Was Jesus really who he said he was? Were his miracles real?
Theologian Matthew O’Neil has written a new book that explores and dissects the divinity of Jesus. It’s called You Say That I Am: Jesus and the Messianic Problem (Dangerous Little Books, 2014):
In the excerpt below, O’Neil talks about the story of Jesus walking on water (Footnotes are omitted):
The story in Mark 6:45-52, Matthew 14:22-33, and John 6:16-21, shows the disciples in a boat in the middle of the sea of Galilee while Jesus remains behind to pray. While the disciples are at sea, an “adverse wind” takes over and the disciples struggle to keep the boat stable. Suddenly, the disciples see Jesus walking on the water towards them. In Matthew’s account, Peter gets out of the boat, starts to walk towards him, but becomes fearful and falls into the water. Otherwise, Jesus tells the disciples not to be afraid, and they became reassured and the storm was calmed.
So how can we explain this story? Is there a natural explanation? For example, Albert Schweitzer and others have argued that the storm inhibited the vision of the disciples and they were actually closer to the shore. But then, how did the storm suddenly calm once Jesus boarded the boat? Perhaps Jesus was actually walking on large rocks, just below the water. Or, perhaps, there is a supernatural element to the history of Jesus, and this is just a retelling of a strange, but amazing story of the miraculous ministry of Jesus.
Actually, it is neither a natural, or supernatural, story. It is, as German theologian David Friedrich Strauss wrote in his two-volume book The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet), myth. Not “myth” as in complete fiction, but, similar to the story of Jesus’ resurrection, parable with the intent of conveying a deeper meaning, or lesson. It is a history-like story trying to convey some truth. It is, in other words, allegorical.
In ancient cultures and religions, and very much so in Christianity, it was common to liken tough times to stormy seas that were life-threatening This can be seen in instances of the Dioscuri, who delivered shipmen from stormy seas, as seen in the Homeric Hymns. Or even with Archilochus or Alcaeus comparing the troubles of tyranny to stormy seas. The purpose was to show that one, and only one, could rise above the trials and tribulations of life. That person was Jesus of Nazareth, and if others would follow him, they, too, would rise above all the issues that faced the people of that time.
It is easy to explain away that ability of Jesus to perform the miracles attributed to him, because he is the Messiah; God’s son, the Son of Man, the Christ. However, what a fascinating story the gospel accounts become looking at them from the perspective of the writers and from understanding early literary forms and how they were used in the texts of the New Testament. By understanding how such devices were used, we can peel away all those layers of theology and myth, to discover more about the historical Jesus.
Instead of a person who performed supernatural deeds, we see a person who broke down societal norms and attempted to end the honor-shame balance. However, we also become aware of the prevalence of supposed supernatural powers during antiquity and how common it was to have people in stories, such as Jesus, perform miracles. With that idea in mind, Jesus becomes just another figure that became a hero through story-telling; the real person having been obscured by all the mythology and legend that grew in prominence as his story was told and re-told. Jesus performed miracles in similar (although often better) manner to the miracles from older stories in Hebrew scripture, such as those performed by Elijah and Elisha. What is important, is to understand that it was not, at that time, unusual for the performance of miracles to be included in such stories.
A Messiah, a miracle worker, Jesus was not. But he was, most certainly, a powerful figure who brought great hope to many and inspired some incredible stories, through the telling and re-telling of which, mythology and legend was created that ensured the survival of his legacy for two-thousand years (so far).
You Say That I Am: Jesus and the Messianic Problem is now available online.