Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Did Jesus Really Perform Miracles? (Part 1b)

The following is a multi-part series dealing with Jesus' miracles and their historicity. In Part 1, which will come in a few installments, Antonio offers his response to the question. Part 2 will feature Thomas' response.

Question: Did Jesus really perform miracles?

AP: We can show that Jesus’ healings and miracles are historical from critical historical analysis. First, by the argument before, since the adversaries of Jesus recognized that he was casting out demons. Second, on the basis of what is called the "criterion of contextual historical plausibility." In other words, it can be accepted as historical a priori because they fit perfectly with the socio-cultural context into which Jesus belonged in first-century Israel. Therefore, I believe that by following these two reasons, it is wise to accept that Jesus was an exorcist.

Belief in the existence of spirits and their activity among men of that time was common not only among the everyday people, but also among the educated. This can be tested for several reasons:
First: There is no written evidence that explicitly denies the existence of spirits and their activity.
Second: There is no need to explain the nature of the phenomenon of possession, since the whole world offers some sort of belief in it.
Third: Texts are preserved in ancient authors of high social status that claim or presuppose the possibility of the existence of possession and exorcism. Among them is Josephus, who makes references many times in his works (especially the Antiquities of the Jews), Plutarch in his Moralia, the Metamorphoses by Apuleius, and the Life of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus. Although these authors come after Jesus' day, they undoubtedly reflect the atmosphere that was characteristic of the first century.
Miracles against the laws of nature (e.g., the multiplication of the loaves of break, walking on water, or raising the dead) are another matter. Let's start with the resurrections of the dead. In the Gospels three resurrection stories are given: the daughter of Jairus, the synagogue leader (Mark 5:21-43); the son of a widow of the city of Nain (Luke 7:11-17); and the raising of Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary (John 11:1-45). Moreover, we have a more general statement about resurrection in Q, where Jesus says that through him "the dead are raised" (Luke 7:22/Matt. 11:3-5).

These stories fit well with the climate of the first century: People believe them blindly. But can a historian now accept the existence of resurrections as true historical events? In my opinion, and that of many, no. Why? Because a resurrection is neither an observable or repeatable act; it is something within the scope of the supernatural, about which the historian is silent and can’t do or say anything. I believe, therefore, that even accepting that Jesus believed he had power to raise the dead becomes very difficult from the point of view of a mere historian.

Also falling under this category are the following accounts:
1. Mark 4:35-41 (The Calming of the Storm) 
2. Mark 6:32-44/8:1-10 (The Multiplication of the Loaves) 
3. Mark 6:45-52 (Walking on the Water) 
4. Mark 11:12-13, 20-21 (Cursing of the Fig Tree) 
5. Matt. 17:24-27 (Money in the Mouth of the Fish) 
6. Luke 5:1-11/John 21 (additional fish miracles) 
7. John 2:1-11 (Turning Water into Wine).
Regarding these stories I hold a very similar position: For a historian it is hard to accept these types of miracles because they are not experiential or repeatable. Some say that is a purely rationalist stance. Well, that’s true, but it is maintained by science throughout history.

Fortunately, critics, even Catholics, have been commissioned to demonstrate with all forcefulness that the criteria of historicity show that all these stories do not come from the stratum of the historical Jesus, not even from the very first followers of Jesus. Rather, they later in the history of the Christian community. Such critics claim that in their missionary zeal to present the risen Jesus with all his attributes, qualities, and powers, the followers of Jesus made up and invented tales and stories as a way to show potential converts, or believers themselves, a simple and convincing picture of a powerful Jesus. We can ask ourselves what the basis is for determining historicity of the miracles of Jesus. I answer that in general they are those based on the literary and critical analysis of texts used to reconstruct the history of the composition of each one (i.e., the hand of the author of a Gospel is very clear), the sources they used, and the application of the aforementioned criteria of historicity. In particular these are:
A. The "cursing of the fig tree" seems to be nothing more than a symbolic story attached by the evangelist to the episode of the "cleansing of the Temple" to indicate that what Jesus meant by this action was to warn that God would destroy the present temple present and that, in times of the Messianic Kingdom, when it is already established in the land of Israel, that the sanctuary would be replaced by another. However, the historicity of the miracle itself is unlikely because it is a "punitive" miracle, a miracle of punishment, which clashes with the rest of the Jesus tradition that seems inspired by stories of the Old Testament.
B. The critical analysis of "the miraculous catch," after which Jesus promises Peter that he "will be catching men" tells us that this is more likely an inclusion by Luke, or something he took from a post-resurrection story of Jesus. In fact just a comparison with chapter 21 of the Gospel of John where, following the same miraculous catch, the resurrected Jesus forgives Peter for his threefold denial and promises him that he will be the first among the apostles, who shall feed his sheep, convinces us of the plausibility of this interpretation. It is, therefore, most likely a case of transposition of a narrative with zero overtones of historicity.
C. Jesus "walking on water" and "quieting the storm" do not seem to go back to the historical Jesus in any way. There are numerous reasons. Here are two: (1) By the criteria of discontinuity and coherence. These "miracles" do not show any continuity with the life and style of Jesus nor are they consistent with the way he acted. Jesus never, not even here, did miracles of public display. No, they were acts of kindness to people who had need, in order to people what things would be like in the kingdom of God. And (2) their source seems to be the Old Testament. Evidence is all throughout the story. These are two impressive theophanies, like others found in the Old Testament, in which Yahweh dominates and overcomes violent waters, which are the symbol of chaos and evil. These miracles are ascribed to Jesus in order to show him as divine. I could offer more, but I would just get tired.
In conclusion, here is what I say: Such wonders are the product of popular imagination and the theology of the early Church.

1 comment:

  1. Just one comment about the miraculous catch. I don't think that John's passage can be an argument against the historicity of Lk. After all, if it is accepted than John presupposes the Sinoptic Gospels as a source, I think it is legimitate to think that John could rewrite Luke's passage. If we assume for one moment that John's pericope is just legendary, as sometimes historical facts predate legends then something similar could be happening here. And I don't think that Luke's conclussion is also an argument against the historicity of the passage. And last, it could be argued too that the miraculous catch was not a miracle although it's clear that it was for Luke.