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Why Jesus Does Miracles

I seem to be taking a very circuitous route (as you may have noticed) to the question of why we might think that the author of the Gospel of John had access to a written source that gave him his information about the “signs” that Jesus did during his public ministry.   To get to that point, I have been discussing how John’s view of Jesus’ spectacular deeds differed significantly from the view of the Synoptics.  I have stressed that whereas in John Jesus does signs in order to prove that he is the Son of God so that people would come to believe in him, in the Synoptics Jesus refuses to do signs in order to prove his divine identity.

But why then does he do miracles in the Synoptics?   I suppose the common answer is probably right: he does miracles out of compassion for those who are suffering.   But there is more to it than that.   The miracles in the Synoptics do demonstrate that what Jesus says is true.  But in these Gospels what he talks about is not his own divinity.  What he talks about is the coming kingdom of God.  And the miracles show that it is almost here – or in the latest of the three Gospels, Luke, that it has already started to manifest itself.

Here is what I say about the matter in a forthcoming publication:



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Some Evidence for a Signs Source in John
The Temptation Narrative Missing from John



  1. Avatar
    toejam  May 26, 2015

    Hey Bart. Do you know anything of interest regarding a supposed Sahidic manuscript of John that ends at 20:31? According to wikipedia, this is manuscript Bodleian MS. Copt.e.150(P). I had not heard of this text before until I recently read the wiki page. How legit is this manuscript? Might it gives us attestation of an early version of John that didn’t contain chapter 21? I know the arguments against the “originality” of chapter 21 are pretty compelling even without manuscript attestation, but do you think this Sahidic text can be included as part of the ‘argument’ against chapter 21?


    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2015

      I just know that it exists and that some have argued that it represents an earlier form of John. But I haven’t followed the scholarship on it, I’m afraid.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 26, 2015

    Very interesting contrast between the message in the Synoptic Gospels and the message in John. Thanks for describing the difference so clearly.

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 26, 2015

    What’s the evidence for Luke being later than Matthew? I’d had the impression there was just a range of dates – a decade or so – during which they were both probably written.

    And…did these Gospel writers believe *no* “holy men” who preceded Jesus had been able to perform miracles? In my youth, I assumed that was the Catholic teaching. But now that I know how many “miracle workers” were active in the past, I find it surprising that well-educated men in that era wouldn’t have known there was a long tradition of such claims. Did they just deny all of them? *Why* would they have concluded Jesus – a man they’d never seen – was different from his predecessors?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2015

      A lot of it has to do with when the book of Acts was written — it’s being dated much later these days by some people, into the second century — and the question of whether they were written near in time to each other.

  4. Avatar
    dougckatyBE  May 26, 2015

    In a “Statement of Re-Directed Faith” document I’ve been working on, to clarify for myself and for my family and friends where my ‘faith journey’ has taken me, I have this as something I’m able to believe about what Jesus was talking about, particularly toward the end of his ministry:

    “3. After having lost confidence in the kind of apocalyptic, final action to be taken by God to put things right with the world, with or without the assistance of a Messiah figure, Jesus came to sense that the coming “Kingdom of God”, the way things would be if God were in charge and not Caesar, would come with the commitment of individual “Jesus Followers” to live like the kingdom were already present.”

    For me, this takes away the mystical and supernatural out of what Jesus was expecting to happen as the result of what he was teaching and how he was living.

  5. Avatar
    Judith  May 26, 2015

    “…real, tangible declarations about the realm of God that is very soon to arrive.” Could it be true? Could death open for each of us the way to a spiritual dimension here on earth? Books and paintings such as Casaneda’s Teachings of Don Juan and Dali’s Corpus Hypercubus allude to such an idea. In another two thousand years will the possibility of multiple earthly dimensions be no more strange than megabytes, nano-seconds, molecular biology, robotics, space travel to those of Jesus’ time?

    • Avatar
      starlight  June 6, 2015

      I think you may be onto something. Scientists haven’t yet explained the true nature of time, nor do they recognize the legitimate research into consciousness and the power and abilities of the human mind. Jesus could have been referring to the future both symbolically and literally. He may have been describing a future where people use more of their brain’s potential as he obviously did. There are endless possibilities.

  6. ZekePiestrup
    ZekePiestrup  May 26, 2015

    Was Jesus an Apocalypticist?
    Starring Profs Ehrman, Collins, Stuckenbruck. I released it five days ago to celebrate the non-Rapture of 2011. And wanting to highlight the central thesis of my flick (that Harold Camping’s crime was the same as supposed crime-less).
    Mark 9:1 to May 21. #Schweitzer

  7. Avatar
    shakespeare66  May 26, 2015

    Love this insight into the miracles of Jesus as they appeared in the synoptic works versus John. Did a more significant time period evolve from the last synoptic to the writing of John?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2015

      Yes, John was written some time later (10-15 years? That’s the normal reckoning0

  8. Avatar
    Matt7  May 27, 2015

    What is the point of Jesus healing the man with the shriveled hand in Mark 3:1-6? I always thought it was to show that human well-being is more important than following rules, similar to the teaching about the Sabbath having been made for man and not man for the Sabbath.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2015

      Yes, not all the miracles are done for the same reasons. But the *reason* Jesus heals the man may not be the same as the theological *implications* of his having healed him.

  9. Avatar
    godspell  May 27, 2015

    Jesus seems to indicate that anyone who has the same faith he does could work the same wonders–the power is not coming from him personally, but is rather God’s power flowing through him, because he has made himself a proper conduit for it, through faith.

    Peter is briefly able to walk on the water beside Jesus, before his imperfect faith makes him sink.

    Jesus says anyone who has faith the size of a mustard seed could move mountains.

    Jesus says, when healing people, that they have healed themselves, through believing (which is, when you get right down to it, precisely how faith healing works, to the extent that it can be said to work).

    So it seems that Jesus was not claiming any special powers, or demonstrating them–and of course, in the Old Testament, prophets like Elijah and Elisha were said to work wonders–even raise the dead. They were not begotten sons of God, nor were they Messiah, and clearly Jesus is depicted as some higher order of divine messenger, but they could still do remarkable things, rivaling Jesus’ own miracles in the synoptics. How is this possible, unless it is simply the power of faith–God’s power moving through mortal men, whose only distinction is their ability to believe more deeply than others.

    As Christianity developed, it became more and more important to say Jesus was absolutely distinct and different from other men–but even so, Irenaeus (hardly some radical gnostic–a champion of orthodoxy) said that God became man so that men might become God. Tell me if I’m misquoting him, but that’s the gist, I think.

    The idea that we all could have divine power was slow to die, and it’s still around. But it’s become heretical to say it in so many words. Because Jesus was made into God, and to claim equality with him has become heretical. But he was, in fact, saying we could all be as he was. He was never saying “My mother is a virgin, so I am not sullied by Original Sin, which gives me superpowers.”

  10. Avatar
    Adam0685  May 27, 2015

    What perplexes me is given the stories of Jesus’s miracles didn’t happen, how did they become such a predominate part of the gospel stories. Why were so many so quick to believe these stories?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2015

      My sense is that miracle stories were not in them selves “hard to believe” in antiquity. Ancients simply didn’t have the same problems we have with miracles. For them the question was not whether they were possible, but intstead, who had the power to do them.

  11. Avatar
    JSTMaria  May 28, 2015

    Hi Dr. Ehrman,

    Earlier in the comments Elijah and Elisha were mentioned. I wanted to bring them up again in a new light to get your opinion here. I guess they were considered to be oral prophets as opposed to literary ones, so all they were known for were “signs.” The synoptic gospels, by contrast, repeatedly offer proofs that revolve around those things *written* to fulfill the scriptures by the literary prophets. So here comes Elisha… whose name means “God is salvation,” just like the name Jesus, who was found plowing with *twelve* oxen by Elijah. At the end of their time together in 2 Kings, they are both on the banks of the Jordan where Elisha inherits twice the power of Elijah. Somebody known to be given twice the power of Elijah seems like a good reason to be looking for a messianic figure ushered in by Elijah later on.

    Fast forward to Jesus and John the Baptist. If Elijah and Elisha were types for these two, then it should be no surprise that they are put back together again on the banks of the Jordan with the baptism story…in all four gospels. Jesus even tells his disciples that John *is* Elijah at one point, or what the orthodox claim is the spirit of Elijah upon him. So Elijah departs and now we have a type for Christ in Elisha who seems to perform extremely similar signs to the ones in John’s gospel. I’m thinking the ones in John’s gospel were just massaged versions of Elisha’s.

    For example, the first thing Elisha does is *heal* a body of water. You could argue that changing water to wine is at least an example of something similar given chapter six in John about what becomes Eucharist theology. And his second sign happens to involve filling vessels with oil. Seems like two good signs to massage together there for John’s version, especially when you consider that the woman uses the oil so as not to have her sons sold into slavery (i.e., the bondage of sin?). The man with leprosy in 2 Kings, while not sitting by a pool for healing like the paralytic, was still told to go dip himself in the Jordan to be healed. Elisha fed the one hundred and Jesus fed the five thousand. Elisha made iron float in water, while Jesus walked on water. Elisha opened the eyes of his spiritually blind servant to let him see the cherubic army. Jesus made a man born blind see. Elisha raised the Shunnamite woman’s son from death, while Jesus raised Lazarus. That’s six similar signs from Elisha. And his dead bones supposedly raised yet another guy from death. It seems the only thing missing with Jesus is not making the beef stew kill anybody.

    Do you think this comparison holds any water? I have always just seen the books of Kings while reading John’s gospel. Curious to hear your thoughts.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 28, 2015

      Yes, it is often thought that the Gospels do model their portrayals of Jesus on various “non-writing” prophets, Elisha but also Elijah (cf Luke 7) and Moses (cf. Matthew 1-5)

  12. TracyCramer
    TracyCramer  May 28, 2015

    As always, a fascinating topic. Is there any chance you can make the “forthcoming publication” available to the membership? Thank you, Tracy Cramer, Austin, TX

    • Bart
      Bart  May 28, 2015

      We’ll all need to wait until it’s published next spring!

  13. TracyCramer
    TracyCramer  May 28, 2015

    Don’t forget to let us know when it comes out! 😀

    • Bart
      Bart  May 30, 2015

      Oh, you’ll be hearing about it ad nauseum!

      • TracyCramer
        TracyCramer  May 30, 2015

        Great! And you have heard this request from me before, as you have directed much of my reading with suggestions over the years, but anytime it comes up, please suggest new or old titles from other scholars that you have particularly liked.

        Thank you, Tracy

        • Bart
          Bart  June 1, 2015

          Titles on what topic?

          • TracyCramer
            TracyCramer  June 1, 2015

            Sorry, I wasn’t clear. For example, if you’ve been pursuing a thread on the signs source (actually that might be too narrow a topic for a popular or semi popular treatment of that topic), but just as an example, if one of the books you read in your study on the subject you thought the membership might be interested in reading, would you mention it to us?

            As a bit of history, you have helped deepen my understanding of the historical Jesus tremendously by your giving me the names of John P. Meier, Sanders, Fredriksen, Vermes, Raymond Brown, etc.

            Perhaps there are some good titles on the formation of the NT or Gospels that you would recommend, other than your textbook, which, BTW, has also been Very helpful to me in my studies.

          • Bart
            Bart  June 2, 2015

            Ah, OK, good idea. For the formation of the NT, the classic is Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the NT. But it’s pretty heavy hitting.

  14. Avatar
    madmargie  May 30, 2015

    I never been able to give any credence to John. His gospel is just too different from the synoptic gospels. And I believe much of the synoptic gospels is just oral tradition. Oral tradition is notoriously flawed since every time something is repeated it is slightly changed. I try to just stay with the parts of the message of the gospels that seem to make the most sense. Love God and your fellow man and try to help develop the empire of God on earth through peaceful means. .

  15. TracyCramer
    TracyCramer  June 2, 2015

    Thanks so much. A Marginal Jew by Meier about did me in, and Vol. 5 has yet to come out (he had been having some health issues that delayed his work) but it was well worth it. I will look into Metzger, thank you. Tracy

  16. Avatar
    Kazibwe Edris  May 26, 2016

    The Betrayal of Jesus
    …5“Jesus of Nazareth,” they answered. Jesus said, “I am He.” And Judas His betrayer was standing there with them. 6When Jesus said, “I am He,” they drew back and fell to the ground. 7So He asked them again, “Who are you looking for?”

    1. note here that judas does not point out who jesus is?
    2. note that jesus is happy to identify himself without depending on judas?

    john seems to be rebutting mark?

    how many pagan warriors identified them selves saying “ego eimi” and then the crowds fell back?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2016

      1. I don’t think the author of John knew Mark’s Gospel 2. None.

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