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H. J. Richards
When he was rescued from a hovel in the Andean foothills of Colombia at the age of seven months, my son Pedro was close to death from malnutrition. He weighed a mere 1.8 kg. By adopting him, we accepted the possibility that he could have suffered permanent brain-damage. Today, seven years later, he is the liveliest boy in our street, constantly in demand as a playmate, and able to tell jokes far funnier than I can devise myself.
What is a Miracle?
Do I call that miraculous? Of course I do how could you call it anything else? But for me this word does not have overtones of God intervening supernaturally on behalf of his close friend H.J. Richards, while other children are damaged or die. Pedro's good health is part of the course of nature, which is itself miraculous, and reveals the gracious God who sustains it.
I am not alone in thinking of "the miraculous" in this way. Ask any dozen people what they would describe as a miracle. None of them will turn first of all to examples of things beyond the course of nature. For them, the birth of a baby is miracle enough, or a remarkable recovery from
Illness, or a lucky escape from disaster, or an extraordinary coincidence, or some surprising stroke of good fortune, even a last-minute winning goal. All natural events. What makes most people reach for the word //miraculous" in each of these cases, is the element of wonder, of surprise, of the unexpected, of the new. And the religious person spontaneously sees in these utterly natural events the hand of the God of surprises.
It is interesting that the word "miracle" continues, in most people's mind, to have this secular and earthbound sense. It is strange, therefore, that theologians should ever have tried to give the word a totally ethereal and otherworldly meaning.
For them, a miracle was not a miracle unless it Contravened the laws of nature. Nature was governed by fixed and iron laws, and these laws had to be violated or suspended before one could talk of miracles. A miracle was the inexplicable. the "impossible". Water had to run uphill before it could be recognised as the handwriting of God.
This theology was based on a view of nature which only became popular in the eighteenth century, and has already been abandoned by most scientists. Today's men of science no longer speak of laws, only of hypotheses which fit the facts, and which need to be tested over and over again. Since Einstein discovered relativity, and Rutherford the nucleus of the atom, and Bohr the quantum theory, we have lived in a universe of constant surprises. Each surprise has made us reassess the mysterious world we live in. No one imagines that there are no further surprises in the pipeline. But these will only make us readjust our hypotheses again, so that they fit and explain the newly discovered facts. No facts are regarded as inexplicable.
Miracles In the Bible
The idea of a "fixed nature", occasionally violated by God, was never part of biblical thought. For the authors of the Bible, everything about us is a marvel and a revelation. The very heavens are telling the glory of God. Each blade of grass speaks to the believer of the power of God.
Since they and this kind of world-view. the biblical authors could never have intended the miracle stories to be taken as evidence of God "breaking into" our world: he had never been absent from the world. Nor should these biblical stories ever have been read as if God was thereby appending his divine signature to vouch for the truth of Judaeo-Christianity (not to mention the falsehood of all other religions). The miracle stories are told with little (if any) apologetic intent, and Christians have been quite wrong to emphasise this aspect of them to the exclusion of any other aspect. Even official Roman Catholic documents acknowledge this. The Vatican II statement on miracles (Lumen Gentium 5) is a virtual repudiation of the embarrassingly clumsy statement of Vatican I. locked as it was in a world-view now abandoned.
Indeed, given the fact that all religious traditions contain miracle stories, it is quite obviousthat miracles prove nothing. Jesus himself is said to have rebuked those who came looking only for "signs and wonders" (John 4:481. Paul even goes so far as to state that those who demand miracles simply show up their immaturity and lack of faith: those who come to "belief" because of miracles are ultimately nothing less than unbelievers (see 1 Corinthians 14:20-22). To demand that God must present his credentials before he can be accepted is to reduce God to an observable phenomenon. This is the worst kind of materialism, guaranteed to drive many thinking believers into apostasy.
Miracles and Jesus
What then of the miracles attributed to Jesus in the gospel pages? A number of points need to be made.
First, the tradition that Jesus was a healer is so constant, so widespread, and so uniform throughout the New Testament that only a fool could regard this aspect of Jesus' life as fictitious. Remove those healing stories, and the gospels simply fall to pieces. Nor do these stories create any particular difficulty. Healers there have always been, in all cultures and all ages, even today. What they are able to achieve — for the blind, the deaf, the lame, the diseased, the mentally sick — may remain an inexplicable mystery for many, though psychotherapists and counsellors are today revealing how much of the healing process consists essentially in releasing the patient's power to heal himself. The fact is that such healing proves nothing about an intervening God: some healers have been self-confessed atheists. Jesus was quite certainly a healer, but to call his healing work "miraculous" tells us. in itself, nothing.
Secondly, the gospels bear witness to an equally strong tradition that Jesus had considerable reservations about his healing powers. There is an ambiguity about miracles, which allows people to draw conclusions which are quite misleading. The theme is present on the very first page of the gospels, where Jesus is shown as turning down the temptation to play the popular role of a wonder-working messiah, solving all problems by floating down from the sky or turning stones into bread (Matthew 4:1ff.) The story is echoed in Peter's suggestion that a wonderworking Jesus would surely wish to avoid crucifixion, and the suggestion is interpreted as part of Satan's own misunderstanding of Jesus (Matthew 16:23). The theme appears for the last time in the Gethsemane story where a miraculous escape from the fate that lies ahead for Jesus is seen as contrary to God's will (Matthew 26:36ff).
Throughout Jesus' ministry wondermongers, far from being welcomed are rebuked (John 4:48, 6:26). The working of miracles, far from proving someone to be of God, could prove the very opposite /Matthew 7:23). In fact, wonders so sensational that they convince even the most recluctant are the signature tune of a false messiah (Matthew 24:24) — as Deuteronomy 13:2-6 had long warned. To demand a sign from heaven to authenticate Jesus' preaching is to show oneself part of an evil and faithless generation (Matthew 16:1-4). The gospel tradition of Jesus as a reluctant wonder-worker is a strong one. It should not be neglected. as it often has been, in a discussion of the New Testament miracles. George Bernard Shaw wittily observed:
Jesus' teaching has nothing to do with miracles. If his mission had been simply to demonstrate a new method of restoring lost eyesight, the miracle of curing the blind would have been entirely relevant. But to say, "You should love your enemies, and to convince you of this I will now proceed to cure this gentleman of cataract", would have been to a man of Jesus' intelligence the proposition of an idiot.
Miracles as Signs
Yet Shaw's observation is too extreme. In one sense, Jesus' teaching had very much to do with miracles. Wary as he was of the danger that they would be misinterpreted, he was not slow to offer his own interpretation. For him, the many cures that accompanied his preaching were signs that God's Rule was being established in a godless world. Sickness and suffering, debility and disease, all of them the legacy of sin, were giving way to the healing power of a merciful God. The wounded human race was being restored to wholeness and health.
If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you. (Matthew 12:28).
If this was the meaning that registered, then his works spoke of the same reality as his words.
In short, Jesus saw the wonders he accomplished as having a meaning, and it was this meaning he invited people to grasp. They should not become mesmerised by the wonders themselves, which were no more than signposts or indicators. Someone who is pointing your gaze to the stars does not want you to continue staring at his finger.
So it was up to people to respond to what they were seeing and hearing. Had they experienced their own blindness being lifted, so that they could now see God as Jesus saw him? Had they experienced their own deafness being broken through, so that they could now hear the voice of God in a world which seemed soundproofed against him? Had they experienced their own leprous condition lifted, so that they knew themselves no longer as outcasts but as accepted by God? Had they experienced themselves as liberated from their own paralysis, allowing them a fullness of life they had not imagined possible? If they had, then the miraculous cures and the miracle stories had served their purpose.
It is the fourth gospel which puts most emphasis on the symbolic value of the miracle stories. For the author, each of the miracles he recounts is a "sign", that is to say, a significant event, full of meaning. What the reader must look for, therefore, is not the nuts and bolts of the event ("How did he do it?"), but what it means. The event, however it may have registered on the Richter scale of history, points beyond itself to something far more important. And in each case, this "beyond" that is pointed to is the death of Jesus, where the glory of God will be manifested as never before. For the author, the cross is the wonder of all wonders, the ultimate revelation that God's power is the power of love.
So the story of the wedding at Cana becomes a parable of a God who is wedded to mankind in the person of Jesus, whose death and resurrection three days later transformed the old and ineffectual into the new and lifegiving, a transformation which is commemorated in the drinking of the eucharistic wine (John 2). Similarly, the story of food on the hillside at passover time is a preview of the passover when Jesus was to climb the hill of Calvary, and satisfy the hunger of countless thousands from the human nothingness of a dead body, to be acclaimed by believers as the Promised One (John 6). The story of walking on the water, evokes the resurrection narrative, in which a Jesus whom the waters of death have not been able to master reassures his disciples that it is he. Not a ghost from the underworld, who is still present with them (John 6:16-21). The story of the curing of the blind concerns not lust one Jerusalem beggar in the first century but all men and women, born into darkness but finally enlightened by the one sent from above (Siloam), as they allow the water or Spirit of his crucified body to wash over them (John 9). The story of Lazarus is more than the remarkable resuscitation of a friend: it too is a parable of all who hear the voice of God in the crucified Jesus, and respond to it as it calls them out of a living death into a life that is like God's, eternal (John 11).
Set out thus in a paragraph, this short analysis of the fourth gospel may appear unconvincing. Can stories as simple as these bear the weight of such profound theological ideas? Those unfamiliar with John need to be reassured. All Johannine scholars are agreed that John's use of symbolism, allusion and cross-reference is highly sophisticated, and quite deliberate. All his stories, especially those of miracles, point to the God whose true nature is revealed in the death of Jesus.'
What Really Happened?
If John gives such a strong theological slant to his miracle stories, what is to prevent the other three evangelists doing the same? Presumably nothing. It is true that John has always been called "The Theologian", with the implication that the other three were little more than "The Historians". But present scholarship insists that Matthew and Luke, and even the "original" Mark, are quite as determined as John to present a particular interpretation of Jesus, not simply to record the bare biographical facts. And the miracle stories they relate will inevitably be coloured by such interpretation.
This means, of course, that the actual historical reality standing behind the miracle stories is now lost to us. It is impossible to reconstruct the original photographable event, simply because we only have access to it through the eyes of those who have already imposed their interpretation on it. Was the story of Cana originally a parable Jesus told. rather than an event in which he took part? Was the feeding of the multitude originally only a token meal, of which the details later became exaggerated? Was the raising of the Galilean widow's son originally a midrash on 2 Kings 4, to show Jesus as even greater than Elisha?
No one can answer such questions. Nor is it important, given the emphasis of the storytellers, that such questions should receive a definite yes or no. After all, which is more telling and worthwhile: incontrovertible evidence that Jesus actually did walk on water, or a story which expresses the faith of Jesus' disciples, that in him they experienced the invincible power of God?
If a science teacher gives his pupil a flower, the question he asks is, "What is this?" If the pupil is later given the same flower by her boy friend, the question that is asked is, "What does this mean?" The precise botanical species of the flower is no longer relevant. It is in something of the same way that the historical reality of Jesus' miracles. "what really happened", is irrelevant to the evangelist. The further we probe into that aspect of them, the further we remove ourselves from his only interest.
Explaining the Miracles Away?
Is such a treatment of the gospel miracles too cavalier? They once told us forcefully and unambiguously who Jesus was — do they now tell us nothing? Are they now so demoted and diluted as to be worthless? Have they simply been explained away? Parables, poetry, symbolism — is this all that is left? Of what use is that to serious readers of the gospel?
It depends what the serious readers are looking for. If it distresses them to acknowledge poetry as poetry, if they are unaware that poetry can get nearer to the heart of truth than a mere recital of bald facts, then perhaps they are less serious than they imagine.
The approach outlined above does not aim to get rid of the miracles but to understand them. It aims to restore a more biblical image of God. whose saving power is to be seen in what is natural, not in what is unnatural. It aims above all to reinstate Jesus of Nazareth as a human being, a man among men, not a Superman. Jesus was a man, and could do no more than any man fired by the Spirit of God can do. Vet in what he did, his disciples confessed that they had seen the glory of God present among them.
Did the "impossible" take place? The answer is that this central claim of the Christian gospel is itself "impossible" — that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. If anyone believes in that central "impossibility", then it is rather pointless to keep asking questions about the historical accuracy of the miracle stories. It is rather as if the woman taken in adultery, having been sent away pardoned, could only remark on the fact that Jesus was wearing sandals at the time.
Jesus worked miracles, but since he was a human being they were the kind of miracles human beings can work. And so he presumed, quite naturally, that his disciples would work miracles greater than his own:
Truly, truly, I say to you,
he who believes in me
will also do the works that I do;
and greater works than these will he do (John 14:12).
After all, would they not, under the inspiration of the Spirit he breathed out as he died, be able to feed the hungry and expel the demons that haunt mankind, to heal the sick and offer new life to people, in far greater numbers than he could ever hope to help in his own mortal lifetime? I do not see this as "explaining the miracles away". I see it as an invitation to understand them more deeply by accepting a frightening responsibility: I am called to work miracles myself.
I could perhaps best sum up what has been said above in the following four short paragraphs. My quarrel with God-talk is that it often sounds as if it refers to a Superman living in a world of his own, occasionally intervening in the world of men and women to remind them that he is around. Most people have rejected such a God. I want to tell them how sensible they are. The true Jewish and Christian tradition speaks of a God who is present in history, and can only be known in the events of people's lives. There is only one world, not two, and God is present at the heart of it.
My quarrel with Christ-talk is that it Is more usually than not tinged with this double talk. Jesus is presented as someone from outer space, and his humanity as a fraud. This too most sensible people find impossible to take, and rightly so. I want to present a Jesus who is as human as any of my readers, and incapable of working any miracles they could not work.
My quarrel with gospel-talk is that it is presented clumsily as if it were a straightforward historical narrative, and as if all its statements were to be taken as a simple piece of objective reporting. This not only puts many people off, but is at variance with what anyone who has studied the texts knows to be the case: that they present Jesus in the way a believer now sees him, not in the way his contemporaries then saw him. The miracle stories are part of this faith-statement.
"The concern ... of the evangelist was to reveal the miracle stories as the good news in the present tense. They tell of Jesus the wonder worker. 1 know that they are true because I have experienced him doing the same wonders for me, I acknowledge him as my Lord not because in the days of his flesh he possessed more powerful magic than other wonder workers have done in their time. It is because he is risen from the dead, and therefore lives on as my contemporary and continues to work similar wonders in me... " 2
The event in Jesus' life which made people use such highflown language about him was not this miracle or that, but his death. It was in seeing that death as God saw it ("The resurrection is nothing other than the death of Jesus seen with the eyes of God", Karl Refiner) that they saw Jesus as the clearest revelation yet given of what God is really like, in terms of love, forgiveness and acceptance. Each of the gospel stories is meant to evoke that final revelation.
• Hubert J. Richards STL, LSS, taught Scripture at Theological College from 1949 to 1965, was Principal of Corpus Christi College, London from 1965 to 1972 and Lecturer in Religious Studies at the School of Education, University of East Anglia from 1975 to 1987. He is a well known lecturer on the biblical and theological problems facing teachers of Religious Education. He has published several books on biblical subjects as well as four song books. From 1965 to 1985 he led an annual study tour to Israel.
1. Those interested will find a fuller treatment of the matter in the author's The Miracles of Jesus: What Really Happened? Mowbray, London, 1983.
2 Ibid. p. 109.