For many people, the miracle-stories of the Gospels present the chief difficulty in the way of accepting those writings as historically reliable.
Since these miracle-stories are related by authors who can be shown on other grounds to be trustworthy, then they are worthy at least of serious attention by historians.
The Gospels do not ask us to belief in ridiculous miracles; they are precisely the kinds of work that might be expected from such a person as Jesus is represented to be.
There is no evidence even in the earliest Gospel strata of a non-miraculous Jesus.
If we have a prior assumption that miracles do not occur, then of course we will look for alternative explanations. But if we accept the possibility of a supernatural Jesus, then we shall have to allow for at least the possibility of miracles.
Again, if we accept the testimony of the Gospels as to the person of Jesus, then we shall resist the tendency to ‘de-supernaturalise’ the miracle stories and attempt to explain them merely as physiological, psychological or psychosomatic phenomena. And, in any case, miracles such as the raising of Lazarus simply do not permit such reductionist explanations.
All attempts to explain the central miracle – the resurrection – in naturalistic terms have failed. The idea that Jesus did not really die, or that his body was stolen, or that the disciples were mistaken about the location of the tomb, do not fit the evidence so well as the explanation that Jesus rose from the dead.
The resurrection is more than a historical event. It has profound theological meaning and significance. In particular, it vindicates Jesus as the wisdom and power of God. And our view of Jesus and his resurrection will determine our attitude towards the other miracles.
The historian can judge that the miracles of the Gospels probably happened. But this has as its proper outcome a personal response of faith in Christ.
Early non-Christian sources, such as Josephus, do not dispute that Jesus was a noted wonder-worker. Celsus, just like some of Jesus’ contemporaries, attempted to explain the miracles in terms of sorcery, but did not deny that they actually took place.
People tend to be troubled more by the nature-miracles than the healing miracles. But to rationalise, for example, the changing of water into wine (John 2) into a practical jest (the water remaining as water all the time, and everyone knowing it) is ludicrous, and utterly inconsistent with the statement about ‘the first of signs’ manifesting Jesus’ glory.
The Gospel miracles are often referred to as ‘signs’, and this suggests that they were not intended merely to arouse wonder, but to point to God, and the coming of his kingdom.
The same power that was effective in overcoming physical evil was also effective in conquering other forms of evil. The authority by which Jesus said, “Take up your bed and walk” was the same authority by which he declared, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Mk 2:10f. ‘So, then, all the miracles of healing are in a sense parables of the soul’s deliverance from sin, and therefore the prominent place they occupy in the Gospel story is amply justified.’
As with the other miracles, it is pointless to rationalise the feeding miracles (as if one boy’s willingness to share his lunch prompted others to do the same). The provision of food was an anticipation of the Messianic feast, and an indication of the richness that we find in Christ, the bread of life.
The story of the coin in the fish’s mouth (Mt 17:24ff) puzzles many, The real miracle is not, in fact, the finding of a coin in a fish’s mouth or stomach (that has often happened), but our Lord’s prior knowledge of that fact. Again, we must make up our minds about Christ, and then we shall be in a position to make up our minds about his miracles.
Many are worried about the cursing of the barren fig tree (Mk 11:12ff). Jesus’ behaviour seems irrational. But the incident is an acted parable. To Jesus, the fig tree, fair, but barren, spoke of Jerusalem, full of religious observance but devoid of true fruitfulness.
So here is the meaning of the miracle stories for us today. ‘They are recorded as signs of divine power; and even if we could prove their historicity up to the hilt we should still miss the point of their narration if we failed to see in them tokens of the activity of God in history, culminating in the appearance of Christ on earth.’
Based on F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Pages 62-75.