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Were Miracle Stories Originally in the Gospels?

Looking through old posts on the blog, I came across this very interesting and important question from seven years ago.  It’s a question I continue to get on occasion, so I thought we all might profit by thinking about it again.  (And now, older and wiser, I would answer almost exactly the same way!)

QUESTION:

I have looked up the content of all the papyri I’m aware of (off of links on wikipedia, so who knows if they’re accurate).

It is my understanding that although p52, p90, and p104 are dated around 125-150 AD, they contain fragments of John 18 and Matt 21 only, and that it’s not until 200 AD that manuscripts emerge which actually contain accounts of supernatural actions by Jesus.

So, it’s possible that accounts of miracles existed in copies that got destroyed, but is it fair to say that the earliest available copies of accounts of Jesus’s supernatural actions date from around 200 AD?

In other words, assuming people on average had kids by age 20 back then, and thus 20 years counts as a generation, is it fair to say that the earliest available accounts of miracles by Jesus were written by the great, great, great, great, great, great, grandson of somebody who would have been alive at the same time as Jesus?

RESPONSE:

This is an interesting question!   It is true that we do not start getting relatively complete manuscripts of the Gospels until around the year 200.   But I don’t think it would be fair to say that this means that we do not have reports of Jesus’ miracles until then – unless we want to be overly-literalistic in our thinking.

This is why:  as I have indicated in other posts …

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Cousiza2  May 22, 2019

    Very balanced perspective. Great read. Out of interest, if one acknowledges the reporting in the gospels of miracles as not being added in later, coupled to the independent witness by early church fathers about miracles – and to my knowledge no historic contradictions by opponents of Christianity relating to.miracles by Jesus; kindly share your reasons for disavowing these miracles ascribed to Jesus! Thanks again!

  2. Avatar
    godspell  May 22, 2019

    I have no doubt people believed Jesus was a miracle worker before his death. I don’t believe all the miracles described in the gospels were ascribed to him during his lifetime, or perhaps for some time afterwards. Nor do I believe he at any time defied the laws of physics or biology but it does seem likely he had some ability to inspire in people the belief that he’d done something miraculous.

    If he did in fact minister to the poor, the sick, the rejected–if he didn’t turn away from those who were rejected by society because they had diseases like leprosy (not necessarily Hansen’s Diseaese), or were blind, or suffered from mental illness–if he could treat them with compassion, inspire in them a belief they could heal themselves through faith (and who’s to say how many of them were only sick because they felt rejected)–well–that’s enough of a miracle for me.

    And I understand you question whether he performed faith healings, Bart–but he had to have done something more than tell stories to have inspired the devotion that led to his being remembered the way he was.

    2
  3. Avatar
    JayinHK  May 22, 2019

    “What terms are possible between a historical treatment and the acceptance of supernatural events? With the advent of Strauss this problem found a solution, viz., that these events have no rightful place in the history, but are simply mythical elements in the sources.”

    ~ Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (which I finally read based on your point in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium: “Few authors in modern times can be said to have redirected the course of an entire field of study.”

  4. Avatar
    meltuck  May 22, 2019

    You mention a few times manuscripts being “independent of one another.” I’m not sure what you mean by this. How would you know that they were independent of one another? Could they have been dependent upon common sources and still be independent of one another?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2019

      I mean they come from separate lines of transmission; ultimately of course all manuscripts are related to one another, just as all human beings are.

      3
  5. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  May 22, 2019

    Are you aware of any trade books that provide a discussion of the most important extant papyri (as you do in this post)?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2019

      There are guides to textual criticism for beginners, yes; Probably if you look for titles kind of like that on Amazon you’ll find some.

      2
  6. fefferdan
    fefferdan  May 22, 2019

    I can offer another reason [besides not wanting to believe in the miracles] to think that miracle stories were added later: namely, someone might believe that a particular Gospel writer [Luke for example] originally portrayed Jesus as a philosopher or mystical teacher and that the miracle stories were added in later to conform with Mark etc, as well as to appeal to a wider, not-so-intellectual audience. Not that this scenario holds water without good evidence from textual criticism, but there it is.

  7. Avatar
    Sisu  May 22, 2019

    You could also add to this argument that since the Gospels and their sources are based on oral traditions of early Christians, and since the stories of Jesus’ miracles were key to convincing the skeptical that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, it is highly unlikely that the original texts would not include those stories.

  8. Avatar
    fishician  May 22, 2019

    It is easy for me to believe that it only took a generation (or less) for there to be miracle stories about Jesus invented and propagated. Just look at faith healers today and how readily their followers accept the authenticity of their supposed miracles even while outside viewers are completely unconvinced. During my time in the church I heard many stories from the pulpit that were clearly fabrications told to “prove” a point. It’s easy to see 1st Century people who had a superstitious worldview attribute miracles to their leader, whether a result of exaggeration or outright invention in order to further their cause.

    2
  9. Avatar
    Hngerhman  May 22, 2019

    Dr Ehrman –

    Somewhat related topic via early accounts of miracles – what are your current views on the layers (book of signs, book of sayings, evangelist, redactor, etc.) in John?

    A humble request: Perhaps a repost (or reprise, but that might be too greedy a notion…) of these:
    1) https://ehrmanblog.org/sources-of-the-fourth-gospel-for-members/
    2) https://ehrmanblog.org/signs-in-the-gospel-of-john/
    and various other related threads that tie together the layers/seams/influences/sources/authors/editors in John’s gospel. There’s so much richness and depth to what you’ve done/said around the topic that a recompilation might be fruitful for the blog community.

    Many thanks!

  10. Avatar
    Apocryphile  May 22, 2019

    It seems to me that this is pretty powerful evidence that these miracle stories must have been in circulation in oral form before the gospels were written. If so, it seems we also must conclude that this is what people thought when they were remembering what Jesus said and did. This is not saying that the miracles actually took place, of course, but Jesus, like other ‘miracle workers’ of his time, must have left a pretty powerful impression among people that this was what he was doing.

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 22, 2019

    Interesting and scholarly. Thanks.

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 22, 2019

    P.S. With regard to contradictions, if authors cannot get the little things correct, then how can they get the BIG things correct?

  13. tompicard
    tompicard  May 22, 2019

    Could the same argument be made, if someone posed the question:

    >> and that it’s not until 200 AD (or whenever) that manuscripts emerge
    >> which actually contain
    >> ATTRIBUTIONS TO CURRENTLY
    >> RECOGNIZED AUTHORS OF THE GOSPELS.
    ?

    i.e.

    >> All of these witnesses are independent of one another,
    >> and that is the key. If someone had taken a
    >> NON-ATTRIBUTED version of Luke (or of any of the other Gospels)
    >> and inserted ATTRIBUTIONS TO LUKE (or Matthew or Mark) into it,
    >> in say, the year 130,
    >> then surely SOME of the many manuscripts copied before then
    >> in Rome, Alexandria, Caesarea, Ephesus, and so on and on would
    >> have left at least a dim trace in the surviving manuscript record.
    >> Someplace! But there is no such trace.
    >> That is to say, if originally there were non-ATTRIBUTED versions of
    >> Luke (or any of the others), there would be SOME record of them in
    >> the church fathers’ quotations, the early versions, or the
    >> surviving Greek manuscripts. But there is no such thing.

    if not can you explain the difference.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2019

      Yes, but in this case there are counter arguments, including the fact that we know the titles were not original AND the books were not called by these names until the end of the 2nd century. That makes it a completely different situation.

      • Avatar
        anthonygale  May 24, 2019

        How is it known that the gospels didn’t originally have titles? Are there early full copies of the texts without titles? Or early church fathers explicitly stating the gospels didn’t have titles? Or something else?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 26, 2019

          In part it’s because the earliest “titles” are “According to Matthew.” No one who writes a book would give it as a *title* “according to me.” At least no one did in antiquity! So this is someone else telling you who the author is/was (in their opinion)

          1
  14. Avatar
    rborges  May 22, 2019

    Hi, Dr. Ehrman.

    One day I was reading Mark 3, and I’ve found that the family conflict story (Mark 3:20-21) would be read seamlessly if one skipped verses 22-30 and jumped straight to 31:

    Then he went home; 20 and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

    To me, this is an indication of Mark using different sources and inserting the verses 22-30 into an earlier story.

    Can you recommend a book about Mark and the different (reconstructed) sources he used?

  15. Avatar
    Hon Wai  May 22, 2019

    Just like people who want to deny presence of miracle stories in the original NT manuscripts, the Jesus mythicists are motivated by a mistaken presupposition that endorsing existence of Jesus forces one to accept existence of a genuine miracle maker. But as you have explained in your textbook, accounts of miracles and miracle-makers in the Greco-Roman world were common place. When one looks at religious texts in other religions across diverse civilisations, accounts of miracles are dime a dozen (e.g. the hadiths & sunnas of Prophet Muhammad, the Buddhist canons concerning the Buddha and his disciples). In present day, there are loads of charismatic churches in the American Bible belt claiming occurrence of miracles on a regular basis, and lots of sincere believers testify to their authenticity. In the haydays of American televangelism in past decades, it was common to witness miraculous healings on TV.

    3
  16. Avatar
    meohanlon  May 23, 2019

    Dr Ehrman,

    Very interesting question – I have at least a couple that are related, and warrant some scholarly input:

    1. Wouldn’t it make sense that the miracle stories were included at the get-go, since that’s what the gospel writer’s realized was a huge selling point in getting across the less supernatural but still important parts, like Jesus’ words of wisdom, which were given added import by a necessary narrative context the writer had to spin, if the actual records were not available?
    2. In your personal view, were the miraculous stories based in part on actual events, that would, in and of themselves seem extraordinary, even to those of our own time (perhaps by our conventional ignorance of the actual influence our consciousness can have over the process of recovery from some ailment or injury)? Or were they based on a few memories of things that worked out, in of so many attempts, against all odds, merely by coincidence? That is, among so may healers and miracle-workers of his day, Jesus just happened to have the best track record, just by being in the right place at the right time (enough to warrant a written record). Or perhaps he did have more effective method than other faith-healers of his time?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2019

      1. My view is that the Gospel writers were not trying to sell the idea of Jesus and his miracles, but that they were writing to people who already believed in them. So they weren’t trying to convince anyone about them per se; 2. And no, I don’t think there are naturalistic explanations that provide the “real” story of what *actually* happened, events that later got misinterpreted as miracles. This *was* a common explanation in the 19th century, but I don’t think that’s necessary. I think the stories came about not from faulty memory per se by people who saw something else; they were generated in the oral tradition, mainly by people who didn’t see any of it.

      1
      • galah
        galah  May 26, 2019

        Dr. Ehrman,
        Like meohanlon, I believe “it make[s] sense that the miracle stories were included at the get-go, since that’s what the gospel writer’s realized was a huge selling point in getting across the less supernatural.”
        You, “think the stories came about not from faulty memory…” but, “…were generated in the oral tradition, mainly by people who didn’t see any of it.”
        Then you add, “I think a fascinating tale can be told about someone without miracles…’ Yet, you admit, “for ancient Christians to convince people that Jesus was the unique son of God…, he did have to do things the great figures of Israel’s past did, only better.”
        Kavsor explains the problem when he says, “without the miracles there wouldn’t be much of a story to tell, an ordinary man with no remarkable background, inferior to John the baptist, who travelled around and reiterated John’s apocalyptic message ,interpreted the torah and managed to get himself killed…”
        Can you give any example of how you think these earliest, non-miraculous oral traditions may have been worded in order to finally “convince people that Jesus was the unique son of God?” At this point, I see no other alternative than, the miracle stories must have been included at the get-go.

  17. Avatar
    brenmcg  May 23, 2019

    If the miracles had been added around 130 we’d expect to see some manuscripts that don’t contain the additions.

    Could we use the same reasoning for the authorship of the gospels? If the names had only been attached to them around the middle of the 2C we’d expect to see some divergent views on who wrote them? Someone somewhere saying Philip or Andrew or James wrote the first gospel.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2019

      No, don’t think so. Because we know that before 180 or so no one was calling them Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We don’t know of anyone telling stories about Jesus’ activities that did not include miracles.

      1
      • Avatar
        brenmcg  May 26, 2019

        I dont think its known that no one was calling them Matthew, Mark, Luke and John before 180 is it? Before 180 nobody was wondering in their writings who wrote the anonymous gospels.

        I think the analogy still stands, after the 2C there’s no trace of a gospel of Luke without miracle stories so the conclusion is there was none earlier either – and after 2C there’s no trace of opposing claims to the authorship of the gospels so the conclusion is there was none before that either.

        1
  18. Avatar
    Kavsor  May 23, 2019

    As stories about Jesus were transmitted by word of mouth before the gospels, without the miracles there wouldn’t be much of a story to tell, an ordinary man with no remarkable background, inferior to John the baptist, who travelled around and reiterated John’s apocalyptic message ,interpreted the torah and managed to get himself killed? the claim that he was the messiah and had to die,not to conquer was already a tough sell, a suicidal messiah with no supernatural powers and skills would have rendered it impossible. If I were God, I wouldn’t want him to be my son. I would let him stay dead. Therefore the invention of stories about the miracles meant to elevate Jesus above every prophet in the Hebrew bible.The miracles that other prophets performed collectively Jesus managed to do single-handedly and with less effort. There are other types of events in the narrative that if not supernatural but are at least unnatural. It takes (almost) a miracle to make a total stranger leave his job, his family and his village just by saying follow me, no questions asked. As a side note, the disciples’ lack of understanding, amnesia and cluelessness also seem unnatural or perhaps even preternatural. Am I too far off the mark dr Ehrman?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2019

      I think a fascinating tale can be told about someone without miracles (cf. modern religious figures), but I agree, for ancient Christians to convince people that Jesus was the unique son of God, yes, he did have to do things the great figures of Israel’s past did, only better.

      1
      • galah
        galah  May 26, 2019

        I agree, but the Jews weren’t widely convinced that Jesus was the unique son of God. I think, he also had to do and out-do the things that were done by the gods of the Greco-Roman world, since the Gentiles are the ones who actually embraced him.

        1
  19. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  May 23, 2019

    “All of these witnesses are independent of one another, and that is the key. If someone had taken a non-miraculous version of Luke (or of any of the other Gospels) and inserted miracle stories into it, in say, the year 130, then surely SOME of the many manuscripts copied before then in Rome, Alexandria, Caesarea, Ephesus, and so on and on would have left at least a dim trace in the surviving manuscript record. ”

    Doc, how long would it take to “eclipse” story x with story y , until story x completely disappears?

    how many years between lukes first copy and the year 130? Between this time , do you think it is probable that some ancient stories in luke were eclipsed by others ones because of scribal practice ?

    the only evidence we have of uncontrolled copying is later on, for FIRST hundred years we do not know if it was controlled or uncontrolled because their are noanuscripts.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2019

      Oral stories can get eclipsed very quickly. It’s very hard to eclipse written versions, since copies are being made of earlier versions independently of the newer versions trying to eclipse the older.

      • Avatar
        Iskander Robertson  May 26, 2019

        can “uncontrolled variants” eclipse earlier variants?

        for example , i will show 4 variants below

        1.
        “my god, my god, why have you forsaken me?”

        2.
        “my god, my god, why have you mocked me?”

        3.
        “my power, my power, why have you left me?”

        4.
        “my god, my god, why do i feel forsaken?”

        lets say that variant four was the ORIGINAL,scribes were not being policed when they were copying . if variant four went missing, then this means that uncontrolled variant writing can eclipse an even earlier writing ?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 26, 2019

          Yes, that’s certainly possible, and it almost certainly happened sometimes. But it’s very rare, in comparison with what happens in the oral tradition, mainly because the change would have to be made extremely early in the transmission history of the text to infiltrate the entire tradition.

          • Avatar
            Iskander Robertson  May 27, 2019

            do you believe that the different endings of mark were added ? If yes, then does this mean that power /goverment control is not requirement to widely distributed additions into text?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 28, 2019

            That’s right, they’ve all been added. But there is zero evidence for control from above (certainly not from governmental officials), because of hte random nature of their distribution over textual witnesses. I don’t talk about Mark 16 in my book Orthodox Corruption, but I do address the question of whether there was any top-down oversight of textual transmission.

            1
          • Avatar
            Iskander Robertson  May 28, 2019

            how come their was no angry reaction to the addition of endings to the ending of mark?
            If their was no uproar, then we have evidence that christians were able to unite christians on forged endings because it agreed with their beliefs.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 28, 2019

            Because when someone would read their copy of mark, they wouldn’t realize that the ending had been added. They would simply assume it was the ending. It’s only in the modern period that most readers came to realize there were different ways to end the book — comparative studies of different manuscripts almost never happened in antiquity (apart from with a a handful of scholars)

            1
  20. Rick
    Rick  May 23, 2019

    Professor, should there be a question as to whether early Christianity, competing as it was with a pagan pantheon and accompanying mythology, would have grown as it did without supernatural stories?

    Which just stirred a new train of thought: were there “professional” story tellers early first millennia?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2019

      There weren’t professional Christian story tellers, no, if by that you mean people who made a living off of it. And yes, for missionary work to be successful, almost certainly the miracle stories had to be told. See my book Triumph of Christianity.

      1

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