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?

Here’s how the explanations typically go as explained by Clarke Owens in Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels:

This pattern typically begins by pointing out the paucity of historical materials — the limitations of Tacitus, of the bowdlerized, ‘Slavonic’ Josephus, of the agrapha or unwritten sayings and deeds, of the apocryphal gospels (above all, those) — and then concludes, inevitably:

The four canonical gospels turn out to be the only large documents containing significant blocks of material relevant to a quest for the historiographical Jesus (Meier 139)

This will always be the conclusion of those who pretend an interest in historicity, but whose interest is in fact doctrinal. Thus, we can go back to a dated handbook by John H. Hayes, called Introduction to the Bible and find much the same thing:

This survey of the non-Biblical and non-Gospel material mentioning Jesus shows that, in the last analysis, an attempted portrayal of the Jesus of history must be dependent upon the New Testament Gospels (323)

(Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Locations 262-270). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.)

Why are the uncanonical gospels generally not considered admissible as evidence? (Yes, yes, I know the Sayings Gospel of Thomas the Gospel of Peter are considered relevant by the likes of Crossan, but that’s only insofar as their elements can be seen to cohere in some fashion with the canonical gospels.)

Apocryphal miracles versus canonical miracles

One of the reasons regularly given to explain why these “apocryphal” works are rejected is that they contain incredible miracles. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas describes a five year old Jesus creating living sparrows from clay (2:1-7) and a little later stretching a short piece of timber to be the right size for a bed Joseph was making (13:1-4). John Hayes in the same book quoted above comments:

This material is obviously the product of a pious and devout Christian imagination, but it contains no semblance of historical actuality and can thus be dismissed as a valid source of information on the historical Jesus. (p. 322 of Introduction to the Bible; italics by Clarke Owens)

But of course, to paraphrase Clarke Owens’ response to Hayes’ rationale, the canonical Gospels also contain material “no less miraculous” that is clearly the product of “a pious and devout Christian imagination” and with “no semblance of historical actuality”. Yet these are accepted as potentially useful for investigations into the historical Jesus.

Owens concludes:

In this case, it is not a matter of failing to distinguish between different types of works, but rather of creating a false distinction between types of works (the apocryphal and canonical gospels) that are in the most obvious and significant way similar. One could no doubt find distinctions between them, but the distinction cannot be found in focusing on the nature of a miraculous event. If such events invalidate a source of information, they must invalidate both sources.

What is going on here?

We know that a narrative that asks readers to take for granted a world where miraculous events are performed to astonish all and sundry and that always refute the doubters does not present a “real world” view. Such a narrative is simply not “an imitation of reality”.

Ancients understood as well as we do the difference between “natural” or “realistic” events and that the “miraculous”. We know, and have always known, that the miraculous involves a supernatural intervention.

Scholars know that a text that treats miracles as part and parcel of what really happens — and calls on readers to believe in the deity because of these tales — is not addressing “history” . The same literature is not even composed by a mind attuned in any way to “the real world”. So scholars rightly reject texts that tell us from the perspective of the omniscient narrator that Jesus created real sparrows from clay models. We know the narrator is lying to us. Some of our forebears may have thought he was telling the truth and may accordingly have been converted by the tale to become believers.

But if a text that is found in our society’s sacred canon tells us — again through the authoritative perspective of an omniscient narrator — that Jesus arranged for tax money to be found in a randomly caught fish, or that people walked on water, or that someone turned water into wine, or that a Son of Adam raised the dead back to life, they will not apply the criterion of “an empirically stable reality”.

No, rather, they will make excuses for the miraculous element in the texts they need. Yes?

So we come to the converse of the * points above:

* Miracles are pious exaggerations or expressions of human spirits so overwhelmed by the experience of real Jesus that only a miraculous tale could convey the feeling.

* Literary artistry in the telling of a miracle story is irrelevant to the perceived historicity of some event relating to the real Jesus behind of the miracle.

* If one in twenty miracles is mixed up with Jesus needing to spit or make clay then we can assume we are reading a distilled account of a typical healer of the day and therefore the Jesus of the gospels was such a healer.
Clarke Owens himself concludes:
Such an arbitrary use of the concept of an empirically stable reality is without logical foundation.
I agree.
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Neil Godfrey

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

  1. “It might be thought, for example, that though the appearance of an angel, and his announcement to Mary that she should be the Mother of the Messiah, must certainly be regarded as unhistorical, still, that Mary should have indulged this hope before the birth of the child, is not in itself incredible. But what should have excited this hope in Mary’s mind?

    “It is at once apparent that that which is credible in itself is nevertheless unhistorical when it is so intimately connected with what is incredible that, if you discard the latter, you at the same time remove any basis on which the former rests.”

    — David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, Fourth Ed. (1840), Fortress Press edition (1972).

  2. 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.

    Exactly. No wonder we have in Josephus’ Antiquities 18.3.3 the bald statement that Jesus was a “doer composer (poiêtês) of wonderful works”! Whoever wrote THAT was DEFINITELY familiar with the gospels, or at least (according to Goldberg) whichever source Luke used for the Emmaus Road recounting by the two discouraged disciples in gLuke 24.

    1. The word “doer” was supposed to be stricken out by a line. It seems I never get the format right! I’ve used “strikeout” and “s” in both the open and close angle-brackets plus the prefix “/” for the close angle-brackets.


        1. Okay, thanks! Let me try that: with “del”: words to be struck out and hitting the delete key: words to be struck out

          My apologies, I gotta try it out in here so I can remember! :p

  3. ‘the product of “a pious and devout Christian imagination” and with “no semblance of historical actuality”.’

    In other words, early Christian writers were happy to make stuff up just to tell a good story. If they didn’t intend the stories to be believed, they were novelists. If they did intend the stories to be believed, they were liars.

    1. Not at all! This is the classical either/or fallacy. And it’s a bit of mind-reading tossed in for good measure as well. It’s also possible, just possible, they were sincere “theologians” who were writing symbolic narratives or who even sincerely believed that they were inspired to write something valuable and true.

      1. “they were sincere “theologians” who were writing symbolic narratives”
        That’s making stuff up for the sake of a good story.

        “sincerely believed that they were inspired to write something valuable and true.”
        You are right. If they believed it themselves, they weren’t liars even though they made it up.

        1. I am asking you to stretch your mind and evaluation of other people beyond a simplistic, black-and-white, good-evil, perspective. I would not dare begin to make such simplistic assumptions of persons who lived in an age and place so distant from mine. The idea of “making it up” (as you express it) in this context is, to me at least, utterly puerile. My interest is in understanding the people of another age. Judging them by your personal black and white notions of right-wrong, baddie-goodie, has no interest for me nor, I think, for anyone else genuinely interested in understanding the past.

          Do stop and think. No-one sitting at home, bored, deciding to write a fairy tale for the heck-of-it, is going to produce something that ends up as part of a collection that catapults itself into the historical record within a hundred years at most and then changes world history. For any work to be accepted into the historical record there must have been a demand and support and incentive for such a work. Those are the questions that need answers. Simply saying “someone made up stuff for a good story” is childish, ignorant (ignorant of how reality works) and explains absolutely nothing historically.

          1. I didn’t suggest the motive was “for the heck-of-it”. The motive for the good story may well be symbolic representation of complex theological concepts. But it still means that they are not writing trustworthy history.

  4. Neil,

    I don’t know if you’re familiar with this website, but it’s fun and one that I’ve enjoyed looking at over the years. This section deals with miracles, and while some of the pagan sources cited are after the time of gospel production and thus may not be slam dunks concerning parallels, I think the website creator has a good grip on the subject of miracles and antiquity in general and you might enjoy the site:


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