Why were Jesus’ miracles told “plainly” in the Bible but “fancifully” in the Apocryphal Gospels?

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by Neil Godfrey

One common argument of Christian apologists — both lay and scholarly — in favour of the Gospel accounts being based on “authentic” historical traditions and written by authors motivated by, or limited to, telling “the truth” as they understood it, is that the miracles of Jesus are told “plainly”, “matter-of-factly”, without any garish flourish. Miracles of Jesus in the much later “apocryphal gospels”, on the other hand, are rightly said to be told quite differently and with much embellishment that serves to impress readers with the wonder and awesomeness of Jesus’ power.

The difference, we are often told, is testimony to the historical basis of the Gospel record.

I used to respond to this challenge with a dot-point list of miracle types. What? Are you really suggesting that walking on water or stilling a storm or rising from the dead are not “fanciful” acts?

But I was trying to kid myself to some extent. Of course they are fanciful, but being fanciful in that sense is the very definition of a miracle, however it is told.

The point the apologist makes is not that miracles are indeed miraculous, but that the Bible relates them most simply and matter-of-factly quite unlike the presentations of miracles we read in the apocryphal gospels.

Read the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and one quickly comes face to face with an infant from a horror movie. A child strikes mockers dead on the spot for mocking. His art-work steps out into reality and disbelievers are struck dead or blinded with no thought of asking questions later.

And the Gospel of Peter knows how to narrate a resurrection. None of this “Joseph sealed the tomb and they all went off to keep the sabbath and by the time Sunday-morning came around . . . .”. Nope. Let’s have Jesus emerge from the tomb with guards being awakened and rushing to call their commander to witness the spectacle, and great angels descending and re-ascending with their charge fastened between them and his head exalted through the clouds, all accompanied by a great voice from heaven and responses from below . . . . Now that’s a resurrection scene!

There is a difference in tone between the miracles of Jesus in the canonical gospels and those found in their apocryphal counterparts.

The apologist — even the scholarly one as I mentioned above — jumps on this difference as evidence that the “plain and simple” narration of the gospels is evidence of intent to convey downright facts.

Unfortunately, this conclusion is evidence of nothing more profound than the propensity of the faithful to fall into the fallacy of “the false dichotomy“.

If you are open to the veritable possibility of a god becoming man or of a mammal weighing more than half a kilo walking on water or of blindness being cured with a word or a dob of clay and spit, then we have little in common. But for those who are still with me, there really are other possibilities that have never (to my knowledge) entered the equation of the apologist.

Of course the miracles in the Bible are “plainly told” in comparison, on the whole, with those we read in the apocryphal gospels. The purposes of those later gospels was clearly quite different. And the difference had nothing to do with assessing “truth” from “error”.

First note the miracles of the Old Testament. Let’s start with Joshua’s miraculous crossing of the Jordan River.

God speaks to Joshua. He does what he is told — that is, deliver orders to so-and-so, etc. And that’s that. God holds back the waters and they all cross over. What could be simpler?

Very little.

And the reason becomes quite plain once we read the entire Bible and see the same pattern again, and again, and again . . . .

What we are reading is a reiteration of the miracle of Moses crossing the Red Sea.

That is, the miracle of Joshua’s crossing the Jordan is meant to reiterate, remind us, of the similar miracle of Moses. That is, the miracle is not there to impress us with Joshua’s mighty power over rivers, but to teach us that Joshua was the new Moses, the replacement of the old with the new.

Later authors who composed the Creation story of Genesis told us the same story: new creation came about through the parting of the waters. We saw the same with the receding of the Flood waters in the days of Noah. And again with the crossing of the Kidron by David and the parting of the waters for Elijah and Elisha. But Jesus excelled them all by emerging from waters to see the very heavens themselves rip apart.

Note that. Reiteration. The subsequent shadow is the product of the original. The story world of the authors was to demonstrate that the later was the fulfilment, replacement, or emulation of the former.

But what of the curing of the lame and blind? Sure, did not the prophet Isaiah in his 35th chapter say that in the days of the “wonderful world of tomorrow” that the eyes of the blind shall be opened? And is that not what Jesus, simply and plainly, actually did? God’s prophecy was thus fulfilled!

But are not the miracles in the Gospel of Mark also metaphors, ‘midrash’ if you like, symbolic, of deeper truths? So Jesus imitates Elisha to give his symbolic body, bread, to give life to thousands. So Jesus imitates both Elijah and Elisha by resurrecting from the dead a young boy, no doubt in anticipation of his own resurrection.

And so forth.

In other words, the gospel pioneers, the first gospel authors, introduced miracles to teach specific lessons about the meaning of Jesus — he was the fulfilment of the Law and those who represented the Law, he was the giver of life, he was the one who revealed spiritual truth.

It is not hard to see such rationales for the miracles told of Jesus in the canonical gospels.

But entertainers like to embellish, do they not?

So we come to the second and third or fourth generation. The stories are well-known. More oomph is needed. Enter the apocryphal gospels — no longer a sophisticated attempt to manufacture a “midrash” of an Old Testament miracle; forget theological tales — too complex and only for the seriously devout; —

No, by now the demand was for tall tales. The more garish the better.

Enter serious embellishments.

And the rest is history. Why assume that there ever was any “history” before the really traceable historical trail ever began?

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Why were Jesus’ miracles told “plainly” in the Bible but “fancifully” in the Apocryphal Gospels?”

  1. “So we come to the second and third or fourth generation. The stories are well-known. More oomph is needed. Enter the apocryphal gospels — no longer a sophisticated attempt to manufacture a “midrash” of an Old Testament miracle; forget theological tales — too complex and only for the seriously devout.”

    The first and second generation thought that a straightforward imitation from “scripture” would help create the illusion that what they were writing was simply more “scripture.” They were working within the narrowly-defined limits of genre. The later generations simply weren’t concerned with genre — they simply wanted to spin the most fanciful tales they could.

  2. This sort of argument is chasing its own tail. Who determines the baseline for “plainly”? If the canonical miracle stories were told in the manner of the apocryphal gospels, and the content of the apocryphal gospels was even more elaborate, the same sort of apologetic would apply.

  3. Possibly too, the gospels’ account of miracles was more subdued – to downplay them, for those who find miracles doubtful. The New Testament in fact at times doubted the literal reality of miracles; it constantly plays with simply metaphoricalizing all of them, as “allegeories,” “parables” for “spiritual” things.

    Interestingly? If you look at the intertestamental works – the 7 or so “apocryphal” extra books in the Catholics’ bible; attributed to the timeframe between the OT and the NT – you’ll find some even more histrionic, lurid, novelistic accounts of martyrdom and miracles, etc., than in the New.

    Suggesting that the NT was trying to tone down an earlier, embarassing excess.

    1. I can’t agree with this. If the miracles were told as symbolic or theological allegories then that explains the way in which they were told. Embellishment would have contradicted their initial allegorical function. That’s all the explanation we need. But the Gospels do not try to appeal to miracle doubters by any means — they declare the miracles as events as authoritatively as any omniscient narrator could. There is no hedging. The only exception I know of is the raising of Jairus’s daughter (from death or sleep?) — but its being a sole exception makes me doubt that I am right in thinking it really is an exception.

      1. Well, this is one of my more complicated theses that take a whole book or two to justify. Briefly though, I agree that the New Testament does seem at first, to present miracles rather 1) firmly, as physical wonders, prodigies. But read more carefully, there are many hints throughout the NT that such things might be, among other things, 2) allegories or “figures” of speech, or “parables,” for spiritual things. Which I suggest, logically, detracts from the primacy of their apparent physical reality. While indeed, “parables” can be entirely made up stories; where the physical facts are not meant to be historical, but are often simply made up, to serve a moral story. Here surprisingly enough, the Bible itself becomes slightly anti-Historicist. As the more spiritual/intellectual churches partially hint.

        Or 3) then too, apparently supernatural miracles are also presented at times in ways that still sees them as physical – but as more natural happenings. In the Old Testament for example, when Moses parts the waves, at times this seems wholly supernatural; other times it is said that a rather natural-seeming “wind” pushed back the waves. As science confirms does happen in this part of the Mediterranean. (Cf. the “aqua alta” in Venice). In the NT, there IS the possiblity of the “dead” were merely “sleeping.” While when Jesus cures one blind person, he does that using a paste made of spittle and clay; suggesting some kind of physical but naturalistic, early medical process; as much as a supernatural miracle.

        The Bible was written and edited by hundreds of people; and some of them were among the more educated and intelligent people, clerks and scribes and even philosophers of the time. Though none of these writers apparently was allowed to entirely disturb the simple faith of those who believed in huge physical miracles, one of my own academic theses is that however, the editors did manage to insert a subtext into the book. One that was a bit more sophisticated than what appears on the surface. More sophisticated about “miracles” among other things.

        To be sure, it is a subtext; all we see on the surface is simple, often lurid, miracle. And the religious community should be held accountable for such irresponsible promises. No matter how it qualified what it said, in the fine print.

  4. I’m not sure which comes first in your thinking.

    Does your reasoning follow the line: (1) “Miracles are impossible, therefore, there is always an explanation of miraculous accounts that makes sense without them being a restating of actual events?” Or is it: (2) “I have found explanations of miraculous accounts that make sense, apart from them being a restating of actual events, therefore, I conclude that miracles are impossible?”

    If it is number 1, then you are really not saying anything of lasting interest — even when you search out explanations for the gospel stories — because your GENERAL outcome is predetermined, rendering insignificant your PARTICULAR explanations.

    If it is number 2, then you have not made your case, for you must begin by describing what accounts of real miracles are like as opposed to what accounts of false miracles are like. You have not done this. And you dismiss, out of hand, at least one attempt at a distinction that, it seems to me, has explanatory power.

    Sticking with the explanation that you are thinking in the line of number 2 — even if you assert that there is no real difference in how real and false miracles are reported — then, at the very least, your mind must be open to the POSSIBILITY of a true report of a real miracle.

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