The Crossing of the Red Sea, Samson killing a lion with his bare hands, an ax head floating on the River Jordan – these are just a few of the many fantastic stories recorded in the Bible. Many would be quick to label these extraordinary events as miracles and perhaps that is an appropriate description for these and the hundreds of other remarkable tales in the scriptures, but it is a term that certainly requires qualification. What do we mean when we say that something is a miracle? Are all miracles alike, or can they be classified into different categories? Do all miracles require divine intervention? Are miracles just a matter of interpretation? These and other questions we will seek to explore in some detail as we consider a number of fabulous biblical and extra-biblical stories that have fascinated mankind for centuries.
In the medical community, when a doctor sees a patient, he will of course need to make a diagnosis before prescribing treatment. Rather than speculate that the infirmed is suffering from a rare and unusual disease, he will always start out by assuming the easiest and most common explanation for the symptoms that are manifesting. That is, he will first look for an ordinary reason for the disease, and only after eliminating common possibilities will he look for a more extraordinary cause for the issue.
In our study of miracles, this principle would seemingly be good to follow, and so we will first attempt to interpret some amazing narratives with the easiest and most commonplace explanation. That means that if natural phenomena can account for a particular story, we will seek to understand it in that way. But by classifying a miracle as a natural event is by no means a suggestion that there wasn’t something special about it. There is a whole category of extraordinary events that we could rightly call “miracles of timing.” That is to say that what was miraculous about the incident is when it happened rather than how it happened.
We can sketch a few hypothetical scenarios that might illustrate this point. Consider a woman who is driving to the airport and finds herself stuck in heavy traffic. She is so delayed that she winds up missing her flight. Furious at this inconvenience, she marches toward the ticket counter only to learn that the flight that she was supposed to have been on crashed on takeoff killing everyone on board. Or how about a man who is running late to work and after getting into his car and driving off he realizes that he forgot to put out the garbage for pickup that morning. So he turns around and comes home only to find that a fire has started in the kitchen which he is able to extinguish and prevent his house from burning down. Suppose also a struggling working class family with several children and big bills to pay. Their mortgage payment is overdue and the bank has set a date to foreclose on their home. On the last possible day to reverse the situation, one of the children goes out to the mailbox and brings in an envelope with an anonymous gift of $20,000.
Were any of these miracles? Were all of these miracles? The answer to that probably has to do with the interpretation of the one reading the story. For the skeptic, such accounts would be nothing more than fortuitous coincidences. For the person of faith, they would represent divine intervention in the lives of these characters even though nothing happened which couldn’t be explained in a natural way. In each of these little vignettes, there were no apparent violations of physical laws or suspensions of those principles that undergird the universe, but one group of people would see the hand of God at work while another group would simply call these happy outcomes dumb luck. Who is right? Unfortunately there is no absolute way to evaluate any of these stories and so they are left to the interpretation of the observer. For some people nothing is a miracle and for others, everything is a miracle, but we will attempt to look at the biblical stories through the lens of faith being open to the possibility of the “invisible hand” at work.
Let us begin our look at such “natural” miracles in Genesis with the account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. We are told that the sins of these cities had become so very grievous that divine punishment had become warranted. Abraham pled with God to have mercy and spare these locales. He was at least partially motivated to protect his nephew Lot who lived in Sodom, and it seems the Lord was aware of that and arranged for the rescue of Lot and his family before destroying the city. With the only “good” citizens of these places evacuated, the Bible says, “The Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah – from the Lord out of the heavens. Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, including all those living in the cities – and also the vegetation in the land.” (Genesis 19:24-25)
Our first impression from this language might be to envision the angels gathering over the wicked cities and hurling copious amounts of burning sulfur on the inhabitants. While there may be a remote possibility that God used such a fantastic method to carry out divine judgment, there is a more reasonable explanation to the phenomenon of burning sulfur raining down on the cities.
Archeological digs in the region around the Dead Sea have uncovered what appears to be two of the five cities of the plain that were overthrown in this catastrophic event. Southeast of the sea are the remnants of city walls with large gates and flanking towers that have collapsed around a parcel of land covered in a thick layer of ash. As there is no evidence of a volcanic eruption in the region in the last 4000 years, the likely mechanism for the destruction of the towns was an earthquake which tumbled the city walls and at the same time released a large amount of combustible material into the atmosphere above the region. Substances like bitumen, petroleum, natural gas, and sulfur have all been found in the area, and it is believed that the earthquake released these materials which were stored under pressure in the ground. As they sprayed into the air, they ignited and then began to fall upon the cities in an apocalyptic fire show.
Certainly a natural mechanism can account for the disaster that overtook the cities of the plain, but this is just one of any number of biblical stories that can be interpreted in this way. We are all familiar with the incredible accounts surrounding the children of Israel and their departure from Egypt during the 15th Century, B.C. At that time, Moses had been called to lead the enslaved Hebrews out of that land, but he met with fierce resistance from Pharaoh who hardened his heart against them and refused to let his free workforce to go. As a result, the narratives tell us that God sent a series of 10 Plagues upon the Egyptians to make them miserable and cause the king to capitulate. We are told that there were plagues of blood, frogs, gnats, flies, destruction of livestock, boils on the skin, hail, locusts, thick darkness, and the killing of the firstborn sons of Egypt. (Exodus 7:13-11:10)
While it is fair to say that some of these scourges might have been of supernatural origin, many of them could conceivably have been produced through ordinary mechanisms. The initial plague of the Nile turning into blood may have been an exacerbation of the annual phenomenon of the river getting flooded with red sediment washed down from Ethiopia in the late summer/early fall. Interestingly, we are told that the Egyptians were still able to dig for drinking water along the banks of the Nile and so we could presume that the soil effectively filtered out the sediment. (Exodus 7:24) The Bible indicates that the fish began to die as a result of blood in the river and conceivably it was simply the muddied waters that were choking them. With the death of the fish, disease would surely have begun to spread in the river and that might have forced the frogs to come ashore and invade the cities along the Nile. Possibly by the time they came on land, they were already infected with a disease like anthrax which appears in unsanitary conditions. When the frogs also started to die, gnats and flies could easily have multiplied as they fed on the dead tissue. Those insects would in turn have passed disease to cattle and humans causing death and other ailments like boils which can be associated with anthrax.
In terms of the plagues of hail, locusts, and darkness, all of them can be seen as a part of natural phenomena in the region. Hail can certainly fall in any severe thunderstorm in the summer time, and devastating swarms of locusts invading the fields was not an uncommon event in the Near East. As far as the plague of darkness was concerned, one can imagine that a potent Libyan dust storm swept in from the west blinding the residents of Egypt.
But how about the actual Exodus, the miraculous departure of the people through the Red Sea; surely it was of supernatural origin? Arguably to cut a channel through a body of water 1000 feet deep would have taken considerable divine intervention, but it is highly unlikely that the Hebrews walked dry shod through the depths of the Red Sea. The Hebrew Yam Suph has historically been translated as “Red Sea,” but this has been an unfortunate rendition. Suph literally means “reed”, and so a better rendering for the body of water would be “Sea of Reeds.” Undoubtedly it is an allusion to the shallow marshlands in the North of Egypt in the Nile delta region. So it would seem that in their escape from bondage, the people passed through a swamp or lake region which was nowhere near as deep as the Red Sea.
According to the Bible, all through the night of the Exodus, “The Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land.” (Exodus 14:21) And possibly the miracle simply involved a powerful enough gale to displace a couple feet of water in the swamp to allow the people to pass through on foot with relative ease. However as we would expect, at the bottom of a marsh there is thick mud, and as a result the Egyptians who followed the Israelites in their chariots were getting stuck. The passage says, “[God] jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving.” (Exodus 14:25)
While a strong wind may have been responsible for the escape of the Israelites, some have also suggested another physical mechanism for the path through the sea. In the middle of the 2nd Millennium B.C., around the time of the Exodus, one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history took place on the island of Thera in the Mediterranean north of Egypt. According to experts, it ejected four times as much matter as the well documented eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. The Thera eruption generated a tsunami a few hundred feet height that devastated Crete. It is certainly possible that a tsunami like this could have hit the Nile Delta. If that were the case, it would explain how the water got sucked out of the marshy Sea of Reeds allowing the Hebrews to pass through and also how it came flooding back in as a tidal wave some time later. We are informed that “the water flowed back and covered the chariots and horseman – the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.” (Exodus 14:28)
Later when the Israelites were making their way through the desert we see what may very well be another miracle of timing rather than anything intrinsically supernatural. Many of the Hebrews were jealous of Moses and his brother Aaron because the priesthood and its privileges belonged to them. Aaron was of the tribe of Levi, and so some of the other Levites also thought they should have the right to offer incense to God as well.
A man named Korah along with 250 others filled their censers with incense and burned it before the Lord. We are told that this angered God, and he commanded Moses and the entire community to “move away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.” (Exodus 16:24) When the rebels were isolated at a distance, “the ground underneath them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them, with their households and all Korah’s men and all their possessions.” (Exodus 16:31-32)
An aptly timed earthquake may also account for the miraculous conquest of the city of Jericho. After the Israelites had crossed the Jordan into Canaan they were instructed to march around the city once per day for six days. Then on the seventh day they were to march around it seven times blasting their trumpets. On the final circuit around the city, “when the trumpets sounded, the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city.” (Joshua 6:20)
Several hundred years later, there is another account which is unambiguously a miracle of timing and illustrates how God works behind the scenes through the ordinary mechanisms of nature. At the time of the divided kingdom, Moab was a vassal state of Israel and was required to provide it a payment of livestock every year. But after the death of King Ahab, Moab rebelled and stopped paying their tribute. So the king of Israel requested help from the kings of Judah and Edom to attack Moab and bring it back into submission. (2 Kings 3)
They decided to launch their attack through the desert and after seven days ran out of water, so they inquired of the prophet Elisha what they should do. He instructed them to dig ditches which would become filled with water in the morning and added a message that the Moabites would be delivered into their hands. The Book of Kings says that water flowed from Edom and filled the ditches in the morning so that there was plenty of water to drink. Presumably some kind of a flood had washed over the land to fill the trenches the men had dug. While it can be debated how exactly the water was provided, the special miracle involved how the Moabites were conquered.
We are told that when the army of the Moabites got up early in the morning they looked toward the camp of their enemies and could see the water covering the region, but because of the way the rising sun was reflecting on the water, they mistook the water for blood. They consequently assumed that the kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom fought against each other during the night and slaughtered each other’s armies. Thinking it was their lucky day, they decided to move into the enemies’ camp to collect the plunder only to discover a natural phenomenon had tricked them. The Israelites and their allies promptly fought against them and subdued the rebels.
So far we have considered a class of biblical miracles, impressive in their own right more for when they occurred rather than how they occurred. In each case, a natural explanation could be offered to explain the event whether it be an earthquake, tidal wave, or the oblique rays of the rising of sun. While many miracles in the scriptures can be categorized in this way, clearly there are also far too many which go beyond ordinary phenomena.
The second class of miracles we will now analyze is what we could label paranormal events. These are phenomena that we might rightly call supernatural but importantly are not necessarily of divine origin. Just because something is beyond the common experience of the physical world doesn’t mean that it is the work of God or one of his angelic assistants. Rather, many preternatural incidents are purely the work of man alone whose powers are often underestimated. What we are talking about here is the realm of psychic phenomena which many people demonstrate to varying degrees.
Psychic powers come in a number of forms, but whatever the manifestation of this supernatural skill it is linked to the power of the mind and the ability to concentrate with great focus. It is the power of the will exerted so strongly that it can manipulate matter in a way that seems to defy physical laws, but in reality it is thought energy interacting with the physical world in a way that modern science is yet unable to understand.
Levitation, telepathy, transmutation, materialization & dematerialization, healing, and teleportation are some modes in which psychic ability exhibits itself. We will look at these phenomena as they appear not only in biblical stories but also in the lives of the saints and among the practitioners of other world religions stretching back to antiquity.
Sir Ernest Wallis Budge, a respected 20th century English Egyptologist was an expert on the ancient Near East. He related in his writings the secrets of the Babylonian and Egyptian priests who claimed to be able to produce the psychic phenomena that are in view. Particularly they were able to levitate themselves as well as materialize and dematerialize their bodies. Interestingly it is the Hindu yogi and Buddhist lama that can often exhibit similar powers today, for not surprisingly Eastern religion has its roots in the ancient Babylonian faith going back thousands of years.
That some biblical miracles can be attributed to the power of man’s will is evident in the story of the Exodus. We are told that when Moses was commissioned to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, he asked God what he should do if the people didn’t believe him. As a way to prove his identity he was given a few tricks to do including transforming his staff into a slithering snake, turning his hand a leprous white, and converting the water of the Nile into blood. (Exodus 4:1-9)
All of these miracles he demonstrated to his fellow Israelites, and consequently they put their trust in him. However, these signs didn’t do as much to impress the Egyptians. When Aaron threw his staff down on the floor and it became a snake in Pharaoh’s court, the king summoned his own wise men, presumably members of the Egyptian priesthood, and they were able to accomplish the same feat. And later when Moses struck the Nile with his staff turning it into blood, we are informed that “the Egyptian magicians did the same thing by their secret arts.” (Exodus 7:8-12, 19-22) Both of these miracles of transmutation could very well come from the power of God, but what the Egyptian priests communicate to us is that they are also very well within the scope of well trained men whose will of steel can harness the forces of nature.
Those who have mastered the art of concentration can exhibit many paranormal phenomena including dematerialization. The word itself may carry with it the scientific idea of converting matter into energy like we might have seen on Star Trek where people were “beamed” from one location to another. But this is not the psychic power that is in view. Under ordinary circumstances, the molecules within an object are tightly bound together by natural forces. They are in effect glued together at a microscopic level to give matter the appearance of continuity and solidity. While there is no physical mechanism by which they can be pried apart, the power of the mind can exert itself upon an object to loosen those molecular bonds, even to the point of complete disintegration. With the elements dispersed, the object effectively vanishes from sight.
Sir Ernest Wallis Budge noted that this skill was part of the repertoire of the ancients as evidenced by their writings, but he came to see it first hand by those we might call their modern day successors. He spent a good deal of time in the Near East and beyond and witnessed the skills of the gurus he befriended. He wrote, “I knew an African and an Indian who could vanish into air as you spoke to them – touched them. Like the Cheshire Cat in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ first they were there, then there was only the grin, then that too disappeared. It was no question of hypnotism, for I walked through the spot where they had been standing. In the same way, they would reappear and, as they solidified, pushed me away.”
While tricks like this may indeed be rare in the modern world, they suggest that man is capable of more than he thinks. But most are unaware of this hidden potential, because the training and the discipline involved in acquiring these skills usually resides with a few obscure yogis somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas. With that being said, Jesus’ disappearing acts as recorded in the gospels may not necessarily be regarded as a divine ability but one that is possible for a mere man in full charge of his mental faculties.
There are a few occasions where the language used by the gospel writer suggests that Jesus vanished when his enemies sought to apprehend him. Luke speaks of the occasion where he was rejected by his own townspeople in Nazareth. They were so incensed at his claims that they drove him right out of town and pushed him to the edge of a cliff where they intended to throw him off. But we are told, “He walked right through the crowd and went on his way.” (Luke 4:30) Likewise when the Savior made claims to deity in asserting that he existed before Abraham, the Jews “picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.” (John 8:59) And in another confrontation provoked by Jesus’ remarkable claims, we are told, “again they tried to seize him, but he escaped their grasp.” (John 10:39)
At the end of the gospel story, we are again presented with what appears as a dematerialization event in the account of the Resurrection. Many people infer that an angel came down from heaven and rolled away the stone in front of the tomb in order to let Jesus out, but he hardly needed any assistance to break free of the grave. When we read John’s record of the story, we learn that when the apostles came to the tomb they found Jesus burial clothes folded up neatly as if the body had simply evacuated the linen strips leaving those garments to collapse upon themselves. (John 20:6-7) Jesus did not struggle to break free of the winding sheets that bound him, but simply dematerialized out of them, passed invisibly through the wall of the tomb and rematerialized outside. So rolling away the stone was not in fact for the sake of Christ but rather for those witnesses who would come to visit the tomb and see the truth for themselves. Mark tells us that the women en route to the sepulcher to anoint the body were asking each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb [so we can get in]?” Their request was granted before they even arrived, and then they walked in to see the grave clothes lying neatly where the body had been. (Mark 16:1-6)
After the Resurrection, Jesus demonstrated the same basic psychic phenomenon on at least a couple of occasions. On the evening of that Easter Sunday, the disciples were gathered together in a locked room out of fear and Jesus passed invisibly through the door and materialized in their presence. One week later he did it again to prove that he was alive to Thomas who was missing the week before. (John 19:19, 26)
These kinds of episodes might help us make sense of some Old Testament stories like that of Elijah at the end of his life. The Book of Kings uses vivid language to describe the prophet’s exit from earthly existence without tasting death. It suggests that a chariot and horses of fire swept him away into heaven in a whirlwind. Quite possibly all that might have occurred is that Elijah was permanently dematerialized out of physical life in a way very similar to what we see in the other narratives. (2 Kings 2:11,12)
The dematerialization/rematerialization phenomenon may simply involve disappearing and reappearing again in the same spot, but it can also be a little more complicated with an object vanishing in one location and solidifying again in another, even one very far away. Sir Ernest Wallis Budge speaks of his experiences with the same African and Indian savants who could demonstrate what is generally described as teleportation. He writes, “One of them could even materialize my subordinates, who were twenty miles away, within twenty yards of my eyes. These materializations spoke to me and took my orders. I was warned not to touch them because they were only shadows. But when I arrived at the place where they were actually working, I found my orders had all been carried out. The men had heard them in a trance.”
Yogananda, the 20th century Indian yogi famous for moving to America and teaching his eastern form of meditation tells a similar story. In his “Autobiography of a Yogi,” he recalls an episode with his own guru who had trained him back in India. His mentor was the swami Yukteswar who while in the west coast city of Calcutta materialized himself in the east coast city of Serampore. Then having delivered a message to some party disappeared again back to Calcutta.
Another western observer, the 19th century Frenchman Louis Jacolliot tells of his encounters with Indian gurus who could manifest similar skills. Jacolliot was a lawyer and judge who presided over the French colony of Tahiti as well as the French colony of Chandenagur in India. A prolific writer, he published dozens of works including many that had to do with his personal experiences and research into Indian religion and culture. In one of his writings “Occult Science in India”, he tells of his friendship with a guru known as Covindasamy who demonstrated for him a number of psychic powers. On one occasion the two men were together in a locked room and Jacolliot had the keys in his pocket to rule out any potential shenanigans. The yogi caused a flute to materialize within the room which Jacolliot promptly picked up. He recognized it as belonging to the local chief minister in the town, and apparently it was remotely pilfered from the man and brought into the locked chamber.
These types of teleportation events seem to also have a precedent in the bible where there are a couple of remarkable stories or disappearance and reappearance in a location a considerable distance away. In the Book of Acts, Philip the deacon had met an Ethiopian eunuch along the road to Gaza en route to his home country. After he had preached to him, Philip baptized him and was immediately whisked away to the city of Azotus, some 20 miles away. We are not given any details about how this happened but are simply told, “The spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away.” (Acts 8:26-40) Presumably it was by the same mechanism that modern day yogis can accomplish this feat.
In the Old Testament, there is a cryptic passage which suggests more or less the same phenomenon. Right after the climactic confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, both the prophet and king Ahab were making their way back to the fortress city of Jezreel about 17 miles away. Ahab was making the journey in his chariot and it seems likely that Elijah was going to make the trip on foot as was typical in ancient times. But a miracle is recorded which is impressive as what happened on Mt. Carmel. The passage says, “The power of the Lord came upon Elijah and, tucking his cloak into his belt, he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel.” (1 Kings 18:41-46) Considering that a horse pulling a chariot can travel upwards of 30 mph, we have an image of a superhuman feat. While of course anything is possible with God, the human body is not designed to handle the stress of that kind of speed, especially over such a long distance. Perhaps God miraculously enabled his muscles and joints to handle this stress, but an alternative and easier explanation is that Elijah accomplished the feat just like Philip centuries later. That is, he was dematerialized at Mt. Carmel and rematerialized at Jezreel without even breaking a sweat, outstripping Ahab who had to make the trip the hard way.
So far we have been talking about dematerialization as if it always manifests itself completely and instantly, like disappearing in a flash. But there are a number of biblical and extra-biblical miracles that we will now consider which suggest the phenomenon of “partial dematerialization”, a state in which the matter within the object is only somewhat dispersed.
The first story we encounter in the gospels that alludes to this type of psychic wonder is the account of Jesus walking on water. After Christ had fed the five thousand at Bethsaida on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, he sent his disciples away in a boat to journey to the other side of the lake while he withdrew to a mountainside to pray. By the middle of the night, the boat was far from land and there were heavy winds and waves buffeting the boat. In the midst of the storm, the apostles became frightened when they saw what appeared to be a ghost walking upon the water toward them. Then Jesus identified himself, and presumably their fears subsided. (Matthew 14:22-27)
What is interesting about the story is that the disciples perceived Jesus as a ghost. Since it was the middle of the night and storming, it is fair to say that it was very dark without moon or starlight. That they could see a figure walking across the surface of the water seems to indicate that the form was somehow luminous or glowing so that it could be identified in the darkness. This inferred detail is an important clue suggesting that this feat was in fact related to dematerialization phenomena. That the Savior could be seen as a glowing image on the water implies that somehow the brightness of his spirit was shining through the envelope of his physical body. Much like how the saints have been portrayed with halos that reflect the light of their inner being, in this narrative we can suggest that Christ had peeled back the container of his material form enough to let the brightness of his divinity shine forth and be visible from a long distance in the darkness of the night. This is to say that he dematerialized himself enough that he would appear glowing, but this was only a side effect of his intention. It was by partially dematerializing his body that the density of Jesus’ form could be reduced much lower than water. In this way his buoyancy allowed him to walk on top of the lake.
Such miracles of buoyancy are intimated in the Old Testament as well. In an obscure passage from the life of Elisha the prophet we learn how the school of prophets was building a dwelling place along the banks of the Jordan. They were cutting down trees with axes near the river when one of them lost his in the water. The prophet panicked because it was a borrowed tool, but when Elisha heard about what had happened he attempted to help. The Book of Kings says, “Elisha cut a stick and threw it [where the ax had fallen in the water], and made the iron float.” (2 Kings 6:1-7) We may infer that this miracle was made possible by temporarily reducing the density of the axe enough to allow it to float to the surface, a consequence of a partial dematerialization.
Outside of the bible, miracles of buoyancy exist particularly within the lives of the saints. There is documentation of at least two men exhibiting the same ability as Jesus to walk on water including a fellow by the name of Saint Maurus who was a monk in St. Benedict’s Abbey while the order’s founder was still alive. On a certain occasion a young man named Placidius had been sent down to a nearby lake to draw water and was caught by the current and carried a considerable distance from shore. St. Benedict happened to be praying in his cell when this happened and was given a vision of the incident. Consequently, he immediately got a hold of Maurus and instructed him to go down to the lake to rescue him.
Maurus did as he had been told, and without even thinking about it ran to where Placidius was, seized him by the hair, and dragged him back the way he had come. During the rescue attempt, it was as if he were walking on firm ground, and it never occurred to him that he was actually walking on the water until after he was back on the shoreline. Then the shock set in about the miraculous feat he had just performed.
Though we only know of one incident in which the Savior defied water, there are additional cases of what we could label partial dematerialization in the gospels. One of these events has a similarity to the story of him walking on water but occurs during the day and on dry land, a mountaintop to be exact. All of the synoptic gospels record the account of the Transfiguration which likely took place in northern Israel on Mt. Hermon. Jesus along with the inner circle (Peter, James, and John) hiked up to the top of the mountain and when they arrived there, the scripture says, “He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” (Matthew 17:1-2)
Like the incident on the lake, Jesus’ form became very bright again as if the material envelope were being peeled back to some degree. Though the gospels do not say, many religious paintings of the Transfiguration depict Jesus floating in air along with his two celestial visitors, Moses and Elijah. It seems possible that in this miracle, Christ had dispersed the material elements of his body enough to both let his spirit shine forth radiantly and also to become lighter than air so that he and the prophets are depicted hovering over the ground.
What is an interesting clue in the passage is the mention of a mysterious cloud. We are told that while Peter was talking to Jesus in the midst of this miracle, “a bright cloud enveloped them.” (Matthew 17:5) What seems likely is that this was hardly an ordinary cloud like one laden with water droplets. Rather it might have been a cloud of the displaced elements that the Son of God shed from his body and were suspended as it were in a mist swirling about his form.
The relevance of the cloud becomes more apparent in the last incident of Jesus’ earthly life – his departure for heaven. Of all the gospel writers, only Luke mentions the Ascension in both his gospel and in the Book of Acts, and in the latter work he references a cloud. Luke writes, “He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” (Acts 1:9) What we can imagine is a very slow dematerialization process in which the Savior began to shed the elements of his body. As he did so a cloud of those elements began to form around him. As the density of his body began to wane, he would have begun to levitate, floating above the ground and rising steadily higher as his material form dissipated further. Finally with his body completely gone, all that remained high above the disciples “who were looking up intently into the sky as he was going” was a haze of material elements. (Acts 1:10)
It seems certain that Jesus performed this final dematerialization in a very slow and deliberate way to communicate that he was going for good now and wouldn’t be coming back any time soon. Interestingly, the angels who were present at the Ascension said to the disciples, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11) What this would tend to mean is just as he dispersed his material body in a cloud of elements when he left 2000 years ago, he will rematerialize out of those same elements when he comes again. The apostle John supports this notion in the Book of Revelation when he says, “Look, he is coming with clouds.” (Revelation 1:7)
Of course the Savior wasn’t the only figure in history to exhibit the power of levitation. Since his time, there have been quite a few documented cases, both in the East and in the West. In modern times, we have additional testimony from the French magistrate Louis Jacolliot regarding his yogi friend Covindasamy. On two occasions he witnessed the guru perform this miracle first with an inanimate object and then with himself.
In one episode, he demonstrated how he could raise an enormous brass vase full of water eight inches from the ground merely by laying the tips of his fingers on the top of the rim. In the other incident, Jacolliot describes in “Occult Science in India” how Covindasamy made himself to defy gravity: “Taking an iron wood cane which I had brought from Ceylon, he leaned heavily upon it, resting his right hand upon the handle, with his eyes fixed upon the ground. He then proceeded to utter the appropriate incantations . . . Leaning upon the cane with one hand, the Fakir rose gradually about two feet from the ground. His legs were crossed beneath him, and he made no change in his position, which was very like that of those bronze statues of Buddha that all tourists bring from the East ... For more than twenty minutes I tried to see how Covindasamy could thus fly in the face and eyes of all the known laws of gravity; it was entirely beyond my comprehension; the stick gave him no visible support, and there was no apparent contact between that and his body, except through his right hand.”
In the West, we have a litany of saints who have demonstrated similar feats beginning with St. Francis who is depicted in one of the frescoes of the Upper Church of Assisi suspended quite a distance in the air. According to the records, he rose about 5-6 feet above the ground. Artwork also attests to the levitation of St. Catherine of Siena who is depicted floating up the stairs a few feet above the treads. As a small child, she was seen by her mother to float above the steep staircase which led from the street to her mother’s kitchen.
A couple of centuries later, the Carmelite nun, St. Teresa of Avila also exhibited her ability to fly into the air. Often while she was in the choir during Mass she would feel a state of ecstasy come upon her and would quickly get her fellow sisters to jump on top of her to keep her from floating up into the rafters. She was very embarrassed by these episodes, especially when the bishop came to administer communion to the nuns. When she sensed what was about to happen to her, she clung tightly with both hands to the iron grating in the cloister to keep her from springing into the air. But usually it was in vain despite her humble attempts not to draw attention to herself.
Possibly one of the most colorful figures to pop into the air was a 17th century saint named Joseph of Cupertino who was also a priest. Just at hearing the name of Jesus he would enter a state of ecstasy and soar into the air, something that even happened once while he was having an audience with the pope. There are some humorous anecdotes attached to him, for on many of his flights he would soar up into a tree and remain kneeling in prayer on a branch for some time. Then after the ecstasy ended, he would find himself stuck up in the tree (like a cat) and the townspeople would have to bring a ladder so he could get down. There was even a dramatic conversion story associated with Joseph’s levitations, for one time the German Duke of Brunswick had observed him up in the air and immediately decided to renounce his Lutheranism and become Catholic.
So far, the psychic phenomena we have been describing have all been tied in one form or another to the idea of dematerialization, or the disintegration of matter within an object. On the other side of the spectrum is the case of materialization. If the former can manifest itself as the reduction in something’s density, then the latter can appear as the increase in a body’s density.
Louis Jacolliot’s friend Covindasamy illustrated how he could make various objects as well as himself as light as a feather, but he also demonstrated the opposite. In Jacolliot’s book, he relates an incident when he and the yogi entered a garden on a bright sunny morning. A native servant happened to be there drawing water from a well with a rope running over a pulley, and the guru having a little fun intercepted this process. Covindasamy merely stretched out his hands in the direction of the well, and though the servant was pulling on the rope with all of his might, it simply would not budge. Conceivably the density of that bucket of water had increased to be much like a bucket of mercury which is many times heavier than water. When the yogi removed his concentration, the servant was able to resume bringing up the bucket.
Materialization can take the form of increasing the density of an object, but it is more commonly the gathering together of the elements to form something out of thin air, and this all through the power of the will. A number of Indian yogis have been able to demonstrate this ability including the 20th century guru Sathya Sai Baba from Southern India. At a young age, he was allegedly able to materialize objects like food and sweets. As an adult, he expanded this repertoire to such things as rings, necklaces, watches, and other pieces of jewelry. The yogi maintained a popular ashram until his death where many devotees from around the world would come not only to see his miracles but also to hear his teachings. Sai Baba apparently performed a routine multiplication of sacred ash for his followers, starting with a small amount of the substance and increasing the quantity many times over.
Drawing elements together to make a lot out of a little is certainly not a trick limited to Eastern religious leaders. In flipping through the pages of the bible we have quite a few miracles that would also fall under this category. We come across one of several multiplications of food just in the lives of the prophet Elijah and his successor Elisha.
When there was drought in Israel, Elijah journeyed to the town of Zarephath where he asked a woman for some water and a piece of bread. The woman responded that the cupboard was now empty and all she had left was a small jar of flour and a little jug of oil that she was going to prepare as a last meal for her and her son. Elijah asked her to make a small loaf for him and then promised that the jar of flour and jug of oil would continue to be full until the day the drought ended. So the woman and her family had food every day until the rains finally came again. (1 Kings 17:1-16)
Later, during the ministry of Elisha, the widow of a prophet came to him fearful that her husband’s creditor was about to take away her sons as his slaves since she could not pay his debts. Elisha asked the woman what she had in her possession and she told him that she only had a little oil. So he instructed the woman to borrow as many empty jars from her neighbors and then pour the oil she had into each of them until they were full. When the woman did what she was told, she sold the oil and was able to pay off the debt and have some money left over to live on. (2 Kings 4:1-7)
Elisha worked another miracle of food some time later when there was a group of a hundred people to feed and only 20 loaves of barley bread available. Despite the protests of the one who brought the bread, he set it before the large group and after they had finished eating there was some left over. (2 Kings 4:42-44)
Materialization miracles may involve the manufacture of food out of thin air, but they can manifest in other ways as well. Certainly it is through eating that most everyone draws nourishment to live, but there have been documented exceptions. Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi” speaks of Indian masters who acquired the ability to eat nothing and remain healthy, even for years. One such individual who has been studied is a man named Prahlad Bhai from the state of Gujarat. He claims to not have ingested any food or water in 70 years. A team of doctors kept him in a hospital for 10 days where they monitored his every move and confirmed that the man’s health remained unchanged after that period of time. (https://sachiniti.wordpress.com/2008/07/07/the-yogi-who-has-not-eaten-for-70-years/)
In the West such miracles of sustenance also exist among the Saints. In the 20th century, Alexandrina da Costa, a 14 year old Portuguese girl fell from a window and eventually became bedridden and paralyzed in consequence. During the time of her disability she began to develop mystical ability and an intense devotion to God. At one point in her long illness, she began to vomit up any food that she attempted to eat. Her sole nourishment became the Eucharist which she would receive once a day. In this way, she lived for 13 years on a single daily communion wafer.
The same phenomenon was true of the 14th century saint, Catherine of Siena who also lived on the Eucharist alone for the last few years of her life. Many of her companions as well as her mother tried to get her to eat but every time they did it made her sick so they eventually stopped trying.
Now we have been considering psychic events in the form of dematerialization and materialization, but there are other ways that psychic powers can come into play. There are many stories in the bible which might properly fall under the banner of “telepathy” which we could simply call extra-sensory communication of thoughts or images. Often this takes the form of mind to mind communication between material beings and discarnate entities, particularly angels.
On a number of occasions in the scriptures, there are records of angelic appearances to mortals. We get the impression that they were tangible visits with these supernatural beings assuming a flesh and blood body like any other person. While that could happen, it would conceivably be a rare event because it would require a tremendous amount of energy for a discarnate being like an angel to fabricate a new functional material body for itself. It should be noted that this would be a much greater task than dematerializing/rematerializing an existing physical body as in the case of the Hindu yogis.
What is more likely is that many of the angelic visitations in the Bible were merely psychic visions and dialogue with these invisible higher beings. The evidence for this is suggested in a couple of stories from the Book of Judges. In the first, we are told that an angel appeared to Gideon calling him to lead the Israelites to victory against the Midianites. Specifically, the passage says, “The angel of the Lord came and sat down under the oak.” So the visit is strongly anthropomorphized to emphasize the authenticity of the encounter.
However, after some dialogue between Gideon and the angel, he still needed confirmation that he wasn’t dreaming this all up, and so he asked the angel to wait while he prepared an offering for him to eat. Gideon presented to the angel a goat and a loaf of bread, but rather than eating it, the angel instructed Gideon to put it on a rock. The narrative says, “Fire flared from the rock, consuming the meat and the bread. And the angel of the Lord disappeared.” (Judges 6:11-21)
What seems important in this story is that the angel did not consume the food that Gideon had brought to him. Had the angel truly assumed a material body, this would have been an easy thing to do to verify his visit to the young Israelite. Instead, it seems like the angel did the next best thing by causing fire to burn up the offering as a sign of acceptance and confirmation of the visit. The whole exchange was likely just a vision through psychic ability, something that occurs over and over again in the bible.
A similar story is seen a few chapters later with the birth of Samson. An angel appeared to Samson’s mother and father to foretell the coming of the Israelite hero, and after receiving some instruction about the child, the father requested that the angel stay for a meal. But not unexpectedly, the angel replied, “Even though you detain me, I will not eat any of your food.” Rather the angel suggested that Samson’s parents make a burnt offering to God instead. While the sacrifice was being consumed in the fire, the angel nonetheless impressed the recipients of his message, for the passage says, “As the flame blazed up from the altar toward heaven, the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame.” (Judges 13:9-20) It seems that the whole encounter was also just a vision.
Telepathic ability seems to offer the most reasonable explanation for some biblical miracles and this is almost certainly the case with the story of Balaam. When the Israelites were making their way to the Promised Land, they began to worry the king of Moab who considered them a threat. He attempted to hire Balaam the seer to put a curse on the Hebrew people and get them out of the way. Enticed by a large payment, Balaam agreed to go with the men of Moab. He saddled up his donkey and proceeded to go, but three times the animal veered off the path to avoid an angel with a drawn sword. Each time Balaam beat the animal to get it back on course, but finally after the third time the donkey said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times? Am I not your own donkey which you have always ridden to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” (Numbers 22:21-30)
If ever there was a case of anthropomorphism in the scriptures it would be here, but it seems very unlikely that the animal actually spoke. Lacking the anatomy to form speech, it wouldn’t be possible for it to orally communicate to the prophet without a major restructuring of its throat. What seems probable is that after the third beating of the animal, an angel telepathically communicated to Balaam (who as a seer would be used to those forms of transmission) and relayed the feelings of the donkey who was upset for being abused. Or quite possibly, Balaam was simply able to read the animals thoughts directly.
Though less intelligent than man, animals are often very psychic which would explain why the donkey could see a menacing angel in Balaam’s path and tried to avoid him. Their sense of precognition may actually be better than many humans as evidenced by the great tsunami that hit Southeast Asia the day after Christmas in 2004. On the day of the disaster, hours before the event, many animals were seen inexplicably running inland and for higher ground. Many elephants, buffalos, dogs, and birds saved themselves that day responding to an inner awareness that evaded most people.
One last type of psychic miracle that we see both within and outside of the scriptures is what we might call sympathetic or imitative magic. Besides the ability to materialize, dematerialize, levitate, teleport, communicate telepathically, or see the future, we have a category of psychic phenomena which uses symbolic objects to obtain certain outcomes or get particular results.
The principle is ancient, perhaps going back to the dawn of man. We find throughout Europe what are known as “Venus figurines.” These are often depictions of heavily pregnant woman and have been thought of as fertility icons dating back tens of thousands of years to a period of time when fertility meant everything to mankind. The carvings of stone or bone could be thought of as a focal point for contemplation. Somehow there was an awareness that by concentrating mental energies in a certain direction could procure a desired result.
This psychic concept can be applied in both positive and negative ways. The practitioners of voodoo usually exercise this form of basic magic in an evil way through the use of a doll that represents a particular person. They will often succeed in inflicting harm to that individual by torturing the effigy in some way (e.g. pinpricks, fire under its feet, etc.) The same result can be accomplished through any object that might even belong to the individual like an article of clothing or lock of hair. The principle is that the doll or personal article enables the magician to form a “psychic link” to the person and thereby focus mental energy toward him (in this case for evil.)
A story which resembles basic sympathetic magic may be found right in Genesis in one of the narratives of the patriarch Jacob. He had been working for his father-in-law Laban tending his sheep and Laban agreed to give Jacob all of the undesired white spotted or streaked animals as his own. So Jacob went through the flocks and separated out the ones that were not pure dark colored and put them a three day’s journey away from the others.
But Jacob, the conniver that he was didn’t seem to be satisfied with the flock of mottled animals he had secured; he wanted more and went to work on sneakily increasing his flock. We are told that while tending the pure dark colored animals, he surreptitiously placed branches of poplar, almond, and plane trees into the watering troughs while the animals were in heat and mating. The bark was dark by default, but he had peeled back strips of it to reveal a white inner layer of wood underneath. So that bark was made to appear black with strips of white in it. The passage says, that when the animals mated in front of the branches, “they bore young that were streaked or speckled.” (Genesis 30:31-43) The crafty Jacob seemed to know a thing or two about magic and succeeded in increasing his flocks. Whether it was the mental impression the bark made on the animals when they were drinking or just Jacob’s focused mental energy, the desired result was obtained.
Another case of sympathetic magic may be seen in the story of the Bronze Snake in the Book of Numbers. As was their habit, the children of Israel were complaining about their hardships in the desert, and God sent venomous snakes among them. Many people died, and they pled with Moses that the snakes should go away. So God told Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole so that anyone who was bitten by a snake and looked at the Bronze image would be cured, and so it was. (Numbers 21:4-9) In this narrative, we can understand the Bronze snake as a symbol with a psychic connection to God’s healing power. Whoever, concentrated on the symbol after being bitten was therefore enabled to access that power and recover.
Up until now, our survey of the miraculous has fallen into two general categories. We have sketched out events which are decidedly not supernatural but are special because of the timing of those occurrences and we rightly call them miracles for that reason. On the other hand, we have identified a second class of miracles that is definitely supernatural, but not in the sense that it is beyond the power of a well trained man to exercise. These we have labeled psychic miracles. But certainly not every sign and wonder in the bible can fall under these two classifications. When the explanations we have made are not sufficient to judge a miracle by these two types, we must acknowledge the third possibility, that there really is supernatural activity at a divine or angelic level driving the phenomena.
Perhaps it is just a matter of a process of elimination to identify a fantastic event as having divine origin. When the first two categories won’t work, we can always say that God made it happen. It is probably fair to say that even the best guru in India couldn’t make Aaron’s wooden staff bud, blossom, and produce almonds. (Numbers 17) And it is probably reasonable to suggest that no mere man could shield Daniel from the heat of the furnace which had even killed the men who brought them down into the fire. (Daniel 3:19-25)
However, though these miracles are beyond the capacity of man doesn’t mean that they are fundamentally different from the psychic phenomena that human beings are capable of. At the heart of man’s psychic ability is the power of the will, and at higher levels including that of the angels and even God himself it is no different, for we must remember that at the dawn of creation it was simply the divine thought that set the ball in motion. What we could say is that it is more a matter of magnitude than nature that separates what a mere man can do and what the Almighty can produce.
A man may be able to multiply a little oil to fill a few dozen jugs, but it would undoubtedly be beyond his scope to take two fish and five loaves of bread and feed 5000 people. Though in principle they are the same type of phenomenon, the latter is of much greater magnitude and could only be accomplished with divine assistance as Jesus demonstrated. (Matthew 14:13-21) Similarly, though a man may be able to manipulate a vessel of water through his mind, he would undoubtedly lack the resources to calm a raging storm (Mark 4:35-41) through the power of his will. The latter is clearly of greater scope.
The same can perhaps be said of miraculous healings. While there are many psychic healers who enjoy moderate success by sharing some of their own life energy with the sick, there is a limit to what they can do and usually at the expense of their own reserves. It is conceivable that a man could cure some minor illnesses by his own effort, but to resurrect the dead is a feat that requires an enormous amount of spiritual energy and can only belong to the domain of God. (Matthew 9:23-26, Luke 7:11-14, John 11:38-44)
While the “God did it” bucket is something that we might ultimately have to acknowledge when reading through the extraordinary stories of the bible, it is important for us to be critical of them and not just default to that answer. Many, perhaps even the majority of incredible narratives in the scriptures can be accounted for through simpler explanations that require neither the supernatural nor anything beyond the power of a highly skilled man to produce.