Even skeptical scholars who don’t believe that Jesus really worked miracles acknowledge that, during his lifetime, he had a reputation as a healer and an exorcist.
The numerous reports of Jesus’ healings and exorcisms in the Gospels are just too extensive to think otherwise.
Unless you’re Bart Ehrman.
He proposes that there may have been no reports of Jesus working miracles in his own day and that all of these accounts may have been invented after Jesus was dead.
One way he argues this is by claiming that Christians had a tendency to invent more and more dramatic miracle stories over time.
But Ehrman has another argument to make...
Ehrman’s Second Argument
In his book Jesus Before the Gospels, Ehrman argues for his view, in part, based on the claim that:
[T]he stories of his miracles were always told in [sic] to make a theological point (or more than one point) about him (p. 221).
Based on this, Ehrman speculates that Christians may have begun to invent miracle stories after Jesus’ death—either deliberately or inadvertently—as a way of illustrating theological points about him. For example:
- The Virgin Birth—the fact Jesus has no human father—shows that he is the Son of God.
- The fact he exorcises people shows he can save us from demons.
- The fact he heals people shows he can save us from sickness.
- The fact he raises people from the dead, and that he himself rises from the dead, shows that he can save us from death.
That kind of thing.
So what weight does Ehrman’s argument have?
The first thing that strikes me is that the claim the argument is based on involves an over-interpretation of the evidence.
It’s true that the Gospel writers do make theological points about Jesus based on his miracles, but do they “always” do this?
That’s reading a lot into their intentions as authors.
After all, people don’t always tell miracle stories to make a theological point about a person. If someone today does a faith healing or an exorcism, and if other people relate the incident, they may not be making any theological point about the person in question.
They may just be relating the story because it’s dramatic and impressive!
Sure, you can derive theological lessons from miracle reports—like God loves us, that he’s powerful, that he intervenes in our lives, or that we have evidence for the religious claims of the person who worked the miracle.
However, what you can infer from a miracle report is not the same thing as why a person told it.
If Jesus performed healings and exorcisms in his own day then people would have begun relating them for the same reasons they relate such deeds today—because they’re dramatic, impressive and interesting, and perhaps because they provide some general confirmation of religious views.
Initially, however, Jesus’ miracles wouldn’t have been related to prove particular points about him—except perhaps that he was a prophet.
Even the confirmation they provided of his status as Messiah would have been something that arose after the miracles began.
And the Gospel writers—even writing long after they had come to believe in him as Messiah—may have included some stories simply because they were dramatic and interesting and not because they had a specific theological point to make about Jesus.
A Fundamental Assumption
Ultimately, the degree to which the evangelists told miracle stories to make theological points about Jesus is not directly relevant to the question of how such stories got started.
If they got started because Jesus attempted to heal and exorcize people and thus acquired a reputation as a healer and an exorcist then that’s how they came to be circulated.
We don’t need to propose they were invented—deliberately or inadvertently—as a result of people’s desire to make theological points about Jesus.
This reveals that there is a fundamental assumption being made in Ehrman’s second argument: that Jesus didn’t attempt to heal or exorcize people. It’s only on this assumption that the issue of what theological points were being made becomes relevant.
This makes it clear that Ehrman’s second argument doesn’t carry weight on its own. The fact people (sometimes) told miracle stories to make theological points about Jesus isn’t a positive reason to think that there were no such reports in his own day.
Ultimately—and I think Ehrman himself would acknowledge this—his second argument is only an answer to the question, “How could miracle reports get started if Jesus never attempted to work miracles?” It’s not a positive argument that he never did.
But the problems for Ehrman’s case don’t end there.
Early Christian Miracles
Jesus was not the only miracle-worker in early Christianity.
The book of Acts records others performing miracles, including the apostles in general (Acts 5:12) and specific figures like Peter (Acts 3:6-7, 5:15-16, 9:33-34, 40-41), Stephen (Acts 6:8), Philip (Acts 8:6-7), and Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:3, 9-10, 15:12, 19:11-12, 28:8-9).
These accounts even pertain to the earliest days of the Church, including those shortly after Pentecost (note that Peter is already healing in Chapter 3).
The early Christian movement was filled with miracle-workers, and it would be very surprising if they weren’t following the model of their founder, Jesus.
In fact, the Gospels expressly say that they were:
And he [Jesus] called to him his 12 disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every infirmity (Matt. 10:1; cf. Matt. 10:8, Mark 3:15, 6:7, Luke 9:1-2, 6, 10:9, John 14:12).
The fact that the Gospels report the disciples working miracles at Jesus’ instigation indicates that his followers were performing healings and exorcisms during his ministry, when Jesus was still alive.
Of course, Ehrman might argue that the Gospels and Acts are unreliable when they report the disciples attempting to work miracles at such early dates and that this is something that only began happening much later, but such an argument would immediately encounter a difficulty.
Miracles in Paul’s Letters
It is commonly stated that Paul’s epistles represent the earliest part of the New Testament and that they were written well before the Gospels.
I would argue that the period in which Paul wrote overlapped with the period in which the Gospels were written, but they certainly are early.
What do they have to say about miracles being performed at the time they were written—or even earlier? In Romans, Paul writes:
For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Holy Spirit, so that from Jerusalem and as far round as Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ (Rom. 15:18-19).
Here Paul indicates that working signs and wonders were part of his ministry “from Jerusalem . . . as far round as Illyricum,” indicating they were a regular part of his apostolic work.
He also reminds the Corinthians of miracles he did in their midst on an earlier visit:
And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (1 Cor. 2:3-5).
And it wasn’t just Paul who worked miracles. He indicates it was expected that apostles would work miracles, stating:
The signs of a true apostle were performed among you in all patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works (2 Cor. 12:12).
He indicates that there were miracle-working Christians among his readers as well:
To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom . . . to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles (1 Cor. 12:8-10; cf. 12:28-29).
Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? (Gal. 3:5).
Romans and the Corinthians letters were written in the early to mid-50s, and Galatians may have been even earlier. This puts them within 20 or so years of the Crucifixion.
Together they show that there was a broad-based early Christian practice of miracle-working shortly after the events of the Gospels and within the events covered by Acts.
When the Gospels and Acts report this same early Christian miracle-working, and when they indicate it was rooted in the ministry of Jesus himself, there is no reason to doubt this.
“Jews Demand Signs”
There is another reason to take the Gospels and Acts at their word on this matter, and it is rooted in a principle that Paul mentions.
At one point, he is describing the challenges he encounters in his ministry, and he tells the Corinthians:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom (1 Cor. 1:22).
This is an accurate characterization of the difference in mindset between first century Jews and Greeks. The latter, culturally, placed a high value on philosophy, while Jews were interested in what signs from God a person could produce to authenticate his religious message.
Thus it is no surprise that all four Gospels indicate Jesus’ interlocutors asked him for signs (sometimes more than once in the same Gospel):
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you” (Matt. 12:38; cf. 16:1).
The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him (Mark 8:11).
Others, to test him, sought from him a sign from heaven (Luke 11:16; cf. 11:29).
So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform?” (John 6:30; cf. 2:18).
Jesus as Prophet
The requests for a sign did not come out of the blue. They are based on a principle established in the Jewish Law:
And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?’—when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously, you need not be afraid of him (Deut. 18:21-22; cf. 13:1-3).
For Jews, God himself thus established the principle that the authenticity of a prophet’s message could be evaluated based on whether or not he was able to produce a sign.
According to the Gospels, although Jesus refused to perform miracles on demand, he acknowledged the legitimacy of the principle of using signs to validate a prophetic message (Matt. 11:2-6, Luke 7:19-23, John 5:36, 10:38, 14:11).
In view of the principle established in the Jewish Law, it is no surprise that Jesus—and after him Paul—were asked to produce signs to validate their messages.
Ehrman himself indicates his belief that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, proclaiming an imminent end of the present world order.
If so then demands for a sign would be unavoidable. Jesus would have been asked for signs—and not just by his skeptical opponents, for whom he would have been disinclined to produce them.
He also would have been asked by those who were eager to receive his message and be healed or exorcized—a group he would have been willing to accommodate, in accord with the Gospels’ frequent depiction of him having compassion on those in need.
Regardless of the details of specific passages, if Jesus presented himself as a prophet—of an apocalyptic or any other kind—there would have been a social expectation that he perform signs.
In view of this expectation of prophets, and of Jesus holding himself out as a prophet, we would expect Jesus to attempt to provide signs to fulfill the legitimate expectations of those who were at least open to his message.
Thus the social situation established by the Jewish Law itself points in the direction of Jesus attempting at least the minor signs involved in healings and exorcisms.
Bart Ehrman’s view that Jesus may not have had a reputation in his own lifetime as a worker of miracles—at least as a healer and an exorcist—is not supported by the evidence:
- As we have seen, the needed early, steep trend of Christians inventing miracle narratives about Jesus is not supported in the canonical Gospels.
- As we also have seen, this trend does not appear to be supported by the noncanonical gospels or other early Christian literature.
- Ehrman’s argument that Christians told miracle stories about Jesus to make theological points about him is only relevant if he did not perform any healings or exorcisms. It is not a positive argument that he didn’t.
- The New Testament literature—including the early epistles of St. Paul—report a broad-based miracle working practice among early Christians that is based on Jesus’ own practice.
- The Jewish practice, based on Deuteronomy, of seeking signs as confirmations of divine revelation, coupled with the fact Jesus was a prophet, points in the direction of him attempting to provide miracles.
- The Gospels provide abundant testimony to Jesus performing healings, exorcisms and other miracles.
By far the most reasonable explanation is thus that Jesus acquired a reputation as a miracle-worker during his own lifetime, as the vast majority of biblical scholars—both believing and skeptical—acknowledge.