The Miraculous Occurrences
The earliest of the Gospels, that of St. Mark, did not assume its present form until between forty and seventy years after the death of our Lord, and the other Gospels are still later in date; and it is absolutely incredible that the stories about Him should have remained unexaggerated and unaugmented during that period. Tales about a popular hero invariably expand; and in the case of those relating to Jesus, who has accepted by His early followers at first as the God-sent Messiah and then as the Son of God incarnate on earth, it is impossible to believe that they would not gradually have been embellished, or that some of them would not have been developed around an insignificant nucleus, or unconsciously borrowed from other sources, or even invented. The marvel is not that there are so many, but that there are so few, improbable stories told about Him, since He was acknowledged to be divine, and therefore was presumed miracles and to have been the cause of miraculous occurrences. Far more incredible stories have been told about other people than about Jesus.
To take a single instance: just before Julius Caesar was assassinated, all the doors and windows of his house are said to have burst open suddenly and of their own accord; strange lights were observed in the sky; weird noises were heard; phantoms glowing like red-hot metal were seen fighting; and so forth. (1) These, and hundreds of similar stories in connection with other persons, were the talk of the world at the time of the composition of the Gospels. Everybody believed in miraculous events, in signs and wonders; and it was always assumed that saintly or divine personages showed their power by performing miracles. Plotinus, the philosopher, is said to have performed them; Apollonius of Tyana is credited with many miracles; and those told of the early Christian saints and far more numerous and far more extraordinary then are those of the Founder of the Faith.
But, as Renan (2) so aptly puts it: “If ever the worship of Jesus loses its hold upon mankind, it will be precisely on account of those acts which originally inspired belief in Him.” Times have changed, and we no longer need miraculous stories to support our acceptance of our Lord’s divine mission. His historic life and His teachings form the basis of our convictions in regard to Him; and the tales of miracles or miraculous events which are to be considered as contrary to nature tend now towards disbelief rather than towards belief in Him.
Let us first consider the miraculous events. The story of the Virgin Birth, as I have pointed out in Chapter IV, is derived from pagan sources, and first appears in the Gospel of St. Luke, which dates from about a hundred years after the recorded event. The earliest Gospel, that of St. Mark, makes no reference to the birth at all; nor does the Gospel of St. John, which may have been written as early as 100 A. D.’ both chroniclers begin with our Lord’s baptism by John, and it is therefore practically certain that nothing was known to their authors about His birth and youth. The Gospel of St. Luke, written about 100 A. D., alone tells the story of the angels appearing to the shepherds; but the Gospel of St. Matthew, dating from some ten years later, does not know anything about this legend, and gives in its place the tale of the star in the east and the wise men, which story was unknown to the others.
The story of the forty days in the wilderness and of the temptation by Satan is very briefly recorded in St. Mark, the earliest Gospel. (3) We are told no more than that Jesus was in the wilderness for this length of time, that He was tempted by the Devil, and that the angels ministered to Him: the whole story dismissed in one verse, and there is no mention of His fasting. The Gospel of St. John does not relate the story at all. Only St. Luke (100 A. D.) and St. Matthew (110 A. D.) give the account of how Jesus fasted, how Satan took Him on to a mountain and on to a pinnacle of the Temple, how he tempted Him, and how the Evil One was defeated in argument.
The retirement to the wilderness may well be an historical fact, but the story of the temptation is an obvious allegory to be understood in a spiritual sense, though the source of some of the details may be traced. The hoofed god Pan is the prototype of Satan, and there is a pagan legend which relates how the young Jupiter was led by Pan to the top of a mountain, from which he could see the countries of the world. (4) This mountain was called the “Pillar of Heaven,” which perhaps explains the introduction of the pinnacle of the temple into the story. Zoroaster, the founder of the Persian religion, went into the wilderness, and was tempted by the Devil; Buddha did likewise, and was tempted; Moses and Elijah had both dwelt in the wilderness, and the former fasted on Sinai forty days, while the latter fasted on Horeb forty days; Ezekiel had to bear the iniquity of the house of Judah for forty days; the destruction of mankind in the Deluge lasted forty days; there were forty nights of mourning in the mysteries of the pagan Proserpine; there were forty days of sacrifice in the old Persian “Salutation of Mithra”; and so forth.
In regard to the miraculous events which took place at the death of Jesus, the Gospel of St. John says nothing, and those of St. Mark and St. Luke speak only of the rending of the veil of the temple and of the darkness or overcasting of the sky for three hours. The story of the earthquake, the upheaval of the rocks, the bursting open of the graves, and the appearance of the dead, is alone related in St. Matthew’s Gospel, written nearly eighty years after the event, and is therefore not certainly authentic. Of course there is no reason why an earthquake should not have occurred on that day, but if it had really taken place it is almost inconceivable that none of the three earlier Gospels should have mentioned it.
Now as to the miracles performed by Jesus. The returning of the water into wine at Cana may be based on similar tales in regard to Dionysos, who was one of the most popular gods of early Christian times; for the Church has fixed 6th January as the anniversary of the miracle, and that date corresponds to the festival of Dionysos t which the changing of the water was believed to take place as an annual miracle at certain centres of his worship. (5) The feeding of the multitude with five loaves and two fishes is practically the same as the miracle performed by Elisha, (6) and the story may therefore be regarded as having been copied from the earlier legend. The calming of the tempest may be a story which developed from an actual incident wherein a providential calm presently happened to follow an ejaculation uttered by Jesus. The story of the walking on the sea, as simply related in the earliest Gospel, may have developed from a misunderstanding, the Greek permitting of the translation “walking beside the sea,” instead of “on the sea.” St. Luke’s Gospel does not mention the incident; and the more elaborate version of the story, in which Peter tries also to walk on the water and falls in, is, as usual only to be found in the latest Gospel compiled after the best part of a century had elapsed.
The raising from the dead of the son of the widow of Nain is only mentioned in St. Luke, and the raising of Lazarus only in St. John; and it may safely be said that if these two astounding miracles had really occurred, every Gospel would have recorded them, for they would have been the most mighty ever performed by Jesus. The raising of the daughter of Jairus, on the other hand, is not a miracle: Jesus denied that the girl was dead, but rightly said that she was in a cataleptic state; and His words to her were not the gentle: “Damsel, I say unto thee arise!” but a sharp order, “Talitha! Cumi” – “Girl! Get up!” (7)
The miracles of healing, and of casting out devils which we should now term the successful treatment of the epileptic, the neurasthenic or the insane, are such as have been performed time and again by the power of mind over matter: they are perfectly credible, and are not now regarded by science as outside natural laws. Jesus did not consider His healings as miracles, but as ordinary faith-cures; and He was wont to say: “Thy faith hath made thee whole.” (8) He often showed great reluctance to use His undoubtedly extraordinary powers. “Why doth this generation seek after a sign?” He asked. “There shall no sign be given unto this generation.” He opposed the idea that His Messianic claims should be supported in this way; and He said that what He did was no more than what could be done by any man of high spiritually attainment. (9) In His own home, as is so frankly recorded, there was not enough faith in Him for Him to affect any note-worthy cures. (10)
Therefore, in considering the miracles and miraculous occurrences, we are justified in believing only those which can be considered credible; and in regard to both we are entitled to allow for the growth of the stories during the period between the lifetime of our Lord and the compiling of the Gospels. This growth is of the very nature of things, and cannot be overlooked; and when, besides this, we remember that any impossible tale of this kind could have been told of Jesus at that time with the presumption that, since He was the Son of God, it would be believed, the fact that the really incredible stories are so few in number speaks highly for the restraint of the authors of the Gospels.
The modern thinker has carefully to guard against the fallacious idea that the time of Christ was so long ago that things then happened which do not happen now. Actually, life was lived in those days under precisely the same natural conditions as it is at present; and, indeed, nineteen centuries is not a great length of time. It is easily covered by fifty generations: that is to say, all our ancestors back to the days of our Lord could be comfortably carried on one ordinary London omnibus. Or, if we reckon in units of the proverbial span of life, we may say that Jesus lived no more than twenty-seven lifetimes ago. Thus, anything which is said to have happened then must be tested by the same rules of probability as would be applied in the case of stories of modern events.
- Plutarch’s Lives, Caesar.
- Renan, Life of Jesus.
- Mark i. 13.
- Atheneaus, i. 61.
- 2 kings iv. 42.
- Mark v. 41.
- ix. 22.
- Mark xi. 23.
- Mark vi. 5.