Despite their disagreements, both believing and skeptical Bible scholars can agree on certain things about the life of Jesus.
One of these is that, during his day, Jesus had a reputation as a miracle-worker. Accounts of his healings, exorcisms, and other miracles are found throughout the Gospels.
While skeptical scholars may dismiss miracles like the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the Walking on Water, and the Resurrection, even they admit that the evidence we have points to Jesus performing healings and exorcisms.
Not that they believe these were genuinely supernatural, but they’re prepared to concede that Jesus engaged in activities similar to those of modern faith-healers and exorcists, that some of the people he ministered to reported a relief of their symptoms, and that he thus gained a reputation as a wonder-worker.
However, Bart Ehrman—ever a contrarian—begs to differ.
In his book, Jesus Before the Gospels, Ehrman writes:
I want to consider whether it is absolutely certain that Jesus was already understood to be a miracle worker even in his own day, prior to his death.
My view of that question is a minority position, but one that I want to explain.
I think the answer is no.
I am not saying that I know for certain that Jesus was not considered a miracle worker during his life. But I do think there are grounds for doubt (p. 221).
To say that his position is a minority one is an understatement. I can’t think of anyone—outside the realm of mythicists who don’t think Jesus even existed—who doesn’t hold that Jesus had a reputation as a miracle worker.
So how does Ehrman argue his case? He says:
Let me begin by making two points that I think everyone can agree on: (a) With the passing of time, Jesus’s miracle-working abilities became increasingly pronounced in the tradition, to an exorbitant extent; and (b) the stories of his miracles were always told in [sic] to make a theological point (or more than one point) about him (ibid.).
Based on these two points, Ehrman makes two general arguments.
Ehrman’s First Argument
In essence, the first argument is that—after Jesus’ death—stories about his miracles grew over time, both in terms of the sheer number of them and in how impressive the reported miracles were.
From that, one could infer that, the earlier you go, the fewer and the less impressive the miracle stories would be. And, Ehrman would suggest, perhaps there were none at all in Jesus’ lifetime.
To back up the initial premise of this argument, he writes:
That Jesus’s miracle-working abilities increased the more Christians told stories about him should be pretty obvious to anyone familiar with the noncanonical Gospels.
In Chapter 1 I referred to some of the striking accounts: as a newborn Jesus was a walking, healing Son of God; as an infant he ordered palm trees to bend down to provide his mother with some fruit; as a 5-year-old he could make mud sparrows come to life, wither playmates who got on his nerves, and kill with a word teachers he found irritating; after his miraculous life, at his resurrection he emerged from the tomb as tall as a mountain; and on and on.
These, of course, are simply the narratives I’ve already mentioned—not the sum total of what one can find in the accounts (ibid.).
Here Ehrman refers to things reported in several noncanonical gospels. The childhood-related stories come from the Infancy Gospel of Matthew (aka Pseudo-Matthew) and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.
The reference to his being as tall as a mountain when he came out of the tomb comes from the Gospel of Peter.
What can we say about these?
More Time = More Stories
It’s certainly true that there are more stories about Jesus performing miracles in print today than there are in the surviving literature of the first and second centuries.
This is a function of the fact that people have had an additional 18 centuries to write books about Jesus.
Some of these are novels—like Ben-Hur or The Robe—and the authors of historical fiction regularly produce new accounts of miracles in their works, even though they expect their audience to recognize the fictional nature of the accounts and don’t expect them to believe these miracles actually took place.
Also, there have been people like Joseph Smith who wrote books that are ostensibly nonfiction, such as the Book of Mormon, which also contain new stories of Jesus performing miracles. In these cases, the authors do expect the reader to believe that the stories actually took place.
There are thus more stories about Jesus’ miracles today just because people have had more time to write them.
Some of these stories are no doubt more dramatic for the same reason: The more time you have to think things up, the more time you have to think up really dramatic things.
But this doesn’t give us a good reason to suppose that there were no stories about Jesus’ miracles in his own day.
What You’d Need to Show
If you want to show that the number of stories circulating about Jesus’ miracles in his own day may have been zero then you need to show something much more specific than just a general trend toward more stories over time.
You’d need to show an early and steep trend. You’d need to show that there was a trend to a dramatic rise in the number of miracle stories in the first and second century.
You’d also need to show that these stories were not understood as fictions (like the miracles in modern novels) or as symbols but as things that people were expected to take as the literal truth.
Only on the basis of such a trend could one propose that the number of miracle stories in circulation went from zero in Jesus’ day to the large number reported in the canonical Gospels.
This is something Ehrman fails to do.
Ehrman’s Noncanonical Examples
There are problems with each of the three noncanonical gospels Ehrman cites.
To begin with, the Infancy Gospel of Matthew was not written until the seventh century, which is way too late to show any kind of trend existing in the first century, when the canonical Gospels were written.
By contrast, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter were probably written in the second century, making them potentially relevant. However, there are problems here also.
It is not clear that the authors of the Infancy Gospels (pseudo-Matthew and pseudo-Thomas) expected people to take their stories as real history.
Early Christians liked fiction just as much as we do, and there are works of early Christian fiction.
Furthermore, the authors of Christian fiction often did not explicitly label their works as fiction, just as modern authors don’t. If you look at the beginning of Ben-Hur, you won’t find any warning saying, “This is just a novel. Don’t take it as real history.”
Modern authors expect their readers to tell the difference between history and fiction, and ancient authors could expect the same thing—particularly when their audience is reading about things not found in the Gospels being read in church.
When you go through the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the quaint stories it contains about Jesus’ childhood (making sparrows out of mud and bringing them to life, striking people dead, etc.), it’s easy to imagine the author simply making up these stories as part of an exercise in historical fiction—something he never meant people to take as real history.
Just like Anne Rice never meant people to take seriously the things she made up in her book about Jesus’ childhood (which, incidentally, includes material from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas).
We thus have a real question about whether the stories of this work were ever intended to be taken as literal history.
The same is true about the Gospel of Peter.
Jesus’ Head Above the Skies?
Here’s Ehrman’s own translation of the relevant passage:
39 [T]hey saw three men emerge from the tomb, two of them supporting the other [i.e., Jesus], with a cross following behind them.
40 The heads of the two reached up to the sky, but the head of the one they were leading went up above the skies.
41 And they heard a voice from the skies, “Have you preached to those who are asleep?”
42 And a reply came from the cross, “Yes” (Lost Scriptures, 33).
So Jesus is being supported by two men whose heads read up to the sky and Jesus’ head reaches above the sky. They are followed by a floating cross, and when God speaks, the cross speaks a reply.
Did the author mean for all this to be taken literally?
The ancients were not stupid. They trafficked in symbols, and it’s easy to think the author (pseudo-Peter) expected the author to recognize the non-literal nature of the account.
In particular, incredible heights read like deliberate hyperbole to make theological points: the two figures accompanying Jesus are heavenly in nature (their heads reach to heaven), and Jesus himself is superior even to them (his head reaching above the heavens).
There are thus real reasons to doubt that any of the examples Ehrman cites are relevant to showing the existence of an early and steep trend of Christians inventing miracle stories that were meant to be taken as real history.
But let’s suppose I’m wrong. Suppose that both the authors of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter did mean for people to take these stories literally.
Looking at Other Non-Canonical Gospels
If there was the kind of early, steep trend that we need, we would expect to see it in other early noncanonical gospels.
One of the best-known second century gospels is the Gospel of Thomas, which is a collection of sayings. According to Ehrman himself:
The book records 114 “secret teachings” of Jesus. It includes no other material: no miracles, no passion narrative, no stories of any kind (Lost Scriptures, 19).
Huh. So no miracles in Thomas. Doesn’t really fit the pattern that Ehrman is proposing.
I haven’t done a careful study of the other second/third century gospels and done a count of the miracle stories they contain (many are too fragmentary for that), but my impression is that they don’t support the trend, either.
In fact, many of them are principally dialogues where Jesus talks to people to communicate (Gnostic) teachings—not works filled with miracle narratives.
Looking at Early Non-Gospels
A related problem is that, if early Christians were rapidly inventing new stories about Jesus’ miracles, this trend ought to show up in works that aren’t narratives about his life.
For example, the Apostolic Fathers and later, second century authors ought to be reporting them.
We ought to find them saying things like, “I know this isn’t found in the Gospels, but here’s this really awesome story about a miracle Jesus did.”
Once again, I haven’t done a study for purposes of making a count, but my impression is that—while they may mention a few noncanonical miracles—there is no general and accelerating trend to reporting new Jesus miracles in their works.
We don’t seem to have evidence for the kind of trend that Ehrman needs to show if he wants to argue that there may have been no stories of Jesus working miracles in his own day.
And things only get worse when we look at the canonical Gospels.
That’s what we’ll talk about next time…