Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Craig Evans on Jesus' Miracles

New Testament scholar Craig Evans, in his book Fabricating Jesus, has a nice chapter called “Diminished Deeds: A Fresh look at Healings and Miracles.” How can we understand Jesus, he asks, if we do not take his miracles into account? The good news is that “today, scholars are more open to talking about the miracles of Jesus because they rightly recognize that the task of the historian is to describe what people reported and recorded. It isn’t the historian’s task to engage in science and metaphysics.” (139) Why were people drawn to Jesus? Not because of his teaching, says E.P. Sanders, “but because of his reputation as a powerful healer.” (139)

Did Jesus’ mighty deeds actually happen? Evans says the historian uses the following criteria to draw conclusions. Some of the criteria are:

1) Multiple attestation. “The mighty deeds of Jesus are found in all of the NT Gospels, including Q (the sayings source used by Matthew and Luke). The attestation of miracles in Q is significant, for miracles do not play a significant role in this source.” (140)
2) Dissimilarity. “If the NT Gospel stories reflected invented tales, we should expect them to reflect what people usually experienced.” (140)
3) Embarrassment. This “refers to sayings or deeds that are not easily explained as inauthentic creations of the early church, simply because there are aspects about them that would have been potentially embarrassing. One such event in the life of Jesus was his baptism by John.” (140)

Evans then states 5 things important to know about Jesus’ mighty deeds.

1) “His healings and exorcisms were an intrinsic part of his proclamation of the kingdom (or rule) of God. The mighty deeds and the proclamation must go together; neither can be understood without the other.” (141)
2) “The miracles were viewed by Jesus and others as fulfillment of prophetic Scripture. His miracles were in step with what was expected of God’s Messiah. (141)
3) “The mighty deeds of Jesus were revelatory; they revealed things about Jesus and his mission… to discount the mighty deeds is to lose sight of important aspects of Jesus and his work.” (141)
4) “Jesus’ mighty deeds were different from and more impressive than those of his near contemporaries.” (141)
5) “Jesus’ reputation as a healer and exorcist was such that long after his ministry was concluded, his name was still invoked by Christians and non-Christians alike, thus attesting to his lasting reputation and power.” (141)

Evans then writes about each of these five points. This forms the rest of his chapter on Jesus’ mighty deeds.

Some individual bullets from the rest of this chapter are as follows.

The essence of Jesus’ message was the kingdom (or rule) of God.
The coming of God’s kingdom means the collapse of the kingdom of Satan.
Jesus’ proclamation of the rule of God is associated with exorcism and healing.
Jesus’ disciples are sent out to do the same things Jesus is doing; viz., proclaim the gospel of the rule of God, and heal the sick and deliver people from demonic oppression.
Jesus’ “ability to cast out demons is not through magic or gimmickry, but it is “by the finger of God,” the same power that had worked long ago through Moses and Aaron. This is an astonishing claim, for Jesus has not only distanced himself from magic; he has claimed that the greatest power that god ever worked through a human being was at work through him.” (145; cf. Exodus 7-8, esp. Ex. 8:18-19)
“The miracles were not some sort of sideshow by which Jesus impressed crowds or silenced critics. The miracles were essential… to prove that the ministry of Jesus was in fulfillment of ancient prophecy.” (146)
“It was through is power to heal that Jesus demonstrated to skeptics that he possessed the authority to forgive sins.” (148)
“Jesus did not pray in order to bring about healing, He never bargained with God… In contrast to Eleazar the exorcist, Jesus made no use of paraphernalia – no ring with a seal, no smoldering root, no incantations handed down from Solomon. Jesus simply touched someone or spoke a word and the healing or exorcism took place.” (153) This was received as a “new teaching,” and with “authority.”

Evans concludes the chapter with:

“The conclusion to be drawn from the evidence is that Jesus was known as a healer and exorcist throughout his ministry and beyond, and that theswe mighty deeds clarified in important ways the significance of his proclamation of the rule of God and the significance of his own person. If we hope to understand the historical Jesus fully and accurately, his mighty deeds must be given their proper place. Mighty deeds diminished is a Jesus diminished.” (157)

This is an excellent, scholarly defense of the healings, miracles, and exorcisms of Jesus. Any Jesus-follower interested in such things will do well to ingest Evans’s scholarly contribution to the discussion.