Was the man from Nazareth
magician, illusionist or just a con man?
It is recorded in the New Testament Gospels that Jesus performed miracles;
but how accurate are these accounts and their miraculous feats? Was Jesus a
master magician, fooling his age and the ages to come; was he the greatest
con artist in history, or did he actually have the power to perform
Water to Wine
They must have been embarrassed. At the height of their wedding feast, they had run out of wine. Mary, the mother of Jesus, overheard them talking about the problem. She turned to her son.
"They have no wine," she said. Then she spoke to the servants. "Do whatever he tells you."
There were six large water pots standing by the door. Each of the containers could hold twenty or thirty gallons. "Fill the water pots with water," Jesus instructed the servants.
So they filled the pots to the brim, and Jesus told them to draw some liquid out and take it to the headwaiter. What the servants poured out was wine! When the headwaiter tasted it, he told the bridegroom "Every man serves the good wine first, and when everyone has drunk freely, then he serves the poorer wine. You have kept the good wine until now" (John 2:1-10).
Jesus didn't change water to wine to impress anyone—only the servants knew where the wine had come from. A competent modern-day illusionist could have faked such a miracle if he had been warned in advance. To produce 120 gallons of liquid that looked like wine would be difficult, but to produce that many gallons of actual fine wine would be virtually impossible —even today.
The Food Crisis
In an attempt to free himself from the crowds that flocked after him, Jesus boarded a boat with his disciples and crossed to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. But the crowds anticipated his movements and raced around the lake on foot. When the boat pulled up to the shore, there were 5,000 men and probably several thousand more women and children standing on the hillside. Moved with compassion toward them, Jesus taught and healed the sick until late in the day.
"It's getting late. We'd better send these people away so that they can get food and lodging," the disciples reasoned among themselves. "Let's tell Jesus."
They told their Master, but he didn't seem concerned. "They don't need to go away. You give them something to eat."
"But, Master, 200 days' worth of labor could not feed this mob," they argued.
"How man loaves do you have? Go and see."
They searched thoroughly through the crowd, but all they could find were five barley loaves and two fish. Jesus took that limited supply of food and instructed his followers to prepare the crowd in groups of fifty.
Prepare the crowd for what? the disciples must have muttered among themselves. We're going to end up with a big problem on our hands. Why doesn't he just send them away? But they did as they were told.
Their leader took the food and looking up toward heaven, he blessed it. Then he broke the bread and he fish up and gave pieces to the disciples to distribute to the multitude.
They looked at what he had given them and then at each other. He must be joking. How am I supposed to feed over 500 people with this little bit of bread and a piece of fish? But each disciple began to pass out the food, and as he did, it seemed to go further and further. Soon everyone had been fed and they were satisfied.
When it was over, twelve baskets full of food scraps were collected. When the crowd realized what had happened, they wanted to make Jesus their king. (Matthew 14:13-23; Mark 6:30-45; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-15).
To feed over 5,000 people, an illusionist would need a lot of food. The key to his success would be to make people think he had started with only five loaves and two fishes. I can't imagine how Jesus and his followers could never have concealed that much bread and fish under their robes or anywhere else. And even if they could have, where would they have gotten it in the first place? There were too many witnesses for this event to have been falsified.
Blind Man's Bluff?
Jesus was in Jerusalem with his disciples. Beside the road sat a beggar blind from birth.
"Teacher," asked one of the disciples, "who sinned, this man or his parents, to cause him to be born blind?"
In Israel, birth defects were generally considered to be a result of sin, and of course venereal disease did often cause blindness and other birth defects.
"Neither he nor his parents," replied Jesus. "This man was born blind so the works of God might be displayed in him. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world."
Jesus spat on the ground. He stooped and mixed his saliva with the dust and made a small amount of clay. Taking this clay, he applied it to the blind man's eyes.
"Go wash in the pool of Siloam," he commanded.
The man made his way to the pool, and when he had washed the clay from his eyes, he could see. For the first time in his life, he was able to walk without a stick to guide him. He returned to the spot where he normally begged, but Jesus was gone.
"Isn't this the one who used to sit and beg?" asked one of the neighbors.
"This is the one."
"No, this is some other man," replied some else.
"Listen, I am the man that was blind," he told them all.
"How did you get your sight?" They questioned.
"The man who is called Jesus made clay and put it into my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed and now I can see."
"Where is Jesus now?" They asked.
"I don't know," said the ex-beggar. (John 9:1-34).
Now we often see illusionists performing some magical trick on an apparently innocent bystander. We know, ultimately, that the magician has tricked us into believing that something untrue is true. We tell ourselves that the so-called "innocent bystander" is really a friend of the magician.
It is claimed that this man was born blind. His parents freely admitted this fact when they were asked about him later—even though it made them look guilty of some moral sin. For a magician to perform a "healing," the "blind man" would really have to be able to see; he would have to be an accomplice.
How many weeks, months or years would that man have had to sit there begging in order to convince the neighbors that he was really blind? Who could find a man so dedicated to deception that he would be willing to go to all that trouble? And it would have been necessary to bribe the man's parents so they would lie, making themselves look like moral sinners in the process.
All of this would take research, time, and money—all for the sake of one trick. And Jesus didn't even stay around to take advantage of the reaction of the neighbors. So little would have been gained for so much effort. The logical conclusion seems to be that this was not a magic trick. The odds seem to be in favor of the reality that Jesus really did heal that man—or the account simply doesn't make sense.
The Sea Walkers
Again and again the small vessel was lifted on what seemed almost a mountain of water, and then it slid down the other side to the valley below. If it had not been for the frantic efforts of her twelve-man crew, she likely have gone down on that fateful night. For hours the crew struggled to row their craft to safety.
Spray blew across the face of Simon as he strained at an oar. His wet hair and beard stuck to his face, and where his face could be seen the lines of worry showed. Not only was he worried about reaching the shore, he felt responsible for everyone on board. With the master gone, Simon was in charge, and he told himself they had to make it.
Suddenly, one of the crew stopped rowing. His face turned white and he pointed at one of the waves. Some of the others turned to see what he was pointing at, and then they all cried out in fear.
"What's wrong?" Simon snapped. He looked just in time to see a form disappear behind a wave.
Is that a man out there? he thought.
"A ghost," shrieked the first disciple.
"A demon," cried another.
"Wait, there it is again," yelled a third.
As a wave rolled by, the figure of a man could be plainly seen walking toward their boat. More cries came from the crew, and Peter could only stare in amazement. At their cries, the figure stopped and, clearly standing on top of the water, called to them.
"Don't be afraid. It's only me—Jesus!"
Not an eye moved from the figure as Peter cried back, almost as a challenge: "If it is really you, Lord, tell me to come to you on the water."
"Come here," the figure called back.
So Simon Peter stood up. Without taking his eyes off the figure, he put one foot over the side and when it didn't sink, he began to leave the boat.
"Peter!" another disciple cried. "What are you doing? He's getting out of the boat! Somebody stop him!"
It was too late. Simon was actually walking on top of the water away from their vessel. But as the wind slapped his face and as he started to focus in on the size of the waves around him, he suddenly realized the madness of what he was doing and he panicked. The surface of the water gave way under his feet and he cried, "Lord, save me!"
Before he completely submerged, Jesus reached him and grabbed his hand. Then together they walked back to the boat. When they boarded, the wind stopped and the sea became tranquil. The disciples could only say, "Truly you are the Son of God." (Matthew 14:24-36; Mark 6:47-56; John 6:16-21).
What an incredible story! This is the kind some fiction writer might find easy to create within his fertile mind, because the drama is so compelling. Because this story is so unique—and so unlikely—many have made fun of it.
One of the things that I find illogical with the critics though are those who claim that Jesus must simply have known the location of the underwater rocks. Even if that explanation could possibly be true, I simply cannot imagine any man convincing others that he is walking on the water by hopping from stone to stone.
Have you ever tried to jump from one submerged rock to another in the daytime, trying to cross a small stream? It's difficult with the rushing water and those slippery stones under the surface. But at night in a foaming sea, it would be virtually impossible even if such stones existed to find them and stay upright. How could he have found them? And how could Peter have stepped out on the exact right spots to also walk on this inland sea?
They were in the middle of a large area of water. They could not possibly have been close to rocks right under the surface, unless they were in the shoals near the shore. If that was the case, their boat would surely have been grounded on those or other stones close to the surface of the water.
Years ago, I was staying in a room on the edge of the Sea of Galilee and a fierce wind suddenly rushed down into the valley in which this inland lake is located. I ran outside to watch as huge waves had begun to crash against the jetty. Even though I was witnessing only a mini-storm of gusty wind, a really big blow swoosh across the sea. If anyone was out in the middle of that lake, and feeling in danger of sinking, I cannot imagine they would have any chance of finding stones to walk upon. Such an explanation simply begs the question and creates far more questions than it answers.
There were at least 12 witnesses that night. If this event had been the product of someone's over active imagination, the witnesses would have quickly laughed the stories out of existence. Instead, we find one of those witnesses present that night—the disciple Matthew—describing the event in detail within his book on the life of Jesus (Matthew 14:24-36).
The Biggest Miracle
"If only we had been able to send word to Jesus earlier," Martha lamented. "Lazarus wouldn't have died."
In the village of Bethany, two miles outside of Jerusalem, sisters Mary and Martha were in mourning over their brother's death.
Jesus was in Galilee earlier when he learned that Lazarus was sick, and he told his disciples, "This sickness is not for death, but for God's glory."
He waited two days before beginning the journey toward Bethany. The disciples questioned him.
"Teacher, not too long ago your enemies were trying to stone you in Judea. Are you going there again? Lord, if Lazarus has fallen asleep, he will get well."
"Lazarus is dead," Jesus said plainly. "For your sakes I'm glad I wasn't there, so you'll believe. Let's go to him."
Before they had reached Bethany, Martha came out and met them on the road. "Lord, if you had only been here, my brother would not have died," she said.
"Your brother will rise again," he told her. So she hurried back to the village and called her sister.
Mary came to Jesus and fell weeping at his feet. "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."
"Where have you laid him?" She took them to the tomb, which was a cave with a stone laid against the opening.
"Remove the stone," he commanded.
"But, Lord," Martha cried, "by this time he will smell. It's been four days."
"Didn't I tell you if you would believe, you would see the glory of God?" So they removed the stone from the cave and Jesus began to pray aloud.
"Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know you always hear me, but I'm saying this for the sake of the crowd."
Then he turned to the tomb and in a loud voice cried out, "Lazarus, come forth!"
The dead man actually came to the mouth of the cave, still bound head to foot in burial cloth! "Unbind him, and let him go," Jesus ordered. (John 11:1-44).
Here is the big miracle, an event which would have been much more difficult to fake. The man had been dead four days! That was enough time for everyone to know for certain he was dead. With that amount of time, decay sets in; odors grow.
The narrative clearly indicates that the family, the relatives, and the mourners all knew that Lazarus was dead. How difficult it would have been to fool them all. They only way they could have been duped through such a personal tragedy would be for all of them to be unusually gullible.
Word about what had happened at Lazarus' tomb spread fast because there were a lot of people present to witness the event. And they told everyone so that the news spread fast (John 12:9, 17-18).
Even the Pharisees, who were Jesus' religious enemies, could not refute the fact that a notable miracle had occurred. (John 11:45-48). To silence the impact of this story their answer was not to say it didn't happen. Their answer to refute this miracle, if you can believe this, was to actually kill Lazarus! The guy was a walking billboard whose life loudly proclaimed the prophet's power. So I guess they reasoned if they could just knock him off, he would no longer be able to give testimony to the Nazarene's miraculous ability.
The only way this miracle could have been faked would be if everyone was in on it, which is highly unlikely. If it was faked, the men who were least likely to buy into it—the high priests—wouldn't have discussed the radical approach of killing the "evidence" for the miracle by rubbing out Lazarus. (John 12:10).
Summary and Conclusion
All of the miracles discussed in this chapter are just a few key examples from the short ministry of Jesus from Nazareth. He rode an unbroken animal and immediately it became tame; he cursed a fig tree and it withered; he stilled a storm with a word. Jesus had power over the blind, the lame, disease, demons, weather and death. He could read people's minds and accurately predict the future.
But with all the many miracles he performed, it is interesting that there was a careful reservation of this supernatural power. He never seemed to employ these powers for sensational purposes, or to awe the crowds. Nor did he perform miracles for personal benefit or his own comfort.
Magicians depend upon such things as illusions, distraction of attention, and sometimes on unique mechanical devices. But no illusionist can end a storm, or raise a man from the dead, or make men born blind see. No magician, no matter how skilled has ever had such powers. It seems highly unlikely that man born over 2,000 years ago would have been able to make others believe he had those powers through the use of cunning trickery.
While people love to see miracles, there is usually in every crowd
people who have a healthy skepticism of anyone who claims to have such
powers. It just doesn't seem logical that any man could have faked the
incredibly wide range of miracles that Jesus performed especially during the
low tech days in which he lived.
On the basis of the evidence, I think it is safe to say that Jesus from Nazareth possessed some unusual powers. Even after almost 2,000 years, there is no new evidence which would lead us to believe his feats were anything less than miraculous.