Jesus and Miracles in Historical, Biblical, and Psychological Perspective

Wayne G Rollins. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 2: Medical and Therapeutic Events. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.

Thomas Jefferson was a Deist who believed that Jesus was a great moral thinker—rather like Jefferson himself, only better. He assembled his own version of the Gospels, slicing out everything miraculous with a razor. ~ Richard Brookhiser

A miracle is the violation of mathematical, divine, immutable, eternal laws. By this very statement, a miracle is a contradiction in terms. A law cannot be immutable and violable at the same time…. God cannot do anything without reason; so what reason could make him temporarily disfigure his own handiwork? ~ Voltaire

Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature. ~ Augustine

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is. ~ Dan Wakefield

When Thomas Jefferson deleted everything miraculous from his version of the Gospels, he might have exercised more caution had he realized that the word miracle, as he understood it, does not appear in the original Greek or Hebrew. For him, and Voltaire, the word miracle denoted a violation of eternal, immutable laws of nature and nature’s God. Augustine, in the fourth century, had already dented the armor of that conception with his observation that miracles are not violations of natural law, but violations of what we know of natural law. Biblical authors would agree. When biblical authors write of a miraculous event like Jesus walking on water, the healing of a blind man, or the descent of manna from heaven, they use language that expresses the meaning implied in the original meaning of the Latin word miraculum, derived from the root, mira—wonder and awe.

In his book, Healing in the New Testament: Insights from Medical and Mediterranean Anthropology, John J. Pilch (2000), a New Testament scholar with expertise in medical anthropology, argues that in approaching stories of healing, miracles, and cures, in cultures far removed from our own, one must adopt a cross-cultural approach that acknowledges the difference between emic and etic perspectives. Pilch writes:

Generally speaking, emic is the native view, the perspective from within any system under study, the insiders’ views. The emic view includes the shared ideology and perceptions of phenomena by members of a given society. Thus, natives in Matthew’s community apparently recognized an illness that they called moonstruck (Mt 4.24; 17.15). This is the emic perspective. English translators routinely render this as epileptic, representing the translator’s eticperspective. Both perspectives are an integral part of the discipline of cross-cultural studies. (Pilch 2000, 153; italics added)

Our purpose in this chapter is to examine the New Testament miracle stories in historical, biblical, and psychological perspective: (1) the historical perspective, aimed at emic assessment, describes the environment of miracles, healings, and healers commonplace in the Greco-Roman and Judaic worlds of the Gospels; (2) the biblical perspective, aimed also at emic assessment, refers to appreciation of the different types of miracle stories in the biblical text, the language used to speak of miracles, what biblical writers were attempting to communicate with these stories, and how these stories would have functioned in the mind of a first-century audience in the nascent Judaeo-Christian cultus; and (3) the psychological perspective, returning to a contemporary etic view, will examine analogues to the miracles of Jesus in twentieth and twenty-first century perspective.

The Historical Perspective

Howard Clark Kee reminds us in his 1986 book, Medicine, Miracle, and Magic in New Testament Times, that the healing techniques of medicine, miracle, and magic are not unique to the New Testament. They are indigenous to human society. In fact, their appearance in the New Testament is fundamentally a function of their ubiquitous presence in first-century Greco-Roman and Jewish culture. Kee provides a thumbnail sketch of the differences among the three:

Medicine is a method of diagnosis of human ailments and prescription for them based on a combination of theory about and observation of the body, its functions and malfunctions. Miracle embodies the claim that healing can be accomplished through appeal to, and subsequent action by the gods, either directly or through a chosen intermediary agent. Magic is a technique, through word or act, by which a desired end is achieved, whether that end lies in the solution to the seeker’s problem or in damage to the enemy who has caused the problem. (Kee 1986, 3)

The difference in the three forms of healing are evident in the three theories concerning the cause and cure of illness. “These include the theory that human difficulties are the work of demons, for which exorcism is the appropriate cure; or that they are the results of a magical curse, for which counter-magic must be invoked; or that they are functional disorders of the body, which call for medical diagnosis and a prescribed remedy” (Kee 3-4).

Surprisingly, medicine, as opposed to miracles and magic, was not the healing agency of preference for many. Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) in his Natural History voices a suspicion about physicians, shared by many. He denigrates the growing numbers of physicians whose healing protocol has displaced the authentic, tried and true folk remedies found “in the kitchen garden,” where herbal remedies provided a fitting cure for every ailment known to human or animal (26.21.5; Kee 1986, 5-7). Pliny expresses disgust over the fortunes these charlatan physicians have accrued with their excessive charges, concocted procedures, and diagnoses. He cites a particularly odious example in a certain Asclepiades, who had turned to medicine only after failing to earn a decent living as a rhetorician (Kee, 5). Pliny does concede the excellence of the medical standards laid down by the great physician, Hippocrates (460-350 BCE), but adds to his list of complaints the tendency of physicians to attribute their healings to the work of the gods in order to “lend an aura of sanctity to their enterprise” (Kee, 6).

A hint of this same disdain for physicians is captured in Mark’s Gospel, telling of a woman who comes to Jesus with a 12-year history of a “flow of blood.” Mark tells us she “had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse” (Mk 5:26).

The Greco-Roman Context

Though various routes to healing were available in the Empire, often vending on the same street, the most admired and popularly sought after were the shrines and temples associated with the Egyptian deity Isis and the Greek god Asclepius, whose sanctuaries were havens for the ill, fountains of healing.

By the first century, the cult of Isis had spread to Rome, the British Isles, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Western Europe. The most common mode of cure was incubation, sleeping in the temple precinct. Diodorus Siculus describes the setting. A supplicant, often disappointed with physicians, spent the night awaiting a healing dream.

Standing above the sick in their sleep she [Isis] gives aid for their diseases and works remarkable cures upon such as submit themselves to her; and many who have been despaired of by their physicians because of the difficult nature of their malady are restored to health by her, while numbers who have altogether lost the use of their eyes or of some other part of the body, whenever they turn for help to this goddess are restored to their previous condition. (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 1.25.5; Kee 1986, 68)

A second source of healing, also known across the Empire, was Asclepius (Latin: Aesculapius) whose primary shrine was at Epidaurus in the Peloponnesus in Greece. As with Isis, the many shrines and temples were the equivalent of hospitals. They consisted of large halls for the sick to recline, rest, and await the powers of healing to work during their sleep. The shrine at Epidaurus was known for its dogs and snakes that would quietly visit the incubants sleeping on the temple grounds, licking the wounded part of the body. The ailments listed in the testimonies at Epidaurus include “facial and mouth injuries, dumbness, kidney and gall stones, extended pregnancies, leeches, baldness, dropsy, tumors, lice, worms, headaches, tuberculosis, disfigured limbs, wounds from weapons and blindness” (Kee 1986, 70). Cripples were reported to walk again; mutes regained speech; the blind recovered sight. Testimonial symbols of cured parts, sometimes wrought in silver and gold, were exhibited in the shrine of Epidaurus as Pausanias (II.xxvii.3) and Strabo (VIII.374) attest (McCasland 1962, 400; Lohse 1976, 226-27).

In addition to the care and cure associated with the shrines of Isis and Asclepius, Asia Minor produced one of the most widely recounted healers in the first century, Apollonius of Tyana, an itinerant philosopher who healed the sick and exorcised the demonized. His story was recorded in mid-third century by Philostratus under the patronage of Julia, the wife of the Emperor Septimius. In fact, it is speculated that the publication of the Life of Apollonius may have been supported by imperial Rome in order to counter the growing popular interest in the Christian cultus and the healing it offered.

As an indication of the popular image of healers, Apollonius is reported to have had the gift of understanding a foreign language without studying it, and of telepathic ability to see events far removed in time or space from the present. He is said to have cured a boy bitten by a dog and to have exorcised the daughter of a woman who was demonized by the ghost of the woman’s husband, who had become outraged over her having remarried so quickly after his death (Kee 1986, 84-86). On one occasion Apollonius, lecturing in Athens, was interrupted by a young man, known for a dissolute life, who broke out in boisterous laughter. Apollonius announced to the man that he was possessed of an evil spirit. Philostratus tells us:

He actually was possessed, without being aware of it. He laughed when no one else laughed, wept without cause, and sang and talked to himself. The people thought that his licentious youth was to blame for this, but the truth is that he was being guided by an evil demon, and he appeared, in his impiety, as drunken. Now when Apollonius looked at him still more steadily and wrathfully, the demon cried out, like a person who is being branded or otherwise tortured, and swore that he would leave the youth and never again attack a man. But when Apollonius angrily addressed him, as an angry master might address a shamelessly wicked servant, and commanded him to come forth visibly, he cried, “I will throw down yonder statue,” and pointed to a statue in the king’s portico. Then the statue started moving and fell over. What fear and wonder! Who could describe it all! But the young man rubbed his eyes like someone just awakening, looked toward the sun, and was embarrassed because all eyes turned toward him. From that time on he no longer appeared wild and unrestrained as previously, but his healthy nature appeared, as though he had been treated by medicines. (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius IV.20; Lohse 1976, 227-28)

Healing stories were also told of prominent figures with special powers, in this instance, with a parallel to the Gospel stories. In his history of the emperor Vespasian, Suetonius reports the emperor’s trip to Alexandria shortly after he was instated, only to be asked to moisten the eyes of a blind beggar with his saliva, and to touch the leg of a lame man with his heel, resulting in the cure of both (Suetonius’ Vespasian, vii; Lohse 1976, 227; see Jesus’ use of spittle in Mk 8:23; Jn 9:6).

The Judaic Context

Though Judaism in the first century lacked the shrines associated with Isis and Asclepius, its sacred literature and popular memory were awash in miraculous events associated with prominent Old Testament figures: Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Elijah, and Elisha. Moses had precipitated a path through the Red Sea (Ex 14:21-25), brought forth water from a rock (Ex 17:1-7), set up a healing bronze serpent in the wilderness (Nm 21:9), and competed magically with the wise men and sorcerers in Pharaoh’s court (Ex 7:8-13). Joshua had made the sun stand still (Jo 10:12-14). Jonah survived three days in a “whale” (Jon 1:17). Elijah had raised a youngster from the dead (1 Kgs 17:17-24), saved a widow and her son from starvation with a self-refilling jar of meal and cruse of oil (1 Kgs 17: 8-16), and had ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kgs 2:11). Elisha had caused an axe-head to float on water (2 Kgs 6:5-7), had resuscitated the Shunammite’s deceased son (2 Kgs 4:11-37), and had cured a Syrian king of leprosy (2 Kgs 5:1-14). Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego had been delivered from the fiery furnace, and Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah had been cured of their barrenness. The biblical miracle stories had even been expanded in the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Genesis Apocryphon from Qumran Cave 1, which reports Abram engaged in laying on of hands and prayer to cure a Pharaoh of an affliction caused by an evil spirit (Fitzmyer 1991, 60).

Beyond first-century Judaic consciousness of the miraculous past, is an active tradition of healers, miracle workers, and exorcists. The New Testament, in fact, makes reference to the commonplace reality of exorcism in first-century Judaism (Mt 12:27).

Within Judaism, stories were told of miraculous cures and events associated with individuals whose virtue produced special powers. Some of the tales bear resemblance to Gospel stories in the New Testament. The Babylonian Talmud recounts a seafaring tale reminiscent of the calming of the storm in Mark 4:35-41. The key figure is Rabban Gamaliel II, a scholar-teacher, who found himself aboard ship when the storm struck. Fearing that it was punishment for his collaboration with an opposing rabbi, Eliezer b. Hyrcanus, with whom he should never have in good conscience collaborated, Gamaliel turned to God in prayer, explaining that his collaboration was motivated not by pride but by his desire for harmony in Israel. We are told that when the prayer was completed, the sea calmed (Babylonian Talmud,Baba Mezia 59b. See Lohse 1976, 179).

Exorcisms were also known in the Judaic tradition, as noted by Josephus, who recounts the expulsion of a demon in the Emperor Vespasian’s presence by a certain Eleazar.

He [Eleazar] held under the nose of the possessed man a ring in which was enclosed a root … He had the sick man smell it, and thus drew the evil spirit of him through his nose. The possessed man immediately collapsed, and Eleazar then adjured the spirit, by pronouncing the name of Solomon … [commanding the spirit] never to return to the man. (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities VIII 46-49)

In the postlude, Eleazar, whose exorcism leaves some in doubt, performs another wonder to prove his power over the spirit. He sets up a vessel filled with water and commands the spirit when it leaves the possessed man to upset the vessel, in order to demonstrate to the gathering that it had really left. Josephus tells us, “This in fact happened and thus Solomon’s wisdom and knowledge became known” (Lohse 1976, 180).

Two figures stand out in Talmudic and Mishnaic literature as models of charismatic Hasidim, devout men with remarkable powers, who stood in the tradition of Elijah, whose prophetic powers could cause rain (1 Kgs 17:1). In their piety, their prayer, their confidence in the Almighty, their seemingly miraculous powers, and their lives of renunciation, they bear resemblance to certain aspects of Gospel records about Jesus. Both “were venerated as a holy Hasid so close to God that his prayer exhibited miraculous efficiency” (Vermes 2001, 254).

The first is a rabbi from the first century BCE, named Honi the Circle Maker, who was famous for the power of his prayer to bring much-needed rain to his people. Mishnah Taanit 3:8 relates the story:

Once Honi the Circle-Drawer was asked: “Pray that it may rain.” He answered “Go and bring in the Passover ovens [made of dried clay] that they may not become soft.” He prayed but it did not rain. What did he do? He drew a circle and stood in it and said to God, “Lord of the world, Thy children have turned to me because I am like a son of the house before Thee. I swear by Thy great name that I will not move from here until Thou hast mercy on Thy children.” Drops of rain fell. “I have not asked for this,” he said, “but for rain to fill the cisterns, the pits and rock-cavities.” There came a cloud-burst. “I have not prayed for this but for a rain of goodwill, blessing and grace.” Then it rained steadily until the Israelites were compelled to flee from Jerusalem to the Temple Mount. (Vermes, 255)

Josephus tells us of the circumstances of Honi’s death, following the pattern of a prophet. He was stoned to death by Hyrcanus II when he refused to collaborate in Hyrcanus’ plot to depose Hyracanus’ brother, the high priest, Aristobulus II.

The second is a first-century CE figure, a rabbinic counterpart to Jesus, who lived in the first half of the first century. He was a Galilean rabbi named Hanina ben Dosa. He was born a dozen miles north of the city of Nazareth, and became a pupil of Johanan ben Zakkai, one of the founders of rabbinic Judaism. Rabbi ben Dosa was portrayed in the Mishnah as a saintly man with thaumaturgic powers, whose personal life was marked by humility, unworldliness, and stoic frugality (Vermes, 259-63). One story relates how his prayers led to the cure of one of ben Zakkai’s sons. Another healing was telepathic, taking place at a distance, with the healing of the son of the patriarch Gamaliel II. Though far from the lad, Hanina ben Dosa assured Gamaliel that his son had been cured, a fact attested to subsequently by Gamaliel’s servants. Popular lore also recounts his ability to make the rain cease and to endow common vinegar that had mistakenly been poured into a lamp with the properties of lamp oil that burned all the next day (Yarushalmi Berakot v. 9d).

The story is also told of a lizard biting ben Dosa. He was so engrossed in his prayers he barely noticed. The Mishna Berakhot 5.1 had dictated that if a man is at prayer, even a snake wound around his leg should not deter him. When Hanina ben Dosa’s disciples expressed concern, they found the lizar dead, leading to the rumor that animals biting ben Dosa did so at their peril. “Woe to the man whom a lizard bites, and woe to the lizard that bites R. Hanina ben Dosa!” (Yarushalmi Berakot v. 9a).

Geza Vermes proposes that Hanina ben Dosa was rabbinic Judaism’s most prominent wonder-worker whose death marked the end of the era of the “men of deeds.” Jesus of Nazareth, he observes, “as healer and exorcist … is perfectly at home in Hasidic company” (Mishna Sotah 9.15; Vermes, 258, 269).

The Biblical Perspective

Howard Clark Kee concludes in his 1986 book, Medicine, Miracle and Magic in the New Testament, that healing is “a central factor in primitive Christianity, and was so from the beginning of the movement. It is not a later addendum to the tradition, introduced in order to make Jesus more appealing to the Hellenistic world, but was a major feature of the Jesus tradition from the outset” (Kee 1986, 124). That it was true of Jesus is affirmed by the fact that all Gospel sources (Mk, Mt, Lk, Q, and Jn) attest to the miraculous as a prominent feature of his ministry.

Our goal in this section is to adopt an emic approach (Pilch 2000, 153) in examining the New Testament healing stories of Jesus, which seeks to examine healing and the miraculous from the perspective of the original New Testament audience. We will examine (1) the terminology and protological thinking employed to describe these so-called miraculous events, (2) the four types of miracle stories (healings, exorcisms, resuscitations, and nature miracles), and (3) the rhetorical function of the miracles stories within the earliest Christian communities.

Terminology and Protological Thinking

The Greek of the New Testament uses six words to refer to miraculous events, none of which means miracle in the sense Thomas Jefferson or Voltaire understood it, namely as violation of natural law. One is the word ergon (a word), connoting something produced with remarkable effect. A second is paradoxa (Lk 5:26), a counter-intuitive, inexplicable happening. The third is dynamis (power), an event that has achieved a powerful outcome. Fourth is thaumasia, wonders or marvels (Mt 21:15), the rough equivalent of the Latin miraculum, having nothing to do with the notion of a violation of natural law. Fifth and sixth are a recurring word combination rooted in its matching pair in the Old Testament, translated “signs (semeia) and wonders (terata),” appearing frequently in Hebrew as ’ôt and môpet, as for example in the Exodus saga (Ex 7:3, Dt 4:34), referring to events that signify something beyond themselves.

It is important to recognize that in describing these events, the Gospel authors and their communities resort to protological or primary thinking, native to their time. For example they attribute illness to demons or diagnose an epileptic as being moonstruck (Mt 17:14; Fitzmyer 1991, 59). Protological thinking is at work in the description of techniques Jesus uses to heal, putting his finger in the ear of a deaf man with a speech impediment, then spitting and touching his tongue (Mk 7:33-34), or by spitting on the eyes of a blind man and laying his hands upon him (Mk 8:23), or by uttering an Aramaic word, Ephphatha (be opened) (Mk 7:34), echoing the magical-sounding Hebrew incantations of Jewish healers of the period.1 Jesus’ healings can be effected with a touch (Mk 1:31; Lk 5:12-25; Lk 13:11-13; Mt 9:27-30), or by seeming telepathy, at a distance, as with a centurion’s slave (Mt 8:5-13), the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman (Mt 15:22-28), and the royal official’s son (Jn 4:46-54). On occasion the Gospel authors add folkloric additions to the stories, for example, reporting a demonized herd of pigs jumping over a cliff into the sea in a locale (Gadara) more than five miles from the water (Fitzmyer 1991, 58).

Four Types of Miracles Stories

The gospel records cite four types of miracle stories: healings, exorcisms, resuscitations, and nature miracles.

Healing stories, along with exorcism, constitute one-fifth of all the stories about Jesus in the synoptic Gospels (Kee 1986, 1). In an unusual scene, when John the Baptist sends his disciples to inquire of Jesus whether he is “the one to come or whether they should look for another,” Jesus replies in a way that suggests he regards what he is about to share as the most distinctive aspect of his ministry: “Go tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them with” (Lk 7:22).

A glossary of Jesus’ healings in the Gospels include a demonized madman from Gadara (Mk 5:1-20), a paralytic (Mk 2:1-12), a man with a “withered” hand (Mt 12:9-13), a woman bent over for 18 years (Lk 13:10-13), a woman with an issue of blood for 12 years, who had spent her fortune on physicians to no avail (Mk 5:25-34), Peter’s fevered mother-in-law (Mk 1:30-31), an official’s son near death with a fever (Jn 4:47-53), the blind beggar, Bartimaeus (Mk 10:46-52), a man with dropsy (Lk 14:1-4), and a young boy with epileptic convulsions (Mk 9:14-29).

Exegetical study of the Gospel accounts of the healing stories makes plain that for the Gospel authors, the main point of a miracle story is not the miracle itself, but the truth(s) to which it points. Two examples will suffice.

A first example is an opening scene in Mark’s gospel (1:21-27), that describes Jesus confronting a man with an “unclean spirit” in the synagogue at Capernaum. When Jesus commands the demon “to come out of him,” Mark tell us that the onlookers respond with the words, “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits.” A Christological leitmotif of Mark’s Gospel is Jesus’ authority (exousia). Chapter after chapter, Mark’s objective is to spell out the authority of Jesus—over demoniacs, over tax collectors and sinners who had been excluded by the ritual requirements of the law, over the sea, over disease, over ritual traditions of the Pharisees, over nature, and eventually over the temple, symbolized with the rending of the temple veil.

A second example is the tale of Jesus healing a man with a withered hand (Mk 3:1-6). The telling point of the story is not the cure itself, but that it took place on the Sabbath, challenging a law that prefers compliance to mercy, and introducing a new teaching that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27-28).

The healings and exorcisms exercise a religious-subversive function within the storytelling tradition of early Christianity, portraying Jesus’ acts of healing as acts of protest against the policies and practice of the first-century cultus. Jesus heals on the Sabbath, contrary to religious law (Mk 3:1-6); he assumes the prerogative of the religious hierarchy by forgiving the sin he construed to be the cause of an illness (Mk 2:1-12); he healed the religiously marginalized—tax-collectors (Lk 19:1-10), a Greek, a Syrophoenician woman (Mk 7:24-30), a demonized man from Gerasa who lived in the ritually unclean haunts of a pagan cemetery (Mk 5:1-20), a leper, regarded as ritually unclean (Mark 1:40-45), and a ritually unclean menstruating woman (Mk 5:25-34; Kee 1986, 78-79).

Exorcism is rooted in the sociocultural conviction that illness is caused by demons and is played out in socially conventional patterns of demoniac behavior. Demon-possession and exorcism were standard features of firstcentury Palestinian, biblical, and Greco-Roman culture.

The New Testament mentions demons 90 times, sometimes referring to them as unclean spirits (Mk 3:30) or evil spirits (Lk 7:21). The lords of the demons are also mentioned, Beelzebul (Mt. 16:24) and Satan (Mk 3:23). Luke, both in his Gospel and in Acts, assumes the presence of demons and spirits as a feature of everyday life (e.g., Lk 8:2; 13:16; 22:3; Acts 16:16-18).

The Gospels never imply that Jesus alone had the power to exorcise. It was a widely practiced art. The Gospels imply that Jesus acknowledges exorcists among his rivals: Jesus tells them, “If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out?” We sometimes hear of itinerant exorcists casting out demons in the name of Jesus (Mt 7:22; Acts 19:13-14).

The Gospels indicate that Jesus’ religious rivals acknowledged that he was competent as an exorcist (Mk 3:22). It is also clear that he trained and commissioned his disciples in the art of exorcism (Mt 10:8; Mk 3:15; 6:13). When the disciples are sent out on mission, they return glowing: “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name” (Lk 10:17).

Demons are widely acknowledged in the culture at large. The Dead Sea Qumran covenanters had composed hymns against the demons with psalms of exorcism and antidemonic incantations (Martinez 1994, 371-78). In the Magical Greek Papyri we read of encounters between the demon-possessed and exorcists in language that resembles verbal exchanges between demoniacs and healers in the Gospels. Mark 1:24 reads, “I know who you are.” The Papyri Graeca Magicae VIII.13 reads, “I know you, Hermes, who you are and whence you came.” In Mark 5:7 we hear, “I adjure you by God.” The Papyri Graecae Magicae XXXvi.189-90 reads, “I adjure you by the great name Ablanatha.”

What meaning did the first Christians find in these stories of exorcism? A key is found in Luke’s report of a statement of Jesus: “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Lk 11:19-20). For a first-century Gospel audience the stories of Jesus’ authority over demons, and therefore over disease, represented the collapse and unseating of the demonic powers, a theme that will be played out on a much larger screen with the writing of the Book of Revelation during the persecution in the reign of Domitian, 81-96 CE. This same eschatological image of the dispossessing of the demonic is a theme in the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QS 3:24-25; 4:200-22; 1 QH 3:18; 1 QM 1:10-11). Thus, exorcism connotes personal healing but also a corporate social healing in which the oppressive power of principalities and powers are in the process of being brought down.

The incipient collapse of the demonic world powers may be hinted in Mark’s elaborate version of the story of the Gadarene demoniac (Mk 5:1-20). When Jesus asks the demoniac, “What is your name?” he replies, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” In the mind of first-century Christians the word Legion (rendered as a recognizable Latin word, transliterated in the Greek text) would ring with associations of another kind of “being possessed,” in view of the presumed setting of Mark’s Gospel shortly after the brutal Neronic persecution of Christians in the winter of 64-65 CE.

Resuscitations constitute the smallest class of miracle stories. There are three of them: the raising of the daughter of Jairus, ruler of the synagogue (Mt 9:18-25), the raising of the widow’s son at the village of Nain (Lk 7:11-15), and the raising of Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha (Jn 11).

No story of being brought back to life from the dead could be thought of in the early church without reference to the resurrection of Jesus and to the general doctrine of final resurrection of the dead that originated in Pharisaic thought. For the early Christian cultus, the three resuscitation tales reflected the conviction that the age of resurrection and the messianic return were breaking in. The most dramatic and extravagant expression of this conviction is found in Matthew 27:51-53, with the news that at the death of Jesus, tombs were opened and bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised and had been seen in Jerusalem. The age of resurrection was dawning.

Beyond this echo of resurrection, these stories also propagated fundamental convictions about Jesus.

The central rhetorical point in the story of Jairus’ daughter resides in the phrase, repeated three times, that Jairus was “one of the rulers of the synagogue.” Within the apologetic pattern of Mark’s Gospel, forged in the growing tension within the earliest church between traditional Jews and Christian Jews, the story announces that a synagogue leader is among those who have recognized the new life that Jesus brings.

The second story, of the widow’s son at Nain, derives theological power in its transparent parallel to Old Testament accounts of the life of Elijah. Why Elijah? The Old Testament stories about Elijah gained popularity in the early church as parallels were discerned between Jesus and Elijah. 1 Kings 17:8-24 tells of Elijah’s visit at God’s command to a poverty-stricken widow, who discovers, with Elijah as her guest, that her jar of meal is miraculously replenished, and subsequently, that her son, who suddenly dies, is brought back to life by Elijah. In the story of the widow at Nain, the Early Christians saw a “return” of Elijah at a time within Judaism when Elijah’s messianic return was expected (Mal 4:5-6) and when speculation abounded on whether John the Baptist (Mt 11:11-15) or Jesus might be his reincarnation.

The third resuscitation story, the raising of Lazarus, constitutes an entire chapter in the Gospel according to John. It serves a dual purpose theologically. The first is to promulgate the Christological confession that Jesus is the true resurrection and life (Jn 11:25). The second is to see the story of Lazarus’ resurrection in the first half of John’s Gospel as a typological anticipation of the resurrection of Jesus in the second half.

In all, these stories affirm the evidence of new life that has been infused individually and communally into the community by the presence of the man Jesus, Elijah redivivus, who resuscitates the dead.

Nature miracles in the New Testament put the greatest strain on credibility of any of the miracle narratives. There are six of them: the story of Jesus calming the storm, the walking on the water, two stories of Jesus feeding people in the wilderness, the horticultural oddity of Jesus cursing the fig tree, and the coin found in the fish’s mouth.

I came to appreciate the difference between an etic and emic reading of the nature miracles in my reaction to an altar painting in a church I attended over the course of a decade. It was a wall-size Renaissance-style fresco of the Matthean account of Peter beginning to sink in the waves, reaching out to Jesus for help as he was coming toward him, walking on the water. My post-Enlightenment, academic response was a sense of disdain, born of disappointment, that any contemporary church would install a nature miracle as its centerpiece of faith. Within a decade, however, my eticopposition to the painting began to change as I began to consider what the early church, or for that matter, what members in that congregation, might have seen in that painting as they contemplated it week after week.

From a contemporary critical, etic perspective, the nature miracles fall into the genre of legend or prodigy. But for the biblical authors and their first audience, they functioned as mythos or homily, inviting hearers to consider their meaning for daily existence. Ironically, the nature miracles, as stunning as they are in their meta-rational extravagance, point beyond the miracle itself to the rhetorical message seated in the story.

The story of the calming of the sea (Mk 4:35-41) recounts Jesus’ rebuking the fierce wind of a storm on the Sea of Galilee and inducing a magical calm in a scenario which only minutes before had struck fear in the disciples. As is often the case in this genre, the point of the story for the Gospel author is found in the last verse. In this case it reads, “Who then is this, that even sea and wind obey him?”

Within the context of a first-century Jewish-Christian congregation, an answer is found in a psalm that provides a mirror image of the tale:

Some went down to the sea in ships,
Doing business on the great waters;
They saw the deeds of the Lord,
His wondrous works in the deep.
For he commanded, and raised the stormy wind,
Which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths …
They reeled and staggered like drunken men,
And were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
And he delivered them from their distress;
He made the storm be still,
And the waves of the sea were hushed. (Ps 107:23-29)

Who is it that sea and wind obey? For the early Christians it was YHWH, the God of the Exodus, now present in the Lord Jesus as his word and spiritual presence were seen to calm the troubled seas on which they rode.

The story of Jesus walking on the water (Mk 6:45-52), in similar fashion, contains several lines that highlight meanings implicit in the text for early Christian ears. The first is the utterance of Jesus to the disciples in their terror as they see him approaching their boat, walking on the water: “Take heart. It is I. Have no fear.” At the heart of this statement, both for the disciples in the boat and for the listeners in the congregation hearing the story, is the highly symbolic phrase, “It is I,” which in the Greek text, can be construed simply as “I am.” Early Christians would have instantaneously recognized the “I AM” as the name that God disclosed to Moses at Mt. Sinai: “Say this to the people of Israel, I AM has sent me to you” (Ex 3:14).2 The phrase I AM appears scores of times in Hebrew scriptures as the shorthand symbol for the God of the Exodus.3 It appears 26 times in the Gospel of John on the lips of Jesus (e.g. I AM the bread of life; I AM the good shepherd, etc.) as a way to express Jesus’ presumed sense of transparency to the I AM at work in him, implying that the one whose powers parted the Red Sea is again working powerfully in their midst, making his “path through the waters”:

The crash of thy thunder was in the whirlwind.
Thy lightnings lighted up the world
The earth trembled and shook.
Thy way was through the sea,
Thy path through the great waters,
Yet thy footprints were unseen,
Thou dist lead thy people like a flock
By the hand of Moses and Aaron. (Ps 77:18-20)

A second flashpoint of meaning lies in the incorrigibly cryptic last line of the story, which reads: “They (the disciples) were utterly astounded for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (Mk 6:52). No line in the New Testament can better demonstrate the fact that the Gospel authors have planted special meanings between the lines for the readers to find. No line in the Gospels is more hermeneutically challenging.

The most likely explanation of this cryptic statement about the loaves is found in an odd interlude about “bread” in Mark 8:14-21. Jesus asks the disciples, “When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” The answer the disciples offer, correctly, is “Twelve.” The question is repeated concerning the feeding to the four thousand and the answer is “Seven.” After they answer, Jesus says with puzzling abruptness, “Do you not yet understand?” And the answer to this question for most readers is, “No.”

But one thing is clear. For Mark the meaning of this episode (and the story of the walking on the water) resides in the significance of the numbers, two sets of them. The first set is a combination of 5 (thousand) and 12. The second is a combination of 4 (thousand) and 7. Commentators have suggested that the first set could be symbolic of Judaism (five books of Torah and twelve tribes), and the second symbolic of Pythagorean (i.e., gentile) interest (the virtues of the numbers 4 and 7). A compelling case can be made that the two sets of numeric symbols represent the transition of Jesus’ ministry, so conspicuous in Mark, from a Judaic (5 and 12) to a gentile (4 and 7) context. The transition is conspicuous in Mark’s geographical-theological scheme in chapters 1 to 8, which show Jesus taking his ministry from Judaic (3:7) to gentile territory (7:26-31). Though this solution is necessarily tentative, there is nothing tentative in the judgment that the numbers symbolism of the loaves is on Mark’s mind and that he wants you to seek out its meaning if you are to understand the larger significance of Jesus walking on the water.

The two stories of feeding the multitudes, feeding the five thousand (Mk 6:30-44) and feeding the four thousand (8:1-10) also provide hermeneutical clues to their meaning. One needs only to read them aloud to pick up the flashpoint in the language that would spark a connection in the cultic memory bank of the Gospel’s first audience.

In the introductory statement of the first feeding, Jesus invites the disciples and the townspeople to a “wilderness” place (often incorrectly translated “lonely” place; Mk 6:31), evoking the memory of wilderness as a place where the wandering people of Israel “saw” God and where they received bread, the manna in the wilderness. In this wilderness Jesus distributes the loaves, using a sequence of words: he “blesses,” “breaks” and “gives.” Eight chapters later with the institution of the Lord’s Supper the same sequence of words appears: “he blessed and broke it and gave it to them” (14:22).

The nature miracle stories of the feeding in the wilderness are less focused on the miraculous multiplication of the loaves, than on the typological repetition of YHWH’s feedings in the wilderness: in the time of Moses, in the life of Jesus, and now, in the life of the Markan readers as they celebrate the Eucharist within the wilderness of their own time.

A fifth, in some ways the oddest of the nature miracles, is the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree, a tale that Matthew tells in two stages, sandwiched around the story of Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple (Mt 12:12-14, 20-25). The reader steeped in the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible will soon see the point.

The fig tree story is told at the outset of a face-off between Jesus and temple Judaism, beginning in Mark 11:11 with the note: “And he entered Jerusalem, and went into the temple, and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” What may sound to the modern reader as a gratuitous travel note, the reader of Mark’s Gospel will recognize as a battle-cry between Jesus and the temple as a symbol of a religious system that had lost its way and from which the early church was gradually dissociating itself. The theme of Jesus’ opposition to temple Judaism is played out in the stories immediately following the fig tree episode. The first is a series of Jesus’ encounters with chief priests and scribes (11:27), with Pharisees and Herodians (12:13), and with Sadducees (12:18) and scribes (12:28). In each case Jesus confounds them in debate over central religious and political issues in the life of Mark’s church. The sequence continues with the Little Apocalypse in Mark 13, predicting that not one stone of the temple will be left upon another. It concludes with the stark announcement following the crucifixion, that the curtain of the temple has been torn in two, from top to bottom.

How does the fig tree story relate to this? A clue is to be found in the prophet Micah’s protesting the corruption of the temple hierarchy with the words: “Woe is Me! For I have become as when the summer fruit has been gathered … there is no cluster to eat; no first-ripe fig which my soul desires.” The fig tree for Micah is a symbol of the religious bankruptcy of the temple system in his own time. Luke’s version of the story makes the same point. Luke chooses to omit the story of the cursing of the fig tree, but replaces it with a parable that tells of a fig tree that will be cut down if it continues to be fruitless.

The sixth nature miracle is the most amusing. Matthew 17:24-27 recounts the story of Peter asking Jesus about the legitimacy and financial feasibility of paying the half-shekel temple tax, a point on which Peter had been pressed by the tax collectors. Jesus responds to Peter with a rejection of the tax in principle, but adds this witty counsel: “But so as not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook, and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel; take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”

Jesus’ response raises the question whether Peter in fact did go fishing to find the coin, or whether Jesus’ response was a political witticism, counseling compromise but at the same time providing assurance that the funds will appear somehow in God’s grace, even miraculously. If the latter, the story no longer belongs in the nature miracle category and constitutes one of the most explicitly political statements in the collection of Jesus’ sayings. If the former, it remains to be determined whether Peter caught the coin-bearing fish, a likelihood that I found extremely remote, that is, until I read a British morning paper one day in 1970, while on sabbatical leave in Cambridge, England. It reported that a young man had caught a fish with a first-century Roman coin in its gullet. The moral? Even the most preposterous biblical legend might have a grain of a dimly remembered historical truth at its core. In any event, from the standpoint of the earliest hearers of the tale, the message would have been clear. Christians wrestling with the question of paying the half-shekel temple tax should refuse in principle, but in the spirit of political compromise, pay the tax, with the assuring footnote that “the Lord will provide.”

Psychological Perspective

Having examined the miracle stories from an emic perspective, we turn now to the etic task of reflecting on them from a psychological perspective, restricting our observations to the first two types of miracle story, healings and exorcisms.

Though we are far too removed to offer precise reconstructions of what transpired behind these stories, we can make observations about the psychodynamics operative within the stories themselves, noting that in each case the healing rests on a therapeutic exchange between two persons.

Within the spectrum of fields that constitutes the discipline of psychology, the group that has emerged under the aegis of the Psychoanalytic tradition, including cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, object relations theory, family systems theory, and the like, seems most capable, with their diagnostic and prescriptive protocols, to illumine the therapeutic transaction between a healer and the diseased.

These diagnostic and therapeutic protocols include the heuristic concepts of neurosis and psychosis, of introversion and extraversion, of defense mechanism, projection, transference, dissociation, sublimation, repression, displacement, reaction formation, introjection, rationalization, obsessive compulsive disorder, inflation, substitution, cognitive dissonance, posttraumatic stress disorder, multiple personality disorder—all of which have been employed to date by biblical scholars and psychologists in analyzing the nature and habits of the human psyche at work in biblical stories, as well as in the processes of creating and interpreting biblical texts (see Ellens and Rollins 2004; Rollins 1999; Rollins and Kille 2007).

A number of commentators offer helpful preliminary observations on the psychology of healings and exorcisms. For example, in speaking of the protological thinking at work in biblical descriptions of exorcisms, Bible scholar Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J., writes: “Persons afflicted with what we would call today mental disturbances were regarded as possessed, because observers were unable to analyze or diagnose properly the causes of the maladies in question” (Fitzmyer 1991, 59). Pastoral counselor Morton Kelsey comments that many illnesses are the “result of psychogenic rather than physical causes.” He cites the cases of hysterical blindness, muteness, or paralysis that he believes lie behind the conditions of the blind, dumb, and paralytic healed by Jesus. The “hysterical person can copy reliably nearly any disease syndrome,” Kelsey writes. “There is little organic damage, only the unconscious idea that one cannot use that particular organ—an idea so deep that the person is literally unable to do so, while hysterical patients can be suggested out of this state or tricked in various ways to reveal the psychic cause of the problem, still they are genuinely ill and cannot just snap out of it” (Kelsey 1995, 59). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders confirms instances of paralysis and motoric immobility as a function of catatonic disorders (American Psychological Association 2000, 293).

One of the miracle stories that serves as a case study for psychological commentary is the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5:1-20. It has attracted extensive psychological commentary because of its elaborate interpersonal detail. The commentary illustrates the richness of insight forthcoming from a variety of psychological and psychosocial perspectives that lay bare the dynamics at work in this account, especially when considered within the setting of Roman-occupied Judea in the first century CE.

The story is told in three episodes. The first tells of Jesus meeting a man with an unclean spirit who lived in the tombs. No one could bind him. Even when bound, he broke the fetters and chains to pieces. He wandered night and day among the tombs, crying out and bruising himself with stones. When Jesus saw him he ran and bowed down before Jesus, crying aloud: “What have you to do with me? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” “For Jesus had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’” When Jesus asked him his name, he replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” A great herd of swine was feeding on the hillside. The demoniac begged Jesus, “Send us to the swine, let us enter them.” Jesus complied, and two thousand pigs rushed down the bank into the sea and drowned.

The second episode takes place in the city to which the herdsmen, who had witnessed the event, went with the tale. People came out to the tombs see what had happened, and found Jesus and the demoniac sitting there. The demoniac was clothed and in his right mind. In seeing this sight the crowd was filled with fear. They begged Jesus to depart from their neighborhood.

The third episode describes Jesus getting into the boat to leave, when the man who had been possessed with demons begged that he might be with him. Jesus refuses: “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”

Some commentators have made observations on the nature of the demoniac’s illness in terms of a contemporary psychological reading of Mark’s description. Hankoff (1992) sees in the story the earmarks of Multiple Personality Disorder, created by a “dissociation, which works by splitting off unbearable feelings, images and thoughts that create psychological overload,” leading to the acting out of these feelings with no conscious memory of his bizarre, self-destructive behavior (Hankoff 1992, 8; Ludwig 2006, 5).

Robert Leslie sees the demoniac’s illness as the symptomatology of a person who had become ill because of a sense of having been robbed of his dignity. The result is behavior that expresses “anger turned in against himself. Angry at himself, at war with himself, he feels only the conflict of the unresolved forces struggling within his make up and loses sight of the essential unity that dignity implies” (Leslie 2007, 214).

Paul Hollenbach offers an insightful commentary on the phenomenon of the demoniac from a social-psychological perspective. “The Gerasene’s possession is both disease and cure…. His very madness permitted him to do in a socially acceptable manner what he could not do as sane, namely express his total hostility to the Romans; he did this by identifying the Roman legions with demons. His possession was thus at once both the result of oppression and an expression of his resistance to it” (Hollenbach 1981, 581).

In his comprehensive analysis of the story of the Gerasene demoniac, Michael Willett Newheart (2004) introduces the work of Rene Girard (1986) on scapegoating, spelling out the ways in which a three-way relationship combines to create a small society of pathological interaction, consisting of a demoniac, of the society that excludes him and tries to chain him, and of a Roman occupation government that allows no protest other than that which may come in a disguised form from a demoniac (Newheart 2004, 70-78).

Other commentators have focused their observations on the psychodynamics of exorcism that transpire between Jesus and the demoniac. Carroll Wise (1954) recounts the story of Harry Stack Sullivan, a skilled psychiatrist at work with a schizophrenic patient during a staff presentation. The doctor making the presentation was unable to evoke any response or communication from the patient. With a “shrug of futility” he deferred to Harry Stack Sullivan:

Sullivan’s first move was to edge his chair just a little closer to that of the patient and to lean forward so that he could look directly at the patient in a very friendly, warm manner. To the amazement of all, the patient responded to every question and comment that was made by Dr. Sullivan. For half an hour or more they conversed together, seemingly oblivious to the fact that there was any one else in the room. (Leslie 2007, 216; Wise 1954, 57)

Leslie comments that such radical change in behavior demonstrates an observation of Victor Frankl: “even the manifestations of psychosis conceal a real spiritual person, unassailable by mental disease. Only the possibility of communication with the outside world and of self-expression are inhibited by the disease; the nucleus of man remains indestructible.” The schizophrenic, as well as the manic-depressive, has a remnant of freedom with which he can confront his illness and realize himself, not only in spite of it but because of it (Frankl 1965, 98; Leslie 2007, 217).

With respect to episode three, Jesus’ departure and the healed man’s request to go with him, Wilhelm Wuellner and Robert Leslie draw on a book by James Dittes, When the People Say No, making the point that people who at times oppose us, do so to our own benefit by leading us to a new level of responsibility. “Like any good counselor who recognizes an unhealthy dependency, Jesus sent the man back home to his friends … to be … integrated,” which in effect called for “an active program on the man’s own part of taking the initiative” for his own continued health. Furthermore, in commending to the man that he tell his friends “how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you,” Jesus invites a cognitive shift in the healed man. This develops in him conscious recognition of life as a context of mercy that sustains him (Wuellner and Leslie 1984, 36; Dittes 1979).

The story of the Gerasene demoniac is an example of one of the primary postulates of the NT, that healing was a primary objective of the ministry of the historical Jesus, and that this healing was the function of a transaction between the healer and the healed, lending credence to the contention of analytical psychologist Carl Jung that “Religions are psychotherapeutic systems in the truest sense of the word” (Jung 1963, vol. 10, par. 367).