The Miraculous Element in Mark's Gospel

By A. T. Robertson, D.D., LL.D.

Professor of New Testament Interpretation in the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky


For a while Mark's Gospel had quite a vogue with certain critics who hoped by means of it to get rid of the Johannine Christ and the Pauline Christ. In Mark we have the "Historical Jesus" instead of the "Theological Christ."1 But the issue is now seen to be quite otherwise. Pfleiderer confesses it:

On the other hand, it must not be overlooked that even this oldest Gospel-writer is guided by a decided apologetic purpose in the selection and manipulation of his material. He wrote for Heathen-Christians and wished to awaken or confirm the conviction that despite the rejection by the Jews, Jesus of Nazareth was proven to be the Christ and the Son of God by wonders and signs of every kind, especially by the wonders of baptism, transfiguration, and resurrection, that his victorious struggle against the Jewish priestly and liturgical service erected a new Temple beyond the senses in the congregation of Christ-believers in the place of the old one of the senses, and that by the blood which he had shed for many, he established a new covenant to take the place of the old covenant of the law.2

Here Pfleiderer has correctly presented the purpose and method of Mark's Gospel, though he himself has no sympathy with that purpose. "Mark represents an earlier stage of apologetic authorship, and hence a comparatively clearer and more naive presentation of tradition."3 He notes that Mark is free from the stories of the birth of Jesus found in Matthew and Luke, "religious legends of no historical value,"4 but even Mark gives "the miraculous event of the messianic sanctification of Jesus by a celestial voice and the descent of the Spirit in the shape of a dove" which "is self-evidently not history, but legend."5

It is clear, therefore, that we have not reached solid ground with critics like Pfleiderer when we get back of John and Paul, back of Luke and Matthew, to Mark and Q (the Logia of Jesus). These two earliest sources of our knowledge of Jesus are vitiated for them by the presence of the miraculous element in the life of Jesus. The only way to get at the facts about Jesus, according to Pfleiderer and Schmiedel, is to drop all the supernatural and the miraculous and to construct our picture of Jesus out of the remnant. Schmiedel curtly dismisses the deity of Christ as impossible, since he was man, and such a union in one person is impossible.6 Weinel says, "From the Gospels we must seek the human being." Bousset in his Jesus holds that Jesus never transcends the purely human and never presents himself as the object of faith. M. Jones files this complaint against the liberal Christology that "it draws a portrait of Jesus which does not overstep the limits of the human, and yet claims for this conception of the ideal man the very extremes of religious value, and sets him up as an object of religious worship."7 That is profoundly true. Jones adds this pregnant sentence: " It has frankly broken with orthodoxy and its miraculous Christ, and yet retains for him a central and unique position in relation to humanity."

The first and foremost miraculous element in the Gospel of Mark is Jesus himself. The very headline of the Gospel is "The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (1:1). Some manuscripts omit "the Son of God," but Pfleiderer is quite right in his contention that this Gospel means to prove Jesus to be the Son of God as truly as the Fourth Gospel does. Jesus is received thus and makes this claim. "'Of the supernatural, other-worldly claims of Jesus of Nazareth there can be no question, and there would have been none, but for a small circle of pedants who were anxious to retain the name and privilege of Christian while rejecting every element that gave the Faith its power."8 This supernatural Christ is in Mark's Gospel. The Spirit comes upon him as a dove at his baptism (1:10), the Father addresses him as his Son (1:11), the angels minister to him in his temptation (1:3), he is transfigured on the mountain and talks with Moses and Elijah, and the Father again addresses him as his Son (9:2-7), he affirms to the High Priest that he is the Son of the Blessed (14:61 f.), he rises from the grave in proof of his claims to be the Son of God (16:6), and in the disputed close of the Gospel (16:9-20) there is additional proof of Christ's resurrection and ascension.

The miracles wrought by Jesus come in this atmosphere and have to be considered as natural expressions of the divine energy possessed by Jesus. It is idle to strip away the miracles and retain the teachings. The two are so interwoven in Mark's Gospel that nothing of real value would remain. We have to face therefore in this earliest of our Gospels precisely the same problem that confronts us in John's Gospel, the credibility of the narratives with the miraculous element in them. It will not do to say that the age was credulous and that men were predisposed to accept Jesus as divine. The Gospels themselves reveal precisely the opposite situation. Jesus wrought and taught in the midst of a keenly critical atmosphere with all the ecclesiastical leaders hostile to him, and with his own disciples utterly unable to grasp the spiritual aspect of his mission and the promise of his own resurrection. They were so skeptical on this point that it required repeated manifestations to convince them of the reality of his resurrection. This is the great miracle of the Gospels, then, Jesus himself. Once credit the fact of his deity, the rest follows naturally. And there is no other way to take Mark's Gospel.

It comes back at last to our idea of God. J. Wendland9 argues that without a belief in miracles we cannot conceive of a real, living God. We may think of an absentee God, or of a pantheistic universe, but not of a personal God who reigns in his world. The scientific objection to miracle has lost much of its force. The world is now seen to be, not static, but in a constant state of change. Theistic evolution "is not less but more favourable to the belief in miracles. It is not a finished machine, but a growing organism, that the world appears."10 One may or may not accept the theory of theistic evolution. Atheistic evolution, of course, denies the existence of God and tries to explain everything in terms of materialism. But outside of Haeckel's Riddle of the Universe few modern scientists go to that extreme. Matthew Arnold's dictum that miracles do not happen fails to satisfy scientists like Sir Oliver Lodge,11 who finds that life transcends while combining with and controlling physical forces. Even Huxley with his agnosticism refused to deny the possibility of miracles.12 "The root question or outstanding controversy between science and faith rests upon two distinct conceptions of the universe."13 The one is that of a material universe absolutely sufficient in itself, and completely furnished for its origination and career. The other is that of a physical universe, open to and dominated by a spiritual universe. We must make our choice, therefore, between these two conceptions before we come to the study of Mark's Gospel. No one today talks about violation of the laws of nature by miracle. We ourselves overcome the law of gravity by climbing, and now by flying in the air, but the law of gravity operates all the time. We overcome it by force of will. Surely God has his own personal will at all times, and is himself superior to all the laws that he has laid down for his universe.

Without further apology, therefore, we can come to Mark's Gospel and note the miracles wrought by Jesus. They are usually given as eighteen, but it all depends on what we consider a miracle. We note the demoniac in the synagogue in Capernaum (1:23-27), Peter's mother-in-law (1:30), the leper (1:40-45), the paralytic (2:1-12), the man with a withered hand (3:1-6), stilling the tempest (4:35-41), the Gadarene demoniac (5: 1-20), the woman with an issue of blood (5:25-34), raising of Jairus' daughter (5: 21-24, 35-43), feeding the five thousand (6: 31-44), walking on the sea (4:45-52), the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman (7:24-30), the deaf and dumb man (7:31-37), feeding the four thousand (8: 1-9), the blind man at Bethsaida Julias (8:22-26), the deaf and dumb demoniac and epileptic (9:14-29), blind Bartimaeus (10:46-52), the withering of the fig tree (11:12-14, 20-25), and the cleansing of the temple (11:15-18). There are nineteen in this list, which counts the cleansing of the temple as a miracle, as T. H. Wright does in Hastings' Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels (article "Miracles"). Leaving that out we have eighteen.

But this list is by no means complete, for in Mark we have a number of general descriptions of a great many miracles wrought by Jesus. There is absolutely no means of telling how many miracles were performed by Jesus. They probably ran up into many thousands. "And he healed many that were sick with divers diseases, and cast out many demons" (1:34). "And he went into their synagogues throughout all Galilee, preaching and casting out demons" (1:39). "Lest they should throng him: for he had healed many; insomuch that as many as had plagues pressed upon him that they might touch him" (3:9 f.). "And the scribes that came down from Jerusalem said, He hath Beelzebub, and, By the prince of the demons casteth he out the demons" (3:22). " And he could do there no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk and healed them" (6:5). " And ran about that whole region and began to carry about on their beds those that were sick, where they heard he was. And wheresoever he entered, into villages, or into cities, or into the country, they laid the sick in the market-places, and besought him that they might touch if it were but the border of his garment: and as many as touched were made whole" (6:55 f.). One has only to let his imagination work a little to see the vast scale of this work of healing on the part of Jesus. One may note in passing also the work done by the apostles on this tour of Galilee: "And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them" (6:13). If one will take out of Mark's Gospel all the miracles wrought by Jesus and every mention of the miraculous or the supernatural, he will have only a mutilated fragment. Wright tries it for the first three chapters of Mark just to show what a bare skeleton is left. "In most of the reports the action of Jesus is so interwoven with unmistakably authentic words that the two elements cannot be separated."14 It is clear, therefore, that in Mark's as in John's Gospel (20:30 f.) a selection has been made of representative miracles without any idea of exhaustiveness.

The common division of Christ's miracles is into miracles on nature, miracles on man, and miracles on the spirit world. But there is no sharp line of cleavage. "Nature" with Christ covers all realms. He is at home everywhere. Human nature is a part of nature. The spirit world is also a part of God's world. Jesus is as much at home in his mastery of wind and wave as in healing a blind man. He expels the demons with the same ease with which he makes the loaves and fishes multiply for the five thousand and then for the four thousand. He walks on the sea and withers the fig tree at a word. He raises the dead and attacks with uniform success all sorts of diseases. We get a very little way in understanding Christ's power by any analysis of the kind of miracles wrought. Some were miracles of creative power, some of Providence. Some were miracles of personal faith, some of intercession, some of compassion, as those on the sabbath day and raising the dead.

It is easier for modern men to understand some of Christ's cures than others. The cases of nervous disorder are now better understood because we know more about the influence of the mind on the body than we once did. But if these cures seem to us more credible than was once the case, we are not logically justified in repudiating the rest, as Harnack does, who will not believe that "a stormy sea was stilled by a word." The rather we should be constrained to believe what we cannot explain, since so much has become plainer. The Duke of Argyll15 pertinently suggests that God has laws unknown to us. They operate regardless of our ignorance of them. Instance electricity, the atom, radium, and other discoveries that are revolutionary to us.

We must always remember that the miracles of Jesus did not seem miraculous or unusual to him. The most real thing in his earthly life was his fellowship with his Father. The Fourth Gospel makes this perfectly plain (cf. John, chap. 5), but it comes out in Mark's Gospel also (1:1, 35; 9:7; 13:32). Jesus is here seen as a citizen of two worlds. He is the Son of man and the Son of God. He approaches human sin and sickness with the heart of the Beloved Physician that he is, but with the skill and power of the Father whose Son he is. He is thus able to make an unerring diagnosis and to touch the springs of life to drive away the germs of disease. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and Jesus releases in men the forces of life that win the victory in the wonderful fight going on in all of us for life or death. The miracles of Jesus are consonant with his loving heart of pity and tenderness. "If it be a revelation of grace, the miracles also must be gracious."16

So then we must not draw a line between miracle and fact. A hundred years ago the aeroplane would have seemed a miracle. A railroad train in Gaul would have frightened Julius Caesar and his legions. "A miracle is on one side of it not a fact of this world, but of the invisible world."17 But it becomes a part of this world when it has taken place. A fact is a fact whether we comprehend it or not. Hume thought that he had disposed of miracles by saying that they could not be proved. But men do the most astounding things. An engineer proved conclusively that a steamship could never cross the Atlantic Ocean, because it could not carry coal enough to get across. But the steamship went on across all the same. Nothing is impossible with God, nothing that is worth while, that is good, that appeals to God's heart. He has the power to do what he wills to do. That is the end of the whole matter.

Sanday18 considers it proved "that miracles were really performed by Christ," but holds that our problem today is "the difficulty of exactly correlating and harmonizing the ideas of the twentieth century with those of the first." That is undoubtedly true, but the solution may not be quite what Sanday suggests. "We may lay it down as most probable that there is somewhere in the nature of things a possible adjustment of the facts historically verified with a reasonably interpreted philosophy of nature." Possibly so, for this is a cautious statement according to Sanday's habit. But we maintain that the credibility of the miracles of Jesus does not depend upon our being able to square them with the current philosophy of nature which we may hold, a constantly changing theory. But Sanday is wholly correct in his view that "the key to miracle" lies in the personality of God. If there are latent possibilities in man, who can say what God can or cannot do ? If Christ is both God and man, we cannot properly deny to him the power of God.

The miracles of Jesus will continue to be attacked, as by Thompson,19 but there are modern defenders, like Illingworth20 and Ballard,21 who know how to interpret modern thought in harmony with the law and will of God. It is true that today more emphasis is laid upon the spiritual and ethical content of the Gospels than upon the miracles and the supernatural attestation of the message.22 But it is not true that we can give up the miraculous element in Mark or any of the Gospels and have anything left that is worth while. We should have mere scraps of narrative with disjointed sayings, and a purely human Jesus who was one of the most mistaken of men; a teacher full of hallucinations about himself; a miracle-monger like Simon Magus, not the Wonder-Worker of Mark's Gospel; a disappointed and misguided leader of a forlorn hope, not the Savior of the world who gave his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45); a teacher out of touch with modern life, not the star of hope for a sin-stricken race.



1) Cf. J. Estlin Carpenter, The Historical Jesus and the Theological Christ.

2) Christian Origins (trans., 1906), p. 219.

3) Ibid., p. 217.

4) Ibid., p. 83.

5) Ibid.

6) "Gospels," Encyclopaedia Biblica.

7) The New Testament in the Twentieth Century (1914), p. 21.

8) Figgis, Civilization at the Cross-Roads, p. 146.

9) Miracles and Christianity.

10) Garvie, "Miracles," Hastings' One Volume Bible Dictionary.

11) Life and Matter, p. 198.

12) Science and Christian Tradition.

13) Sir Oliver Lodge, Hibbert Journal, October, 1902.

14) Bruce, "Jesus," Encyclopaedia Biblica.

15) Reign of Law, p. 16.

16) Bruce, The Miraculous Element in the Gospels, p. 290.

17) Mozley, Miracles, p. 102.

18) "Miracles," Standard Bible Dictionary.

19) Miracles in the New Testament, 1911.

20) Gospel Miracles, I915.

21) Miracles of Unbelief, 1904.

22) G. A. Gordon, Religion and Miracle, 1909.