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.