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Glenn Miller’s “Were the Gospel Miracles Invented by the New Testament Authors?”

Reviewed by Robert M. Price


Strike Up the Band

When I was cutting my teeth on the polemical literature of evangelical apologetics, the leading authors in the field (at least of historical apologetics) included F.F. Bruce, John Warwick Montgomery, and Josh McDowell. They formed a diverse group, Bruce a member of the Plymouth Brethren and a sophisticated New Testament scholar, Montgomery a Lutheran Theology professor, and McDowell a Campus Crusade for Christ evangelist largely derivative of others like Bruce, Montgomery, and still earlier apologists like Wilbur Smith and Paul Little. My study of apologetics eventually pointed my way out of evangelical Christianity altogether, and I documented my case in a book, Beyond Born Again. I entered the lists of debates on biblical accuracy and the historical Jesus only some years later, in the late 1990s, and by then a new generation of apologists (I suppose, the generation I had once planned on being a part of!) had taken the stage, including William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias, Craig Blomberg, Glenn Miller, Gary Habermas, and Greg Boyd. As I began to delve into their pages, I wondered if any of them had come up with anything new. I hoped I should be open-minded enough to be convinced if they proved to be convincing. To tell the truth, I can only say I was amazed that their case had not advanced by an inch. As one, these new defenders of the faith alike hauled out the same old arguments, just as lame as they ever seemed to me. One supposes they were trotting out the same shelf-worn wares to young audiences unfamiliar with them. I think of the NBC slogan to promote their summer reruns: “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you!” Glenn Miller is typical of these very bright writers and debaters in that his work is a galling waste of time and talents that, freed from the blinders of dogma, might be better applied to genuine biblical criticism. But then again, many of today’s critics began as would-be apologists, and, like me, decided “if you can’t beat ‘em, you might as well join ‘em.” Maybe Glenn Miller will eventually see it our way, too.

Miller has certainly done his homework in his essay “Were the Gospel Miracles Invented by the New Testament Authors?” (http://www.christian-thinktank.com/mqx.html). And yet I find myself thinking that, like his less sophisticated brethren, he still tends to dismiss critical approaches to the gospel material by amassing a priori arguments, as if to disqualify critics’ arguments in advance instead of having to deal with them head-on. This is not at first evident, nor am I suggesting he means to do this, for Miller does try to dissect and to address critical theories in great detail. But, for instance, with regard to the claim that the gospels are myth, he lets formal categories get in the way of analyzing the gospels, asking if the gospels meet this and that possible definition of “myths,” and demonstrating that they do not. When he is finished, I am left with the distinct impression that the issues are a bit more subtle than that. To wit…


Myth Perceptions

I am delighted to see Glenn Miller bring into the discussion the fascinating book by Classicist Paul Veyne, Did the Greeks Believe their Myths? (1988). Veyne (pp. 17-18, 88) says they did not believe them in the same sense that they believed in the factual reality of recent, datable historical events. Instead, they vaguely pictured the “events” of myth as having happened somewhere in the distant past, something like the notion of Heilsgeschichte as used by Rudolf Bultmann (Jesus Christ and Mythology) and Gerhard von Rad (Old Testament Theology). No one would have thought to ask when in history this or that exploit of Apollo occurred. It happened “once upon a time,” in an altogether different mental category. Miller rightly points out that the gospels do not fall under this category of myth for the simple reason that the foundational saga of Christianity is set in the era of Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate. True enough.

But that is not the whole point. We still have to reckon with the relationship and the difference between myths and legends. As Jaan Puhvel (Comparative Mythology, 1989, p. 2) sums it up, there are two stages of evolution in the transmission of fantastic tales in antiquity. The earlier stage is that of myth proper, raw myth as I like to call it. The protagonists are the gods themselves. The stories happen “once upon a time” or at the dawn of time. There may be Trickster animals who, it is taken for granted, may speak with human beings. The Yahwist’s Eden story would be such a myth. The subsequent stage is when myth becomes legend through a transformative retelling: the old stories are set into historical time. Gods and Tricksters become mortals, albeit supernaturally endowed mortals, epic heroes, culture heroes. The Hercules stories would fit in here. Hercules was originally simply the sun. But he has gone a good way toward historicization. His rays have become his poison arrows and the mane of the Nemean Lion, which he strips off and wears. The houses of the Zodiac have become his twelve labors, etc. Later still, as Veyne notes (p. 32), Herodotus tries to establish when in history Hercules would have, or must have, lived. Plutarch does the same with the grain and desert deities Osiris and Set, making them royalty in ancient Egypt. The whole trend toward “Euhemerism” as far back as the Sophist Prodicus partakes of the same process, albeit at a more reflective stage. Euhemerus assumed that behind all mythic characters lay historical figures, a general behind a war god, a doctor behind a healing god, etc. Though Euhemerists imagined historical individuals had been mythicized, the truth was that they themselves were historicizing mythic and legendary characters.

Much of the Old Testament appears to me to represent this historicized stage. Jubal, elsewhere attested as the Canaanite god of music, has become the culture hero who invented the lyre and pipe. Gad, known as the Near Eastern god of luck, has become a tribal patriarch. Baal has become Abel. Joshua the son of Oannes/Dagon has become Moses’ successor. Several sun gods have become patriarchs, ethnic stereotypes, and heroes: Samson, whose name simply means “the sun,” Nimrod, Elijah, Moses, Isaac, Esau, and Enoch. Abraham, Elisha, and Jacob were at first moon gods (Ignaz Goldziher, Mythology among the Hebrews and Its Historical Development, 1877, rpt., 1967, pp. 32, 104-161ff). Ishtar Shalmith becomes “the Shulammite” (Song of Songs 6:13). Eve/Hebe, like her Greek sister Pandora, begins as the Great Mother, but she is demoted to a primordial Lucy Ricardo. And so on. Sometimes attempts to fix a historical period, a la Herodotus, were not stable; there was more than one attempt. For instance, Cain is set in various historical periods, which is why one episode, where he marries a wife (Genesis 4:17), presupposes a populated earth, while another (Genesis 4:1) makes him the first son of Adam and Eve. Ezekiel, who lived during the Babylonian Exile, thinks of Daniel as a figure of great wisdom sharing the remote antiquity of Noah (Ezekiel 14:14, 20), while the later Book of Daniel places Daniel himself in the Exile, contemporary with Ezekiel.

This is the distinction we must draw when we approach the gospels as deposits of myth. They appear now in a historical setting, but the issue is whether they are perhaps historicized myths. For instance, George A. Wells (The Jesus of the Early Christians and others) and Earl Doherty (The Jesus Puzzle), the great Mythicists of our time, argue that the earliest Christians, whose beliefs are on display in the early Epistles, worshipped a savior who had either (a la Wells) lived in the mythic “long ago,” or (as per Doherty) had never lived on earth at all, but died and rose in a heavenly world, that of the Gnostic Archons. Similarly, Barbara G. Walker (The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, articles “Jesus Christ” and “Mary Magdalene”) reads the gospels as historicizations of very ancient nature-religion myths, the kind we read of in James Fraser’s The Golden Bough. It would have been a subsequent development for Christians to attempt to fix a historical period for Jesus, for church-political reasons well explained by Arthur Drews (The Christ Myth, 1910, rpt. 1998, pp. 271-272; cf. Elaine Pagels, who makes the same point in connection with the objectification of the resurrection in The Gnostic Gospels, 1979, pp. 3-27). This would account for the varying attempts to do so. The Talmud and various Jewish-Christians place Jesus 100 years BC (G.R.S. Mead, Did Jesus Live 100 BC?). Irenaeus (Against Heresies 2:22:6)  thinks Jesus was crucified in Claudius’ reign, which he harmonizes with the gospels by making Jesus nearly fifty years old at his death. The Gospel of Peter (1:2) holds Herod Antipas responsible for his death, while Mark blames it on Pilate. If Jesus were a person of recent historical memory, how can we explain such uncertainty? It would fit better with a trend toward historicizing a mythic figure.

Alan Dundes (“The Hero Myth and the Life of Jesus,” in Robert A. Segal, ed., In Quest of the Hero) similarly shows how extensively the gospel life of Jesus parallels the standard mythic hero structure, implying that myths have been historicized (or that a historical character has been mythicized, the facts getting lost in the haze of hero-worship). And this is where we ought to see the relevance of mythemes from the sacred kingship ideology (see Sigmud Mowinkel’s The Psalms in Israel’s Worship and He That Cometh, as well as Aubrey R. Johnson, Sacral Kingship in Ancient Israel; Ivan Engnell, Studies in Divine Kingship in the Ancient Near East, and the many works of Geo Widengren.). Miller mentions it, then discounts it. He says that this ancient myth of civic and cosmic renewal may have fit ancient Babylonian and Canaanite monarchies (actually, Hellenistic ones, too) but it does not fit with a figure like Jesus. To apply it to Jesus is to rip it out of the only historical context in which it made sense.

Again, I don’t agree, because we need only remind ourselves that the messiah was the sacred king, albeit demystified to some extent by the rabbis once Judaism had embraced monotheism some time after the prophets introduced it. Originally the king of Judah was a god on earth (Psalm 45:6; Isaiah 9:6), or the son of one (Psalm 2:7), or of Yahve and Shahar (Psalm 110:3, “from Dawn’s womb”). Such a king ritually reenacted the mythic victory of the god whose vicar he was, the victory and resurrection of Baal, Marduk, Dumuzi, etc. This was how the god had, in primordial times, secured his kingship (Psalm 74:12-17; 89:5-14), and how in historical times, the king renewed his own heavenly mandate. Once the tree of Jesse was chopped down by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC, these myths were officially set aide, waiting, along with kingship itself, to be renewed. When Jesus was understood as King of the Jews, no wonder it all came flooding back in. (This, whether Jesus was a historical or originally a mythic figure: the messiah association would have placed him within this conceptual world.)


Near Myth

A related issue: Miller notes that genuine Christian myths, which he says do not exist in the gospels, might be expected to portray Jesus wrestling with Zeus, chatting with Marduk, etc. But are we not on pretty much the same unstable ground when Jesus is shown trading scripture quotes with the very Devil, and as the latter miraculously teleports him all over Palestine (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13)? When demons (not just demoniacs) threaten to blow his cover (Mark 1:34)? Miller may object that the miraculous and the mythic are not the same thing. But here we begin to see why they are. Myths, as Bultmann said so well, is the representation of the transcendent in objectifying terms (Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology,” in Hans Werner Bartsch, ed., Kerygma and Myth, pp. 10-11, 35, 44;  Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology, 1958, pp. 19-20).

Miller resorts to the old apologists’ contention (maintained by his present-day colleagues, and given new impetus recently from the unlikely quarters of G.W. Bowersock, Fiction As History: Nero to Julian (Sather Classical Lectures, Vol 58) and Jonathan Z. Smith [see his article “Dying and Rising Gods” in Mircea Eliade, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion]) that relevant myths like that of the dying and rising gods and later novelistic reflections of them in the Hellenistic Romances (see B.P. Reardon, ed., Collected Ancient Greek Novels; Reardon, The Form of Greek Romance; Tomas Hägg, The Novel in Antiquity; Niklas Holtzberg, The AncientNovel: An Introduction; J.R. Morgan and Richard Stoneman, eds., Greek Fiction: The Greek Novel in Context) were borrowed from the Christian gospel by pagan imitators, that the direction of influence was opposite that usually claimed by critics. But, as I have argued in detail elsewhere (Deconstructing Jesus, 2000, chapter 3), this is ruled out at once both by specific pre-Christian evidence of beliefs in the resurrection of Osiris, Baal, Tammuz, and Attis and by the simple fact that the second-century Apologists admitted that the pagan versions were the older, the result, as they desperately reasoned, of Satanic counterfeiting in advance. No one would mount such an argument if there had been any reason to think the pagans had borrowed them from Christians. Bowersock’s derivation of the “apparent death” element of the novels from the Christian gospels seems to me even more outrageous, nothing but special pleading. The religious roots of the novels and their tales of the providence of the gods are plain; so plain, in fact, that some scholars regard the novels as popular religious propaganda for the cults mentioned in them. That may or may not be, but I find no hint of Christian influence. What I think we can see, as I have argued elsewhere (“Implied Reader Response and the Evolution of Genres: Transitional Stages Between the Ancient Novels and the Apocryphal Acts,” Hervormde Teologiese Studies, 53/4, 1997), just which pagan elements in the novels were seized upon by Christian readers and lifted for reinterpreted use in their own version of the genre, the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles.

And did pagans never charge Christians with concocting a purely mythic Jesus, as Miller asserts? Of course they did, as the Apologists of the early church themselves attest, as they replied to skeptics who rejoiced, as today, to list all the parallels between Jesus, Hermes, Apollo, etc. Miller points to skeptics like Celsus and the rabbis who were willing to grant a historical Jesus who performed miracles. On this basis, Miller claims, early opponents of Christianity viewed it not as myth but as magic, charlatanry. But clearly both criticisms were in the air. Nor can one read 2 Peter 1:16 as anything but a rebuttal to some who were charging precisely that the gospel episodes were “mythoi” in some sense recognized by the ancients, though the intention here is apparently “myth” as hoax and imposture, a different issue, treated elsewhere by Miller. But then again, the pagans who made such charges probably viewed the traditional Greek myths as humbug and priestcraft a la Bel and the Dragon.

Miller does not seem to want, despite some comments, to deny that ancient pagans considered gospel events to be myths. His point is that Christians in rejecting such criticism showed they did not take the same stories as fictive. But this later Christian reading doesn’t tell us one way or the other how the gospel tradents and writers intended their work. Why may they not have understood the gospels as Origen did? As filled with “thousands” of historical impossibilities, all planted there to lead the reader deeper, into the real allegorical meaning?

It seems to me that Miller’s verdict on mythology in the gospels would come out a bit different if he compared them with the form-critical categories of Herman Gunkel in his great Genesis commentary. Though, as we now read them, the gospel stories are legends, i.e., historicized myths, we can still see what Miller denies, namely didactic intent, as when Peter walks on water, founders, and is rescued by Jesus, surely a comment on the Christian duty to keep one’s eyes fixed on Jesus in the midst of life’s storms. Ceremonial etiologies abound, as in the feeding stories and the Emmaus epiphany, which have long been read (correctly, I think) as Eucharistic stories. The “Suffer the little children” pericope is, a la Oscar Cullmann (Baptism in the New Testament, Studies in Biblical Theology # 1, pp. 76-79), a piece of infant-baptismal liturgy. The various stories in which this or that apostle or kinsman of Jesus come in for a drubbing are surely to be seen as analogous to the “ethnological myths” of the Old Testament, memorializing and accounting for national and tribal rivalries in the story-teller’s day by using the ancient personages as political cartoon symbols for the latter-day factions.

Miller says that historians seem agreed these days that the gospels are intended as something on the order of ancient hero biographies. Indeed so. But this says nothing about the historicity of their contents. Do the miracles of Pythagoras in his various biographies, much less those of Apollonius of Tyana, guarantee their accuracy? Maybe all Miller means is that the episodes in them would not have been intended by the biographers as fiction. But again we cannot read their minds. After all, Mason L. Weems, the first biographer of George Washington, admitted he concocted incidents like boy George throwing the silver dollar across the Potomac and admitting to having chopped the cherry tree because he thought they epitomized the character of his subject more than any actual facts. These tall tales appeared in his Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington, published in 1800, a single year after Washington’s death.


Fear of Fiction

I believe that conservative/evangelical/apologetical approaches to the historicity of the gospels (or lack of it) are severely hampered, if not altogether thrown off course, by an unexamined presupposition, namely that if a gospel narrative, with the exception of Jesus’ parables, were to be judged fictional, that would make it a hoax and a scam. Indeed, I once had a student who did not make an exception of the parables. When I ventured as a commonplace observation that Jesus was making up stories to get his point across, this lady, eyes flashing, informed me that I was calling Jesus a liar and would face his ire on the Day of Judgment! I do not mean to caricature the mainstream conservative position, but my anecdote does seem to me to put a finger on the unsuspected arbitrariness of the conservative position. Why should one insist that any narrative, even one about Jesus if not told by Jesus, must be historical, or else it is a lie?

I argue in an essay of some length (“New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash” in Jacob Neusner, ed., The Midrashim: An Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation in Judaism, Brill, 2004) that virtually every single gospel narrative can be shown with real plausibility to have been rewritten, with no factual basis, from (in most cases) the Septuagint and (in a few cases) from Homer. Acts adds Euripides’ Bacchae and Josephus. Though I will shortly consider Glenn Miller’s arguments that the early gospel tradents and evangelists could not or would not have created fictive Jesus material, let me first register my vote that it seems like they did. I am reminded of a favorite hadith about the great evangelistic preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Once an admirer asked Spurgeon, a Baptist, if he believed in infant baptism. His reply: “Believe in it? Why, man, I’ve seen it!”

I see a number of features in the gospel texts implying that their writers were not trying to write factual histories. Most obvious is the simple fact of their creative redaction of each other’s previous texts. No one can compare Matthew or Luke, much less John, with Mark and come away thinking that the evangelists did not feel utter freedom in retelling the story, rewriting the supposedly sacrosanct teaching of Jesus, the events of the Passion, etc. They wrote, rewrote, and edited in such a way as to suggest that they understood themselves to be amending sacred texts, not “falsifying historical records.” They were doing what the liberal revisers of the New RSV or the Revised English Bible or the Inclusive Language New Testament did when they added “and sisters” to Pauline salutations, changed male singulars to inclusive plurals, etc. They did not mean to tell naïve readers that the ancient writers actually wrote this. They were instead approaching an instrument of liturgy and instruction and trying to sharpen or update it. So were the evangelists. This is why Luke changed Mark’s thatched roof (implicit in Mark 2:4) to a titled roof (Luke 5:19), for the ease of his readers. This is why scribes added “and fasting” onto Mark 9:29. Sad experience showed that deaf-mute epileptics did not necessarily respond to the treatment of simple prayer after all, so the text had to be updated. They were interested in the text of a sacred book, not the question of exactly what Jesus had said one day.

And the same would be true in the New Testament rewriting of the Old Testament narratives. They were not trying to fake or fabricate a spurious history of Jesus in order to deceive people. No, they were trying to create a Christian version of the Jewish Scripture. It would have Christian versions of familiar Bible stories. We simply do not face the alternative of “hoax or history,” which is a blatant example of the Bifurcation fallacy.

How do the evangelists deal with the resurrection? In such a manner as to suggest that it is some sort of spiritual reality rather than a concrete piece of history. For example, when the Lukan Jesus reveals himself to the disciples in the breaking of the bread—and vanishes into invisibility (Luke 24:30-31), surely we are to learn the lesson that we meet the Risen One invisibly present at the communion table. The “literal” point is a figurative resurrection. Or in John’s Doubting Thomas story (John 20:24-29), Jesus speaks to Thomas, who obviously stands for the reader, not lucky enough to have been on the scene, and he speaks an aside to the audience: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” This is a stage whisper, as when a character in a movie, e.g., Ralphie in A Christmas Story, turns to the audience and winks. We know we are watching fiction. The same is true of Matthew’s farewell of Jesus to the disciples after the resurrection (Matthew 28:20). The missionaries who will carry the gospel to the nations are not the twelve, long dead in any case, but the eager missionaries from the evangelist’s own community, probably in Antioch. And when he promises them his invigorating presence until the close of the age, instead of an ascension, we ought to recognize a seamless transition between the literary character of Jesus and the experience of the reader. It is well portrayed at the end of the movie version of Godspell, when the disciples carry the body of the slain Jesus around the corner, and then from around all city corners streams a flood of new Christians. That is how Jesus rose, and Matthew knew it.         

How could Luke think nothing amiss when he has the ascension of Jesus take place on Easter evening in his gospel (24:1, 13, 33, 36, 44, 50-51), but forty days later in Acts 1:3—unless he was not even trying to record “the way things happened”? The same is true for his three versions of Paul’s conversion (Acts 9:1-19; 22:4-21; 26:9-20). They contradict themselves intentionally, for sound literary reasons, in order to defamiliarize the story so that it sounds fresh each time.


Mad Rush to Midrash

Glenn Miller, in another admirably erudite discussion, this time of Jewish midrashic and haggadic techniques, seeks to rebut the claim made by some New Testament scholars that in freely amplifying Jesus stories, the evangelists/tradents were simply following in the footsteps of the rabbis. Miller’s first objection to this claim is that midrashic exposition is a later development, after the first century. Hence it would have been unavailable as a precedent or guideline for Christian creation of edifying fiction. Second, midrashim were expositions only of specific scriptural texts, and those only from the Pentateuch. Other ancient Jewish expansions of scripture, he tells us, rarely involved ascribing miracles to biblical heroes and even downplayed such motifs.

First, let me say that in every case of a gospel tale seeming to be a rewrite of a tale of Elijah/Elisha, Moses, David, etc., we can easily determine what specific text of the Septuagint the Christian writer was using as a springboard (see Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions; Thomas Louis Brodie, “Luke the Literary Interpreter: Luke-Acts as a Systematic Rewriting and Updating of the Elijah-Elisha Narrative in 1 and 2 Kings,” Ph.D. dissertation, 1981). I do not think the Jesus stories are cut from whole cloth. Just as Miller says the rabbis employed traditional material to expand on a biblical passage, so I am saying the Christian gospel scribes used the Old Testament (and Homer, Euripides, etc.).

Sometimes they were expanding on earlier gospel material, as Heinz Joachim Held (“Matthew as Interpreter of the Markan Miracle Stories,” in Günther Bornkamm, Gerhard Barth, and Hans Joachim Held, Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew, 1963, p. 165-300) shows Matthew retooled Markan miracle stories to make them into churchly lessons of faith and prayer. Similarly, Matthew (27:19) posits Mrs. Pilate’s nightmare to account for the otherwise puzzling urgency of Pilate in Mark’s gospel to get Jesus off the hook. To satisfy reader curiosity over the amount of money Mark said Judas received, Matthew (26:15; 27:3-10) went to Zechariah 11:12-13, and so on.

Miller will deny that any of this is technically midrash, since Elijah and Elisha are not the Pentateuch and the Septuagint is not the Massoretic Text. But so what? To use the term “midrash” for what the gospel creators were doing is to borrow a term that sheds light, at least because of close similarities with what the familiar term denotes. Miller likes to point out how the gospel stories do not fit the precise conventions of Greek myth or Hebrew midrash, as if that meant the categories are not appropriate or helpful. In this he resembles, I think, those literary critics blasted by Wayne Booth who condemn genre transgressions as the mark of a bad example of a would-be member of the genre in question ( The Rhetoric of Fiction, 2nd ed., 1983, p. 31) . Booth, along with Tzvetan Todorov (“The Typology of Detective Fiction,” in his The Poetics of Prose, pp, 42-52), notes that genres evolve precisely by means of “transgression” of genre conventions. What we are seeing in the Christian rewriting of Septuagint stories as Jesus stories is something like a mutant strain of what was happening over in the cousin religion of Rabbinic Judaism. An apple is not an orange. Neither is a tangerine, but it is helpful to compare a tangerine to an orange if you are trying to describe a tangerine. More helpful than comparing it to an apple or to saying that, since it is like nothing else, it does not exist.

Again I say that Glenn Miller appears content to wield a priori considerations as clubs to bludgeon critical analyses of the gospels. In order to establish and define the Jewish practice of expositional Bible expansion, he is happy to marshal numerous fine analyses of Josephus, the Book of Jubilees, the Pseudo-Philonic Biblical Antiquities, and so forth. How does he know what they did with the Bible? By (someone’s) inductive study of their treatment of the underlying biblical texts. He does not start with what they must have or should have done. But when we get to the gospels, we are warned that their authors cannot have been doing this or that because no rabbis were doing it. I realize he seems at first merely to be saying “Whatever they were doing, it wasn’t, e.g., midrash.” But his larger project is the process of elimination. He will eventually get around to telling us that the gospel creators cannot have been doing anything but telling us the police report. “The facts, ma’am, just the facts.” I would rather begin with a close scrutiny of the gospels to see what they seem to be doing with their sources. I would like to begin with my own comparisons between the gospels and their possible underlying sources. But Miller seeks to head that off at the pass.

For instance, in the case of Dennis R. MacDonald’s claim that Mark is dependant upon Homer (The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark) Miller laughs him off with the note that, if the gospels really made any use of Homer, surely Celsus would have noticed it and mentioned it. That proves just exactly nothing. It is a strange kind of appeal to authority. MacDonald’s work is full of references to ancient reader responses to Homer that make it look ever more likely that Mark’s work embodies his own ancient readings of Homer. Maybe Celsus just didn’t get it. Whether he did or didn’t doesn’t save us the trouble of seeing for ourselves if maybe the evidence tends that way. It’s always possible that we are only getting MacDonald’s readings of Homer this way, but that’s what we would have to show on a reading-by-reading basis. We can’t just obviate the argument by appealing to Celsus.


Silly Rabbi! Magic Tricks are for God’s Kids!

Next Glenn Miller explores the proposal of Geza Vermes (Jesus the Jew), and glancingly that of Morton Smith (Jesus the Magician). He has the acuity to see that the two books are related, as some seem not to. Vermes sees the historical Jesus as resembling certain charismatic Jewish holy men of the immediate pre- and post-Christian centuries, including Honi the Circle-Drawer and Hanina ben-Dosa, famous legendary rain-makers. Smith shows how the gospel Jesus fits the pattern of Hellenistic magicians at many points. But Miller is, I think, asking a slightly different question from the one Vermes and Smith want to raise. Miller wonders whether the gospel writers or story-tellers fabricated miracles and ascribed them to Jesus in order to conform him to the desirable stereotype of such a wonder-worker, whereas Vermes and Smith are talking about a possible historical Jesus who, as Bultmann said, must have done deeds he and his contemporaries understood as miracles (Jesus and the Word, 1958, p. 173).

Miller rightly notes the disdain and suspicion of the early rabbis regarding claims of contemporary miracles. Even when, as in the case of the famous heretic Eliezar ben Hyrkanus, the miracle-worker was acknowledged to be a righteous man, and even when some his halakhic rulings were considered valuable, such figures were marginalized, as Jacob Neusner shows (Why No Gospels in Rabbinic Judaism?) because they had become centers of religious attention in their own right. Venerated sages with unexceptionable opinions tended to be merged almost anonymously into the mass of “our rabbis” on the assumption that the Truth of the Torah is no one’s pet theory or doctrine. Miracles would function as credentials for innovations (or heresies as the mainstream would view them). The notion of there being no new prophets or new miracle workers was a doctrine aimed at protecting the conventional orthodoxy, preventing the boat from getting rocked and capsized. Such a doctrine does not tell us that in fact there were no prophets or miracle-workers, but rather the opposite: the establishment wanted nothing to do with them. The situation is precisely parallel to that of Dispensationalists and Calvinists vis a vis the Pentecostal/Charismatic movements in our own day.

This is relevant in a way I am not sure Miller grasps. As Neusner sees, there are no gospels in Rabbinic Judaism for the reasons already mentioned, and he explains the existence of Christian gospels about Jesus by the fact of Christian devotion to Jesus, in principle like that of their followers to Eliezar ben Hyrkanus and others, bringing the new movement to a crossroads in which Jesus assumed the centrality hitherto assigned to the Torah. The lack of Rabbinic “gospels” about charismatic sages Miller seems to take to denote a purely historical conservatism, and he infers that the gospels with all their miracles of Jesus must represent, instead, simple historical reporting by people who must have had a similar conservative historiographical (not theological) disdain for bogus miracles. The difference was, they found to their surprise that there were loads of miracles to record. I think that is the whole trend of all Miller’s individual analyses gathered here. But Neusner shows us how miracle stories garnishing the lives of sages marked them off as loose cannons outside the canon. Figures like Jesus were spinning off the Jewish axis on a tangent. Miracle-ascription is a theological-symbolic function of this dynamic.

Even the cases he cites, Vermes’s cases as well, represent a degree of “rabbinization” (as William Scott Green, “Palestinian Holy Men: Charismatic Leadership and the Rabbinic Tradition,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Velt 2.19.619-647,calls it), a later attempt to draw some of these figures back into the mainstream, and undoubtedly the key feature (rightly spotlighted by Miller) of their asking God for the miracle instead of being the immediate authors of it themselves, is meant to subordinate them to God, and to orthodoxy. Originally they would have been more on the order of shamans, working miracles by their own power. Interestingly, in Islamic tradition, where Jesus has again become a mediator of God instead of a God in his own right, there is a rainmaking story in which Jesus has someone else call upon the Father to be heard for his righteousness. Just the kind of distancing we miss in the gospels.

As for Morton Smith, I am a loss to understand how Miller can dismiss so casually the parallels in technique that Smith and others (see John M. Hull, Hellenistic Magic and the Synoptic Tradition) adduce, e.g., the use of spit and clay to heal (Mark 7:32-35; 8:22-26; John 9:6-7), gestures of imitative magic.

The biggest surprise to me in this section of Glenn Miller’s essay is this statement: “The mass of later [rabbinical] miracle stories are generally considered to be deliberate fabula, designed for teaching, preaching, and illustration (like a colorful parable might be).” Bingo! This, applied to the gospels, is form criticism in a nutshell. Why is it so hard to imagine that the gospel miracle tales may belong to the same species? Because they are somewhat earlier? What does that have to do with it? We may not be able to show that the gospel writers would have gotten the idea from hearing such rabbinical fabula, but is that really important? I should think the relevant point is whether rabbinical literature offers us helpful historical parallels and literary analogies, not whether they enable us to trace out genealogical trees.


True Romance

I must say I reject almost completely what Miller says in his section about the Hellenistic Romances and their possible relation to gospel origins. With Bowersock, Miller (for obvious reasons) wants desperately to date the novels as late as he can and make them dependant upon the gospels or Christian preaching. But as he himself admits, three of the five major Greek novels may date from the mid-first century AD to the middle of the second. While we need not assume any gospel writer read and copied scenes from any of these novels, the closeness in time is easily enough to posit the likelihood of shared fictive themes. Just compare the empty tomb scenes in John’s Gospel and Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe and tell me if they are not astonishingly similar. I don’t care who borrowed what from whom. The point is that such narrative features are shown not to require a historical origin or to represent historical reporting.

And when you keep in mind the recurrence in the novels of premature burial in a rich man’s tomb, escape from the tomb thanks to the appearance of tomb-robbers, the crucifixion of the hero (not just endangerment, mind you, but actual crucifixion!) and his escape, and the reunion of the hero and heroine in a scene where each first assumes the other must be a ghost—well, I just don’t see how you can dismiss the novels as irrelevant to the gospels. The types of plots are different, granted, but Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana is another case of a novel sharing the gospel plot outline, with an annunciation, miraculous conception, itinerant wandering, healings and exorcisms, confrontation with a tyrant, miraculous deliverance, ascension into heaven, reappearance to assure the faithful, etc. It will not do to dismiss Philostratus as a gospel imitator, since the resemblances, though many and striking (which is my whole point, of course) are not similar enough to imply borrowing, unlike, e.g., the fish miracle of John 21 which must be directly based on a similar Pythagoras story. Philostratus’ work is third-century, but Apollonius lived in the first, and some of his legends presumably stem from that period, too.

 Besides, as I argue in two chapters of my The Widow Traditions in Luke-Acts, we can find traces in one of Luke’s sources of a Joanna story very similar to the conversion stories of celibate women in the Apocryphal Acts, which all scholars admit are derived from the Romance genre.

Miller refuses to recognize any reflection in the gospels of the important contemporary trend of Homeric rewrites. I just can’t see how one can sweep away the books of Dennis MacDonald on this subject. I am not convinced by all of the cases of Homeric borrowing he finds in Mark, but to dismiss them all is like a Creationist saying that God didn’t actually cause one species to evolve from another: he just created them to look as if they did!

And does Miller not feel the need to respond to the powerful case Richard I. Pervo makes (in his wonderful Profit With Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles) that the canonical Acts have much more in common with both the Apocryphal Acts and the Romances than scholars have been willing (for reasons of canon-apologetics) to admit? I think he has carried the day. I can only say that in the deliberations of the Acts Seminar of the Westar Institute, we find no paradigm for the study of Acts so illuminating as that it is historical fiction. By saying so, I do not mean to invoke authority. No, I mean that it is only close scrutiny of the text itself that will enable us to form judgments, not a priori assertions about what “would” or “would not” have been possible for ancient writers. Neither the Acts Seminar nor Glenn Miller can save the interested individual that trouble.

Crucial to this section and the next, on Divine Men, is a strategic error, the failure to grasp the nature of an ideal type, a textbook definition or category that groups recurrent features of various phenomena, setting aside their differences. One may dispute the aptness of such an ideal type and propose a better one. But to do so would require one to show not that the differences between the specific cases are greater than the similarities (that will almost always be true), but that the most important features of the phenomena match those of the members of some other class, some other type, and have thus been misclassified. Because the gospels and Acts are different at several points from the novels does not mean they do not at least overlap them as cousin genres, close enough to share themes or to have influenced one another.


Simply Divine

And because some “divine men” (a category of ancient wonder-workers into which Jesus is often placed) specialize in this rather than that type of miracle, some do more miracles than others, or because divinity is predicated of Moses and Pythagoras in somewhat different senses hardly means these figures, as portrayed in Hellenistic literature, do not all qualify as divine men. You can’t tell me that such differences, which surprise no one, outweigh the recurrence of numerous themes such as those compiled by Charles H. Talbert in his What Is a Gospel? Does it mean nothing for Pythagoras, Apollonius, Alexander, Plato, Jesus and others to share miraculous nativities and so many other features such as Talbert surveys? We might as well join apologist Leon Morris (Apocalyptic, 1972) in denying that the Revelation of John belongs with other apocalypses like 4 Ezra because they are not exactly alike at every point. Sorry, Leon, there is a larger genre of apocalypses. And sorry Glenn, there is a larger category of aretalogies.

The ancients did not seem to have any trouble lumping such figures together, as when Celsus recalls the divine men he saw in action in his Near Eastern travels: “I am God or God’s Son or a divine spirit! I have come, for the destruction of the world is at hand! And because of your misdeeds, O mankind, you are about to perish! But I will save you! Soon you will see me ascend with heavenly power. Blessed is he who now worships me! Upon all others I will cast eternal fire, on all cities and countries… But those who believe in me I will protect forever.” (quoted in Origen, Contra Celsum 7:9). This sounds very much like Jesus as portrayed in the gospels. And Celsus’ statement raises the possibility that the divine man category might be not only a literary type but a social-religious type, a mystagogue, cult leader, Bodhisattva, what have you. Jesus may well have been one of them. Marcus Borg (Jesus: A New Vision) certainly thinks so.

On the other hand, D.F. Strauss (The Life of Jesus for the People, 1879, vol. 1, pp. 359-360) pointed out what is implicit in the comparison with the Celsus passage: if the historical Jesus really went about making such bombastic boasts (as in the Gospel of John), we would be hard put not to dismiss him as a self-important megalomaniac, a deluded kook. Such extravagances would, however, make sense as the poetry of worship and exaltation placed upon the lips of Jesus as the literary incarnation of Christian devotion.

Is there really so little, as Miller thinks, in common between Jesus and Asclepius, or as they used to call him, the Savior? Asclepius was a son of a god and a mortal woman and had walked the earth as a mortal, albeit a demigod. He healed many and finally raised the dead. One may say he healed using conventional means, but then so did Jesus when he employed spit, clay, gestures, etc. Zeus struck him dead for blasphemy when Asclepius raised the dead, but then he raised Asclepius himself up on high to become one of the Immortals. From heaven he would frequently appear to his suppliants on earth. The healing shrines dedicated to him are brimming with testimonial plaques, many quite fanciful, allegedly placed there as votive offerings by satisfied customers. And many of the stories have the same component features as the gospel miracle stories, including the case history, skepticism of the suppliant or of the bystanders, inability of the disciples, etc. There is no reason to say that the gospel writers or tradents borrowed from Asclepius; it is just the same kind of thing. Even the fact of the Asclepius healings occurring in the shrines after the ascension of the god coincide with the form-critical theory that the gospel miracles stem from the practice of the early church. It just happens that, like medieval Elijah stories set in the prophet’s time but used in ritual exorcism (see Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess, 1978, pp. 188-190), the gospel stories depict Jesus in his natural habitat, though, like Asclepius, it is really the Risen Savior who is doing the healing—among early Christians.

Ideal types are not Procrustean boxes into which phenomena must fit or be forced to fit. Rather they are yardsticks distilled from common features, yardsticks employed in turn to measure and make sense of the features the phenomena do not have in common. The differences are just as important as the similarities, which is why it is needful to study the various phenomena (in this case, ancient miracle-workers and inspired sages) each in its own right. Each is unique, but what they have in common with the other recognizable members of the same class will help us understand where they differ and why. Thus it is not helpful in studying the gospels to cross “divine men” off the list for gospel study either because the proposed members of the class are not all alike (as Jack Dean Kingsbury wants to do in The Christology of Mark’s Gospel) or because there are also other elements besides that of the divine man in the gospels. Theodore J. Weeden (Mark: Traditions in Conflict) shows how Mark both presupposes and critiques the Christology of Jesus as a theios aner.

Here and in other sections, Glenn Miller’s way of putting his questions seems to presuppose that early Christian preachers were some sort of marketing agents: how can we make Jesus salable to our contemporaries? They like charismatic rabbis? Let’s roll out Rabbi Jesus! They like sacred kings? Let’s give ‘em what they want! And miracles—you’ve been doing some work on this, haven’t you, Harvey?” It is easy to dismiss such a picture of the disciples. I sense lurking here a version of the old “hoax or history” bifurcation. It’s not as simple as the first Christian story tellers cynically faking things, like Bill Clinton’s policies based on focus groups, or else being Pulitzer-winning reporters. As with modern “urban legends,” we usually cannot tell or even guess where rumors and miracle legends originate. It is no easier than discovering who was the first to use a particular cliché or to tell a particular joke. Herder and the early form critics tried to take this into account when they spoke of the “creative community” standing behind the gospels and other popular traditions. Harald Riesenfeld (The Gospel Tradition) and Birger Gerhardsson (Memory and Manuscript) tried to vindicate gospel accuracy by (gratuitously) positing that the gospel traditions all go back to rabbinical-type disciples memorizing the maxims of Jesus and handing them on. But this is to beg the question, since we just do not know who originated any single gospel pericope, or whether they stemmed from memory or imagination. Sure, if the gospel traditions stemmed from a circle of eager memorizers, we would be entitled to regard them as accurate, but that is just the point at issue.


Dead Prophets Society

Did early Christians customize Jesus to make him another Elijah, Elisha, or Moses? Glenn Miller says no. I am not so sure. Paul Achtemaier’s article “Miracle Catenae in Mark” (Journal of Biblical Literature 91, 1972, pp. 198-221) shows us a collection of Northern Israelite, non-Davidic (hence nonmessianic) miracle stories where Jesus is modeled upon Elijah, Elisha, and Moses. Mark (8:28) probably has the disciples say “Some say you are Elijah” because it is a current opinion among Jesus-believers in his day, presumably in Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27), and it is a belief that Mark rejects.

At any rate, it seems very hard to deny that the Elijah/Elisha miracles were the sources of many Jesus miracle stories. To point out minor differences does not change this. No one is saying the gospel writers xeroxed them. Again, I refer you to my article “New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash.”

Similarly, it seems hard to deny that Luke has based his Jesus nativity story on, among other things, Pseudo-Philo’s version of Moses’ nativity, while Matthew has based his on Josephus’ Moses nativity. See my The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, pp. 59, 63.

But did early Christians perhaps fabricate miracles so as to make Jesus look like other recent “sign prophets” (Theudas the Magician, etc.)? With Miller, I see no particular reason to think so. I have nothing to dispute at this point. Similarly, as to whether early Christians clothed Jesus in the robes of a miracle-worker so as to make him fit messianic expectations, I doubt it. The data is unclear (to me, anyway) whether anyone expected a messianic miracle-worker. If you expected a new Elijah or a new Moses, you weren’t expecting a messiah, which is Davidic. I do, however, think that Mark’s artificial Messianic Secret motif presupposes that, given the delay of the Parousia, some Christians had retrojected Jesus’ messiahship (at first a role he should play only as of his second advent) into his earthly career and retroactively took his miracles to be proof of his messiahship. But this has nothing to do with Jewish expectations.


Archetype Casting?

In my view, Miller’s attempts to dismiss the very existence of pre-Christian myths of sacred kings and dying and rising gods are just ludicrous. This is an old apologetical tactic, and a desperate one. Still, they will not give it up for obvious reasons. Again, I have dealt with this at some length in Deconstructing Jesus. Suffice it to say here that we have not only a misrepresentation of the evidence but also the attempt to discount Ideal Types by misunderstanding them as collections of exactly identical phenomena. This error is only compounded when Miller seeks to evade the force of the claim that the gospel life of Jesus fits the outlines of the Mythic Hero Archetype. Miller thinks to debunk the whole idea because there are somewhat different scholarly versions and descriptions of it, as if that meant anything; and because warrior hero myths don’t fit it, as if that were somehow relevant; and because not all hero stories contain every single feature of the Ideal Type. Again, he does not want to know what an Ideal Type is. And Jesus certainly does fit this one, as well as the sacred king mytheme and the dying and rising god myth. Here we are dealing with special pleading, the stock in trade of the apologist.

I will agree, however, that performing miracles has little to do with any of these archetypes or categories. That is not their relevance.

I will also readily agree that there is no reason at all to suggest that early Christians unwittingly fabricated miracles stories as a way of dealing with their own feelings of grief and guilt at Jesus’ passing. I will not grant that there ever were such experiences. I believe the stories, and even the 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 list, are the product of dogmatic belief and mythic assimilation, not of historical memory.

Again, I agree with Miller that it is unfruitful to suggest that early Christians might have unconsciously exaggerated and turned into miracles various mundane events, a la the more ridiculous theories of the eighteenth-century Rationalists, and the preposterous theory of the pathetic Jerome Murphy-O’Connor about the Transfiguration stemming from Jesus’ beaming smile of relief! That’s all a blind alley.


Historie versus Bullgeschichte

We finally come, as we knew we must, to the same old stuff, how there was not sufficient time for legends to form between Jesus and the writing of the gospels, about how the business of the apostles of Jesus was to make things easier for future evangelical apologists by keeping a close eye on the Jesus tradition with the same zeal as modern fundamentalists who club any new piece of theology to death the moment it rears its ugly head. That some New Testament writers claim to be guarding tradition, e.g., in the Pastorals which are late and post-Pauline anyway, means nothing, since on the one hand they were probably (if the absence of Jesus sayings and the presence of “faithful sayings” are any guides) talking about creedal summaries such as we find in Tertullian, Irenaeus, and the Apostles Creed. Even if they weren’t, the apologist begs the question of ancient standards of accuracy. Josephus, as Miller knows too well, freely rewrites and adds material to the Old Testament in his Antiquities even though he says he will add or subtract nothing. He no doubt thought he was keeping his promise. 

I will consider in just a moment the interesting business in Miller about tendencies within and beyond the canonical gospels. He argues that we do not find further embellishment of gospel miracles beyond the canon, so we have no reason to posit it having occurred within the canon either. First, though, let me note the implication of his argument for the kindred topic of the sayings of Jesus. In non-canonical works we find a great profusion of dialogues, aphorisms, parables, revelation discourses, etc., falsely attributed to Jesus. Shouldn’t Miller be ready to admit that we may follow this trajectory back into the New Testament texts precisely as critical scholars do, bracketing numerous “Jesus” sayings in the canon as redactional compositions, prophetic coinages, etc.?

Now what about the lack of further miracle embellishment between the canonical and the apocryphal gospels? Miller mentions the miracle in the Gospel of Philip where in the dye-works of Levi Jesus pours in various dyes and the clothes all come out white. This ought to count, and it has probably been inspired by the reference in the Transfiguration story about Jesus’ garments becoming white like no mortal fuller could dye them.

In the Gospel according to the Hebrews Jesus relates how he was grasped by the hair by his Mother the Holy Spirit and whisked away to Mt. Tabor. In the Gospel according to the Ebionites, when Jesus is baptized, the visionary and anointing scene receives the addition of a fire kindled on the water. In John’s Preaching of the Gospel, a section of the Acts of John, we read that Jesus appeared in constantly shifting forms to James and John when he called them to be fishers of men. The point is apparently to account for their readiness to drop everything and follow him. The same source has Jesus change consistency from the insubstantiality of mist to the hardness of iron. (Miller seems to feel he is entitled to discount material from Gnostic sources, which this might be, unless it is simply popular hyper-spirituality, informal “docetism.” I’m not sure why this material would be less relevant.)

The Toledoth Jeschu is probably based on a Jewish gospel (Hugh J. Schonfield, According to the Hebrews), seeing that it seems to show way too much serious Jewish-Christian character for a mere polemical hack-job. And this gospel has Jesus sit upon a millstone in the sea without sinking. (Possibly this miracle has grown from a dim-witted reading of Mark 4:1, “he got into a boat and sat in the sea.”)

Syrian monastic traditions of Jesus, preserved by Sufi writer al-Ghazzali (Revival of the Religious Sciences) has Jesus awaken the dead to account for their fate. He “brokers” a rain-making miracle by finding a sinless man and asking him to pray for it.

The resurrection of Jesus is elaborated in a spectacular manner in the Gospel according to Peter, where the Risen Christ emerges from the tomb having grown to gigantic stature, “overtopping the heavens.” And in the Gospel of Nicodemus/Acts of Pilate the Risen One appears to half a thousand Roman soldiers. The Gospel according to the Hebrews adds a resurrection appearance to the high priest’s servant and supplies one to James the Just (barely mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15), elaborating the story, since it retroactively places James at the Last Supper, a disciple already.

I’m not sure why Miller sees such a gap between stories of the mature Jesus and the adventures of Jesus in the Infancy Gospels. These, as a category, would have been later than stories of the mature Jesus for the simple reason that the belief in his miracle birth, which invited speculation about how his divine nature would have manifested itself in the early years, was also secondary. Stories of the young god Jesus saving the day when doltish adults had failed already become evident in Luke 2:41-51 (the visit to the temple at age 12) and in John 2:1-11 (the Cana story which, as Raymond E. Brown [The Birth of the Messiah, 1977, pp. 487-488] noted, must have begun life as a tale of Jesus the miracle-working lad). They blossom in the later Infancy Gospels. Why this does not count as an ongoing heightening of the miraculous in the Jesus story, I don’t know.

And can we indeed not discern any cases within and among the canonical gospels where miracles have been added or made more spectacular? How about these? Mark knows of no miracle birth. Matthew and Luke must alter Mark to add such a miracle (though they have different stories of it). Mark has no resurrection appearances, but Matthew, Luke, and John add some. Mark 15:33 has darkness at the crucifixion, but Matthew 27:51-53 adds an earthquake, exploding boulders, and the resurrection of many local dead saints. In Mark 16:5, there is only a young man at the empty tomb, possibly an angel. But Matthew 28:2-5 makes him definitely an angel and has him swoop down and move the stone in plain sight of the women. He has added tomb guards (27:66) to witness the feat and to faint in astonishment (28:4). Matthew also adds a cameo appearance of Jesus himself on the scene (28:9-10), contra Mark and Luke. Luke and John have two men (Luke 24:4) or angels (John 20:12).

At the arrest, John 18:5-7 has Jesus flatten the arresting party with a word, though they get up, brush themselves off, and proceed as before! Luke has misunderstood an underlying “Let it be restored to its place,” which Matthew and John thought meant the disciple’s sword (Matthew 26:52; John 18:11), but which Luke thought must refer to the severed ear! So Jesus now glues it back on (22:51).

In Mark 6:48 and John 6:19 only Jesus treads the waves, but Matthew 14:28-29 adds Peter. Likewise, Matthew 20:29-34 doubles Bar-Timaeus (from Mark 10:46-52) as well as the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20 vs. Matthew 8:28-34). The cursing of the fig tree in Matthew 21:18-19 and Mark 11:12-14, 20 may have grown from the parable of the barren fig tree in Luke 13:6-9; 17:5-6. The raising of Lazarus in John chapter 11 probably comes from the parable in Luke 16:19-31, where Dives asks Abraham to send Lazarus back among the living.

Mark 5:22-24a, 35-43//Matthew 9:18-26 (Jairus’ daughter) and Luke 7:11-17 (son of the Widow of Nain) have stories which are like other ancient tales where a miracle-worker, a doctor, etc., awakens someone from a seeming death and saves them from premature burial. John’s gospel removes any ambiguity about Lazarus’ resurrection by having him dead four days by the time Jesus arrives (John 11:17). In Jesus’ own case, John (20:20, 25, 27) changes Jesus’ display of corporeal feet and hands (as in Luke 24:39) to that of wounded side and hands, so as to prove Jesus had really died and risen, not merely escaped death, as in the novels.

Mark juxtaposes two explanations of why Elijah had not publicly appeared, preceding Jesus, which ostensibly he should have if Jesus was the Messiah. One (Mark 9:13) says John the Baptist figuratively fulfilled this prophecy. The other (Mark 9:4) had Elijah himself appear after all, just in private, on the Mount of Transfiguration. No one would have concocted the John the Baptist version if he already knew of the Transfiguration version, which must imply the Transfiguration, a supernatural event, is the later invention. And in Mark 9:3, it is only Jesus’ clothes that shine, whereas in Matthew 17:2, his face does, too.

Mark 1:16-20 has the disciples just drop everything to follow Jesus, but Luke 5:1-11 adds the miraculous catch of fish to provide adequate motivation.

There is no ascension in Mark and Matthew, but there is one in Luke-Acts. Rising bodily into the sky! I should think all of this constitutes a heightening of the miraculous. I’m sure Miller has harmonizations at the ready for all them, like a cocked gun. But harmonizations are by their very nature a way to discount the apparent sense of troublesome data. Prima facie, I think these passages point in the direction I have indicated.


Authenticity and Autonomy

Plausibility has worn paper thin once we reach the section in which Miller tries to turn the authenticity criteria framed by critical scholars against them. One fundamental problem is that he employs the criteria of multiple attestation, dissimilarity, coherence, etc., to miracle stories, whereas they are designed to apply instead to sayings, as, e.g., Norman Perrin states explicitly in one of the quotes from him Miller includes. Let’s see why this does not work. Yes, Miller quotes others, like Craig Evans and John Maier, who apply the criterion to miracle stories, but the trouble is: these men are axe-grinding apologists, too.

Miller plays a shell game (whether intentionally or not) in that he takes the supposedly important feature of the autonomy of Jesus’ miracles (i.e., he doesn’t need to call upon God to get him to perform them) as the litmus test by which to see if the gospel miracles are dissimilar (not like other miracle stories from the culture), and, guess what, they are! Jesus doesn’t invoke Solomon as Josephus’ exorcist Eleazer does (Antiquities 8:2:5). But Apollonius does not invoke powers or names. He just does the trick, like Jesus does. So does the ascended demigod Asclepius. And Pythagoras.

Besides, I suspect the godlike “unbrokered” (to use John Dominic Crossan’s favorite piece of pet vocabulary) quality of Jesus’ miracles is a product of the Christologizing of the original stories which would have featured him using standard exorcistic technique. The “adjuration” element, which is where the authority would have been invoked, is now frequently placed in the mouth of the demon instead, because the exorcisms have been readjusted to Christology. We see precisely the same thing going on in Matthew’s and Luke’s omission of Jesus “spit and polish” healing techniques from Mark. John saves the use of clay for healing the blind man in chapter 9 because he wants to use it as a symbol equivalent to Acts 9:18’s “something like scales” which fell from the newly converted Paul’s eyes.

Again, if we bracket both Q’s and Mark’s deflective questions or conditions from the Beelzebul pericope (Mark 3:23: “How can Satan cast out Satan?” Matthew 12:27-28//Luke 11:19-20: “If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your protégés cast them out? Ask them what they think of your reasoning! But if I cast them out by the Spirit/finger of God, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you”), we are left with an original in which Jesus defends his magical practice of binding the strong man Beelzebul in order to force him to part with his goods, his possessed victims. But Q and Mark, like Philostratus, were disinclined to let their hero any longer be seen as a magician. As Käsemann said (“The Problem of the Historical Jesus”  in Käsemann, Essays on New Testament Themes. Studies in Biblical Theology # 41, 1964, p. 28), the evangelists have probably altered the exorcism stories as a bit of retrospective “realized eschatology,” putting already into the time of the ministry the envisioned day of Philippians 2:10-11, when all infernal powers should swear grudging fealty to the Lord Jesus.

Miller does eventually go the whole way and tell us that Jesus’ miracles are not, even in broad outline, much like any others claimed for other figures in the Hellenistic world. Well, this is just patently absurd. I invite you to read, among many collections of such ancient tales, the miracles chapter of my The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man.

How about multiple attestation? Miller is pulling a fast one here, too. It is scarcely enough to show that all types of miracles are attested in every gospel source (Q, Mark, special Matthean, special Lukan, John), distributed evenly among them. If we could say of sayings only that their various forms are evenly distributed among the gospels, that would bring us no closer to a solution of the authenticity question as it pertains to any particular saying. This is not what critics do: they want to know if any particular saying is preserved in more than one place. If we apply this test to miracles, then, on Miller’s own showing, there is one single miracle that might meet the criterion, namely the Beelzebul controversy and the presupposed exorcism. Mark and Q appear to have preserved different versions of it, as per my discussion, just above. But even that vanishes if we accept the judgment of H.T. Fleddermann (Mark and Q) that Mark used Q. In all the other cases, any miracle appears in more than one gospel simply because Matthew, Luke, and John all used Mark, and Matthew and Luke also used Q. So much for multiple attestation.

The criterion of embarrassment is, unfortunately, useless, whether by critics or by apologists. As John Warwick Montgomery once said (in The Altizer-Montgomery Dialogue: A Chapter in the God Is Dead Controversy, 1967, p. 64), everything Jesus said must have been offensive to someone in the early church, just as (I would add) everything attributed to him must have been useful for some faction of early Christians or it would not have been preserved in the first place. So can we take the “unseemly” attempt of Jesus to heal the Markan blind man on a second try (Mark 8:23-25) as authentic because later Christology would have omitted it? Well, Matthew and Luke did find it embarrassing, but obviously Mark did not. Changing fashions make the criterion useless.

But the hugest problem here is that the principle of analogy discounts the nature miracles of Jesus, everything but psychosomatic healings and psychodramatic exorcisms. When an ancient claim of some event paralleled only in legend and myth occurs in our sources, the only “probable” judgment we as historians can render is that this one, too, is most likely a myth or a legend (or a misunderstanding). Hume (“Of Miracles”) was right, despite C.S. Lewis’s misrepresentation of his argument (Miracles: A Preliminary Study). Knowing the ease and frequency with which people misperceive, misunderstand, etc., and keeping in mind the massive regularity of our perceived experience, how can we ever deem a miracle report as “probable”? We can never make such a judgment. We were not there and cannot claim to know miracles have never happened, but what are the chances? Not very great. The bare philosophical possibility (which, admittedly, no one can rule out) of a miracle doesn’t make any particular report of one probable.

On the other hand, we know very well that one can find today scenes analogous to those in the gospels where people have the demons cast out of them, or think they do. We know there are meetings where people are healed (or believe they are). And we have no reason at all to rule those out for Jesus. At least not a priori.


The Devil in the Details

Miller holds that it is a sign of historical authenticity when we find vivid narrative detail, though he admits it is theoretically possible this could be the result of literary polish. For example, the details of John’s empty tomb story can easily be matched in Chariton’s novel Chaireas and Callirhoe. But Miller doubts this is possible for the gospels since we can be sure the early Christians were a bunch of uneducated morons who couldn’t have composed such texts. That, he senses at once, is a gratuitous assumption, so he allows that there might have been gifted writers among the early Christians. But they cannot have contributed to gospel production because the gospel traditions were firmly under the control of apostles and their close associates. How on earth does he know this? What is he: Rudolf Steiner? 

By the way, this attempt to run down the education of the early Christians is an old piece of apologetics. Jesus, Peter and John, Muhammad, Joseph Smith must have been inspired recipients of true revelation since they could never have come up with this stuff on their own. Flesh and blood hath not revealed it to them!. Sure, and Shakespeare wasn’t smart enough to have written all those plays.

Odd details must, Miller assures us, be vestiges of what reporters just happened to remember, preserved because those who heard them would never have left out a single sacred syllable. It might be. But it may just as easily be a sign of incomplete editing. The evangelist may have taken something from another source and left in something that made sense in the original context but no longer does. For instance, why are other boats said to have launched off along with the one Jesus and the disciples were in at the start of the stilling of the storm story in Mark 4:36? There is no follow-up. Dennis MacDonald argues quite plausibly that the other ships are a vestige of the Odyssey, where Odysseus and his men had more than one ship as they headed into their ill-fated adventure with the bag of winds given them by Aeolus. Similarly, the mention of the exact number of fish in John 21:11, irrelevant in context, must be a vestige of the underlying Pythagorean story, where the miracle was the sage’s supernatural knowledge of how many fish had been caught.

Miller pooh-poohs the suggestion that little details and changes in details have sprung up between one gospel and the next as a result of redactional rewriting, to wink to the reader and make a new point. Why didn’t the evangelists just add whole new characters and/or speeches? Well, sometimes they did. Stylistically and thematically, much of the material unique to Matthew, Luke, and John appears to be wholesale invention by the evangelists. But the fact remains that when you do what Hans Conzelmann (The Theology of St. Luke) and the other redaction critics did, compare very carefully the little differences between one gospel and another based on it, you do begin to discern what look for all the world to be coherent and meaningful patterns of alteration. Are they just accidental? There is no reason to think so. This willful blindness is a prime example of how apologetics cheats its practitioners out of an appreciation for the riches of critical exegesis.

Miller admits the advocate of gospel authenticity would have trouble if he were to spot anachronisms in the stories or the teachings of Jesus. To my surprise, he simply denies there are any! I refer the reader to my The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man where I repeat Strauss vis a vis anachronisms in the nativities, then go on and show how many teachings ascribed to Jesus presuppose a later period of the church. Miller is dreaming. He is taking massive harmonization for granted.


Magic Mirror

Glenn Miller feels sure that the miracle-working powers and deeds of Jesus are amply and convincingly attested in extra-biblical sources. We must endure the old Josephus routine again. I can only say here that it seems most likely to me that the Testimonium Flavianum originated with Eusebius (see Ken Olson, "Eusebius and the Testimonium Flavianum," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 61.2 (April 1999): pp. 305-22). Origen had never seen it. As for the Talmud, Celsus, and others who dismissed Jesus as a sorcerer, they do not prove Jesus did supernatural feats. No one has ever shown why such claims need mean more than that the critics of Christianity were replying to the Christian story as it was being preached, not to supposed prior facts to which they still somehow had access. Celsus was in no position to know what Jesus may have done or not done. He could only reply to the claims of miracles made by Christians. And if he believed in magic, there was certainly no problem granting that Jesus performed magic. We should not picture Celsus and the rabbis as members of today’s Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, stubborn skeptics re supernaturalism. No, these ancient people were themselves believers in supernaturalism of various sorts. So it was nothing for them to take for granted that Jesus had been involved with the supernatural in some form. Celsus was no James Randi.

Miller thinks that the mention in the Sibylline Oracles of Jesus (if it is Jesus who is intended; no name is given) multiplying loaves and fish and walking on the water constitute an independent reference to these two miracles, not derived from the New Testament. Maybe so. But his is not the only way to read it. Margaret Morris argues (in her Jesus-Augustus) that the passages in question are not, as usually supposed, Christian fabrications about Jesus, but in fact pagan eulogies of Caesar Augustus, and that the gospel stories have been borrowed from the propaganda of the divine Caesar. I don’t claim to know either way.

Similarly, Miller says the version of the Last Supper in the Koran, where Jesus causes a fully laden table to descend for the disciples, represents yet another historically independent version of the miraculous feeding. But surely this story is a garbled mix of the Last Supper and the “bread from heaven” discourse.


I Have a Bridge Over Troubled Water I’d Like to Sell You

Miller takes on Evan Fales and Richard Carrier, who claim that, given the gullibility of people in the ancient world, we would not be entitled to trust the claims even of eyewitnesses to gospel miracles, if we had reason to believe any of these tales stemmed from eyewitnesses. Miller will have none of this. Instead, he assures us, the ancient world was all Bertrand Russell. And if they believed in miracles, then, by golly, they must have passed muster, and we ought to believe in them, too. No one is saying there were no sophisticated thinkers and observers in the ancient world, only that their presence does nothing to obviate the prevalence in any generation of the Weekly World News readership. Isn’t it interesting how the early Christians were too stupid to write detailed fictions but too smart to accept a wooden nickel when it came to miracle reports? They turn out to be as illusory and polymorphous as the Jesus of the Gnostics was.

In the end, for all his genuine and manifest erudition, Glenn Miller strikes me as one more religious spin-doctor, wasting a fine mind to defend the indefensible, like an O.J. Simpson attorney.



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