JESUS AS MIRACLE WORKER
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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).
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
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.
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."
During his ministry, in addition to his healings, Jesus did other extraordinary things; understandably, people responded with amazement and sometimes with faith.
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.
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).
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."
4.2.3. 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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.