Thursday, April 30, 2009

Creating Jesus 3: we must say "no" to the miraculous

There is always a negative reaction to any serious discussion of miracles that I have in the classroom (virtual or real). The gut reaction that people have is: who is to tell me that miracles don't happen or couldn't have happened. And behind this lurks the claim that God can do anything God wants to do. Let's unpack this even though it makes people so uncomfortable (and as a warning, there will probably be a lot of things I am going to say in this long series of posts that will make for discomfort).

The claim to the miraculous is not the same as the claim to the unexplainable. Something might happen to me that I can't explain (in fact things happen to me quite often that I don't have a ready explanation for), but it doesn't become a miracle until I make it a miracle, a manifestation of the supernatural, by my interpretation of the event.

This is a very important distinction to make. Humans experience events all the time that have no ready explanation for them. But it is only our move to interpret those events as "miracles" and then as "religious miracles" and then as "religious miracles of a particular religious kind" that make the event supernatural and grant it miraculous meaning.

This is why I emphasized in so many of my ground rules that our sources are humanly-authored and reflect human experience and very particular interpretations of those experiences. We are NOT to assume what is said by these authors is what actually happened, could have happened, might have happened, or should have happened. Our sources are records of how the Christians came to understand their experiences and frame them religiously and yes, miraculously, in very very particular and even peculiar ways.

Traditional Greek Icon: Jesus Walks on Water

Let's take the example of Jesus walking on water. What are reasoned (or critical) explanations for the story?
1. The Christians made it up whole cloth to make a theological statement about Jesus: that what he could do was so miraculous that he could walk on water which no normal human being could do. This proves his divinity. Only gods walk on water.


2. There was an event that was remembered and interpreted as miraculous. This sort of miraculous embellishment happens all the time in storytelling. Need I remind us of a very recent event in which Eilan Gonzalez, the five-year old boy who survived a sea journey from Cuba on a homemade raft, became "The Miracle Child" over the course of a couple of days. His story became a story about dolphins protecting him from sharks so that he was in perfect condition when he got to Florida (they forgot to mention that his mom had wrapped him in her coat, tied him to an inner tube and gave him a bottle of water which allowed him to survive the elements). Then the Santerian priests began to embellish the "miracle" by saying that Eilan had been saved by "angels at sea." Although this is a religious miraculous interpretation, apparently it had developed from the five-year old's "eyewitness" testimony that he thought an angel kept him company at night. Finally his story was keyed to Catholic interpretation: Castro became Herod, Clinton became Pilot, and Elian became the Messiah. This is an example of a modern miracle during an age when we can document what actually happened and interview the eyewitnesses. I hope you can see from this the problems with eyewitness testimony even a few days after the event.
If the story of Jesus walking on water was completely fabricated or had its roots in some historical event, we can never know. We can conjecture all we want about a terrible storm in which Jesus and his disciples were caught on a boat and Peter almost drowned and Jesus was able to rescue him against all odds, but the fact remains that Jesus' walk on water is an interpretation that makes it a miracle. The miracle is framed in such a way that Jesus does something a normal human can't do. This works to prove to the audience that Jesus is a god.

So the ground rule remains the same: we must say "no" to the miraculous as history. The move to the miraculous is interpretative and theological. So while miracles might interest us as historians because they will tell us a lot about how Jesus was interpreted by the early Christians, they are not historical events - not in Christianity, not in Judaism, not in Islam, not in Buddhism, not in Hinduism, not in any religion.


smijer said...

Ok... I didn't see any reason for ruling out an agnostic attitude toward miracles... I don't believe it any more than you do, but we cannot prove that Jesus didn't literally walk on the water. I don't see the harm in taking an agnostic viewpoint on the miraculous - don't see how it will hurt the search for history whatsoever. But OK... ground rule accepted for what it's worth. Looking forward to seeing your reconstruction.

pearl said...

smijer, to take a step back, for purposes of “the adventure of determining how a Jewish rabbi became God” that Dr. DeConick describes in her previous post, we cannot make assumptions one way or another about the historicity of Jesus. That enters the territory of belief systems sans adequate evidence, as much as does assuming miracles to be or not to be historical events. At most we can start with a characterization of a Jewish rabbi and investigate how that depiction becomes God.

smijer said...

I've been following this series, & I understand the need not to assume historicity before it is confirmed, and the need to avoid making the assumption that a miracle account is historically accurate. What I don't understand is the need to assume miracles are untrue. I don't see where we are less likely to find an accurate result by assuming an agnostic position on miracles. That said, I'm looking forward to the reconstruction. I wonder to what extent we will find Jewish angelomorphic pneumatology behind the contemporary historical interpretation of Jesus, and to what extent that was the seed of the designation of God. I would be interested to see if we find the designation of Godhood contemporary with the life of Jesus or at some point after his death.

Michael said...

Thanks for the post, Dr. DeConick.

I wonder if it is possible that, in the case of Jesus purportedly walking on water, the "event" remembered and circulated was a time when the disciples thought they saw Jesus walking on water?

Whether he was actually walking on water or whether such a feat (pun intended) was later interpreted as miraculous is another matter.

Historically speaking, is possible that this event could be traced back to an event that bears resemblance to the story itself?

Pastor Bob said...

Now this I can agree with. There is a great deal of difference between observing an event and making a theological interpretation of the event.

Example: Jesus was crucified. Most historians believe the event happened. Jesus died for our sins. This is a theological interpretation of the event.

Thanks Dr. DeConick for this explanation. It shows a clear division between the fields of history and theology

April DeConick said...

Pastor Bob, I want to be as clear as I can, so all the comments help me to understand where I am falling short in my language and presentation of ideas. Thank you for the opportunity to exchange.

And Michael, yes it is possible that the disciples thought Jesus walked on water. But if we are intellectually honest we must admit that it is impossible to know this. It may be fabricated too.

It is like the whole question of whether or not Jesus existed. It cannot be answered given the sources we have. So my approach is to go with what we can know, and that is that the early Christians developed their theology that Jesus was God. And our sources have left us with enough footprints to figure out how this development occurred.

Michael said...

April, thanks for the clarification. I'm in full agreement that we cannot know either way, the best we can do is conjecture based on the evidence.

Thanks for taking so much time with this!

Steven Carr said...

But the miracle stories are completely fabricated - as fabricated as the stories in the Book of Mormon.

Any account of the growth of Christianity which ignores this is an account which is doomed to produce false results.

Liam Madden said...

Yes, I think it makes sense to put the gospel miracles on the same footing as stories about healing rabbis and other Jewish miracle workers of Jewish folklore. J.D. Crossan has a good discussion of some of these in his "Historical Jesus" book. When people are ascribing miraculous powers to such people, it is a similar interpretive move as those in the gospels.

pascal said...


We do not have sufficient evidence to support the claim that the miracle stories in question were fabricated, just as we do not have sufficient evidence to support the claim that the Jesus referred to in the gospels actually existed.

Rather than endlessly rehashing questions which cannot be answered, April has chosen another question which seems to offer a more fruitful, and certainly more interesting, avenue of enquiry.

At first sight it does appear extremely strange that monotheists were prepared to accept the existence of plural gods; one possible explanation is that the monotheism of Judaism at the time April is referring to has been over estimated in the process of 'making' history.

Departments of Religious Studies were, and still are, far from immune to the lures of Whiggish history; monotheism was hailed as more 'advanced' and therefore better than polytheism; it is unsurprising that 'advanced' features are talked up at the expense of scholarship seeking to establish just what the beliefs of Jews living at that time were.

The Old Testament is knee-deep in passages featuring God complaining about the willingness of his chosen people to consort with other gods; very few of those passages conain the claim that God was the only God to exist...

Michael said...

Good points all around, Pascal. Thanks for your input on this.

John said...

"Let's take the example of Jesus walking on water. What are reasoned (or critical) explanations for the story?

1. The Christians made it up whole cloth to make a theological statement about Jesus: that what he could do was so miraculous that he could walk on water which no normal human being could do. This proves his divinity. Only gods walk on water."

The conclusion that "only gods walk on water" is not necessary. After all, Peter walked on water as well, is he considered a god? He was enabled to walk on water by Jesus (who received the ability to bestow this ability on others from God, like other things he is said to have received from God), so it only reasonable to conclude that Jesus is walking on the water because was enabled by God to do so. No need to make Jesus "God" or "a god" only because he is said to have accomplished miracles. His disciples and Jews before him are said to have performed miracles, are they considered gods too?

robtul12 said...

Hello Professor DeConick. I truly did enjoy your post, however, what do you say to Dr. William Lane Craig's argument about the historical probability of the resurrection using the statement that it is only unlikely if you say Jesus was naturally raised from the dead and not that Jesus was supernaturally raised from the dead?