The meaning of Jesus’ miracles: an historical view

What do Jesus' miracles teach us about who he is and what he came to do?

In terms of the quantity and quality of evidence, the reports about Jesus’ baffling deeds are without historical parallel. Even if we grant, as I do, that there were other healers and exorcists in Jesus’ day, the fact is, we know almost nothing about them. We certainly do not know how they themselves understood their work: Did they think it was ‘magic’? Did they believe it gave them an elevated status? Did they think it pointed to some greater meaning about the universe? We will never know. Here, then, is a unique dimension of the evidence about Jesus: not only do we possess credible reports from others about his fame as a miracle worker, we have several credible statements from his own lips about this aspect of his ministry.

What is a miracle anyway?

But first I want to clear up a misunderstanding. ‘Miracle’ is probably not the best word for a historical discussion of Jesus’ healings and exorcisms. From the Latin miraculum, ‘object of wonder’, in modern discussions the term miracle has come to mean something like: a supernatural contradiction or violation of the laws of nature. There is an entire worldview locked up in this description, one heavily indebted to the Enlightenment (particularly 18th-century philosopher David Hume.1).

It assumes a dualism, the presence of two worlds: an observable, physical one, and a hidden, spiritual one. When that spiritual world overrides the physical one, we have a miracle. Of course, philosophical materialists flat out deny any spiritual dimension to existence but their definition of a miracle still involves a hypothetical incursion into the natural world by something extraneous to it. I suspect some religious people today likewise think of miracles in terms of two worlds colliding—God bending or breaking the natural order to achieve some astonishing purpose.

it is from within this Jewish worldview, where the Creator is constantly sustaining his creation, that the Gospel writers describe Jesus’ baffling deeds not as ‘supernatural’ or ‘miraculous’, but as special examples of power

But the Gospel writers did not think in this dualistic way. From their point of view—the Jewish point of view—there are not two worlds at all, just one, and God is its sole Creator and Sustainer. Everything that happens in the universe, from the rising of the sun to the gift of breath itself, is the powerful work of God. Whatever happens in the world, in other words, is his action in his world. As a result, Jews and Christians thought of ‘miracles’ not as invasions from a parallel world but as special examples of God’s preserving power in his creation.2 The difference may seem slight but in historical study it is important to try and think of things from the viewpoint of those we are studying rather than from our own perspective; how else can we stay attentive to the subtleties in the evidence? In any case, it is from within this Jewish worldview, where the Creator is constantly sustaining his creation, that the Gospel writers describe Jesus’ baffling deeds not as ‘supernatural’ or ‘miraculous’, but as special examples of power.

The typical Greek terms in the Gospels are dunameis, which means ‘strength’ or ‘authority’, and sēmeia, which means ‘signs’.3  The former describes Jesus as powerfully acting within and for the created order. The latter indicates that these displays of power pointed beyond themselves to some larger meaning. Bishop Tom Wright of Durham, who is also a noted theologian and historian, says of these Greek terms:

  These words do not carry, as the English word ‘miracle’ has sometimes done, overtones of invasion from another world, or from outer space. They indicate, rather, that something has happened, within what we would call the ‘natural’ world, which is not what would have been anticipated, and which seems to provide evidence for the active presence of an authority, a power, a work, not invading the created order as an alien force, but rather enabling it to be more truly itself.4  

That Jesus’ baffling deeds were understood as ‘powers’ (dunameis) is easy enough to comprehend, but in what sense were they ‘signs’ (sēmeia)? What meaning was attached to them and, in particular, what meaning did Jesus attach to them. As I noted a moment ago, the exceptional nature of our evidence allows us to answer this historical question with a surprising degree of confidence. We have at least two statements about the miracles from Jesus’ own lips, and both are found in our earliest Gospel source, Q, (a source behind Matthew and Luke) written down in the 50s AD.

‘Signs’ of the kingdom come

The first passage appears in the context of a dispute over the source of Jesus’ power to drive out demons. Some in the crowd attributed this ability to a chief demonic entity known as Beelzebul (the etymology of which is completely obscure). Jesus offers another interpretation:

  Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed. But some of them said, “By Beelzebul, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.” Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven. Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebul. Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:14-20 / Matthew 12:22-28).  

The whole issue of demon possession and exorcism is problematic for many of us today. As Professor John Meier of the University of Notre Dame notes, ‘The cultural chasm between the 1st and 20th centuries [he was writing in 1994] yawns especially wide when we touch on the question of exorcism.’5  The idea that there are ‘evil spirits’ in the world, let alone that they can influence men and women, seems to many to be the stuff of modern Hollywood movies and ancient superstitious societies.

ancient folk did know of ‘seizures’ and ‘mental illness’ as physical conditions; the New Testament itself contains references to both without any suggestion of demonic influence

Ancient cultures lacked any notion of physiological illness, I have often heard it said, and so attributed to unseen forces what we now know were medical conditions: epileptic seizures, mental illness and so on. There is a truth here, but it is not the whole truth. The fact is, ancient folk did know of ‘seizures’ and ‘mental illness’ as physical conditions; the New Testament itself contains references to both without any suggestion of demonic influence.6  What is true is that the single category we use today, ‘medical conditions’, was divided into two in ancient times. Sometimes human ailments were caused by bodily factors and required a physician; other times they were the result of lesser powers in God’s creation known as demons, and these required the work of an exorcist.

Many scholars today, of course, have strong suspicions about the psychosomatic nature of ancient demon possession and exorcism (Prof. John Meier for one) but no one really doubts that Jesus’ contemporaries believed that he could spectacularly deliver people from such traumatic conditions. As Meier himself says:

  Hence, however disconcerting it may be to modern sensibilities, it is fairly certain that Jesus was, among other things, a 1st-century Jewish exorcist and probably won not a little of his fame and following by practicing exorcisms.7  

The passage from Q quoted above suggests that Jesus also won some infamy through this activity: ‘By Beelzebul, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.’ That Jesus was accused by some—no doubt the leadership—of being in league with the devil may be regarded as certain. Not only is a very similar accusation found independently in the Gospels of Mark and John,8  it makes no sense at all that Christians would invent such a charge, potentially sowing seeds of doubt in the minds of readers. A later Jewish text continues this negative interpretation of Jesus’ powers. Tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud justifies his execution on the grounds that ‘he practised sorcery and led Israel astray.’9  ‘Sorcery’ in Jewish law was punishable by death because, unlike mere trickery, it was thought to involve dark power.

But more important than the historicity of the charge is Jesus’ striking defence. He begins by pointing out the simple logic that if he is in league with Satan—and yet is constantly casting out demons—Satan’s kingdom is sure to fall soon enough. Problem solved. He then asks ‘by whom do your followers drive them out?’ These words indicate that, although the extent and effectiveness of Jesus’ ministry of exorcism were probably unparalleled, he was not the only one in Palestine at the time known for the practice.10

Jesus’ deeds were evidence that God’s long-awaited rule over the world was beginning to dawn

Most significantly, our Q passage provides a window into Jesus’ own interpretation of his baffling deeds: ‘if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.’ Believe it or not, this one line is the subject of considerable scholarly discussion, for it reveals the significance Jesus placed on his paradoxa erga or astonishing deeds.11  Far from being displays of dark energy, Jesus’ deeds were evidence that God’s long-awaited rule over the world was beginning to dawn. Just as the ‘kingdom of God’ was the central theme of his preaching, so it provided the lens through which he understood the power that he, and those around him, believed to be flowing through him.

It is easy to see why this interpretation came to mind. According to Jewish tradition, one day God would establish his kingdom in the world, overthrowing evil and restoring human life to its intended state. Creation itself, including its social structures, would be renewed. Exorcism and healing were vivid pictures of these realities. Historical infelicities aside, Bishop Spong was right on mark when he described Jesus’ baffling deeds as ‘signs of the in-breaking kingdom of God.’12  Professor James Dunn (Durham University) explains further:

  Jesus was remembered not simply as a great exorcist, but also as claiming that his exorcisms demonstrated the fulfilment of hopes long cherished for a final release from the power of evil. If the manifestation of God’s final reign was to be marked by the binding of Satan, then Jesus’ exorcisms showed, to that extent at least, that the binding of Satan had already happened or was already happening, the final exercise of God’s rule was already in effect.13  

Notice the temporal, as opposed to spatial, language in Dunn’s description ('the final exercise of God’s rule was already in effect'). The point is important. Jesus’ baffling deeds were not intended to be a sign of some ‘spiritual dimension’ existing in parallel to the natural one; there is no dualism here. Jesus was signalling that the future kingdom was somehow present right now. The era Jews longed for, when God will put an end suffering and renew creation to its full glory, could be glimpsed, previewed, in events taking place in Galilee between AD 28-30. Such was Jesus’ description of his activity.

A second passage points in the same direction.

Preview of the end

Sometime during AD 28-29 Jesus’ mentor, John the Baptist, was arrested then executed by the tetrarch of Galilee, Herod Antipas. The event is described by both the Gospels and the Jewish historian Josephus. Before his death, John apparently learned of his protégé’s increasing fame and sent  some of his remaining disciples to ask Jesus a crucial question: 'Are you the one?' The expectation of the kingdom—if not the precise language—is clear in both the question and the answer. The passage is from the shared source behind Matthew and Luke called Q:

  When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me” (Matthew 11:2-6 / Luke 7:18-23)14.  

A bit of biblical and historical background will illuminate this intriguing exchange. As we will soon see, most scholars detect in Jesus’ words an announcement of the end of one era in human history and the beginning of another. Let me explain.

Many Jews in this period understood themselves to be living under the divine curses foretold centuries earlier in the fifth book of their Scriptures called Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy 28 we find a long list of punishments which would be meted out to Israel if the nation turned away from worshipping the one true God15. These would include fever, skin disease, blindness, insanity and a number of other unpleasant physical conditions, like death.  

Later, the historical books of the Jewish Bible—such as 1 and 2 Kings—describe with brutal honesty how ancient Israel did in fact dishonour their end of the bargain. They practised injustice and worshipped foreign deities. As a result, we are told, the Lord poured out the judgments he had threatened in Deuteronomy. This included not only the physical ailments but also banishment from the land of Israel. In 586 BC the Babylonians conquered Israel and exiled many its people.

Jews saw the evidence of the divine curses all around them, the blind, the lame, the lepers, the insane and the diseased. Signs of God’s displeasure still lingered amongst his people

By the time of Jesus six centuries later, the Jews had returned to the promised land, but things had never fully recovered. They were ruled by the Persians during the 6th-4th centuries BC, the Greeks from the 4th-2nd BC and, although they enjoyed a brief period of self-determination in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, when the Romans came to power in Palestine in 63 BC that spelled the end of the Jewish state until 1948. In addition to these political hardships, Jews saw the evidence of the divine curses all around them, the blind, the lame, the lepers, the insane and the diseased. Signs of God’s displeasure still lingered amongst his people.

But what has this précis of 1500 years of biblical history got to do with John the Baptist’s question about the ‘expected one’ and Jesus’ enigmatic reply outlining his baffling deeds? The answer is found in another set of promises in the Jewish Bible: this time, not warnings about coming judgment but pledges of glorious renewal. After the period of displeasure, says the prophet Isaiah, God will lift his curses and restore his people. He will bring the good news—the ‘gospel’—they have been waiting for:

  In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see (Isaiah 29:18).
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy (Isaiah 35:5-6).
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives (Isaiah 61:1).

This is the context in which Jesus’ reply to the Baptist can be seen to be brimming with Jewish significance.  He answers his mentor’s question, ‘Are you the one?,’ with a précis of his recent activity deliberately couched in the language of Isaiah: ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.’ Jesus’ ‘powers’ were not a party-trick designed to enhance his reputation; still less were they a model for the claims of contemporary faith-healers. They were a specific ministry to Israel, assuring the nation of God’s favour and signalling the dawn of God’s long-awaited kingdom.

A text from the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, written just before the time of Jesus, provides an extraordinary parallel to Jesus’ words. It confirms that Jews in the period were looking forward to just the sorts of things the man from Nazareth claimed to be doing. The so-called Messianic Apocalypse was discovered in Cave 4 at Qumran (scrolls were scattered across eleven caves at the site). Though fragmentary, the passage powerfully expresses the Jewish hope for a Messiah, an eternal kingdom and the healings and good news promised centuries earlier by the prophet Isaiah:

  … the earth will listen to his anointed one (mashiach / messiah) [and all] that is in them will not turn away from the precepts of the holy ones … For he [the Lord] will honour the pious upon the throne of an eternal kingdom, freeing prisoners, giving sight to the blind, straightening out the twis[ted.]  … And the Lord will perform marvellous acts such as have not existed, just as he sa[id,] [for] he will heal the badly wounded and will make the dead live, he will proclaim good news to the poor.16  

This astonishing passage, which was not made readily available until the early 1990s, lays to rest any sceptical suggestion that Jesus’ description of his work as recorded in Q could only have been crafted after a period of sustained reflection on his life by later followers. No; this stuff was already in the air. As James Dunn rightly notes: ‘an expectation was current at the time of Jesus to the effect that the coming of God’s Messiah would be accompanied by such marvellous events, in fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecies.’ 17

But what was merely hoped for by the Essenes living down South in the desert region of the Dead Sea was, in Jesus’ estimation, being realized up in Galilee as he healed and proclaimed good news to the poor. Evil was being expelled and lives were being restored; the future kingdom of God was being previewed before people’s eyes. Professors Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz of the University of Heidelberg regard this as a unique moment in religious history:

  He combines two conceptual worlds which had never been combined in this way before, the apocalyptic expectation of universal salvation in the future and the episodic realization of salvation in the present through miracles. Nowhere else do we find a charismatic miracle worker whose miraculous deeds are meant to be the end of an old world and the beginning of a new one. This puts a tremendous emphasis on the miracles (and it is unhistorical to relativise their significance for the historical Jesus). The present thus becomes a time of salvation in microcosm.18  

In short, Jesus’ healing ministry constituted a profound theological statement to Israel—similar to his selection of the Twelve and his eating with sinners. God’s promise one day to establish his kingdom and renew his people was visible and available in preview to any who witnessed the baffling deeds of the teacher from Nazareth.

Dr John Dickson is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and anHonorary Associate of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University (Australia)

1 David Hume, “Of Miracles” (115-136) in On Human Nature and the Understanding. Macmillan, 1962, 119.
2 See further, C. Stephen Evans, The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith: the Incarnational Narrative as History. Clarendon Press, 1996, 143-145.
3 Dunameis (‘powers’) appears in Mark 5:30; 6:2; 6:5; 6:14; 9:39; in Q (Matthew 11:21 / Luke 10:13; Matthew 11:23 / Luke 10:19); and in Matthew 7:22; 11:20; and Luke 5:17; 6:19; 9:1; 10:19; 19:37. Sēmeia (‘signs’) appears in Mark 8:11; 13:22; Luke 23:8; John 2:11, 23; 3:2; 4:48; 4:54; 6:2, 4, 26; 7:31; 9:16; 11:47; 12:18, 37; 20:30. Sēmeia is a favourite term in John’s Gospel and his source, known as the Signs Source. Other, less frequently used, terms for Jesus’ baffling deeds are terata or ‘wonders’ (Mark 13:22; John 4:48) and erga or ‘works’ (John 5:20, 36; 7:3; 10:25; 14:11; 15:24).
4 N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God. Fortress Press, 1996, 188.
5 John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (vol.2). Doubleday, 1994, 405.
6 Matthew 4:24; Acts 26:24-25; 2 Corinthians 11:23.
7 John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (vol.2). Doubleday, 1994, 406.
8 Mark 3:22-23; John 8:48-53.
9 Talmud b. Sanhedrin 43a.
10 Other exorcists were known in the period. Josephus offers a good example which highlights both how typical Jesus’ ministry of exorcism was and how unique. In discussing the wisdom of ancient King Solomon Josephus stops to tell a story, of which he was an eyewitness, about how the same divine wisdom could be found amongst some Jews of his own day. He mentions a certain exorcist named Eleazar who followed the incantations taught by Solomon and was able cast out demons. What is especially striking, when compared to Jesus, is Eleazar’s use of what can only be called Jewish ‘magic’:
I have seen a certain Eleazar, a countryman of mine, in the presence of Vespasian, his sons, tribunes and a number of other soldiers, free men possessed by demons, and this was the manner of the cure: he put to the nose of the possessed man a ring which had under its seal one of the roots prescribed by Solomon, and then, as the man smelled it, drew out the demon through the nostrils, and, when the man at once fell down, adjured the demons never to come back into him, speaking Solomon’s name and reciting the incantations which he had composed. Then, wishing to convince the bystanders and prove to them that he had this power, Eleazar placed a cup or foot-basin full of water a little way off and commanded the demon, as it went out of the man, to overturn it and make known to the spectators that he had left the man. And when this was done, the understanding and wisdom of Solomon were clearly revealed, on account of which we have been induced to speak of these things (Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 8.46-49).
It is difficult to disagree with John Meier’s observation: “On the sliding scale from miracle to magic, we are definitely slipping with Eleazar toward magic, if we have not already arrived.” John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (vol.2). Doubleday, 1994, 593. The contrast with Jesus’ ministry described in the Gospels is real:
Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him” (Mark 1:23-27).
11 See, for example, Ben F. Meyer, The Aims of Jesus. SCM, 1979, 145-157; John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (vol.2). Doubleday, 1994, 405-423; James Dunn, Jesus Remembered. Eerdmans, 2003, 455-461.
12 John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious. HarperCollins, 2007, 84.
13 James Dunn, Jesus Remembered. Eerdmans, 2003, 461.
14 The words “the kingdom of God” do not appear in this Q passage (Matthew 11:2-6 / Luke 7:18-23) but it is quite clear that the kingdom hope, which is present in Isaiah (40:10; 52:7), lies behind Jesus’ reply to the Baptist: so too, John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (vol.2). Doubleday, 1994, 401; Graham Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus (Second Edition). Oxford University Press, 2003, 238.
15 Deuteronomy 28:15-28.
x 16 4Q521. The translation is that of Florentino Garcia Martinez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar (The Dead Sea Scrolls: Study Edition. Volume Two 4Q274-11Q31. Brill, 1998).
17 James Dunn, Jesus Remembered. Eerdmans, 2003, 449.
18 Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: a comprehensive guide. Fortress Press, 1998, 309.