Dr Eric Eve is a New Testament scholar and Fellow and Tutor in Theology at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. He has written on miracles in the Gospels and in Second Temple Judaism, the writing of the Gospels, the role of memory and oral tradition behind the Gospels, and the Synoptic Problem (the nature of the literary relationships between Matthew, Mark, and Luke).
All four gospels portray Jesus as performing deeds that amazed some onlookers and scandalized others, causing some to believe that he was empowered by God and others to accuse him of being in league with demons. We’ve become used to referring to these deeds as ‘miracles’, which has led to endless debates over whether miracles are possible in general and what in particular is to be made of the miracles attributed to Jesus.
Such debates sometimes lose sight of the fact that ‘miracle’ is a term that we have injected into the gospel accounts. The gospel writers never use a word that’s equivalent to the modern English world ‘miracle’. It’s not even clear that they had any Greek word available to them that carries all the connotations we attach to that word. Often, the gospels don’t label such events at all. Occasionally they use words such as ‘mighty works’ or ‘deeds of power’ (dunameis) or, in the case of John, ‘signs’ and ‘works’ (semeia and erga). Other Jewish authors writing in Greek additionally employ terms such as ‘wonder’ (thauma) or ‘portent’ (teras), but neither they nor the gospel writers have a concept of miracle that primarily implies a breach of the laws of nature. Their notion of miracle would better be characterized as that of a strikingly surprising event of saving significance directly or indirectly empowered by God. Such events are seen as strikingly surprising, not because they flout some post-Enlightenment understanding of nature, but because they appear to be beyond normal human capacity to bring about and must therefore be attributed to a superhuman agent.
When we talk about miracle stories in the gospels, we are using a convenient term to encompass four different kinds of event that might fall under this definition: healings, exorcisms, bringing dead people back to life, and what, for want of a better term, have come to be known as ‘nature miracles’ (most notably, multiplying loaves and fishes, calming a storm, walking on the sea, and turning water into wine). That John apparently uses the term ‘sign’ to encompass all but the second of these (John’s Gospels contains no exorcism stories) arguably provides a warrant for classifying them all together as ‘miracle stories’, as, to some extent, does the treatment of them in Matthew and Luke. Mark arguably preserves more of a distinction between the first three categories and the fourth, at least in terms of narrative function, but to explore that further here would lead us too far away from the main point.
The first two categories, healings and exorcisms, pose no great problem in terms of historical possibility. Jesus would be far from unique in gaining a reputation as someone exceptionally gifted at healing by non-medical means. Most of the kinds of healing he is said to have performed could in principle have been of conversion orders or other psychosomatic conditions, or of other illnesses in which the still imperfectly understood interactions of mind and body could have aided the recovery of persons who trusted the power of the healer, not least in a culture whose understanding of healing and illness differed from our own. It is futile to attempt any kind of medical diagnosis on the basis of the accounts we find in the gospels, and so just as futile to ask whether these healings were truly miraculous (if that is taken to mean medically inexplicable). The gospel miracle stories have almost certainly been shaped to convey particular views of Jesus and his ministry – they were never intended as neutral, objective reports. It is likely that such stories will have grown in the telling. It is also quite likely that there will have been some selection bias in the stories that survived – the early church would have preserved stories of Jesus’ successes as a healer, not his failures (but see Mark 6.5-6). Yet while a sceptic could claim that all the stories of Jesus’ healings were invented by the early church, this is neither necessary nor likely. There is no evidence that the Jews of Jesus’ day expected the Messiah to perform healing miracles and the most plausible explanation for the appearance of healing stories in the gospels is that Jesus was remembered to have been an exceptionally able healer, and that this memory stems from the reputation he gained in his lifetime.
The same applies to exorcisms. Modern readers may baulk at the notion of evil spirits possessing people and being cast out by a miracle-worker, but we don’t need to take a view on this one way or the other to accept that phenomena indigenously interpreted as spirit-possession and exorcism are well attested in cultural anthropology. There are cultures that believe in spirit-possession and spirit-control. Events that are understood as such by these cultures have been commonly observed to occur, whatever alternative (sociological or psychological) explanations modern westerners might prefer to offer for them. Jesus lived in a culture in which such beliefs were rife. That he should have gained a reputation as an exorcist is thus entirely credible (but again, not readily derivable from then current messianic expectations). It is also entirely credible that the same person should gain a reputation as both healer and exorcist, given that these roles could overlap.
The second two categories of ‘miracle’ are more problematic. They concern events that we would regard as contrary to the laws of nature and which would have appeared equally incredible to people in antiquity – if not because they would have been seen as contrary to the laws of nature as understood in Enlightenment science, then at least as so contrary to the normal run of things as to be commonly regarded as all but impossible. To avoid confusion, we need another term to encapsulate what makes them appear impossible to us. Let us call them anomalies, where an anomaly is an event that defies explanation on the basis of our best current understanding of how the universe works, or, even worse, fundamentally contradicts it (as, for example, the multiplication of loaves would apparently contradict either the law of conservation of matter-energy – if we imagine the loaves popping into existence out of nothing – or the Second Law of Thermodynamics – if we imagine them being spontaneously created out of the surrounding matter). We should then be quite clear that just as a miracle is not necessarily an anomaly (as in the case of healings and exorcisms) so an anomaly is not necessarily a miracle (it could in principle be a random absurdity of no saving significance, such the Tower of London suddenly turning into a giant block of blue stilton for no apparent reason whatsoever). Our problem, then, is that some of the miracles attributed to Jesus would also be anomalies if they took place as narrated.
As we shall see, this problem does not come down to a straightforward choice between dismissing these stories as wholesale inventions and accepting them as they stand, but we should briefly consider the second of these two options. One could make the case that anomalies are not strictly impossible, since our best current understanding of the universe could be incorrect, or that it only covers what happens most of the time and nothing guarantees that there are no exceptions. Alternatively, one might argue (as apologists often have going back at least as far as the first-century Jewish scholar Philo of Alexandria) that since God’s power is limitless, he must be able to create anomalies. But rather than trying to untangle either of these arguments, it is probably more helpful to ask on what basis it would be reasonable to accept that an anomaly had occurred. One might insist that the testimony of scripture is sufficient, but this risks collapsing into an implicit circularity, effectively arguing that it’s reasonable to trust what the Bible tells us about miraculous events because the Bible tells us God works miracles. Merely appealing to the existence of an omnipotent creator in the abstract (that is, apart from the Biblical portrayal of God) doesn’t settle the matter, since such a creator might be just as likely to exercise his omnipotence by upholding the regular order of the universe; the existence of such a God may actually make the occurrence of anomalies less likely than an atheistic universe with no ultimate guiding principle at all.
Absent a potentially circular argument that depends on a Biblical view of God to support what the Gospels say, we need some other basis for assessing the historical plausibility of anomalies narrated in the Gospels, and in our time and culture it is hard to see what better basis we could use than our best current understanding of the way the universe works. The issue is then not whether there are any circumstances at all under which it might be reasonable to suppose an anomaly had taken place, but whether it would be reasonable to do so on the basis of narratives in ancient texts clearly aimed at promoting a highly favourable view of their subject. In particular, if one would not do so on the basis of any ancient non-Christian text, it can hardly be reasonable to do so on the basis of the Gospels.
This argument only takes us so far, however, since, on the one hand, it risks missing the point of the stories in question, and on the other, it does not fully settle the question of history. Some of the most strikingly anomalous miracle stories in the Gospels (such as Jesus walking on the sea or commanding a storm to cease) clearly draw on Old Testament motifs to present Jesus as doing only what Yahweh the God of Israel was capable of doing. In common with the feeding stories such stories may also be aimed at drawing parallels between the ministry of Jesus and the great saving events of the exodus. John’s account of the wedding at Cana, where Jesus is portrayed as turning water into wine potentially works at a number of symbolic levels (for example the replacement of Jewish purificatory rites with the celebratory wine of the messianic banquet); in the wider Graeco-Roman context it may also have been seen as comparing and contrasting Jesus with Bacchus (whether or not the author of the Fourth Gospel intended it to).
The miracle stories in the Gospels stem from some combination of the narrative art of the Gospel writers, the collective memory of the communities in which they were embedded, and the eyewitness memories from which such collective memory ultimately stemmed. But not even eyewitness memory is an objective photographic record of what actually took place. As best it is a more or less accurate recreation of the past based on neural traces worked up into some kind of coherent account in light of present interests and established patterns of storytelling and interpretation, which for the primitive church would include patterns and beliefs derived from the Jewish scriptures. That stories about Jesus should be shaped in accordance with such established story patterns, including salient Old Testament miracle stories, is just how one might expect memory to work.
So just as healing and exorcism stories may well have grown in the telling from original eyewitness recollections of Jesus, so in principle may at least some of the stories of what now look like plainly anomalous miracles. It is perfectly possible, for example, that the story of the stilling of the storm grew out of a frightening incident that occurred when a sudden storm descended on the Sea of Galilee while Jesus was crossing it in a boat with his disciples. There is no way of telling for certain, just as there is no way we could reconstruct the originating incident from the stories we now have. So while the more anomalous looking miracle stories could all be pure invention, some of them could be stories that have grown in the telling from more mundane beginnings under the conviction that Jesus was in some sense the embodiment of the God of Israel and the fact that he had already gained a reputation as a miracle worker from his healings and exorcisms.
If the question ‘Did Jesus Perform Miracles?’ is asking whether Jesus was reputed to have done so in the church’s earliest memories of him, the answer is most likely yes. But if it is asking whether Jesus did in fact work miracles, the answer depends not on whether anomalies occurred, but on whether the healings and exorcisms Jesus most likely did perform should count as divinely inspired events of saving significance, and that is a primarily a question of theology and belief rather than one of history and science.