from jesus to christ - the first christians

Magic, Miracles, and The Gospel

A Workshop directed by L. Michael White
A lecture by L. Michael White
May 30, 1998, Harvard University


Probably in some ways, and more than any other issue within the development of early Christianity and the gospels tradition, miracles present one of the problematic areas. And in the modern so-called scientific world, or post-scientific, the treatment of miracles has been a problem in a number of ways, because we tend to want to explain away the miraculous in favor of more rationalistic explanations, many of which seem to be quite logical. This has presented some difficulties, though, in dealing with the New Testament. I've already noted in the case of Thomas Jefferson that Jefferson basically discounted the miracles. And that was typical of the Enlightenment period. They wanted to explain them away.

Let me give you a classic example. In the case of walking on the water, this is a typical move that used to be made. "Jesus didn't really walk on the water. It was misty on the Sea of Galilee that day. It was early in the morning or late at night. Everybody knows how the Sea of Galilee can be, that time of day." This is the way the stories go. So instead of walking on the water, he was really just walking along the banks of the sea, kind of on the edges of the surf there, close enough. But it looked to the disciples out on the boat like he was walking on the water. That's a typical rationalization that you used to get in the Enlightenment period, and you still hear it from time to time.

Better yet is probably the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes. Jesus didn't really multiply the loaves and the fishes. We all know that. It doesn't really happen that way. Miracles don't work that way. What happened? Well, Jesus got this little boy to give up his food, and that provided such a miraculous example of ethics to everyone else that everybody then really pulled out of their cloaks the little stash of food that they had brought with them. And when they had pulled it all out, there was enough to feed everybody. Now, notice what's happening in that rationalization. What's happening in that reinterpretation of the story is, you do away with the miraculous, and in its place you put morality. It's the morality that becomes the miracle, becomes transformative. And that's typical of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment move on miracles as a whole.

It's also true still of what's going on in groups like the Jesus Seminar. And I think one of the biggest problems in the Jesus Seminar is their unwillingness even to talk about the miracle tradition as an important tradition within early Christianity. This is, I think, one of the big differences, say, between John Meier's book on Jesus (The Marginal Jew), where he has a very extensive discussion of the miraculous tradition, in contrast to the Jesus Seminar, which basically just wants to ignore it as not historical and therefore not worthy of discussion. They don't even want to talk about the miracle stories within the gospels as being important to the development of the gospels tradition. And I think that's basically short-circuiting the historical enterprise.

We have to take the miracles seriously, on the grounds that we take a lot of the other aspects of the tradition seriously. The people of the ancient world literally, seriously believed that miracles happened. And we have to put ourselves in their mindset of thinking about that, and then look at how those stories are working, with their belief at the forefront of the discussion, and not start by simply saying, "Miracles don't happen." So we have to disengage our modern mind for a while, and think with an ancient mind. And that's what I want to try to suggest with some of this discussion this afternoon, and then actually open up those stories a little bit and look at how they really are functioning within the tradition.

There's one more aspect of this, and that is how the miraculous relates to the tradition itself of Jesus and the divinity of Jesus. The miracles themselves have an ambivalent position within early Christianity. It's not that they are used uniformly. Example: Paul. Now, we've already talked about Paul as being the important earliest source that we have for most of the oral tradition about Jesus. But what's interesting about Paul is, he never once mentions a miracle of Jesus, other than the resurrection itself. Jesus the miracle worker is not a part of the Pauline theology. So if your normal assumption, based on the later gospels tradition, is that miracles are quintessentially Jesus' works, Paul doesn't have that theology at all. Paul does not have a version of the Christian tradition that stresses the miracles of Jesus as central to the understanding of who Jesus was and what his place is within the Christian tradition. The gospels, of course, are rather different.

The other aspect of this that's crucial is that perhaps more than any other aspect of the titulature of Jesus, of the titles associated with Jesus and the theology, at least as it's commonly perceived since the Middle Ages, is that the title Son of God is most closely linked in the common mind with the miracle traditions (the miraculous birth and the ability to perform miracles). In fact, in the Gospel of John, that's explicitly how it is used. Jesus did many other signs and wonders. And if we tried to write them all down, they'd fill too many books. "But these are given so that you might believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." (That's John 20:31.) And that connection, the miraculous power and the divine nature of Jesus, is a very important connection within the later gospels tradition.

But since the Enlightenment, where the disclaimers about miracles have become paramount, that connection has been broken and some new things have been put in its place. The tendency on the one hand has been to rationalize miracles through scientific explanation, and treat other miracles through skepticism, has resulted in an interesting reversal of how we think about miracles within the Jesus tradition. For example, whereas all the other miraculous elements that we see throughout the ancient world are just that superstitious mumbo jumbo, Jesus' miracles are true miracles, but no other miracles are true miracles. Well now, why are they true miracles, whereas no other miracles in the ancient world are true miracles? Answer: Because he's the son of God. Do you see what's happened? That aspect that is supposed to prove that he is the son of God within the Johannine tradition has been reversed on you, so that his miracles are legitimate miracles because he is the son of God, whereas no other miracles in the ancient world are actually true. And I would say both the radical dismissal of miracles and this reversal on the use of miracles (to prove only Jesus miracles as true) are both out of keeping with the ancient world and with the use of miracles in the gospels tradition.

Now, let's set that in some context that will make sense out of it, because in that sense, at least for most people in the first century and throughout the ancient period, and in fact throughout most of the Middle Ages, miracles really do happen. Magical powers were real. But this is not to say that they were unintelligible or irrational. There was an explanation, an understanding of the order of the world that allowed for the miraculous to happen. This is what I mean by the magical world view.

Now, the performing of miracles, that is, simply wonder-working that changes the nature of things or heals someone (typical way we think of the miracle stories), that aspect of miracles is only one part of the magical tradition. There were divination, oracles, dream interpretation, spells, curses, and many other aspects of medicine and healing. All were part of this magical world view, as well as most aspects of what we would call straightforward religion. So they didn't differentiate, in ways that scientific moderns do, between the superstitious and real religiosity or real religion. And even modern sociological and theological definitions that have tried to distinguish between magical practices and religion (the one superstitious, and the other rational and intellectual), I think, are also at fault in this misunderstanding of what's going on in the ancient world. For in antiquity, the magical was part of the very cosmological structure of the world, that undergirded everyone's religious outlook, Jews as well as pagans. And the mechanism of magic is visible whenever one encounters ancient discussions of cosmology and created order, including in Jewish apocalyptic texts.

For example, there's this wonderful text called First Enoch. It's the story of how the angels rebelled against God and were kicked out of heaven. It's the story of Satan, written around the year 200 BCE, maybe a little before. But in it, it explains the origin of miraculous powers by those evil effects that those fallen angels brought with them to earth. But notice, this text (which is one of our very important precursor texts to the development of early Christianity) is explaining why miracles really work in the world. Now, they're demoniac powers, they're evil, but they're still real. And you still need something to counteract them, that's equally real and in fact more powerful. And that's why you look for guardian angels and equal miraculous powers. Now, this is an old Jewish tradition that begins to factor this magical world view through an apocalyptic dualism: good and evil, light and dark, and so on, the other aspects of what create the political environment. Now we see it's part of even the miraculous tradition itself.

And we also see it extensively through the Greco-Roman religious realm, with a number of philosophical as well as popular practices. The standard explanation of magic among the Greco-Roman philosophers, especially the Stoics, is based on a Greek world view, in which the planets and the sun and the stars circulate around the earth. But it's kind of an enclosed sphere, a hard shell on the outside. No infinite space. And this enclosed sphere of the world in which they lived, at least in so far as they thought of their reality, was occupied by a kind of plasma that pervaded everything. That plasma, just like your blood flowing through your body--if you ripple it over here, you get an effect over here, just like any fluid system. That's how magic works. If you can pull the right string on this side of the equation, you can make something happen over here. And they thought of that as science.

Now, it also had a superstitious element to it. And terms and practices and systems and recipe books and all sorts of other features of this magical world are known to use. So "abra cadabra", that famous saying that everyone learned, is actually a very good ancient magical formula. It just takes the alphabet, supplies some extra vowel sounds, and you turn it into a very spooky sounding word, at least from a Greek perspective.

When Jesus in the gospels, especially in the Gospel of Mark, performs a miracle and says something in Aramaic, what he's doing, or at least what the author of Mark is doing, from a Greek perspective, is using mystical sounding magic words. Ablanathan alba. It's a palindrome. Palindromes are spooky and magical. And all kinds of things like this are found throughout the ancient world.

One of the great treasures that has been found by scholars in the last century is something called the Paris Magical Papyrus, and literally is a cookbook of magical recipes from the ancient world that someone had put together and would have been selling. You need to have a love spell? Go to a magician, buy a love spell, come home and perform it just the way he or she tells you, and you're guaranteed to get it. You've got a competitor in business you don't like? Get a spell. And so on and so on and so on it goes. And we actually have this recipe book that shows us how this is working.

Here is one: For those possessed by demons, an approved charm by [Pibicus]. Take oil made from unripe olives together with the plant mastigia and lotus pith, and boil it with marjoram, and say-- Now, notice you have to do something, and you have to do it just the right way, and then you say something. That's the formula that's going to start to happen. And you say "Io el asothormi emari"-- And it goes on and on and on with these long, long complicated gibberish words. But that's the magic. And you don't get those words until you go buy them from the magical purveyor. And that's how you make your potion. And you write a phylactery (that is, a little charm spell) on a little sheet of tin, and hang it around the sufferer. "It is of every demon a thing to be trembled at, which he fears." In other words, it makes the demons go away. And then you stand opposite the one possessed by the demon, and you say, "I adjure thee, Demon, come out of him," using this formula. And then you get another formula. "I adjure thee by the God of the Hebrews, Jesu Jaba Jae Abro Ie tos." And it goes on and on and on again. And this is how they work.

Notice what we've just gotten, though. This is a pagan magical cookbook, recipe book, citing the God of the Hebrews with the name Jesu (Jesus) as a special formula for casting out demons. Where would they get such an idea? Of course it's reflecting what we also see in the gospels tradition. Jesus is a powerful miracle worker, and specifically casts out demons in many cases. But this is also a reflection of the massive amounts of syncretism, interblending of all kinds of religious traditions that we find throughout the ancient world. And this is really, I think, a remarkable text, but one of very many.

Now, what we know of the magic of the ancient world comes from two main types of sources. One, we have magical texts like the one I just read you, that give us the inner workings of magic, and even philosophers, the so-called rationalists of the ancient world, explaining how they work. We have the actual texts themselves, and we can look at this process of magic. Secondly, the other important source about magic is, we have stories. We have stories about magicians and miracle workers. And one of the most important forms of these stories is either the novelistic literature or the stories of what are usually called the divine men, that is, those people possessed of special powers, who walk around the ancient world in quite a large number, and who look in many cases a lot like Jesus.

In fact, one of the most famous is a fellow by the name of Apollonius of Tyana, who is actually a real living figure, a contemporary of Jesus, but about whom was written an exceptional biography by the beginning of the third century, portraying his miraculous birth, the exceptional circumstances of his precocious childhood, his disappearance at the end of his life so that he only seemed to die but he didn't really die, and a number of other things. In fact, it looks very much like a competition gospel biography, but not for the cult of Jesus, for the cult of Apollonius of Tyana. And one of the most important things is, Apollonius performs miracles.

For example, here is a miracle of Apollonius: a young girl seemed to have died in the very hour of her marriage, and the bridegroom was following the bier, weeping over his unfulfilled marriage. Rome mourned also, for it happened that the dead girl was from one of the best families. Apollonius happened to be present while they were mourning, and said, "Put down the bier, for I will end your weeping for this girl." And at that same time, he asked what her name was. The bystanders thought he was going to give a speech like those people give at burials to heighten everyone's sorrow, kind of a paid mourner. But he didn't. Instead, he touched her and, saying something no one could hear, awakened the girl who seemed to be dead. And the girl spoke and went back to her father's house, just like Alcestis, who was brought back to her life by Heracles. And when the relatives of the girl offered Apollonius 150,000 silver pieces as a reward, he replied that he would return it to the child as a gift for her dowry. Miracle sound familiar to you? Raising a young girl? It's the miracle from Mark 5, in fact, called the miracle of Jairus' daughter. A very, very similar miracle. In fact, it follows the pattern of the gospel miracle almost exactly.

Now, I've said there are basically two sources of information. One is this physical material that tells us some things. The other part of the evidence are the stories themselves. And I for one don't think we ought to dismiss them. What we have to do is look at how they're being used and what they're telling us about the tradition. What I've given you is a kind of somewhat simplified but standard breakdown on the form of miracle stories in the ancient world. And I've read you one. And if you actually look at the form of a miracle story outline, you'll see that the miracle of Apollonius fits it to a tee. But the miracles in the gospels also fit it to a tee.

But here's the thing with miracle stories. We have two basic types. We have nature miracles (that is, calming seas, withering trees, and so on) and we have healing miracles. And healing miracles tend to be one of three basic types: real diseases, standard diseases; exorcisms, where the disease is demon possession (and they thought of demons like we think of germs; you expel them, you get rid of them); and then resuscitations (that is, raising from the dead, where the disease is basically death). And these are various forms of miracles.

But we get some interesting things in the gospels. For example, in Mark 5: 7 is an interesting miracle. In it, Jesus encounters a man possessed by demons. In fact, this is the guy with the demon named Legion, because there are thousands of them. And he talks to the demon. But when Jesus approaches, the demon says to Jesus, "I adjure thee by God. Leave me alone, Jesus, thou son of the most high." What has the demon just done? Now, that's the demon talking, remember. What has he just done? He exorcised Jesus away from him. Now, that story in Mark's gospel goes completely lost, if you don't catch that Mark has actually made a comic play, an ironic play on the standard miracle tradition, by having the demon exorcise Jesus, before Jesus can exorcise him. What we've got is like two wizards with their zaps going at one another. But of course in Mark's gospel, that story is also supposed to be a very important recognition scene, because what has the demon confessed about Jesus in the process? Neither Matthew nor Luke has this element of the demon casting out Jesus. It's kind of a comical twist. And the gospel authors can play with the stories by using the standard elements in the tradition, but tweaking them here and there to make their own religious and theological points. That's really what's going on in that very famous little story.

Now I want to show just one or two more quick things about miracle stories in the gospels. Look at the "Stilling of the Storm" text in a parallel gospel format. I've given you two versions of it, from Mark and from Matthew. And what we can see when we look at this text is, if you read the sequence of this text in Matthew 8, you discover that the miracle starts, and then we have sayings interspersed within the text, and then the miracle continues; whereas in Mark it's one continuous narrative. In fact, what happens is the miracle story has literally been cut in half in Matthew's gospel. Matthew has actually cut the miracle story that was in Mark in half, and inserted sayings in the middle of it. And in fact, the sayings are, if you read them: A scribe approached him and said something, and he says, "Don't worry about that. Follow me. Foxes have holes, birds have nests, and so on. Don't worry about that. Follow me." And the motif is: Follow me. Follow me. And now look what happens in Matthew's version of the storm miracle: And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. Neither Mark nor Luke have "follow him" in the text. What Matthew has done is literally and literarily modified this story to make a point about "follow me," discipleship and faith. And the story of the stilling of the storm becomes a story about the faith of the disciples who are willing to follow him. And this whole segment of Matthew, in fact, is geared around the theme of "follow me." And it runs on for passages like this. The shape in Mark of the same stories is a different sequence of miracles, in a slightly different location, with a different running order and a different outcome.

Now, it's the same basic miracle story. That's beyond question. If you look at it in parallel, they're identically the same story in Mark and Matthew. But the gospel writers have the latitude to put them in different places, to change them internally, to shift the wording. Yes, of course they believed Jesus performed this miracle. But because they believed that, they then used the story to make the theological claims about their faith.

Now, one of the most interesting and famous in this regard is story of the woman with the hemorrhage. A woman had a hemorrhage for 12 years, which is presumably some sort of menstrual disorder. She would have gone to the Asclepius temple and dedicated her uterus to the god, had she been able to. But in fact, what we can see about this story is, Mark has intentionally structured it literarily so that the first part of the miracle is the Jesus version of raising the little girl who died, very much like the Apollonius miracle. It starts off with Jesus on his way to raise this girl who's sick. In Mark, she's not dead yet. In Matthew, she's already dead. But on the way, Jesus dawdles en route, and she dies in the process. And then he doesn't heal her until later in the story.

But in between what slows him down is, while he's on his way, while he's going through the crowds, he feels a tug on his robes, and this dirty old woman with the menstrual disorder (which in most of the ancient world, and especially in Jewish purity laws, would have made her an untouchable, an impure person, something that no self-respecting man would ever touch or allow to touch him; that's the way they're thinking of it), she comes up secretly and tugs on his robe. In Mark, interestingly enough, that's when she's healed, immediately. In Matthew, Matthew makes Jesus turn around and take note of her, and then she gets healed. Matthew reverses the sequence. In Mark, interestingly enough, she basically heals herself, by showing her faith in Jesus. This nameless marginal character becomes a witness to the real identity and power of Jesus.

The miracle story is not interested in whether it ever happened or not. People believed that this sort of miracle happened all the time. In fact, we know these are commonplace miracles. Apollonius performs them. Others perform them. Why not Jesus? The point is that the story is more than just the expectation that it could happen, or that it did happen. It's a statement about their belief in the person who they say made it happen. In other words, the stories are more about the presentation of theology and belief than they are about worrying about reality or non-reality of miracles. And that's how we have to look at miracle stories in the gospels. Thank you.

symposium . jesus' many faces . a portrait of jesus' world . storytellers . first christians . why did christianity succeed?
maps, archaeology & sources . discussion . bible history quiz . behind the scenes
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published april 1998

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