Miracles and History

The so-called criterion of authenticity can applied to the miracle stories.  For example, all strata of the tradition indicate that Jesus did miracles, including Mark, Q, M/L, and John.  This ought to satisfy the criterion of Multiple Attestation since miracles appear in all of the various forms suggested by form criticism.  Given the methodology of even the Jesus Seminar, one can confidently conclude that Jesus had the reputation as a miracle worker, that he claimed to do miracles, healings, etc.

Healing a Blind ManThe criterion of plausibility argues that an event is more likely historical if it is a plausible event.  If this is applied to the miracles, many will dismiss miracles because they do not seem plausible.   What is or is not plausible is highly subjective, and very often implausible events actually occur.  To me, it is implausible that anyone claiming to be a messiah in the Second Temple Period would not do miracles.  While the modern worldview would dismiss miracles as implausible, the Second Temple Period would require them if Jesus was to be taken seriously as the messiah!

This is the sort of thing that Anthony Le Donne suggests in his The Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich.: 2011).  There are many memories of Jesus acting as a healer or exorcist, even raising the dead. These memories are in a wide range sources, and there is variation among these sources.  Le Donne refers to this as memory refraction – people are the same events with slight variations, but the main contours of the event are the same.  These variations actually increase the likelihood that a given event is historical (130).  In the case of Jesus’ miracles, not only are there variations on the same event, but many miracles around given themes (healing, exorcism  etc).

The criterion of embarrassment is more helpful.  If a deed seems like it might have been an embarrassment to the growing theology of Jesus, and they passed it along anyway, it has a greater claim to validity.  The healing of the woman with the flow of blood, for example, has Jesus healing the woman without really consciously thinking about it, the power just “went out of him” and he did not know who it was that touched him.

In addition, Jesus was known to have been a man of prayer, yet there are no stories in which Jesus prays in connection to a healing.  If the early church were going to create or enhance the prayers of Jesus (which they very well may have), it is remarkable that they did not create prayers to be added to the miracles of Jesus. This means that Jesus did not heal in the same way Jewish holy men healed, through prayer and ritual.

In short, it is historically plausible that Jesus was known as a miracle worker during his own lifetime, even if the modern thinker dismisses the possibility of miracles.  Do these sorts of “criteria” for authenticity work for miracles in Jesus’ ministry.

Or is this a case of “preaching to the choir”?  For example, what is the difference between my argument here and saying, “lots of people think Santa brings the presents at Christmas so it must be true”?

10 thoughts on “Miracles and History

  1. In answer to your q., Phillip, I don’t think you’re just preaching to the choir (or that this miracle argument is). In relation to the healing “miracles”, as a quasi-scholar of historical-critical orientation (plus a Process-type faith), I do believe Jesus was a remarkable healer. And also that he was not the only such healer of very similar type (and some of his reported healings DO have a ritual element, aside from the healed being sent to priests for confirmation and societal “clearance”).

    And right on through to today there have been many such healers, some within Christianity and some totally outside it (including “pagan” or tribal shamans). So I don’t put Jesus’ healing work in the same category as some of the other supposed miracles.

    If one defines “miracle” as going against natural “laws” or processes, requiring a special “supernatural” force, I don’t see healing or exorcism as miracle. Even some manipulation of matter or weather may not properly always be in that category, but I do see a whole lot of intentional narrative symbolism and hyperbole in highly remarkable stories like the feeding of the 4 or 5 thousand, or the stilling of the Galilean storm, or walking on the lake’s water. So sorting out every case of “valid” or “historical” astounding event, “miracle” or otherwise, I think is impossible and will remain so. And that doesn’t bother me, though I AM curious (being highly interested in science as well as theology and spirituality).

    In comparing to both logical analysis and to other lit. of the day, it seems clear that many narrated miracles in the NT were normal for certain genres, perhaps expected (and thus accepted with “a grain of salt”) to validate the elevated status of the person in question. These, in both Greek and Rom. lit., have been well documented. Some of the miracles in Acts seem clearly in this category, with close parallels in other lit after which Luke patterned (esp. the “Aeneid”). Similarly, he seems to have patterned his apologetic approach after and fairly likely gotten historical data from Josephus’ “Antiquities…”. (Cf. Steve Mason on this… though, of course, Joshephus’ apologetic was for Judaism while Luke’s was for “The Way”, superseding it.)

    What I do object to as a serious category or cause-effect error by most traditional Christians, including many scholars, is jumping from miracles (or “fulfilled” prophesy, etc.) which gave Jesus messianic credentials TO any specific theological conclusion about such a status. Similarly for the possibility or likelihood that he appeared after death, in some manner, to his close followers and later to Paul. These things in no way lead directly to any particular theological interpretation, whether by Luke or another NT writer, by an early “Father”, a Pope, or by us via some recent theologians or teachers in our favorite tradition/church. And perhaps central to those many interpretations would be “penal substitionary atonement” or “ransom theory” or even “moral influence theory”, etc.

    Jesus could do all the healings recounted, as well as the water-into-wine, feeding thousands with almost nothing, etc. (if he did), and all that NOT lead to him necessarily being “God the son”, nor to dying a death of atonement in our place, to his “soon return”, etc.

    For anyone interested, Process theology is a system that is indeed “progressive” in most respects (not “traditional” or “orthodox”) but thinks carefully about that dicey relation of God and God’s creation…. While it can’t do it with the simplicity most people want, it is able to adequately explain (to many of us) how God can do supposed “miracles” without overriding any natural “laws” or anyone’s will or free choices. Of course, it has to re-work traditional concepts of “supernatural” and “natural” to do so…. For anyone very into either theology or science, or both, that strict dichotomy (as in most religion and science) is inadequate to explain either the “natural world” or the realm of spirit/Spirit. Thankfully, we do have something more satisfactory and exciting. (Some of my blog posts deal lightly with Process.)

  2. I think this is just an example of faith. It is true that today, it is not necessarily viable to claim that a man claiming to be the Messiah performed tons of miracles…but like you said Dr. Long, how could a man claiming to be the Messiah NOT be? Why would there be four Gospels written about His miracles and even prophecies in the new testament about His ministry? Isaiah 35:4-5 says, “say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.’Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” It is clear that Jesus miracles are viable, due to the amount of content there is in the Bible about them.

  3. The difference between the two arguments is that one has been recorded by eyewitnesses, and one hasn’t. Santa Clause delivering presents on Christmas Eve is nothing more than a myth, because no one has seriously claimed to have seen it happen. Jesus, on the other hand, performed miracles that have been recorded by people who claim to have seen them happen. Turning water into wine, feeding the 5,000, and walking on water are just a few examples of miracles linked to eyewitness accounts. Not only were these accounts written down, but they have lasted thousands of years, sent down from generation to generation. I think that the large number of eyewitness accounts helps to ratify the truth of Jesus’ miracles. But looking at the fact that these miracles didn’t follow a specific pattern, that they were diverse in nature, and that Jesus was the Messiah figure ratifies it even more.

    • Chris, I’m not sure what Phillip’s implication was in his ending question, as he is a sophisticated historian (or historical theologian)… an educational devise I’d presume. But it juxtaposes two things which are not similar in significant ways, but have more things dissimilar.

      In relation to that, the matter of what is “eyewitness report” in the Gospels/Acts, even 2nd or 3rd hand from eyewitnesses, is quite complicated. There is clearly SOME historical basis to the “large stroke” events and such (like Jesus being a healer and/or “miracle worker”). But there is just as clearly a set of literary conventions, effective story-telling (including hyperbole, invention, etc.) and theological (even “survival”?) agenda behind the Gospels/Acts. That is the main reason we have a long history of sincere historical-critical study of the Bible (not just the Gospels)…. Serious students have long wanted to know what was really historical and what was not (and we’ve found that it’s often just not clear)… Such things form the basis of what authority to acknowledge and follow, which everyone, regardless of their theology, agrees is important in matters of faith.

  4. The argument with Santa and Jesus and his miracles is that people know that Santa is not real. Santa has been labeled a myth; Jesus has, but not to a complete myth like Santa has. Going back into the 2nd Temple period people back then would read the Old Testament and learn from it what the Messiah would look and act like. If we look at the book of Isaiah there are tons of prophecies on what the Messiah will look like. More closely at the miracle portion, in Isaiah 29:18 it says, “In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see.” Or in Isaiah 35:5-6 “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” Both of those passages both state that the Messiah will come and do miracles on people. For the people that believed in Jesus during the 2nd Temple period labeled Jesus the Messiah because of what the prophecies said about the Messiah in what they read in their Bibles back then.

  5. I think that it is definitely historically plausible that Jesus was known as a miracle worker. Although, of course, that assumes that one believes miracles of any sort to be categorically plausible. It does come down to an element of faith in things which cannot be tested or proven. That being the case, I think that there are definitely great arguments for the historicity of Jesus’ miracles, several of which were touched upon in the original post. The argument that seems to me most convicting is that of embarrassment. If the gospel writers (and/or those in the early church who could be accused of editing the original written Gospels) were trying to create a convincing story that would strengthen their case, why would they include miraculous accounts of Jesus healing a bleeding woman (a cultural faux pas) (Mark 5:27)? Why would they call John’s view of Jesus’ miracles into question (Matt 11:2-6)? “Furthermore, Jesus’ reference to the exorcisms of the Pharisees (Matt. 12:27; Luke 11:19) would have been an embarrassment to the early church, and so it is unlikely to have been created” (Strauss, 462).

    While it seems very plausible that Second Temple messianic expectations would look for a Messiah who performed miracles, the miraculous accounts recorded in the Gospels do not seem like the kinds of stories that would be created for the purpose of fulfilling these expectations. Rather, they are intentionally proclaiming the initiation of a kingdom coming in a very unexpected way.

  6. The difference is that people who believe in Santa begin to forget about him. They begin to perform the miracle for the next generation by putting presents under the tree. The fact is that Jesus had witnesses at His miracles and that shows that at least there is some sort of accountability. The witnesses are not just random uneducated people but after Jesus was raised it says more than 500 people saw him (1 Corinthians 15:6). That’s the difference people are actually claiming to see the miracles. Miracles were happening then and Christ did miracles because it was normal for them. It changes though that people witnessed his miracles.

  7. Well, the gospels are viable enough evidence for me to believe Jesus performed these miracles. We think about miracles and try and figure them out or the right criteria for figuring them out. I’m still not sure why. Are we also dismissing Jesus is the son of God? Santa doesn’t have the gospels stories or eye witness accounts detailing his route to deliver presents. He’s busted! It’s also hard to answer this question because the criteria on plausibility depends on the person and their faith. I have faith and believe that Jesus is the son of God. Which tells me that God is all powerful and can do anything, even perform miracles through Jesus. I also think when we have eye witnesses and the gospels recording and remembering what they’ve seen… where is the concern?

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