Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Did Jesus Really Perform Miracles? (Part 2a)

The following is a multi-part series dealing with Jesus' miracles and their historicity. In Part 1, which consists of two installments, Antonio offered his response to the question below. Part 2 features Thomas' response.

Question: Did Jesus really perform miracles?

TWH: For me the answer is simple. The Gospels each give accounts of Jesus healing people (e.g., the man with the withered hand), casting out demons (e.g., the Gadarene demoniac), doing things like walking on water and feeding thousands of people with a few fish and a couple of loaves of bread, and, last but certainly not least, raising people from the dead (e.g., Jesus' friend, Lazarus). I start with the nature of the biblical text and work out from there. Without fleshing all of that out in a post like this, and thus turning the post into a post about inspiration, I won't elaborate except to say that the Bible has as its ultimate source God himself. Because of that it carries with God's character, such as truth and the impossibility to lie.

Let's think about one of the ways people think about the historicity of miracles. People ask the question, are there accounts of miracles in different types of literature and traditions? Connected to this, is there corroboration from different people, especially authors of New Testament texts? And connected to this, is there corroboration over time, or can something be attributed to a particular time in the first century (or, for some critical scholars, even later)? What sets my perspective apart from those who grapple with these questions is I let the Gospels stand for themselves. They are in and of themselves authoritative and accurate accounts of Jesus' life and ministry. I'd rather not subject the text entirely to criteria developed after the Enlightenment. That doesn't mean that I don't agree with some of the findings you might find in a higher-critical study affirming the historicity of one thing or another. Sometimes you'll find a good point. I recognize, for example, that Paul's letters confirm that miracles were taking place through his own life and in the life of the early church (e.g., see Rom. 15:18-19; 1 Cor. 12:9). That's something you'd find in some of the Jesus-search literature as corroborating evidence.

Antonio has a very interesting example of corroboration in his own post in this series, one which I would like to take a moment to comment on. Here is what he said:
"Anyway it’s permissible to ask whether or not the miracles of Jesus are pure evangelical legends. In my opinion, it does not seem that everything that is said in the Gospels about Jesus' miracles is pure legend. And for one reason, because even his adversaries recognized he healed people and performed exorcisms. The only difference is they attributed his capacity to perform such acts to magic or a pact with the Devil. They said he healed people of their diseases through demonic power. I think Jesus was indeed a genuine healer, whatever the cause of each particular healing actually was."
Did Jesus heal people, such as the man with the withered hand in Matt. 12:9-13? Did Jesus perform exorcisms, such as the exorcism (and healing) of the demon-possessed man (who was also, or as a result of being demon-possessed, blind and mute)? Antonio says yes. How does one know? According to Antonio, "because even his adversaries recognized he healed people and performed exorcisms." So this is what got me to pause and think for a second. How do we know that even his adversaries said such things about Jesus? Because the authors of the Gospels record the declaration by the Pharisees. In Matt. 12:23 the crowds start asking the question, "Could this guy really be the Son of David?" And in Matt. 12:24 what did Jesus' adversaries say, "No way! No way! Want to know how he's doing all this stuff? We'll tell you. He's casting out these demons through the power of Beezelbul, the ruler of the demons!" But notice what I wrote. "In Matt. 12:24" it says . . . . Knowledge of what Jesus' adversaries said exists because the authors of the Gospels recorded it in their Gospels. We can't say I believe Jesus casted out demons because his enemies acknowledge that he did, then question the veracity of the Gospels themselves when it comes to other historical accounts regarding Jesus' life. Picking and choosing seems quite subjective, in my opinion. (By the way, this is a day of immense importance in the life of Jesus. Jesus' ministry takes a major shift on this day, once the scribes and the Pharisees attribute his power not to the Spirit of God, but to Satan himself. It's on this day that Jesus begins to speak in parables.)

Underneath all discussions on the historicity of miracles is something so much more pervasive, specifically belief in or affirmation of that which can be experienced versus the existence of those things that are generally yet-to-be experienced and go unseen by the human eye. Or how about this: those things that are regulated by the laws of nature versus the possibility that those laws can be broken by a Being that is greater than the creation in which they operate. I have a hard time partitioning out the different types of miracles for the purpose of assessing whether or not individual types could have taken place historically. For example, how different is the healing of the man with the withered hand from, say, raising Lazarus from the dead? Or walking on water? Think about what would have actually had to have happened for that hand to have been restored to normal, so that it looked exactly like his other hand (which was not withered). There are all sorts of physiological laws being engaged by Jesus at that moment, none of which we can begin to fully grasp. The man's hand is being reworked and remade and reshaped, from the outside in, without Jesus even doing a thing except speaking a word. The same argument that confirms for some that Jesus did indeed perform exorcisms can be applied to the text of Matt. 12:13-14. The Pharisees see the man who once had a withered hand now with two functional, normal hands. And they responded by conspiring how they could kill the one who performed this miracle.

My question would be this: Did Jesus heal the man with the withered hand? Based on the criteria used for confirming that Jesus cast out demons in Matt. 12:24, why not apply that same criteria for the man with the withered hand? And if he did heal the man with the withered hand, why minimize the complete supernatural display of the power of God in such a healing? Jesus is not hoodwinking people. The scribes and Pharisees do not accuse him of being a Houdini. They knew what they saw. And if Jesus could completely restore a withered hand with only his spoken word, is it really impossible to believe that he could have walked on water or multiplied loaves of bread and fish to feed thousands? I don't think so.


  1. Just a brief comment: I suppose that AP considers the healing of the withered hand as another miracle against laws of nature as it is narrated in the Gospel. Exorcisms could have a rationalistic explanation as psycho-physical illness, mental disorders, suggestion and the like.

    Nevertheless, I think that the Jesus' s miracles challenge lies on whether we accept that supernatural events can actually happen or not. I think that the discussion may be biased a priori.

    1. J.P., that's a very good point. In some ways and for some people the discussion weaves in and out of the fields of philosophy and theology.

      If the affirmation by the Pharisees (adversaries) that Jesus did exorcisms is favorable evidence for the historicity of exorcisms, then why would their reaction earlier in the chapter not be favorable evidence for the historicity of supernatural healings (and then, by default, all miracles ascribed to Jesus)?

      I love seeing your comments. They are always thought-provoking, not to mention they help me know someone is actually reading the blog :) Thanks!

  2. Thanks, Thomas, you're welcome!

    I really enjoy reading you blog, is refreshing and interesting to see a very different perspective of the study of NT from that we are used to see in the NT studies. Or, better, the most publicized books and articles on the topic.

    I think that your objection makes sense and it is related to the way we see the world. Although I'm rather skeptic by nature, I like to think I'm open minded, and so miraculous healings still happen if we look at what the Catholic Church declares when canonise a new saint. At least, the church declares that no scientifical explanation could be found in such cases. I read an interview to an atheist member of the scientific committee appointed by the Holy See to verify an "almost" impossible healing and her words puzzled me.

    Who knows...