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“Think Different—Accept Uncertainty”
Analyzing the Miracles Attributed to Jesus
Bishop John Spong
When most people think of the miracles included in the gospels, they usually think of a broad series of apparently supernatural acts. They tend not to be familiar with the intimate details of the biblical narrative. When those details are revealed, questions are inevitably raised as to the purpose the gospel writer had in mind when he was writing, and the possibility that these stories were never meant to be taken literally rises substantially. Allow me to illustrate that with some easily discovered biblical data. I begin with the most miraculous of the biblical claims.
Did Jesus literally raise people from the dead? A search of the gospel texts reveals these biblical facts. The gospels suggest that three different people are called by Jesus from death into life, but only one of those stories occurs in more than one of the gospels. That is the account of the raising of Jairus’ daughter. It makes its first appearance in Mark (5:21-24, 35-43), a book written in the early seventies. The details in this original narrative tell us that Jairus was a “ruler of the synagogue,” who comes to Jesus beseeching him to heal his daughter “who is at the point of death.” Jesus begins to move toward Jairus’ home. As he does so, there is another healing miracle, the story of the woman with an issue of blood, inserted by Mark to take up the time during which they were on the way to Jairus’ house. Having completed that episode the journey continues only to be interrupted by Jairus’ servants coming to inform the synagogue ruler that the child has died and he is not to trouble the “teacher” any longer.
Jesus, apparently unmoved by this report, speaks to Jairus telling him not to be fearful, but to believe and so the journey continues. Arriving at the house, Jesus is greeted by a host of mourners, who are weeping and wailing. He asks them why they are mourning, informing them that the child “is not dead but sleeping.” The mourners laugh at him. Closing the door on the mourners, Jesus goes with the child’s parents and his disciples into the child’s room. He takes the child’s hand and commands her to rise. She does. Mark then tells us that she is twelve-years-old. Jesus orders them to give her food and departs leaving behind him a trail of wonder and amazement.
That same story is told next with only slight variations by Matthew (9:18-26) writing in the mid-eighties and then once again by Luke (8:40-56) writing in the late 80’s to early 90’s. Both Matthew and Luke incorporated substantial portions of Mark into their gospels and so we are not surprised to find the story not only repeated in each, but in exactly the same context of events, that is the message of the child’s sickness, the journey, the healing of another on the way and then word of the child’s death. It is obvious that in these three accounts we have a single story in three slightly different versions.
For help in understanding this story we turn to a remarkably similar episode that was said to have occurred in the life of the prophet Elisha recorded in the book of II Kings (4:8-36). In that story, Elisha raises a child of about twelve from the sleep of death. The only difference is that for Elisha the child is a boy not a girl. In each story, there is a message sent to the “healer” while he is a long distance away. In both stories, the healer continues to the child’s house, goes directly into the room where the child is lying on the bed. Elisha is said to have done mouth to mouth resuscitation, stretching himself on the body of the child.
Jesus is portrayed as taking her hand and speaking the word of healing. In each story, the child is restored to health. Could it be that this Jesus story was originally nothing more than a re-telling of an Elisha story as if it had occurred in Jesus’ life as a way of relating Jesus to the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures and claiming for him the status of being a new Elisha? I think that is highly likely.
The only other raising from the dead story that occurs in the synoptic gospels is told in Luke (7:11-17). In this miracle account the only son of a widow is restored to life by Jesus in the village of Nain. There is little doubt that this man is dead, for his body is on the funeral bier in a procession toward his place of burial. Yet once again by looking at an older Elijah story (I Kings 17:24), we find remarkable similarities. There we discover that Elijah was also said to have raised the only son of a widow from the dead. We also know that Luke will draw on more than one occasion from the Elijah stories to relate his understanding of Jesus. Is that what this raising of the dead story, found only in Luke, is all about? I believe it is.
There is only one other raising from the dead story in the gospels and it is the very dramatic account of the raising of Lazarus recorded only in the Fourth Gospel, a work that is generally dated at the end of the first century, ca. 95-100 or 65-70 years after the crucifixion. The details are these: It is a public not a private act. Jesus’ disciples, his friends and even his enemies are present. The person, who is to be raised, is not only dead, but he has been buried for four days. John’s text even warns Jesus that there will be an odor if the tomb is opened. Jesus, nevertheless, orders the stone covering the mouth of the cave to be removed and then he literally calls Lazarus out of the grave.
Lazarus comes like a walking mummy, bound by the grave cloths in which he has been wrapped and from which he must be freed. If such a credibility-stretching episode had really occurred, ask yourself whether it is likely that no one in that public gathering would mention it for more than three generations before John writes it down. I will return to this story in this series next week, but suffice it now to say that no biblical scholar today regards the account of the raising of Lazarus as history.
So this brief analysis reveals that the three gospel stories of Jesus raising someone from the dead might mean something quite different from that arrived at by reading them as literal history, an insight confirmed again and again as we look at the miracles of Jesus more closely.
The next category of miracles, attributed to Jesus, is what we call “nature” miracles: Jesus walking on water, stilling the storm and feeding the multitude with loaves and fishes. A close look at these narratives also yields new possibilities for non-literal interpretation. Most people are not aware, for example, that there are six separate versions of the feeding of the multitude story in the four gospels. There are two in Mark, two in Matthew, one in Luke and one in John. Since Mark and Matthew are older than Luke and John, it looks like the multiple accounts of the feeding stories are the earlier tradition. So we look first at Mark and Matthew. The symbols present in these narratives then begin to pop out of the text. In Mark, Jesus, on the Jewish side of the lake, feeds 5000 men (plus women and children) with five loaves and two fish. Afterwards twelve baskets of fragments are gathered up so that “nothing is lost.”
Then Jesus moves to the Gentile side of the lake and proceeds to replicate the experience, but this time he feeds 4000 people with seven loaves and a few fish and afterwards seven baskets of fragments are collected. The numbers employed: five loaves, 5000 people and twelve baskets of fragments on the Jewish side of the lake and seven loaves, 4000 people and seven baskets of fragments on the Gentile side of the lake scream at us not to read these narratives as literal history, but as symbolic feedings, perhaps as early Eucharists. By the time we get to John’s gospel those eucharistic connections are clear since John has Jesus liken his flesh to the manna that fell on the starving Israelites in the wilderness, making it clear that these stories are related to the Moses accounts in which God feeds the children of Israel with heavenly bread. Thus it becomes apparent that these feeding stories are not to be understood as literal happenings, but as interpretive narratives being retold about Jesus, the “New Moses.” I wonder how many people who sit in the pews have ever been invited to view miracles from this non-literal perspective.
Moving on to the miracles of healing, let me illustrate this same non-literal approach by looking at just one narrative, the restoration of sight to a blind man from Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26). This miracle story is unique because the first application of the hands of Jesus on the eyes of this blind man was not successful, at least not completely. After Jesus anointed this man’s eyes with clay and spittle the blind man can see only “trees walking.”
Only with the second laying on of hands was his sight fully restored. If this is really a miracle story then why was Jesus’ power inadequate the first time? The literal mindset is buffeted by these questions, but a look at the context in which this story appears in Mark offers a powerful clue. Mark places this story just before the account of Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi. In Peter’s confession he says the right words “You are the Christ,” but he clearly does not know what they mean. When Jesus begins to tell him what the Christ role is to be – suffering, rejection and death — Peter objects eliciting from Jesus the stern rebuke: “Get thee behind me Satan, for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” Peter is surely portrayed as a blind man who begins to see, but not clearly, and a second experience must precede his full entry into both faith and sight. It should not come as a surprise when we discover Peter hails from Bethsaida.
Is this then really a miracle story, the account of a supernatural healing of a blind man? I do not think so, nor do I think that this is what Mark intended us to understand as we read his gospel. Mark is rather writing a parable about the conversion of Peter, a blind man who has to be led to seeing and thus to faith in stages.
There are many more things that I can say about the miracle stories of the gospels, but I will devote only one more column to this subject to allow me to deal more fully with the fascinating story of the raising of Lazarus. For now let me say bluntly that I no longer think that the miracles of the gospels have anything to do with what we once called the miraculous.