The first-century Honi the Circle Drawer is a fascinating figure in Jewish history. We want to compare him to the historical Jesus of Nazareth concerning their miracles since much has been made between these two figures. Some see similarities and, on the radical fringe, some will claim a conspiracy is involved, like Jesus being a mere copy of Honi, or something along those lines. But as we will see, the difference between these two historical figures regarding their miracles is quite obvious.
At least one miracle is very popular for Honi. We learn from Mishnah Taanit 3:8 that he prayed for rain and drew a circle around himself from which he would not leave until rain came from God,
“He prayed, but the rain did not fall. What did he do? He drew a circle and stood within it and said before God, “O Lord of the world, your children have turned their faces to me, for I am like a son of the house before you. I swear by your great name that I will not stir from here until you have pity on your children.” Rain began falling drop by drop. He said, “Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain that will fill the cisterns, pits, and caverns.” It began to rain with violence. He said, “Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain of goodwill, blessing, and graciousness.” Then it rained in moderation, until the Israelites had to go up from Jerusalem to the Temple Mount because of the rain. They went to him and said, “Just as you prayed for the rain to come, so pray that it may go away!”
This story is also found in an account provided by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius (who refers to Honi as Onias),
“Now there was one, whose name was Onias; a righteous man be was, and beloved of God; who, in a certain drought, had prayed to God to put an end to the intense heat; and whose prayers God had heard, and had sent them rain” (Antiquities 14.2.1).
It is important to note that many historians do not think there is any value in comparing Honi to Jesus or Jesus to Honi given they are largely irrelevant to each other (1). But the story is interesting nonetheless and it is helpful to compare these two figures.
Comparing Honi and Jesus
We note that the differences are significant. For example, whereas Honi had a reputation as a prayer warrior (rather than a miracle worker), Jesus is portrayed as one who acts directly and also possesses supernatural power inherently. One can compare Honi’s waiting in the circle on God to send rain to Jesus’ direct control over nature as presented in him calming the turbulent waters (Mark 4:35-41; Matt. 8:23-27; Luke 8:22-25), turning water into wine (John 2), walking on water (Matt. 14:22-33), the withering of the fig tree (Mark 11:12-25; Matt. 21:18-22; Luke 13:6-9), and various other cures of illness, blindness, disease, and deformities. Compared to Honi, Jesus appears unique in his supernatural power, control over nature, and diversity of miracles.
Another point to consider is that the miracle story ascribed to Honi is quite late as we find it in our sources. It is found in the Mishna dating to the early third century CE, roughly a century or so after the death of Honi himself. But the miracles for Jesus are early in comparison, all dating to within sixty-five years of his death. If we consider the resurrection of Jesus from the dead a miracle, this dates to within five years of Jesus’ death. Miracles of healing are reported in Mark, our earliest gospel, Q (the early “source” behind Matthew and Luke), and the special material in Matthew (M) and Luke (Luke). Jesus’ miracles permeate our earliest sources as they are at every layer of the historical tradition. This leads one prominent scholar to declare that,
“The early dating of the literary testimony to Jesus’s miracles, i.e., the closeness of the dates of the written documents to the alleged miracles of Jesus’s life, is almost unparalleled for the period” (2)
Jesus’ Miracles and Other Historical Figures
We need to also notice that the ability to work miracles was not limited to the historical Jesus. Figures such as the Buddha, Julius Caesar, Vespasian, Apollonius of Tyana, and others have miracles attributed to them. But again, the miracles attributed to Jesus remain unique in comparison.
In many cases, these other figures have one or two authenticating miracles. We learn from Cornelius Tacitus, Dio Cassius, and Suetonius that Vespasian healed a blind man and on another occasion a crippled hand. Dio Cassius and others say that when Caesar crossed the sea the waters were calmed, which shows how the gods protected him when he was in danger.
By contrast, the miracles of the historical Jesus are far more numerous and are certainly not limited to one or two authenticating ones. Jesus’ miracles range from the healing of illnesses such as leprosy to physical ailments like blindness and paralysis. There are stories of him raising the dead. The gospels also present him as having power and authority over nature. He can turn water into wine, multiply a few loaves to feed thousands, whither a fig tree, and calm the stormy waters.
Jesus is unique in the number and various types of miracles he is said to have performed. This has not been lost on scholars. New Testament scholar Marcus Borg stated that “Jesus was a healer and an exorcist. Indeed, more healing stories are told about him than about any other figure in the Jewish tradition. In all likelihood, he was the most remarkable healer in human history” (3). According to Eric Eve “This leaves Jesus as unique in the surviving Jewish literature of his time in being portrayed as performing a large number of healings and exorcisms” (4). In the words of professors Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz,
“Nowhere else are so many miracles reported of a single person as they are in the Gospels of Jesus. The uniqueness of the miracles of the historical Jesus lies in the fact that healings and exorcisms which take place in the present are accorded an eschatological significance… 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” (5).
Jesus’ miracles are unique because they are found in all layers of historical tradition, from the earliest materials such as Q, Mark, special material in Matthew (M) and Luke (L) to John, Acts, the Epistles, Revelation, and non-Christian testimony from both Jewish and pagan sources (6). If the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection is also considered, one could add in very early creeds and hymns. It is striking that all these sources agree that Jesus worked miracles which suggests that he had the reputation of being a miracle worker. In the words of John Meier,
“Viewed globally, the tradition of Jesus’ miracles is more firmly supported by the criteria of historicity than are a number of other well-known and often readily accepted traditions about his life and ministry… Put dramatically but with not too much exaggeration: if the miracle tradition from Jesus’ public ministry were to be rejected in toto as unhistorical, so should every other Gospel tradition about him” (7)
According to Gary Habermas, “Of the five sources often recognized in the Gospel accounts, Jesus’ miracles are reported in all five, with some specific occurrences reported in more than one” (8).
The stories of Jesus’ miracles all fall well within sixty of his death and some even date to within a few years and decades (creeds and hymns). This is striking for an ancient figure of history when we consider that miracles attributed to most ancient figures take centuries to develop.
- Meier, John. 1994. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus — Vol. 2: Mentor, Message and Miracles. New York: Doubleday. p. 581-588; Witherington III, Ben. 1995. The Jesus Quest. Downers Grove: InterVarsity. p. 108-112.
- Paul Meier quoted by Craig Keener in Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (2011). Ada: Baker Books.
- Borg, Marcus. 2004. The Mighty Deeds of Jesus. Available.
- Eve, Eric. 2002. The Jewish Context of Jesus’ Miracles. London: A&C Black. p. 378.
- Theissen, Gerd and Merz, Annette. 1998. The Historical Jesus: a comprehensive guide. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
- Keener, Craig. 2011. Ibid.
- Meier, John. 1994. Ibid. p. 630.
- Habermas, Gary. 2005. Recent Perspectives on the Reliability of the Gospels. LBTS Faculty Publications and Presentations. p. 3.
James, Just discovered your site and love it. This is lengthy, but here’s my skeptical view of Jesus’ miracles:
Evidence from within the New Testament, and from the extra-biblical Jesus tales that followed, reveals a myth-making process that began with the earliest apologists (the Gospel writers) trying to make the case for Jesus as Messiah. As the New Testament repeatedly states, the “Jews seek [miraculous] signs”—and that is exactly what the New Testament writers provided. So, some 35 to 65 years after the death of Jesus, they gathered the circulating miracle stories about Jesus and compiled them into the four Gospels. But like the proverbial fish story, the miracle story has a tendency over time to become more miraculous. In fact, close inspection of the Gospel stories reveals evidence of growth, accretion, editing and polishing.
Comparing Mark, the earliest Gospel, with a later gospel writer, Matthew, who used Mark as a source, reveals a transparent intention to enlarge Jesus’ miraculous abilities. Notice how Mark’s “they brought him all who were sick or possessed…and he healed many…” is inverted in Matthew’s version of the story to make Jesus’ healing powers look more impressive: “they brought to him many…and he healed all….” (Mt. 8:16) A small edit that makes a huge difference.
Mark’s statement that Jesus, when visiting his hometown (Mk 6:5), “was not able to perform a single miracle…” is upgraded by Matthew to: “And he did not do many deeds of power there because of their unbelief” (13:58). Here we see Matthew strengthening Jesus’ healing powers in two ways. First, instead of no miracles, he was able to do some. Second, and more importantly, Matthew removed the issue of Jesus’ ability from the narrative. In both Gospel accounts, we’re told that this failure was due to the disbelief of the people of Nazareth. Apparently when the people didn’t bring the sick to be healed expecting healing, it didn’t happen. This appears to be an inadvertent admission that Jesus’ healings were due to the placebo effect. Modern research indicates that a large portion of illness is psychosomatic, and that psychosomatic healing typically requires belief.
Detailed comparison of the Mark’s healing stories and the later Gospels provides further evidence of editorial intent to enhance Jesus’s powers. Mark’s accounts also give one the distinct impression that Jesus was not actually the all-powerful, god-among-men, healer that the later more-polished Gospels describe. In Mark there are hints and clues of an all-too-human process at work, elements that are typically edited out of the later Gospels: healings were sometimes not instantaneous, learned his craft through imitation as well as trial and error, and used the standard healing props of the day. For example:
1) The blind man healed at Bethsaida (Mk. 8:22-26) is one of only two healing stories in Mark that is not picked up by either Mt or Lk. A closer look makes it plain why they shunned this story. First, Jesus put saliva on the man’s eyes and then laid his hands on him, but his sight wasn’t restored fully. So, Jesus had to give the blind man a “second dose” for the healing to complete. Why if one has unlimited power, the power of Almighty God, would a second treatment ever be needed?! And why does Jesus need to use props and techniques (saliva, laying on of hands, e.g.) that are not only known to have been used by “healers” in the 1st century, but are standard practice among faith healers to jumpstart the placebo effect? No surprise that the later gospels omit this healing story, and that the use of these props all but disappears in the later Gospels.
2) Healing of demon-possessed boy (Mk. 9:14-29): “This kind only comes out by prayer and fasting,” Jesus tells his disciples who ask about their failure to perform the healing. (Perhaps an insight into Jesus’ own experience with cases of failure he’d encountered?) Mark’s account indicates that Jesus’ subsequent healing of this boy involved a process, perhaps prolonged, since the crowd wondered whether the boy was dead once his seizure stopped. This “lag time” sounds all too much like the time it normally takes for someone to recover their senses after convulsions end naturally. Again, one has to ask: Why would the healing not be instantaneous and without incident if the unlimited power of God is at work? And why would the special effort of prayer and fasting need to be exerted? Matthew to the rescue. He cleans this story up by removing the prayer and fasting formula, and the lag time. Instead, Jesus heals the boy “instantly.” Matthew also removes the standard exorcism formula in Mark’s account. Why does Jesus use – need to use! – the standard exorcist formulas if he is the all-powerful God? Apparently, the later Gospel writers saw these problems too and therefore redacted Mark.
3) Healing of deaf man with speech impediment (Mk 7: 31-37): “he put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and said to him, “Eph′phatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” Again, why does Jesus need to use methods (fingers in his ears, saliva on his tongue, e.g.) that are known props used by “healers” in the 1st century if he has all divine power at his disposal? Clearly, he is imitating other faith healers of the day. Not surprisingly, both Matthew and Luke drop this story altogether.
The most famous of the Gospel miracles (the only one to be told by all four Gospel writers), the feeding of the multitude, well exemplifies – literally – the fish story which enlarges in its retelling. As this story circulated over the decades before it was recounted by Mark, a feeding of a crowd of 4,000 with leftovers enough to fill 7 large baskets gradually grew into a story about a crowd of 5,000 with leftovers enough to fill 12 large baskets. (We have no way of knowing how humble the earliest versions of this story were.) Since both versions of the story were circulating together, Mark mistakenly thought they were different stories and so included both of them in his Gospel. (A side-by-side reading of these two stories reveals an identical storyline and many exact verbal parallels, demonstrating that these are two versions of the same story.) Matthew, who incorporated about 90% of Mark’s material, didn’t catch the error and followed suit. (The feeding of the 4,000 (Mk. 8:1-9; Mat. 15:29-38), and the feeding of the 5,000 (Mk. 6:30-44; Mat. 14:13-21)) Luke, who was more discriminating in his use of Mark (used about 50%), and the last-written Gospel, John, correct this error of repetition and only present the larger of the two “fish stories.”
The walking on water story offers another example. A miracle in Mark’s Gospel which only involves Jesus (Mark 6:48) is expanded in Matthew’s gospel to include Peter, who gets a memorable lesson in the importance of faith (Matthew 14:29), a clue which helps us understand what drove the embellishment of this story.
The non-canonical stories that followed, found in numerous additional Gospels (almost 50), grew ever more fantastic and attempted to fill in the gaps left by the New Testament accounts, such as miracle stories from Jesus’ childhood. Some of these additional Gospels were considered by early Christians to be as divinely inspired as any of the books of the Bible in our present canon. In the first few centuries, they were read at church services as regularly as we read from the Gospels in today’s services. Despite the fact that the church eventually chose to distance itself from these later stories, they form a continuous line of tradition with the officially sanctioned tales, and amply demonstrate that very early Christians had no qualms about manufacturing Jesus-miracle stories.
That the miracles of Jesus are non-historical legends would explain why no contemporary writers ever mentioned Jesus or his miracles which supposedly attracted multitudes and put Palestine into such an uproar. It also accounts for how raising Lazarus from the dead – arguably the most stunning of all the miracles, and found only in the last Gospel, John – neither caught the attention of at least one writer or historian of the time, nor that of the three earlier Gospel writers.
George Washington mythology provides some helpful perspective and points of reference. Parson Weems started writing a biography of Washington immediately after he died in 1799. Not 30 or 60 years later. Right away. But that didn’t prevent him from starting to mythologize the larger-than-life hero of the American Revolution. He narrated the famous cherry tree incident, ascribing it to an eyewitness, but it was pure fiction. Unlike what Christian apologists insist, neither nearness to the events described nor the presence of contemporaries who could debunk the stories prevented the mythologizing process. Weems was a preacher and he justified this bit of hagiography due to the importance of encouraging public morals. And perhaps he told himself that the cherry tree incident was consistent with Washington’s truth-telling reputation – so it was true-ish!
The myth about Washington throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac River is another interesting case in point. Having grown up along the banks of the Potomac and near the neighborhood populated by Washington’s freed slaves, I grew up hearing this tall tale. The story originates with Martha Washington’s grandson who reported that Washington threw a dollar-sized piece of slate across the Rappahannock River, a much smaller river (in most places) than the Potomac which, at places, is miles across. It’s not hard to see how this “fish story” morphed and got bigger and glitzier over time: a dollar-sized piece of slate becomes a silver dollar (even though there were no silver dollars minted when Washington would have performed this feat). Then, a doable toss across the Rappahannock River becomes a superhuman toss across the Potomac River. An exaggeration here, a substitution there, and a myth is born.
It’s easy to see how, in Jesus’ day, his followers would engage in the same process. Only in his day it was much easier since reported miracles were commonplace, were regularly attributed to any great person, and were the primary “proof” used by the Gospel writers to convince their audience that Jesus was the Savior.
There is a very great difference between accepting contradictory assertions about impossible events made by a few anonymous writers in superstitious times two thousand years ago, with no corroborating evidence, and accepting the results of modern experiments repeated hundreds of thousands of times under rigorous controls, always with the same results. Eliminating infectious diseases that used to kill millions, correcting spinal cord paralysis, blindness and deafness, replacing/re-growing organs and lost limbs are now all becoming a reality through empirical research and modern technology, the true miracle workers.
Thanks for the comment. There is much one could respond to this comment.
I think that the later gospels (Matthew and Luke) use Mark and add to the miracle stories is not proof that the miracles are legends and unhistorical. The problem for your skepticism is that all early sources mention Jesus’s miracles. This includes not only mark but Q, L, and M. So the claim that later gospel authors add elements here and there is not convincing to me.
The claim that placebo is involved is unconvincing to me. Perhaps it might apply for some of the miracles, but few will claimthe miracles of healing the blind, those without hearing and raising the dead are placebo. Neither are the nature miracles.
That no contemporary writer mentions Jesus’s miracles is not surprising at all. Ultimately we have no such accounts for any jew of the 1st century, other than Josephus writing years later. The fact that we have so many sources for Jesus is sufficient in and of itself. I’m quite happy with this level of attestation.
Your claim that we can’t accept ‘superstitious’ miracle events from ancient history is just your philosophical convictions not an argument.
The ‘myth’ of Washington, while interesting, is not proof that the same applies to Jesus and the gospels.
That miracles were ‘commonplace’ in the ancient world is not sufficient proof that Jesus did not perform them. Moreover, the gospels are replete with onlookers to Jesus’s miracles perceiving them with marvel and shock, which undermines your claim that these were necessarily commonplace. Further, many miracles are reported today, which blurs your distinction between us moderners and ancient world superstition.
That Luke and Matthew leave out miracles found in Mark is not proof that the miracle in Mark did not occur. For example, so what if Jesus had to apply a ‘second dose’ to heal the blind man. The point is that he healed him.
I’m light of what I just stated, it does not matter that Jesus had to use ‘props’ to perform a miracle here and there. The question I’d ask is why can’t he? As long as it produces results, who then cares?
By the way, I was impressed by the intellectual honesty and integrity you’ve demonstrated in your series on the Canaanite genocide. But back to the issue at hand. Several comments:
You make repeated use of the term “proof” in your comments, specifically stating that my individual arguments don’t constitute proof that miracles didn’t occur. I think you’d agree with me that there is no such thing as “proof” when discussing the historicity of events from 2,000 years ago. It all comes down to weighing the relevance and weight of the evidence.
I’m arguing that Jesus is no exception to the rule, that with the miracle stories attributed to him we confront the same phenomenon that we’ve seen a thousand times over throughout history, that of the miraculous adornment of great people. For me, each of the points I made in my first post is evidence in favor of that primary proposition. As I said of Mark’s more questionable healing stories, the evidence comes in the form of “hints and clues” of a less-than-miraculous reality behind the final form of the story. That these are also the very stories which later Gospel writers chose to omit or clean up, strengthens my case. That we confront numerous examples in which the later Gospel writers enhanced Jesus’ miracle-working abilities, even contradicting Mark when needed, is further evidence. The clear editorial pattern which emerges, seen across the later Gospel writers, of creating a “bigger and better” miracle-working Jesus, is further evidence still. That the Gospel writers had not only the motivation and the intent to airbrush their way to a grander Jesus, but also did just that, is additional evidence. That in the nascent Christian movement there existed a veritable cottage-industry which manufactured Jesus miracle stories, is yet more evidence. That the miracles attributed to Jesus are due to the same human phenomenon at work in the memorializing of virtually every great larger-than-life character from history, including our own first president, is even more evidence. Proof? No, but it’s multiple converging lines of independent evidence which, taken together, is very weighty, in my opinion.
All the early sources mention Jesus’ miracles: We agree on that fact, but I disagree with your conclusion that we can on that basis conclude that the miracles are historical. I would assert that this fact merely means that the stories developed early, prior to these sources, many during Jesus’ lifetime in all likelihood. Based on my knowledge of history, and my own 20-year Christian experience within a miracle-believing Pentecostal community, fallacious miracle stories can and do develop very quickly, especially given a “fertile” social context. A more fertile environment than first century Palestine would be hard to imagine. In my (former) community all manner of miracles, including people raised from the dead, were confidently asserted. As I became more and more skeptical of these claims, I actually investigated some of them. Every time I did some digging, the stories would evaporate into thin air (including the story of the person raised from the dead). Inevitably they would turn out to be some combination of exaggeration, playing fast and free with the facts, motivated reasoning, hyperbolic retelling, etc., or, sometimes, just outright fabrication. It’s human nature, and it’s a story told throughout human history.
Placebo: both blindness and deafness can be psychosomatic and therefore amenable to the placebo affect.
Ancient v. modern worlds: I think you would agree that miracles and miracle-workers were far more universally accepted and commonplace than in today’s world.
Tom is still missing the point as is made clear in his last statement, which is, essentially, belief in miracles and miracle workers was easy and widespread in ancient times. However, the point is—in terms of concrete literary evidence—this is not true.
Besides Jesus, there is no other historical figure, in ancient or recent literature (including George Washington), whose life-work is inseparably intertwined with miraculous activity of the scale and variety found in the Gospels and their sources.
This fact, considered in isolation from other relevant considerations, doesn’t prove that these miracles happened; but it—is—a fact, and is the only evidence we have concerning the general acceptance of miracle workers. Tom’s assertion that serious reports of miracles and miracle working celebrities were commonplace in ancient times is unfounded as you have demonstrated.