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Stories of Jesus and the Character of God

Chapter 2. Jesus’ miracles

On the internet you can run across many criticisms of Christianity. Some of them are worth paying attention to, for instance, the following criticism of Jesus as miracle worker:


So, Jesus was God, and he performed miracles. If Jesus actually cared about people why did he cure so few? He could have cured every sick person in Palestine, every sick person the world over even up to today. Why didn’t he? Why doesn’t he?


It took a while for this criticism to sink in. I was accustomed to thinking of Jesus as doing one big thing, saving the world. The miracles seemed like useful sideshows. They proved to those inclined to doubt that Jesus was God or, at least, that there was a God and God was working with Jesus. They showed that Jesus was someone who cared about our bodies and our souls. They gave us a few representative examples of caring so we could go and do likewise in our own limited ways. Jesus was a man with special powers. If he didn’t choose to use them as much as he might have, he did have a bigger task ahead. 


The suffering of the world, especially undeserved and extreme suffering, keeps many people from believing in God. Is suffering in this world really a sideshow, even for Jesus? To put the question another way, is salvation just about leaving this world of woe and going to heaven? To hear some Christians talk, that’s exactly what it is; and I suspect that’s also a major reason why some very good people turn away from Christianity.


A careful reading of the gospels shows that, in Jesus’ mind, salvation is about this world much more than about the next. Jesus has very little to say about another world but a lot to say about this world. He thinks God’s kingdom is coming to this world. Concern for the poor and suffering could never be for Jesus a sideshow, and miracles never were just proof that we should listen to what Jesus has to say. So the atheist’s question is reasonable: Why did Jesus leave so many people uncured--sick, crippled, and possessed by demons?


The question assumes that Jesus could have gone ahead and cured everyone if he had wanted to. I think that assumption is shared by most Christians; and the miracle stories in the Bible—there are quite a few, after all—seem to bear that out. But it’s a question that needs investigating. What did Jesus think was going on whenever he worked a miracle? We need to take a closer look at the miracle stories.


Miracle stories and historical reality


The idea that Jesus could work a miracle anytime he wanted to makes it hard for me to identify with Jesus. If Jesus didn’t cure everyone he could have, that would have been a decision on his part—for whatever reason. For the rest of us it’s not a choice; it’s just reality. We can’t solve every problem. We have this image of Jesus walking on water and we use that image conversationally to describe somebody who thinks way too much of himself – “He thinks he walks on water.” But that’s a criticism; it’s not a proper way for a person to think or act. Is it proper for Jesus and not for us? If so, then Jesus comes across as not really human. Some critical analysis of this tradition of Jesus as miracle worker is needed to preserve the more central Christian doctrine that Jesus is truly human, like us in every way except sin.


Early searchers for the historical Jesus generally thought, and tried to prove, that the miracle stories in the Bible do not go back to Jesus himself but arose later as legends and stories told by overly enthusiastic followers. These 18th and 19th century scholars had drunk in the scientific tenor of their age. They were biased against anything supernatural interrupting the natural flow of things (a little like me, I confess). Later, more controlled scholarship revealed the uncomfortable truth: Miracle stories go back as far as we can detect in the development of the early Church’s writings and oral traditions about Jesus. Most scholars, whether believers or not, don’t accept every miracle story in the gospels at face value, but they do say Jesus had the reputation of miracle worker even during his lifetime, and they say that reputation must have had some basis in fact.


How did those early scholars think they might be able to slice out all the miracle stories from the gospels, as if they were just later layers of lore added to an original gospel? How do later scholars say something like that, but only about some of the miracle stories? Answering that requires a look at …  


Layers of traditions about Jesus. 


When you look at a book published today, the first bits of information you see are the book’s title and author. Turn a page and you can usually find the publication date. This information is missing from the books we call the gospels. A title is given, which scholars think was added later: “The Gospel of Jesus Christ.” We’re never told the author or the date of composition. The names that we have for the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are later, and probably wrong, guesses.


Date and authorship are things that scholars would really like to know. It would be very helpful for assessing the historical accuracy of the material contained in a book if we knew how close to the actual events and from what possibly biased perspective the author wrote.


Very early in historical Jesus research, scholars found a way to tell the order in which the various gospels were composed. They noticed that the first three gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are very similar. They called these gospels “synoptic” (syn=together, optein=see). You can line these gospels up side by side and see the same story--with some changes, additions, and deletions--unfolding in each one. Then scholars noticed that nearly all of Mark is present in Matthew and Luke and in the same order, while the latter two each have material that is not contained in Mark. They concluded that somebody copied from somebody. The near universal opinion among these scholars today is that Mark was first and Matthew and Luke followed. (I’m ignoring the fundamentalist theory that God dictated all the words of the Gospels so there’s no point in historical research into their origins.)


Looking at Matthew and Luke, you can see they have a great deal of material in common that was not in Mark. This consists largely of sayings of Jesus. Matthew and Luke must have had another source in common (a source which no longer exists), which scholars call the “Sayings Gospel” or “Q.” Q is the first letter of the German word for source. (Another respected theory is that the author of Luke may have known the gospel of Matthew. That would make Q unnecessary as an explanation for the material they have in common outside of Mark.)


In addition to Mark and a possible Q, Matthew and Luke each had their own unique material, either written or oral, which they added to Jesus’ story. Here’s the majority opinion on the relative dates of various sources:


  • First were seven authentic letters of Paul, all probably composed in the decade of the 50's. Six other letters attributed to Paul are thought to be later compositions by disciples of Paul.
  • Then came Mark, around the year 70.
  • Then Matthew and Luke in the decade of the 80's.
  • Finally John in the 90's.
  • The Q document, if it existed, it must have been pretty early but not necessarily earlier than Paul.
  • Also the special materials used by Matthew and Luke could have been fairly early as well.
  • All of these sources rely on earlier written or oral traditions, and sometimes these can be identified, for example, when Paul quotes a hymn that was being sung in his local churches.

I count five or six “original,” i.e., not copied, sources for the story of Jesus: Paul, Mark, Q (if it existed), Matthew’s special material, Luke’s special material, and John. Paul and Q have little to say about the deeds (as opposed to the words) of Jesus during his earthly lifetime. All the rest contain accounts of miracles. Even Q has a saying of Jesus that refers to miracles.


The upshot is that scholars cannot find an original “layer” of information about Jesus that does not contain miraculous deeds. Historians don’t like to attribute impossible deeds to any historical person, but one conclusion is nearly inescapable: People who knew Jesus thought he was a miracle worker.


The problem of miracles


I admit to having a scientific inclination, and science does not easily accept as real an event that breaks the laws of nature. There may be gaps in our understanding, but once we do understand how something works, we figure it will work that way all the time. An apparently miraculous exception is, to a scientist, only a challenge to keep on looking for a rational explanation.


Alongside that there is a theological problem. God is the source of all the regularities in nature and it seems inconsistent, to some theologians, for God to violate these same regularities. These are the theologians that I tend to favor. Actually they’re not hard to find, including among Catholics. One such theologian is Walter Kasper, now a cardinal in the Church. For this section on miracles I'll be relying mainly on his book Jesus, The Christ, pages 89-98)


Kasper identifies what he calls the “miracle story” genre in both the Bible and ancient non-Christian literature. In  non-Christian literature the miracle story has a number of identifiable features, and some of the miracle stories in the bible exhibit these same features. It’s easy to see why a storyteller would follow literary conventions in telling a story. It’s less likely that historical reality would follow the same conventions. So scholars tend to be skeptical of a story in the Bible when it follows too closely the “miracle story” genre.


Some of the Bible’s miracle stories don’t follow this miracle-story pattern. One of these tells us that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law. (This example comes from another Catholic, Edward Schillebeeckx, very similar in approach to Cardinal Kasper, less favored but never disciplined by Church higher ups.) The story reads like somebody simply remembering something that happened. For that reason Schillebeeckx thinks it probably did happen more or less as told in the gospel. (Jesus: An Experiment in Christology, 189-190) But what exactly happened, and what does God have to do with it?


Kasper finds theologically unacceptable the idea of an interventionist God, one who imposes changes on the created world from the outside. He doesn’t believe Jesus’ miracles violated the laws of nature. He also thinks Jesus’ reputation as miracle worker must have had a basis in fact. Some things Jesus did must have astounded his contemporaries. But a 21st century scientist seeing the same things might not be convinced that laws of nature were broken. In first-century Judea a miracle was simply a sign that God was at work in a special way; and God was always at work anyway. The idea of a law of nature to be broken was not part of their mindset. So Kasper thinks it’s not necessarily part of the meaning of miracle in the Bible.


Here is some of what Kasper does think about Jesus, the miracle worker:


  • On the number of miracles: From an earlier layer of the Jesus tradition to  later one (e.g., from Mark to Matthew and Luke to John), Kasper says, we can see exaggeration in both the quantity and quality of miracles. In each succeeding layer there are more of them or they are more amazing. That being the case, it’s logical to suppose that exaggeration was also operating in oral tradition before the Gospels were written. “This reduces the material on which the miracle reports are based very considerably.” (Jesus, the Christ, p. 89, note)
  • Early historical Jesus scholars thought they could attribute all the miracles to later, legendary additions to stories about Jesus. Kasper says that some, but not all, miracle stories are like this. One whole set of miracles that he thinks are later additions are the nature miracles. He thinks of them as “projections of the experiences of Easter back into the historical life of Jesus.” They would include “the stilling of the storm, the transfiguration, Jesus’ walking on the lake, the feeding of the four (or five) thousand, and the miraculous draught of fishes.” It would also include the raisings from the dead. (p. 90)
  • Still, Kasper says, “There can scarcely be a single serious exegete who does not believe in a basic stock of historically certain miracles of Jesus.” Jesus must have “performed extraordinary actions, which amazed his contemporaries.” (p. 90-91)
  • What to make of these actions is the question. Could there be a psychosomatic explanation? Kasper leaves that option open and then gets into something more theological: “God can never replace this-worldly causality. If he were on the same level as this-worldly causes, he would no longer be God but an idol. If God is to remain God, even his miracles must be thought of as mediated by created secondary [i.e., this-worldly] causes.” (92)
  • Otherwise, Kasper continues, a miracle of Jesus would be “like a meteor from another world: an alien body completely unassimilable to our world.” Such an event “would be of no profit to theology either. A miracle of this sort would compel belief, and would remove its character of free choice.” (92) And even more boldly: “A divine intervention in the sense of a directly visible action of God is theological nonsense.” (95)

Miracles and God’s relation to the world


It’s simply a mistake to try to use miracles to prove that something beyond this world, something that we call “God,” exists. Instead we should see the miracles the way 1st century Jews did. They saw the world not as nature but as creation. The miracles fit into this view as extraordinary and unexpected, provoking amazement and awe. They make a person think not that there is some disconnect between cause and effect, where a god intervened, but that there must be some unexpected meaning to all that exists if this sort of thing can be part of it. 

The real question about miracles, then, is: How does God relate to the world? The Bible testifies to a “God who in constantly original ways offers his love to human beings in and through the events of the world,” events to which God gives “full secular autonomy.” (p. 94) Must we see the meaning of any event either in God’s purpose or in its own place and role in world affairs? Kasper says it can be both. He says,


[T]he basic law of the biblical relationship between God and the world [is] that the unity of God and the world and the autonomy of creation are not inversely but directly proportional.” (94) And,


The intensity of creation’s independence grows in direct and not inverse ratio to the intensity of God’s action. (95)


I think I could feel really comfortable about miracles, even as a lover of science, if I could makes sense out of those two quotes. Some common ways we think of God’s relation to the world, though, work in an opposite direction. We think of God as the one who makes and the world as the thing that is made. God is actor, world is acted upon. The more God works, the more the world is worked upon and the less independent it is. We can think of a God who creates a world and then leaves it on its own—a Deist, not a Christian god; and the relationship is still inverse, not direct: The more independent creation, the less involved God is. Another way Christians love to think of God is as Father and, quite a bit less often, as mother. So, on the analogy with human parenthood, God’s action leads creation, especially human beings, toward independence, withdrawing support as the “child” gets on its own two feet. The relation is still inverse, not direct. God is less and less involved as we become more independent. And when the child does grow up and perhaps the parents die, what then? Does God become completely irrelevant as “death of God” theologians used to say? Then God must be just an idea that humankind may have needed at one point, but it’s time to put such a childish thing away.

Gus DiZerega criticizes the common idea of creation as God "making" a world. Things made, he says, are things to use, and this idea robs our world of any intrinsic value. He prefers images like emanation and giving birth. (Pagans and Christians. The Personal Spiritual Experience, p. 6-7) A fact much ignored by Christians is that the Bible contains many images for creation, including emanation and giving birth.

 If Kasper is right and there’s a direct relation between God’s involvement and creation’s autonomy, then that involvement must be different from the above images. Fortunately, we’re not nearly out of things to compare God to.


I’m thinking now of a sculpture made of wood. Not just any wood but a gnarled twisted piece of deadfall. The beauty of this sculpture comes not from the sculptor’s mind alone but also from what the sculptor can see in the wood.  The artist has to cooperate with the wood. A large part of the work of the artist is looking at the wood, and the more the artist does that, the more the wood has its proper role. Much, or maybe all, of great art has something of that aspect, where the activity of the artist, which may be very intense, is not controlling but more like letting something be.


Consider another art, storytelling. A lot of the involvement of the writer is letting the story tell itself, letting the characters be who they are, letting a situation unfold.


There is love in the artist’s or storyteller’s letting be, and if God’s relation to the world is like this, then it also is a relation of love. I never felt more myself than when it dawned on me that I was deeply in love with the woman who became my life’s partner, and she with me. Our involvement with each other and our being truly our selves, our best selves, were in direct relationship—just what Kasper was talking about.


Artist, storyteller, and lover are three images for God’s relation to the world that let us see how God’s involvement and the world’s having its own nature and identity, can rise together in a direct ratio. Then we can say, along the lines that Kasper gives, that a miracle is not a place where the world’s coherence breaks down, overpowered by God’s activity, but a place where the world’s true identity shines. There’s nothing here that contradicts science, but there is some pointing to where science cannot go.


Miracles and what the world is like


The miracle stories in the Bible, including legendary deeds and some amazing deeds that Jesus reliably did perform, are not about a few past events that challenge our scientific ingenuity to explain. They are about this world that we live in, about hope for what this world can be and, finally, about our role in the world. They are a different kind of challenge, a challenge like the one Jesus gave the 72 disciples:


I am sending you like lambs among wolves…. Whatever town you enter and they welcome you, eat what is set before you, cure the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand for you.’ Luke 10:3-9)


I always thought this sounded like Jesus was expecting a lot. How could Jesus think that the 72, who weren’t even Jesus’ closest followers, would be able to perform miracle cures the way he did? But Jesus probably thought differently. He says at one point,


If it is by the finger of God that I cast out devils [curing the sick is just another, probably easier, case of casting out a devil], then the Kingdom of God has come upon you. (Luke 11:20)


In other words, these miracles that you see are just signs of what’s happening all around you. Jesus’ confidence was not so much in his followers or even his own power but in the Kingdom of God.


Here’s how the story of the sending of the disciples ends up:


The seventy [or seventy-two] returned rejoicing, and said, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name.” (Luke 10:17)


To the disciples, I guess, curing the sick wasn’t that big a deal; but ordering demons around, that’s really something to get excited about.  To Jesus these miracles were just more signs that God’s rule was already making itself felt. If we go back to the psycho-somatic explanation (and I’m not saying that’s the only possibility), some people were getting really excited. 


Could Jesus have worked more miracles than he did? Asking that question is thinking in terms of Jesus’ power rather than God’s Kingdom. For Jesus it wasn’t a matter of “I can do this.” It was, “This is what God’s Kingdom is like.”


Beyond that I don’t think Jesus ever wondered how these things were happening. For us Christians in the 21st century, faith is not enough. How does God’s Kingdom happen? We are among those disciples whom Jesus sent to cast out devils, heal the sick, and announce the good news of the Kingdom. We don’t have much chance of doing that without the help of the laws, the normal processes, of nature, which science reveals. But with the help of medicine we cure diseases sometimes; with psychology we cast out the devils of the mind sometimes. There are lots of other “devils” that we are less successful with, but we certainly are expected to work on them—and we certainly can if we wish. These devils include poverty, war, discrimination, environmental destruction; and personal “devils” – pride, laziness, hopelessness. We know perfectly natural cures for all of these, and we have “signs” in the actions of people, some extraordinary and some just like ourselves, that God’s Kingdom is alive and not entirely asleep.


Though it’s impossible to see precisely how at this distance, I think Jesus’ and the disciples’ mighty signs of the Kingdom of God involved natural processes. I’m not saying normal; they may have been quite extraordinary, but natural nevertheless. And the same type of sign is still among us.


Even with our science we don’t understand all the ways that healing happens. We might attribute to God a healing that we can’t explain. We probably don't do that when the path to the cure is well understood, but maybe we should. If God can work through a chain of causes that we don’t understand, God can as easily work through one that we do understand.


If we could take our scientific minds back to the first century and see Jesus cure Peter’s mother-in-law, would we see something that we could easily explain or something that would amaze even us? Probably Jesus and his disciples had cures of both types. And we might easily withhold judgment on Jesus either way. Of those who saw Jesus in action, some believed in him and some didn’t. Some who saw Jesus casting out devils said he did it by the power of Satan. Jesus made a comment about Satan’s house being divided against itself and concluded with the quote above about the “finger of God,” which I’ll repeat here:


If it is by the finger of God that I cast out devils, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you. (Luke 11:20)


Faith isn’t much easier in one age than another. But in the 21st century it helps me to know that the Bible’s miracles aren’t about a few impossible things that God could do and we can’t. The Bible doesn’t give us miracle stories to prove what Jesus can do. The stories (both the fictions and the memories) are there to tell us something about what the world is like; and Jesus’ interpretation is something that can be meaningful for us even today, as long as we don’t feel that we have to look for breakdowns in the laws of nature:

The Kingdom of God is at hand.