The Third Way, 52: Saviours and Salvation, 8 – The Jesus Story, 4 – The Problem of Miracles, 1

“Like the jester, Christ defies customs and scorns crowned heads.  Like the wandering troubadour, he has no place to lay his head.  Like the clown in the circus parade, he satirises existing authority by riding into town replete with regal pageantry when he has no earthly power.  Like a minstrel, he frequents dinners and parties.  At the end, he is consumed by his enemies in a mocking caricature of royal paraphernalia.  He is crucified amidst snickers and taunts with a sign over his head that lampoons his laughable claim.”

Harvey Cox, quoted in Common Prayer, a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. (Zondervan, 2010), p. 73.

 “You have conquered, O Galilean.” – Roman Emperor Julian “the Apostate”, 363 CE

In the citation above, theologian Harvey Cox powerfully summarises the paradox of Jesus. 

As Napoleon once said of Jesus, he never claimed or sat on a throne (at least not on earth), never commanded an army, never wrote a book, travelled no farther than two hundred kilometers from his home (not counting his brief sojourn in Egypt as in infant), never married and had children (despite the revisionist fantasies about this in postmodern culture), never got rich or, after he set out to minister, owned anything except the clothes on his back, and during his lifetime had but a few dozen faithful followers, even if masses followed him around admiring and hoping to get something from him.  He was revered and reviled by the same masses within a week at the end of his pre-resurrection life.  He was born in a far from pristine and sanitary stable-cum-barn.  He died the most cruel, terrible, and humiliating death imaginable.  He was even buried in a borrowed grave.

Yet, as the dethroned French Emperor who had ruled almost all of Europe and held all its great nations at bay for fifteen years remarked, “He has more followers today than any man in history and is the most revered and honoured man in the whole world.”  In comparison, he, the great Napoleon, had achieved nothing, and he too would bow before this greatest of all rulers.

Our last post concluded with this list of questions:

1. Is Jesus of Nazareth a real historical person?  (When?  Where?)

2. Did Jesus of Nazareth do the kinds of things claimed in the New Testament story?  (Miracles, healings?)

3. Did Jesus of Nazareth really die on a Roman cross?  If so, why?

4. Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be the Messiah?  If so, did he offer any proof?

5. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever claim to be God in the flesh, the Son of God?  If so, what did he mean?  Did he offer any proof?  How is that even possible?

6. Did Jesus of Nazareth really rise from the dead as most of his followers have claimed for two thousand years?  What proof is there?  If so, what does that mean?

7. How believable is this whole story?  And what does it mean now?

Let us briefly consider #1: Is Jesus of Nazareth a real historical person?  We have discussed this before and the definitive answer is “Yes”.  The Roman historian Tacitus (Annals of Imperial Rome, written in the early 100s CE) acknowledges him and the existence of his followers, even in the city of Rome by the time of the reign of the Emperor Nero (54-67 CE). Tacitus states that Nero used the Christians as scapegoats for the great fire of Rome in 64 CE: “the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius.” .  Jewish historian Flavius Josephus mentions both Jesus and his disciples in his Antiquities, written in the decade of the 90s CE.  The Talmud mentions Jesus and his followers in a most unflattering and virulent fashion, pronouncing curses upon “the Nazarene” and his followers.  In addition, there are literally thousands of papyri fragments dated within less than a hundred years of Jesus’ death and resurrection that demonstrate his historicity.

#2: Did Jesus of Nazareth do the kinds of things claimed in the New Testament story?  (Miracles, healings?)  This question opens the issue of the reliability and historical validity of the official (canonical) Christian sources about Jesus, the Four Gospels found in the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Whole libraries of books and articles and scholarly commentaries have been written on this subject over the last 1500+ years.  Once more, we notice the recent efforts of some very “progressive” scholars to discredit those sources and insert other “lost” gospels in their place, or at least alongside them, as equally valid and authoritative.  We do not have time or space to deal with this here, but we can say this: the sensationalism of such claims makes great headlines and attracts a lot of Web chatter.  But what is seldom said afterwards is that all of these attempts have collapsed in their own flimsy absurdity upon due analysis by competent authorities.

This leaves us with the issue of how much credence and confidence we can impute to the Canonical (accepted as authentic by the Church) Gospels.  Once more, this is not the time or place to rehearse the long process of establishing which accounts of Jesus and the early years of the Church could be relied upon.  Even in the churches today, relatively few ordinary adherents know and care to know much of this story.  That non-Christians and non-church-goers are often quite misinformed and filled with rather distorted ideas about Christianity’s foundations is hardly astonishing.

Over the last two hundred years, serious Biblical scholarship and textual criticism has become a rather arcane discipline, even to the point that it allowed extreme critics such as the Jesus Seminar to be given far greater time and consideration than they really merit.  When we cut through all this, the conclusion remains that the New Testament documents are the only really reliable sources giving worthwhile details about Jesus and his earliest disciples.  Archeology—inscriptions, ruins, texts and artefacts—has over and over again confirmed many of these details and vindicated the New Testament accounts.  Examples of this abound for anyone wanting to go search them out.

Let us therefore consider “the kinds of things claimed in the New Testament story”, things like healings and miracles.  We will leave the whole issue of his reported resurrection from the dead for a separate discussion.

Why do we have so much trouble with reports of miraculous healings and outright miracles, such as calming a storm and walking on water and changing water into wine?[i]  Were people two thousand years ago just that much more gullible, simple, and superstitious than we are?  That has become the standard answer in the Modernist and Postmodern West.  Now we just know better, right?  Whatever was going on there, it wasn’t really supernatural—i.e. performed by some sort of divine or semi-divine power operating outside the laws of nature.

To be able to give the Gospel accounts a fair hearing, we have to do two things: (1) recognize our own operative worldview-paradigm for what it is, along with its limitations, and (2) understand, at least to some extent, the context in which the Biblical stories happened, including the operative worldview-paradigms of that time and culture.  Once again, we can give only a very brief version of both of these.  Nevertheless, I hope that what I say will still be “just”.

First, let’s state our operative paradigm in the modern-postmodern, post-Christian West.  (Apologies to regular readers.  We have flogged this almost to death in this blog over that last year.)  The West has eschewed anything but what can be reasoned and verified, or at least analysed, by the Scientific Method.  If there is a Deity of some sort, we do not consider the intervention of God or any supernatural power a factor in explaining reality, at least not for discussing “how the world and universe work”.  We recognize that we do not yet know and understand many things, but we trust that someday we will, once again by means of and with the power of reason and Science.

Further, our attitude towards the people of the ancient world is that, because they were so ignorant of so much about nature and the universe that we now know, they must have been quite naive, gullible, and superstitious, and therefore easily deceived, or at least misguided, about things they witnessed, such as apparent amazing healings and miracles over nature.  Even the treatment of such reports by liberal, more “scientific” modern Biblical scholars demonstrate this. 

For example, we meet an explanation of the miracle of the multiplication of the bread loaves and fishes, recounted in all four of the Gospels, as a charming moment when one act of generosity by a child ignited a whole crowd to share what they had with strangers who had none, and so everyone ate.  It seemed miraculous, but the Gospel story of Jesus praying over the first donated few loaves and fishes and their spontaneously “multiplying” is just silly.  Same idea for changing water into wine.  How about walking on water?  Well, that had to be some sort of mass hallucination by the twelve apostles who were crazed by fear of drowning.

You get the idea.

There are lots of problems with these facile “explanations” so commonly offered by 20th and 21st Century Bible critics, but I will limit myself here to one which, to my mind, is the most lethal to this whole approach, an approach which has outlived its “best-before” date by quite a few years now.

The major problem is this: the critics’ basic assumptions/presuppositions about the witnesses and reporters of these long-past events are just wrong!  The vast majority of them were Jews —men, women, and children of First Century Palestine.  Yes, almost without exception they believed in Yahweh, the Personal Creator-God of the universe.  Yes, almost without exception they believed that the Creator was all-powerful and able to perform miracles and supernatural events.  Yes, some of them were superstitious and many believed there were malevolent spiritual entities who afflict people with maladies and misfortunes.

So they must have been pretty naive and gullible, right?  Hmm.  But this doesn’t sound very different from most regular folks of even the postmodern West now, does it?  We see the same stuff now—just in modernized guise.  We all see and even experience this in some way.  What is your favorite talisman—your lucky bauble or day?  Check you horoscope this morning?  Say your ritual prayer yet?  Recite your mantra yet?  Avoid that black cat yesterday?

The real issue is whether we live in a closed or open universe.  Back to square one: Is there, or is there not, a personal Creator-God, able to act within our time-space continuum, and who sometimes actually does?  Are there other sorts of spiritual entities who also can and do occasionally manifest themselves?

Presuppositionally, there are only two practical answers – Yes or No.  “I don’t know” doesn’t cut it here.  If you say that, you are, in practical terms, saying “No” because you are not willing to ever acknowledge it if such an intervention really does occur.

[i]  C.S. Lewis wrote a marvelous treatment of this whole issue simply entitled Miracles if any reader is inclined to go into this issue in real depth.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s