A miracle, derived from the old Latin word miraculum meaning “something wonderful”, is a striking interposition of divine intervention by a supernatural being in the universe by which the ordinary course and operation of Nature is overruled, suspended, or modified.
Although many religious texts and people confirm witnessing or prophesying various events which they refer to as “miraculous”, it is disputed whether there are scientifically confirmed occurrences of miracles. One notable aspect of these miracles is that they almost invariably manifest themselves to small groups of individuals or we only have hearsay evidence of their occurrence.
People in different faiths have substantially different definitions of the word “miracle”. Even within a specific religion there is often more than one usage of the term.
Sometimes the term “miracle” may refer to the action of a supernatural being that is not a god. Thus, the term “divine intervention”, by contrast, would refer specifically to the direct involvement of a deity.
In casual usage, “miracle” may also refer to any statistically unlikely but beneficial event, (such as the survival of a natural disaster) or even to anything which is regarded as “wonderful” regardless of its likelihood, such as birth. Other miracles might be: survival of a fatal illness, escaping a life threatening situation or ‘beating the odds’.
Miracles as supernatural acts
In this view, a miracle is a violation of normal laws of nature by a god or some other supernatural being. Some scientist-theologians like Polkinghorne suggest that miracles are not violations of the laws of nature but “exploration of a new regime of physical experience”.
The logic behind an event being deemed a miracle varies significantly. In most cases a religious text, such as the Bible or Quran, states that a miracle occurred, and believers accept this as a fact.
Some modern day religious believers hold that there is a scientific basis for believing in supernatural miracles. They hold that in the absence of a plausible, parsimonious scientific theory, the best explanation for these events is that they were performed by a supernatural being, e.g. God. Therefore, there is probably a supernatural being (i.e., God) that performs what appear to be miracles. However, some scientists criticise this kind of thinking a subversion, or perhaps deliberate misuse, of Occam’s Razor. Because a god can perform a miracle, and a miracle has occurred, it does not follow that a god exists. Moreover, evidence for miracles is almost entirely hearsay, or a good scientific explanation exists: thunder and earthquakes are no longer regarded as miraculous, and the parting of the Sea of Reeds has many scientific explanations.
Many adherents of monotheistic religions assert that miracles, if established, are logical proof of the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent god. A number of criticisms of this point of view exist:
While the existence of miracles implies the existence of a supernatural miracle worker, that supernatural miracle worker need not be an omnipotent, omniscient, and all-benevolent God; it could be any supernatural being, maybe an evil one.
Other philosophers of religion, such as C.S. Lewis (in, e.g. God in the Dock), believe that God exists, and He sustains His creation miraculously all the time, so that what we would call a miracle is really just a more obvious manifestation of the power of God that is constantly at work.
Laws of nature are inferred from empirical evidence. Thus if an accepted law of nature ever appeared to have been violated, it could simply be that the accepted law was an erroneous inference from an insufficient set of empirical observations, rather than a supernatural disruption of the true course of nature. Such is the case with earthquakes, which were once regarded as supernatural.
The evidence for miracles is mostly hearsay, often written years after the supposed event. One would expect an interventionist god to be performing miracles constantly rather than to small groups of individuals in one small region far in the past.
Miracles in the Bible
In the Hebrew Bible
The descriptions of most miracle in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) are often the same as the common definition of the word: God intervenes in the laws of nature.
A literal reading of the Tanakh shows a number of ways miracles are said to occur: God may suspend or speed up the laws of nature to produce a supernatural occurrence; God can create matter out of nothing; God can breathe life into inanimate matter. The Tanakh does not explain details of how these miracles happen.
The Tanakh attributes many natural occurrences to God, such as the sun rising and setting, and rain falling.
Today many Orthodox Jews, most Christians, and most Muslims adhere to this view of miracles. This view is generally rejected by non-Orthodox Jews, liberal Christians and Unitarian-Universalists.
Many events commonly understood to be miraculous may not actually be instances of the impossible, as commonly believed. For instance, consider the parting of the Sea of Reeds (in Hebrew Yâm-Sûph; often mistranslated as the “Red Sea”). This incident occurred when Moses and Israelites fled from bondage in Egypt, to begin their exodus to the promised land. The book of Exodus does not state that the Reed Sea split in a dramatic fashion. Rather, according to the text God caused a strong wind to slowly drive the shallow waters to land, overnight. There is no claim that God pushed apart the sea as shown in many films; rather, the miracle would be that Israel crossed this precise place, at exactly the right time, when Moses lifted his staff, and that the pursuing Egyptian army then drowned when the wind stopped and the piled waters rushed back in.
Most events later described as miracles are not labeled as such by the Bible; rather the text simply describes what happened. Often these narratives will attribute the cause of these events to God.
In the New Testament
The descriptions of most miracles in the Christian New Testament are often the same as the commonplace definition of the word: God intervenes in the laws of nature. In St John’s Gospel the “miracles” are referred to as “signs” and the emphasis is on God demonstrating his underlying normal activity in remarkable ways.
Jesus is recorded as having turned water into wine; creating matter out of nothing, and thus turning a loaf of bread into many loaves of bread; and raising the dead. Jesus is also described as rising from the dead himself. Jesus explains in the New Testament that miracles are performed by faith in God. “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “move from here to there” and it will move.” (Gospel of Matthew 17:20) The problem of these accounts is that they date from many years after the events and have also been subject to the censorship of the early catholic church. Consequently they would be dismissed as hearsay in any court of law. However, it should be noted that the early church authors of the Gospels and their miracle accounts were not written with the intent of proving the authenticity of Jesus’ work and mission. Rather, they were written to communicate the story of Jesus Christ as the early church expanded.
Aristotelian and Neo-Aristotelian views of miracles
Aristotle rejected the idea that God could or would intervene in the order of the natural world. Jewish neo-Aristotelian philosophers, who are still influential today, include Maimonides, Samuel ben Judah ibn Tibbon, and Gersonides. Directly or indirectly, their views are still prevalent in much of the religious Jewish community.
Miracles as events pre-planned by God
In rabbinic Judaism, many rabbis mentioned in the Talmud held that the laws of nature were inviolable. The idea of miracles that contravened the laws of nature were hard to accept; however, at the same time they affirmed the truth of the accounts in the Tanakh. Therefore some explained that miracles were in fact natural events that had been set up by God at the beginning of time.
In this view, when the walls of Jericho fell, it was not because God directly brought them down. Rather, God planned that there would be an earthquake at that place and time, so that the city would fall to the Israelites. Instances where rabbinic writings say that God made miracles a part of creation include Midrash Genesis Rabbah 5:45; Midrash Exodus Rabbah 21:6; and Ethics of the Fathers/Pirkei Avot 5:6.
Spinoza’s View of Miracles
In Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise he talks about miracles as those events of whose causes we are ignorant. Nor does he suggest we should just treat them as having no cause or of having an cause immediately available. Rather the miracle is for combating the ignorance it entails, it becomes a political project.
David Hume’s views of miracles
According to the philosopher David Hume, a miracle is “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.” 
Non-literal interpretations of the text
These views are held by both classical and modern thinkers.
In Numbers 22 is the story of Balaam and the talking donkey. Many hold that for miracles such as this, one must either assert the literal truth of this biblical story, or one must then reject the story as false. However, some Jewish commentators (e.g. Saadiah Gaon and Maimonides) hold that stories such as these were never meant to be taken literally in the first place. Rather, these stories should be understood as accounts of a prophetic experience, which are dreams or visions. (Of course, such dreams and visions could themselves be considered miracles.)
Joseph H. Hertz, a 20th century Jewish biblical commentator, writes that these verses “depict the continuance on the subconscious plane of the mental and moral conflict in Balaam’s soul; and the dream apparition and the speaking donkey is but a further warning to Balaam against being misled through avarice to violate God command.”
As products of creative art and social acceptance
In this view, miracles do not really occur. Rather, they are the product of creative story tellers. They use them to embellish a hero or incident with a theological flavor. Using miracles in a story allows characters and situations to become bigger than life, and to stir the emotions of the listener more than the mundane and ordinary.
As misunderstood commonplace events
Littlewood’s law states that individuals can expect miracles to happen to them, at the rate of about one per month. By its definition, seemingly miraculous events are actually commonplace. In other words, miracles do not exist, but are rather examples of low probability events that are bound to happen by chance from time to time.
In Japanese philosophy
An excerpt from Hagakure, the Book of the Samurai:
When something out of the ordinary happens, it is ridiculous to say that it is a mystery or a portent of things to come. Eclipses of the sun and moon, comets, clouds that flutter like flags, snow in the fifth month, lightning in the twelfth month, and so on, are all things that occur every fifty or one hundred years. They occur according to the evolution of the Yin and the Yang. The fact that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west would be a mystery, too, if it were not a daily occurrence. It is not dissimilar. Furthermore, the fact that something bad always happens in the world when strange phenomenon occur is due to people seeing something like fluttering clouds and thinking that something is going to happen. The mystery is created in their minds, and by waiting for the disaster, it is from their very minds that it occurs. The occurrence of mysteries is always by word of mouth.
Contemporary claims of miracles and evidence
The Catholic Church claims that it is hesitant to extend validity to a putative miracle. The Church requires a certain number of miracles to occur before granting sainthood to a putative saint, with, the Church says, particularly stringent requirements in validating the miracle’s authenticity.  The process is overseen by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints .
Followers of the Indian gurus Sathya Sai Baba and Swami Premananda claim that they routinely perform miracles. The dominant view among sceptics is that these are predominantly sleight of hand or elaborate magic tricks.
Some modern religious groups claim ongoing occurrence of miraculous events. While some miracles have been proven to be fraudulent (see Peter Popoff for an example) others (such as the Paschal Fire in Jerusalem) have not proven susceptible to analysis. Some groups are far more cautious about proclaiming apparent miracles genuine than others, although official sanction, or the lack thereof, rarely has much effect on popular belief.
Notes and references :
^ see eg the article on Lourdes Medical Bureau for (allegedly) scientifically verified miracles at Lourdes
^ John Polkinghorne Faith, Science and Understanding p59
^ The God Delusion
^ see e.g. Polkinghorne op cit. and any pretty well any commentary on the Gospel of John, such as William Temple Readings in St John’s Gospel (see e.g. p 33) or Tom Wright’s John for Everyone
^ Miracles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Colin Brown. Miracles and the Critical Mind. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984. (Good survey).
Colin J. Humphreys, Miracles of Exodus. Harper, San Francisco, 2003.
Krista Bontrager, It’s a Miracle! Or, is it?
Eisen, Robert (1995). Gersonides on Providence, Covenant, and the Chosen People. State University of New York Press.
Goodman, Lenn E. (1985). Rambam: Readings in the Philosophy of Moses Maimonides. Gee Bee Tee.
Kellner, Menachem (1986). Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought. Oxford University Press.
C. S. Lewis. Miracles: A Preliminary Study. New York, Macmillan Co., 1947.
C. F. D. Moule (ed.). Miracles: Cambridge Studies in their Philosophy and History. London, A.R. Mowbray 1966, ©1965 (Good survey of Biblical miracles as well).
Graham Twelftree. Jesus the Miracle Worker: A Historical and Theological Study. IVP, 1999. (Best in its field).
Woodward, Kenneth L. (2000). The Book of Miracles. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-82393-4.
M. Kamp, MD. Bruno Gröning. The miracles continue to happen. 1998, (Chapters 1 – 4)
Houdini, Harry Miracle Mongers and Their Methods: A Complete Expose Prometheus Books; Reprint edition (March 1993) originally published in 1920 ISBN 0-87975-817-1 some other miracles are waking up in the morning and having the ability to see.