In some of my university classes on Christian origins we discuss Jesus and the gospels. A number of my students are nonplussed to find that historians do not automatically add Jesus’s miracles to the historical data bank of all the things that Jesus likely did. “All the gospels,” they correctly claim, “present Jesus as a miracle-worker. Even Paul spoke of performing and witnessing miracles. Why, then, are events like the resurrection, the virginal conception, walking on water, and turning water into wine not included in the biographical history of Jesus when compiled by academicians?”
It is a legitimate question. Why don’t we include the miraculous deeds of Jesus along with his more mundane, worldly activities such as teaching and preaching to present a more complete picture? Before we proceed to answer that, let’s briefly discuss the tools scholars use to arrive at historically-probable reconstructions of the life of the man from Nazareth.
Historians must rely on defensible criteria when selecting reliable information from among the ancient reports about Jesus. They can’t simply say that they “feel” this or that event is probable or improbable. That would leave them open to charges of personal bias guiding their decision-making. Their decisions must be supported in such a way that other researchers can review and assess articulable reasons why a certain event has been judged historically likely or not.
For now, let’s just consider one of the criteria that historians often use when reconstructing Jesus’s life. It is called the “criteria of multiple independent attestation.” That certainly is a mouthful! MIA is simply the proposition that, when a tradition, such as a saying or event recorded about Jesus, is found in more than one independent ancient source, we can elevate the level of probability that that saying or deed is historical, that it really happened. An example may help.
Jesus was credited as speaking out against divorce (Mark 10:2-4; Matthew 19:3-9; Luke 16:18; 1 Cor. 7:10-15). As we can see, both the Gospel of Mark and the apostle Paul quoted Jesus as having said something negative about divorce. We have no reason to believe that Paul, who wrote in the 50s, knew the Gospel of Mark, written in the 70s. And we have no reason to assume that the author of Mark knew Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Therefore, scholars consider these documents as two (that is, multiple) independent sources for Jesus’s saying about divorce. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke also record a form of this saying. But biblical scholars are nearly unanimous in acknowledging that both of them derived the saying from Mark (the so-called Two Source Hypothesis). Thus, they are not independent. To summarize, historians are willing to grant a higher level of confidence to the likelihood that the historical Jesus made a negative comment about divorce.
So, if this criterion helps us recover the historical Jesus, why isn’t it used when miraculous events are multiply attested? For example, why, even though all four gospels and Paul (and nearly all of Christianity) make claims about the resurrection of Jesus, don’t scholars include this event as historically probable? Similarly, both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke consider the conception of Jesus to have been the result of a union between the Holy Spirit and a human woman. Why don’t historians consider that event historical? Good questions! Let’s look more closely at the issues involved.
Two things (at least) must be kept in mind when reading the gospels from a historical perspective. First, the gospels present a biased view of the life of Jesus. By that I mean they were written by believers to inspire or reinforce faith in Jesus as something more than a mere man. Even a casual reading of the gospels reveals that these are not objective biographies. Though Christian creed insists that Jesus was “fully human,” readers of the gospels are not provided with a fully human portrait of Jesus. There are, for example, no stories of Jesus hitting his thumb with a hammer, no report of him getting sick from the flu, no record of him forgetting to make an appointment, misspeaking, or making other mistakes that are typical of people who are “fully human.” Though Jesus’s human side is presented, the gospel authors are not solely, or even primarily, interested in it.
Secondly, the gospels were written in a time when supernatural forces were perceived to be at work everywhere and to affect every aspect of one’s life. People prayed to the gods or God for help with every conceivable aspect of life. They accepted as obvious the notion that divine forces interfered in human affairs – and often! If disaster, sickness, or death occurred, it was because the gods were displeased. If success or bonanzas were realized, the gods were beneficent.
People in post-Enlightenment, “Western” societies are not quite that liberal in what they attribute to God. We credit other factors such as hard work, coincidence, science, environmental forces, technical advancement, socially determinative structures, and so forth to explain the events of our lives. True, many people continue to thank (or blame) God for certain things but the level of co-dependency is generally much less than with the ancients. The point is that the gospel writers accepted and even promoted supernatural explanations for who Jesus was and what he did.
So, when historians read the accounts of Jesus in the gospels, they have to remain aware of the motivations of the authors and the nature of religious belief in the ancient world. The gospels cannot be read as if they were objective history or dispassionate biographies. They are religious documents composed for a different purpose.
Having said that, we can see that the problem of applying the criteria of multiple independent attestation to traditions involving the supernatural is multifold. In the case of the virginal conception (not “virgin birth” by the way), how can historians have any confidence that this miraculous story is historically probable? Virginal conceptions defy everything we moderns know about biology and procreation. How many scientifically-verified claims have been made about virginal conceptions? Yes, the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke each wrote about it but their accounts differ so significantly that it is extremely difficult to even begin to demonstrate the likelihood that very much of this story has any historical underpinnings.
What about the resurrection of Jesus? Multiple attestation certainly comes into play here. Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John all attest to the event although they report quite differently about who saw what and when. But wouldn’t the resurrection itself rise to the level of historical probability? Again, we have to ask how many scientifically-verifiable claims to resurrection have there been? How many people have returned to life after being pronounced clinically dead? (There is, of course, something called the “Lazarus Syndrome” where a person’s heart is revived after it stops. But this must be done within about ten minutes to be effective.)
My students often wonder why miracles seem to have been so prevalent in the time of Jesus but not so much anymore. You can probably already begin to answer their question: people were more willing to attribute natural events to the supernatural. Do miraculous events occur today? Many believe they do. For example, there are various places considered sacred where people go to seek healing of one kind or another; many claim to benefit from the experience. Sometimes people discover they are cured or healed from an illness in ways that medical science cannot explain. Claims of “faith healing” continue all over the world. Exorcisms are still performed in many cultures. Be that as it may, historians cannot attribute such events to supernatural interference with any level of probability. How does one demonstrate the existence of the supernatural anyway? It is, in the end, a matter of faith.
In short, supernatural forces remain the least likely explanations for historical accounts or events from the point of view of the historian. The existence of the supernatural cannot be demonstrated. At the same time, it is not a historian’s job to discredit belief in the supernatural as some readers presume. Might the supernatural exist? Of course! But it is also true that today’s supernatural has a habit of becoming tomorrow’s natural. Involvement of the supernatural in human affairs is a matter for theologians to debate and for others to believe or not as they choose. It is not the role of the historian to decide.