Beliefnet
Jesus' miracles are well-known. Apart from those having to do with healing and exorcism, they include feeding five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish; feeding four thousand with seven loaves and a few fish; turning water to wine; calming the wind and sea; walking on water; and giving life to a dead man, Lazarus, and to a dead girl, the synagogue president's daughter. Did these not show Jesus was a unique person with a very special relationship to God, perhaps that he was God incarnate?

The catalog of miracles is impressive, if brief, when listed in this way, item by item. However, a Jew who believed in the Hebrew scriptures would know that not all such acts, causing nature to depart from her course, came from God. In the book of Exodus, when Moses confronts Pharaoh, demanding that the Jews be allowed to leave Egypt and doing some wonders of his own, the Egyptian king's magicians at first match the Jewish leader miracle for miracle. To ascribe magical powers to forces apart from God would not have strained the imagination of a Jew in Jesus' day.

Even if we take all these deeds at face value, as having actually occurred as the New Testament describes them, they would not have made Jesus unique. A Jew at the time, upon hearing of such things, might well be expected to seek out this man and see what he was about. But no more than that.

As Professor Geza Vermes has shown, the Galilee in particular was famous for producing a species of charismatic sages and healers known as Hasidim (literally, "Pious Ones"), whose most prominent representatives included the aforementioned Hanina ben Dosa, along with his counterpart of a century earlier, Honi the Circle Maker. As the Mishnah relates, Honi got his name by bringing down miraculously huge quantities of rain during a time of drought. He first prayed to God, but when his prayer went unanswered he drew a circle on the ground and swore he would stand in it until rain fell. It immediately did so, but in miserly fashion, not the volume he had in mind. He said, "I have not asked for this, but for rain to fill the cisterns, the pits and rock cavities." God then sent a cloudburst so heavy that the people were compelled to petition Honi to make it stop. Josephus relates a brief version of this story in the Antiquities.

Honi had two grandsons who continued the tradition of miracle working. One was called Hanan the Hidden, whom when rain was scarce the children would follow around, tugging on his clothing and begging, "Father, Father, give us rain!"

For his part, Hanina was one of a category of wonderworkers called "men of deeds." He apparently lived through the destruction of the Second Temple, because the Mishnah states that from the time of the destruction, the power of the "men of deeds" (anshe ma'aseh) was weakened, and with Hanina's death they ceased altogether. Professor Vermes points out that Jesus in the New Testament is also characterized as a man of "deeds."

Hanina was a healer, deriving his gift from a special relationship with God, likened in the Talmud to a household servant who is always passing everywhere through the king's household. Such a personality, humble like a slave, nevertheless has the king's trust in every matter. He can gain entrance to the sovereign's presence anytime he chooses, so if he makes a petition, it is sure to be heard. Thus, Hanina intervened with God on behalf of the deathly ill daughter of his teacher. While the teacher, a far greater scholar, could do nothing for the girl, Hanina healed her, casting himself down with his face between his knees. His power operated even at long distances: He was able to heal his master's son without leaving his home to visit the boy.

A story is told about Hanina and a serpent. There was a dangerous snake known to live in a hole nearby a town. Local residents complained to the rabbi that the creature was menacing them and had killed or injured many. Hanina proceeded to the mouth of the viper's hole and calmly stuck his heel down into it. On this provocation the snake bit him--and died. With the animal wrapped around his neck as a trophy, Hanina made his way to the town's study hall and displayed it to the crowd. He explained, "It is not the viper that kills. It is sin that kills"-meaning that in the long run, while nature may take its toll on human longevity, a much graver threat is the wages of wrongdoing, which deprive a person of eternal life.

I am not trying to instigate a spitting contest between Jesus and the rabbis-just making the point that a Jew would not have been overawed by tales of Jesus' wonderful deeds. Admittedly I don't know of a sage of this century to whom the rabbinic sources attribute the power of resurrection. However, such is not lacking from a little later in Jewish history. The Talmud tells of a certain Purim feast--celebrated to mark the anniversary of the redemption of the Jewish people recounted in the biblical book of Esther, where by custom it was obligatory to engage in prodigious drinking. One revered rabbi, Rabbah, got so carried away with his observances that, in a heavily drunken state, he killed another sage, Rav Zeira. The next day he prayed and raised his colleague from the dead.

Unlike the Gospel writers, the Talmud doesn't make a fuss about this. Indeed, a sage of the Mishnaic period, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, presents the power to resurrect as a goal toward which a person of extraordinary spiritual ambition may direct his energies. He alludes to a program for developing one's soul, apparently known at the time in more detail, comprising ten steps leading finally to the capacity to give life to the dead. The Jews, whose religious consciousness was formed by the spiritual system later embodied in the Talmud, would thus have seen miracles, even if witnessed with their own eyes, as a proof of spiritual potency, but nothing more than that.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus