For many, miracles are a barrier to believing the Bible. Did Jesus' miracles really happen?
NEARLY 40 miracles are recorded in detail in the gospel accounts in the Bible. Beyond these, many more are reported in summary form. Later, the apostles are recorded doing even greater works than Jesus did. The book of Acts records many healing miracles in early church history. Yet to many in the 20th century, these miracles are the chief difficulty in accepting the validity of the New Testament. Isn't it time we examined the historical evidence?
The Word of the Apostles
Jesus did not write an autobiography. He left the writing of his life to his apostles and their chief associates. Four separate accounts have been preserved through the centuries. The four gospels- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John-form a major part of the New Testament. In one of them we read: "Because you have seen Me, you have believed" (John 20:29, Revised Authorized Version throughout). Earlier Jesus had prayed: "I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word" (John 17:20). Today we rely on the validity of the apostolic word, for the original apostles are dead. Their first-century writings report many miraculous happenings. There is no way to decouple the miracles of Jesus from the gospel accounts-and still retain a sensible story. There is no way to justify calling one part of the record fact and another part myth. Miracles are part of the gospel. They are woven into the warp and woof of all four gospel accounts. Writes British scholar F.F. Bruce: "No matter how far we may press our researches into the roots of the gospel story, no matter , how we classify the gospel material, we never arrive at a non-supernatural Jesus" (The New Testament Documents- Are They Reliable? page 33, emphasis mine). The chief miracle of the New Testament is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul sums up the evidence in I Corinthians 15: "Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you.... For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins... and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day... and that He was seen by Cephas [Simon Peter], then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present; but some have fallen asleep [have died].... Then last of all He was seen by me also" (verses 1-8, excerpts). The apostle Paul was converted in the calendar year A.D. 35-36, at which time he received special revealed knowledge of the resurrection. About 20 years after, he presents the evidence to the Corinthian church in summary form. He reports that 500 brethren saw the resurrected Jesus at once. He explains that most were still alive at the time of his writing. The gap between the oral and the written evidence is all part of one generation. Though then only a small boy, I remember the main events of World War II very well. Movietone newsreels kept one informed. There were POW camps in my hometown. A story that World War II either never occurred- or that the essential known facts were false would be immediately refuted by those of my generation. The same would be true of the witnesses of the holocaust in Europe under the Nazis. The Second World War ended 40 years ago. But the gap between the resurrection of Jesus in A.D. 31 and Paul's letter to the Corinthians is not even 25 years. If you had been privileged to see the resurrected Jesus, you would not forget it this side of the grave. You would remember in great detail. I remember the exact moment an associate informed me of the death of U.S. President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. I remember exactly where I was, exactly what I was doing, who was there, what was said-all the tiny details of that shocking few moments in time. Yet other happenings of that very same day have passed into the deepest recesses of the mind-not to be recalled again. Impression is the first rule of memory. We remember earthshaking events very well indeed.
Stereotyped Oral Evidence
First-century oral evidence was much more reliable than it generally is today. Moderns commit few things to memory because of the wide availability of many reference works. But communities then, including the early church, committed events to memory- and they did it in easy-to-remember stereotyped form. New Testament scholar, F. F. Bruce: "In the days of the apostles there was a largely stereotyped preaching of the deeds and words of Jesus, originally in Aramaic but soon in Greek as well; and this preaching of oral tradition lies behind our synoptic gospels [Matthew, Mark and Luke] and their documentary sources" (The New Testament Documents, page 32). You will notice that the gospel accounts are written in a very simple, but effective literary style. There are no frills. They do not sound flowery. The three synoptic gospels are very similar when you line up their parallel passages in three columns. Substance, style and language are strikingly similar. This facilitated easy remembrance when in oral form. The four gospels are all first-century documents. Recent New Testament scholarship is moving the proposed composition dates closer to the time of the crucifixion. John A.T. Robinson's book Redating the New Testament is a prime example of this trend. Although the late bishop was an acknowledged liberal scholar, he was astonished at the lack of hard evidence for late dating of many New Testament books. He wrote: "It is sobering too to discover how little basis there is for many of the dates confidently assigned by modern experts to the New Testament documents" (page 341). Speaking of the early church, Bishop Robinson positively adds: "But the really creative period of the primitive church, its 'Elizabethan era' from the point of literary output, was undoubtedly the 50s [A.D.]" (page 353). Most of the eyewitnesses were still alive. If Jesus' miracles were not true, the chorus of objection would have invalidated the documents. Besides that, the written documents we now possess came partially from previously written material rather than exclusive oral evidence (see Luke 1:1-4). Writes F.F. Bruce: "The evidence indicates that written sources of our synoptic gospels are not later than c. A.D. 60; some of them may even be traced back to notes taken of our Lord's teaching while his words were actually being uttered" (New Testament Documents, page 45). It follows that it is also possible that eyewitnesses may have recorded his miracles at a very early date.
The Miracles Themselves
The New Testament affirms that Jesus was the Christ (Messiah or Anointed One). He came to proclaim the coming kingdom of God-a new age to come on this earth. He preached about the wonderful world tomorrow. His whole life was given in service to humankind. Given exactly who he was and why he came- the miracles he did appear natural and reasonable. They were "powers of the age to come" (Heb. 6:5). They were all in character. Everyone was done to help human beings achieve. their true purpose in life. Jesus did no odd miracles. He fed people. He healed people. He stifled life-threatening storms. He even provided an excellent vintage wine for a negligent wedding host. None of these deeds ever hurt anyone. Contrariwise they all helped mostly distraught human beings. Whether or not you believe a miracle largely depends on the confidence you have in the doer. Once you really grasp who Jesus Christ was and is- and why he came to this earth-your troubles in believing his miracles will be behind you. Why shouldn't the God who beg at and worked through Jesus have the power to transcend natural laws? He created them.
Why Jesus Performed Miracles
Jesus was no stunt man. He never performed miracles as a circus act. He never did a miracle just for the miracle's sake. He knew the mind of many a "miracle watcher" (read John 2:23-25). There was a good purpose behind every single recorded miracle. Matthew, Mark and John reveal the staggering scope of Christ's miracles. Matthew sums up Jesus' Galilean ministry thus: "Now Jesus went about all Galilee; teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people. Then His fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases... and He healed them" (Matt. 4:23-24). Writing of a more specific occasion, Mark reports: "Now at evening... they brought to Him all who were sick.... An4 the whole city was gathered together at the door. Then He healed many who were sick with various diseases ... " (Mark 1:32-34, excerpts). Matthew mentions still other specific incidents. "... And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them all" (Matt. 12:15); "And when Jesus went out He saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick" (Matt. 14:14). Decades later, John takes final cognizance of the scope and purpose of Jesus' miraculous works. "And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name" (John 20:30-31). Why not take the apostle John at his word?