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.