Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta, of The Friendly Atheist, claims that “The myth surrounding Jesus is part of the problem with Christianity… to believe Jesus… performed a number of miracles. There’s no proof of that ever happening” (1).
I feel that I am in a position to reply to Hemant because I have come to the end of my thesis that focusses entirely on Jesus miracles and their historicity. So, I think I may have a general idea about this subject. The first thing I want to say is that Hemant is simply incorrect especially on historical grounds. Well, why do I say this? I say this because the evidence for Jesus being a miracle worker is quite overwhelming. In fact, I made a historical case for the miracle status (and resurrection) of Jesus without even using our gospels (see here). The second thing I want to say is that Hemant’s statement is devoid of argument, it’s merely an assertion, and therefore it is weak. But, granted that I still wish to settle this by reviewing evidence.
1. General Scholarly Consensus on Jesus’ Miracles.
It is true that scholars independent of their theological predispositions hold that Jesus performed deeds that were widely regarded as supernatural in nature and thus is the best explanation for his attracting of large crowds. This is not held by conservatives, it is held by everyone in the field. Let me quite several non-Christians scholars. The late Marcus Borg, a fellow of the anti-Christian and radical Jesus Seminar, writes:
“Hence, my conclusion: Jesus was a healer and an exorcist. Indeed, more healing stories are told about him than about any other figure in the Jewish tradition. In all likelihood, he was the most remarkable healer in human history” (2). Atheist historian, Crossan, also of the Jesus Seminar says that “Jesus was both an exorcist and a healer” (3).
Agnostic and contemporary critic Ehrman says that “Whatever you think about the possibility of miracle healing it’s clear that Jesus was widely reputed to have done them” (4). The Jewish historian Geza Vermes says that “acts of healing and exorcism were seen as tangible confirmation of the validity and compelling character of his teaching” (5), whereas another Jewish historian Paula Fredriksen notes Jesus as a “healer (even to the point of raising the dead), and miracle worker is one of the strongest, most ubiquitous, and most variously attested depictions in the Gospels. All strata of this material–Mark, John, M-traditions, L-traditions, and Q–make this claim. This sort of independent multiple attestation supports arguments for the antiquity of a given tradition, implying that its source must lie prior to its later, manifold expressions, perhaps in the mission of Jesus himself” (6).
I could go on to quote more atheist historians (Gerd Ludemann), Jewish scholars (Pinchas Lapide), non-Christian critics (James Tabor), leading Jesus scholars (Craig Evans), radical scholars (Rudolf Bultmann), or highly regarded Christian scholars (Craig Keener, Darrel Bock etc.). All of them claim to Jesus was widely regarded by enemies, followers, and friends alike as being a miracle worker.
Now, an atheist historian like Crossan does not really believe that Jesus performed miracles. He knows that the evidence, at least via the canons of history, is very good. But he will not believe that Jesus really healed the sick, or raised the dead, because his philosophical naturalism demands that he doesn’t. However, all scholars know, Crossan included, that the historical evidence is good. So, on that note Hemant already paddles upstream against scholarly consensus by outright rejecting Jesus’ miracles as “part of the problem with Christianity.”
2. The Historical Evidence:
The criterion of multiple & independent attestation is what we shall consider most important. This criterion argues that an event or saying that is found within multiple lines of tradition, for example as in our earliest sources Mark, Q, M, L, or in multiple forms, such as miracles, maxims, pronouncements, are likely to be authentic (7).
So, if, for example, three sources attest to the Great Fire of Rome (records are written by historians Cassius Dio, Suetonius and Tacitus) thus rendering such an event historically certain. That 11 independent sources attest to Jesus’ crucifixion (Pre-Mark Passion Narrative, Q, John, Paul, Hebrews, 1 Peter, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Martyr, Josephus Flavius, & Cornelius Tacitus) makes it even more historically certain. In fact, “Historians consider themselves to have hit historical pay dirt when they have two independent accounts of the same event,” (8) because that gives the event a high degree of historical probability. Even events recorded in a single source can also be historical and supported by additional criterion and arguments.
Now, regarding Jesus miracles we find them recorded in all our gospel (Mark, Matthew, Luke & John) traditions and within our pre-gospel materials. There is not a single early pre-gospel material that does not independently attest to the very early belief that Jesus was a miracle worker. His status as a miracle worker is attested to in hypothetical Q, Pre-Markan Passion Narrative, L & M materials, and the Sign Gospel. That is five early & independent sources that attest to the miracle status of Jesus, as theologian Price explains: “Every canonical gospel source, Mark, Q, M, L, and John, affirms the miracle-working activities of Jesus. Less friendly sources, such as Josephus and the Babylonian Talmud, also attest to Jesus as a miracle worker” (9).
So, by applying historical consistency we must conclude that Jesus was, on historical grounds, widely considered to be a miracle worker by early independent Christian communities. That these sources pre-date all our gospels strengthens this conclusion even further. It is also true that even if we only had our gospels to work with we would also need to come to the same conclusion. So, we begin to see why Hemant’s statement is a bad one.
3. Historical arguments & criterion:
Now, we shall briefly glance through several other criterion that confirms the miracle status of Jesus. Now, my thesis goes into more detail on each criterion, but a brief mentioning will suffice.
a. Crowds: Jesus’ miracles are the number one reason why he attracted crowds. This is multiply and independently attested to within our gospel traditions (see. Mark 3:32, 5:21, 5:24, 5:27, 7:1, 8:6, 9:14, 10:1, 10:46; Luke 5:1, 6:19, 7:11, 7:12, 8:4, 8:42, 8:45, 9:11, 11:29, 14:25, 18:36, 23:27; Matthew 4:25, 8:1, 8:18, 14:13, 15:33, 19:2, 20:29, 21:8, 21:9, 21:11; John 5:13, 6:2). Professor Keener says that “Most historical Jesus scholars today, regardless of their personal theological orientation, do accept that Jesus drew crowds who believed that he performed cures and exorcisms” (10). Non-Christian historian James Tabor believes the historical evidence strong enough to conclude that “Huge crowds gathered to hear him preach and to witness the reported healings and exorcisms” (11). According to the criterion of coherence this data fits in well with the miracle status of Jesus. We can thus conclude that Jesus was a miracle worker has strong explanatory power.
Another point worth noting is that Jesus’ miracle feats in the context of crowds is well grounded within history and thus bear historical credibility. These are not stories detached from reality, rather many historical places, landmarks as well as the names of certain people are clearly given. For instance, crowds and Pharisees gathered around Jesus having come from the city of Jerusalem (Mark 7:1), crowds followed Jesus from Galilee and the Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan (Matthew 4:25), crowds followed him to the city of Jericho (Mark 10:46) and there Jesus encountered and healed a blind beggar by the name of Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, likewise leaving Jericho more crowds followed him (Matthew 20:29), crowds accompanied Jesus to the city of Nain (Luke 7:11). Other landmarks are given, for instance, Jesus was followed down a mountainside by a crowd (Matthew 8:1), while many spread their coats in the road going into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:8), the same blind beggar Bartimaeus is described as sitting by the road when Jesus walked past him (Mark 10:46), when crowds overwhelmed him he went to the other side of the sea or seashore (Matthew 8:18, Mark 5:21), crowds listened to his teachings at the lake of Gennesaret (Luke 5:1), and Jesus met a crowd at the gate of a city Luke 7:12. The miracles of Jesus that attracted crowds are well grounded within history in regards to the locations of cities, towns, and lakes. I consider this to enhance their general credibility.
b. Enemy Attestation:
This criterion holds that if an event is attested to by or in a hostile source then it is almost certainly historical. Scholar Maier says that anti-Christian Jewish polemic is “positive evidence from a hostile source. In essence, if a source admits a fact that is decidedly not in its favor, the fact is genuine” (12). Firstly, this is multiply attested to in two of our most authoritative sources: the Gospel of Mark and hypothetical Q. Here the Jews accuse Jesus of being able to perform miracles as a result of demonic power (Mark 3:20-30; Matthew 12:22-32). So, this passes the criterion of multiple and independent attestation of at least being confirmed in two or more independent sources, however, this is almost certainly historical by the hostile nature of the attestation, as scholar Wright articulates for us:
“the Church did not invent the charge that Jesus was in charge with league with Beelzebub, but charges like that are not advanced unless they are needed as an explanation for some quite remarkable phenomenon” (13). So, according to two of our most authoritative sources Jesus’ miraculous feats were never denied but in fact confirmed. Professor Brown aptly describes this: “It is noteworthy that Jesus’ enemies are not presented as denying that he did extraordinary deeds; rather they attributed them to evil origins, either to the devil (Mark 3:22-30) or in the 2d-century polemic to magic (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2.32.3-5)” (14).
Scholar Blackburn also writes that: “Jesus’ exorcistic and healing activity is mentioned or implied by a few dominical logia with strong claims to authenticity. Following the charge that Jesus exorcised as a sorcerer, both Mark and Q contain two dominical parables, the former of which, the ‘divided kingdom’ parable (Mark 3:24-26; Matt 12:25-26; Luke 11:17-18), almost certainly originated as a defense against the charge of demonically empowered healings and/or exorcisms. Only so could the language about Satan being divided against himself be meaningfully interpreted. Independently attested by Mark and Q and addressing a charge patently not created by the church, its claim to be an authentic dominical saying is good” (15).
c. Criterion of Embarrassment:
This criterion argues that an embarrassing detail found in our gospels that would make Jesus, the early church or the disciples look stupid has a high probability of being authentic. If an author we simply making up events they would certainly not include details that would make them look stupid in the eyes of their followers and audiences. Theologian Price says that they would not “include these embarrassing details about your leaders unless you are a movement really committed to authenticity and telling the truth” (16).
I believe we see this in Jesus’ surprising inability to perform miracles in his home town except for a few (Mark 6:5). This is very surprising as when reading the gospel accounts Jesus is known to have authority. According to our gospels Jesus has been given authority over all heaven and earth (Mat. 28:18), over demons (Mark 9:25, 16:9, Mat. 8:31-32, 17:18, Luke 11:14), demons & diseases (Mark 1:34), over the gates of hell (Mat. 16:18), over life (John 14:6) to forgive sins (Mat. 9:6-8, John 20:19-24), to judge on the final day (John 12:48), to give spiritual life (John 6:55-59). Likewise he had authority in his teaching (Mat. 7:28-29). If Jesus had such authority over these things then how surprising it is that he could not perform miracles in his home town of Nazareth because of the lack of faith among the people there (Mat. 13:58)? The gospels try to emphasize and not weaken Christology, and thus it is hard to fathom that this would be created out of whole cloth. The fact that Jesus could not work miracles in Nazareth surely indicates that he was thought, by himself and others, to have performed miracles in other places.
d. Jesus Thought That He Performed Miracles:
Jesus almost certainly thought that he performed miracles. Not only did Jesus heal “people and drove away what were thought to be demons,” (17) but he would have also thought that he really did perform these miraculous feats. Scholar Meier writes that “It is sufficient for the historian to know that Jesus performed deeds that many people, both friends and foes [and probably Jesus himself], considered miracles” (18). In agreement scholar Habermas writes that: “Jesus at least thought He healed people, and people at least thought He healed them. He really thought He cast out demons and those who thought they had demons really believed the demons left” (19).
e. Criterion of Undesigned Coincidences:
I go into more detail in my thesis on this criterion. What this criterion argues is when one account of an event leaves out a bit of information which is filled in, often quite incidentally, by a different account, which helps to answer some natural questions raised by the first. Lydia McGrew states that “undesigned coincidences provide evidence for independent knowledge of real events among the Gospel writers” (20).
What this applies to is Jesus’ miracle of the miraculous feeding of the 5000. This miracle is attested to within all of our gospel traditions, and when we compare them together we can actually fill in details, and answer questions, that the other authors left out. When we can piece an event, such as the feeding of the 5000, together in such a way it is undoubtedly historical, and this would apply to all of ancient history. The fact is that this very miracle of Jesus is built upon a historical event.
f. Hints of Historicity:
This is another large section in my thesis but what we discover is that Jesus’ nature miracles of raising the dead bear all the marks of primitive eyewitness details. For example, when you read the account of the raising of the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:21–43, Mat. 9:18–26, Luke 8:40–56) we have insignificant eyewitness details recorded that would tend to suggest historicity, for example, Jairus’ prostrating himself before Jesus, Jesus’ overhearing the message of Jairus’s servants, the pressing throng, Jesus’ twice telling the mourners to leave the room, the derision of those present, Jesus’ report that the girl was asleep, and his order to give her food. This is drastically different to the overtly embellished miracle narratives that we read in our later apocryphal gospels that show little basis in reality. The unrestrained, eyewitness accounts recorded in our Synoptics bespeaks credibility. This is what C.S. Lewis had in mind when he once wrote:
“All I am in private life is a literary critic and historian, that’s my job…And I’m prepared to say on that basis if anyone thinks the Gospels are either legends or novels, then that person is simply showing his incompetence as a literary critic. I’ve read a great many novels and I know a fair amount about the legends that grew up among early people, and I know perfectly well the Gospels are not that kind of stuff” ( 21).
The primitive, unapologetically adorned eyewitness details strongly suggest what C.S. Lewis concluded for himself. I hold that these accounts are recording actual historical events.
g. Early & Independent Attestation:
This would ultimately be the criterion that would sink Hemant’s argument for since our pre-gospel materials are so early and in unanimous agree to the miracle working of Jesus it just cannot be that they are later early church myths. The geographical distance from which these early communities are separated further powerfully nullifies Hemant’s challenge. The conclusion is that at the earliest times following Jesus’ crucifixion Christian communities were all in unanimous agreement that he was a miracle worker and that he really did such things. Professor Meier writes that these unanimous, early & independent traditions “constitutes a fair refutation of the idea that the miracle traditions were totally the creation of the early church after Jesus’ death” (22).
h. Criterion of Coherence:
Scholar Bock explains: “The principle of coherence argues that whatever is consistent with what is already shown to be authentic also has a good claim to authenticity” (23).
So, we can piece the evidence together. We have good evidence that Jesus attracted crowds who thought that he performed miracles on many different occasions, and the traditions are very early and in unanimous agreement. We also saw that Jesus thought that he could perform miracles (and even at one stage we find out that he could not perform them fully, as he could elsewhere, in his home town), and that his enemies attested to his miracles by alleging them to have demonic origins. Several other criterion support the historical credibility of the miracle narratives (criterion of embarrassment, undesigned coincidences and so on – there are several we have not reviewed here such as the criterion of traces of Aramaisms, dissimilarity etc.). We also haven’t reviewed Jesus’ radical self-proclamations, but his miracle status coheres with his own view of himself and his mission.
When we piece all the data together, data that we are historically certain of, Jesus’ miracles pass this criterion and is powerfully supplemented by the additional facts we have of his life.
I did not intend to be thorough in this refutation, that is my task elsewhere, but what I have done is touch on several points that render Hemant’s claim false on historical & evidential grounds. The skeptic’s claim that the miracles of the historical Jesus is swamped in myth is dispelled when we review our earliest data; data that informs us of how his earliest followers viewed him. In concluding I must agree with Christian writer Nick Peters who appeals to one atheist:
“Seriously. If you want to be an atheist, be one. Just be informed. It looks like most of your information is gathered from internet sources. Scholarly books are a far better source” (24).
1. Mehta, H. 2013. Why Are Millennials Leaving the Church? Try Atheism. Available.
2. Borg, M. The Mighty Deeds of Jesus. Available.
3. Crossan, J. 1991. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant . p. 332.
4. Ehrman, B. 1999. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. p. 199.
5. Vermes, G. 1993. The Religion of Jesus the Jew. p. 73.
6. Fredriksen, P. 2000. Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. p. 114.
7. Bock, D. 2002. Studying the Historical Jesus. p. 201.
8. Craig, W. 2009. Independent Sources for Jesus’ Burial and Empty Tomb. Available.
9. Price, C. 2004. The Miracles of Jesus: A Historical Inquiry. Available.
10. Keener, C. 2010. Will the Real Historical Jesus Please Stand Up? The Gospels as Sources for Historical Information about Jesus. Available.
11. Tabor, J. 2007. The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity. p. 162.
12. Paul Maier quoted by Christopher Persaud in: CONTENDING FOR THE FAITH: 22 Methodical Arguments for Biblical Truth. p. 467.
13. Wright, N. 1996. Jesus and the Victory of God. p. 188
14. Brown, R. 1994. An Introduction to New Testament Christology. p. 62-63.
15. Blackburn, B. ‘The Miracles of Jesus’ in Chilton and Evans Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research. p. 356-57.
16. Price, C. 2015. Resurrection: Making Sense of Historical Data. Available.
17. Funk & The Jesus Seminar. 1998. The Acts of Jesus. p 60.
18. Meier, J. 1994. A Marginal Jew: Mentor, message, and miracle. p. 3.
19. Habermas, G. ‘Did Jesus Really Perform Miracles?’ in Jesus Under Fire. Chapter 5.
20. McGrew, L. 2011. Undesigned coincidences. Available.
21. Lewis, C. 1967. Christian Reflections. p. 209.
22. Meier, J. 1994. Ibid. p. 620.
23. Bock, D. 2002. Ibid. p. 201.
24. Peters, N. Comment section: ‘Five reasons to believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.’