Most people, who are related at least tangentially to the Christian faith, assume that Jesus was a miracle worker. By this they mean that he possessed the ability to operate outside the laws of nature in what we would call supernatural ways. This popular image is enforced by the traditional Christian theology, born in the fourth century when the Council of Nicaea set into motion the ideas that later became the “core doctrines of Christianity.”
I refer to such things as the “Incarnation,” which meant that the external God was “incarnate” in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth, and the doctrine of the “Holy Trinity,” which asserted that Jesus was a constituent part of who God is. The great theological debates that consumed the energy of Christian leaders from the late third century through the fourth and fifth centuries were attempts to refine these doctrines by determining just how it was that Jesus could be both “fully human and fully divine” at the same time. This understanding of Jesus made the tales of his miraculous power understandable. After all, if Jesus was God in human form, he could clearly act with God’s power, which transcended the limits of nature.
It made sense at that time, therefore, to think of Jesus as a miracle worker, who could walk on water, still the storm, heal the sick and raise the dead. Suppose, however, that the gospel writers did not actually share that post-fourth century Nicene orthodoxy, which had produced Christianity’s “core doctrines.” Would the stories they wrote ascribing miraculous powers to Jesus then be understood in the same way? This week I want to address that question by examining the meaning of miracles that, I am now convinced, the gospel writer we call Matthew, actually understood them. Not surprisingly, it is quite different from the way we have traditionally been taught to view miracles.
First, let me repeat some things that I have previously said in this series, but which nonetheless always seem to come as a surprise to many people. I can find no evidence that miracles were associated with the memory of Jesus until fairly late in the first century of the Christian era. I find it interesting that Paul, the first writer whose work is included in the New Testament, had no concept of Jesus as a miracle worker. No hint of a miracle ever appears in what we believe are the authentic works of Paul, which we date between the years 51-64. If Paul had never heard of miracles being associated with Jesus, could it be that miracles attributed to Jesus actually constitute a late developing, but not literally accurate, portrait? We press on.
The second oldest part of the New Testament would be the pseudo-Pauline epistles of II Thessalonians, Colossians and Ephesians, all of which were probably written in the decade following Paul’s death. When we examine them we discover, once again, that there is no hint in these epistles of Jesus as a miracle worker. While I do not subscribe either to the Q hypothesis or to an early date for the gospel of Thomas, I still find it worth noting that with one questionable exception in what some think of as Q material, there is no sense of Jesus as a worker of miracles found in either the Q source or in the gospel of Thomas.
The first time miracles are attached to the memory of Jesus by his followers comes in the 8th decade of the Christian era in the writings of Mark around the year 72. Matthew, some 10-15 years later then incorporates these miracles from Mark into his gospel almost verbatim. So if we are to understand what miracles meant when they first entered the Christian tradition the gospels of Mark and Matthew appear to be our best guides.
When we turn to these two sources we note first that both Mark and Matthew are Jews; Matthew probably being more traditionally Jewish and more provincial than Mark. We have earlier in this series sought to demonstrate that both of these gospel writers reflect, as their organizing principle, the liturgical year of the synagogue. This means that the first place we must go to forge an understanding of miracles in the New Testament is to look at what miracles meant to Jews in general and then to these two Jewish gospel writers in particular.
In the Hebrew Scriptures miracles are recorded as occurring in the lives of earlier Jewish heroes. Moses is the first of these heroes to be portrayed as possessing miraculous power. His ability to control nature was seen time after time in the narrative of the plagues visited upon Egypt. It was also said of Moses that he could open the waters of a great sea to enable the Israelites to navigate its depths by walking on dry land. He could cause a limitless amount of bread, called manna, to fall upon the hungry Israelites in the wilderness. The fascinating thing about these Old Testament miracles stories regarding Moses, however, is that they tended to get repeated and retold as events that happened in the lives of later Jewish heroes.
Joshua, Moses’ successor, was also said to have split the waters, this time it was the flooded Jordan River, to enable the Israelites to enter the Promised Land. Still later, both Elijah and Elisha were said to have split the waters of the Jordan River so that they could get across on dry land. Is it plausible to think that God replicated this miracle on four different occasions? Or are we discerning a pattern in the Hebrew Scriptures that needs to be looked at in a new way?
If we read the Old Testament closely enough, we soon discover, for example, that Moses, Elijah and Elisha could all expand the food supply. There are also biblical stories showing that Moses, Elijah and Elisha were able to control the weather. If the writers of the Old Testament could tell the same stories about successive Hebrew heroes, then is it not possible that the Jewish authors of the gospels might also have used the same technique when talking about Jesus? We search these gospels looking for such possibilities.
The story of Jesus splitting the heavenly waters at his baptism looks very much like a Moses story expanded and retold about Jesus. Jesus is said to have used a finite number of loaves and fish to feed a multitude in the wilderness and when all had eaten great baskets of leftovers were gathered. This may be just one more “expansion of the food supply” story, which had been told many times in the past. Jesus walking on water or stilling the storm might be reminiscent of the familiar tales of controlling the elements previously attributed to Moses, Elijah and Elisha.
This begins to look like a regular Hebrew practice designed not to assert the miraculous, but to suggest that the same God, who had been experienced as present in Moses, Elijah and Elisha, was now present in Jesus. Jewish readers, who would have been familiar with this Jewish writing technique, would have understood this and would never have been tempted to literalize these narratives. Keep that possibility in mind as we move to look at the miracles of healing that play such a prominent role in the portraits drawn of Jesus in both Mark and Matthew.
First, Matthew and Mark attribute healing miracles to Jesus in narratives that revolve around the Jewish New Year celebration called Rosh Hashanah. Mark opens his gospel with a Rosh Hashanah story and moves immediately into a series of miracle stories. Matthew does not get to Rosh Hashanah until he reaches chapter 11, but when he does arrive at this point he introduces a series of miracles as the prelude to his story of Rosh Hashanah.
To the Jews, Rosh Hashanah was the time when the people gathered to pray for the Kingdom of God to come. Part of Jewish messianic thought was that the messiah’s task was to inaugurate the Kingdom of God. The prophet Isaiah in the 8th century had written about the signs that would accompany the Kingdom’s arrival, describing those signs in this way: “The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the mute will sing and the lame will leap.” This passage from Isaiah was regularly read in the synagogue as the lesson from the prophets at the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. This meant that if Jesus was to be interpreted as the messiah, the signs associated with the coming of the Kingdom, had to be present in his life.
In our study thus far of Jesus’ life in Matthew’s gospel, we have become aware that Matthew needed to have a story that would bring John the Baptist back into his narrative at the time of Rosh Hashanah, so he created the story of John, from his prison, sending messengers to Jesus asking: “Are you the one that should come or do we look for another?” Matthew says Jesus did not answer John’s question directly. Instead he said to this messenger: “Go and tell John what you hear and see” and then he expanded Isaiah’s signs — “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”
This comes in Matthew’s text just after he has introduced miracle stories about Jesus into his gospel. In rapid succession he tells of lepers being cleansed, demons purged, the deaf made to hear, the mute to speak, the blind to see and the dead raised. All but one of these miracle stories Matthew has taken directly from Mark. When this series of miracles is complete, Matthew then makes Jesus deliver a long soliloquy in which he portrays the poor having the good news preached to them. Matthew is quite obviously proclaiming Jesus as the messiah that Isaiah has described, and he has placed the signs of God’s Kingdom into Jesus’ life. These miracles of healing are thus not for Matthew literal events that occurred in history, they are interpretive signs written to claim the role of the expected messiah for Jesus.
Reading the gospels from a Jewish perspective thus reveals something quite different. Miracles are either stories drawn from past heroes of Hebrew history or they are signs of the Kingdom anticipated by Isaiah, both of which have been wrapped around Jesus as a way of expressing their conviction that he is the long expected messiah.
To read the miracles as if they are literal, objective events that actually happened is a Gentile heresy, born in the Gentile ignorance of things Jewish. Suddenly reading and studying the New Testament becomes very different from what we have traditionally been taught!