Chapter 6: The Event and the Miracles
As we turn our attention to the problem presented by the miracles of the Gospels we are manifestly considering a phase of the same subject as engaged us in the preceding chapter. The reasons for giving that problem particular consideration are, first, that it offers an excellent opportunity of applying and illustrating the principles just discussed and, secondly, that it constitutes for many, because of what are felt to be its religious implications, a special problem of quite peculiar urgency.
The first question is obviously simply a question of historical fact: Did the miracles occur? Granted the general view of the nature of the Gospels which we have been considering, this question is not only proper but inevitable, and it deserves a straightforward answer. The second question to which we must come is concerned with the religious implications of the answer we shall find ourselves making to the historical query.
At the beginning of this discussion recognition again must be given to the fact that the greatest of the miracles, the resurrection, stands near the very heart of the Christian event. Not only must it be recognized that the resurrection occurred -- we have seen that our own being as members of the community bears witness to it -- but also that no naturalistic or purely psychological explanation of it is adequate. Of this fact and its inescapable significance as representing a special act of God I have said enough perhaps in preceding chapters, but it is especially important that this should be remembered in connection with this discussion of the miracles.
Indeed, the resurrection is most significant not because it is a miracle in and of itself, but because it is a mighty sign and symbol of the miraculous character of the entire event. As everything I have tried to say from the very beginning of this book will have reminded us, the primary element of Christian faith is the recognition that the occurrence, or series of occurrences, to which we must trace the origin not only of the church but also of whatever is distinctive and most precious in our own life as religious persons -- this occurrence, or cluster of occurrences, was not an ordinary event, standing simply in a natural succession to other ordinary events, but represented rather, a special and uniquely significant divine act, a purposeful deed of God for our salvation. Of this event, thus received and understood, the resurrection is both the culmination and the symbol. To deny the resurrection is to deny the event; to affirm the event is to affirm the resurrection.
The resurrection, however, is in an altogether different category from the many miraculous incidents which the Gospels record as having taken place during Jesus’ earthly career. The resurrection is an essential part of the event and is witnessed to continuously in the existence of the church and in the presence of the Spirit; this cannot be said of these miraculous incidents. So far as we can know from anything in our experience, they may, or may not, have happened. Speaking broadly, I should say that they did not. We may well believe that Jesus had a strange power in quieting disturbed and distraught persons (who would have been called demoniacs) and that he cured many persons ill in other ways. Not only is the Gospel evidence for such healings exceedingly good, but they are also congruous with the character of Jesus and with historical probabilities generally. But it will be readily granted that to say this is not to acknowledge the historicity of miracles in any commonly accepted sense.
The doubt that the miracles occurred need not rest upon any a priori denial of the possibility of miracles. I do not see how any believer in God can entertain any such a priori judgment -- who are we to say what can or cannot happen? -- and the incongruity of such a presupposition is even more manifest when it is entertained by one who recognizes the miraculous character of the whole event of which Jesus’ career was the center. If that occurrence as a whole represents a special divine act in human life and history, how can the possibility of any number of miracles within it be ruled out? To recognize, however, that we have no right to deny the possibility of the miracles is by no means the same thing as affirming the fact of them. Such an affirmation can be made only if the historical evidence is sufficient to support it.
But when the disinterested student examines this evidence, he is not likely to find it very convincing. For one thing, he cannot fail to observe that the element of the miraculous grows in bulk and importance as one moves from our earlier sources to the later. Paul’s letters, our earliest literary sources, say nothing of any miracles in the earthly life. Let it be granted that Paul has little of any kind to say about the earthly life; still, one would have expected some hint of the existence of extraordinary wonders in the career of Jesus if he had known of them. The doubt that he had any such knowledge is confirmed by the observation that he finds the deepest significance of the earthly career in its utter humiliation: "He emptied himself"; he "took the form of a slave"; "he was rich but for our sakes became poor." Jesus’ possession of miraculous powers, it is not unreasonable to believe, would have represented for Paul a qualification of that complete identification with man, that complete sharing of man’s lot, which was at the heart of Paul’s whole conception of Christ. According to Paul, Jesus was "declared to be the son of God . . . by the resurrection from the dead." There is nothing to indicate that Paul thought of this "declaration" as having been in any way anticipated by the appearance of any divine "glory" in the earthly career. Everything, indeed, points the other way. Paul’s conception of the significance of the earthly life would have been vitiated by such a doctrine.
But as we move from Paul to the Synoptic Gospels, we find a different Christological conception and an abundance of miracles. It is now believed that Jesus was, in effect, "declared to be the Son of God" long before the resurrection -- at his baptism according to Mark or at his birth (according to Matthew and Luke). Thus, his whole earthly life, or at least his entire public career, is given a character and significance which, earlier, had belonged only to his present exalted resurrection life. To be sure, this character and significance of the earthly life was regarded as having been somewhat hidden; the declaration was not quite a public declaration -- this is made especially plain in Mark, the earliest Gospel -- but hints and signs of the truth were constantly breaking through for all who had eyes to see. Jesus reveals, at least to a few chosen associates, not only miraculous healing powers, but also powers over nature: he calmed the sea; he walked on the water; he multiplied the loaves and fishes; he raised the dead; and supernatural portents attended his own birth and death. It is not hard to show a heightening of the miraculous as we move from Mark to Matthew to Luke, but the miracles are an integral and important feature of all these Gospels, although there is some indication that the writers were aware of the fact that Jesus’ own generation had for the most part not witnessed them. Hence, the artificial secrecy with which the miracles are so often surrounded.
But when we reach the Fourth Gospel we find all such restraint and reticence abandoned. Jesus is constantly "showing forth his glory" in various mighty works. The miracles, though fewer than in the Synoptics, are greater and vastly more impressive. Moreover, the marks of human limitation and weakness (other than merely physical weakness) which the Synoptics contain are in this Gospel eliminated or obscured: Jesus is not tempted and is rarely, if ever, deeply troubled; there is no struggle in Gethsemane and no despairing cry from the cross; Jesus occasionally asks a question, but never to learn something he does not already know; he prays, but not because he needs either help or assurance.
This account of the growth of the miraculous from earlier and later sources is much too quick and summary to be adequate, and is designed only as a reminder of what is already familiar. But is it not clear that we have here an instance of that "transfiguration" of the earthly life about which we were thinking in the preceding chapter? The miraculous is, by and large, an aspect of Jesus’ career as seen in retrospect and in the light of the resurrection. Indeed, in some cases it is actually suggested that the disciples recalled the miracle only after the resurrection or, at any rate, spoke of it only then. The miracles mark the reading back into earlier stages of the event of what is, after the resurrection, recognized to be the meaning of the whole. The earthly life tends to be transfigured in every part. Every miracle is indeed a miniature transfiguration scene.
If this is the character of the miracles of the Gospels we are in position to appreciate their truth without believing in their actuality. For "transfigurations" are never concerned with the actuality of facts but with the truth of meanings. Indeed, a transfiguration might be thought of as representing falsification at one level for the sake of truth at another, infidelity to fact for the sake of fidelity to meaning. Artists are constantly making such transfigurations. The portrait painter does not hesitate to alter the contour of a feature to bring out the meaning of a face. It is not enough to say that such transfigurations are excusable on occasions or can be justified; one must recognize that they are often absolutely necessary if the true meaning of the whole is to be expressed.
Thus I should say that if the story of Jesus’ life had been told just as it seemed -- and in a sense was -- at the time it was occurring, that story would not have been adequately or truly told or that life was a part of a supremely significant, a divine event, the event through which God, the Creator and the Ruler of all nature as well as the Lord of history, was entering into man’s life with new redemptive power; but that fact was not grasped clearly, if at all, till the event had reached its culmination in the resurrection, the coming of the Spirit, and the creation of the community. The story of Jesus’ life could not have been adequately told until then. It might have been accurately photographed earlier, but it could not have been truly portrayed.
No part of the Gospel tradition is so obviously legendary in its detail as the early chapters of Matthew and Luke, in which the circumstances of the birth of Jesus are recorded. Hardly a single item in these chapters can be surely trusted: even the time and place of the birth are not beyond legitimate question. And as for the wealth of miraculous detail, how can one possibly think it actually happened so? And yet what Christian would want the story of the birth of Christ told otherwise? What Christian would willingly surrender the appearance of the angels to the shepherds and the "multitude of the heavenly host" singing a hymn never heard before on land or sea, or the star dropping low from the skies to guide the magi from far away mysterious lands to the Judean village and the stable who God himself lay a tiny baby in the arms of his mother? It is inconceivable that these stories will ever be surrendered and this can be said, not because they are familiar stories or beautiful stories, but because they are in the profoundest sense true stories. They convey -- as no matter-of-fact way -- of describing the birth of Jesus could -- the supreme importance of the birth of Christ as the initial phase of the total event in which "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth." No one to whom the meaning of the total event has been revealed will ever find the birth stories either untrue or irrelevant.
And so again we are brought back to the event as a whole as the matter of real significance for Christian faith. The event as a whole was an act of God. This does not mean that it was not also in every part a divine event. But each part was divine because it participated in a divine whole, not because it was divine in and of itself. The whole event was a miracle. To see this is to realize that it matters little, if at all, whether any particular part of it was in some special or separate sense miraculous. The question of miracles in the New Testament becomes religiously and theologically important only when the miraculous character of the whole event is made dependent upon the answer we give to it. But the character of the entire event as an act of God cannot properly be made dependent upon this answer. That character made itself known quite apart from any particular miraculous incident or any number of such incidents together. The resurrection might seem to be an exception here; but the resurrection, as I have been at pains to point out, is more than a miraculous incident. It is a mighty sign and symbol of the miraculous character of the total event.
The resurrection was not the final miracle of a series, but the first. It was not accepted because of earlier miracles, but earlier miracles were accepted because of the resurrection. For the resurrection was the moment when not only the spiritual lordship of Jesus began but when also the whole earthly life was "transfigured" before his disciples -- the moment when the event they had witnessed and were still witnessing was realized to be one whole and to be in its wholeness an act of God.