John Meier's A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (Vol. 2)
The following is a brief summary of John Meier's monumental 1,134 page A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (Volume 2).
Part One: Mentor
Chapter 12: John Without Jesus: The Baptist in His own Rite
For Josephus’ largely pagan audience, the Baptist is transformed into a popular moral philosopher of Stoic hue, with a somewhat neo-Pythagorean rite of lustration. As we shall see, Josephus is probably more reliable than Mark when it comes to the story of John’s execution [!]. Even apart from Josephus, the Gospels themselves would give good grounds for affirming the historicity of the Baptist. The criterion of multiple attestation is satisfied by the independent witness of Mark, Q, possibly a stray saying in M (Matt 21:32), and John. Just as important is the criterion of embarrassment, for the Baptist is a “wild card” in the Gospel tradition. Accordingly all four Gospels have to struggle to make John safe for Christianity [!].
Applying the criterion of coherence (i.e. how the portrait of the Baptist in Luke 1 coheres with the statements about the adult Baptism in Mark and Q), I think that if anything can be salvaged from Luke’s narrative, it is the idea that John was the only son of a priest who functioned in the Jerusalem temple. John at some point must have consciously turned his back on—and in Jewish eyes—scandalously rejected his obligations to be a priest in his father’s footsteps.
John could have been, as a child, trained by the Essenes at Qumran, since John and the Qumranites share many common traits. Both rejected ordinary lifestyles (urban or rural), stood in tension to the contemporary form of temple priesthood and worship, were active in and around the wilderness of Judea, had a sense that the definitive intervention of God in history was imminent, looked to Isa 40:3 as a prophecy of their work in the desert preparing for that intervention, called true Israelites to repentance in view of the approaching end of present history, predicted salvation or doom for Israelites depending on their response to the warning proclaimed to them, and practiced some water ritual as a sign of interior cleansing.
Yet one must recognize also the significant differences between the Qumranites and John. John is a solitary figure with no indication of having belonged to a group. Most of John’s disciples seem to have gone back to their ordinary lives and occupations. John’s practices not the frequent lustratioins of Qumran, but a once-and-for-all baptism administered to other by himself. While Qumran is noted for its super-stringent interpretation of the Mosaic law, the sayings and actions of John show a total lack of concern with detailed legal questions. We are left with two possibilities: 1) John turned his back on his priestly duties because of he felt called as an anti-establishment prophet. 2) John may have had his anti-establishment views nourished by being reared at Qumran or some other Essene settlement.
John preached that one must change ones mind and heart about what is important in life, and then change one’s outward life accordingly. This is metanoia, that change of mind which is heart-felt repentance. But John knows he faces a difficult task in convincing this ‘brood of vipers’ that mere descent from Abraham, like mere physical baptism, will not be sufficient protection on the day of judgment. It should be noted, that both Jesus and John proclaim their threats and woes to Israel precisely as Israelite prophets working within and for Israel. Like Amos or Jeremiah, they fiercely condemn Israel and breath fiery threats of judgment because they are so passionately concerned about Israel’s salvation. Such prophetic indictments must be heard as coming from a committed Israelite seeking to wake up his own people to what he discerns as imminent danger threatening the covenant community.
If Jesus accepted John’s message and baptism, presumably he affirmed John’s basic eschatological outlook. To be sure, Jesus may have developed or even moved away from John’s eschatology later on. But a totally un-eschatologial Jesus trips over the very stumbling stone early Christianity found so difficult: John the Baptist, the independent Jewish prophet of fiery imminent eschatology, to whom Jesus himself adhered.
Chapter 13: Jesus With and Without John
The narrative of Jesus’ baptism is directly available to us in only one independent source, Mark’s gospel. At first glance, therefore, the criterion of multiple attestation does not apply—though certainly a lack of more than one witness does not prove that a narrated event did not take place. But the fact that Mark’s gospel is obviously laden with Christian theological interpretation is reason for doubting even Mark’s account. Nevertheless, there are a number of reasons in favor of historicity of Jesus’ baptism. First, there is no credible reason why the early church of the first generation should have gone out of its way to invent a story that would create enormous difficulties for its inventor. More to the point, the idea that Jesus, whom early Christianity considered sinless and the source of forgiveness of sins, should be associated with sinners by undergoing a baptism for repentance for the forgiveness of sins is hardly a fiction created by the early church. This satisfies the criterion of embarrassment.
An argument could also be made from multiple attestation since there are some curious minor agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mart that might come from their use of Q. The baptism of Jesus also seems to have been known in the Johannine community (First John 5:6). Since there are really no weighty arguments to the contrary, we my take the baptism of Jesus by John as a firm historical starting point for the public ministry of Jesus.
At the very least, Jesus’ baptism meant a fundamental break in his life: baptism as watershed. As far as our meager sources allow us to know, before his baptism by John, Jesus was a respectable, unexceptional, and unnoticed woodworker in Nazareth. Both family and neighbors were shocked and offended by Jesus once he undertook his ministry, and not without reason.
Jesus agreed with John on the following points: 1) The end of Israel’s history as Israel had experienced it up until now was fast approaching. 2) Israel as a people had gone astray, had in effect apostatized; and so all Israel was in danger of being consumed by the fire of God’s wrathful judgment, soon to come. 3) the only way to pass from the present sinful state in which Abraham’s children were caught to the state of those Israelites who would be saved on the last day was to undergo a basic change of mind and heart. This interior change had to be reflected in a basic change in the way one lived one’s life. 4) Implicit in all this is Jesus’ recognition of John as a prophet sent by God to all Israel. In other words, Jesus acknowledged John to be a or the eschatological prophet. The un-eschatological picture of Jesus, Jesus the wisdom teacher concerned with people’s lives only here and now—a picture recently championed by some American exegetes—simply does not square with historical reality. It is not surprising that John the Baptist does not play a large role in 20th century sketches of the un-eschatological Jesus.
Therefore, we have seen that around the beginning of AD 28, Jesus of Nazareth, no doubt in the company of other Jews, journeyed from Nazareth to the Jordan River to receive John’s baptism. By doing this Jesus acknowledged John’s charismatic authority as an eschatological prophet, accepting his message of imminent fiery judgment on a sinful Israel, submitted to his baptism as a seal of his resolve to change his life [!] and as a pledge of salvation as part of a purified Israel on whom God would pour out the holy Spirit on the last day.
Jesus then became a disciple, the pupil, the student of John the Baptist. Ironically , the only evidence we have for this comes from the much maligned Fourth Gospel. An argument can be made that Jesus was for a while a member of John’s inner circle and that he drew some disciples from that circle and used the rite of baptism in his own ministry.
Jesus was never entirely without John. If my view is correct, he carried John’s eschatology, concern for sinful Israel facing God’s imminent judgment, call to repentance, and baptism with him throughout his own ministry, however much he recycled and reinterpreted this inheritance. Almost every topic that remains to be treated in this work is somehow touched on in Jesus’s sayings about the Baptist.
Part Two: Message
Chapter 14: The Kingdom of God: God Coming in Power to Rule
Part I: Background
We must constantly remind ourselves of a basic rule: between Jesus’ baptism and the last weeks of his life, there is no before or after. The time frame and plot line of each of the evangelists are his own creation; and once that redactional grid is dissolved by form and redaction criticism, there are very few indicators of time and individual units of the Jesus tradition [!]
Jeremias said, “Our starting point is the fact that the central theme of public proclamation of Jesus was the kingly reign of God. Normin Perrin, one of Jeremias’ former pupils said “The central aspect of the teaching of Jesus was that concerning the kingdom of God. On this there can be no doubt and today no scholar does, in fact, doubt it.
The mythic story evoked by the phrase, “the kingdom of God stretches from the first page of the Bible to its last, and a given context will highlight one aspect of the multifaceted symbol rather than another. If we were to construct an artificial summary of the story of the kingdom, it would include God’s creation of his good and ordered universe, creation’s corruption by human sin and rebellion, God’s gracious choice of the people of Israel to be his very own, his liberation of them form slavery in Egypt, the experiences of sin and salvation at the Reed Sea and Mt. Sinai, the desert journey, and entrance into the promised land. The story might include the kingdom of the all-too-human-but-later-idealized King David, God’s choice of Jerusalem and Mt. Zion for his dwelling place alongside the king, the disasters caused by David’s less than ideal successors, the descent of Israel into ever greater idolatry and sin, Israel’s rejection of the prophet’s warnings, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile, the promise of future restoration that would include a rebuilt Jerusalem and a new purified temple, the subjection of the hostile Gentiles, and the establishment among human beings of God’s eternal kingdom of peace and justice (with or without a human vicegrent or intermediary). Needless to say, these shining hopes about Jerusalem were hardly fulfilled in the first centuries BC or AD.
Jesus, like every teacher throughout history, had to work under certain constraints. However new or creative a teacher’s insights, unless he or she can find a way to communicate those insights to an audience operating with certain received images, ideas, presuppositions, and worldviews, the new insights will never be effectively taught. Presumably, then, if Jesus used the symbol of the kingdom of God in a sense directly counter to the eschatological connotations with which it was so often connected, he would have made his own usage clear—all the more so if he wanted to negate any and all eschatological expectations. How, in fact, Jesus adapted and recycled the symbol of God’s kingship, and what ultimately he meant to convey by it, will be explored in the next two chapters.
Chapter 15: The Kingdom of God: God Coming in Power to Rule
Part II: Jesus’ Proclamation of a Future Kingdom
In the previous chapter we learned two important things about the kingdom of God. 1) it was central in Jesus’ proclamation. 2) Jesus must have consciously made it so since it is not central to the protocanonical or deuterocanonical/apocryphal O, to the OT pseudepigrapha, or to the Qumran literature taken as a whole.
Our initial probe of kingdom sayings supports the position that Jesus’ message was focused on a future coming of God to rule as king, a time when he would manifest himself in all his transcendent glory an power to regather and save his sinful but repentant people Israel.
As Jesus comes to the last supper, he is faced with the fact that his ministry, from a human point of view, has been largely a failure. All Israel has not heeded his message and accepted him as the eschatological prophet sent from God. Worse still, the bankruptcy of his life-project may be complemented by the bankruptcy of his life, as the possibility of a violent death looms. Jesus senses that his death is near; that is the thrust of his prophecy that he will not drink wine at a festive meal again. But his prophecy dies not end on this gloomy note. Jesus is convinced that his cause is God’s cause and that, therefore, despite Jesus’ personal failure and death, God will in the end vindicate his cause and his prophet by bringing in his kingdom and seating Jesus at the final banquet, to drink the festive wine once again. Thus the focus of the saying is on Jesus’ death as a sing of failure rather than of salvation, and on the coming of God’s kingdom as the salvation of Jesus rather than the parousia of Jesus. This is simply not the christology, soteriology and eschatology of the first generation of Christians, no matter what branch or stream we examine.
According to Matthew 8:11-12 par., the historical Jesus did expect a future coming of God’s kingdom, and that kingdom was in some way a transcendent one, surmounting this world’s barriers of time, space, hostility between Jesus and Gentiles, and finally death itself. A completely un-eschatologial Jesus, a Jesus totally shorn of all apocalyptic traits, is simply not the historical Jesus, however compatible he might be to modern tastes, at least in middle-class American academia.
Jesus was not interested in and did not issue pronouncements about concrete social and political reforms, either for the world in general of for Israel in particular. He was not proclaiming the reform of the world; he was proclaiming the end of the world. At the heart of Jesus’ message is the promise of the definitive coming of God as king, who will bring to an end the present state of things by revealing himself in al his power and glory. In that kingdom he will vindicate those who suffer unjustly, the sorrowing will be comforted, the hungry will be fed, and the debt of sin will be remitted by God just as the saved will forgive one another’s debt.
Furthermore, 1) Jesus expected a future, definitive coming of God to rule as king; 2) this hope was so central to his message that he bade his disciples make it a central petition of their own prayer. 3) the coming kingdom would bring about the reversal of present unjust conditions of poverty, sorrow, and hunger. 4) this final kingdom would bring about and even more astounding reversal: it would include at least some Gentiles, not as conquered slaves but as honored guests who would share the eschatological banquet with the Israelite partriarchs (risen from the dead?) and 5) that despite the possibility of impending death, Jesus himself would experience a saving reversal: he would share in the final banquet, symbolized by the prophetic last supper.
Chapter 16: The Kingdom of God: God Coming in Power to Rule
Part III: The Kingdom Already Present
In the last chapter we saw that any attempt to strip the historical Jesus of his eschatological message concerning the kingdom runs counter to the evidence. The question we must ask now is whether Jesus viewed this final arrival of God’s kingdom as purely future or whether he also claimed that in some way the kingdom of God had already arrived. Some scholars like Borg and Dodd, for example, have excluded future eschatology from the preaching of the historical Jesus entirely. Others, like Sanders, confine it to the immediate future. Our arguments in this chapter, however, have shown that Jesus asserted that the kingdom he was proclaiming for the future had in some sense arrived. As a result, far from conveying a mere inner belief about the state of one’s soul or a fiery hope about the imminent future, Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God had a concrete impact on the socio-religious lives of those who closely followed him—noticeably in the question of fasting.
Jesus’ core message of the kingdom was not without its moral or ethical dimension, impacting on Jesus’ interpretation of the Mosaic Law. An amoral or antinomian magician,, unconnected with the eschatological fate and ethical concerns of Israel, is not the historical Jesus that emerges from the most reliable traditions of his words and deeds. So also, in Jesus eyes his exorcisms are not individual acts of kindness, or even individual acts of power. They are part of the eschatological drama that is already underway and that God is about to bring to its conclusion. God’s liberating power in favor of his people Israel is already being experienced by those Israelites who have encountered it in Jesus. Whether or not we use terms like ‘pledge’, foretaste, or proleptic realization, my view is that Jesus consciously chose to indicate that the display of miraculous power in his own ministry constituted a partial and preliminary realization of God’s kingly rule, which would soon be displayed in full force.
Part Three: Miracles
Chapter 17: Miracles and Modern Minds
What is a miracle? A fair definition would be: 1) an unusual, startling, or extraordinary event that is in principle perceivable by any interested and fair minded observer. 2) an event that finds no reasonable explanation in human abilities or in other known forces that operate in our world of time and space. 3) an event that is the result of a special act of God, doing what no human power can do. I my definition of miracles, I purposely avoid the vocabulary of ‘nature’ so as not to inject concepts from ancient Stoicism or Plationism or later concepts from medieval scholasticism of the 17th and 18th century Age of Reason—into texts that for the most part operate with different presuppositions.
It is the third component which is the nub of the whole problem. any one who claims that a miracle has happened is saying in effect: God has acted here to accomplish what no human force or any other known power in our world can accomplish. It is certainly possible that historians could prove such a claim false. But it is impossible for a historian, working with empirical evidence within the confines of their own discipline ever to make the positive judgment: God has directly acted here to accomplish something beyond all human power. To be sure, a professional historian who is likewise a believing Christian might proceed from one judgment (this extraordinary event, occurring in a religious context, has no discernible explanation), to a second judgment (this event is a miracle worked by God). But this further judgment is not made in his or her capacity as a professional historian. Hence it is my contention that a positive judgment that a miracle has taken place is always a philosophical or theological judgment. What a historian—or physicist or a doctor---may say in his or her professional capacity is that, after an exhaustive examination of the evidence, one cannot find a reasonable cause or adequate explanation for a particular extraordinary event.
It is an indisputable historical fact of our own time that certain people, ostensibly seriously ill, claim to be suddenly, miraculously cured in a religious setting. As we have seen, at times the medical bureau at Lourdes and the International Medical Committee working with it can find no adequate scientific explanation for these cures. In other words, in the face of the Lourdes phenomenon (and others like it) one cannot assert a-priori that Jesus never performed inexplicable cures, claimed by some to be miracles.
This raises the following questions: Are reports about Jesus performing miracles totally inventions of the early church, or do at least some of the reports go back to the time and activity of Jesus? I want to emphasize that the careful, evenhanded approach to claims of the miraculous that I have laid out in this chapter has not been invented simply to give Jesus (or Lourdes) special treatment. This even handed method is what any serious historian should bring to any serious report of miracles.
As an aside, though, I might observe that while Spinoza’s and Hume’s position still command attention, we cannot help noticing that the particular arguments they use may strike an educated person as somewhat dated. They viewed the physical universe as a closed, mechanical system run by precise, eternal and immutable laws. Such an Enlightenment view of the cosmos has given way to a conception molded by such 20th century breakthroughs as Werner Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty (or indeterminacy). In the light of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, of which Heisenberg was an active supporter, the tidy Enlightenment universe of immutable laws and tight chains of cause and effect, knowable in principle to any observer, begins to look outmoded.
Another observation concerns what might be called the academic sneer factor. The solemn creed of many university professors, especially in religion departments, would be recited: No modern educated person can accept the possibility of miracles. Perhaps the most famous formulation of this was by Rudolf Bultmann. This creed has dominated American Academic circles so long that rarely does anyone bother to ask is it empirically true? As a matter of empirical fact, an opinion survey by George Gallup in 1989 four that 82 percent of Americans polled believed the even today miracles are performed by the power of God. This 82 percent, as Gallups detailed table of statistics indicates, embraces more than the poorest and least educated in American society. Presumably it numbers some representatives of the well-educated and affluent, including some scientists and doctors. Indeed, only 6 percent of all Americans polled by Gallup completely disagreed with the position that even today God works miracles. If Bultmann and his intellectual disciples are correct in their view on miracles and the modern mind, then it follows that only 6 percent of Americans completely qualify as truly modern persons. A more plausible conclusion is that only 6 percent of Americans share the mind-set of some German university professors. Hence, the academic creed of no modern person can believe in miracles, should be consigned to the dustbin of empirically falsified hypotheses.
Chapter 18: Miracles and Ancient Minds
As we move from modern to ancient minds, we find that the problem of miracles among the ancients turns out to be almost the exact opposite of the one we have been struggling with up until now. To be sure, skepticism about the denial of miracles can be found in some of the Greek and Roman elite, especially certain philosophers and rhetoricians (e.g. Epicurus, Lucretius, Cicero, Lucian). On the whole, however, the ancient Greco-Roman world was one in which miracles were accepted as part of the religious landscape.
The history of religions school and form critics like Bultmann and Dibelius devoted numerous pages to Jewish and pagan parallels to the Gospel miracles stories. Some observations are in order: 1) many of the so called parallels (e.g. Philostratus Life of Apollonius of Tyana or the rabbinic material) comes from centuries after the Four Gospels. 2) Sometimes the parallel material fails to parallel the Gospels at a key point: namely, Jesus in the Gospels is presented as a miracle worker performing miracles by his own power. 3) there is a question of exactly what the parallels demonstrate. Even for miracles which do parallel those in pagan and Jewish settings, one can not conclude that the Gospel miracle in question does not, therefore, go back to the historical Jesus. For the sake of argument, let us grant that Jesus actually performed some extraordinary deeds thought by his audience to be miracles. The natural question then becomes, How would such events have been narrated in the 1st century AD if not with the literary forms used in that time period to recount miracle stories? I should add that what is true of the literary form of miracle stories holds true as well for the basic vocabulary used to describe a miracle.
While many insights from the social sciences have been helpful and readily accepted, some approaches have proved highly controversial. One of the best known debates revolves around the claim that from the viewpoint of the social sciences, there is not objective difference between what we commonly label a miracle in the Gospels and what we commonly label magic in various Greco-Roman papyri, novels and historians. For instance, John Dominic Crossan, Morton Smith and David Aune would agree that Jesus did magic. But to call it magic, is in my view ill advised for the following reasons: First: despite denials to the contrary, the word magic in the ancient world and today often has a pejorative connotation. If we want a neutral umbrella term, miracle would probably be better. Second, the claim that there is not real phenomenologial difference between narratives of Jesus’ miracles in the Gospels and what we commonly find, for example, in magical papyri of the Roman period is questionable.
In the Gospels the following are characteristic of miracles: 1) the usual overarching context for a religious miracle is that of an interpersonal relationship of faith, trust or love between the human being and the deity or his agent. 2) the person in need is a worshipper rather than a business client. 3) there are not lengthy incantations, amulets, charms or recipes. 4) there is no idea that the petitioner can use coercive power to force the miracle worker to perform a miracle against his will. 5) all miraculous activity takes place within the overarching Gospel context of Jesus’ obedience to the Father.. 6) Gospel miracles are symbols and partial concrete realizations of the kingdom of God, not simply discrete acts of diving power granting benefits to individuals. 7) Jesus’ miracles do not punish or hurt anyone. These are characteristics of miracles. Characteristics of magic, on the other hand, are almost the reverse image of this description.
Apart from all this, there is a simple commonsense reason for not applying the label of magician to Jesus. Just as a matter of fact, although the NT knows the vocabulary of magician and magic, these words are never applied to Jesus. Neither his disciples during his lifetime, nor the early church during the rest of the first century every used it among the many titles and descriptions applied to Jesus.
Chapter 19: The Historicity of Jesus’ Miracles: The Global Question
My quest seeks to remain within the realm of what, at least in principle, is verifiable by historical research. Hence I ask: Given the fact of the many miracle stories present in the four Gospels, are there reasons for thinking that at least the core of some of these stories goes back to the time and ministry of Jesus himself or did such reports come entirely from the creative imagination of the early church?
Before employing the criteria on individual narratives or sayings, we should first apply them to the miracle traditions of the Gospel taken as a whole to answer the Global question: Did the historical Jesus perform extraordinary deeds deemed by his contemporaries as well as by himself to be miracles? The single most important criterion is that of multiple attestation. Every Gospel source (Mark, Q, M, L, and John), every evangelist in his redactional summaries and even Josephus affirm the miracle working activity of Jesus. Jesus miracles occur not only in multiple sources, but in multiple literary forms as well—exorcisms, healings, and nature miracles.
The multiple attestation of both sources and forms of both narratives and sayings, naturally leads to the next criterion: coherence. What is remarkable is how deeds and sayings cut across different sources and form-critical categories to create a meaningful whole. The criterion of embarrassment can be applied only to a limited degree. For example, it seems unlikely that the church would go out of its way to create a miracle story which would expose Jesus to the charge of being in league with the devil. The criteria of discontinuity and Jesus rejection can also be applied, but only to a very limited degree.
The fact is that Jesus’ miracles are 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 more dramatically, but with not too much exageration, if the miracle tradition from Jesus’ public ministry were to be rejected in toto as unhistorical, so should every other Gospel tradition about him.
Chapter 20: Jesus’ Exorcisms
Our goal now is a very limited one: a search for hints that the story goes beck to Jesus or was invented by the early church.
The Demoniac in the Synabogue at Capernaum (Mark 1:23 // Luke 4:33-37. This story, while it cannot be pressed in its details, is historically reliable in the sense that it serves as a global representation of the sort of thing Jesus did during his ministry in Capernaum.
The Gerasene Demoniac (Mark 5:1-20): All in all, I am inclined to the view that an exorcism performed by Jesus near Gerasa lies at the basis of this Gospel narrative but beyond this I doubt that much can be said about the historical event; too many layers of literary activity and theological imagination have been superimposed.
The Possessed boy (Mark 9:14-29 parr): I incline to the view that some historical remembrance from the ministry of Jesus lies behind this present story. More than this cannot be said.
The Mute (and blind?) demoniac (Matt 12:22-23a // Luke 11:14): I think it more probable that the exorcism narrated in Luke 11:14 was not a creation of the author(s) of Q, but was originally connected with at least some of the sayings material that now makes up the Beelzebul disputs. I see no contervailing reasons to deny historicity.
The exorcism of a mute demoniac (Matt 9:32-33): This brief story is widely seen by commentators as a redactional creation by Matthew. He has created a weak mirror image of the exorcism that unleashes the Beelzebul controversy in chapter 12.
The reference to mary Magdalene (Luke 8:2): The criterion of embarrassment and coherence argue that this is basically historical.
The Story of the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30 // Matt 15:21-28): Weighing all the pros and cons, it seems to me that this story is so shot through with Christian missionary theology and concerns that creation by first generation Christians is the more likely conclusion.
Looking at our seven cases, we must admit how meager the data and therefore, how fragile our judgments.
Chapter 21: Jesus’ Healings
When we turn to stories of Jesus’ healings we are confronted with a wide rang of vague pathologies that are not easily brought under a few neat headings. But at the risk of oversimplification, I think that the material can be divided into four major categories: 1) there are four or five distinct miracle stories about people suffering from paralyzed, withered, or crippled parts of their bodies. 2) there are three distinct stories involving blindness. 3) there are two cases of leprosy. 4) there is a catch-all category for various physical afflictions.
This general inventory makes it clear that, even apart from exorcisms, there is wide multiple attestation of sources and forms for Jesus’ ministry of healing the sick and infirm.
I. The Paralyzed and the Crippled
Mark 2:1-12: The convergence of so many unusual motifs in a narrative that might have originally been a simply story about the healing of a paralytic has given rise to endless theories about the stages of tradition and redaction. But I am inclined to think that some event in the public ministry stuck in the corporate memory precisely because of its strange circumstances.
John 5:1-9: The evidence inclines me to the view that behind the present form of John 5:1-9 stands some historical event from the life of Jesus.
Mark 3:1-6: I do not think that the Sabbath controversy, as it is presented in Mar 3:1—6, goes back to a historical event in Jesus’ ministry. The historicity of the miracle itself is best left in the limbo-category of not clear (non liquet).
Luke 13:10-17: I think we are here faced with a similar situation as in Mark 3:1-6: non liquet.
The centurion’s servant (Matt 8:5-13 Parr)? This story will be taken up later under the category of various types of healing that are attested only once in the Gospels.
The Lame walk (Matt 11:5 Par): We have examined this pericope earlier and saw good reason for accepting it as historical.
II. The Blind
Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52): While the evidence does not constitute proof, it does suggest that the Bartimaeus story is one of the strongest candidates for the report of a specific miracle going back to the historical Jesus.
The blind man of Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26): However much the story may have been ‘worked up’ in the oral tradition and ‘exploited’ by Mark’s redactional theology, most probably Jesus did heal a blind man in or around Bethsaida.
The man born blind (John 9:1-41): On the whole, I think it is more likely than not that Jesus healed blind man in Jerusalem under the curious circumstances related in 9:6-7.
The Blind see (Matt 11:5 // Luke 7:22): We have already seen reasons for accepting this as authentic. All in all, the tradition that Jesus healed the blind stands alongside the tradition that he worked exorcisms as one of the best attested miracle traditions in the Four Gospels.
III. Persons Affected with “Leprosy”
It should be noted that the word sara at probably includes such conditions as psoriasis, eczema, and virtiligo. In fact, it is doubtful that Hansen’s disease (i.e. leprosy in the modern scientific sense) existed in the ancient Near East at the time the priestly legislation in Leviticus was codified (roughly in the 6th century BC).
Mark 1:40-45 Parr.: This unwieldy addition by Mark to an otherwise terse, schematic miracle story indicates that at the very least Mark 1:40-45 is not a purely Marcan creation. But that may be all that can be said with fair assurance. As we have seen, the stereotypical outline, isolated by form criticism, tells neither for nor against the historicity of the story.
Luke 17:11-19: Jesus’ healing the ten lepers: Scholars disagree on whether the story is totally a creation of Luke, represents a Lucan redaction of some earlier story in the L tradition, or actually goes back through stages of tradition and redaction to the historical Jesus. At the very least, I think the L tradition, independently of the Marcan tradition, contained a story of Jesus healing lepers.
IV. Various Healings of which Only One Incident is Reported
Mark 1:29-31 Parr: Peter’s Mother-in-Law: My judgment on the historicity of this passage is non liquet.
Mark 5:24-34 Parr: The Woman with the Hemorrhage: Granted that this story is sui generis and that we have no multiple attestation, my judgment is still non liquet.
Luke 14:1-6: The Man with Dropsy: I prefer a judgment of non liquet.
Mark 7:31-37: The Deaf-Mute: I think that one could reasonably use the criteria of embarrassment and discontinuity to argue that this story reflects some event in the life of Jesus, though I can well understand why others might prefer to stay with a vote of non liquet.
Luke 22:49-51: The Ear of the Slave of the High Priest: It is most probable that the healing of the ear of the high priest’s slave is a creation of Luke himself and therefore has no claim to go back to the historical Jesus.
V. The Special Case of the Centurion’s Servant: Matt 8:5-13 Parr: While I can understand why some might prefer a judgment of non liquet, I think it is more probable that behind the primitive tradition lies a historical event from the public ministry of Jesus.
To summarize: various criteria of historicity suggest that the historical Jesus performed certain actions during his public ministry that both he and some of his contemporaries though were miraculous healings of the sick or infirm.
No doubt people will interpret this according to their own world view. Believers would at least be open to the idea that Jesus actually have performed miracles of healings in these cases while non-believers might think in terms of psychosomatic illnesses susceptible to influences as hypnosis, the impact of a strong charismatic personality or autosuggestion.
Chapter 22: Raising the Dead
For many critics the automatic response to the Gospel stories of Jesus’ raising the dead is to attribute all of them to the symbolic imagination of the early church. While this position is perfectly understandable, one may question whether it takes into consideration three important points. 1) What a person at any given time in history considers possible or probable is affected by the prevailing culture. Hence it takes a leap of imagination for the sophisticated modern American to understand that large segments of the Ancient Mediterranean world would have considered it at least possible or plausible that a great holy man or god-like figure might raise the dead to life. Yet such was the case, e.g Pliny the Elder, Apuleius, Lucian (in a mocking vein), Philostratus and the Old Testament. 2) Although the stories of Jesus’ raising the dead are relatively rare, they are spread oveer a number of different literary sources. The criterion of multiple attestation of sources and forms is therefore adequately met. 3) What we are asking is not whether Jesus worked miracles through the power of God. Rather, what we are asking as we apply the criteria of multiple attestation as well as other criteria is whether some of the Gospel miracle stories are not simply creations of the early church but actually go back to various events in the life of Jesus, however those events be evaluated and however much they may have been interpreted by later Christian tradition. The agnostic, and perhaps even some believers, might explain such events in the light of the poor state of medial knowledge at the time. Comas or other types of ‘suspended animation’ could easily be mistaken for death. It could also be seen as healing a person close to death, or even as a staged event. Whatever the explanation, all that a historical investigation like ours can hope to ask (and perhaps decide) is whether a particular story of Jesus’ raising a person from the dead is purely a creation of the early church or whether it goes back to some event—whatever that event may have been—in the public ministry of Jesus. If the story does go back in some way to Jesus’ ministry, then the possibility arises that a belief that Jesus raised the dead already existed among his disciples during his lifetime.
The Marcan Tradition: The Raising of the Daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:21-43 // Matt 9:18-26 // Luke 8:40-56): None of the considerations we examined establishes by itself that the Jairus story goes back to Jesus. Yet the convergence of all the considerations in one miracle story—its lengthy tradition history, the unusual mentioning of the petitioner’s name and his status as a synagogue ruler, the indications of a Semitic substratum and especially the striking talitha koum, the absence of any christological title or affirmation, and the elements of embarrassment and discontinuity—incline me to the view that the Jairus story does reflect and stem from some event in Jesus’ public ministry. In other words, the story is not a invention of the early church pure and simple, however much it may have been expanded and reinterpreted by Christian faith. But if we ask what event lies behind this we reach the limits of what is knowable and pure speculation takes over.
The Lucan Tradition: The Raising of the Son of the Widow of Nain (Luke 1:11-17): I am less confident here than I was with the Jairus story, but I incline (with some hesitation) to the view that the story goes back to some incident involving Jesus at Nain during his public ministry.
The Johannine Tradition: The Raising of Lazasrus (John 11:1-45): The upshot of my lengthy disquisition is that the Fourth Gospel’s story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is not a pure creation of John the Evangelist but rather goes back to a miracle story circulating in the Johannine tradition before the Gospel was written. At the same time one must be cautious about making historical claims; the tradition passed through many decades and many modifications before it came to the Evangelist. However, there is no indication in the tradition histories suggested by most present day scholars that the story of Lazarus ever existed as a story of healing rather than a story of restoring the dead to life. I think that John 11:1-45 goes back ultimately to some event involving Lazarus, a disciple of Jesus, and that this event was believed by Jesus’ disciples even during his lifetime to be a miracle of raising the dead.
V. The Q Tradition: Jesus Affirms that the Dead are Raised (Matt 11:5 // Luke 7:22):
This Q saying has great importance for each kind of miracle it lists. Because of this logion, not only do we have various narratives from different sources attesting to these various kinds of miracles, we also have a saying of Jesus attested to them, a saying taken from a basically non-narrative source, the Q document. Thus for these categories of miracles, which includes the raising of the dead, we have not only multiple attestation of sources, but multiple attestation of forms as well.
Some critics try to remove the embarrassing evidence by maintaining that Jesus originally meant the words metaphorically. But it strains the imagination to suppose that, with all these miracle stories in circulation in the first Christian generation, the Q list would ever have been understood in a purely metaphorical sense. I suspect that behind this whole debate o Matt 11:5 par lies a deeper problem: the perennial desire to make Jesus seem “reasonable” or “rational” to a Post-Enlightenment modern man, who looks suspiciously like a professor in a Religious Studies Department as some American university. Perhaps the attempt to see Jesus simply as a Cynic-Stoic philosopher or as an early type of Jewish rabbi active among the common people is the present day sophisticated version of the Enlightenment’s quest for the reasonable, rational Jesus, the teacher of morality created by Thomas Jefferson’s scissors.
Unless we wish to throw the criteria of historicity overboard in favor of a protean Jesus who always confirms the religious predilections of every individual, the criteria impose on us the picture of a 1st century Palestinian Jew who performed startling actions that both he and at least some of his audience judged to be miraculous deeds of power.
Chapter 23: The So-Called Nature Miracles
The term “nature” miracle faces several serious objections, one of which is that it lacks a common form beyond the basic grid of a miracle story. I propose, rather, to use four categories: 1) gift miracle, eg. the wine at Cana and the feeding of the multitude. 2) Epiphany miracle: Jesus walking on water. 3) Rescue miracle: stilling the storm. 4) Curse miracle: the cursing of the fig tree.
Matthew 17:24-27: The Story of the Temple Tax: This is not, by form-critical standards, a miracle story. It is probably best classified as a pronouncement story. But this story has no claim to go back to the time of Jesus.
Mark 11:12-14, 20-21 // Matthew 21:18-20: The Cursing of the Fruitless Fig tree: In this case there is a fairly firm judgment: in all likelihood Mark 11:12-14: 20-21 does not go back to the historical Jesus. It is the creation of an early Christian author.
Luke 5:1-11 //John 21:1-14 [+ 15-19]: The Miraculous Catch of Fish: This story does not go back to a startling action of the historical Jesus that his disciples or audience interpreted as a miracle during the public ministry.
Mark 6:45-52 // Matthew 14:22-33 // John 6:16-21: The Walking on the Water: The two independent sources for the walking on the water are Mark and John. This automatically pushes the origin of the story back at least into the first Christian generation. I am well aware that some critics will think this exploration of the historicity of the walking on the water is a waste of time. Their judgment is made, however, not on strictly historical grounds, but on the basis of a philosophical or theological a priori, a version of Bultmann’s incantation that modern man cannot believe in miracles. Wee have already seen how that claim has been empirically falsified by a Gallup poll. Any claims for or against historicity must proceed not by invoking a philosophical bias, but by using the same criteria of historicity by which the rest of the Jesus’ material is judged. At the end of the examination, though, I think that the decision must go against historicity, despite multiple attestation of sources.
Mark 4:35-41 // Matthew 8:23-27 // Luke 8:22-25: The Stilling of the Storm: The more probable opinion, though not an absolutely certain one, is that the stilling of the storm is a product of early Christian theology.
John 2:1-11: The Changing of the Water into Wine at Cana: When one adds these historical difficulties to the massive amount of Johannine literary and theological traits permeating the whole story, it is difficult to identify any ‘historical kernel’ or core event that might have claim to go back to the historical Jesus. I prefer the view that the story is a creation of the Evangelist himself, using a number of traditional themes.
Mark 6:32-44 Parr: The Feeding of the Multitude: Despite our galling inability to be specific, I think the criteria of multiple attestation and coherence make it more likely than not that behind our Gospel stories of Jesus feeding the multitude lies some especially memorable communal meal of bread and fish, a meal with eschatological overtones celebrated by Jesus and his disciples with a large crowd by the Sea of Galilee. Whether something actually miraculous took place is not open to verification by the historian.
I should remind the reader once again of the goal of this inventory. The goal is not to decide whether certain events in the life of Jesus were truly miracles; that is a decision no historian can make on purely historical grounds. Rather, the goal is to decide whether some of the miracle stories in the gospels go back to and reflect (in however an imaginative way) events that actually occurred in Jesus’ lifetime, events that Jesus’ contemporaries considered miraculous.
In sum, the statement that Jesus acted as and was viewed as an exorcist and healer during his public ministry has as much historical corroboration as almost any other statement we can make about the Jesus of history. Indeed, as a global affirmation about Jesus and his ministry it has much better attestation than many other assertions made about Jesus which people often take for granted.