"Did Jesus Do Real Miracles?" -- A Critique

Some time ago a reader request a look at an article that asked the question, "Did Jesus do real miracles?" which answered in the negative. According to the author -- who is not named in the article, so we shall designate him "Spartacus" -- Jesus did not do real miracles, but was a hoaxster and a prankster.

The oddity of Spartacus' presentation, however, is that to argue this he takes the NT text as fairly historical. Let's have a look at what we're offered.

Blind Man's Bluff? First up, the healing of the blind man in Jonn 9. Spartacus begins with an extensive accounting of how "the blind identify people". In sum, "how" is by voice.

I can certainly affirm that, after many years of living with and serving the visually impaired, this is possible. Other things like footprints and smell may come into play, but the voice, for a blind person, is the primary identifier.

However, it remains standard advice that when speaking to a blind person, it is best to identify yourself by name.

The point being, Spartacus asserts that John's blind man would know people by voice. And thus he supposes as follows:

  1. The blind man would have heard Jesus' voice (9:4-5) and been able to recognize Jesus later.
  2. But a few hours later (9:35), when Jesus asked him if he believed in the Son of Man, he did not know that it was Jesus speaking to him.
  3. Conclusion: The blind man was a faker and the whole thing was staged between he and Jesus.

Now all at once, it's quite obvious that Spartacus has missed something. The blind man did not know who this "Son of Man" was; he did not know Jesus identified himself as such; Jesus did not identify himself as such before the blind man; and if any connection was to be made at all by a Jew, it was to the Danielic Son of Man who is depicted as a being in heaven, not Jesus walking around on earth.

Furthermore, I would question whether indeed, as Spartacus claims, the blind man would have been able to recognize Jesus' voice "immediately" after such a short sample prior. The blind people I have known (and there have been many) are often quite skilled in this regard, but I have not met one who could achieve such recognition so readily.

As it happens Spartacus offers a marginal reply to this shortly, but first he notes the blind man in Mark 8, which he says "could not have been born blind" because he was able to describe the appearance of people as like trees. Well, needless to say, no one says THIS man was born blind, anywhere, so it's hard to say what Spartacus is on about anyway.

However, we have a recommend for this link, and I would also add that it is likely that a person born blind would at least have a mental conception of trees as thick and round that would match what this person would see.

But now back to the former instance: Someone apparently gave Spartacus the answer that the blind man did not know Jesus was the "Son of Man" -- though Spartacus says "Messiah", and therein lies a missed point. Spartacus counters by noting in 9:22 that people were being kicked out of synagogue for believing Jesus to be Messiah.

That's not, sorry, the same as the Son of Man -- as the link shows, a much less clear and much more difficult title.

And then, what of the testimony of his parents that he was born blind (since Spartacus takes the record at value)? First Spartacus objects that his neighbors did not affirm that he was born blind, and claims, "It was his neighbors and those who saw him earlier who did not believe that he was blind."

That is false. The "neighbors" in this story only appear in v. 8 ("The neighbours therefore, and they which before had seen him that he was blind, said, Is not this he that sat and begged?") and neither affirm nor deny his blindness from birth, and it is not even a question for them; it is a question that the Pharisees are interested in, and rest assured that a few thousand Pharisees (upper crust as they were) were not tracking the life of every socially-outcast blind man in a population of several hundred thousand.

Spartacus also claims that the neighbors do not even remember his disability, quoting vv. 8-9 and noting 10: "Therefore said they unto him, How were thine eyes opened?" Spartacus declares:

His neighbors suspected that he faked his blindness for begging purposes and/or to help do the hoax. This is why his neighbors did not believe that he was blind from birth and went on to investigate this matter further. The neighbors asked how his eyes were OPENED because they were CLOSED. Anyone can CLOSE his eyes (for a month or so for the hoax). They asked his parents because they didn't remember them CLOSED from birth.

In other words, Spartacus wants to assert that this man faked blindness by keeping his eyes closed (!!) for an extended period, and then freely adds the presumption (not stated in the text) that the "neighbors" remembered his eyes being "open" before. Does such wild suspicion really require any comment? Here's a news item: Blind people do NOT keep their eyes closed. Spartacus is misusing an idiomatic expression ("closed" = blindness) for his own purposes.

Spartacus briefly diverts to bring up the argument discussed here, and then we get to the parents and their testimony. How does Spartacus get rid of this? By noting the parents' fear of the Jewish officials, and declaring that this is John saying that the parents are somehow "lying somewhere in their testimony" and this erases all of their credibility.

First, Spartacus wants to argue that John is indicating the "he was born blind" bit as the lie, whereas if there was any falsehood it was in claiming not to know who healed him or how -- as indeed John's reported reason indicates; it does not say, "For they had decided that anyone not born blind would be kicked out of the synagogue".

Spartacus claims that in this retort it is forgotten that only the blind man himself could have told the parents what had happened, and thus the parents would "be telling the truth when they say that they weren't there to see who did what".

That is not the question at hand, however: the question is, do they know who and how, and the son is the obvious informant on this matter, as Spartacus can hardly deny, since he admits the "who" would be known by the blind man, and the "how" certainly would be.

Next up, Spartacus argues that the rabbis who questioned the man did not believe he was born blind; what value this has is questionable, for as noted, it is hardly likely that the rabbis kept a registry of such persons just in case someone healed them later. He closes by arguing that Jesus was receiving donations and hence needed to perform more miracles to get finances -- contextually, an outlandish scenario, for under the rules of the day Jesus secured patronage from specified sources (Luke 8:1-3) and thus had no need to solicit donations. Needless to say, Spartacus is far from informed on these matters of first century life.

Paralyzed: Next Spartacus takes on the cure of paralytics by Jesus, with focus on John 5:1-18. Spartacus takes an "easy out" by merely dismissing these as cases of conversion disorder; we have addressed that argument before, here. Spartacus also erroneously attributes the paralytic's condition to "guilt," which did not exist in this time (see details here).

Treading Water: Next, the miracle of walking on water is explained as the disciples being disoriented, and seeing a man on the shore who they think is in the middle of the lake with them. How does he reach the conclusion of disorientation?

Spartacus takes the verbiage "to the shore to which they were heading" to mean the shore at Capernaum as opposed to being the shore to which they were heading as a matter of course. Such is a contrived reading: Furthermore, the storm on the sea is enough reason for the lack of a precision landing, without any "disorientation" required. And it also does not pass his eye that when the disciples hit the shore, the "man" (whether Spartacus thinks it was Jesus is not clear) they saw would be on the same side of the boat as the shore they hit.

Spartacus also makes an issue of the crowd asking Jesus in John, "Rabbi, WHEN did you get here," as opposed to "how". The question is exactly what we would expect: They would hardly assume he walked on water, and would know that a trip around the lake shore would take a great deal of time. Hence their question reflects a presupposition of a land journey, done in an unusual amount of time, and lack of knowledge of the water-walking event.

Thunder Voice. In a short section Spartacus opts to side with those who say the voice heard in John 12:27-29 was indeed thunder. That's indeed the expected Skeptical option, but no more proves it worthy than that not everyone hears anything that is said clearly, Spartacus' bland assertion that the "thunders" part of the crowd's testimony is what "counts" notwithstanding.

Dead from the Tomb: Next Spartacus wants to turn the raising of Lazarus into a conspiracy, and argues that the text shows Lazarus not being buried according to custom, that is, with the spices specified in Jesus' burial. Arguing that that the myrrh and aloes were composed of oil and plant leaves, respectively, Spartacus notes that these are not mentioned on Lazarus (and therefore assumes, without warrant, that they were not there) and supposes that Lazarus "would not have been able to move, nor come out of the tomb by himself, simply because his whole body would still be wrapped!!!"

Where Spartacus gets such an idea is unknown. He is apparently envisaging a mummy-like wrapping, but in fact, this is a common misconception: The Jews bound the jaw, feet, and hands, but did not wrap the body all over in the Egyptian style. However, that they did do so forms the core for Spartacus' case, so it ends up a blow to his credibility in the scholarship department.

Spartacus hypothesizes a four-member conspiracy between Mary, Martha, Lazarus and Jesus; to do so, he creates a contrived equation between "Bethany beyond Jordan" and the Bethany of Lazarus' domain, so that Jesus is within "walking distance" of Lazarus (denying that there was any other Bethany is insufficient; see here), then posits Lazarus lying alive in the cave (with food and water hidden, we assume). He also makes some issue of Jesus crying only when others are watching; this ignores the facts of the social world of the NT, for as Malina and Pilch note (Handbook of Biblical Social Values, 58), self-control was a social ideal and it is only under "heavy affliction" that such displays were socially acceptable.

Other than this, little else needs be said. Spartacus lays out his scenario of how the trick was done among the foursome, a "Passoverish Plot" that is about as in evidence as the "space aliens did it" thesis. It is also offered:

If Jesus could really raise the dead, he would not have called his beloved disciple out of a cave. He would have led the Jews to the nearest graveyard, dug up a skeleton and brought it back to life. But of course he didn't because he couldn't.

Spartacus is clearly not aware of the ritual requirements of Judaism. To dig up a skeleton as described would have been considering highly dishonoring and offensive to the dead, and to the living; contextually Jesus was already offending enough people, and it is an arrogant to demand an even higher level of offense just so that Spartacus can be satisfied. (And, we wonder if he would believe such an account in the first place.)

Of interest is Spartacus' supposition of motives behind Lazarus and his sisters helping Jesus on this point. He equates all four stories of women anointing Jesus (it won't work -- see here), supposing that Simon the leper could still have been a Pharisee because we do not need to isolate people with skin disorders today.

He is not aware of the matter is one of ritual purity; hence there is no method whereby Simon the leper could have been an accepted member of the elite Pharisees.

He then proceeds to identify Mary as the "woman caught in adultery" (not aware of the textual issues showing that this pericope does not belong in John), as well as that her execution was forestalled not by Jesus, but by the Roman restriction of effecting the death penalty). Thus he supposes Lazarus' act was a "thanks, bud" for saving his sister (whom he also met with before) from stoning -- a serious of tenuous connections, reliant on dehistoricized argumentation. There is no proof that the woman is Mary, other than false connections; and she was not truly in danger of being stoned.

5000 Orders of Bread to Go: After deciding that "[f]eeding the 5000 a single meal requires 250 days wages," Spartacus hypothesizes that Jesus certainly got more than enough money for this from donations (again, not aware of the patronage model; "each believer" would not donate), but he is somewhat off on his math: 250 days' wages would indeed secure each person a mouthful of bread, but not enough for them to be satisfied (6:12), and leave us not forget the fish requires more.

In any event Spartacus supplies Jesus with enough wealth, to do whatever his thesis requires; then conveniently, hypothesizes that the "grass" was "wild untrimmed grass that could grow high enough to obscure the vision of someone reclined," allowing the 5000 to miss where the pre-purchased food was located, hidden in the grass.

The problem with this thesis is that "wild, untrimmed grass" isn't going to exist here, in a land where such grass would be subject to pasture. Nor is it of much use to hypothesize Jesus hiding this food beforehand in a depression in the ground -- Spartacus seems to forget that there was no means to prevent spoilage (no plastic wrap), so any food hidden on the ground is going to be infested with insects at least and soaked from the dew at worst. In short, inedible and by Jewish reckoning, unclean and unfit to eat.

To round out this plot, Spartacus takes Jesus' comment, "you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled," as some sort of admission that a miracle wasn't actually done. It is said, "If they saw the miracle the day before, they wouldn't have asked him to show them the same miracle again."

Apparently Spartacus is unaware of the hard economic realities of the day: Where your next mean would come from was ALWAYS an open question for 99% of people alive at this time.

Saturday Night Fever: Not much to say here, for Spartacus merely posits that a fever Jesus "cured" was a coincidence. That's just the standard Skeptical line, against which nothing can be said for it rests upon prior presumption.

Wine Miracle: By some means Spartacus reader John 2 as indicating that the waiters drew water from the jars. This is not said in the text; Spartacus confuses the statement of "the servers who had drawn the water" to refer to the drawing of the liquid from the jars, forgetting that the water ALSO had to be drawn initially from a well or other location.

Of course even so there would remain a problem (since he takes, again, the text at value) of how this drawn water became identified as wine by those who drank it. No answer is actually given; Spartacus says it is "the same trick performed today worldwide," but what this trick is isn't explained.

Virgin Birthday: On the matter of the Virgin Birth, Spartacus supposes that if it had happened, "everybody in such a small community would have known this and would have talked about it for the first thirty years." Spartacus is merely unaware of a step: that it would have been known about, but not believed. Indeed this is (as we note here) a purely ideological issue. However, Spartacus then tries to argue that "those who knew Jesus and his parents confirmed that he was born in Galilee and not in Bethlehem" -- quoting John 7:41-3, spoken not by people who "knew Jesus and his parents" but by miscellaneous festival-goers in Jerusalem. Spartacus also twists Jesus reply, "Yes, you know me, and you know where I am from..." into an admission of birth in Galilee - not up on that where one was born is not always where one was from! (Brief reference is also made to Hindu parallels, which seriously postdate Christian texts; see here.)

Resurrection Fake: Naturally Spartacus has to come up with a "Passover Plot" for Jesus as well, and he does. Someone must have been at the tomb on the Sabbath to plant fake evidence ("the followers of Jesus never kept the Sabbath," as claimed, and is false: the followers of Jesus, at most, did not keep Pharasaic interpretations of the Sabbath, and if he wants to take the text at value, it does show that the women, followers of Jesus, rested that day, Mark 16:1).

Spartacus also repeats his peculiar report of Jewish burial custom; he thinks that aloes were used as leaves, but the spices were placed in blocks around or under the body.

Spartacus finds it of some worth to note that John commented on the linen being present, but not the pounds of spices; as if indeed a high-context reader needed such detail. ("High context" societies are ones where a lot of background information can be taken for granted, such as burial details; our own society is generally "low context".)

In fact we do not need such detail either, and thus it makes simple end of Spartacus' claims that someone must have also stolen the spices, since John does not mention them (!) and that John ran ahead of Peter to make sure that the planted evidence was properly in place.

Spartacus' retort to the above is that if John mentioned the grass in the feeding story, he should also have mentioned the spices being present, which makes little sense given that the grass offers a reason why the people could comfortably be seated, and is only mentioned once, whereas the spices would be mentioned to no purpose at all, a second time -- and would not provide any "evidence for the resurrection" as Spartacus claims.

Beyond this, Mary's sighting of Jesus and angels is passed off as perhaps mental disorder, perhaps tears in her eyes bending sunrays. Those tears evidently stuck a long time and even managed to talk. It is also supposed that Mary may have imagined a resurrection based on prior ideas of it being discussed, which is refuted by the point that a resurrection was not expected.

Oddly enough Spartacus wants to have Mary confuse bent sunrays in her tears for angels (one would like to see such a phenomenon testified to in serious medical journals), but also wants Mary to have accurately identified the man in the garden as the gardener. It seems that conspiracies work as long as any convenience can be postulated.

Then he explains how this "gardener" knew who she was: Because she used to have demons, everybody in such a small community would have known her name. She had tears in her eyes and talked to him as the gardener who knew her name and asked her not to touch him because he was afraid of her demons...

Er, what "small community"? This took place outside Jerusalem, not in Mary's hometown of Magdala. Also, the word "touch" means "cling to" and thus means she was already touching the man -- but Spartacus' ready explanation is that she misunderstood what the gardener said. Naturally, a Passover Plot always has a ready explanation for any problem with the thesis. The record is reliable....to the point required. When it does not fill the purpose, it can be modified or discarded as needed.

Who moved the stone? It is said: "Joseph of Arimathea rolled it on...If a single human was able to role (sic) it on, why couldn't a single human role (sic) it off?" Spartacus doesnot know of the language of agency. In fact, the gravestones of this period weighed at least a ton, and were shaped like plugs (huge drag coefficient here) and required many men (under Joseph's employ) to move it. There is no hope for Spartacus to posit a small stone disk -- all the archaeological evidence weighs against him (not that he as much as looks at it).

And what then of the resurrection appearances? Paul is dismissed as a liar based on issues addressed here. It is said, "Paul and the 500 claim that they saw Jesus while they were in trances," though where this is said is not cited, and the 500 "claim" nothing in any text.

The remainder of the disciples are passed off as merely liars, who kept up the charade because the donations stopped (yet another thesis grounded on the fact of patronage, not donations, as a means of support); needless to say, we won't see Spartacus dealing in the social issues of the sort we look at here, as his best argument is to say "a bllion Chinese, another billion Hindus" died for their beliefs. (Never mind validating those numbers, or doing a similar social study).

It is finally noted that a body would be unrecognizable after 40 days; that may be so, but all the Sanhedrin had to do, as has often been noted, is point to the tomb and note that a body was there. This obviously did not happen; the polemic we have takes the empty tomb for granted. (Spartacus is actually aware of this, but doesn't answer, merely asking, "why should they if the living Jesus was missing?" If anyone knows the point of that answer, let me know.)

Closing notes -- it is said that the "Sanhedrin (the highest Jewish court) found Jesus guilty of doing fake miracles (documented in the Talmud)" but that is false; the charge was with doing sorcery -- real miracles, not from God but by magic. Then we get to the question, "What would motivate Jesus to do this?" -- Spartacus' answer is worth looking at in full:

Christians can find all their answers in the Guinness Book of World Records. Why would someone let his fingernails grow for 27 years? Why would anyone starve in a box for 44 days? Why would anyone swallow so many spiders...?
Well, how about becoming the Messiah of a whole nation? Better yet, how about becoming a god?

An interesting comment -- completely against the social grain of the day, when seeking such honor that was not yours was a perfect way of arousing hatred and envy and resentment, and thus you were compelled to NOT seek to swallow spiders or rise above others in any way. Spartacus' theories are marred by errors and anachronisms aplenty.