Good question--did the NT author's invent the miracle stories in the gospels?

 


Initial Date: October 2, 2001    |     Last Addition: Dec 5, 2002


 

This is one of the many versions of the question about the possible fabrication of the NT miracles stories...

 

I'm an Agnostic, but I'm not sure how long I'm going to be one due to the accounts of Jesus' miracles in the NT, the resurrection, and the other supernatural phenomena that occurred on his behalf.

 

I'm not becoming more skeptical about these things, on the contrary, these accounts seem like very honest ones.  From my knowledge of the early church, I honestly don't think they could've, or would've, inserted such supernatural phenomena in the gospels and actually gotten away with it.  Besides, it's to my understanding that the early church(the churches and church fathers that had the gospels and the other NT documents first) was a very honest one- so it just seems improbable that they would've actually fabricated Jesus' miracles, resurrection, etc.  It seems as though if any 'fabrications' were done, it would've been done before the early church had a hold of the gospels...

 

So my question is, *is there any possibility that the Apostles could've conjured up these miracle stories?*  If there isn't, then, after 10 months of being an Agnostic and struggling with my own humanity, I can do nothing but pronounce myself a Christian...

 

Any insight you could give me would be greatly appreciated. And nice site by the way.... it's very informative!

 

 

 

Before we jump into analyzing this question, let's take a quick look at the 36 recorded miracles ascribed to Jesus in the gospels:

 

 

Miracle

Type

Mark

Matt

Luke

John

In all four gospels

 

 

 

 

 

1. Feeding of 5,000

nature

6.35f

14.15f

9.12f

6.5f

In three gospels

 

 

 

 

 

2. Walking on water

nature

6.48f

14.25f

 

6.19f

3. Peter's mother-in-law

healing

1.30f

8.14f

4.38f

 

4. Man with leprosy

healing

1.40f

8.24f

5.12f

 

5. Paralyzed man

healing

2.3f

9.2f

5.18f

 

6. Man with shriveled hand

healing

3.1f

12.10f

6.6f

 

7. Calming the storm

nature

4.37f

8.23f

8.22f

 

8. Gadarene Demoniac(s)

exorcism

5.1f

8.28f

8.27f

 

9. Raising Jairus' daughter

revivification

5.22f

9.18f

8.41f

 

10. Hemorrhaging woman

healing

5.25f

9.20f

8.43f

 

11. Demon-possessed boy

exorcism

9.17f

17.14f

9.38f

 

12. Two blind men

healing

10.46f

20.29f

18.35f

 

In two gospels (Mark, Matt)

 

 

 

 

 

13. Canaanite woman's daughter

exorcism@distance

7.24f

15.21f

 

 

14. Feeding of 4,000

nature

8.1f

15.32f

 

 

15. Fig tree withered

nature

11.12f

21.18f

 

 

In two gospels (Mark, Luke)

 

 

 

 

 

16. Possessed man in synagogue

exorcism

1.23f

 

4.33f

 

In two gospels (Matt, Luke=Q?)

 

 

 

 

 

17. Roman Centurion's servant

healing@distance

 

8.5f

7.1f

 

18. Blind, Mute, and Possessed man

exorcism

 

12.22

11.14

 

Only in one gospel (Mark)

 

 

 

 

 

19. Deaf mute

healing

7.31f

 

 

 

20. Blind man at Bethsaida

healing

8.22f

 

 

 

Only in one gospel (Matt)

 

 

 

 

 

21. Two blind men

healing

 

9.27f

 

 

22. Mute and possessed man

exorcism

 

9.32f

 

 

23. Coin in fish's mouth

precognition/nature?

 

17.24f

 

 

Only in one gospel (Luke)

 

 

 

 

 

24. First catch of fish

precognition/nature?

 

 

5.1f

 

25. Raising Widow's son at Nain

revivification

 

 

7.11f

 

26. Exorcism of Mary Magdalene

exorcism

 

 

8.2

 

27. Crippled woman

healing

 

 

13.11f

 

28. Man with dropsy

healing

 

 

14.1f

 

29. Ten men with leprosy

healing@distance

 

 

17.11f

 

30. High Priest's servant

healing

 

 

22.50f

 

Only in one gospel (John)

 

 

 

 

 

31. Wine miracle at Cana

nature

 

 

 

2.1f

32. Official's son at Capernaum

healing@distance

 

 

 

4.46f

33. Sick man at Pool of Bethesda

healing

 

 

 

5.1f

34. Healing of the Blind Man

healing

 

 

 

9.1f

35. Raising Lazarus

revivification

 

 

 

11.1f

36. Second catch of fish

precognition/nature?

 

 

 

21.1f

 

 

That gives us:

·         17 healing events [representatives in all 4 gospels]

·         7 exorcisms [representatives in all gospels except John]

·         3 precognition (possibly nature, all with fish) miracles [representatives in all gospels except Mark]

·         3 revivification miracles [representatives in all 4 gospels]

·         6 nature miracles [representatives in all 4 gospels]

1.        creation of matter (food multiplication, 2x)

2.        defiance of gravity (walking on water)

3.        control of thermal energy (calming a storm)

4.        control of metabolic processes (withering of fig tree)

5.        rearrangement of molecular structure/creation of matter (turning water into wine)

 

 

 

Now, the question is NOT ABOUT "could miracles stories have crept into the accounts accidentally during the generally assumed oral transmission period?", but rather is about deliberate and/or intentional introduction of elements by the Apostles (and presumably the gospel authors).

 

[We will have to also discuss the possibility of their being subconsciously influenced--without their realizing it--by "mythic" elements in their worldview, such as ANE kingship models etc, but we will do this after the main question of conscious intention.]

 

In the case of Matthew and John, of course, the two are the same--they are both alleged to have been original disciples of Jesus--but Luke and Mark are generally considered to be at one remove from them [with Luke being an 'investigator' and Mark something like a ghost-writer for Peter]. But for our purposes here, we will focus on the gospel authors (or the immediate predecessors of them, responsible for any recognizable 'chucks' of material or sources for them).

 

Of course, if one works within the current version of the Two-Source Theory, we need only concern ourselves with Mark and Q, since Matthew and Luke are dependent on these two sources (acc. to the theory). Mark contains 18 of the 36 recorded miracles (with only two being unique to him). We would then turn to John to see if there were indications of deliberate 'creation' of miraculous elements in the six miracle stories unique to his gospel.

 

Now, when we frame the question in terms of authorial intent (i.e., did the Evangelists deliberately create miraculous elements for inclusion into the final product), we are immediately confronted with the issue of motive, and this will create the first set of questions we need to address:

 

  1. Did the authors consciously intend to create myth (anthropologically speaking), in which the miraculous elements were NOT intended to be taken literally by their readership? A mythic authorial intention would assume that their readership would understand this, of course, and suitably 'parse' the miracles stories for their intended, symbolic, or constitutive meaning. Under this scenario, any modern discussion of the miracles as historical facts/events would not just be inconclusive or difficult, but also be nonsensical and an example of a huge category mistake (like asking questions--to use Veyne's example--of "whether the adventures of Tom Thumb took place before or after Cinderella's ball" [HI:DGBM:74]). This would also be indicated by deliberate shaping of the material (miraculous and non-miraculous) to conform to some mythic structure, either Jewish, Greco-Roman, or hybrid.  [NO, see mq1.html]

 

"Well, couldn't the New Testament still be myth (in the anthropological but NOT classical sense) if it intended to set forth the life of Jesus as the 'new sacred pre-history'? In other words, couldn't the authors have intended it to replace the "old" Greco-Roman myths and sorta start history over again (almost like the calendar later changed to AD from BC)?" [YES and NO, but the implications for the miracle claims are impacted positively, see mq1add.html]

 

 

  1. Did the authors consciously intend to embellish some non-miraculous historical core of tradition with miraculous stories in honor of their dead leader, in keeping with the general practice of doing so for 'divine' emperors or Greco-Roman heroes? In this scenario, these are accretions would be expected to be taken as seriously and/or as literally as those ascribed to Vespasian, Augustus, or Alexander the Great (which might mean taken lightly or taken literally, depending on how one understands the latter examples). Did perhaps Jesus instruct them to do this, ahead of time, as Alexander the Great employed a court biographer to 'glamorize' his exploits? [Clearly, NO…see mq2.html]

  2. Did the gospel authors consciously create miracle stories like the later rabbi's did, in the fashion that is called 'midrash'?  In this scenario, the stories/miracles of Jesus might have been 'additions' inserted into the stories about Jesus.  [This can be confidently answered "NO" as well…see mq3.html]

 

  1. Did the authors consciously create miracles stories about Jesus, like the later rabbi's seemed to do about each other? In this case, the readership would be expected to understand that the miracle was NOT an actual event, but rather only a fanciful parable or teaching illustration. [This can be safely answered "NO" as well…see mq4.html].

  2. Did the authors consciously create the gospels to be 'historical romance' or 'historical fiction'--based perhaps on a real individual, but not necessarily so--and therefore not something to be taken as real history or real biography? Under this understanding, the gospels would have been known to be fictitious by their readership, and have been read for entertainment and/or moral instruction. The inclusion of miracles in these narratives would not have been understood as implying any historical reality to those elements of the narrative. [This is conclusively "No" as well…see mq5.html]

 

 

 

The above  motives [all of which, btw, are actually asserted by modern scholars…] might be considered non-propaganda uses of miracle, since they are not intended to 'convince' others to make any radical behavioral-change or belief-change (although some might argue that number one--about a new myth--might be an attempt at major change). They are simply standard, accepted literary efforts, designed to honor, to explain, to entertain, or to instruct better. With the possible exception of 2 (ascription of miraculous elements to leadership figures), there would not be any intention on the part of the authors to 'portray historical events as really happening'. If a reader came up to them and asked "what part of the lake was Jesus on when he walked on water?", the author would look at them as if they were insane, joking, or grossly uneducated. The issue of 'did it really happen in ordinary space-time?' issue was not remotely involved in their use of the miracle story…

 

However, there also possibilities in which the motive was deliberately 'corrective' or an attempt to persuade or convert to the Jesus movement. We can identify some of these as well:

 

  1. Did the authors create miracle stories/accretions  about their dead leader which were fashioned and expressed in ways that would make him look like a miracle-working man to prospective Greco-Roman converts? Isn't this what Josephus and Philo did with the man Moses--embellished his profile with miraculous elements?  In this scenario, the gospel accounts are deliberately written in such a way as to invoke some culturally-common image of a 'divine man' or 'divinized hero', with a view to convincing others that "Jesus was the best so far, so join our group". The attempt is to get the reader to associate Jesus with some specific figure (e.g., Asclepius) or with some generalized notion of 'god-like human hero' (a notion constructed from many exposures to many such figures, so that a grid for noticing 'family resemblances' can be assumed among the potential readership). [The answer to this was "surprisingly, but overwhelmingly, NO"…see mq6.html]

 

  1. Did the authors create miracle stories/accretions about their  dead leader which were fashioned and expressed in ways that would make him look like a Jewish wonder-worker (e.g., Charismatic Jewish Holy Man, Messianic figure, Old Testament prophet)? In this scenario, the gospel accounts are written in such a way as to 'sell Jesus to' the Jews, by describing his actions in similar terms and images as those presumably held/expected by first-century Jews. The authors would therefore be expecting the Jewish readership to already have such a category of 'Wonder-working Jewish figure' available to them, or have a commonly known example with which to compare the Jesus stories. [This can be confidently be answered 'no' as well…see mq7.html]

 

 

 

 

 

 

To these two sets of deliberate motives, we can add the 'subconscious' one mentioned earlier, and a possible 'group pressure' one as well:

 

  1. Were the authors so influenced by their mythic ANE or Greco-Roman context that they 'accidentally' created miraculous elements to conform the story of Jesus to that cultural/mythic model of Royal/Divine ANE kingship--completely unaware that they were doing so? In this understanding, the gospel literature would portray a Jesus in substantial agreement to some assumed ANE model of such a figure (the DARGs are sometime suggested), and the authors of those gospels would have been perhaps 'surprised' to notice that pattern in the final product. [No, they weren't…see mq8.html]

  2. How likely is it that unconscious forces (from the culture, from Jungian-type archetypes, grief/trauma) modified true memories of non-miraculous events in the life of Jesus into false memories of miraculous events, via the creation of miraculous additions to the non-miraculous memories? [Not likely at all…see mq9.html]

 

 

  1. Later Christians obviously embellished the gospels with apocryphal stories--why would we believe the New Testament authors didn't have the same influences or 'pressures' on them? [The reason we don't believe that is because there is no evidence of legendary accretion about Jesus during this period, nor evidence of influences to create such innovation…see mq10.html]

 

 

 

If we somehow get this far and still believe that the miracle accounts were meant to be taken literally by the gospel authors, we have a couple of additional questions we need to ask:

 

 

  1. Are there any indications from the miracle stories themselves that suggest their historicity? [yes…the internal data for their general authenticity is abundant and compelling…see mq11.html ]

 

  1. Are there any indications from extra-biblical sources which suggest that (some of) the miracle stories reflect actual historical events? [yes…the literary and historical trend data supports the belief that Jesus was widely accepted as having performed miraculous works…see mq12.html]

 

  1. Even if we grant that these miracle stories are meant to be understood literally, and that these accounts derive ultimately from eyewitness accounts, doesn't the pervasive gullibility of the ancient world reduce the credibility of these accounts to virtually nil? The countless 'eyewitness testimonies' to things like centaurs, live births from males, miraculous healings at temples, teleportation and metamorphoses should render the evidential value of the gospel 'eyewitness accounts' similarly zero. [no, not only is the ancient world in pre-NT times less 'credulous' as is sometimes assumed, but there is no necessary relationship between this an the credibility of the NT authors…see mqfx.html]

 

Well, I think I am more-or-less finished now…there seems to be quite a bit of data to support the thesis that the disciples did NOT fabricate the miracles of Jesus for any of the above reasons…

 

Glenn Miller

(started Oct/2001…finished Dec/2002)

 


The Christian ThinkTank...[http://www.Christian-thinktank.com] (Reference Abbreviations)