“There are two ways to approach the historicity of Jesus’ miracles: a general way and a specific way. The specific assessment, which includes looking at each miracle in light of the criteria for historicity (clues that indicate an event or saying is historically reliable), is far too detailed for this booklet (xii). So we will discuss the general way.
It’s helpful to note first that the Gospel writers record things about Jesus’ miraculous deeds that are not beneficial for persuading people to believe. For example, Mark records the accusation that Jesus performs his exorcisms by the power of the devil: “He is possessed by Be-elzebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons” (Mark 3:22). It’s more probable than not the scribes made this accusation because it doesn’t make sense for Mark (or the other evangelists) to make something up that could undermine the reputation of Jesus.
Now, if that’s evidence that the accusation is historical (remember the “embarrassment criterion”), then it’s reasonable to conclude that Jesus’ contemporaries regarded him as a man with remarkable powers who performed remarkable deeds. Why else would they make such a charge? It’s hard to see why Jesus’ toughest critics would acknowledge him as having supernatural power unless there was wide agreement that he was performing exorcisms.
Another point to keep in mind is that the style of Jesus’ miracles was far different from the first-century milieu of wonder-workers, which for historians suggests that the wonders he performed were historical and not part of a local myth tradition. In his book, An Introduction to New Testament Christology, Bible scholar Raymond Brown identifies five unique characteristics of Jesus’ miracles compared with those found in ancient Greek and Jewish stories. We’ll look at two of them here.
One is that Jesus performs miracles by his own authority. If you read the Gospels carefully, Jesus doesn’t say things like, “In name of God, rise and walk” but simply “Rise, take up your pallet and walk” (Mark 2:9). When he raises Jairus’s daughter from the dead, he says, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”
This is unlike Old Testament prophets such as Elijah and Elisha, who call on the power of God in order to raise the dead (see 1 Kings 17:17-22; 2 Kings 4:32-35). We find a similar style of miracle working—whether through magical formulas, paraphernalia, or prayers to the gods—among Greek and Roman sources (xiii). Jesus stands apart by working wonders through his own power.
A second characteristic that is unique to Jesus is that he doesn’t perform miracles for the sake of showing off. Where other ancient wonder-workers of that era aimed to astonish and solicit admiration (xiv). Jesus shied away from drawing attention to himself.
For example, when Herod asks Jesus to perform a miracle to show off his power, Jesus refuses to do so (Luke 23:8-12). Jesus was frustrated by the Pharisees’ constant requests for a sign (Mark 8:11-12). Even Satan tries to get Jesus to show off his power but Jesus refuses (Matt. 4:5-7).
Furthermore, when Jesus did perform his miracles, he did so in a way that drew attention away from himself. This is evident in his command that the healed leper remain silent: “See that you say nothing to any one; but go, show yourself to the priest” (Mark 1:44). In many other places in Scripture, Jesus can be seen admonishing others not to publicize his identity or his works.
It’s also reasonable to accept Jesus’ miracles as history because of how restrained the Gospel narratives are in describing them. These accounts are starkly different from the frivolous and exaggerated elements found in the fraudulent Gnostic Gospels that appeared in the early centuries of the Church.
Take for example Mark’s account of the Resurrection. It’s simple and unembellished—he doesn’t even describe Jesus’ rising. You would think that if he were making it up he would have embellished it to make it sell. Why not include extraordinary details like those found in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter—giant angels, a talking cross, a voice from heaven, and Jesus coming out the tomb as a gigantic figure whose head reaches to the clouds?
Or contrast the simplicity of the miracle narratives in the Gospels with that in another Gnostic text, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which depicts the child Jesus making clay sparrows fly and twice cursing other children to death—one for spilling water and one for bumping into Jesus on the street.
It’s amazing to think the Gospel writers did not give in to the temptation to exaggerate Jesus’ miracles, to make them more dramatic and appealing to potential converts. Their restraint, along with Jesus’ unique style and the testimony of his enemies, are all evidence for the historical reliability of the accounts of Jesus’ miracles.”