The Arbitrary Approach to Miracle Stories In “Historical Jesus” Scholarship

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by Neil Godfrey

* Removing the miraculous from a story does not bring us closer to history; it only destroys the point of the story.

* Two-step miraculous healing of the blind (e.g. spit on the eyes followed by touching them, Mark 8:23-25) are evidently symbolic of the double-efforts to open the (spiritual) eyes of the disciples.

* Jesus’ miracles of exorcisms and healings as portrayed in the canonical gospels are not comparable to the way healers and exorcists really worked. The former are the work of a single divine utterance as befits a creator God or his Son; the latter involve magic formulae and arcane rituals.

I have posted on miracles and what the scholarly literature has to say about them before.* This time I take a different tack.

In my recent post, Jesus Is Not “As Historical As Anyone Else in the Ancient World”, we saw that the “type of discourse” and “language categories” of the Gospels group them with fantasy literature and separate them from the sources we rely upon to identify historical persons and events.

This post continues that theme but compares the place of miracles in the Gospels and other ancient literature.

Before we begin let me address common objections.

Yes, we all know the Gospels include many accurate historical and geographical features. (They also contain errors and anachronisms.) But references to real persons and places no more makes ancient narratives “historical” than it makes James Bond movies historical or ancient/modern historical fiction “historical”. See, for example, Ancient Novels Like the Gospels: Mixing History and Myth and History and Verisimilitude: “Real” vs. “Realistic”.

And yes, we all know that miraculous events are found in ancient works that we classify as historical. But there is a clear difference in the way miracles are narrated in works by ancient historians and what we read in various gospels, both uncanonical and canonical. These differences return us to the theme of the previous post, the difference in verbal categories that identify different types of discourse. In historiographical works (at least in all cases I can recall) the discourse conveys an author’s self-conscious apologetic to justify their inclusion in the book. The reason for this is that the historian understands and accepts and writes within the conceptual framework of an “empirically stable reality”. If miracles are introduced the author must explain in some way why he mentions them or how he justifies their appearance in a work that is otherwise about “the real world”. (They were reported by so-and-so; I would not repeat this except that. . . ., etc.) But now we are sequeing into the theme of this post.

Whittling the sources down to the canonical gospels

So how do historical Jesus scholars justify their reliance upon works that are evidently theological tracts riddled with miraculous events? Continue reading “The Arbitrary Approach to Miracle Stories In “Historical Jesus” Scholarship”