Thinking about Miracle Stories

April 15, 2014 | 26 comments
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Should the stories of miracles that Jesus performed be considered historically accurate? Did he walk on water, or was there a conveniently placed sandbar that made his disciples think he was walking on water, or did Mark just make this story up?

Let me tell you how I approach this question.

(i) I think that all of the miracles described in the canon are within Jesus’ powers. I think it is physically possible that Jesus did walk on water, multiply bread and fish, etc. (This is a faith-based position regarding Jesus’ miraculous abilities.) This is an important point, and thus I make it first. It is one thing to dismiss a story because you don’t think Jesus could do that, and quite another thing to dismiss it for any other reason.

(ii) The historicity of any given story is ultimately unknowable (What do you want–a video of demons flying out of that poor guy?) from a historical/scientific–if not a faith-based–perspective, and therefore not a very interesting question to debate. My kids love to argue–this is what happens when a Sicilian whose first love was high school debate reproduces–and I confess that I encourage it. But what I do not permit are debates over matters of fact. You look up facts; you debate values and policies and conclusions. My kids have learned this refrain and will now correct each other: “I’m not going to argue about that; we’ll look it up when we get home. No debating matters of fact!” Thus I am not interested in debates over the historicity of miracles; these debates bore me. (The one exception to this is that I think it matters if the Resurrection was historical. But I’m still not interested in debating it, as I take it as a matter of faith.)

(iii) I think it is possible but unlikely that the NT miracle stories are all completely historically accurate. The reason I doubt this is that we have really good evidence that sometimes the gospel writers privileged theological concerns over historical ones. For example, in the Synoptics, the Last Supper is a Passover meal but in John, Jesus dies when the Passover lamb is killed. Someone–or several someones–has tweaked the timing to make a theological point. So I think 100% historical accuracy is a tough cause to defend. When it comes to any given miracle story, I think it is possible that the story may have been shaped to reflect the writer’s theological concerns, which means that some historical details may have been altered and, possibly, some may have been fabricated.

(iv) Expanding on point (iii), I think the question that is worthy of our time is to consider the theological concerns which permeate each miracle story. To take just one example: think about Jesus feeding the 5,000 in the wilderness (Mark 6:30-44). Here are several potential readings of that story:

1. There is a bunch of military imagery in that story. The men want Jesus to lead their military movement against Roman rule, but instead he feeds them.

2. This is mostly a set-up for the second feeding miracle, to which it should be compared. When they are compared–something Jesus later specifically requests–it becomes obvious that there is a lesson here about Jews, Gentiles, men, and women. (See here for more on this.)

3. This is a remix of the manna-in-the-wilderness story. The point is that Jesus is the new Moses.

4. This is a riff on 2 Kings 4:42-44, where Elisha also performs a miraculous feeding, but a much less impressive one. The point is that Jesus is like the prophets of old, but greater than the prophets of old.

5. The point is that Jesus is teaching the disciples. This is the rare miracle that the disciples participate in, and it is precipitated by their question, Jesus’ (seemingly impossible) command, and then Jesus making it possible for the disciples to actually fulfill that command. The point is clear, I hope: Jesus’ power makes it possible for his disciples to do seemingly-impossible things at his command when they rely on the combination of their own resources and his powers.

6. The miracle is a riff on Psalm 23 (sheep, green grass, feeding, etc.), showing Jesus to be the promised shepherd who will lead his people to safety.

7.  The miracle is meant to contrast with the previous story of Herod’s debauched banquet that ended in John’s death.

8. The miracle is a foreshadowing of the Last Supper (which uses the same four verbs in the same order to describe Jesus’ actions); we should compare the two.

9. Several OT passages develop the idea of the “messianic banquet” as a symbol of the peace and plenty that the Messiah will bring. This is a partial fulfillment of those promises.

10. There is good evidence that the crowd is not aware of the miracle. If this is the case, then the disciples (and the audience) are learning how miracles–even when one is the beneficiary of them!–can be easily overlooked.

There are, of course, more possible interpretations of this story.

When Mark tells us that the grass was green and that the people sat by 50s and that there were five loaves, those may well be historically accurate details. Or he might have completely made them up out of thin air in order to further the association between this miracle and related OT stories. I know it panics some people when I say that, but we must accept that ancient writing norms are not our norms. We would cry foul on a writer who embroidered details in order to make an allusion clearer, but this was not true in the first century. We must resist the urge to judge them by our standards.

I suspect that some of the dryness of our Sunday Schools comes from our fear of historicity questions: we suspect that there might be something not-entirely-historical going on, but we fear the implications of it. We worry that it means tossing the whole story out on its ear if we (reluctantly) determine that it isn’t completely historical. As if the only valuable kind of story is the historical kind–a tough tack to take when Jesus is a teller of parables.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. Refocusing our gaze away from historical questions and towards literary questions is not, believe me, a loss. It is a gain. Debating the historicity of a feeding miracle is as barren as the Judean wilderness. Considering its theological meaning–that is an inquiry that never stops multiplying good things.

 

 

26 Responses to Thinking about Miracle Stories

  1. Cameron N. on April 15, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    To reject scriptural miracles is to assert sufficient understanding of materiality and the universe–something noone can honestly begin to assert. We can’t even predict or explain the smallest events we observe in the universe around us. A miracle by definition has a ‘how’ explanation. One day we will understand all things, and the greatest miracle will remain ‘the wonders of His love’ forever.

    I personally enjoy non-SS explorations but would be disappointed if SS delved into historicity too much. I personally find the explorations fun, but essentially attempts to construct the past with such a remote view of it that it is essentially meaningless.

    Contemporary cosmology (for at least the last 120 years) is a complete joke. If we had not been conditioned to believe in Big Bang, redshift as distance, and all the make-believe band-aids like dark matter and dark energy, we would be amazed at our gullibility. There is a reason every month a new article appears about astronomers being stumped and shocked.

  2. ji on April 15, 2014 at 5:43 pm

    We must resist the urge to judge them by our standards.

    So true.

    I believe the writers wrote what they saw. If they embellished a little, that’s okay with me. But I cannot entirely dismiss the miracles as historically untrue and look at them only as literary exercises — we cannot dismiss them as truth and look at them only as teachings. If I take that approach, well, pretty soon the cross is figurative and the resurrection is a myth and so forth.

  3. theoldadam on April 15, 2014 at 6:10 pm

    I do think He did do those things.

    But even a bigger miracle is that He has made a believer out of me.

  4. Kevin Barney on April 15, 2014 at 7:23 pm

    Nice post, Julie.

  5. dk on April 15, 2014 at 8:18 pm

    I suppose for me, this is the value of the Book of Mormon as a second witness. The fact that we have another group of people performing the same miracles should be intriguing.

    And if we can’t accept those either as historical (since of course there are arguments against those as well) then we just might be interested in the miracles of the occasional great high priest. Iohanni Wolfgramm (spelling?) is an example of someone documented to have raised two people from the dead. One was his own daughter, whom if I recall was hit by a car and killed (with a serious crushing of the skull). And yet he raised her.

    Unfortunately miracle working makes even a people that claims to be God’s a little uncomfortable…as noted by the fact that despite his renowned faith and healing gift, he was eventually asked to stop performing miracles on people outside his stake boundaries, because of course he wasn’t operating under someone’s “keys”. Humble man that he is, he submitted. What a tragedy.

    I’m reminded in looking at this example, of something along the lines of God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. It is we who change, and e level of faith we are willing to develop and accept that goes up and down.

    That being said, I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m arguing with you. I thought it was a very insightful post and the questions you ask are indeed good questions.

  6. Old Man on April 16, 2014 at 12:26 am

    Miracles abound in my life. But many LDS people have become as deistic as Thomas Jefferson regarding miracles.

  7. Stirling on April 16, 2014 at 4:23 am

    Old Man, you’re right. Count me as one of those many: active in the church but certainly at least as “deistic as Thomas Jefferson regarding miracles.”

  8. Steve Smith on April 16, 2014 at 9:35 am

    Yes, mark me down as “deistic as Thomas Jefferson regarding miracles” as well. I think that belief in miracles is fine, as long as such belief does not interfere with people’s freedom to engage in true scientific and historical inquiry. Hence I take issue with people who believe so strongly that a flood covered the entire earth some 5,000-6,000 years ago that they think it sin to research anything in archaeology, geology, or geography that might challenge such a notion.

  9. Martin James on April 16, 2014 at 10:06 am

    Julie,

    “But what I do not permit are debates over matters of fact.”

    This is very interesting because the alternative point of view is that facts are the only thing worth debating. (There being no disputing matters of taste and all that.)

    Given that the half-life of facts is pretty short in many fields, “looking things up” can be problematic.

    My view of miracles is that if you accept
    “(i) I think that all of the miracles described in the canon are within Jesus’ powers”

    then you are pretty much done. If Jesus can do miracles then he can do pretty much anything and so we can conclude pretty much anything. We can make the text and life mean whatever we want it to.

    How could one incorrectly interpret a miracle? I just don’t think you can.

  10. Aloysius Miller (@aloysiusmiller) on April 16, 2014 at 10:08 am

    Dryness happens when we focus on the literality and historicity instead of the spiritual and symbolic elements that we are to liken to ourselves. I believe the miracles but the historical miracle isn’t the point.

  11. Martin James on April 16, 2014 at 10:10 am

    Julie,

    I really, truly believe that we can’t tell when Jesus or the scriptures are being ironic.

  12. Martin James on April 16, 2014 at 10:16 am

    Wouldn’t an ironic commandment to be sober-minded be like the best joke of all time?

  13. Cheryl McGuire on April 16, 2014 at 10:29 am

    Thank you Julie. I enjoy your thoughtful and well-reasoned posts.

  14. stephenchardy on April 16, 2014 at 11:48 am

    Julie: Thank you so much for this. I think about miracles in the scriptures all of time, because I don’t know exactly how we are supposed to understand them.

    I despair when we are asked or expected to believe them literally because they do not describe my life. When confronted with idea of walking on water, or turning a river from its course, or flooding the entire earth, or turning rivers into flowing blood, or returning life to someone who has died, or turning water to wine, I find myself thinking that these stories are outside of my experience.

    I can’t say that they didn’t happen, because I believe that God can work miracles. It is just that I don’t understand why we learn about them when most of us don’t have similar experiences.

    Why were such stories written?

    Maybe so that we can say: “Wow, I will repent, I will live better. I will believe, because Jesus walked on water.” If this is the purpose, then what am I to make of other similar miracles written in other traditions? Do I believe those as well? (“We believe all things…”)

    Maybe so that we will seek out similar experiences. Ought I try to walk on water? Should I be praying for opportunites to witness and participate in similar miracles?

    As you so nicely put it: It is not helpful to argue about the literal truthfulness of such stories. Doing so is as “barren as the Judean wilderness.” I will try to remember that line. I liked it.

    I try to understand what the “meaning” of the story was to those at that time, and to us today. I try to work-out the symbolic meaning of events, and I don’t allow myself to get worked up about whether such stories are realistic or historical. I’ll admit that I find that this approach makes it so that I find profound truths outside the scriptures. In books such as Jane Eyre, where I also don’t labor over the historicity of the events, I enjoy the exploration of loyalty, work, love, compassion, wandering, guilt, hatred, which this and any great work of literature reveals.

    This means that I find alot of truth in The Lord of the Rings, or even Parks and Recreation.

    I keep a special spot for the scriptures of course.

    But I stopped some time ago worrying about the literal historical truth of bible stories, and of course the BoM stories, and the Temple Endowment, etc. I look for meaning. I resist looking at such stories as I would, say, a biography of Thomas Jefferson.

    I have never learned how to teach this approach in Sunday School or in church talks. I always worry that I will seem to be empty of faith, or that I am godlessly humanistic. If I had been teaching gospel doctrine this year, I would not have mentioned, and would have avoided any discussion of, Noah’s age. I would not have discussed whether the flood was an actual event. I would have not said: “I doubt that Noah lived that long” (although I do doubt it), or “I don’t think that the flood was a universal historical event.” (although I don’t believe it was.) Rather I would have talked about the echoes of baptism, of renewal, or something like that.

    I must say, however, that I have not learned how to give voice to my emphasis away from historical fact, and towards the discussion of values and moral truths. I worry that I will provoke the kind of debates that do not build faith and can cause resentment among ward members.

    In other words, it is not my “testimony” Noah wasn’t over 900 years old. It is just that it isn’t my “testimony” that he was. And I don’t see any benefit except in symbolic ways for such a factoid to be useful to me today. Maybe it helps me understand that God may preserve us in some way so that we can accomplish our purpose.

  15. Martin James on April 16, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    Stephenchardy,

    Great comments. For you, what is the “meaning” of the literalness of God’s person and powers? The discomfort of miracles is a symptom of the discomfort with how God exists in the world we experience. Most of us don’t experience God as an independent actor in the physical world (some might say everything we experience is God and some may make more attribution of specific things to God but few of us move mountains with faith or prayer.)

    Here is a simple example. Does God look like Jesus? In other words, does God have a body and a face and everyone who sees him would say, “Yep, looks like Jesus to me.”

    When I read your discussion of meaning and morals and ” loyalty, work, love, compassion, wandering, guilt, hatred” I find it hard to think that there is much at stake according to this line of thought in questions of the nature of God’s body. But somehow, expressing that not much is at stake for you in the literalness of the scriptural stories of miracles matters in your relationship to other members with more sensitivity to literalness.

    In your experience, does God interact with you more through values and meaning than in more material ways?

  16. Josh Smith on April 16, 2014 at 6:03 pm

    What about author bias?

    I write for a living (nothing too sexy, just legal briefs). At one point in my life I took authors for granted. I guess I just read the words on the page and didn’t think too much about who put them there. But now that I’ve been writing for awhile, the first thing I consider is the author. As far as I know as long as written word has existed, words have never hit a page without someone making choices about which words to lay down. Somebody put the words there, one by one.

    Was the author a witness, or is this hearsay? Do I trust the author’s motives? If the author includes dialog, is it credible? Do I believe the author’s characters’ motives? Who is this author’s audience?

    Maybe the most interesting part about a miracle story is the author.

  17. Erik on April 16, 2014 at 7:37 pm

    Thanks for a wonderful post on miracle stories in the New Testament. This agrees with me completely where I’m at in my journey of learning, being only generally aware of some of the historical “problems” with the Gospels and that they were likely written down decades after the events, disagree among themselves on details of the nativity story, the Passion, etc. I think that given New Testament scholarship, but also given the Book of Mormon and modern day miracles, it is a good thing to maintain at least some level of agnosticism concerning whether any particular miracle in the New Testament actually happened quite as described, and yet believe that generally speaking those miracles did take place, as modern scripture confirms.

    I do find it a very valid discussion to compare our (collective and individual) experiences with those of scripture. If we do not experience similar miracles today, why is that? Is it because the miracles of the past didn’t actually happen, or because we do not have enough faith – or lack power in the Priesthood or what have you? I certainly think that science makes it necessary for us to modify some of the traditional assumptions many of us in the Church have had about God’s interactions with this world. For example, the fact of evolution and the complete lack of plausibility for a worldwide flood leads us to consider a God who may be less interventionist in creation and history than some of the more interventionist-heavy scriptures (or our interpretations of them) might lead us to believe. And we may even find support for that stance in scriptures that speak of God working more subtly in the world, through the light of Christ, creation being a more gentle “let the earth bring forth” than an interventionist act, etc.

    At the same time, believing in the miracles of Christ – his Atonement and resurrection first and foremost, but also the lesser miracles of healings and casting out devils – I do think we need to consider the level of our faith in relationship to the miracles we do or do not experience (consider Moroni 7:37). A number of people seem to experience miracles more commonly on their missions – and I believe this is partly because of the mantle, but more so because of the focus on serving others and being instruments in the hands of God to do good for others. People who have had near-death experiences also seem to experience the supernatural more often than the average person. Many/most(?) of us have either experienced something supernatural/miraculous or know of people who have. And if we listen carefully Apostles sometimes give us that more special witness of Jesus Christ as well. Of course there’s a number of factors to consider – sign-seeking, emotionalism, deceptions (spiritual as well as temporal)… apart from D&C 93:1 and a few other things I’m not so sure that we should actively seek for miracles other than to use our gifts and the Priesthood to bless others with and to serve the Lord. Turning the spiritual into a self-help and self-enlightenment journey may or may not be right in context.

    That said, I think we can all appreciate digging deeper into the theological meanings of the New Testament miracles, especially in the way that they were written to bear testimony of Jesus Christ. His Atonement was the greatest miracle of all. Exercising our faith in and enjoying the fruits of that Atonement may be the most important miracle that we can experience.

  18. Clark Goble on April 16, 2014 at 9:49 pm

    I think one can be open to not all accounts being accurate while simultaneously accepting many real miracles and thinking the burden of proof is on those attempting to say any particular miracle didn’t happen. Also there’s a bit too much “either/or” going on. Say some of Jesus’ casting out devils turned out not to be about possession but healing some mental illness but people at the time didn’t understand brains the way we do. It’s still a miracle if it happened even if details might be wrong. Likewise if the flood was widespread but not global it doesn’t make Noah’s rescue any less miraculous in my view.

    The more interesting question is less how we judge incomplete accounts or more recent accounts where the miracles are exaggerated (say the Mormon crickets and the gulls). Rather it seems to me many individuals who are careful in what they say, not prone to exaggeration, and who are naturally skeptical have often had profound miracles in their lives. It’s constantly surprising to me when people say there were more spiritual gifts or miracles in the 19th century than today because if anything I find the opposite.

  19. Kevin Barney on April 17, 2014 at 9:07 am

    Here are some old thoughts I had about miracles from six years ago:

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2008/07/11/miracles/

  20. stephenchardy on April 17, 2014 at 9:11 am

    Martin James: When I think of Jesus and God I immediately think of a person. I have been immersed in Mormon teachings throughout my life, and it is natural for me to think of God and Jesus in this way. Even here I have some discomfort because it appears, based on “our” artwork, that we believe that God has white skin. All of our depictions of Him are that way. You could say that all depictions of him show him to be glorifed; and that his whiteness is only apparent; that he is radiant, and thus no actual color can be perceived. However, His features always appear European to me. Then it gets me to thinking about race and whether the white race is somehow the race (skin-tone and features) that happens to be most close to God’s, and thus all of the other races are some form of mutation from that ideal. Of course science would teach a different story: the first humans were African, and it is the caucasions who are the “mutants.” In the end, I believe in a God with “body, parts, and passions.” Although tremendous symbolism is involved here as well and is much more important to me that the “facts.”

    Does God interact with me in material ways? Of course he does. I would use one of my favorite General Authority quotes for this. Spencer W. Kimball: “God does notice us, and he watches over us. But it is usually through another person that he meets our needs.” This quote, for me, is the best summation of what Mormonism is. Each of us serving and helping each-other, through God’s inspiration.

  21. stephenchardy on April 17, 2014 at 9:25 am

    Consider the story of turning water into wine. In today’s world, I might experience something like this: My daughter is getting married. At the reception, (in the Stake Center) we run low on punch. This is embarrassing to me and my family, and possibly my daughter whose day will be reduced by my lack of prepardness. In my world, I would not think of praying that some tap water would be turned into punch. I wouldn’t think to ask my Bishop to perform this kind of miracle for me. Is this lack of faith on my part? Would a faithful Mormon expect/demand such a thing? There it is, right in the scriptures. Howver, that is not the world that I experience.

    In my world my Home Teachers would suddenly show up and tell me that they just bought seven cases of fruit punch at Costco in order to replenish their year’s supply in the basement. It happens to be in the trunk of their car out in the parking lot. It would be served. Our guests would prefer it over the brand that I bought. I would cry. My daughter’s day would be saved. President Kimball’s quote(above)would be fulfilled.

  22. stephenchardy on April 17, 2014 at 9:35 am

    I am not sure that it what I am trying to say is clear. The lessons learn from the scripture story of the water-to-wine miracle is not this: “God can turn water into wine in an instant” Isn’t that great and faith-promoting.” That is not what I learn, and certainly is not the lesson I choose to apply in my life. I would take other lessons from it, and the literalness of the story becomes meaningless to me. I learn from the story whether it is literal, made-up, embellished, or tweaked. Its historial reality is not worth debating, or even thinking about. (Remember Julie’s “barren wasteland” abaove.)

    Therefore, I wouldn’t think of that story during my daughter’s reception crisis. The lessons I learn from it are not related to the story’s literalness.

  23. stephenchardy on April 17, 2014 at 9:38 am

    Please excuse my typos. I am writing this at a computer that does not work well with T&S. I can’t review or read what I type. I ought to wait until tonight to post, but I am sure that by then I will be on to other things.

  24. Alison Moore Smith on April 17, 2014 at 11:59 am

    Julie, don’t have time to discuss much, but wanted to say that this was a great post and the comments, too, have been insightful.

  25. Julie M. Smith on April 17, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    Several of the comments here remind me of this article:

    http://publications.maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1471&index=4

    Basic idea: God speaks to people not only in languages that they understand, but using culturally-appropriate and -specific methods of spiritual manifestation. I think this has bearing on, especially, comment #21, in terms of one way to think about miracles ancient and modern.

  26. Keith on April 22, 2014 at 3:56 am

    Interesting and helpful post.

    I think it makes a great difference to the last paragraph if you don’t state what you do in #(i). Eliminating that changes it entirely–and mostly negatively, I think. So we rightly hesitate at the possibility of the historical reality not being true. We see things too easily drifting to ‘It’s a miracle if it’s a miracle for you.” But I need a resurrection (and by extension to at least some aspects of the miracle stories) that is true in space and time, with a real person and a real body. A mythology or meaning of the resurrection without that meaning being real/true in space and time won’t due. And yet, as Kierkegaard and others point out, the resurrection isn’t solely a historical matter, not something encountered through history/science in the truthful, faithful way it must be take up.