By James Bishop| In this article we are going to look at what experts have to say about the miracle stories that are recorded in the New Testament. Scholars quoted here are from a diverse range of worldviews including skeptics, agnostics, Christians, non-Christians and so forth.
It can easily be established by historical records and the professional opinion of experts that Jesus was indeed seen doing what people believed to be “miracles”. Healing people, raising people from the dead, and exorcism are some of the miracles scholars believe he was involved with.
So what does modern scholarship have to say about Jesus miracles? We are going to look at six different significant categories of assessment pertaining to the miracle-working of Jesus.
1. Jesus Attracted Large Crowds
It’s a historical fact that Jesus’ ministry attracted large crowds of people at the time at which he was seen working miracles, and such would require an explanation. In the Gospel of Mark it is reported that “Immediately the news about Him spread everywhere into all the surrounding district of Galilee.”
Jesus was certainly talked about, but if he was simply another man walking the countryside of ancient Palestine making absurd claims then it is unlikely that he would have attracted large crowds, or any interest whatsoever. This is especially the case since Jesus’ ministry was just a mere three years.
- “Huge crowds gathered to hear him preach and to witness the reported healings and exorcisms.” -James Tabor (‘The Jesus Dynasty.’)
- “There is little doubt the crowds considered Jesus a prophet because of His miracles (Mark 6:14–16; Luke 7:14–17; John 6:14).” -Mark Saucy (‘Miracles and Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God.’)
- “Jesus was known for doing “mighty deeds,” according to Josephus, the Jewish historian who wrote about Jesus near the end of the first century. The gospels agree. They not only report many stories of spectacular deeds done by Jesus, but also that crowds flocked to him because of his reputation as a healer.” -Marcus Borg (‘The Mighty Deeds of Jesus.’)
- “It is sufficient for the historian to know that Jesus performed deeds that many people, both friends and foes [and probably Jesus himself], considered miracles.” -Ben Witherington III (‘The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth.’)
- “These sources indicate that part of the reason that Jesus attracted large numbers of followers was his miracle working.” -Christopher Price (‘The Miracles of Jesus: A Historical Inquiry.’)
- “An ability to work cures, further, coheres with another datum from Jesus’ mission: He had a popular following, which such an ability helps to account for.” -Paula Fredriksen (‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.’)
- “Most historical Jesus scholars today, regardless of their personal theological orientation, do accept that Jesus drew crowds who believed that he performed cures and exorcisms.” -Craig Keener (‘The Gospels as Sources for Historical Information about Jesus.’)
- “Such facts are that Jesus was known in both Galilee and Jerusalem; that he was a teacher; that he carried out cures of various illnesses, particularly demon-possession, and that these were widely regarded as miraculous.” -Anthony Ernest Harvey (‘ Jesus and the Constraints of History.’)
2. Miracle working is attested in very early sources
Jesus’ miracles are attested to in the New Testament as well as in hypothetical sources.
- “The early dating of the literary testimony to Jesus’s miracles, i.e., the closeness of the dates of the written documents to the alleged miracles of Jesus’s life, is almost unparalleled for the period.” -Paul Meier (Quoted in ‘Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts.’)
- “There are “individual miracles embedded in the pre-Marcan passion narrative (10:46-52).” -Paul Meier (‘A Marginal Jew.’)
- “The earliest traditions about Jesus include accounts of his miracle working. They are intertwined with the earliest sayings traditions. Additionally, the attestations of Jesus’ miracles are uniquely diverse and numerous.” -Christopher Price (‘The Miracles of Jesus: A Historical Inquiry’)
- “Jesus is represented as a miracle worker at every level of the New Testament tradition. This includes not only the four Gospels, but also the hypothetical sayings source, called Q, which may have been written just a few years after Jesus’ death. Many eyewitnesses of Christ would still have been alive at the time these documents were composed. These eyewitnesses were the source of the oral tradition regarding Jesus’ life, and in light of his very public ministry, a strong oral tradition would be present in Israel for many years after his death.” -Craig Blomberg (‘The credibility of Jesus’ miracles.’)
- “In sum, both the unique “M” and “L” materials contain independent references to Jesus’ miraculous deeds. Those materials, moreover, was already in existence in their respective communities. Therefore, they provide independent sources to the miracle working of Jesus.”
- “Examined for its sources, therefore, the New Testament provides no fewer than five independent sources attesting to Jesus’ miracle working.”
- “Furthermore, Q contains several statements attesting to the fact that Jesus was a miracle worker… Q nevertheless provides independent attestation of Jesus’ miracle working.”
-Christopher Price (‘The Miracles of Jesus: A Historical Inquiry.’)
- “By contrast, the summary that Jesus performed multiple raisings (Matt 11:5/ /Luke 7:22) belongs to first-generation Q material. Further, specific and likely independent healing accounts in Mark (Mark 5:35-43), special Luke material (Luke 7:11-17), and John (John 11:39-45) confirm by multiple attestation the tradition that Jesus was from our earliest traditions reported to raise the dead.” -Craig Keener (‘Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts.’)
3. Multiple attestation of miracle working
The more an event or a person of history is multiply attested in various independent sources, the more confident historians can be about alleged historical events said to have happened.
- “Although the evidence is limited concerning most particular miracles, all of the many ancient sources that comment on the issue agree that Jesus and his early followers performed miracles: Q, Mark, special material in Matthew and Luke, John, Acts, the Epistles, Revelation, and non-Christian testimony from both Jewish and pagan sources.” -Craig Keener (‘Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts.’)
- “The miracle-working activity of Jesus–at least exorcisms and healings–easily passes the criterion of multiple attestation.” -Barry Blackburn (‘Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research.’)
- “Exorcism, however, is the most prominent type of cure in the synoptic gospels. The sheer volume of evidence makes it extremely likely that Jesus actually had a reputation as an exorcist.” -E.P Sanders (‘The Historical Figure of Jesus.’)
- “Every canonical gospel source, Mark, Q, M, L, and John, affirms the miracle-working activities of Jesus. Less friendly sources, such as Josephus and the Babylonian Talmud, also attest to Jesus as a miracle worker.” -Christopher Price (‘The Miracles of Jesus: A Historical Inquiry.’)
- “For these miracles the historical evidence is excellent.” -A. M. Hunter (‘Jesus: Lord and Saviour’)
- “When we apply the same criteria of authenticity to both, the biblical miracles simply enjoy more evidential support.” -Craig Blomberg (‘The credibility of Jesus’ miracles’)
- “Viewed globally, the tradition of Jesus’ miracles is more firmly supported by the criteria of historicity than are a number of other well-known and often readily accepted traditions about his life and ministry. . . . Put dramatically but with not too much exaggeration: if the miracle tradition from Jesus’ public ministry were to be rejected in toto as unhistorical, so should every other Gospel tradition about him.” -John Meier (‘A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus.’)
- “[W]e note that Jesus as exorcist, healer (even to the point of raising the dead), and miracle worker is one of the strongest, most ubiquitous, and most variously attested depictions in the Gospels. All strata of this material–Mark, John, M-traditions, L-traditions, and Q–make this claim. This sort of independent multiple attestation supports arguments for the antiquity of a given tradition, implying that its source must lie prior to its later, manifold expressions, perhaps in the mission of Jesus himself.” -Paula Fredriksen (‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.’)
- “Several important examples might be provided. Of the five sources often recognized in the Gospel accounts, Jesus’ miracles are reported in all five, with some specific occurrences reported in more than one. Jesus’ crucial “Son of Man” sayings are also attested in all five Gospel sources. And the empty tomb is reported in at least three, if not four, of these Gospel sources. This helps to understand why these items are taken so seriously by contemporary critical scholars.” -Gary Habermas (‘Recent Perspectives on the Reliability of the Gospels.’)
4. The uniqueness of his miracles
The uniqueness of Jesus’ miracles are what appear to separate him from other historical figures. His miracles are seemingly unparalleled when compared to other ancient figures in their abundance, attestation, and earliness, and this would seem to appropriately explain the mass following he accrued over his short three year ministry.
- “Hence, my conclusion: Jesus was a healer and an exorcist. Indeed, more healing stories are told about him than about any other figure in the Jewish tradition. In all likelihood, he was the most remarkable healer in human history.” -Marcus Borg (‘The Mighty Deeds of Jesus.’)
- “Jesus is remembered as combining teaching with miracles intimately related to his teaching, and that combination was unique.” -Christopher Price (‘The Miracles of Jesus: A Historical Inquiry.’)
- “This leaves Jesus as unique in the surviving Jewish literature of his time in being portrayed as performing a large number of healings and exorcisms.” -Eric Eve (‘The Jewish Context of Jesus’ Miracles’)
- “Nowhere else are so many miracles reported of a single person as they are in the Gospels of Jesus…. The uniqueness of the miracles of the historical Jesus lies in the fact that healings and exorcisms which take place in the present are accorded an eschatological significance… Nowhere else do we find a charismatic miracle worker whose miraculous deeds are meant to be the end of an old world and the beginning of a new one.” -Gerd Theissen & Annette Merz (Quoted in ‘Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts.’)
- “Ancients recounted stories of ancient or even mythical heroes who raised the dead, but these are normally told centuries after the alleged event. I do not know of ancient stories of particular persons, outside the persons under discussion (Jesus and his first followers), raising the dead, based on eyewitnesses and written within a generation. It is possible that I may have missed some, but one can at least affirm with confidence that they are not very many.” -Craig Keener (‘Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts.’)
5. Enemy attestation
Another important criterion for establishing historicity is enemy attestation. This is to say that if an event is attested by the enemies/opponents of a specific person then it is much more likely to have actually happened.
So not only do we have Jesus’ miracles attested by his allies who closely recorded his ministry, but we also have his enemies attesting to some of his events too.
- “In the case of Jesus’ miracles, an example of enemy attestation is provided by the repeated Gospel testimony that those who opposed Jesus either witnessed these acts and failed to challenge them (Mark 3:1-6), or attributed them to Satan (Mark 3:22-27), thus acknowledging these events.” -Gary Habermas (‘Recent Perspectives on the Reliability of the Gospels.’)
- “Jesus’ enemies did not suspect him of fraud, but of healing by calling on a demonic power.” -E.P Sanders (‘The Historical Figure of Jesus.’)
- “It is noteworthy that Jesus’ enemies are not presented as denying that he did extraordinary deeds; rather they attributed them to evil origins, either to the devil (Mark 3:22-30) or in the 2d-century polemic to magic (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2.32.3-5).” -Raymond Brown (‘An Introduction to New Testament Christology.’)
- “To begin with, they are deeply embedded in every layer, source and finished Gospel in the early Christian tradition. Jewish sources likewise attest to Jesus’ miracles. Faced with the opportunity to deny the Christian claims that Jesus performed such amazing feats, Josephus and the Talmud instead corroborate them, even though they don’t believe he was heaven-sent. The rabbis often made the charge that Jesus was a sorcerer who led Israel astray, much like certain Jewish leaders in the Gospel accounts (Mark 3:20-30) accused Christ of being empowered by the devil.” -Craig Blomberg (‘The credibility of Jesus’ miracles.’)
- “I hold, in summary, that Jesus, as magician and miracle worker, was a very problematic and controversial phenomenon not only for his enemies but even for his friends.” -John Crossan (‘The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.’)
6. Scholars affirm that Jesus was a miracle worker
The historicity of Jesus’ miracles is rooted in multiple, enemy, and early attestation. This is why many scholars conclude that Jesus was seen performing what people saw to be miracles.
- “Jesus did inexplicable things that the people of his day regarded as miracles.” -Mark Powell (‘The Bible and Interpretation.’)
- “More recent work on the Gospels and comparisons with similar extra-biblical material, even by critical scholars, has concluded that the Gospel miracles are an integral part of the ministry of the historical Jesus.” -David Graham (‘Jesus As Miracle Worker’)
- “I think it’s strongly probable that Jesus was regarded as an exorcist… I think we can be fairly certain that Jesus’ fame came as a result of healing, especially exorcism.” -E.P Sanders (‘The Historical Figure of Jesus.’)
- “Also, acts of healing and exorcism were seen as tangible confirmation of the validity and compelling character of his teaching.” -Geza Vermes (‘The Religion of Jesus the Jew.’)
- “Despite the difficulty which miracles pose for the modern mind, on historical grounds it is virtually indisputable that Jesus was a healer and exorcist.” -Marcus Borg (‘Jesus, A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and The Life of Discipleship.’)
- “I think Jesus really did perform paranormal healings and that they cannot be explained simply as faith.”
- “As a historian, however, I do think Jesus was a healer and an exorcist. To illustrate my reasoning, I use two factors. The evidence that Jesus performed healings and cast out what he and his disciples called evil spirits is widespread throughout in earliest Christian writing. There are stories and sayings, and both his followers and opponents accepted that he performed these acts… the second factor is evidence that paranormal healings happen. The evidence is ancient and modern, anecdotal and statistical. Since I am persuaded that paranormal healings do happen, then there is no reason to deny them to Jesus.” -Marcus Borg (‘The Mighty Deeds of Jesus.’)
- “Whatever you think about the philosophical possibility of miracles of healing, it’s clear that Jesus was widely reputed to have done them.” -Bart Ehrman (‘The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.’)
- “Since there is little doubt that the historical Jesus was an exorcist and a healer, this historical factor has helped to shape the components of the stereotypical role he plays in the Gospel presentations.” -David Aune (‘The New Testament In Its Literary Environment.’)
- “Yes, I think that Jesus probably did perform deeds that contemporaries viewed as miracles. Those I have least trouble imagining his working conform to those also named by Paul: healings and exorcisms.” -Paula Fredriksen (‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.’)
- “Most of the miracle stories contained in the gospels are legendary or at least are dressed up with legends. But there can be no doubt that Jesus did such deeds, which were, in his and his contemporaries’ understanding, miracles, that is, deeds that were the result of supernatural, divine causality. Doubtless he healed the sick and cast out demons.” -Rudolf Bultmann (‘Jesus.’)
- “Few doubt that Jesus possessed unusual gifts as a healer, though of course varied explanations are offered.” -Graham Stanton (Quoted in: ‘The Cambridge Companion to Jesus.’)
- “It is no longer seriously contested that miracles played a role in Jesus’ ministry.” -Craig Evans (‘Life-of-Jesus Research and the Eclipse of Mythology.’)
- “Because of that, and many similar experiences with spiritual healing, I have no difficulty believing that Jesus actually healed people, and not just of psychosomatic diseases.” -Walter Wink (‘Write What You See: An Odyssey.’)
- “Jesus did perform deeds that he and some of his contemporaries considered miracles.” -Paul Meier (‘A Marginal Jew.’)
- “Even the most skeptical critics cannot deny that the historical Jesus carried out a ministry of miracle-working and exorcism.” -William Lane Craig (‘The Evidence for Jesus.’)
- “Jesus was both an exorcist and a healer” -John Crossan (‘The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.’)
- “Even the most critical historian can confidently assert that a Jew named Jesus worked as a teacher and wonder-worker in Palestine during the reign of Tiberius, was executed by crucifixion under the prefect Pontius Pilate and continued to have followers after his death.” -Luke Timothy Johnson (‘The Real Jesus.’)
- “In modern times a number of interpreters agree that Jesus worked wonders, but they remain divided on the significance of the miracles for what Jesus was seeking to do.” -Mark Saucy (‘Miracles and Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God.’)
- “And critics are fairly open to the fact that some things are really going on here. I mean, Jesus at least thought He healed people, and people at least thought He healed them. He really thought He cast out demons and those who thought they had demons really believed the demons left.”
What is the best explanation of this?
So as we can see, Jesus is recognized by scholars and historians to have been a miracle worker and an exorcist. He was then seen risen from the dead leaving an empty tomb behind. What is the best explanation of these historical facts?
The answer is obvious, as long as you don’t have an anti-supernatural bias. The reason why Jesus was seen performing miracles is because he was actually performing them, just like his disciples and his enemies believed.