Darrell Bock discusses the purpose of Jesus’ miracles and why people find them hard to believe.
Darrell Bock is Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He is an expert in the historical Jesus and issues surrounding the authenticity and reliability of the New Testament documents. He has written two major commentaries on the Gospel of Luke. He is the author of over twenty books including Breaking the Da Vinci Code for which he became a New York Times Best Selling author.
In this interview, Darrell Bock talks about the historical evidence for Jesus’ miracles, their purpose, and why people struggle to believe them.
SIMON SMART: I’m speaking with Darrell Bock, Professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary. Darrell, I want to ask you about miracles. Why is it hard for modern people to accept the miracles of the Jesus story?
DARRELL BOCK: Well, I think it’s because, particularly in the West, there’s a difficulty with the idea of things that you can’t see and explain, we like to be able to experiment, test, repeat, see. We’re very materially oriented. And so I think there’s come into our tradition a hesitation to know how to explain things that we can’t actually see and measure. And that would be the basic reason. I think it’s important to remember though that even in our world today, there are huge swaths of the world that have no trouble with miracles at all. Craig Keener has just written a major two-volume work on miracles, and it’s worth looking at because in the first part he deals with miracles in the ancient world but the rest of it deals with documenting the kinds of miraculous claims that exist around the world particularly in situations where there doesn’t seem to be another explanation for what took place. And what he’s showing, the point that he’s trying to make is that there are huge swaths of our world even today that are open to the idea of miracles.
SIMON SMART: It comes down to worldview doesn’t it – if you believe in a closed universe, any of these stories are going to be hard to take.
DARRELL BOCK: If you believe in a closed universe, that the universe kind of operates on its own natural tick and there is no outside Creator or element or personality that’s involved in it, then everything that you read in the Bible where it says God does something – and that happens to be a lot of the pages – you’re going to have another explanation for what’s going on. And so the idea that people would say that there’s myth associated with the Bible isn’t surprising if they’re closed to the idea of the possibility of God acting.
SIMON SMART: Now as you go through as an historian going through these documents, what gives you confidence in the way that a story’s been reported, in terms of Jesus’ miracles?
DARRELL BOCK: Well there are certain aspects of the historical documentation that are really fascinating. For example, Josephus, who’s a Jewish historian writing in the 90s and there’s a little debate about this but you all did a wonderful interview with Chris Forbes explaining the citation out of Josephus from Antiquities 1863 and 64 where he speaks about how Jesus was the doer of ‘wonderful works’, well that’s one way you can translate it, the Greek word is paradoxa where we get our English word ‘paradox’ from, it’s something unusual, so Jesus was the doer of unusual works. This actually fits other texts in the Jewish tradition that say that Jesus was a sorcerer or a magician or he cast out demons by the power of Beelzebub. These texts run for the first to the fifth century and they’re consistent. And so what’s interesting about the idea in Judaism that Jesus did something that needs an explanation – we don’t think it’s a positive power we think it’s a negative power that did it, but the thing that’s not on the table is it didn’t happen.
SIMON SMART: Right, so something happened?
DARRELL BOCK: Something happened that you have to explain, something unusual happened that you have to explain, something unusual happened that you have to explain that even the people who opposed Jesus recognised that you had to explain.
SIMON SMART: What was the purpose of the miracles?
DARRELL BOCK: Well the miracles really are a way of trying to substantiate claims that otherwise you can’t see. The story of the paralytic is a wonderful example of this. The paralytic comes in and he’s lame and he comes before Jesus and Jesus says to him “Your sins are forgiven.” And I like to tell students when I’m telling this account, “Now you’re the paralytic, you’ve come to Jesus so that you’ll be able to walk, and what he says to you is ‘your sins are forgiven’, what are you thinking?
SIMON SMART: Thanks a lot.
DARRELL BOCK: Yeah exactly, “Gee, that isn’t why I crashed this party.” But what Jesus does is he turns around and says, “In order that you might know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, I say to you ‘Get up and walk’”. And what’s interesting about that of course is that he’s tying something you can’t see to something unusual you can see. I mean I tell people, “Have you ever see how sins are forgiven? Like “bye sin, please stay away, for a very, very long time.” No, you can’t see forgiveness of sins, but you can see a lame person who is made able to walk, so when Jesus says “The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, I say to you get up and walk”, the walk talks, and the walk says “The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So the miracles are – and I’m being cute here – power points. They are points about Jesus’ power and authority to accomplish certain things, they’re audio-visuals of things that you can’t see by doing unusual things that you can see. This is why the Scripture calls them signs.
SIMON SMART: They’re also acts of compassion, too.
DARRELL BOCK: The certainly are, and they show Jesus dealing with a variety of conditions: health, in terms of sickness; death; disease; exorcisms; all kinds of things that Jesus does. He raises from the dead an only daughter, he raises from the dead an only son, all these things are acts of compassion showing God’s care for people.
SIMON SMART: Are these in a way signposts of a future redemptive act of God in the world?
DARRELL BOCK: Absolutely, in fact a picture that God can cleanse, God can make the person who can’t walk able to walk, God can make the dead alive, God can make the person who can’t see able to see, God can make the person who can’t hear able to hear, and it isn’t just the physicality of that, it’s what it pictures about spiritual truth that’s also part of the point.