Were the Miracles of Jesus invented by the Disciples/Evangelists?

 


Posted: Feb 10, 2002  |   Back to the Miracles Index  |  Summary


 

 

7.  Did the authors create miracle stories/accretions about their  dead leader which were fashioned and expressed in ways that would make him look like a Jewish wonder-worker (e.g., Charismatic Jewish Holy Man, Messianic figure, Old Testament prophet)? In this scenario, the gospel accounts are written in such a way as to 'sell Jesus to' the Jews, by describing his actions in similar terms and images as those presumably held/expected by first-century Jews. The authors would therefore be expecting the Jewish readership to already have such a category of 'Wonder-working Jewish figure' available to them, or to have a commonly known example with which to compare the Jesus stories.

 

This question is obviously THREE questions:

 

1.        Did they dress up Jesus with miracles to look like a well-known type of  "Charismatic Jewish Holy Man"?

2.        Did they dress up Jesus with miracles to look like a commonly-held model of a messianic figure?

3.        Did they dress up Jesus with miracles to look like an Old Testament prophet?

 

 

………………………………………………………………………….

 

The first of these is the easiest to answer confidently (and answer "no"), since we have already seen in an earlier installment in the series (mq4.html) that there WAS NO such "type" of individual in pre-Jesus Israel, much less a 'commonly-known' image of such. Jesus might have 'started' or defined such a type--for later unconscious imitation--but there simply was no antecedent picture for the evangelists to drawn from.

 

………………………………………………………………………….

 

The third of these is a little more complex, in that the data about the prophets is somewhat complex itself.

 

In the Hebrew Bible, we have 16 writing prophets (with books named after them). These are the familiar names of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel etc. Of these prophets NONE performed miracles themselves. Some announced miracles (e.g., Isaiah on Hezekiah's healing, Jeremiah on a judgment on a false prophet) and some had miracles performed by God on their behalf (e.g., Daniel in the lion's den, Jonah and the big fish), but none were actual agents in the sense we are talking about with Jesus.

 

In the Hebrew Bible, we have 26 'good' individuals who made prophetic-type predictions (23 male, 3 female) and 8 'bad' individuals who made prophetic-type predictions (7 male, 1 female). Of these, only two (Elijah and Elisha) performed any miracles. [See The Complete Book of Bible Lists, H.L. Willmington, Tyndale for this info.]

 

We have miracles done by Moses, Elijah, and Elisha (and one 'parting of the Jordan' by Joshua), but the standard "job description" of the prophet does NOT include "miracle working".

 

So, we don’t have a standard 'model' of wonder-working prophet (a couple of prophets were this, but most were not), but we still could refine this question to three sub-questions:

 

§         Did they dress up Jesus with miracles to look like Elisha?

§         Did they dress up Jesus with miracles to look like Elijah?

§         Did they dress up Jesus with miracles to look like Moses?

 


Elisha and Elijah.  Elijah is credited with 7 miracles in the Hebrew Bible (1 Kings 17 thru 2 kings 2;  bold with parallels in Jesus, italics common to Elijah/Elisha; bold italic common to all three):

 

1.       Parting of the Jordan

2.        Praying up the three-year drought

3.        Solving the drought problem by praying down rain

4.        Destruction of King Ahaziah's soldiers (fire from heaven)

5.       Multiplication of flour and oil

6.       Raising of the widow's son

7.        Praying down fire on Mt. Carmel

 

 

Elisha is credited with 13 miracles in the Hebrew bible (2 Kings 2-6):

 

1.       Parting of the Jordan

2.        Solving Jericho's water problem by prayer/throwing salt into the water supply

3.        Judgment of hecklers from Bethel (the attack of the bears incident)

4.        Flooding ditches for the Israelite army in Edom

5.       Multiplying oil for a widow

6.       Raising of the Shunammite's son

7.        Healing of the poisonous stew

8.       Multiplying food (bread)

9.       Healing Naaman the leper

10.     Judgment upon Gehazi (leprosy)

11.     Causing an axe head to float

12.     Allowing his servant to see protecting angels

13.     Judging Syrians with blindness

 

 

Now, I have dealt with the "multiplication of the food" similarity elsewhere in the Tank, and the differences between the "laborious" resuscitations of Elijah and Elisha and the effortless ones of Jesus (e.g. effected with just a word) might suggest a contrast but certainly not 'motif borrowing'. The healing miracle, of course, is simply too 'generic' to base an identity claim on (even apart from the process issues of bathing in the Jordan seven times, etc.). In popular Judaism of the time, many expected Elijah to bodily return to initiate the Messianic kingdom, so the fact that some people understood Jesus in this way is not altogether unexpected.

 

Jesus does make an explicit comparison between his ministry and those of Elijah and Elisha, but it was NOT about miracle-working, but about the recipients of those miracles (Luke 4.16ff):

 

"When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ ” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

 

 

There are several reasons why we don't think the miracles were concocted to make Jesus look like Elijah or Elisha:

 

First of all, the match really isn't that good. We don't get the really 'famous' miracles of Elijah (i.e., 'fire and rain'…sorry, had to do it--smile), and Elisha is actually not 'specific/distinctive enough' a character from which to base a 'resemblance'. What I mean by that is that although Elijah is mentioned many times in the NT, Elisha is not mentioned except in the passage cited above. He is not mentioned in the intertestamental literature but once--in Ben Sira's Hall of Fame (Sirach 48).

 

Secondly, if the evangelists had meant to do this, then they didn't do a good job of it. When popular interpretation of Jesus was summarized in the Gospels, Jesus was identified with a wide range of characters (including Elijah, of course), but His miracles were obviously not specific enough for the populace to 'get it'. In other words, the fact that Jesus was NOT clearly seen by the majority as being Elijah argues that the miracles were not intended to create that identification. Here are two of the summary passages:

 

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He began asking His disciples, saying, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” 15 He *said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 And Simon Peter answered and said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. [Matt 16.13ff; note that Jesus here indicates that He is NOT Elijah, which also argues that the evangelists were not trying to portray Him as such--against His will!]

 

Now Herod the tetrarch heard of all that was happening; and he was greatly perplexed, because it was said by some that John had risen from the dead, 8 and by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others, that one of the prophets of old had risen again. 9 And Herod said, “I myself had John beheaded; but who is this man about whom I hear such things?” And he kept trying to see Him." [Luke 9.7]

 

What is interesting about these identifications, by the way, is that each of them assumes that Jesus' miracles are a function of immortality and NOT of simple prophetic call. It is only resurrected prophets who can do these miracles (Jeremiah, John the Baptist, one of the old prophets) or someone who became immortal without dying (i.e. Elijah). The miracles are connected with eschatological life, only experienced in the Resurrection or presence of God. This means that it would be pointless to try to identify Jesus with the miracles of a pre-mortem prophet (assumed by our question under discussion here), for only post-mortem prophets/people were expected to do such miracles. Of course, miracles were supposed to happen all the time in God's future/eschatological/Messianic kingdom, and this was the indication given by Jesus to the imprisoned John the Baptist  that the kingdom was "walking around in their midst". In fact, in this passage Jesus doesn't even refer to Himself as a miracle-worker (i.e. the signs didn’t point to Him per se), but rather to the miracles themselves as signs of the Kingdom's presence  (more on this later):

 

And the disciples of John reported to him about all these things. 19 And summoning two of his disciples, John sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are You the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?” 20 And when the men had come to Him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to You, saying, ‘Are You the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?’” 21 At that very time He cured many people of diseases and afflictions and evil spirits; and He granted sight to many who were blind. 22 And He answered and said to them, “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the gospel preached to them. 23 “And blessed is he who keeps from stumbling over Me.” [Lk 7.18]

 

 

Thirdly, the points of identification between Jesus and Elijah in the gospels were not about miracles, but about the end-time implications of the appearance. Any miracle similarities were not important to what is actually IN the gospel portrayals of the two:

 

"In sum, the prophetic character of Jesus’ ministry does allow comparisons to the great prophet Elijah, even though the two are not identified. Jesus’ prophetic activity signals the presence of the eschaton, but he is not Elijah, the prophet of the eschaton, since Jesus is not the forerunner but “the one to come.” For Luke the messenger of Malachi 3 is only John the Baptist and does not include Jesus (Lk 1:17; 7:27; contra Fitzmyer). Jesus parallels Elijah only in his eschatological activity." [NT:DictJG, s.v. "Elijah and Elisha"]

 

 

Fourthly, the gospels do not portray Jesus as Elijah, but rather casts John the Baptist into that prophetic role. Jesus himself identifies John with Elijah, and it would be difficult to maintain that the evangelists attempted to 'confuse' their readers by dressing Jesus up like Elijah--in spite of Jesus' explicit statements to the contrary. [It is interesting that in the closest match to Elijah's fire-judgments (Luke 9.54) it is the disciples who want to do the actual 'calling down', instead of Jesus. It looks strangely like they recognized a parallel--disciples:Jesus as Elijah:YHWH…hmmm…(mild Trinitarian smile)]

 

 

 

Moses. Moses is a different situation, since a New Moses had been predicted by Moses himself in the Deuteronomy 18 passage. There is no question but that both Jesus and the evangelists represent Jesus in this role (along with roles of David, the prophets, and sages), but perhaps surprisingly the identification is NOT based on substantial similarity of miracles performed. If one looks at the explicit data used in supporting the identification, one must be immediately be impressed by the paucity of the analogous miracles:

 

"Events in Moses’ Life Foreshadowing Jesus’ Life. Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ infancy (Mt 2) is similar to that of Moses. The lives of both are threatened by the political leader of the region, who slaughters many innocent children, and both enjoy a narrow escape. Both return to the land of their birth at a divine command, whose wording is very similar (Ex 4:19; Mt 2:20)… John notes two events in Moses’ life that foreshadow Jesus’ life and work. Moses and the bronze snake (Num 21:8–9) parallels Jesus on the cross in that both are “lifted up” and both yield life from death when looked upon—the difference being that gazing on Jesus produces eternal life (Jn 3:14–15). While Moses gave manna to the people, who later died, the Father gives “the true bread from heaven,” which is Jesus and which yields life eternal (Jn 6:32–35, 49–51, 58; see Bread)…Other key Mosaic motifs, such as the Passover lamb whose bones are not to be broken (Ex 12:46; Num 9:12; cf. Jn 19:36) and “the blood of the covenant” (Ex 24:8; cf. Mt 26:28 par. Mk 14:24 and Lk 22:20), foreshadow Jesus’ sacrificial death, although explicit reference to the person of Moses is lacking.

 

"Both Matthew and Luke move beyond Mark in amplifying Moses’ foreshadowing of Jesus. Matthew alone draws parallels between their birth narratives and highlights the mountain motif as the place where both mediated between God and the people. In the Synoptic account of the Transfiguration Luke alone notes that Jesus’ death and resurrection should be seen as a kind of Mosaic Exodus. And only Luke indicates that much of Jesus’ post-resurrection teaching consisted of explaining how Moses’ teaching prophetically spoke of the Christ’s sufferings and glory…John’s Gospel is also clear that Moses foretold Jesus’ coming. John makes explicit what is only implicit in the Synoptic account of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand; his Gospel presents the event as a parallel to Moses’ providing manna. He also uniquely parallels Moses’ lifting up the bronze snake and Jesus’ being lifted up on the cross. [NT:DictJG, s.v. "Moses"]

 

Note here that the infancy accounts do not contain any miracles worked by Jesus or Moses, the bronze snake connection is more typological/symbolic, and that the single miracle used as a connection point is about the miraculous feeding of the people in the wilderness (with Jesus dwelling on the theme that HE IS the bread of life). This is the same miracle which has a closer connection to Elisha than to Moses! The connections with Moses are therefore more about authority and mediation (e.g., the mountain-top motif) than about miracles. This data, therefore, provides no support for a belief that the evangelists made up miracle stories about Jesus to 'dress Him up like Moses'.

 

 

So, the data in the Hebrew bible and gospel narratives does not seem to indicate the evangelists "dressed Jesus up with fabricated miracle stories" to make Him look like an Old Testament/Tanaach prophet.

 

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The second question--about popularly-expected Messianic figures--is likewise a bit complex, due to the variety of messianic expectations at the time.

 

[Consult messiah.html for documentation of this variety.]

 

We need to think about what this question actually means first.

 

The question assumes that a majority (or very influential minority) of first-century, pre-Jesus Judaism expected a messiah who was a wonder-worker. The assumption is that miraculous powers were essential to the concept, verification, and identification of the messianic figure.

 

 

Now, although many of the Jewish sects/groups of the period imputed various transcendent and/or eschatological attributes/powers to the messiah, there was a 'vagueness' about this as commonly noted by scholars, and the expectation of the miraculous was not as essential as our question assumes:

 

"It is not clear that healing miracles occupied an important place in first-century Palestinian Messianic expectation. Messianic expectation, as diverse as it was, apparently did not anticipate miracles of the sort and concentration found in the Gospels. Davidic messianology primarily called for a king who would rule Israel and the nations with justice (Isa 11: 1 -10; 16:5; Jer 23:5; 33:15; Zech 6:12-14), a king who would obey the Law, drive sinners out of Jerusalem (Pss. Sol. 17:21-42), and destroy Israel's enemies (4 Ezra 12:31-33). The Spirit, perhaps even a spirit of prophecy (Tg. Isa 11:1-2; Tg. Ps 72:1), it was thought, would rest upon the Messiah (Isa 11: 1-2; 61:1-2). The Messiah was expected to gather and shepherd the people of Israel (Ezek 34:23-24; 37:24) and redistribute them on the land according to their tribes (Pss. Sol. 17:26-28). Qumran speaks of an "anointed [or Messiah] of Israel" (CD 12:23; 19:10-11; 20:1; IQS 9:11; IQSa 2:11-12,14, 20-21), who may even be "hailed as the Son of God" (4QpsDan ara 1:9; 2:1-2; cf. Luke 1:32833).  But nothing is said of miracles. Even 4Q521, which does speak of healing--even resurrection--does not say that it is the Messiah who does these things. The context seems to indicate that these are the things that God will do during the messianic era. Mosaic messianology, rooted in the promise of Deut 18:15-19 (parts of which are quoted and applied to Jesus; cf. Acts 3:23; 7:37), hoped for a Priest who would serve with righteousness and justice (T Sim. 7:2; T. Judah 21:2; T. Benj. 9:2; 4QTest 5-8; cf. I QS 9: 10-11). But again there is no expectation of miraclesHowever, this is not to say that miracles would have occasioned surprise. To the extent that Elijah and Elisha provided models for first-century messianic expectation (cf. Luke 4:25-27) there could have been some expectation of miracles. Moreover, it seems that some 'sign from heaven' was expected (Mark 8:11-12; cf. John 2:18; 4:48; 6:30; 1 Cor 1:22). Not only was Jesus himself pressed for such a sign, but several of the various prophetic and/or messianic claimants from the time of Herod until the time of Ben Kosiba promised validating signs of one sort or another, often modeled after the Exodus and the Conquest (cf. Mark 13:22)…In view of these ideas and expectations [of a wonder-working messiah and sign prophets] it seems highly unlikely that a Wunder-Jesu tradition grew up in order to fill out messianic beliefs about Jesus. Messianic beliefs simply did not require prospective messiah to heal and exorcise demons. One should hardly expect, therefore, early Christians to find it necessary to create such a large number of miracle stories. It is interesting to observe that when Jesus is given the opportunity to offer a sign, the one thing that apparently was expected of agents of salvation, he refused. This refusal flies in the face of the critical assumption that the miracle stories originated in the Hellenistic church. If the Wunder-Jesu tradition originated in the Hellenistic Church, then why not have Jesus perform  sign that dazzles his opponents? Jesus' refusal, which contemporary skeptics and critics would probably have view as inability--i.e. when put to the test Jesus failed (here we may invoke the criterion of embarrassment)--strongly tells against such a critical assumption."[NT:JHC:220ff]

 

 

"To begin with, it can be noted that in portraying Jesus as the Messiah his followers were not obligated to portray him as a miracle worker. For example, in Psalms of Solomon 17 the Davidic messiah is not expected to perform miracles. Even in portraying Jesus as a prophet they would not need to associate miracles with Jesus, as in Luke 24:19, for example. John the Baptist, who was involved in the early days of the Jesus movement, is portrayed as a prophet. Yet neither the Gospels nor Josephus (Ant. 18:116-19) portrays John as a miracle worker….Therefore the attachment of so many stories to the traditions about the historical Jesus already predisposes us to the importance of asking the question about the possibility of his performing feats that we would call miracles. Indeed, from what we have seen, we can go so far as to say that it is unlikely that the miracle tradition about Jesus would have arisen had it not been for his conducting miracles--and so many of them." [NT:JMW:247]

 

 

"In short, apart from the Bartimaeus episode and passages dependent upon it, 'Son of David' is alien to the earliest Christian traditions about Jesus' miracles. As a direct address to Jesus, it is also alien to the rest of Mark's Gospel. Actually, there is nothing surprising about its relative absence. The title was not at home in the earliest Christian narratives of Jesus' miracles because in the Judaism of the time there seems to have been no direct connection made between King David, his royal heir who as to reign on his throne as the Messiah of the end time, and the power to perform miracles." [MJ:2:688f]

 

 

What this means is that our question is slightly off-base. To 'package Jesus as a messiah' would NOT be done by inventing 36 miracles, almost none of which had precedents in the Hebrew bible or intertestamental writings! The connection between 'miracle' and 'messiah' simply would not have been automatic in the eyes of first-century Jewry.

 

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Pushback: But what about the messianic claimants of the period? Didn't they appeal to the populace by promising a miraculous sign? If they did this, isn't it reasonable to assume that Jesus would have to be portrayed by the evangelists in similar fashion--that of a wonder-worker?

 

Heard offers us a summary of these popular prophets [NT:DictJG, s.v. 'Revolutionary Movements']

 

"Popular Prophets. Popular prophetic movements, on the other hand, had leaders who led sizable movements of peasants. The political authorities generally viewed this activity as insurrectionist and therefore forced a military confrontation. These prophets and their followers generally arose in anticipation of the appearance of God’s eschatological liberation. This liberation was perceived as imminent, and when it arrived the Jews would be freed from their political bondage and would again govern Palestine, the land God had given to them as their own possession. The leaders of these popular prophetic movements are described by Josephus in general terms:

 

Impostors and demagogues, under the guise of divine inspiration, provoked revolutionary actions and impelled the masses to act like madmen. They led them out into the wilderness so that there God would show them signs of imminent liberation. (J.W. 2.13.4 §259; cf. Ant. 20.8.6 §168)

 

"These popular prophets, preying upon social conditions, apparently taught that God was about to transform their society—characterized by oppression and social injustice—into a society marked by peace, prosperity and righteousness. Responding to the call, large numbers of peasants left their homes, their work and their communities to follow these charismatic leaders into the desert. There in the wilderness they awaited God to manifest his presence through signs and wonders, purify his people and unveil the eschatological plan of redemption which he had previously revealed to his prophet. At this juncture God himself would act and defeat Israel’s enemies.

 

3.1.1. The Samaritan. The first of these prophets appeared when Pontius Pilate was procurator. Interestingly, this first movement appeared among the Samaritans. The Samaritans, like the Jews, revered Moses as the prophet and cultivated hopes for a future Mosaic prophet who was discussed in terms of “the restorer”. The 'restorer'  would appear and restore Solomon’s Temple on Mount Gerizim. Josephus has described one such Samaritan prophetic movement:

 

Nor was the Samaritan nation free from disturbance. For a man who had no qualms about deceit, and freely used it to sway the crowd, commanded them to go up with him as a group to Mount Gerizim, which is for them the most sacred mountain. He promised to show them, when they got there, the holy vessels buried at the spot where Moses had put them. Those who thought his speech convincing came with arms and stationed themselves at a village called Tirathana. There they welcomed late-comers so that they might make the climb up the mountain in a great throng. But Pilate was quick to prevent their ascent with a contingent of cavalry and armed infantry. They attacked those who had assembled beforehand in the village, killed some, routed others, and took many into captivity. From this group Pilate executed the ringleaders as well as the most able among the fugitives. (Ant. 18.4.1 §§85–87)

 

3.1.2. Theudas. Perhaps ten years later, about A.D. 45, a second major prophetic movement began. A certain Theudas (probably not the Theudas mentioned in Acts 5:36) organized one of these prophetic movements during the reign of Fadus (A.D. 44–46). Josephus also describes this prophet’s ministry:

 

When Fadus was governor of Judea, a charlatan named Theudas persuaded most of the common people to take their possessions and follow him to the Jordan River. He said he was a prophet, and that at his command the river would be divided and allow them an easy crossing. Through such words he deceived many. But Fadus hardly let them consummate such foolishness. He sent out a cavalry unit against them, which killed many in a surprise attack, though they also took many alive. Having captured Theudas himself, they cut off his head and carried it off to Jerusalem. (Ant. 20.5.1 §§97–98)

 

"Obviously Theudas’ movement attracted large numbers of Jews, so much so that Josephus hyperbolically states that Theudas deceived “most of the common people.” Perhaps Theudas, in some sort of reverse Exodus, saw himself as the new Moses leading the people out of bondage (like Egypt) and across the Jordan (like the Red Sea) into the wilderness to be divinely prepared for the new conquest. Fadus, not taking any chances, acted decisively, thus showing his fear of such movements. The movement’s swift annihilation almost certainly indicates that, unlike the messianic movements, this prophetic band was unarmed. Theudas’ posthumous public humiliation by the ceremonial parading of his severed head was intended to send a stern warning to any would-be leaders of similar prophetic movements.

 

3.1.3. The Egyptian. Another movement, about ten years later, involved a Jewish prophet who originated from Egypt (Ant. 20.8.6 §§169–71; J.W. 2.13.5 §§261–63; cf. Acts 21:38). Josephus records that this prophet had a following of 30,000 who were to march from the wilderness to the Mount of Olives and then into Jerusalem. Felix sent Roman troops to slaughter all those involved in the movement. The Roman army easily defeated this prophetic band, even though the Egyptian himself escaped.

 

"It seems fairly clear that these prophetic movements saw themselves in some sort of continuity with Israel’s past great historical deliverances. They also had an eschatological dimension in their claim that God was about to deliver Israel and grant their autonomy in the promised land."

 

 

So, could these 'sign prophets' have influenced the gospel authors to create miracle stories to make Jesus look like one of them?

 

Actually, the chronology is backwards for this to be the case.

 

Let's sketch out the relevant timeline of messianic-looking figures, and inquire about each whether they promised miraculous/authenticating signs:

 

Name

Dates

Character

Sign?

Judas of Galilee (Sepphoris)

4BC

brigand

none promised

Simon of Perea

4BC+

brigand

none promised

Anthroges

4-2BC

seccessionist

none promised

Judas the Galilean (Gamala)

6AD?

seccessionist

none promised

(nothing/no one)

(6-36AD)

 

 

The Anonymous Samaritan

36AD

prophet

promise of finding the sacred vessels

Theudas

45AD

prophet/Moses

promise of parting the Jordan

The Anonymous Egyptian (Jew)

56AD

prophet/Joshua

promise of Jerusalem's walls falling down

Anonymous 'impostor'

61AD

prophet/Moses

promise only of 'rest' and 'salvation'

Menahem son of Judas

66AD

brigand

none promised

John of Gischala, son of Levi

66AD

brigand

none promised

 

 

Observations:

 

§         Of these 'messianic' (loosely speaking, of course) figures, only the first four pre-date the ministry of Jesus, and none of these four offer any miracles. They essentially are rebels/brigands, operating in the semi-chaos after the death of Herod.

 

§         The first "sign prophet" appears not in Judaism, but in Samaria(!) and even it post-dates the earthly ministry of Jesus. The miracle promised in this case was one of 'revelation' (divining rod type operation?), and NOT a Jesus-like miracle.

 

§         The four  'sign prophets' operate in the period 36-61 AD, with the three Jewish ones appearing after the gospels would have been written (or at least, 'congealed'). Therefore, the chronology of influence is in the wrong direction: it is more likely that Jesus miracles would have influenced the sign prophets, rather than vice versa.

 

§         With the exception of the 4th sign prophet (with the very vague 'promise' of 'rest'--not an explicit claim to miracle, as noted by many), none of the miracles promised match ANYTHING in the miracles of Jesus.

 

§         In fact, it looks as if Jesus' refusal to grant a 'sign' is indication that He doesn’t fall into the 'sign prophet' category, and indeed, He is not placed there by Josephus (from whom most of our info on these figures comes from):

 

"Of the two types of would-be messianic deliverers active in the time of Jesus, most scholars appear to agree that Jesus resembles the 'sign' prophets more than he does the popular royal claimants. But I think three qualifications are necessary: (1) Although it is true that Jesus did offer his healing activity as evidence to the imprisoned John the Baptist that he really was the 'one who is coming' (Matt 11:2-6 = Luke 7:18-23), Jesus did not offer a 'sign,' at least not of the magnitude of those promised by Theudas, the Egyptian Jew, and others. Indeed, we are told that when asked, Jesus flatly refused to give a 'sign [semion]' (Mark 8:11-12; Luke 11:16). I would add also that although Josephus tells us of the various signs offered by the sign prophets, he describes Jesus as a teacher and 'doer of amazing deeds' (Ant. 18.3.3). Josephus says nothing about Jesus promising a sign. So it seems that not even Josephus lumps Jesus into exactly the same category as Theudas and the Egyptian Jew."  [NT:JHC:79]

 

§         The sign prophets called their followers "out to the wilderness", and set themselves up as related to major eschatological events/figures. The gospel writers, on the other hand, portray Jesus as explicitly warning about such:

 

"Synoptic warnings about not heeding a summons to the wilderness (cf. Matt 24:26) and various claims of false Christs (cf. Mark 13:21-22 par) surely have in mind the people of whom Josephus wrote" [NT:JHC:73]

 

§         And finally we should note that when Jesus DID identify a 'sign' that would be given, it was a reference to his death/resurrection (the sign of Jonah)--and NOTHING like the miracle/signs promised by these popular figures.

 

 

 

 

The flow of influence seems, therefore, to be in the other direction (IF there is any relationship at all--the differences between the miracles of Jesus and the promised 'signs' of these figures would argue otherwise, of course.):

 

"Certainly the miracles of Christ were known in Palestine (Acts 2:22, 10:36-38; cf. 24:22, 26:26) and may have provided an impulse for the Sign-prophets."  [X02:JSOTGP6:284-295]

 

 

[One might also sardonically note that none of these movements lasted more than a year or two, and each was violently (and embarrassingly) crushed by the Romans. To have 'dressed Jesus up' to look like one of these leaders might not have been a wise Public Relations Campaign anyway…smile.]

 

………………………………………………………………………………………………………

 

Pushback: "Huh? You have just argued that miracles were NOT 'required' of messiahs, and that Jesus might have accidentally STARTED the 'let me prove this by promising  you a sign' movements. But the scriptural data in the gospels explicitly seems to argue the contrary: the people ask for a sign, they reason 'will the messiah do more miracles than these when he comes?' (John 7.31), John specifically gives the signs in his gospel so that people "might believe", and Acts also argues from Jesus' miracles.  What's wrong with this picture, glenn????"

 

Great question---I'm glad you brought it up (since I was hoping to avoid it, obviously…smile)…

 

Let's look at those 4 passages specifically, and see what gives…

 

One. And the Pharisees and Sadducees came up, and testing Him asked Him to show them a sign from heaven. 2 But He answered and said to them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ 3 “And in the morning, ‘There will be a storm today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but cannot discern the signs of the times? 4 “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and a sign will not be given it, except the sign of Jonah.” And He left them, and went away. [Matt 16.1ff]

 

First of all, their request for a sign was NOT a legitimate one; it was a requirement generated by them (not by the Hebrew Bible), and it was of evil-intent and denounced by our Lord:

 

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered Him, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” 39 But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; 40 for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 “The men of Nineveh shall stand up with this generation at the judgment, and shall condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.  [Matt 12.38ff]

 

And as the crowds were increasing, He began to say, “This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks for a sign, and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah. 30 “For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so shall the Son of Man be to this generation. [Luke 11.29]

 

"They ask for a sign from heaven in verse 1 (cf. 2 Kings 20:8–9; Is 38:7; 2 Chron 32:24); astrologers used signs in the heavens to predict the fall of emperors, and rabbis also tried to interpret such signs. Jewish writers like Josephus believed there were portents in the heavens when disasters were about to occur (cf. also Mt 24:29–30). Some prophets, like Elijah, actually had produced signs from heaven—he called down fire from heaven (1 Kings 18:38)—but most prophetic signs were not so spectacular (Judg 6:17; Is 7:11–14; 8:18; 19:20; 20:3; 37:30; 38:7; 66:19; Ezek 4:3; 12:11; 24:24, 27). Perhaps Jesus’ opponents desire a sign to validate that he is a prophet—some rabbis believed that prophets could temporarily even set aside some commandments of the law, provided they were attested by signs—or perhaps they merely want him to make a prediction. (“Heaven” was a Jewish title for God, so they could simply mean a sign “from God.”) 16:4.  Like their ancestors who did not heed God’s acts already done among them, this generation is evil (Deut 32:5, 20 in context). Signs had already been given them (Mt 16:3), even clearer than God’s usual signs from the heavens (16:2), but the final attestation would be the resurrection (12:40)." [BBC, in loc]

 

"That their request for a sign was not an innocent one, i.e., in order to have the ministry of Jesus validated for them, is made clear by the participle peiravzonte", “testing (him).” Their minds were already made up concerning Jesus, and now they merely tried to entrap him by finding something that could be used against him (cf. peiravzein again in 19:3; 22:18, 35). The request for a shmei`on ejk tou` oujranou`, “a sign from heaven,” is for a display of power for its own sake and one that would present proof that was irrefutable (Luz: “a cosmic sign”). “Heaven” here is a circumlocution for God; hence, the request is for a sign from God. But when Jesus has been performing a host of signs of the kingdom and the response is unbelief, this is exactly the kind of request he will deny. Had he produced some extraordinary sign, his enemies would doubtless have accused him of sorcery. [WBC, in loc]

 

"The request to see a shmei`on, “sign,” is not for an “ordinary” miracle but for a legitimating sign that would provide compelling proof to them…The request of the scribes and Pharisees may seem genuine enough at first glance. As the narrative makes clear, however, the Pharisees had already witnessed numerous miracles of Jesus that had sign-bearing significance (cf. 11:4–5) yet had refused to acknowledge them. Indeed, as we have seen, they went so far as to attribute some of Jesus’ works to the power of Beelzebul. Now they ask to see a sign, presumably a miracle performed just for them, something that would amaze them while presenting irrefutable evidence that his claims were true (cf. particularly John 6:30). Yet this is precisely the kind of miracle—a demonstrative display of power for the purpose of impressing—that Jesus would not perform. His miracles were never done for the sake of creating an effect or of overpowering those who witnessed them; they were much more a part of his proclamation and thus designed solely to meet human needs. Even if Jesus had performed some astonishing sign for them, such was their unbelief, it is implied, that they probably would have charged Jesus with sorcery and thus have used it against him. [WBC, at Mt 12.38]

 

Secondly, part of the reason for this denunciation (in addition to the malicious 'testing' aspect) is that signs should have been unnecessary to a people in tune with their God. In John, this is quite explicit with Jesus' statements to the effect that "why do you not recognize me?--because you do not know my Father", and [HSOBX] shows some of the dynamics of this:

 

"How can such authority be vindicated? When Moses approached Pharaoh as the spokesman of the God of Israel and demanded that his people be allowed to leave Egypt, he demonstrated the authority by which he spoke in a succession of signs, such as turning his rod into a serpent and changing Nile water into blood (Ex 7:8–24). No doubt Pharaoh was the sort of person who would be impressed by such signs, but Moses’ enduring right to be recognized as a prophet of the living God rests on a firmer foundation than such signs. When Elijah entered the presence of Ahab to denounce his toleration of Baal-worship in Israel, he confirmed his denunciation with the announcement of three years’ drought (1 Kings 17:1). Baal, the rain-giver, was to be hit in the one place where he could be hurt—in his reputation. This particular sign was thus highly relevant to Elijah’s message. If Moses and Elijah, then, had confirmed their authority as messengers of God by signs such as these, why could not Jesus confirm his authority in a similar way?

 

"First, what sort of sign would have convinced them? External signs might have been necessary to convince a heathen Egyptian or an apostate king of Israel, but why should they be necessary for custodians and teachers of the law of the true God? They should have been able to decide without the aid of signs whether Jesus’ teaching was true or not, whether it was in line or not with the Law and the Prophets.

 

"Second, would the kind of sign they had in mind really have validated the truth of Jesus’ words? Matthew Arnold remarked, in the course of a nineteenth-century controversy, that his written statements were unlikely to carry greater conviction if he demonstrated his ability to turn his pen into a penwiper. It may be suspected that it was some similarly extraordinary but essentially irrelevant sign that was being asked from Jesus. If, for example, he had thrown himself down in public from the pinnacle of the temple into the Kidron gorge and suffered no harm, that would have done nothing to confirm his teaching about the kingdom of God, even if it would have silenced the demand for a sign.

 

"In the third place, what about the signs he actually performed? Why were they not sufficient to convince his questioners? One Pharisee, indeed, is reported as saying to him, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him” (Jn 3:2). Jesus himself affirmed that if it was by the power of God that he relieved those who were demon-possessed, that was a sign of the arrival of the kingdom of God (Lk 11:20). But some of those to whom these words were spoken chose to believe that it was not by the power of God but by the power of the prince of demons that he healed the demon-possessed. If the restoration of bodily and mental health could be dismissed as a work of Satan, no number of healing acts would have established the divine authority by which they were performed…While the miracles served as signs, they were not performed in order to be signs. They were as much part and parcel of Jesus’ ministry as was his preaching—not, as it has been put, seals affixed to the document to certify its genuineness but an integral element in the very text of the document. No sign would be given that was not already available in the ministry itself; to ask for more was a mark of unbelief.

 

And the rabbi's made a similar distinction:

 

"The proselyte is dearer to God than all the Israelites who stood by Mount Sinai. For if all the Israelites had not seen the thunder and the flames and the lightnings and the quaking mountain and the sound of thee trumpet they would not have accepted the law and taken upon themselves the kingdom of God. Yet this man has seen none of all these things yet comes and gives himself to God and takes on himself the yoke of the kingdom of God. Is there any who is dearer than this man? [Rabbi Simeon ben Laqish, c. AD 250, Tanhuma 6[32a])]

 

Miracles are associated with 'closeness to God' (witness the statement of Nicodemus in John 3.2), and, since the Messiah was to be very, very 'close to God', it could be inferred that miracles would 'surround him'. But these miracles would flow from the life of said messiah, and NOT produced 'on demand' before a hostile and malicious audience. The Jew had the Law and the Prophets--that and that alone was supposed to be the test of the Second Moses.

 

 

Two. Still, many in the crowd put their faith in him. They said, “When the Christ comes, will he do more miraculous signs than this man?”  (John 7.31)

 

This verse is slightly ambiguous for our purpose, actually, because it doesn’t actually state that the messiah had to do miracles. Rather, it argues that IF a messiah did miracles, WOULD it be 'more' than those done by Jesus…Popular opinion was varied on messianic expectations (as we have often noted), and this expectation was NOT a direct prediction from the Hebrew Bible.

 

"The final sentences of the paragraph provide an example of the process which takes place throughout this record of Jesus at the festival, as throughout the record of the ministry as a whole: the people are divided in their response to Jesus. The men of Jerusalem wanted to seize him, but “his hour had not yet come.” The one from whom Jesus came permitted none to bring the mission to an end before the time he himself had appointed—an illustration of the words of Jesus: “He who sent me is with me!” By contrast, “many of the crowd believed in him.” They did so because they could not imagine even the Messiah doing more “signs” than Jesus had done and was doing. Here the pilgrims are echoing a different contemporary messianic dogma. Whereas traditionally miracles were not associated with the Messiah in his coming, the merging of the expected prophet like Moses with the Messiah as the “second Redeemer” led to anticipation of the miracles of Moses in the Exodus finding a repetition in the greater than Moses at the second Exodus. [WBC, in loc]

 

"Their reasoning, however, is recorded: When the Christ comes, will he do more miraculous signs than this man? Faith based on signs is not strongly encouraged (2:11, 23; 4:48; etc.), though it is better than nothing (10:38). There is no hint, however, that these people developed any deep understanding of the significance of the signs, thereby grasping who Jesus really was. Popular messianism did not, apparently, commonly associate Messiah with miracles, but if this crowd brought together in their minds the Messiah and the eschatological prophet (who was expected to perform miracles), the genesis of their question is adequately explained." [Carson, John, in loc.]

 

We must remember (as was noted much earlier) that the fact that the messiah was not required to do miracles does not exclude him from doing so. His closeness to God and his being the embodiment of the New Future would pretty much guarantee that new life would 'pop up' on occasion, but this does not require the messiah to be a 'wonder-worker' or to authenticate His authority by pointing to flashy stunts done to impress the masses.

 

 

Three. Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20.30f)

 

I am not sure what to say here, because John's use of semeia ('signs') is so unique. The events that John calls 'signs' are never called 'miracles' (dunamis), but are adduced in his gospel only because they point not at themselves, but beyond themselves. They are witnesses to the "New-Future-among-us-in-the-Son". All the miracles of Jesus have this character, of course, but John draws this focus more precisely than the other evangelists:

 

"What finally and radically distinguishes Jesus’ miracles from those of Jewish and Hellenistic narratives is their eschatological reference. As Matt. 11:2 ff. par. Lk. 7:18 ff. and Lk. 11:20 clearly show, they are signs of God’s kingly rule, the dawn of which Jesus announced in his proclamation (Matt. 4:23; 9:35; Mk. 1:39; 6:6; Lk. 4:14 f., 44). Jesus’ words and works are the beginning of the age of salvation, and the miracles are a foreshadowing and a promise of the coming universal redemption. Ultimately, it is in this eschatological context that the accounts of Jesus’ miracles are to be read. Thus, the casting out of demons signals God’s invasion into the realm of Satan and its final annihilation (Matt. 12:29 par. Mk. 3:27, Lk. 11:21 f., cf. Isa. 49:24 f.; Lk. 10:18; Jn. 12:31; Rev. 20:1 ff., 10); the raising of the dead announces that death will be forever done away with (1 Cor. 15:26; Rev. 21:4; cf. Isa. 25:8); the healing of the sick bears witness to the cessation of all suffering (Rev. 21:4); the miraculous provisions of food are foretokens of the end of all physical need (Rev. 7:16 f.); the stilling of the storm points forward to complete victory over the powers of chaos which threaten the earth (Rev. 21:1). “When the biblical miracle stories excite serious and relevant wonderment, they intend to do this as signals of something fundamentally new, not as a violation of the natural order which is generally known and acknowledged. . . . Though these changes were isolated and temporary, they were nevertheless radically helpful and saving. What took place were promises and intimations, anticipations of a redeemed nature, of a state of freedom, of a kind of life in which there will be no more sorrow, tears, and crying, and where death as the last enemy will be no more” (Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, 1963, 68 f.). [NIDNTT, s.v. semion]

 

Without going into this in too much detail, let me try to net it out: for John the signs are not 'displays of authenticating power' (as requested occasionally by the masses and/or leadership), but rather 'manifestations of the active warmth of God's presence and heart'. They do not 'convince' by their miraculous nature; they 'woo' by exposing the beautiful heart and integrity and compassion and loyalty of the Redeeming God. John wants his readers to 'see' the heart of God in the words and works of Jesus, and to then "fall in love" with the God they see 'inside' the miracles. ["Those who “see” the signs, “see” the secret of Jesus’ person as the mediator of God’s salvation to humankind.", Thompson, [NT: DictJG, s.v. "John, Gospel of "]] Accordingly, this doesn't sort of fit in this discussion on 'signs as evidence of credentials', so I can only refer the reader to the standard commentaries (e.g., Morris, Carson, Beasley-Murray) on John (all of which will discuss his distinctive use of this word and these events, relative to the Synoptics). But in any event, John's comment here doesn't entail any contradiction to the conclusions reached above on the types of messianic expectation and miracles.

 

 

Four. Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. (Acts 2.22)

 

This actually is not about 'power'  or Messianic proof, but about 'righteousness' and 'closeness to God'. The miracles of Jesus were NOT a central aspect of the Christian message--the Cross/Resurrection was. So Evans:

 

"Not only are the miracles of Jesus culturally distinctive in important ways, they appear to be only incidental to early Christian preaching. In other words, the miracles and the lessons that they often teach do not regularly advance uniquely Christian ideas...To be sure, some moral lessons are drawn from the miracles (e.g., gal 3.5), but they are at the fringes of the Christian kerygma, not its heart. For Paul, the gospel centers on the death and resurrection of Jesus, not his exorcism or healings. The apologetic found on the lips of the Lucan Peter (Acts 2:22: 'a man attested to you by God with might works and wonders and signs which he did in your midst') is meant primarily to demonstrate the innocence of Jesus (Acts 2:23: 'this Jesus...you crucified and killed'), not his messianic credentials. It is his resurrection, not the miracles (or teaching, for that matter), that stands at the heart of the kerygma. " [NT:JHC:216]

 

This passage is another way of saying the same thing as the Jews in the Gospel of John: (a) "no one can do the things you do unless God is with him" ; and (b) "we know that God does not hear/answer sinners (requests for intervention)". So, this passage is oblique to our question too.

 

I should also mention Acts 10:36f, since this reference to Jesus' works ties the 'closeness to God' in with the topic we will discuss below--the actual model followed by Jesus in His ministry, the Isaianic Servant:

 

"You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.  37 You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—  38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

 

[The anointing here likely refers to the Spirit descending at the baptism of John, and the 'power' to the 'and he returned in the power of the Sprit to Galilee…' of Luke 4.14]

 

 

Now, when we back up and look at this, we still end up at the same place: there was no 'target description' of a wonder-working figure for the evangelists to "dress Jesus up with miracles" to fit. The miracles that show up in the gospels are either without precedent in the Hebrew Bible, or do not form a pattern tight enough to be 'suggestive' of a particular biblical messianic figure. The post-biblical historical figures are either non-miraculous (if they pre-date Jesus) or they are too late (if they involve miraculous claims). The varied set of miracles recorded in the gospels just does not seem to 'copy' any/many miracles in Israel's past or the first-century period (at the time of the gospels).

 

…………………………………………………………………..

 

So where did these types of without-precedent miracles come from?

 

Twelftree can ask it this way [NT:JMW:276] :

 

"This poses an important question: How are we to account for Jesus' self-consciousness in light of the great variety of messianic expectations and that miracles were not generally expected of the messiahs?  The answer is probably to be found in the coincidence of two factors. One factor is that Jesus is, as we have seen, presented as conscious of being empowered by God's Spirit (cf., e.g., Mt 12:28/Lk 11:20). The sense of this empowerment probably began with his baptism by John when he experienced the Spirit of God descend on him (Mk 1:9-11),  for it appears that at least on one occasion Jesus may have appealed to this experience as the source of his authority (cf. Mk 11:27-33 ).

 

"The other factor contributing to Jesus' self-consciousness is that he is portrayed as being aware that his miraculous activities have echoes in some of the Isaianic expectations of the messianic age.  Jesus took the initiative to include exorcism both as one of the expressions of the presence of the empowerment of God's Spirit and as part of the fulfillment of the messianic age. He may have done this by bringing together the idea of David being anointed by God's Spirit (Ps 110:1/Mk 12:36) and the view then current that Solomon (David's son) was a powerful exorcist.

 

"So despite the general hesitation of contemporary scholarship, in light of the evidence discussed here, we are bound to conclude that in conducting his miracles, both exorcisms and cures, Jesus was aware that be was God's anointed individual at the center of these eschatological events. For example, in view of the connection Jesus made between his exorcisms and the coming of the reign of God and his echoing of Isaiah 61:1 in his statements about what was taking place around him, he must have been aware that be was the expected Messiah." [italics his; bold mine]

 

 

A. E. Harvey focuses on the Isaianic portrait too, but with reference to Isaiah 35 [X:JATCH:115ff]:

 

"The second clue is also of a statistical kind. No less than eight of Jesus' healing miracles are cures of the deaf, the dumb, the blind and the lame. Such miracles, though they occurred at pagan healing shrines, were completely without precedent in Jesus' own culture. Neither in the Old Testament nor in any subsequent Jewish writings do any such reports occur. In performing them, Jesus was breaking new ground, and seizing an option for which there was no precedent. …it can hardly be an accident that these four complaints are precisely those which Isaiah names as conditions which will be cured in a coming new age:

 

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,

And the ears of the deaf unstopped;

Then shall the lame man leap like a hart,

And the tongue of the dumb sing for joy. (Is 35.5-6 RSV)

 

"Matthew makes the connection explicit. In one of his summaries of Jesus' healing activity (15.30) he describes Jesus as curing the lame and the maimed, the blind and the dumb, and goes on

 

…the multitude were amazed when they saw

the dumb speaking,

the maimed whole,

the lame walking

and the blind seeing (15.31)

 

"Such cures were not merely unprecedented; they were characteristic of the new age which, as we have seen, was expected one way or another by the majority of the contemporaries of Jesus. To use the jargon of New Testament scholarship, they were eschatological miracles."

 

What is interesting about this passage in Isaiah, however, is that it is not explicitly connected with a messianic figure--the effects are a result of YHWH directly visiting His people. And when John the Baptist asks Jesus (via his delegation) the question "are you the expected one?", Jesus refers to these effects instead of to Himself:

 

"…Jesus' reply is self-effacing, drawing attention to the state of affairs around him rather than to himself, avoiding all christological titles…"  [NT:JMW:271]

 

In His reply, Jesus combines the elements of Isaiah 35 (blind, lame, deaf, dumb), the elements of Isaiah 61 (preach to the poor, sight to blind [LXX only]), Isaiah 26.19 (dead raised), Isaiah 29.18-19 (deaf, blind, poor), and Isaiah 53.4 (curing of leprosy, implied). Jesus elsewhere, of course, had identified Himself with the Anointed One of Isaiah 61.1f (Luke 4.18). But in this reply, He points to the events happening around Him as the answer to John's questions of who He was. He was essentially the locus of God's New Future activity, as promised for the Messianic age. [The Lukan version includes exorcisms in the context, but not in the quote--but that they were included in scope of reference seems clear.]

 

In Isaiah, these figures are connected with the New Future, and Harvey can ask "why Isaiah should have used these terms in the first place to describe a state of affairs which lay in the remote and imagined future". His answer is instructive, awe-inspiring, and humbling [X:JATCH:117f]:

 

"But there was another feature of everyday experience which seemed to place an absolute bar to the transformation of the world into the age of paradise. It was one thing if people lost limbs or faculties through war, or violence, or their own sin: these factors would presumably disappear of their own accord once the movement towards a better world had got under way. But what about those ailments which we call congenital, which appeared to be nobody's fault and yet were part of every human scene-- deafness, blindness, deformity, paralysis? These surely could have no place in God's kingdom, yet mankind was powerless to do anything about them. They constituted an intractable barrier between the present age and the age to come. If a prophet were to inspire genuine hope of a new age in store for mankind, he must offer an assurance that this intolerable constraint on human dignity and freedom would, in God's good time, be removed.

 

"It is not therefore necessary to suppose that when Jesus cured the deaf, the dumb, the blind and the lame, people had consciously to bring these events into relation with a particular verse of Isaiah in order to understand their significance. It is rather that Jesus appeared to be demonstrating the possibility of overcoming those constraints and limitations - including even death - which were felt instinctively to stand as an intractable and inexplicable barrier in the way of mankind attaining to a better world. And the same is surely true of that other class of miracles we were considering a moment ago: the exorcisms. Here no reference is possible to the prophecies and visions of the Old Testament, for in Old Testament times people had not yet come to think of the world as dominated by demons and evil powers . But there is abundant evidence that in the time of Jesus one of the ways in which it was customary to express one's sense of constraint and impotence in the face of the irrational and apparently often malign accidents which attend every human enterprise was to postulate a world of demonic powers and evil spirits which was in constant conflict with the forces of good. Sometimes these were thought of as motivating the actions of rulers and so being responsible for political convulsions; sometimes they seemed manifest in individuals, causing that phenomenon of possession by an evil spirit which appears so frequently in the synoptic gospels…But for the most part the existence of the devil and his agencies was taken for granted. His continued influence stood as another intractable barrier between mankind's present misery and its promised future of freedom and happiness."

 

"By this route we reach a conclusion which is similar to that which we found to be true of Jesus' teaching. Even were he able to (and we have no historical grounds for thinking that he was), Jesus certainly did not sit light to the physical constraints which normally bear upon human life. His miracles were not random or freakish; but nor did they run in the channels of known techniques by which his contemporaries believed they could occasionally reverse the impact of the normal course of events. They seem not to have been performed in a spirit of competition with other charismatic figures, nor as a means of drawing attention to the power of the thaumaturge and investing him with unanswerable authority. They did not even have the prudential quality which would have protected their author from the suspicion of sorcery or the danger of a too enthusiastic reaction by the crowds. Instead, we find that an impressive number of them took the form of an attack on those limitations of the human condition which seemed most intractable, most inexplicable, and most stubbornly to prevent mankind from moving into that better world which is surely intended for us in the future purposes of God."

 

In Jesus' reply, He blends works which as ascribed to YHWH directly  (Is 35, 26), works which are ascribed to the Anointed One  (Is 61), works ascribed to God the Redeemer (Is 29), and to the Suffering Servant of YHWH (Is 53). This 'extreme' identification of the works of YHWH with the works of the Messianic One of YHWH makes plenty of sense given Jesus self-portrayal as being 'one with the Father' (uniquely and without remainder), but would not likely be something the evangelists would be 'clever enough' to concoct on their own

 

First century Judaism just didn't know how to put these two Figures/Agents 'together'. Some groups opted toward a direct ministry of YHWH, and some toward a prophetic agent.

 

At Qumran, for example, we have 4Q521 (4QMessianic Apocalypse), in which these Isaianic motifs seem to be ascribed directly to the LORD:

 

"1 [for the heav]ens and the earth will listen to his Messiah, 2 [and all] that is in them will not turn away from the holy precepts. 3 Be encouraged, you who are seeking the Lord in his service! (Blank) 4 Will you not, perhaps, encounter the Lord in it, all those who hope in their heart? 5 For the Lord will observe the devout, and call the just by name, 6 and upon the poor he will place his spirit, and the faithful he will renew with his strength. 7 For he will honour the devout upon the throne of eternal royalty, 8 freeing prisoners, giving sight to the blind, straightening out the twisted. 9 Ever shall I cling to those who hope. In his mercy he will jud[ge,] 10 and from no-one shall the fruit [of] good [deeds] be delayed, 11 and the Lord will perform marvellous acts such as have not existed, just as he sa[id] 12 for he will heal the badly wounded and will make the dead live, he will proclaim good news to the meek 13 give lavishly [to the need]y, lead the exiled and enrich the hungry." (Frag 2, col ii).

 

This looks like YHWH directly to me, but Collins/Evans can see a 'prophetic Messiah' in the passage (based on the Isaiah 61 references, and the mention in verse 1, but this is too close to 'reading into' the passage for my comfort).

 

On the other hand, the Targum of Isaiah 61.1 has Isaiah as the prophetic figure: "The prophet said, A spirit of prophecy before the LORD God is upon me, because the LORD has exalted me to announce good tidings…".

 

But to unite these agents into 'one' somehow--without actually 'merging' them involving loss of identity--would not have been an obvious, familiar, and certainly not common, 'target' for the evangelists to model Jesus after.

 

 

Another way of putting this is this: these 'eschatological effects' are so far beyond the vision and expectation of the first-century Israelite, that it is doubtful if the evangelists could have created such a portrait of Jesus' ministry without explicit guidance from either Jesus himself and/or from the actual events of that ministry. NO ONE ELSE ever made such ambitious claims: changing the very structure and nature of existence makes splitting the Red Sea and parting the Jordan (the 'exorbitant' claims of the sign prophets) or the overthrow of Rome (the goals of the revolutionaries) look like child's play…But, in spite of the obvious possibilities of misunderstandings (e.g., being accused of sorcery), and the foreknown agony, shame, and repugnance of the Crucifixion, our Lord came to earth, charged straight into the work of changing our histories and of re-creating our futures…THIS was NOT a 'common pattern' available for our evangelists to follow!…There were no pre-exemplars who knew the real depth of the problem, nor any who could make such universe-scale pronouncements--and still be taken seriously by those around Him…that our Lord could make such claims  and yet still be believed, trusted, honored, expected to return(!), and written about (without editing out these rather 'exalted' claims) by those around Him is an amazing testimony to the "flowers" of the New Future that suddenly "bloomed" wherever He walked…

 

Leon Morris, in his discussion of the various words used for 'miracle' in the NT (NICNT, John), points out that Jesus' favorite word for His miracles is ergon ("work"):

 

"It is not without its interest that this [ergon] is the term Jesus usually employs for the miracles in this Gospel. He uses semeion on two occasions, but apart from these he always refers to egra. This is surely a very important fact, but it is missed by many who see no further than John's preference for semeion over the Synoptic dunamis. There must be significance in Jesus' own preference for ergon. We may discern part of this at any rate from the intrinsic meaning of the word, and the fact that it can be applied to the ordinary deeds people do. What to us are miracles, to God and to Christ are no more than 'works.' This is their normal way of working." ["Additional Note G: Miracles", p.612].

 

 

This was a unique love, an unexpected grace, a teeth-gritting loyalty to us…At most, Christ's only pattern was the very exalted work of YHWH as described in Isaiah…"for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner. For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing" (John 5.19f)

 

Thus, there is a pattern--the very works of YHWH in creating, from within history, this New Future--but it is doubtful whether the evangelists could/would  have had the vision/will/hope enough to invent such 'exalted' claims for their leader, had there been no substantial basis in their experience of Him for it. Perhaps they could have visualized another Moses or Elijah or Jeremiah (as some did in the gospels), but an incarnate, face-to-face and heart-to-heart localization of YHWH?!…

 

 

…………………………………………………………………..

 

Summary:

 

1.        There was no pre-Jesus 'type' of  wonder-working Jewish Charismatic holy man for the evangelists to pattern their portrayal of Jesus after (established in another piece in this series).

2.        The writing prophets of the Hebrew Bible did not perform miracles, so they cannot function as 'models' for a wonder-working portrayal of Jesus.

3.        Of the 34 non-writing individuals in the Hebrew Bible who performed some type of prophecy, all but two have no miracles attested of them.

4.        The prophet Elisha performed miracles, but is never suggested in the NT as a model for understanding Jesus (and no post-Jesus figures ever portrayed themselves as Elisha, btw).

5.        The similarities between Elisha and Jesus, suggested by the NT text, deal with the recipients of ministry--not miracles.

6.        The miracles of Elijah and Jesus do not match well enough to create a unique Jesus/Elijah link (only one overlap, and it is shared with Elisha).

7.        The responses of the Jewish populace indicate that Jesus' miracles didn't match the OT/Taanach figures well enough for them to be able to figure out 'which one' Jesus was most like.

8.        The identifications suggested by the Jewish populace indicate a general belief that Jesus' miracles matched only the caliber of miracles performed by 'resurrected/immortal' agents of God--and NOT that they matched some historical exemplar.

9.        The parallels between Jesus and Elijah are not in the miracles, but in their eschatological nuances.

10.     Jesus casts John the Baptist as 'Elijah' and we should not expect his biographers to 'dispute that' by portraying Jesus otherwise.

11.     Even though Jesus does assume the contours of the eschatological/Second Moses, the points of parallel do not actually contain a set of common miracles. The single miracle in common is closer to the account of Elisha than to Moses. [This is even clearer when contrasted with the later sign prophets who DID try to pattern themselves after Moses.]

12.     First-century Jews generally did not expect their various messianic figures to perform miracles, so there was no 'compulsion' on the evangelists to create miracle stories to 'sell him' as one of these to the Jews.

13.     The pre-Jesus revolutionary popular messianic claimants did not make miracle claims, so they are not a pattern for the evangelists.

14.     The popular messianic 'sign prophets' were all post-Jesus and post-GospelFormation, so they would not have functioned as a pattern.

15.     The signs promised by the sign prophets do not match Jesus' miracles anyway.

16.     Jesus and the evangelists seem to repudiate these individuals also (as did the Roman Army…).

17.     Jesus main 'sign' was that of his death and resurrection--not the various miracles He performed.

18.     The 'request for sign' was illegitimate and scorned by Jesus (and by Paul, I Cor 1.22).

19.     The lack of a miracle-requirement does not exclude/preclude the actual persuasive force given by a miracle, since miracles were often connected with one's holiness (but cf. sorcery).

20.     The 'signs' in John are not the same thing as 'proofs by miracle' but were rather a type of 'parable' in which the watchers had to engage and interact with. As such, these don’t fall into our data set.

21.     When miracles of Jesus are referred to in Acts, it is to prove Jesus' innocence and/or relationship to God, NOT His messianic authority or supernatural origin.

22.     The only pattern that existed for some of Jesus' miracles was the very actions of YHWH, promised in Isaiah, to be performed at the end of time. These actions were portrayed as New Creation and removal of the intractable barriers to our participation in that New Future. This  pattern was not one that would have been suggested by the culture of the day to the evangelists.

 

 

 

 

Accordingly, I have to conclude that the data does not support the belief that the evangelists created miracle stories/accretions about their  dead leader which were fashioned and expressed in ways that would make him look like a Jewish wonder-worker (e.g., Charismatic Jewish Holy Man, Messianic figure, Old Testament prophet). In fact, the data was substantially counter to that belief--especially in that no 'close match' exemplars were found.

 

 

On to the next one…

 

Glenn Miller

Feb 10, 2002


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