The Religious-Historical Background of the New Testament Miracles

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

The biblical miracles have never been easy to understand and have not always been easy for theologians to explain.1 Long before the beginnings of scientific interpretations of scripture and critical exegesis, Spinoza formulated the relation between the Jewish-Christian belief and the critical mind (1670): God has created the universe and the laws of the Nature. If something like a miracle accidentally broke these laws, it would contradict God’s wisdom and the good harmony in his world. So miracles, in his view, do not support religion but contradict it. This concept is a good example of how miracles may lose their religious relevance completely.

The laws of nature, a concept unknown to the people of the Old and New Testament, have come to be perceived as independent from God, and the immanent reality of God present in his creation is what matters, even to many religious persons. God is not understood so much as a fascinating or awesome mystery, but as something which is compatible with our reason. He is the source of all rationality, as in large parts of medieval scholastic theology. Consequently, much biblical material, such as miracles, was marginalized. Many attempts have been made to marginalize it further with rational or scientific explanations.

Albert Schweitzer skillfully served some of these attempts in his history of Leben Jesu-Forschung (Research on the Life of Jesus). H.E.G. Paulus, for example, avoided no means to show that Jesus’ miracles were simply based upon misunderstandings of his disciples. Today we may find these interpretations humorous, but the challenge was once considered serious. Otto Weinreich, a prominent scholar of Classical antiquity, who contributed to the early religious-historical investigation with his work Antike Heilungswunder, quotes in his preface the words of Björnstjerne Björnsson: “Ich bin der Ansicht, dass die Mirakel einer ebenso grossen Gesetzmässigkeit unterliegen wie alle andern Dinge, ob wir gleich das Gesetz nicht schauen” (“I believe that miracles follow a similar order as all other matters, although we do not see it”). These words illumine the atmosphere in which religious-historical work was done in the beginning of the last century.

Greek Narrative and Literary Models

A decisive innovation in the New Testament interpretation of the early twentieth century was the introduction and adaptation of the form-critical method, which had formerly been used in the investigation of the Old Testament (OT). Form-criticism, as Laato pointed out in chapter 2, is an analysis of texts on the basis of the type of literature an author uses: poetry, stories, historical report, mythic imagination, miracle story, and the like. The German masters, K. L. Schmidt, Martin Dibelius, and Rudolf Bultmann, developed a toolbox that is still used today, although perhaps with reservations. Scholars tried to define the genres of the New Testament (NT) material. In this concept, the evangelists were considered collectors and bearers of tradition rather than independent authors and theologians: it meant that scholars thought that they were able to go over their works that belonged to “Kleinliteratur,” to the oral tradition, and to listen to anonymous mediators of the Jesus tradition. This concept also drastically influenced the investigation of the miracle stories.

According to Dibelius, some early Christian teachers only briefly stated what had happened, and the genre was then “paradigm.” There were, however, others, who were able to expand the tradition, and the narrative skills caused the brief “paradigms” to grow to “novels.” All this meant that the scarce Christian material was expanded according to models of the Graeco-Roman folklore. Miracle stories attested how early Christians increasingly adapted themselves to literary models and forms of their world.

Dibelius’s work, completed and introduced with Bultmann’s Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition, often led scholars to consider miracle stories alien to real, original Christianity. It is easy to understand that several scholars later tried to rescue every NT writer who could be rescued. Luke could not, and that is why he was sometimes vehemently criticized for adaptation to his world. But Paul allegedly fought a battle against his opponents, who were all too fond of miracles. Few scholars, if any, observed what he proudly wrote on his own “signs that mark an apostle” (2 Cor 12:12), and how proudly he wrote about what he had done “by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit” (Rom 15:19). Mark allegedly criticized the theology of his sources or even all the disciples of Jesus. It took time before scholars noted that Mark does not speak critically or skeptically of miracles. According to Fortna, for example, John was critical of miracles, and it is partly true (cf. Jn 4:48). However, John pays attention to several miracles and emphasizes them, as for example, in John 9 and 11.

The classical form-critical research took the genre of miracle story for granted. However, miracle stories strongly differ from each other and it might be problematic to treat them as a single category. Klaus Berger denied the existence of the literary model or genre called miracle story, claiming that this category includes several different genres containing miraculous elements. Theissen tried to improve the form-critical method with his work. Accurate works on how every NT writer dealt with miracles were already published during the 1980s, but the task is huge. It is clear that miracle stories should not be investigated superficially. As Laato presents in chapter 2 of this volume, even the concept of miracle is problematic and by no means identical in the usage of early Judaism and of the modern world.

Greek “Divine Men”

The most important contribution of the religious-historical investigation of the biblical miracles was the theory of divine men, which influenced scholarship almost the entire twentieth century. The rise and fall of the theory illumines the dangers of comparative investigation of religions. Simultaneously with and partly influenced by the form-critical research, scholars were impressed by the Greek parallels of Jesus’ miracles. The first to use the words divine men was Reitzenstein (1906, 1910), but very soon Wetter (1916) contributed to the study of comparative religion and adapted his results to the study of the NT, especially of the Gospel of John. According to Wetter, classical antiquity knew several men who were considered divine, sons of god or gods. They originated from different nations or of different religions, but the classical world considered them belonging to a certain category of divine men.

To verify his claim he referred to numerous classical texts. However, he neither gave exact definitions of divine men nor dated his sources, which understandably led to problems later. Moreover, it is crucial to recognize Wetter’s background. Like several of his fellow scholars, he believed that religion was originally alike in all primitive societies and developed later towards higher religions. Wetter apparently considered it irrelevant to date his ancient sources, because he still could recognize the same primitive traits of early religion on the streets of the Orient in his own days. This concept should be problematic to a modern scholar, who does not believe in the evolution of religions. However, although it is easy to understand that the view was held in Wetter’s time and that most prominent scholars referred to concepts like mana or taboo, adapting them to the NT miracle stories, it is curious that the view could survive in the derivatives of the divine men hypothesis.

Moreover, Bieler, the famous Austrian classicist, added philosophical color to the debate with his influential book in 1935-36. This expert of the classical Greek and Roman literature offered an immense collection of material, not only from classical antiquity, mostly from the Christian era, but even of tales from Africa, Lithuania, and early North America. He explicitly says that the concept of divine man is a Platonic model, with great universal appeal. No wonder that he did not pay attention to the date or provenance of his sources, because in his view every holy man was predestined to go the way of Socrates, Apollonius of Tyana, or Jesus. It is curious that it took more than 40 years before Bieler’s views were thoroughly criticized, and even then scholars overlooked the circular reasoning of the later research.

Christian texts, both the Gospels and later writings, formed a crucial element in Bieler’s pattern. It was not a problem for Bieler, because he openly assumed a Platonic model, but it should have been a problem for scholars using Bieler’s pattern to investigate the Gospels. However, they compared, for example, the theology of the Gospel of Mark with Bieler’s pattern and found them widely similar. This would not have surprised anyone who had analyzed how the Christian texts helped Bieler to construct his pattern. The reason for the error was, of course, that only a few NT scholars were able to deal with classical texts and did not realize that Bieler had used texts that were mainly substantially later than the NT.

The pattern of divine men was already used in NT scholarship before World War II. However, the redaction critical method at first meant an explosion of books and articles using the concept. Since Hans Conzelmann and Willi Marxsen, scholars asked questions that had been neglected for a long time. They no more considered the Gospels mere collections of individual pearls but as pearl necklaces, and asked for the role of the writers who had decided to select precisely these pearls and put them exactly in this order. Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John were considered authors and theologians again. It was now current to ask again for the role of the miracles in the Gospels or in their sources. The work of the previous generations was now carefully observed. It is hard to overestimate the role of Rudolf Bultmann, who had early accepted the pattern of divine men and used it to interpret the Gospels. Talented students went to study at Marburg, and after some decades, his pupils sat on chairs overall in the learned world.

Once activated, the concept of divine man was widely used in the New Testament exegesis. Scholars used it to interpret the miracles in Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, and their sources. It was used to define the theology of the opponents of Paul in 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, and especially in 2 Corinthians. However, the use of this hypothesis peaked and began to decline in the 1980s. Scholars investigating Mark were increasingly critical, as well the ones investigating John. Only a few, however, rejected the entire concept, which had and still has prominent supporters. Critical voices have been louder, and today I consider it difficult to defend the traditional hypothesis. Actually, it would be difficult to define what is meant with the “traditional hypothesis.” The views of Reitzenstein, Wetter, and Bieler differed so much that it is impossible to speak of the hypothesis.

After a century of religious historical work some points seem clear.

  1. The classical world called some men divine (theios), but did not construct a fixed pattern of divine men (theios aner)although the words sometimes occur. This is not an ancient category, but a modern concept, which may be useful if defined and used critically.
  2. We do not know Greek or Roman historical miracle workers or works about them that could have served as models for Jesus or the Gospels. Actually, we know virtually no Greek miracle workers from 300 BCE to about the year 150 CE. When constructing the pattern of divine men, scholars used sources that date later than the Gospels, and did it uncritically.
  3. Ancient people believed in miracles and magic. The most important parallels for Jesus’ mighty deeds are the miracles of rulers and gods, and the miracles performed by anonymous magicians.
  4. Scholars have badly neglected the rich Jewish tradition. In this volume, it is treated in the articles written by Antti Laato and me.

The Jewish Tradition

I have briefly presented the rich tradition of the Old Testament miracle workers and their role in the later Jewish writings. The mighty deeds of Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Elisha, and several other figures played an important role in early Judaism. This tradition was part of the past that defined the identity of the nation. Several historical figures attempted to use this tradition to legitimate themselves as leaders. They were not, however, the only Jewish miracle workers in the times of Jesus.

Political Jewish Miracle Workers

Our sources tell of several Jewish men whose miracles played a political role. The New Testament briefly mentions Theudas in a speech by Gamaliel: “Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing” (Acts 5:36).

Josephus too mentions Theudas (Ant. 20.97-98):

[He] … persuaded the majority of the masses to take up their possessions and to follow him to the Jordan River. He stated that he was a prophet and that at his command the river would be parted and would provide them an easy passage. With this talk he deceived many.

Cuspius Fadus, the procurator (ca. 44-46 CE), sent cavalry against the crowd. Theudas was captured in the massacre and his head was cut off and sent to Jerusalem. If Josephus’ version is correct, the events happened between 44 and 46 CE, namely, years after Gamaliel’s speech described in Acts. At any rate both writers mention Theudas and say that he was one of several of his kind. Luke does not report precisely Theudas’ claims, which were clearly political, saying only “claiming to be somebody.” Josephus calls him a sorcerer, and says that the man claimed to able to repeat the miracles of Moses at Red Sea and of Joshua at the Jordan. The changed function of the miracle illumines the role of mighty deeds. People who followed Moses were rescued by the miracle, and the parting of the Jordan made the invasion into the Promised Land possible in Joshua’s time. Now, the people did not need to be rescued and there were several ways to the Land of Canaan without a miracle. However, the miracle was needed to legitimate Theudas as a leader like Moses and Joshua once were. The Roman army did not need more hints to know what the intention of the crowd was. A right to collect people and to freely talk to them may belong to the modern human rights, but it was not allowed in Rome and still less in the provinces. It mattered not whether the people were armed. The Romans first sent in the constabulary and only afterwards asked for the reason for the people assembling.

Luke informs us that the Romans identified Paul mistakenly with a famous man when they detained him in Jerusalem:

“Do you speak Greek?” he replied. “Are you not the Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the desert some time ago?” (Acts 21:38)

This Egyptian, who had appeared between 56 and 60 CE, was a famous man and Josephus mentions him twice in two not fully compatible passages (War 2.261-63; Antiquities 20.169-72). The Egyptian called 30,000 men (War), at first in the desert (War) and then to the Mount of Olives (War and Antiquities), and wanted to show how his words could cause the walls of the city to fall down (Antiquities). Claudius Felix let the soldiers kill 400 and take 200 men (the numbers only in Ant.), but the Egyptian escaped his enemies, as even Luke takes for granted. The words (in Ant. 20.172), “the Egyptian became invisible,” are easily interpreted as referring to a miracle, causing people to wait for his return. The Egyptian was not the only one with this art. Josephus himself links him tightly with some other troublemakers: The Egyptian serves in Antiquities as an example of impostors and deceivers; in War Josephus tells immediately after him that the miracle workers and the robbers joined their powers (War 2.264). Although they often were conventional robbers and the miracles are not mentioned (War 2.271), Josephus often uses with regard to them words he also uses describing the Egyptian (War 2.565).

It is interesting that no one of the three sources gives the name of the man: He is always “the Egyptian.” The strange detail that the Egyptian Jew is not supposed to speak Greek, although Greek was their most important language, may reveal that anonymity is not the issue. Maybe it did not refer to his provenance but to his claims. The man did not came from Egypt but from the countryside of Palestine, and was called “Egyptian” because he wanted to repeat the miracles made in Egypt by Moses, and during the conquest by Joshua, both of whom had come up out of Egypt. As Joshua came from Egypt and conquered the land from the Canaanites, the man claimed to be able to repeat the miracle of Jericho and expel the Romans. We cannot be certain of all this, but his models were certainly taken from the sacralized past. Miracles were politically important. Religion and revolt were intimately interwoven. It is important to observe that, according to Josephus, the Jerusalemites fought side by side with Romans against the man. This certainly shows the tension between the rich, Hellenized aristocrats in Jerusalem, and the religious poor people in the countryside.

The last events of the Jewish war dramatically attested the power of the militant miracles. When the fall of Jerusalem was imminent, a prophet led people to the temple to see God’s saving miracles; or rather, to be burned alive with the temple (Josephus, War 6.281-287). But even after the end of the last rebels in Masada, a man named Jonathan still gathered poor people to the desert to show them God’s miracles. Catullus, the Roman governor, cruelly used the option to fight his own Jewish war and killed the unarmed people (War 7.437-442 and Life 423-425).

Nonmilitant Jewish Miracle Workers

Sources also inform us of less militant Jewish miracle workers, who helped people in their daily life. The best known of them is Honi the Circle-Drawer, or Onias, as Josephus calls him. He lived about 65 BCE and his successful prayer that ended a long drought made him famous. Josephus mentions the miracle only briefly and tells how he was stoned to death when he refused to curse his fellow Jews during their civil wars. His death by stones apparently refers to his miraculous skills: Deuteronomy 13:1-6 orders this punishment to false prophets. The fragmentary and often suppressed evidence of Honi in the Rabbinic sources attests to how difficult it was for the mainstream rabbis to accept people with miraculous skills. Miracles were present, and they divided the opinions of the teachers; and the danger of magic made the majority of them cautious. However, Honi was slowly and carefully “rabbinized,” though this process was present initially only in the later texts. A similar process was apparently required before Hanina ben Dosa, who lived about 70 CE and was allegedly the last of the “men of deed,” was accepted by the rabbinic authorities.

Two figures in particular inform us of Jewish people who healed by throwing out demons. The Gospel of Mark informs us of a man who started to use Jesus’ name in his exorcisms. Jesus’ disciples tried to hinder him because the man was not identified with Jesus’ band (Mark 9:38-41; cf. Luke 9:49-50). We only can regret that the interest of the gospel writers is not focused on the anonymous exorcist but on the attitude of the disciples. Even the Old Testament contains a similar story (Num 11:26-29), which might have been a model for Mark, or even his source. At any rate, we here meet a Jew who healed by exorcism. Another Jew who threw out demons had, according to Josephus, famous spectators and made a great success. Vespasian, his sons, tribunes and other soldiers were watching when Eleazar performed the exorcism:

He put to the nose of the possessed man a ring, which had under its seal one of the roots prescribed by Solomon, and then, as the man smelled it, drew out the demon through his nostrils, and, when the man at once fell down, adjured the demon never to come back into him, speaking Solomon’s name and reciting the incantations which he had composed. Then, wishing to convince the bystanders and prove to them that he had this power, Eleazar placed a cup or foot basin full of water a little way off and commanded the demon, as it went out of the man, to overturn it and make known to the spectators that he had left the man. (Antiquities8.42-49)

Eleazar was only one of the Jewish wise men deeply informed of “Solomon’s wisdom.” Apparently, this wisdom was a door that made it possible to adapt and apply all kinds of Hellenistic knowledge, occult as well as nonoccult, among Jewish people.

We also know of several Jewish miracle workers who acted as professionals. In general, Roman mighty men seem to have appreciated the help of oriental wise men. Tiberius had many astrologers and especially Thrasyllus filling his needs; and Otho took a man named Ptolemy with him when traveling to Spain. Both of them are mentioned by the skeptical Tacitus (Annals. 6.20-21, and Histories 1.22). Apparently, oriental sages were a kind of status symbol, and Jews were appreciated among them. The New Testament tells how Barjesus Elymas served Sergius Paulus (Acts 13), and according to Josephus a man called Atomus helped Antonius Felix, the procurator of Judea about 53-58 CE, who had fallen in love with a Jewish married lady named Drusilla:

He sent to her one of his friends, a Cyprian Jew named Atomus, who pretended to be a magician, in an effort to persuade her to leave her husband and to marry Felix. Felix promised to make her supremely happy if she did not disdain him. She, being unhappy and wishing to escape the malice of her sister Berenice, for Drusilla was exceedingly abused by her because her beauty, was persuaded to transgress the ancestral laws and to marry Felix. By him she gave birth to a son whom she named Agrippa (Ant. 20.141-143).

We do not know what the methods were that Atomus used to persuade the lady, but the text shows the power of the Jewish magician. Apparently, the “Seven Sons of the High Priest Sceva” in Acts 19, hardly sons of a high priest and hardly brothers, were a band of professionals, who sought their clients among the lower layers of the people in Ephesus.


It is curious that this material has been so rarely observed during the decades of the divine man hypothesis, and I cannot explain it. Perhaps early Judaism was not a popular subject in Germany before World War II. At any rate, the scholars seem to have had an inadequate grasp of the ancient Jewish tradition. They considered the most important parallels to be found in the Greco-Roman world, the reason being the huge influence of the German History of Religions School (Religionsgeschichtliche Schule). According to the basic view of this school, the research of the New Testament starts with the idea that early Christianity was a syncretistic religion. Greek and Roman influence were sought and found in it, but sometimes, as in the investigation of miracles, influential patterns were uncritically developed, without adequate foundation in fact. Such modern constructions do not help, but hinder, the critical understanding of biblical miracle stories. It is time to return to the religio-historical work without distorting our lenses. The first task is to observe the rich Jewish tradition properly.