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The Gospels as Natural Histories

I indicated in my last post that, to my surprise, I had never written about the history of the scholarship on the Gospels in terms of the major shift from seeing them as Supernatural Histories to Natural Histories to Myths.   And just as I was preparing to write about the move to see them as Natural Histories, in today’s post, I read a comment from a reader (Bless his soul, as we used to say!) who pointed out that I did indeed have a detailed discussion of the matter in my first trade book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.  I looked it up, and lo and behold, I absolutely did — and inn precisely the terms I wanted to discuss the matter here on the blog.  For some reason none of my search engines picked it up when looked through all my files.

So, today I will talk about The Gospels as Natural Histories, as lifted from that treatment in my book.  As I hope you’ll agree, this shift in understanding the Gospels was both significant and incredibly interesting.


The Gospel Accounts As Natural Histories

The Enlightenment that swept through Europe in the eighteenth century involved a whole new way of thinking and looking at the world.  Such intellectuals of the Enlightenment as Descartes, Locke, Newton, and Hume had come to distrust traditional sources of authority and started to insist on the power of human reason to understand the world and the human’s place in it.  This was an age of science and the development of modern technology.  Scholars began to assert the “logic” and importance of cause-effect relationships.  They developed scientific notions of “natural law,” i.e., highly predictable ways that nature worked, along with the concomitant view that these “laws” could not be broken by any outside agency (for example, a divine being).  They modified the grounds of human knowledge – away, for example, from the traditional teachings and dogmas of the church to such “objective” processes as rational observation, empirical verification, and logical inference.

In terms of religious belief, scholars of the Enlightenment recognized that …

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In terms of religious belief, scholars of the Enlightenment recognized that in earlier times, people had appealed to divine agency to explain natural phenomena that seemed mysterious and beyond the ken of normal human experience.  Ancient Greeks, for example, thought that thunderbolts were hurled to earth by Zeus and that bodily diseases were cured by the God Asclepius; Christians had analogous beliefs, that rain was sent from God or that a sick child could be made well through prayer.  But during the Enlightenment all such beliefs — and others like them — were widely discounted, as scientists learned, for example, about meteorological phenomena and the body’s natural defenses.

What though does this have to do with the Bible?

In fact, there were a number of biblical scholars who were heavily influenced by the Enlightenment, who took, therefore, a rationalistic view of the Gospels.  According to these scholars, the miracles of the Bible obviously didn’t happen – since modern people no longer need to appeal to the supernatural the way the ancients did.  Even though the ancients thought they saw miracles (e.g., when it thundered or when a sick child was returned to health), they simply didn’t understand the true nature of cause and effect.  For such scholars, the Gospels do not therefore contain supernatural histories at all.  They instead recount natural histories.  That is to say, according to these scholars, the Gospels do record events that happened.  But the ancient authors, who were decidedly not influenced by the Enlightenment, mistook what they saw to be miracles.  Since miracles don’t happen, we should look behind the accounts recorded in the Bible to see what really did happen.  And in every case, what really happened were natural (as opposed to supernatural) events.

One of the famous rationalist interpreters of the Bible was a German theologian named Heinrich Paulus.  In 1827, Paulus wrote a study of the Gospels called Das Leben Jesu (= The Life of Jesus).  In his book, Paulus subjected the Gospel accounts to serious scrutiny in order to discern what actually happened during Jesus’ life.  In no instance were there miracles — including the three rather stupendous examples I cited (in the previous post): the feeding of the 5000, the walking on the water, and the resurrection.  In each case, Paulus tries to show that a misunderstanding occurred.  The disciples ascribed a miracle to Jesus when in fact no miracle took place.

Take the feeding of the 5000.  Paulus notes that after a long period of teaching, Jesus instructed everyone to sit.  He then collected five loaves and two fish from his disciples, said a blessing, and started to break the food into pieces and distribute it.  What happened next, however, was not a miracle, except in the most generous meaning of the term.  For according to Paulus, the crowds must have seen what Jesus and his disciples were doing – sharing their food with one another – and realized that they themselves were famished.  They immediately broke out their own picnic baskets and started to swap all the goodies they had brought.  Soon there was more than enough for everyone!  There was no supernatural intervention here. Only at a later time did someone look back on this wonderful afternoon of sharing and fellowship and decide that it was a miracle.

Well, easy enough.  But what about the walking on the water?  Paulus observes that it was dark when the disciples started rowing across the lake, and that a sudden storm came up, preventing them from making any headway.  In fact, he claimed, they made no headway at all; they never got more than a few feet from shore.  They didn’t realize this, of course — it was a dark night, possibly foggy, with sheets of rain falling all around.  Jesus, then, seeing their distress, came to them wading through the shallow water on the shore.  They were terrified.  Since they thought they were in the middle of the lake, they assumed the figure coming towards them must be walking on the water.  They cried out.  Jesus shouted to them, telling them not to be afraid, it was only he.  Peter called out that that if it really were he, to allow him to come to him; Jesus ordered him to come — and why not?  Peter jumped from the boat, but floundered a bit (thinking he was in over his head); Jesus steadied him with a hand, helped him back into the boat, which they managed, then, to get back onto shore.

No miracle here, just a bit of a misunderstanding.

Surely, though, Paulus cannot so simply explain the resurrection.  Jesus was dead.  Completely dead.  He was buried.  And the third day he arose.

Or was he dead?  Paulus notes that the ancient Jewish historian Josephus mentions a time from his own life when he persuaded Roman officials to have two of his companions taken down off their crosses before they had died.   One of the two actually survived to tell the tale.  This historical information gives Paulus all the ammunition he needs.  As he reconstructs the events of the Passion, Jesus was flogged within an inch of his life prior to being crucified.  Weakened already, his life already beginning slip away, Jesus’ vital signs slowed down on the cross.  He practically stopped breathing.  But not quite.  He was at death’s door, and the Roman soldiers mistook him for dead.  One of them stuck a spear in his side, inadvertently performing a phlebotomy (that is, a blood-letting, a common medical practice in Paulus’s day).  Then he was taken from the cross, wrapped in a clean cloth with burial spices, and laid in a sepulcher carved out of rock.  Later, in the cool of the tomb, with the smell of the unguents, Jesus awakened from his death-like torpor.  He arose, emerged from his tomb, and went to meet his disciples.  They of course thought they had seen him — just three days earlier — dead and buried.  The conclusion they drew, though completely natural, was thoroughly mistaken.  They thought that Jesus had been raised from the dead.  In fact, he had never died.

Paulus’s explanations for the miracles of the Gospels — and he can explain them all! — may seem fairly outlandish to us today; but for many people of the Enlightenment, they made a lot of sense, at least, a lot better sense than the claim that Gospels recorded miracles that actually happened.  After all, everyone can make a mistake and we all know people who have been confused or misled or gullible.  These are all among our everyday experiences.  But how many of us know people who can multiply loaves, walk on water, or rise from the dead?


I will continue in the next post to talk about how this understanding itself came to be seen as inadequate, leading to the development of the idea that the Gospels were neither supernatural histories nor natural histories, but myths.

The Gospels as Myths
The Gospels as Supernatural Histories



  1. Avatar
    godspell  May 23, 2017

    Certainly some stories about miracles do stem from misunderstandings, willful or innocent, regarding events that actually occurred. But I would assume that these are mostly errors in transmission, not made by first-hand witnesses.

    Jesus clearly did a lot of faith-healing (to demonstrate in a tangible way his belief in the absolute power of faith–that anyone who truly believed could work miracles through God), and we can assume that many of those stories are based on real-life events, because we know faith-healings occur, however we may explain them. It doesn’t matter if he actually healed lepers (or if the people involved actually had leprosy, as some probably did not)–what matters is that he developed a reputation for being a miracle worker, and the stories about his miraculous abilities kept growing with the telling.

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    nbraith1975  May 23, 2017

    I’ll accept the explanation for the feeding of the 5,000, but can’t believe that experienced fishermen in the boat didn’t know where the boat was – even in a raging storm.

    As for the resurrection, it’s probably safe to say the probability of Jesus surviving crucifixion is close to zero – even if Josephus wrote that he knew someone who did survive. In fact, I doubt that the Roman soldiers would have ever allowed someone to be taken down that was not yet dead for fear of punishment by their superiors. The soldiers were charged to do a job which entailed the death of the convicted prisoners and I would bet they would never deviate from their task.

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    flshrP  May 23, 2017

    Whenever the subject of NT miracles arises I remember a story that for me puts miracles into perspective.

    A Catholic friend of the late 19th century English playwright Oscar Wilde convinced Wilde to accompany him to the shrine at Lourdes in France where miracles were supposed to have occurred. The friend showed Wilde the shrine along with the piles of crutches, canes, leg braces, back braces, neck braces, wheelchairs, etc. After seeing these things Wilde, the prototypical skeptic, asked his friend to show him the wooden legs, the prosthetic arms and the glass eyeballs.

  4. epicurus
    epicurus  May 23, 2017

    In addition to just being an interesting movie set in late 4th century Alexandria that deals with the female philosopher Hypatia, and also the tensions between Christians and Pagans, I’d recommend the movie “AGORA” to any who haven’t seen it for an opening scene where a not particularly miraculous event evolves, I assume from the embellished retelling of it, to the point where later in the movie it has become one, as the person is asked “are you the one who performed the miracle?”

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2017

      Ah! I write about Hypatia in my forthcoming book on the Triumph of Christianity! (To illustrate how Christian mobs could get out of control)

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    RonaldTaska  May 23, 2017

    Wow! This continues a really good series of posts. I still think you have the foundation of a good autobiography here.

  6. Rick
    Rick  May 23, 2017

    “Paulus’s explanations for the miracles of the Gospels …..may seem fairly outlandish to us today; but ….they made ….a lot better sense than the claim that Gospels recorded miracles that actually happened.”

    Dr. Ehrman, what’s so outlandish? While his suppositions may not be very evidence based, what other explanations for these “miricales” are? Occams Razor may not be irrefutable but, at least it doesn’t rely on an invisible guy in the sky!

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2017

      For some of the obvious problems with just one of the stories, see today’s post. The main problem is that he *explains* a story by saying that it means something other than it says (that is, he has to change what it says to explain what it means), and that can’t be the best way to interpret a piece of writing.

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    Jason  May 23, 2017

    I think the fact that you’ve written so prolifically that OS X’s (I assume) search mechanism couldn’t locate your material gives new meaning to “an embarrassment of riches.” 😉

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    searchingfortruthineverything  May 23, 2017

    Is there evidence of a parallel of Babylonian “captivity” of the “church” and the Israelites captivity in Babylon?

    Some have suggested this about the mainstream “church” or at least the Roman Catholic Church for many years.

    Did the influence of Babylonian belief systems and other ancient belief systems on those early disciples whom professed to be “Christians” have an impact on the beliefs of some in the early churches?

    Are the similarities between the teachings of ancient belief systems and the mainstream “church” and other belief systems such as Islam “proof” that the mainstream “church” and other belief systems already still being “held” in Babylonian “captivity” to teachings that may have originated in ancient Babylon?

    Is there a Bible parallel that most people don’t “see” or perceive yet until around the time of Babylon’s overthrow?

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    dragonfly  May 23, 2017

    Now I’m curious, what did Paulus think about the virgin birth? It’s easy to just think of it as a later legendary story, but it’s another to say that Mary really thought she was a virgin. Drug rape?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2017

      Certainly not drugs! But I can’t remember what he says. (It wouldn’t be hard to think of possible naturalist explanations…)

      • Avatar
        Jason  May 24, 2017

        On that note, how likely is the Pantera rumor to have originated in the right place and time for it to have been found credible by 1st/2nd century Jews?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 26, 2017

          Many people think that the rumor was actually started by a Jew or Jews. Hard to tell…

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  May 28, 2017

        Did you ever see the film *Agnes of God?* The title character is a novice in a religious community who becomes pregnant, yet insists she is a virgin. The scene in which she presumably becomes pregnant shows, from her point of view, a dove flying down from the rafters of a barn, but the possibility is left open that she is seduced/raped by a farm hand. I can imagine that as a rationalist scenario for the Annunciation, with Mary having a trauma-induced memory shift. It’s interesting how some rationalists want to confirm and doubt the texts at the same time.

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    dragonfly  May 24, 2017

    In your debate with Price, he gave some examples of gospel stories with the miracles taken out, but I didn’t understand his point. Did you understand what that was about?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2017

      I’m afraid I don’t remember what he specifically said, or what point he was trying to make by it.

  11. Avatar
    Eskil  May 24, 2017

    You said “the ancient authors, who were decidedly not influenced by the Enlightenment, mistook what they saw to be miracles.”

    However, your friend Dale B. Martin is saying that the concepts of natural and supernatural did not exists before 5th or 6th century and most likely not before René Descartes!

    Meaning that the ancient authors couldn’t have distinguished natural events from supernatural events i.e thought something was a miracle.

    What is your though on this?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2017

      I agree with him on this. (I better, because just now I’m spending two weeks at the beach with him.) For ancients, the realms of the gods *were* part of what we today would call the natural world. But there are still interventions of gods in our lives, and that’s what I’m calling “miracles”

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    madmargie  May 25, 2017

    Personally, I think our minds have a great deal to do with how healthy we are. If we are “determined” to be healthy and do everything possible to remain healthy, we are often able to remain healthy into old age. I personally believe the mind has a great deal to do with our health. I am 81 nearly 82 and have basically no health problems. I get around basically the same as I always have. Of course, good genes also have much to do with it. My great aunt Margie died in 2007 at the age of 104. What do you think about the mind’s influence on our body?

  13. Avatar
    jjinjp  June 17, 2017

    This is from, Jesus, Mari and Joji: A Father’s Take on the Red Letter Revolution. It is on kindle for a buck.
    … as far as miraculous healings go, I read a book by Paul Schneider, Brutal Journey, which relates the adventures, or misadventures, of a group of failed conquistadors. It is an amazing story of some loony Spaniards who come to Florida before De Soto in hopes of conquering a mighty civilization like Cortez had in Mexico. They failed miserably, and as the four lone survivors made their way along the Gulf Coast to the Spanish settlements in northern Mexico they, at one point, were considered healers by the local tribes. They were even reputed to have brought a man back to life. A dead man was said to have gotten up and walked after they had administered to him. When they left the village the man was still dead, but word of the man’s revival caught up with them. I doubt they actually accomplished such a feat, and they didn’t believe it either, mind you. The locals believed, though, and the word spread.
    It doesn’t matter, to me, if Jesus was born of a virgin, healed sick people, or even if he promised eternal life. And, His teachings are ambiguous: Did he believe he was casting out devils, as Mark has him doing? Or did he realize that diseases are caused by little bugs? Did he accept the apocalyptic vision some Jews had picked up from the Persians? Or was His mention of eternal fire and damnation used as I sometimes use Thomas the Tank Engine and Cinderella to Joji and Mari? I don’t care enough to consider such things. I can only hope to uncover the basic truths of Jesus’ teachings.

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