Some skeptics say that Jesus was nothing but an obscure, itinerant peasant preacher. How on earth did he become viewed as Israel’s Messiah and the Son of God? After all, why should anyone pay attention to a Messiah who was little more than a vagabond teacher who got himself crucified?
Enter miracle stories.
The gospel writers invented them to turn Jesus into more than just preacher of parables. So they transformed him into a figure that outdid Moses, Elijah, and Elisha combined in terms of working wondrous deeds. To do that, they invented legends of him performing impressive healings and miracles in front of big crowds.
The problem with this legendary development theory is it bypasses the earliest period of the church. Not only did the early church preach Jesus’ resurrection right out the gate, but they also believed to have worked some miracles themselves.
Paul sincerely believed he worked miracles
When Paul came into conflict with the Corinthian ‘super-apostles’, he appealed to something that set his ministry apart. These false apostles were infiltrating the church with false doctrine clothed in fancy speech. (2 Cor 11:8) Admittedly Paul wasn’t trained in rhetoric as these men were, but he did have something that they didn’t — the “marks of a true apostle.” Paul said these features included signs, wonders, and miracles. (2 Cor 12:12)
Let’s dissect this statement that the marks of a true apostle would include signs and wonders. We know that Paul thought that Peter as an apostle (Gal. 2:7) Paul also called James and John “pillars of the church”. (Gal. 2:9) In the famous resurrection creed that Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, Paul mentions again Peter and James, as well as the 12 and “all the apostles.”
Think about this for a moment. Paul says what verifies his apostleship is signs, wonders, and miracles. It’s a reasonable inference to say that Peter and the other apostles also had miracles in their ministry. So maybe Luke wasn’t spinning some yarn about Peter healing cripples after all? (Acts 3:1-6)
Paul believed that Jesus’ earliest and closest followers worked miracles
Furthermore, Paul speaks as if the Corinthian church is fully aware of Peter’s ministry, as well as Jesus’ brothers. (1 Cor. 9:5) After all, he corrects them for their party spirit, saying they had their favorite preachers (some things never change), mentioning Peter as part of their debate. (1 Cor. 1:12) So here we have apostles galore that the church in Corinth knew of, including some that were Jesus’ brothers, like James.
Paul is essentially saying: “I might not give awe-inspiring sermons. Whatever, fine. But just like Peter, John, and James, I have signs and wonders attesting my ministry.” We know that Peter was one of Jesus’ closest followers, and James was Jesus’ brother. It would be weird if Jesus’ handpicked apostles and his own brother had miracles in their ministry, but Jesus himself didn’t.
Now think about when Paul was writing. His letters predate the gospels by at least a decade. It was a time when eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry were still alive. Scholars date 1 Corinthians to around 51-52 AD and 2 Corinthians to 54-55. Paul’s visit to them happened in 51, and they must have heard about Peter and James’ ministries before that. And if these were placebo cures that shortly wore off, would Paul be so bold as to remind them of those miracles later? That wouldn’t furnish much proof of him being an apostle.
Paul believed that believers in Jesus experienced miracles in their own congregations, too
But we can argue further. Paul talks to them about signs and wonders in their backyard. He instructs them about gifts of the Spirit and ministry gifts, which included healing and miracles. (1 Cor. 12:9, 29)
Now, these power gifts weren’t limited to the church in Corinth. Paul explicitly refers to the miracles in his ministry to the Romans: “by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ” (Rom 15:19) While he hadn’t visited them yet, he assumes that his reputation proceeded him.
And he likely refers to his miracles to Thessalonicans as well: “because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.” (1 Thess. 1:5, cf. 1 Cor. 2:4-5)
He also states that the churches in Galatia had miracles too: “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (Gal. 3:5)
Finally, the author of James even gives the church instruction on how to pray for the sick, which gives the expectation of supernatural healing: “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” (James 5:14-15)
Miracles were part of the Jesus story from the start
I said all that to make this point: If miracles were not a part of Jesus’ ministry, then why did the church– founded on his name — seem to so sincerely believe that they either performed them or witnessed them through his disciples?
The gospel writers didn’t have to make up stories to give Jesus more authority. Reading about miracles in Jesus’ ministry would come as no shock, as they’ve probably already heard of them, or experienced them through earlier Jesus-followers.
These signs happened in the earliest days of the church, and Paul was able to speak of them as if they were known facts even a few years after they allegedly happened. These witnesses were in churches splayed out throughout the Roman empire.
Therefore, suggesting legendary development of miracles in the gospels is a needless addition. It’s no wonder that after surveying contemporary scholarship, Craig Keener concludes: “Most historical Jesus scholars today, regardless of their personal theological orientation, do accept that Jesus drew crowds who believed that he performed cures and exorcisms.”
Even the liberal New Testament scholar Marcus Borg of the Jesus Seminar agrees, saying: “Hence, my conclusion: Jesus was a healer and an exorcist. Indeed, more healing stories are told about him than about any other figure in the Jewish tradition. In all likelihood, he was the most remarkable healer in human history.”
Erik is the creative force behind the YouTube channel Testify, which is an educational channel built to help inspire people’s confidence in the text of the New Testament and the truth of the Christian faith.