I have been talking about the stories of Jesus’ miracles, and am raising the question of whether they necessarily go all the way back to Jesus’ lifetime, as tales told while he was still living. I pick up where I left off last time, after showing that Jesus’ miracle-working abilities increased with the passing of time.
Not only does Jesus become increasingly miraculous with the passing of time, these miracles are all told in order to make a point. The stories about Jesus as the miraculous Wunderkind reveal that he really was the Son of God endowed with supernatural power straight from the womb; as a five-year old he was already the Lord of life and death; as the resurrected savior he was manifestly a superhuman being of giant proportions. In more general terms, the miracles in our later accounts repeatedly show that Jesus was the spectacular Son of God. He was far superior to all his enemies (even if these were only the aggravating kids down the street). He was more powerful than nature itself.
I should stress, though, that these same theological lessons can also be drawn from the canonical accounts. The authors of these accounts, as well as the storytellers who gave them their material, were all, to a person, believing Christians who understood Jesus to be the powerful Son of God who was superior to all things on earth, superior to his earthly opponents, superior to pain and suffering, superior to all bodily ailments, superior to the devil and his demons, superior to nature, and superior to death itself. The stories of Jesus’ miracles in the Gospels are not disinterested accounts of what happened in Galilee, told for antiquarian interests by those who wanted to provide an objective overview of events in an outpost of imperial Rome. The stories were being told – always were being told – in order to convince people that Jesus was the Son of God.
It is important to note that miracles in our surviving Gospels consistently serve to validate Jesus’ message. This is true not only of later non-canonical Gospels, but also of the canonical ones , as can be seen by considering their views of miracles in reverse chronological order. In the Gospel of John the point is made repeatedly by the author himself. The miracles are “signs” of Jesus’ identity, as the author himself says, repeatedly (Jesus’ miracles are not called signs in the Synoptic Gospels). Without such signs, no one will believe (4:48). In this Gospel, and only in this Gospel, Jesus identifies himself by his numerous “I am” sayings, and his miraculous deeds prove that what he says about himself is true.
And so Jesus says that he is “the bread of life,” that is, the one who can provide what is needed for eternal life; he proves it by multiplying the loaves for the multitudes (John 6). He says that he is the “light of the world” (John 8); he proves it by healing a man born blind (John 9). He says that he is “the resurrection and the life”; he proves it by raising a man from the dead (John 11). Jesus’ words and deeds interconnect and entwine with one another in this Gospel. Storytellers – or the author of the Gospel himself – took accounts of Jesus’ words and of his deeds and made them coalesce into a seamless whole.
That is happening long before John’s account, however. Luke’s understanding of Jesus, among other things, is that in the life and ministry of Jesus the kingdom of God can already be seen. This is an important nuanced difference from the earlier Gospel of Mark, one of Luke’s sources. In Mark, Jesus predicts that the end of the age will come in his disciples’ lifetime. People living in Jesus’ day will see the Son of Man coming in power to establish God’s kingdom (Mark 8:38-9:1; 14:62). For Luke – living after these people were all dead – Jesus’ teaching is different. True, the end is still to come. But for Luke, in another sense, the kingdom was already present in Jesus’ ministry. And so in Luke, unlike his predecessors Mark or Q, Jesus can say that the kingdom of God “will not come with signs to be observed” but instead it is already “in your midst” (17:20-21).
This does not mean, as it is commonly misinterpreted, that the Kingdom of God is inside each of us. When Jesus says these words in Luke, he is talking to his enemies, the Pharisees. He certainly does not mean that they, of all people, have the kingdom in their hearts. They — precisely they — do not. What Jesus means is that the kingdom of God is among them in his own ministry. The signs of the kingdom are not just about an apocalyptic moment soon to come, they are indicative of the presence of the kingdom already in Jesus’ life and work.
In the other two Synoptics there is a different understanding, one that can be seen most clearly in the saying preserved in Matthew 11:2-6. Here we are told that John the Baptist, who is now in prison, has heard about “the deeds of Christ,” and sends some of his disciples to him to ask if he is the one to come at the end of time, or if there is someone else. Jesus replies: “Go and report to John the things you hear and see: the blind come to see and the lame walk; lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised… and blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” Is the end upon us, John wants to know? Yes indeed. Jesus’ miracles demonstrate it. Or as he says later in Matthew, “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28).
This appears to be the earliest interpretation of Jesus’ miracles. They are signs that the Kingdom of God will soon arrive. In other words, they coalesce with Jesus’ apocalyptic message.
In my next post I’ll explain why this makes me wonder if the stories of Jesus’ miracles actually go back to his own lifetime.
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