Did Jesus Do Miracles?

There are some doubts that Jesus was known as a miracle worker in his day. David Friedrich Strauss (1808- 1874 CE) was the first to systematically argue this case. Against the rationalist approach of explaining them all away naturally, and against the supernaturalist approach which took these claims literally, Strauss argued in what can be considered a book of its own (a chapter containing 121 pages), that these miracle stories were myths.1

The rationalist approach is probably best illustrated by William Barclay in his Daily Study Bible commentaries on the Gospels. With regard to the feeding of the multitudes by Jesus, as recounted in the gospels, Barclay suggests the real miracle was one of generosity; that when someone first offered the few meager loaves and fishes he had to help feed the others, he inspired everyone in the crowd, one by one, to share what they had until they were all fed and there were basketfuls leftover.2 But this denies some obvious things in the text itself, especially when it says Jesus took the food after praying and gave the broken pieces to his disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowd to eat. It says that Jesus fed the crowds. They did not feed themselves.

The supernaturalist approach has textual problems too. With regard to the feeding of the multitudes by Jesus, as recounted in the gospels of Matthew (in chapters 14 and again in 15), Mark (in chapters 6, and again in 8), Luke (in chapter 9), and John (in chapter 6) there are discrepancies. These stories appear in different contexts and in different places. There are discrepancies about the number of men who were fed (4000 or 5000?), how many initial loaves and fishes there were (five loaves and two fish, or seven loaves and a few fish?), how many baskets of food were left after everyone had eaten (twelve or seven?). But the most interesting thing is that in Mark’s and Matthew’s gospels the story appears twice. D.F. Strauss rhetorically asks: “Is it conceivable that the disciples, after they had themselves witnessed how Jesus was able to feed a great multitude with a small quantity of provision, should nevertheless on a second occasion of the same kind, have totally forgotten the first, and have asked, ‘Whence should we have so much bread in the wilderness as to feed so great a multitude?’” (Mark 8:4 and Matthew 15:33).3 Rather than telling us what really happened, these miracle stories were largely created later by an evolving church to make a statement about the spiritual importance of Jesus, Strauss argued. The point of the feeding of the multitudes with bread and fish was not to report what Jesus actually did on a particular day in his life, but to make the claim that Jesus was the bread of life who feeds his disciples with spiritual food in their own day. None of the attempts to rescue this problem as more than a myth that was told twice make sense, he argued, especially when the story has a parallel in the Old Testament where Elisha miraculously multiplied food for people (II Kings 4:42-44). According to Robert Price, repeating such a story twice is the “unintended result of the redactional decision to retain both versions instead of choosing between them.”4

There is even some testimony to suggest Jesus may not have even performed miracles. The earliest texts of the New Testament were written by Apostle Paul, and in I Corinthians 1:22-23 he said the “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” It seems as though Paul is claiming the gospel message is not supported by miracles at all, but rather by the foolishness of preaching. It’s also instructive to note that Paul never specifically attributes any miracle to Jesus in all of his writings. It seems as if Paul just doesn’t think Jesus did any of them, even if miracle workers who used the name of Jesus as a magician’s charm did exist in the early church.

In the earliest gospel, in Mark 8:12, we read the same thing, this time from the lips of Jesus: “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.” This seems to be a categorical denunciation of the claim that he did miracles. There is still more, as G.A. Wells informs us, “there is no mention of any miracle of Jesus even in the writings of the earliest Fathers (Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smryna—known at the ‘Apostolic Fathers’ because they were believed to be the immediate successors of the apostles).”5 Robert Price suggests the probability that the miracle stories were put in the gospels because they also served as a manual for how early Christians could perform them.6

What Strauss, Wells, and Price argue is that these facts suggest the miracle stories represent later mythic additions based on evolving church traditions to the story of Jesus. At least some, if not many, or even most of these miracle stories can be explained in this way. And while their conclusions represent a minority opinion among biblical scholars today, these considerations do at least provoke some doubt. How can we be sure otherwise? We can’t, because we can never accept the majority opinion just because it’s in the majority.


1. David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined 4th ed., trs. George Elliot trans, (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co, Inc, 1902), pp. 413-534.
2. William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke Revised edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. 140.
3. David Friedrich Strauss, Life of Jesus: Critically Examined, p. 508.
4. Robert M. Price, The Incredible Shrinking Son of man: How Reliable is the Gospel Tradition? (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2003), p. 159.
5. G.A. Wells, Cutting Jesus Down to Size: What Higher Criticism Has Achieved and Where it Leaves Christianity (Chicago: Open Court, 2009), p. 61.
6. Robert M. Price, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, pp. 133-163.