6 Miracles in:

Steuart Campbell

The Rise and Fall of Jesus, page 137 - 148

A Complete Explanation for the Life of Jesus and the Origin of Christianity

3. Edition 2019, ISBN print: 978-3-8288-4346-2, ISBN online: 978-3-8288-7327-8,

Tectum, Baden-Baden
Bibliographic information
Miracles While John the Baptist’s identification was vital to his claim to be the Messiah, Jesus’ fame was established more than anything by his reputation for performing miracles, especially curing disease or infirmity. He may not have sought this fame. Almost always, as if he wished to avoid publicity, he commanded his patient to tell no one of the recovery.* Reimarus believed that Jesus intentionally ordered the cured to keep quiet so that they would be more eager not to do so, but such a cynical view is not justified. Klausner (1925) identified five types of alleged miracle, as follows: 1. Miracles due to a wish to fulfil some statement in the Old Testament or to imitate some prophet. He argued that, if Jesus took the place of John, then he must imitate Elijah. ‘If Elijah and Elisha raised children from the dead, then Jesus must raise the daughter of Jairus’ (Mark 5:22–24, 35–43). If Elijah increased the oil of the cruse and satisfied one hundred men with twenty loaves (I Kings 4:1–37, 42–44), then Jesus must satisfy five thousand. Jesus was thought to be greater than Elijah. Schonfield (1974:42) suggested that the story of the raising of the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11–16) was constructed from Elijah-Elisha stories. 2. Poetical descriptions that, in the minds of the disciples, were transformed into miracles. The strong imagination of the simple disciples turned the commonplace into the miraculous. For example, it is suggested that the parable of the fig tree (Mark 13:28) was confused with the case of the barren fig tree (Mark 11:13). The Transfiguration may also fall into this category (see below). 6 * For example Matt. 8:4, although Powell believed it 'a patent absurdity' and an insertion. 137 3. Illusion. An example is where Jesus appeared to walk on water (but see below). 4. Acts only apparently miraculous. An example is the storm on the Sea of Galilee. 5. The curing of numerous ‘nerve cases’. The power of suggestion cured nervous and hysterical disorders. Sanders (1993) distinguished between healing miracles, exorcisms and nature miracles. He treated the ‘unattractive story’ of the Gadarene swine (Matt. 8:28–34) as ‘the healing of a hopelessly possessed man’, but was ‘at a loss to explain the story in the sense of finding a historical kernel’ and he concluded that the story is not subject to rational explanation. He noted that whether the incident occurred at Gadara (Matt.) or Gerasa (Mark; Luke), neither place was anywhere near water (Sanders 1993:155). In fact it was not a miracle but an allegory. Humphrey (1995), misunderstanding Jesus’ purpose, suggested that he accomplished his ‘miracles’ by means of the trickery and deception typical of his time and that he may even have believed that he did have supernatural power. Alternatively Jesus may have turned to trickery on finding that there was no supernatural power. Salibi (1988), apparently misled by Matthew 8:17, believed that the healing miracles were interpolated from Isaiah 53:4. Helms (1989:61) drew attention to the fact that while, in the Synoptic Gospels, ‘faith causes miracles’, in John ‘miracles cause faith’. It matters not, for there were no miracles. Sight to the blind According to Luke, Jesus was once invited to read from the scroll of the Scriptures in the synagogue of his home town, erroneously identified as Nazareth. This may have been the same occasion as that described in Mark (Mark 1:21). It appears that he chose to read a passage from Isaiah (Luke 4:16–21). Goulder noted that, if Jesus had to search the roll of Isaiah for himself, it would have taken him at least three minutes to find chapter six- 6 Miracles 138 ty-one and that such a delay would not have been acceptable. In fact he would have had to search the roll of the Prophets, a much longer task. Goulder pointed out that the scroll of Isaiah was read, in parallel with other scriptures, in sequence throughout the year. It may be concluded therefore that the sixty-first chapter of Isaiah was the ordained reading for that day. But since Jesus gave the words a new and eschatological significance, it can also be concluded that he deliberately chose to attend the synagogue that day knowing what part of the Scripture would be read. He did not choose the reading; it was chosen for him. He did choose the day to appear, knowing that he would be asked to read. Goulder states that Isaiah 61 was usually read in the fourth week of the month Shebat, about the middle of February. This was only seven weeks before the Passover (the number of weeks may be significant) and it suggests that Jesus made this announcement in the year in which he made his last journey to Jerusalem. It is usually considered that this was Jesus’ first public declaration of his identity and mission. He claimed that the prophecy was fulfilled that very moment. Isaiah wrote of someone who was anointed to preach good tidings to the meek (the oppressed classes), to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and the acceptable year of the Lord (Isa. 61:1–2a). It was considered that this was a prophecy concerning the coming Messiah. Consequently Jesus was declaring that he was (or was to be) the Messiah. According to Luke, Jesus added the words ‘and sight to the blind’, but these words do not appear in the Hebrew version used in synagogues. It may be thought that the evangelist interpolated these words on account of Jesus’ reputation for restoring sight to the blind. However, the words do appear in the Septuagint, although it is not clear how they came to be there. We must conclude that Luke quoted from the Septuagint and that he did not know that it differed from the Hebrew text. Even so, the Septuagint was well known in Jesus’ time, even in Israel, and both Jesus and his contemporaries must have been aware of this difference. Jesus would have known that it was an insertion by the translators, but others might have thought that it was a forecast that the Messiah would restore sight. Indeed the phrase might have been added to the Septuagint because, at the time, there was a popular belief that great men could heal disease and restore sight. Tacitus re- Sight to the blind 139 ported that Vespasian restored sight and healed a cripple in Alexandria, the very city where the Septuagint was written (Hist. 4:81). It may have been believed that the Messiah could hardly fail to demonstrate powers that Rome’s rulers possessed. There was even a recognized technique for restoring sight. The great man applied a paste made from his spittle and dust to the blind eyes. Vespasian used this technique, apparently with success, and it is reported that Jesus did so (Mark 8:23; John 9:6). Does this make it more or less likely that Jesus used this technique? It does not elevate Jesus to show him stooping to use a popular method of healing. Why would the evangelists believe that Jesus needed a paste to assist him in restoring sight? Did Jesus employ this technique because it was expected of him or did the evangelists invent the story so as to show that Jesus was at least the equal of Vespasian? If the story is true, it raises the question of how Jesus thought the technique could be effective. Indeed it raises the question of whether or not he thought it was effective. He did not claim that the paste had curative properties, although this may have been the popular belief. In this case his explanation was that the man had been made blind (by God) from birth just so that he (Jesus) could demonstrate the power of God (John 9:3). It might also have been a demonstration of the purpose of his mission; to enlighten the poor. In typically Nazarene fashion, he declared that, while the blind would see, the sighted would become blind (John 9:39). The Law of Reversal again. On a different occasion, a blind man was told that he was cured because of his confidence that Jesus could cure him (Mark 10:52). It seems more likely that Jesus placed the responsibility for the cure upon the sufferer. If they believed that Jesus could cure them, then it was likely that psychosomatic responses could indeed effect a recovery. When healing two blind men, Jesus declared ‘according to your faith, let it be to you’ (Matt. 9:29). In other words, whether or not they were healed would depend upon their faith in his power or the power of God. If they were not healed, Jesus would have castigated them for their unbelief as he did Peter when the latter sank into the Sea of Galilee (Matt. 14:31). When a woman touched his robe, he declared that it was her faith that had healed her (Mark 5:34) and he told a Canaanite woman that her daughter would be healed to the extent of her faith (Matt. 15:28). Jesus may have believed that he had the power to heal, but, as we have seen, he believed that the Scriptures for- 6 Miracles 140 bade him to test God’s power by using it. Therefore it is impossible that he could have claimed any credit for any cures that occurred. His disclaimer, that the sufferers were cured by their own faith, is consistent with his fear to use divine power.* Elsewhere the Gospels exhibit the belief that disease is the result of sin and that Jesus accepted this view (John 5:14). He identified the forgiveness of sins with the release from disease (Matt. 9:5). According to Klausner (1925), this is a reference to the belief that ‘sufferings cleanse a man from all his sins’. It seems likely that Jesus’ view was that, if the sufferer truly regretted his sins and repented, then he would recover. This is consistent with the Pharisaic belief that, to be cleansed, a sinner must himself repent (Guignebert 1939). Sanders (1993:167) seems to have interpreted Jesus’ reply to John the Baptist’s question (Matt. 11:3) as a claim by Jesus that he had effected the cures (‘the blind see again and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised …’). However it can just as easily be interpreted as an invitation for John to observe that these things occurred, as if they were cures effected by God, not by Jesus. Powell thought that the reply to John ‘did not fit’ and that it was inserted to establish that John was contemporary with Jesus and subordinate to him. Water and wine Many believe that Jesus’ first miracle was the turning of water into wine at Cana of Galilee (John 2:1–11). This is sometimes regarded as an invention of the evangelist (it is not reported in the synoptic Gospels); Craveri thought it a myth. However, if it was invented, the purpose is not explained. It fulfils no Scripture, nor does John claim that it does so. It seems likely that the account originated with Jesus’ mother, whom John later adopted, and who may have been asked to recall incidents from the past that foreshadowed Jesus’ greatness. There are many enigmas in the story. Firstly, why was Jesus with his mother? During his ministry, Jesus seems to have abandoned his * Modern faith healers are not so fearful. Water and wine 141 family (Mark 3:31–35). Since Cana was close to Capernaum, this may have been the wedding of a relative or friend of the family. Clearly Jesus was present, not because of his reputation, but by reason of the demands of marriage customs. Joyce suggested that the marriage was Jesus’ own and Baigent et al. developed this idea, believing that the ‘bridegroom’ of John 2:9 was Jesus himself. If this was Jesus’ wedding, it is surprising that this was not explained by the evangelist. For what reason would this ‘fact’ be concealed? Secondly, why did his mother think that he could do something about the shortage of wine? The provision of food and drink was usually supervised by a steward, who was usually a friend of the bride and bridegroom. That the servants obeyed Jesus indicates that, at this wedding, he was the steward. This is why his mother turned to him when wine ran low. It was his duty to find more wine. In those days the wine of the common people was a sharp, sour, cheap drink, the ‘vinegar’ of John 19:29. It was always diluted with water. In order to make large quantities of this wine for a feast, it was necessary to mix the wine with water in large pots, from which the mixture was then drawn. Inevitably therefore the servants, on Jesus’ instruction, would need to pour water into the wine pots. What the evangelist did not appear to know is that, before the servants poured water into the pots, they had poured in undiluted wine. Only in this respect did water turn into wine, when the wine became diluted. Any claim that it was a miracle, and in John’s account no one did so, must stem from poor memory and perhaps Jesus’ inexperience or that of the servants. It was normal to produce the strongest wine (less diluted) at the start of a feast. As feasting progressed, the wine was progressively diluted, perhaps to make it go further, a dilution that was not noticed by the guests. In this case, it seems that stronger wine was inadvertently mixed and produced late in the feast. The sudden increase in strength was then noticed and the subject of comment. Woolston (1727) is the only scholar to have come close to the truth; he suggested that some liquor was poured into the water to give it the taste of wine. Others have not been so perceptive. Neander thought that the ‘miracle’ may be explained by the ‘fact’ that certain mineral spring waters can be more intoxicating than wine. Robertson (1953) thought that it is traceable to a rite performed in more than one 6 Miracles 142 Greek city at the winter festival of Dionysus` (Bacchus). Stannard thought the story an allegory in which John alludes to the belief of the Church that, at the Eucharist, the wine is transformed into the blood of Christ. Since belief in transubstantiation did not evolve until the ninth to thirteenth centuries, this explanation is incompetent. Based on the significance of water (baptism) and wine at Qumran, Thiering (1992) claimed that the story hides the message that Jesus was breaking with tradition and allowing lower-grade persons to receive communion. For several reasons, this interpretation is also incompetent. Helms (1989:86f) claimed that the story is based on Moses’ transformation of water into blood (Exod. 4:8–9) and that it is related to a characteristic act of Elijah and Elisha in Kings. He also thought that it was influenced by the mythology regarding Dionysus, on whose festival day water turned into wine. He claimed that ‘the story is a fiction and has a clearly traceable literary lineage’. Humphrey (1995) noted Hippolytus’ account of a certain Marcus who had mastered the art of turning the water in a cup red by mixing liquid from another cup while the onlookers’ attention was distracted. Loaves and fishes Many Christians believe that Jesus once converted five loaves and two fish into sufficient food to satisfy five thousand people and to fill twelve baskets afterwards (John 6:1–13). However, they do not know how this ‘miracle’ was accomplished. Did the loaves grow in his hands as he broke pieces off or did he distribute five thousand tiny crumbs that subsequently grew into sizeable loaves? If Jesus distributed the bread at the rate of one piece every two seconds, the rate of distribution of communion wafers by a Catholic priest, then the task would have taken over two-and-a-half hours. Bahrdt suggested that Jesus stood in front of a hidden cave in which huge supplies of bread were stored, while Paulus thought that the rich in the crowd gave to the poor. Burkitt believed that Jesus told his disciples to distribute their scanty store and that their example made those who were well provided share with those who had little. Schmiedel (Encyclopaedia Biblica) thought that the story was a parable Loaves and fishes 143 to teach that truth is not consumed when it is communicated to others, but only serves to awaken in them (the disciples?) new thoughts and an ever-growing power to satisfy in turn the spiritual hunger of others. Robertson (1953) thought that the story was invented to explain Christianity’s common meal, but Schweitzer (1954) was convinced that it must have a basis in history. Helms (1989:75) believed that the story was derived from II Kings 4:42–44, where Elisha is reported to have fed 100 men with 20 loaves. According to Wilson, the story conceals a peace conference at which Jesus made many men of different persuasions ‘sit down’ together ‘to sink their differences’. Thiering (1992), who claimed that there were 12 loaves, thought that the story conceals the message that Jesus was conferring on ‘ordinary men’, by ordination, the power to exercise ministry, ‘to distribute the communion bread’; the fish represented their baptism in sea water. Paulus was surely correct in believing that it was a feast day, in which Jesus set an example that was followed by the crowd, who then ate their own food (Strauss). It was the Feast of the Passover, which is also the Feast of Unleavened Bread. During the feast, no work was done and the idle population had time to listen to itinerant preachers like Jesus. Crowds get hungry and, if people do not bring their own food, they buy it where they can. In this case, it seems that bakers’ boys were selling bread, if not other food (John 6:9). Getting hungry, Jesus would have asked where he and the disciples could obtain food. Surely he was not expecting to feed the whole crowd. A bakers’ boy was found who only had five loaves and two cooked fish left and the disciples bought this food. This was probably just enough for their own needs. Jesus broke the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed the bread and fish to his disciples who, like everyone else, would have been lying on the ground. The AV claims that, after this, the disciples distributed the food to ‘them that were set down’ (John 6:11), implying that ‘them’ was the crowd. However, the original Greek text merely states that Jesus ‘distributed to those lying down’, surely the disciples. It makes no claim that he or the disciples fed five thousand people. For some reason, the AV translators believed that the food had fed five thousand and altered their translation to this effect. Afterwards, to comply with the law that required that none of the Passover food should be left until the following day (Exod. 12:10), Je- 6 Miracles 144 sus insisted that the waste food should be collected. That twelve baskets of food were collected indicates, not that the twelfth was started because the eleventh was full, but that twelve disciples went collecting. We have no information on the size of the baskets and, consequently, no idea of the amount of food waste involved. However, five thousand people eating their own food, might leave a considerable quantity of waste. The feeding of the four thousand (Mark 8:2–9; Matt. 15:30–38) may be a different account of the same incident. Here there were seven loaves and a few small fish. There is also an unambiguous statement that the food was distributed to the crowd via the disciples. It seems likely that John’s account is more accurate and that Mark and Matthew inherited an account in which it was already accepted that Jesus had performed a miracle. Kersten & Gruber (1995:98) note that the miracle has a parallel in the story of the Buddha satisfying the hunger of his five hundred disciples and all the inhabitants of a monastery with the contents of his alms bowl. Furthermore, there were twelve baskets of bread left over. Walking on water Subsequently Jesus sent his disciples away to Capernaum by ship, while he went alone up a mountain. While they were rowing across the lake against the wind, the wind strengthened and blew them back towards the shore, perhaps near where they had started. It is recorded (Mark 6:48) that Jesus saw their difficulty and that he walked on the water towards them ‘about the fourth watch of the night’. Since the night was divided into four watches, ‘the fourth watch’ was the last before daybreak and the light would have been poor. Evidently, on seeing that the disciples could not reach Capernaum, Jesus had descended the mountain and returned to the shore. If the disciples were not aware, in the darkness, that they were near the shore, they could have supposed that he was walking on the water. They had last seen him climbing a mountain; yet here he was in the middle of the lake. But Jesus may have been standing on the shore waiting to help them out of the boat. This explanation is supported by the ac- Walking on water 145 count of how Peter tried to emulate his master (Matt. 14:28–31). Although the evangelist claimed that Peter walked on water, it seems obvious that he sank as he stepped out of the boat. Then, as he took Jesus’ hand, he rose up and waded ashore, appearing to walk like Jesus on the water. Alistair Fraser proposed that Jesus only appeared to walk on water because of an ordinary inferior mirage produced by the warm water in the early morning. If he was not less than 800 yards (730 metres) from the disciples’ boat, he could have appeared to stand on the lake while in fact he stood on the shore. Stannard argued that the account resulted from confusion with the incident related by John (John 21) and, wrongly, claimed that the Greek for ‘on the sea’ (Mark 6:48) can also mean ‘on the shore’ (John 21:4). Helms (1989:78f) claimed that the story is based on Jonah 1:4, where Jonah is a type of the Messiah, itself based on Psalm 107. He also thought that some Buddhist beliefs had become incorporated into Matthew’s account. Thiering (1992) placed the incident on the Dead Sea and claimed that Jesus walked on a low jetty to a ship representing Noah’s Ark, onto which villagers, including Gentiles, embarked and were saved. Powell thought that the story was an allegory teaching that Peter’s lack of faith hindered him from crossing ‘the sea’ (the Mediterranean standing for the Gentile mission field) like Jesus. We might have heard no more of this incident, whatever its cause, if it had not been for the Pharisaic belief that, in the kingdom, the righteous would be able to walk over water (perhaps deduced from Job 9:8, LXX). Many times Jesus’ actions are seen as prefiguring life in the kingdom and there was a belief that what everyone would be able to do in the kingdom the Messiah would be able to do beforehand. It is clear that this story was constructed from this belief and perhaps an illusion at the lakeside. Sanders (1993:166) suggested that the story, perhaps based on Psalm 107:25–30, where God controls the dangerous deep ocean, was invented to show that Jesus exercised sovereignty over nature. Kersten & Gruber (1995:98) observe that walking on water was one of the Buddha’s accomplishments. There is even a record of an incident in which a religious ascetic was converted to Buddhism after he took a boat to rescue the Buddha. They claim that the two miracles 6 Miracles 146 (Feeding the Five Thousand and Walking on Water) are a pair and that they are borrowed as a pair from Buddhism (1995:100). Transfiguration It is recorded that Jesus took his three closest disciples up a mountain, probably Mount Hermon (e.g. Mark 9:2–8). There he was transformed and his garments shone with heavenly brightness. Moses and Elijah appeared to converse with him, while a voice from a cloud declared, ‘this is my beloved son. Hear him’. Mackinnon called this a hallucinatory experience, but Schweitzer saw it as a poetical account of the sudden revelation to the disciples that Jesus was the Messiah. Vickers suggested that it was a drama by Nazarene actors, a substitute for wall slogans and representation of the human figure, the latter prohibited under Mosaic law. Graves and Podro considered the story ‘iconotropic’, derived in good faith from a misreading of a sacred picture. Harrison proposed that Jesus was walking with two white bears, while Maccoby, building on an idea by Graves and Podro, thought that it was Jesus’ coronation. To Thiering (1992) it was an event at Qumran when Jesus appeared in the vestments of the high priest, claiming to be Moses, Elijah and Christ (sic). Since Mount Hermon is permanently capped with snow (Klausner 1925), it seems possible that the gleaming whiteness came from the snow, not from the garments (despite the use of the word ‘snow’ in the AV, the Greek text does not mention it). Vickers’s explanation makes sense if it had become necessary to convince the closest disciples that Jesus really was who he claimed to be. Moses and Elijah represented the Law and the Prophets (i.e. the whole of Scripture), the foundation on which Jesus based his mission. Both Moses and Elijah claimed to have seen God or at least to have heard his voice, on a mountain (Sinai and Horeb respectively) and the grave of neither was known. Both are mentioned in Malachi’s eschatological prophecy (Mal. 4:4–5). Jewish law required two witnesses to bring evidence: two men were seen at the empty tomb, two were seen at the Ascension and the two witnesses of Revelation (Rev. 11:3) were thought to be Moses and Elijah. Transfiguration 147 The Gospels interpret the healing miracles as showing that, in Jesus, God was beginning the conquest of evil and its consequences, suffering and death. Similarly they interpret the nature miracles as demonstrating Jesus’ power to tame and bring nature to submission (Sanders 1993:166). However, Jesus could not have agreed with this interpretation; he did not believe in using divine power. We have seen that there were no nature miracles. People may have claimed to have been healed by touching Jesus and he may have seen these ‘cures’ as a sign that the new age was at hand, a confirmation of his mission. 6 Miracles 148

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