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UNIT 3 CHAPTER 8<br />

The Historicity<br />

of Jesus’ Miracles<br />


Chapter 8 Overview<br />

Were Jesus’ miracles actual historical events? Or are they just made-up stories designed to amaze the gullible<br />

masses? Far from being a sideshow, Jesus’ miracles were quite central to His earthly mission. They always<br />

had a clear purpose — to deliver people from suffering and evil, and to introduce God’s Kingdom. In this chapter<br />

we will examine the historical evidence for Jesus’ miracles. As with the Resurrection, the evidence is more<br />

extensive than you might first think.<br />

In this chapter you will learn that …<br />

■ Jesus’ miracles were central to His earthly mission of initiating God’s Kingdom in the world.<br />

■ Jesus performed His miracles by His own authority, revealing His divinity.<br />

■ Jesus’ miracles not only showed His glory, but they also delivered people from suffering and evil, and<br />

actualized the coming of the Kingdom of God.<br />

■ After Jesus’ Ascension, His Apostles continued to heal and perform miracles in His name through the<br />

power and gifts of the Holy Spirit.<br />

■ The various visible gifts of the Spirit experienced in the life of the early Church were not an end in<br />

themselves, but a gratuitous gift from God meant to inspire deep conversion of heart and lead people to<br />

embrace the interior gifts of the Spirit..<br />

Bible Basics<br />

[Jesus] cried with a loud voice, “Laz′arus,<br />

come out.” The dead man came out, his hands<br />

and feet bound with bandages, and his face<br />

wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them,<br />

“Unbind him, and let him go.”<br />

—John 11:43–44<br />

Connections to the Catechism<br />

■ CCC 156<br />

■ CCC 434<br />

■ CCC 547–549<br />

■ CCC 2003<br />

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same<br />

Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the<br />

same Lord; and there are varieties of working,<br />

but it is the same God who inspires them all in<br />

every one. To each is given the manifestation of<br />

the Spirit for the common good.<br />

—1 Corinthians 12:4–7<br />

© Sophia Institute for Teachers<br />


Chapter 8<br />

Jesus’ Miracles<br />

Jesus performed His first<br />

public miracle at a wedding<br />

feast.<br />

Can Jesus’ miracles be examined historically? Doesn’t everyone assume<br />

they were made up, just embellishments that people added to<br />

stories back then to impress readers? Wouldn’t it be easier to focus on<br />

Jesus’ moral teachings and not worry about having to believe in literal<br />

wonder-working (miracle-working)?<br />

In fact, far from being a sideshow, Jesus’ miracles were quite central<br />

to His earthly mission. As acts of healing and deliverance, they were part<br />

of His mission to initiate God’s Kingdom in the world. And by performing<br />

these miracles by His own power (unlike the earlier prophets who<br />

invoked the power of God), Jesus demonstrated His divine authority<br />

and validated His claim as Emmanuel (“God with us”).<br />

Since this claim is the very question we are exploring in this unit, we<br />

must investigate the historical evidence for Jesus’ miracles. As with the<br />

Resurrection, the evidence is more extensive than one might initially<br />

assume.<br />

The Marriage at Cana, by Gerard David.<br />

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The Distinctiveness of Jesus’ Miracles<br />

The first point to note is that Jesus’ miracle-working was acknowledged<br />

by His contemporaries — several non-Christian sources reference<br />

it (Flavius Josephus and the Babylonian Talmud), as we saw in<br />

the previous chapter, and even His enemies did not deny it. Instead,<br />

they accused Jesus of performing those miracles by demonic power<br />

— an accusation that is reported not only in the Scriptures, but also<br />

in the Babylonian Talmud (a non-Christian source). Jesus’ miracles are<br />

documented extensively in the New Testament, with specific verifiable<br />

references to public places and times, and are mentioned in the earliest<br />

kerygmas of the Church. These documented miracles have several<br />

unique distinctions:<br />

Aa<br />


Exorcism: The miraculous<br />

casting out of demons and<br />

freeing a person or place<br />

from the bondage of Satan.<br />

Jesus performed exorcisms,<br />

and gave to His Apostles the<br />

authority to cast out demons<br />

in His name.<br />

1. Jesus performed miracles by His own authority and power,<br />

while all Old Testament prophets prayed to God asking to be<br />

an intercessor of His power. See for example when Jesus raised<br />

Jairus’ daughter from the dead, He said, “Little girl, I say to you,<br />

arise.” (Mark 5:41, emphasis added). Again, when Jesus raised<br />

the son of the widow of Nain from the dead, He said, “Young<br />

man, I say to you, arise” (Luke 7:14, emphasis added). Thus, Jesus<br />

showed that the divine power to heal and raise the dead came<br />

from Himself alone. This claim not only differentiates Jesus from<br />

the Old Testament prophets, but also implies His divinity.<br />

2. Jesus’ miracles have the purpose not only of showing His glory,<br />

but of actualizing the coming of the Kingdom and the vanquishing<br />

of evil. Jesus’ miracles always freed someone from the affliction<br />

of evil, and in some cases — like exorcisms — they freed people<br />

explicitly from the bondage of Satan.<br />

3. Jesus was not a wonderworker or magician in either the pagan<br />

or Jewish sense. A magician, then, as now, is focused on doing<br />

amazing feats simply to astonish, not to effect change in the<br />

world, as Jesus did.<br />

4. Jesus combined teaching with His miracles. Lessons on faith,<br />

forgiveness of sins, giving thanks to God, and so forth were often<br />

integrated into the performing of miracles.<br />

5. The faith/freedom of the recipient of the miracle was integral to<br />

the miraculous deed. Before working a miracle, Jesus frequently<br />

asked the recipient if they believed He could heal them. He<br />

involved their free participation in seeking healing, just as their<br />

free participation was needed to receive God’s deeper healing<br />

of salvation.<br />

© Sophia Institute for Teachers<br />

Unit 3, Chapter 8: The Historicity of Jesus’ Miracles<br />


Jesus’ miracles always have<br />

the purpose of freeing<br />

people from suffering, and of<br />

introducing God’s Kingdom.<br />

Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee, by Rembrandt van Rijn.<br />

The unique sense of purpose in Jesus’ miracles is reflected in how<br />

the Gospels report on them. As we mentioned in the last chapter, the<br />

Gospels show marked restraint in reporting miracles — there are no inflated<br />

exaggerations, or frivolous or punitive miracles. This approach<br />

is unlike pagan accounts of miracles during the same period and unlike<br />

the Gnostic Gospels, which, for example, show a young Jesus bringing<br />

clay sparrows to life and striking down a child that bumped into Him.<br />

Jesus’ miracles have a clear purpose — to deliver people from suffering<br />

and evil and to introduce God’s Kingdom.<br />

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The Historicity of Jesus’ Exorcisms and Healings<br />

Exorcisms and Healings — two kinds of miracles Jesus performed — are<br />

complementary aspects of Jesus’ mission. Jesus’ exorcisms emphasize<br />

the vanquishing of evil, while His healings emphasize the presence of<br />

God’s redeeming love. Both kinds of miracles actualize God’s Kingdom<br />

in the world.<br />

Exorcism<br />

Exorcisms are frequently cited across the Gospels (seven individual<br />

cases are narrated, in addition to several summary mentions of exorcisms<br />

in Jesus’ ministry) indicating that they formed a significant part<br />

of Jesus’ ministry. The accounts are consistent and restrained, featuring<br />

Jesus’ unique use of His own power, as He Himself commands the<br />

demons to come out of the people they are afflicting.<br />

Healing<br />

References to healing are even more frequent in the Gospels. Fifteen<br />

unique cases are described, in addition to dozens of references in other<br />

contexts, including the accusations of the Scribes that Jesus performed<br />

miracles by the power of demons and the account of Jesus<br />

conferring the power of healing on His disciples. Again, the accounts of<br />

these miracles illustrate Jesus exercising His own power. Miracles occur<br />

typically in response to someone’s petition to help them with a need,<br />

so the miracle is worked through the faith of the petitioner. It is often<br />

further linked to a relevant spiritual teaching. Notably, these stories frequently<br />

contain place names, personal names, and unusual details that<br />

would be easy for a contemporary reader to verify or refute. We can<br />

see all these characteristics in perhaps the most dramatic miracles of<br />

healing Jesus performed — the raising of the dead.<br />


Raising the dead is rarer in the Gospel accounts than other kinds of<br />

miracles — there are three specific stories that are reported in three<br />

different narrative traditions (Mark, Luke, and John), all of which have<br />

Palestinian origins (showing composition near the time of Jesus) and<br />

proper names of people, towns, and local details (all of which were verifiable<br />

when the narratives were circulated). The miraculous raising of<br />

the dead in these accounts should be distinguished from Jesus’ own<br />

Resurrection. They are not a transformation like the Resurrection, but<br />

simply a restoration of the person’s former corporeal state. They are<br />

Miracles occur<br />

typically in<br />

response to<br />

someone’s<br />

petition to<br />

help them<br />

with a need, so<br />

the miracle is<br />

worked through<br />

the faith of the<br />

petitioner.<br />

© Sophia Institute for Teachers<br />

Unit 3, Chapter 8: The Historicity of Jesus’ Miracles<br />


also temporary, where spiritual resurrection is eternal. Despite these<br />

differences, the incidents of raising the dead are significant in demonstrating<br />

Jesus’ power over life and death (and thus illustrating His divinity,<br />

since this power is reserved to God alone).<br />


Jairus, a synagogue leader, asked Jesus to heal his sick daughter. On<br />

their way, news came that the daughter had died and Jairus should not<br />

waste Jesus’ time. Jesus persuaded Jairus to continue, however, and<br />

He brought the daughter to life. The historicity of this story is supported<br />

by its local and verifiable details, such as including a high-ranking official<br />

by name. As with other Gospel stories, the strict reporting does not<br />

shy away from embarrassing and disturbing elements — when Jesus arrived<br />

at the house full of mourners and announced His intent to raise<br />

the girl, they laughed Him to scorn and He had them removed from the<br />

house. Why would this detail be reported by a Christian author if it were<br />

not true? Furthermore, the narratives have several Semitisms (Hebrew<br />

or Aramaic expressions), such as “Talitha koum,” that show an ancient<br />

Palestinian origin (indicative of Jesus’ time, but not the time when the<br />

Gospels were written).<br />


Jesus encountered a funeral procession in the small village of Nain — a<br />

widow was burying her only son. Jesus was moved with compassion for<br />

her and, stopping the procession, told the young man to rise. Again, details<br />

of the story favor its being historical rather than invented. Many idiosyncratic<br />

terms in the story are not found elsewhere in the Gospel and<br />

are thus unlikely to have been invented by the writer. How would the<br />

writer know and include specific details of this remote village, such as its<br />

gate (a fact which has recently been confirmed by archaeology)? Also,<br />

one must question why a writer would single out such a small obscure<br />

village by name for a made-up miracle. At that size, everyone in town<br />

would know whether such an unusual miracle had happened, and if it<br />

had not happened, undoubtedly refuted it. This would have led to loss<br />

of credibility and reputation on the part of the Apostles, which evidently<br />

did not happen.<br />

LAZARUS (JOHN 11:1–44)<br />

The raising of Lazarus is perhaps the most well-known account of Jesus<br />

raising the dead. This narrative recounts Jesus raising a man four days<br />

after his death. Like the other accounts, it contains verifiable local<br />

154 Apologetics I: The Catholic Faith and Science<br />

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Raising of Jairus Daughter, Fresco in the Church Saint Augustine’s, Kilburn.<br />

details — naming both Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary, and<br />

the region, Bethany, where the story takes place. And like the other accounts,<br />

it demonstrates Jesus raising the dead through the power of<br />

His own command, calling Lazarus to “come out” from the tomb.<br />

As we said at the outset, the question of Jesus’ miracles is significant<br />

both because it demonstrates His identity as Emmanuel (“God<br />

with us”), and because it forms an active part of His mission to establish<br />

the Kingdom of God on earth. How did Jesus continue that mission<br />

after He had ascended to Heaven? We turn now to the unique gift that<br />

Jesus conferred on the early Church — the gift of His Holy Spirit.<br />

Mark’s account of the raising<br />

of Jairus’s daughter includes<br />

local, verifiable details.<br />

Jesus’ Gift of the Holy Spirit<br />

We have discussed how the early Church was spurred to action by the<br />

Resurrection, filled with enthusiasm and outreach right at the point<br />

when other messianic movements would normally have disbanded. But<br />

the Early Church grew into a worldwide movement because it also animated<br />

others, in part by continuing Jesus’ mission of healing and miracles.<br />

Whereas Jesus had performed miracles through His own power,<br />

His disciples now performed miracles in Jesus’ name. Jesus had<br />

© Sophia Institute for Teachers<br />

Unit 3, Chapter 8: The Historicity of Jesus’ Miracles<br />


Charismata: St. Paul’s term<br />

for the visible gifts of the Holy<br />

Spirit; a term that refers to a<br />

gratuitous gift for the good of<br />

another.<br />

promised to send the Holy Spirit upon His disciples, and it was the power<br />

of the Holy Spirit to which they attributed their new ability to work<br />

miracles.<br />

Looking through the account of the early years of Christianity, as<br />

laid out in the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles, we find there<br />

were three kinds of powerful experiences in the early Church that the<br />

disciples attributed to the power of God: healing and miracles, prophesy,<br />

and ecstatic experiences (such as glossolalia [speaking in tongues]<br />

and visions).<br />

St. Paul also discusses these experiences in some of his letters in<br />

the New Testament. The term he uses for these visible gifts of the Spirit<br />

is “charismata,” (1 Corinthians 12:4–6) a term that refers to a gratuitous<br />

gift for the good of another — in this case, God’s gratuitous gift of salvation.<br />

Paul makes it clear that these wonders are always done through<br />

the power of God (in the name of Jesus) and are intended to lead people<br />

to conversion. These experiences illustrate that the early Church<br />

St. Paul emphasized that the<br />

Holy Spirit’s gifts build up<br />

the Church and strengthen<br />

personal conversion.<br />

The Apostle Paul, by Rembrandt van Rijn.<br />

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© Magis Center

saw the charisms as explicit manifestations of God’s power through His<br />

Spirit, and that the Risen Jesus is seen to be the source of this power/<br />

Spirit (because the Spirit works through His name).<br />

Paul emphasizes that the visible gifts of the Spirit are not an end in<br />

themselves but should lead people to the interior gifts of the Spirit that<br />

produce deep conversion of heart. The Holy Spirit is not just a force that<br />

can create powerful healings and miracles, but also leads us to personal<br />

conversion revealed in the experience of the Spirit’s gifts: prayer, hope,<br />

trust, love, zeal, peace, and joy. These gifts are less dramatic than the<br />

miraculous visible gifts, but are ultimately more important for building<br />

the Church and strengthening our own personal conversion, the lasting<br />

legacy that Christ’s gift of the Holy Spirit is intended to bring us.<br />

Conclusion<br />

Thus far, in Unit 3, we have encountered four significant clues in our<br />

investigation of the evidence for Jesus as the unconditionally loving<br />

“God with us” (Emmanuel):<br />

1. His unconditional love — He preached about the unconditional<br />

love of God, His Father (Abba), and He demonstrated this<br />

special agapē love in His willingness to sacrifice Himself totally<br />

for all humankind.<br />

The Holy<br />

Spirit leads us<br />

to personal<br />

conversion<br />

revealed in the<br />

experience of<br />

the Spirit’s gifts:<br />

prayer, hope,<br />

trust, love, zeal,<br />

peace, and joy.<br />

2. His Resurrection in a glorious spiritual body.<br />

3. The miraculous exorcisms, healings, and raising of the dead done<br />

by His own authority and Power.<br />

4. His gift of the Holy Spirit, enabling the apostolic church to<br />

perform miracles in His name. Recall the question that the<br />

early Church converts would have asked themselves before<br />

converting, “If the Apostles were lying about Jesus’ Resurrection<br />

and divinity, why would God work miracles through their hands<br />

by the power of His Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus?” It would<br />

certainly be against God’s best interests to have done so if the<br />

Apostles were lying. However, the miracles were quite powerful<br />

and real, and so early converts believed that the Apostles were<br />

telling the truth about the Resurrection and glory and the divinity<br />

of Jesus..<br />

These various forms of complementary evidence give strong reasons<br />

to conclude that Jesus is the unconditionally loving Emmanuel,<br />

“God with us.” But, in the next two chapters, we must consider a few<br />

additional pieces of evidence for Christ.<br />

© Sophia Institute for Teachers<br />

Unit 3, Chapter 8: The Historicity of Jesus’ Miracles<br />


Focus and Reflection Questions<br />

1 What was the purpose of Jesus’ miracles? How were His miracles different from those of earlier<br />

prophets?<br />

2 How is Jesus different from a magician or wonderworker?<br />

3 What was integral for the recipients of Jesus’ miracles? How did Jesus show this when He spoke to<br />

them?<br />

4 How do the Gnostic accounts of miracles differ from the Gospel accounts?<br />

5 What are two complementary actions of Jesus’ mission and what do they emphasize?<br />

6 How does Jesus show His power over demons?<br />

7 How many unique instances of miraculous healing are mentioned in the Gospels? How do we know<br />

that there were more?<br />

8 What is an example from the Gospels of Jesus raising another person from the dead? What detail in<br />

the Gospel account supports it being an authentic occurrence?<br />

9 How are the stories of Jesus raising people from the dead different from His own Resurrection?<br />

10 How did Christ choose to continue His mission after the Resurrection? What gift did He give to<br />

accomplish this?<br />

11 How did the disciples perform miracles and healings?<br />

12 What were the three powerful experiences in the Early Church that the disciples attributed to the<br />

power of God?<br />

13 What is the true purpose of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit?<br />

158 Apologetics I: The Catholic Faith and Science<br />

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Straight to the Source<br />


Catechism of the Catholic Church 547–550<br />

547 Jesus accompanies his words with many “mighty works and wonders and signs”, which manifest<br />

that the kingdom is present in him and attest that he was the promised Messiah.<br />

548 The signs worked by Jesus attest that the Father has sent him. They invite belief in him. To those<br />

who turn to him in faith, he grants what they ask. So miracles strengthen faith in the One who does his<br />

Father’s works; they bear witness that he is the Son of God. But his miracles can also be occasions for<br />

“offense”; they are not intended to satisfy people’s curiosity or desire for magic. Despite his evident<br />

miracles some people reject Jesus; he is even accused of acting by the power of demons.<br />

549 By freeing some individuals from the earthly evils of hunger, injustice, illness and death, Jesus performed<br />

messianic signs. Nevertheless he did not come to abolish all evils here below, but to free men<br />

from the gravest slavery, sin, which thwarts them in their vocation as God’s sons and causes all forms of<br />

human bondage.<br />

550 The coming of God’s kingdom means the defeat of Satan’s: “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast<br />

out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Jesus’ exorcisms free some individuals<br />

from the domination of demons. They anticipate Jesus’ great victory over “the ruler of this world”. The<br />

kingdom of God will be definitively established through Christ’s cross: “God reigned from the wood.”<br />

1 What did Jesus reveal about Himself through His words, works, signs, and wonders?<br />

2 If Jesus has saved us, why, according to the Catechism, are there still evils here on earth?<br />

3 How will the Kingdom of God be “definitively established”?<br />

Angelus, July 8, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI<br />

Dear Brothers and Sisters, I would like to reflect briefly on this Sunday’s Gospel passage. It is taken from<br />

the text that has the famous saying “Nemo propheta in patria”. In other words no prophet is properly<br />

accepted among his own people who watched him grow up (cf. Mk 6:4). Indeed after Jesus, when he<br />

was about 30 years old, had left Nazareth and had already been traveling about preaching and working<br />

miracles of healing elsewhere, he once returned to his birthplace and started teaching in the synagogue.<br />

His fellow citizens “were astonished” by his wisdom, and knowing him as “the son of Mary”, as the carpenter<br />

who had lived in their midst, instead of welcoming him with faith were shocked and took offense<br />

(cf. Mk 6:2-3). This reaction is understandable because familiarity at the human level makes it difficult<br />

to go beyond this in order to be open to the divine dimension. That this son of a carpenter was the Son<br />

of God was hard for them to believe. Jesus actually takes as an example the experience of the prophets<br />

© Sophia Institute for Teachers<br />

Unit 3, Chapter 8: The Historicity of Jesus’ Miracles<br />


of Israel, who in their own homeland were an object of contempt and identifies himself with them. Due<br />

to this spiritual closure Jesus “could do no mighty work there [Nazareth], except that he laid his hands<br />

upon a few sick people and healed them” (Mk 6:5). In fact, Christ’s miracles are not a display of power<br />

but signs of the love of God that is brought into being wherever it encounters reciprocated human faith.<br />

Origen writes: “as in the case of material things there exists in some things a natural attraction towards<br />

some other thing, as in the magnet for iron ... so there is an attraction in such faith towards the divine<br />

power” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 10, 19). It would therefore seem that Jesus—as is said—<br />

is making sense of the negative welcome he received in Nazareth. Instead, at the end of the account, we<br />

find a remark that says precisely the opposite. The Evangelist writes that Jesus “marveled because of<br />

their unbelief” (Mk 6:6). The astonishment of Jesus’ fellow townspeople is matched by his own surprise.<br />

In a certain sense he too is shocked! Although he knows that no prophet is well accepted in his homeland,<br />

the closed heart of his people was nevertheless obscure and impenetrable to him: how could they<br />

fail to recognize the light of the Truth? Why did they not open themselves to the goodness of God who<br />

deigned to share in our humanity? Effectively Jesus of Nazareth the man is the transparency of God, in<br />

him God dwells fully. And while we are constantly seeking other signs, other miracles, we do not realize<br />

that he is the true Sign, God made flesh, he is the greatest miracle in the world: the whole of God’s love<br />

contained in a human heart, in a man’s face. The One who fully understood this reality was the Virgin<br />

Mary, who is blessed because she believed (cf. Lk 1:45). Mary was not shocked by her Son: her wonder<br />

for him was full of faith, full of love and joy, in seeing him so human and at the same time so divine. Let<br />

us therefore learn from her, our Mother in faith, to recognize in the humanity of Christ the perfect revelation<br />

of God.<br />

1 How does Pope Benedict explain the fact that Jesus was not accepted in His own birthplace?<br />

2 What are Christ’s miracles truly a display of?<br />

3 What does Pope Benedict say is the greatest miracle of all? Why?<br />

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Summa Theologica, III, Q. 43, Art. 4, St. Thomas Aquinas, ca. 1225–1274<br />

I answer that, The miracles which Christ worked were a sufficient proof of His Godhead in three respects.<br />

First, as to the very nature of the works, which surpassed the entire capability of created power,<br />

and therefore could not be done save by Divine power. For this reason, the blind man, after his sight<br />

had been restored, said (Jn 9:32,33): “From the beginning of the world it has not been heard, that any<br />

man hath opened the eyes of one born blind. Unless this man were of God, he could not do anything.”<br />

Secondly, as to the way in which He worked miracles–namely, because He worked miracles as though<br />

of His own power, and not by praying, as others do. Wherefore it is written (Lk 6:19) that “virtue went<br />

out from Him and healed all.” Whereby it is proved, as Cyril says (Comment. in Lucam) that “He did not<br />

receive power from another, but being God by nature, He showed His own power over the sick. And this<br />

is how He worked countless miracles.” Hence on Mt 8:16: “He cast out spirits with His word, and all that<br />

were sick He healed,” Chrysostom says: “Mark how great a multitude of persons healed, the Evangelists<br />

pass quickly over, not mentioning one by one ... but in one word traversing an unspeakable sea of miracles.”<br />

And thus, it was shown that His power was co-equal with that of God the Father, according to Jn<br />

5:19: “What things soever” the Father “doth, these the Son doth also in like manner”; and, again (Jn 5:21):<br />

“As the Father raiseth up the dead and giveth life, so the Son also giveth life to whom He will.” Thirdly,<br />

from the very fact that He taught that He was God; for unless this were true it would not be confirmed<br />

by miracles worked by Divine power. Hence it was said (Mk 1:27): “What is this new doctrine? For with<br />

power He commandeth the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.”<br />

1 According to St. Thomas, in what three respects do Christ’s miracles prove that He is God?<br />

2 Choose one of St. Thomas’s proofs and put it into your own words, as if you were explaining it to a<br />

friend or family member.<br />

3 Which of these arguments was most striking to you? Why?<br />

© Sophia Institute for Teachers<br />

Unit 3, Chapter 8: The Historicity of Jesus’ Miracles<br />


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