A Look at Jesus and His Contemporaries: The Miracles of Jesus

Introduction

Over the years, I have had my share of discussions with people about Jesus. I can say without hesitation that one of the most common objections I hear is the following: “I think Jesus was a good teacher, but I don’t take those miracle accounts in the Gospels as literal events.”

It is evident that this objection to the miracles of Jesus is mostly philosophical in nature. Many skeptics attempt to claim that it was during the Enlightenment period that any so called miracle claim was cast into the domain of superstition and pre-modernism. After all, modern people can’t believe such silliness. Unfortunately, this is an oversimplification.

As N.T Wright says,

“The natural/supernatural distinction itself, and the near-equation of ‘supernatural’with ‘superstition’, are scarecrows that Enlightenment thought has erected in its fields to frighten away anyone following the historical argument where it leads. It is high time the birds learned to take no notice.” (1)

In this post, I won’t be dealing with the philosophical objection to miracles. You can read more about that here and here.

But far as the miraculous, I think a more balanced approach is seen here in the comments by Gary Habermas and Mike Licona:

“Our knowledge of the world around us is gained by gathering information. When we cast our net into the sea of experience, certain data turn up. If we cast our net into a small lake, we won’t be sampling much of the ocean’s richness. If we make a worldwide cast, we have a more accurate basis for what exists. Here is the crunch. If we cast into our own little lakes, it is not surprising if we do not obtain an accurate sampling of experience. However, a worldwide cast will reveal many reports of unusual occurrences that might be investigated and determined to be miracles. Surely most of the supernatural claims would be found to be untrustworthy. But before making the absolute observation that no miracles have ever happened, someone would have to investigate each report. It only takes a single justified example to show that there is more to reality than a physical world. We must examine an impossibly large mountain of data to justify the naturalistic conclusion assumed in this objection.” (Habermas & Licona 2004:144)

I am in full agreement with James Sire that Jesus is the best apologetic that the Christian can offer to a dark and needy world. Therefore, I would like to examine the miracles of Jesus.

1. The Context of Jesus’ Miracles-God’s Relationship With the Nation of Israel

The historical and religious context for the miracles of Jesus is God’s interaction with the nation of Israel. Even during thousands of years of Bible history miracles were clustered in three very limited periods:

(1) The Mosaic period: from the exodus through the taking of the promised land (with a few occurrences in the period of the judges)
(2) The prophetic period: from the late kingdom of Israel and Judah during the ministries of Elijah, Elisha, and to a lesser extent Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah spoke of a time where miraculous deeds would be the sign of both the spiritual and physical deliverance of Israel (Is.26: 19; 29:18-19; 35:5-6; 42:18; 61:1).
(3) The apostolic period: from the first-century ministries of Christ and the apostles. Occurrences of miracles were neither continuous nor without purpose. (2)

2. Jesus as the Inaugurator of the Kingdom of God: The Actions of the King

In the New Testament, the Greek word for kingdom is “basileia,” which denotes “sovereignty,” “royal power,” and “dominion.” The references to the word “kingdom” can be seen in two classes: First, it is viewed as a present reality and involves suffering for those who enter into it (2 Thess 1:5). Second, the kingdom is futuristic and involves reward (Matt 25:34), as well as glory (Matt 13:43).

In observing the ministry of Jesus, He demonstrated one of the visible signs of His inauguration of the kingdom of God would not only be the dispensing of the Holy Spirit (John 7: 39), but also the ability to perform miracles. But if the kingdom is breaking into human history, then the King has come. If the Messianic age has arrived, then the Messiah must be present.

Within the context of first-century Jewish miracle workers, how much weight should be given to Jesus’ miracles?

As Ben Witherington III says,

“The miracles themselves raise the question but do not fully provide the answer of who Jesus was; what is important from an historical point of view is not the miracle themselves, which were not unprecedented, but Jesus’ unique interpretation of the miracles as signs of the dominion’s inbreaking, and also the signs of who he was: the fulfiller of the Old Testament promises about the blind seeing, the lame walking and the like.” (3)

Wolfgang Trilling, a German New Testament scholar argues for a consensus in New Testament scholarship that Jesus performed some sort of miraculous acts ascribed to him in the Gospels. Jesus’ authority is evident as His role as an exorcist. He said, “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, than the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20).

This is significant for 3 reasons:
(1) It shows that Jesus claimed divine authority over evil
(2) It shows Jesus believed the kingdom of God had arrived; in Judaism, the kingdom would come at the end of history
(3) Jesus was in effect saying that in Himself, God had drawn near, therefore He was putting Himself in God’s place. (4)

In Matthew 11:13, John the Baptist, who in prison after challenging Herod, sent messengers to ask Jesus the question: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus’ responded by appealing to the evidence of his miracles. As Jesus said, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me” (Matt. 11:4-6).

Jesus’ evidential claim can be seen in the following syllogism:
1.If one does certain kinds of actions (the acts cited above), then one is the Messiah.
2. I am doing those kinds of actions.
3.Therefore, I am the Messiah. (5)

Even in the Messiah Apocalypse, which is dated between 100 and 80 B.C.E mentions a similar theme as seen in Matt.11: 4-6: “He [God] frees the captives, makes the blind see, and makes the bent over stand straight…for he will heal the sick, revive the dead, and give good news to the humble and the poor he will satisfy, the abandoned he will lead, and the hungry he will make rich.” (6)

3. Jesus and His Contemporaries

During the time of Jesus, there were other “holy men” are what are called “Hasidim.” A Jewish Hasid was someone who had a close relationship with God and had the ability to call upon God for power over the natural realm. Two examples of Hasid’s are Honi, “the Circle Drawer” and Hanina ben Dosa. In comparing the miracles of Jesus and Honi the Circle Drawer, the records of Honi’s miracles are from are the Mishnah (c. A.D. 200) and from Josephus (c. A.D. 90):

In comparing these healers with Jesus, we also see some other glaring differences. First, the earliest portions of the Misnah date no earlier than roughly a.d. 200, becoming part of the Talmud even later. Josephus relates other cases of Jewish holy men, but his account was written perhaps a.d. 93–94, at the very end of the New Testament period. Also, Honi had no control over the forces of nature, but he could ask God for rain. Other Jewish exorcists resorted to power other then themselves through prayer to send away demons. They even invoked “powerful” names such as those of God and Solomon. Jesus was quite different because when He did a healing He did not “receive” power before he drove out the spirits; He did it with a simple, powerful word that was His own. Rather than invoking the name of Solomon, he said “Behold, something greater than the wisdom of Solomon is here” (Matt. 12:42). Furthermore, Jesus did not ask God to quiet the storm or calm the waves; He did with His own word. (7)

4. Hellenistic Divine Men?

There have been other comparisons between Jesus and Hellenistic divine men such as Apollonius of Tyana. Philostratus, his biographer, tells that Apollonius cast out a demon from a young man and ordered it to provide a sign that it had left. A nearby statue promptly fell down. This example sounds like the account of Jesus expelling the demon from the Gadarene man (Mark 5:1–20). Did this account influence the Jesus story?

Gary Habermas points out four problems with the Hellenistic Divine Men theory:

The first problem is that Jesus was obviously Jewish and was probably even widely considered by some to be a Jewish holy man. We are told that he was sometimes addressed as Rabbi (John 1:38, 49; 3:2; 6:25), as was John the Baptist (3:26). Still, we have no clear signs of mimicry. The ancient definition of magician, one who was involved in such practices as incantations, sorceries, spells, and trickeries, hardly seems to have applied any influence on the Gospel depiction of Jesus.

Secondly, there are few parallels between the magicians, divine men, and Jesus. Clearly, the Gospels are much more closely aligned with the Old Testament, Palestinian Judaism, and rabbinic literature. But given this, it becomes very difficult to establish the influence of pagan ideas on the Gospels. As Habermas notes, historian Michael Grant has shown that Judaism strongly opposed pagan beliefs, helping us understand why these ideas never gained much of a foothold in first-century Palestine.

Thirdly, the evidence for Apollonius is rather scant. While the miracles of Jesus pass the test of multiple attestation, the single account of Apollonius was recorded by Philostratus nearly 2-300 years later. This means it may have borrowed from the Jesus story, not the other way around.

Fourthly, Christianity centers on the death and resurrection of Jesus, and this message is not borrowed from the beliefs of others. Habermas also notes that the late Martin Hengel asserted, “The Christian message fundamentally broke apart the customary conceptions of atonement in the ancient world and did so at many points.” (8) .

Scholar Werner Kahl provides some insights about three characteristics of miracle workers: First, the person who has inherent healing power is called a “bearer of numinous power” (BNP). Kahl uses the term “petitioner of numinous power” (PNP) for those who ask God to perform the miracle. Between both (BNP) and (PNP) is what Kahl calls the category of a “mediator of numinous power” (MNP), which can apply to an individual who mediates the numinous power of a BNP in order to produce a miracle. Kahl concludes being a MNP or PNP clearly is not the evidence of deity, whereas being a BNP could possibly be evidence of a deity. (9)

Eric Eve makes another valuable contribution to this topic in his published dissertation The Jewish Context of Jesus’ Miracles. Eve observes that only the God of Israel is the only BNP while Moses is an example of an MNP and Elijah is an example of a PNP. After studying the miracle accounts in Josephus, Philo, the wisdom and the apocalyptic literature of the period, as well the Qumran texts and Jewish literature such as Tobit, Eve concluded that it can be demonstrated that the God of Israel is the only BNP. Hence, Eve contends that the Gospels display Jesus’ miracles as departing from Jewish tradition since Jesus is shown to be a BNP and his miracles point to him as being the incarnation of the God of Israel.

The Gospels provide valuable insight into the relationship between prayer and the miracles of Jesus. Jesus has no need to pray before performing any miracle, and the exceptions are prayers of only thanks or blessing, not prayers asking God to effect the miracle (Mark 14:9; 15:36; Mark 6:41; 8:6; Luke 9:16; John 6:11; 11:41-43). Eve concludes that the Gospels show no hint of Jesus being a “petitioner of numinous power” (PNP). (10)

It must not be forgotten that Jesus did not perform any of his miracles independently of the Father; instead Jesus did all his miracles in union with the Father (John 5:36; 10:38; 14:10-11) so that His audience would see the unique relationship between the Father and the Son.

5. Conclusion

It is evident that Jesus’ miracles are best understood within the context of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. Most importantly, God took the initiative by revealing to mankind a fuller part His kingdom program through the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ miraculous deeds, healings, and power over nature as well as His role as a Suffering Servant was another stage of inaugurating the kingdom of God. Jesus, being the divine Messiah exhibits the same attributes as the God of Israel. One day, Jesus will return to fulfill the promise of completing the earthly aspect of His kingdom work. May all of us as wait with eager anticipation.

As the Apostle Peter said,

“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat” (2 Peter 3:10-12).

Sources:
1. Wright, N.T. The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress, Minneapolis.
2003), 707 n63.
2. Geisler N.L., Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999, 468-469.
3. Ben Witherington III. New Testament History. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2001, 12.
4. Craig, W. L. Christian Truth and Apologetics. Wheaten, ILL : Crossway Books.1984, 233-54.
5. Douglas Grotthuis, “Jesus: Philosopher and Apologist,” http://www.theapologiaproject.org/JesusPhil.pdf/2002{accessed January 10, 2011}.
6. See Evans, C.A., and P. W. Flint, Eschatology, Messianism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1997). Qumran is the site of the ruin about nine miles south of Jericho on the west side of the Dead Sea where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in nearby caves. The Dead Sea Scrolls contains some 800 scrolls with parts or the entirety of every book of the Old Testament except Esther, discovered in the caves near Qumran.
7. Skarsaune, O. Incarnation: Myth or Fact? (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House: 1991), 35-36.
8. Geisler, N.L., and Paul K. Hoffman Why I Am A Christian: Leading Thinkers Explain Why They Believe (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books. 2001), 112-113.
9. Kahl, W, New Testament Miracle Stories in Their Religious- Historical Setting: A Religionsgeschichtliche Comparison from a Structural Perspective (FRLANT 163. Gottingen: Vanderhoeck & Ruprecht, 1994), 76; cited in Eric Eve, The Jewish Context of Jesus’ Miracles, JSNTSSup 231 (London and New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 15; cited in R. M. Bowman and J.E. Komoszewski, Putting Jesus Back In His Place: The Case For The Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2007), 195-206.
10. See Eve, E, The Jewish Context of Jesus’ Miracles, JSNTSSup 231 (London and New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 15; cited in R. M. Bowman and J.E. Komoszewski, Putting Jesus Back In His Place: The Case For The Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2007), 195-206.

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