John P. Meier, The Marginal Jew,
v.2: Conclusion to Volume Two,
pp 1039-1049

(Detailed summary)

How can we summarize the study of miracle stories in the Gospels?

In general, biblical scholars agree that the image of Jesus as a healer and exorcist goes back to the historical Jesus. Things become more complicated when it comes to judging the individual miracles. After accepting their overall historical value, some reject most of the individual accounts on the grounds that they are a creation of the church. This raises a serious methodological problem.

Many would like to have a simple and global solution that explains all the miracles.

  1. Conservatives believe that everything happened as it is told.
  2. Rationalists believe they can explain everything by invoking natural causes.
  3. The champions of the symbolic explanation see all miracles as a creation of the early Church to express its faith by means of symbols, without any real event at the base.

Our investigation has shown that not all miracle stories can be explained in the same way.

  1. In some cases, it is a creation in part or in whole of the primitive Church to make a catechesis, as the episode of the dried fig tree
  2. In other cases, the story has a historical basis: contemporaries witnessed an event they believe to be a miracle, as in the case of the healing of the blind Bartimaeus
  3. Finally, the scene of Jesus feeding the crowd probably originates from a symbolic meal that the historical Jesus celebrated with a large crowd, and that Christians only later interpreted as a miracle

Let's summarize our findings.

  1. Among the seven accounts of exorcisms, three have a good chance of going back to the historical Jesus: the epileptic (Mk 9:14-29), the reference to the exorcism of Mary Magdalene (Lk 8:2) and the Gerasene demoniac (Mk 5:1-20).

  2. The healing stories fall into four basic categories:
    1. Among those who suffer from various forms of paralysis, two stories (the man lowered through the roof of the house in Mk 2:1-12 and the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda in Jn 5:1-9) are probably historical
    2. The three stories of healing of the blind (Bartimaeus in Mk 10:46-52, the blind man of Bethsaida in Mk 8:22-26, and the blind man from birth in Jn 9) reflect events in Jesus' ministry
    3. As for those afflicted with a skin disease (the lepers in Mk. 1:40-45 and Lk. 17:11-19), the data are not clear enough to make a judgment, although it seems that Jesus had a reputation for healing lepers
    4. Among the general healings that do not fit into any particular category, only one can claim to go back to the historical Jesus, the healing of the centurion's (or royal officer's) little boy in Mt 8:5-13.

  3. When we look at the accounts of the raising of the dead, there are multiple attestations that Jesus had a reputation for bringing people back to life, so that the accounts of the raising of Jairus' daughter (Mk 5:21-43), the son of the widow of Nain, and Lazarus probably go back to the historical Jesus, even though it is possible that they were healings interpreted as resurrections.

  4. Judgment on this mixture of stories mistakenly called « miracles of nature » is easier. With the exception of Jesus' feeding of the crowd, all the stories are a creation of the early church for various theological reasons.

Did Jesus really draw large crowds during His ministry?

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