Old Testament Figures as Miracle Workers

Erkki Koskenniemi. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 2: Medical and Therapeutic Events. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.

Religio-historical investigation has carefully observed the contacts between the Greco-Roman miracle tradition and the New Testament (NT). Simultaneously, the rich Jewish tradition was too often overlooked. This tradition included historical persons, like Theudas or the “Egyptian,” but also the later reputation of the great figures of scripture. Later generations eagerly retold biblical stories, always changing more or less the original by adding, omitting, or modifying the biblical narrative. Thus it is a fascinating task to study exactly what was retained and what omitted, or what new material or perspective was introduced to the stories. This is the impact of the study of the “Rewritten Bible,” or more precisely here, the study of rewritten biblical stories. The investigation of the narrative tradition tells how and when new details were added to the reputation of the biblical figures. When the question of miracles is asked, markedly new traits are seen in the later traditions. I have investigated all Jewish texts retelling the Old Testament (OT) miracles diachronically in my book The Old Testament Miracle-Workers in Early Judaism. In this article I will briefly present the most important biblical figures who were treated as miracle workers in the later tradition.


The biblical material on Abraham includes nothing that a modern reader could define as miracles. However, the later tradition eagerly retold the stories and partly reshaped the figure of the father of the nation. In this tradition, Abraham was considered invincible, and sometimes he also performed miracles. Jews were known as great astrologers in classical antiquity. Some Jewish teachers rigorously rejected astrology as magic, but others proudly accepted it, and Abraham especially was presented as the father of all astrologers. The only biblical starting point was Genesis 15:5, which informs us merely that God showed Abraham the stars of heaven; but this was enough for people who were willing to present him as a master of all astrological knowledge. Artapanus, an Egyptian Jew, wrote a romantic, historical work, Concerning the Jews, that is preserved only in fragments; but in his work many biblical figures were reshaped as astrologers, especially Abraham.

Genesis tells us how God miraculously protected and saved Sarah, who had been taken from Abraham and led to Pharaoh’s house. In the Jewish tradition, Abraham, who is a powerless man in the scripture, receives a more important role. The fragments from Qumran (Genesis Apocryphon, 20) inform us that Abraham prayed that the ruler must be punished, and tell us how God sent a spirit who tormented the king during two years such that no Egyptian was able to help him. The Pharaoh gave Sarah back, and Abraham was willing to help: he prayed for the king and laid his hands upon his head, and the spirit was banished from him. Perhaps this story helped people to make Abraham an exorcist, who expelled bird-like demons (cf. Gen. 15:11), as in the Book of Jubilees (11.11-13) and in the Apocalypse of Abraham(13.4-14). In this role, he certainly acted as patron of Jewish exorcists: what Abraham did could not be wrong.


Although almost all the biblical stories were retold by ancient Jewish teachers, the stories about Moses received a special status. We hardly can imagine how minutely Jews studied these stories, finding both urgent problems and new solutions that are both rather alien to a modern reader’s perspective.3 This especially is true of the stories with miraculous elements. The later tradition reflects the ideas of the retellers. The stories of Moses’ childhood and youth were retold and the miraculous traits were exaggerated. Moses’ birth was foretold, he was born circumcised, and his capacity to learn was extraordinary.

Both Philo and Josephus seem to have believed that God taught Moses to perform miracles in the theophany at Horeb, so that he could repeat them at will. Indeed, he needed these skills, because the Jewish tradition often retold in rich colors the meeting with Egyptian opponents. The opponents are interpreted as priests (Artapanus, Josephus), sorcerers (Jubilees, Philo), physicians (Artapanus), or bad philosophers (Philo): All these variants mean that the biblical story is used to attack a new front; the ancient scholars did not always distinguish sharply between their own time and the biblical era, but mostly used the biblical material to attack opponents of their own days. The tradition gave names to Moses’ opponents (Jannes and Jambres), and had here the evidence that miracles could also be performed by people hating God: some miracles were allowed and were done by God’s will, some were not, but were caused by evil spirits.

All the Jewish writers known to me retold the plagues in Egypt (Ex 7:14-12:36) freely. The roles of God and Moses vary greatly. Sometimes, as in Wisdom 17, it is only God who performed miracles, but sometimes God is hardly mentioned, and Moses gains more importance. The writers change the order, omit some plagues or combine them with others, as Artapanus does (Fr. 3.27-33), and embellish the original with many interesting details. If they do not interpret the plagues allegorically, as Philo often does, they may describe the catastrophe in a way that adds new details, such as the gnats of Exodus 8:16-18. Sometimes the retelling simply exaggerates them, as when Josephus claims that the greater part of the Egyptians died from the wounds (Ex 9:8-12; Antiquities 2.304). Many details, like the unnatural darkness (Ex 10:21-29), were soon adopted by Christian writers like Melito of Sardes, and became a part of the Christian tradition.

Hardly any modern Bible reader is able to repeat in accurate order all the details of the events at the Red Sea (Ex 13:17-14:31), and all early Jewish versions deviate from the biblical original. The tradition treats Israel’s overwhelming victory over the Egyptians freely and in rich colors. Ezekiel the Tragedian, for example, puts everything in the form of a classical Greek tragedy, imitating the famous Persians of Aeschylus. The narrative tradition, like Philo but especially Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo, knew that Israel was divided: some tribes were willing to surrender, others willing to fight (10.3). Of course, the number of drowned Egyptians was given variously, sometimes a million (Ezekiel the Tragedian, v. 203), sometimes (Josephus) in precise numbers of infantry, chariots, and horsemen (Antiquities 2.324). These events were never forgotten in Judaism: the Passover was always present in Israel, and the hymns celebrating the great miracle never ceased.

The Christian tradition has always used the journey from Egypt to Canaan in ethical instruction (cf. 1 Cor 10), but Jewish scholars had long before paved the way for such applications of the Exodus and the triumphal and redemptive metaphor that it became. For Philo especially, the escape from Egypt and the trials on the way meant, allegorically, that the soul must leave pleasures and go through much arduous labor to freedom. This kind of escape meant, according to him, that a human being becomes as divine as possible through the ordeal. The model is openly Platonic.6 But all the biblical stories lived in literal interpretation, too, and with new details. The miracles of manna, the water from the rock, the mutiny of Korah and his sons (or did the sons join their father?),7 Israel’s punishment by snakes, and the miraculous help through the bronze snake were, like all biblical miracles, retold in early Jewish tradition. They attest to the way in which the concept of miracle was alive in Judaism.

Moses’ death meant a puzzling problem for early Jewish teachers. On the one hand, the Torah says that he died. On the other, “Moses” tells about his own death in the Torah. Moreover, Deuteronomy 34:1-8 first tells about the death and burial of Moses, and then informs us that he was “a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength diminished.” These two details allowed different speculations about the end of his earthly life. Some thought that he did not die at all. Moses died and did not die, in the tradition. These various versions were to some degree compatible with and perhaps reflective of Greco-Roman mythology. Josephus depicts Moses as disappearing like Aeneas or Romulus (Antiquities 4.326). However, one is reminded that similar stories were told in the scripture about Enoch and Elijah.

Like Abraham, the father of the nation, Moses, the law-giver, was always present in early Judaism. The scripture often tells about Moses’ great deeds, which meant that his miracles were retold and reshaped for centuries, first among Jews and then among Christians, as well.


In most cases, the scripture tells about miracles of God, and although human beings may act as his helpers, it is usually clear that the great deeds are not their work but God’s. Werner Kahl developed a useful tool that leads scholars to ask for the role of the human beings.8 This role is clearly a subject of variation in the later tradition. When God led Israel to Canaan, he and not Joshua performed the great miracles, namely, stopped the Jordan (Jo 3:1-5:1) and destroyed the walls of Jericho (Jo 5:13-6:27). Already here, Joshua acted as God’s helper and as a superb leader of the nation. Moreover, he was able to stop the sun with his prayer (Jo 10:8-14). But Joshua understandably may receive a stronger role as miracle worker in the later tradition.

The militant Joshua was, however, a person who divided opinions in later traditions. Ben Sira could still refer to his deeds freely (Sir 46:1-8), but he was a problematic figure for people who had to deal with foreign overlords in Israel. Josephus heavily abridges the stories of Joshua, and does certainly not emphasize his militant miracles (Antiquities5.17-61). However, there were others who took the opposite direction. Joshua, the spirit-filled and militant leader of the nation, was highly esteemed by everyone who was waiting for God’s help against overlords. This part of the tradition is preserved only in fragments, but it illumines the distinctively Jewish element in miracle stories. Miracles and God’s help in the sacred history belong together with the hope for a useable future. The eschatological hope waited for another man like Joshua. This thought is attested in the fragments the last Jewish rebels left behind in Masada during the Jewish war.9 Understandably, Josephus and other authors collaborating with Romans were not emphasizing the material that had stimulated, for example, Theudas and the “Egyptian.”


Samson, the spirit-filled judge (Jgs 13-16), was simultaneously a problem and an inspiration for early Jewish teachers. On the one hand, he was not an ideal model for later Jews; his sexual morals and his affair with Delilah, the Philistine woman, were not compatible with the ideals with which Jewish teachers were inclined to inspire their followers. We happen to have a Jewish sermon that explains how Samson, the man of God, could lose the spirit and be beaten by his enemies. The reason was, of course, that his errors gave Satan an opportunity to destroy his power.

On the other hand, Samson was clearly a man of God. The spirit moving him around and his extraordinary physical power made him useful for everyone who supported brutal violence against the opponents of Israel. PseudoPhilo, in his Biblical Antiquities, retells these stories, expanding them and emphasizing the violence (42-43). Josephus, of course, shows that after the Jewish war he had learned his lesson. He had no more interest in spirit-filled men who mixed religion with militant violence. A careful investigation of Josephus’ text shows that the role of the divine spirit is removed from the stories (Antiquities 5.276-316). Sometimes, retelling biblical stories meant a quarrel about the heritage of Judaism. Josephus, who had promised that he did not add or omit anything (Antiquities 1.17) in his accounts of the history of his people, nonetheless, took part in this quarrel through additions, omissions, and changes.


The biblical David did nothing that we would call a miracle. However, the scripture tells us something which could be and indeed was useful for the retellers of later generations. It is told that an evil spirit tormented Saul, and that David was sought to relieve his problems with playing music (1 Sam 16:14-23). This was enough for later Jewish exorcists. Pseudo-Philo expands the story by rendering the psalm David sang. In this psalm, David exactly tells the cosmological origin of the demons and threatens the spirit with a harsh punishment (60.1-3).

The psalm added by Pseudo-Philo resembles hymns in Qumran (esp. 11Q11) and attest that Jews attempted to ward off evil spirits with help of biblical and more or less reworked Psalms inside as well as outside of the walls of Qumran. In this tradition, the decisive element seemed to have been the cosmological knowledge. An exorcist who was able to describe the cosmological order got the upper hand over evil spirits. God created the world and set here his order, and it is not allowed that any spirit should violate it by assaulting God’s people. On the other hand, the Book of Jubilees (10) boldly says that the reason why there are demons in the world is that it is their mission to assault all nations except Israel and lead them astray.


The biblical Elijah (1 Kgs 17-2 Kings 2) caused enthusiasm and problems similar to the ambivalence felt regarding Joshua. Elijah, who did numerous miracles in scripture, was the zealous prophet who fearlessly stood before kings, attacked the false prophets, and killed hundreds of them. He called fire from heaven to destroy his enemies, and finally he left this world in a fiery chariot. Malachi promised that Elijah the prophet would return to this world to complete a new mission given by God.

Ben Sira could still celebrate Elijah freely without political reservations (48:1-11). At least in the times of Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo (48.1) he was even identified with Phinehas, another zealous servant of God (Num 25:6-15). The man who was expected to return had returned already once and saved Israel. This identification attests how closely miracles were connected with politics. Josephus, of course, treated Elijah with caution and did not emphasize his political fervor (Antiquities 8.319-9.28). However, the power of the biblical stories prevented him from completely removing Elijah’s political import.


Unlike his teacher, Elijah (1 Kgs 19-2 Kgs 13), Elisha never found a marked reputation in early Judaism as a leader. Of course, the stories of his miracles were noted (cf. Sir. 48:12-16) and Josephus was clearly fond of him (cf. Antiquities 8.535-s9.180). However, in the scripture Elisha rarely played a political role, which means that he was never a favorite of later militant miracle-workers. However, not all miracles needed political importance. Some of them happened in the ordinary circles of daily life. It is precisely here that Elisha’s miracles could be imitated. Healings, feedings, resuscitations of dead people; surprisingly many of Elisha’s miracles were repeated in Jesus’ activity.


Sometimes the rewriting of the scripture narratives already begins within the OT, itself. A good example of that is what the Hebrew Bible (OT) says about the miracles of Isaiah, namely the healing of the king Hezekiah. The story is reported with a prominent role for the agency of the prophet in the similar narratives of 2 Kings 18:13-20:11 and Isaiah 36:1-38:22; but in 2 Chronicles 32 the prophet’s role has been almost totally forgotten. Ben Sira, for his part, gives a role back to Isaiah and expands it (48:20-25). It was now Isaiah who turned the sun back and prolonged the king’s life. Taken separately, the lines in Ben Sira attribute a very strong role to the prophet, and only the wider context and the Jewish faith tradition prevented the reader from interpreting Isaiah as a figure who was able to perform great miracles without God’s help. Ben Sira apparently considered God’s covenant with David broken, and did not emphasize the role of the king.12 The king’s normally primary role is reduced. The author was not awaiting a Davidic king. Other figures, like prophets, took the role of David’s divinely inspired dynasty.


When Jesus asked his followers to tell him who he was thought to be, according to popular opinion, they replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Matthew 16:14). This answer is one of the several fragments illuminating the role of Jeremiah in the later tradition. The scripture only tells about his prophecies, but early Judaism knew more. Unfortunately, we only have fragments of this tradition. However, Second Maccabees reports that in Judah’s vision, Jeremiah gives a sword from heaven to the Jews (2 Macc 15.13-16). The Lives of the Prophets, a collection of small biographies of the biblical prophets, refers to Jeremiah’s miracles in Egypt where he was exiled. He offered protection against snakes and crocodiles, a role that Egyptians used to give Horus. In the Life of Jeremiah, the prophet also takes and hides the ark, which is protected from the enemies, and causes a rock to swallow it. There it waits for the resurrection and the end of the world. This is only one of the several versions of the story of how the ark was rescued when the enemies destroyed Jerusalem. Apparently, Jeremiah became a strong, eschatological figure. Some of his extrabiblical miracles were militant.


The figure of Daniel, the sage at kings’ courts, offers a good example of how the tradition of the biblical miracles unfolded in early Judaism. The book of Daniel was not yet written when the Egyptian Jews translated the scripture into Greek as the Septuagint (LXX). The Aramaic and the Greek texts found their final form very slowly. The role of miracles and miracle-workers varies between these two different versions. But the later writings in particular reworked the traditions that had already been written before the book of Daniel, and set new accents. The Life of Daniel, for example, pays attention only to the story told in chapter 4, and introduces Behemoth, the demon who tortured the king. Daniel’s faithful intercession during seven years led to forgiveness for the king’s sins and to his healing. This all shows how flexibly stories could be used in the later tradition.


Sometimes the later tradition needed only a few biblical words to produce a miracle story. At other times a long passage was reinterpreted and a miracle was introduced into it. The use of the long biblical book of Ezekiel offers examples of both, and more. Ezekiel 47:10 mentions fishermen (“Fishermen will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets”). Apparently, these words were enough to produce a tradition, which the Life of Ezekiel (v. 11a) summarizes as follows. “Through prayer he furnished them of his own accord with an abundant supply of fish.” The Life does not tell more, and apparently the author considered it needless. The background story was apparently well known to the ancient audience, but unfortunately not to us.

A completely different history of tradition is revealed when another passage in the Life of Ezekiel is examined. The biblical book of Ezekiel includes in chapter 37 a vision of dead bones that are miraculously resuscitated. The historical sense of the vision is unambiguous: The people of Israel will rise again and return from the exile. Now, however, the interpretation is very concrete. The prophet showed the miracle of resuscitation to the enemies of Israel. The Life is not the only source in which the concrete interpretation is attested. It appears in fragments at Qumran (4Q385) and surprisingly often in early Christian sources. The prophecy made Ezekiel a prophet who revived dead people, and this tradition could be used in various ways.


The modern reader no longer lives in the world of the people who lived in the time of the NT. Historical analysis helps us to understand how ancient people interpreted what they heard and read. When dealing with miracles, the task has been and is very difficult. However, it should be clear that the vivid Jewish miracle tradition has been widely neglected. The biblical stories of the OT miracles were frequently retold, often freely and innovatively. Biblical passages that do not include miracles at all were reinterpreted. This tradition of telling and retelling miracles often included narratives of battles between good and evil spirits. Miracles could be militant, but they could also happen in ordinary daily life and play no political role. Consequently, the traditions could empower political leaders, attempting to legitimate themselves with traditional miracles. It could also encourage people to apply to the Jewish world all the Mediterranean magic and call themselves followers of Solomon the wise. This fascinating setting forms the background of Jesus’ miracles in the Gospels.

The history of investigation shows that it has not been easy for scholars to deal with miracles. We have often been tempted to think we are much smarter and understand everything better than ancient people. The scholarly failures that have derived from that supposition should make us cautious.