The following article was written by myself and Michael Gleghorn at Probe Ministries, a non-denominational Christian apologetics ministry. This article was taken off the Probe Ministries website with some redaction.
Even secular New Testament historians now believe that Jesus was a successful healer. Even more surprising, these historians no longer attribute Jesus’ healings to pure legendary embellishment. The legend hypothesis has been largely discarded for good reason. Legends take time to develop. The Gospels were written within the lifetimes of eye witnesses to Jesus. It is unlikely that within Israel many glaring misrepresentations of Jesus’ life recorded in the Gospels could have originated and spread within one or two generations after his death since many eye witnesses would have still been alive to contest these gross inaccuracies. It would have also been peculiar that many Christians willingly accepted martyrdom in A.D. 64 and earlier off the testimony of a few men if their accounts of Jesus in the Gospels greatly differed from a more sober-minded and believable oral tradition. Further bolstering the contention that the historical Jesus was a successful healer is the fact that the Messiah was not expected to work miracles. Therefore, the Gospel writers would not have felt compelled to turn Jesus into a miracle worker if he were not one already. Furthermore, if Jesus never worked miracles early hostile Jewish literature would likely state this fact. Instead, Jesus is called a sorcerer in these accounts thereby degradingly affirming the picture of Jesus as a healer. However, due to prior preconceptions against the supernatural, most secular historians do not believe that Jesus could heal any real illnesses or perform any actual miracles. That having been said, it is interesting to note that the more amazing the miracle, the more evidence is seemingly available to support the act. For example, the resurrection of Lazarus in John’s Gospel includes many details that would make it easy to investigate John’s story. John’s Gospel was written within the lifetime of eyewitnesses to Jesus. Therefore, John’s account of the resurrection of Lazarus could easily be confirmed or denied by John’s audience based off the details provided in the miracle. It would not be difficult for John’s audience to go to Bethany and ask the natives if they ever heard of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in that town. If this account were fabricated it would be surprising for John to have included all the details necessarily to expose his story.
There is a Surprising Amount of Evidence that the Historical Jesus Performed Miracles: Even Secular New Testament Historians now believe that Jesus was a Successful Healer.
Marcus Borg, a prominent member of the Jesus Seminar1 has stated, “Despite the difficulty which miracles pose for the modern mind, on historical grounds it is virtually indisputable that Jesus was a healer and exorcist.”2 Commenting on Jesus’ ability to heal the blind, deaf, and others, A. M. Hunter writes, “For these miracles the historical evidence is excellent.”3
There is a Surprising Amount of Evidence that the Historical Jesus Performed Miracles: New Testament Historians No Longer attribute Jesus’ Healings to Pure Legendary Embellishment.
Critical historians once believed that the miracles attributed to Jesus in the Bible were purely the product of legendary embellishment. Such exaggerations about Jesus’ life and deeds developed from oral traditions which became more and more fantastic with time until they were finally recorded in the New Testament. We all know how tall tales develop. One person tells a story. Then another person tells much the same story, but exaggerates it a bit. Over time the story becomes so fantastic that it barely resembles the original. This is what many scholars once believed happened to Jesus’ life as it’s recorded in the Gospels. Is this true? And do most New Testament historians believe this today?
The answer is no. Few scholars today would explain away the miracles recorded in the Gospels as purely the result of legend or myth. In fact, most New Testament scholars now believe that Jesus did, in fact, perform healings and exorcisms.4 Even many secular-minded scholars would say that Jesus drew large crowds of people largely because of his ability to heal and “exorcise demons.”5 But because many of these scholars do not believe in spiritual beings, they also do not believe that these healings were the result of divine intervention. Instead, they believe that these healings have a natural explanation. Before addressing how much of modern scholarship attempts to explain away the miracles recorded in the New Testament, let us first turn our attention to why popular support for the legend hypothesis has been largely discarded.
There is a Surprising Amount of Evidence that the Historical Jesus Performed Miracles: Legendary Embellishments take Time to develop. The Gospels were written within the Lifetimes of Eye Witnesses.
It is virtually undisputed that all four Gospels were written before the end of the first century. Furthermore, 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. These facts undermine the legend hypothesis because legends take time to develop.
Multiple generations would appear to be required for the true oral tradition regarding Jesus’ life to be replaced by an exaggerated, fictitious version within the general geographical region in which Jesus lived and taught. For example, many historians believe that Alexander the Great’s biography stayed fairly accurate for about five hundred years. Legendary details did not begin to develop until the following five hundred years.6
There is a Surprising Amount of Evidence that the Historical Jesus Performed Miracles: It is unlikely that within Israel many glaring misrepresentations of Jesus’ Life recorded in the Gospels could have originated and spread within One or Two Generations after His Death since Many Eye Witnesses would have still been Alive to contest these Gross Inaccuracies.
Jesus was a very public figure. When Jesus entered a town in Israel, he often drew large crowds of people. Thus it is unlikely that within and around the province of Israel that many glaring misrepresentations of Jesus’ life could have originated and spread within one or two generations after his death since many eye witnesses would have still been alive to contest these gross inaccuracies. Scholars believe that these eyewitnesses were the source of the oral tradition regarding Jesus’ life. And in light of Jesus’ very public ministry, a strong oral tradition would likely have been present in Israel for many years after Jesus’ death. If Jesus never actually performed any miracles, then the Gospel writers would have faced a very difficult task in getting significant numbers of people to believe that he had. It might be almost like trying to change John F. Kennedy from a great president into an amazing miracle worker. Such a task would be virtually impossible because many people alive today have seen JFK on TV, read about him in newspapers, or even seen him in person. Because JFK was a public figure oral tradition about his life is very strong even today. Anyone trying to introduce such a peculiar idea would likely not be taken seriously. You can’t easily pass off made-up stories about public figures when eyewitnesses are still alive who remember them. Therefore, oral tradition concerning public figures tends to remain fairly accurate for many generations.7
There is a Surprising Amount of Evidence that the Historical Jesus Performed Miracles: It would have been peculiar that so Many Christians willingly accepted Martyrdom in A.D. 64 and Earlier off the Testimony of a Few Men if Their Accounts of Jesus in the Gospels were Grossly against the Predominant Oral Tradition of the Day.
During the second half of the first century, Christians faced intense persecution and even death. Early Christians obviously took the disciples’ teaching about Jesus’ life seriously. Many were willing to die for it and many Christians did during the Neronic persecution of A.D. 64. If the disciples and authors of the New Testament did not spread at least a somewhat accurate depiction of Jesus’ life it would seem to be very strange that so many first century Christians willingly accepted martyrdom off the testimony of a few men especially if their testimony was grossly against the grain of the predominant, more sober-minded and believable oral tradition of the day.
There is a Surprising Amount of Evidence that the Historical Jesus Performed Miracles: The Messiah was Not expected to work Miracles. Thus the Gospel Writers would Not have Felt compelled to turn Jesus into a Miracle Worker if He were Not Already.
Because Christ’s miracles are the most conspicuous aspect of his ministry, the origin of the miracle tradition found in the Gospels could not be easily explained had their authors started with a Jesus who was simply a wise teacher. Prophets and teachers of the Law were not traditionally made into miracle workers; there are almost no examples of this in the literature available to us.8 It is especially unlikely that Jesus would have been made into a miracle worker if that were not already believed to be the case because most Jews did not expect the Messiah to work miracles. Thus the authors of the New Testament would not have felt a compulsion to make this up were it not already believed to be the case.9
There is a Surprising Amount of Evidence that the Historical Jesus Performed Miracles: If Jesus never worked Miracles, Early Hostile Jewish Literature would state this Fact. Instead, Jesus is called a Sorcerer in These Accounts thus degradingly affirming the Picture of Jesus the Healer.
One way to check the accuracy of the New Testament’s claims concerning Jesus’ miraculous abilities is to see what Jesus’ enemies believed. If Jesus never worked any miracles, one might expect ancient, hostile Jewish literature to state this fact. There are several unsympathetic references to Jesus in ancient Jewish and pagan literature as early as the second century A.D. But none of the ancient Jewish sources deny Jesus’ ability to perform miracles.10 Instead, they try to explain these powers away by referring to him as a sorcerer.11 If the historical Jesus were merely a wise teacher who only later through legendary embellishments came to be regarded as a miracle worker, one might expect there to be a prominent Jewish oral tradition affirming this fact. This tradition would likely have survived among the Jews for hundreds of years in order to counter the claims of Christians who might use Jesus’ miraculous powers as evidence of his unique divine status. Interestingly, there is no evidence that any early Jewish literature denied Jesus’ alleged ability to work miracles. In other words, there exists no evidence of any non-Christian Jewish tradition that merely portrays Jesus as just a wise teacher even though many of these Jewish accounts are thought to have arisen from a separate oral tradition apart from that held by Christians. Both traditions agree on this point.12
If it were known that Jesus had no special abilities, one would expect these hostile accounts to eagerly point this out rather than derogatorily affirm it. As stated above, non-Christian Jews would likely have been uncomfortable with Jesus having the seemingly miraculous ability to heal since this could be used as evidence by Jesus’ followers to support his self-proclaimed status as the Son of God–a position most Jews firmly denied. This appears to be why Jesus’ enemies tried to explain away these miraculous abilities as sorcery.
Not only do hostile accounts fail to deny Jesus’ supernatural abilities, they also seem to support the ability of his followers to heal in his name. In the Talmud, there is a story about a rabbi who is bitten by a venomous snake and calls on a Christian named Jacob to heal him. Unfortunately, before Jacob can get there, the rabbi dies.13 Apparently, the rabbi believed or at least hoped that this Christian could heal him. Not only did some Jews seem to recognize the ability of Christians to heal in Christ’s name, some pagans did as well. The name of Christ has been found in many ancient pagan spells.14 If even many non-Christians recognized that there was power to heal in Christ’s name, perhaps there may have been some reason for it?
There is a Surprising Amount of Evidence that the Historical Jesus Performed Miracles: Most Secular Historians do Not believe Jesus could heal any Real Illnesses or perform any Real Miracles. This Belief is due to Prior Preconceptions against the Supernatural.
Faced with the above evidence, most New Testament historians now believe that Jesus must have been a successful healer and exorcist.15 Of course, most liberal scholars today do not believe that Jesus could actually heal any real illnesses. However, this belief is not derived from any historical evidence. Rather, this conclusion is the result of prior preconceptions against the supernatural. Because they do not believe in the supernatural, secular historians deny that Jesus cured any real, organic illnesses or performed any nature miracles such as walking on water.16
Secular historians now believe that Jesus only healed psychosomatic maladies.17 Psychosomatic means mind-body so psychosomatic maladies are mind-body problems. The mind can have a powerful impact on health. Under extreme distress, people can become blind, deaf or even suffer paralysis. Since psychosomatic problems typically go away on their own, many liberal scholars think that faith in Jesus’ ability to heal might have helped to heal some people suffering from these conditions. In other words, most secular historians today believe that Jesus could only heal conversion disorders or the symptoms associated with real illnesses.18
Conversion disorders afflict approximately fourteen to twenty-two out of every 100,000 people.19 Conversion disorders are psychosomatic problems in which intense emotional trauma results in blindness, paralysis, deafness, and other baffling impairments. Because conversion disorders are rare, curing these conditions alone would certainly not account for the totality of Jesus’ success as a healer.
Many infections and even cancers are naturally healed by the body’s own immune system. And scientists have long known about faith’s amazing curative effect called the placebo effect. Thus secular historians believe that Jesus’ effectiveness as a healer, like that of many faith healers today, can be explained naturalistically by the curative effects of faith in concert with the subjects’ own natural ability to heal and fight off infections.
There is a Surprising Amount of Evidence that the Historical Jesus Performed Miracles: The More Amazing the Miracle, the More Evidence Seems Available to Support it.
Though secular historians believe that Jesus was an effective faith healer, they deny his ability to perform any supernatural acts because of prior prejudices against the supernatural. However, it is could be said that some of Jesus’ most amazing miracles seem to have the most evidence. Is there any evidence that Jesus had the power to work actual miracles such as raising the dead?
Yes. It almost seems that the more fantastic the miracle, the more evidence available to support it. In fact, it is often argued that the most incredible miracle recorded in the Gospels is actually the one that has the greatest evidential support. This miracle is Jesus’ resurrection.20 Is there any reason to believe that Jesus may have raised others from the dead as well?
There is a Surprising Amount of Evidence that the Historical Jesus Performed Miracles: John’s Gospel was written within the Lifetimes of Eyewitnesses to Jesus. In the Resurrection of Lazarus, John includes many Details that would make it Easy to Check John’s Story. The Fact that John’s Account could Easily be Confirmed or Denied based off These Details suggests that it was Credible.
In John 11:1-44 Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. A careful reading of this text reveals several details that would have been relatively easy for anyone in the first century to confirm or deny. John indicates that Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha. John also says that this miracle took place in Bethany where Lazarus, Mary, and Martha lived and that Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem. Though many preterists believe that the Gospel of John was written before A.D. 70, most scholars believe this Gospel was written in AD 90, just sixty years after the events it records. With either date of composition it is very possible that more than a few people who witnessed or heard of this event would have still been alive to confirm it. John says this event took place in Bethany and then reveals the town’s approximate location. All someone would have had to do to check this out would have been to go to Bethany and ask someone if Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, had ever been raised from the dead. Villages were generally small at that time and people knew each other’s business. Almost anyone in Bethany could presumably confirm or deny whether or not they had ever heard of such an event.
If John just made this story up, it is unlikely that he would have included so much information that could easily be investigated by others to see if he was lying. Instead, he probably would have written a vague story about Jesus going to some unnamed town where he raised some unnamed person from the dead. This way no one could confirm or deny the event. John appears to have put these details in to show that he wasn’t lying. It is as if he wanted people to investigate his story. Perhaps John wanted people to go to Bethany, ask around and see for themselves what people say really happened there?
That being said it should be noted that from A.D. 66 to A.D. 74, Israel waged a major war with Rome. In The Wars of the Jews, Josephus says that 1,100,000 Jews were killed during the Roman siege of Jerusalem. The majority of these causalities were not citizens of the city. The Romans also exiled 97,000 people during the entire course of the war.21 Though there was a catastrophic loss of life as a consequence of this war, Josephus says that the surviving citizens of Jerusalem were allowed to stay in the metropolis after the conquest of the city: “Only the citizens [of Jerusalem] were allowed to remain [in the city]; all the rest were sold, along with the women and children for a trifling price per head, as supply was far in excess of demand.”22 As stated above, Bethany was just two miles from Jerusalem, it would seem logical that survivors from the suburbs of Jerusalem would have also been permitted to stay. Yet despite the war with Rome and the fact that up to sixty years had transpired between the publishing of John’s gospel and the raising of Lazarus from the dead, if someone wanted to investigate this miraculous account it would not have been overly difficult to do. This is because one would still expect to find living witnesses and/or their immediate descendants still living in Bethany at the time of the Gospel of John’s composition.
There is a Surprising Amount of Evidence that the Historical Jesus Performed Miracles: Conclusion.
Therefore, despite the implausibility that any man could work miracles, there is a surprising amount of evidence suggesting that there is at least some truth to the miraculous claims made in the Gospels. Thus I believe that Christians need not view these miracles as baseless stories merely intended to teach lessons. There is a real possibility that these miracles are historical fact.
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Interested in the preterist view of eschatology or are you struggling with a prophecy or verse? It DID happen just like the Bible says! If you liked this essay, see PRETERIST BIBLE COMMENTARY for a detailed explanation of the FULFILLMENT OF ALL MAJOR END TIME PROPHECIES IN THE BIBLE. The more unbelievable the prophecy, the more amazing and miraculous the fulfillment!
Also see Historical Evidence that Jesus was LITERALLY SEEN in the Clouds in the First Century. For an explanation of how the end of the age and its fulfillment during the Jewish War mirror Genesis 1-3; how the Bible teaches that the resurrection of the dead is a resurrection of heavenly bodies to heaven, not a resurrection of perfected earthly bodies; and how the resurrection is a mirror opposite of the fall see How the Jewish War and Resurrection to Heaven Mirror Genesis and the Fall; and How Preterism fixes the Age of the Earth Problem and unravels the Mysteries in Genesis.
There is a Surprising Amount of Evidence that the Historical Jesus Performed Miracles: Summary and Highlights
There is a surprising amount of evidence that that the historical Jesus performed miracles.
- Gary R. Habermas, “Did Jesus Perform Miracles?,” in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, by eds. Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), 124.
- Marcus J. Borg, Jesus, A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and The Life of Discipleship (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991), 61.
- A.M. Hunter, Jesus: Lord and Saviour (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 63.
- Wilkins and Moreland, Jesus Under Fire, 124.
- Marcus J. Borg, Jesus, A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and The Life of Discipleship (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991), 60.
- Craig L. Blomberg, quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 33.
- Grant R Jeffrey, The Signature of God (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1998) 102, 103.
- Smith, Jesus the Magician: Charlatan or Son of God? (Berkeley: Seastone, 1998), 21.
- Graham H. Twelftree, Jesus, The Miracle Worker: A Historical and Theological Study (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 247.
- See Alan Humm, “Toledoth Yeshu,” at ccat.sas.upenn.edu/humm/Topics/JewishJesus/toledoth.html (2/17/1997).
- Twelftree, Jesus, The Miracle Worker, 255.
- Smith, Jesus the Magician, 63.
- Ibid., 83.
- Wilkins and Moreland, Jesus Under Fire, 124, 125.
- Ibid., 125.
- See the National Organization for Rare Diseases’ official Web site at www.rarediseases.org/nord/search/rdbdetail_fullreport_pf (5/04/2006).
- William Lane Craig, “The Empty Tomb of Jesus,” in In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History, by eds. R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 247-261 and Gary R. Habermas, “The Resurrection Appearances of Jesus,” Ibid., 261-275.
- Josephus The Wars of the Jews 6.9.3.
- Ibid., 6.8.2.