The miracles of Jesus
Separate consideration is here given to the miracles of Jesus because of their importance for a right understanding of His mission. The approach of many toward the gospel narratives is governed by their prior approach to the miracles. It is essential therefore to discuss something of their validity and character before examining their purpose.
The validity of miracles
Various approaches to Jesus’ miracles
No one looking at the life of Jesus Christ can proceed far without being required to come to terms with His miracles. There are philosophical and scientific problems which at once arise, as a result of which many conclude for the impossibility of miracles. It is not in place here to debate this issue, but no serious investigation of the life of Jesus can pass it by. It naturally follows that those who adopt the position that miracles do not happen are obliged to explain away the miraculous elements in the gospel narratives.
During the period of 19th-cent. criticism this was done in two different ways, as was pointed out in the discussion on the various approaches to the sources for the life of Jesus. Either the miracles were rationalized and retained in the narrative or else they were discounted and consequently ignored. There is no denying that the presence of these miraculous elements was a considerable embarrassment.
During the 20th cent. however, there has been much recession of scientific skepticism regarding the possibility of miracles, although the discounting of the miracles as data for a reconstruction of the historical Jesus is still a powerful movement. Those of the Bultmann school of thought who challenge the Jesus of history find no difficulty over the miracles, for the miracle stories are considered to be creations of the primitive communities. But it should be noted that the dispensing with the miraculous in this case is part of the essentially a priori position of this school and does not follow from a detailed consideration of the evidence. Some who have passionately believed in the historical Jesus, as the liberal schools of the 19th and early 20th centuries did, have attempted to produce lives of Jesus which lack the miraculous element, but these have more the appearance of what their authors wanted to see as the historical Jesus rather than what corresponds to historical facts. The miracles of Jesus are too baffling for those who wish to reduce everything to the level of their own experience.
The fact is that miracles are deeply imprinted on the records of the gospels, and it seems reasonable to consider them as an essential part of the over-all presentation of Jesus. The problem whether they may be regarded as actual happenings or whether they have been modified or even created in course of the transmission of the traditions is a relevant one and will be considered in the course of the general comments on the miracles of Jesus.
The classification of miracles
The various miracles which are attributed to Jesus may be placed into one of two categories, either healing miracles or nature miracles. The distinction is important because less difficulty is thought to attach to many of the healing miracles than to the nature miracles, mainly because they are more open to medical explanation.
Among the healing miracles a further classification has been suggested between cases of nervous disorders and other cases, because for the former modern science has methods of bringing relief which were unknown to the time of Jesus. Some conditions related in the gospels may certainly be cases where mind has dominated over matter and where the greater mind of Jesus brought physical relief. Such an explanation may be the right one in some cases, but Jesus in His miracles was infinitely more than a super-psychologist or psychiatrist. Those cases in which He concerned Himself with the sin of those who were healed shows that His main concern was spiritual. At the same time, what power the modern psychologist has is but a pale reflection of the competence with which Jesus dealt with the nervous conditions of men.
On the other hand, there are certainly some healing miracles which cannot be regarded as cases with which modern medical science could deal to bring about a similar result. A withered hand cannot be restored, nor can dead people be brought back to life after an interval of time. There is a considerable element of the inexplicable in the miracles attributed to Jesus, which in the end must either be accepted or rejected. The issue really rests on the question, “Was Jesus the kind of person who might reasonably be expected to do the inexplicable?” An attempt will be made below to give adequate reasons for an affirmative answer to this question, but before doing so some comments are necessary on the nature miracles.
The characteristics of the gospel miracles
Form critics have pointed out that the healing miracle stories conform to a pattern, since they contain a description of the condition, followed generally by some indication that the person desired to be healed, with some evidence of faith on the part of the healed, and this is then followed by an account of the healing, usually with some comment on the result. It is not surprising that most healing stories follow a similar pattern. But it is significant that the part played by faith is so often stressed in the synoptic gospels, although it is not mentioned in every case. The ten lepers’ cry for mercy was evidently regarded as evidence of a sufficient faith-relationship (Luke 17:11ff.), for Jesus at once proceeded to heal them. The faith element marks out Jesus as distinct from a mere wonder worker whose actions are directed toward drawing attention to Himself. That the healing miracles depended on a relationship of trust is evident from the gospels, and in this respect the miracles themselves are valuable evidence that Jesus was the kind of person who elicited trust in Himself.
The faith-element is not brought to the fore to the same extent in the fourth gospel, but it is by no means absent. The characteristic feature in this gospel is the use of the word “sign,” which draws attention to the spiritual significance behind the event. More will be said on this when the purpose of the miracles is discussed, but it is again clear that none of these miracles was performed for its own sake. Throughout the accounts there is a marked restraint, and indeed on many occasions silence regarding a healing is specifically enjoined.
Principles of verification
Due to the various source theories which have been propounded there has been a tendency to differentiate between the miracle stories on the basis of the number of witnesses which attest to any individual incident. Thus those in three or four gospels are regarded as superior to those which appear in only one or two. In this way such miracles as the coin in the fish’s mouth (Matt 17:24f.) or the mass raisings from the tombs (Matt 27:52f.) are regarded as inferior. But the criterion used is not a good one, for a single witness may be as reliable as two or three. If the testimony of one witness becomes suspect in comparison with others this is a different matter, but in the instances cited this is not proved. Matthew does not heighten the miraculous when relating events also recorded by others, and in view of this there is no reason to expect that he will do so when recording unique material.
It must be assumed that all the miracles which have been preserved in the gospel tradition were evidently regarded as equally authentic. All that the modern scholar can do is to examine each individually with a view to ascertaining its probability, but this quest may be impossible since probability will depend on a prior concept of the power of Jesus. Thus this whole question of probability deserves further examination.
The probability of the miracles
As mentioned at the commencement of this chapter on miracles, probability may be decided on philosophical or scientific grounds. If this results in a negative conclusion, no specific discussion of the miracles of Jesus will be valid. But another and more satisfactory method, which does not in itself exclude philosophical and scientific considerations, is to view the whole matter historically and theologically. The first stage is the gospel accounts, for these testify to the strong belief on the part of the evangelists and presumably also the Early Church that Jesus performed such miracles. This fact raises the question of the origin of such a firm faith. If Jesus had performed no works of this character, it is difficult to believe that in such a comparatively short period so many remarkable works would have been attributed to Him. The possibility must be allowed that the early Christians created stories out of the impetus of their new-found faith in Jesus Christ, but it is incredible that they created them ex nihilo. The fact that they found nothing incongruous between the gospel account of the miracles and their view of Jesus suggests that their high regard for Him had some basis in historic fact. The Church’s Easter faith presupposed that the historical Jesus was capable of performing miracles.
This leads to what is prob. the most important consideration in any approach to miracles—the relevance of the Resurrection of Christ for the inquiry. Christianity itself rests on a stupendous miracle—the raising of Christ from the dead—and it may reasonably be maintained that, if God raised Christ from the dead, the other miracles present no difficulty. The force of this position is naturally lost on those who do not regard the Resurrection as historical, but as having taken place in the experience of believers (as Bultmann). If the remarkable emergence of the Christian faith in the form of a personal faith in the risen Christ is to be explained at all, it demands some explanation which adequately accounts for the totally unexpected transformation in the first Christian disciples. The actual Resurrection of Christ as an objective and verifiable reality, testified to by innumerable eyewitnesses, is alone sufficient. Moreover, the evidences for the appearances of the risen Christ are so well attested that they cannot be explained away without doing injustice to the witnesses’ testimony.
Granted, therefore, that the Resurrection of Jesus must be regarded as an integral part of the Christian faith, it is difficult to see how lesser miracles could be treated as incongruous, unless they were out of keeping with what the gospels record about the risen Christ. But this is not true. It may be safely claimed that there is not one of the miracles which could not be conceived of as the work of Jesus. There is a complete absence of the tendency, seen all too vividly in the later church, to embellish miracle stories with fantastic details.
A further consideration is the evidence from the temptation of Jesus, which shows His general approach to the miraculous. It is clear that self-interest was at once rejected as an unworthy motive for the performing of miracles. This is clear from the refusal to provide bread from stones, although there is an implicit assumption that Jesus had power to do so; otherwise the temptation would have been entirely unreal. Moreover, the suggestion that Jesus should throw Himself from the pinnacle of the Temple was equally refused because He did not accept the principle that miraculous power should be used for self-display. If the miracle stories are approached through the temptation narrative, the motives behind them will not be misconstrued.
Following this reference to the temptation, some mention must be made of the various instances of exorcisms in the gospels, for they show the close connection between many of the healing miracles and the spirit world. Some of the conditions described in the gospels may now be described in psychiatric terminology, but this does not explain away the spiritual conflict involved. Exorcism forms an important aspect of the ministry of the Church, and it is inconceivable that Jesus regarded His own exorcisms as anything other than evidence of His power over the enemy. It should be noted, however, that the cases of demon possession which are recorded are not cases of excessive wickedness in the individual possessed.
The characteristic features of the condition of those possessed must have presented Jesus with a constant challenge. A primitive Church, which believed that Jesus in His death and Resurrection had vanquished the power of evil, would find no difficulty in the cases of exorcisms in the gospels. It would have been more surprising if such cases had been lacking.
The purpose of the miracles
It is to the gospel of John that we must turn for a statement of the evangelist’s purpose in including the “signs of Jesus.” He says it is that men might “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,” but it is relevant to inquire whether Jesus Himself had a similar view. It is at once noticeable that He does not describe His own works as signs, but He does, according to John, urge men to believe His works if they cannot believe His words (John 10:38). Did He then regard His miracles as didactic, as designed to impart some spiritual truth? Some scholars have maintained this to such an extent that they have suggested that some of the stories were first parables, which in course of transmission have been transformed into miracles. The withering of the fig tree has been cited as an example. But, there is no reason why a miracle might not perform the function of a parable, without it being supposed that this accounts for its origin. In many of the events recorded some spiritual lessons are discernible, and it seems reasonable to suppose that this was part of the purpose of Jesus. The stilling of the storm, for instance, drew attention to the poverty of the disciples’ faith.
Do the miracles have any bearing upon the Messianic claims of Jesus? Whatever the general expectancy that the coming Messiah would perform signs, the gospels do not give the impression that Jesus intended observers to deduce from His miracles evidence of His Messianic office. Indeed, the temptation narrative would seem to be against any display. Miracles may be regarded as corroborating evidence for Christians who had already come to identify the risen Christ with the long awaited Jewish Messiah, but this does not appear to be a main motive for the miracles. One motive which is much stressed in the synoptic gospels is compassion. The healing miracles were often performed when a person’s need awoke compassion in the Healer, and this factor draws attention to the intensely human aspect of many of the miracles. That Jesus was frequently most concerned with this aspect is seen from the fact that silence was sometimes immediately enjoined. A few acts of compassion could otherwise easily have grown into a mass ministry of healing, which Jesus clearly avoided, because it would deflect Him from His main redemptive purpose.
The most important thing about the miracles is what one learns from them about Jesus Himself. The element of restraint is self-evident. The miracles are samples of a power which belonged to the nature of Jesus, and His refraining from using that power is on occasions more eloquent than its use. He could have commanded more than twelve legions of angels (Matt 26:53) to come to His aid, but this exercise of power would have run counter to the purpose of His mission. Indeed, it is here that the key to an understanding of the miracles is to be found, for Jesus had one dominating purpose—to fulfill the Father’s will. This is brought out more clearly in John’s gospel than elsewhere, but it is of utmost importance. He did not regard any of His works as His own. They were the Father’s works. They are evidences, therefore, of the Father’s pleasure in the Son, and are accordingly a witness to His divine claims.
The miracles may be incredible as works of a man, however perfect, but new possibilities are opened up when the man concerned, not only claimed to be Son of God, but was acknowledged to be so by the early Christians.