I’ve had a couple of conversations recently where the reality (or otherwise) of Jesus’ miracles was discussed. Can a modern day person reasonably believe in them? What do secular historians say about them?
There is quite a lot we can say in response to these questions, and some of the answers may be unexpected.
What makes good historical evidence?
Our knowledge of the past comes from historical sources. Primary sources are those which originated in, or close to, the period we are considering (in this case, first century Judea and Galilee). They may be either written sources (documents of some kind) or artefacts (coins, statues, buildings, clothing, etc). Secondary sources are those in which historians interpret the primary sources.
All sources may be evidence, but they are only good historical evidence when they are interpreted by a consensus of historians or other experts and found to be relevant to the question being studied. Interpretation will generally require an understanding of the language, culture, history and geography of the time.
To interpret and assess the value of primary sources, historians will try to establish facts about the source such as its date, who produced it, what was the context in which it was found, and (for written sources) why it was written and to whom. Written sources which independently provide supporting information, which were written close to the date of the events they describe and which reflect the history and culture of the time, are more likely to be considered good evidence.
What is a miracle?
Miracles have been defined in various ways, but I will use this definition: A miracle is a remarkable event which has a supernatural cause. In the case of Jesus, the supernatural cause would be the God of the Bible.
Historian Maurice Casey was unhappy with definitions like this because “only a theist could accept the reality of miracles so defined”, however most people would define a miracle in a similar way.
But Casey’s objection raises an important point. Even if an unusual healing occurs today, we cannot know whether it was supernaturally or naturally caused, because we can neither observe nor rule out the action of God. So while scientists and historians may be able to tell us whether an event is remarkable, they cannot tell us for sure that it was, or wasn’t, a miracle.
What evidence might we expect of the miracles of Jesus?
So to assess whether Jesus performed miracles, we’ll need to start with:
- an assessment of how strongly the historical evidence indicates that Jesus effected remarkable cures or other events, and then
- assessing whether a supernatural or natural explanations are possible or likely.
The first task is historical, the second is also philosophical.
1. Historical evidence
If Jesus performed miracles, we wouldn’t expect there to be artefacts that would provide evidence of this. The only evidence we could expect would be reports in documents.
To be good historical evidence, there would have to be many reports from several different sources, from both supporters and critics, the closer to the events and to eyewitnesses the better. The accounts would have to be written in a sober manner that indicated the author believed he or she was reporting real events, and they would have to believable.
2. Philosophical conclusions – what is believable?
Believability starts to take us away from history and into philosophy and personal belief – a miracle will be unbelievable to some but may be believable for others. But some apparent miracles, for example healings, may be more believable, even to a sceptic, than, say, that a dragon appeared and swallowed the sun.
Historical evidence that Jesus performed miracles
Historians are generally agreed that there is good historical evidence that Jesus was a miracle worker, i.e. that he performed remarkable cures and other acts. They virtually all agree that he was known as a miracle worker and exorcist, but they are divided about how they explain this.
Jesus’ fame as a miracle worker is reported in many independent sources – Mark, Q (a hypothetical document many scholars believe was used as a source by both Matthew and Luke), independent sources in both Matthew and Luke, John, Acts, Paul’s epistles, Josephus, and critical sources like Celsus and several Jewish sources. Most of these sources date from the first century and claim to be accurate accounts based on eyewitnesses, but some are second century. The first century sources tend to contain more believable miracle accounts, with some more outlandish miracle stories occurring in later, often gnostic, sources.
The healing and exorcism accounts in the gospels, taken as a group, therefore meet most of the requirements for good historical sources, although the individual miracle stories are variously well or less well-attested. The nature miracles (walking on water, turning water to wine, multiplying loaves and fish, etc) are often also well-attested, but generally considered to be less believable.
Sources critical of Jesus or christianity are particlarly important.
Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote late first century, says Jesus “worked startling deeds”, which many scholars (e.g. Vermes, Meier, Thiessen & Merz) interpret as miracles. It is generally agreed that words not written by Josephus have been added to this passage, but the reference to “startling deeds” is generally regarded as genuine (see Update: Did Josephus write about Jesus?).
Celsus was a 2nd-century Greek philosopher and opponent of Christianity. He confirmed that Jesus performed miracles, but said they were done by sorcery or magic, which was considered to be malevolent, quite different to miraculous power from God. First and second century Jewish critics of christianity took a similar position. In both cases, there is some independent support for Jesus as a miracle-worker.
Were there many other healers at the time?
It is sometimes said that people were gullible and/or scientifically ignorant in those days, and so easily believed in miracles, and that there were many other healers around at the time, so Jesus wasn’t so special.
But this appears not to be historically accurate.
There were other healers recorded in ancient Israel, but not nearly as many as some might think, and none that I have been able to discover that were both reputed to have performed as many miracles as Jesus, and their miracles are historically well attested. These are some who have been suggested:
- Honi the Circle-drawer (who lived in the century before Jesus) was a scholar who had a reputation as a miracle-worker. However only one miracle is recorded, in two sources, where he prayed for rain and his prayer was answered.
- Hanina ben Dosa (who lived a generation after Jesus) was a scholar and sage whose prayers for healing were believed to be effective. Most of the stories about him are regarded as legends.
- Some Jewish rabbis reportedly conducted exorcisms and performed healings, and some charismatic figures within Judaism were reputed to be miracle-workers or even magicians, but there is little historical evidence for any actual miracles.
- Apollonius was Greek philosopher living in Turkey (so not a Jew) who lived shortly after Jesus. There is only one major source for his life, written 1-2 centuries after he lived. Scholars are uncertain how much of this account is historical, but most believe it is partly factual and partly legendary. He was credited with doing a number of miracles, and some have claimed parallels with the life of Jesus. However we lack reliable independent sources and the main written source, by Philostratus, and the supposed events of Apollonius’ life, look more like the later gnostic gospels than the much earlier New Testament gospels. Some scholars believe parts of Apollonius’ life story and miracles are copied from the gospels.
- There are some parallels between the miracles of Jesus in the gospels and the miracles of Old Testament prophets. But, as Bart Ehrman says (Ref 8, p199): “invariably, Jesus comes off looking even better than his prophetic predecessors.”
Thus it appears that miracles were not as commonly reported as often claimed, and virtually never in multiple, independent historically reliable sources written reasonably close to the event. Whatever we may believe about them, the miracles of Jesus are close to unique in that part of the world at that time. Thiessen and Merz can say (quoted in Ref 6, p66): “Nowhere else are so many miracles reported of a single person as they are in the Gospels of Jesus.”
Secondary sources – what historians conclude
Reputable historians therefore confidently speak of Jesus as a healer and exorcist without necessarily accepting a supernatural source for his “mighty deeds”:
- Maurice Casey: “Jesus himself was the most successful exorcist and healer of his time” (Ref 4 p278). Casey believed Jesus really did heal people, but via natural means, which he outlines in his book.
- EP Sanders said it was an “almost indisputable fact” that “Jesus …. preached and healed” (Ref 5a, p11). Sanders was generally agnostic about the explanation for this.
- Bart Ehrman: “Jesus …. probably did have some pretty amazing encounters with people believed to be demon-possessed … his ability to cast out demons was seen as a characteristic of his ministry. …. On numerous layers of our traditions Jesus is said to have healed those with various ailments” (Ref 9, p198-9). Craig Keener (ref 6) summarises Ehrman’s view: “Scholars can accept Jesus as an exorcist and healer without passing judgment on whether he acted supernaturally”.
- Geza Vermes: “A powerful healer of the physically and mentally sick …” (Quoted in Ref 6 p21).
- Graham Stanton: “Few doubt that Jesus possessed unusual gifts as a healer, though of course varied explanations are offered” (Quoted in ref 7).
- Craig Keener (ref 6, p21-28) lists many other historians who conclude that Jesus was reported in the historical sources as a healer and/or exorcist, including: John Meier, James Dunn, Graham Twelftree, Gerd Thiessen & Annette Merz, Craig Evans, NT Wright, Raymond Brown, even Rudolph Bultmann.
Secular historians have various beliefs about God – they include Christians, both liberal and conservative, Jews, Atheists, Agnostics and some who do not self identify in any way. These beliefs obviously affect how they interpret this evidence:
- some believe they were genuine divine healings;
- some believe they were accomplished by natural means;
- some are agnostic about the explanation for these accounts; and
- some believe it is not the historian’s task to form a judgment.
It is common for people to say that healings and exorcisms are not believable in a scientific age, but, as we have seen, believability is seen differently by different people.
- Craig Keener (Ref 6) has shown that hundreds of millions of people today believe they have experienced or observed a miracle after christian prayer.
- Eddy and Boyd (Ref 8, p67-8) and Ehrman (ref 9, p197) reference a number of anthropological and psychiatric studies which discuss the phenomenon of demonisation from a scientific viewpoint, and report incidents that are difficult to explain naturalistically.
It is reasonable to conclude that philosophical presuppositions that we each bring to our consideration of miracles are strong influences on how we interpret the evidence.
Healing and miracles are an essential element in the historical record of Jesus’ public ministry. The evidence that he healed and exorcised is historically very good, and it is hard to see how better evidence could be available from such a long time ago.
Nevertheless we are free to choose:
- to believe the many historical accounts report genuine supernatural miracles,
- to believe that Jesus healed by natural means, or
- to not accept the accounts even though they are historically well-attested, because we believe either that God doesn’t exist or else that he doesn’t heal.
But it is important to note that it isn’t a lack of good historical sources and evidence, but a philosophical view, that tends to determine which conclusion we will come to.
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