Four things the historians tell us about Jesus’ miracles – and one thing they don’t

May 14th, 2018 in Belief. Tags: , , , ,

A few months back I responded to a discussion I was having about Jesus’ miracles by writing a post on the historical evidence. I have since turned that post into a permanent page, Did Jesus really perform miracles?, so I thought I would summarise the main conclusions here.

Some of them may be surprising to you, particularly if you have read a lot of internet claims about Jesus’ miracles.

Four things the historians tell us

1. The historical evidence for Jesus’ healing miracles is good

Written historical sources are more likely to be considered useful if several sources independently provide similar information, if they were written close to the date of the events they describe and they accurately reflect the history and culture of the time

The historical sources for Jesus miracles meet these requirements well for his fame as a miracle-worker is recorded in a number of mostly first century sources:

  • the gospel of Mark,
  • Q (a hypothetical document many scholars believe was used as a source by both Matthew and Luke),
  • independent sources in Matthew, Luke & Acts, and John,
  • Paul’s epistles,
  • the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote that Jesus “worked startling deeds”, which many scholars 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),
  • Celsus, a 2nd-century Greek philosopher and opponent of Christianity, who agreed that Jesus performed miracles, but said they were done by sorcery or magic, and
  • several first and second century Jewish critics of christianity who also accused jesus of performing miracles using evil power.

This is a large number of independent sources by ancient standards.

2. Most historians conclude that Jesus was well-known as a healer

Most historians have no doubt that Jesus was known in his day as a healer and teacher.

Historian Craig Keener lists many historians who conclude that the historical sources show that Jesus was known as a healer and/or exorcist, including: John Meier, James Dunn, Bart Ehrman, EP Sanders, Graham Twelftree, Gerd Thiessen & Annette Merz, Craig Evans, NT Wright, Raymond Brown, and Rudolph Bultmann.

Bart Ehrman is typical:

“Whatever you think about the philosophical possibility of miracles, it’s clear that Jesus was widely reputed to have done them.” and “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”

3. Many historians believe he really did heal people

Perhaps it may surprise you to know that many historians conclude that Jesus really did heal people, though this doesn’t necessarily mean that he did so supernaturally. The following are all non-chrstian historians.

Maurice Casey: “Jesus himself was the most successful exorcist and healer of his time”. Casey believed Jesus healed people by natural means.

EP Sanders said it was an “almost indisputable fact” that “Jesus …. preached and healed”, but he was agnostic about the explanation for this.

Geza Vermes described Jesus as: “A powerful healer of the physically and mentally sick …”

I’ll discuss what these and other historians believe actually happened shortly.

4. No other ancient healer is comparable to Jesus

It is common to read claims on the internet that ancient people were gullible, and many historical figures were believed to have done many miracles. But historians say this isn’t in fact true.

Whatever we may believe about them, the miracles of Jesus were apparently close to unique in that part of the world at that time. Thiessen and Merz can say: “Nowhere else are so many miracles reported of a single person as they are in the Gospels of Jesus.”

Other ancient figures who are sometimes claimed to have been similar to Jesus in this regard turn out to not be comparable

  • 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 and was credited with doing a number of miracles. However 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. Some scholars believe parts of Apollonius’ life story and miracles are copied from the gospels.

What the historians don’t tell us

The big question, of course, is what did actually happen? Can we believe that Jesus healed people supernaturally?

The consensus of historians does not give us an answer to this question. Graham Stanton said: “Few doubt that Jesus possessed unusual gifts as a healer, though of course varied explanations are offered”. Typically historians take one of three positions on whether Jesus healed supernaturally:

1. Were they genuine divine healings?

Some historians who conclude that Jesus’ healing miracles are well attested and plausible, also believe that they have a supernatural origin. NT Wright, Richard Bauckham, Craig Evans and Craig Keener, among others, seem to hold this view.

NT Wright: “Few serious historians now deny that Jesus, and for that matter many other people, performed cures and did other startling things for which there was no natural explanation.”

Craig Keener has supported his view of miracles with an extensive collection of plausible modern day miracle accounts which, he says, merit further study.

2. Were they accomplished by natural means?

There is scientific evidence that sometimes physical healing can occur via natural means. Maurice Casey, Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd and Bart Ehrman refer to anthropological and psychiatric studies which discuss apparent divine healing and the phenomenon of demonisation from a scientific viewpoint, and report incidents that are difficult to explain naturalistically, but which are believed by many investigators to be natural occurrences.

Casey concludes: “Jesus’ healings fall within the parameters of what is perceived to be possible by traditional healers who operate within communities of people who accept their powers.”

3. It is not the historian’s task to form a judgment?

Some historians note the strong historical evidence that Jesus was known as a miracle-worker, but believe the question of whether they were actually miracles is not a historical question, but a philosophical one. A theist may believe they were supernatural events while an atheist cannot believe that.

Bart Ehrman: “when reconstructing Jesus’ activities, I will not be able to affirm or deny the miracles that he is reported to have done.”

So there is no consensus (as you’d expect)

What actually happened is a question the historians cannot tell us with any certainty. That is something we each have to decide for ourselves.

History and philosophy

So we can see that there is ample historical evidence for Jesus miracles, and our conclusion on whether they were supernatural events, or not, will depend mostly on what philosophical or theological viewpoint we hold.

However it seems to me that the possibility that the miracles were genuine adds to the likelihood that Jesus should be seen as a genuine prophet from God, the Jewish Messiah who brought God’s truth to humanity. If that is so, we will find it easier to believe that he was indeed the divine son of God.

Graphic: Free Bible Images

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