This may come as a surprise to you but there is a virtual consensus among scholars, including skeptical scholars, that the historical Jesus was a miracle-worker — particularly that he was a healer and exorcist, who performed deeds during his ministry that were considered by his contemporaries (i.e. his disciples and others) as “miracles”. However these “miracles” are interpreted though (e.g. authentic miracles as a result of divine power or healings of psychosomatic illnesses) is another matter. With that said, yes, the evidence is that good!
In this three-part article, we will examine the historical evidence for Jesus as a miracle-worker in part I, look at and address the responses of skeptics to this fact about Jesus in part II and come to a conclusion to our entire discussion in part III.
Ultimately, in this article, I will argue that the miracles of Jesus are best explained as a result of divine power and that naturalistic explanations (e.g. healings of psychosomatic illnesses and the result of the placebo effect) fail to completely and compellingly account for the evidence. With that said, let us begin our look at the evidence — seeing how Jesus’ miracles satisfy the criteria of authenticity as used in scholarship.
I. The Historical Evidence
Jesus’ miracles satisfy the criteria of authenticity in varying degrees, with all of them coming together to form a powerful case for the fact that he was historically a miracle-worker. These criteria include the criterion of multiple attestation of sources and forms, the criterion of coherence, the criterion of dissimilarity, the criterion of embarrassment, and others. There is also, remarkably, strong evidence that Jesus claimed and was believed by his contemporaries (i.e. his disciples and others) to have healed the lame, the blind, lepers, and even raise people from the dead during his ministry.
In the sub-sections below, we will examine (1) how Jesus’ miracles satisfy the historical criteria of authenticity and (2) the evidence for Jesus’ healings of the lame, the blind, lepers, and his raisings of the dead. Then, we will end part I with a conclusion on the historical evidence for Jesus’ miracles.
Having laid out the structure for part I, we now proceed to our discussion on how Jesus’ miracles satisfy the different criteria of authenticity, tackling first, the criterion of multiple attestation of sources and forms.
A. Multiple attestation of sources and forms
Jesus’ miracles are attested to in every gospel source (Mark, Q, M, L and John). In the gospels, there are fifteen non-overlapping healing accounts, seven non-overlapping accounts of exorcism and three non-overlapping accounts of raising the dead. In addition to these accounts, Jesus’ miracles are also attested to in several summary statements (e.g. Mk 1:32-34, Matt 4:23, Lk 6:17-19, etc). Outside of the gospels, Jesus’ miracles are also attested to by the Jewish historian Josephus (ca. 37 – 100 AD), who in his Antiquities, states that Jesus was a doer of “paradoxical deeds”:
“At this time [the rule of Pontius Pilate as prefect of Judea] there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of paradoxical deeds, a teacher who received the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Gentile origin. And when Pilate at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day”.
The word Josephus uses to describe the miracles of Jesus, “paradoxa”, can be translated to “startling” or “wondrous” in English. It is also the same word he uses in another work to describe the miracles of the Jewish prophet Elisha. In the end, historians see attestation in two independent sources as good evidence for historicity. When it comes to the miracles of Jesus, we have attestation in a stunning six independent sources.
When it comes to the miracles Jesus performed, he is also said to have performed healings (including raising the dead), exorcisms and nature miracles — resulting in attestation in multiple literary forms. Jesus’ miracles are also attested to in various sayings attributed to him in the gospels, in which he refers to, or speaks in the context of, his miracle-working. These sayings reflect a number of different form-critical categories: e.g., the parable of the strong man (Mk 3:22-27), the dispute story in which Jesus answers the charge of his healing powers coming from the devil with two conditional sentences, one a rhetorical question and the other a declaration of fact (Matt 12:27-28), biographical statements that summarize his own activity in terms of miracle-working (Matt 11:5 and Lk 7:22), his instruction concerning the exorcist who is not one of his disciples (Mark 9:38-40) and others.
In the end, Jesus’ miracles strongly satisfy the criterion of multiple attestation of sources and forms. As the preeminent scholar on the historical Jesus, John Meier, states:
“the historical fact that Jesus performed extraordinary deeds deemed by himself and others to be miracles is supported most impressively by the criterion of multiple attestation of sources and forms … The miracle traditions about Jesus’ public ministry are already so widely attested in various sources and literary forms by the end of the first Christian generation that total fabrication by the early church is, practically speaking, impossible”.
In addition to multiple attestation of sources and forms, Jesus’ miracles also satisfy the criterion of coherence. This criterion refers to how well the words and deeds of Jesus (1) mesh well with each other and (2) cohere with other known facts about his life. When it comes to the words and deeds of Jesus meshing well with each other, scholar Meier comments, after looking at the miracle narratives and sayings of Jesus in the gospels:
“Our initial inventory of narratives and sayings has made it clear that we have here a grand example of various actions and sayings of Jesus converging, meshing, and mutually supporting each other … What is remarkable in all this is how deeds and sayings cut across different sources and form-critical categories to create a meaningful whole. This neat, elegant, and unforced “fit” of the deeds and sayings of Jesus … argues eloquently for a basic historical fact: Jesus did perform deeds that he and some of his contemporaries considered miracles”.
When it comes to Jesus’ miracles cohering with other known facts of his life, Jesus’ miracles cohere with the fact that he was known to have drawn large crowds of people during his ministry. According to all four gospels and Josephus, a combination of miracles and compelling teaching were the causes of his success in this regard. Another fact that coheres with Jesus’ miracle-working was his eventual execution, as engineered by the Jewish Sanhedrin. Although Jesus’ miracles were not the primary reason for his execution, they were likely an aggravating circumstance towards this result. In the end, Jesus’ miracles strongly satisfy the criterion of coherence.
When it comes to the criterion of dissimilarity, a number of aspects of Jesus’ miracle-working are distinct from Jewish and pagan miracle traditions. This unique style of miracle-working, consistently found in all five gospel sources, argues for them originating from a single common source — Jesus himself. The unique aspects of Jesus miracle-working are as follows: (1) he performed miracles by his own authority, (2) he combined teaching with miracles, (3) faith played an important role in his healings and (4) Jesus’ miracles were not ends in themselves (e.g. to glorify him), they had an eschatological significance. The criterion of dissimilarity may also be applied to the person of Jesus, who was certainly a unique individual. With that said, let us discuss the four unique aspects of Jesus’ miracle-working.
One, Jesus performed miracles by his own authority. The Old Testament prophets did not do anything like this. They believed themselves to be only mediators of God’s power, and so needed to ask God to help them and work through them. In contrast, Jesus carried out miracles through his own power and word. As the esteemed scholar Raymond Brown notes:
[Unlike the Old Testament Jewish prophets] [t]he lines of demarcation between Jesus and God in this intervention are very vague. The kingdom comes both in and through Jesus. The power to do the healings and other miracles belongs to God but also to Jesus”.
Two, Jesus combined teaching with miracles. He did not simply heal and exorcise, but also incorporated lessons about faith, the forgiveness of sins, salvation, the Kingdom of God, etc in doing so. As scholar Brown notes:
“Jesus is remembered as combining teaching with miracles intimately related to his teaching, and that combination may be unique”.
Three, faith played an important role in Jesus’ miracles. Looking at the gospel accounts, faith was important in the healing of an individual. Jesus also used these healings as opportunities to teach about, call forth, and encourage faith. As scholar Meier notes:
“the emphasis on faith (e.g., ‘your faith has saved you’), which is found in many Gospel miracle stories of healing or exorcism or in their larger context, is for the most part lacking in pagan or Jewish parallels”.
Four, Jesus’ miracles were not ends in themselves (e.g. to glorify him) but had an eschatological significance. During his ministry, Jesus went about proclaiming “the Kingdom of God” (e.g. Matt 12:28, Lk 8:1, Jhn 3:3-5 etc). This phrase is tied to Daniel’s prophecy of the Messiah establishing God’s kingdom (Dan 2:39-45; 7:13-14). By proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand, Jesus was saying that the Kingdom referred to in Daniel had arrived. Jesus’ healings and exorcisms had an eschatological significance related to the establishment of this kingdom. According to Meier, Jesus’ exorcisms are “dramatic presentations and partial realizations of God’s exchatological triumph over Satan and the powers of evil through the actions of Jesus. They are a preliminary experience of the future kingdom of God, already present and victorious to some degree in Jesus’ ministry (Mark 3:27 parr.; Luke 11:20 par.).” Jesus’ healings on the other hand according to Meier “fulfill the prophecies of Isiah concerning the time of Israel’s definitive salvation. Hence they are also an implicit call to believe in the message and mission of the miracle-worker (Matt 11:5-6 par.).” When it comes to the eschatological significance of Jesus’ miracles, scholars Theissen and Merz state:
“The uniqueness of the miracles of the historical Jesus lies in the fact that healings and exorcisms which take place in the present are accorded an eschatological significance … Nowhere else do we find a charismatic miracle worker whose miraculous deeds are meant to be the end of an old world and the beginning of a new one”.
Lastly, the above distinct aspects of Jesus’ miracle-working may also be seen in light of the unique totality of his person. As noted by scholar Meier:
“the overall configuration, pattern, or Gestalt of Jesus as popular preacher and teller of parables, plus authoritative interpreter of the Law and teacher of morality, plus proclaimer and realizer of the eschatological kingdom of God, plus miracle-worker actualizing his own proclamation has no adequate parallel in either the pagan or the Jewish literature of the time”.
In the end, the criterion of dissimilarity provides further support for the historicity of Jesus’ miracle-working.
When it comes to the criterion of embarrassment, Jesus’ miracles are attested to in an early Jewish polemic recorded in Mark and Q (Mk 3:20-30, Matt 12:22-32 and Lk 11:14-23). This polemic is especially valuable because it shows how Jesus’ enemies viewed him. They did not deny that he possessed remarkable powers. On the contrary, they affirmed it, but attributed its origins to the devil: “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons” (Mk 3:22). As scholar E.P. Sanders comments: “Jesus’ enemies did not suspect him of fraud, but of healing by calling on a demonic power.”
This polemic is likely historical (in addition to multiple attestation) because it is unlikely that the early Church would have invented the negative accusation that Jesus’ powers came from the devil, an accusation that puts him in an ambiguous light, unless that was indeed the charge leveled against him. It is no surprise that Jesus’ response to this charge is also recorded: “If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? … ” (Mk 3:23-24). In the end, as scholar Wright comments:
“We must be clear that Jesus’ contemporaries, both those who became his followers and those who were determined not to become his followers, certainly regarded him as possessed of remarkable powers. The church did not invent the charge that Jesus was in league with Beelzebul; but charges like that are not advanced unless they are needed as an explanation for quite remarkable phenomena”.
E. Other Criteria of Authenticity
Other criteria of authenticity include (1) the presence of semitisms, (2) the naming of individuals and specific places that can be checked within living memory of Jesus and (3) the presence of elements that reflect the environment of Palestine at the time of Jesus.
The presence of semitisms, or traces of Aramaic, indicate that a tradition is old and originated in a Palestine setting.
On the other hand, identifiable names and places in miracle narratives may indicate detail retention from an earlier tradition, since details are often lost during a tradition’s transmission. Furthermore, since many of these details can be checked within living memory of Jesus, they also argue in favor of the event’s historicity. Communities in antiquity were smaller and tighter-knit. It is also highly likely that an extraordinary event such as curing blindness, a paralytic, or raising the dead would be known and remembered in a particular town or village.
The presence of elements that reflect the environment of Palestine at the time of Jesus also points towards the historicity of individual miracle narratives. The environment of the early Church, with its post-resurrection faith and extensive ministry to the Gentiles (non-Jews), became increasingly detached from the spirit and culture of Palestine at the time of Jesus. However, the gospel narratives do preserve not only the customs and actions of Palestinian Judaism but also expressions (e.g. “Son of David” or “He is a prophet”) that would have been replaced by other titles or expressions in the post-resurrection Church. Miracle stories that contain elements that show this Palestinian-Jewish reflection at the time of Jesus are likely to be historical.
In the end, it must be noted that the criteria mentioned so far in sections A to E do apply in assessing both the global historicity of Jesus’ miracle-working (e.g. did Jesus perform healings and exorcisms in general? Was he believed to have healed the lame, the blind, lepers and raise people from the dead in general?) and the historicity of individual miracle stories. However, further indicators of historicity and more nuanced reasoning are taken into account when it comes to assessing the historicity of individual miracle stories. Nevertheless, the criteria discussed so far are the main basis for assessing the historicity of Jesus’ miracles.
F. Healing the lame, the blind, lepers and raising the dead
Remarkably, there is strong evidence that Jesus did heal the lame, the blind, lepers, and raise people from the dead during his ministry. Jesus healing the lame, the blind, lepers, and raising the dead all enjoy multiple independent attestation. Examining individual accounts of the above types of healings also reveals that many bear remarkable indicators of historicity. These include two stories of healing paralysis (Mk 2:1-12 and Jhn 5:1-9), all three stories of healing the blind in the gospels (Mk 8:22-26; 10:46-52 and Jhn 9) and one story of raising the dead (Mk 5:21-43). All of the types of healings in question are also attested to by Jesus’ summary of his ministry in Q (Matt 11:5 and Lk 7:22), which has strong indicators of being authentic as well, and suggests that Jesus healed multiple cases of the above conditions. In light of the evidence for these types of healings, scholar Meier takes the position that the historical Jesus claimed and was indeed thought by at least some of his contemporaries to have healed the lame, the blind, lepers, and even raise people from the dead during his ministry. As scholar A.M. Harvey states, the historical evidence for these types of dramatic cures is “excellent”.
G. Conclusion on Jesus as a miracle worker
In the end, the evidence from the criteria of historicity come together to form a powerful case for the fact that the historical Jesus was a miracle worker. As leading scholar on Jesus’ miracles Graham Twelftre concludes on the subject:
“In answer to the question ‘Did Jesus perform miracles?’ we have to reply with an unequivocal and resounding ‘Yes!’ … The necessary conclusion, in light of our inquiry, is that there is hardly any aspect of the life of the historical Jesus which is so well and widely attested as that he conducted unparalleled wonders”.
Twelftre then notes that the fact that Jesus was a miracle-worker is affirmed by almost all contemporary scholars:
“There is now almost unanimous agreement among Jesus questers that the historical Jesus performed mighty works”.
Being clear, this virtual consensus includes skeptical scholars such as Borg, Bultman, Crossan, Fredrickson and Vermes, to give a number of notable examples — all of whom affirm this fact about Jesus. See their following statements below:
“Despite the difficulty which miracles pose for the modern mind, on historical grounds it is virtually indisputable that Jesus was a healer and exorcist.” – Marcus Borg
“[T]here can be no doubt that Jesus did such deeds, which were, in his and his contemporaries’ understanding, miracles … Doubtless he healed the sick and cast out demons.” – Rudolf Bultmann
“Jesus was both an exorcist and a healer.” – John Dominic Crossan
“[A]cts of healing and exorcism were seen as tangible confirmation of the validity and compelling character of his teaching.” – Geza Vermes
“[W]e note that Jesus as exorcist, healer (even to the point of raising the dead), and miracle worker is one of the strongest, most ubiquitous, and most variously attested depictions in the Gospels. All strata of this material–Mark, John, M-traditions, L-traditions, and Q–make this claim. This sort of independent multiple attestation supports arguments for the antiquity of a given tradition, implying that its source must lie prior to its later, manifold expressions, perhaps in the mission of Jesus himself … Yes, I think that Jesus probably did perform deeds that contemporaries viewed as miracles.” – Paula Friedrickson
This then brings us to the question, how do skeptics respond to this historical fact about Jesus?
II. The Skeptical Response
When it comes to Jesus’ miracles, skeptics fire back in a number of ways (in our discussion below, I will also include popular objections). One, they call attention to the fact that there were other known miracle-workers around the time of Jesus. Two, they point out that Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, was also said to have performed miracles. Three, they claim that ancient people were gullible and accepted miracle claims uncritically. Four, they say that the illnesses Jesus healed had psychosomatic roots. Five, they say that Jesus’ healings were the result of the placebo effect. Six, they say that the individuals Jesus raised from the dead were not actually dead but apparently dead, being in a state of coma or catalepsy. However, as we shall see, all of these attempts to downplay and explain Jesus’ miracles under a naturalistic worldview have serious problems. Let us look into and respond to these objections one by one below.
A. Objection 1: There were other miracle-workers around the time of Jesus
The first thing to point out here is that the number of miracle-workers around the time of Jesus is extremely small. As scholar Twelftree notes:
“In the period of two hundred years on each side of the life of the historical Jesus the number of miracle stories attached to any historical figure is astonishingly small“.
We have, in total, a number of four claimed miracle-workers around the time of Jesus. These are Honi the Circle-Drawer, Hanina ben-Dosa, Vespanian and Apollonius of Tyana.
Honi the Circle-Drawer (1st century BC) and Hanina ben-Dosa (1st century AD) belong to the Jewish tradition. The miracles attributed to these men are attested in the Mishna, which is a 3rd century written collection of Jewish oral traditions. According to the Mishna, people asked Honi to pray for rain during a drought. Honi did so but his prayers were not answered, so he proceeded to draw a circle around him and vowed not to leave it until God answered his prayer for rain. When it began to drizzle, Honi prayed that the rain was not enough and so it started to pour. Honi then asked God to make the rain more calm, then it began to rain normally. Based on this account, Honi appears to be able to get anything he wants from God through prayer. As for Hanina ben-Dosa, the Mishna indicates that he was remembered for having a special ministry of praying for the sick, and having the ability to know which of his prayers for healing would be answered and which would not.
Vespanian (9-79 AD), a Roman emperor (from 69-79 AD), was also known to have performed a healing miracle. According to Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus, while Vespanian was in Alexandria on the way to Rome to assume the throne (ca. 69 AD) he was approached by two men, one blind and one lame, who threw themselves in front of him and asked for healing. At first Vespanian scoffed, but the men persisted, saying that the local deity, Sarapis, had sent them. Hearing this and having already received prophecies about his good fortune, Vespanian complied with their request and attempted to heal them — and they were healed.
Most startlingly, Apollonius of Tyana (ca.15-97 AD), was a pagan preacher and philosopher who was said to have healed the sick, cast out demons and raise the dead like Jesus did. These deeds of Apollonius are attested to in a work by the Greek sophist Philostratus in the early 3rd century.
In the sub-sections below, we will analyze these miracle-worker claims further. Particularly, we will discuss the dates of their written attestations the problems their claims possess. Afterwards, we will also discuss their coherence with a Christian worldview — that is, how these miracles truly pose no problem for the Christian even if they did occur.
1. Written attestation
The written attestions to Jesus’ miracles are much closer to the time of the said events in comparison to almost all other miracle-workers in question. As noted by scholar Meier:
“the early dating of the literary testimony to Jesus’ miracles, i.e., the closeness of the dates of the written documents to the alleged miracles of Jesus’ life, is almost unparalleled for the period”.
Going by the standard dating, the first gospel, Mark, was written approximately 40 years after the death of Jesus. Matthew and Luke, the next two gospels, were written within 50-55 years after the death of Jesus. Lastly, John was written within 60-70 years after the death of Jesus. In the end, all 4 gospels were written within living memory of the events they recount. As stated by prominent scholar Richard Bauckham:
“The Gospels were written within living memory of the events they recount. Mark’s Gospel was written well within the lifetime of many of the eye-witnesses, while the other three canonical Gospels were written in the period when living eyewitnesses were becoming scarce, exactly at the point in time when their testimony would perish with them were it not put into writing. This is a highly significant fact, entailed not by unusually early datings of the Gospels but by the generally accepted ones.“
Compare the case of Jesus to Honi the Circle Drawer, who is mentioned in the Mishna over 250 years after his death, or Hanina ben-Dosa, who is mentioned in the Mishna over 100 years after his death. Compare this also to Apollonarius of Tyana, who we know hardly anything about prior to the writing of his biography by Philostratus around 217-220 AD — approximately 120 years after the death of Apollonius. The only individual whose attestation to performing miracles surpasses that of Jesus is Vespanian, whose healing was first recorded by Suetonius some 30 years after the supposed event.
In the end, the earliness of the sources for Jesus’ miracles far surpasses those of Honi, Hanina and Apollonius. As a result, the strength of their witness is much superior.
2. Problems with miracle-worker claims in question
When examined further, more problems arise for the miracle-working claims of Honi, Hanina, Vespanian and Apollonius.
When it comes to Honi, Josephus mentions him in his writings 100 years earlier than the Mishna (and 150 years after the death of Honi) and his account of Honi is much more simple. In his Jewish Antiquities 14.2.1, Josephus mentions a certain Onias (Honi in Greek), “a just man and beloved of God, who once during a drought prayed that God would bring the drought to an end. Listening to [Onias’ prayer], God caused rain to fall”. As Meier says, the account of Honi in the Mishna is an embellished tradition that has gone a long way from what we read in Josephus’ account. Stripping away the embellishments, the enduring core of the story is that Honi was known for having his prayer answered in an extraordinary way in a time of drought. Another problem with Honi’s claim is that his fame came as a result of a single incident. If we were to grant Honi’s single remarkable case of answered prayer as sufficient to make him a miracle-worker, then as Meier states, the number of miracle-workers in history would rise incredibly. It is not a reasonable nor accurate standard. Lastly, Honi is not a miracle-worker in the strict sense as Jesus is, he does not directly perform a miracle by giving certain commands or carrying out certain gestures but turns to God in prayer.
As for Hanina ben-dosa, he is also not a miracle worker in the strict sense. Like Honi, he was also known for his effective prayers. As Meier states:
“…Jesus knowingly and freely works the miracle himself. He is in this strict, rigorous sense a miracle-worker. Not so Honi and Hanina, especially in the earliest traditions. In the Onias/Honi-story in Josephus and in the Hanina story m. Ber. 5:5, what is central is the holy man’s prayer to God. Neither holy man directly works a miracle”.
Ultimately, due to the late attestation for Honi and Hanina, Meier concludes saying:
“…in the end one must admit that all the written sources are later than Jesus and almost all of them centuries later. I would venture to claim that, beyond the fact that around the turn of the era there existed two Jews in Palestine named Honi and Hanina, both of whom were famous for having their prayers answered in extraordinary ways, nothing definite can be said”.
When it comes to Vespanian, his miracle story suffers from two problems, with the first being critical. One, in all likelihood, it was made up. Vespanian did not belong to the rightful line of emperors (i.e. the line of Caesar) and so was in serious need of legitimacy — which this miracle provided. As scholar Meier notes:
“Suetonius and Tacitus seem to tell the whole story with a twinkle in their eyes and smiles on their lips, an attitude probably shared by Vespasian. The whole event looks like a 1st-century equivalent of a “photo opportunity” staged by Vespasian’s P.R. team to give the new emperor divine legitimacy”.
Two, this is also the only known miracle that Vespanian was said to have performed. As a result, the dubiousness of his claim is increased further.
As for Apollonius of Tyana, his claim suffers from four serious problems. One, genre-wise, Philostratus’ work is a blend of bios and romance (romance can be compared to today’s fictional novels). This can be seen in the rhetorical devices employed in the work which according to Meier are:
“…supernatural portents [or omens], short dialogues on popular issues of the day [during the time of Philostratus], colorful archaelogical lore, magic and/or miracles, rapid scene changes, descriptions of fabled far-off lands, travelogues and erotic episodes (often with homoerotic overtones). Imaginary ‘official’ letters, inscriptions, and edicts which help to create the illusion of sober history”.
Compare this to the gospels which belong solely to the genre of bios. Second, there is strong evidence that Philostratus’ main source for his biography (and supposedly, the only primary one as well), the diary of Damis, is a fiction of Philostratus or the work of an earlier pseudepigrapher. This is in fact the position of “a clearly greater number of scholars”. According to scholar Howard Kee Clark, the reason for this is because “…the material allegedly drawn from Damis is so full of historical anachronisms and gross geographical errors that one could not have confidence in Damis as a reporter if there actually were a diary”. Three, there is good evidence that Philostratus borrowed miracle stories from the Christian gospels to flesh out his portrait of Apollonius. A number of accounts in his work resemble reports from the Christian gospels, which were known and well in circulation during his time. To give one example, the story of Apollonius resuscitating a young Roman bride looks suspiciously like it combined the Gospel stories of the raising of the daughter of Jairus (Mk 5:21-43) and the raising of the son of the widow of Nain (Lk 7:11-17). Four, the world that Philostratus writes about in The Life strongly reflects his own era as opposed to the 1st-century world of Apollonius. As scholar Kee notes:
“what Philostratus reports tells us a great deal about the author and his time — that is, at the turn of the third century — but provides no unassailable evidence about Apollonius and his epoch”.
This is a serious point that casts doubt on the reliability of Philostratus’ work as a whole. In the end, Philostratus’ work on Apollonius is very dubious, which is why leading scholar Bosworth says that its “historical nucleus is small and unusable”. Relating Jesus to Apollonius, scholar Meier says that “the serious questions that arise about the sources and historical reliability of the Life of Apollonius make it difficult to speak in any detail of the 1st century Apollonius as a parallel figure to Jesus of Nazareth. The miracle stories in the Life are indeed useful for ahistorical, synchronic comparisons of literary patterns found in miracle stories and places; as a basis for historical judgments about 1st-century figures they are very shaky”.
3. Coherence with a Christian worldview
Even if we were to grant that the above individuals performed or effected miracles through prayer, it would still pose no problem for the Christian. Christians affirm the existence of God, the devil and the reality of the spiritual world. When it comes to the existence of the spiritual world in particular, Christians also recognize that people have and continue to interact with it.
Honi and Hanina ben-dosa fit in the Christian worldview because Christians worship the same God as the Jews. Christianity affirms the truth of the Jewish tradition and their special relationship with God. Furthermore, the case of Hanina ben-dosa also coheres well with the Christian miracle tradition, which has many saints who were able to heal people as a result of effective prayer as well — see Bl. Solanus Casey and Francis Houle for example.
Assuming that Apollonius was some sort of pagan magician who possessed remarkable powers, this would still pose no problem within a Christian worldview since his healings could be said to stem from the devil — who according to Christianity, is active in the world. In fact, Acts itself mentions how St. Paul was able to exorcise a demonic spirit of divination out of a woman (Acts 16:16-18). Acts also mentions a pagan magician, Simon, who was able to amaze people with his sorcery, but after seeing the apostles and the miracles they performed in the name of Jesus, as well as being told by Peter that his soul was in a poor state, ended up converting to Christianity (Acts 8:9-25). Revelation 16:13-16 also mentions the devil’s capability to produce counterfeit signs. A lot can be said on Christianity and demonic activity but ultimately the Church condemns engaging in the occult (CCC 2116-2117), not only because it is a violation of the first commandment (Exo 20:3; Deut 19:9-12) but also because it puts one at risk of demonic infestation, obsession, oppression, and possession. It is the main avenue through which demons can enter the lives of individuals. The Church also affirms that the devil possesses preternatural abilities and that these can and do manifest in occult activities.
In the end, this objection does not pose problems for the Christian. Even if he were to grant that Honi, Hanina and Apollonius did what they were said to have done, their actions would fit within his worldview.
B. Objection 2: The Miracles of Muhammad
Another objection to Jesus’ miracles is that Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, also performed miracles.
The problem with this objection is that the Koran explicity states that Muhammad never performed any miracles. In fact, the Koran recounts people questioning Muhammads’ lack of miracles — “Why has no sign been sent down upon him [Muhammad] from his Lord?” (Q 6:37), “If only a miracle could come down to him from his Lord (we will then believe)” (Q 13:7), and comparing Muhammad to an Old Testament prophet, “Why has he not been given the like of that Moses was given?” (Q 28:48).
In response to questions about his lack of miracles, the Koran records Muhammad saying that miracles are for God alone and that he is just a “warner” (Q 29:50). The Quran also criticizes unbelievers for not believing in Muhammad due to his lack of miracles — because the Koran itself is the miracle: “Is it not enough of a miracle that we sent down to you this book [the Quran]?” (Q 29:51). According to the Koran, the reason why Allah did not send miracles to support Muhammad is that previous generations had rejected them: “What stopped us [Allah] from sending the miracles is that the previous generations have rejected them” (Q 17:59).
The miracles of Muhammad that the skeptics refer to come from biographies written much later after the death of Muhammad, one or two centuries later. Ultimately, they were invented to strengthen the credibility of Islam and its prophet. As stated by Ayman S. Ibrahim, a post-doctoral fellow of Middle Eastern History at Haifa University:
“In the classical Muslim period … Muslim authors decided to write the Biography of Muhammad, a century or two after his death, and added various miraculous elements, such as him feeding crowds after the multiplication of food, healing sick people, and even manifesting authority over nature. The similarities with pre-Islamic sacred writings are evident. There was a need (as Islam presented itself in a multi-religious context in the conquered lands) of a specific depiction of Muhammad with certain characteristics that appealed to that era”.
In the end, the miracles of Muhammad are not only dubious for the above reasons but they also go against the clear witness of the Quran.
C. Objection 3: Ancient people were gullible
Another objection against Jesus’ miracles is that ancient people were gullible and so accepted miracle claims uncritically. This objection suffers from a number of problems.
One, this objection displays an incredible amount of chronological snobbery. Doubt and skepticism are a part of the human condition and we have always had it as a species. In fact, there are multiple passages about doubt and skepticism in the Bible. Focusing on the New Testament alone, doubt and skepticism are found during Jesus’ ministry (Mk 4:35-41; 5:35-42; 6:1-3; 9:19-25, Matt 13:54-57; 14:22-31 and Jn 6:32-68; 7:5) during the empty tomb and resurrection accounts (Matt 28:16-17, Lk 24:9-11; 24:40-43 and Jn 20:24-28,) and during the post-Easter missionary efforts regarding the resurrection and others (Gal 1:18-20, 1 Cor 1:22-23, Acts 17:31-32). It must be also noted that the importance of faith was stressed by Jesus in his ministry — in his teaching as well as his miracle-working. Faith could not have been a major theme if doubt were not a common phenomenon. All of these clearly demonstrate that ancient people were capable of doubt and skepticism and that they knew the difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary in their lives (and for this reason, had doubts of the latter).
Two, any person suffering from an illness would know if he was healed or not. A person who was blind, paralyzed, had leprosy, or any other condition that needed healing would know if that condition had truly been cured, as someone who intimately experienced the condition. This person, ecstatic about the healing he received and the extraordinary experience that occurred to him, would also likely testify about what had happened to him to others.
Three, Jesus’ ministry was public and his healings took place in the presence of his disciples, large crowds, and his enemies. Healings that Jesus were well-attested to have done (e.g. the lame, the blind, lepers, and raising the dead) are also of the type that could be witnessed externally by observers. Jesus’ healings, in general, could also be attested to by the disciples themselves and by those who knew the recipient of the healing (i.e. his family members and other members of his community) and saw him after it took place.
In the end, not only were ancient people capable of doubt and skepticism but, being contemporaries of Jesus (who could be met and observed) and living at a time where eyewitnesses to Jesus’ deeds were at their highest, they had excellent reasons for believing that he performed miracles and healed certain people. This would especially be the case for the disciples, who were his followers and were able to see his healings and exorcisms up close countless times.
D. Objection 4: Jesus’ healings had psychosomatic roots
The fourth objection raised against Jesus’ miracles is that the illnesses he healed had psychosomatic roots (i.e. they stemmed from internal conflict such as stress, anxiety, etc). When it comes to Jesus’ healing of the lame and the blind, skeptics say that these were cases of a category of psychosomatic illness called “conversion disorder”. As for his healings of leprosy, they say that these illnesses were not actually leprosy, but some sort of psychosomatic illness that gave the appearance of leprosy. When it comes to Jesus’ raisings of the dead, they say that these individuals were not actually dead but apparently dead — being in a state of coma or catalepsy. Lastly, when it comes to Jesus’ exorcisms of those who were demon-possessed, skeptics attribute this to conversion disorder (seizures) and dissociative identity disorder (or multiple personality disorder). There are five problems with this objection.
One, as scholar Keener says, the gospel reports bear little resemblance to psychotherapy — the avenue through which Jesus would have healed assuming he cured psychosomatic illnesses. Jesus effectively healing psychosomatic illnesses entails that he employed (directly or indirectly) some sort of psychotherapy on those he healed. The problem with this is that the gospel accounts hardly paint anything like psychotherapy. Jesus is not described as asking probing questions to understand the internal or psychological struggles of those he healed. In the same way, recipients of Jesus’ healing do not share personal information about their supposed internal conflict. We also do not see Jesus giving specific advice or comfort per individual regarding their supposed internal conflict — because the individual does not share any personal information of the sort. In fact, when you look at the healing narratives in the gospels, the interaction between Jesus and the recipient can be described as “brief” and “very surface-level”. Even if we were to grant the assumptions of skeptics, that the recipients of healings in these accounts had illnesses that were psychosomatic and that they had particular internal conflicts that were touched by Jesus’ words or actions, it does beg the question — would such a deep internal conflict (to the point that it manifests as an illness) be effectively addressed by such a brief and general encounter? In the end, the idea that Jesus was some sort of excellent proto-psychotherapist does not enjoy inspiring support from our sources.
Two, the idea that Jesus only healed psychosomatic illnesses does not cohere with the fact that he was said to have been a prolific healer. If Jesus only healed psychosomatic illnesses, then he would have failed in the great majority of his healing attempts since most illnesses are organic and not psychosomatic. This, however, does not square with the Jesus as attested to in our sources. As scholar Meggit comments on the illnesses Jesus healed:
“it seems unlikely that their aetiologies were predominantly psychosomatic, the earliest records that we possess of Jesus’ healing ministry do not indicate that he gained his reputation by only healing a small percentage of those that came to him. Yet, it is clear that if the success of Jesus was limited to those individuals that have a psychosomatic basis alone surely such a pattern should be discernible in the records”.
Three, a number of conditions in the gospels cannot have been psychosomatic. John 9:1-34 specifically states that the man Jesus healed was born blind, so he could not have been psychosomatic. All accounts of Jesus raising of the dead (Mk 5:21-23/Matt 9:18-26/Lk 8:40-56, Lk 7:11-17 and Jhn 11:1-45) also cannot be psychosomatic, since death is not a psychologically induced state.
Four, other illnesses in the gospels were also said to have been suffered by the individual for a very long time (Mk 5:24-34/Matt 9:20-22/Lk 8:43-48, Mk 9:21-27 and Jn 5:1-9). It is highly likely that illnesses that are chronic or long-term are organic and not psychosomatic.
Five, when you look at Jesus’ healings in the gospels, they were carried out instantly. Take for example, the healing of the paralytic at the pool at Siloam in John 5:9 (“At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked…”) or the healing of Bartimaeus in Mark 10:52 (“…Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road”). Psychosomatic healings often take time but when Jesus healed, it was instantaneous. This characteristic of Jesus’ healing argues against naturalistic explanations for his miracles because repeated instantaneous cures of different psychosomatic illnesses (e.g. blindness, “leprosy”, “demon-possession”, etc) beggars belief. As noted by scholars Henriksen and Sandnes, appeals to psychotherapy or the placebo effect fail to account for the immediacy of Jesus’ healings:
“Analogies from psychotherapy or placebo may offer partial help in understanding the phenomenon of healing, but both approaches fail to come to terms with the immediacy of Jesus’ healings. The analogies are conditioned on time and gradual change”.
E. Objection 5: Jesus’ healings are the result of the placebo effect.
Another objection to Jesus’ miracles is that they were the result of the placebo effect — people believed Jesus could heal them and so they “psyched themselves” into recovery. There are three problems with this objection.
One, (assuming organic conditions) Jesus was believed by his contemporaries to have healed dramatic ailments such as blindness, paralysis, and leprosy. These are not the type of conditions that people recover from via the placebo effect.
Two, Jesus was also believed to have raised people from the dead, a state which cannot be reversed via the placebo effect.
Three, this objection fails to account for the immediacy of Jesus’ healings. This is because healings by the placebo effect take place gradually over time.
F. Objection 6: Jesus’ raisings from the dead were cases of coma or catalepsy
Since Jesus’ raisings of the dead cannot be explained as a healed psychosomatic illness or the result of the placebo effect, skeptics say that these individuals were not actually dead, but apparently dead — being in a state of coma or catalepsy. These explanations, however, also face difficulty from the immediacy of Jesus’ healings, since coma and catalepsy are deep states beyond the control of the individual, who may not even be conscious. It must also be noted that the immediate recovery described in the gospels shows the recipients talking and moving around (i.e. sitting up, standing up and walking) right away (Mk 5:41-42, Lk 7:14-15 and Jhn 11:41-44). This does not cohere with recoveries from coma or catalepsy since it takes time for the bodies to wake up from such deep inactivity (and in the case of coma, recover from serious damage as well).
Although it is possible, in the case of catalepsy, for a person’s body to have begun to awake prior to Jesus’ visit and then for the individual to show signs of life at the moment of Jesus’ healing, it would still be an incredible coincidence that would make one wonder if it were even repeatable. This brings us to the next problem with this skeptical objection — Jesus was believed to have raised the dead multiple times during his ministry.
The vast majority of people who are believed to be dead are actually dead. Cases of people organically waking up in morgues are incredibly rare. Now, in order to affirm this skeptical explanation, we are supposed to believe that these incredibly rare cases coincided with the exact moment following Jesus’ commands and that this occurred multiple times? This is literally a stretch but even if we were to assume that this happened, its coherence with the remarkable recovery as described in the gospels is still questionable — “Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around…” (Mk 5:42) or “The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother” (Lk 7:15).
III. Conclusion on Jesus’ Miracles
In the end, the historicity of Jesus’ miracles must be confronted. As scholars Chilton and Evans state:
“Any fair reading of the Gospels and other ancient sources (including Josephus) inexorably leads to the conclusion that Jesus was well known in his time as a healer and exorcist. The miracle stories are now treated seriously and are widely accepted by Jesus scholars as deriving from Jesus’ ministry. Several specialized studies have appeared in recent years, which conclude that Jesus did things that were viewed as “miracles”.
Stunningly, the evidence for Jesus’ miracles is so good that we can even say, more specifically, that he claimed and was believed by his contemporaries (i.e. his disciples and others) to have healed the lame, the blind, lepers and raise people from the dead during his ministry.
Comparing the evidence for Jesus’ miracles with that of other claimed miracle-workers around his time, we also see that the evidence for Jesus’ miracles is far superior in terms of a) number of sources, b) earliness of sources and c) satisfaction of other criteria of authenticity. Furthermore, examined more closely, we find that some claimed miracle-workers do not classify as such in the strict sense like Jesus, while dubious claims and sources cast serious doubt on the historicity and strength of other miracle-worker claims.
When it comes to naturalistic explanations put forward by skeptics for the miracles of Jesus (e.g. psychosomatic illnesses, the placebo effect, and coma and catalepsy) we find that they suffer from serious difficulties. The possibility that Jesus only healed psychosomatic illnesses faces difficulty from the facts that (1) the gospels bear little resemblance to psychotherapy, (2) Jesus was said to have been a prolific healer, (3) a number of conditions in the gospels cannot have been psychosomatic, (4) other illnesses in the gospels are unlikely to be psychosomatic and (5) that Jesus’ healings were said to immediate. On the other hand, the possibility that Jesus’ healings were the result of the placebo effect faces difficulty from the facts that (1) Jesus was believed to have healed lameness, blindness, and leprosy, (2) Jesus was believed to have raised people from the dead and that (3) his healings were said to be immediate. The explanation that Jesus’ raisings of the dead were cases of comatose or catalepsy also faces tension with (1) the immediacy of Jesus’ healings and (2) the fact that he was believed to have raised the dead multiple times during his ministry.
In the end, our survey of skeptical explanations shows that they possess tension with the evidence and fail to completely and compellingly explain the data.
On the other hand, Jesus’ being a prolific healer, his healings of the lame, the blind, lepers and his raisings of the dead, the immediacy of his healings, his positive perception among his disciples who observed his healings and exorcisms up close multiple times and concluded that they were miracles, and the charged religious context in which these miracles took place — being carried out by the Jesus, who claimed to be Israel’s long-awaited Messiah, God’s Son in some unique sense (e.g. Mk 14:60-64, Matt 11:27/Lk 10:22, Matt 16:16-20, etc) and strove to proclaim and realize His kingdom — all of these point towards Jesus’ miracles being the result of divine power, as well as the truth of the Judeo-Christian tradition. This explanation faces no tension with evidence and succeeds in explaining the data fully and compellingly.
- As stated by leading scholar on Jesus’ miracles, Graham Twelftree: “There is now almost unanimous agreement among Jesus questers that the historical Jesus performed mighty works” (The Face of New Testament Studies, pg. 206).
Scholar Graham Stanton also notes that those who doubt this fact about Jesus are few: “Few doubt that Jesus possessed unusual gifts as a healer, though of course varied explanations are offered” (Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, pg. 67).
The evidence is so firm that as scholar Luke Timothy Johnson states: “Even the most critical historian can confidently assert that a Jew named Jesus worked as a teacher and wonder-worker in Palestine during the reign of Tiberius, was executed by crucifixion under the prefect Pontius Pilate and continued to have followers after his death” (The Real Jesus, pg. 121).
2. Behind the four gospels lie 5 independent traditions — Mark, Q, M (Matthew special), L (Luke special) and J (the independent Johannine tradition). Currently, the majority view in scholarship is that Mark was the first gospel written, followed by Matthew and Luke, and then followed by John. M refers to material in Mark. Q refers to a shared common source that Matthew and Luke drew upon in composing their gospels that Mark did not know about. M and L refer to unique sources that Matthew and Luke had that are not found in either Mark or Q. Lastly, J refers to material found in John.
Going beyond early attestations to Jesus’ miracles (Mark, Q, M, L, J and Josephus), Jesus’ miracles are also attested to in early Christian writings (2nd century), the writings of Celsus (2nd century) and the Babylonian Talmud (6th century).
When it comes to early Christian writings, Jesus’ miracles are attested to in works by Quadratus and Irenaeus. Although these writings of theirs as a whole have been lost to time, the passages in them which attest to Jesus’ miracles have been preserved by the 4th century Church historian Eusebius, who had access to their works during his time and quoted them in his Ecclestical History.
Quadratus was an early Christian apologist who was born in the second half of the first century and died around 129 AD. He states that some of those healed by Jesus lived into his lifetime: “But the works of our Saviour were always present, for they were true, those who were cured, those who rose from the dead, who not merely appeared as cured and risen, but were constantly present, not only while the Saviour was living, but even for some time after he had gone, so that some of them survived even to our own time” (Hist. eccl. 4.3.1).
Irenaeus (ca. 130-202 AD) was an early Church father, and in a letter to Florinus, he recalls how he listened to bishop Polycarp during his youth and how Polycarp spoke about Jesus’ miracles as told to him by the disciples:
“When I was still a boy I saw you [Florinus] in Lower Asia with Polycarp, when you had high status at the imperial court and wanted to gain his favor. I remember events from those days more clearly than those that happened recently…so that I can even picture the place where the blessed Polycarp sat and conversed, his comings and goings, his character, his personal appearance, his discourses to the crowds, and how he reported his discussions with John and others who had seen the Lord. He recalled their very words, what they reported about the Lord and his miracles and his teaching — things that Polycarp had heard directly from eyewitnesses of the Word of life and reported in full harmony with Scripture” (Hist. eccl. 5.20).
Polycarp (ca. 69-155) was a second-generation Christian and bishop who was instructed by the apostles. He was even ordained by the apostle John himself (who was said to have lived a long life). As Church father Tertullian states in his work “The Prescription against Heretics”, chapter. 32, nos. 1-2:
“If there be any heresies which are bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs] shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some of the apostles or of apostolic men, — a man, moreoever, continued stedfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter”.
Celsus, a fierce pagan critic of Christianity, says that Jesus’ miracles were the result of magic in his work “The True Word” (ca. 177-180 AD): “It was by magic that [Jesus] was able to do the miracles which he appears to have done” (Contra Celsum 1.6 38 68). Celsus’ work has also been lost to time but passages of his work have been preserved by the Church Father Origen, who responds to his critique of Christianity in his Contra Celsum. On the other hand, the Babylonian Talmud states that Jesus practiced “sorcery” and that he “enticed and led Israel astray” (b. Sanh. 43a).
3. The 15 stories of healing miracles in the gospels can be divided into five categories — healing of paralytics (4 cases), healing of the blind (3 cases), healing of leprosy (2 cases), raising the dead (3 cases) and general (6 cases). This general category includes a variety of illnesses: a healing of fever of Peter’s mother in law (Mk 1:29-31/Matt 8:14-15 /Lk 4:38-39), a woman with hemorrhage (Mk 5:24-34/Matt 9:20-22/Lk 8:43-48), a deaf-mute (Mk 7:31-37), a servant with a grave illness (Matt 8:5-13/Lk 7:1-10), dropsy (Lk 14:1-6) and a cut-off ear (Lk 22:51).
4. Testimonium Flavianum (Ant. 18.3.3). Although the passage in this work by Josephus was tampered by a Christian interpolator, the passage I quoted is widely agreed on by scholars (even skeptical scholars) to be authentic. The portions of interpolation are obvious and clumsy, and a Christian interpolator would not have used the word “paradoxical” to describe Jesus’ miracles (paradoxōn is only used once in the New Testament, in Lk 5:26, and it is also a fairly neutral term) but “signs” or “wonders”. As mentioned already, Josephus also uses the word paradoxōn in another work when describing the miracles of the Jewish prophet Elisha. Other portions of the agreed-upon authentic core also have very good reasons for being legitimate. For example, the beginning “Now about this time …” is used by Josephus as a way of introducing a new topic many times in his work. There are also no early Christian parallels that refer to Jesus merely as “a wise man”, but this is a term used by Josephus several times, such as for Solomon and Daniel. The use of the word φῦλον (“phylon” – “race, tribe”) is also not used by Christians about themselves in any works of the time, but Josephus uses it elsewhere when he talks about nations or other distinct groups. All of the above elements mentioned are distinctively Josephean.
5. As for Jesus’ nature miracles, they are disputed among scholars because they more readily indicate supernatural events. For a book on this subject see “The Nature Miracles of Jesus: Problems, Perspectives and Prospects” (edited by Graham Twelftree), which features essays from different scholars on both sides of the aisle, for and against.
It is worth noting that among the nature miracles in the gospels, Meier finds that the story of the feeding of the multitude possesses remarkable historical indicators and likely goes back to some event during Jesus’ ministry (pgs. 959-967). It is the only miracle story in the gospels other than the resurrection to be recounted in all four gospels, and it is also recounted twice in Mark and Matthew — the feeding of the 5,000 and 4,000 (though other scholars see these as two separate events). In terms of attestation, it is independently attested to in Mark and John, and according to Meier, two variant forms of the tradition lying behind Mark’s gospel, which suggests, a long tradition history “reaching back to the early days of the first Christian generation”. As a result, the feeding of the multitude is supported by “an unusually strong attestation of multiple sources”. In addition to this, the miracle account also strongly satisfies the criterion of coherence. As Meier says, Jesus regularly spoke of the kingdom of God under the image of a banquet and was known for dining with others, including sinners (Mk 2:15-17, Matt 11:18-19, Lk 7:33-34; Lk 15:1-2;19:1-10). In the end, this habit and characteristic of Jesus culminates in the Last Supper itself.
Ultimately, Meier states: “In my opinion, the criteria of both multiple attestation and coherence make it likely that, amid the various celebrations of table fellowship Jesus hosted during his ministry, there was one especially memorable one: memorable because of the unusual number of participants, memorable also because, unlike many meals held in towns and villages, this one was held by the Sea of Galilee … What, more precisely, happened at this memorable meal of fellowship among Jesus and his followers by the Sea of Galilee has been a subject of great speculation, some highly imaginative, by modern exegetes … Whether something actually miraculous took place is not open to verification by the means available to the historian. A decision pro or con will ultimately depend on one’s worldview, not on what purely historical investigation can tell us about the event.
6. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 622.
7. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 630.
When it comes to Meier, who I relied on significantly in this article, I want to point out that while he is a Catholic priest, his approach towards the historical Jesus is moderate (neither conservative nor liberal). He defines his approach as imagining a Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Agnostic scholar locked in the basement of the Harvard Divinity school library and not being allowed to emerge until they hammer out a document of agreement about the historical Jesus. According to Meier, each scholar will not be completely satisfied and will have to make concessions. Ultimately, his approach is a solid academic exercise at compromise among people who passionately disagree with each other. As a result, the fact that Meier comes to the conclusions that he does regarding the evidence for Jesus miracles is very impressive — given his reputation and approach.
8. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 622 and 623
9. As scholar James Tabor notes: “Huge crowds gathered to hear him preach and to witness the reported healings and exorcisms.” (The Jesus Dynasty).
Paula Friedrickson, another scholar, comments: “An ability to work cures, further, coheres with another datum from Jesus’ mission: He had a popular following, which such an ability helps to account for” (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews).
10. Spitzer, God So Loved The World, pg. 201-202.
11. Brown, Introduction to New Testament Christology, pg. 65
12. Brown, An Introduction to New Testament Christology, pg. 63
13. In some cases, however, Jesus is also moved to heal without being asked (Mk 1:21-28, Lk 7:11-17; 14:1-6 and Jhn 5: 1-9; 9:1-34; 11:17-44).
14. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 624
15. Brown, Introduction to the New Testament Christology, pgs. 63-65.
Scholar Brown notes that although Jesus’ miracles caused people to wonder and admire, this was only a secondary effect. When there is an attempt by others to make them primary, by urging Jesus to show off miracles, he is pictured as refusing (e.g. Mk 8:11-13; 15:31-32 and Matt 4:5-7; Matt 12:38-12). This is another aspect in which Jesus’ miracles differ from those of Apollonius in Philostratus’ The Life.
16. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 622
17. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 622-623
18. Theissen and Merz, The Historical Jesus, pg. 309
19. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 624
20. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, pg. 160
21. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, pg. 187
22. The impressive reflection of the gospels to the Palestinian-Jewish milieu of the period of Jesus (as confirmed by history, archaeology and literature) is also a significant point in favor of the historicity of the Gospels in general. As stated by Latourelle, who well-summarizes the work of highly respected scholar Beda Rigaux (former president of SNTS, an international society of New Testament scholars): “The evangelical description [of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John] of the human environment (work, habitation, professions), of the linguistic and cultural environment (patterns of thought, Aramaic substratum), of the social, economic, political and juridical environment, of the religious environment especially (with its rivalries between Pharisees and Sadducees, its religious preoccupations concerning the clean and the unclean, the law and the Sabbath, demons and angels, the poor and the rich, the Kingdom of God and the end of time), the evangelical description of all this is remarkably faithful to the complex picture of Palestine at the time of Jesus” (Finding Jesus through the Gospels: History and Hermeneutics, pg. 227).
23. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pgs. 685, 698, 706 and 774.
Healing the paralyzed or crippled is attested to in Mark, Q, L and J; healing the blind in Mark, Q and J; lepers in Mark, Q and L and raising the dead in Mark, Q, L and J.
24. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pgs. 969-970.
It must be noted that other miracle stories may have fair indicators of historicity as Meier himself recognizes (for example, he even inclines towards the other two accounts of Jesus raising the dead in the gospels as going back to his ministry). However, the particular miracle stories mentioned pertaining to Jesus’ healings of the lame (Mark 2:1-12 and John 5:1-9), the blind (Mark 10:46-52, Mark 8:22-26 and John 9) and raising the dead (Mark 5:21-43) are those that have sufficient indicators to make him come to a more firm positive conclusion that these likely go back to the historical Jesus.
25. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 833
26. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pgs. 685, 686, 698, 706, 832 and 837.
It must be noted that the saying of Jesus in Q (Matt 11:2-6/ Lk 7:18-23) is a significant piece of evidence in favor of Jesus being known to have healed the blind, the lame, lepers and raise the dead during his ministry. Upon his analysis, Meier deems its core as authentic.
“…we saw good reason for accepting the core of the periscope (Matt 11:2-6 II Luke 7:18-23) as historical. There is no need to repeat the analysis of the pericope here. All that need be said is that when Jesus desired to sum up in a few words his miracle-working activity, “the lame walk” (choloi peripatousin) stood out in his mind as one of the five types of miracles that especially characterized his ministry of healing — which in turn symbolized and partially realized God’s coming rule and kingdom. The generalizing plural “the lame walk” correlates well with the prominence of four or five Gospel narratives dealing with paralyzed or crippled people. Whatever our judgement about this or that individual story, this type of miracle is firmly rooted in the earliest traditions of Jesus’ ministry” (pgs 685-686).
“All in all, the tradition that Jesus healed the blind stands alongside the tradition that he worked exorcisms as one of the best attested miracle traditions in the Four Gospels” (pg. 698).
“I think that Mark, Q, and L do allow us to state that during his ministry Jesus claimed to heal lepers and was thought by other people to have done so” (pg. 706).
“The early church did not invent the picture of Jesus raising the dead out of thin air. The multiple attestation of sources and forms argues strongly that Jesus raised the dead — whatever we think of the truth of that claim — goes back to the public ministry and to Jesus himself. Apparently early Christians believed that Jesus raised the dead because his disciples believed it during his public ministry” (pg. 832).
“Unless we wish to throw the criteria of historicity overboard in favor of a protean Jesus who always confirms to the religious predilections of every individual, the criteria impose on us the picture of a 1st-century Palestinian Jew who performed startling deeds that both he and at least some of his audience judged to be miraculous power. To Jesus’ mind these acts — including what he claimed to be acts of raising the dead — both proclaimed and actualized, however imperfectly, the kingdom of God … To excise these acts from the ministry of the historical Jesus is to excise a good deal of what he was all about” (pg 837).
27. Hunter, Jesus: Lord and Saviour, pg. 63: “No Christian with a respect for his intellectual integrity need doubt that Jesus restored sight to the blind, helped deaf men to hear again, enabled lame men to walk, cleansed lepers, cured those thought to be possessed by evil spirits, and brought back to life those apparently dead. For these miracles the historical evidence is excellent”.
28. Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker, pg. 345
29. Twelftree, The Face of New Testament Studies, pg. 206
30. Borg (liberal Protestant “Christian” and member of the Jesus Seminar), Bultman (atheist), Crossan (“Catholic”, very radical and member of the Jesus Seminar), Vermes (non-religious Jew) and Paula Fredricksen (liberal Jew).
31. Borg, Jesus, A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship, pg. 61
32. Bultman, Jesus, pg. 124.
Even Bultman could not deny this fact about Jesus during his time, when the scholarship was much more skeptical (operating under a lot more skeptical assumptions).
33. Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, pg. 332
34. Vermes in his The Religion of Jesus the Jew (1993).
35. Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, p. 114.
36. Twelftree, Jesus: The Miracle Worker, pg. 247
37. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 624
38. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, pg. 74-76.
However, when it comes to John in particular, Ehrman (an atheist scholar himself) holds to a dating of 90-95 AD.
39. Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pg. 7
Disciples during the time of Jesus were typically in the range of late teens-20s age-wise. Assuming that a disciple was 25 years old when Jesus died, he would be 65-95 years old during the period the gospels were written (70-100 AD). Witnesses to Jesus’ ministry, including recipients of his healing, also stretched different age groups — including those of the disciples and younger. Furthermore, while eyewitnesses were getting scarce during the writing of Matthew, Luke and John, it must be noted that the second Christian generation (i.e. those instructed by the apostles) would have been very much alive.
It must also be noted that we are assuming the standard dating here. The gospels could have been written earlier than 70 AD. The standard dating is based on (1) the two source hypothesis (the theory that Mark wrote first, Matthew and Luke drew upon Mark, a shared source named Q as well as their own unique sources) and (2) the assumption that Jesus could not have predicted the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD. When it comes to the latter point, since Mark, Matthew and Luke record Jesus’ prediction, these predictions of his in the gospels must have been “predictions after the fact” — written first by Mark after the destruction occurred or at the least or slightly before it, when such an event could have been anticipated. As a result of this dating for Mark’s gospel, and assuming the truth of the two-source hypothesis, Matthew and Luke’s gospels are dated around 80-85 AD, in order to give enough time for Mark to be copied, recopied and circulated throughout the Roman Empire and find their way to the other two evangelists. Then follows John, the last gospel written, though unlike Matthew and Luke, John wrote independently ca. 90-100 AD.
As you can see, assuming the truth of the two-source hypothesis, the datings of the other three gospels depend on Mark — so if Mark is moved earlier, then the rest follow. If the two-source theory is incorrect, then this would also change the dating range since the dependency of the sources would be different (e.g. the Farrer theory, which has gained good support in the last few decades, states that Mark wrote first, Matthew wrote second and that Luke used them both). A lot can be said on the two-source hypothesis and alternative theories, as well as the dating of the gospels, pre or post 70 AD (I will write a post on the dating of the gospels in the future), but for now, it is enough to note two things.
One, the synoptic problem (i.e. the order in which Mark, Matthew and Luke were written) is, as the highly respected scholar Joseph Fitzmeyer noted, “insoluble”. There are literally dozens of theories out there (e.g. the Augustinian theory, Griesbach theory, Farrer theory, etc) and scholars cannot agree on which one is correct. Although the two-source theory enjoys a lot of support from the evidence and is currently the majority view, it is also far from perfect — possessing serious problems and coming under substantial fire even in recent decades (see Mark Goodacre’s “The Case Against Q”).
Two, bracketing anti-supernaturalist presuppositions (e.g. that Jesus could not have predicted the destruction of the Jerusalem temple), there is objectively very good evidence that Mark, Matthew, and Luke were written before 70 AD. I will not discuss the evidence that favors a pre-70 dating now but to start — consider the fact that the destruction of the Jerusalem temple is never mentioned as a past event in Mark, Matthew or Luke and that the prediction of the Temple’s destruction in Mark and Matthew contain details that would make much more sense if they were warnings before the event:
But when you see the abomination of desolation set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains…Pray that it may not happen in winter. (Mark 13:14; 18)
So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains … Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath (Matt 24:15, 20).
Why would Mark and Matthew exhort their readers to pray that the destruction of the Temple would not happen in the winter when they already knew that it happened in the late summer? Why would Matthew add that his readers pray that it would not happen on the Sabbath when they already knew the day of the week in which it happened?
For this and other very good reasons, you have many scholars dissenting against the standard dating. The late Larry Hurtado for example, one of the best scholars of our generation, dates Mark between 50-75 AD. John A.T. Robinson, a prominent liberal Christian scholar, dates Mark between 45-60 AD. James Crossley and Maurice Casey, both respected atheist scholars, stunningly date Mark within 10 years after the death of Jesus, no later than 40 AD.
Danny Zacharias, at his blog, also surveys the datings for Matthew in standard New Testament textbooks and in major commentaries of the gospel. In his limited survey, he finds that textbooks lean more towards the later standard dating while commentaries lean more towards pre-70 AD datings (according to to Zacharias’ survey, Carson, Morris, Blomberg, Gundry, Hagner, Nolland, France and Evans date Matthew pre-70 AD in their commentaries).
In the end, the dating of the gospels is really an open field. Bracketing the assumption that Jesus could not have predicted the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, there are very good reasons for a pre-70 datings. Even if we were to operate under a naturalistic worldview, it is possible for the destruction of the Jerusalem temple to have been “correctly prophesized” — it was destroyed before after-all by the Babylonian Empire, and this is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible itself (2 Kings 25:8-10). The only thing we do know, due to ancient manuscript discoveries of the gospels other indicators, is that Mark, Matthew, and Luke were all written within the 1st century and that John very probably was as well.
40. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 582-583.
In his work, Meier discusses Honi’s embellished account in the Mishna in more detail.
41. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pgs. 582.
Meier says that he could even “provide a few names from personal experience”.
42. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pgs. 587-588.
43. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 581
44. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 625
45. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 578
46. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, pg. 5: “Fifty years ago we were drilled in the critical orthodoxy of the form-critical school which insisted that the gospels were not to be seen as biographies, but since then there has been a massive swing in scholarly opinion on this point, and increasingly sophisticated study of the nature of biographical writing in the ancient world has led to a general recognition that, for all the distinctiveness of its Christian content and orientation, in terms of literary form Mark’s book (and those of Matthew, Luke and John) would have seemed to an educated reader in the first century to fall into roughly the same category as the lives of famous men pioneered by Cornelius Nepos and soon to reach their most famous expression in the ‘Parallel Lives’ of Plutarch”
47. Keener, Christobiography: Memory, History and the Reliability of the Gospels (2019): “A clearly greater number of scholars, however, contend that even Damis is a fiction of either Philostratus or (as I think somewhat more likely) an earlier pseudepigrapher”.
48. Kee, Miracle in the Early Christian World, pg. 256.
49. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 580
50. Keener, Christobiography: Memory, History and the Reliability of the Gospels: “A number of his accounts of Apollonius even resemble reports from Christian Gospels, though most frequently of the apocryphal variety … Given the relative dates, Christian stories would have been at least among the significant potential influences on his storytelling approach (offering literary fodder for miracle stories)”.
51. Kee, Miracle in the Early Christian World, pg. 257
52. Bosworth, Pseudo-Calllisthenes.
53. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 580-581
54. Strictly speaking, these individuals are not saints but I wanted to give more modern examples. Solanus Casey is beatified, one step away from sainthood while Francis Houle’s case for canonization was opened in 2018.
For Solanus Casey, see this article by Patricia Treece.
For Francis Houle, see this article at the National Catholic Register.
In the future, I plan on tackling on my blog (among other topics, when it comes to the historical evidence for Christianity) Christian miraculous healings, as well as the mystical gifts and religious experiences of Christian saints. When these cases are examined in detail, they are very compelling.
When it comes to healings in particular, we have many cases of healing in modern times. As a result, we have testimony and information on the illnesses these healed individuals suffered from (e.g. diagnosis by doctors and documentation), allowing us to rule out the possibility of the conditions being psychosomatic.
Anyone familiar with the Church’s modus operandi when it comes to miraculous claims knows that they adopt a very skeptical and cautious approach. When it comes to the Church’s investigations into miracles for canonization in particular, see the testimony of atheist scientist Jacalyn Duffin, who was asked to do a blind reading for a possible miracle for canonization and also, afterward, looked into the Vatican archives herself to see the Church’s documentation on the miraculous healings it approved for its canonization processes.
55. Korson, G. (2018). “Demons Don’t Sleep: Interview with a Demonologist”. Catholic Answers. Retrieved from: https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/demons-dont-sleep-interview-with-a-demonologist
According to Adam Christian Blai (MA in psychology), a theological consultant in religious demonology and exorcism for the Diocese of Pittsburgh: “The Church generally defines three types of extraordinary demonic activity: demonic infestation, oppression/obsession, and possession. Infestation is when demons have the right to do extraordinary things in a place. Oppression and obsession are both translated from the Latin obsessio; it means a personal extraordinary attack on a person. Possession is when the demon has gained the rights to take over the body but not the soul”.
56. See, for example, the testimony of Jane Porter, who experienced a false healing through an Amazon pagan rite. Shortly afterward, her illness returned, and along with it, demonic activity in her life.
See also the testimonies of former occult practitioners Julie Frame and Lianne Douglas when it comes to the devil’s preternatural abilities manifesting in the occult. Julie and Lianne are now Christians.
Julie Frame: “As I started to become more interested and studying and learning more about that stuff I started having experiences which I thought [(emphasis)] were good experiences, I felt like I was in communication with angels and I felt like I was in communication with dead loved ones that were in Heaven and wanted to send a message to the people they loved and I began getting those messages. I actually started taking classes and I actually started doing mediumship for a short time and you know I would be in a session with someone and be sitting there and in my mind spiritually I would receive information which I felt like was coming from an angel or spirit guide and that kind information ranged from, you know, the name, the exact name, the date of birth, the age, I was receiving all the information about who they were, and then giving messages that I felt I was receiving and I did that for a little while uh I was shocked by the fact that I would sit down with this person and I would know everything about their dead loved one…”
Lianne Douglas (narrating an experience as she was getting closer to Christ): “One of the things that I did was I asked my spirit guides something because my spirit guides have been getting a lot more quiet in the past few weeks. They have been getting really quiet. And just the other day, I said to my spirit guides, “show me yourselves, in the name of Jesus Christ…show me yourselves”. And one of them just starts laughing…laughing, laughing, laughing…the other one showed me themselves as some kind of reptilian creature. I am shaking, shaking the minute talking about this because it’s like everything that I thought I knew … it’s like it’s crumbling away and I’m being slowly being delivered to the real truth. There are so many different new age practices that I’ve tried to learn and get involved in and I didn’t realize that they can take you away from [God]”.
As Christian Blai says: “Demons usually start with a con game. They may pretend to be a dead loved one, a holy angel, the spirit of a child in distress, or another spirit … Later, when the person is getting in too deep, the demons stop acting like a harmless servant and start dictating what the person can and cannot do … Demons never give what they promise, not really, and it’s all taken away once the person is in too deep to back out on their own”.
There are many more testimonies on Youtube by former new age practitioners who converted Christianity, detailing their experiences in the occult and warning others not to engage in it.
57. Ibrahim, A. (September, 8, 2015) Did Muhhamad Perform Miracles? First Things. Retrieved from: https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/09/did-muhammad-perform-miracles
58. Other healings in the gospels pose further complications to the idea that Jesus healed through psychotherapy. The gospels record Jesus healing “at a distance” a number of times (Mk 7:24-30/Matt 15:21-28, Matt 8:5-13/Lk 7:1-10 and Jhn 4:46-54). These are cases wherein a person asks Jesus to heal someone they love or care about at home (in two of the three cases, the recipients of the healing were gravely ill), and then, upon returning to check on them, the petitioner finds the recipient healed. These healings could not have been healed by Jesus through some sort of psychotherapy because he and the recipient did not interact (possibly, the recipient may not have even known that someone was asking for their healing).
59. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts: “…the Gospel reports bear little resemblance to psychotherapy (or modern medicine)”.
60. Meggit, The Historical Jesus and Healing, pg. 31.
Scholar Meggit continues, saying that the sole case of Jesus only being able to heal a few people is in his visit to Nazareth in Mark and Matthew, and that this one case is not what we would expect if he only failed psychosomatic illnesses: “The earliest records that we possess of Jesus’ healing ministry do not indicate that he gained his reputation by nly healing a small percentage of those that came to him. Yet, it is clear that if the success of Jesus was limited to those individuals presenting with symptoms that have a psychosomatic basis alone surely such a pattern should be discernible in the records. However, only in the tradition about Jesus’ healings in Nazareth do we get the indication that Jesus could only heal a few of those that came to him (Matt 13:58, Mark 6.5)”
Scholar Keener raises the same question in his discussion on the possibility of psychosomatic cures for Jesus’ healings: “…many have attributed Jesus’ healing miracles to psychic abilities or the ailments cured to psychosomatic causes … If Jesus merely discerned which illnesses were psychosomatic, his widespread reputation as an extraordinary healer becomes more difficult to explain. Among the categories of disorders that multiple attestation suggests that Jesus cured are blindness, skin disorders (“leprosy”), and occasionally death. Some summaries (e.g. in Q, Matt11:5//Luke 7:22), not to mention specific cases, suggest that Jesus healed multiple cases of blindness, deafness, leprosy, inability to walk and death. Would he have encountered so many psychosomatic cases, and primarily psychosomatic cases, of such dramatic ailments, in a one-to three-year ministry in Galilee? Some suggest that Jesus’s cures of blindness, paralysis, and the like reflect his cure of a particular psychiatic disorder; yet how many psychiartists regularly cure cases of these afflictions (especially publicly and immediately)? If Jesus meanwhile would have regularly failed with irreversible organic cases of blindness and leprosy, yet could not distinguish which cases were organic beforehand, would we not find more defensive explanations (like the one in Nazareth, Mark 6:5-6)? Some detractors of the psychic powers line of explanation also find it interesting that some observers are prepared to allow unproved psychic powers for humans that they reject as unacceptable violations of nature’s uniformity if assigned to God” (Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts).
According to Mark, the reason why Jesus could not heal in Nazareth, his hometown, was because of the lack of faith people had there. Specifically, the people could not believe that Jesus, whose family they knew and who lived in such proximity to them, was exhibiting such remarkable wisdom (in his preaching) and powers (in his miracles). This is why Jesus responds to the situation saying: “no prophet is without honor is his own hometown, his own people and his own home” — communicating his rejection at Nazareth, as well as the tendency of the prophets in the Old Testament to be rejected by those close to them as well. Jesus himself touches on this pattern again in Luke 4:23-27: “… And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum. Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian”. Psychologically, those who are more familiar with a person and have known them for a long time tend to see them as more human than those who only know their public face. So while Jesus was well-received in other places, it does make sense for him to have been met with doubt and disbelief at Nazareth.
61. Meggit, The Historical Jesus and Healing, pg. 31
62. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts
63. Strobel Interview with Dr. Gary Collins (Strobel, The Case for Christ, pg. 160).
64. As prominent scholar Craig Keener comments in an interview: “[Y]ou offset multiple attestations for certain kinds of miracles, like the curing of blindness, the raising of the dead, and so on, and those are not the kinds of things that, raising from the dead certainly doesn’t work for psychosomatic explanations, the curing of blindness—maybe gradually, or something like that, but on multiple occasions, instantly, in public? … on the normal grounds we would use to reconstruct evidence from the first century, we have very good evidence for trusting that Jesus was known for these things, Jesus was experienced in this way, and unless you start with the premise that miracles can’t happen, I think miracles are the best explanation for this side of his public ministry”.
Retrieved from: https://apologetics315.com/2012/10/craig-keener-interview-on-miracles-transcript/
65. Henriksen and Sandnes, Jesus as Healer: A Gospel for the Body, pg. 249
66. Henriksen and Sandnes, Jesus as Healer: A Gospel for the Body, pg. 249
67. Chilton and Evans, Authenticating the Activities of Jesus, 11-12