After his baptism and ‘time out’ in the wilderness, Jesus began his evangelistic mission. He’s said to have drawn crowds, but I think their size is over-rated. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us why Herod Antipas executed John the Baptist :
“Now many people came in crowds to John, for they were greatly moved by his words. Herod, who feared that the great influence John had over the masses might put them into his power and enable him to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best to put him to death. In this way, he might prevent any mischief John might cause.’
If huge crowds led Herod to execute John, why did he not execute Jesus? Matthew’s gospel claims that, “large crowds followed Him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and beyond the Jordan.” These are mega-numbers! There’s no way Herod could have turned a blind eye to that. Mark’s gospel is surely nearer the mark when Jesus says, “We must go to other villages.” There’s no mention of Jesus visiting the two largest ‘cities’ in Galilee, Tiberius and Sepphoris, though the latter was just 5 miles from Nazareth. He visited ‘villages’ and preached in their synagogues.
He’d have gathered local crowds, since he ‘healed’ people, and exorcised ‘demons’. People didn’t then understand disease as we do, and believed in evil spirits able to ‘possess’ people. What they regarded as ‘cures’ and ‘exorcisms’ would be viewed differently today but, from their perspective, they ‘witnessed’ healings and exorcisms, and were impressed, but not necessarily over-impressed. People often imagine Jesus was unique, but he wasn’t. Josephus tells us there were many wandering ‘holy men’, who laid claim to nature ‘miracles’, miraculous ‘healings’ and exorcising ‘demons’. Onias and Honi the Circle-Drawer were rain makers, as was Hanina ben Dosa, who could heal people at a distance. Eleazar was an “exceptionally powerful” exorciser of demons.
And there was Apollonius of Tyana, as described by Biblical Scholar Bart Ehrman : “A supernatural being informed his mother that the child she was to conceive would not be a mere mortal but divine. As an adult he went on an itinerant preaching ministry, urging his listeners to live, not for the material things of this world, but the spiritual. He gathered disciples, who became convinced that his teachings were divinely inspired. He proved it by doing many miracles, healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead. In the end, his enemies delivered him to the Roman authorities for judgment. After he left this world, he returned to convince his followers that he was not dead but lived on in the heavenly realm. Later some of his followers wrote books about him.” That sounds familiar, does it not?
A trap we can fall into, is dismissing as fiction or quackery, the ‘miracles’ that happen in other religions, while uncritically accepting those in our own. We ought to apply to our own beliefs, the same scrutiny we apply to others. As for the ‘miraculous’ happenings accredited to Jesus, we should keep in mind that Jesus told stories, “parables”, about things which hadn’t happened, but offered moral and spiritual insights. It seems to me that the gospel writers also offered some ‘parables’ with the same intent. So we read about the blind being given sight. The teaching and example of Jesus, brings illumination and en’light’enment into our dim and darkened understanding of what life ought to be about. The raising of people from the dead suggests, in picture form, how his teaching and example can produce radical change in our lives, from unproductive, unfulfilling deadness to enriching, meaningful aliveness, enabling us to ‘make a fresh start’.
What I’m saying here, is that people who cannot, with honesty, believe in the ‘miraculous’ stories in the gospels, shouldn’t make the mistake of dismissing them, and abandoning interest in the gospels because of them. They can still be recognised as being among the world’s great stories, enjoyed for being as rich in colour and drama, metaphor and symbol, as any other stories, and valued for their creativity and emotional and spiritual worth.