These spectacular deeds are commonly divided into two categories. The first is healing, including exorcism. The second, often called nature miracles, includes such stories as walking on the sea, stilling a storm, multiplying loaves and fish, and changing water into wine.
Mainstream scholars widely accept that Jesus performed spectacular deeds falling into the first category. More than 80% of the members of the Jesus Seminar, often viewed as a liberal and skeptical group, believe Jesus performed healings and exorcisms. Among other biblical scholars, the percentage would be as high or higher.
But whether or not Jesus performed spectacular deeds in the second category is up for discussion. A majority of mainstream scholars view the stories of the nature miracles as metaphorical narratives rather than as historical reports. I am among them.
Why is there a difference in assessing these two kinds of spectacular deeds? The decision to see the nature miracles as metaphorical narratives involves two factors.
The first is the stories themselves. Do they appear to be reporting an event, or are there signs within the stories that suggest they are to be read symbolically? This is important because often the stories of Jesus' nature miracles make use of rich symbols drawn from the Hebrew Bible.
The second factor is a judgment about the limits of the spectacular. My shift in terms from "miracles" to "the spectacular" is deliberate. The most common modern understanding of miracles, accepted by both those who affirm and deny them, takes into consideration the modern worldview: The universe is a closed system of cause and effect operating under natural laws. Within this framework, miracles are understood as God's intervening supernaturally into an otherwise predictable system of natural cause and effect.
Because I do not accept this way of thinking about the world and God's relation to the world, I avoid the term "miracles."
"The spectacular," on the other hand, simply refers to events that go beyond what we usually think are possible. And so, asking whether there are limits to the spectacular means: Are there events that never happen anywhere? Or is everything possible?
As we think about this question, it is important not to draw the limits of the "spectacular" too narrowly, as scientific minds might. More events are possible, and more events happen, than the modern worldview allows. For example, I think Jesus really did perform paranormal healings and that they cannot be explained simply as faith healings. I am even willing to consider that spectacular phenomena like levitation happen.
As a historian, I am unwilling to say that Jesus could do such things, even though nobody else has ever been able to. To do so would be to elevate Christianity above all other faiths by saying that God has acted in this tradition as God has never acted anywhere else. It would also mean that God acted in the past very differently from how God acts in the present, which violates the principle that God is never-changing.
Thus, I regard the nature miracles as metaphorical narratives, not as history. They are, to use an insight I owe to Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan, parables about Jesus. Jesus told parables about God, and the early Christians told parables about Jesus.
As a historian, however, I do think Jesus was a healer and an exorcist. To illustrate my reasoning, I use two factors. The evidence that Jesus performed healings and cast out what he and his disciples called evil spirits is widespread throughout in earliest Christian writing. There are stories and sayings, and both his followers and opponents accepted that he performed these acts.
The second factor is evidence that paranormal healings happen. The evidence is ancient and modern, anecdotal and statistical. Since I am persuaded that paranormal healings do happen, then there is no reason to deny them to Jesus.
Many modern people understand Jesus' healings as merely faith healings. It is true that some physical conditions are caused by mental states, and sometimes a physical cure can be brought about by addressing the mental state. Moreover, faith or confidence in the power of the healer can bring about a cure.
But not all paranormal healings can be accounted for in this way. In some cases, in the gospels and the modern world, the faith of the healed person doesn't seems to be involved. We don't know how to account for them. In my judgment, seeing the explanation as either "supernatural intervention" or as "psychosomatic cure" is too much of a claim for us to make because we don’t understand the process involved in paranormal healing.
We also don't know the limits of paranormal healing, though I think there are some. I am confident, for example, that missing limbs are never replaced. But there is an impressive range of serious conditions that have been healed by paranormal means.
Hence, my conclusion: Jesus was a healer and an exorcist. Indeed, more healing stories are told about him than about any other figure in the Jewish tradition. In all likelihood, he was the most remarkable healer in human history.
Used with permission of The Search for Jesus e-course.