In his own day, did Jesus have a reputation as a miracle worker?

Virtually all scholars—both believers and skeptics—are convinced that he did. The Gospels are filled with reports of his miracles.

But Bart Ehrman disagrees. He argues that early Christians had a tendency to make up new stories of Jesus’ miracles, and he suggests that there may have been no such stories circulating during Jesus’ ministry.

Previously, we looked at his argument for this position based on noncanonical gospels, and we saw it was lacking in substance.

But things only get worse when we look at the canonical Gospels.

Here’s why...


A Trend Among the Four Gospels?

The four canonical Gospels were not all written at the same time but over a period of years.

In his book Jesus Before the Gospels, Ehrman repeatedly states that they were written between 40 and 65 years after Jesus’ death.

I think they were written sooner than that (between 20 and 40 years), but let’s give Ehrman his preferred dates.

If there was an early and steep trend of Christians inventing stories about Jesus performing miracles, such that the number went from zero in his own day to the large number of miracles we see in the four Gospels then we should see that trend playing out over the 25 years Ehrman thinks it took to write the Gospels.

In other words, we should see the earlier Gospels with fewer miracle accounts and the later Gospels with more miracle accounts.

So in what order were the Gospels written?

Along with most scholars, Ehrman thinks they were written in approximately this order:

  • Mark
  • Matthew
  • Luke
  • John

It’s questionable whether Matthew or Luke was written first, and as far as I know, he doesn’t pronounce on that question, but he does support the view that Mark was first and John was last.

So what trend do we see in them?


General and Specific Miracle Reports

To evaluate the data, we need to distinguish between two kinds of miracle reports, the general and the specific.

General reports are those where someone—either the evangelist or a person in the narrative—mentions Jesus performing miracles, but without giving any specific information. For example:

That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick (Matt. 8:16).

This man [Nicodemus] came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him” (John 3:2).

Specific reports, by contrast, give us detail. For example, in the case of a healing miracle these details would include things like how many people were healed, who they were, what they were healed of, etc. Examples of specific miracle reports include:

  • The Virgin Birth (Matt. 1:18-25)
  • Turning Water to Wine (John 2:1-11)
  • Healing a Paralytic (Matt. 9:2-7)
  • Exorcizing the Gadarene Demoniac (Mark 5:1-20)
  • Healing Ten Lepers (Luke 17:11-19)
  • Raising Lazarus (John 11:1-46)
  • The Ascension (Luke 24:51)

You’ll notice that some of these specific miracle reports—like the Virgin Birth and the Ascension—are supernatural things that pertain to Jesus himself rather than miracles that he performs on other people.

It’s important to distinguish between general and specific accounts because, if there was a trend among Christians to invent miracle stories, the specific ones are the ones they would have invented first.

Only after he had a reputation as a miracle worker would they have invented general accounts of him doing a bunch of non-specific miracles.

The specific accounts thus have the most value for showing an early trend.

What happens when we examine the four canonical Gospels looking for general and specific miracle reports?


Counting the Miracle Reports

I did a quick study of the Gospels and came up with the following results:

  • Mark (29 total reports; 5 general reports; 24 specific reports)
  • Matthew (41 total reports; 11 general reports; 30 specific reports)
  • Luke (34 total reports; 4 general reports; 30 specific reports)
  • John (20 total reports; 3 general reports; 17 specific reports)

If we include the longer ending of Mark (i.e., Mark 16:9-20), his numbers rise to 34 total reports, 5 of which are general and 29 of which are specific.

Already, we’re not seeing the trend that Ehrman needs.

In terms of total reports, the middle Gospels do have more than Mark, but not by that much in Luke’s case. What’s worse, John has a third fewer reports than Mark, and he’s supposed to be the last Gospel of all!

In terms of general reports, only Matthew has more than Mark, while Luke and John both have fewer.

And in terms of the most important kind of reports—the specific ones—Matthew and Luke do have a few more than Mark, but once again John has fewer.


Controlling for Length

There’s also the fact that the Gospels aren’t all the same length.

Based on the number of verses they contain, Mark is the shortest, John is 26 percent longer than Mark, Matthew is 59 percent longer, and Luke is 71 percent longer.

A longer work obviously has more space to include miracles, so the length to which an author has chosen to write is relevant. Those authors who chose to write shorter works must be more selective in what stories—including miracles stories—that they report.

We know that the evangelists were selective about which miracle stories they included. John expressly refers to the fact he was selective (John 20:30), and we can see Matthew and Luke omitting miracle stories that Mark includes, even though they had Mark in front of them.

If Christians were getting more miracle-happy over time, we should see this reflected in the relative density of miracle reports that the Gospels contain, based on their length.

We therefore need to control for length. If we do that, we get the following numbers, which represent the number of miracle reports the Gospels would have if they were the length of Mark:

  • Mark (29 total reports; 5 general reports; 24 specific reports)
  • Matthew (26 total reports; 7 general reports; 19 specific reports)
  • Luke (20 total reports; 2 general reports; 18 specific reports)
  • John (15 total reports; 2 general reports; 13 specific reports)

If we include Mark’s longer ending, his numbers would be 33 total reports, 5 of which are general and 28 of which are specific.

These numbers are even worse for what Ehrman needs to support his thesis.

The earliest Gospel—Mark—is the most miracle-dense one. Matthew and Luke both would have fewer reports, and John is only half as miracle-dense as Mark.

Matthew would have slightly more general reports than Mark, but Luke and John would both have less than half as many.

And, in terms of the highly relevant specific reports, each of the other three Gospels would have fewer than Mark, with John having only half.


Intermediate Conclusion

Whether you look at the four Gospels in terms of the raw numbers of miracle reports they contain or in terms of how miracle-dense they are, we do not see a trend toward the later Gospels containing more of the miraculous.

Raw numbers do go up for some of the longer Gospels, but they are becoming less miracle-dense at the same time, and the last of all the Gospels—John—contains fewer miracle stories than Mark and is less miracle-dense.

This does not support the hypothesis that there were zero miracle reports in Jesus’ own day and then progressively more and more impressive miracle reports as the decades passed.

And, as we saw before, there does not appear to be evidence supporting such a trend in the early noncanonical gospels and other first and second century Christian literature.

Ehrman’s thesis isn’t looking promising, but there’s another aspect of it that we still need to address.

That’s what we’ll talk about next.