The most difficult thing for people to accept about Jesus is his divinity. Specifically, those stories in the Gospels that show that the carpenter from Nazareth was something more than human.
Jesus performed astonishing deeds, which the Gospel writers called either “works of power” or “signs.” Today we call them miracles—healing the sick, calming storms, raising people from the dead. Time and again the Gospels report that Jesus’s followers, no matter how long they have been with him, are “amazed” and “astonished” by what he does. “We have never seen anything like this!” says the crowd after Jesus heals a paralyzed man in Mark’s Gospel. After Jesus stills a storm on the Sea of Galilee, Matthew writes, “They were amazed, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?’” Even his detractors took note of his miracles, as when they castigate him for healing a man on the Sabbath. The miracles are an essential part of the story of Jesus as are the other signs of his divinity. So is the Resurrection.
But for a rational, modern mind, talk of the supernatural can be disturbing—an embarrassment. Many contemporary men and women admire Jesus, but stop short of believing him to be divine. Despite the proportion of the Gospels that focus on his “works of power,” many want to confine his identity to that of a wise teacher. Thomas Jefferson went so far as to create his own Gospel, by focusing on Jesus’s ethical teachings and (literally) scissoring out the miracles and other indications of his divinity. Jefferson preferred his own version of Jesus, not the one he found in the Gospels.
Like many of us, Jefferson felt uncomfortable with certain parts of the man’s life. He wanted a Jesus who didn’t threaten or discomfort, a Jesus he could tame.
Let’s look at one miracle that tends to threaten and discomfort the modern mind: the “Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes.” The term itself is a shorthand for two miracles: the feeding of 5,000 people, and the later feeding of 4,000, which Jesus accomplishes by multiplying a few loaves of bread some fish. That first story is the only miracle (apart from the Resurrection) recorded in all four of the Gospels.
Even though all four Gospel writers found this event worthy of extended description, the miracle of how Jesus fed an enormous crowd with loaves of bread and some fish is sometimes watered down.
Over the years I have heard homilies explaining away the story as follows: When the crowds gathered on the hillside, the disciples told Jesus that there wasn’t enough food to go around. So Jesus asked them to distribute what they had. Jesus blessed the few loaves and fishes and gave it to his disciples, who distributed it to the crowds. Touched by the disciples’ generosity, or moved by Jesus’s sharing what little he had, the crowd brought out the food they had been secretly carrying all along, and shared it with one another. At the end of the meal, because so many had shared with one another, there were twelve baskets left over. So, in fact, it was a miracle of sharing.
As some preachers will say, “And isn’t that just as miraculous as if Jesus had multiplied the loaves and fishes?”
To which I answer: No.
This easy-to-digest interpretation reflects the unfortunate modern desire to explain away the inexplicable. Some scholars refer to that particular explanation, which began circulating in the 19th century, as the “nice thought” interpretation, which has found its way into mainstream Christian spirituality and preaching. But this is one way not to interpret the passage. The “nice thought” interpretation reflects a tendency to downplay miracles in the midst of a story that is filled with the miraculous. Indeed, almost one third of Mark’s Gospel is devoted to Jesus’s miracles.
Other examples of this rationalizing tendency, which I often hear, are as follows: The Resurrection wasn’t about a truly resurrected Jesus; rather, the disciples gathered together after the events of Good Friday and had a powerful “shared memory” of Jesus, and thus experienced him as present in a new way. (How a shared memory accounts for the disciples moving from abject terror on Good Friday to a readiness to give their lives for Jesus on Easter Sunday goes unexplained.) Likewise, Lazarus wasn’t dead when Jesus raised him (though the Gospels make it clear he had been in the tomb four days); he was just sick. And, according to these interpretations, the people Jesus healed were suffering from purely psychosomatic illnesses. Thus Jesus’s compassionate presence cured them of whatever psychological problems have led to their illness. (This may be true for a few cases, since the evangelists’ descriptions of the precise illness are at times vague, but I cannot believe, for example, that a withered hand or leprosy was psychosomatic.)
To my mind, most of the interpretations that seek to water down the miracle stories reflect an unease with God’s power, discomfort with Jesus’s divinity, with the miraculous and, more basically, reflect an inability to believe in God’s ability to do anything.
The idea that sharing food would have so flabbergasted Jesus’s followers that all four evangelists would make room for it in their Gospels, with two going so far as to record two variations (the feeding of 4,000 and 5,000) is hard to fathom. Only one other miracle narrative appears in all four Gospels: the Resurrection. That provides a gauge for how dramatic, memorable and important the multiplication was for the disciples and the early church. Certainly sharing was a significant part of the life of Jesus and his followers, and it was a characteristic virtue of the early church. But the theory that the food was not the result of a miracle but of sharing fails to explain the prominence of the story in the Gospels. Nor does that interpretation jibe with the disciples’ complaints to Jesus about the lack of food. If people had brought food and were hungry they would presumably take it out—and eat it.
These types of explanations, which seek to make things credible for modern audiences, reflect a desire to explain away all that we cannot understand. The New Testament scholar Gerhard Lohfink says that this can be summarized is as follows: “What does not happen now did not happen then either. If no one today can walk on a lake, Jesus did not walk on water.” Such an attitude also assumes that historical events can and should be interpreted only through the realm of earthly cause and effect, with no supernatural explanation, and that there are no unique historical figures.
When we take this approach we are in danger of reducing Jesus to the status of everyone else, when in fact he was, as Lohfink says, “irritatingly unique.”
Which is to say, difficult as it may be to believe, divine.
This essay, an OnFaith exclusive, is excerpted from Jesus: A Pilgrimage by James Martin, SJ.