Jesus’ miracles, religious myth and biblical contradictions
[Due to this article's length, there is no podcast - do you really want to hear my voice for thirty minutes straight? Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to go read my daughter a bedtime story. ...That poor kid. -Andy]
By R.C. Symes
Article ID: 145
Jesus conducted about eight nature miracles, seventeen individual healing miracles, seven exorcisms and three resuscitations from the dead, according to the Christian New Testament. What was the purpose of Jesus’ miracles? Were they historical facts or religious myths?
A biblical miracle is usually defined as a supernatural intervention by God, either directly by Him or through His agent, in the course of nature or the affairs of people. A miracle is an extraordinary occurrence, beyond what is experienced in the normal course of events, and signifies a divine sign or mission. In the New Testament, miracles are referred to as signs, wonders and mighty works (but never called miracles). Space prevents examining all of Jesus’ so-called miracles in this essay, therefore I will only examine a selection. My articles about the miracles of Jesus’ birth and resurrection are here:
The many miracle-workers – putting miracles in context
History is replete with reported miracles, more frequent and more stupendous in ancient times than today. The validity of miracles depends upon the reliability of evidence and witnesses. The Old (i.e., Hebrew) Testament relates about 76 miracles over a span of several thousand years, from a talking snake in the Garden of Eden, to Jonah living in the belly of a great fish for three days and nights and then being coughed up unharmed. There were reports of miracles in ancient Greece such as the healer Asclepius (ca. 300 BCE) raising men from the dead. In the first century BCE in Palestine, a Jewish scholar named Honi the Circle Drawer was famous for successfully praying for rain during times of drought. In the first century of the Common Era, Hanina ben Dosa, a contemporary of Jesus, was a Jewish wonder-worker who healed the sick and could control rain. The Bible records that there were miracles performed by exorcists (Mark 9:38-41) and sorcerers (Acts 8:9-11). Apollonius of Tyana was an itinerant Greek philosopher and contemporary of Jesus who reportedly cast out demons and raised people from the dead. Luke says the apostle Paul healed a man crippled from birth and he was consequently hailed as a god (Acts14:8-18). There were reports that the Roman emperor Vespasian (d. 79 CE) healed a blind man with spittle. It is claimed that Islam’s Prophet Mohammed (d. 632) once split the moon in two, and there are claims that Christian saints performed many miracles over the centuries. Reports of religious miracles have continued into modern times. For example, healing miracles have been claimed in the name of saints of the Roman Catholic Church and American Protestant evangelists. The modern Hindu milk miracle shows Hindu statues drinking milk from spoons:
Miracles over the centuries have been claimed as marks of power, holiness or divinity. Skeptics will claim that there is no reliable evidence to verify that miracles happened and that they are a result of superstition, pious tales or outright frauds. For example, they will argue that walking on water violates the natural order and therefore it could not happen at a particular place without happening everywhere else at the same time. Likewise, skeptics will claim that healing miracles are exaggerated or psychosomatic. They ask if such miracles can happen, then why won’t a loving God regenerate the limbs of amputees? Believers will claim that God can change natural laws when He wants, create new substances and heal disease by divine intervention, all beyond our comprehension. All these wonders are the prerogative and power of an omniscient and omnipotent God. Most religions, often using the same line of reasoning, will claim that only the miracles of their god or holy ones are valid, and that those of other faiths are fakes. Wherein lies the truth?
The miracles associated with Jesus need to be placed in context, namely, the cultural history and societal norms of first century Palestine. Over ninety percent of the people around Jesus’ time were illiterate, but steeped in Jewish history as related in the Old Testament. They were also exposed to Greek and Roman religious myths as a result of past conquests. The masses were superstitious and believed in magic (Acts 19:19; 13:6-12), witchcraft (Galatians 5:19-20) and supernatural intervention (Mark 16:17-18). They had no understanding of modern astronomy – sacred texts told them that the earth was flat (Zechariah 9:10; Psalm 19:4; Matthew 4:8), and that it did not rotate but was fixed in place on pillars (1 Samuel 2:8; Psalm 93:1). Jews believed that above the firmament (dome of the sky) there were seven layers of heaven (once Paul was taken up to the third heaven as described in 2 Corinthians 12:1-4). God or demons caused earthquakes, floods, droughts, sea storms, solar eclipses and other natural phenomena. Nor did the people understand modern medicine – for them, disease was usually a result of sin, evil spirits or direct punishment by God (e.g. John 5:13-15; Luke 13:11; Deuteronomy 28:27-29). Mental illness was believed to be a result of a person possessing demons (Matthew 9:32-34), or was a punishment from God (1 Samuel 16:14-16). Rarely could potions and talismans cure the more serious diseases such as chronic illnesses and demon possession – only miracles and exorcisms by holy men or God were successful (e.g. Acts 5:15-16; 19:11-12). Bacteria, viruses and psychoses, the real causes of illnesses, were unknown, as were the causes of natural phenomena such as the movement of tectonic plates (earthquakes), high and low pressure areas (weather conditions), and planetary movements (solar and lunar eclipses). The ordinary people of Jesus’ day were ignorant, superstitious and gullible when it came to understanding nature and disease. The gospels relate that the man named Jesus had the same understanding of nature and disease as the people of his day.
The Gospels and Book of Acts that describe the miracles of Jesus and his apostles were written in Greek many decades after the death of Jesus, which was around 30 CE. The earliest extant Christian accounts of Jesus the Christ (i.e., the Messiah) were penned by Paul, and the seven authentic epistles ascribed to him are dated around 50-60 CE. Unlike the gospels that came later, Paul’s epistles have few if any details of Jesus’ life and teachings, despite the fact that many witnesses would likely still have been alive during Paul’s lifetime. The absence of details of the historical Jesus in Paul’s writings is remarkable because there were occasions when he could have used such information. For example, Paul laments that “we do not even know how we ought to pray” (Romans 8:26), yet he fails to cite the Lord’s Prayer as a model here or elsewhere in his writings, which would lead us to conclude that he had never heard of it! Apparently Paul and other epistle writers were not aware of any oral traditions about Jesus’ miracles either. If there were none based on eyewitnesses’ testimony, where did the miracle stories come from? The stories of miracles first appear in Mark, the earliest gospel, written about the year 70. Mark’s community was unsatisfied with the vagueness of the life of Paul’s Christ, so the author of Mark searched Hebrew Scriptures, especially the Prophets and the Psalms, for inspiration to create details for an historical Jesus, the prophesied Messiah.
Before discussing the sources of Mark’s miracle material, it is important to remember that much of what he wrote was copied, sometimes word for word and other times modified, by the gospel authors of Matthew (ca. 85) and Luke (ca. 95). Of the 35-odd healing and nature miracles in the synoptic gospels (i.e., Mark, Matthew and Luke), only three are unique to Matthew, and seven to Luke. John’s gospel (ca.100) has only seven miracles of which just two (Jesus feeding the 5,000 and walking on water) are common with the synoptic gospels. Recent biblical scholarship has shown that all these authors wrote their accounts decades after Jesus’ death, were themselves not eyewitnesses to his life, lived in different countries than Jesus did, and spoke a different language than he.
Mark’s premise is that Jesus is the true Messiah (God’s anointed one), and always has Jesus refer to himself as “the Son of Man” (meaning God’s agent of power and authority). This also was a Messianic title (see Daniel 7:13-14). However, Mark understood that most Jews in his day thought that Jesus was a failed Messiah because he was crucified. According to Mark, Jesus is not the traditional warrior king promised in Psalm 2:1-9, but is even greater. He is God’s anointed one who will bring His kingdom to earth in apocalyptic fashion (Mark 13:24-27). Mark believed that Holy Scripture foretold that the Messiah had to suffer and die (see Isaiah 53:1-6; Psalm 22:1-21; and Mark 8:31). For Mark, proof that Jesus is the Messiah is confirmed by the Easter story.
Why did Mark compose a narrative about miracles? Miracles alone were not marks of the Messiah according to first century Jewish belief, since other wonderworkers were found in the past and in contemporary times. But miracles could also be signs of God’s chosen prophets and a means to gain a following. Mark also uses miracles as signs of the nearness of the coming to earth of the new Kingdom of God for which Jesus, as the Messiah, was the precursor (“Thy Kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven”). In this new world the wicked would be judged, the forces of evil overthrown, and disease, pain, suffering, want and death would be banished. Mark begins to establish this belief in his gospel after he relates that Jesus performed numerous miracles:
“Jesus and his disciples set out for the villages of Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do men say I am?’ They answered, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, others one of the prophets.’ ‘And you,’ he asked, ‘who do you say I am?’ Peter replied: ‘You are the Messiah.’” (Mark 8:27-29).
The first written reports of Jesus’ miracles are found in Mark, but Mark was faced with a challenge – he was not an eyewitness to these events and there were no examples of miracles in the earlier epistles of Paul and others, and few, if any, oral traditions about miracles. Since Jesus was the Messiah, certain characteristics would be expected of him, and a reinterpretation of Old Testament prophecies would serve Mark well. He used the book of Isaiah for his inspiration for the type of messianic miracles of Jesus:
“See, your God comes with vengeance, with dread retribution he comes to save you. Then shall blind men’s eyes be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb shout aloud…” (Isaiah 35:4-6).
Also from Isaiah:
“But your dead live, their bodies will rise again….” (26:19); and “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the broken-hearted….” (Isaiah 61:1).
This same theme is reiterated in Matthew’s gospel, when in reply to the query of John the Baptist’s disciples whether Jesus was the one who is to come, Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the poor are hearing the good news” (Matthew 11:4-5). Jesus reached out to the marginalized and outcasts of Jewish society to bring them into his movement for the new Israel. For some believers, these wonders by Jesus serve to fulfill prophecy and legitimize Jesus as the Holy One of God.
Where did Mark find details for specific miracles? Mark knew that holy men of the Old Testament performed miracles. For Mark, the great leader and miracle-worker Moses, who established the first Covenant between God and the Israelites and led them out of slavery, is to be superseded by a new and greater Moses named Jesus. He will establish a new and superior Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34), conduct greater miracles and lead the people to a new promised land, an eternal kingdom of God. Elijah the prophet (9th century BCE) who rose to heaven in a fiery chariot was expected to return to earth and precede the coming of the Messiah. He, along with his disciple and successor Elisha had performed miracles such as multiplying food and raising people from the dead. Mark draws on these Old Testament stories to model events in Jesus’ career. However, since Jesus the Messiah is greater than the prophets and holy men of the past, his miracles have to be greater, and more numerous. Elisha doubled the number of miracles Elijah did, and Mark has Jesus double Elisha’s.
Gospel stories about Jesus’ miracles are a midrash – contemporizing and reinterpreting – of Old Testament events in order to illustrate theological themes. Among the many miracles in Mark’s original narrative, there are two sets of five miracles each. Each set begins with a sea-crossing miracle and ends with a miraculous feeding. He uses this literary construct so his readers will recall the role of Moses leading his people through water towards the promised land, and feeding them with manna from heaven. Jesus does something similar. And with each water and feeding miracle, there is one exorcism and two healing miracles that are to remind readers of the works of the prophets Elijah and Elisha and how Jesus surpasses them. The parallels between events in Jesus’ life to those in the lives of Moses, Elijah and Elisha and others are too close for a coincidence. This points more to constructing religious myths in the gospel for theological reasons, than to reporting historical facts.
A midrash nature miracle is found in Mark’s gospel when Jesus stills a storm that nearly swamps a small boat that carries him and his disciples. They marvel that “even the wind and the sea obey him” (Mark 4:36-41) which is copied by Matthew 8:23-27). Particular details of the storm at sea were obviously copied by these gospel authors from the book of Jonah whose author had used Psalm 107:23-30 as his model. For example, before the storm Jonah had gone below into the hold of the ship, lain down and fallen sound asleep. So the captain approached him and said, “How is it that you are sleeping? Get up, call on your god. Perhaps your god will be concerned about us so that we will not perish” (Jonah 1:5-6). Mark, paralleling Jonah’s story, has Jesus in an open boat with waves breaking over it. He writes, “Jesus himself was in the stern, asleep [!] on the cushion; and they woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’” (Mark 4:38). Matthew, in his gospel, drops the rather rude “do you not care” and substitutes “Lord, save us; we perish” (Matthew 8:25). The scene stealing and word plagiarisms are obvious, especially when comparing the Greek version of the Old and New Testaments.
Walking on water is another example of Jesus’ power over the sea. For the faithful, this is a reminder of how Moses parted the marshy Sea of Reeds (likely at low tide with a favorable wind) to allow the fleeing Israelites to walk across the seabed (Exodus 14). Jesus is the new and greater Moses because not only can he still a storm, but also he has no need to part the sea, for he can walk on water! (See Mark 6:47-53, Matthew 14:24-34 and John 6:16-21 that draw on Psalm 107:28-30, and Job 9:8 where Jesus is like the One who “walks on the waves of the sea”.) Despite the gospel authors using numerous Old Testament stories as a basis for Jesus’ miracles, it is incredible that biblical literalists still claim that these miracles are eyewitness accounts of his life.
Disease as sin
Mark’s miracles were not only signs of Jesus’ power or compassion, but also a means for him to instruct first century Christians about his understanding of Jesus. Healing miracles, for example, could be subversive to the established order. If disease were a result of sin, then consequently when Jesus cured people their sins were forgiven. This was a challenge to the Temple priests who held the monopoly over the rites of forgiveness. This challenge is set out in Jesus’ healing of a paralyzed man at Capernaum, where he says, “Is it easier to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Stand up, take your bed and walk?’ But to convince you that the Son of Man has the right on earth to forgive sins’ – he turned to the paralyzed man – ‘I say to you, stand up, take your bed, and go home’”(Mark 2:5-12). When Jesus healed people’s illnesses, he was at the same time forgiving sins – both were signs of divine power in Mark’s view.
Jesus accepted that demons caused illness and the need for exorcisms was normal. The Bible describes how he talks to unclean spirits who are tormenting a man called Legion who was in the country of the Gerasenes. He was unclean (for he lived among the tombs of the dead), chained (cf. Psalm 107:10), mentally out of control, crying aloud (cf. Psalm 107:6) and cutting himself with stones. Jesus completes his exorcism by allowing the legion of unclean spirits to enter into a herd of 2,000 pigs (unclean animals for Jews) that then rushed over a cliff and were drowned in the sea (Mark 5:1-13). However, Matthew reports that there are two madmen, not one, and that they are located elsewhere, in the area of the Gardarenes (Matthew 8:28).
There is some dispute as to how this event could have happened historically since neither Gerasa nor Gardara have cliffs adjacent to a body of water. Nevertheless, these gospel scenes recall how God worked through his prophet Moses to drown the legion of unclean Egyptians in the sea, just as Jesus does with the legion of unclean spirits. A secret political allusion in this story may be to driving the Roman legions out of Palestine with the coming of the Kingdom of God. Was it just a coincidence that a boar (pig) was the emblem of the 10th Roman Legion that was occupying Jerusalem in Mark’s time?
To fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy, Mark has Jesus heal a blind beggar near Jericho (Mark10:46-52) which Luke repeats almost word for word (Luke 18:35-43). However, Matthew changes the same tale to two blind men whom Jesus heals by touching their eyes (Matthew 20:29-34). On another occasion Mark claims Jesus heals many at Capernaum (1:32-34), but for Matthew this is not good enough – it has to be all who were healed (8:16-17). As well, Mark has Jesus cure a blind man at Bethsaida by spitting in his eyes and laying his hands on him, but he has to repeat the cure because it was not entirely effective the first time (Mark 8:22-25). He also heals a deaf man with a speech impediment by putting his fingers in his ears, spitting, touching his tongue and groaning (Mark 7:32-35).
Both Matthew and Luke omitted these stories because they were embarrassed at how Jesus’ healing methods too closely resembled those of the magicians of the time, and how the miracle for the blind man needed a second attempt.
It is interesting that healings change according to the bias of the gospel authors.
Despite omitting some of Mark’s miracles, Matthew and Luke need to fulfill Isaiah 35:5, so Matthew creates a miracle where Jesus, by means of exorcism rather than spittle, heals a man who is both blind and mute (Matt. 12:22-24). Luke follows suit, but his subject is only mute (Luke 11:14-15). These examples illustrate that the life of Jesus was a creative rather than a factual biography. John has only one miracle of healing a blind man, but his story is greater because this man was blind from birth. He is cured when Jesus anoints his eyes with a paste made from Jesus’ spittle and the blind man washes it off in the pool of Siloam (which means ‘sent’). John uses the miracle as a lead-in to a chapter of theological discussion demonstrating that Jesus was sent by God to do His work and to give light to a blind world (John 9). On another occasion, the miraculous feeding of 5,000 people serves to reveal that Jesus is the bread of life (John 6).
Given the motives and consequential variations in healing miracles by the four gospel writers, it becomes clear that the miracles are more mythical than they are historical.
Intentional limits to miracles
There are many other examples in the gospels of Jesus as the healer of the sick and disabled. But there are hard questions for those who believe that these miracles were real events and expressions of his compassion for the ill. They are these: why did Jesus, whom Christians today recognize as the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, and who is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving, do so few individual healings during his career? And why, for example, did the compassionate, omniscient Jesus also not save thousands from illness and death in his day and millions in the ages to come, by providing knowledge about cures for diseases – from penicillin to the simple task of boiling polluted drinking water to kill bacteria? And what was Jesus doing during the 27 years prior to his public ministry? There is not a word in the canonical gospels about any teachings or miracles by Jesus prior to his adult baptism. This despite Matthew and Luke claiming a divine birth for Jesus, and John stating that he was God from all eternity.
Further examples of the fictitious nature of the gospel miracles can be seen by their dependence on replicating miracles found in the Old Testament, particularly by Elisha. Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5,000 (found in Mark 6:30-44 and the other three gospels) has its origins in the story of Elisha feeding 100 men with only twenty barley loaves and having some left over (2 Kings 4:42-44). However, Jesus’ does a greater miracle by having his disciples feed fifty times that number with only five loaves of bread and two fish. Why five loaves and not another number? For Mark, the loaves are symbolic of the five books of Moses, and the twelve baskets of scraps left over are symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel. John in his gospel assiduously copies the details in 2 Kings by stating that the loaves Jesus multiplied were barley loaves, and they belonged not to the disciples, but to a servant boy, as was the case with Elisha (cf. John 6:9).
In order to end with a feeding miracle in the second set of his literary construct, Mark repeats the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (this time for 4,000 people with seven loaves and a few fish). Luke and John have no record of this second miraculous feeding. In the second feeding Mark has the disciples wonder again how all these people will be fed, even though Jesus has previously fed the five thousand! Does this sound credible?
This miracle story is really a literary device Mark uses to provide Jesus with an opportunity to admonish his disciples for not understanding the significance of these feedings of both Jew and Gentile (Mark 8:14-21). Jesus sounds like Moses in his exasperation with his people for their unbelief (Deuteronomy 29:2-4). Mark is obsessed with secret meanings throughout his gospel and the disciples’ failure to understand Jesus and his mission, as do the people of Mark’s day.
The awakening of Jairus’ dead daughter by Jesus (Mark 5:21-4, 35-42) has its origins in the story of Elisha doing the same thing to the dead son of the Shunnamite woman (2 Kings 4:18-37). The meaning of “Jairus”, by the way, is “he will awaken”. Is this name historical or just a nice literary touch? Just as the Shunnamite woman falls at the feet of Elisha and pleads for him to save her child, so too does Jairus with Jesus. Respectively, both Elisha and Jesus on their way to the children hear that they are dead, ask for privacy to conduct the miracle, touch the children, who then awake and get up, and the parents are overwhelmed. In another example unique to Luke, there is the miracle of raising the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-16) that is based on Elijah raising the widow of Zarephath’s son (1 Kings 17:17-24). Again, the parallels and the wording are just too close for these gospel versions not to have been copied from the Old Testament.
The gospel of John does not have the aforementioned resurrection miracles, but has an even more dramatic one (John 11:1-53).
Jesus raises Lazarus from a tomb four days after he was dead (Jewish belief was that death was certain after four days as by then the dead one’s spirit left the body, never to return). Why do none of the other gospels mention such a stupendous event? Why is Luke silent about Lazarus’ resurrection, especially since he claims to have examined traditions handed down by eyewitnesses and others, and has “gone over the whole course of these events in detail…so as to give you authentic knowledge….”(Luke 1:1-4)?
It seems there was no oral or written traditions about this miracle available to the other gospel writers. It is in reality, an invention of the author of John who uses Lazarus’ resurrection as an incident to manifest Jesus’ divine power. In John’s gospel, miracles cause faith in Jesus as a divine being, whereas in the synoptic gospels faith is necessary for the success of miracles. According to John, the raising of Lazarus is the reason the authorities begin plotting the death of Jesus. In addition, Lazarus’ resurrection was a literary device to prefigure what would happen to Jesus on a greater scale. Lazarus is nowhere to be found in John’s gospel after his resurrection and supper with Jesus and the disciples at Bethany. He is never mentioned again in the New Testament, either as a follower of Jesus or as an active figure in the history of the early church.
This story has all the markings of a religious myth, not historical fact.
The miracle of changing water into wine
Lastly we come to what is claimed by the author of John to be the first of Jesus’ signs (miracles), namely, the changing of water into wine at the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11). As Moses “worked the miracles for the people and everyone believed” (Exodus 4:30-31), so too would John’s Jesus. Just as Moses transformed water into blood (Exodus 4:8-9), Jesus turns water into “wine from the blood of the grape” (Deuteronomy 32:14). After the wine has run out during the partying, Jesus orders that the six large jars used to store water for Jewish purification rites be filled with water that he then changes into wine (about 180 gallons worth!). This wine is acclaimed as the best wine saved for the last, an allusion to the Messianic wedding feast where Jesus comes as the bridegroom to save Israel (Isaiah 62:5; 25:6-9). The fact that purification jars are used also alludes to Jesus as the wine/blood of the new covenant that surpasses the old covenant with its purification rites using water. To carry the wine allegory even further, John later has Jesus say, “I am the vine, and you the branches. He who dwells in me, as I dwell in him, bears much fruit…” (John 15:5), and “… my blood is real drink.” (John 6:55)
The idea for the miracle at Cana may also have been influenced by the myth associated with the dying and resurrected Greek god Dionysus. He was the god of wine and revelation. On the evening of Dionysus’ festival day, three empty pitchers were left locked in his temple and miraculously were full of wine the next day. John also draws on details for the Cana miracle from the story of Elijah where he miraculously makes flour and oil appear in the empty jars for the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings17:8-24). John even transposes the widow’s words to Elijah into Jesus’ words to his mother – “What have I to do with you?”
Why is this great feat of changing one substance into another – a feat that John claims revealed Jesus’ glory and led the disciples to believe in him – never mentioned in the other gospels or epistles? This omission must mean that there were no oral or written accounts of this event in the 70 years prior to the writing of John’s gospel, and therefore, that it was entirely John’s invention.
This brief survey of the miracles of Jesus shows that their origin, nature, and theological underpinnings have more to do with religious myth than true history. Albert Schweitzer in his groundbreaking treatise, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, writes that the essential character of religious myth is “nothing less than the clothing in historic form of religious ideas, shaped by the unconsciously inventive power of legend, and embodied in a historic personality. Even on a priori grounds we are almost compelled to assume that the historic Jesus will meet us in the garb of old Testament Messianic ideas and primitive Christian expectations” (3rd edition, p.79). Surely, the miracles of Jesus fit this mold.