Saturday, October 2, 2010

Miracles in the New Testament:Literal, allegorical, or neither?

I have found that concerning biblical exegesis that there are several types of believers. Those that take the bible literally (e.g. God created  everything in seven days) and those that interpret the scriptures in an allegorical manner.For instance; the seven creative days maybe seven "periods of time." However there are certain tenants that most believers take in a literal fashion. Some of these are:
  1. The Resurrection of Jesus
  2. The Ascension of Jesus
  3. The immaculate conception
There are many more, but the point is made already.I will open up with a quote from the great 'freethinker' Annie Besant (1847-1943)."The most remarkable thing in the evidences afforded by profane history is their extreme paucity; the very existence of Jesus cannot be proved from contemporary documents. A child whose birth is heralded by a star which guides foreign sages to Judea; a massacre of all the infants of a town within the Roman Empire by command of a subject king; a teacher who heals the leper, the blind, the deaf, the dumb, the lame, and who raises the moldering corpse; a King of the Jews entering Jerusalem in triumphal procession, without opposition from the Roman legions of Caesar; an accused ringleader of sedition arrested by his own countrymen, and handed over to the imperial governor; a rebel adjudged to death by Roman law; a three hours' darkness over all the land; an earthquake breaking open graves and rending the temple veil; a number of ghosts wandering about Jerusalem; a crucified corpse rising again to life, and appearing to a crowd of above 500 people; a man risen from the dead ascending bodily into heaven without any concealment, and in the broad daylight, from a mountain near Jerusalem; all these marvelous events took place, we are told, and yet they have left no ripple on the current of contemporary history (Besant,1893;p.194)." When I first read this years ago, I was intrigued by the boldness of the statement. She had articulated the very ideas that I had jumbled around in my head for years.As a youth I was told about Christ and encouraged to "believe" the bible, but not "think" about it. The point of her argument is that with all of these miraculous things; there is not one mention of any of it by the historians of the day. "The lame walked, the blind saw, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, demons were expelled, and the laws of nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the Church. But the sages of Greece and Rome turned aside from the awful spectacle, and, pursuing the ordinary occupations of life and study, appeared unconscious of any alterations in the moral or physical government of the world. Under the reign of Tiberius the whole earth, or at least a celebrated province of the Roman Empire, was involved in a preternatural darkness of three hours. Even this miraculous event, which ought to have excited the wonder, the curiosity, and the devotion of mankind, passed without notice in an age of science and history. It happened during the lifetime of Seneca and the elder Pliny, who must have experienced the immediate effects, or received the earliest intelligence, of the prodigy. Each of these philosophers, in a laborious work, has recorded all the great phenomena of nature—earthquakes, meteors, comets, and eclipses, which his indefatigable curiosity could collect. Both the one and the other have omitted to mention the greatest phenomenon to which the mortal eye has been witness since the creation of the globe.(Besant,1893;p.195)."I see this as a major problem for those that believe these things actually happened. The lack of historical collaboration from contemporary Greek, Jewish, and Roman historians is just telling. Here is a list of historians that were living during the time of Jesus or within a hundred years:
Apollonius             Persius
 Appian                 Petronius
 Arrian                 Phaedrus
 Aulus Gellius          Philo-Judaeus
 Columella              Phlegon
 Damis                  Pliny the Elder
 Dio Chrysostom         Pliny the Younger
 Dion Pruseus           Plutarch
 Epictetus              Pompon Mela
 Favorinus              Ptolemy
 Florus Lucius          Quintilian
 Hermogones             Quintius Curtius
 Josephus               Seneca
 Justus of Tiberius     Silius Italicus
 Juvenal                Statius
 Lucanus                Suetonius
 Lucian                 Tacitus
 Lysias                 Theon of Smyran
 Martial                Valerius Flaccus
 Paterculus             Valerius Maximus
None of these writers mentions any of the "miracles" ascribed in the new Testament. I believe that none of those things actually took place. Think of the ascension; if a man was seen floating into the heavens one day, don`t you think someone would take the time to write it down ?
I will give my explanation for these "miracles," but I must say the fault is not in the bible. The fault is in those that read and interpret with limited understanding. To better understand the teaching; it is important to understand the culture surrounding the region. This will be important when we discuss the "themes" and influences of various religions on each other. Any cursory study of mythology will demonstrate that we have a tendency to exaggerate. It is an ancient tradition. The word eulogy comes from the Greek; eulogos and means "good words." In ancient times great heroes were "deified" or made into gods, this was how they were eulogized. I give you the example of Hercules; who is regarded as a "mythological" character, but did you know that the ancient northern Africans regarded him as someone who actually lived? The book, "Jugurthine War" by Gaius Sullustius Crispus; also known as "Sallust,"  describes this in some detail:
"Concerning the original inhabitants of Africa, the settlers that afterward joined them, and the manner in which they intermingled, I shall offer the following brief account, which, though it differs from the general opinion, is that which was interpreted to me from the Punic volumes said to have belonged to King Hiempsal[65], and which the inhabitants of that country believe to be consistent with fact. For the truth of the statement, however, the writers themselves must be responsible.
XVIII. Africa, then, was originally occupied by the Getulians and Libyans,[66] rude and uncivilized tribes, who subsisted on the flesh of wild animals, or, like cattle, on the herbage of the soil. They were controlled neither by customs, laws, nor the authority of any ruler; they wandered about, without fixed habitations, and slept in the abodes to which night drove them. But after Hercules, as the Africans think, perished in Spain, his army, which was composed of various nations,[67] having lost its leader, and many candidates severally claiming the command of it, was speedily dispersed (Conspiracy of Cataline and Jugurthine War)." So here we see that the now mythological figure Hercules was at one time regarded, at least by ancient northern Africans as a real living leader. This is why understanding history is very important.In ancient times great men were said to be "half man, and half god," that is usually  a God as the father and a human as the mother. So in mythology Hercules was the son of Jupiter; which by the way is the Roman equivalent to Zeus-pater of the Greeks, and Deus-pater of India, but that is another topic. The name translates to "father-god" or "God the father." So Hercules was son of Jupiter and his mother was Alcmena, a mortal. Dionysus was born of Zeus and the mortal woman Semele. You can look up any of these myths online at . If you really want to be an "old school" scholar, you can read the "Theogony" by Hesiod, which describes all of the origins of the Greek gods. So without going into much detail one can see a pattern of Gods and mortals being the mix of a "great" man. Now when we see that Jesus was born of God(holy Spirit) and a mortal (Mary), the story no longer sounds original, but like an old story retold. In ancient times great men were deified after death, in modern times  this is hard to understand, and people either take these ancient stories literally or they reject the person altogether as if they did not exist. Lets look a bit further for a final example of this phenomenon. The Roman Emperor Augustus; who was the nephew of Julius Caesar, was born to Atia balba Caesonia(mother) and Gaius Octavius in 63B.C. He died in 14 A.D (In the time of Jesus) at 75 years of age. Now when he died, he was declared a god by the Roman Senate to be worshipped. According to the Roman historian Suetonius Tranquillus, "When Atia(mother) had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colors like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo (Suetonius,chap 94)." So you can see by this example, how a normal man would be made into a "magical" or mythological figure. There are countless other examples, but the point is that we must understand that it was normal to relay fantastic stories about great men after their deaths. In this way they are never forgotten. It was never meant to be taken literally.I believe the New Testament was just as much a product of its time as anything else. Although the evidence is quite spurious and scarce to say the least. It is possible that Jesus existed; but merely as a man and a great teacher. Upon his death; it is quite possible that his followers, then "deified" him in the same manner that other highly esteemed men were in ancient times. My final point lies in a little book written in the 13th century called the "Golden Legend." You can read it for free here: It a compilation of books about all of the lives of the Saints. What makes the book stand out; is that all of the stories are written in this "deified" way.Tons of miracles and amazing stories about all of the saints.Here is a brief example: St.Christopher; "After this Christopher was brought before the king, and the king commanded that he should be beaten with rods of iron, and that there should be set upon his head a cross of iron red hot and burning, and then after, he did  make a siege or a stool of iron, and made Christopher to be bounden thereon, and after, to set fire under it, and cast therein pitch. But the siege or settle melted like wax, and Christopher issued out without any harm or hurt. And when the king saw that, he commanded that he should be bound to a strong stake, and that he should be through-shotten with arrows with forty knights archers. But none of the knights might attain him, for the arrows hung in the air about, nigh him, without touching (Golden Legend, ST.Christopher).   This is obviously  not meant to be taken in a literal fashion; and it was not at the time. It was extremely popular, and published in several editions. Each story is pretty much the same, The saint is introduced, and somewhere in the narrative a major miracle is done, and then we are told how they died.In this new light; try reading the gospels, and also Acts of the apostles, along with the Golden Legend; you will see the similarities.My conclusion is that the dead were never raised, nor was there any miraculous birth, or darkness over the land. I believe that in order to preserve the legacy and as a way of honoring these great leaders; that such narratives were written to encourage and generate faith and hope in the believer.After all; you may forget Reverend "so and so" after he is gone, but if he "healed the sick,raised the dead, walked on water, and ascended into heaven" it would be hard to ever forget him, or not to believe his teachings; and this, I believe was the main purpose of such stories in ancient times.

references:    a free link to the "Golden Legend stories"
Besant, Annie. (1893). The freethinkers handbook pt2 
Gaius Sullustius Crispus, . Catlline conspiracy & jugurthine war
Suetonius Tranquillus, . The lives of the twelve caesars:The life of augustus.  

further reading:
Cassius Dio: Roman History
Appollodorus:The library

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