Most people assume that the Bible is filled with stories of supernatural happenings and miraculous interventions. The accounts of miracles in the Bible are generally limited to three cycles of stories: the Moses-Joshua cycle in the Torah, the Elijah-Elisha stories that are recorded between I Kings 17 and II Kings 13, and the Jesus-Disciples of Jesus stories that are found in the four gospels. There is an occasional supernatural tale in other parts of the Bible, but these are the only areas where they are concentrated. Our concentration is primarily on the miracles that are attributed to Jesus in the gospels.
The reported supernatural deeds performed by Jesus during his ministry can be categorized into four groups: cures, exorcisms, raising the dead, and nature control. Interestingly, each type of miracle that is attributed to Jesus in the gospels also occurred in the Moses-Joshua and Elijah-Elisha stories.
Isaiah had said that when the kingdom of God dawns, it will be marked by the ability of the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk and the dumb to speak (Isaiah 35:5-6, paraphrased). Therefore, if Jesus was the messiah, these things had to be part of his life and ministry.
During Jesus’ lifetime, most people believed in miracles. Gods and demi-gods such as Hercules or Asclepius, and Isis of Egypt all reportedly healed the sick and overcame death. There were also myths about philosophers like Pythagoras and Empedocles calming storms at sea, chasing away pestilences, and being greeted as gods. And the Jews believed the prophet Elisha had cured lepers and revived the dead. The achievements of the first century Apollonius of Tyana were so famous, and so similar to those of Jesus, that Eusebius of Caesarea, a third century opponent of Christianity, used Apollonius’ accomplishments to argue that Christ was neither original nor divine.
In the synoptic gospels – Mark, Matthew, and Luke – Jesus refuses to use miraculous signs to prove his authority, but the miracles in John are performed to confirm his divinity. To be considered a divine wise man during this time in history, the populous expected miracles and other wondrous acts to prove their divinity.
One characteristic all the miracles of Jesus in the gospels share is that Jesus delivered benefits freely and never requested or accepted any form of payment for his healing miracles, unlike some high priests of his time who charged those who were healed. He advised his disciples to heal the sick without payment and stated: “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment” (Matthew 10:8).
Jesus’ Miracles That Are in All the Synoptic Gospels
Let us first mention the cures or healings that are present in all the synoptic gospels. They all describe Jesus’ healing of several people, including Simon Peter’s mother-in-law when he was in Capernaum (this miracle is sometimes called the “exorcising at sunset,” so was it a healing or an exorcism?). When Jesus, James and John visited Simon and Andrew’s house, they discovered that Simon’s wife’s mother was sick with a fever. As soon as Jesus took her by the hand, the fever left and she resumed her hostess duties. Later that evening, others brought their sick and demon-possessed to Jesus. He cured their various diseases and exorcised many demons (the demons “knew him”). According to Matthew, these healings and exorcisms were to fulfill Isaiah 53:4: “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” Luke says when Jesus laid hands on those who were brought to him; the demons exited shouting, “You are the Son of God!” Jesus, however, would not allow them to speak (Mark 1:29-34, Matthew 8:14-17, Luke 4:38-41). If this miracle is the healing of a woman with a fever, might it have been a psychosomatic illness?
Matthew, Mark and Luke also contain the story of Jesus cleansing a leper. This cleansing (or is it an exorcism?) happened early in Jesus’ ministry. According to Mark, a leper said to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus touched him with his hand and the leprosy left him. Jesus sternly told the man not to say anything to anyone, but to show the priest and offer the prescribed sacrifices. The man disobeyed and proclaimed his cleansing widely. Mark 1:40-45, Matthew 8:1-4, and Luke 5:12-16 are almost identical. If Jesus had the power to cure leprosy, why wasn’t the disease abolished? How did Jesus choose which leper to cure and ignore all the others who suffered this most ostracizing of afflictions?
According to Matthew’s version of the healing of a paralytic at Capernaum, when the paralyzed man was brought to Jesus on a mat, Jesus told him to get up and walk, which the man did. He also told the man that his sins were forgiven, which greatly irritated the Pharisees because only God could forgive sins (Matthew 9:1-8). Mark and Luke state that Jesus was in a house at the time, and that the man had to be lowered through the roof by his friends because crowds blocked the entrance (Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5:17-26). Is it feasible that the man’s sins caused his paralysis? Isn’t it possible that this miracle is about a person who was spiritually paralyzed rather than physically paralyzed?
Concerning the healing of the man with a withered hand, the synoptic gospels say that when Jesus entered a synagogue on the sabbath he found a man with a withered hand. Prior to healing the man, he challenged those present to decide what was lawful on the sabbath: “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath” (Mark 3:1-6, Matthew 12:9-13, Luke 6:6-11). This miracle appears to be more about healing on the sabbath than the healing itself.
According to the synoptic gospels, Jesus healed a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute. The crowds were amazed when the man could speak and see. When the Pharisees heard about the exorcism, they accused Jesus of being “Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.” Jesus was ready with his reply: “If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your own exorcists cast them out? …But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Mark 3:20-30, Matthew 12:22-32, Luke 11:14-23). Was the man’s blindness physical or spiritual? Did this miracle have to do with sight or insight? According to the account above, the man was blind and mute because he was possessed by a demon. In the twenty-first century we know that not being able to see or speak has nothing to do with demon possession. These are medical conditions that cannot be cured by an exorcism.
According to Mark, one evening, to get away from the crowd, Jesus and his disciples crossed a lake. A great wind came up and caused waves to swamp the boat. Jesus was asleep in the stern, so they woke him and accused him of not caring that they were about to die. He got up and calmed the wind and sea. Once everything had calmed, he asked why they were afraid and accused them of not having faith. They wondered who Jesus was that the wind and the sea obeyed him. Matthew’s and Luke’s version are almost identical, which is not surprising since they used Mark as one of their chief sources. In Matthew’s version, Jesus accused the disciples of having “little faith” instead of no faith and Luke asked, “Where is your faith?” (Mark 4:35-41, Matthew 8:23-27, Luke 8:22-25). In my opinion, this nature miracle is more about the disciples’ lack of faith or trust than about Jesus’ ability to clam the wind and sea.
According to Mark 5:1-20, Matthew 8:28-34, and Luke 8:26-39, Jesus performed several exorcisms of demons and unclean or evil spirits. In Mark’s account of the exorcising of the Gerasenes demonic, the people had tried to chain a man possessed with demons, but he had escaped and was now living in caves. He roamed the hills screaming. When Jesus inquired the demons’ name, they replied “Legion…for we are many.” Somehow the demons recognized Jesus or were aware that he intended to exorcise them from the man, so they begged him not to send them out of the country. Instead, they pleaded to be sent into a swine herd. Jesus honored their request, but once the demons entered the pigs they rushed down a steep bank into a lake and drowned. Undoubtedly, the pig’s owner was upset to lose his herd, which reportedly numbered 2,000. Jesus may have helped the man who was possessed by many demons, but he may have bankrupted the swine’s owner. The townsfolk were afraid of Jesus, so they asked him to leave. The healed man, on the other hand, informed everyone in the Decapolis what had happened. Matthew and Luke’s versions of this exorcism are not exactly like Mark’s. Matthew’s version had two demoniacs who called Jesus “Son of God” and the demons begged to be sent into the herd of swine. Luke’s version was a single demon-possessed man who wore no clothes. He called Jesus the “Son of the Most High God.” This time the demons asked Jesus for permission to enter the swine. Both Matthew and Luke’s versions agree that the pigs plunged to their death off a cliff into a lake. Luke’s healed man begged to follow Jesus, but was told to return home. He shared his story with the entire city. This exorcism appears to be primarily concerned with proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God. The demoniac, the “Legion” of demons, and the herd of pigs were merely devices to get to the point.
All the synoptic gospels relate the cure of a bleeding woman and Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-43, Matthew 9:18-26, Luke 8:40-56). While on the way to Jairus’ house to see Jairus’ twelve-year-old daughter who was apparently dead, Jesus was approached by a woman who had been suffering ministration for a dozen years. She either touched Jesus’ cloak or the fringes of his garment, depending on which gospel writer is reporting, and was instantly healed. When Jesus realized that the woman had touched him, he told her that her faith had healed her. After this healing, he continued to Jarius’ house and assured the mourning crowd that the daughter was sleeping, not dead. He entered the house, took the girl by the hand and she got up (this is considered a resurrection miracle, but I include it here because it is in the same passage as the healing of the woman who was hemorrhaging). The healing of the bleeding woman is, in my opinion, primarily about faith not the cure. Resurrection miracles are a little more difficult to discern their intended meaning. Jesus was adamant that the girl was asleep, not dead. If that is true, it isn’t surprising that she immediately got up when Jesus touched her hand. According to Matthew, the man whose daughter was dead was a Jewish rabbi, which meant they were not followers. Is healing indiscriminate? How could Jesus heal some and not all? Why doesn’t he heal everyone today? In this healing, it was the father who thought Jesus could help, not the girl who was healed.
The feeding of the multitude appears in all four gospels (Mark 6:31-34, Matthew 14:13-21, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:5-15). According to Mark, Jesus and the disciples took a book to a deserted place for some rest. Once they landed and went ashore, a crowd was waiting for them, so Jesus taught them. Matthew says the crowds followed and brought their sick to be cured. As the evening meal time approached, the disciples asked Jesus to send the crowds away so they could secure food for themselves. Instead, Jesus instructed the disciples to feed them even though they only had five loaves and two fish. Jesus ordered the crowd to sit on the grass, took the loaves and fish, and blessed and broke the loaves. Then he gave it to the disciples to distribute to “five thousand men” and an unspecified number of women and children. After everyone was full, there were “twelve baskets full” of leftovers. According to Luke, Jesus took the disciples to Bethsaida, but the crowds followed. So, he spoke to them about the kingdom of God and healed those who needed curing. Towards sunset, the disciples encouraged Jesus to send the crowd away so they could find lodging and provisions. When Jesus told them to feed the five thousand men, they argued that they would have to go to a village to purchase food – they only had five loaves and two fish. Jesus instructed them to have the men sit in groups of fifty. Then he took the loaves and fish, looked to heaven, blessed and broke them (not just the bread) and gave them to the disciples to distribute. When all were filled, there were twelve baskets of broken pieces left. According to John, it was Jesus who asked Philip where they could buy enough bread for the crowd. Philip told him it would take six months wages to purchase that much bread. Simon’s brother, Andrew, told them there was a boy in the crowd who had five barley loaves and two fish. Jesus instructed them to have the five thousand people sit down on the grass. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and he, not the disciples, distributed the loaves and fish to the crowd. When the disciples gathered up the fragments they filled twelve baskets. It has been suggested that this feeding episode was Jesus feeding his fellow Jews – not Gentiles. This miracle seems very similar to Moses asking God to feed the multitude in the wilderness with five ever-expanding loaves. If Jesus could actually feed thousands of people with a few loaves of bread and a small amount of fish and have baskets of leftovers, why doesn’t Jesus (or God) abolish hunger, malnutrition and starvation?
Jesus walking on the water can be found in Mark 6:45-52, Matthew 14:22-33, and John 6:16-21. According to Mark, immediately after the feeding of the multitude, Jesus instructed the disciples to take a boat to Bethsaida while he dismissed the gathered crowd. Then he went up a mountain to pray. That evening the disciples had a problem steering the boat because of an adverse wind. Early the next morning, Jesus walked on the lake. When they saw him they were terrified because they thought he was a ghost. After Jesus calm their fear, he got into the boat and the wind stopped. They were astounded. Matthew’s version is very similar, but in his version, after Jesus told them not to be afraid, Peter answered, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus said, “Come.” So Peter entered the water and started walking on it, but became frightened and began sinking. Terrified, he cried out for Jesus to save him. Jesus simply reached out, caught him and said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they returned to the boat, those in the boat worshipped Jesus and called him “the Son of God.” In John, the disciples were headed across the lake to Capernaum. After they had rowed three or four miles against a strong wind, they saw Jesus walking towards them on the lake. They were terrified! After he told them not to be afraid, the boat seemed to magically reach the shore of Capernaum. Is the walking on the water miracle about the event or about inadequate faith, about conquering our fears or about the proclamation of Jesus as the Son of God?
Mark, Matthew, and Luke each write similarly about the transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13, Matthew 17:1-13, Luke 9:28-36). Mark’s version says Jesus led Peter, James and John up a high mountain for some quiet time. Suddenly he became transfigured (according to Matthew “his face shone like the sun”); his clothing became dazzling white. Also, Elijah and Moses appeared and talked with Jesus (according to Luke, they were speaking about his departure, which was going to happen in Jerusalem). Then Peter, who was terrified, suggested to Jesus that they build three dwellings – one for each of them. Then from a cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Instead of “Beloved,” Luke uses, “my Chosen”). When they looked around, no one was with them except Jesus. The next part seems too post-Easter to be authentic, in my opinion. As they came down the mountain, Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead. The disciples obeyed, but wondered “what this rising from the dead” meant. Then they asked why the scribes thought Elijah had to come first. Jesus explained that Elijah would come first “to restore all things” (restore what things?). Then he told them that the Son of Man would be treated contemptuously and endure many sufferings (Matthew: “the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands;” the disciples thought he was telling them about John the Baptist). Finally he assured them that Elijah had already come (on the mountain during the transfiguration?). Matthew adds that Jesus said people did not recognize Elijah when he came. If the transfiguration’s purpose was to reveal to the “inner circle” of the disciples that Jesus was divine, they did not grasp its intent. The appearance of Moses and Elijah and God’s voice saying, “Listen to him” appears to suggest that the Law and the Prophets are not as important as Jesus.
When a boy who was possessed by a demon was brought to Jesus, the lad was foaming at the mouth and gnashing his teeth. When the disciples could not expel the demon, Jesus accused them of being unbelievers. The boy’s father asked if Jesus could heal his son. Jesus answered that everything was possible for those that believe. So when the father said he believed that his son could be healed, Jesus healed him (Mark 9:14-29, Matthew 17:14-21, Luke 9:37-49). Do I understand correctly that it does not make any different if the person healed is a believer, just the person who requests? From the few details we are given about the boy, it sounds like he was epileptic. According to modern medicine, epilepsy is caused by a magnesium deficiency, not by a demon.
All the synoptics report the healing of a blind man near Jericho (Mark 10:46-52, Matthew 20:29-34, Luke 18:35-43), but each gospel writer’s version is a little different. Mark says Jesus met a blind beggar in Jericho who identified Jesus as the Son of David; Jesus said the man’s faith had made him well, and he was allowed to follow Jesus. Matthew tells about two unnamed blind men outside Jericho. Luke also tells about two unnamed blind men, but placed the miracle as Jesus approached Jericho. Wince the differences between accounts are quite significant, are they really talking about the same thing? As before, are the writers talking about physical blindness or spiritual blindness?
The Miracle That is in Two Synoptic Gospels and John
The healing of the centurion’s servant miracle is present in Matthew and Luke, but John has a similar account (Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10, John 4:46-54). In Capernaum, a centurion came to Jesus (Luke says the centurion sent some Jewish elders to Jesus, who justified the request by telling Jesus that the centurion loved the Jews and had built their synagogue) and appealed to him to cure his servant (slave) who was paralyzed (Luke says “close to death”). When Jesus said he would come to the centurion’s house (Luke says Jesus went with the Jewish elders), the centurion told Jesus that he was not worthy (Luke says the centurion sent friends to intercept Jesus and the elders). Being a man of authority who was accustomed to ordering his soldiers and salves, he assured Jesus that all he had to do was speak the word and his servant would be healed. Jesus was impressed and commented that he had not found anyone in Israel with such faith. Jesus told the centurion, “…let it be done for you according to your faith,” and the servant was healed immediately (Luke says the group that intercepted them returned to the centurion’s house and “found the slave in good health”). John states that the person Jesus cured from a distance was the son of a royal official. At first Jesus reprimanded the official for not believing unless he saw “signs and wonder,” but later assures the man that his son would live. The man believed Jesus and started back home. Before he arrived, his slaves met him and assured him that his son was alive. When they told him that the boy’s fever had broken the previous afternoon, the father realized that it was exactly the same time when Jesus had told him that his son would live. The official and his entire household became believers. This miracle is similar to the one where a father asked Jesus to heal his son of epilepsy (see above). The father believed, so Jesus healed the son. In this instance, it is a centurion or a royal official who believed or had faith which caused Jesus to heal the man’s paralyzed slave. And the healing was from a distance – Jesus did not have direct contact with the person healed.
Jesus’ Miracles That Are in Two of the Synoptic Gospels
Next, let us look at the miracles that appear in two of the three synoptic gospels. The feeding of four thousand can be found in Mark 8:1-9, Matthew 15:32-39. In Mark, a great crowd that had been listening to Jesus’ teaching for three days had nothing to eat. Jesus did not want to send them home because he was afraid they would faint from hunger on the way. The disciples could not imagine how they could possibly feed all these people there in the desert; they only had seven loaves and a few small fish (there were five loaves and two fish in the feeding of the five thousand). Jesus ordered the crowd to sit on the ground and took the loaves, gave thanks, broke them and had the disciples distribute them to the people. After the four thousand people ate and were full, the leftover broken pieces filled seven baskets (twelve baskets of leftovers in the feeding of five thousand). Matthew’s account is very similar, except he claims those who ate numbered “four thousand men, besides women and children.” Even though they are very similar, was this feeding of four thousand different from the feeding of five thousand? Some people contend that this feeding miracle was feeding a mixed crowd of Jews and Gentiles (they claim the five thousand were all Jews, but the four thousand were mixed). If Jesus had the ability to feed thousands of people with seven loaves of bread and a few fish, why wouldn’t all hunger, malnutrition and starvation have been abolished, which is clearly not the case?
At a synagogue in Capernaum, a man with an unclean spirit (or demon) was present. The spirit in the man interrupted Jesus’ teaching by loudly questioning: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” The spirit also called him “the Holy One of God.” When Jesus ordered the unclean spirit out of the man, he went into convulsions (Luke says the demon did not harm the man). The people were amazed that unclean spirits obeyed him (Mark 1:21-28, Luke 4:31-37). Unclean spirits are not the cause of sicknesses or any other human malady, so they can not be ordered out of a person’s body by Jesus or anyone else. There must be some other reason that Mark and Luke included this story in their gospels.
In the Tyre region, Jesus entered a house hoping for a little peace and quiet, but a Syrophoenician woman (Matthew calls her a Canaanite, but either way she was a Gentile) came and begged him to exorcise an unclean spirit (demon) from her young daughter. At first, Jesus was not very accommodating (according to Matthew, when his disciples wanted to send her away, he said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” i.e. not to the Gentiles). He said to the woman, “…it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The woman was persistent and answered, “…even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Because of her faith, persistence and her savvy answer, Jesus told her that the demon had left her daughter. When she returned home, she found her child had been healed (Mark 7:24-30, Matthew 15:21-28). From my admittedly limited knowledge of Jesus, I seriously doubt that he would have said he was not supposed to minister to Gentiles. The heroine of this story is the persistent mother who refused to take no for an answer. Once again, it was not the receiver of the healing that was the believer and the healing was also from a distance without Jesus having direct contact with the person being healed.
Mark 6:54-56 and Matthew 14:34-36 report a healing at Gennesaret. When Jesus arrived by boat, the people gathered their sick and laid them in the marketplace. Everyone who touched “even the fringe of his cloak” was healed. Touching the fringe of his cloak sounds very similar to the hemorrhaging woman who only needed to touch his clothing to be healed.
Mark and Matthew also include the cursing of the fig tree miracle (Mark 11:12-14, Matthew 21:18-22). As Jesus and the disciples were traveling from Bethany to Jerusalem, Jesus was hungry. He saw a fig tree in the distance and went to investigate. However, although it had leaves, it had no fruit. Even though “it was not the season for figs,” Jesus put a curse on the tree: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” According to Matthew, the fig tree withered at once but Mark relates that the following morning as they passed by they noticed that the tree had withered to its roots. This is definitely one of the most bizarre of Jesus’ miracle stories. What sort of person would deliver such an arbitrary curse? It seems to say, be fruitful even out of season or I will crush you. God or God’s earthly counterpart is not supposed to curse anything. That is Satan’s job. Did Jesus have an unreasonable temper? Making a fig tree wither and never bear fruit again is as harsh as sending demons into pigs that plunge to their deaths. Biblical scholars consider this story a metaphor for God’s judgment of the Israelites. They were not “bearing fruit.” Would a person who had never read this story of the cursing of the fig tree immediately understand that Jesus meant the fig tree as a metaphor for the unfruitful Israelites? I am almost positive they would not. They would take it at face value and think Jesus had a temper and unreasonably cursed a fig tree that was not supposed to have fruit during that time of the year.
Jesus’ Miracles That Are Only in Mark
Only Mark includes the healing of the deaf mute of the Decapolis region (7:31-37). Jesus went towards the Sea of Galilee to a town named Sidon. The people brought a deaf man with a speech impediment and begged Jesus to lay his hand on him. Jesus took the man away from the crowd and touched the man’s ears (“put his fingers in his ears”). Next, he spat and touched the man’s tongue (that sounds gross and unsanitary; was it his spit that had miracle powers?). Then he looked to heaven, sighed and said, “Ephphatha!,” an Aramaic word that means “open.” Immediately the man’s ears were opened and he could speak plainly. As in some other instances, Jesus ordered the people not to tell anyone, but they proclaimed the miracle zealously. Was this miracle about people who, though they have ears to hear, are deaf to Jesus’ message?
Mark is also the only gospel that tells about Jesus healing the blind man in Bethsaida (8:22-26). When they came to Bethsaida, some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. Jesus took the man’s hand and led him out of the village. Then he put saliva on the man’s eyes (was his spit a healing potion?) and laid his hands on him. When Jesus asked what he could see, the man reported seeing people, but they looked like walking trees. So, Jesus laid his hands on the man’s eyes again. This time his sight was restored and he saw everything clearly. After the healing, Jesus sent the man home, but told him not to go into the village. Is this passage an allegory for the awakening of people’s spiritual sight? Perhaps Jesus was giving insight rather than actual sight.
Mark is the only gospel that tells about the healing of Bartimaeus as Jesus left Jericho (10:46-52). As Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho they saw Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” After a couple of shouts, Jesus told the disciples to call the man, which they did. When he came to Jesus, Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” When Bartimaeus asked to see again, Jesus told him that his faith had made him well. Immediately he regained his sight and followed them into Jericho. We should note the peculiarity of the blind man’s name – Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus. In the Hebrew language “bar” means son; so Bar-timaeus literally means “son of Timaeus.” So Mark’s phrase, “Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus” is redundant. Why did he write it that way? The blind man calls Jesus “Son of David;” the Jews expected the messiah to be the legitimate heir of David’s throne. So, this miracle story contains the messianic claim that Jesus is the heir to David’s throne.
Jesus’ Miracles That Are Only in Matthew
Matthew has a tendency to exaggerate or, at least, to heighten the miraculous.
Only Matthew reports that Jesus healed two blind men in Galilee (9:27-31). Two blind men followed Jesus begging for his mercy; they called him “Son of David.” When Jesus entered a house, the blind men entered too; Jesus asked if they believed that he was able to heal them. Once they answered, Yes,” he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you.” Their eyes were immediately opened. Once again Jesus sternly ordered them to tell no one, but they spread the news throughout that district.
Immediately after the two blind men were healed, a mute demoniac was brought to Jesus. When the demon was exorcised, the mute spoke; the crowd was amazed and said, “Never has anything like this been seen in Israel.” The Pharisees, however, accused Jesus of casting out demons in the name of “the ruler of the demons” i.e. Satan or the devil (Matthew 9:32-34). Demons do not cause a person to lose the ability to speak.
Jesus’ Miracles That Are Only in Luke
Luke tends to temper Mark’s supernaturalism. For example, Mark had two feeding of the multitudes stories in his gospel, but Luke only has one. He also omits the account of Jesus cursing the fig tree. In some instances, however, Luke expands the miraculous tradition; for example, he adds the “raising from the dead” story involving the Nain widow’s son and about the ten lepers who were cleansed.
Early in Jesus’ ministry, Luke describes what is called the miracle of draught of fishes (5:1-11). This miracle results in Peter, James, the son of Zebedee, and John becoming disciples. It happened at the lake of Gennesaret where many people were crowding around to hear Jesus teach. He noticed two boats on the shore that some fishermen had taken out earlier. They were now cleaning their nets. Jesus got into the boat belonging to Simon and asked him to row just a little way from shore. After Jesus spoke to the crowd from the boat, he told Simon Peter to let down his nets in deeper water. Simon was reluctant; they had fished all night and had been unsuccessful, but he obliged. The net caught so many fish that his nets were about to break, so they signaled their partners to bring another boat to help. They filled both boats so full they were afraid they would sink. Simon fell to his knees and confessed that he was a sinful man. Jesus told him not to be afraid and that he would now “be catching people.” Once back on shore, they left everything to follow Jesus. So what happened to their families? What happened to their livelihood? Such impulsive action seems very irresponsible. Jesus’ choice for his disciples is odd – fisherman. This passage is not about catching lots of fish; it is about choosing the first of Jesus’ followers, i.e. it isn’t the fish that were caught in the net, it was the fishermen. The fish also became a symbol of Jesus’ followers long before the cross.
Only Luke writes about the resurrection of the young man from Nain (7:11-17). As Jesus approached the gate of the town, a widowed mother’s only son was being brought out for burial. Jesus felt great compassion for the woman, so he touched the bier and told him to “rise.” The young man sat up and began to speak. Fear seized the crowd, but Luke reports they glorified God. This raising of a dead man episode is remarkably similar, far too similar to be coincidental, to Elijah raising the only son of a widow of Zarephath (I Kings 17:17-24). In both instances the victim is the only son of a widow. In both stories the young man is stretched out on his funeral bed. In both the son is restored to his mother alive. These connections, and perhaps others, make it obvious that this miracle episode is an instance of Luke’s claim that Jesus is the new Elijah. We should ask some questions about this miracle: Can the dead actually be raised or is death irreversible? Wouldn’t a public event like this be talked about in the area for many years? Why was Luke, who wrote approximately sixty years after Jesus’ death, the only gospel writer to share this story?
Luke is the only gospel writer who relates that while Jesus was teaching in a synagogue, he healed a woman who had been crippled by an evil spirit for eighteen years (13:10-17). She was bent over and could not stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he told her she was freed from her ailment. When he laid his hands on her, she immediately stood up straight and began praising God. The synagogue’s leader was indignant because Jesus had cured the woman on the sabbath. Jesus called him a hypocrite and asked if they do not untie their ox or donkey and lead them to water on the sabbath. Then this woman should be freed from her evil spirit on the sabbath day. When all his opponents heard this, they felt ashamed and the synagogue crowd rejoiced because of all the wonderful things Jesus was doing. Jesus claimed that Satan was responsible for the woman’s affliction. This was not the only time Jesus got into trouble for healing on the sabbath. What is more important, keeping the law or healing a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years? And the person healed was a woman, which was also a problem in this male dominated society.
Only Luke describes the healing of a man with dropsy at the house of a prominent Pharisee on the sabbath. Jesus justified this miracle by asking: “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” (14:1-6). Another sabbath healing – Jesus continues to flaunt breaking the sabbath law.
Only in Luke, Jesus heals ten lepers on his way to Jerusalem (17:11-19). As he entered a village between Samaria and Galilee, ten lepers approached and begged for mercy. After he heals them, he sends them to the priests to show that they had been healed. The only one who came back to thank Jesus was a Samaritan. Jesus was upset that the other nine did not return and give praise to God for their healing. He told the Samaritan to go on his way; his faith had made him well. This miracle passage should be compared to Leviticus 13:2-3, 14:2-32 and 45-46.
Just prior to Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, one of his disciples struck the high priest’s slave with his sword and cut off his right ear. Jesus reprimanded the disciple, touched the slave’s ear and healed him (22:49-51). Jesus was a proponent of non-violence.
Jesus’ Miracles Found Only in John
John, who most likely did not use Mark as his source, adds miracle stories that appear to have been unknown to earlier gospel writers; for instance, he tells about Jesus turning water into wine, restoring an invalid of thirty-eight years to wholeness, healing a man who was blind since birth and raising Lazarus. It is interesting to note that in John Jesus never exorcises demons.
Only John reports the Cana of Galilee wedding miracle (2:1-11). Among those present at this wedding were Jesus, his mother, and his disciples (some people have speculated that this was Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene). When the wine ran out, Jesus’ mother reported the shortage to him. He was not very patient with her (he called her “Woman”) and inquired why he or she should be concerned (if it was his wedding, his mother would have been the hostess). Then John has him say a rather strange statement: “My hour has not yet come.” As if she was the hostess, his mother told the servants to do whatever Jesus told them to do. Nearby there were six twenty to thirty gallon stone water-jars that were used for the Jewish rites of purification. Jesus ordered the servants to fill the jars with water. After they obeyed, he instructed them to draw some out and take it to the chief steward. Once the steward tasted the water that had become wine, he asked the bridegroom why he had kept the best wine for the time when the guests could not tell good wine from inferior. Everyone else, he said, serves the good wine first and the inferior wine after the guests are drunk.
John describes a similar cure to the healing of a paralytic at Capernaum (Mark 2:1-12, Matthew 9:1-8, Luke 5:17-26), but it takes place at the Pool of Bethesda. At the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem was a pool called “Beth-zatha” in Hebrew. One of the many invalids there was a man who had been sick for thirty-eight years. Jesus asked the man if he wanted to be made well. Evidently the pool’s water had its best healing powers when the water was “stirred up.” When the man told Jesus that he had no one to put him into the pool, Jesus told him to stand up, take his mat and walk. The man immediately did as Jesus instructed. Since this was a healing on the sabbath, the pious Jews questioned that the man should even take his mat and walk and they wanted to know who had told him to do this. The man did not know who it was and by this time Jesus had disappeared into the crowd. Later when Jesus saw the man in the temple he told him not to sin any more so something even worse would not happen to him. The man told the Jews that it was Jesus who healed him. “The Jews” were upset that Jesus had broken the sabbath laws, was calling God his father, and was making himself God’s equal, so they began plotting to kill him (5:1-18). That any sickness is caused by sin is laughable in our day of modern medicine
Only John relates the healing of a man who had been blind since birth (9:1-12). Thinking that the man’s blindness was caused by sin, the disciples asked Jesus if it was the man or his parents who had sinned. “Neither,” Jesus said; John had Jesus explain that he “was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him… As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Then he spat on the ground, made mud with the saliva and spread it on the man’s eyes. Next he told the man to wash in the pool of Siloam.” When the man obeyed, he was able to see. This healing took place during the Festival of Tabernacles, a few months before his passion. Evidently, Jesus’ saliva had healing properties. Blindness is not the result of sin. Taylor Caldwell writes these words in I, Judas for Judas to say about the healing of this man, “…it seemed to me cruel that he should have gone sightless all these years just so the Master could use him as a sign.”
The raising of Lazarus is only found in John (11:1-44). Lazarus lived in Bethany with his sisters Mary and Martha. When their brother became ill, the sisters sent for Jesus, but he sent a message back that the illness was not life threatening. It was, he said, for God’s glory, “so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Two days later, he told his disciples they were going to Judea. They objected because the Jews there had tried to stone Jesus. Then he told them that Lazarus had died. Thomas, the Twin, said something rather strange, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” By the time they arrived, Lazarus had been in his tomb for four days. Martha told Jesus that had he been there, Lazarus would not have died. She was confident, however, that whatever Jesus asked would be given to him by God. Jesus assured her that her brother would rise again. Then John has Jesus proclaim some post-resurrection theology: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Martha told him that she believed his was “the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Martha returned home – Jesus had not reached the village yet – and told Mary that Jesus wanted to see her. So she quickly went to him. The Jews who were consoling Mary, followed her. Once she found Jesus, she said the same thing that Martha had said to Jesus. Then she led him to her brother’s tomb. Some of the Jews questioned, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” When they arrived at the tomb, Jesus ordered the stone covering the cave removed. Since Lazarus had been dead for four days, Martha warned Jesus about the stench. Jesus then prayed, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I know that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” Then he cried in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” When the dead man came out, his entire body was still wrapped in cloth, so Jesus ordered them to unbind him. If Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, why didn’t this miracle story appear in any other gospel? We should note that Mary and Martha did not have a brother named Lazarus in any other gospel. If this was remembered history, how could it have been suppressed until John wrote about it three generations later? There is a character named Lazarus in Luke who is a beggar who tried to satisfy his hunger with the crumbs that fell from a rich man’s table. When the beggar died, angels carried him to be with Abraham. The rich man dies and is condemned to Hades. He begs Abraham to send water by Lazarus to quench his thirst. Abraham refused, so the man asked him to send Lazarus back to warn his five brothers to mend their lives before they end up in “this place of torment.” Abraham says they should listen to Moses and the prophets; if they would not listen to them, neither would they be convinced by someone being raised from the dead (Luke 16:19-31). It appears that John reworked this parable from Luke into the life of Jesus.
John reports a similar miracle to Luke’s the draught of fishes (Luke 5:1-11), but it takes place after the resurrection (21:1-14). Jesus appeared to seven of the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias while they were fishing. Just after daybreak, Jesus appeared on the beach, but the disciples did not recognize him. Realizing that they had not caught any fish, Jesus told them to cast their net on the right side of the boat. When they did as he suggested, they caught so many fish they were not able to haul them in. The “disciple whom Jesus loved” recognized Jesus and told the others. Simon Peter was naked, so he put on some clothes and jumped into the lake. The other disciples came ashore, dragging the net full of a hundred and fifty-three large fish. Once ashore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it, and bread. Jesus invited them to have breakfast. Jesus took the bread and fish and gave it to them. This miracle comes from the epilogue to John, which was added much later.
According to John, the miracles he recorded were only a few of many more.
Miraculous events such as the annunciation that appears in the gospels prior to the start of Jesus’ ministry and events following his death and resurrection are usually not included in the list of Jesus’ miracles, and neither is the use of “supernatural knowledge” such as in the case of the woman at the well (John 4:1-42).
Conclusions about Jesus’ Miracles
Many – perhaps even most – Christians think Jesus’ miracles were actual historical events. Biblical literalists and fundamentalists believe that Jesus’ miracles illustrate his divinity, or at least, the dual natures of God and man. They would argue that while Jesus experienced hunger, weariness and even death, those were evidence of his humanity, but the miracles were evidence of his deity.
Other more progressive Christians prefer to think of the miracles stories as metaphorical. They tend to place less emphasis on the miraculous events of Jesus’ life and emphasize the life he led and his teachings. Even the very liberal Jesus Seminar concluded that some of Jesus’ healings were plausible. They admit that Jesus probably cured some sick people, but consider those healings to be psychosomatic. They consider six healings to be “probably reliable.” Most of the Jesus Seminar scholars believe Jesus practiced exorcisms (Josephus, Philostratus, and others wrote about other exorcists that were popular during Jesus’ time). They do not think any of the nature miracles are historical events.
The gospel miracles raise many questions, including:
• In the twenty-first century neither demonic possession nor sins are a realistic diagnosis for sickness, blindness, deafness, or any other malady. If that is true, what are we supposed to think about the miracle stories in the gospels?
• If God is willing to intervene in humanity with miraculous power, where was God during the Holocaust, or when a tsunami killed hundreds of thousands, or when tornadoes or hurricanes devastate an area and kill innumerable innocent people?
• How does God decide when and where to intervene, to save one life and not another, to cure one person’s illness and not everyone’s?
• Can we find any evidence of miracles being attributed to Jesus before the gospels were written? Why doesn’t Paul, who wrote his letters to the early Christian churches before the gospels were written, mention any miracle stories? Or was the miracle tradition added after Paul?
• Did Jesus’ miraculous acts really happen or were they attempts by the early Christian community to describe their experiences with Jesus in their limited human vocabulary?
• Was it miracles that caused people to believe in Jesus’ divinity or were the miracles attributed to him because they were already convinced that he was divine and that was the only way they knew how to express it? In other words, were the miracle stories added to the memory of Jesus for some purpose other than that they were recording historical happenings?
• Is it possible that the miracles attributed to past biblical heroes – Moses, Joshua, Elijah, and Elisha – were used to help shape the miracle accounts told about Jesus? Did they serve an interpretative purpose of seeing Jesus as a new Moses or a new Elijah rather than descriptions of actual events?
The questions could go on and on.
It disturbs me to discover that some of the miracles of Jesus are similar to some of Buddha’s: Jesus walked on the Sea of Galilee; Buddha crossed the River Ganges without a boat. Jesus by a word or the touch of His hand healed the sick; Buddha healed a sick woman by a single look. Jesus fed five thousand on five loaves and two small fishes; Buddha fed five hundred with no previous supplies. The similarities make me question the authenticity of any of the so-called miracles.
In The Autobiography of Santa Claus by Jeff Guinn, Bishop Nicholas of Myra, the eventual Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus), traveling incognito, had left his home and was on board a ship bound for Rome when he was surprised to hear some of the sailors relating stories about how the wonderful Bishop Nicholas had touched one finger to a blind man’s eyes and made him see again, and how he had planted a single grain of wheat that sprouted into acres of grain. Later a merchant, not knowing who Nicholas was, told him that Bishop Nicholas had worked wondrous miracles during his life. Nicholas was amazed, and somewhat disturbed, to hear such stories. Personally, I think Jesus might be amazed and disturbed to hear the miraculous things he supposedly did during his life.
Several, perhaps even most, of the miracles attributed to Jesus seem to be the gospel writers’ attempt to sensationalize him. People often try to make a great person appear even greater in the eyes of others by embroidering their deeds and adding unhistorical elements. Some of the miracles attributed to Jesus may have happened exactly as reported, but in most cases, I choose reverent agnosticism: they may have happened as reported; I do not know, but I view them with skepticism.