Some of the miracles of Jesus explained
In this article I will take a look at some of the miracles that Jesus performed according to the gospels and see, if it is possible to find a reasonable, scientific explanation.
Usually, most people probably think of a miracle as an event which outcome is based on "supernatural intervention" of some kind, ie something that defies the laws of nature, such as if you saw a man who flew without physical aids (and without being Superman), or if a building suddenly materialized on a bare field before your eyes. However, you can imagine that things that absolutely do not defy the laws of nature will still be perceived as miracles - at least by some people. Here I am thinking, for example, of things that are in accordance with the laws of nature, but are just statistically extremely unlikely, such as that you are about to be shot by a masked robber, but are rescued by a meteorite that hits the man on the arm, so the shot doesn't hit you (unfortunately, it's probably not healthy for the villain to be hit by a meteorite). Even if I have not experienced the first kind, I have actually experienced the second, though not quite as dramatically as in the example. In the article Statistically improbable on my 2006 travel page, I tell a story of how Dorte and I met her brother and sister-in-law next to a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park in USA, without any of us having any idea that the other couple was in the neighborhood (we lived in Denmark, but were on vacation, they lived in Virginia and were also on vacation). Had we not known better, we could have considered this a miracle, even if it was just a statistical improbability. Finally, there is a third kind of miracle, which is rooted in ignorance (or naivety), an ignorance that was typically much greater at the time of Jesus. These can be illusions that the spectators can in no way explain, and therefore perceive as miracles, but which are basically illusions, regardless of whether they are deliberately arranged or happened by chance. One of the most famous illusions of this kind was performed by Harry Houdini, who was otherwise best known as the king of escape artists, when in 1918 he made a living elephant disappear before the eyes of a open-mouthed and disbelieving audience. Another apparent miracle was performed by the English illusionist Dynamo (Stephen Frayne) who in 2011 walked on the waters of the Thames off The British Parliament. This trick was filmed and can be seen on YouTube. Dynamo never claimed anything other than that it was an illusion, which has since been "revealed", but in the first century, it had certainly been perceived as a miracle. Incidentally, Dynamo did not get that far before he was picked up by a police boat after walking a short distance because he had not gained a permission to do the trickj. I am not saying that Jesus' miracles were illusions, but some of them may have been, while others were precisely coincidences of statistical improbability, and still others were designed so that they were incomprehensible to the present. Some may have been "invented," or ordinary events may have been exaggerated by the writers of the Gospels, or rather by their sources - and I will not rule out the possibility of "real" miracles with divine intervention, though I do not believe so.
But let me take a look at some of the "miracles". And here I will disregard
the possibility that they were all miracles caused by divine intervention; that
is, that God provided the miracles, which therefore broke the laws of nature (as
some religious people claim), and I will also disregard the possibility that all
the miracles were invented by later writers (as some atheists claim). I will
instead look at possible rational explanations can be found and even explained
without breaking the laws of nature.
The feeding of the 5,000
Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha.
This event is described in Matthew 14.13-21, in Mark, 6.34-44, in Luke 9.11-17 and finally in John 6.1-14. Let me start by postulating that this event, in my opinion, is a variation on the feeding of the 4,000 found only in Matthew (15: 32-39) and Mark (8: 1-9). Here I am convinced that the evangelists, probably especially Mark, from whom Matthew most likely has the story, have heard two different stories and have assumed that they were about two different events, even though in reality they were only variations of the same theme. We see something similar in Saxo Grammaticus's stories from Denmark's legendary time, where he repeatedly reproduces stories that may be variations on the same event, but which Saxo perceives as different events. If there actually were two different events, the explanation given for one will also be able to explain the other. But I believe that only one of the feedings took place (if any at all). Which episode is the original in this case is difficult to determine, but with the ability of stories to evolve each time they are retold, I would think that the story of the feeding of the 4,000 with 7 loaves and 2 fish easily may have evolved into 5,000 being fed with only five loaves and two fish. Otherwise, the two stories are pretty much identical. However, John, who only knows the story of the 5,000, tells that it was a little boy who had the food, not the 12 apostles themselves, as is the case in the synoptic gospels. Here is the story as it is told by John according to the the online Bible from Biblica:
"Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near. When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, 'Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?' He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. Philip answered him, 'It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!' Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 'Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?' Jesus said, 'Have the people sit down.' There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, 'Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.' So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten." (John 6.1-13)
One of those who has tried to explain this "miracle" in a rational way is R. B. Chamberlain (Professor of World Religion and Cultural Anthropology at Eastern Florida State College), author of among others the books "An Introduction to World Religions" and "The Life of Christ ". In his book "The Miracles of Christ" from 2012 (which I incidentally tend to lean a lot on in this article), he states a possible explanation, which is not the least miraculous, although it might seem so, for people who just heard the story without being present, such as the four gospel authors. First of all, there were not only 5,000 people, as this number included only men, and there have probably been many, albeit fewer women. Chamberlain guesses at about 8,000 people in total. What Jesus fed them with were five small barley loaves and two fish, of which the latter is probably a misinterpretation or mistranslation, as the Greek word used in the Gospel, rather suggests that it was an accessory to the bread, a kind of fish spread. Professor Chamberlain's explanation is that among these many people were some who were wealthy, and these people had presumably brought something edible for themselves and their families, and together more than enough for everyone to get something to eat. When they both heard and saw that Jesus and his 12 apostles ("only" disciples at this time) shared what little they had between themselves and those closest to them, most of those who had food would also share with people around them, and that meant that everyone got food and that there was more left, which when it was gathered together was more than what Jesus had originally had. Because of this collective "charity" caused by Jesus' own sharing of food, it may well be argued that Jesus fed all by means of five loaves and two fish, though not all of them were fed this quantity. To me, that sounds reasonably likely, not least given that, according to tradition, Jews had a religious duty to help the disadvantaged.
The healing of the high priest's servant in Gethsemane
This event is also described in all four Gospels: Matthew 26.47-52, Mark 14.43-48, Luke 22.50-51 and John 18.10-11. John knows, as the only one, that the servant was called Malchus and that it was Simon Peter who cut off his ear (the right ear). I quote from Luke:
"When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him."
In fact, Luke is the only evangelist who
makes this event into something special. None of the other evangelists mention
anything about Jesus healing the ear after the cut, so possibly it is Luke
himself who wants to show that Jesus was forgiving, even to his enemies. Earlier
Jesus had told his disciples to go buy swords, and if they couldn't afford one,
to sell their cloaks in order to be able to but swords. Why then should he
forbid them to use the swords now?
Jesus walks on water
In the introduction to this article, I referred to Dynamo, who walked on the Thames, as an illusion. Several others have done the same, often using a plate of transparent plexiglass placed a few inches below the surface of the water. Jesus could not have done that for good reasons, but even so, there could still be a natural explanation. The event is mentioned in three of the Gospels, Mark (6.45-52), Matthew (14.22-33) and John (6.16-21). Luke does not know this story, which takes place at the Sea of Galilee. In Matthew, the story follows right after the story of the feeding of the 5,000 and likewise in Mark and John.
"Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray. Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by 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 were terrified. Immediately he spoke to them and said, “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, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened." (Mark 6.45-52)
"Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: 'Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.' '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, walked on the water and came toward 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. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, 'truly you are the Son of God.'" (Matt. 14.22-33)
"When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened. But he said to them, 'It is I; don’t be afraid.'Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading." (John 6.16-21)
Sea of Galilee. The red triangle indicatess the location of Capernaum, the green of Tagbha.
As can be seen, the story in the two synoptic evangelists is, as usual, rather similar, but there are a few differences. Only Matthew knows that Peter steps out of the boat to Jesus, but does not believe enough, so he is about to drown. That means that Matthew must have that story from a source other than Mark, who does not tell it, if it is not an invention by Matthew himself. In return, Mark refers to the "loaves", and it may well be the five loaves from the previous feeding of the 5,000 he is referring to, but what it was that the disciples had not grasped and why it hardened their hearts is not clear. It is also only Matthew who allows the disciples to take the opportunity to acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God. The story in John is somewhat shorter and does not mention any crowds that were sent away, neither does it mention that Jesus went up on a mountain to pray. Jesus also does not urge the disciples, who voluntarily go in the boat to sail to Capernaum on the other side of the lake. On the contrary, Jesus is not present at all as the disciples sail out.
But let me take a closer look at the
event. When you read all three accounts, you get the impression that the group
is on the east bank of the Sea of Galilee and sails across the lake to Capernaum
on the west bank, which would have been a trip of about 3 miles if they were
just opposite Capernaum, longer, if they were further south. However, both the
legends and many scholars agree that both Jesus and the disciples were on the
western, not the eastern shore of the lake,specifically in or near the village
of Tagbha, just south of Capernaum. Therefore, when Mark (as the only one)
claims that the boat was in the middle of the lake when the disciples saw Jesus,
it simply doesn't fit geographic reality.
According to tradition, the feeding of the 5,000 took place in Tagbha, and today you will find the "Church of the Multiplication" also known as the "Bread and Fish Church" in this town. This church of course commemorates the feeding of the 5,000. Simon Peter lived in this village and it was here that Jesus "appointed him" to be the leader of the apostles (another church in town still symbolizes the place where this happened), and it was also in Tagbha that Jesus appeared to the disciples for the fourth time after the resurrection - a quite important town, which also appears in other miracles, such as the story in John of Peter's Fish Catch after the resurrection, see below. From Tagbha to Capernaum there was only about 1.8 km as the crow flies, but when you had to sail around a point and needed to stay some distance away from the coast due to the shallow water at the shore, the trip was a bit longer, about 3-4 km. This is more or less in line with the distance given by John in the Danish translation, who says that they had covered 25 to 30 stages (between 3.5 and 4.5 km), especially if the wind had blown them further from the shore. So they would have been quite close to Capernaum and close to the coast when they saw Jesus walking on the water.
With the time they had spent sailing against the wind in the gale force wind, there would have been plenty of time for Jesus to walk from Tagbha to Capernaum in order to receive them when they landed. It also harmonizes with the fact that as soon as they had got Jesus up in the boat, they were at the shore. But we still lack answers to how Jesus could walk on water? And the answer is that he probably didn't. Archaeological research has shown that at Capernaum there are traces of a pier that stretched relatively far into the lake. Today the remains are below the surface, but at that time the lake was considerably shallower (at least 3-4 feet) and the pier has probably been right at sea level or only a few centimeters below this. Jesus could easily have walked out on this pier, which the disciples could not necessarily see, as it was night and therefore dark, a gale was blowing and the waves may have partially flooded the pier, so they got the impression that Jesus was walking on water. At the same time, it was night, and possibly also rain, so they may not have been able to see the shore and therefore thought that they were further from land than they actually were. In fact, they must have been quite close to shore, as they reached land as soon as they got Jesus up in the boat.
Jesus probably did not try to make this look like a miracle, and since several of the disciples themselves were fishermen from the Sea of Galilee, they probably knew about the subsurface pier at Capernaum, at least Simon Peter and his brother, who lived nearby, and who at least at some point had lived in this town. But if they themselves have believed they were further from land than actually was the case, they may well have been surprised to see Jesus apparently walking on water. They have of course repeated the story to others, and I can almost hear in my mind how they sit at the local taverna (or whatever it was called then) and tell: "And while we were struggling with the storm, Jesus suddenly came strolling, and it looked like whether he walked on the water, even though he actually walked on the old pier". The audience then improved on the story when they retold it, and before it reached the evangelists, "looked like" and the sentence about the pier had disappeared and it had become a fact that Jesus "walked on water". And that explanation holds, even if it should be correct that Peter also stepped out of the boat. He may have stepped off the sunken pier after a few steps and then of course, he would start to sink, while Jesus, who still had solid ground under his feet, could pull him up. It could also explain why Jesus entered the boat. After all, he could have gone back the same way he came out.
The New Testament mentions two so-called "catches, where fish are hauled out of the water in a net. Each of these episodes is mentioned only in a single gospel. The first in Luke 5.1-11 and the second in John 21.1-9. Luke has:
"One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him." (Luke 5.1-11)
And in John it's stated:
"Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. 'I’m going out to fish,' Simon Peter told them, and they said, 'We’ll go with you.' So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, 'Friends, haven’t you any fish?' 'No,' they answered. He said, 'Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.' When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, 'It is the Lord!' As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, 'It is the Lord,' he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread." (John 21.1-9)
The two stories sound pretty similar, but also different. Simon Peter and his fishermen colleagues have been fishing all night without success, but when Jesus tells them where to fish, they actually catch so much that it's almost too much. Despite this similarity in content, on the other hand, the stories are nonetheless different. The story of Luke is referred to as one of a series of unrelated episodes, such as the healing of a leper, the healing of a paralyzed man, Levi being called a disciple and others. And Luke also claims, that it was in connection with this event, that Peter and The Sons of Zebedee decided to give up fishing and follow Jesus. In John, on the other hand, the event does not take place until after the resurrection, where Jesus meets the disciples at the Sea of Galilee. It was the third time that Jesus revealed himself to the disciples, but they still didn't recognize him at first. Since the story of Luke does not come in any kind of chronological narrative, it may have taken place at any time during Jesus' ministry, but Luke would hardly have failed to mention it if it had place after the resurrection. I will allow myself to assume that we are actually speaking of two different narratives about the same event, regardless of when it took place, and it may well have been both before or after Jesus' apparent resurrection, which I will get back to in a future article, The Resurrection. Since John, in my opinion has the best knowledge about the events in Judea, while the authors of the Synoptic Gospels have the best knowledge of the events that took place in Galilee, I will here assume that the dating in Luke is most accurate, but the rest of the description I take from John, as I believe this is most accurate. In fact, the natural explanation for this miracle is not dependent on neither the dating nor the matter of whether it was one or two events.
Also in this case I will lean
heavily on R. B. Chamberlain's book.
The resurrection of Lazarus
The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo, between 1517 and 1519, National Gallery, London
Jesus performs a number of healings and in some cases even resurrects people who are dead. I will return to those below, but the case of the resurrection of Lazarus is special, so I will deal with it independently. This miracle is described only in John, in 44 verses (1-44) in chapter 11 The resurrection itself is described as follows:
"Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 'Take away the stone,' he said. 'But, Lord,' said Martha, the sister of the dead man, 'by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.' Then Jesus said, 'Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?' So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, 'Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.' When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, 'Lazarus, come out!' The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, 'Take off the grave clothes and let him go.'" (John 11.38-44)
Several explanations that are not miraculous (non-supernatural) can be given of this apparent resurrection from the dead. One of them, and the one I myself believe in the most, is that it was an initiation ritual with a simulated death experience and a ritual resurrection to a new life. Lazarus was thus not dead at all, but placed in a tomb that was to symbolize death. It will also explain why Jesus was not in a hurry to reach "the one he loved", even though he knew he was sick and dying:
"So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, 'Let us go back to Judea.'" (John 11.6.7)
Already earlier, when he first heard of Lazarus' illness, he had stated:
"So the sisters sent word to Jesus, 'Lord, the one you love is sick.' When he heard this, Jesus said, 'This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.'" (John 11.3-4)
The last sentence, sounds to me like a later addition, to illustrate that Jesus was the Son of God, which he did not otherwise state himself anywhere in The New Testament. Usually it is others who say it about him, and often ironically as a form of criticism. When he did refer to himself in such terms, he typically named himself the "Son of Man," and it might as well suggest that he knew that he was just an ordinary human being, the son of an ordinary human being. I am therefore convinced that this resurrection might have been ritual, perhaps of the same kind, that was going on in connection with Jesus 'arrest, as you can read about in the article The Last Supper and Jesus' arrest, where a young man, wearing only a "linen garment" manages to escape. (Mark. 14.51-52)
However, on this subject, I don't follow Chamberlain's explanation. He mentions, among other things, that the Greek word, which is usually translated as "dead", cf. above, can also mean "dying". It is also important to remember, says Chamberlain, that a tomb at that time was not "a hole in the ground, but typically a rock cave, either natural or carved for the purpose, which harmonizes nicely with my theory. John, verse 38 (see the quote above) states directly that the tomb was a rock cave. However, Chamberlain's theory is rather different from mine. It is based on the fact that Jesus was trained as an Essene healer, and therefore had great knowledge of various diseases. He knew from previous interactions with Lazarus, that his Lazarus') appearance and behavior, indicated that he suffered from diabetes - which couldn't be helped at the time. Chamberlain believes that Lazarus condition was case of hyperglycemia, where the blood sugar level rises, and can rise so high that the patient goes into a coma. Chamberlain believes, that this happened in this case, and since the coma can get very deep, those closest to him may very well have believed that Lazarus was dead and therefore performed the necessary burial rituals, and eventually placed him in the tomb. Jesus, who knew or at least suspected, that Lazarus suffered from diabetes, was in no hurry to come back, because he also knew that when a comatose person does not eat food, the blood sugar level will drop, and eventually the patient will wake up from his coma, and it fits very well with the four days that had passed before Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb. It is a fact that diabetes and its symptoms (underweight despite heavy food intake, intake of large amounts of fluid, very frequent urination, etc.) were known in Jesus' day. In fact, the disease is described in an Egyptian papyrus from 1500 BC, and in 150 BC. the disease was described by a Greek physician practicing in Rome (Chamberlain p. 96). The doctor, Aretaeus, believed that the disease was manifested in the body "melting" into urine, but besides from this strange belief, the symptoms are correctly described.
So no matter whether you believe in my explanation abot the ritual burial and resurrection, that I share with many others, or you believe in Chamberlain's explanation, it is thus possible to find a natural explanation for the resurrection of Lazarus.
Healings and resurrections
Numerous healings and some
resurrections of the dead are mentioned in the New Testament. So many that it
would lead too far to get into all of those one by one. I mention in passing (in
parentheses where the miracle is mentioned), Peter's mother-in-law (Matt.
8.14-17. Luke and Mark also mention this healing). Jairus' daughter resurrected
(in all synoptics, eg Matt. 9.18-26). The healing of a paralyzed man (Mark
2.3-12 and also Matthew and Luke), the resurrection of a widow's son (only Luke
7.11-15), the healing of two blind men (only Matt. 9.27-31), the healing of a
blind man in Jerusalem (only John 9.1-11), the healing of a crippled (bent)
woman (Luke 13.10-17) and many others.
The healing of a blind man
"They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, 'Do you see anything?' He looked up and said, 'I see people; they look like trees walking around.' Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, 'Don’t even go into the village.' " (Mark. 8.22-26)
In this case it is important to understand that many at that time were very superstitious, and believed in curses. The curse that could be relevant here is known as "the evil eye". This curse, where the "curser" looked at the person to be cursed with his evil eye, could be used to give other people various diseases eg make them deaf or blind, and there are several known cases where it actually worked, which can only be explained by the fact that the people in question were so convinced that it would work, that, almost through self-suggestion, they actually developed the physical symptoms they had been threatened with (known as psychosomatic illness). Chamberlain that this is what has happened here (Chamberlain p. 143). Although Jesus himself may not have believed in the "evil eye" or other curses, he may well have known that the "patient" did. By spitting on the man's eyes, laying his hands on them and at the same time explaining to him that this would heal him, he may have lifted the self-suggestion. It did not work well enough at first, so Jesus repeated the process, after which the man could see again. The method Jesus used here, using spit and the touching of hands was apparently a recognized healing method against various curses that gave bodily defects in Palestine at that time.
The healing of a leper
"While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, 'Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.' Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. 'I am willing,' he said. 'Be clean!' And immediately the leprosy left him. Then Jesus ordered him, 'Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.'" (Luke 5.12-14)
Chamberlain bases his explanation on the fact that the disease, which in modern translations of the Gospels is called leprosy, is not the same disease as we know by this name today. Today, the term leprosy refers to a disease also known as "Hansen's Disease" after the Norwegian doctor who first discovered the bacterium that caused the disease. However, the symptoms described in the Gospels do not resemble the symptoms actually associated with "Hansen's Disease" and therefore neither with the modern use of the word leper. In the Bible, the disease infects both buildings and clothing, and "Hansen's Disease" is not able to do that. The symptoms are described in The Bible as "scaly and flaked skin", which is not a symptom of any of the forms of leprosy that we know today. One gives "lumps in the skin", and in the other form the patients have smooth skin. Chamberlain cites the Anchor Bible Dictionary for seven reasons why the leprosy of the Bible cannot be due to Hansen's Disease (Chamberlain page 114). Chamberlain argues (with several other scholars as sources) that the "leprosy" of the Bible was rather a form of psoriasis, although it cannot be determined with certainty. This disease meant in ancient Palestine that the sick person was ritually declared "unclean", so when Jesus "touched the man" and declared him "clean", he may have anointed him with an ointment and then declared him "ritually cleansed", which he is then asked to have confirmed by a priest, as it was priests who were usually in charge of the cleansing of the "lepers". So nothing miraculous in this or other curing of lepers - apart from Jesus having a very good knowledge of the diseases of the time.
Healing of paralyzed people
Turning water into wine
I will end this article with the first miracle that Jesus performed, at least the first described in John. None of the other evangelists know anything about this miracle (or at least the don't mention it). This miracle was performed in connection with the so-called 'Wedding in Cana', which I have already mentioned in the article "Was Jesus Married?" In this article I argue that it may have been Jesus' own wedding, which many disagree with, but there are now also a number of scholars who agree with me. One of those, who does not, is Robert Chamberlain, but his explanation of the miracle applies regardless of whose wedding it was. John has:
"On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, 'They have no more wine.' 'Woman, why do you involve me?' Jesus replied. 'My hour has not yet come.' His mother said to the servants, 'Do whatever he tells you.' Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, 'Fill the jars with water'; so they filled them 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 been turned into 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.'" (John 2.1-10)
The Wedding Feast at Cana by Paolo Veronese, 1563, Musée du Louvre, Paris
The jars in question were stone jars, and I return to their normal use below. But let me first look at how much volume they could hold. In Danish, the amount of each vessel is translated into "two to three buckets", but how big is a bucket? Modern buckets are about 10-15 liters, and it is quite a large amount when there are two to three of them in each jar. The original Greek word used here is "metrétés, and in the English King James' Bible it is translated to "firkin ", and a firkin is an ancient unit of measurement equivalent to 9 imperial gallons or about 41 liters. The Biblica Online version of The Gospel Acording to John has 20-30 gallons (75 - 115 liters). Each jar has thus been able to hold between 75 and 120 liters of water and with six of them, it was a considerable amount of water that was turned into wine, since it appears that they were completely filled up (filled up to the brim, according to John 2.7). it must have been some party, as the guests had already drunk every drop of wine that was in the house! And normally a large quantity of wine was made ready for a wedding party that might last for days. According to the different translations of the Gospels, it is said that these were water jars that were used for ceremonial washing for purification puposes, but it is not clear what forms of purification, and it is not likely that there were bathing of the whole body - or purifying with water at all. The episode takes place some time before Easter, and the Jewish holiday that came just before Easter was Purim, and during this holiday a kind of purification actually took place, albeit not with water. I will not go into the Purim celebration in detail, but it celebrates that Esther, who during the reign of King Xerxes, saved the Jews from the Persian vizier, Haman, who would kill them all. In addition to reciting the Book of Esther, dressing up (almost like for a carnival), singing and burning Haman figures, the ceremony was celebrated with what can best be characterized as very serious drinking! According to a statement in the Talmud, "You should drink so much that you can no longer distinguish between the accursed Haman and the blessed Mordecai", or more down to earth "until you could no longer tell the difference between good and evil", and it required a lot of alcohol, which in Jesus' time consisted mainly of wine; wine in large quantities.
Chamberlain therefore assumes
that the jars in question had contained wine, not water, during Purim and that
there was still some wine left in the jars when they were filled with water, and
not least that there were remnants of wine on the edge of the jars. He then
tells an anecdote about an old bartender trick (which I unfortunately, or maybe
fortunately, can not confirm). The trick is that when a customer is sufficiently
drunk and asks for more alcohol, the bartender serves a glass of water where the
edge of the glass is rubbed with wine. The drunken customer tastes the wine on
the edge and assumes that there is wine in the glass. Since the guests at the
wedding were probably already at least slightly intoxicated, if not more, the
same "trick" may have been used here. But what about the master of the banquet,
who was hardly drunk. Here one of two explanations works. First the scientific
one. When water was poured into the container, the wine will initially rise to
the top before mixing with the water and sinking again, and if the wine sample
for the the master of the banquet was taken from the top of the barrels, which
is most likely, it will be almost pure wine he was offered - and if this wine
was actually left overs from the Purim celebration it would probably have been
very good wine. The other, and not so scientific explanation, is that he was
involved in the plot. As he must have known that here was no more wine, it would
be in his own best interest to play along when someone, especially if Jesus was
the host of the party and therefore his boss as suggested in the above mentioned
article, and tried to cheat everyone to believe that what was actually just
water with a few drops of wine, was actually very good wine. And most likely
Jesus was not trying to make this look like a miracle on purpose - he just
wanted the drunk guest to believe that there was more wine.
And most of the alledged miracles that Jesus performens could be explained without any supernatural involvement as well.