Miracles and the Book of Mormon - A Response

By Peter Kirby
(Spelling as per original)

In your article "The Miracles of Jesus," you argue that the miracle stories are entirely the invention of the post-Easter church. Correct me if I am mistaken.

To begin, I disagree strongly with this assessment:

"Christianity split into denominations and secs very quickly and the real, historical Jesus is forever lost to us."

I must concur with E.P. Sanders, who writes:

"The dominant view today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of first-century Judaism." (_Jesus and Judaism_, p. 2)

This is echoed by James Charlesworth:

"In fact, it is time for New Testament scholars to recognize that behind the later editorial layers of the Gospels lie earlier historical traditions that clarify the distinctiveness of Jesus. These traditions allow us to know more about Jesus than any other first-century Jew, with the possible exceptions of Philo, Paul, and Josephus." (_Jesus Within Judaism_, p. 22)

One of the things "we can know pretty well" about Jesus is the fact that he worked feats deemed miracles by his contemporaries. John P. Meier confounds modern skeptics by arguing convincingly that measured by historical criteria, the miracle tradition was not invented by the early church. Instead, the stories about Jesus performing miracles go back to the historical Jesus himself. "If the miracle tradition from Jesus' public ministry were to be rejected in toto as unhistorical, so should every other Gospel tradition about him." (_A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus_, vol. 2, p. 630)

The single most important criterion in the investigation of Jesus' miracles is the criterion of multiple attestation of sources and forms. Mark apparently inherited miracle stories from many different streams of first generation Christian tradition, and they make up a good third of the entire Gospel. Even Q contains a miracle story, the healing of the centurion's servant (Mt 8:5-13 par.), and various sayings also testify to Q's knowledge of his miracles (e.g., Mt 11:5-6 par.). The special traditions of both Matthew (17:27, 14:28-31) and Luke (5:1-11, 7:11-17, 8:2-3, 13:10-7, 14:1-6, 17:11-19, 4:29-30) likewise know of miracles performed by Jesus during his public ministry. John's miracle tradition is an important independent witness, and the close parallels to the Synoptics show that the fourth evangelist has not created them out of the whole cloth. Finally, Josephus records that "he was a doer of startling deeds;" while not typically Christian, paradoxa erga is also used by Josephus of, e.g., Elijah. "Every Gospel source (Mark, Q, M, L, and John), every evangelist in his redactional summaries, and Josephus to boot affirm the miracle-working activity of Jesus...If the multiple attestion of sources and forms does not produce reliable results here, it should be dropped as a criterion of historicity. For hardly any type of Gospel material enjoys greater multiple attestation than do Jesus' miracles." (ibid., pp. 619-622)

"The multiple attestation of both sources and forms, of both narratives and sayings, naturally leads to the next criterion: coherence...What is remarkable in all this is how deeds and sayings cut across different sources and form-critical categories to creat a meaningful whole. This neat, elegant, and unforced 'fit' of the deeds and sayings of Jesus, coming from many different sources, argues eloquently for a basic historical fact: Jesus did perform deeds that he and some of his contemporaries considered miracles...The argument from coherence may also be approached from another angle as well, namely, the success of Jesus in gaining large numbers of followers. All Four Gospels as well as Josephus speak of the large following that Jesus attracted, and all Four Gospels agree with Josephus in identifying the powerful combination of miracles and teachings as the cause of the attraction." (ibid., pp. 622-623)

Other criteria are of limited value. An argument from discontinuity can be made from fact that the closeness of the dates of the written documents (Q, Mark, etc.) to the alleged miracles of Jesus' life is almost unparalleled for the period. For example, the miracles stories around Apollonius of Tyana, Honi the Circle-Drawer, and Hanina ben-Dosa were written down centuries later. While a few Greco-Roman writers do stand fairly close to at least some of the supposedly miraculous events they narrate (e.g., Josephus), none of their works focus on any one miracle-worker for an extensive narrative of his miracle-working activity. Moreover, the overall configuration, pattern, or Gestalt of Jesus as popular preacher and teller of parables, plus authoratative interpreter of the Law and teacher of morality, plus proclaimer and realizer of the eschatological kingdom of God, plus miracle-worker actualizing his own proclamation has no adequate parallel in either the pagan or the Jewish literature of the time. The criterion of embarrassment also applies. The Beelzebul dispute (Mk 3:20-30, Mt 12:22-32 par.) indicate that at times Jesus' exorcisms exposed him to the charge of being in league with the devil, a charge he proceeds to rebut with various arguments. It seems unlikely that the church would have gone out of its way to create such a story, which places Jesus, to say the least, in an ambiguous light. (ibid., pp. 624-625)

Thus, the historical Jesus was reputed to work miracles during his lifetime. The more difficult question is the historicity (i.e., whether they go back to the ministry of Jesus) of the individual miracle stories in the Gospels.

To take a single example, you argue that story of the feeding of the 5000 is the invention of the early church because of the similarities to 2Kgs 4:42-44.

"At the same time, one must observe that there are many differences between the Elisha and the Gospel feeding miracles. (1) There is no precise geographical or temporal setting to the Elisha story, unlike the Gospel scenes (e.g., by the See of Galilee, near Passover, in the later afternoon). (2) In 2Kgs 4:42-44, we hear nothing of a crowd following the prophet. (3) Indeed, who exactly the hundred people are and where they have come from is unclear in this very concise story. (4) In any event, the Elisha story there is no indication that these people are suffering from great hunger, lack food, or are unable to get food by ordinary means. (5) The miracle story in 2 Kings really begins with the surprising, peremptory command of Elisha, with no preparation, background, or motivation inthe narrative. In contrast, a discussion between Jesus and his disciples 'sets up' the problem of the people's lack of food before any concrete food appears on the scene. (6) In the Gospels, the disciples are the ones who supply or locate the little food available, and they do so only after the story is under way. (7) Jesus first commands the crowd to recline on the grass, then he performs the ritual observed by the head of a Jewish house-hold for beginning a formal meal; all this is lacking in the Elisha story - as are, of course, the fish. In particular, the central actions of Jesus that some commentators see as allusions to the Last Supper and the Christian eucharist have no parallels whatever in the Elisha story. (8) The questions and objections of Jesus' disciples precede his actual order, which introduces the miracle proper. (9) While we are tersely informed that there were leftorvers from Elisha's meal, these are not counted, as opposed to the twelve or seven baskets of bread left over in the Gospel narratives. (10) The basic structure of the short Elisha story is that of prophecy-and-fulfillment; not so the Gospel story.

"One might point out other parallels that some versions of the Gospel story have with the Elisha story, but such parallels are not necessarily part of the most primitive form of the Gospel miracle of feeding. For example, the detail that the bread is barley (krithinos) bread is found only in John's version (6:9,13) of the Gospel story; the same Greek adjective krithinos accurs in the LXX translation of the Elisha story. While this mention of barley might be a remnant of a primitive form of the Gospel story preserved in John (it would be a mistake to presume that John's version is in every aspect lat and secondary), it is also possible that John's tradition recognized and wished to highlight the similarities between Elisha's and Jesus' miracles. There is also another possible explanation of why John's tradition might have added the specification of barley loaves. John alone mentions that the miracle story takes place near Passover, and Passover is the time of the barley harvest. Hence John's precision that the bread was barley might simply be his way of emphasizing his beloved Passover symbolism. In shory, not every parallel we can detect between the present Gospel versions of Jesus' feeding of the multitude and the Elisha story necessarily go back to the primitive form of the Gospel story. While the Elisha story does share a number of basic elements with the primitive Gospel story, there is much in the Gospel miracle not found in and not derivable from 2Kgs 4:42-44." (ibid., pp. 960-961)

Meier cites two criteria in favor of the historicity of this story:

"(1) When compared to most Gospel miracle stories, the feeding of the multitude is supported by an unusually strong atttestation of multiple sources. It is not only attested independently in both Mark and John, it is also attested by two variant forms of the tradition lying behind Mark's Gospel. This suggests a long and complicated tradition history reaching back to the early days of the first Christian generation. Prior to Mark's Gospel there seems to have been two cycles of traditions about Jesus' ministry in Galilee, each one beginning with one version of the feeding miracle (Mk 6:32-44 and Mk 8:1-10). Before these cycles were created, the two versions of the feeding would have circulated as independent units, the first version attracting to itself the story of Jesus' walking on the water (a development also witnessed in John 6), while the second version did not receive such an elaboration. Behind all three versions of the miracle story would have stood some primitive form.

"(2) Besides this multiple attestation of sources, we should also consider another criterion, one that does not always arise in the consideration of miracle stories: the criterion of coherence. In both parables and other sayings, Jesus regularly spoke of the coming kingdom of God under the image of a banquet. The intriguing thing here is that this emphasis on a banquet or a festive meal as an image of the kingdom was not simply a matter of words Jesus spke; banquets and festive meals played an important part in Jesus' actions as well. Quite apart from the feeding miracle, Jesus is attested in both Gospel sayings and non-miraculous Gospel stories to have been noteworthy for his presence at festive meals and banquets, a remarkably non-ascetic habit considered scandalous by some (Mk 2:15-17 parr. cf. Lk 15:1-2; 19:1-10; Mt 11:18-19 // Lk 7:33-34). His offer of table fellowship to all, including social and religious 'lowlifes' like toll collectors and 'sinners,' was meant to foreshadow the final eschatological banquet and to give a foretaste of that banquet even during his public ministry (cf. Mt 8:11-12 // Lk 13:28-29; Mk 14:25 parr.)." (ibid., pp. 965-966)

He concludes: "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." (ibid., p. 966)

For further information, the second volume of Meier's trilogy contains a detailed analysis of the historicity of each and every miracle story in the Gospels.


My reply to this response


I have put my responses in bold

In your article "The Miracles of Jesus," you argue that the miracle stories are entirely the invention of the post-Easter church. Correct me if I am mistaken.

To begin, I disagree strongly with this assessment:

"Christianity split into denominations and sects very quickly and the real, historical Jesus is forever lost to us."

I must concur with E.P. Sanders, who writes:

"The dominant view today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of first-century Judaism." (_Jesus and Judaism_, p. 2)

I have enormous respect for Professor Sanders. What he says can be known pretty well about Jesus differs greatly from traditional Christianity. He does not include information about when Jesus was born or died as being something we can know. Many of the things that he says we can know about Jesus are certainly true. He says that Jesus would have fasted, as all Jews did and kept the Sabbath, as all Jews did. Sanders says that we can be pretty sure that Jesus would have visted synagugues and might have been singled out and asked if he had something to say. He says that Jesus's followers expected to be supported by others and "This expectation was probably derived from their practice while following Jesus during his lifetime."

He also says that Jesus granted that some other Jews of his day could perform miracles like his own. It seems everybody was a miracle worker in those days.

This is echoed by James Charlesworth:

"In fact, it is time for New Testament scholars to recognize that behind the later editorial layers of the Gospels lie earlier historical traditions that clarify the distinctiveness of Jesus. These traditions allow us to know more about Jesus than any other first-century Jew, with the possible exceptions of Philo, Paul, and Josephus." (_Jesus Within Judaism_, p. 22)

Why possible exceptions? We know a great deal about Philo, Paul and Josephus. All wrote extensively about themselves - unlike Jesus.

One of the things "we can know pretty well" about Jesus is the fact that he worked feats deemed miracles by his contemporaries. John P. Meier confounds modern skeptics by arguing convincingly that measured by historical criteria, the miracle tradition was not invented by the early church. Instead, the stories about Jesus performing miracles go back to the historical Jesus himself. "If the miracle tradition from Jesus' public ministry were to be rejected in toto as unhistorical, so should every other Gospel tradition about him." (_A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus_, vol. 2, p. 630)

We can guess that Jesus's contemporaries thought that he worked miracles but we dont know that. The only person we know that lived while Jesus was alive and wrote about him was Paul and he never mentions any miracles about Jesus.

The single most important criterion in the investigation of Jesus' miracles is the criterion of multiple attestation of sources and forms. Mark apparently inherited miracle stories from many different streams of first generation Christian tradition, and they make up a good third of the entire Gospel. Even Q contains a miracle story, the healing of the centurion's servant (Mt 8:5-13 par.), and various sayings also testify to Q's knowledge of his miracles (e.g., Mt 11:5-6 par.). The special traditions of both Matthew (17:27, 14:28-31) and Luke (5:1-11, 7:11-17, 8:2-3, 13:10-7, 14:1-6, 17:11-19, 4:29-30) likewise know of miracles performed by Jesus during his public ministry. John's miracle tradition is an important independent witness, and the close parallels to the Synoptics show that the fourth evangelist has not created them out of the whole cloth. Finally, Josephus records that "he was a doer of startling deeds;" while not typically Christian, paradoxa erga is also used by Josephus of, e.g., Elijah. "Every Gospel source (Mark, Q, M, L, and John), every evangelist in his redactional summaries, and Josephus to boot affirm the miracle-working activity of Jesus...If the multiple attestion of sources and forms does not produce reliable results here, it should be dropped as a criterion of historicity. For hardly any type of Gospel material enjoys greater multiple attestation than do Jesus' miracles." (ibid., pp. 619-622)

Only one miracle is common to all four Gospels. So much for multiple attestation. Josephus's words about Jesus doing startling deeds ( an obvious synonym for miracles?) seem a Christian interpolation. He certainly never details any of them.

"The multiple attestation of both sources and forms, of both narratives and sayings, naturally leads to the next criterion: coherence...What is remarkable in all this is how deeds and sayings cut across different sources and form-critical categories to creat a meaningful whole. This neat, elegant, and unforced 'fit' of the deeds and sayings of Jesus, coming from many different sources, argues eloquently for a basic historical fact: Jesus did perform deeds that he and some of his contemporaries considered miracles...The argument from coherence may also be approached from another angle as well, namely, the success of Jesus in gaining large numbers of followers. All Four Gospels as well as Josephus speak of the large following that Jesus attracted, and all Four Gospels agree with Josephus in identifying the powerful combination of miracles and teachings as the cause of the attraction." (ibid., pp. 622-623)

Josephus's words were tampered with by Christians. Lots of people were regarded as miracle workers in those days - including the Emperor Vespasian. The eminent historian Tacitus records hearing about Vespasian's miracles from first hand eye witnesses. As you had to be a miracle worker to be taken seriously , it can be supposed that there was great pressure to have suitable miracle stories about Jesus.

If Jesus had such a large following, why does Acts say that there were only 120 believers after 3 years of Jesus's preaching?

Other criteria are of limited value. An argument from discontinuity can be made from fact that the closeness of the dates of the written documents (Q, Mark, etc.) to the alleged miracles of Jesus' life is almost unparalleled for the period. For example, the miracles stories around Apollonius of Tyana, Honi the Circle-Drawer, and Hanina ben-Dosa were written down centuries later. While a few Greco-Roman writers do stand fairly close to at least some of the supposedly miraculous events they narrate (e.g., Josephus), none of their works focus on any one miracle-worker for an extensive narrative of his miracle-working activity. Moreover, the overall configuration, pattern, or Gestalt of Jesus as popular preacher and teller of parables, plus authoratative interpreter of the Law and teacher of morality, plus proclaimer and realizer of the eschatological kingdom of God, plus miracle-worker actualizing his own proclamation has no adequate parallel in either the pagan or the Jewish literature of the time. The criterion of embarrassment also applies. The Beelzebul dispute (Mk 3:20-30, Mt 12:22-32 par.) indicate that at times Jesus' exorcisms exposed him to the charge of being in league with the devil, a charge he proceeds to rebut with various arguments. It seems unlikely that the church would have gone out of its way to create such a story, which places Jesus, to say the least, in an ambiguous light. (ibid., pp. 624-625)

That's right. I have found Christians to be very embarrassed by this story (not). Actually, very few Christians think that Jesus really must have been in league with Satan, simply because the Bible says that Jesus's opponents alleged that.

Josephus gives many examples of startling miracles, witnessed by many people, and he wrote them down within 10 years of the alleged events. Can we conclude from this that, inter alia, a heifer really did give birth to a lamb in the middle of the Temple? I have already mentioned Tacitus's examples of the Emperor Vespasian's miracles.

Why does Meier say "supposedly" miraculous events? Are we not to take miracles as really having happened if an old book, preferably by an anonymous author, says that they did?

Thus, the historical Jesus was reputed to work miracles during his lifetime. The more difficult question is the historicity (i.e., whether they go back to the ministry of Jesus) of the individual miracle stories in the Gospels.

To take a single example, you argue that story of the feeding of the 5000 is the invention of the early church because of the similarities to 2Kgs 4:42-44.

"At the same time, one must observe that there are many differences between the Elisha and the Gospel feeding miracles. (1) There is no precise geographical or temporal setting to the Elisha story, unlike the Gospel scenes (e.g., by the See of Galilee, near Passover, in the later afternoon). (2) In 2Kgs 4:42-44, we hear nothing of a crowd following the prophet. (3) Indeed, who exactly the hundred people are and where they have come from is unclear in this very concise story. (4) In any event, the Elisha story there is no indication that these people are suffering from great hunger, lack food, or are unable to get food by ordinary means. (5) The miracle story in 2 Kings really begins with the surprising, peremptory command of Elisha, with no preparation, background, or motivation inthe narrative. In contrast, a discussion between Jesus and his disciples 'sets up' the problem of the people's lack of food before any concrete food appears on the scene. (6) In the Gospels, the disciples are the ones who supply or locate the little food available, and they do so only after the story is under way. (7) Jesus first commands the crowd to recline on the grass, then he performs the ritual observed by the head of a Jewish house-hold for beginning a formal meal; all this is lacking in the Elisha story - as are, of course, the fish. In particular, the central actions of Jesus that some commentators see as allusions to the Last Supper and the Christian eucharist have no parallels whatever in the Elisha story. (8) The questions and objections of Jesus' disciples precede his actual order, which introduces the miracle proper. (9) While we are tersely informed that there were leftorvers from Elisha's meal, these are not counted, as opposed to the twelve or seven baskets of bread left over in the Gospel narratives. (10) The basic structure of the short Elisha story is that of prophecy-and-fulfillment; not so the Gospel story.

Even the early Christian fathers (Irenaeus, for one, if I remember rightly) could see the obvious parallels between these two stories. Naturally, the story has been developed. That is what happens to stories. Even Christians would be suspicious if the stories were exact in every detail.

Instead of this miracle, why not take the story from Luke 7 which copies the exact wording of 1 Kings and show that Luke was not using 1 Kings as a source? It would be an interesting exercise.

"One might point out other parallels that some versions of the Gospel story have with the Elisha story, but such parallels are not necessarily part of the most primitive form of the Gospel miracle of feeding. For example, the detail that the bread is barley (krithinos) bread is found only in John's version (6:9,13) of the Gospel story; the same Greek adjective krithinos accurs in the LXX translation of the Elisha story. While this mention of barley might be a remnant of a primitive form of the Gospel story preserved in John (it would be a mistake to presume that John's version is in every aspect lat and secondary), it is also possible that John's tradition recognized and wished to highlight the similarities between Elisha's and Jesus' miracles. There is also another possible explanation of why John's tradition might have added the specification of barley loaves. John alone mentions that the miracle story takes place near Passover, and Passover is the time of the barley harvest. Hence John's precision that the bread was barley might simply be his way of emphasizing his beloved Passover symbolism. In shory, not every parallel we can detect between the present Gospel versions of Jesus' feeding of the multitude and the Elisha story necessarily go back to the primitive form of the Gospel story. While the Elisha story does share a number of basic elements with the primitive Gospel story, there is much in the Gospel miracle not found in and not derivable from 2Kgs 4:42-44." (ibid., pp. 960-961)

So Meier agrees that there are basic elements common to both stories. After all, how could he not? They are embarrasingly obvious.

Meier cites two criteria in favor of the historicity of this story:

"(1) When compared to most Gospel miracle stories, the feeding of the multitude is supported by an unusually strong atttestation of multiple sources."

Unusual as in unique. It is the *only* miracle story common to all four.

"It is not only attested independently in both Mark and John, it is also attested by two variant forms of the tradition lying behind Mark's Gospel. This suggests a long and complicated tradition history reaching back to the early days of the first Christian generation. Prior to Mark's Gospel there seems to have been two cycles of traditions about Jesus' ministry in Galilee, each one beginning with one version of the feeding miracle (Mk 6:32-44 and Mk 8:1-10). Before these cycles were created, the two versions of the feeding would have circulated as independent units, the first version attracting to itself the story of Jesus' walking on the water (a development also witnessed in John 6), while the second version did not receive such an elaboration. Behind all three versions of the miracle story would have stood some primitive form.

The fact that there are two stories which are almost identical and that Mark includes both hardly suggests that mark was carefully sifting his sources. Even your source concedes that the miracle stories have been elaborated. Just how nth-hand were they by the time they reached Mark and John? 20th hand? 40th hand? Meier gives the impression this was the case. "A long and complicated traditioin history" is hardly compatible with Peter telling Mark what happend and Mark writing it down.

"(2) Besides this multiple attestation of sources, we should also consider another criterion, one that does not always arise in the consideration of miracle stories: the criterion of coherence. In both parables and other sayings, Jesus regularly spoke of the coming kingdom of God under the image of a banquet. The intriguing thing here is that this emphasis on a banquet or a festive meal as an image of the kingdom was not simply a matter of words Jesus spke; banquets and festive meals played an important part in Jesus' actions as well. Quite apart from the feeding miracle, Jesus is attested in both Gospel sayings and non-miraculous Gospel stories to have been noteworthy for his presence at festive meals and banquets, a remarkably non-ascetic habit considered scandalous by some (Mk 2:15-17 parr. cf. Lk 15:1-2; 19:1-10; Mt 11:18-19 // Lk 7:33-34). His offer of table fellowship to all, including social and religious 'lowlifes' like toll collectors and 'sinners,' was meant to foreshadow the final eschatological banquet and to give a foretaste of that banquet even during his public ministry (cf. Mt 8:11-12 // Lk 13:28-29; Mk 14:25 parr.)." (ibid., pp. 965-966)

He concludes: "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." (ibid., p. 966)

So Meier basically says that there was no miracle - just a meal that stuck in people's memory. And he can go no further than to say that this meal took place 'more likely than not'.

For further information, the second volume of Meier's trilogy contains a detailed analysis of the historicity of each and every miracle story in the Gospels.


A Further Response has been written by Peter Kirby to this article


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