Were Jesus’s Miracles Historical?

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By Will Deatherage, Executive Director

This is the second article in our weekly series on Christology. The following is a chapter review of Gerhard Lohfink’s Jesus of Nazareth.

In chapter nine of Jesus of Nazareth, Gerhard Lohfink debunks the claim that Jesus’s miraculous abilities were identical to those of His contemporary exorcists and healers. These magicians, both Hellenistic and Hebrew, were far less prevalent than many modern historians admit. Regarding the Greeks and Romans, Lohfink contrasts how Apollinaris of Tyna, Vespassian, and the cult of Ascelpus in Epidaurus relied on spells, magical objects, and the invocation of higher authorities for their miracles to work, whereas Jesus never used spells or magical objects and invoked His own authority when healing and exorcising. Even Jewish miracle workers and exorcists like Eleazar and Hani the Circle Drawer were reliant on trinkets and invocations for successful miracles. For example, Hani would perform his rain ritual for extended periods of time before it worked, a far cry from Jesus’s immediate command over nature. Furthermore, whereas most magicians benefited from their miracles, Jesus had little to gain from His astonishing works, which were performed in response to faith and to symbolize the new Israel. If anything, Jesus’s commitment to the symbolic nature of His miracles, as well as His refusal to perform them on command, led to His execution. Finally, Lohfink critiques the Enlightenment misunderstanding that miracles are a violation of the laws of nature. The proper understanding of a miracle is an event through which God extends His grace in the form of a symbolic perfection of nature. A miracle is, therefore, no freak of nature or arbitrary flex of power; it is God’s grace-filled response to an act of faith. 

Lohfink’s chapter is perhaps the most impressive rebuttal to the modern interpretation of Jesus’s miracles I have ever read. Whereas many modern secular scholars attempt to reduce Jesus to a variation of His magician contemporaries, Lohfink invokes several historical examples to show how Jesus was distinct from his counterparts. I also found his commentary on the false dichotomy between natural and divine action quite compelling. His emphasis on God acting through the world shows parallels with the sacraments; just as sacraments are natural symbols that draw humans to our supernatural God, miracles also use phenomena to invite us into a relationship with our Creator. Lohfink’s reminder that the Ancient Jews understood all of creation to be miraculous is sobering to our modern culture, which has reduced miracles to flashy magic tricks, thus greatly diminishing our capacity to see God acting in the world. 

“Why aren’t there miracles anymore?” is a question I hear too often from friends and family. Loftink’s suggestion of a return to an ancient concept of the miraculous in creation helps to answer this question. The explanation of miracles as events that defy the laws of physics makes God seem distant and removed from the creation that He was once so involved with in the Old Testament. When our expectations of miracles shift from God’s response to faith to extraordinary events that break the laws of physics, we set our faith up for disaster. Ironically, our demand for God to show us signs so that we might believe is precisely what Jesus rejected when His executioners demanded He show them God’s power. Even in His final moments of life, Jesus refused to perform miracles to convert people; such displays would nullify our freedom to choose God. Therefore, we should stop questioning why earth-shattering miracles do not seem to happen and instead reflect on the extraordinary moments in our lives God invites us to participate in the miracle of His relationship with us.

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