Faith in the Synoptic Miracle Stories

New Testament Gospel writers detailed many stories in which Jesus performed healings, exorcisms and even resurrections that intended to reveal how the power of the Almighty could be manifested through the words and simple actions of Jesus Christ.

To believers, these acts are miracles — inexplicable occurrences that shattered basic laws of nature and truly revealed the unique holiness of Jesus as the Son of God.

To skeptics, the miracle stories are perceived to either be concocted anecdotes, severely embellished natural feats, or coincidental occurrences.

Within the already complicated quest for the historical Jesus, modern historians’ abilities to completely verify or refute the “miracle” stories in the Gospels are, of course, definitively impossible. Even the most intimate attempts at thorough and objective historical analysis are subject to distortion by natural and inherent reader prejudice.

This dilemma might lead some to completely disregard the miracle stories, like rationalist and American political philosopher Thomas Jefferson, who choose to blatantly exclude the stories from his personal reproduction of the Bible in the 19th century.[1] However, while the historical accuracy of the miracle stories cannot be either confirmed or denied, most modern scholars agree that the messages contained within the acts of healing, exorcism, and resurrection were “integral to the message and ministry” of Jesus.

As such, examining the Synoptic miracle stories and their subtle interconnectedness of faith becomes vital to better finding and understanding the historical Jesus Christ.[2]

The Quest for the Historical Jesus Christ

W. Barnes Tatum treats the subject of Jesus’ miracles in his book, In Quest for Jesus. Several of Tatum’s definitions and explanations on the miracle stories will be presented and evaluated as groundwork for extended discussion on and analysis of the miracle stories.

It is commonly understood by modern Christians that the historical Jesus performed numerous miracles such as healing the ill, exorcising the possessed, raising the dead, calming great storms, and walking on water. But before the miracles stories themselves are dissected, it is vital to understand the historical usage of the word “miracle,” and to understand how the ancient usage of the word might be misunderstood or misconstrued in modern times.

Tatum describes the modern interpretation of “miracle” as “an event contrary to the known laws of nature”.[3]

In the historical context of biblical times – long before the dawn of modern science – life was not yet understood to be subject to restricted and unmovable laws of nature. While the Gospel uses “miracle” and “mighty work” to describe miraculous actions of Jesus, their usage does not necessarily suggest that the miraculous event was occurring contrary to laws of nature. Instead, these events tend to be considered as more “extraordinary in his day, and miraculous retrospectively from our day”.[4]

Even still, the miracle stories were viewed as “out of the ordinary, even within an ancient perspective”.[5] Though modern laws of science were yet to be discovered, ancient peoples still understood Jesus’ deeds as unique and special. The miracle stories portrayed to ancient observers that “the power of God was manifested” through Jesus’ actions.[6]

What did the Gospel writers mean by “Miracle”?

But miracles were not specific only to Jesus during ancient times.

From Pharaoh’s magicians, to prophetic contemporaries of Jesus, and even his own disciples, others during ancient times seem to have had similar powers of healing, resurrection, and exorcism. This point provokes an important question:

  • Does the alleged frequency of miraculous occurrences during ancient times, as Tatum notes, support or detract from the credibility of the Gospel miracle stories?

The frequency of miraculous occurrences in the Gospel could feasibly indicate one of the following:

  • One, that fanciful and overly embellished miracle stories were common in early Greco-Roman, Christian, Jewish cultures, as such indicating their falsehood, or,
  • Two, that because the miracle stories were not specific only to Jesus, and that the ancient period witnessed many miracles, gives credibility to the possibility that Jesus was indeed one of many miracle workers.

If Jesus was the only individual cited in the Gospel and other ancient texts to have performed miracles, it might be easier today to dismiss the stories as embellishments, due to the fact that no other individual was ever known to possess such a power. The supposed frequency of unnatural miracles occurring in ancient times could either support or undermine the likelihood that they occurred.

An analysis of the following miracle stories from the Synoptic Gospels reveals several key themes that connect each miracle story and thus contribute to the possibility of historical basis. These connecting themes not only contribute to better understanding the historical Jesus, but also substantially contribute to understanding the theology of Jesus and his mission on earth.

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The First Synoptic Miracle Story

The earliest miracle story to occur in each of the Synoptic Gospels is the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, and is followed by the healing of “many” who were sick or possessed that same evening.[7]

The Gospels confer that the mother-in-law of Simon Peter lay sick with a fever, and that the fever left her with seeming immediacy upon Jesus taking her by the hand. She was able to rise and serve Jesus and the other guests in her home. Thereafter, others who were ill or possessed were brought to Jesus in Simon Peter’s home.

Either “with a word” or by the touch of his hand(s), the healings and exorcisms performed by Jesus were carried out with the utmost simplicity.No spells were cast by Jesus and no prayers were uttered. Further, not one person who was in the company of Jesus, neither a person being cured nor a witness to his miracles, spoke to Jesus, questioned him out of doubt or disbelief, or even praised him after the miracles occurred.

No one doubted the possibility that Jesus could cure the ill before him and no one doubted the veracity of the healings after they occurred. The apparent lack of doubt amongst those from Capernaum who gathered at the home of Simon Paul in the Synoptic Gospels seem to imply a natural and universal sense of faith in Jesus and his ability to cure the ill and possessed.

Furthermore, that the ill and possessed were brought to Jesus implies that Jesus was asked to cure them — they possessed faith that they could be cured in the first place.

The Second Synoptic Miracle Story

The second miracle story that can be found in all three Synoptic Gospels is the healing of the leper.[8] A leper sought out Jesus, fell to his feet and said, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” Jesus responds again with simplicity, touches the man and says, “I will; be clean.”

Like Simon Paul’s mother-in-law, the illness again leaves with immediacy. Jesus tells the cured man to not tell anyone of the miracle and instead to go to the temple and make an offering as Moses commanded. Mark and Luke divert from Matthew at this point in the story, and explain that the man tells many people that Jesus cured him, against the will of Jesus. As a result, many other sick people seek Jesus out, forcing Jesus to leave the cities and instead preach in the countryside.

This miracle story depicts a sick man who sought out Jesus believing he could and would be cured. That he sought out Jesus again implies that the sick man already possessed faith in the holiness and healing power of Jesus. The leper does not ask Jesus to cure him, but rather, speaks implying that Jesus can undoubtedly cure him: “…you can make me clean” [emphasis added].

Jesus heals the man with, again, only the simplest of commands and actions; he touches him and states, “be clean.” Like the fever, the man’s leprosy is immediately cured. Also, it is worth noting that Jesus told the man not speak of the miracle to others. This theme reappears and will be discussed in depth shortly.

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The Third Synoptic Miracle Story

The next miracle story contained in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke is the healing of the paralytic.[9] In the story, a paralytic was brought to Jesus by several men carrying him on his bed. Their desire for the man to be cured was a clear sign to Jesus of their faith in him. The Gospels all note that Jesus recognized the faith in those who carried the paralytic to him to be cured. Jesus spoke to the paralytic, telling him “your sins are forgiven.”

Scribes of the Pharisees, who heard Jesus forgive the paralytic man’s sins, questioned Jesus and accused him of blasphemy. This is the first time in the aforementioned miracle stories that any onlookers question Jesus’ words and actions. Jesus responds by asking the skeptics if it is easier to say that the man’s sins are forgiven, or rather to tell him to rise and walk. He continues to tell them that the “Son of man” has the authority on earth to forgive sins (Jesus never says that he is the “Son of man,” but it is obviously implied).

Turning back to the paralytic, he tells the man to rise and go home. He does, and all who witnessed the miracle were notably amazed and praised God. This miracle story is different in many ways to the previous two stories. However it also contains a number of similarities: The paralytic is brought to Jesus, like other sick and possessed people, based upon faith of believers who know Jesus can heal their illnesses.

For the first time, the Synoptic Gospels acknowledge outwardly that Jesus recognized the faith in the paralytic man’s friends for bringing him to be healed. As in the other miracle stories, Jesus appears to prepare to heal the man by simple means, by an utterance and perhaps a touch. However, Jesus instead says “your sins are forgiven,” which is the first time in a miracle story that Jesus heals someone by forgiving him or her of their sins.

Also for the first time, a group questions their faith in Jesus. The scribes of the Pharisees doubt Jesus and call him a blasphemer. Because they questioned their faith in the Son of God, as such, they likewise questioned their faith in God, and “speak Evil.” For the first time, Jesus must defend himself, and says the “Son of man” is allowed to forgive people of their sins.

After miracle healing, for the first time the crowds who witnessed the miracle share a collective reaction. The Gospels say that they all praise and glorify God after being convinced of Jesus’ holiness, but only after witnessing the miracle. Before, no group outwardly praised Jesus or God; they were not surprised, taken back, scared, or amazed. There had been no mention of the reaction of those who witnessed the miracles.

This must be because the witnesses to the previous miracles had faith: they believed in the healing power and Holiness of Jesus, and they did not need to be convinced with indisputable proof. However, those who witnessed the miracle of the paralytic must not have had faith in Jesus, as indicated by their collective reaction to the healing, being awestruck, amazed, and in praising God. For, why would a group of true believers react in such a way, if they had faith in Jesus all along?

The Fourth and Fifth Synoptic Miracle Stories

The stories of Jairus’ daughter and the hemorrhaging woman are also shared in each of the Synoptic Gospels. In these miracle stories, a man named Jairus seeks out Jesus and tells him that if Jesus lays his hands upon his dying daughter that she will be made well again and live. Jesus went with Jairus to his home. On the way, a woman who was said to have been “with a flow of blood” or hemorrhaging for twelve years reached out and touched the garment of Jesus and was healed.

Jesus realized that his healing power had gone forth from him and into someone, and asked who touched his garment. The woman confessed that she believed touching the garment of Jesus would heal her. Jesus then tells her that her faith has made her well again. When Jesus reaches the house of Jairus, his daughter has recently died. Jesus tells those present not to weep, for she is not dead, but only sleeping. Jesus took the daughter by the hand, told her to rise, and the girl rose up immediately. Jesus told all who had witnessed the miracle to not speak it to others.

Again the Synoptic Gospels portray Jairus as a believer in Jesus who seeks out healing for his young daughter. Jesus adheres to Jairus’ request and, on his way to Jairus’ house, a sick woman reaches out to touch Jesus in hopes of being healed. According to Mark and Luke, the woman is healed when she touches the garment of Jesus. However, Matthew does not say that she was healed after touching his garment — only that she is healed after confessing her faith.

In all three Synoptic Gospels, Jesus first acknowledges the woman before telling her that she is healed. When the woman reached out to touch the garment of Jesus, this was symbolic of her requesting to be healed by Jesus — a necessary prerequisite the aforementioned miracle healings. In physically reaching out to Jesus, the woman was essentially directly asking Jesus to heal her of her ailment. It was only at this time did Jesus recognize her faith, and tell her that she was healed. When Jesus reaches the house of Jairus he resurrects the dead girl with a simple phrase and touch of his hand. And yet again, Jesus asks that all those who witnessed the miracle not tell others of the healing.

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Themes of the Synoptic Miracle Stories

The aforementioned miracle stories are five of eight that appear in all three of the Synoptic Gospels. These five are the stories that many biblical scholars agree contain some “basis in events in the life of Jesus”.[10] And through analysis it is clear that each of these miracle stories contains a number of similar and connected themes that seem to indicate at least the possibility of historical accuracy.

Theme One: Faith

In each story, Jesus is sought out for a healing; he does not seek out the sick or possessed to cure them. Jesus tells those who witness the miracle healings and exorcisms, and those whom he heals directly, not to tell others of the miracles (they always do). My theological interpretation of Jesus’ request is that he did not want nonbelievers to suddenly believe in him as the Holy Son of God because of conclusion anyone would reach having witnessed or been told first hand of such amazing miracles. The miracles performed by Jesus were only and always performed when a healing or exorcism was requested; Jesus never sought out ill or possessed persons with the intention of healing them. But when someone goes to Jesus, they do not request that he perform a healing.

It seems in the Synoptic Gospels that requesting or asking for a healing implies lack of faith. As such, the individuals tell Jesus that he can heal their loved ones. Upon this indirect request, Jesus heals them. It appears to be a prerequisite for a miracle healing was that the person or people requesting Jesus’ miraculous healings had full faith in Jesus’ ability to cure their loved ones before her performed the miracle.

Theme Two: Simplicity

The actions that Jesus took to perform his healings were neither extravagant nor ostentatious; rather, they were extremely simple and very straightforward. As the five stories indicate, Jesus’ healings were delivered with a simple word or a phrase and by the touch of his hand. There was no lavish method or procedure to his healings, no special performance or particular showmanship.

Theme Three: Secrecy

Jesus’ healings were only done by request to those people who believed in Jesus as being specially connected to God; he fulfilled every request made to him by those who believed in him and after he performed the miracles he asked those present to not speak of the occasion to others. Jesus attempted to dissuade witnesses of his miracles from telling the stories to others because the miracles tended to be proof-positive that Jesus was connected to divinity. Faith could not exist without the existence of skepticism. Faith cannot truly exist in a person who has been convinced of Jesus’ divinity after witnessing a display of his supernatural healing powers.

Conclusions

The miracle stories throughout the Gospel reveal the power of God manifested through the words and actions of Jesus Christ. While the miracle stories cannot ever be proven or disproven, an intimate analysis of the most historically-rooted miracle stories reveals a series of consistent themes that are theologically sound. These consistent themes are shared between every one of the aforementioned Synoptic miracle stories and as such reveal a deeply rooted interconnectedness of faith between them.

That each story shares these themes would indicate that they are more likely to have had actual historical basis. And when viewed collectively, the healing powers of Christ and miracles in the Synoptic Gospels that he supposedly performed become all the more believable to those who already believe.

Plagiarism warning: This essay is indexed in Google and internet-wide search engines, and will show in common plagiarism searches done by professors and teachers, and in automated computerized tools that search the internet for plagiarism. Students, adequately cite your sources and do not plagiarize.


[1] W. Barnes Tatum, In Quest for Jesus (Nashville: Abingdon, 1982) 213.
[2]
Ibid., 217.
[3]
Ibid., 206.
[4]
Ibid., 208-9.
[5]
Ibid., 209.
[6]
Ibid., 209.
[7]
Matthew 8:14-17; Mark 1:29-34; Luke 4:38-41
[8]
Matthew 8:1-4; Mark 1:40-45; Luke 5:12-16
[9]
Matthew 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26
[10]
Tatum, 217.

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