Natural Explanations

This section is a good starting point for new visitors to the site, containing summaries with links to the main sections.

The essential thrust of Dr Barbara Thiering's research has been to show that the gospels themselves are supplying natural explanations of the "miracles". The apparent miracles were deliberately composed for the "babes in Christ". But each miracle story is actually recording a significant event in the career of Jesus, who was no more than a human figure, a great political leader in his time.

Index of Explanations

Each "miracle" will contain a short form of the real history. Links will take you to the fuller information on the site.


Mary mother of Jesus was a Virgin when she conceived Jesus simply because she was a nun. She and Joseph had not yet had their wedding, but had been betrothed for a long time. Joseph was the biological father of Jesus.

It follows from the Essene connection. When it is recognized, as the Dead Sea Scrolls oblige us to do (See Section 1: The Dead Sea Scrolls), that the Christian Church came out of the Essenes, then we have to take into account their strict rules about sex. For the Essenes, total abstinence from sex made a man "holy", living in a monastery. But because they also aimed to preserve the great dynasties of the past, including that of the David kings, they had another rule for the descendants. These normally lived in a monastery, but from time to time left it in order to cohabit with their wives, only for the purpose of procreation.

Joseph was a descendant of the line of David kings, as the genealogies of Jesus show. He and Mary were betrothed, and should have waited, but gave way to temptation. Jesus was consequently a pre-nuptial son of Joseph, and on a strict view was illegitimate. That charge was brought against him by his enemies, whose attacks on him, using pseudonyms,are found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

(For more information see "The Virgin Birth" in Section 2).

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According to John 11 Lazarus, a friend of Jesus, had died and Jesus brought him back to life. Other raisings from the dead are introduced in the gospels and Acts. These are the stories that do most to discredit the Christian claims to thinking people.

Once again, it is the Essene connection that throws floods of light on these stories and gives us what has been hidden in them, the actual history of the real Jesus.

The Essenes lived in monasteries, where they devoted themselves to a holy life, without sex or property , dedicated to prayer and higher learning. When they entered the monastery, they were "born again" by being admitted to a new spiritual family. At their solemn initiation ceremony, they received "Life", a symbolic, spiritual life. If any of them broke the strict rules, they were made to perform penances, and in severe cases were excommunicated. From having Life, they went out to Death, a spiritual death. The same symbolism was preserved in the Christian Church. Excommunication was a very serious matter indeed, social death.

The sins for which they could be excommunicated included heresy. In the time of Jesus it was heresy for them to renounce their strict Jewish beliefs and accept the new hellenistic learning that was spreading everywhere. Jesus himself, although born into the Essene community and potentially one of its leaders, became such a heretic. Both his challenge to orthodoxy and his illegitimacy (See Virgin Birth in the index above) caused him to be rejected.

His friend "Lazarus" was another heretic of the same kind. He was Simon Magus, a Samaritan, who was a major figure in the history. He and Jesus, with many followers, were in the process of breaking away from the Essene system. Their schismatic party claimed independent authority, so much so that Jesus dared to lift the ban of excommunication on Simon , "raise him from the dead" - symbolically.

Simon had been placed in a tomb, dressed in graveclothes, a practice preserved in the medieval Christian Church. Jesus stood outside the tomb and shouted, "Lazarus, come forth !". He came out, still in his graveclothes, to be accepted in the schismatic party as one of its supreme leaders.

(For more information see "The Political Jesus" & "The Resurrection"in Section 2).

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The most ridiculed miracle of the gospels must be the one about Jesus walking on water John 6:16-21; Mark 6:45-52). According to the story, he had not come with the disciples when they made a boat journey. But in the early morning, about 3 am, he came to them walking on water. They thought he was an apparition (phantasma) but he told them not to fear, joined them in the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land. Matthew adds Matthew 14:22-33 that Peter tried to walk on water but began to sink because he did not have enough faith, and was helped by Jesus.

The series of seven "miracles" in John's gospel, including this one, may be shown to be the work of Jesus himself. (See "Explaining the miracles"in Section 2 and in my book: "The Book That Jesus Wrote: John's Gospel" 1998, Transworld Doubleday; for detail on the seven miracles.) Each one records something important that Jesus did as a political leader, none of it miraculous. The outer form of the story was for the very naïve, for those lacking in critical insight, the "babes". The more unbelievable the story, the more it would provoke those with developing rationality to look for a natural explanation. This particularly outrageous one had such a purpose. It was a legpull, a joke, the product of the wit of Jesus.

If you would turn to our Section 7, the pesher of John 21, you would see the explanation. At the ruin at Khirbet Mazin, just south of the great headland of Ras Feshkha , at the point where the Kidron runs into the Dead Sea, the archeologists found the remains of a great watergate to which a water channel had led up, now silted. As the pesher shows, a very long jetty, 200 cubits (100 yards) had run the length of the water channel. At its end, a boat was moored, employed in the initiation drama of a "Noah's ark". Gentiles, who by definition were very "unclean", were brought up out of the thick salty water of the Dead Sea, hauled on board the boat, and carried on it in to the watergate, where they stepped out on the dry land of "salvation", that is membership of the Jewish faith. These Gentiles corresponded to the sons of Noah - Shem, Ham and Japheth - who were saved from the catastrophic flood on board Noah's ark.

Their instructors, such as Peter, went with them through the water. But after they came on board the boat they were blessed by a priest. He wore heavy vestments, and could not wade through the water. He came out along the jetty, where he stood alone to receive the Gentiles. For those who objected to his priestly apartness, it was a derisive joke to say that a priest "walked on water", that is above the water of the channel.

But for Jesus, it meant a claim to full priesthood. That was the decisive matter that determined his whole ministry- see an outline of it in the answer to the question on "Jesus as a High Priest". When he "walked on water" he was illustrating his belief that ordinary men could become priests through ordination, not by heredity like a Jewish priest. Peter saw the point, but he could not give up his lay status, could not see that the two offices could be combined. It was Peter's objection to Jesus' claim to full priesthood that caused him to deny Jesus at his trial.

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The story of Jesus feeding thousands of people with a few loaves and fishes is the only one, apart from the Passion, that is found in all four gospels. Yet it must be the second most unbelievable, and the second silliest, after the walking on water. Did the evangelists not notice that they were doing nothing for the theological significance of Jesus by presenting him as a thaumaturge, a popular miracle worker who performed tricks for no necessary reason? (John 6:1-14; Mark 6:30-44; Mark 8:1-21; Luke 9:10-17; Matthew 14:13-21; Matthew 15:32-39)

In two of the gospels, Mark and Matthew, he did it twice.The first time he fed 5000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish, and 12 baskets of leftover fragments were gathered up afterwards. The second time, he fed 4000 people with 7 loaves and a few fish, and 7 baskets of fragments were gathered up. All very precise. If it was a myth, as liberal biblical scholars have held, why would the evangelists go out of their way to make up exact figures?

In Mark's gospel, the second occasion was followed by the Riddle of the Loaves. Jesus rebuked the disciples for not understanding the meaning of the figures. "When I broke the 5 loaves for the 5000, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?" They answered him, "12". He went on, "And the 7 for the 4000, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?" They said to him, "7". He said to them, "Do you not yet understand?" But who would?

It was the late Austin Farrer, an English scholar and theologian, whose books first aroused my interest in the Riddle of the Loaves. Despite the derision of his critics, whose reviews I read in the journals, he said that the figures must mean something, and pointed to other sections of Mark's gospel that seem to be constructed according to numerical schemes.

To his insights may be added the flood of new information from the Dead Sea Scrolls about the Essenes, who practiced Pythagorean numerical systems.

The feeding of the multitude is found in all four gospels because it is the record of the foundation of the Christian apostolic succession. From that point, the Christian ministry began, with ordinations that began the transmission of priestly authority from those times to the present.

The 12 sacred loaves of the Presence were eaten every day by the Essene priests and celibates. They could be served and eaten only by a priest or a celibate of equal "purity". A loaf was a symbol of a priest or levite. They were so precious that when they were broken and eaten the fragments falling from them were collected and given to the leaders of the pilgrims who had brought to Qumran the grain needed to make the loaves, giving them a degree of sanctity. The custom had gone on for centuries, and in the time of Jesus, when a revolution in the ascetic movement was taking place, celibate Gentiles were classed with pilgrims. They were given the fragments, a daring move.

But that was not enough for the party of Jesus. Gentiles were being given equality, and they were now given equality of priesthood. The lowest kind of Gentiles were made equal to the highest level of Essene priests, made into "loaves". When Jesus' Gentile party broke away, these men were its priests, made so by ordination not by birth. The "fish" with which they were also fed were the Gentiles initiated in the Noah's ark ceremony (See "Walking on Water" in this Section and pesher of John 21).

There were not 5000 men present, only one man, the head of the whole sub-division of the 12000 Gentiles who - on the model of the Pythagorean right-angled triangle - were divided 3 (3000), 4 (4000) and 5 (5000). The 5000 were the lowest grade, equal to married men who had meetings every month, 12 times a year, under 12 leaders, the "baskets". The 4000 were a higher grade, holding meetings every day of the week, so used 7 loaves, their leaders forming 7 "baskets". The 3000 appear in Acts 2:41, under a different kind of leadership appearing only once a year; these did not continue in the system in this form.

This was the history behind the bread in the Christian communion service. The wine part came from another "miracle". I'll give more on that later on.

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At a social occasion which Jesus attended there were six large jars full of water, and when it was poured out it was fermented wine (John 2:1-11). Sheer magic. Did it prove that Jesus was the Son of God? It was strange that when it happened the steward did not even comment on the miracle, but complained that the good wine had been kept till too late in the evening.

There is an explanation that is much more serious and worthy. It was the occasion of a revolutionary social change, giving Jesus the stature of a Ghandi or a Martin Luther King. In every meal room of the community there were seats for the priests in the northern part of the room, which ended in a dais. South from the dais stood seats for the congregation. Near the back row of the congregation sat men who were classed as servants. They could just be admitted to the meetings of the ascetics, because they had been baptized in water. At communal meals they were given a cup of water to drink. But that was all. There was a clear distinction between people who were merely baptized in water and those who were admitted to the communion meal, which included drinking sacred wine. The same distinction is still held in the Christian church, but it is applied to children and adults.

The servant class sitting at the back had come to include some Gentiles, who were attracted to the teaching of the Jewish ascetic movement. Since they were not permitted to receive full initiation which would make them "men", they were called "children". Celibates of the Gentile order of Dan were called paidia, Nazirites of the Gentile order of Asher were called tekna, both words meaning "children". When Jesus said "Let the children (paidia) come to me" (Mark 10:14) its pesher is that Gentiles should be given full membership. (The verse is a good example of surface meanings also having validity, for it was intended to mean that actual children should be educated in the schools).

These Gentiles were not only grown men, but followed the same high level of celibate discipline as did the Jewish celibates. The revolution of Jesus was to say that they should all be given the same privileges. It is made clear in the Qumran Community Rule 6:20-23 that the taking of wine was one of the main privileges of full membership, following a two year preparation that included baptism in water. Now, the "water was turned into wine". Gentiles were invited to come forward from the back rows, to kneel at the dais, and receive both the bread and the wine of the sacred communion meal.

The event is described as the first Sign that Jesus did, and it is followed by more, giving a total of 7. These stories form the backbone of John's gospel. They describe in progressive order the changes that Jesus made in the existing regulations of the Qumran community, the regulations that are now known to us from the Dead Sea Scrolls. As the first step, Gentiles were given full initiation. In subsequent Signs they were taken through the grades of education of priests up to the highest stages of ministry, culminating in the "raising of Lazarus". The full history of Jesus and the formation of the Christian church is being given by this means - for those who had "eyes to see and ears to hear".

See further detail of this "miracle" in "Water into Wine"in Section 2.

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In Mark's version (Mark 5:1-13) Jesus arrived by boat in the country of the Gerasenes and was met by a man called Legion. He had an unclean spirit, lived among the tombs, and was so wild that no one had strength to subdue him.Jesus said to him "Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!" The man begged him not to send him out of the country. The story goes on:

"Now a great herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside, and they (the spirits) begged him, 'Send us to the swine, let us enter them'. So he gave them leave. And the unclean spirits came out, and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about 2000, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea."

In Matthew's version (Matthew 8:28-34) Jesus arrived at the counry of the Gadarenes and was met by two demoniacs. The demons begged him to send them into the swine. Then the whole herd rushed down into the sea and died in the water.

For 19th century biblical critics, the story was made up anyway, so it was easy to change one demoniac into two. They assumed an origin among illiterate fanciful people who would invent anything about a charismatic figure. They never explained why the evangelists , who were trying to revere Jesus, would include a story that showed him as a destroyer of a farmer's livelihood.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son , the erring son was sent into a far country to feed swine (Luke 15:15 ). Pigs were forbidden food to Jews, the prohibition for which they were most notorious (Leviticus 11:7).

In Rome on the Tiber Island stood the house of Antipas Herod, an important figure in the pesher. After the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC, two of his sons, Antipas and Archelaus, both held that they had the right to the succession. They brought their dispute before the Roman courts. Jews living in Rome, of whom there were many, were socially divided between the two contenders. According to Josephus, "When (Antipas) arrived in Rome, all his relatives went over to his side, not out of goodwill to him but because of their hatred of Archelaus." (Josephus, Antiquities 17, 227).

Antipas appears elsewhere in Josephus' record as an indolent character, who came under the domination of his wife Herodias whom he married contrary to levitical law, for she had been the wife of his half-brother. In order to marry her, Antipas had divorced the daughter of the Arab king Aretas, thus causing a border war. (Josephus, Antiquities 18, 109-115). Antipas therefore had no scruples about religious laws or about causing offence to other cultures. When in Rome, he would do as the Romans did. He would eat pigmeat, as everyone but Jews did. A suitable label for him by his enemies was "swine".

In the system of numbers which governed the rigidly organized hierarchy, the grade numbers expressed in thousands were applied to the leaders of divisions of members. The numbers from 1000 to 5000 are found in the gospels for individual leaders, giving the clues to narratives such as the "feeding of the 5000". In this system, the number for Antipas was 2000. Insiders would understand that the demons had gone into Antipas, who was "drowned in the Sea", that is lost his position in Rome, for "the Sea" meant Rome (into which the "mountain" of Jerusalem would be thrown, Mark 11:23).

Antipas became possesed by demons, as "Legion" had been, because he had espoused the cause of militancy at a time of crisis in the gospel period. It was a time of political tension on the issue of war or peace with Rome. When the "demons" came out of Legion, Jesus had persuaded him to give up militancy, but Antipas against Jesus' will turned to it.

When the Prodigal Son was sent to "feed swine", he was being sent to Rome to act as a pastor in the house of Antipas on the Tiber Island. He was the same man as "Legion", who was the same as Theudas the Chief Therapeut.

The story thus shows Jesus actively participating in a political process, the process that led to the crucifixion.

One of the minor points intended to alert pesharists concerned Gerasa (in Mark) or Gadara (in Matthew). Gerasa was a major city on the east of Jordan in the area that had once been the tribal territory of Gad. It lay some 40 miles south-east of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus could not have stepped out of a boat to be immediately there. In fact, he was not at the literal place, but at the meeting house at Ain Feshkha on the shore of the Dead Sea. By the device of transference of place names according to the movements of bishops, it became "Gerasa" and "Gad" when its bishop was at a council there.

As with all the apparent "miracles", there is a natural explanation of the story of the Gadarene swine, one that contributes to the full account of what Jesus actually did.

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A story that parallels the Gadarene swine, apparently showing an irrationally destructive Jesus, is found in Mark and taken up by Matthew. In Mark 11:12-23 Jesus was feeling hungry. He saw in the distance a figtree in leaf and went up to it. "When he came to it he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. (This episode was in March, just before the crucifixion, and September was the season for figs.) He said to it, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." The next morning, as they passed by it again, they saw the figtree withered away to its roots. Peter commented on it, "Master, look! The figtree which you cursed has withered." Jesus drew from the miracle a lesson about faith. "Whoever says to this mountain, 'Be taken up and cast into the sea', and does not doubt in his will be done for him." He went on "Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours".

A moral lesson from an irrational, unbelievable action? How many devout Christians have followed his advice and caused mountains to be thrown into the sea? For 19th century scholars, assuming that little could be known about the historical Jesus, it was a case of a saying of Jesus - something about the unfruitful tree of Judaism - being turned into a narrative by his uncritical followers. Then the evangelist, aiming to include every tradition about Jesus, included it, going out of his way to highlight the destructveness by saying that it was not the season for figs. (Matthew in 21:18-22 leaves out this detail).

The season of March just before the crucifixion was indeed the occasion for Jesus to "curse the Figtree". In the ascetic community where discipline was maintained by extreme penanaces and excommunications (see the list in the Qumran Community Rule column 7), a member guilty of great sin could be cursed and permanently expelled. The party led by Simon Magus had raised an insurrection against Rome, and their leaders were about to be arrested and crucified. Jesus would be unjustly crucified with them, although his sympathies were with Rome and for political peace. In fact, he believed that the Mountain of Jerusalem should be "cast into the Sea" - the headquarters of the ascetic mission should be transferred to Rome. At a council meeting he condemned the zealots, cursing and expelling them from the form of mission that he endorsed. When Peter could not believe that it would happen, Jesus urged him to keep to the Christian doctrine that put faith before the works of the Law. Jesus' vision was eventually fulfilled.

The zealots led by Simon Magus were called the Figtree because "a Figtree was planted in a Vineyard", according to the parable in Luke 13:6-9 . In Rome, following the quarrel between Archelaus and Antipas, there were two different houses in which the Herods stayed when they came to Rome. From the saying "every man under his vine and under his figtree" in Micah 4:4, and for other reasons, the house of the royal Herods was called the Vineyard. It lay just inside the south wall of Rome. The house of the Antipas faction was on Tiber Island, called the Figtree. Magians had a long established form of mission there, teaching and baptizing Gentiles. One of their methods was to make Gentiles wade through unclean water to come on board a boat. In their original form they used the imagery of Jason and the Argonauts, which later became that of Noah and the ark. The shore on the Tiber Island that they used for the ceremony was called the Sea.

The extraordinary and unbelievable story in fact predicts the establishment in Rome of an organization that still flourishes there!

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