1. Selective Bibliography
2. Introduction
3. The Purpose of Jesus' Miracles in the Gospels
   3.1. The Synoptic Gospels
   3.1.1. Matt 11:20-24 = Luke 10:13-15
   3.1.2. Mark 6:1-6 = Matt 13:53-58
   3.1.3. Luke 19:37
   3.2. The Gospel of John
   3.2.1. Semeia (Signs)
   3.2.2. Erga (Works)
4. Specific Miracles of Jesus in the Gospels (Excluding Jesus' Healings and Exorcisms)
   4.1. Synoptic Gospels and Parallels in John
   4.2. The Gospel of John
5. Jesus as Miracle Worker in Historical Context
5.1. Interpretive Possibilities
   5.2. Davidic Messiah and Miracles
6. Jesus' Criticism of Those Who Demand Signs
7. John's Explanation of Continuing Unbelief


1. Selective Bibliography

O. Betz and W. Grimm, Wesen und Wirklichkeit der Wunder Jesu, 1977; C. Brown, Miracles and the Critical Mind, 1984; M.-E. Boismard, "Saint Luc et la redaction du quatrième évangile (Jn iv, 46-54)," RB 69 (1962) 185-211; J. Kallas, The Significance of the Synoptic Miracles (London: SCM, 1961); H.C. Kee, Miracle in the Early Christian World; D.-A., Koch, Die Bedeutung der Wundererzählungen für die Christologie des Markusevangeliums, 1975); H. van der Loos, The Miracles of Jesus, 1965; L. Monden, Signs and Wonders. A Study of the Miraculous in Religion, 1966); F. Mussner, The Miracles of Jesus. An Introduction, 1969; A. Richardson, The Miracle Stories of the Gospels, 1941; E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, 1993, chap. 10; M. Smith, Jesus the Magician, 1978; G. Theissen, The Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition, 1983; G. Vermes, Jesus the Jew, 1983; id., The Religion of Jesus the Jew, 1993; D. Wenham and C. Blomberg, eds., Gospel Perspectives 6: The Miracles of Jesus, 1986.

2. Introduction

Jesus as miracle worker is an important aspect of Jesus' identity in the gospels. This interpretive category overlaps with the category of Jesus as healer, since Jesus' healings would be classified as miracles. For the sake of clarity, however, a distinction between the two will be made, since not every miracle that Jesus performed was a healing and because Jesus gives an interpretation to his healings that would not be applicable to his other "miracles." Appropriately, the etymology of the English word "miracle" derives from the Latin, miraculum, "that which is to be wondered or marveled at."

    Jews in Jesus' day viewed the natural world as open to supernatural intervention: although things usually proceeded in a certain way, it was not impossible that God or some other extraordinary being (human or otherwise) could do extraordinary things. The ordinary course of events in the world could be altered by those who had the ability to do so. Anyone who could do extraordinary things had access to power not available to the average person. Not surprisingly, the ability to do extraordinary things was a condition for being recognized as being extraordinary and would force the question of the origin of this ability. It should be noted that many modern scholars work with the opposite assumption: that the universe is a closed system of cause/effect relations in which the extraordinary things reported in the gospels could not happen. This leads them to deny a priori the historicity of the narratives reporting Jesus' miracles. The miracles stories in the gospels are explained as exaggerations, naive misinterpretations, clumsy symbolism or just pure fabrications. Thus the issue of ultimate presuppositions cannot be avoided in dealing with the topic of Jesus as miracle worker. It is clear that inclusion of the gospel data on Jesus as miracle worker will result in a much different Jesus as compared to one that excludes such data.

3. The Purpose of Jesus' Miracles in the Gospels

In the gospels, Jesus expects his "miracles," including his healings, to pose a question to those who observe them: "How can this extraordinary ability be explained?" Once they witness Jesus' "miracles," people cannot avoid this question. What the witnessess to Jesus' miracles can avoid is the answer that Jesus' ability comes from God. This interpretive option, however, Jesus considers to be perversely irrational. He even criticizes his disciples for not drawing the correct conclusions about him based on his "miracles": "And they were utterly astonished, for they had not gained any insight from the incident of the loaves, but their heart was hardened" (Mark 6:51-52). Jesus expects that the people will interpret his "miracles" as sufficient evidence that he has been sent by God.

3.1. The Synoptic Gospels

The synoptic gospels use the word dunamis / dunameis ("manifestation/s of power") to denote Jesus' "miracles," including his healings. As the word implies, they are intended to point to Jesus as one who is endowed with divine power. The original Aramaic equivalent of the word dunamis, however, is not known.

3.1.1. Matt 11:20-24 = Luke 10:13-15 (Woes on Galilean Towns)

Matthew 11:20-24 Luke 10:13-15
20 Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles (dunameis) had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 "Woe to you, Chorazin. Woe to you, Bethsaida. If the miracles (dunameis) that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles (dunameis) that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you." 3 "Woe to you, Chorazin. Woe to you, Bethsaida. For if the miracles (dunameis) that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14 But it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you. 15 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths.

Jesus warns that the people of several towns in Galilee—Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum—will come under judgment because they did not turn to God in repentance in response to the dunameis performed there by Jesus (see Map of Galilee). In Luke, this follows upon Jesus' instructions to the twelve (10:1-12), whereas in Matthew it comes after Jesus' testimony to John the Baptist (11:7-19). The assumption is that the inhabitants of these three towns had sufficient evidence to conclude that Jesus was sent from God, so that they should have responded to his injunction to repent and to believe the good news about the Kingdom of God (see Mark 1:14-15). This evidence, of course, was his dunameis, or manifestations of power. The fact that these Galileans did not respond positively to the dunameis that they had witnessed would be used as a basis of their condemnation at final judgment (see Manson, The Sayings of Jesus, 76-77).

Matt 11:20-24 is composed of two strophes, each having three members (Reiser, Jesus and Judgment, 221; Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2, p. 265). The pattern is derived from the Old Testament (Isa 5:11-17; 29:15-21; 33:1; Micah 2:1-5; Hab 2:9-11; see 1 En. 94:8; 95:7; 96:4, 8; 98:9-11; 100:7-9). Strophe one consists of: 1a ‘Woe to you, Chorazin; woe to you, Bethsaida’ (11:21a) (proclamation of judgment); 1b ‘because if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon that occurred among you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes’ (11:21b-c) (reason for judgment); 1c ‘Indeed I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you’ (11:22) (unfavorable comparison). Strophe two consists of: 2a ‘And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will descend to Hades’ (11:23a) (proclamation of judgment); 2b ‘because if the miracles had occurred in Sodom that occurred in you, it would have remained to this day’ (11:23b-c) (reason for judgment); 2c ‘Indeed I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you’ (11:24) (unfavorable comparison). Luke’s version has very close agreement with Matt 11:21-23a; the differences between them are only minor. But the Lukan version omits 2b and 2c. Some claim that Matt 11:23b-c, 24 is redactional, being expansions of the shorter, more original version represented by Luke 10:13-15. Matt 11:23b would be modeled on Luke 11:13b-c || Matt 11:21b-c, and Matt 11:24 is a duplicate of Matt 10:15 (Klostermann, Matthäusevangelium, p. 101; Hoffmann, Studien zur Theologie der Logienquelle, 255, 284-85, 288, 303; Schulz, Spruchquelle, 361; Lührmann, Die Redaktion der Logienquelle, 62-63; Oberlinner, Todeserwartung und Todesgewißheit Jesu, 87-88; Kloppenborg, Formation of Q, 195-96; Laufen, Die Doppelüberlieferungen der Logienquelle und des Markusevangeliums, 228; Sato, Q und Prophetie, 131-32; Reiser, Jesus and Judgment, 221-24; Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2.236-37). The data are more easily explained, however, if one assumes that, in the collection of gospel tradition available to Luke, 10:12 became joined to 10:13-15 by means of the link-clause anektoteron estai (10:12, 13) with the result that 2b and 2c began to be omitted as unnecessary, since they were redundant. This is consistent with Luke’s tendency to dismantle parellelisms, vary expression and avoid doublets (Riniker, Gerichtsverkündigung, p. 309). On this hypothesis, Luke 10:12 = Matt 10:15 was not created in order to link the sending out of the twelve and the woes on Galilean towns, in spite of the coincidental agreement with the latter, but was the conclusion of the sending out of the twelve (contrary to Lührmann, Die Redaktion der Logienquelle, 62; Hoffmann, Studien zur Theologie der Logienquelle, 288, 303; Oberlinner, Todeserwartung und Todesgewißheit, 88). On the other hand, the collection of gospel tradition available to Matthew did not join the two units of tradition but kept them separate; Matt 10:15, the equivalent of Luke 10:12, was included as of part of the material related to the mission address (see A. Schlatter, Das Evangelium des Lukas, 502; Manson, Sayings of Jesus, 77; Marshall, Luke, 424-26; Fitzmyer, Luke, 2.851; Riniker, Die Gerichtsverkündigung Jesu, 307-11). Apart from the fact that there is no evidence of Matthean redaction in Matt 11:23b-24 (Schulz, Spruchquelle, 361; Riniker, Die Gerichtsverkündigung Jesu, 308-309), the idea that Matthew would create sayings of Jesus is incongruous with the conservative nature of the gospel tradition. It should be added that to assume that Matthew and Luke had access to the same written collection of material in the same order, i.e. the Q-source, is unjustifiable and its adoption results in circular reasoning.

    Jesus says of (the inhabitants of) the towns of Chorazin and Bethsaida: "For if the miracles (dunameis) that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes" (Luke 10:13b). There is only this one reference to Chorazin in the gospels, but Bethsaida is mentioned more than once (Mark 6.45; 8.22; Luke 9.10; John 1.44; 12.21). In Mark 8.22-26, Jesus heals a blind man at or near Bethsaida (see Bethsaida). This tradition presupposes that Jesus' message of the Kingdom of God met with resistance and rejection in these two Galilean towns, even when the message was confirmed by dunameis, so that he had no choice but to pronounce proleptic judgment upon them. He states that the inhabitants of the nearby gentile cites of Tyre and Sidon would have long ago repented in sackcloth and ashes if the same same dunameis had been performed in those cities. (To dress in sackcloth and to sit in ashes are signs repentance [see LXX Jonah 3:6; Isa 58:5; LXX Esth 4:2-3; LXX Dan 9:3; Josephus, Ant. 5.37; 10.349; 20.123].) (The cities of Tyre and Sidon are often paired in prophetic utterances [see Jer 25:22; 47:4; Zech 9:2].) For this reason, on the day of final judgment, it will be worse for the inhabitants of Chorazin and Bethsaida than for those of Tyre and Sidon because the former rejected the evidence that Jesus' dunameis provided of his salvation-historical significance. He thereby provocatively compares Jews and gentiles to the disadvantage of the former.

Excavations at Bethsaida

Main Road at Bethsaida

Ruins of Fisherman's House

Reconstruction of Fisherman's House


The town of Bethsaida was located on the northern east shore of the Sea of Galilee. Recently what used to be known as simply et-Tell (literally "the mound"), two kilometers inland from the Sea of Galilee, was identified as the site of Bethsaida. Bethsaida means "House of the Fisherman." Jesus goes to Bethsaida and heals a blind man there (Mark 8:22-26), and is near Bethsaida when he feeds the 5,000 (Luke 9:10). The apostles Philip, Andrew and Peter were from Bethsaida (John 1:44; 12:21). Jesus' disciples get into boat to travel to Bethsaida (Mark 6:45-51 = Matt 14:22-23; John 6:15-21). Josephus says that Philip the tetrarch renamed Bethsaida Julias in honor of Livia-Julia, the wife of the late Emperor Augustus (Ant. 18.28; War 2.168; 3.57, 515).

    Of the town of Capernaum, Jesus says, "And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths." He is alluding to part of a prophetic oracle in Isa 14:4b-21 (see 14:13-15) directed against the King of Babylon. Like the king, the inhabitants of Capernaum exalt themselves in their self-importance, but will be destroyed in final judgment, because they did not respond appropriately to Jesus' dunameis, which served to confirm his message about the Kingdom of God. (Capernaum served as Jesus' Galilean center of operations when he began to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God.)

Matt 11:20-24 = Luke 10:13-15 is a prime example of close agreement in the double tradition. The two versions differ only in four minor ways: 1. Matthew has the active egeneto (11:21) rather than Luke's passive egenêthêsen 10:13); 2. Luke includes the participle kathêmenoi ("sitting") after spodô ("ashes") (10:13), which is absent in Matthew; 3. Matthew has legô humin ("I say to you") after the conjunction plên (11:22), but not Luke; 4. Matthew has en hêmera kriseôs ("in the day of judgment") (11:22) rather than Luke's shorter phrase en tê kriseôs ("in the judgment") (10:14). It is possible that Matt 11:20, since it has no parallel in Luke, was created by Matthew to serve as an introduction to this tradition (Schweizer, Matthew, 266-67). Luke does not require such an introduction because the ending of the previous pericope (10:12) serves as an effective transition between 10:1-11 and 10:13-15 (see below). It is always possible, however, that Luke omits an introduction that Matthew retains.

After Matthew's version of the double tradition "Woes on Galilean Towns" is found an unfavorable comparison of Capernaum to Sodom (11:23b-24), which is absent in Luke. Nevertheless, Luke does have a similar saying as the conclusion to his pericope "Mission of the Seventy" (10:2-12), just before his version of "Woes on Galilean Towns." For this reason, some have suggested that Luke has transposed the saying represented by Matt 11:23b-24, which originally followed upon Luke 10:13-15. It is more probable, however, that Luke omitted the saying represented by Matt 11:23b-24 because it was too similar to Luke 10:12, the ending of the previous pericope. Indeed, there is another version of the saying in Matt 11:24 in Matt 10:15, parallel to Luke 10:12, which suggests that there were two similar sayings in circulation, but used in different contexts for different purposes.

Matt 10:15: Truly I say to you it will be easier for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for this city.

Luke 10:12: For I say to you that it will be easier for Sodom in that day than for that city.

Matt 11:23b-24: If the miracles (dunameis) that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you."

Using hyperbole, Jesus says that it will be easier for the proverbially-wicked city of Sodom than for Capernaum, because the latter did not respond appropriately to his message and the confirmations of his message. The guilt of Capernaum is greater because they were so much more greatly favored by being given dunameis.

Many have concluded that Matt 11.20-24 = Luke 10.13-15 is a community formulation reflecting the frustration stemming from the failure of early Christian mission to these three Galilean towns. The early Christian community assumed that the rejection of Jesus’ words was tantamount to rejection of Jesus himself. See Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, 112-13; Schulz, Spruchquelle, 362-63; Ernst Haenchen, Der Weg Jesu, 226; Lührmann, Die Redaktion der Logienquelle, 64; Oberlinner, Todeserwartung unf Todesgewißheit, 90-93; Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 114; M. Eugene Boring, The Continuing Voice of Jesus, 209-10; Sato, Q und Prophetie, 199-200; R. Funk and R. Hoover (eds.), The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, 181. First, it is argued that the two sayings look back to Jesus’ activity as something completed in the past, which is incompatible with an origin with Jesus. Second, it is pointed out that there is no evidence that Jesus did miracles in Chorazin and he only performed one miracle in, or perhaps only near, Bethsaida (Mk 8.22-26). It is assumed that the early church undertook failed missions to the towns, which is what these sayings address. Third, Jesus’ view of miracles is said to be contrary to that presented in these sayings; according to this view, Jesus sees his miracles as ambiguous, not as compelling assent. The example of the Beelzebul controversy is brought forward as typical: a Jew can interpret Jesus’ exorcisms as from God or from Beelzebul. (Schulz offers other arguments but these are not so convincing, and some of them tend to be circular, presupposing his hypothesis about the growth of the Q-source and the community to which it belonged [Spruchquelle, 362-63].) The arguments against the authenticity of Matt 11.20-24 = Luke 10.13-15 are unconvincing (F. Mussner, The Miracles of Jesus, 18-22; id., ‘Gab es eine ‘galiläische Krise’?’ in Orientierung an Jesus, 238-52; Hoffmann, Studien zur Theologie der Logienquelle, 303 n. 53; Marshall, Luke, p. 424; Fitzmyer, Luke, 2.852; Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2.270-71; Becker, Jesus of Nazareth, 64-65; Reiser, Jesus and Judgment, 229-30; Riniker, Die Gerichtsverkündigung Jesu, 315-29; Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 421). First, Jesus does indeed look back upon his activity in Chorazin and Bethsaida as completed; after proclaiming the Kingdom of God in these towns with little or no success he determined that the inhabitants were unresponsive and resistant to him and his mission, and so he moved on. Similarly, at some time after taking up residence in Capernaum Jesus came to the conclusion that his adopted hometown would remain unreceptive to him for the most part. So it is clear that there is no reason to conclude that the sayings could not have come from Jesus because there is a sense of closure and finality in the sayings—quite the contrary. Second, the fact that little or nothing is said about Jesus’ performing miracles in Chorazin and Bethsaida in the gospels is irrelevant since equally nothing is said in Acts or any other source about a mission by the early church to these Galilean towns. In fact there is evidence that Jesus travelled around Galilee with his disciples, so that it is probable that he performed miracles in Chorazin, Bethsaida and other places that are never mentioned in the gospels (Mk 1.14-15). Third, unless one is willing to discard pieces of the gospel tradition as inauthentic, one must accept that Jesus does view his miracles as confirmations of his message (see Matt 11.4-6 = Luke 7.22-23; Matt 12.28 = Luke 11.20).

Site of Chorazin

Chorazin was a village in Galilee. It was situated about four kilometers from Capernaum on a hill above the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus visited the village but was not well-received by its inhabitants (Matt 11:20-24 = Luke 10:13-15).

3.1.2. Mark 6:1-6 = Matt 13:53-58 (Rejection at Nazareth)

Mark 6:1-6

Matthew 13:53-58

1 Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. 2 When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. "Where did this man get these things?" they asked. "What's this wisdom that has been given him and such dunameis as these are performed through his hands? 3 Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him. 4 Jesus said to them, "Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor." 5 He could not do any dunamis there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. 6 And he was amazed at their lack of faith. Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. 53 When Jesus had finished these parables, he moved on from there. 54 Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. "Where did this man get this wisdom and these dunameis?" they asked. 55 "Isn't this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother's name Mary, and aren't his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? 56 Aren't all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?" 57 And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, "Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor." 58 And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.

After beginning his proclamation of the Kingdom of God, Jesus returns to Nazareth, his hometown. Its inhabitants are forced to re-evaluate their understanding of Jesus, one of their own, because of Jesus' wisdom, which they heard in the synagogue, and reports received of Jesus' dunameis. Unfortunately, contrary to the evidence, the Nazarenes reject Jesus as anything more than they remember him to be, which is why Jesus is "amazed at their lack of faith (apistian)" (Mark 6:6). Jesus expects that an unbiased assessment of the evidence would produce a response of faith among the people of Nazareth, which, in this context, means accepting Jesus as one sent by God. As a result of this lack of faith, Jesus is unable to do any dunamis in Nazareth, except to heal a few people by the laying on of hands, since faith is a condition of his doing dunameis (For more on this passage, see Mark 6).

3.1.3. Luke 19:37

When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen.

In Luke's version of "Jesus' Royal Entry into Jerusalem," when Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey, it is explained that the crowd of his disciples praised God on account of his dunameis.

3.2. The Gospel of John

3.2.1. Semeia (Signs)

In the Gospel of John the word most frequently used to denote Jesus' "miracles," especially his healings, is semeia (signs). As the word implies, Jesus' signs are intended to point to Jesus as one endowed with the power of God / the Father; they are intended to serve as warrant for believing in Jesus. (John the Baptist is said not to have done any semeion [John 10:41].) In John 20:30, John concludes his gospel by saying that there are other semeia that Jesus performed not included in his gospel. The term sign ('t) occurs in the Hebrew Bible likewise to describe divine "miracles" (Aramaic: 'tw'). In particular it is the word used to describe the "miracles" that Moses' miracles performed in Egypt by the power of Yahweh.

A. John 2:11

This beginning of his signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested his glory, and his disciples believed in him.

Two days after the calling of Nathanael ("on the third day"), Jesus, his disciples and his mother, Mary, went to the Galilean town of Cana for a wedding (John 2:1-11). (Cana was the hometown of Nathanael [John 21:2]; Josephus says that he used the town of Cana as his military headquarters during the Jewish war with Rome [Life 86, 207].) During the wedding feast, the host ran out of wine, on whose behalf Mary then appeals to Jesus for help. Even though he thought that it was too soon for him to reveal himself by means of a "sign" ("my hour has not yet come"), Jesus, nevertheless, complies with his mother's request. He had six stone jars filled with water, which then turned to wine. (The limestone jars, each holding two or three metrêtas [i.e., 75 to 115 liters] were used to hold water that was used for the ritual purification of hands and vessels. Limestone was not susceptible to the transfer of ritual impurity.) John says that Jesus' changing of the water into wine was his first semeion. This semeion is said to be a revelation of Jesus' "glory" (doxa), and, appropriately, caused his disciples to believe in him. Jesus' glory is his exalted status in relation to God, the Father; this status was revealed by this semeion on the assumption that only one with such a status could perform such a semeion. (See 17:1: "Now, Father, glorify me together with yourself, with the glory which I had with you before the world was" and 17:24 "Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, be with me where I am, so that they may see my glory, which you have given me, for you loved me before the foundation of the world.")

B. John 2:18

The Jews then said to him, "What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?"

Jesus is challenged to produce a semeion to prove his authority to his critics, who take offence at Jesus' action of cleansing the Temple. They rightly assume that Jesus could authenticate his right to act in this unilateral way if he could prove by means of a sign that he was from God and acted on God's authority.

C. John 2:23

Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in his name, observing his signs that he was doing.

Jesus did many semeia in Jerusalem during a Passover festival. Many who witnessed these semeia "believed in his name," which is idiomatic for believing that Jesus was one sent from God. (Nevertheless, Jesus did not trust himself to them because, "He knew what was in a man" [2:24].)

D. John 3:1-2

1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; 2 this man came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him."

Nicodemus is convinced that Jesus is a teacher from God since he is able to do semeia. He says, "No one is able to do these signs that you do unless God be with him."  It is because of Jesus' semeia that Nicodemus desires to speak privately with Jesus, since he assumes that Jesus must be from God, for otherwise he could not do these semeia. Were it not for the semeia, Nicodemus would have no interest in what Jesus has to say, because Jesus would have demonstrated no authority to speak on behalf of God.

E. John 4:54

This is again a second sign that Jesus performed when he had come out of Judea into Galilee.

While in Cana Jesus heals the son of a royal official (basilikos), who travels from Capernaum to Cana to petition Jesus to help his son who is still in Capernaum. This man was probably an official attached to the household of the tetrarch Herod Antipas. In John, Jesus' healing of the official's servant is said to be Jesus' second semeion. This semeion was the basis for his entire household to believe in Jesus (4:53). They assumed that it could not be a mere coincidence that the son of the royal official recovered precisely at the time when Jesus pronounced him healed, the day before 1:00 p.m. ("yesterday at the eleventh hour"), and so concluded that Jesus must have been the cause of his recovery. What they believed about Jesus is not clear, but at the very least they must have believed that Jesus was from God (see John 4:48).

F. John 6:1-14

2 A large crowd followed him, because they saw the signs which He was performing on those who were sick....11 Jesus then took the loaves, and having given thanks, he distributed to those who were seated; likewise also of the fish as much as they wanted....14 Therefore when the people saw the sign that he had performed, they said, "This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world."

A great crowd follows Jesus when he crosses to the other side the Sea of Galilee by boat because of the semeia that he performed by healing the sick. Naturally, the crowd concludes that Jesus is someone extraordinary and worthy of pursuit because of his abilities to perform semeia. This was the occasion for Jesus to feed the 5,000 by multiplying five loaves and two fish because the people who followed him unwisely in their haste did not bring adequate provisions of food. Because of Jesus' semeion of feeding them, the people interpret Jesus as the Prophet, an eschatological figure (see Deut 18:18 "I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him"; 1QS 9.11 "until the coming of the prophet and the messiahs of Aaron and Israel"; 4Q175 "I would raise up for them a prophet from among their brothers... [placed in an eschatological context]").

G. John 6:26

Jesus answered them and said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.

Jesus expects and encourages the crowd to follow him on account of the semeia that he performed. He criticizes the people only for seeking him out in order to receive free food; rather he hopes that the semeia that they witnessed will lead them to seek for "food that remains for eternal life" (6:27). In other words, Jesus expects his semeia to lead people to seek eternal life, of which the bread is metaphorical.

H. John 6:30

So they said to him, "What then do you do for a sign, so that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform?"

Jesus is challenged to give a semeion as a warrant for his self-claims. It seems that Jesus believes that his detractors' demand is unjustified, because he has already given them the sign of the multiplication of the bread, which should suffice.

I. John 7:31

So they said to him, "What then do you do for a sign, so that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform?"

There is some debate over Jesus' identity. There were some who "believed in him" citing as justification the fact that the Messiah will surely not do more semeia than Jesus has done (see below).

J. John 9:16, 39-41

16 Therefore some of the Pharisees were saying, "This man is not from God, because he does not keep the Sabbath." But others were saying, "How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?" And there was a division among them.... 39 And Jesus said, "For judgment I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind." 40 Those of the Pharisees who were with him heard these things and said to him, "We are not blind too, are we?" 41 Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, 'We see,' your sin remains."

After Jesus healed the blind man, although they did not deny that he had healed, the Pharisees concluded that Jesus could not have healed by the power of God. In their view, he could not be "from God" (para theou), since he had healed on the Sabbath. In other words, anyone who was truly "from God" would not break the Law. The major premise of the argument is: "A man who violates the Sabbath is not from God," whereas the minor premise is: "Jesus violates the Sabbath." The conclusion follows deductively that Jesus is not "from God." Yet, this conclusion contradicts another line of deductive reasoning: "How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?" It is the general view that a sinner could not do the semeia that Jesus does; the assumption is that God would not empower a sinner to do so and there is no other power available by which to do these extraordinary deeds. So if Jesus does semeia it follows that he must be from God, despite the fact that he violates the Pharisaic halakot (oral tradition) in relation to the Sabbath. Such a conclusion would call into question the validity of the Pharisaic halakot. Jesus later adds that this sign (and others, no doubt) has the function of bringing judgment upon those who reject it as evidence that he is from God (9:39-41). Jesus cleverly moves from speaking about literal blindness to metaphorical blindness. He says, "For judgment I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind" (9:39-41). He understands his purpose in coming as healing the blind, among other ailments and as causing those who claim to understand the salvation-historical purposes of God to reveal their actual willful ignorance of what God is doing in the present. Jesus' signs force those who witness them to decide either for or against him; a position of neutrality is excluded.

K. John 11:1-48; 12:17-18

14 So Jesus then said to them plainly, "Lazarus is dead, 15 and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him"....47 Therefore the chief priests and the Pharisees convened a council, and were saying, "What are we doing? For this man is performing many signs 48a If we let him go on like this, all men will believe in him....12:17 So the people, who were with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead, continued to testify about him. 18 For this reason also the people went and met him, because they heard that he had performed this sign.

Jesus expects Lazarus' resurrection to function as evidence that God has sent him (11:14-15). This is why he waits for four days after Lazarus' death before going to Bethany, so that there would be no doubt that Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, rather than merely revived him from an unconscious state. Not surprisingly, many people go out to see Jesus because they heard about Jesus' semeion of raising Lazarus from the dead (12:18). Indeed, it is said that the Sanhedrin feared that the whole nation would believe in Jesus on account of his semeia, including his resurrection of Lazarus (11:47-48). The fear was that the Romans would interpret Jesus as leader of a insurrection movement and oppress the whole nation with typical Roman efficiency. This is why the Sanhedrin determined to put Jesus to death (see Resolution to Kill Jesus).

3.2.2.  Erga (Works)

In the Gospel of John, Jesus also uses the term "works" (erga) to describe his "miracles." The term is synonymous with semeia. Jesus appeals to his "works" (erga) as proof he is who he claims to be.

A. John 5

19 Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, the son can do nothing of himself, unless it is something he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the son also does in like manner.... 36 "But the testimony which I have is greater than the testimony of John; for the works that the Father has given me to accomplishthe very works that I dotestify about me, that the Father has sent me.

In his discourse about his filial relationship with his Father, Jesus says that he does only what he sees his Father doing (5:19). The "works" (erga) that the Father has given Jesus to do and that he accomplishes testify to the fact that the Father has sent him (5:36). The assumption is that Jesus could not do his "works" (erga) if not empowered by God to do so (see 9:16). This testimony was greater than that of John, who was generally accepted as being from God, presumably because Jesus' works functioned as direct evidence of his salvation-historical significance, in contrast to John's testimony (see John 1:32-34), which is indirect evidence.

Testimonium Flavianum

There are two references to Jesus in Josephus' Antiquities (18.63-64; 20.200) (see E. Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, 1.428-41). The first appears found in the context of his discussion of Pontius Pilate called "procurator of the Jews" (Ioudaias hêgemôn). The text is as follows:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was a doer of amazing deeds (paradoxon ergon poietes) and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvellous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared."

Josephus also describes how Ananus the High Priest had James the brother of Jesus stoned: "And so he [Ananus] convened the judges of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who is called the Christ, and certain others."

The second reference is generally considered authentic, in which case Joseph simply records the fact that some Jews believed that Jesus, the brother of the martyred James, was the Christ (Messiah). Josephus is not hostile towards James or Jesus. The first reference (the so-called Testimonium Flavianum) is more problematic. In favor of its authenticity, it is noted that this passage is found in all manuscripts of Antiquities of the Jews and is cited by Eusebius (H.E. 1.11; Dem. Evang. 3. 5. 105). In addition, there is nothing "non-Josephan" about the vocabulary and style of this passage. Nevertheless, it has been pointed out that Josephus could not have written the text in its present form since he was not a believer (see Origen, Contra Celsum I. 47; II. 13; Com. in Mathaeum X. 17). In addition, the passage seems out of place literarily, since in this section he relates a series of riots. It is probably the case, however, that passage as it now stands represents a rescension of what Josephus originally wrote about Jesus. The task is to determine what Josephus originally wrote.

The explicitly "Christian" statements about Jesus in the bolded text can probably be eliminated as not part of the original text. The phrase "if indeed one ought to call him a man" is certainly suspicious since it implies the Christian belief in the deity of Jesus, which Josephus would not have shared. Also Josephus would not have written "He was the Messiah" Possibly he was making a statement about the fact that Jesus was thought to be the Christ by some Jews (as in Ant. 20.200), which a Christian scribe then modified. Likewise, the statement that Jesus rose from the dead according to prophetic prediction is probably a Christian interpolation, although it is possible that Josephus originally wrote something about the fact that Christians believed that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day and was the subject of prophecy. The italicized material is possibly from the hand of a Christian scribe since it is so favorable to Jesus. On the assumption that Josephus was not hostile to Jesus and his followers, one could accept as original his statement that Jesus was a "wise man" (sophos anêr). The fact that Jesus' status as a wise man among other wise men is not unique tells against this being a Christian interpolation (Josephus also calls Solomon [Ant. 10.237 and Daniel [Ant. 8.53] wise men.) (It is understandable how a Christian interpolator would have added the phrase if indeed one ought to call him a man to Josephus' designation of Jesus as a wise man.) Given Jesus' widespread reputation as a healer, exorcist and miracle worker, it is also credible to believe that Josephus could have called Jesus a "doer of amazing deeds" (paradoxôn ergôn poiêtês). The phrase "amazing works" (paradoxôn ergôn) occurs elsewhere in Josephus' writings (Ant. 9.192; 12.63). Likewise, Jesus' reputation as a teacher would have prompted Josephus to describe him as a "teacher of men" (didaskalos anthrôpôn). The phrase "who accept the truth gladly," however, appears to be an interpolation, even though the idiom hêdonê dechesthai is characteristic of Josephus' writings.

B. John 10

In John 10:22-42, Jesus speaks during the Festival of Dedication in the Temple. (The Festival of Dedication was held in December and commemorates Judas' defeat of the Seleucid forces and the rededication of the Temple [see 1 Macc 4:52-59].) Those who gather around him ask him when he will tell them whether he is the Christ. Jesus responds, "I told you, but you did not believe. The works that I do in the name of my Father these testify concerning me" (10:25). Jesus' response indicates that he intended his "works" (erga) to confirm the truth of his words; his works, of course, are his "miracles." Unlike his words, Jesus sees his "works" as self-authenticating, since no one could do what he has done except by the power of God (see 7:31). When the crowd intends to stone him, Jesus asks sarcastically, "For which work (ergon) are you stoning me?" (10:32). Jesus' point is that his works are sufficient warrant to accept him as the son sent by the Father, so that their rejection of him is irrational and perverse. This is why Jesus says to them, "If I do not do the works of the Father, then do not believe me, but if I do, and you do not believe me, then believe the works, in order that you know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father" (10:37-38). He does not expect others to take him at his word, for his claim to be the son of God is too incredible without proof; his "works," however, provide the proof necessary to accept his self-claims.

C. John 14, 15

In response to the inappropriate request of Philip for him to show the disciples the Father, Jesus says, "How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak from myself. The Father who remains in me does his works" (14:9b-11). Implicit in Jesus' reply is his assumption that his "works" testify to the fact that his self-claims are correct, for how else could he do such extraordinary deeds if he were not sent by God. Somewhat later, in 15:24-25, Jesus explains that those who have seen him do things that no one else could do and who still reject him are thereby responsible for their decisions. Their guilt stems from the fact that they had sufficient evidence for faith but still chose to disbelieve. Jesus says, "If I had not done among them what no one else has done they would not be guilt of sin. But now they have seen and still hate me and my Father."

Unlike the synoptic gospels the Gospel of John has no parables and no short, pithy sayings. Rather, the bulk of the material in the sections "Introductory Events" and "Jesus' Public Ministry" consists of seven long discourses interspersed with seven miraculous signs.
2:1-11 First Sign
6:1-15 Fourth Sign
6:16-21 Fifth Sign
3:1-21 First Discourse
6:22-71 Fourth Discourse
7:1-53a Fifth Discourse
4:1-41 Second Discourse
8:12-59 Sixth Discourse
4:46-54 Second Sign
9:1-41 Sixth Sign
5:1-18 Third Sign
10:1-42 Seventh Discourse
5:19-47 Third Discourse
11:1-45 Seventh Sign


How does Jesus intend that his "miracles" would function? How do people respond to Jesus' miracles?


2. Specific Miracles of Jesus in the Gospels (Excluding Jesus' Healings and Exorcisms)

During his ministry, in addition to his healings, Jesus did other extraordinary things; understandably, people responded with amazement and sometimes with faith.

4.1. Synoptic Gospels and Parallels in John

4.1.1. Mark 4:35-41 = Matt 8:22-27 = Luke 8:22-25: Jesus calms the storm that came up suddenly during a nocturnal crossing of the Sea of Galilee. The disciples had to awaken Jesus during the storm because he was sleeping in the stern of the boat. Jesus spoke and the storm ceased: "He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, 'Quiet! Be still!' Then the wind died down and it was completely calm." Jesus rebukes the disciples for their lack of faith, which manifested itself as fear.

Sea of Galilee

Twenty-one kilometers long and thirteen kilometers across, the Sea of Galilee is fed by the Jordan River. Also known as the Sea of Tiberias and Lake of Gennesaret, the Sea of Galilee was surrounded by many important settlements in Jesus' time, such as Tiberias, Capernaum, Bethsaida and Chorazin. The Sea of Galilee also supported a thriving fishing industry.

4.1.2. Mark 6:35-44 = Matt 14:15-21 = Luke 9:12-17; John 6:3-14: Somewhere in a remote place on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus feeds five thousand men and an undetermined number of women and children. (According to John 6:4, this occurred near Passover, so in springtime.) He did so by taking five barley loaves and two fish and then "multiplied" them, so that there was enough food for the whole crowd: "They all ate and were satisfied." Twelve baskets of "leftovers" were gathered afterwards.

4.1.3. Mark 6:45-52 = Matt 14:22-33; John 6:15-21: Jesus walks on water and then calms the storm. Mark and Matthew record that the disciples thought Jesus was a ghost (Mark 6:49; Matt 14:26); according to Mark 6:51 when Jesus calms the storm the disciples are amazed, while Matt 14:33 says that the disciples responded by worshipping him and confessing "Truly you are the son of God." Matthew also records that Peter attempts to walk on the water out to Jesus, but begins to sink for a lack of faith (14:28-31).

4.1.4. Mark 8:1-13 = Matt 15:32-39: On another occasion, Jesus feeds a large crowd of 4,000 people, who have been with Jesus listening to his teaching for three days. He takes seven loaves and a few small fish and "multiplies" these, so that there is enough for all. Seven baskets of "leftovers" are then collected.

4.1.5. Mark 9:2-10 = Matt 17:1-9 = Luke 9:28-36: In the presence of Peter, James and John, Jesus is "transfigured" while conversing with Elijah and Moses. Luke records that Peter and those with him are overcome by sleep when this is happening; when they do manage to keep awake they see Jesus' glory and that of Elijah and Moses (Luke 9:32). Mark says that the disciples were frightened (Mark 9:6).

4.1.6. Mark 11:12-14, 20-21 = Matthew 21:18-20: Jesus curses a fig tree and it withers; the disciples are recorded to have been amazed that this happened (Matt 21:20).

4.1.7. Matt 17:24-27: Peter finds the four-drachma coin—stathra—in the fish's mouth. Peter uses the coin to pay the Temple tax for both Jesus and himself. Jesus uses this as an object lesson to teach Peter that the "sons" (of God or the Kingdom) are exempt from paying the Temple tax.

4.1.8. Luke 5:4-19: Jesus causes Peter and his fellow fishermen to catch a huge quantity of fish. Peter's response is to repent, since he recognized that, since he could do such an extraordinary deed, Jesus must be from God: "But when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, 'Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man'. For amazement had seized him and all his companions because of the catch of fish which they had taken" (Luke 5:8-9).

4.2. The Gospel of John

Apart from the two Johannine parallels listed above (Feeding of the 5,000 and the Walking on water), John's gospel contains other signs that are not healings.

4.2.1. John 1:43-50: Jesus had clairvoyant knowledge about Nathanael, knowing that he had been sitting under a fig tree before he came to where Jesus was. Nathanael is amazed that Jesus "saw him," and as a result confessed, "Rabbi, you are the son of God; you are the king of Israel."

4.2.2. John 2:1-11: Jesus turns the water into wine; John 2:11 indicates that Jesus' disciples believed on him because he made manifest his glory. (See John 2:11).

4.2.3. John 4:1-19: Jesus knows all about the personal history of the Samaritan woman, who then calls him a prophet; she and the others from Sychar are amazed at this knowledge, and believe that Jesus' claim to be the Messiah is true.

4.2.4. John 21:1-11: Jesus somehow causes some of the disciples to catch a tremendous amount of fish, so that they recognized that it was Jesus who told them to throw out their nets on the right side of the boat.


What are the kinds of "miracles" that Jesus performs?


5. Jesus as Miracle Worker in Historical Context

5.1. Interpretive Possibilities

Jesus as miracle worker must be understood against the appropriate religious-historical background. If Jesus did extraordinary things, Jews would have to explain his ability to do so. They had two categories available by which to interpret Jesus.

5.1.1. Jesus could have been interpreted as a sorcerer (or magician). There were sorcerers in the ancient world, including Jewish society. An example from the New Testament is Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8:9-25 (see also Elymas in Acts 13:6-12). The sorcerer did extraordinary things by means of secret knowledge and power. The central idea behind sorcery was that knowledge was power. This secret knowledge enabled the sorcerer to gain control over the spirit world (departed human spirits or gods and non-human spirits), and these would become available to him or her as sources of power. Simon the sorcerer was said to be able to do extraordinary things through the Great Power (hê dunamis tou theou hê kaloumenê megalê), which was likely a spirit. A sorcerer could perform extraordinary deeds, good, bad or indifferent. There are statements in rabbinic literature that explain Jesus' extraordinary abilities as stemming from sorcery (see also Justin Martyr, Dial. 69; Arnobius, Adv. gent. 1.43) (Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, 18-54; M. Smith, Jesus the Magician). Apart from the allegations of sorcery in the Talmud (which are historically dubious because they are so late and clearly polemical) and the fact that he performed extraordinary deeds, however, there is no evidence to classify Jesus as a sorcerer. The narratives describing his miracles are conspicuous by the absence of all magical practice.

5.1.2. Jesus could also have been interpreted as what religious studies scholars call a Jewish "holy man." (Hellenism had a similar category of persons: the theios anêr [divine man].) Such men had direct access to God, and, it seems, their prayers were given priority; they were often very unconventional and ran roughshod over conventional piety (John the Baptist would be classified as one, although he did not work any miracles), thereby offending the status quo (see G. Vermes, Jesus the Jew; id., The Religion of Jesus the Jew). Holy men in the Old Testament include Moses, Elijah and Elisha. In the second-Temple period, a certain Choni the circle drawer (m. Ta'an. 3:8), also known as Onias the Righteous (Josephus Ant. 14, 22-24), appears to fit in the category of the Jewish "holy man," and in certain respects is similar to Jesus. The following are two accounts of Honi / Onias.

A. The Mishnah

Once it happened that they said to Choni the circle-drawer, "Pray that rain may fall." He replied, "Go forth and bring in the Passover ovens, so that they might not be softened." He prayed, but no rain fell. What did he do? He drew a circle and stood within it, and said before Him, "Master of the universe, Your children have set their faces to me, because I am as a son of the household before you. I swear by Your great Name that I will not move from here until you have compassion on Your children." Rain began to trickle. He said, "Not for such rain did I pray, but for rain that will fill the cisterns, pits and caves." The rain began to fall with violence. He said, "Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain of benevolence, blessing and graciousness." The rain fell according to their preference until the Israelites had to go up from Jerusalem to the Temple Mount because of the rain. They came to him and said, "Just as you prayed for the rain to fall, so now pray that it might stop." He answered them, "Go and see if the Stone of Strayers has been washed away." Simon ben Shetach sent to him saying, "If you had not been Choni I would have pronounced a ban of excommunication against you. But what could I do since you are petulant before God and He performed your will as a son who importunes his father and he does his will." (m. Ta an. 3:8)

B. Josephus

Now there was a certain Onias, a righteous man and especially loved by God, who had once in a rainless period prayed to God to end the drought, and God heard his prayer and sent rain; this man hid himself when he saw that the civil war continued to rage, but he was taken to the camp of the Jews and was asked to place a curse on Aristobolus and his fellow-rebels, just as he had by his prayers, put an end to the rainless period. But when in spite of his refusals and excuses he was forced to speak by the mob, he stood up in their presence and said, "O God, King of the universe, since these men standing beside me are your people, and those who are besieged are your priests, I ask you not to pay any attention to them against these men, nor to bring to pass what these men ask you to do against those others." And when he prayed in this manner the evil ones among the Jews who stood around him stoned him to death. (Ant. 14. 22-24)

5.2. Davidic Messiah and Miracles

There is little question that Jesus fits into the category of the Jewish "holy man." The question is whether the category of Jewish "holy man" is compatible with that of Davidic Messiah. In other words, was the Davidic Messiah expected to be a particular type of "holy man," performing extraordinary deeds by the power of God? Although nothing is said in the Old Testament, Jews in the second-Temple came to believe that the Davidic Messiah would be a miracle worker, like Moses and Elijah.

5.2.1. John 7:31 indicates that the people expected the Messiah to perform at least as many semeia as Jesus had performed: "When the Christ comes, he will not perform more signs (semeia) than those which this man has, will he?" This indicates that popular Messianic expectation combined the role of Messiah with miracle-worker.

5.2.2. As was pointed out, Jesus expected his "miracles" to function as warrants for believing that his self-claims were true. In this he was conforming to popular expectation. (In this regard, we should compare Mark 13:22: Jesus warns that false Christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders (semeia / terata), leading the people astray.)

5.2.3. Jesus interpreted his healings (a type of dunamis) as being fulfillments of eschatological promises in Isaiah, although the Messiah is not said explicitly to be the agent through which this eschatological healing would occur (Matt 11:2-6; Luke 7:18-23) (see Eschatological Context of Jesus' Healings). This was probably in conformity with popular eschatological expectation.

5.2.4. 4Q521 (Messianic Apocalypse) could be interpreted as expecting the Messiah to heal the sick and raise the dead, both of which are considered semeia in the gospels: "[For the heav]ens and the earth will listen to his Messiah....and the Lord will perform marvelous acts such as have not existed, just as he sa[id] for he will heal the sick and will make the dead live, he will proclaim good news to the poor" (see full text: Messianic Apocalypse).

5.2.5. Around the time of Jesus, there appeared a few Messiah-like figures who were intent on leading popular rebellions against the Roman occupiers of Palestine. These men claimed the ability to perform extraordinary deeds as warrants for their claims. Theudas promised that he would part the Jordan river (Ant. 20.97-98); an unnamed man from Egypt claimed that he would command Jerusalem's walls to fall down, lead his followers into the city, and set himself up as ruler (Ant. 20.169-72; War 2.262-63). Jonathan, a rebel leader, promised to show his followers signs and apparitions (War 7.437-38).  Although none of these men called himself the Messiah, according to Josephus (Theudas and the Egyptian are supposed to have called themselves prophets), each seemed to be intent on leading a popular rebellion against Rome in the way that the Messiah was expected to do. Thus it is probable that for political reasons Josephus omits the Messianic nature of these revolutionary movements. (Messiah is as Messiah does!)

    The evidence is sufficient to prove that some Jews at least expected that the Messiah would be a type of "holy man," performing "miracles," and that Jesus consciously conformed to this expectation.

Reports of miracles workers are relatively uncommon in the ancient sources roughly contemporary with Jesus. The only non-Jewish parallel to Jesus is the Pythagorean philosopher Apollonius of Tyana, whose life is recounted by Philostratus. (The emperor Vespasian is also said to have been empowered at times to heal by the god Serapis [Tactius Hist. 4.81; Suetonius, Vesp. 7 ].) On the Jewish side, in addition to Choni the Circle Drawer, there are rabbinic traditions about the divinely-given healing-abilities of Hanina ben Dosa (see bBer 34b; yBer 9d); in addition, Hanina ben Dosa was reported to have been immune to the effects of being bitten by a poisonous snake (m. Ber. 5.1; yBer. 9a; t. Ber. 2.20; bBer. 33a. Modern historians typically have looked dubiously on accounts of the miraculous, including the four canonical gospels. Nonetheless, although they may reject some of the more extraordinary "miracles" of  Jesus, especially the nature miracles, some scholars are willing to accept that there were individuals who somehow could do extraordinary things (see A.E. Harvey, Jesus and the Constraints of History, chap. 5).


How could Jesus' contemporaries have explained his ability to perform "miracles"? Are Jesus' miracles consistent with and supportive of his being the Davidic Messiah?


6. Jesus' Criticism of Those Who Demand Signs

In a few passages in the gospels Jesus criticizes people for demanding a semeion as proof that he was who he claimed to be. He is not so much criticizing those who require "signs" to believe but those who have sufficient evidence already in the forms of signs and resist the conclusion to which this evidence would lead them. Such people still challenge Jesus to prove himself to them, but they are really not open to the evidence. Thus it is possible to witness the semeia performed by Jesus, but irrationally not recognize them for what they are: warrants for acceptance of Jesus' teaching and claims about himself and his mission. (It should be recalled that Jesus exorcisms were explained as originating with Beelzebul.)

6.1. Mark 8:11-12 = Matt 16:1-2a, 4; Matt 12:38-40 = Luke 11:16, 29-30

Mark 8

10 And immediately He entered the boat with His disciples and came to the district of Dalmanutha. 11 The Pharisees came out and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him.


12 Sighing deeply in His spirit, he said, "Why does this generation seek for a sign? Truly I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation."

Matt 16

1 The Pharisees and Sadducees came up, and testing Jesus, they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. 2 But he replied 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 12

38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, "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 will 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 a huge fish, so will the son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Luke 11

16 Others, to test him, were demanding of him a sign from heaven..... 29 As the crowds were increasing, he began to say, "This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks for a sign, and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah. 30 For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the son of man be to this generation."

In Mark 8:11-12 = Matt 16:1-2a, 4, the Pharisees (Matthew has "Pharisees and Sadducees") challenge Jesus to give "a sign from heaven," in order to authenticate his claims; in fact, the request was really a "test," originating in their prior rejection of him and his message. In other words, their intention was for Jesus to fail their "test," so that they could justify their rejection of him. Under these circumstances, Jesus refuses the demand for a sign. In the Markan version, Jesus "sighs in his spirit" (anastenaxas to pneumati autou), indicating his grief over the unbelief of his generation; as expected, he will not give a sign on demand, because he knows that those asking for a sign are not open to being convinced by the evidence they claim to seek.

It seems that Matthew replaces Jesus' response in Mark 8:12 with Jesus' response in the tradition represented by Matt 12:38-42 = Luke 11:16, 29-32. Presumably, Matthew knows that Mark 8:11-12 = Matt 16:1-2a, 4 and Matt 12:38-42 = Luke 11:16, 29-32 actually intend the same event, being two different versions of it. This is why he can substitute one version of Jesus' response for the other. He decides to include both versions in his gospel, whereas Luke includes only the non-Markan version. In addition, according to his redactional method, Matthew inserts another related saying into the Markan framework: 16:2b-3, which is similar to Luke 12:54-56, but clearly not the same saying. (Other Matthean interpolations into the triple tradition include Matt 8:17; 10:5-8; 12:5-7; 12:11-12a; 13:14-15; 14:28-31; 16:17; 17:6-7; 18:3-4; 19:9.) (Actually, Matt 16:2-3 is textually poorly attested, so that it is possible that it is an early interpolation into the gospel.) In this saying, Jesus condemns his his generation for being able to predict the weather by observing the sky, but not being able to read the "the signs of the times" (ta semeia ton kairon). Probably, Jesus means that his opponents have unjustifiably rejected Jesus' signs as testifying to his salvation-historical significance.

    Matt 12:38-42 = Luke 11:16, 29-32 represents another tradition in which Jesus responds to the demand for a sign, probably referring to the same historical event as described in Mark 8:11-12 = Matt 16:1-2a, 4 (see Lührmann, Die Redaktion der Logienquelle, 36-42; Sato, Q und Prophetie, 281-84; Kloppenborg, The Formation of Q, 128-34). The two first halves of the two non-Markan versions agree verbatim, except that Matthew has "the prophet" following Jonah, whereas Luke omits this appelation (Matt 12:39b = Luke 11:29b). Jesus refuses to give a sign to those who demand one, except the sign of Jonah. He says that only an evil (and adulterous) generation seeks a sign; the clear implication is that the motives of those who demand a sign are perverse, not that signs themselves are wrong. Matthew and Luke have different versions of the second half of the saying, but with one similarity: both have the phrase "So will the son of man be...." In Luke's version, it is said that, just as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so the son of man (Jesus) will be a sign to his generation. Jesus' generation is contrasted unfavorably to the Ninevites, who repented after hearing Jonah's message; at the final judgment the Nivevites will condemn Jesus' contemporaries, because the latter should repent more readily than the former. By "son of man" Jesus is referring to himself, possibly with Messianic implications. The sign of Jonah, in fact, is no sign at all, in the sense of being evidence for belief; rather it is, ironically, the basis of condemnation of those who have willed not to believe evidence that was more than sufficient. So Jesus' response is consistent with his refusal to give a sign (Mark 8:12b). That the Ninevites believed Jonah without being given a sign makes it all the more expected and natural that the covenant people should believe the son of man, one greater than Jonah, with numerous signs. It is an argument from minor to major. This interpretation is confirmed by Jesus' reference to the Queen of the South (Sheba) who will condemn his own generation for its obstinacy. The Queen of the South came to hear the God-given wisdom of Solomon and Jesus is greater than Solomon. Whereas in Luke 11:30 Jesus, the son of man, is said merely to be a sign to his generation in the same way that Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, according to Matt 12:40, the parallelism between the son of man and Jonah is further specified as follows: "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." In other words, the sign of Jonah consists in Jonah's being typological of the fate of the son of man: just as Jonah was saved from the fish after three days and nights, so will the son of man be saved from death (see Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Kingdom of God, 252-57). Again, it is clear that the sign of Jonah is not a true sign because it will come too late, since God's vindication of the son of man (Jesus) will be coincidental with national judgment. So, in effect, in Matt 12:38-42 = Luke 11:16, 29-32, as in Mark 8:11-12, Jesus is really refusing to give a sign on demand.

The literary relations among Mark 8:11-12 = Matt 16:1-4; Matt 12:38-42 = Luke 11:29-32; Luke 12:54-56 are complicated.  Matt 16:1-4 derives from Mark 8:11-13 and the double tradition (Matt 12:38-42 = Luke 11:29-32).  Matthew interpolated non-Markan material into his Markan source, although he retains the Markan order of the pericope. In particular, he has replaced Jesus' response to the demand for a sign in Mark 8:12 with the version of the response from the double tradition (Matt 16:2): the significant difference between the two is that in the version from the double tradition Jesus says that only the sign of Jonah (the prophet) will be given to his generation (ei me to semeion Iona), whereas in the Markan version Jesus simply refuses to give a sign on demand. Matthew also interpolates into his Markan source sayings similar to what is found in Luke 12:54-56 concerning his generation not being able to discern the signs of the time. Matthew includes the full version of the tradition from which he interpolated Matt 16:2 in Matt 12:38-42 = Luke 11:29-32.  It is clear, however, that Matthew and Luke have different versions of this double tradition, for, after initial significant verbatim agreement (Matt 12:39b = Luke 11:29b), the two versions diverge insofar as Matthew includes an interpretation of the meaning if the sign of Jonah not found in Luke. Some scholars hold that originally reference to the sign of Jonah is a later addition to a tradition that is more originally represented by Mark 8:11-12 (T.W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus, 89-90; Tödt, Son of Man in the Synoptic Tradition, 211; H. Bayer, Jesus' Predictions of Vindication and Resurrection, 120-21; R.B.Y. Scott, "The Sign of Jonah. An Interpretation," Interpretation 19 (1965) 16-25; R.A. Edwards, The Sign of Jonah in the Theology of the Evangelists and Q; I.H. Marshall, Luke, 485). Those exegetes who believe in the existence of the Q source usually hold that Matt 12:40 is Matthean redaction, created as a vaticinium ex eventu created in light of belief in Jesus' resurrection (see Lührmann, Die Redaktion der Logienquelle, 36-42). The original sign of Jonah consists in Jesus as preacher to his generation in the same that Jonah appeared as preacher to the Ninevites (see J. Fitzmyer, Luke, 933). It seems better, however, to assume that Mark 8:11-12 = Matt 16:1-4 and Matt 12:38-42 = Luke 11:29-32 represent two different traditions with some similarities. Some find it necessary to decide whether Mark 8:12b or Luke 11:29b is more original on the assumption that there was one original saying about refusing to give a sign (H. Bayer, Jesus' Predictions of Vindication and Resurrection, 124-26). But one should consider the possibility that Jesus dealt with this issue more than once, which then produced different versions of his answer to whether he was willing to give a sign to his generation. At any rate, suffice it to say that in this case it is virtually impossible to reconstruct the the tradition history of this material. (It is clear, however, that Matthew combines his Markan and non-Markan sources.) In addition, it is preferable to assume that there are two different versions of the same tradition represented by Matt 12:38-42 = Luke 11:29-32. In this case, there are two ways in which the son of man is a sign to his generation.

6.2. John 4:48 (see John 2:18): Jesus criticizes the royal official (basilikos) and the people in general for not believing unless they see "signs and wonders" (semeia kai terata). Many scholars hold that John 4 is a parallel version of the narrative in Luke 7:1-10 = Matt 8:5-13, but there are too many differences between John 4:43-54 and its alleged synoptic parallels to accept this view.  As indicated above, Jesus encourages people to accept his "signs" (semeia) as a basis for faith; yet, in Jesus' view, there comes a time when the evidence is sufficient for faith, so that the demand for even more evidence can only come from a pre-existing unbelief.  In other words, although Jesus expected people to require semeia from him in order to believe, he also thought that the demand for semeia could be motivated by obstinacy, especially when sufficient signs had already been given.

Some scholars argue that John 4:48 represents a foreign element in the narrative, insofar as it contradicts the view of the relationship between faith and signs underlying the narrative: that faith rests upon signs. The original tradition was a simple miracle story, which included a verification of the healing (4:53).  In order to correct an inadequate view of faith, an editor interpolated 4:48: "Unless you (pl.) see miraculous signs and wonders," Jesus told him, "you will never believe." The interpolation of 4:48 then necessitated the creation of 4:49, in which the royal official again makes his request of Jesus, since he did not respond to the first request for help. The editorial work was clumsy, however, since Jesus' reproach in 4:48 appears unmotivated: after all, the official does come to Jesus in faith asking him to heal his servant and believes Jesus' pronouncement that the servant has been healed without evidence (4:50b) (see E. Haenchen, "Johanneische Probleme," ZThK 56 (1959) 19-54, especially 25-31; R. Schnackenburg, The Gospel according to John, 1.464-71).  M.-E. Boismard goes further, arguing that the original narrative consisted only of 4:46b-47; 50; the rest of the text was added by a redactor, whom he identifies as Luke. Not only was the redactor responsible for 4:48-49, but also 4:51-53, which confirms that the official had a deficient faith, one conditional upon signs and wonders ("Saint Luc et la redaction du quatrième évangile (Jn iv, 46-54)," Revue Biblique 69 (1962) 185-211.) There is no doubt that Jesus' statement in 4:48 prima facie appears out of place. The best explanation of this apparent incongruity, however, is to assume that this narrative incongruity arose owing to the fact that narrative is so condensed. A clue as to the motivation for Jesus' response in 4:48 occurs in 4:45: "When he arrived in Galilee, the Galileans received him, since they had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem during the festival." Apparently, Jesus believed that these Galileans had witnessed enough "signs and wonders" that they should now believe; yet they still demanded more signs and wonders.  Of course, this is not said explicitly in the now-condensed narrative, which focuses on the miracle itself.  It is possible that the royal official fell into this category, which explains why Jesus spoke to him so reproachfully. In fact, Jesus' response could have induced him to believe without first receiving a sign (4:50).  How the royal official could believe twice (4:50, 53) is explainable on the assumption that his second act of faith was an acceptance of Jesus' claims about himself, not simply faith for the healing of his servant; it is thus not really a second act of faith, but a completion of the incipient faith exercised in his encounter with Jesus.


Why does Jesus sometimes criticize those who asked him for a sign?




7. John's Explanation of Continuing Unbelief

According to John 12:37-42, those who witnessed Jesus' "signs" (semeia) but continued in unbelief did so because God had hardened them; John cites Isa 53:1 and 6:10 to make his point. John offers what could only be described as a pesher-interpretation of these Isaian passages. What was addressed to the prophet's generation is applied to that of the Messiah. In Isaiah 53:1, it is asked rhetorically, "Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Yahweh been revealed?" The implication is that no one has responded to the prophetic revelation, which is also true of the message of the one sent from the Father. Likewise,  Isa 6:10 refers to how Isaiah's preaching will fall upon deaf ears, so that its effect will be to harden. Different from Isa 6:10, the author omits references to their ears being made dull; rather he mentions only their eyes and their heart. In addition, rather than eyes becoming dimed, John has eyes being blinded and, rather than hearts becoming fat or insensitive, he has hearts becoming hardened. Another important difference between Isa 6:10 and John’s citation of it is that, whereas in former it is Isaiah’s calling to harden the people through his prophetic ministry, being an divine instrument, in the latter God is the one who directly blinds the eyes and hardens the heart. John quotes the second part of Isa 6:10b more literally, except as indicated, he leaves out the reference to their ears hearing; he agrees with the LXX in having “and I will heal them," rather than the MT "and one heal it.” John, however, introduces the clause with "in order that" (hina) rather than lest (mêpote) (see its citation in Mark 4:12) thereby creating a subtle difference of emphasis. In Isa 6:9-10, God has already made a decision to bring judgment on the people and does not want the people to repent and seek forgiveness: their fate is sealed; Isaiah's calling is to make them even more blind deaf and insensitive to God than they already are. Differently, in John the purpose of exposing Jews to Jesus' signs is in order to force them to make a judgment about whether Jesus is from God or not, so that those who are already disobedient to God would render themselves blind and hardened of heart through their rejection of Jesus. Jesus’ signs are means by which the people definitively confirm their previous decision against God.

Isa 6:10
John 12:40

Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim;

otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed.

He has blinded their eyes and he hardened their heart,

in order that they would not see with the eyes and perceive with their heart, and return and I heal them.”

In John's view, what is true of the prophet's message is even more true of the Messiah's (see also Acts 28:26-27). John then says, "Isaiah said this because he saw his [Jesus'] glory and spoke of it" (12:41), indicating his belief that these texts also have an eschatological fulfillment.


How does John explain the fact that Jesus' contemporaries did not respond positively to his "signs"?