Is there historical evidence of Jesus' miracles?

by Luke Wayne
8/17/16

The Gospels describe Jesus' ministry including miraculous healings and other wonders like walking on water, multiplying bread, and commanding storms to cease all at once. Such extraordinary acts are just one part of the larger testimony in scripture that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah and the Son of God. Critics will claim that there are insufficient historical grounds to believe such spectacular accounts, but the reality is that all the historical evidence points to the fact that Jesus really did perform miracles. Obviously, there are no videos or photographs of Jesus bringing about these signs and wonders. It is also true that giving blind men sight or turning water into wine are not the kind of events that leave behind archaeological remains for us to unearth. If we relied only on these kinds of evidence, however, we would know very little about anyone in ancient history. What we do find is exactly what we would expect to find if Jesus really was a miracle worker: a unanimous ancient testimony on the matter not only from those who revered Jesus but also from those who scorned Him.

The Testimony of the Gospels

If we are going to talk about the miracles of Jesus, the first and most important place for us to look is the four New Testament Gospels. These detailed accounts of Jesus' earthly ministry were written during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. They represent the gathering of that first-hand testimony which was so central to the early Christian community.1 It is uncontroversial to say that these are the earliest surviving accounts of Jesus' life, and equally uncontroversial to say that they present Jesus as working many miracles. Any examination of Jesus life has to start here, which means it must start with very early accounts that plainly report Jesus as performing extraordinary, supernatural deeds.

While critics of the New Testament have spent two millennia attempting to discredit the Gospels by accusing them of numerous discrepancies and hopeless contradictions, any objective reader of these four works will be struck by their remarkable consistency. Yes, there are difficulties when comparing the texts, but most of the alleged conflicts between them are easily explained as natural differences between different people telling the same story from different perspectives, with different emphases, or limited to different portions of the total information. Certainly, there are a few examples where the details in each version are more challenging to reconcile, but none of these cases represent an inherent logical contradiction nor do any of them undermine the weight of their overall agreement on the events of Jesus' life and His wise and miraculous ministry. Even the most skeptical scholar who is seeking to reconstruct the life of the historical Jesus turns to the Gospels as sources of reliable information. We need not, however, share their skepticism and reduce the Gospels to mere minimalistic sources of a few raw facts. The Gospels really are reliable sources of truth on the life and purpose of Jesus and are completely worthy of the Christian's faith in them as the true and inerrant Word of God. They are also our earliest surviving sources of Jesus' life and work, were written in the lifetime of the eyewitnesses of Jesus, and are based on that eyewitness testimony.

Not only do the Gospels all report Jesus performing many miracles, but they also agree on the sorts of miracles Jesus performed. In a few cases, they all even describe precisely the same miracle, such as the feeding of the 5,000 (Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:33-44, Luke 9:12-17, John 6:1-14). They all agree that He cured illnesses, gave sight to the blind, and even restored life to some individuals who had recently died. It doesn't do any good to object that these are incredible things that don't usually happen. Of course they are! That's what makes them miraculous signs! To ask for evidence of a miracle and then rule out all positive testimony because the testimony reports miracles is not scientific or rational. It is prejudicial bias based on a dogma against miracles. The fact is that our earliest and clearest accounts of Jesus' life and ministry offer us a consistent testimony that Jesus performed these kinds of miracles. That is evidence.

The Testimony of Acts and the Epistles

There are other biblical references beyond just the Gospels that affirm Jesus' miraculous works. In Acts 2:22, we have an early sermon by Peter recorded in which he says:

"Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know."

One might object that this sermon is reported in Acts, which is written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke and so doesn't really count as an additional source. This, however, ignores the fact that Luke is utilizing previous sources. Even Bart Ehrman, one of the leading scholarly critics of Christianity today, defends the idea that:

"Some of the speeches in Acts contain what scholars call preliterary tradition: oral traditions that had been in circulation from much earlier times that are found, now, only in their written form in Acts."2

Ehrman goes on to explain:

"These traditions are quite emphatic that Jesus was a Jewish man who lived, did spectacular deeds, taught, and was executed"3

So even from the perspective of critical scholarship, the book of Acts does preserve additional very early testimony that Jesus was a miracle worker. Ehrman himself, of course, does not affirm Jesus' miracles as historical. He is open, however, about the fact that his reason for not doing so is that they are miracles and are, therefore, (he contends) by definition improbable, if not impossible.4 His presupposition against the acceptance of miracles by historians is what drives him rather than any actual evidence against the miracles. The point here, again, is that the earliest traditions themselves all attest that Jesus worked miracles.

Another example of this is in the Book of Hebrews, which likewise reports to us that:

"After it was at the first spoken through the Lord [Jesus], it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will," (Hebrews 2:4).

We also have the report of Jesus' miraculous transfiguration on the mount in 2 Peter 1:16-18:

"For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, 'This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased' - and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain,"

And this is, of course, leaving aside all of the testimony about Jesus' greatest miracle, His resurrection. While the early church was not writing letters back and forth to one another needlessly regurgitating references to Jesus' miracles, it is evident from the testimony that we have that they believed Jesus had done these great works and that they believed it based on the first-hand accounts of those who had seen these miracles themselves. The New Testament books, therefore, present us with a strong body of early testimony from multiple sources that unanimously agree that Jesus did perform these miracles.

Other Early Christian Testimony

We should very briefly note that there are also many other early Christian sources that mention Jesus' miracles. One could, of course, argue that they were merely repeating what they read in the Gospels and so they do not count as additional testimony, and in many cases that is likely true. Others, however, plainly preserve what at least professes to be further eyewitness testimony. Take, for example, the testimony of Irenaeus:

“I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse— his going out, too, and his coming in—his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord; and how he would call their words to remembrance. Whatsoever things he had heard from them respecting the Lord, both with regard to His miracles and His teaching, Polycarp having thus received from the eye-witnesses of the Word of life, would recount them all in harmony with the Scriptures.”5

We also have an excerpt from a letter of Quadratus, a leader in the church at Athens in the very early 2nd century. He writes:

"Our Saviour’s works, moreover, were always present: for they were real, consisting of those who had been healed of their diseases, those who had been raised from the dead; who were not only seen whilst they were being healed and raised up, but were afterwards constantly present.  Nor did they remain only during the sojourn of the Saviour on earth, but also a considerable time after His departure; and, indeed, some of them have survived even down to our own times."6

Such documents indicate the enduring presence among the Christian community of eyewitnesses who claimed not only to have witnessed but even personally experienced Jesus' miraculous power. The Gospels tell of many young children whom Jesus healed or raised from the dead. It is not unthinkable that some such children whom Jesus had healed around 30-33 AD might have indeed lived on into the early second century. At any rate, while such testimony does not constitute absolute proof and need not be believed, it is an additional line of evidence. The words of men like Justin Martyr are also worthy of notice:

"And that it was predicted that our Christ should heal all diseases and raise the dead, hear what was said. There are these words: ‘At His coming the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the stammerer shall be clear speaking: the blind shall see, and the lepers shall be cleansed; and the dead shall rise, and walk about.’ And that He did those things, you can learn from the Acts of Pontius Pilate.” (Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 48).

What is particularly interesting here is Justin's claim that testimony to Jesus' miracles was actually a matter of public record. He urges his readers to look up Pontius Pilate's own documents on the matter. It is possible, of course, that Justin was bluffing, hoping his readers would not actually look up the documents, but this seems an unlikely ploy. It is also quite possible that Justin was mistaken or misinformed on the matter. Since the actual records from Pontius Pilate's time as Governor of Judea have not survived to today, we cannot ourselves take Justin up on his challenge, but his statement supplies at least circumstantial evidence that there were actually legal records of Jesus' miracles. Taken together with the whole, it is another piece of evidence worth noting.

The Testimony of Josephus

There is a controversial passage in the writings of the 1st-century Jewish Historian Josephus which also deserves consideration. In surviving manuscripts of Josephus' works, the passage reads:

"Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works - a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those who loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of the Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day," (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3, Section 3)7

It is not hard to see why this reference is controversial. Josephus was a non-Christian Jewish historian who identified with the Pharisees, and so there are things in this passage that it's hard to imagine him writing. Some critics suggest that the whole section was added entirely by Christians centuries later, but this is unlikely. The majority of scholars who specialize in Josephus believe that the passage has been expanded and interpolated by later Christian scribes, but that portions of the passage are indeed original. They argue that the evidence points to the original reading something like:

"At this time, there appeared Jesus, a wise man. He was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. When Pilate, because of an accusation by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after Him, has not died out."8

Of particular interest to our purposes here is that the reference to Jesus' miraculous works is considered original by most scholars. Josephus' reporting of this detail is significant because, as Dr. Edwin Yamauchi points out:

"His accounts of the Jewish War have proved very accurate; for example, they have been corroborated through archeological excavations at Masada as well as by historians like Tacitus. He's considered a pretty reliable historian."9

While there are enough questions about this passage to justify certain reservations about basing anything conclusively on it alone, it appears to provide us with a very early, educated, and intelligent outsider who accepted as historical fact the testimony of those who claimed Jesus had performed public miracles. This is not proof positive, but it is certainly evidence.

The Testimony of the Critics

The Gospels tell us that there were Jewish leaders who not only opposed Jesus' ministry but also denounced His miracles as the work of satanic powers rather than the power of God, (Matthew 9:34, Mark 3:22, Luke 11:15).

What is interesting is that this appears to have been a consistent approach by opponents of Jesus and of Christianity. There are Rabbinic traditions in the Talmud, for example, that record that Jesus was a sorcerer using evil, magic arts he learned in Egypt.10 As one scholar explains:

"The Jewish traditional literature, although it mentions Jesus quite sparingly (and must in any case be used with caution), supports the gospel claim that he was a healer and miracle worker, even though it ascribes these activities to sorcery."11

While the Talmud was not collected and written down until several centuries after the time of Christ, it contains traditions that are much older than the time of its collection. As the quote above warns, one must be careful when using passages in the Talmud to make a point about earlier history. It can be hard to be sure just how far back such a tradition really goes. The fact, however, that these Talmudic traditions agree so strongly with the kind of arguments the New Testament itself says that the Jewish leaders were offering against Jesus' miracles is rather striking. It seems to be an indication that there was an ongoing tradition of early Jewish opponents of Jesus dismissing the importance of His miracles, not on the grounds that they did not happen, but rather on the grounds that they were a sign of evil power rather than good.

It should also be noted that Jewish leaders were perfectly willing to simply deny stories from the gospels altogether. They did so with things like the virgin birth. They perpetuated a story that Mary was not a virgin at all, but rather had been seduced by a Roman soldier12 (a scandalous claim that not only made Jesus out to be an illegitimate son but also half Gentile). It is worthwhile to note, then, that the Jews never took this approach with Jesus' miracles. While challenging other elements of Jesus' life, they never denied that He had publically performed miracles. The best they could do was try to turn His miracles into an indictment.

And the Jews were not the only ones. A pagan philosopher and opponent of Christianity named Celsus also conceded that Jesus worked miracles, but argued that these miracles were just as likely to be signs of evil sorcery or even of the work of the devil himself.13 The early opponents of the Christian faith are thus as clear as the Christians themselves that Jesus did, in fact, perform miraculous signs.

The Testimony of the Heretics

Orthodox Christians were not the only ones to venerate Jesus in the earliest centuries after His life and ministry. There were a variety of religious sects that soon attempted to co-opt Jesus. Groups ranging from the Jewish Ebionites (who believed that Jesus was a mere human prophet with no divine nature at all) to the Gnostics (who denounced the Old Testament God as the evil creator of physical reality and believed Jesus to be a wholly spiritual and divine being who did not have a human nature at all). It is worth briefly noting that none of these groups denied that Jesus had performed miracles. Consider this for a moment. John the Baptist was also honored as a prophet and teacher by a variety of religious sects of the day, and yet few people attributed any miracles to him. A majority of the most highly revered Rabbis in Judaism never had any miracles attributed to them. The Greeks widely revered Plato, Socrates, and many other sages with truly religious devotion and yet did not attribute miracles to them. If Jesus had merely been merely a profound teacher who worked no miracles, it would seem likely that there would be at least some individuals or sects that honored him as such and denied his miracles. Yet, though we have records of even some seemingly small and rather obscure heresies in the first few centuries of the church, there does not appear to have been any group anywhere that believed that Jesus was a teacher who worked no miracles.

Conclusion

We have noted that the various books of the New Testament represent our earliest testimony about Jesus and that these authors are consistent in their description of Jesus performing many miracles. Not only this, they are in agreement about what sort of miracles Jesus performed and even corroborate some of the same specific miracles. We also noted that the first-century historian Josephus affirms that Jesus did spectacular works. We observed that the critics of the Christian faith denied things like the virgin birth, but never denied Jesus' miracles. Instead, they agreed that Jesus did do miracles, but accused Him of sorcery or satanic power. Other rival religious sects alongside Christianity also affirmed without exception that Jesus did perform miracles. Indeed, there is no ancient testimony about Jesus anywhere that denies His miracles. So what does this all mean?

There are certainly many frauds today and throughout history that claimed miraculous power but did not actually perform miracles. Many people believed such men, and others accused them of evil magic, but they also had many critics who called them out for what they were: liars and frauds. There were also many religious leaders who, over time, began to have miracles attributed to them by those who revered their memory, but the earliest testimony does not profess these accounts. When it comes to Jesus, however, the unanimous testimony of His followers, His critics, and of others is that He performed great miracles. These accounts are not late developments, but rather go right back to the eyewitnesses. This, of course, does not prove with 100% logical certainty that Jesus did perform those miracles. Jesus' miracles could, I suppose, be the greatest con job in history, or perhaps the greatest collective human blunder in observation ever. But while this doesn't constitute absolute proof, it is evidence. It is precisely the type of evidence one would expect if the Gospel accounts of Jesus' miracles were true. It is certainly more than sufficient evidence at least to say that it is entirely rational to believe that Jesus really did do these extraordinary and miraculous things. Those who would discount this evidence are likely doing so because their worldview will not let them accept the possibility of miracles rather than because there is any actual evidence against them. So yes, there certainly is historical evidence that Jesus performed miracles.

  • 1. For a thorough study on this matter, see Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2008). While Bauckham incorrectly veiws some of the gospel accounts as containing minor historical errors and therefore must be read with discernment, his research contains valuable information demonstrating the ongoing presence and influence of the eyewitnesses of Jesus' life in the first-century Christian community.
  • 2. Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? (Harper One, 2012) 109
  • 3. ibid, 110
  • 4. ibid, 314
  • 5. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1, Pg. 568
  • 6. The Apology of Quadratus, Bishop of Athens, as preserved in Eusebius "History of the Church" Book 4, Chapter 3
  • 7. William Whiston, The Works of Josephus (Hendrickson, 1987) 480
  • 8. Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? (Harper One, 2012) 61
  • 9. Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Zondervan, 1998) 86
  • 10. Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? (Harper One, 2012) 67
  • 11. M. Wilcox, Jesus in light of His Jewish environment (Aufstieg und Niedergang der romischen Welt 2, no 25.1, 1982) 133, as cited in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Zondervan, 1998) 91
  • 12. Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? (Harper One, 2012) 67
  • 13. Celsus' words on the matter are preserved for us in block quotes in Origen's "Against Celsus," Book II, Chapter 49