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Jesus Traditions

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Contents of Jesus Traditions

 

Addenda (5)

 

Addendum O

“Miracles?”

 

1 SOME PRELIMINARIES

     Strictly speaking, it is anachronistic to apply the term miracle to the biblical world, since the term implies an event contrary to natural law; but since a concept of natural law is an essentially modern notion, the term is inapplicable. (If we continue to use it, we do so because it is convenient.)

      The biblical world operated without any notion of secondary causation: God was the direct cause of everything that happened, and did not work through a system of natural laws.

      Thus, no control existed for verifying accounts of miracles: if God was the direct cause of everything that happened, anything was possible. The recounting of miracles in the early church was not a scientific exercise, but an act of worship, in celebration of God’s power working through his Son.

     

2  ASSESSING THE DOCUMENTARY EVIDENCE

In giving thoughtful consideration to miracles in the gospels, the reader needs to be aware as much as possible of the long and remarkable process by which events in the lifetime of Jesus were remembered and passed down from one person to another; aware also of the layers of interpretation which have sometimes accumulated in our written sources (as we find to be the case in the The Fig Tree episode). Accordingly, it is appropriate to inquire, as one is interpreting a miracle:

     Is there evidence of the enhancement of the miraculous element?

     Have there been editorial interests in the composition of a gospel which may have created confusion in the arrangement of the units of tradition?

     

3  CLARIFICATION OF THE PARTICULAR EPISODE, where we can bring some understanding to what is described:

     We can probably describe demon possession more accurately as mental disease, even if cures are not always easy to come by in a psychiatrist’s office.

     We can note where a case of epilepsy is a neurological problem which (today at least) can be treated with drugs, rather than a problem of demon possession; but without modern medical intervention, we quickly run out of explanations.

     We can acknowledge that there are some conditions which do not lend themselves to natural explanations: the healing of a leper (were the bodily members restored, or was the progress of the disease arrested?); the man whose withered hand is restored; and the cure of blind persons.

     There are events described which might be called “nature miracles” and for which the alternatives are discouragingly simple: it happened, or it did not. These include: walking on the water, stilling the storm, multiplying the loaves and fish, and some others.

     This is not to say that interpreters have not tried their hand at “natural” explanations: Jesus was really walking through the surf, where an unexpected sand spit was located; or, it was a coincidence that the storm which arose so quickly suddenly passed over; or, the generosity of one person offering his loaves and fish moved others in the crowd to share their lunches, which previously they had kept to themselves. (The killing of the fig tree deserves a separate discussion.) The number of assumptions which have to be made in these explanations is almost as incredible as the miracle itself.

    

Addendum P

Physical and Mental Disease

 

 Physical Disease

 

LISTING:

bulletLepers are cured: Mark 1:40-45 ( || Matthew 8:2-4 || Luke 5:12-15); Luke 17:11-19.
bulletThe blind have their sight restored: Mark 8:22-26; 10:46-52 ( || Matthew 20:29-34 || Luke 18:35-43); Matthew 9:27-43.
bulletA man with a withered hand is healed: Mark 3:1-5.
bulletA woman with a hemorrhage is cured: Mark 5:25-34 ( || Matthew 9:20-22 || Luke 8:43-48).
bulletThe epileptic child is healed [attributed to an unclean spirit]: Mark 9:16-27 ( || Matthew 17:14-18 || Luke 9:38-42).
bulletA paralytic is healed: Mark 2:2-12 ( || Matthew 9:2-8 || Luke 5:18-26).
bulletThe centurion’s servant is healed (paralysis? some mortal illness?): Matthew 8:5-13 || Luke 7:1-10.
bulletJairus’ daughter is healed (was she asleep? or dead?): Mark 5:22-24, 35-43 ( || Matthew 9:18-19, 23-25 || Luke 8:41-42, 49-56).
bulletJesus raises from the dead the son of the widow of Nain: Luke 7:11-17.
bulletOther: Peter’s mother-in-law is healed of a fever (Mark 1:29-31 || Matthew 8:14-15 || Luke 4:38-39); the deaf mute is healed (Mark 7:32-36); the woman bent over is healed (Luke 13:11-16); and the man with dropsy healed (Luke 14:1-6).
bulletSummaries of healings: Mark 1:32-34 ( || Matthew 8:16 || Luke 4:40-41); Mark 3:7-12 ( || Matthew 12:15-21 || Luke 6: 17-19); Mark 6:53-56 ( || Matthew 14:34-36; cp. Matthew 4:24); Matthew 15:29-31. Even if editorial, these summaries reflect the belief that Jesus was seriously occupied with relieving human suffering.

 

  Back to Narratives (2)

 

Mental Disease

 

   §  LISTING:

bulletSummaries of healings and exorcisms: Mark 1:32-34 ( || Matthew 8:16 || Luke 4:40-41); Mark 3:10-11 ( || Luke 6: 17-19).
bulletHealing of a man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit: Mark 1:23-27 ( || Luke 4:33-36).
bullet(Some women, including Mary Magdalene, had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, presumably by Jesus: Luke 8:1-3.)
bulletThe Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter, healed of an unclean spirit: Mark 7:24-30 ( || Matthew 15:21-28).
bulletThe demoniac who was dumb is healed: Luke 11:14 ( || Matthew 12:22).
bulletThe Gerasene demoniac (with “Legion”) is healed: Mark 5:1-20 ( || Matthew 8:28-34 || Luke 8:26-39).
bulletThe epileptic boy with a demon [strictly speaking, suffering from a neurological disorder], is healed: Mark 9:14-29 ( || Matthew 17:14-21 || Luke 9:37-43).
bulletA bent over woman, crippled by a spirit, is healed: Luke 13:10-17.
bulletThe success of Jesus as an exorcist is conceded by his opponents, though he is accused of using the power of Beelzebul: Mark 3:22 ( || Matthew 12:24 || Luke 11:15).

 

   §  Mental Disease: Now—and Then

Major psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and depression are not unique to the modern era, though only relatively recently have they been adequately described, with appropriate etiology, diagnosis and treatment. Significant breakthroughs in psychopharmacology have brought relief, if not always cure, to people otherwise enduring unspeakable misery, and have enabled them to function with some degree of normalcy. 

For people in ancient times who were afflicted with mental disease, the outlook was dismal indeed. Demon possession was the common explanation for mental disease, and for many physical disorders, as well; therapy, apart from exorcism, was non-existent. 

All sorts of questions arise when we read of exorcisms by Jesus in the gospels. Apart from the question of whether there is such a thing as demon possession, we wonder whether Jesus believed in demons, or whether his methods were an accommodation to the thought world of the people in his day. Albert Schweitzer, philosopher, theologian, musician, and then missionary doctor, though trained in western medicine, was willing to exorcise demons from his patients, in order to relieve their affliction. Perhaps it is sufficient to observe that the gospels do provide evidence of Jesus’ concern with both mental and physical disorders, and that this parity of concern seems appropriate for other times and places.

 

Back to Narratives (2)

 

Revised July 15, 2003

 

Contents of Jesus Traditions

 

 

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