Myths, Miracles, and the Historical Jesus
According to the view known as Jesus mythicism, the stories in the Gospels about Jesus as a human being are religious fictions, not historical fact. The term myth as used by religion scholars does not necessarily mean a story that is not historically factual—it can mean a story, factual or not, that has religious or spiritual significance for people—but that is how Jesus mythicists typically use the term. As I have explained in another article, the evidence that Jesus was a real, historical person is strong enough to be considered reasonably certain.1
One aspect of the Gospel accounts of Jesus especially strikes skeptics as marking them as myth rather than history: its supernatural or miraculous elements. Jesus’ birth is announced by angels and he is then conceived and born of a virgin. The Holy Spirit appears in a form like a dove when Jesus is baptized by John. Jesus is tempted in the wilderness by the devil. Jesus casts demons out of people, heals people of various diseases, stills a storm on the sea, walks on the sea, turns one boy’s lunch into enough food to feed thousands of people, and even raises people from the dead. After he is crucified and his body buried in a tomb, Jesus rises from the dead and appears to people.
The question of whether Jesus performed miracles is obviously an important issue. We will address this question in a separate (forthcoming) article. Here, however, we will consider the claim that these miraculous stories call into question whether Jesus even existed.
Jesus’ Historical Existence Is a Separate Question from His Miracles
First of all, it is possible to take the position that Jesus was a real historical person while disbelieving that he was born of a virgin, performed miracles, or rose from the dead. We know this is possible because the vast majority of non-Christian historians actually take this position. Such historians think that Jesus was a real person but that the Gospels have embellished on his life by attributing these miraculous elements to him. Of course, Christians disagree with this claim, but the point to be recognized is that the historical existence of Jesus is a separate question from whether these miraculous events occurred. As an example, in some legends Alexander the Great’s mother was (supposedly) impregnated by one of the Greek gods, but no historian concludes that Alexander never existed.
An excellent example of a scholar who makes this distinction is the agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, notorious for his books challenging Christian beliefs about the Bible and Jesus Christ. In 2012 Ehrman published a book entitled Did Jesus Exist? in which he fully addressed the claims of the mythicists. Ehrman does not accept the Gospel miracles but he shows that even if one rejects those elements of the Gospels the fact remains that Jesus was a real person. Ehrman goes so far as to say that it is certain that Jesus existed: “The reality is that whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist…. And for anyone to whom both evidence and the past matter, a dispassionate consideration of the case makes it quite plain: Jesus did exist.”2 Another skeptic, the late Maurice Casey, also wrote a whole book arguing that Jesus definitely existed. According to Casey, “Mythicists have not the foggiest notion of historical method, and they do have a massive amount of bias and prejudice to put in its place.”3
Miracles and Modern Science
Second, the Gospel accounts about Jesus have credibility within the context of the biblical worldview. Suppose there is a Creator who made all things and who sustains and governs the universe by his transcendent power and wisdom, and who brought life into existence from non-life. If such a God exists, then he could create life in the womb of a virgin, bring healing to sick bodies, and raise a dead man back to life. Moreover, if these things took place not in a random fashion (and thus were meaningless) but in the course of God acting to reconcile human beings to himself, such miracles would be a reasonable and fitting aspect of that worldview. As it turns out, the advances in modern science have yielded surprising confirmation of the existence of such a Creator.4 Modern science has demonstrated that the universe had a beginning,5 that it is finely tuned to be a stable environment in which life is possible,6 that planets like Earth capable of sustaining not just life but massive, advanced civilizations over a period of thousands of years,7 and that life itself reflects an intelligent origin in the complex and massive amounts of information encoded in a single living cell.8 In such a worldview context, it is perfectly reasonable to accept reports of God raising a man from the dead while rejecting reports of leprechauns guarding pots of gold at the end of rainbows or the Hindu deity Vishnu taking the form of a boar.
Some Miracle Claims Are More Credible than Others
Third, the mythicists’ claim that the supernatural elements of the Gospel accounts mark them as myth takes an overly simplistic, one-size-fits-all approach to the supernatural. They assume that if one accepts the miraculous in the Gospels, or in the Bible as a whole, one has no grounds for questioning supernatural stories elsewhere. But as we have just seen, this assumption is unjustified, because the credibility of miraculous stories depends on their context. This is true even of miracles supposedly performed in the name of Jesus. For example, if we affirm that Jesus healed people, must we agree that a modern-day faith healer such as Benny Hinn heals people? Not at all. When Hinn (who by the way clearly existed and still exists!) drew crowds of ten to thirty thousand in large amphitheaters with the promise of healing, engaged in such antics on stage as waving his jacket at people and having them fall down, and collected huge sums of money from the hopeful, but later claimed only a handful of alleged healings from the proceedings, there is simply no reason to conclude that anything supernatural took place. Such religious showmanship (typical of a now long tradition of traveling faith healers) is simply not as credible a demonstration of the miraculous as the compassionate touch of Jesus that healed people his own countrymen regarded as ritually unclean (such as a leper or a bleeding woman). A fair-minded and critical examination of miracle claims will find some to be far more credible than others.
The point is that the question of whether Jesus performed miracles such as those reported in the Gospels cannot be answered merely by dismissing all supernatural claims as unbelievable. Given that billions of people have been convinced of the truth of the Gospel miracles and given the meaningful worldview and theological context in which they appear, a reasonable person ought to approach the Gospel accounts with something of an open mind.9 In turn, this means that it is unreasonable to conclude from the miraculous elements in the Gospels that Jesus never existed.
2. Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: HarperOne, 2012), 4, 6.
3. Maurice Casey, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? (London: Bloomsbury T&T Academic, 2014), 43.
4. Two popular overviews of the scientific evidence for a Creator are Lee Strobel, The Case for a Creator: A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence that Points toward God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004) and J. Warner Wallace, God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2015). For a somewhat more sophisticated yet still popular treatment, see John C. Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Oxford: Lion Book, 2009).
5. Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), by an agnostic astronomer, was the first book to review the history and significance of this discovery that the universe had a beginning. See also Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos: How the Greatest Scientific Discoveries of the Century Reveal God, 3rd ed. (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001).
6. Noteworthy books on this subject include Alister E. McGrath, A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology, The 2009 Gifford Lectures (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009); Karl W. Giberson, The Wonder of the Universe: Hints of God in Our Fine-Tuned World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012).
7. Two agnostic scientists have made this case; see Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee, Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe (New York: Copernicus, 2000). John Gribbin, a respected science writer who does not believe in God, also argued that earth was likely the only planet in the galaxy with intelligent life in Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2011). Christian treatments of the subject include Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards, Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2004) and Hugh Ross, Improbable Planet: How Earth Became Humanity’s Home (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016).
8. The following books, written from somewhat different perspectives, all provide abundant evidence on this point: Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006); Fazale Rana, The Cell’s Design: How Chemistry Reveals the Creator’s Artistry (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008); Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (San Francisco: Harper One, 2009); Douglas Axe, Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuitions that Life Is Designed (New York: HarperCollins, 2016).
9. For more on the credibility of the Gospel miracles, see Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 39–91; Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011); Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 663–716.