Comparing the Historical Jesus: Miracles

This is part of our ongoing series comparing the perspectives of J. D. Crossan and N. T. Wright on the Historical Jesus.
Image of Jesus Healing the Gerasene Demoniac
Image of Jesus Healing the Gerasene Demoniac

Given Crossan’s general view of the world and the relationship between the natural and supernatural,[1] it is not entirely surprising that he grants little historical value to accounts of the miracles of the historical Jesus. Crossan argues that Jesus’ program of ministry focused more on the principles of open social commensality and radical egalitarianism.[2] Based on the prevalence of stories concerned with healing and demonic exorcism, Crossan concludes that Jesus was likely some form of peasant healer, though not in the typical western understanding of the term ‘healer.’[3] Focusing on the social implications of disease within first century Judaism, Crossan argues for a distinction between ‘illness’ and ‘disease.’ Whereas a disease consists of a medical condition, for example HIV/AIDS, an illness refers to the social ills of that disease, namely community ostracization and ridicule.[4] Crossan writes, “I presume that Jesus, who did not and could not cure that disease [in his example ‘leprosy’] or any other one, healed the poor man’s illness by refusing to accept the disease’s ritual uncleanness and social ostracization. Jesus thereby forced others either to reject him from their community or to accept the leper within it as well.”[5] Concerning demonic possession, Crossan argues that such claims likely reflect the impact of Roman Imperial colonialism and that Jesus may have healed from an entranced state.[6] Ultimately, Crossan’s presuppositions necessarily diminish the historical veracity of any and all miraculous events that have traditionally been ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth. To explain Jesus’ reputation as healer and miracle worker, Crossan argues that process was reinterpreted as event and that Jesus practiced healing in a social sense without ever performing the literally miraculous.

Key for N.T. Wright is understanding Jesus’ actions and his teachings, especially those concerning the Kingdom of God. Framing Jesus as a Jewish prophet[7] and as a qualified social bandit,[8] Wright understands Jesus as one who was mighty in word and deed through leadership, especially his teaching about the Kingdom of God, parables, and oracles of judgment.[9] Concerning the mighty works that accompanied these mighty teachings, Wright concludes that they “were not simply show magic, nor the attempt to win support from crowds, and certainly not in themselves indications or hints that Jesus was ‘divine’ (whatever that might be deemed to mean). They were signs which were intended as, and would have been perceived as, the physical inauguration of the kingdom of Israel’s god, the putting into action of the welcome and the warning which were the central message of the kingdom and its redefinition.”[10] Wright argues that Jesus’ miracles were not simply shows, but purposeful demonstrations of the Kingdom. Similarly, he understands the healings that Jesus performed not as a one-man demonstration of power, but as the introduction to God’s coming Kingdom.[11] For N.T. Wright, the important action of Jesus was his teaching about the Kingdom of God, and the miracles that accompanied that message were designed to show the inauguration of that kingdom, not merely convince people of Jesus’ prophetic status or power.[12]

[1] Crossan argues from a worldview and post-enlightenment understanding of the relationship between the natural and supernatural that, from all accounts, appears to preclude the possibility of the miraculous ever occurring. As Crossan has written elsewhere, and professes by his membership in the Roman Catholic Church, he apparently believes in something, namely God, which exists outside of the physical world. How he reconciles a belief in God (in any sense of the traditional categories assigned to a being by that title) with his apparent philosophical naturalism remains a question that ought to be answered, though not in this context.

[2] John Dominic Crossan. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1994. 66-74.

[3] Ibid., 76-80.

[4] Ibid., 80-82.

[5] Ibid., 82. One must question Crossan on this point. While community values where generally of far greater importance in the first century honor/shame culture, he fails to adequately make the case for Jesus being able to force anyone to do anything with regard to the curing of an illness. An itinerant speaker of parables with no accrued community honor could hardly force anyone to tolerate himself, let alone the village leper. While Crossan’s ideal on this point makes a valiant effort to explain the value of healing an illness with affecting the disease, the social implications of Crossan’s arguments undermine his position.

[6] Ibid., 84-95.

[7] N.T. Wright. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996. 147-197.

[8] Ibid., 158.

[9] Ibid., 168-186.

[10] Ibid., 196.

[11] Tom Wright. Simply Jesus. New York: Harper Collins, 2011. 73.

[12] An explanatory value that Wright argues continues to this day; readers of the canonical gospels should not believe in Jesus because of his miracles and healings, but because of his message and the demonstration that the miracles and healings have demonstrated the introduction of the Kingdom of God.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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