Miracles as symbol, not history or biography

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by Neil Godfrey

Jesus Healing the Blind
El Greco

This post continues from earlier ones on Spong’s discussion of the meaning and nonhistoricity of miracles in the gospels. See the link above to Spong: Jesus for the Non Religious for these earlier posts.

In discussing the miraculous cure of the blind man in the Gospel of John, John Spong makes a point that I have made in recent posts about Gospel genre: the gospels are not designed to relate marvellous events performed Jesus, but rather to focus on pointing out the identity of Jesus. If this truly is the point of the miracle narratives in the gospels, then some questions come to mind over what reasons anyone might have for thinking they might have some historical basis.

Firstly, if they are told to illustrate a theological construct about Jesus, then we have a candidate for a tendentious motive in their appearances in the narratives.

Secondly, if they are not told to focus on the astonishing personality and impact Jesus had among his contemporaries as a renowned healer (or even shaman, as some have suggested), then we have no reason to think that they formed part of any genuine biographical information about Jesus.

Spong himself does not question the historicity of Jesus. Spong is clear that he believes “of course” there was a historical figure who was baptized by John, crucified by Pilate, and who gathered a few (though probably not twelve) disciples such as Peter (but not Judas, who was an anti-semitic invention).

But when I read the sorts of literary arguments by Spong where he points out that the miracle stories are not so much about the person of Jesus as a figure of history, but rather about a theological identity attributed to him by later authors, then I wonder why the question of historicity should not arise. Is not Spong’s argument essentially an argument that favours the Gospels being entirely theological-narrative inventions?

This looks post at the last of the healing miracles addressed by Spong in Jesus for the Non Religious.

This is how the miracle in John 9 begins:

1And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth.

2And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?

3Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.

4I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.

5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.

6When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay,

7And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, (which is by interpretation, Sent.) He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing.

8The neighbours therefore, and they which before had seen him that he was blind, said, Is not this he that sat and begged?

9Some said, This is he: others said, He is like him: but he said, I am he.

10Therefore said they unto him, How were thine eyes opened?

11He answered and said, A man that is called Jesus made clay, and anointed mine eyes, and said unto me, Go to the pool of Siloam, and wash: and I went and washed, and I received sight.

12Then said they unto him, Where is he? He said, I know not.

13They brought to the Pharisees him that aforetime was blind.

14And it was the sabbath day when Jesus made the clay, and opened his eyes.

15Then again the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. He said unto them, He put clay upon mine eyes, and I washed, and do see.

The source of this miracle

To Spong it looks like John (or whoever was the author of this particular Gospel narrative) has created this miracle story out of two healings of the blind in the Gospel of Mark. The evidence lies in the way

  1. Jesus uses spittle to heal the blind man, and in the fact that the healing is not instantaneous (the man must go to the pool to wash before he can see): Compare the healing of the blind man of Bethsaida, Mark 8:22-26
  2. The blind man is a beggar who sat (by the gate): Compare the healing of Bartimaeus at Jericho, Mark 10:46-52
  3. The narrative turns on the messianic identity of Jesus (see the next section on the identity of Jesus). Compare the Son of David repetitions and the symbolism of the two stage healing for the two-stage attempt to enlighten the disciples in the two miracles in Mark.

The identity of Christ is what the miracle is all about

The healing provides an occasion for the author to have Jesus identify himself as “The Light of the World”. This is one of the I AM sayings in this Gospel in which Jesus is declared to be the God of the Pentateuch (I AM). The symbolism had been introduced in John’s opening chapter: Jesus brings light to the world. Jesus comes to heal the blindness of the world.

The healing is said to have been performed on the sabbath, and this serves to raise the question of Jesus’ identity, too. (It is not a question of whether or not one should keep the sabbath; the sabbath controversy serves to raise the question of Christ’s identity: How can this man be the Christ if he does not keep the sabbath?

Further, the miracle in John functions to demonstrate that to call Jesus the Christ is enough to have one excommunicated from the Jewish religious community.

The same narrative is used to demonstrate Jesus as the judge. For judgment he has come, so that those who see may become blind, and those who are blind may see. Those who are blind have no guilt, yet those who say they see condemn themselves.

(Spong does not point it out here, but this concluding remark on the blind not having guilt links back to the beginning of the narrative where Jesus explains to his disciples that the blind man did not sin, nor even his parents. The whole reason the man is blind is to show the glory of God — and the glory of God is, of course, Christ and Christ’s identity. — See John 1:1-14)

The author can hardly make it any plainer that the healing story is symbolic. Only readers who are blind to these obvious pointers can insist on the story being grounded in a literal event. One is reminded of Mark’s Jesus reprimanding his disciples (and winking at his knowing readers) that they were spiritually blind for failing to recognize that the miracles of the loaves were about spiritual feedings, not bread. (Mark 8:14-21)

So here is the rest of the miracle story in John that illustrates some of the above points:

12 “Where is this man?” they asked him.

“I don’t know,” he said.

13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. 14 Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. 15 Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”

16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.

But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided.

17 Then they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”

The man replied, “He is a prophet.”

18 They still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. 19 “Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?”

20 “We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. 21 But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

24 A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”

25 He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”

26 Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

27 He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”

28 Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! 29 We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.

30 The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. 32 Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.

34 To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.

35 Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

36 “Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”

37 Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”

38 Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.

39 Jesus said,“For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.

40 Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?

41 Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.

Spong concludes:

I hope it is now obvious that in each of these so-called miraculous accounts of Jesus giving sight to the blind, the stories are designed not to relate a supernatural event, but to focus the ongoing debate on the identity of Jesus. By reading them literally, we have in effect blinded countless generations of Christians from understanding the real meaning of these stories. Signs of the in-breaking kingdom of God are attached to the life of Jesus, who was said to embody that kingdom by opening the eyes of those who are blind so that they might see their deepest identity. It is our humanity that we can claim to reveal the presence of the holy God. . . . .

The gospels need to be read for what they are. They are not the chronicles of a remembered history, but the proclamations of a community of faith designed to say that the yearned-for kingdom of God has dawned in Jesus. The picture of human life made whole is at the heart of the Jesus experience. (p. 84)

There’s a little dose of Spong’s own theological interpretations in there as he adapts these first century texts to a message more relevant for his modern target audience. But it is his recognition of the (nonhistorical) nature of the gospel narratives themselves that enables him to argue both the relevance and validity of his spiritual message for modern readers.



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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Miracles as symbol, not history or biography”

  1. Spong himself does not question the historicity of Jesus.

    If he did, that would be inconsistent with his view that Jesus’ humanity was so extraordinary that it made him divine. That and others of Spong’s paradoxical views were discussed in Gordon Edwards’review of his 2009 book Eternal Life: a New Vision. Edwards wrote:

    Spong’s view of Jesus is likewise paradoxical. Jesus was thoroughly human, yet he became divine because of the extent of his humanity. Somehow we are expected to believe that “the pathway into the divine is to become human and the pathway into eternity is to accept death as natural.” (p. 184)

    As a purveyor of wishful thinking, Spong seems to differ from most other preachers in the flavor of the wishful thinking purveyed. Therefore, it wouldn’t seem that his opinion on the historicity of Jesus should be given much importance.

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