“Why only Jesus? What about other Illusionists and other messianic healing figures around in the first century yet to you Jesus somehow stands out from those guys? You have to ask yourself why that is.”
1. Chad’s Challenge.
Having penned some material pertaining to the historical credibility of Jesus’ miracles last year for a book that I plan to finish, I found that this line of reasoning was a common challenge skeptics made against those who proclaimed Jesus was a miracle healer. I suspect that Chad challenges one to be holding to a double standard. Essentially, he argues, that the Christian accepts Jesus as a miracle healer yet denies the miracles attributed to other “messianic and “illusionist” figures. However, is this really the full story? No, and at least for several reasons.
2. It Doesn’t Follow.
Firstly, there is a misunderstanding here. Just because Jesus was almost certainly a miracle healer doesn’t undermine the possibility of other figures being miracle healers. We have good evidence for miracle contemporary healers today and there is no reason to think that would be different in the time of Jesus, after him or even before him. According to the late Distinguished Professor of Religion Marcus Borg “Jesus was a healer and an exorcist… In all likelihood, he was the most remarkable healer in human history” (1). But given that fact it doesn’t imply that God does not, or cannot, work supernaturally through others in order to intervene and heal people.
3. A Matter of Historical Evidence.
Moreover, I contend that it is a matter of historical evidence. For our purposes we shall briefly look at the evidence for Jesus as a miracle worker as opposed to the other figures that are brought up in this discussion. We shall also conclude by reviewing Chad’s claim of Jesus possibly being an “illusionist.” Nonetheless, in an attempt to contextualize this challenge we shall first review what historical evidence we have for Jesus’ miracle status and subsequently focus on a few other routinely mentioned figures.
4. Miracle Evidence for Jesus.
The miracle status of Jesus is embedded in every layer of our historical textual evidence. In fact, it is so ingrained that it is nearly impossible to write about Jesus without mentioning it or at least coming across it. If one rejects the miracle evidence for Jesus then he may as well as reject nearly everything else we know about him. Professor John Meier captures this best explaining, “Viewed globally, the tradition of Jesus’ miracles is more firmly supported by the criteria of historicity than are a number of other well-known and often readily accepted traditions about his life and ministry… Put dramatically but with not too much exaggeration: if the miracle tradition from Jesus’ public ministry were to be rejected in toto as unhistorical, so should every other Gospel tradition about him” (12). According to Christopher Price, “Jesus is represented as a miracle worker at every level of the New Testament tradition. This includes not only the four Gospels, but also the hypothetical sayings source, called Q, which may have been written just a few years after Jesus’ death.”
As far as I know, no other ancient figure boasts such a great number of miracle narratives in every single piece of evidence we have, as well as at such an early time after the alleged events. Professor Paul Maier rightly notes, “The early dating of the literary testimony to Jesus’s miracles, i.e., the closeness of the dates of the written documents to the alleged miracles of Jesus’s life, is almost unparalleled for the period” (2).
Well, what is this evidence? We have attestation to Jesus’ miracles in very early creeds (particularly 1 Corinthians 15, if one grants the resurrection as being a miracle at least), our early hypothetical sources (Q, L, M), and gospel traditions (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John), the Pauline, and disputed Pauline epistles. As a total we have no less than six independent sources affirming miracles surrounding Jesus (including the resurrection), and of those sources Jesus’ healing miracles are reported in no less than five independent sources (Q, L, M, Mark, John). Scholar Barry Blackburn explains that “The miracle-working activity of Jesus–at least exorcisms and healings–easily passes the criterion of multiple attestation” (3).
Regarding the miracles in general, whether independently attested to or not, Professor Keener explains that they are found in “Q, Mark, special material in Matthew and Luke, John, Acts, the Epistles, Revelation, and non-Christian testimony from both Jewish and pagan sources” (4). That’s practically every piece of historical evidence that gives us 1st century witness to Jesus (minus the pagan and Jewish sources).
Now, as I will argue in my book, this is not all the evidence. We are missing several credible arguments that give further credibility to Jesus’ miracle status. One could include their apologetically unembellished nature, the fact that they attracted crowds, were theologically consistent with Jesus’ message, pass the criterion of coherence, embarrassment and enemy attestation, a major part of early Christian preaching, and so on. With all this combined the evidential case is compelling.
It is quite common for critics to compare Jesus to Apollonius who lived from roughly 15-100 AD. They will assert that Apollonius also performed miracles in order to undermine the credibility of Jesus’ miracles, or at least Jesus’ status as a miracle worker.
There are several issues with this challenge as I’ve highlighted in more detail elsewhere. Firstly, our only evidence for Apollonius comes from Philostratus who lived from 170 to 245 AD which suggests a considerable gap of just under, or over, a century. When it comes to Jesus we have roughly 12 authors who wrote on him, to lesser and greater degrees, all within 60 to 65 years of his life, and as early as 20 years afterwards if we consider Apostle Paul. Of those, as we’ve seen, several provide miracle attestation. Moreover, much of Philostratus’ information concerning of Apollonius comes from a man named Damis. The problem being, however, is that it is probable that Damis was a fictional character since we are told that he comes from the city of Nineveh of which hadn’t existed for centuries. These details considered it is a hard stretch to allege that Jesus and Apollonius are evidentially comparable
6. Honi (Onias).
1st century historian Josephus Flavius tells us about a man called Onias (or Honi). Allegedly Onias prays to God to send rain in order to end a drought, and God answers this prayer. Onias’ method is particularly interesting since he drew a circle of which he would not leave until God made it rain.
Essentially, what we have here are acts seemingly connected to magic. In fact, it’s worth noting that Onias was accused of magic by a man by the name of Simeon. On the other hand, Jesus’ power was alleged to have manifested from God himself which would place him within an entirely different category of uniqueness, as well as due to the number of miracles he allegedly performed.
Moreover, Honi’s “miracle” is relatively unimpressive. It was not performed for any theological significance as was certainly the case for Jesus. When Jesus performed miracles of healing it was to demonstrate God’s power, as well as proof of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom into human history. It was done through Jesus’ grace and mercy since he had sympathy for those who suffered. It would seem, however, that Honi’s miracle was coercive. Essentially he challenged God through that he refused to move out of the circle unless God caused it to rain. It is also not unlikely that it could have simply just rained. It would be a different story should it have rained only in the circle in which Honi was said to have stood. Then that would be something quite remarkable.
7. Hanina ben Dosa.
A further Jew by the name of Hanina ben Dosa is also said to have been able to miraculously heal people over a distance. On one occasion he is reported as having cured a boy’s fever of which was attested to be the boy’s father. On a first note, this is similar to one of Jesus’ miracles in which he healed a centurion’s servant from a distance (Matt. 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-9).
But since our historical evidence for this miracle comes from Flavius writing around 95 AD, and of which is our only evidence for this claim, it’s hard to put Hanina ben Dosa in the same category as Jesus. Most of Jesus’ miracle evidence predates 95 AD and exists in multiple, early sources. Now, I won’t outright reject Hanina ben Dosa’s alleged miracle since I don’t possess an anti-supernatural bias; I view it as possible that he really could have done this. However, it is relatively uncontroversial to claim that the evidence for Jesus’ miracle status is quite superior in its earliness and attestation. I thus agree with Professor Brown’s diagnosis:
“The two most frequently cited-Jewish wonder workers are Honi (Onias), the rain-maker (or circle-drawer) of the 1st century BC, and the Galilean Hanina of the 1st century AD. Almost all that is known of these men comes from much later rabbinic literature, and by that time legendary and theological developments had aggrandized the portrayal. Almost certainly in the earliest tradition they were not rabbinical teachers, and it is debatable whether they were primarily miraculous wonder-workers by their own power or men of persuasive prayer that brought God’s extraordinary help” (5). Brown goes on, “One should be wary of the claim that Jesus was portrayed like the many other miracle-working teachers, Jewish and pagan of his era. The idea that such a figure was commonplace in the 1st century is largely a fiction. Jesus is remembered as combining teaching with miracles intimately related to his teaching, and that combination was unique” (6).
8. Jesus the Illusionist.
Essentially, by calling Jesus an illusionist, Chad is saying that Jesus was a person who performed tricks that deceived the eye. This is hardly reasonable, to put it mildly.
Firstly, Chad would have to suppose that Jesus fooled not only those who penned the evidential testimonies that we have in our possession, but also thousands of people. According to Professor James Tabor “Huge crowds gathered to hear him preach and to witness the reported healings and exorcisms” (7). 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” (8). One of the world’s leading Jesus scholars Craig Evans likewise writes that “It is no longer seriously contested that miracles played a role in Jesus’ ministry” (9). Jewish historian Paula Fredrickson agrees that “An ability to work cures, further, coheres with another datum from Jesus’ mission: He had a popular following, which such an ability helps to account for” (10).
So, essentially what Chad’s proposition would have us believe is that Jesus could simply fool thousands of onlookers. I contend that this is highly unlikely. This becomes even more implausible when we actually look at the individual miracles themselves. Quite remarkably Professor Keener explains that Jesus was known to have raised people from the dead as affirmed in our earliest sources, “that Jesus performed multiple raisings (Matt 11:5/Luke 7:22) belongs to first-generation Q material. Further, specific and likely independent healing accounts in Mark (Mark 5:35-43), special Luke material (Luke 7:11-17), and John (John 11:39-45) confirm by multiple attestation the tradition that Jesus was from our earliest traditions reported to raise the dead” (11).
Essentially, that Jesus raised people from the dead is independently attested to in four sources, Q, L, Mark, and John. Three of those sources are early (Q, L, and Mark). Simply put Jesus was known to have raised people from the dead at the earliest of times following his death, and therefore such details cannot be explained away due to legendary embellishments. Thus, Chad’s proposal would have us believe that Jesus simply fooled people into believing that he raised a person from the dead! This stretches credulity. Firstly, 1st century Jews, very much like us today, knew that dead people don’t rise. If you died you would stay dead. That would nicely explain why they put effort into chiselling out gravesites to bury their deceased. So when a 1st century Jew saw Jesus raise someone from the dead it would have certainly shocked and amazed them.
Moreover, gospel details undermine Chad’s argument. In one narrative Jesus brings back to life a widow’s son (Luke 7:11-17). We are told that “his disciples” and “a large crowd” journeyed with him, and when Jesus eventually made it to the widow’s house “a large crowd from the town was with her” and they came out to meet him. That they came out to meet him informs us that word had already spread far and wide that Jesus could perform healing miracles and was incredibly unique in doing so. And when Jesus “touched the bier on which they were carrying him” the widow’s son immediately sat up. Having witnessed this the crowds “were all filled with awe and praised God.” This was certainly very unusual. None of these people would have witnessed anything like this before. This, they knew, did not happen apart from divine intervention. The bier that the widow’s son was being escorted on was a coffin on which the son’s corpse was being carried to a grave. Thus, everyone, including the mother, knew that the son was dead… until Jesus came walking over a hill and changed that. Hence, it’s hard to accept Chad’s proposal that Jesus simply fooled everyone. Could Jesus have fooled his disciples, the mother of the deceased son, the crowd of the town, and the crowd that followed him all at once? Was the widow’s son somehow playing dead and in cahoots with Jesus, and that Jesus knew exactly when to go and meet the widow who had already begun her heart wrenching journey of having to bury her son? Of course not. Jesus really did this. That is why “This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country” (Luke 7:17).
Now, this is but one example. One could make mention of the other incredible miracles such as blind people regaining their sight, people being able to walk again, the healing of limbs and hands, and so on.
I think it is rather clear that Jesus remains unique. The amount of miracles that he was alleged to have done is quite remarkable. The number of independent sources, and 1st century sources in general, affirming this component to his ministry is very unique. Evidentially it would be difficult to argue that Jesus is like the other ancient figures that we reviewed. It would be even more difficult to propose a thesis alleging Jesus to be an illusionist and a mere charlatan. Jesus, however, remains unique and his miracle stratus certainly passes the test of historicity.
1. Borg, M. 1987. Jesus, A New Vision. p. 72.
2. Paul Meier quoted by Craig Keener in Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (2011).
3. Blackburn, B. Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research. p. 356-57.
4. Keen, C. 2012. The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. p. 241.
5. Brown, R. 1994. An Introduction to New Testament Christology. p. 63
6. Brown, R. 1994. Ibid.
7. Tabor, J. 2007. The Jesus Dynasty. p. 162.
8. Ehrman, B. 1999. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. p. 199.
9. Evans, C. 1993. “Life-of-Jesus Research and the Eclipse of Mythology” in Theological Studies.
10. Fredriksen, P. 1999. Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. p. 115.
11. Keener, C. 2011. Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. p. 537-538.
12. Meier, J. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. p. 630.