The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
Get the Book!

The Nature Miracles

The nature miracles are the most extraordinary of all the miracles. While miracles of healing may conceivably have some kind of historical root as discussed above, the same cannot be said for nature miracles. In short nature miracles are probably the most extraordinary claims of all. Hence the level of skepticism applied here must be the toughest of all. The proof that we demand must be really extraordinary.

There is also some evidence that the accounts of the nature miracles do not belong to the earliest traditions concerning Jesus. The earliest sources, Q and (probably) some of Luke's special material, does not have any accounts of nature miracles. The earliest written source of the nature miracle is therefore contained in the gospel of Mark which is a post-70 CE document.

We will now look at individual miracles:

Our indepth analysis of these miracle accounts shows that there is no compelling case for the actual occurrence of the nature miracles as recorded in the gospels.

The Cursing of the Fig Tree

The first nature miracle we will look at is one that is for most Christians more of an embarrassment than anything else. It concerns the cursing of the fig tree by Jesus. Given below is Mark's account of the miracle:

Mark 11:12-21
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he [Jesus] was hungry. And seeing in a distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said, "May no fruit ever come from you again." And his disciples heard it...As they passed by in the morning they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, "Master, look! The fig tree you cursed had withered.

Mark's account makes Jesus look deranged. It was clearly stated that it was not the season for figs. The story was set just before the Passover, around the end of March or early April, when figs are never ripe during that time in Palestine. Any native of the land would not have expected to find fruit on a fig tree at that time. To curse a fig tree for not bearing fruit out of its season is, to say the least, not an act of a sane person. Thus either the story, as it appears in Mark is either unhistorical or Jesus had become insane just before his crucifixion.

If we now look at the same story told in the gospel of Matthew we will note that this evangelists had changed some elements of the story to make it both more credible and more incredible at the same time:

Matthew 21:18-20
In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside he went to it, and found nothing on it but leaves only. And he said to it, "may no fruit ever come form you again." And the fig tree withered at once. When the disciples saw it they marveled, saying, "How did the fig tree wither at once?"

Note the changes Matthew had made to the Markan account. He had omitted the line where Mark noted that it was not the season for figs. This will make Jesus' reaction after not finding fruit on the tree more credible. Note also how Matthew had sensationalized the miracle. He made the fig tree wither at once. And made the disciples notice that fact. In Mark's account, the tree was found to be withered by the disciples only on the next morning. Again I will ask the tiresome question: how can we trust the gospel accounts of miracles when we see them enhancing and altering their sources to suit their own theologies and preconceptions?

In any case the cursing of the fig tree as depicted by Mark could not be historical. The theologian D.E. Nineham had suggested that the story probably originated from some conspicuous withered tree on the road between Bethany and Jerusalem which gave rise to the legend that Jesus had cured it. A likelier possibility is that this story was originally a parable about figs (as we find in Luke 13:6-9) that was distorted by the oral tradition. [1]

Luke 13:6-7
Then [he] told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he saud to the man who took care of the vineyard. “For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it away! Why should it use the soil?”

Back to the top

Turning Water Into Wine

The next miracle is the one of turning water into wine, narrated only in the gospel of John:

John 2:1-11
On the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; Jesus was also invited to the marriage with his disciples. When the wine was gone, Jesus' mother said to him, "They have no more wine." And Jesus replied, "Why do you involve me? My time has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you." Nearby stood six stone jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from seventeen to twenty five gallons. Jesus said to the servants, "Fill the jars with water."; so they fill it to the brim. Then he told them, "Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet." They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had turned to wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, "everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now." This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed in Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.

The fact that this miracle appears only in John, the least historical of the four gospels is enough to make us doubt the historicity of the account. The inclusion of Mary (called here "the mother of Jesus") in this story only adds to the problem. Now John clearly states that this was the first of Jesus' miracles. Now we know from Mark that Jesus had performed quite a few miracles [a] already when he confronted by this mother during one of his sermons. Mark noted (Mark 3:21-34) that Mary thought that Jesus had gone mad by preaching to the crowds. This is clearly not compatible with the account of the miracle in John. Mary, by asking Jesus to do something about the fact that they had run out of wine and by telling the servants to listen to him, was obviously expecting some kind of miracle. Thus we would expect Mary to have witnessed the turning of the water into wine. How then can her actions in Mark 3:21-34 be reconciled. The answer is that it could not. John’s miracle story if not historical.

Craveri noted that John could have constructed the whole episode from Old Testament passages which included Moses miraculously supplying drinking water to save the Israelites in the desert (Exodus 17:1-7; Numbers 20:1-11), Elijah making it possible for the widow of Zareptath to draw from a tiny cruse an indefinite amount of oil which lasted many days (I Kings 17:10-16) and that of Elisha helping a widow in debt by pouring from one pot enough oil to fill a number of jars (II Kings 4:1-6). [2] The story, as a whole, is patently absurd. As even the theologian Nathaniel Micklem admits:

The story of the turning of the water into wine reads like the apocryphal legend of Jesus, the wonder worker, caused clay birds to fly...Not only is this such wonder-working wholly "out of character", but we are asked to believe that by an act of supernatural power Jesus produced (at the lowest estimate) some 120 gallons of wine and thus manifested his glory, causing his followers to "believe in him"- to believe in him, presumably, as a thaumaturgist. [3]

Micklem also noted that the Greek word John used for servants in the above passage, daikonoi (deacons), could probably point to the eucharistic character of the whole story. [4] The idea of a miraculous transmutation of water to wine is not original to John’s gospel. We find such beliefs already current one of Christianity’s early competitors: that of the cult of Dionysos. As Rudolph Bultmann mentioned in his book The Gospel of John (1971)

On the festival day of Dionysos the temple springs at Andros and Teos were supposed every year to yield wine instead of water. In Elis on the even of the feast, three empty pitchers were put into the temple and in the morning they were full of wine. [5]

There were thus ample non-historical influences that would have helped John, or the oral tradition, construct the story of the miracle at the Wedding in Cana.

Back to the top

The Feeding of the Multitudes

The next two miracles, the feedings of the multitudes, will be discussed together. The feeding of the five thousand is given in all four gospels (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-13) while the feeding of the four thousand is included in the first two gospels (Matthew 16:29-39; Mark 8:1-13). Now Matthew and Luke copied these accounts from Mark and offer no independent testimony to it. John obviously had access to a similar tradition of Mark. We will therefore confine our analysis to the accounts in Mark. The two episodes of the feeding of the multitudes are given in the table below.

Mark 6:34-44Mark 8:1-9
34. As he went ahore, he saw a great crowd;



and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things
35. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late;
36. send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat."
37. But he answered them, "You give then something to eat." They said to him, "Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?"
38. And he said to them, "How many loaves have you? Go and see." When they had found out, they said, "Five, and two fish."
39. Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass.
40. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties.
41. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all.


42. And all ate and we filled;
43. and the took up the twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish.
44. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.
1. In those days there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, he called his disciples and said to them,

2. "I have compassion for the crowd because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat.




3. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way-and some of them have come from a great distance."


4. His disciples replied, "How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?"
5. He asked them, "How many loaves do you have?"
They said, "Seven."

6. Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground;



and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd.
7. They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these two be distributed.
8. They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full.

9. Now there were about four thousand people.
The Feeding of the Multitudes

Anyone reading the two episodes, with a critical mind and not with a pious "I'll believe anything the gospels says" attitude, will note that there are many details about the story which reveal its fictional nature.

Firstly, the questioning of the disciples in the second episode (Mark 8:4) simply does not make sense. For haven't they just witnessed, no more than a few weeks ago, the earlier miracle of Jesus feeding five thousand men (Mark 6:34-64)? Secondly, if they were in a "deserted place" (Mark 6:35), how could they possibly go to the "surrounding farms and villages" to buy something to eat (Mark 6: 36)? Thirdly if they were not prepared to serve so many and they were in a deserted place, where did the baskets (Mark 6:43) come from?

Thus even a consideration of the non miraculous elements of the stories make us doubt their basic historicity. When we add to the fact that a miracle of such enormous proportions is claimed on such dubious premises, we can safely dismiss the feeding of the multitudes as unhistorical.[b]

The reader will further notice the constant detailed, and often verbal, correspondence that would be extremely uncanny if these are two separate accounts. Both episodes had the following similarities:

  • Jesus had compassion for the crowd (Mark 6:34;8:2)
  • The disciples mentioned the remoteness of the place (Mark 6:34; 8:4) and the difficulty in getting enough food to feed the crowd (Mark 6:37; 8:4)
  • Jesus asked how many loaves they had and the disciples answering with a quantity obviously too small to feed the crowd (Mark 6:38; 8:5)
  • Jesus asked the group to sit down on the ground (Mark 6:39; 8:6)
  • Jesus gave thanks and gave the pieces to his disciples to distribute to the crowd (Mark 6:41; 8:6-7)
  • The people were described to have been satisfied by what they ate (Mark 6:42; 8:8)
  • There was more food leftover than there was to begin with (Mark 6:43; 8:8).
The similarities between these two accounts is such that it can no longer be denied by rational scholars that the two episodes are divergent accounts of the same story.

Mark probably came across the same story at different stages of development. Many scholars have argued that the account in Mark chapter 8 is more primitive that Mark chapter 6.[c] This is due to the fact that the account in Mark 8 is terser than Mark 6 and to the expanded redactional account at the beginning of the pericopae in the account in Mark 6 that is not present in Mark 8. In other words, the account in Mark 6 shows signs of being expanded by tradition. [d]

Note that the account in Mark 6 is, on all accounts, more incredible than the one in Mark 8. There were more people to feed (5000 in Mark 6:44 as opposed to 4000 in Mark 8:9) with less food to begin with (five loaves and two fish in Mark 6:38 compared with seven loaves and a few fish in Mark 8:5 & 8:7). Furthermore, the statement of the apostles in Mark 6:37 that 200 denarii would be needed to feed the crowd points to an even earlier, less spectacular account. For 200 denarii, even during the time of Jesus, could not have fed more than a few hundred men. Thus, there very probably was an earlier stage of this legend where the crowd amounted to no more than a few hundred men. In fact the author of John noted this discrepancy and changed the words of the disciples to say that 200 denarii "would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite." (John 6:7). [6]

In fact the original source of this story is not any historical event at all but an Old Testament passage where a similar miracle is credited to the prophet Elisha: [7]

II Kings 4:42-44
A man came from Baalshalishah, bringing the man of God bread of the first fruits, twenty loaves of barley, and fresh ears of the grain in his sack. And Elisha said, "Give to the men, that they may eat." But his servant said, "How am I to set this before a hundred men?" So he repeated, "Give them to the men, that they may eat, for thus says the Lord, 'They shall eat and have some left.'" So he set it before them. And they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.

Note the structure here is very similar to Mark’s: all accounts specify that the number of people to be fed (100 people in II Kings; 5000 & 4000 in Mark); the amount of food available was clearly inadequate to feed those present (twenty loaves in II Kings, four and five loaves in Mark); despite protests from the followers the prophets (Elisha in II Kings and Jesus in Mark) ordered them to go ahead and feed the crowd; and finally at the end of the meal there was some food left over. [8]

From the considerations above we can even see the stage the myth progressed through: it started with feeding a hundred men in II Kings, to a few hundred men as hinted by the statement regarding the 200 denarii, to 4000 men and finally to 5,000 men. The last two stages of the oral tradition were the ones available to Mark.

To summarise, the presence of fictitious elements (e.g. the baskets, the disciples questions etc) merely add to the difficulty to accepting the stories (as they stand in Mark 6 and 8) as historical. We can also see the probable development of the myth from its origins in II Kings 4:42-44. Seen in this light, we can safely conclude that the story of the miraculous feedings have no basis in history.

Back to the top

Calming the Tempest

The last set of nature miracles involve Jesus' supposed power over natural forces such as the sea and the wind. The first account is of Jesus power to calm the tempest:

Mark 4:35-40 (Matthew 8:23-27; Luke 8:22-25)
On that day, when evening came, he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side." And leaving the crowd, they took him with them, just as he was, in the boat. and other boats were with him. And a great storm of wind arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion, and they woke him and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care if we perish?" And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind ceased, and there was great calm. He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?"

Two points in the story above makes us doubt its historicity. The gospels themselves tell us that at least four of Jesus' disciples were fishermen: Peter, Andrew, James and John. It is highly unlikely that such experienced seamen, as they must be, would not take the necessary precautions of good seamanship to keep the boat afloat during the storm. The second point reveals the true nature of the story: Jesus accused his disciples of lacking faith when they were frightened by the storm. That accusation is totally illogical in a historical setting. The accusation only makes sense if the story is placed in a theological context. For instance the ability to control the sea was regarded in the Old Testament as a characteristic of divine power:

Psalms 89:9 (Also Psalms 93:3-4;106:8-9; Isaiah 51:10)
You rule the raging of the sea, when its wave rise, you still them.

The image of the storm is normally used as a metaphor for the evil forces of the world as the phrase from Psalms below illustrates:

Psalms 69:14 (Also Psalms 69:1-2; 18:16)
With your faithful help rescue me from the sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from deep waters.

The ability to sleep peacefully in times of trouble is also a sign of perfect trust in God:

Psalms 4:8 (Also Proverbs 3:24)
In peace I will both lie down and sleep, for you alone O Lord, makes me dwell in safety.

Set in a theological context the story finally makes sense: it teaches of the necessity of faith in times of troubles. [9] In fact the whole episode could very easily have been constructed out of the basic passage in Psalms below:

Psalms 107:23-30
Some went down to the sea in ships...they saw the deeds of the Lord...For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away...they reeled and staggered like drunken men, and were at their wits end. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven.

Our considerations show us that the story is unhistorical: it makes no sense historically; it makes perfect sense theologically; and there are even Old Testament passages that could easily have formed the original nucleus for the episode.

Back to the top

Walking on Water

The last nature miracle we will look at is probably the most spectacular of all: that of Jesus walking on water. The account is given in the gospels of Mark, Matthew and John. Again we will look only at Mark's account, as it is the earliest of the gospels and ostensibly the most trustworthy:

Mark 6:47-51 (Matthew 14:23-33; John 6:16-22)
When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on the land. He saw the disciples straining the oars, because the wind was against them. About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and was terrified. Immediately he spoke to them saying, "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid." Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed.

As we have said, the historicity of this account must be proven before the miracle can even begin to be seriously studied. We will note that the cathetical element of the story is similar to the one where Jesus calmed the storm. There are also Old Testament references to the divine ability to walk through or on waters:

Psalms 77:19 (Also Job 9:8; Isaiah 43:16) Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters, yet your footprints were unseen.

The details in Mark make the whole scene sound extremely artificial. To make the disciples cried out in fear when they saw him walking on water simply does not make sense, in the context of the narratives. For haven't the disciples before this had witness the Jesus' other miracles? They had seen Jesus turn water into wine, calm the tempest with a single command, raised Jairus' daughter from the dead and had just finished seeing him feeding five thousand people with only five loaves and two fish. One would expect such a person to walk on water! [10]

We find that Matthew, as is his modus operandi, tried to make the miracle all the more sensational After following Mark 6:45-50 closely, Matthew inserted the episode below:

Matthew 14: 28-32
“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come.” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat and walked on the water to Jesus. But when he saw the wind he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him, “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” And when they climbed into the boat the wind died down.

The above passage is clearly an example of how , wherever possible, the evangelists tried to make the story more incredible contrary to what some apologists had claimed. [11] [e] This insertion by Matthew came not from history but from a Buddhist legend. This legend was already circulating in Egypt and Syria around the second century BC and must have influenced either Matthew or his sources. Given below is that legend:

[A disciple who wanted] to visit the Buddha one evening...found that the ferry boat was missing from the bank of the river Aciravati. In faithful trust in Buddha he stepped into the water and went as if on dry land to the very middle of the stream. Then he came out of his contented meditation on the Buddha in which he lost himself, and saw the waves and was frightened, and his feet began to sink. But he forced himself to become wrapt in his meditation again and by its power he reached the far bank safely and reached his master. [12]

The legend above also tells us that myths about holy men walking on water are not something unique to the Christian tradition. There is therefore no reason to accept the account of Jesus walking on water as having any historical basis.

Back to the top

Notes

a.According to the gospel of Mark some of the miracles Jesus performed before his confrontation with his mother were the driving out of the evil spirit in Capernaum (Mark 1:21-28), the healing of Simon Peter’s mother and “many” at Peter’s house (Mark 1:29-34)and the healing of the paralytic (Mark 2:1-12).
b.Remember our earlier look at the epistemological position on miracles. A miracle is an extraordinary claim and like all extraordinary claims we should demand extraordinary proof before we accept the possibility of its occurence. The basic problem with the feeding of the multitudes is that even the non-miraculous elements are shown to be doubtful. Thus the story of the miracle embeded within such doubtful premises can be safely dismissed.
c.The fact that the more incredible story is given earlier in the gospel of Mark does not mean it actually happened, or was received, by Mark in the same order. We have seen elsewhere that Mark's gospel is not strictly chronological and was constructed by stringing together different anecdotes he collected from the tradition.
d.It is well known that tradition has a tendency to add irrelevant details to much told and much loved narratives. One such example is the story of the Magi in Matthew 2: 1-12. The story in Matthew gives only an unspecified number of Magi "from the East" who visited Jesus after his birth and presented him with gifts. However from the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, it was inferred that there were three magi. Eventually the magi evolved into kings, until finally their names become known: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. The embelishment evolved to the point where even their relative ages became known, with Casper being the young man, Melchior the middle aged one and Balthasar the old one. [13]
e.Some apologists such as the Anglican scholar, Anthony Harvey, had tried to claim that the main difference between the gospel narratives and other miracle stories of antiquity was that the evangelists "tell the story straight". We have seen from the above examples (Matthew for instance made the fig tree wither at once and pronounced the daughter of Jairus' dead before every other evangelists, Luke made the crowds outside Jairus' house know that his daughter was dead) that this claim is false. Mark made the disciples sound like idiot when after witnessing so many miracles they were still frightened when they saw Jesus walking on water, Whenever possible the evangelists do their very best to make the miracles sound more incredible and make the reaction of the witnesses one of awe and amazement even when such reaction become clearly ridiculous. Matthew here makes Peter join in the miracle by himself walking on water. That the gospel accounts "tell the story straight" is one of the myth of modern fundamentalist apologetics.

References

1.Fenton, Saint Matthew: p335-336
Nineham, Saint Mark: p298-303
2.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p120-121
3.Micklem, Behold The Man: p77-78
4.Ibid: p79
5.quoted in Helms, Gospel Fictions: p86
6.Cadoux, The Life of Jesus: p98
Funk, et.al., The Acts of Jesus: p89-91 & p99-100
Ludemann, Jesus: p44-45 & p52-53
Nineham, Saint Mark: p205-206
Wells, The Historical Evidence for Jesus: p131-132
7.Nineham, Saint Mark: p178
8.Helms, Gospel Fictions: p75-76
9.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p115
Nineham, Saint Mark: p146-147
10.Nineham, Saint Mark: p180-181
11.Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence, p85
12.Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John, Westminster, Philadelphia 1971: p240 quoted in Helms, Gospel Fictions: p81
13.Ranke-Heinemann, Putting Away Childish Things: p31

Back to the top


[Home] [The Central Thesis] [Christianity] [The Bible] [Jesus] [Paul] [God] [History] [Pascal's Wager] [Bibliography] [Links]
© Paul N. Tobin 2000

For comments and queries, e-mail Paul Tobin
Hosted by www.Geocities.ws

1