Tuesday, 14 February 2012


My religious position has roughly stayed in the same region over time, but when I started out as religiously positive I'd have described myself as a Jesucentric non-theist in the sense that the Jesucentrism was a form of humanism and grounding. If I give ever so slightly more to the possibility of transcendence, these days I give no special place to Jesus at all. The humanity of all humanity spreads out to a greater interest in consciousness in us and any species. One can have this rather obvious non-belief but still have a religious outlook, but that outlook is not dependent on believing impossible, unlikely and unnecessary things.

Nevertheless, we live in a world of minority religious claims and it is useful to take 'trips back' in terms of doing history and therefore why religion is to be found in the ordinary. There is plenty of mystery and awe in science and a whole theology waiting to be done in the ordinary.

But people will say, ah this Jesus carried out miracles, and either carried out or was subject to the big miracle of actually dying and returning to life. Well, skipping the big one until the coming season (like once a year comes the explanation why the 'resurrection' is precisely not an actual death and a restoring of a life), what about these miracles.

The first thing is the importance in the ministry of Jesus of his own belief in the devil or satan and that he should not be tempted into carrying out miracles on his own behalf. Once again (as has been stated before), if Jesus believes he is a Son of Man in any special sense (he could be only pointing towards a transformed Son of Man, Messiah, to come imminently), none of this should be confused with divinity and he still cannot be tempted into performing miracles on his own behalf. Even to have a belief as one of God's chosen is not the same as believing one is divine. That's a later Christian belief and one that is escalated some time on.

But did, then, God (we assume), perform any miracles through him?

There are two general kinds of miracles: the healing and the other physical miracles. There is no doubt that he went around offering healing. But who was doing the healing. Each healing is, however, surrounded by the motive of cleansing to enter the Kingdom of God (due to a belief in demons causing ill-health and ill-fortune), along with an ethic of reversals in that coming Kingdom, and with the proviso that the faith of that person is the basis of the healing, rather than the action as such of Jesus himself who becomes then a channel for beliefs in God (theirs and his).

Even some of the healing miracles have added theological meaning, and that will affect the telling of them later. One such is how Jesus is said to reply to John the Baptist regarding the actions of God in causing healings.

Jesus comes to the synagogue and reads the given scripture on that day, the Isaiah 61 read about the middle of February. It's a personal announcement that adds 'sight to the blind' not in the Hebrew Bible for synagogue use, though it is in the Septuagint (and how it was added is unclear). Luke is quoting the Septuagint, but it was also known at the time of Jesus and he might have added it in deliberately (this would also go alogn with Jesus understanding Greek). But there is the contrary too, of John 9:39, that the sighted would become blind, and this is a key Jesus ethic. When Jesus actually (in an account, Matthew 9:29) heals two blind men, he says let them be healed according to their faith. In Mark 10:52 a blind man can see because of his confidence that Jesus can heal him.

So it is about them and their faith. The same is true of other healings. A woman touches his robe and her faith heals her and the Canaanite woman's daughter is healed to the extent of her faith.

It has to be assumed that a person desperate for some healing goes to someone who they think heals. It happens today, it's just that most of them deliver peer-reviewed chemicals that have actual effect whatever you believe.

As for physical miracles, each acquires a theological meaning again based on the Kingdom and on reversals. So Jesus is the overseer of the wine at a wedding and who sees what happens isn't clear, but the meaning is a wine after water is poured in and a miracle of better wine as the occasion proceeds. It is a better taste than the horrible cheap vinegary stuff that passes for common wine. Here is one occasion, perhaps because it was early-on, that Jesus had not abandoned his family (although after his death the family firm is back involved regarding the Nazarenes).

As regards the feeding of the four or five thousand men (and then more), there is no explanation as to how a limit of bread and fish expanded into enough to eat, in front of their eyes or down their throats, nor of how many hours (at least two and a half) that it would have taken to distribute dinner. There are some simple idiot questions to ask about this if an actual miracle. There is, in simple ordinary terms (and Schweitzer thought it was a real event), absolutely nothing preventing the folks turning up on a feast day with their own grub or people selling it while others didn't work. It's not the point that the tellers and writers wish to make, for which the earliest account of the 5000 might have been the more rapidly miraculous of the story as in John. Jesus would not want to be feeding the whole crowd, just his own disciples lying on the ground to rest and eat. But the writers expand this into a tale of plenty from little, and add to this that none of the Passover food should be left until the next day, Jesus tells his twelve disciples to go and collect it and so do so in twelve baskets. The tale gets enriched with theological meaning, which continued into the Christian Eucharist. The 4000 tale is a variant story, adding support to the event of a large crowd gathered if a variation in details.

Buddha, incidentally, had an alms bowl that satisfied five hundred followers and the inhabitants of a monastery. There were twelve baskets of bread left over afterwards. Although the unessential story (for Buddhists - but it was still generated) is a nice parallel and seemingly detached, nevertheless Buddhism had been around for 500 years and the trade roads were carriers of ideas and beliefs: after all, resurrection ideas came down the same road locally starting out in Zoroastrian Persia.

Buddha managed to walk on water, in part of its tradition, too (the same tendency to generate miracle stories). The disciples, in the darkness, unable to row across a lake against the wind, who'd last seen Jesus going up a mountain, find him apparently in the middle of the lake. The key to this story of confusion of place and effort is the Pharisee belief that in the kingdom the righteous would walk on water.

Mount Herman is permanently capped with snow, and would have been a good mountain to climb for the transfiguration story. But the story is about Jesus seen as Moses and Elijah and is about eschatology if nothing else. Mountains are important because there was a literalist cosmology, of the stars indicating the dome above which was the heavenly realm, with ways through for occasional touches of the heavenly on earth. It would all come flooding through soon and transform the earth. The mountain takes one a little nearer.

In following Steuart Campbell's excellent book regarding scholarly detail, I personally think he extracts too much in the way of historical events from the stories, but it's good and challenging that he does. But he is right that Jesus resists the temptation of divine power. To be a bit more precise: Jesus is not a magician and nor does he try to be a magician. He would have had no cause or purpose to deliver any nature miracle at all (it could only have happened around him, as occasional signs). He would have resisted conjouring divine power to heal anyone but would have (and did) let faith heal. The stories that there were miracles are all after the events, if there were events: they are about demons subdued and nature coming under the power of the divine as the Kingdom was coming very into place very soon.

Whereas, as we are still very aware, there was no fundamental change and the cosmological explanations of reality were wrong.

See Campbell, Steuart (1996), The Rise and Fall of Jesus: the Ultimate Explanation for the Origin of Christianity, Edinburgh: Explicit Books, 112-130.

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