Letters on Spiritual Christianity——THE MIRACLES OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
THE MIRACLES OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
My dear ——,
You demur to the parallel that I draw between the Old Testament and the New Testament; “The Battle of Beth-horon can be disentangled from the miracle of the stopping of the sun, just as the battles of Salamis and Regillus can be disentangled from the visions which are said to have accompanied them: and so of other Old Testament narratives. But is it possible,” you ask, “that the life of Christ can be disentangled from miracles? Do not His own words and doctrine imply a continual assumption that He had power to do ‘mighty works’ superior to those of ordinary men?”
You could not have put your question more happily: for you unconsciously illustrate the almost universal confusion—common to a great number of theologians and agnostics as well as to the ordinary Bible reader—between “miracles” and “mighty works.” You are really asking not one but two questions. Your first question asks about “miracles;” by which you mean some kind of suspension of a law of nature, or, if you prefer it, some act not conceived as explicable in accordance with any natural law by the person who is attempting explanation. Your second question asks about “mighty works,” a phrase of constant occurrence in the New Testament, by which phrase we may understand works superior to the works of ordinary persons, but not necessarily suspensions of the laws of nature. Works may be 159“mighty” and yet quite explicable in accordance with natural law.
You seem to expect a No to your first question and a Yes to your second. I answer Yes to both. (1) The life of Christ can be disentangled from “miracles.” (2) Christ always assumed that He could do “mighty works,” and from them His life cannot be separated.
It is a law of human nature that the mind influences the body. By acting on the imagination and the emotions men have in all ages consciously or unconsciously effected instantaneous cures in accordance with natural laws. There has been much quackery and deception mixed up with cures of this kind; but no physician, and no man of any general information, would doubt that such cures have been and still are performed. The Jansenists, subjected to the test of hostile observation, had some undeniable successes of this nature. Every one has heard of the so-called “miracles” of Lourdes; and no unprejudiced person would deny that amid possible exaggerations and (I greatly fear) some frauds, they have contained an element of reality. “Faith-healing” is going on in England during this very year; and in the very place where I am now writing I heard a captain of the Salvation Army just now give out a notice that, besides a “free and easy meeting,” and a “holiness meeting,” and sundry other meetings, there is to be a meeting on one evening this week for the purpose of “casting out devils.” If I go there, I shall probably see attempts, with partial success, to excite a paralytic to motion, or to arouse some one from a dull stupor approximating to insanity. These attempts, even though immensely assisted by the intense interest and sympathetic demonstrations of the spectators, will probably produce only a temporary effect; and when it passes away the patient will very likely be worse than before. But the law of 160nature is the same with all; in modern times with the Jansenists, the miracle-workers of Lourdes, the “faith-healers,” and the Salvation Army, and in ancient days with the priests of Æsculapius. Cures can be effected by a strong emotional shock, sometimes of a gross kind such as mere terror or violent excitement, sometimes of a much purer kind, an ecstatic hope and trust. A marked distinction must of course be made between those cures which can, and those which cannot, be effected by appeal to the emotions. Paralysis (called in the New Testament “palsy”), mental disease (often called in the New Testament “possession”), and various kinds of nervous disorder, are all susceptible of emotional cure: but the loss of a limb cannot be so cured. The cure of a man sick of the palsy by the emotional method would be a miracle for spectators of the first century, but it would not be a miracle for us now; that is to say, it would be explicable by us, but not by them, in accordance with known natural laws: but the restoration of a lost limb by faith would be a miracle for them and for us alike: we know nothing of any natural law in accordance with which such an act could be performed by any degree of faith.
Now it will be admitted by all that the great majority of Christ’s “mighty works” were acts of healing, and that many of these were expressly attributed by Him to faith. “Seeing their faith” is the preface, in each of the three Synoptic Gospels, to the account of the cure of the paralytic man, and it is a very curious preface; for it seems to shew that Jesus recognized a kind of sponsorial and contagious efficacy of faith in that instance (as also in the case of the father of the epileptic boy); and we know by modern experience of “faith-healing” how great is the influence of a sympathetic and trustful audience. Elsewhere, “Thy faith hath made thee whole,” “According to your faith be it unto you,” “Great is thy faith, be it unto thee even as thou wilt,” “Thy faith hath saved thee,” “If thou canst believe, all things are possible,” “Believe ye that I am able to do this?” “Be not afraid, only believe”—these and similar expressions lead us to conclude that many of the “mighty works” of Jesus were conditional on faith. Perhaps it might startle you if I were to say that Jesus was not able to perform a “mighty work” unless faith was present; yet if I said this, I should only be repeating what St. Mark (vi. 5), the earliest of the Evangelists, says on a certain occasion, that on account of the general unbelief at Nazareth Jesus was not able (οὐκ ἐδύνατο) to do there any mighty work, “save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk and healed them.” This confession is so frank and almost scandalizing in its plainness that we cannot be surprised that the later Evangelist, in his parallel narrative, softens it down by omitting the words “was not able,” and by inserting “many.” We need by no means infer from this narrative that Jesus attempted “mighty works” and failed. It may be that He did not attempt them because He discerned the faithlessness of those around Him, and felt His own consequent inability. But, interpret it as we may, this passage remains a most important confirmation of the other passages in which Jesus Himself implies the necessity of faith. Where there was no faith, there Jesus “was not able to do any mighty work;” and this limit to His power Jesus Himself recognized.
Here then we find at once a remarkable difference between most of the “mighty works” of Jesus and the “miracles” of the Old Testament. The former were conditional on faith, and, this condition suggests that many of them may be explicable on natural laws; the latter have no condition attached to them and there is nothing to suggest that they are explicable on any natural law. Indeed the miracles of the Old Testament are very often wrought, not as a natural response to belief, but as a rebuke to unbelief: thus the hand of Moses is made leprous one moment and pure the next, in order to inspire him with faith; Gideon lays out a fleece on the grass, and the laws of nature are suspended for the purpose of making it wet to-day and dry to-morrow, simply in order that his unbelieving heart may be encouraged by a sign from God; the faithless Ahaz is encouraged by God in the Old Testament to ask for that very favour which Christ in the New Testament systematically refused to the Pharisees—a sign from heaven: and for the sake of Hezekiah (who asks “What shall be the sign that the Lord will heal me?”) the dial goes miraculously backward! Could contrast be more complete?
It follows that we shall be acting hastily if we place the “mighty works” of Jesus on the same level as the “miracles” of the Old Testament, inasmuch as the former are (in the strict sense of the term) “mighty works,” while the latter (again in the strict sense of the term) are “miracles.” But in addition to this reason, derivable from the nature of the works themselves, there is another reason, derivable from the evidence, for drawing a distinction. Besides the direct testimony of the Gospels, we have other testimony, indirect but even more cogent, to prove that Jesus wrought wonderful cures. The earliest of the Gospels was probably not composed in its present shape till more than a generation had passed away after the death of Christ; and, during the lapse of thirty years evidence—especially if handed down by oral, and that too Oriental, tradition—may undergo many corruptions. But the letters of St. Paul are earlier, some of them much earlier; and many of them are of such an unaffected, personal, informal nature that it is absolutely impossible to suppose that they were written to express a conviction that the writer did not feel, or to make the readers believe in truths which were no truths. Now in his letters St. Paul quietly assumes that many of his fellow-Christians, and he himself in particular, had the power of working wonderful cures without the ordinary means. He even sets down this power as one among many “gifts” or “graces” vouchsafed to the Church, and he places it by no means high in the list. A man must be absolutely destitute of all power of literary and historical criticism, if he can persuade himself that these expressions in St. Paul’s letters had no basis of fact, and that they were inserted, though unmeaning both to the writer and to the hearers, in order to delude posterity into a false belief. There is nothing in the Epistles to indicate the nature of the diseases which were cured by St. Paul and his followers. We may conjecture with much probability that they were nervous diseases, paralysis, “possession,” and the like, such as might be acted on by the “emotional shock” of faith: and the conjecture is confirmed by the fact that, in the time of Josephus, healers of demoniacs were very common in Palestine; and certain Jews of Ephesus are recorded in the Acts of the Apostles to have tried an experiment, after Paul’s manner, in attempting to cure a case of one “possessed.” But be this as it may, the fact that St. Paul and St Paul’s contemporaries unquestionably cured some kinds of diseases in the name of Jesus, and did this after some sort of system, by the utterance of the name of Jesus, without the ordinary means, is a very strong confirmation of the accuracy of the Gospels in attributing to Jesus the power of working instantaneous cures. It would be strange indeed that the Disciples, and not the Master, should have had such powers.
I have laid stress upon the fact that Jesus wrought “mighty” but natural cures, in the first place, because it ought to increase our appreciation of His personal influence and power over the souls of men, to know that He not only possessed this power in an unprecedented degree but also communicated it to His disciples; and secondly, because the fact that He performed these “mighty works” has naturally led people, from the earliest times down to the present day, to infer that He performed “miracles.” Even at the present time you will find that the great mass of Christians make no distinction at all between healing a paralytic or a demoniac or a dumb man, and restoring a severed ear or blasting a fig-tree; all alike seem to them “miracles.” If this is so even in these days, in spite of physiology, you cannot be surprised that the first Christians and their followers made no such distinction; they assumed that the man who could heal a paralytic by a word could heal any other disease in the same way, and do any other work he pleased contrary to the course of nature. This belief would prepare the way for attributing to Jesus other works of a very different kind, real “miracles,” that is, suspensions of the laws of nature. Considering the multitude of such acts recorded in the Old Testament as having been performed by Moses, Elijah, Elisha and others, we may well be surprised to find how very few have been attributed to Jesus: and I believe it can be shown that each of these few has originated from some misunderstanding, and without any intention to deceive. Of almost all of these real “miracles,” said to have been wrought by Christ, I believe we are justified in saying with Bishop Temple that, if we take each by itself, we cannot find for it any “clear, and unmistakeable, and sufficient evidence.” So far from being an exaggeration this is rather an understatement of the case: there is not only no “clear and unmistakeable and sufficient evidence” for them, there is also very strong indirect evidence against some of them. In some future letter I may deal in detail with these miracles; for the present I will select only one.
This one shall be the most striking of all the miracles in the New Testament, a miracle exceeding in wonder even the raising of Lazarus. It is found only in St. Matthew’s Gospel, and describes an incident that followed immediately on the death of Jesus. Here are the exact words:
“And the earth did quake, and the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints that had fallen asleep were raised; and coming forth out of the tombs after his resurrection they entered into the Holy City and appeared unto many.”
Have I at all exaggerated this miracle in declaring it to be more startling than even the raising of Lazarus? It records the resurrection, not of one man, but of many. Nor are we allowed by the author to suppose that he referred to visions of the dead, appearing unto friends; for he tells us that “the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints arose.” Moreover this would appear to have been a miracle not wrought in private as many of the mighty works of Jesus were, nor a sight vouchsafed to a chosen few (like the manifestations of Jesus after death); for these “bodies” went into Jerusalem, during the Passover, at a time when the city was thronged with visitors, and “appeared unto many.” What subsequently became of these “bodies”—whether they remained on earth till the Ascension when they ascended with Jesus, or whether they lived their lives over again and were buried a second time, or whether they went back to their tombs again after they had appeared in Jerusalem—is a question of some difficulty, which has exercised the minds of commentators and has been answered rather variously than satisfactorily. Be this as it may, the miracle must be confessed by all to be stupendous.
Now for the evidence of it. I have been quoting from St. Matthew’s account of this miracle. What would a dispassionate and intelligent heathen say of it, coming for the first time to the study of our four Gospels? Would it not be something of this sort: “Here you call on me to believe a miracle that appears to me to be motiveless and is certainly singularly startling: but I will suspend my judgment of it till I hear the accounts given by your other three Evangelists. What do they say of the effect produced upon the disciples and bystanders by this earthquake and this most extraordinary resurrection? There were present the women that loved and followed Jesus, there was the Roman centurion, there were ‘many’ who witnessed the appearances of the dead: even to those who were not present, an earthquake rending the rocks in the neighbourhood could not be imperceptible: what therefore is said on these points by other contemporary authors as well as by your four Gospels? Tell me that first; and then I will tell you what I think of the miracle.”
In answer to this request, which I think we must characterize as a very natural one, we should have first to admit that no profane author makes any mention of the resurrection of these numerous “bodies,” nor of the earthquake that accompanied it. Then we should have to set down the four records of the four Evangelists as follows:
Mark xv. 37-39.
37. And Jesus uttered a loud voice and gave up the ghost.
38. And the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom.
39. And when the centurion, which stood by over against him, saw that he so gave up the ghost, he said, Truly this man was the Son of God.
Matt. xxvii. 50-54.
50. And Jesus cried again with a loud voice, and yielded up his spirit.
51. And behold the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom [and the earth did quake, and the rocks were rent:
52. And the tombs were opened: and many bodies of the saints that had fallen asleep were raised;
53. And coming forth out of the tombs after his resurrection they entered into the holy city and appeared unto many.]
54. Now the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, when they saw [the earthquake and] the things that were done, feared exceedingly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.
Luke xxii. 46-7.
46. And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said this, he gave up the ghost.
47. And when the centurion saw what was done, he glorified God, saying, Certainly this was a righteous man.
John xix. 30, 31.
30. And he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
31. The Jews, therefore, because it was the preparation, &c.
You see then that this extraordinary incident, startling enough to be the very centre of a galaxy of wonders, is omitted by three out of the four Evangelists. You see also that two of the Evangelists agree with St. Matthew in placing a centurion at the foot of the cross, and in assigning to him expressions of faith: but neither of them mentions the “earthquake” as being even a partial cause 168of the centurion’s faith, nor is there so much as a hint of any resurrection of the “bodies of saints” from the tombs.
Now if you and I, with full knowledge of the facts, were writing a biography of a great man, we might undoubtedly exhibit many variations and divergences in our story. Every biographer who knows everything about a man must omit something; many things therefore that you would omit, I should insert, and vice versâ. But suppose we were writing in some detail the description of the great man’s execution (as the crucifixion is written in great detail by the Evangelists), and, in particular, the emotion and utterances of the soldier who superintended the execution. Is it possible under these circumstances that you should relate (and with truth) that the soldier’s emotion was caused in part by an earthquake which happened at the moment of the man’s death—adding also that a large number of people rose at the same time bodily from the graves—and that I, with a full knowledge that both these facts are true, should make no mention at all either of the earthquake or of this stupendous resurrection? I say that such an omission of facts is absolutely impossible in any sincere and straightforward biographer, on the supposition that he knows them. The argument that “it is unsafe to argue from silence” is quite inapplicable here: nor is it in point to allege the silence of a courtly historian who writes the life of Constantine but omits the Emperor’s execution of his son. The answer is that we have not here to do with courtly historians, but with simple unsophisticated compilers of tradition whose main object was to set down in truth and honesty all that could shew Jesus of Nazareth to be the Son of God. Now it is impossible that the Evangelists should not have recognized in this miracle, if true, a cogent proof—cogent for the minds of men in these days—of the divine mission of Jesus: we are therefore driven to the conclusion that they omitted it either because they had never heard of it, or because although they had heard of it, they did not believe it to be true.
You must not however suppose that this evidently legendary narrative was added with any intent to falsify. Like many of the miraculous accounts in the Old Testament, this story is probably the result of misunderstanding—an allegory misinterpreted. The death of Christ abolished the gulf between God and man; it tore down the veil between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies, whereby Christ took mankind, in Himself and with Himself, into the direct presence of the Father: and this spiritual truth found a literal interpretation in two of the Gospels which mention the “rending of the veil.” But Christ’s death did more than this. It struck down the power of death itself: it broke open the tombs, and prepared the way for the Resurrection of the Saints; and this spiritual truth, being misinterpreted as if it were literally true, gave rise to a tradition (which does not however seem to have been widely received) that at the moment of Christ’s death certain tombs were actually broken open, and certain of “the Saints” rose bodily from the dead and walked into Jerusalem.