The theory, explaining the miracles

© 2005 Dr. Barbara Thiering (April, 2005)

The major part of the space in all gospels is taken up with accounts of miracles. Some are healing miracles, which can perhaps be accepted if you believe in the mental source of much illness. But can it go so far that a word from a man at a distance can bring about healing, as in John 4: 48-52? And is it really possible to raise people from the dead, as in the case of Lazarus (John 11: 1-46), Jairus' daughter (Mark 5: 21-43), the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17); or, in Acts, Dorcas (Acts 9:36-43) and Eutychus (Acts 20:7-12)?

Does it not reduce respect for Jesus, even in the ancient world, to give space to nature miracles, such as walking on water (John 6:16-21)), stilling a storm (Mark 4:35-41), withering a fig-tree with a word for a capricious reason (Mark 11:12-14), feeding 5000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish (John 6:1-14), sending demons into 2000 pigs and causing their destruction (Mark 5:1-20)? Where is there reference to these actions in other parts of the New Testament, as proofs of his divine power?

We avert our eyes from these stories now, having learned to dismiss them as part of the beliefs of that ancient dreamtime in which we think Christianity arose. Biblical critics in the 19th century did their best, offering parallels from the Old Testament about the way such legends could arise and be preserved in oral tradition. It was essential to their case that there must be as long a gap as possible between the time of Jesus and the setting down of these legends in the gospels, so they dated the gospels late in the century.

But the Dead Sea Scrolls no longer allow us to think of the period of Christian origins as a kind of dreamtime, one that relied on oral tradition. We are dealing with intellectually sophisticated people studying the best science of their day in ascetic schools, with full writing facilities.

We have another gift from the Dead Sea Scrolls - their theory of scripture. For them, the Old Testament books and especially the Old Testament prophets were for two kinds of audience: first, those who heard no more than the immediately obvious meaning, with a moral content, such as that the righteous will prosper and the wicked will be punished. Or that at a time in the past, a prophet had faith that God would punish the Babylonians, and this was a lesson about faith. These were people who normally heard their scriptures read aloud in worship, but were not taught to read them and did not have access to the written text.

A more restricted audience, however, taught by the Teacher of Righteousness, were convinced that the surface was just a cover for a description of actual events that were occurring in the time of the Teacher. A close study yielded a pesher, a word meaning 'interpretation' but in the sense of 'solution', solution of a puzzle. The word is related to the word for 'interpretation of dreams' (pesher, pithron). The Teacher had the God-given ability to find the account of events that had been divinely placed in the text, just like a Joseph or Daniel who was given by God the meaning of the king's dreams. This theory is explicitly stated in 1QpHab 7:1-5, concerning the book of the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk. "God told Habakkuk to write down what was going to happen to the Last Generation, but the end of the period He did not make known to him. And as for what he said in Habakkuk 2:2, 'That he who reads it may run', its pesher concerns the Teacher of Righteousness, to whom God made known all the mysteries of the words of His servants the prophets."

The Babylonians of Habakkuk were not just a past example of oppressors. The Teacher taught that the description was actually that of the present-day Romans, and every detail of the Habakkuk text 'proved' that assertion, in its applicability to contemporary events. When the pesher of Psalm 37 was revealed, on the subject of the righteous and wicked, universals were turned into particulars, so that the sectarian could be certain, on the authority of scripture, that the Righteous Teacher would be vindicated and the Wicked Priest would be punished.

The New Testament also speaks of two kinds of audience. We tend to avert our eyes from what it frequently says, because of the apparent elitism. It states that there are two kinds of Christian believers, the 'babes in Christ' and the more mature (1 Corinthians 3:1-2; Hebrews 6:1-8). Jesus is quoted as saying that for outsiders, everything is in parables, but for an inner circle the parables have specific meanings concerning different kinds of members of the Christian institution Mark 4: 10-12. Revelation 17:9 says that a mind with wisdom will understand the mystery of the woman and of the beast, that 'the seven heads are seven mountains' . Only some people had enough information to recognise the allusion to Rome, disguised for political reasons. Rome in Revelation 18:2-3 is called by the code-name Babylon, as also in 1 Peter 5:13, so that in a tense political environment only certain informed people would know what it meant, recognising a prediction of the downfall of Rome. Both Mark and Revelation use the term 'mystery' for the form that is given to outsiders. 1QpHab 7:15 uses the pair of Hebrew words raz, 'mystery', for the outer form of scripture and pesher 'solution' for its concealed historical meaning.

These were clues leading me to what at first was a hypothesis. Supposing a group holding the Qumran definition of a two-level scripture set out to write a new scripture, would they not be obliged, on their own definition, to construct their new scripture in two levels? Supposing also that they had a history that they wanted to preserve, yet confine to an inner elite group, would not the pesher theory of scripture serve them very well? Their ordinary members would benefit from the surface meanings concerning morality, while the inner group would discover actual historical events concerning their institution.

The New Testament writers held the same definition of scripture as at Qumran, that the Old Testament prophets were actually talking about Jesus, even though his history could not have been known to the prophets when they wrote. Both sets of writers comment on the same verse 'the righteous shall live by faith', each applying it to its own leader (1QpHab 8:1-3, Romans 1:17). Matthew in particular frequently quotes the prophets, with an application to an event in the life of Jesus, with the formula 'This was to fulfil that which was spoken by the prophet...' A good example is Matthew's use of Hosea 11:1, 'Out of Egypt I have called my son'. He applies it in Matthew 2:15 to the infant Jesus being brought back from Egypt after the death of Herod. But if you look up Hosea 11:1, you will find that in its context it refers back to the past, the Exodus, when Israel was led by Moses out of Egypt.

If the evangelists were applying their definition of scripture by writing a two-level scripture, there would have to be an important difference. The Qumran treatment of the Old Testament was, as they must have known, quite arbitrary. They had to force their meanings into a text that was not set up for it. This time however, the text would be set up for it. It would be constructed in such a way that every member of the inner group would find the same pesher. That would mean a totally objective approach, with no speculation or private interpretation permitted.

The method would be to use ordinary words with special, particular, or technical meanings, just as the pesharist of the psalms used universals in the sense of particulars. If terms had special meanings, then the same meaning would have to be found every time the word occurs. The writers would have been drawing on an established Lexicon of special meanings. The contexts in which the word recurs must make sense, and be consistent with all other contexts. Their overall meaning must be consistent with what is already known. There were thus multiple tests of consistency, requiring a great deal of hard work over the whole text before one could be certain of the special meaning. In addition, there proved to be another set of special meanings, concerning calendar and chronology, necessitating mathematical consistency.

As the study developed and this treatment of the text proved to be successful, meeting every test of consistency, I had to recognise that what we have is in fact one great puzzle. It is a puzzle with a solution, the same solution for all experts working on it. The procedures were much like solving a cryptic crossword, which can only come out one way. I had to use words like 'code', leading, unfortunately, to much misuse of the word in subsequent popular books. Such an observation accounts, of course, for part of the resistance to my work by the theological establishment, which could hardly be expected to understand at once a concept that seemed to trivialise scripture.

Moreover, the concealed history concerned natural events only. The 'miracles' were found to be accounts of natural events, describing the reforms that Jesus made in the previous Qumran community, to which he and his Gentile following had belonged but now rejected. There were no supernatural events. The 'virgin birth' and the 'resurrection' have a natural explanation. This was, of course, the major reason for the outcry against my work by conservative churchmen.

I can only say in reply that I have deep religious awe for that which is beyond human formulations. I do not think that spiritual health should be made to depend on certain events that happened in the Mediterranean world 2000 years ago. I think also that attachment to a single book, in any religion, is a product of the educational limitations of the past. But I would rather leave such reflections until I have been able to illustrate what I mean, in subsequent entries here. I'll go on next to the history given by the pesher.

Note concerning texts and translations. The pesher can only be fully found in the Greek text of the gospels and Acts, in Codex Vaticanus (Sinaiticus for Revelation). It does result in setting aside supposed Aramaic originals, a project that was never really convincing. A modern translation can take the English reader part of the way, enough to test consistency. It really does not help to use the King James Authorised Version. It's not just a matter of its 'ye' and 'thou' and other antiquated English. Since King James' time in 1611, better original texts have been found, and there are more accurate translations. The Revised Standard Version still stands up as a good one.