Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Why Do Scholars Dismiss Accounts of Miracles Performed By Saints as “Mere Hagiography”?

Here are two images of St Nicholas, whose feast is December 6th. He was bishop of Myra in Lycia (in modern-day Turkey), and has been venerated throughout the Church. Tradition has passed on to us many different stories from his life. For example, because of his help to the poor, he is the patron Saint of pawnbrokers, whose insignia of three golden balls represent the three purses of gold which Nicholas gave secretly to a poor man who could not afford dowries for his three daughters. 

Paolo Veneziano, 15th-century Italian
He is known also as one of the Fathers of the Council of Nicea, where he was temporarily barred from attendance for losing his temper and striking and Arian heretic. Another story, depicted below, tells how raised from the dead three young men who had been killed by a butcher several years earlier.

Nicholas is a Saint of whom more and more was written as devotion to him increased, especially after the 10th century. The story of three boys only appears in later accounts of the life, the most well known being a book called The Golden Legend, a series of lives of saints compiled in Italy in the late13th-century by Bl. Jacobus de Voragine, in which he pulls together many different popular accounts. The relatively late appearance of this story in the historical record means that it will often be dismissed as mere ‘hagiography’ today. This is meant to indicate that is part of a growing mythology surrounding the person, and is probably not historically true. However, we do not need to accept this argument, which rests on an assumption, born of lack of faith, that accounts of miracles should be viewed with skepticism, and that word of mouth and oral tradition are not reliable mechanisms for the preservation of truth.

The fact that this particular story only appears in writing relatively late doesn’t mean automatically that it was an invention of the writer, which is what seems to be assumed. It is possible, alternatively, that it did happen, and was preserved faithfully by oral tradition up until this point.  

While we must acknowledge the possibility that details can be added in the repeated telling of a story, without evidence that the author of the book composed the story, it seems to me that it is just as reasonable to assume that it is true. The question that I ask myself first is, Does this narrative portray the Saint in a manner that is consistent with our beliefs as Catholics, and with what is generally known of him as a person, and which can in turn reasonably inspire us to greater virtue? The answer to this question, in this case, is for me unequivocally yes. As one who believes that through faith miracles happen today, I do not wonder that they happened in the past too. Given this, I see no reason to doubt the truth of the story.
A south Nederlandish carving in wood dating from about 1500

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