Christianity, a Clear Case of History

Jesus in the Context of Miracles

Let me ask you this: If miracles did happen, and those who saw them wanted to tell us about them, how could they have given their report with more authority and credibility than the New Testament writers did?
-Ed Wharton

New Testament writers usually referred to miracles as casually as we refer to a television broadcast. They never made an effort to prove that miracles were performed, they simply referred to them in that take-it-for-granted style which obviated the necessity of proving something that was already common knowledge.

Miracles Were Never Denied

Particularly interesting examples of this lack of denial come from the Jewish opposition. The Jews grudgingly admitted that the miracles were performed; they never once denied their occurrence. When the Pharisees were hard pressed to explain the source of Christ's power to cast out demons, they reasoned defensively that he did so by the power of the prince of demons (Matthew 12:22-24). But in their answer, both demons and Christ's power to cast them out were admitted as facts. John recorded a similar incident when the Jewish leaders became exasperated with Jesus for performing so many signs that multitudes flocked to him. The rulers felt that if Jesus were allowed to continue in such fashion, he would soon bring all Jerusalem to believe on him and that would in turn bring the Romans down on them (John 11:47-53). Their decision, therefore, was to kill him. As far as they were concerned, the miracles were as real as Jesus. Their jealousy prevented them from admitting what the miracles proved. While they denied the deity of Jesus, they never denied that he worked the miracles.

In the third chapter of Acts, Luke records that Peter and John healed a cripple in the temple area. When he began to test his new legs by walking and leaping, he naturally drew a crowd of amazed onlookers who recognized him. The apostles took this as an occasion to preach the gospel and bring more souls to belief in Christ. This provoked the Sadducees to jealousy again, and the authorities promptly arrested them. When they were told to give an account of themselves, Peter responded by pointing to the man whom they had healed and claimed that the healing was done by the power of Jesus of Nazareth whom they had crucified, but whom God had raised from the dead. The force of their words resided in the fact that the former cripple was standing right there in their presence giving credence to everything they said. The Jewish rulers were chagrined. Luke tells us that when they saw the man standing there, they could say nothing against it. We are told that

…when they had commanded them to go aside out of the council, they conferred among themselves, saying, What shall we do to these men? For that indeed a notable miracle hath been wrought through them, is manifest to all that dwell in Jerusalem; and we cannot deny it. But that it spread no further among the people, let us threaten them, that they speak hence forth to no man in this name. (Acts 4:15-17)

Rather than attempt to deny the obvious fact of the miracle, the rulers decided to use scare tactics and to threaten the apostles against further preaching. But it never occurred to them to deny the miracles.

When Peter first preached the gospel, he appealed to the miracles of Christ as a confirmation of his claims. It was Pentecost, some fifty three days since the crucifixion. Thousands of Jews had gathered in Jerusalem from every nation for the great annual feast. With a phenomenal display of wind-sound and a linguistic ability heretofore not exhibited by the apostles-to speak the languages of the nations represented-the multitude of worshippers had their attention drawn keenly toward Peter. He opened his sermon by saying, "Ye men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God unto you by mighty works and wonders and signs which God did by him in the midst of you, even as ye yourselves know … ye by the hand of lawless men did crucify and slay: whom God raised up" (Acts 2:22-24). Their condemnation of Christ was met head-on with the counter-claim that God himself had approved Jesus by the miracles he had performed in their presence. Then, so as not to allow them to escape the force of his evidence, he added, "even as ye yourselves know." As we would say, "He did it, and you know it!" Peter called upon their memories to testify to themselves that Jesus' miracles were proof of God's approval. The miracles were taken for granted. No one ever denied that they happened. The miracles of Christ did not need to be proved; they were the proof to which Peter appealed as confirmation.

Peter's point and mine are the same: If Jesus worked miracles, he is something far more than a mere man. Now the question that comes to my mind is this: How could Peter, among those Jews, expect to get away with such a claim for miracles if they had not happened? Three thousand of those Jews were brought to belief in Jesus as their messiah. That just would not have happened if they had thought some fanatic was trying to bamboozle them into admitting what they knew was not true. But the fact is that the church began on that same day with three thousand Jewish converts. What must be answered is: If not miracles, then what forces were present to convince those Jews of the truth of Peter's words?

If Not Miracles, Then What Is Your Alternative?

If you say to yourself that it is difficult to believe that miracles formed the catalyst to bring about belief in Peter's sermon, let me challenge you to produce from a historical basis of facts a reasonable explanation for the three thousand Jews who responded that day. Either these Jews, who had earlier crucified Christ, believed Peter's testimony and endorsed his reference to Jesus' miracles, or they did not. Either Luke's testimony of the establishment of the church on Pentecost was true or it was not true. Did Luke invent the whole story? Tacitus might as well have invented Caesar!

HISTORY AND MIRACLES

I want to make two things very clear. First, the miracles of Christ can be verified as factual in the same way that any fact of history can be verified. Second, the miracles of Jesus are a very significant and distinguishing feature of his life and any modern picture of Christ must include this miraculous feature in order to identify with the true Jesus of history.

A Matter of History

When people discuss Christ-not only his existence, but also his personality, teachings, deeds, his relationships with the Jewish community, the dynamic effect he had on others, his death by crucifixion, his burial, and his resurrection-they are admitting that there is a real historical basis for their discussions. Since the New Testament is the only source yielding that information, it is conclusive that the New Testament is that historical basis. Remember that archaeology and first century documentation have confirmed its reliability where they have commented on the same things. What is unintelligent, therefore, about believing the miracles, when this historically reliable testimony says they happened? We can accept them with the same confidence that we accept any other incident to which competent and reliable men testify. Nothing of a historical nature has come to light to discredit them.

What does the evidence say to your reason? Hasn't the New Testament been verified by the same means used on presently accepted histories? What is there of a historical nature that contradicts the New Testament writings? Wouldn't any other document as well verified be considered reliable? Are we not bound to give at least the same consideration to the New Testament that we give to other writings from the same time period? On what basis, then, shall the miracles be rejected? To discount them is to do so at the expense of bonafide evidence and good reason.

Let me ask you this: If the miracles did happen, and those who saw them wanted to tell us about them, how could they have given their report with any more authority and credibility than the New Testament writers did?

A Matter of Consistency

Not even unbelieving historians always discount the miracles as real space-time happenings. Will Durant writes, "That his powers were nevertheless exceptional seems proved by his miracles… . The fact that like stories have been told of other characters in legend and history does not prove that the miracles of Christ were myths."(45) We must not make more of Durant's admission of miracles than he intended. He stated that, "With few exceptions they are not beyond belief."(46) But the matter of miracles so generally pervades the entire historical fiber of the gospels and Acts that total disallowance is, at least to Durant, unthinkable.

45. Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, pp. 562, 563.
46. Ibid.

We must also add that those miracles which Durant would reject are not discounted on any grounds of a historical nature. He merely reasons that, "Probably these were in most cases the result of suggestion."(47) However, mere suggestion cannot explain such miracles as raising the dead (Matthew 9:18-25; John 11:43-44) or walking on the water (John 6:16-20). Much less would suggestion allow Jesus to present himself alive after his crucifixion for a personal examination of his pierced hands and side (Luke 24:39-40; John 20:26-29; 1 John 1:1-2). Yet these miracles are a part of the same historical fabric which is admittedly genuine in other places. They can no more be set aside as figments of the writers' imagination than can those miracles which are admitted. There is no less reason of a historical nature to discount these matters than there is to accept the others. Therefore, it becomes a matter of consistency either to accept or reject the entire testimony of the apostles.

47. Ibid.

Our generation includes a great many people in Europe and Asia and North America who, like Durant, take a cafeteria style approach to the New Testament: they take what they like and discount what they do not like as unbelievable. I have had countless experiences in soul winning with persons who were knowledgeable about the greatness of Jesus and how he has the answers for a corrupt world, but clearly conveyed that they "do not believe in all those miracles." In answer, please consider why anyone would believe that Jesus did anything at all. The answer is always the same-because the New Testament says so. Do not forget that outside that New Testament, we can know nothing of the life and teachings of Christ, only that he lived and died at Jerusalem. If we say that Jesus did anything at all, we are saying that the New Testament is reliable, at least at that point. If we admit that Jesus worked any miracles at all, just one miracle, we admit that the New Testament is telling us the truth about that particular matter. But why have we admitted the truth of the testimony at that point? Has there been an investigation into its genuineness? Has there been an evaluation of the evidence and a reasonable conclusion reached consistent with the evidence? In answer to this, would we only shrug our shoulders? Or would we candidly admit that those scholastic investigations have been made by others and that we feel safe to agree with the general consensus?

Now consider why anyone would not believe the miracles. Is it because there is a genuine ground of historical evidence that throws reasonable doubt on them? We know that this is not the real reason for dismissing the miracles. The real reason is prejudice. There exists a presupposition that some miracles, or all of them, could not have happened in the natural world, and, therefore, the New Testament account of them is wrong, even thoughthe evidence is difficult to deny.

This is not the way that history testifies to any event. Historical truth can neither be confirmed nor refuted by a presupposition that some particular thing could or could not have happened. This is no way to treat perfectly good historical testimony to any kind of claim. What justification is there for treating the historic Christian Scriptures with such a groundless and haughty glibness? If modern men will consistently apply the historical method to the miracles, their eyes will be opened to the inequalities of religious liberals when they reject the historical basis of Christianity strictly at the point of miracles, while at the same time, they accept it elsewhere.

JESUS AND MIRACLES

The gospel writers wrote their papers to prove to us that Jesus is the son of God. They set about to accomplish their task by pointing us toward the miracles he did in their presence (John 20:30-31). The miraculous element is presented in such quantity that the picture of Jesus which emerges from those pages virtually immerses him in a life-context of miracles.

Modern Theology's Jesus of History

The modern portrait of Jesus is strictly human. The miracle stories are debunked as being out of character with the rest of Christ's life, supposedly giving us a distorted picture of the real Jesus. This is due to modern theology which has it that the real Jesus lies hidden beneath a gospel-myth. The church is supposed to be the culprit, having heroized him so that as his story was told and retold, there developed a supernaturalism about him. Supernatural claims and deeds were attributed to him over a period of thirty years so that by the time Mark wrote his gospel, the legend was supposed to be confused with history.

Jesus Christ, Superstar!

This is illustrated in the modern opera, Jesus Christ, Superstar. It begins with Judas saying,

If you strip away the myth from the man

You will see where we all soon will be

Jesus! You've started to believe

The things they say of you

You really do believe

This talk of God is true.

Superstar's message is clear: Jesus was a man like any modern man we see today, and when we strip away the myth from the gospel, we will see him as he really was. Modern theology tells today's man that if we de-mythologize the New Testament-take away the miracles-we will get back to the real Jesus of history.

But where is the evidence that the miracles are mythical? It does not exist. Merely saying the miracles are myth is not proof. They are embedded in the context of a totally reliable testimony. The whole matter of myth-miracles is assumed on the basis of a presupposition that miracles could not have happened, reliable historical testimony to the contrary notwithstanding.

Take a Serious Look at the Facts

Modernism contradicts the indisputable fact that the church was established in Jerusalem just fifty days after the crucifixion; it was established on the major belief that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead. It did not take thirty years for a supernatural Jesus to become identified with Christianity. In only fifty days from his journey to the cross, his bodily resurrection became the foundation stone upon which thousands, including many who had participated in condemning him, confessed their faith in him as Lord and were ushered into the church. Fifty days is not enough time to develop a myth about a miracle-working Christ who had been raised from the dead and then pass it off on thousands of Jews who knew better!

Coming to Grips With the Facts

Let's face it: the church began with a belief in the supernatural Jesus. Then in the days to come, that faith empowered the church to maintain its hope and growth momentum through severe hardship. If miracles were not a real part of the historical Jesus, then what alternative reason can be offered for the dynamic conviction which moved thousands of Jews to accept Jesus as their Lord and stay with him faithfully to the death?

"De-Mything" the modern Myth

The real mythology is that the "real" Jesus of modernism has something to offer twentieth century man. We are not allowed to believe that he made a single claim to deity or that he worked a single miracle. What was it the modern Jesus Christ said or did that was so outstanding beyond any other modern man?

You will search the New Testament endlessly to find an outstanding statement or claim or deed done by Jesus which is not connected directly or contextually to his divine nature, his messiahship, or his mission as Saviour of the world. What would the modern Jesus have to offer anyone? If the so-called de-mythologization is carried out-which means that all miracles and supernatural and messianic claims are to be thrown out-the Jesus who would be left would be lifeless and speechless. He would be without meaning either to the people of his day or of ours. Try it and see. It's unreasonable that the "modern Jesus" could have produced such a stir in the ancient world, such conviction in the hearts of so many, such a powerful and lasting ethic, such a hope for eternal redemption, and to have done it all without having said or done anything outstanding!

The Miracles of Jesus Are "In Character"

"In character" means that the miracles of Christ are in keeping with the general life and character of Jesus as presented to us in the gospel accounts. The general picture of Jesus is such that miracles are not at all out of place in this particular portrait. Consider the following attributes, claims, and deeds which are a part of the picture of Jesus that emerges from the New Testament.

1. His virgin birth (Matthew 1:18-23; Luke 1:26-35).
2. His boyhood wisdom exemplified in his penetrating understanding and concept of
the law at the youthful age of twelve (Luke 2:40-52).
3. His uncanny perception into the heart, motives, and thoughts of others (John
1:47-48; 2:24-25; 4:16-19; 6:15, 61, 70; 13:1-3, 21-30).
4. His foretelling of future events:
a. The betrayal by Judas (Matthew 26:20-21; Luke 22:21-22; John 13:21-27).
b. Peter's denial (Matthew 26:34; Mark 14:30; John 13:38).
c. The destruction of Jerusalem wherein Jesus foretold the coming of the Roman
legions and their encircling of the city (Matthew 23:29-24:34; Mark 13:1-32;
Luke 19:41-44; 21:5-33).
d. His own death and the manner of it (Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:19; John
2:19-21; 12:32-33), though they attempted to kill him by other means (John
5:18; 7:1; 8:59; 10:31,39).
5. His claims are those of a liar and a blasphemer or those of the son of God, for he
claimed:
a. That he would build his church and that death could not stop him (Matthew
16:13-19).
b. To be the Messiah of Old Testament prophecy (Luke 4:16-21; 24:25-27, 44-47;
John 4:25-26; 5:39).
c. To be able to forgive sins (Matthew 9:2; Mark 2:5; Luke 19:10).
d. To be the son of God (Matthew 16:13-20; John 5:19-26; 10:36).
e. That his origin and nature were different from others (John 8:23-24).
f. That he had existence before Abraham (John 8:58).
g. That he will open the tombs of all men and raise the dead to judgment (John
5:28-29).
h. That no one can come to God except through him (John 14:6), thus excluding
all others as mediators between God and man.
i. That his words will judge us (John 12:48-50).
j. That he was sinless and able to free us from the bondage of sin (John 8:29,
34-36, 46).
k. That he would send the Holy Spirit from heaven to the apostles in order to
guide them into a remembrance of all he said while on earth, and into a full
knowledge of the meaning of the gospel (John 14:16-18, 26; 16:7, 13-14).
l. That he is the resurrection and the life (John 11:25).
m. That he will come again to receive us to be with him where he is (John 14:3).
These claims circumscribe the attributes of divine nature, divine power, and
divine right-in short, all the divine attributes of God himself. In what way
would the miracles attributed to Christ be out of character with the one who
made such claims? Obviously, the miracles are no more outstanding to the
general picture of Christ than are his claims.
6. His moral glory. There is a perfect integration between the ideal man back of
his claims and the life he lived in perfect harmony with those claims. No flaw
can be detected in the picture of his life as we have it.
7. His authority and wisdom. Matthew's record of the Sermon on the Mount,
chapters 5-7. Other instances (Matthew 13:54; 22:23-46 where he put his
challengers to silence. Also Mark 6:2; 11:18; Luke 4:32). Whence came this
wisdom? Even the Jewish opposition acknowledged his intellectual powers and
admitted an inability to account for it (John 7:14-16).
8. His death by crucifixion was accomplished in six hours! (Mark 15:33-37, 43-45).
Usually the executed would hang on the cross for two to three days, sometimes
for a week, before finally expiring. This is a very significant point when we
consider that Jesus claimed to have power over his own life so that no one could
take his life from him (John 10:17-18; 14:30-31). (This point will be fully
developed in the next chapter.)
9. His resurrection as presented in the four gospels.
10. His ascension in the clouds of heaven in the sight of the apostles (Acts 1:9-11).

The life of Jesus as presented in the gospels is one of supernatural events and divine claims. Jesus lived in the context of miracles. The miracles are not out of character with the general picture of Jesus which the gospel writers have given us. To the contrary, the miracles attributed to him are no more outstanding than are his divine claims, his virgin birth, his sinless life, his prophetic ability, his profound wisdom, or his unique death on the cross in only six hours.

H. G. Wells has written: "We shall tell what men believed about Jesus of Nazareth, but him we shall treat as being what he appeared to be, a man, just as a painter must needs paint him as a man."(48) However, in the light of the picture of Christ which the gospel writers have painted, I feel constrained to ask at what point in that gospel portrait does Jesus ever appear to be merely a man? From his birth to his death, at all points in between and beyond the grave, the literary picture of Jesus Christ is distinctly that of a divine person, not merely that of a man.

48. H. G. Wells, The Outline of History, Vol. 1, p. 420.

CONCLUSION

Jesus himself calls us to believe in him on the ground of his miraculous works (John 10:37-38). John affirms that he heard Jesus say this, and that he was an eyewitness of those "works of God" (John 19:35; 20:30-31). Since the Gospel records are historically reliable, and the miracles of Christ which are presented in them are generally in character with the rest of the life of Christ, it is reasonable to conclude that the miracles of Jesus Christ are as authentic as the very life of Jesus Christ himself and that he is therefore the son of God.

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