When customers are browsing through the commentaries they will often ask about William Barclay. “I’ve used him for years and just love him” they tell me. How do I respond? Though I have not used his commentaries much, which I tell them; I do say that I simply like to let people know that he is doubtful about many of the miracles in the gospels. The response is always the same—“What!? Of course he believes the miracles. I’ve read him for years and have never seen him deny a miracle.” The confusion is understandable since Barclay often uses the language of “miracle” but often undercuts any supernatural element. Here are just a few of his comments on some of the miracles as found in his commentary on Luke.
On the miraculous catch of fish – 5:1-11.
Barclay entitles this section “The Conditions of a Miracle” but listen carefully how he explains it.
“There is no need to think that Jesus created a shoal of fishes for the occasion. In the Sea of Galilee there were phenomenal shoals which covered the sea as if it was a solid for as much as an acre. Most likely Jesus’ discerning eye say just such a shoal and his keen sight made it look like a miracle. We need the eye that really sees.” (68)
The raising of the widow’s son – 7:11-17
“It may well be that here we have a miracle of diagnosis; that Jesus with those keen eyes of his saw that the young man was in a cataleptic trance and saved him from being buried alive, as so many were in Palestine. It does not matter; the fact remains that Jesus claimed for life a young man who had been marked for death.” (105) This same “miracle of diagnosis” is used to explain the raising of Jairus’ daughter (8:40-42 and 49-56).
Feeding of the 5,000 – 9:10-17
Barclay acknowledges that we could see in this “simply a miracle in which Jesus created food for this vast multitude” but then says that some people think this is what happened:
“The people were hungry—and they were utterly selfish. They all had something with them, but they would not produce it for themselves in case they had to share it with others. The Twelve laid before the multitude their little store and thereupon others were moved to produce theirs; and in the end there was more than enough for everyone. So it may be regarded as a miracle which turned selfish, suspicious fold into generous people, a miracle of Christ’s changing determined self-interest into a willingness to share.” (140)
Casting pigs in the sea – 8:26-39
“Surely what happened was this. The herd of swine was feeding there on the mountainside. Jesus was exerting his power to cure what was a very stubborn case. Suddenly the man’s wild shouts and screams disturbed the swine and they went dashing down the step place into the sea in blind terror. ‘Look!’ said Jesus, ‘Look! Your demons are gone!’ Jesus had to find a way to get into the mind of this poor man; and in that way he found it.” (129)
Let me end on a positive note. Richard Dawkins complains bitterly about the fate of these poor pigs. It is a classic case of animal cruelty. Here I think Barclay is eminently reasonable:
“In any event, can we compare the value of a herd of swine with the value of a man’s immortal soul? If it cost the lives of these swine to save that soul, are we to complain? Is it not perverse fastidiousness which complains that swine were killed in order to heal a man? Surely we ought to preserve a sense of proportion. If the only way to convince this man of his cure was that the swine should perish, it seems quite extraordinarily blind to object that they did.” (129)