I have been talking about the stories of Jesus’ miracles, and am raising the question of whether they necessarily go all the way back to Jesus’ lifetime, as tales told while he was still living.  I pick up where I left off last time, after showing that Jesus’ miracle-working abilities increased with the passing of time.

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Not only does Jesus become increasingly miraculous with the passing of time, these miracles are all told in order to make a point.  The stories about Jesus as the miraculous Wunderkind reveal that he really was the Son of God endowed with supernatural power straight from the womb; as a five-year old he was already the Lord of life and death; as the resurrected savior he was manifestly a superhuman being of giant proportions.  In more general terms, the miracles in our later accounts repeatedly show that Jesus was the spectacular Son of God.  He was far superior to all his enemies (even if these were only the aggravating kids down the street).  He was more powerful than nature itself.

I should stress, though, that these same theological lessons can also be drawn from the canonical accounts.  The authors of these accounts, as well as the storytellers who gave them their material, were all, to a person, believing Christians who understood Jesus to be the powerful Son of God who was superior to all things on earth, superior to his earthly opponents, superior to pain and suffering, superior to all bodily ailments, superior to the devil and his demons, superior to nature, and superior to death itself.  The stories of Jesus’ miracles in the Gospels are not disinterested accounts of what happened in Galilee, told for antiquarian interests by those who wanted to provide an objective overview of events in an outpost of imperial Rome.  The stories were being told – always were being told – in order to convince people that Jesus was the Son of God.

It is important to note that miracles in our surviving Gospels consistently serve to validate Jesus’ message.  This is true not only of later non-canonical Gospels, but also of the canonical ones , as can be seen by considering their views of miracles in reverse chronological order.  In the Gospel of John the point is made repeatedly by the author himself.   The miracles are “signs” of Jesus’ identity, as the author himself says, repeatedly (Jesus’ miracles are not called signs in the Synoptic Gospels).  Without such signs, no one will believe (4:48).  In this Gospel, and only in this Gospel, Jesus identifies himself by his numerous “I am” sayings, and his miraculous deeds prove that what he says about himself is true.

And so Jesus says that he is “the bread of life,” that is, the one who can provide what is needed for eternal life; he proves it by multiplying the loaves for the multitudes (John 6).  He says that he is the “light of the world” (John 8); he proves it by healing a man born blind (John 9).  He says that he is “the resurrection and the life”; he proves it by raising a man from the dead (John 11).  Jesus’ words and deeds interconnect and entwine with one another in this Gospel.  Storytellers – or the author of the Gospel himself – took accounts of Jesus’ words and of his deeds and made them coalesce into a seamless whole.

That is happening long before John’s account, however.  Luke’s understanding of Jesus, among other things, is that in the life and ministry of Jesus the kingdom of God can already be seen.  This is an important nuanced difference from the earlier Gospel of Mark, one of Luke’s sources.  In Mark, Jesus predicts that the end of the age will come in his disciples’ lifetime.  People living in Jesus’ day will see the Son of Man coming in power to establish God’s kingdom (Mark 8:38-9:1; 14:62).  For Luke – living after these people were all dead – Jesus’ teaching is different.  True, the end is still to come.  But for Luke, in another sense, the kingdom was already present in Jesus’ ministry.  And so in Luke, unlike his predecessors Mark or Q, Jesus can say that the kingdom of God “will not come with signs to be observed” but instead it is already “in your midst” (17:20-21).

This does not mean, as it is commonly misinterpreted, that the Kingdom of God is inside each of us.  When Jesus says these words in Luke, he is talking to his enemies, the Pharisees.  He certainly does not mean that they, of all people, have the kingdom in their hearts.  They — precisely they — do not.  What Jesus means is that the kingdom of God is among them in his own ministry.  The signs of the kingdom are not just about an apocalyptic moment soon to come, they are indicative of the presence of the kingdom already in Jesus’ life and work.

In the other two Synoptics there is a different understanding, one that can be seen most clearly in the saying preserved in Matthew 11:2-6.  Here we are told that John the Baptist, who is now in prison, has heard about “the deeds of Christ,” and sends some of his disciples to him to ask if he is the one to come at the end of time, or if there is someone else.  Jesus replies:  “Go and report to John the things you hear and see: the blind come to see and the lame walk; lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised… and blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”  Is the end upon us, John wants to know?  Yes indeed.  Jesus’ miracles demonstrate it.  Or as he says later in Matthew, “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28).

This appears to be the earliest interpretation of Jesus’ miracles.  They are signs that the Kingdom of God will soon arrive.  In other words, they coalesce with Jesus’ apocalyptic message.

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In my next post I’ll explain why this makes me wonder if the stories of Jesus’ miracles actually go back to his own lifetime.

 

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2023-11-27T14:51:35-05:00December 5th, 2023|Historical Jesus|

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20 Comments

  1. RD December 5, 2023 at 9:17 am

    It has always struck me as odd that the author would have John the Baptizer question Jesus about his identity in Matthew 11 after hearing “what the Messiah was doing.” John had apparently already acknowledged who Jesus was at his baptism in Matthew 3 (verse 14} and presumedly had seen the Spirit descending and heard the voice from Heaven declaring Jesus to be “my Son, the Beloved.” Your thoughts?

    • BDEhrman December 5, 2023 at 8:38 pm

      Yeah, I’ve wondered if he was hard of hearing…. But seriously, the stories may well come from different sources. Put together they are a little hard to figure out.

  2. jhague December 5, 2023 at 10:35 am

    ‘When Jesus says these words in Luke, he is talking to his enemies, the Pharisees.’

    The Pharisees were likely never Jesus’ enemies, right?
    The Pharisees were the “enemies” of the writers of the gospels?

    • BDEhrman December 5, 2023 at 8:40 pm

      I think you’re mixing up two questions. One is, what would Luke have thought about Jesus’ view of the Pharisees and is he likely to have indicated that Jesus thought the Pharisees had the Kingdom of God within them. I think the answers no. Were the Pharisees Jesus’ actual enemies during his life? I suspect they had lots of disagreements, yes. But the interpretaiton of the Luke passage isn’t a question of the historical Jesus. It’s a question of what the author is likely to have written decades later.

  3. rfleming December 5, 2023 at 11:10 am

    Not fully understanding the motivation behind Jesus’ miracles doesn’t mean there wasn’t a motivation. Even though the Synoptic Gospels do not indicate Jesus thought of himself as God (Paul seemed to think he was), the writers could have simply been cautious about boldly suggesting this to a fledgling movement. Maybe Jesus did consider himself God and wanted to promote this idea. I’m not saying this is the case, but it’s possible…

    Why do some modern-day religious leaders stage miracles? There are many reasons: fame, fortune, power, attract attention to a movement, extreme disillusioned beliefs in supernatural power to go to the point of staging their own miracles to get others to believe?

    As for Jesus’ famous miracle of feeding multitudes in the wilderness, this is not an impossible feat. It would be hard to do, but not impossible to feed a few dozen, or maybe even around a hundred people. Such an event could be perceived as a miracle. Now if it’s thousands of people, that goes to another level, and would likely require support from someone or something else. I have thoughts on that also… Of course, “thousands” could be an embellishment.

  4. Seeker1952 December 5, 2023 at 11:48 am

    I guess I’ve never thought of stories (factual or not) being told about Jesus while he was alive. I’ve always thought of them as stories told after he died and rose. His followers presumably told these stories post-resurrection and then they were transmitted orally. That’s when the storytelling actually began—in my mind.

    Of course, if Jesus did perform miracles while he was alive then those who observed or heard about them talked about them and were in a sense telling these stories while he was alive. But did they think of them as stories that were part of a more or less integrated teaching or just news or public knowledge or current events or rumors?

    In the gospels the stories-about miracles and other things-were “remembered” by his followers and gained enormous significance after their experience of the resurrection. That’s what I think of as a story. I’m not sure that while he was alive people were “remembering” these things. It was just talk.

    Is this a distinction without a difference?Maybe I’m getting at the motivation of his followers to, in retrospect, heighten the drama of Jesus’s life and deeds after the resurrection.

    • BDEhrman December 8, 2023 at 3:31 pm

      You can only talk about things you “remember” (or misremember)

  5. waltbloom December 5, 2023 at 12:12 pm

    Doesn’t the logic of your analysis in this post suggest that Jesus was suffering from what today’s psychiatrists call delusional psychosis?

    • BDEhrman December 8, 2023 at 3:32 pm

      I don’t think so, no. For one thing, psychoses are notoriously hard to diagnose accurately after deep interviews; it’s impossible to make the diagnosis for someone in a different culture 2000 years ago from whom we have no direct communication but only late reports.

  6. taylorcarpenter December 5, 2023 at 2:28 pm

    I have a slightly unrelated question, I haven’t found where you discuss this. How were the original manuscripts of the New Testament dated if the originals themselves are lost? Is it simply tracing back the oldest copies and determining how long they were in circulation? I imagine a lot more goes into deciding these dates. Being raised in an evangelical home, I was surprised to learn that the writings of Paul are dated earlier than the Gospels. Could you describe the dating process for these texts or refer me to anything you’ve released that discusses this?

    Thank you so much for your time! I greatly enjoy your content!

    • BDEhrman December 8, 2023 at 3:37 pm

      It’s the same with every text we have from the ancient world: we have manuscripts, usually centuries after the original composition, so the composition had to be before that. But if you have, say, a copy of Plato’s Republic and have reason to think Plato actually wrote the Republic and have external evicence that Plato was active in the early part of the 4th century BCE, then that’s when you date the original, for starters. So too with Gospels and Paul, etc. In these cases you look closely to see if they mentioned something that you can date (the destruction of the temple, e.g., in 70 CE) and if so they are later; and you see if someone you can date quotes the work (say a church father), and if so then they are ealrier. And you go from there.

  7. jacaw December 5, 2023 at 2:46 pm

    On a topic not completely unrelated — would you be willing to give a very brief evaluation of Richard Miller’s Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity? Would you would recommend it?

    • BDEhrman December 8, 2023 at 3:40 pm

      I’m afraid I can’t. I read it five or six years ago but didn’t take notes on it and don’t remember it well enough to evaluate it….

  8. AndySeattle December 5, 2023 at 4:03 pm

    What was the biggest selling point for early Christian proselytization: Jesus’s miracles, or Jesus’s teachings?

    • BDEhrman December 8, 2023 at 3:41 pm

      Most compelling point about Jesus was his resurrection followed by his miracles. But there were other things more compelling yet (the ongoing miracles of his followers). I discuss all this in my book Triumph of Xty if you’re interested.

  9. Philmonomer December 5, 2023 at 10:02 pm

    Years ago, I did a deep dive comparing and contrasting Jesus and John the Baptist .. The similarities are amazing. But there is one area where there is a stark difference: there is no place in the gospels that says (or even gives the appearance/possibility) that John was also healing people.

  10. Truncated December 6, 2023 at 1:13 am

    Here is a final exam question for you: A great deal changed in our understanding of the Bible in the 19th century. What would you say are the most profound insights or counter-intuitive findings that have occured since then and have become broadly accepted by historians and Biblical studies?

    Extra Credit: Is there anything you think (hope) WILL become broadly accepted by historians and Biblical studies?

  11. ascendbirth December 8, 2023 at 1:28 pm

    I absolutely admire you as a scholar and was wondering when you may be doing public debates ? If at all? I’d love to meet you!

    • BDEhrman December 9, 2023 at 1:34 pm

      I don’t have any public appearances scheduled just now — most of the things I’m doing are remote just now! I suppose I haven’t traveled to give a talk since the beginning of Covid! Too bad.

  12. kellygene63 December 13, 2023 at 1:22 am

    Like they say, if you tell a lie long enough, people will start believing it. For example, the belief in aliens in Area 51, the idea that the Earth is flat, or the notion that aliens built the pyramids. All I can imagine is how hard life was and how barbaric people were in those days. It seems that the smart people pushed the story of Jesus to gain control over the population, just like the news and government do today.

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