Interpreting Jesus: Natural or Supernatural Being? – April 2008

Question: In the Gospels Jesus was doing many miracles. When he heard about the beheading of John the Baptist, he turned and went another way. It almost seems as if there was no emotion. My question is Jesus healed many, brought many back from the dead, why didn’t he raise John? I am a born again believer, and I have always wondered this. It may be one of the videos I will have to rent when I get to heaven.

Publication Month: April 2008

Dr. Cobb’s Response

It is probable that the questioner brings to the Bible quite different assumptions than mine, and that as I respond to his question, I will lose him. I say this because born again has too often become a code word for a view of the Bible that I consider idolatrous. For process thought to treat any creature, any person, any institution, any writing, as if it were God is idolatry. When one denies the creatureliness, and that means the fallibility, of any creature, one is idolatrous. But the experience of being born again certainly need not be associated with such idolatry. In William James’ sense, I am a once-born Christian, but I sometimes envy the twice-born ones. This is a completely separate question from how much critical study of scripture is allowed.

In any case, this may be an occasion for showing how process thought provides a sort of middle way between a fundamentalist approach to the Bible and an extreme liberal one. The former asserts that every story about Jesus in each of the four gospels is accurate in every detail. The latter tends to reject the miraculous aspect of Jesus’ ministry altogether. Process thought opens the door to believing that Jesus performed many miracles but that the gospels are not eye witness accounts or preserved from factual error by divine intervention. They reflect memories of Jesus, often preserved in traditions, a generation or two after his death. Memories preserved in different traditions are shaped by diverse circumstances. We should not expect them to preserve past facts in a perfect way. The fact that a story is told in the Bible does not ensure that it is factually or historically true.

The overall process view is that God is present in every event, but that God does not unilaterally determine any event. God is present and effective in every human experience. Every human experience is affected also by its context, its past, and its own decision. God’s participation in each experience makes the experience as a whole possible. It in no way displaces the other factors. We bring these assumptions with us to the study of Jesus.

We assume the same about biblical texts. God was present, participating in the inspiration of the writers. But the writers were also persons of their time and place with human limitations of all sorts. To say that the Bible is inspired is to claim a great deal.

One task of biblical scholars is to study the writings about Jesus and to come to reasonable judgments about what he did and said. Here, the question is about deeds, and especially miraculous ones. Most scholars think that Mark was the earliest gospel. Matthew and Luke probably make use of Mark or of Mark’s sources in their gospels as well. These three gospels tell the story of Jesus in largely compatible ways. John’s gospel tells a very different story, one that seems to be more fully shaped by the concerns of the community out of which it came. Accordingly, what is called “the quest for the historical Jesus” usually relies almost entirely on the first three gospels, often called the synoptics.

This is relevant to the question, because the one miracle reported in the New Testament that would be in any way analogous to resurrecting John the Baptist is the revival or resuscitation of Lazarus. Even this is not quite as dramatic as reconnecting a severed head to a body and restoring the whole to life. In any case there is no hint of any such miracle in the synoptic gospels. Indeed, Matthew’s account of the temptations that Jesus resisted suggests that he, at least, did not think Jesus performed “signs” in the way John reports. These signs tend to accent the miraculous in the direction of the strictly supernatural. In general, the miracles reported in the synoptics are not of this sort. They are healings or in the extreme cases, revivals of one whose death, or supposed death, is very recent. They show truly extraordinary psychic powers, but ones that are continuous with healings of a sort that still take place in our own day.

The thinking that leads to wondering why Jesus did not perform also sorts of supernatural acts follows from a world view that process thought rejects. If the “natural” is defined quite narrowly, even materialistically, then any deed that transcends what is possible in this “nature” is “supernatural.” If one can perform a supernatural act, then there are no longer any limits to what one could do. Presumably Jesus could have liberated the Jews from Roman rule, and we have to figure out why he chose not to do so. He could have done away with hunger and poverty all over the world and made everyone believe in his divine mission, and we would wonder why he did not do so. That he did not release John the Baptist from prison or bring him back to life after he was decapitated would be just examples of many failures about which we would be concerned.

The understanding of nature in process thought greatly extends the range of possibility without introducing the “supernatural.” Process thinkers would still disagree about where the limits are. Faith healing certainly takes place, but is walking on water possible? Some would take other reports of “levitation” to argue that it is. The multiplication of loaves and fishes certainly poses acute problems, and most of us would seek other explanations of this story. That Jesus possessed truly extraordinary spiritual power seems to me almost certain, but this is not crucial to the importance of being a faithful disciple. There are stories of Hindu gurus who seem to perform even more astounding signs and wonders. This does not necessarily establish them as better spiritual guides or fuller revelations of God.

Obviously, none of us are privy to what Jesus felt or thought when he heard what had happened to John. I doubt that he was terribly surprised. It must certainly have reinforced his awareness of the dangers involved in his own mission. In Luke, especially, it seems that soon after he began talking about his own imminent death. If we ask how the synoptic writers understood Jesus’ response to the news of John’s death, I do not find the texts indicating that Jesus “turned away.” Certainly he did not go to Herod and condemn him. Presumably, he did not want to rush his own imprisonment and death. Instead he withdrew, perhaps for mourning, almost certainly for reflection. I do not see in that any cold indifference.

I think it is important to emphasize that the gospels, especially the synoptic gospels, do not present Jesus as a supernatural being. If we simply focus on the story that the questioner lifts up, Jesus does not know of John’s death until his is informed in very ordinary ways. There is no indication that he, or anyone else, thought that he could have prevented it. It is equally clear that this normal humanness did not mean that he lacked extraordinary powers, especially of healing. But extraordinary powers are not infinite powers. In general it seems that healing could take place only where the one to be healed, or someone closely involved, had faith. Jesus usually seemed to understand that what healed was the faith that he evoked.

When later Christians began to minimize Jesus’ humanness and to depict him as a supernatural being, all sorts of problems arose in the understanding of the texts. Hence questions of the sort I am trying to answer have a long history. Already in the account of the temptations in Matthew and Luke, something like this is going on. Why did Jesus not use his supernatural powers to meet his physical needs, dramatically demonstrate his supernatural nature, and establish his earthly rule? Matthew and Luke imply that he could have done all these things, but saw them as temptations to be resisted. In the stories recounted in the synoptics, it seems that Jesus thought his ministry of teaching was more important than his ministry of healing but was constantly drawn into the latter by the needs of those who came to him. If we also believe that following his teaching and his devotion to God are supremely important and that the miracles are not, we are only following him.

In addition to emphasizing Jesus’ authentic humanness, it is important to emphasize the humanness of the writers of the books that are gathered together in our Bibles. To insist that at least in their writing of these texts they were supernaturally protected from error is to make claims that have no support from the texts themselves and to put oneself in an impossible position with respect to the texts. Even in the story on which we are reflecting here, pressing for factual detail gets us in trouble. Matthew tells us that Jesus withdrew by himself. In Mark and Luke the disciples also withdraw. They cannot both be exactly accurate. If God was insuring exact accuracy, God did a poor job here, and at many other places the differences are far greater.

We have human memories and writings about a human being. The human being in question was one who was extraordinarily inspired and empowered by God. In the process perspective we can use the Antiochene language that he was indwelt by God, or we can follow John’s gospel in saying that the Word was incarnated in him. But such indwelling or incarnation in no way made Jesus less human. And it certainly did not give supernatural authority to those who wrote about him. If we understand the whole sequence of events in a fully human-historical way, we can and should marvel both at the events and ad the memories and accounts that have come down to us. We can see God at work in all of this. But we need not fall into the puzzles that supernaturalism introduces.