“Think Different-Accept Uncertainty” Part XI: Beginning a Probe of the Miracles Attributed to Jesus
Deconstruction is always easier to do than reconstruction, but it is not nearly so important. It is never enough to say who or what Christ is not, but we must move on to say who or what Christ is. The task is complicated, however, by the very fact that the Jesus story, as related in the gospels, has been literalized for so long that breaking through the literal window to establish some new possibilities is quite difficult. This is especially true when we realize that the old mindset, no matter how dated or nonsensical it is, is nonetheless reasserted in the hymns we sing, in the prayers we pray in our liturgies and in the sermons we hear in church every Sunday. All of these activities assume a pre-modern frame of reference that most educated men and women today simply can no longer affirm. So I have to approach this task piecemeal, week by week, in order to lay the groundwork for a radically different perspective. There is no silver bullet of understanding that can be fired to create in us this new point of view. So, today I will begin a unit in the series “Think Different-Accept Uncertainty” that will look at the miracle stories in the gospel narratives. Did the miracles really happen? If they did, do they still happen? If they did once, but no longer happen why did they cease? As one person tried to explain, “Perhaps ‘the age of miracles’ is over.” To which I need to respond, “Perhaps there never was an ‘age of miracles’ and the things we once called miracles are now understood in a very different way.” Those are the possibilities.
I begin this unit by probing the level of reality that still remains among my readers in regard to the miracles recorded in the New Testament. I ask each of you to do a test just with yourself, aimed at discovering whether or not you really believe that miracles can or did happen?
Here are the questions:
- Can a star really wander through the sky so slowly that wise men can keep up with it?
- Can that star really stop in its journey, first over the palace of King Herod for the wise men to get additional directions and then over the house in Bethlehem where the baby Jesus lives with his mother?
- Can a virgin conceive?
- Are there really angels that can break through the midnight sky to sing, presumably in Aramaic, the only language that the shepherds understood, about the birth of Jesus? Could these angels really send these shepherds in search of this child, armed with only two clues: he would be “wrapped in swaddling clothes” and he would be “lying in a manger?”
- Do you think that anyone can literally walk on water?
- Do you believe that anyone can feed a multitude of 5,000 men, plus women and children, with five loaves and two fish?
- Can one curse a fig tree and cause that tree to wither down to its roots and die?
- Can one still a storm by speaking to it and commanding it to cease its fury?
- Can one raise from the dead a man named Lazarus, who has not only been dead for four days, but who has also already been buried?
- Can a blind man be made to see by the laying on of hands or the anointing of the eyes with clay? Why did this procedure not work in one gospel episode until there were two applications? Is it any harder to bring sight to a blind man if he was born blind?
- Can the mentally ill or those suffering from epilepsy be cured by casting out the demons that cause them to be other than “normal”?
- Can the mute be enabled to hear and to speak if the healer can only get Satan to stop binding the tongue of the victim?
- Can a withered hand be restored to fullness of operation or a man crippled for 38 years be enabled to walk by another’s command?
- Can water be turned into wine to keep a wedding party going? Why was it necessary, as the Bible states, to create on that occasion 150 gallons of wine?
All of these are questions that arise from actual stories that are included in the gospels and all of them are attributed to Jesus. Did any of them literally happen?
If you are convinced that all of them happened, can you explain how those feats were accomplished? If they did not literally happen, what does that do to our understanding of Jesus? Is the concept of God as an invasive, supernatural force necessary to the maintenance and certainty of the Christian story?
Does Christianity really live or die, as many claim, on the one supreme, supernatural event that all the gospels record as the climax of their narratives, namely, that a man dead from sundown on Friday, is restored to physical life by Sunday morning in such a way that he could walk out of his tomb and invite his followers to handle his flesh and even to finger his wounds?
Many people cannot imagine Christianity surviving without these things being literally true. Many other people cannot imagine any of these things ever being literally true. That is the dilemma facing Christianity today. Believers become more and more literal and fundamentalist, while those who cannot and do not believe any of these things can find no place in the life of the church for them and have no desire to continue as part of a worshiping community that pretends that these things really happened. So how can we understand miracles and how can we understand the role they played in the original telling the Christian story? That will be our task in this series over the next few weeks.
First, some biblical observations. There is no unanimity in the New Testament about most of these miracle accounts. For example, there are only two miraculous events that all four gospels record. Gospel unanimity exists only on the resurrection of Jesus and the expansion of the loaves and fishes to feed the multitude. Yet when one looks at the texts of each of the gospels the details surrounding both of these narratives vary enormously.
In regard to the resurrection, Mark, the earliest gospel to be written, has a messenger instruct the women at the tomb to tell the disciples that the risen Christ will meet them in Galilee. None of the women ever sees Jesus in this first gospel and Mark records no account of Jesus ever meeting with the disciples in Galilee. So in Mark no one ever actually sees the risen Christ. In Matthew the women are said to have seen the risen Christ quite literally in the garden on Easter morning and the disciples, or at least eleven of them, were said to have seen him on a mountain top in Galilee. In Luke the women do not see him at the tomb on Easter morning and no disciple ever sees him in Galilee. Then Luke says that two disciples, but not members of the twelve, see him in Emmaus, but he disappears into thin air. Later the twelve do see but only in Jerusalem. When we turn to John we read that Mary Magdalene alone sees the risen Christ at dawn on the first Easter and then the disciples, minus Judas and Thomas, see him in the upper room in Jerusalem at the time of the evening meal. In both instances, this gospel tells us that they conversed with him. A week later, John writes that the disciples see him again this time with Thomas. Finally, months later, John says seven of the disciples see him in Galilee, but not on top of a mountain as Matthew claimed, but beside the Sea of Galilee. There is no consistency in the details of these sightings.
In regard to the stories of the miraculous feeding of the multitude, Mark and Matthew give us two versions. The first one has 5,000 people fed with five loaves and two fish, the second has 4,000 people fed with seven loaves and a few fish. Each feeding takes place on a different side of the lake. Luke and John reduce the feedings to one. There is, thus, no gospel unanimity in this episode either. Then to complicate the picture still further, Luke alone has Jesus raise a widow’s only son from the dead. John alone has Jesus turn water into wine. The witness of the gospels to the reality of miracles is thus far more confused and ambivalent than most Christians realize and more than most of them can believe when it is spelled out for them.
We add to that complex analysis the fact that as far as we are able to discover or to read no miracle was ever associated with Jesus before the 8th decade when Mark’s gospel came to be written in the early seventies. Paul, who wrote between 51 and 64, never mentions a miracle in association with Jesus. The Q document and the Gospel of Thomas, which some, but not all, scholars believe might be pre-Marcan sources, do not mention a miracle being associated with Jesus. The Virgin Birth does not enter the Christian tradition until the 9th decade of the Christian era or some 55-60 years after his death. The physical resuscitation of the deceased body of Jesus as the way resurrection is to be understood does not enter the tradition until the 10th decade or some 60-70 years after his crucifixion. These are the factual data about the miracles of the New Testament. It is not the stable picture that believers claim and that skeptics reject. It is also not a simple study. This is enough, however, to raise the subject to our consciousness, to allow it to play upon our minds and our imaginations, to stimulate our interest. I also hope it is enough to bring you back to this column in succeeding weeks when we begin to unravel this material. So stay tuned! Same time, same place!
~John Shelby Spong