John 6:1-14 – Feeding the 5000

The Feeding of the Five Thousand appears in all four Gospels.The details in John are in some ways more detailed. For example, the role of Andrew and Philip are unique to John, in the synoptic gospels the disciples who ask Jesus about the crowds are anonymous. The use of the disciples to react to Jesus is typical of John, as is the mention of the words and deeds of other disciples outside of Peter, James and John.

Fish and Bread, Feeding the 5000

That this event occurs at the time of the Passover is extremely important for understanding the point of the miracle. Passover celebrates the rescue of Israel out of Egypt. God sent plagues on the Egyptians and took his people out into the wilderness where he provided for them both food and water. What is more, the rescue from Egypt at Passover marks the beginning of Israel as a nation.

John wants to present Jesus as a “prophet like Moses” in this section. It was Moses who provided food to the people of Israel in the wilderness after the first Passover and then led the people through the waters of the Red Sea. In Exodus 16 God provides for the people of Israel with manna and quail.  Jesus provides food then walks on the water. There is even a parallel in the reaction of the crowds – the crowds  “murmur” in 6:41 in such a way that implies that they have not really understood the miracle.

When Jesus provided food for a large crowd of Jews in a wilderness location, consciously re-enacting the original Passover. Like celebrating the fourth of July in America, celebrating Passover evoked a nationalistic spirit even in Galilee. Perhaps because many in Galilee thought of themselves as “occupied” by the Romans, Passover could easily develop anti-Roman sentiment.

This miracle could be taken as the beginnings of a revolution. When he seats people in groups he is organizing the people into “tribes” just as Moses did. The crowds in fact misunderstand the sign in just this way and try to force Jesus to be a king. As D. A. Carson said, “In the light of v. 15, where the people try to make Jesus king by force, it is easy to think that, at least in John, the specification of five thousand men is a way of drawing attention to a potential guerrilla force of eager recruits willing and able to serve the right leader” (Carson, John, 270).

The crowd thinks that Jesus is the Prophet, a messianic figure, a second Moses who leads Israel into the wilderness and provides manna for them. Isaiah 40-55 makes us use of the original wilderness period to describe the return of Israel from Exile.  There seems to have been a general feeling among the people, perhaps especially in Galilee, that the exile was still going on because Israel’s king had not come nor has the whole nation been gathered back to the land.

This nationalism would have been especially strong during the Passover. Israel was remembering his origins. Families were re-enacting the inaugural Passover meal in their homes and talking about what God has done for them in the Exodus and journey to the land. It is very easy to see what the people thought, Jesus is like Moses, gathering a force in the wilderness which could be used to secure the land, in this he is a new Moses. But Jesus is also a new Joshua- the people of Galilee were willing to take up arms to liberate the nation.

After Jesus explains that his kingdom is not going to be an armed rebellion, the crowds begin to fall away and even Jesus’ own disciples begin to grumble about this “hard teaching” (6:60-66) .  The verb used in verse 61 (γογγύζω) is used for the complaints of the Israelites in the wilderness period (they were “murmuring”). Just like Israel in the past, present Israel is complaining, questioning whether Jesus is the true messiah or not.

The Twelve, however, remain faithful (6:67-69).  Peter is the disciples who responds that there is no one else to follow since Jesus has the words of life.  The inner circle is committed to following Jesus since there is no life (water, bread) anywhere else.  If that is true, Peter says, “What other teacher are we going to follow?” If Jesus is the teacher who has the truth, it is because he is also God incarnate – once again, who else are they going to follow?  They know the truth, they cannot now turn to any other teacher.

Indeed, what other teacher are we going to follow?

Jesus and Purity (Part 1: Hand Washing)

In Mark 7:1-5 the Pharisees question Jesus over his lack of attention to the tradition of “hand washing” before meals. Jesus’ disciples do not wash their hands before a meal in order to avoid ritual purity, presumably the question directed at Jesus implies he was not requiring his disciples to follow a “tradition of the elders” (v. 5).

“Unclean hands” or “defiled hands” (ESV) refers to the state of impurity with respect to the Law. If one touched something unclean and then touched clean food, the clean food may become unclean. If that is the case, then a person could be eating unclean food even if the food was permissible in the Law. The Pharisees are accusing Jesus of behaving in a way that would make him unclean with respect to their traditions.

HandWashingR. T. France comments Mark’s description of the Pharisee’s practice is a “broad-brush, unsophisticated account which conveys a general sense of meticulous concern to avoid defilement” (Mark, NIGTC, 281). Mark is explaining only very generally the practice of the Pharisees with respect to washing hands before meals. France also points out that it is impossible to know if hand-washing for ritual purity before meals had become the norm for all people at the time of Jesus.

When challenged for his non-practice of “the tradition of the elders” (κατὰ τὴν παράδοσιν τῶν πρεσβυτέρων), Jesus quotes Isa 29:13. The verse is part of a long oracle of woe spoken against Judah and Jerusalem. Isaiah is looking forward to the judgment of God on Jerusalem because of the half-hearted worship in the Temple. While they did the ritual correctly, their hearts were not right with God and as a result the nation would go into exile. By quoting this verse, Jesus is comparing the present leadership of Israel (the Pharisees) to the generation responsible for the exiles. The Pharisees are right to be aware of ritual purity and cleanliness, but they have made their interest in purity an end to itself. Their hearts are still far from God, despite their perfect obedience.

What is Jesus doing here? Is he intentionally ignoring the tradition of the Pharisee because it is not biblical? Was this a “mission strategy” intended to draw the sinner into a relationship with Jesus?  Is he trying to challenge these traditions, or is he simply eating a meal with sinners? When Jesus ate at the house of a Pharisee, did he wash his hands as we expected? I would expect that he did, simply because a Pharisee might not eat with Jesus if he had not washed his hands prior to sitting down to eat.

A more interesting question (to me) is why the Pharisees think that Jesus ought to submit to their tradition of hand-washing. I think that Jesus was teaching things which resonated most with the Pharisees and there is at least a possibility that they thought he was “one of them.” Jesus is described as discussing the Law with Pharisees and weighing in on issues like a Rabbi (divorce, for example). Clearly Jesus was not living as a Pharisee, attempting to maintain Temple purity at all times. Theologically he was “conservative,” but socially (from the Pharisee’s perspective) he was permissive.

Non-Jewish Christianity has always been perplexed by this passage since we Gentiles tend to smugly dismiss Jewish practice with little thought to what application this non-practice by Jesus might have for modern Christians. If Jesus were to visit a contemporary church, what practices might he ignore because they are simply external rituals without any real change of heart? (If Jesus did visit my church, I would hope he did not bring his whip!)

Jesus the Exorcist

…Jesus exorcisms were not merely isolated incidents of compassion for individuals oppressed by malevolent forces.  They were direct confrontations of the power and the presence of the Kingdom of God.  The success of Jesus’ assaults indicated that the head of that evil kingdom had already been bound, making possible the spoiling of his domain. David George Reese, “Demons” in ABD 2:141.

As with his healings, Jesus commands the demons to leave without invoking an authority.  It was common for exorcists of the first century to use powerful names in order to force demons out In Acts 19:13-16 the names of both Jesus and Paul were invoked as “power names” to cast out demons.) In Testament of Solomon 11, Solomon interrogates a demon who appears “like a stately lion. The demons identifies himself as “The Lion-Shaped Demon, an Arab by descent” who “sneaks in and watches over all who are lying ill with a disease and I make it impossible for man to recover from his taint.” In addition, this demon has legions of demons at this command at the time of the setting sun.  When Solomon asks how he can be cast out of a person, the demons replies “By the name of the one who at one time submitted to suffer many things (at the hands) of men, whose name is Emmanouel, but now he has bound us and will come to torture us (by driving us) into the water at the cliff. As he moves about, he is conjured up by means of three letters.” (Translation by D. C. Duling, in James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:972–973.)

JesusCastingOut_satanJesus does not make any elaborate preparations for an exorcism. In contemporary literature, the exorcist often did a number of rituals.  For example, in the book of Tobit the angel Raphael instructs Tobias on how to cast out his bride’s demon:

Tobit 8:1-3  When they had finished eating, they escorted Tobias in to her. 2 As he went he remembered the words of Raphael, and he took the live ashes of incense and put the heart and liver of the fish upon them and made a smoke. 3 And when the demon smelled the odor he fled to the remotest parts of Egypt, and the angel bound him.

Jesus does not even pray to expel demons. In the DSS  Genesis Apocryphon, Abram prays to cast out a demon. In this expansion on Gen 12:10:20, Abram prays for “all the cities of Egypt” afflicted with plague after he lied about Sarai The King of Egypt asks Abram to “pray for me and for my household so that this evil spirit will be banished from us.” Abram prays and lays his hands on the king, and the “plague was removed from him; the evil [spirit] was banished [from him] and he recovered” (1QapGen, column 20).

Is there any connection between Second Temple Period messianic expectations and the exorcisms? Usually scholars cite Isaiah 61, especially the “prisoners being set free.” But Graham Twelftree expresses doubt that these passages have been read correctly since there is also the idea of Satan being active until the end of the age in the Gospels.  There is a two-stage defeat of Satan being described in the gospels, the first mission of Messiah render the power of Satan useless, it is in his second coming that he will judge him and consign him to the Lake of Fire. He uses texts like Isaiah 24:22 (shut into prison then after many days released.)

The Messiah and the Miraculous Feeding

The Feeding of the 5000 is one of only a few stories appearing in all four Gospels. Jesus miraculously feeds a large crowd and intentionally evokes several images from the Hebrew Bible in order to reveal something about himself. The authors of the Gospels include the story as part of their presentation of who Jesus is.

Fis and LoavesFirst, is introduced in a way that recalls Israel’s history. “Sheep without a shepherd” reflects an image used for Israel in the Hebrew Bible (Num 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17; Ezek 34:5). The miracle itself is not unlike Elisha in 2 Kings 4:42-44, who fed a crowd of 100, some would draw an analogy to the manna in the wilderness in the book of numbers (Moses fed the people in a wilderness place as well both with manna and quail.)

When the disciples point out to Jesus that the place they are in will not be able to meet the physical needs of the crowd, Jesus tells the disciples to feed the people. They assume that Jesus is speaking about physically feeding them, and respond that they could not possibly buy the food required to feed a crowd of that size.  Did Jesus mean literal food here?  Probably, but on a more subtle level he is setting up the miracle. Jesus has them recline on the “green grass” then provides them with their food.  The way of telling the event highlights the people as sheep who have found their true shepherd, Jesus makes them lie down in a green pasture and provides them with their daily needs.

This is an important event, important enough to be included in all four Gospels.  What makes it so significant? This event is an anticipation of the Messianic Banquet. There are two events in Hebrew Bible this miracle may evoke.  In both cases the food is literal, and the provision is from God.  God provides food for his people. In Exodus 16 God provides for the people of Israel with manna and quail. Elisha feeds 120 men in 2 Kings 4:42-44.

At least some Jews expected the return of manna at the beginning of the messianic age. In The Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch (2 Baruch), the great chaos monsters Behemoth and Leviathan will be slaughtered and fed to those who have survived to until the time the Anointed one appears. Then…

“the earth will also yield fruits ten thousandfold. And on one vine will be a thousand branches, and one branch will produce a thousand clusters, and one cluster will produce a thousand grapes, and one grape will produce a cor of wine. And those who are hungry will enjoy themselves and they will, moreover, see marvels every day. 7* For winds will go out in front of me every morning to bring the fragrance of aromatic fruits and clouds at the end of the day to distill the dew of health. And it will happen at that time that the treasury of manna will come down again from on high, and they will eat of it in those years because these are they who will have arrived at the consummation of time.” (Translation by A. F. J. Klijn, in James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:630–631.)

If there was indeed an expectation among some Jews that the long exile would soon be over and a true shepherd would appear to lead Israel as Moses did in the wilderness, then it makes sense manna would return in the eschatological age since manna was the food provided by God for his people in the Wilderness, the place where God first made Israel his people. If Jesus is claiming to be the Messiah expected by the prophets, it follows that he would intentionally evoke the expectations of people living in Galilee in the first century. 2 Baruch is written sixty years after Jesus, but it was constructed on the foundation of the same Hebrew Bible Jesus and his contemporaries used.

Is Jesus intentionally alluding to stories from the Hebrew Bible in order to call attention to his own role in the presence of the kingdom? Is this an “already” aspect of the kingdom? If this is the case, then what is this miraculous feeding saying about Jesus?

The Significance of Healing Miracles

Mark Strauss says Jesus’ miracles were not “showy demonstrations of power or even proof of his identity. They are manifestations of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, a foretaste and preview of the restoration of creation promised by God” (Four Portraits, 466). I agree Jesus did not do miracles simply to draw a crowd or entertain people. While Strauss is correct the miracles are indications the Kingdom of God is present in the ministry of Jesus, in most cases Jesus did a miracle in order to reveal something about himself as the Messiah. This is slightly different than “proof of identity” since none are strictly speaking proof Jesus is the Messiah or his ministry is an in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. They are hints toward the truth for those who “have eyes to see” (Matt 13:14-15).

Healing_paralyzed_man

The healing in Mark 2 is an example of a miracle as self-revelation. Jesus heals a crippled man, but the reason he does so is to reveal something about who he is to both the outsiders (Pharisees and scribes) but also to the insiders (his disciples who already believe) and the larger crowd who are in-between these two extremes. The challenge of this miracle is: “Who is this man, Jesus?”

Jesus returns to Capernaum and attracts a very large crowd at Peter’s home. A paralytic is brought to Jesus by some friends to be healed. Since they cannot enter the home because of the crowd, the men go onto the roof and break a hole large enough to lower the man on a pallet into room where Jesus was. The roof of a typical home at the time of Jesus was a sun dried mud thatch, so the very “to dig” is quite appropriate.

There was a relationship between sins and birth defects in the minds of the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus may be attacking this misconception of sin by forgiving the sin without healing the man. In the ancient world, an extreme illness or birth defects was considered to be the result of sin, either on the part of the sick person or on the part of the person’s parents or grandparents. (The disciples ask about a blind man in John 9:1-2.) Not only do all the people observing this believe this to be true, but the man himself probably believed that his sickness was the result of sin.

Forgiveness of sin and healing typically go together in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Period Judaism. In 2 Chron 7:14, God forgives the sins of Israel and “heals their land.” Similarly, Psalm 103:3 connects forgiveness with the healing of disease, and in Isaiah 19:22 the Lord responds to Israel, hears their pleas and heals the nation.

It is most startling to notice that Jesus claims to forgive sin by his own authority. This is the action of Jesus that elicits the strong reaction from the religious leaders that are observing Jesus’ actions. He did not say, for example, “in the name of God your sins are forgiven,” but rather simply, “your sins are forgiven.” Jesus himself is forgiving the sins as if he were the one offended by them.

Jesus says to the teachers of the law: Which is easier, to say ‘your sins are forgiven’ or ‘rise and walk’?” It is just as easy to say one as the other. Jesus point is that saying is the easy part, doing is the difficult part. Jesus says that he will not only forgive the man’s sins, but he will heal him, so that the teachers of the Law might know that he has the authority to do those things. There is a significant bit of theology packed into this statement. Authority is power, ability, and permission to do something.

Jesus healed in order to signal the beginning of the messianic age and to prove to the Jewish leadership that he was the Messiah. That Jesus calls himself the Son of Man in this section important since it is likely an allusion to Daniel 7, where “someone like a son of man” is given authority to rule. In a sense, Jesus is drawing together three lines of evidence for his divinity. He forgives sin, he is about to heal a lame man, and he claims to be the Messianic Son of Man.

If we were to examine all of the healing miracles in the Gospels, we might find they all are some sort of self-revelation by Jesus. Other than general statements that Jesus healed many people, are there any healing stories that do not reveal something about Jesus’ nature and/or the nature of the Kingdom of God?

What other healing-miracles in the Gospels reveal something about who Jesus is?

 

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”?

Mark 11:12-14 – Cursing the Fig Tree

After the Triumphal entry, Jesus returns to Bethany for the evening. As he is approaching Jerusalem the next morning, he sees a fig tree and expects to find a bit of fruit to eat, but there is none. Jesus then pronounces a curse on the fig tree, telling it that it will no longer bear fruit.

What is the meaning of the cursing of the fig tree? This is a symbolic action, dealing with more than a tree that does not bear fruit. The context supplies the clue, Jesus enters the temple and condemns it as a den of thieves, setting up the conflict stories as he teaches in the temple.

The fig tree is barren, a frequent symbol in the Old Testament of Israel’s unfaithfulness (Isa 28:4, for example), or God’s judgment (Jer 7:20, Hos 9:15-16). The most likely allusion is to Isaiah 6. There, the prophet describes Judah as a tree that will be cut down, but a remnant will remain (Isa 6:13). Judah would fall, but a tiny remnant will remain. Jesus has already quoted Isa 6 to describe his teaching in parables, so it is not a surprise that he would enact a parable with this fig tree based on Isaiah 6.

Jesus is looking for fruit in a place he has every right to find fruit, but does not find it. In the same way, he came to the nation looking for fruit, but did not find any. The religious establishment is a barren fig tree that is about to be cut off. Where did Jesus have every right to find a fruitful religious heart in Israel – the temple. Mark inserted the Temple demonstration into the narrative of the fig-tree to bring out the theological point of the Fig Tree sign.

On the third day after the curse is pronounced (and after the events in the temple), the disciples see the tree and note that it is dead – withered from the roots up. There are a number of Old Testament allusions here (Ho 9:16, Job 18:16, 28:9, 31:12, Ezek 19:9 ). The nation has gone past the point of no-return, they have rejected the Messiah.

But is there a “righteous remnant” as was the case in Isaiah 6:13? There are two ways of looking at this. First, we could read this as a curse upon Israel as a whole. They will no longer be God’s people and they are about to be replaced by the church. This is possible, but it seems to me to be theologically driven. Obviously from this side of the events it appears that the church replaced Israel, this parable talks about Israel being “cursed”, so it must predict the coming church. I would like to avoid this as anachronistic – Jesus is saying something about his ministry at that moment in history.

A second, better way to look at the meaning of this parabolic action is to see the religious establishment as “under the curse” and that they are being replaced by Jesus’ disciples. This is why Mark inserts the Temple demonstration into his “Markan Sandwich,” he is point to the meaning of the curse of the fig tree. Jesus came to his own people and they have rejected him. He created a new Israel with twelve disciples (twelve tribes) who will receive the promised New Covenant.

Mark 2:1-12 – Sin and Healing

That Jesus did miracles is the claim of every layer of tradition in the New Testament. Even non-biblical writers describe Jesus as a healer. But Jesus did not heal people to gain an audience or to generate interest in his mission, he never asked for anything from those he healed. Jesus did not want “prayer partners” who regularly give to his ministry. Jesus healed in order to reveal something about himself. The healing in Mark 2 is an example of this “healing as self-revelation.”

Jesus returns to Capernaum and attracts a very large crowd at Peter’s home. A paralytic is brought to Jesus by some friends to be healed. Since they cannot enter the home because of the crowd, the men go onto the roof and break a hole large enough to lower the man on a pallet into room where Jesus was. The roof of a typical home at the time of Jesus was a sun dried mud thatch, so the very “to dig” is quite appropriate.

Mark 2:5 says “When he saw their faith,” referring to the friends of the paralytic. But rather than heal the paralytic, Jesus forgives the man’s sins. The paralytic does not demonstrate faith, at least to our knowledge, nor did he ask for his sins to be forgiven. Jesus pronounces the man’s sins forgiven in order to make a point about himself – the miracle here is a revelation of who Jesus is.

There was a relationship between sins and birth defects in the minds of the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus may be attacking this misconception of sin by forgiving the sin without healing the man. In the ancient world, an extreme illness or birth defects was considered to be the result of sin, either on the part of the sick person or on the part of the person’s parents or grandparents. (The disciples ask about a blind man in John 9:1-2.) Not only do all the people observing this believe this to be true, but the man himself probably believed that his sickness was the result of sin.

Forgiveness of sin and healing typically go together in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Period Judaism. In 2 Chron 7:14, God forgives the sins of Israel and “heals their land.” Similarly, Psalm 103:3 connects forgiveness with the healing of disease, and in Isaiah 19:22 the Lord responds to Israel, hears their pleas and heals the nation.

For most of the original audience, it is  startling that Jesus claims to forgive sin by his own authority. in fact, Jesus;s claim to have forgiven the man’s sin elicits a strong reaction from the religious leaders observing Jesus’ actions. Jesus did not say, for example, “in the name of God your sins are forgiven,” but rather “your sins are forgiven.” Jesus himself is forgiving the sins as if he were the one offended by them rather than God.

Noticing their thoughts, Jesus says to the teachers of the law: Which is easier, to say ‘your sins are forgiven’ or ‘rise and walk’?” It is just as easy to say one as the other. Jesus point is that saying is the easy part, doing is the difficult part. Jesus says that he will not only forgive the man’s sins, but he will heal him, so that the teachers of the Law might know that he has the authority to do those things. There is a significant bit of theology packed into this statement. Authority is power, ability, and permission to do something.

Jesus healed in order to signal the beginning of the messianic age and to prove to the Jewish leadership that he was the Messiah. That Jesus calls himself the Son of Man in this section important since it is likely an allusion to Daniel 7, where “someone like a son of man” is given authority to rule. In a sense, Jesus is drawing together three lines of evidence for his divinity. He forgives sin, he is about to heal a lame man, and he claims to be the Messianic Son of Man.

The “Problem” of Miracles

[The] modern man acknowledges as reality only such phenomena or events as are comprehensible within the framework of the rational order of the universe.  He does not acknowledge miracles because the do not fit into his lawful order.  When a strange or marvelous accident occurs, he does not rest until he has found a rational cause (Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology, 37-8).

Since the Enlightenment, there has been a strong tendency on the part of intellectuals to deny the validity of miracles.  This belief that miracles are impossible becomes an assumption before approaching the text of scripture. If one does not believe in miracles, then one must explain the miracles of Jesus in a natural way (psychosomatic healings, for example), or to argue that the early church created miracles in order to build up the authority of Jesus.

Graham Twelftree traces this view to David Hume, whose argument against miracles has influenced modern thought on the possibility of miracles.  Hume argued that for an event to be believed as true, it must have sufficient witnesses.  Since a miracle is something that is outside of the laws of nature, the witness to a miracle must be especially strong.  In fact, there is no witness to a miracle that Hume would accept as reliable, therefore there are no accurate reports of miracles, therefore miracles never happen.

In a “scientific age” things that once were thought to be miraculous can be explained.  Honestly, I am extremely skeptical when someone tells me they have experienced something supernatural (a ghost, for example).  My modernist mind pretty much goes into Penn & Teller mode and I look for the logical explanation behind the experience.  There is simply no way I am going to believe a ghost appeared, no matter who was telling me the story.  This skepticism is a product of the modern age.  Arthur C. Clarke once said that technology in a primitive culture is indistinguishable from magic. Mark Twain makes a similar point in A Connecticut Yankee.  A miracle is just science or technology which has yet to be discovered in a particular culture.

Two observations are appropriate here.

First, my personal modern skepticism has no business trying to explain the miracles of Jesus. In the Second Temple Period, miracles happened. Or at least, people presumed that miracles could happen and frequently did. the Jewish especially expected that the coming messianic age would be accompanied by miracles, including healing and resurrection.

If Jesus had appeared in Galilee and announced he was the messiah and could not do miracles, he would have been dismissed as a pretender, a fraud.  The conflict Jesus has with the Pharisees is not if he did miracles, but rather the source of his power to do miracles. To put it another way, the only the most un-historical Jesus would not do miracles.

Second, anyone who dismisses Jesus’ miracles is imposing their modern worldview on a pre-modern worldview. We are expecting Jesus to act like a proper Evangelical Christian, or Lutheran, or Pentecostal, or what ever our theological assumptions are.  The fact is, Jesus does not fit the categories of modern theological talk very well and it is a serious mistake to make him out to be exactly what we expected him to be.

In fact, I think I would call that idolatry.

Bibliography:
Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), 37-38.
Graham Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle-Worker, (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1999), 38-53.

Is The Supernatural Possible?

The third question Wilkins and Moreland use to introduce Jesus Under Fire concerns miracles. All scholars of historical Jesus have to ask, “Is the supernatural possible in ancient and modern times?” To me, this is two questions, are miracles possible, and if they are, were they present in the ministry of Jesus and his followers? (For the purpose of this post, I do not really want to deal with the second half of the question, are they present in the modern world.)

All four of the Gospels present Jesus as a miracle worker. He demonstrates his control of nature (walking on water), he heals, casts out demons from possessed people, and even raises the dead. In a pre-modern worldview, miracles can and do happen. God heals or reveals himself in extraordinary ways. Until the modernist worldview was applied to the Bible, there was no reason to doubt Jesus’ miracles.

A worldview based on the Enlightenment would never accept these stories because the supernatural simply cannot happen.  Or maybe a better way to say this it is that the record of an ancient miracle can never be submitted to a scientific test to determine if it is really a miracle.  Think of the Mythbusters as a classic example of rationalism. If someone walks on the water, Adam and Jamie are going to look for the rocks, proving that there is a rational reason for the apparent miracle.  They will “bust the myth” since they assume that miracles are impossible.  The same rational mind that dispensed with “ghosts and goblins” also got rid of waking on the water.

Post-modernism is more open to the supernatural.  Although someone with a postmodern worldview might be antagonistic toward Jesus, they would not rule out the possibility of the supernatural occurring. The problem with postmodern approaches to the Gospels is that the historical value of the text really does not matter for much.  The literary meaning of the text is more important, what the read draws out of the text that is meaning.

For the evangelical Christian there should be no problem with the idea that God did miracles in the biblical materials. The definition of a miracle is important. A miracle is a supernatural event which reveals something about God. A miracle is outside nature, something which by definition the Mythbusters can’t test. But it is also something which reveals God, not simply a strange event which has no real explanation. (Please note: this does NOT mean that God is going around appearing on moldy tortillas in Guadalajara to reveal himself!)

In the gospels, Jesus does miracles in order to reveal something about himself and his relationship with God, specifically that he is the Messiah. If a messiah appeared in the first century and he did not do miracles, he would not have been taken seriously as a messiah. In Matthew 12:38, for example, the Pharisees ask Jesus to do some sort of sign. This indicates that for the Pharisees, the messiah ought to be giving a sign of some kind. (Ironically they do not believe the miracles he has done, and when asked, Jesus does not give them a sign.)

Of the three questions I have used to introduce historical Jesus studies, this is the one that requires a certain amount of faith. I can show rationally that there was a Jesus and that much of what is said about him in the Gospels is accurate. I can show that the gospel writers were not creating myth but explaining who Jesus was and what he claimed to be. But it is very difficult to show that Jesus did miracles without falling back to my pre-conceived view that God can do miracles if he wants to.