How can we understand the claims about Jesus’ 1st-century nature miracles and healing miracles in light of our 21st-century knowledge?
Everything’s a Miracle
The Rev. J. Carl Gregg
21 August 2011
Broadview Church; Chesapeake Beach, Maryland
14 When [Jesus] went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. 22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” 34 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. 35 After the people of that place recognized him, they sent word throughout the region and brought all who were sick to him, 36 and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
In this morning’s scripture, we see three miracle stories in quick succession. First, the feeding of more than five thousand people with, at first, only five loaves and two fish. Then, we read about Jesus and Peter walking on water. Finally, we hear of many people being healing by touching even the fringe of Jesus’ cloak.
I would like to focus here at the beginning mostly on the first of these three stories (the feeding of the multitude), but we’ll also see that similar insights apply to all three stories. One part of this story that I’ve always liked is that Jesus doesn’t allow the disciples to pass the buck. After spending the day curing the sick, the disciples want to “send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” But Jesus puts the onus of responsibility squarely back on them: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” Those words are hard to hear after a long day’s work: “You give them something to eat,” especially when you are in a “deserted place, and the hour is now late.”
The further problem, as the story goes, is that the disciples can at first find only “five loaves and two fish,” which would not go far in feeding “five thousand men,” much less all the additional “women and children.” One explanation for what happened is that there was some miraculous, supernatural divine intervention that magically multiplied the five loves and two fish into, not only enough to feed the multitude, but also enough to have twelve baskets full leftover.
Some of you will recall an alternative explanation that we explored a few months ago when we studied a parallel version of this story in Mark 6. In that sermon, I invited you to consider that what happened was not a violation of the Law of Conservation of Energy, which says that, “Matter may be neither created nor destroyed.” Instead, I think that the disciples’ act of sharing their five loaves and two fishes inspired members of the crowd to begin sharing the food they had brought into a sort of domino effect — such that more and more people kept sharing until, not only had “all eaten and been filled,” but also they ended up with leftovers!
In other words, some people had likely forgotten to bring food or had not planned to stay so late in the day listening to Jesus’ teaching. And likely other people had brought more food than they needed. When everyone started sharing, they all discovered to their surprise that there was more than enough food to feed everyone, with excess leftover. As Gandhi said, “There is enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”
Some of you may continue to hold to a more supernatural explanation for these biblical accounts, which I can respect. But I also want to offer some alternative possibilities for the other miracles stories in this chapter for your consideration. Just as we learned in high school physics about the Law of Conservation of Energy,” we similarly learned that the Law of Gravity prevents anyone from walking on water. But instead of approaching this miracle story in the same way as the feeding of the multitude, I want to explore a different way of applying twenty-first century insight into a first-century story through a technique called History of Religions Analysis. That term is simply a method of approaching religious texts that asks, “What parallels are there for this story in the history of our world’s religions?” In this case, the answer is that there are surprisingly many parallels, many of which predate the historical Jesus. In tracing these parallels, I will follow the excellent work of the New Testament scholars W. Davies and Dale Allison in their commentary on Matthew.
Closest to home are the precedents in the Hebrew Scriptures, especially with the prophet Elisha. There are numerous fascinating parallels between Elisha and Jesus that we will hopefully have time to explore at some point. But for our passage in question, the key story is from 2 Kings 6, which tells about a time that some men with Elisha were cutting down trees near a body of water. When one of the ax heads slipped off the handle into the water, the servant became distressed because, not only because his tool had been ruined, but also because the ax was borrowed and he know the owner would want it back. Elisha saved the day by making the iron ax head rise from the bottom of the water and float until the man could retrieve it — thus similarly defying the Law of Gravity as had Jesus and Peter when, according to Matthew, they walked on water.
In other Hebrew Scripture parallels, God is spoken of as having “trampled the waves of the Sea” in Job 9:8. Likewise in Habakuk 3:15, God is said to have, “trampled the sea with your horses, churning the mighty waters.” And in Psalm 77:19, it is said of God that, “Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.”
In a papyrus fragment catalogued as P. Berol 1.120, “we read of a demon with the power to read upon rivers and seas.”
Lucian of Samosata, a second-century C.E. Greek rhetorician and satirist, wrote a story called the Philopseudes, which literally means, “Lover of Lies” or “Cheater.” This collection contains the original version of the story of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” was first made famous in our own day in Disney’s Fantasia. I bring up Lucian and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” because his original version “refers to a magician who was imagined by people to march on the sea.”
A collection of ancient texts known as the Papyri Graecae Magicae (the “Greek Magical Papyruses”), which date anywhere from the second-century B.C.E. to the fifth-century C.E., “contain instructions on how to pass over water without assistance.”
One of the most provocative parallels, dating to approximately three hundred years before the life of the historical Jesus, comes from “The Buddhist text, Jataka 190, [which] tells the tale of a disciple who walked upon the water when he meditated upon the Buddha and who sank when he did not.” That parallel has strong similarities to Peter’s experience of both walking and sinking as he approached Jesus on the water.
In some of the fifth-century C.E. collections of the sayings of the Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers, there is a “story of a certain hermit Bessarion crossing [a river] on foot.”
Finally, in the seventeenth-century, according to the writings of the Sabbateans, followers of a Jewish rabbi named Sabbatai Zevi, who when thought to be drowning, “rose from the sea; and on another occasion he calmed a sea storm.”
I’ve taken the time to list these parallels to the account of Jesus walking on water — some of which predate the historical Jesus — to invite you to consider how such miracle stories came to be told and how they came to be repeated and recapitulated. Scholars who spend their lives studying religious texts through History of Religions Analysis often begin to hypothesize that these accounts influence one another. One motivation is when religious adherents seek to make their religion seem superior to the others. In other words, as the stories of religious founders from Buddha to Jesus to the Desert Mothers and Fathers to Rabbi Zevi get told and re-told and re-told once again, they can get re-mythologized and recast. To oversimplify, details can get added to the tradition along the lines of, “Well, if you think your founder had an impressive story of walking on water, wait until you hear what I heard happened with my religion’s founder!”
To consider a third way of applying twenty-first century insight to first-century religious narratives, let us turn our attention briefly to our final story in this morning’s scripture of many people being healing by touching even the fringe of Jesus’ cloak. Somewhat flippantly, New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan likes to ask if such stories derive more from the “Department of Public Relations rather than the Department of Medical Records.” He is, of course, not saying that Jesus had some sort of official marketing expert. But he is asking us to being to ponder how oral history happens.
Perhaps more profoundly, Crossan also invites us to consider what precisely is mean by “healing” when the claim is made that all who touched even the fringe of Jesus’ cloak were healed. Crossan invites us to consider if there might sometimes be a distinction between “healing” and “curing.” One contemporary parallel might be between “Curative Care” (like chemotherapy) and “Comfort Care or Palliative Care” (like Hospice). In no way do I want to preclude that there are ways in which healing touch and prayer may have a mysterious impact beyond that which medical science can current quantify.
At the same time, perhaps Jesus’ compassionate presence provided a kind of accepting, non-anxious, healing comfort that those who were sick had never previously experienced. The challenge for us is that perhaps we can provide similar healing with our compassionate presence to those who are sick. Perhaps Jesus also provided a kind of social healing to those who had been outcast because of their illness. There are, in other words, many different types of healing, and it is far from clear exactly what is meant by the claim that all who touched even the fringe of Jesus’ cloak were healed.
In exploring all these different sorts of healing, we need to be careful about attributing ways of healing onto Jesus that neither we nor others are able to perform in the twenty-first century, because to do so can unduly get us off the hook for the ways in which God may be calling us to offer social healing to those who have been ostracized or to offer the comfort of our healing presence to those in the midst of curative care or transitioning into palliative care. In this vein, the writer Annie Dillard has said that, “It is a weakening and discoloring idea that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time but that it is too late for us. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less. There is no whit less enlightenment under the tree by your street than there was under the Buddha’s bo tree.” The challenge then becomes, not merely whether you believe supernatural, magical, divine intervention happened 2,000 years ago in the life of the historical Jesus or 2,500 years ago in the life of the historical Buddha or a four hundred years ago with Rabbi Zevi. The larger challenge is what we are doing and what God is calling us to do here in the twenty-first century.
To continue reflecting on what miracles mean in both the history of religions and today, I invite you to listen to the words of the singer-songwriter Peter Mayer from his song, “Holy Now”:
Note: You can listen to the song for free online here:
When I was a boy, each week, on Sunday, we would go to church, and pay attention to the priest. He would read the holy word, and consecrate the holy bread, and everyone would kneel and bow. Today the only difference is, everything is holy now.
When I was in Sunday school, we would learn about the time that Moses split the sea in two and Jesus made the water wine. And I remember feeling sad that miracles don’t happen still. But now I can’t keep track ‘cause everything’s a miracle.
Wine from water is not so small. But an even better magic trick is that anything is here at all. So the challenging thing becomes not to look for miracles but finding where there isn’t one.
When holy water was rare at best, it barely wet my fingertips. But now I have to hold my breath like I’m swimming in a sea of it. It used to be a world half there, heaven’s second rate hand-me-down. But I walk it with a reverent air ‘cause everything is holy now.
Read a questioning child’s face, and say it’s not a testament. That’d be very hard to say. See another new morning come, and say it’s not a sacrament. I tell you that it can’t be done.
This morning, outside I stood, and saw a little red-winged bird. Shining like a burning bush. Singing like a scripture verse. It made me want to bow my head. I remember when church let out. How things have changed since then. Everything is holy now. It used to be a world half-there. Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down. But I walk it with a reverent air ‘cause everything is holy now.
1 “Parallel version of this story in Mark chapter 6” — see my sermon, “Enough Is as Good as a Feast.” One major theme of this sermon is that the Feeding of the Multitude was both miraculous and God-inspired, but not magical — only emblematic of what is always possible whenever individuals and groups open themselves to the transformative power of putting the love of God and neighbor into practice.
2 “There is enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed” — see similarly billionaire Warren Buffet’s opinion piece in this past week’s New York Times titled, “Stop Coddling the Super-Rich.”
3 “A more supernatural explanation for these biblical accounts” — on the move toward understanding God as part and parcel of naturalism, see David Ray Griffin, “Natural Theology based on Naturalistic Theism” in Reenchantment Without Supernaturalism: A Process Philosophy of Religion (Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion), 169-203.
4 History of Religions Analysis — see Dale C. Allison and W. D. Davies, Matthew: A Shorter Commentary (International Critical Commentary), 240-241.
5 “Department of Public Relations rather than the Department of Medical Records” — John Dominic Crossan, First Light: Jesus and the Kingdom Reader, 15.
6 “Healing touch and prayer may have a mysterious impact beyond that which medical science can current quantify” — see Bruce Epperly and Katherine Gould-Epperly, Reiki Healing Touch: And the Way of Jesus.
7 Peter Mayer’s “Holy Now” is available for purchase at http://www.petermayer.net/music/?id=4.