Lately it seems that a lot of conversations I have come around to the subject of miracles, and in particular Jesus' miracles, so I thought I'd write a short series of posts on the subject.
For a lot of my Christian friends, Jesus' miracles are one of the most important pieces of evidence of his divinity. His miracles are seen as showing the power of God expressed through him, and vindicate his claim to divinity as well as the reality of God. For them, without the miracles there is no Christianity.
Paradoxically, these same miracles are one of the biggest stumbling blocks for many of my atheist friends. One of the reasons they reject religion in general and Christianity in particular is that they find the idea of miracles impossible to believe.
As Crossan and Reed say, impossibility battles with uniqueness. Both parties accept that miracles are highly improbable and that it would take something extraordinarily special to make one happen. For the atheist, this will never happen. For the Christian, it occurred in the person of Jesus and this makes him different to the rest of us.
Personally, I tend to be agnostic about this debate. On the one hand, I accept John Dickson's argument that whether we believe in Jesus' miracles or not is a question of philosophy, not of evidence. I don't see any a priori reason why miracles should not occur or why God should not show himself to us in this way. On the other hand, since I am not a believer in Biblical inerrancy I wouldn't be shocked to discover that various miracles described in the Bible didn't actually occur.
For me all this is, however, beside the point. Even assuming that Jesus' miracles are actual historical events, I don't think either Jesus or his followers intended them to be evidence of God's power. In this introductory post I'm going to tell you why I don't think that, and then in later posts I'll tell you what I think they are instead.
So here's 3 reasons I don't think the miracles are evidence of God's power.
1. Neither Jesus nor his audience thought so.
In John 6, after the story of the feeding of the 5,000, the crowds catch up with Jesus again and a conversation ensues which includes the following.
30 So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
32 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
This is typical of the kind of elliptical conversations you find in John's gospel, but it highlights two things. Firstly, these people have seen him miraculously feed 5,000 people, but they don't regard this as a sign that he is the Messiah. Secondly, Jesus suggests that his presence among them is itself the sign, not any particular deed he does for them.
The passage at the start of Matthew 16 is much more direct.
The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. 2 He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ 3 and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. 4 A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.
In Matthew this question follows not one but two miraculous feedings, as well as a series of healings. Once again, Jesus' questioners did not take these events as "signs from heaven" and Jesus doesn't say "I just fed 9,000 people, what more do you want?" Instead he says that their need for a sign is evidence of their wickedness. There is much debate about the meaning of the "sign of Jonah" and it quite possibly refers to the Resurrection, which I will talk about another time. However, in this context, it seems to me to most logically refer to Jonah's mission to the people of Nineveh. He says that the Pharisees and Sadducees should be able to understand the "signs of the times" - that is they should be able to see what is going on around them and know the Kingdom of God is at hand. The sign of Jonah, then, could be simply a call to repentance like Jonah's - "Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!" (Jonah 3:4)
2. The miracles don't show a very powerful God.
If you look at the miracles Jesus performed, they are pretty minor as displays of power. He heals sick people. He brings food out of nowhere. He turns water into wine. He changes the local weather. He casts out a few demons. He catches some fish.
Of course apart from catching fish, you or I couldn't do any of these - I can't even catch fish. Yet if you put them beside the Old Testament miracles there is a remarkable difference. Yahweh creates the entire world and all the species in it. He frees the people of Israel from the hands of Pharoah. He defeats the Canaanites and the Philistines in battle. Yet Jesus is unable (or unwilling) to free the people from their Roman oppressors, or even to save himself from them. This is why he was so harshly mocked during the crucifixion, as recorded in Matthew 27.
39 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” 41 In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. 42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him."
3. God didn't need to be "proved".
The miracles as "proofs" of God's existence and power represent a particular post-Enlightenment apologetic strategy. The growth of rationalism and the idea that the universe is governed by immutable laws of nature meant that for many philosophers of the modern age, God was seen as unnecessary, or else only necessary to set the whole thing in motion at the beginning. Miracles, in this case, were seen as evidence that God not only existed, but actively intervened in his world.
In the first century, such an apologetic was totally unnecessary. No-one in the ancient world doubted that there was a God or gods, and that it or they were active in the world. The early Christians were not persecuted for belief but for unbelief, for a refusal to worship the ancient gods because of an exclusive fidelity to this one "Christ". The only debate about the gods was about their nature and identity, not about their existence or their power.
(The story continues here, here and here.)