10 Biblical Miracles With Alternative Explanations
We’ve all heard the Bible stories, but modern opinions from geologists, archaeologists, and historians often allow a different perspective on ancient religious texts. Far from an attempt to debunk these stories, this is simply a look at the theories and alternate explanations for some of the miracles and mysterious events in the Bible.
10The Star Of Bethlehem
Astronomers believe that the Star of Bethlehem may have been a very real event, just perhaps not a sacred sign showing the birthplace of the Messiah. The triple conjunction between the Sun and three planets—Jupiter, Venus, and Earth—is a natural phenomenon with a visual effect very similar to the long-tailed star. Once the other two planets align, Earth would then overtake the pair, making them appear different than normal.
During a time when nearly anything strange in the sky was considered an omen, the bright planets coming together about three times during a short time must have been a rare and important sign for ancient astronomers. Traditionally, the Bethlehem Star delivered the message that Jesus had been born and then it disappeared, never to come again. But if the planetary conjunction was indeed responsible, then the Bethlehem Star has been back every 900 years since. Two other, but less likely, candidates are a bright comet or the birth of a new star.
In the book of Genesis, it’s written that God uses the stars, Sun, and Moon as omens. If the Moon turns to blood, it’s supposedly a sign of God’s impending arrival. But despite the biblical importance of such a sign, blood Moons are fairly regular as far as celestial events go. When four consecutive blood Moons occur, it’s called a tetrad. Such eclipses were seen in 2003 and 2004, and seven tetrads will still rise before the end of this century.
There’s nothing supernatural about how one is created, either. The creepy, pale red shade occurs when the Earth moves between the Sun and the Moon. The sunshine then moves through the Earth’s atmosphere and throws a red light over the Moon. But despite the simple explanation, anyone who personally witnesses a blood Moon can attest to how unsettling the sight can be.
Manna was the miracle food that sustained the Israelites during their 40-year desert trek. Of course, the many scripture inconsistencies and its strange qualities have made some people doubt whether there’s any truth to the story. The color was either white or brown. It didn’t taste the same to different age groups, and when gathered, there was just enough for each person’s daily portion. Because work was not allowed on the Sabbath, a double portion fell on the day before.
There are several theories about what manna could have been aside from a miracle. The strongest is that it came from the tamarisk tree in northern Arabia. These trees are often host to a species of wood lice that bores holes in the tree. The trees then secrete a sweet substance that congeals in the cold and quickly becomes useless in the heat. (Manna had to be picked before the Sun rose.) Locals make a kind of bread from it, which also corresponds to how manna was eaten in the Bible.
7Water From The Rock
While the Israelites were wandering in the desert, another miracle occurred. Moses, seeing that the people were in desperate need of water, hit a rock with his staff and water poured out. It may seem scientifically impossible, but not all rocks are made of solid material. Sandstone and limestone are practically porous sponges and can store large quantities of rainwater. When underground, both can successfully produce wells and boreholes. Sandstone is also present in the Sinai desert. For example, Tadra is a whole mountain composed mostly of sandstone.
Similarly, scientists also feel that the biblical rock was quite large and that Moses had to strike it hard. The King James Version uses the phrase “smite the rock,” which indicates that a good deal of force was used. This would have been necessary to get water out of desert sandstone. In the desert, rocks sometimes develop a cement-like outer crust known as desert varnish. Hydrogeologists are very familiar with the phenomenon where water pours from a porous rock once the varnish is shattered.
Sleep researchers believe that biblical encounters with angels could have been the result of lucid dreams. A lucid dream is when the dreamer is aware that he or she is dreaming and can often manipulate what happens in the dream. A Los Angeles sleep study used 30 volunteers in an experiment where the objective was to meet an angel while sleeping. According to the researchers, about half of the dreamers managed to lucidly encounter the winged celestials.
And not just any angel—15 people claimed to have either fully or partially recreated Elijah’s story where an angel brings him food. During biblical times, people might not have been aware of such dream control, meaning that if lucid dreams were behind angelic encounters, it had to have happened spontaneously. However, not all of it can be explained away as dreams, since several stories in the Bible occurred during the daytime, when the person seeing an angel was most likely awake.
One mental illness that still has religious conservatives convinced there’s a demon is afoot is multiple personality disorder (MPD). Plainly put, the patient suffers from a condition where two or more personalities inhabit the same body. Such episodes are then mistakenly viewed as a demon coming through. Although demonic possession was never accepted by most doctors and psychiatrists, the Roman Catholic Church still performs exorcisms.
Due to the often traumatic nature the ritual has on a person, excorcisms can’t be performed on the authority of just anyone—a bishop needs to give the final go-ahead. At least one hospital study showed that exorcism severely affected suspected MPD patients, sometimes creating even more personalities. With the disturbing nature of MPD, it’s easy to see how communities thousands of years ago could have mistaken this mental illness for demonic possession.
In the Bible, the formidable walls around the city of Jericho crumbled when seven trumpets were played and a whole lot of people shouted. A miracle to believers, some scholars believe that the story is an embellishment and that Jericho never fell to the Israelites. Archaeological evidence certainly indicates that Jericho could have been real; the remnants of a walled city have been found in the area. Supporters of the religious story use the find to place the Israelites and Jericho together in the late Bronze Age.
However, specialists in biblical history feel that the Israelites couldn’t have been the ones who demolished it because they arrived about 150 years later. Instead, the fortress city could have been destroyed by an earthquake, which is a fairly common occurrence in the region. The Bible also describes how the River Jordan miraculously ceased to flow so that the Israelites could reach Jericho. There are recorded incidents in history where earthquakes caused the Jordan River to block up for a few days due to landslides.
3The Crucifixion Earthquake
In the Gospel of Matthew, a devastating earthquake hit just as Jesus died on the cross. The gospels all agree that the execution happened on a Friday, but they don’t agree on much else. Geologists studied the region around the Dead Sea—about 21 kilometers (13 mi) from Jerusalem—to see if they could fix a year to the event. They discovered that earthquakes shook the land twice: once in 31 BC, and then again between AD 26 and 36. The last time bracket was when Pontius Pilate was in Judea.
The data suggests that the earthquake during that time was strong but not as destructive as described in the Bible. It’s possible that it didn’t even happen on the day Jesus died and that the writer of Matthew borrowed the natural drama to add a divine element. The seismic event could even have been symbolic instead of real. This doesn’t mean that the crucifixion never happened. Researchers then looked at factors such as the Jewish calendar and astronomical estimates for a date. They came up with the likeliest day for when Jesus was executed—Friday April 3, in the year AD 33.
2The Euphrates-Tigris Flood
It is possible that Noah’s flood did happen, but it probably wasn’t a global event. Two rivers in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) may be behind the watery legend. The Euphrates and Tigris rivers both have deluge epics older than the story in Genesis. The one connected to the Euphrates, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is suspiciously similar to Noah’s adventure. In the event that storms raised the water level so much that the two rivers combined, the flood zone would have been massive. Someone on a boat would have been faced with the sight of seeing nothing but water up to the horizon thanks to the curvature of the Earth, making it appear like the world was literally underwater. But behind the horizon, the world would be normal.
It’s possible that the authors of the epics were survivors of ancient regional floods and that the authors of Genesis borrowed the story template. The issue is also archaeological. A global flood drowning all of civilization would have left Pompeii-like ruins everywhere, yet there are none. The only traces of evidence can be found near the two rivers. They are lined with stretches of ancient water deposits and have embankments up to 5 meters (16 ft) high. Such natural levees can only form from repeated, strong flooding.
Many people, including a small percentage of Christians, question the Immaculate Conception. Others don’t question it since, without this key belief, Jesus wasn’t the Son of God but just another human. A remarkable man maybe, but not divine. Some scholars feel that the Virgin story was created by later Christians who tried to cast Mary in a sinless light. This attempt got embellished so much that it was later said that Mary never died, was conceived of a virgin mother herself, and that she remained a lifelong virgin. (Her following children were, by later traditions, her step-children or Jesus’s cousins.)
To be the mother of a sinless Messiah, sex wasn’t allowed to be involved because early Christians believed that that was how Original Sin was passed on. The most controversial story is that Mary was the victim of sexual assault, which is not a recent suggestion but an ancient Jewish legend. If true, it needed some serious glossing over since no church could be built on that truth. Historically, it is difficult to prove either way if she was a crime victim or a virgin mother.