John P. Meier, The Marginal Jew,
v.2, ch. 19 : The Historicity of Jesus' Miracles: The Global Question,
pp 617-645

(Detailed summary)

Are Jesus' miracles historical facts?


The question addressed here is not the historicity of each individual miracle story, but the general tradition of Jesus as a doer of out-of-the-ordinary actions that his contemporaries and Jesus himself interpreted as miracles. To answer this question, we use certain criteria, above all those of multiple attestations and consistency. The result of this work is to reveal to us an overwhelming mass of sources and diverse forms that confirm the tradition of Jesus as a miracle worker, while his speeches form with his actions a coherent whole. The application of the criteria of multiple attestation and coherence offers us such imposing arguments that they make it virtually impossible to believe that all these miracle stories are a fabrication of the early Church.

  1. The Global Question of Historicity

    Let us hasten to say: the question we want to answer is not whether Jesus performed miracles in the theological sense (actions performed directly by God that no human is capable of doing), but rather whether at least some of these stories do not date back to the time and ministry of Jesus, stories that tell of extraordinary acts of Jesus that some have interpreted as miracles. A corollary to this question would be this: did these stories all come from the creative imagination of the early church, which would have fabricated them to promote the figure of Jesus in the face of competition from other religious traditions, such as Judaism with its great miracle workers Elijah and Elisha?

    Several historians of the 19th and 20th centuries have tried to reconstruct a Jesus where miracles would be totally absent, and where only his teaching would remain. Let's name a few, such as Wilhelm Bousset, Thomas Jefferson and, in a way, Bultmann. But at this point one ignores the overwhelming mass of data that states exactly the opposite. A first compilation could be made like this:

    1. Six exorcisms
      1. The demoniac in the synagogue (Mk 1:23-28 | Lk 4:33-37)
      2. The Gerasene demoniac (Mk 5: 1-20 || Mt 8: 28-34| Lk 8: 26-39)
      3. The daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mk 7: 24-30 || Mt 15: 21-28)
      4. The possessed child and his father (Mc 9: 14-29 || Mt 17: 14-21|| Lc 9: 37-43)
      5. The mute demon (Mt 9: 32-34)
      6. The deaf and dumb demoniac (Mt 12: 22-23 || Lk 11: 14-15)

    2. Seventeen healings
      1. Peter's mother-in-law (Mk 1:29-31 || Mt 8:14-15 || Lk 4:38-39)
      2. The leper (Mk 1:40-45 || Mt 8:1-4 || Lk 5:12-16)
      3. The paralytic (Mk 2:1-12 || Mt 9:1-8 || Lk 5:17-26)
      4. The man with the paralyzed hand (Mk 3:1-6 || Mt 12:9-14 || Lk 6:6-11)
      5. The daughter of Jairus (Mk 5: 21-2435-43 || Mt 9: 18-19.23-26 || Lk 8: 40-42.49-56)
      6. The woman who was bleeding (Mk 5:25-34 || Mt 9:20-22 || Lk 8:43-48)
      7. The deaf and dumb (Mk 7:31-36)
      8. The blind man of Bethsaida (Mk 8:22-26)
      9. The blind Barthimee (Mk 10:46-52 || Mt 20:29-34 || Lk 18:35-43)
      10. The young man from Nain (Lk 7:11-17)
      11. The bent woman (Lk 13:10-17)
      12. The ten lepers (Lk 17:11-19)
      13. The hydropic (Lk 14:1-6)
      14. The paralytic in the pool (Jn 5:1-9)
      15. The raising of Lazarus (Jn 11)
      16. The blind man born (Jn 9)
      17. The centurion's servant (Mt 8:5-13 || Lk 7:1-10 || Jn 4:46-54)

    3. Eight miracles called "miracles of nature
      1. The storm calmed (Mk 4:35-41 || Mt 8:23-27 || Lk 8:22-25)
      2. Jesus fed five thousand people (Mk 6:32-44 || Mt 14:13-21 || Lk 9:10-17)
      3. Jesus fed four thousand people (Mk 8:1-10 || Mt 15:32-39)
      4. Jesus walks on water (Mk 6: 45-52 || Mt 14: 22-33 || Jn 6: 16-21)
      5. The withered fig tree (Mk 11: 12-14.20-26 || Mt 21: 18-22)
      6. The silver coin in the mouth of the fish (Mt 17:24-27)
      7. The miraculous catch (Lk 5: 1-11 || Jn 21: 1-14)
      8. The changing of water into wine (Jn 2:1-11)

  2. The Criteria of Historicity and the Global Question

    Let us recall the question: did the historical Jesus perform actions out of the ordinary that his contemporaries and Jesus himself interpreted as miracles? To answer this question, two criteria will play a major role, that of multiple attestations and consistency, while the others will play a minor role.

    1. The multiple attestation criterion

      1. Multiplicity of sources

        The breadth of the sources is overwhelming. Let's start with Mark. More than 31% of his gospel is made up of miracle stories, and this percentage rises to 47% if we exclude the passion narrative. It seems that he has inherited the miracle stories of several streams of the first generation of Christians. For the style and tone are not uniform: sometimes the account is long and circumstantial, sometimes it is laconic; sometimes it gives the names of the characters and the place, sometimes it is anonymous, or it simply mentions the miracles through a speech. But the very fact that Mark wrote his gospel at the end of the first Christian generation is a clear refutation of the idea that these accounts are a complete creation of the early church after Jesus' death.

        Another source is the Q Document, which is very different from Mark in that it is mostly composed of speeches. Although it contains only one miracle story (healing of the centurion's servant, Mt 8:5-13 and ||), it makes several references in its speeches to the miracles performed by Jesus: the dispute over the exorcism attributed to Beelzebul, the list of miracles in the response to John the Baptist's envoys, the rebuke to the towns of Galilee that did not believe in his miracles. The special sources of Matthew and Luke also know the miracles: The coin in the mouth of the fish (Mt 17:27) and Peter's walking on the waters (Mt 14:28-31) which are unique to Matthew, the miraculous fishing (Lk 5:1-11), the raising of the widow of Nain's son (Lk 7: 11-17), the healing of the bent woman (Lk 13:10-17), the healing of the man with the paralyzed hand (Lk 14:1-6), the healing of the ten lepers (Lk 17:11-19) which are proper to Luke.

        As for the Gospel according to John, one thing is remarkable: exorcisms are totally absent. However, we find the same types of miracle stories, even if their content is different, and behind these stories we find the primitive forms of miracle stories.

        Finally, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, in the Testimonium Flavianum of his book The Jewish Antiquities (XVIII,3,3) writes:

        "At this time (during the reign of Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea) there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Gentile origin."

        In short, it presents Jesus as a charismatic leader who had the special power to perform miracles, and thus confirms the claims of the gospels.

      2. Multiplicity of literary forms

        The stories use three major forms: exorcisms, healings and miracles of nature. But in addition, there are references to miracles in other literary genres, such as the parable (Mk 3:27), or the dispute stories (Mk 6:7.13), or the biographical summaries (Lk 13:32), or his teachings to the disciples. There is no other gospel material with so many attestations.

    2. The criterion of coherence

      All of Jesus' speeches and actions form a coherent whole that repeats the same message. For example, the exorcisms demonstrate God's eschatological triumph over Satan and the power of evil through Jesus, a sign of the arrival of God's reign. Similarly, the healings support Jesus' claim that the liberation of Israel has begun, also a sign of the arrival of God's reign. These healings, along with his teaching, helped draw large crowds to Jesus, and the early church was able to continue this success after his death because the early Christians continued this healing ministry.

    3. The discontinuity criterion

      As we have said, this criterion is less important. Nevertheless, it is useful to point out the difference between the gospels and the pagan accounts. The accounts from Mark and the Q Document can be dated to around 70, the end of the first Christian generation. On the other hand, Philostratus' account of the miracles of Apolinius of Tyana dates from the third century, more than a century after the events he purports to recount. The same can be said of Honi, the tracer of circles, and Ḥanina ben-Dosa mentioned in the Mishna, 200 years after they lived; moreover, these two men are not really miracle workers, but people of prayer who could predict whether their prayers would come true. Finally, as much as a Flavius Josephus enjoys recounting the miracles of certain Old Testament prophets, he is silent about miracle workers in the first century, apart from Jesus.

    4. The criterion of embarrassment

      Disputes arose over Jesus' exorcisms (see Mark and Q Document), with Jewish authorities accusing him of acting on behalf of Beelzebul. It is unlikely that the early church would have created such stories that present Jesus in an ambiguous light.

    5. The criterion for rejecting Jesus

      Did Jesus' miracles contribute to his rejection and execution? We don't think so. For the very fact of healing someone was not illegal. Moreover, one would look in vain in the various charges against Jesus for references to miracles. What led to his condemnation was a combination of factors, such as his announcement of the end of the present world and its replacement by the definitive reign of God, his teaching which claimed to indicate the will of God, his ability to attract crowds, the formation of a circle of twelve disciples, in the image of the twelve original tribes, claiming to represent the new Israel, his freedom from religious and social traditions which led him to associate with sinners, the belief of some that he was a descendant of King David and therefore the promised Messiah, the veiled affirmation of his future role in the eschatological drama, and if we accept these facts as historical, his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the so-called cleansing of the temple. In this context, Jesus' miracles may have created aggravating circumstances, without actually being the trigger for his arrest.

      To these five criteria, we can add a few points worth noting. First, some accounts have retained the original Aramaic language and color of Palestine, such as the expressions talitha koum (Little girl, get up: Mk 5:41), or ephphatha (Be opened: Mk 7:34), uttered by Jesus to heal. Moreover, while in the majority of cases the names of the characters and the place of the miracles remain anonymous, we encounter cases where the characters and the place are named, such as Jairus, a synagogue leader, who implores Jesus for his daughter, or Bartimaeus, a blind man, who regains his sight in Jericho, or Lazarus who regains life in Bethany, following the request of his two sisters, Martha and Mary.

  3. Conclusion on the overall issue

    The application of the criteria of multiple attestations and coherence offers us such imposing arguments that they make it practically impossible to believe that all these miracle stories were fabricated by the early Church. The other criteria are not as strong, but at least they do not contradict the first conclusions. The tradition of Jesus as a miracle worker is so deeply rooted that if it were to be rejected, the entire gospel tradition would have to be rejected as well.

Which exorcisms of Jesus can be considered historical?

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