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Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Non-Punitive Miracles of Jesus

My attention was recently drawn to this point by John P. Meier in volume 2 of his Marginal Jew series; I’m not sure why it never registered before.  I mean, it’s not like it’s hiding in the text.  It’s right there on the surface.  But sometimes we become so familiar with the stories that we are hardly aware of them.

Have you noticed – as I did not – how aggressive and punitive miracles become in the book of the Acts of the Apostles? 

Of course there are punitive miracles throughout the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament – the plagues on Egypt, cursing Miriam and Aaron with leprosy for criticizing Moses, Elijah calls down fire to burn up 102 of Ahaziah’s men, and et cetera…

But when we get to Jesus in the gospels, the miracles he performs are healing, feeding, restoring.  They are not done to cause hurt or death.  The closest we get to that kind of thing is when he allows the Legion of demons to go into the herd of pigs and then to stampede over the edge of a cliff.  This certainly had a deleterious effect on the owners of that herd and the economy of the region.  But Jesus is pretty passive in that regard. He allowed the demons to do that.  But we do not read of Jesus striking someone blind, or dead, or calling down fire on people. In fact, he rebuked James and John for suggesting such a thing (Luke 9: 53 – 55).[i]

So it comes as a bit of shock to (finally) see so many punitive miracles in Acts:  Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead (5: 1 – 10), Saul is blinded (9: 1 – 9), Herod is struck down with worms and dies (12: 21 – 23) Elymas the Sorcerer is blinded (13: 6 – 12), the seven sons of Sceva are beaten up by a demoniac (19:13 – 16) – and though no actual punitive miracle is enacted against him, Simon the Sorcerer is threatened with one(8: 9 – 24).

It is striking to notice that no punitive miracles are attributed to Jesus – not at least in the canonical gospels, though there are some in the apocryphal books.  The child Jesus is said to have paralyzed or “withered” another young boy as retribution for speaking against him (Infancy Gospel of Thomas 3:3) and later to have struck another child dead for the offense of bumping into his shoulder (4:1).  The people who complained about this vicious miracle wielding child were struck blind (5:1). And when his Greek and Hebrew teacher smacked him on the head, Jesus “cursed him, and straightway he fainted and fell to the ground on his face. (14: 1 – 2)”

Might this lack of punitive miracles attributed to Jesus (at least in the canonical stories) be a reflection of the mission statement Jesus seems to have taken for himself, reading from the scroll of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4: 18 – 19).”  These are restorative, healing actions – reflected in his healing and feeding miracles.

There’s nothing in there about wrath or punitive miracles – in fact Jesus seems to have stopped just short of the line “and the day of vengeance of our God… (Isaiah 61: 2).” 

[i] We might say that Zechariah’s being struck dumb for not believing the angel’s message was a punitive miracle – but it wasn’t performed by Jesus.  We might also include here Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree – but this was not enacted against a person…

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