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Thursday, October 20, 2011


My parents, whom I loved deeply, both passed away after I had moved to the USA, so I didn't have a chance to say good-by. My father, however, came to visit after my mother died, when he was almost ninety years old. We used to sit on the porch together, talking about her. A few years later, after his death, I found myself sitting on that porch all by myself, overwhelmed with anxiety. My problems were keeping me awake at night in spite of the medications, and the lack of sleep was driving me crazy. I thought that I was loosing my mind.
All of a sudden I felt my father's presence. It was a very matter-of-fact feeling, almost emotionless. He was simply there, as if he were sitting behind me so that I couldn't see him. He stayed for a while and, although I couldn't hear his voice, he told me that I shouldn't worry.
That night I slept well, and I haven't had major sleeping problems since then.
At that timeI wasn't a believer, yet I had to admit that something out of the ordinary had happened to me. I had been healed.

When years later I started reading about Jesus, the first thing I tried to understand was the claim that He had been a miracle worker. I decided to read A Marginal Jew, an ambitious historical investigation in three volumes written by a catholic priest, the historian John P. Meier. At the risk of annoying you, who are Christians and don't need any convincing, I would like to write briefly about what I learned, because it was so fascinating to me at the time, and it still is.
Today the word "miracle" is for many synonymous to the word hoax, but that wasn't the case in the ancient world. Back then people took for granted that God would intervene in earthly matters and sometimes even change the laws of nature. On the other hand, they weren't more gullible than a lot of 21 first century people are, for they weren't prone to accept an exceptional event as truthful on the basis of a rumor.
A great number of modern scholars admit that we can only explain the huge impact that Jesus had on the crowds if we reckon that he performed deeds for which there was no natural explanation. His miracles played an important role in His fate, for they differentiated Him from the other itinerant prophets of His time. Because of his deeds, He appeared more dangerous to the authorities and more appealing to the people.

In the ancient world, extreme ascetism was identified everywhere with the acquirement of supernatural powers. The path of renunciation was well-established among Buddhists and Hindu yogis long before the rise of Christianity and its saints. Silence, solitude and self-denial were the three imperatives of the ascetic, who had to achieve spiritual discernment to learn what comes from God and what from the devil. But the outpouring of miracles in the Gospels outnumbers by far the amount of miracles performed by any other religious figure in history. The Gospels say that Jesus was charged with being in league with the devil, and it's highly improbable that the Church would have deliberately added such a claim if it wasn't true. Therefore, He must have been performing remarkable deeds.
Some historians maintain that the evangelists aimed at making certain theological points when they wrote their accounts of Jesus' miracles, but this is true especially in John and concerns in particular the nature miracles, namely the stilling of the storm, the cursing of the fig tree, the walking on water, the catching of fish, the changing of water into wine and the feeding of the multitudes.

However, the words used by the Gospels writers to describe Jesus' deeds are not correctly translated with the English word "miracle", which carry the idea of the supernatural. Rather, they imply that something unexpected happened within the natural world that made it more "whole". Jesus' healings were not performed to impress or prove His divinity, but to bestow the gift of wholeness to those who lacked it. In ancient Israel, to carry a physical imperfection was considered a shame, and those who were already suffering because of their illnesses or deformities were also marginalized by the Jewish society. Jesus restored their integrity and welcomed them into the new Israel He was professing.
The exorcisms have a specific meaning because, except for King Solomon, they are not part of the Old Testament tradition. Jesus alone was engaged in a battle with the devil, and he was winning:

"If I by the finger of God cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you."

Meier made use of scholarly criteria to establish the historicity of Jesus' miracles, but also to extract the historical Jesus from the Gospels' narratives. Here are the most important ones:

The criterion of discontinuity: It focuses on the originality of the Gospels narratives. For example, the ancient texts don't talk much about exorcisms, so it makes sense to conclude that something that was understood as casting out demons was really happening rather than being an invention of the Church.
It also focuses on words or deeds of Jesus that cannot be derived from Judaism or from the early Church, but rather contradict them. For example, the prohibition of divorce, the rejection of fasting on Sabbath and so on.

The criterion of embarrassment: It focuses on actions or sayings of Jesus that would have created difficulty for the early Church. There are several examples that fall into this category. Among others: Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist, Judah's betrayal, Peter's denial, the women as the first witnesses of the resurrection (women were not considered reliable).

The criterion of multiple attestations: It focuses on those sayings or deeds of Jesus that are attested to in more than one source or genre. This criterion abundantly satisfy the attestation of His miracles, for they are mentioned in more than one Gospel and in general in Josephus, an historian of the time of Jesus who did not believed in His divinity but described Him as a powerful miracle worker.

An overwhelming majority of people believe that miracles still happen. Meier writes:
"…hence, the academic creed of 'no modern person can believe in miracles' should be consigned to the dumpster of empirically falsified hypotheses, After all, that is what is done when other hypotheses are empirically falsified by the social science. I fail to see why this particular creed, however passionately held, can apply for a special exemption, simply because so many academics keep reciting it".
The cures that take place in Lourdes serve to testify that what was claimed to happen by the hands of Jesus is still claimed to happen today in a religious setting and is thoroughly investigated by the International Medical Committee, therefore the miracles stories in the Gospels deserve to be historically investigated. To dismiss them as a creation of the evangelists because "they couldn't possibly occur" is a faulty procedure.

As for me, needless to say, I've come to believe in miracles. Sometimes I think that my entire life is a miracle. I used to enjoy living dangerously, and I could have ended up in big trouble. I thank Jesus every day for His mercy. And my father too, for loving me.

1 comment:

Controinfo said...

My father who was a believer, kept asking why neither Jesus or any (alleged) miracle maker have ever made a leg or an arm grow back to the victims; biology is on its way to realize that! Is science inspired by God? Or obscuredbyind is right?