Miracles Or Mere Distractions? : Studies in Mark, Pt. 27

When approaching the subject of miracles, there is the potential for many questions to arise: 1. What is the definition of a miracle? 2. Did they really happen? 3. Can we use science to understand miracles? 4. Why did the Jesus do miracles? 5. Why did the Bible writers include miracle accounts in their writings? Etc.

All of those questions are legitimate but not all of them are as helpful for formulating a Scriptural theology of miracles. In my opinion, and since we are focusing on Mark, the most helpful question to center on is: Why did Mark include miracle stories in his writings? The reason I believe this is the most helpful question to pursue is because all of the others do not get to the heart of the discussion. Even if one presupposes that miracles really did happen and that Jesus really did do them (as I believe), one is still left with the question: What was/is meant by them? But even that question does not get to the heart of the matter.

It does not get to the heart of the matter because the miracle accounts that we have were the testimonies of persons. Furthermore, those testimonies are all interpretations. For example, the way that Matthew understands Jesus’ feeding miracle is different than the meaning Luke gets from it. Moreover, Mark’s interpretation of this event yields a different meaning than both Matthew’s and Luke’s. Besides this, one only needs to read the Gospel accounts to see that when Jesus did miraculous things, persons in the crowds interpreted them very differently. For instance, sometimes people believed and sometimes they didn’t, and we must acknowledge that these two interpretations of the same event, are at once, polar opposites.

Thus, what we have in Mark’s Gospel account is but “one” interpretation of those events. Therefore, to get to the heart of the matter, we have to ask: What was Mark’s theology of miracles or again, Why did Mark include these accounts in his writings and what did he mean by them? In turn, do these accounts have any meaning for us and if so, what?

Here, we might move away for a second, from the issue of how "we" define a miracle and ask: What was Mark’s definition of a miracle? Actually, Mark has a couple of words that he uses to denote a miracle. The most straightforward term is terata, which means ‘wonder’ or ‘miracle’ (e.g. 13.22). The second, more ambiguous term is dunamin, which means ‘power’ or ‘ability’ (e.g. 9.39). In addition, Mark seems to be aware of another term, semeion, which means ‘sign’ (e.g. 8.11-2, 13.4, 22). This is where things get really interesting. The only time that the word ‘miracle’ per se, appears in Mark’s account is in 13.22 (terata) and only then, in connection with false prophets who perform signs and miracles. (Keep in mind that this is Jesus saying this: Jesus affirms, then, that there are other miracle workers!)

This (and much more could be said about this but oddly not much has been) suggests that Mark believed—and so did Jesus—that persons other than Jesus had the capabilities to perform signs and miracles. And while this may make some queasy, it is a fact. According to Mark, Jesus was not the only miracle-worker in the ancient world. And this comports well with scores of other miracle accounts found in ancient works. (See: CK Barrett’s “The New Testament Background” and Cartlidge & Dungan’s “Documents for the Study of the Gospels” for examples of this.) Therefore, this leads us back to the question: Why did Mark include Jesus’ miracle accounts in his work?

What this suggests is that Mark believed that Jesus’ miracles were not central to understanding who Jesus really was and what He was all about. Now, the question arises, So, why would Mark include so many of them if they were not central to his Christology? My answer is: When Mark includes the miracle stories, He does not do so to make Jesus out to be some great figure or a miracle-worker; that is just not that important to him (if this bothers you, then you should recognize that Paul’s works, which encompass two-thirds of the New Testament, never once mention a single miracle that Jesus performed—like Mark, Jesus’ miracles were not central to Paul’s understanding of who Jesus was). In fact and ironically, Mark includes the miracles to underscore the fact that it is not the miracles in and of themselves that are important but rather how people interpret them that is most important. To put it differently and succinctly: Mark’s miracle accounts are meant to illustrate how people think about and interpret Jesus, not to exalt Jesus or set Him apart from others (remember, Mark is not hesitant to say that other miracle-workers exist).

I think this point is seen very clearly in Mark chapter 8. In verses 11-13 the Pharisees want a sign from Jesus, however, He does not give it to them. He does not give it to them because as it stands, even if He were to give it to them, they would misinterpret it (just like they did in 3.20-35 where they attributed Jesus’ work to Beelzebub). I think that the main point of 8.11-13 focuses on interpretation. The Pharisees come to Jesus thinking that they and they alone, have the authority to interpret whether or not something is of God. Yet, to ask for a sign from God when Jesus/God is in their midst, reveals that they cannot correctly interpret what is and is not from God. Again, 3.20-35 is a great example of this. So, Jesus does not give them a sign.

But no sooner than the next story, Mark shows that the disciples were not “amazed” by Jesus’ miracles, indeed, they hadn’t even paid enough attention to even remember them. Yet, that was not Jesus’ beef with them—though it seems like it on the surface. Instead, Jesus’ beef with them is that they failed to interpret the events in any meaningful way. Thus, the disciples are operating out of a hermeneutic similar to that of the Pharisees, a hermeneutic that skews their view of the God. In short, they fail to realize that God is in their midst. This is not proven by signs or wonders but simply by His proclamation that He is God in the flesh and that His Kingdom has come into their midst.

Mark’s work is not an apologetic for miracles. For Mark, it is not the wonders or signs that are important but rather the hermeneutic through which people interpret “everything” that Jesus says and does. From this point-of-view then, Jesus’ deeds (miraculous or not) are no more important than His regular words or perhaps even more significantly, they are no more important than Him just being there, among the people. The point of Mark recounting Jesus’ deeds is not to show the deeds themselves. Similarly, the point of Mark recounting Jesus’ words is not to show the words themselves. The point of Mark retelling Jesus’ deeds and words is to show how people correctly or incorrectly interpreted them. As readers, then, Mark forces us, through the deeds and words of Jesus, to ask: Is my hermeneutic leading me to interpret or misinterpret who God is?

So, when we pray for miracles today (however we define “miracle”) whether they come to fruition or not should not affect how we understand God. The real point (and question) is: Either way, how are we going to interpret God and His actions (or inactions)? For me, I hope to have a life-hermeneutic that, no matter if the outcome I desire takes place or not, the interpretive result will be the same: God is still a good, relational, Triune God. And the whole reason Mark includes miracle accounts is so that people will have this same mindset. Mark gives his readers examples of people correctly interpreting and also misinterpreting God’s actions or inactions. Yet, what Mark wants from his readers more than anything else is a consistent hermeneutic that values God not for something “miraculous” that He does, but by the simple fact that He is in their midst. To view miracles any differently or any other way is to, in my opinion, do nothing more than make them into mere distractions. I submit that this is, at least in part, why many have such a skewed view of God and how He works in the world, today.

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