, God was not just the Creator; he also was the Sustainer and Provider and Ruler of his creation. Jesus, for instance, could declare that God provides the ravens with food and sends his rain upon the evil and good alike, all the while knowing that plants produce the seeds eaten by birds and clouds produce the rain that falls upon the ground. For him, the fact that an observable physical cause provided a sufficient explanation did not exclude the active involvement of God in the process.
If we want to understand the Bible’s presentation of miracles and the supernatural, we have to consider the actual words of the texts and their usage within the proper language-game of the Hebrew and Greek Bible. In those traditions, “signs and wonders” do not appear willy-nilly throughout history. With few exceptions, signs and wonders cluster around three epochs of new revelation: the Exodus redemption, the beginning of the prophetic movement, and the advent of the Christ. And just as the Bible provides us with no definition of the concept of “God,” it does not define signs and wonders. Usage determines meaning, and in the language-game of the Bible, “wonders” inspired awe and captivated attention, while “signs” identified and authenticated the one who spoke for God. (The Greek usage of signs and wonders is paralleled in the Hebrew Bible by oth (signs) and mopheth (wonders), so the language-game of the New Testament draws its usage from the Hebrew precedent.)
Each time that God provided signs, they were manifested first by the primary messenger (Moses, Elijah, and Jesus), continued to be shown by their chosen successors (Joshua, Elisha, and the apostles), and resulted in a written record of the message, which the recipients regarded as the words of God. It should be noted that claims of “miracles” – whether ancient, medieval, or modern – rarely, if ever, fit the pattern that we see in Biblical “signs and wonders.” Thus, it is my opinion that the Christian response should be skeptical unless indisputable evidence, capable of convincing even staunch opponents (Acts 4:14-16), is available.
Interestingly, signs and wonders are depicted as ambiguous and do not guarantee faith. By itself, a sign was capable of being misinterpreted; therefore, it never stood alone. The messenger’s word supplied context and meaning to the sign, so that sign and word always worked together.