“Think Different—Accept Uncertainty” Part XIII: Miracles As Signs to Be Interpreted
Today, as a part of the overall series entitled “Think Different–Accept Uncertainty,” I want to begin to press this mini-unit on the miracle stories of the gospels toward a conclusion. My concern has been to show modern readers that these miraculous narratives found in the gospels were always symbolic, interpretive stories rather than supernatural accounts arising out of the lack of knowledge present in that pre-modern world, filled as it was with fear and superstition. The first thing we noted was that the miracles attributed to Jesus in the New Testament fell into three distinct categories: nature miracles, raising of the dead miracles and making people whole miracles.
Our next insight came from looking at the miracle stories found in earlier traditions in the Hebrew Scriptures. There we noted that, for the most part, miracles in the Bible were centered in three cycles of stories. First, there was the Moses-Joshua cycle where the miracle stories all seemed to involve power over the forces of nature. Here we found such things as the plagues on Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea to allow safe passage across the water for the fleeing slaves and the raining down of heavenly bread called manna. These “natural miracles” dominate the Moses cycle of stories. When we arrived at the Joshua cycle we found additional feats of natural power that included the splitting of the waters of the Jordan River, the collapsing of the walls of Jericho and the stopping of the sun in the sky in its journey around the earth to allow more daylight for Joshua’s troops to massacre more of his enemy’s soldiers on the battlefield. Then looking at the nature miracles attributed to Jesus in the gospels we saw in them echoes of these Moses-Joshua stories. Jesus also was said to have had power over water. He did not split seas and rivers, but he could calm the storm and walk on the water. Like Moses, Jesus could also feed the multitude in the wilderness with finite amounts of food, which could expand to any needed dimensions and the supply never be exhausted just like manna in the wilderness. The power of nature was thus depicted in the gospels as subservient to the power of Jesus. Like Moses, Jesus could command the forces of nature to do his will.
The second cycle of miracle stories in the Bible was found in the accounts that gathered around the persons of Elijah and Elisha, who were thought of as those who started the prophetic movement. Here most of the miracles were once again nature miracles. Both Elijah and Elisha could part the waters of the Jordan River and they could both expand the food supply so that it did not give out. They could also control the weather and even call down fire from heaven to serve their purposes. Two dramatically new miraculous powers, however, were added to the accounts of Elijah and Elisha. Both were said to have been able to raise the dead. Elijah raised from the dead the only son of a widow. Elisha raised from the dead the twelve-year-old daughter of a wealthy woman who had befriended him. Elisha was also the first person in the Bible who was said to have performed a healing miracle. He healed the leprosy of a foreigner, a man named Naaman the Syrian. We looked earlier in this series at the relationship between these Elijah-Elisha stories and the gospel narratives and began to see the close connections. Jesus, like Elijah, raised from the dead a widow’s only son, a story told only in Luke. Jesus, like Elisha, raised from the dead a child in a narrative recorded in Mark, Matthew and Luke. I might also add that Luke alone told the story of Jesus cleansing the leprosy of ten people, but that story turned on the fact that one of them was a foreigner, a Samaritan, and he, like Naaman the Syrian, was the only one to recognize the source of healing power. The Elijah-Elisha stories appear to have shaped these gospel narratives dramatically.
Most of the best-known miracle stories in the gospels that surround Jesus, however, had to do with healing individuals or making them whole. Jesus was portrayed with some frequency as being able to give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, the ability to leap and walk to those with lame or withered limbs, and to enable the mute to speak or sing. What do we make of these stories? Well, the fact is that they too grow out of the Hebrew Scriptures and were presented in the gospels as signs that Jesus was the appointed messiah.
For this analysis, we have to go to I Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39). Someone must have asked this eighth century BCE prophet how people would recognize and know just when the Kingdom of God on earth was beginning. In Jewish mythology to inaugurate the Kingdom was the primary role assigned to the figure they called the messiah. I Isaiah wrote his response to this question in the 35th chapter of his book in beautiful and poetic language. You will know that the Kingdom of God is at hand and that the messianic age is beginning, he said, when these things occur: First, water will begin to flow in the desert enabling the crocuses to bloom there and the gift of life will be celebrated from Mt. Carmel to Sharon. The second sign will be just as dramatic: Human wholeness will begin to replace human brokenness. “The eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy” (Is. 35:5-6).
That specific messianic tradition was lifted out of I Isaiah quite intentionally by the interpreters of Jesus and its content placed into the gospel tradition by the authors of both Matthew and Luke when they re-introduced John the Baptist into their narratives. According to this story, John had been imprisoned by Herod for his preaching against Herod’s illegal marriage. While John was in prison, these two gospel writers tell us, John’s confidence began to waver as to whether or not Jesus really was “the one who was to come,” that is, the expected messiah, or whether John and his followers must begin to look for another. With these doubts motivating him, John the Baptist sent messengers to Jesus asking him to clarify his messianic status.
Jesus did not answer John’s question directly. Instead he told the messengers to return to John and tell him what they had seen and heard and let him draw his own conclusions. Then, he referred them quite specifically to this Isaiah text. The blind that came in touch with Jesus were enabled to see; the deaf were enabled to hear; the lame could walk and leap, and the mute could talk and sing. The signs of the messianic age were in fact breaking out all around Jesus. In this narrative, Matthew and Luke were making specific claims about Jesus as messiah and they were quoting this passage from Isaiah to demonstrate that Jesus indeed was the expected one, “the one who was to come.”
If healing were to accompany the inauguration of the Kingdom of God and if Jesus was believed to have been that promised one, then he had to be portrayed as the bringer of wholeness. This means that miracle stories had to be attached to the memory of Jesus in all three of the Old Testament categories: Moses stories, Elijah- Elisha stories and messianic expectation stories. Jesus was messiah was their claim and for supporting data for this claim they cited stories that demonstrated that he commanded the forces of nature, he raised the dead and he was the one who could and did bring wholeness to the brokenness of human life.
That is what those miracle stories were employed to communicate and that is why they need to be read as interpretive symbols, not as supernatural acts. That was also why no miracles were connected with the memory of Jesus until the eighth decade. It took that long for this interpretive process to get established. That is why Paul seems to know nothing of Jesus as a miracle worker. Miracles were an eighth decade addition to the Jesus story, introduced first by Mark, then copied within a decade or so with no additions by Matthew. By the time Luke wrote in the late 80’s to early 90’s, more Elijah-Elisha stories were added to the memory of Jesus. That is why only in Luke did Jesus like Elisha, heal not one, but ten lepers. Only in Luke did Jesus raise from the dead the only son of a widow just as Elijah did. When Luke arrived at the climax of his gospel he once again adapted an Elijah story, magnified it and then retold it as a Jesus story. That is why, only in Luke, did Jesus ascend into heaven, just as Elijah did, except that Luke says that Jesus did it without the help that Elijah received from a magical, fiery chariot drawn by magical fiery horses and propelled by a divine whirlwind. Jesus, as the new Elijah, could ascend without any supernatural aids. After Elijah ascended, he was said to have poured out a double portion of his powerful, but still human spirit on his single disciple, Elisha. In Luke’s climactic narrative, Jesus, the “new Elijah, poured out the enormous gift of God’s Holy Spirit in sufficient quantities to transform the entire community and to last throughout the centuries. In the telling of these Ascension and Pentecost stories, Luke tipped his hat overtly to the Elijah source from which he was drawing his material. He even took the whirlwind that propelled Elijah’s chariot heavenward and he turned it into the mighty rushing wind that filled the upper room on the day of Pentecost. He took the fire from the magical chariot and horses and turned it into tongues of fire that were said to have lighted on the heads of the disciples as a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
A close examination of the miracle stories of the New Testament thus reveals that they were not written as the memory of literal events. They were, rather, created as interpretive narratives presenting Jesus as the new Moses, the new Elijah and the expected messiah. They are to be read not as supernatural tales, but as interpretive symbols. Suddenly the miracles begin to look very different and we are able to read the gospels in a new manner. To see this, however, we must “think different” and “accept uncertainty.”
We will continue this series next week.
~John Shelby Spong