Sunday, February 03, 2019

The Miracles of Jesus

What are the miracle of Jesus really like?  Lots of people are confused about them, comparing them to meaningless magic tricks, and citing ridiculous parallels. 

I analyzed gospel miracles and the comparisons in my last book, but unfortunately, not many people have read that book, and are still missing the true and extraordinary character of Jesus' extraordinary acts.  So here's Chapter 15 from Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels

Chapter Fifteen: Miracles
Over the past several chapters, altogether we have analyzed twenty-eight non-theological qualities that the gospels share, holding religion “constant,” as it were.  I have argued that these traits are like “fingerprints of God” on the gospels, marking them as essentially historical accounts.  They bear tell-tale, yet unintended, signs like fingerprints, DNA, tree rings, or crystals in a Greenland granite pointing to where Earth’s magnetic north had been when they froze.  Those signs similarly reveal the gospels as truthful texts.  Of course, we still haven’t examined the “control texts” our ACE team provides to ensure that these qualities are as special as I claim.  But such traits provide strong prima facie evidence for the historicity of the gospels that does not appeal to specifically Christian theology.  (Thus bypassing most of the arguments in Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, for instance, since I have said nothing about Jesus’ divinity.)  These texts speak eloquently even when they are not preaching.  And they tell the attentive reader, “Jesus walked here.”   

In theory, if materialism is true, the gospels should be "just like other religious texts:” tales about one guru, miracle worker, sage, or messiah among many.  By “religious” skeptics mean a book that reflects belief in the supernatural, signs, and divine calling, revealing transcendent meaning in mundane events: in short, that its basic assumptions are at odds with “scientific” or Enlightenment values.  We who have gazed at the stars through Galileo’s telescope, said Robert Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar, can no longer buy such hogwash. 

To this point I have laid out a case for the historicity of the gospels based on "neutral" qualities.
However, I believe two theological traits offer additional evidence for the truth of the gospels: the character of miracles described in them, and how Jesus is depicted as fulfilling Hebrew tradition.  Aslan and Carrier say much about gospel miracles, without I think grasping their true nature or significance.  This is understandable, because the facts may seem counter-intuitive, especially for those who hold to a materialistic worldview.  My goal in this chapter is to explain why miracles in the gospels differ from magic or fantasy, and appear to be rooted in fact. 

The twenty-ninth trait that helps define the gospels and support their historicity is thus:

The miracles Jesus worked are realistic, purposeful, constructive, respectful of the natural order, and pious, in the sense of pointing people to God. 

Miracles are hard to overlook in the gospels.  As Columbia historian and atheist Morton Smith pointed out, every layer of gospel material is suffused with them:

“All major strands of gospel material present Jesus as a miracle worker who attracted his followers by his miracles.  All of them indicate that because of his miracles he was believed to be the Messiah and the son of a god.  Anyone who wants to deny the truth of these reports must try to prove that within 40 to 60 years of Jesus’ death all the preserved strands of Christian tradition had forgotten, or deliberately misrepresented, the most conspicuous characteristic of the public career of the founder of the movement.”[1]

But after the Enlightenment, when writers like Voltaire and Hume reacted with repugnance to the sentimental excesses of Medieval hagiography, miracles came to embarrass many readers who otherwise felt admiration, even affection, for Jesus.  The simplest solution was, ironically, a form of exorcism.  Thomas Jefferson took scissors to the gospels and physically cut out passages that troubled Enlightenment sensitivities.  (Which were legion!)  The Jesus Seminar worked the same occult magic on a grander and superficially more nuanced scale, voting that most of the purported deeds of Jesus in the gospels simply had not occurred.  Others, following the “principle of contamination” proposed by British philosopher Steven Law, point to gospel miracles as a cause to discount most or all the Gospel story as legendary.

Miracle or Magic? 

What is a miracle?  I believe many doubts about the gospels arise from conflating different phenomena within this catch-all term.  

Ever since David Hume wrote his famous essay “Of Miracles” (which first appeared in print in 1739-40), criticism of the gospels has often depended on defining “miracle” tendentiously.  Hume defined miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature.”  He also claimed that an act should only be called a miracle if there were “uniform experience” against it.  But if God the Father created Nature, how could the Son, acting on His behalf, “violate” God’s laws?  The New Testament word semeion means “sign.”  Ten thousand trees grow along the road: a sign stands out by its relative rarity, intentional placement, and the meaning it carries.  A “sign” persuades not because it is unique (“uniform experience” against it) but because it is exceptional yet familiar enough to recognize, is placed in a prominent location, and is the product of a rational mind that seeks to communicate to other rational minds.  A sign is “unnatural” not because it violates nature, but because it is a relatively rare, but not unique, communication from beyond nature.  Signs in the gospels are not a “violation,” but an affirmation, of the patterns of Nature, acts pointing to the Creator that reflect His rationality. 
Christian miracles are not, therefore, random acts that run roughshod over the laws of physics and probability, cackle and throw bottles of fairy beer out the window as they speed past.  As Eric Metaxas explains, “(A miracle) is . . . first and foremost a sign pointing beyond itself to the identity of the one behind it . . . and behind all other miracles . . . “[2]

Biblical miracles thus reflect the character and style of the Creator of galaxies, ripples on lakes and fluttering hummingbird wings, beauties that express laws or patterns of nature given by rational mind.  Like science, genuine miracles evoke wonder, not mere bewilderment.  They are rational and empirically convincing.  They are instructive, as the universe instructs, though in a more pointed fashion.  In Nature God teaches grammar.  In miracles, the divine voice consecrates the grammar of Nature while transcending it, making sudden sense of a hundred lines in an unexpected, but fitting, word: “Be still!” “Rise and walk!” like a jewel in the crest of a crown. 

It is important to distinguish between miracles in this sense, the sense of the New Testament and the acts of Jesus, from allegedly supernatural events of a radically different character.  (Call them “sub-natural.”)  People bark like dogs.  A statue bleeds, or grows into a giant.  A guru vomits up a stone penis.  If one fails to distinguish between such tales and Jesus healing the sick and feeding the hungry, one fails to grasp the phenomena or rationally evaluate its plausibility and significance. 
Maybe neither set of events occurs.  But seek thistles on fig trees, or scour the grounds for peacocks under the impression that they nest in drainpipes, and failure is assured from the start. 

Seeking without thinking first about what you are looking for is a common error, in history as in dating or shopping.  That error ruins a famous British philosopher’s argument against miracles.  

“What about Bert?”

The editor of the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal Think, Stephen Law, wrote an article entitled "Evidence, Miracles, and the Existence of Jesus,” arguing that miracles in the gospels undermines their credibility, and even the likelihood that Jesus was a genuine historical person.[3]
Law offered three propositions.  First, extraordinary claims ("miracles") require extraordinary evidence.  Law reworded Hume’s familiar maxim as follows: 

Where a claim’s justification derives solely from evidence, extraordinary claims (e.g. concerning supernatural miracles) require extraordinary evidence.  In the absence of extraordinary evidence there is good reason to be skeptical about those claims.

To illustrate what Law meant by "extraordinary" and "miracle," he told the story of two hypothetical friends, Ted and Sarah.  While generally known to be "sane and trustworthy," the couple claims that a man named Bert visited them at home the night before.  After a few hours of conventional conversation, their guest engaged in some unusual behavior:

“Bert flew around their sitting room by flapping his arms, died, came back to life again, and finished by temporarily transforming their sofa into a donkey.”

Law tells this story at length, and returns to it often.  In many ways, his paper might be described as "The Parable of the Eccentric Dinner Guest." 

Law argues that he would be justified in disbelieving this story, despite his originally high appraisal of his friends' character.  Why?  Because of the "extraordinary nature of their claims."  Furthermore, we have "acquired a great deal of evidence about the unreliability of testimony supposedly supporting such claims" as ghosts, fairies, and miracles.  Law claims (without offering support) that stories about the supernatural are "constantly being debunked, exposed as fraudulent, etc."

One might say the same of "stories about celebrities" or "
tabloid tales of politicians.”  Human reports of many kinds are exposed as false, even fraudulent: some studies report (correctly or not) that a high percentage of peer-reviewed studies prove inaccurate, on careful examination.  But the fact that a significant proportion of anecdotes involving celebrities are false, does not mean there are no movie stars, or that they never (say) have affairs, or murder their lovers.  Still less do scientific screw-ups prove science a hopeless cause.  Law seems to be taking an illegitimate shortcut.  He believes miracle stories have proven universally discreditable, apparently, but does not take the time to demonstrate to his readers that this key assumption is, in fact, true.   And such a sweeping generalization would take some proving. 

Many Christians tell their own stories of miracles.  Craig Keener and Eric Metaxas, both educated, thoughtful men, relate numerous tales they have witnessed personally, or those close to them have witnessed.[4]   C. S. Lewis, St. Patrick, Augustine, and Paul are among those who relate similar first-person stories, as have many people I know and respect.  Why should anyone reject his or her own experience simply because a British philosopher tells a silly tale about an imaginary friend and offers a vague generalization about allegedly debunked miracles? 

More to the present point, what does Law mean by calling Bert’s imagined behavior “extraordinary?” 
Much confusion circles around the meaning of that word. 

What is "extraordinary?"  

does Law really disbelieve his story about Bert?  Aside, that is, from the fact that he admittedly made it up?   Three questions reveal more general problems with such analogies:

(1) Who was Bert?  Law gives him no personality, family, occupation, hometown, history, moral insight,
unique, definitive sayings, or characteristic modes of expression.  He seems less "extraordinary" as a person than Joe the Plumber, and far less real. 

What if this Bert who rose from the dead, were not a quirky evening gues
t, but an innocent child killed by a stray bullet in a gang war, whose grief-stricken grandmother prayed frantically for him?   Would that put Bert's resurrection in a different light? 

What if he were a great national leader and international political hero, a Gandhi or Martin Luther King, whose work might bring freedom to the oppressed?  

What if he were the one man who taught the planet to love better than any else? 

What if, to add
context, prophecies of a death and resurrection much like his own appeared, not only in his own culture (to the intellectual satisfaction of some of its greatest geniuses), but even in cultures thousands of miles and millennia removed

Faced with
such a very different context, a stalwart atheist might still find the idea that God brought back to life even the holiest person called to change the world most profoundly, beyond belief.  But to construct a parallel that omits such important points of congruence, and give us this cardboard figure of Bert instead (less real than the Bert in Mary Poppins), is to fail to construct any meaningful parallel.   

(2) Why did Bert fly?  Law does not ascribe motive, either.  To entertain his hosts after coffee?  (Or other drugs of choice - Law mentions LSD?)  Or, perhaps, to save the life of a child stranded in a fire on the second floor?  Why did Jesus rise from the dead?  To show dramatically,
“sign-ificantly” at the center of human history, that God takes the side of the oppressed against their oppressors, and fundamentally change how the whole world thinks about justice?  To give human beings hope that Entropy will not, after all, have the last word?  Or as part of the after-cocktail show? 

Again, the frivolity of Law's story discredits its relevance, and his own perception in telling it. 

(3)  How did Bert fly?  Law says, by flapping his arms.  That is no explanation, of course.  The body of an adult man usually weighs more than 150 pounds.  Our bones are solid, not hollow, like those of birds.  Nor are our arms aerodynamic: they do not create "lift" when we run.  Nor even if they did create some small lift, is there likely to be enough room in an ordinary cottage to attain takeoff velocity. 

Law offers no explanation for Bert's after-dinner activities: they are "extraordinary" not just in the sense of "unusual," but of "arbitrary" and "unexplained." 

According to the New Testament, God raised Jesus from the dead.  That is to say, the Creator of gravitons, the four forces, quantum fields, and planet Earth, who oversaw, over billions of years, the production of life from non-life, sentient life from prokaryotes, chose at that moment, in the fullness of history and according to ancient promises to Abraham, Moses
, Isaiah, and others (as we shall see), to conquer death through the holy man whom He had called. 

Such a hypothesis is completely unrelated to Law's story.  These three unasked questions – who, why, how – dissipate the plausibility of the Parable
of the Eccentric Dinner Guest by orders of magnitude, while increasing the plausibility of Jesus' resurrection in similar exponential fashion.  All that aside from the fact that Law admits he made his story up, while Matthew, Mark, Luke and John claim to be telling the truth

Could it be that much of the force of
Humean skepticism - orbiting teapots, pink unicornsspaghetti monsters, and other beloved beasts in the skeptical menagerie, derives precisely from the silliness of the examples to which they appeal?  Is this, indeed, simply a cheap Steven Colbert-style form of mockery?

But I’ve interacted with Dr. Law, and believe he was offering a sincere argument.  I think that argument failed because he failed to recognize the true nature of New Testament miracles. 

What are Jesus’ Miracles Like?

New Testament miracles or “signs” tend to share five characteristics:

Miracles beg to be verified; magic insults our intelligence.  The claim that God has overcome death by raising a righteous man from the grave who had been murdered by the Romans, does demand verification.  Citing such verification, philosopher William Lane Craig has debated some twelve eminent skeptical New Testament scholars on that claim, by
one skeptical account winning practically all those debates.[5] In the process he cites such verification. 

Many of the criteria which confirm the general historicity of the gospels that we explored in previous chapters also help confirm Jesus’ miracles.  In John 5, for example, Jesus heals a man at the Pool of Bethsaida, who has been an invalid for 38 years.  John mentions that the pool had five columns, a fact that archeology confirms, lending the story background plausibility.  Jesus also heals a man born blind at the Pool of Siloam, which has also been uncovered (John 9).  There he is subjected to harsh questioning by Jesus’ enemies, related in highly realistic dialogue. 

When Jesus is confronted with the death of Lazarus, he cries, showing compassion that coheres with his words and actions elsewhere in the gospels.  The motives that prompt concern over this miracle are related with consummate cultural realism (“The Romans will come and take away our nation”), and a political figure known from extra-biblical sources (Caiaphas) plays a credible role. 
A Canaanite woman approaches Jesus to ask for healing for her daughter, and Jesus responds with what sounds like cruelty (“I have only been sent to the lost sheep of the House of Israel . . . It isn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”)  This is doubly embarrassing: to Gentile Christians, since it seems to express contempt for foreigners, and to Jews, because Jesus then healed the girl.  But Jesus’ doubly-shocking response coheres with the wit, self-possession, compassion and power visible elsewhere in the gospels.  This anecdote also only seems to fit at one point in history: arising from Jewish concerns, leading to universal conclusions, but only Jesus would have dared speak and act like that. 

Again, when Jesus feeds the 5,000, the crowd says “Surely this was the prophet who was to come into the world,” and tries to make him king.  John preserves the Jewish concept of a political Messiah here (which Aslan also wants to impose on Jesus!)  This miracle is also attested by all four gospels, showing that not only is Jesus’ character as a miracle-worker multiply-attested, but so are individual acts. 

Gospel miracles, then, not only make sense, but they make sense of the evidence.  By contrast, Law's story not only seems to evince no positive reason for belief, it clumsily insults our intelligence.  Law is a famous philosopher and Mark was (they say) a scientifically-illiterate, credulous Galilean hill-billy (or Latin riff-raff).  Yet the pre-scientific hick wins his “epic rap battles” with Random House editors and the eminent British philosopher Stephen Law alike.  Maybe he held the unfair advantage of knowing what really happened.   

* Miracles tend to be practical; magic is often showy.

Few contrasts could be more stark than that between the works of Jesus, who heals, comforts, feeds the hungry, and liberates people from disorders and oppression, and Bert's parlor tricks.  But those tricks do resemble the “wonders” worked by the likes of Sai Baba or Vivekananda, or the apocryphal Jesus of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.  As Metaxas points out,
“The idea of Jesus making sparrows from the mud also has something unmistakably show-offy about it, which is radically out of keeping with the character of Jesus we find in the rest of the gospels.”[6]

For my MA, I researched a Chinese “living Buddha” whose disciples told me numerous first-hand stories of his wondrous works: dreams, psychic knowledge, healings, allegedly saving one gentleman (whom I interviewed) in a car accident.  Lu Shengyan described the conversion of death-row inmates in Singapore who practiced his True Buddha, and in whose bodies were found between four and thirty shelizi, crystalline bluish objects taken as signs of the Buddha’s favor.  Lu put on a good show, his entertaining yarns explaining much of his popularity.  He told of marvelous adventures rebuking stone dragons or the god of Mount Rainier (responsible for a drought in the Northwest), and outwitting his Buddhist competitors in the supernatural realm. 

So Law could have found real-world models similar to his story.   But not in the gospels.  Jesus’s signs are practical as a detour sign from the Department of Transportation.  He heals because people are sick.  He raises a woman’s son because she is alone.  He feeds the crowds because they hunger, not just for food that perishes, but for eternal hope.  The vast majority of miracles in the gospels are worlds removed from turning a sofa into an ass, or flapping around the room because the tele was on the blink.   

"Miracles enhance human dignity; magic makes us more or less than human." 

There is nothing dignified about Bert's performance.  But one finds dignity in everything Jesus does in the Gospels, including his miracles.  Before healing a paralytic, Jesus tells him, “Take heart, son, your sins are forgiven” (Mt. 9: 2-8).  To deny a person’s sins is to deny their dignity as a causal agent: to forgive them is to grant the dignity both of correction, and of renewed fellowship.  Jesus looks those he heals in the eye and holds them responsible, allowing men and women to fulfill their roles in society better and bring glory to God.

* "Miracles point to God; magic points elsewhere."  

As signs, miracles point us to the Creator.  Gospel miracles, explains John Meier, are based on a relationship of faith or love between a petitioner, not a business client, and God: “There are no lengthy incantations, endless lists of esoteric names and unintelligible words, amulets, charms, or recipes of foodstuffs to be boiled.”[7]  When Jesus heals a paralytic, others in the room feel “awe” and praise God “who had given such authority to men.”  The author does not explain the miracle by later Christian theology: “Jesus is the Son of God, so of course he has the authority to heal:” authority is given “to men,” as a Jewish audience might realistically say in reaction.   
In Acts of Faith, his penultimate statement of religious theory, Rodney Stark defines "magic" as follows:

“Magic refers to all efforts to manipulate supernatural forces to gain rewards (or avoid costs) without reference to a god or gods or to general explanation of existence.”[8]
Law provides a stark example of this contrast, as well.  Bert's tricks may impress (or bewilder) his friends.  But they inspire no one to praise the Creator. 

* "Miracles come in response to requests; magic to demands." 

God is not the hero of the Parable of the Eccentric Dinner Guest, Bert is.  He does not ask God, he acts
by his own occult powers.  Law says that if Ted and Sarah's "miracle" story is false, it, "will be the impressive result of a powerful, false-testimony producing mechanism."   Law suggests three plausible sources: hypnotism, LSD, or "a powerful desire to get themselves on daytime TV." 

But if Ted and Sarah took LSD the night before their visit, why didn't Law notice any symptoms?  Why did both of them imagine Bert doing exactly the same things?  Do different people ingesting LSD usually share identical hallucinations? 

On the Daytime TV hypothesis, why would talking to Law get them on TV?  Is he also a television producer?   And is there supposed to be some parallel between Ted and Sarah going on the tele, and Christians getting torn to pieces in the arena by lions for preaching Christ resurrected?   One would think that if an incentive like fame explains why some people lie, overcoming a disincentive like death would suggest honesty.  Or are we only supposed to look for disconfirming motivations? 

The alternative to such flippant and incoherent invention is to find good historical analogies to gospel miracles.  Law’s fellow skeptics have made such a search, which we shall introduce shortly, then analyze in detail in later chapters.  But first, let us examine the historical law Law extracts from his Parable of the Eccentric Dinner Guest, and that other skeptics sometimes borrow. 

The Contamination Principle

Law argues:  

Where testimony/documents weave together a narrative that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims, and there is good reason to be skeptical about those extraordinary claims, then there is good reason to be skeptical about the mundane claims, at least until we possess good independent evidence of their truth.

The problem with the gospels, Law argues, is that they contain dozens of miracles, which cannot be reduced to natural events:

“. . . Most of the details we have about him come solely from documents in which the miraculous constitutes a significant part of what is said about Jesus, where many of these miracles (walking on water, etc.) are unlikely to be merely misinterpreted natural phenomena, and where it is at least 
questionable whether we possess any good, independent non-miracle-involving evidence of his existence.”

But if this principle works, then so does its opposite.  If, as we have seen, there are dozens of excellent reasons to credit the honesty of those who wrote the gospels, then that credibility also "contaminates" the miracle stories, and renders them more plausible.  (And atheism less plausible.)  
This is especially so since, as Wright points out, the works of Jesus fit seamlessly into (cohere with) the total story that the gospels tell:

"The mighty works do not in any way protrude from the rest of the narrative, as they ought to if they had been added to the tradition by people interested in telling stories of a Hellenistic-style wonder-working hero-figure.  Rather, they fit remarkably well into the complete picture of Jesus' ministry."[9]

Now that, with Bert’s help, we have defined gospel miracles more accurately – not as “extraordinary” or a “violation of nature” but as “significant” events that are practical, benevolent, appeal to reason, enhance humanity, and glorify the creator of the natural world – with the help of other skeptics, let us seek parallels in ancient fiction. 

Aslan, Carrier, Ehrman, and Matthew Ferguson are among those who follow Morton Smith on this quest. 

Aslan: “Miracle Workers Were Common”

Following Smith, Aslan recognizes that the miracles of Jesus cannot be expunged from early Christian records: they are found in every layer of gospel material.  How likely is it that Jesus' first disciples would simply and unanimously invent so important a trait of their master, as that Jesus healed blind people and caused the lame to walk?  (Even while, as Smith points out, no other rabbi or teacher of the Law showed more than the faintest tendency in this direction - say, by offering an effective prayer for rain once or twice?)

But magicians were common, Smith claims, and Aslan says so, too.  Jesus was "just another traveling miracle worker and professional exorcist roaming through Galilee performing tricks."[10]  Galilee was a Mecca for “charismatic fantasts” claiming to “channel the divine for a nominal fee.”  Jesus was unique merely in offering such services for free.[11]

Unfortunately, again, Aslan reaches his “studied scholarly” conclusion by simply ignoring every passage in the gospels that contradicts it.  (And exaggerating evidence that supports it.) 
If Jesus were just one of many miracle-workers, why do people in the gospels always seem so astonished at Jesus' power, which they recognize as unique and unprecedented?  "No one has ever heard of anyone opening the eyes of a man born blind!" (John 9:24)  "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man" (Luke 5:8).  "After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they said, 'Surely this is the Prophet who was to come into the world" (John 6:14).  Others grew angry, and accuse Jesus of black magic (John 8:48; Mat 9: 34; 12:24).

Jesus’ audiences reacted, in other words, like people witnessing events that shocked them to their core, not like a crowd watching just another flamboyant preacher, or a mime at the beach on Saturday afternoon.

How does Aslan support his claim that miracle-workers were common in ancient Israel?  By pointing to three familiar parallels: Honi the Circle-Drawer, Hanina ben Dosa, and Apollonius of Tyana.  I shall devote most of a later chapter to exploring the superficially most plausible such parallel, the supposed miracles of Apollonius. 

Honi prayed to God during a drought, says Josephus writing well after Mark and Luke, and God sent rain.  This simple story is embellished a century later in the Talmud, in which Honi negotiates the volume of precipitation with God.  Some people reportedly recovered after Hanina ben Dosa prayed for them, a lizard bit him with no effect, and a spring once opened at his feet.  These stories, too, were reported long after the life of Jesus, so they could theoretically have been influenced by the gospels, if they exhibited any real semblance.    

No doubt an exorcist could draw a crowd - they still do, in many countries, and sell movie tickets in others.  But it is absurd to say people only followed Jesus because he didn't charge for his healings.  That contradicts both the reasons people actually gave, as recorded in the earliest accounts - and one should not toss out historical records on a whim - and clear and powerful differences between what Jesus did, and what little his "competitors" are said to have accomplished.  Aslan seems not to have noticed those vast differences, but the crowds obviously did.

Carrier: Gandhi’s Imaginary Miracles

Richard Carrier offers two solutions to Jesus’ miracles.  But they contradict one another, and together illustrate skeptical confusion.  In Alabama, Carrier told me that Jesus’ miracles were merely psychosomatic:

“Once, according to the gospels, he cured a fever, and that’s it - just an ordinary fever.  Yet hundreds of thousands were dying of those more serious ailments all around him.  Carefully avoiding them, Jesus never had to try to heal them.  We know he couldn’t, as no other human faith healer can, either . . . Because faith-healing isn’t real.  It’s psychosomatic.”

As an explanation for miracles in the gospels, this will not do.  (As even Law implicitly recognized!)  The gospels say Jesus cured Peter’s mother-in-law, who was running a fever, but they don’t say it was “just a fever.”  It might have been malaria, cholera, or rabies, for all we know.  Alexander the Great died of just such a vaguely diagnosed fever.

In addition, far from “carefully avoiding” hard cases, the gospels specify that Jesus healed a man who had been blind from birth, the deaf and crippled, and caused the dead to walk.  Medically speaking, after three days underground, death remains a ticklish condition to cure!  Jesus also cured lepers and reattached an ear that had been lopped off.  The gospels also note numerous times when Jesus cured large numbers of people, without specifying what their illnesses were.  He is also said to have walked on the water, multiplied loaves and fishes, and risen from the dead. 

Faced with cures of “more serious ailments,” Carrier executes a graceful axel leap and offers a second argument against miracles facing precisely the opposite direction.  It is not that gospel miracles are too ordinary to believe, actually they’re too incredible!

"If I gave you a book about Gandhi, having all the same attributes that [Marshall] claims the gospels have, with all those same miracles I was talking about, you still wouldn't believe it.  Because you can be objective about that, and agree that it still wouldn't be reasonable to believe stories like that."

As another Argument from Fantasy History, Gandhi is more imaginable than Law’s friend Bert: we can picture him sitting cross-legged in his white dhoti, and generally agree he impacted history in a positive way.  But I at least have not heard of any lepers that he healed.  Asking what to make of imaginary evidence involves the sort of Theater of the Mind argumentation that Francis Bacon warned against in his essays constructing the foundations of empirical science.  Show us Gandhi’s alleged miracles, then let’s talk! 

Worse, Carrier now contradicts his original reason to discount the miracles of Jesus.  First he claims that Jesus didn't heal anyone really sick, it was all psychosomatic.  Now he says Jesus did such flagrantly fantastic deeds - walking on water, stilling storms, feeding the 5000 - that come on, we know that kind of stuff doesn't happen, imagine someone like Gandhi doing it!

If you deny the same historical sources both because they are too fantastic and too mundane, Occam warns that the explanation for your denial may lie inside your own thick skull, rather than in your sources. 

And Gandhi was not Jesus.  In three ways, he might even be seen as one of Jesus’ disciples: (1) He read and was deeply influenced by the gospels directly; (2) thinkers like Leo Tolstoy and John Ruskin who influenced him were also inspired by Jesus; and (3) as John Farquhar detailed in Modern Religious Movements in India, by the time Gandhi returned to India, Christianity had been transforming India for more than a century.  Farquhar mentions Gandhi once as a bright new reformist star at the tail end of his book.  But Farquhar quotes the eminent Hindu reformer Narayana Chandavarka to summarize what had happened already: “The ideas that lie at the heart of the Gospel of Christ slowly but surely penetrating every part of Hindu society and modifying every phase of Hindu thought.”[12]  Remarkable as Gandhi was, he led an essentially political movement, was influenced deeply by Christianity, and seemed to admit his limited understanding of God in his autobiography. 

But Carrier cites more concrete alleged parallels to the miracles of Jesus from several ancient texts that actually do exist.       

Fish on the Grill

Carrier sometimes describes as a “resurrection” an episode in Herodotus that I prefer to call the "Miracle of the Sizzling Fish."

Towards the end of his sweeping, gossipy and entertaining history of the Persian War, Herodotus relates a peculiar event that occurred in the aftermath of Greek victory.  A corrupt satrap named Protesilaus had robbed and profaned a temple in a Greek city just south of the Dardanelles (in modern Turkey).  Some Athenians who guarded the man after he was captured, witnessed as fish “jumped and gasped like fishes newly caught” while baking on the grill.[13]  The scoundrel they were guarding then told his guards that the god whose temple he had profaned was revealing his power through those fish, and therefore Protesilaus was prepared to offer the god 100 talents in compensation, and the Athenians 200 talents for his life and that of his son.  But despite this “word from beyond” and the enormous potential bribes, the Greeks executed them both.   
Now here is how Carrier relates this anecdote, along with similar tales from Herodotus.  I place key claims in italics:

“Fifty years after the Persian Wars ended in 479 BC, Herodotus the Halicarnassian asked numerous eyewitnesses and their children about the things that happened in those years and then wrote a book about it.  Though he often shows a critical and skeptical mind . . . he nevertheless reports without a hint of doubt that the temple of Delphi magically defended itself with animated armaments, lightning bolts, and collapsing cliffs; the sacred olive tree of Athens, though burned by the Persians, grew a new shoot an arm’s length in a single day; a miraculous flood-tide wiped out an entire Persian contingent after they desecrated an image of Poseidon; a horse gave birth to a rabbit; and a whole town witnessed a mass resurrection of cooked fish!”[14]

In the space of the sixteen words in italics above, Carrier manages to misrepresent his source in no less than seven ways.  First, in fact Herodotus tells us two books (chapters) earlier that his job is to report stories, whether he believes them or not: “I must tell what it said, but I am not at all bound to believe it, and this comment of mine holds about my whole History.[15]  So there’s your “hint of doubt,” and more than a hint.  Second, the “whole town” did not witness the fish – just “the men who were crowding around” the grill – apparently a few Athenian soldiers.  Third, the fish did not “resurrect:” they merely showed surprising “action” on the grill, as (to add some plausible interpretation) meat with a high oil content may over a hot fire.  They didn’t jump into the ocean like Nemo and have conversations with blue surgeonfish, or walk along the Sea of Galilea and eat breakfast with disciples.  Nor were the fish “cooked,” they were cooking.  (Which helps explain their action.)  Fifth, Carrier neglects to inform his readers that the blatantly supernatural interpretation of their liveliness was a desperate yarn spun by a crook doomed to die if he didn’t come up with something quick.  Sixth, in fact, Herodotus offers no hint that he believes anything did happen.  Seventh, neither did anyone else, apparently: the general in charge had the prisoner nailed to boards, and his poor son stoned to death before his eyes.   

Unlike Bert, at least the fire did lend those fish plausible locomotive power.  Carrier, though, must be almost as desperate as that doomed satrap to represent such a story as a parallel to the Resurrection. 

Matthew Ferguson: Did Caesar Heal People?

True, Herodotus also offered more robust wonders.  A horse giving birth to a rabbit obviously does not meet our definition of a genuine miracle.  But Matthew Ferguson echoes Carrier in arguing that one can find “many” parallels to Jesus’ miracles among ancient historians – in fact, “miracles” that are actually better-attested than anything in the gospels:

"Many ancient historians report miracles that are far better attested and independently corroborated than those in the gospels.  The historians Tacitus (Ann. 6.20), Suetonius (Gal. 4), and Cassius Dio (64.1) all independently corroborate that the emperor Tiberius used his knowledge of astrology to predict the future emperor Galba’s reign.  These same historians likewise independently corroborate that Vespasian could miraculously cure the blind and crippled (Tacitus Ann. 4.81; Suetonius Vesp. 7.2; Dio 65.8).  As I explained above, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio are not simply copying each other, whereas the gospels are heavily dependent upon each other for information."[16]

The force of this argument seems to run as follows: (a) These pagan stories are clearly absurd.  (b) What makes them absurd is the supernatural element.  (c) They resemble miracle stories in the gospels (only they are better-attested).  (d) So the gospel stories must be even more absurd.

But paradoxically, if the analogy were so pressing, one would gain nothing by citing it.  One could merely point to gospel accounts, and their absurdity would be evident.  On the rare occasion when the gospels relate incidents that do seem bizarre – especially, the story late in Matthew of saints rising from the dead and wandering around Jerusalem – even a Christian like myself can recognize the problem.  But these other tales simply do not measure up to the sober and realistic reports that predominate in the gospels.

Skeptics have been citing Vespasian to undermine the gospels for a long time. 
(Again, if analogies are so common, why do skeptics always cite the same thin ones?)  It is, at least, not a gaudy or sub-natural act like a horse baring a rabbit.  C. S. Lewis opined that if a reasonably decent emperor like Vespasian were allowed to heal someone by God's grace, then Christians could live with that.  But nothing came of that miracle.  An isolated miracle is vastly less credible, a priori, than the miracles of Jesus, both because of Jesus' character, and because the life of Jesus is part of a larger salvation story that has transformed the world.  A sign that points nowhere is hardly a sign.

But the analogy is even worse than Lewis seemed to recognize.  The two men “cured” were only partly lame and blind, and it was politically-expedient to pretend to have been cured by the emperor.  Tacitus himself did not believe the story he was passing along, as Bill Pratt points out:

“A newly appointed emperor in a city taking sides in an imperial political contest needs a miracle as a stamp of divine approval.  Two men willingly come forward to provide the ‘miracle’ needed.  They have nothing to lose and everything to gain.  Even the ancient Roman historian who reports this miracle doesn’t believe it, his account dripping with sarcasm and irony.  Are we to seriously believe that Vespasian’s ‘miracles’ rival the resurrection of Jesus?  No truly objective person could possibly think so.”[17]

The story of Galba is even weaker.  Tacitus reports that Tiberius was in the habit of taking purported astrologers to the top of a building.  If he found their claims incredible, he had them thrown into the sea.  But at one point, he told Galba (already consul in his mid-30s!), "You, too, Galba, will some day have a taste of empire."  And indeed he became emperor, decades later, for seven months.

How is this prediction a miracle?  Does it “violate natural laws,” as Hume put it, or even provide evidence of inspiration?  Barack Obama believed he'd eventually become president, when he still had almost no power, in a country more than ten times the population of the Roman Empire.  Does anyone call that a miracle?  Even if Tiberius did guess right about a young and already powerful political superstar (and how many times did he guess wrong?), one need not appeal to the supernatural to explain that (mildly lucky) guess.

Ferguson argues that in genuine ancient historical writing, miracles occur “at the fringe,” not “the core” of the narrative: 

"Unbelievable stories still crop up in the writings of Greek and Latin historians, ranging from Herodotus (8.36-41) claiming that, when the Persians attacked Delphi, its armaments came alive of their own accord and defended the temple (just like in the seventh Harry Potter movie!), to Josephus (BJ 6.5.3) claiming that a cow gave birth to a lamb as an impending sign of Jerusalem’s destruction, to Suetonius claiming (Gal. 1.1) that a single lightning bolt had, before Nero’s death, struck the Temple of the Caesars and simultaneously decapitated all of the emperors’ statues, even dashing the scepter from the hand of Augustus’ statue (that is one heck of a lightning bolt!).  Of course, I do not believe such stories and their placement in these narratives does make me less trustful of their authors.  But fortunately, for ancient historical authors, these ridiculous tall tales are usually at the fringe rather than the core of the narrative."

By contrast, the gospels:

"Narrate unbelievable claim after unbelievable claim about a guy who can feed whole crowds with one tuna sandwich, cause dead saints to rise from their graves, himself resurrect from the dead, and then fly into space in broad daylight.  These unbelievable tall tales make up the bulk of the narrative.  As philosopher Stephen Law points out (with) the principle of contamination, the frequency of these unbelievable stories cast doubt on even the mundane details in the narrative . . .”

A better moral to derive from the comparison would be, why is it so hard for skeptics to find credible analogies to the miracles of Jesus, that they cite such lame ones?  

The world is full of wondrous and mundane stories.  Some mundane stories are credible (“a Greek king wages war on his neighbor”), but others seem incredible (“Aristotle’s student whips the Persian Empire and fights his way through ranks of trumpeting elephants to India”).  Some wondrous stories seem incredible (horse gives birth to rabbit), but others are both sensible and well-attested, as we have seen. 

It is simplistic to just ask if a given story conflicts with the materialistic worldview.  One must also inquire: (1) Does it claim to be true?  Or like Santa, the Incredibles, Bert, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, is it merely a figure of fun?  (2) Does it cohere with a credible worldview that can be believed on other grounds?  (Most of the modern world deems God believable, Athena less so.)  (3) Does the story give either obvious or subtle marks of truth, such as those we have explored?  (4) Is the nature of the event itself credible?

Miracles are one of the key criteria appealed to in seeking parallels to the life of Jesus, as we shall see.  Having analyzed the character of Jesus’ miracles, and surveyed some popular but failed attempts to find “Jesus doubles,” we shall be in a better position to evaluate other attempted analogies. 

[1] Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician: Charlatan or Son of God?, 4
[2] Eric Metaxas, Miracles, 87
[3] Faith and Philosophy, April 2011
[4] Craig Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts; Eric Metaxas, Miracles: What They Are, How They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life
[5] Luke Muehlhauser, “William Lane Craig’s Debates (Reviews),”
[6] Eric Metaxas, Miracles, 77
[7] Raymond Martin, The Elusive Messiah, 68
[8] Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, Acts of Faith, 105
[9] N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 189
[10] Reza Aslan, Zealot, 102
[11] Ibid, 103
[12] John Farquhar, Modern Religious Movements in India, 445
[13] Herodotus, The Histories, 9.120
[14] John Loftus, editor, Christian Delusion, 292
[15] Herodotus, The Histories, 7.152
[16]Matthew Ferguson, “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament,” at
[17]Bill Pratt, “Are the Healing Miracles Of Vespasian Believable?,” at