The Third Way, 53: Saviours and Salvation, 9 – The Jesus Story, 5 – The Problem of Miracles, 2

miracle – an extraordinary event attributed to some supernatural agency. 

The Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002

In our discussion of the candidacy of Jesus for the position of universal Saviour, we began dealing with the following list of questions in Episode 51 of The Third Way:

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?

So far:

#1: We have established that Jesus/Yeshua of Nazareth, the subject of Christian faith and The New Testament, the principle Christian documents, is a real historical person who lived and died in the First Century CE (Common Era, Current Era, Christian Era).  We have established that, historically and archeologically speaking, these documents are at least as authentic and worthy of serious consideration as any other ancient documents which are generally accredited as holding genuine authority about the persons and events which they relate.  Our confirmation of these questions in the limited space of this blog has certainly not been extensive, but sufficient to point inquirers in the general direction of very convincing authorities on these matters.

#2: In The Third Way 52, we began a consideration of the claims made in the Four Canonical Gospels that Jesus performed many spontaneous healings and even some astounding feats of command over natural forces and laws.  For anyone wanting to or insisting that we consider non-Canonical sources, such as the “Gospels of Thomas, Peter, or Barnabas (parts of the Pseudepigrapha), they will find many such stories there as well.  In comparison, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are downright modest and subdued, even rather prosaic about the whole thing—as one would expect of a reporter recounting an event by mostly stating “the facts”.  In fact, their rather bare-bones approach, citing characters (who), time (when), place (where), circumstances (why), and occurrence (what happened), mostly without dramatic embellishment, should be quite convincing of their authenticity.  The only problem is, as we have said before, that the subject matter is the miraculous which, as we “awake” modern-postmoderns simply know and understand according to the laws of Science and the dictates of Enlightened Reason, cannot have actually happened and does not happen now.

But can we so easily dismiss the eye-witnesses as overly credulous and easily duped?  Can we so facilely discount the source-documents as having been posthumously “doctored” to play upon the superstitious gullibility of subsequent recruits to the new Jesus Movement?  How soon were such reports in circulation?  Immediately, according to the Gospels and even near-contemporary non-Biblical Jewish sources.

The Gospels themselves declare that Jesus began to perform his wonders as soon as he undertook his public career.  His reputation spread very quickly from Galilee to Judea and even into nearby Gentile territory and reached Jerusalem very soon.  The Jerusalem authorities sent investigators to see what was going on.  Their scepticism and disbelief is well described.  They were, after all, not the uninformed local-yokel rabble of the boondocks up north in the “Galil”.  When they could not deny that what was reported was really happening, they decided to impute it all to nefarious spiritual powers like Beelzebub.

When Jesus took his miracle-show to their very doorstep in Jerusalem and the intelligentsia could not deny what had happened in front of hundreds of eye-witnesses. For example, a local man born blind who was a regular mendicant known by many in the city now had become normally sighted and declared to one and all what Jesus had done for him, (John’s Gospel Chapter 9). The account reads like a totally true-to-life account based on intimate eye-witness testimony.  It is completely true-to-life in its characterization and story-line. 

In Galilee we hear of the scepticism even of those who had known him his whole life, even (especially?) his own brothers.  The Jerusalem establishment and their acolytes in the outlying districts know better than to credit such tales of abundant healings and even exceptional miracles. Even in the presence of the healed blind man of Jerusalem himself they refuse to accept any proof.  They sound very “modern” in their attitude. Even the healed man’s own parents are called in, and testify that the healing is real, although they tremble to contradict the official perspective.  All they say is to affirm that he is their son and had been born blind.  They had no explanation for his new normalcy except what their son had told them.  So much for the supposed superstitious gullibility of the witnesses!

The incredible story of the raising of Lazarus, a close personal friend of Jesus who had been dead and buried for four days when Jesus raised him, reads very similarly—very unlike a later made-up tale.  This event takes place on the very doorstep of Jerusalem.  Once more, the scepticism of even ordinary Jews is very much on display — the very improbability – impossibility – of calling a dead body well on its way in decomposition back to life!  His own disciples can scarcely believe he is going to attempt it.  The man’s own sisters warn Jesus that the body stinks terribly by this point.  But, to everyone’s absolute astonishment, Jesus orders the tomb opened and calls to the dead man, “Lazarus, come out!” and out he comes, his body restored to life and health.

Once more we see the authorities unable to deny it but unwilling to accept it.  If there is any explanation, it must be some sort of demonic force.  But the Priests cannot even accept that, being semi-materialists, basically Deists.

We could recite story after story, but the characteristics remain consistent across all four Gospels (some of the same incidents being recounted in more than one of them).  The facts are retold almost as if the writers are following the journalistic 5-Ws.  The stories do not sound or look like mythical or legendary inventions in the least.  “Believe it or not, but this is what happened.”

Of course the Jews of First Century Palestine were not sophisticated in their scientific and technological knowledge, but they were far from the simplistic, easily duped and easily manipulated caricatures of modern-day sceptical commentators and old-style “higher-critical” studies.  The well-educated classes were very like our modern-postmodern liberal “enlightened” intelligentsia.  Of course, there were factions of the “left” and “right” as we would now classify them.  But they were not stupid or superstitious just by virtue of being “ancient”.

The real question is why we deem ourselves qualified to write off eye-witness testimony, especially when, if it were given in almost any other source but the Bible, we would recognize that we should consider the possibility and probability of its authenticity seriously.  And, as we have observed before, the real reason is our cultural worldview, our operative reality-paradigm.  Here in the West it has been quite systematically developed over more than two centuries to eliminate Jesus and the Christian story from our cultural and social foundations.

If we can discredit the sources, we need not credit the worldview or continue to value its influence.  Yet now it very much appears that after all this enormous expenditure of scholarly energy and resources, those very sources have stood up against all of this scrutiny and profound scepticism.  They have come through substantially verified and validated in great detail.  How are we then to maintain with integrity this posture of automatic dismissal and ridicule of Jesus and his claims about himself as outlined in those very sources?  How are we to, with integrity, summarily to discard the Jesus Movement now called Christianity which is founded on faith in those claims?

We shall close this reflection on the miraculous elements of the Jesus Story by a look at the nature-miracle stories.  It is one thing to see a healing as perhaps explainable by some natural factor unknown to the ancients—like a psychosomatic illness, or some amazing spontaneous release of the body’s own “natural healing power”.  However, some of those stories, like those someone born blind or being definitely dead and returning to life, don’t fit any of those explanations.

But what possible “natural” explanation can we find to the tale of Jesus and Peter walking on water—in the middle of a violent storm no less?  Or for Jesus simply commanding a storm to cease, and it does?  Or changing water into wine?  Or multiplying a few buns and fishes into enough food for a throng of thousands?  We might have the story of the loaves and fishes covered by the “spontaneous” eruption of good-will sharing among the crowd.  However, the story is very prosaic and suggests nothing of the sort.  One would have thought that at least one of the four Gospel-writers, who all recount it with slight variations, would have observed such a wonderful spirit of sharing, especially since Jesus was all about loving your neighbour, right?

We might, very implausibly, explain away the water-into-wine episode by saying that everyone was already so drunk after several days of celebrating that they didn’t notice that what they were drinking at the end was just wine-flavoured water.  Seriously people?!  And yet this has been suggested by some determined parties seeking to find a way around these (for us scientific, sophisticated moderns) uncomfortable episodes.

Unfortunately, we can do nothing with the storm and walking on water stories but suggest the disciples were mass-hallucinating because of panic and fear.  Or maybe when Jesus commanded the wind to quiet down there was a totally incredible, freaky coincidence.

Let us conclude this episode with a comment attributed to Jesus when someone asked him about how to get incredulous people who are determined to go on living as they please while headed for perdition to change their ways.  He gave an oblique reference to what he knew would happen when the greatest of all his miracles would occur:  “Even if someone were to come back from the dead they still would not believe.” (Luke 16:31)  He later saw this very refusal happen when he raised Lazarus as the precursor to his own resurrection.  According to Jesus, those who don’t want to accept the most blazing evidence walking and talking right in plain sight will still refuse to believe.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

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