CHRISTIAN MIRACLE STORIES, by ArchBischof Uwe AE.Rosenkranz

Early Christian Miracle Stories

Robert W. Funk, ed.

Copyright © 1978 by Society of Biblical Literature.

Published in Missoula, MT.


Contributors to This Issue

Part I: Reviews

Sisyphus and His Rock, Concerning Gerd Theissen, Urchristliche Wundergeschichten

Hendrikus Boers

An Imperfect Union: Reflections on Gerd Theissen, Urchristliche Wundergeschichten

Paul J. Achtemeier

Part II: Studies

The Early Christian Miracle Story: Some Observations on the Form Critical Problem

Hans Dieter Betz

The Structure of the Gospel Miracle Stories and Their Tellers

Antoinette Clark Wire

“And He Followed Him”: Miracles and Discipleship in Mark 10:46–52

Paul J. Achtemeier

Books Received

Contributors to This Issue

Paul J. Achtemeier

Union Theological Seminary

3401 Brook Road

Richmond, VA 23227

Hans Dieter Betz

Divinity School

University of Chicago

Chicago, IL 60637

Hendrikus Boers

Candler School of Theology

Emory University

Atlanta, GA 30322

Antoinette Clark Wire

San Francisco Theological Seminary

San Anselmo, CA 94960

Sisyphus and His Rock, Concerning Gerd Theissen, Urchristliche Wundergeschichten

Hendrikus Boers

Emory University

0. Theissen attempts a comprehensive interpretation of the NT miracle stories by considering their structures synchronically (part I), as well as diachronically (part II), and finally in terms of their function (part III). The inquiry is introduced by a section clarifying the methodology. In an introductory remark he makes it clear that the inquiry should be considered as a supplementary continuation of classical form criticism (11). The first, or synchronic part concerns the form of the miracle stories (Formgeschichte); the second, or diachronic part the history of their evolution and transformation in the gospel tradition (Formgeschichte), and the third or functional part their life setting (Sitz im Leben), i.e., the overarching context of conditions, effects and intentions of the (social) life in which they were developed and transmitted.

Thus Theissen’s study is obviously not intended as a criticism of form criticism from a text-linguistic point of view, as, e.g., Erhardt Güttgemanns had done (1970, 1971a, 1971b). To the contrary, in many respects Theissen’s inquiry is a defense of “classical” form criticism against Güttgemanns’ radical criticism, i.e., by supplementing it from text linguistics (cf., e.g., 31–35).

1. Presentation of Theissen’s Procedure

1.1    Synchronic Approach

In the first, or synchronic part Theissen discusses in four chapters, respectively, abstracted persons (or better, roles); motifs, as the constitutive elements of miracle stories; the themes of these stories; and finally, the genre of miracle story.

1.11    Roles, Motifs, Themes

In each of the first three of these chapters he discusses the inventory of roles, motifs and themes (1.111), the compositional sequences in which these occur in the miracle stories (1.112), and the interrelationships between them within what he calls their paradigmatic
fields (1.113). For example, in the case of roles, he means the two opposing spheres of what he calls the counterparts, and partly overlapping with them, the intermediaries (see diagrams 2 and 3 below). The roles are not bound to any one of the spheres, but can occur in any of them. However, the field of three interrelated spheres is implied in every miracle story. Thus the interrelationships of the roles, motifs and themes within the paradigmatic fields are independent of their compositional sequences in the miracle stories (cf. 53–55).

It may be useful to compare each of these three features in the case of roles and motifs with aspects of a sentence: The inventory of roles and motifs to be compared with words in a sentence; their compositional sequence with the syntactic sequence of the words in the sentence; and their field with the depth structure of the sentence. (“Themes” cannot be included in this comparison because they are not components of miracle stories, but what may be called macro-structural features which co-determine the choice of roles and motifs.) Note that the depth structure in the following two sentences remains the same notwithstanding the difference in the syntactic sequence of the words:

1.    John (agent) sold (activity) the book (patient).

2.    The book (patient) was sold (activity) by John (agent).

Note, furthermore, that the sequence of words is not necessarily bound by the (surface) syntax of the sentence. This is particularly evident in inflectional languages such as Greek or German, but applies also to English sentences such as the following, all of which have the same meaning, except for a difference in emphasis.

3.    He sold the book for ten dollars.

4.    For ten dollars he sold the book.

5.    The book he sold for ten dollars.

The sequence of words in these sentences is a function of staging as a means of introducing focus in terms of topic and comment, which will further concern us below.

1.111    Inventory

1.1111 Theissen distinguishes an inventory of seven possible roles: (1) miracle worker, (2) patient, (3) demon, (4) companion (of the patient), (5) crowd, (6) opponent, and (7) disciples (53).

1.1112 There are thirty-three possible motifs: (1) coming of the miracle worker, (2) appearance of the crowd, (3) of the seeker of aid, (4) of a substitute, (5) of a representation, (6) of opponents, (7) motivation for the appearance of the opponents, (8) characterization of the need, (9) hindrance of the approach of the miracle worker, (10) genuflection, (11) call for help, (12) supplication and expression of trust, (13) misunderstanding, (14) scepticism and mockery, (15) criticism, (16) opposition and subjection of the demons, (17) spiritual arousal (of the miracle worker), (18) encouragement and (19) reasoning by the same, (20) withdrawal of the miracle worker, (21) preparation of the scene, (22) physical contact, (23) healing elements, (24) miracle-working command, (25) prayer, (26) statement that the miracle is performed, (27) demonstration, (28) dismissal, (29) command to secrecy, (30) admiration, (31) acclamation, (32) reaction of rejection, and (33) spread of fame of the miracle worker.

Each motif is discussed, where relevant, in terms of variants (i.e., the ways in which the motif is actualized in the miracle stories), compositional location, thematic locus (Haftpunkt) (22f., n. 17), connected motifs, and connection with a role. Thus, e.g., in the case of (13), “misunderstanding,” variants are the lame man in the temple mistakenly expecting Peter and John to give him alms (Acts 3:5), or the mourners thinking that Apollonius wants to give an address when he commands a funeral procession to stop (VA 4.45). This motif could also occur after the performance of the miracle. The compositional location, thus, is either in the exposition or at the end. Its locus is mostly in miracles that are unexpected or exceptional, i.e., resurrections, and saving or gift miracles. A motif connected with “misunderstanding” is “initiative of the miracle worker” (not discussed as a separate motif by Theissen), that is, where the motif “misunderstanding” is actualized it is frequently accompanied by the motif, “initiative of the miracle worker.” An example of connection with a role, in the case of (31), “acclamation,” is that it is usually performed by the crowd, but does also occur as an expression of an individual (Luke 5:8), sometimes in the presence of a crowd, which might on occasion confirm it (Luke 5:25f., 18:43).

1.1113 With regard to themes further clarification is necessary. Theissen points out that a mere series of motifs does not result in a narrative. It is the theme as the basic conception (Grundgedanke) of a narrative which provides cohesion for a series of roles and motifs, and rounds it off (17). One should probably add: “… in a compositional sequence.” The healing of a sick person is a different theme from the rescue of someone from a dangerous situation, or the providing of life-essential goods. Compared with motifs, themes are more comprehensive units. They organize the individual motifs in a compositional whole, and arrange the rounded off miracle stories in subgenres, e.g., of healing, saving and gift miracles (cf. 17f.).

Themes of miracle stories are six in number: (1) exorcisms, (2) healings, (3) epiphanies, (4) saving miracles, (5) gift miracles, and (6) miracles concerning a norm (i.e., miracles confirming a new mode of behavior contrary to conventional norms).

1.112    Compositional Sequence

1.1121 With regard to compositional sequence, Theissen indicates three characteristics in the case of roles: (a) with rare exceptions, the miracle worker is the first to make his appearance; (b) the opponent appears on the scene only after the coming or the existence of the miracle worker has been mentioned. This justifies one in thinking of a “double membered” introduction; (c) out of twenty-one miracle stories in the gospels, sixteen conclude, not with the miracle worker, but with persons who appeared second or third on the scene (56).

1.1122 In a schematization of the compositional sequence of motifs (82f.), Theissen has the following groups: introduction (motifs 1–7), exposition (8–20), center (21–26), and conclusion (27–33). Within these there are compositional subgroups; e.g., under exposition he has the following: characterization of need (8), approach to the miracle worker (9–12), falling back (13–16), and conduct of the miracle worker (17–20).

The following is an abbreviation of his schematization.

Diagram 1


Motifs 1–7


8 Characterization of need

Approach to the miracle worker (9–12)

Falling back (13–16)

Conduct of the miracle worker (17–20)


Motifs 21–26


Motifs 27–33

Not every motif is equally fixed in its sequential location, and although the narrator has at his disposal potentially all these motifs, he actualizes only a part of them in the narration of a miracle. With each miracle story narrated, the narrator makes an (unconscious) choice from the stock or inventory of motifs (or roles) available. The schematized survey, according to Theissen, outlines the possibilities of choice available.

The motifs within the groups and subgroups are also of paradigmatic nature. The narrator can choose paradigmatically, (among the motifs in a group) at each compositional location, but he can also actualize, syntagmatically, more than one in a group in a compositional sequence. That is, paradigmatically he could actualize at the compositional location “approach to the miracle worker,” one of the four possible motifs, 9–12, but he could also actualize more than one of these paradigmatic possibilities, e.g., 9 (hindrance) and 11 (call for help), at the same location, syntagmatically. In the choice of a motif, or its paradigmatic variant within a group, the narrator is not completely free, since the compositional location is already largely predetermined. It is the motifs which do not have completely fixed locations that provide the narrator with a degree of compositional freedom (82).

1.1123 In the case of the themes there cannot be particular compositional sequences, as, e.g., in the case of motifs, since themes are not elements within the genre of miracle story, but types of miracle stories. (Nevertheless, emphases in the compositional structure of motifs are not unrelated to certain miracle story themes.) “All miracle stories,” Theissen points out, “have the same compositional structure (i.e., of motifs)” (120). However, within that structure variations can occur, e.g., in compositional forms emphasizing either the center (motifs 21–26, in which case the exposition is—usually?—missing), the exposition (motifs 8–20), or the conclusion (motifs 27–33) (120f., cf. 82f.). These compositional forms do not coincide with particular themes, “but they nevertheless favor certain themes”: Gift miracles always have final emphasis, whereas miracles concerning a norm have either expositional or final emphasis (121).

Emphasis within the compositional structure also makes it possible to recognize, according to Theissen, why miracles in which the companion is in the counterpart do not represent a separate theme. They are at once both healing miracles and exorcisms with expositional emphasis (121, cf. 55). This will be clarified further below in the discussion of the paradigmatic field of themes.

1.113    Paradigmatic Fields

1.1131 The paradigmatic field of roles can be presented by means of overlapping circles as follows:

Diagram 2


Actually Theissen illustrates the field by reference to the specific miracle story of Mark 9:14–29, the only synoptic story in which all the roles are represented. Thus, for this particular case he also identifies the sphere of the opponent as demonic, that of the intermediaries as human, and that of the proponent as divine.

Diagram 3


On the opposite poles are the miracle worker (M) and the demon (De), which identifies this particular story as an exorcism. Theissen includes the patient (P) in the sphere of the counterpart as well as that of the intermediaries. With the demon as counterpart in an exorcism, the patient is an intermediary, but since he is the one on whom the miracle is performed, he is also the counterpart in a healing miracle, with the companion in the sphere of the intermediaries. Theissen correctly distinguishes between exorcisms and healing miracles (cf., especially, 98f.), but points out subsequently that miracle stories in which “the patient, or possessed, is represented by a companion (e.g., Matt 8:5ff.; Mark 7:24ff.), do not represent a separate theme, but belong partly to healing miracles, partly to exorcisms” (121).

Within the group of intermediaries, the companion of the patient, i.e., his father (C), appears on the side of the patient, the disciples (D) on the side of the miracle worker, and between them the public, which either confirms (i.e., the crowd—Cr), or rejects (i.e., the opponents—O), a role fulfilled in this story by the scribes (53f.).

Everyone in the inventory of roles can fill the role of counterpart, representing in each case one of the themes: (1) the demon(s) as counterpart is called for in exorcisms, (2) the patient in healing miracles, (3) the opponent(s) in miracles concerning a norm, (4) the miracle worker in epiphany miracles, (5) the crowd in gift miracles, and (6) the disciples in saving miracles. Miracles in which the companion plays the counterpart do not represent a separate theme, but belong partly to exorcisms, partly to healing miracles (55, cf. 121).

1.1132 In the case of motifs, Theissen discusses the paradigmatic field as seen from three possible perspectives, that of the human, of the miracle worker, and of the demons, i.e., from the perspectives of the three spheres of the field of roles. From the human perspective the field is presented diagrammatically as follows.

Diagram 4


Motifs Emphasizing the Boundary

Motifs Crossing the Boundary

Volitive Aspect

Hindrance 9

Elimination of hindrance (Faith)

Cognitive Aspect

Misunderstanding 13

Scepticism & mockery 14

Criticism 15

Call for help 11

Supplication and

expression of trust 12

Affective Aspect

Reaction of rejection 32

Admiration 30

Acclamation 31

From the perspective of the miracle worker, and from that of the demons, other motifs constitute the field, also under volitive, cognitive and affective aspects, and as motifs either emphasizing or crossing the boundary.

The field of motifs as seen from these three perspectives is not exhaustive, but it does serve to show what motifs a narrator of miracle stories has at his disposal if, e.g., he wants to emphasize the boundary under a cognitive aspect from a human perspective (by making use of motifs 13, 14 or 15), or to narrate the crossing of the boundary under an affective aspect from the same perspective (by making use of motifs 30 or 31).

1.1133 The field of themes is presented diagrammatically as follows:

Diagram 5


Personal Orientation

Material Orientation


Demonic Perspective

Exorcism Demon

Saving miracle Disciples


Human Perspective

Healing Patient

Gift miracle Crowd


Divine Perspective

Epiphany Miracle worker

Norm miracle Opponent



Main actor

Subordinate actor


As the diagram reveals, there are miracles in which one of the three main actors (demon[s], patient or miracle worker) dominates, or there are miracles in which subordinate actors come to the fore, (disciples, crowd or opponent[s]). In the former case the following three respective miracle story themes would be realized: exorcism, healing and epiphany; and in the case of the latter, respectively: saving, gift or norm. Furthermore, the object orientation (personal or material) in the case of the former coincides with the respective three main actors and thus is personal, whereas the orientation in the case of the latter is material, i.e., nature (saving miracle), power/material goods (gift), or confirmation of a norm (norm miracle).

Furthermore, for each of the themes a different perspective is implied, each coinciding with a particular crossing of a boundary: a demonic perspective in the case of exorcisms and saving miracles, with threat/submission as the boundary crossing; a human perspective in healing and gift miracles, with the boundary crossing need/gift; and a divine perspective in epiphanies and miracles concerning a norm, in which case the boundary crossing is from concealment to revelation.

The one role which does not have a particular place in this field is that of companion, the reason being, as previously indicated, that it comes to the fore in exorcisms which are at the same time healing miracles with expositional emphasis. It would be appropriate to include it in those two blocks, possibly in parentheses.

1.12    Genres and “Framing” Narratives

In addition to roles, motifs and themes, Theissen discusses two further categories: genres and “framing” narratives or what he also calls framing genres. (“Overarching” or something similar would be better than “framing,” since the latter term predisposes one to the view that gospels are not new wholes, but collections with redactional framings. For the presentation of Theissen’s inquiry, his term will be used.) The latter, which in this case means specifically the Gospels, are only touched upon at the end of this first, synchronic part (127f.). They are discussed more fully in the second, diachronic part which is obviously an indication of where the emphasis lies for him as far as this category is concerned. In the introductory, methodological section, however, he does discuss them under “the synchronic approach” (cf. 21, 24–27). Also the compositional sequence of the genre, “within the framing genre,” is reserved for the second, diachronic part where it also obviously belongs, according to Theissen.

1.121 With regard to genres in the Synoptics that are related to the miracle stories, such as parables, controversies, apophthegms, etc., Theissen identifies two overlapping “fields.” The characteristic feature of each of these fields is “teaching” and “narrative,” the former having a greater closeness to what is typical, the latter to what is singular (cf. diagram 6 below). In the teaching field of genres the normative sayings concern what is more typical, whereas the kerygmatic sayings have more specific concerns. In the narrative field, the miracle stories narrate what is more typical of the life of Jesus, whereas the legends concern what is more specific, such as birth, youth, etc.

In between these there are genres that participate in both fields, which is where the overlapping takes place: parables, that are narrative teachings, and apophthegms, that are narratives with a point in teaching. Each of these two genres once more could concern either what is typical or what is singular; in the case of parables, Gleichnisse present typical incidents, whereas Parabeln narrate singular incidents of interest, sometimes even including improbable features. Apophthegms are either instructional dialogues or controversies, presenting the typical teaching of Jesus in narrative form, or biographical apophthegms which describe singular events, such as the confession of Peter.

There are thus four fundamental genres in the Synoptics: teachings, narrative teaching, narratives with a point in teaching, and narratives, each with two variant forms, bringing out either what is typical or what is singular (126f.).

The overlapping fields of synoptic genres are presented diagrammatically as follows (128).

Diagram 6


Note that in each of the two fields the characteristic feature is indicated at the location closer to that with which it has greater affinity: “teaching” at the top, close to what is typical, and “narrative” below, close to the more singular.

1.122 These genres are fitted into two distinguishable “framing” narratives or “framing” genres in primitive Christianity: gospels and collections of sayings. These two framing genres are coordinate with the two categories of genres: the teaching genres provide the basis for a compositional ordering such as is to be found in the collections of sayings (Q, Gospel of Thomas) and the narratives for the Synoptics and John (128). This thesis of Theissen is the topic of the second diachronic part, where it is investigated only with regard to the miracle stories as the compositional base for the Gospels.

At the end of the section of the synchronic approach in the methodological introduction, Theissen provides the following scheme, abbreviated here with regard to motifs (21).

Diagram 7



Inventory of literary units

Compositional sequences

Paradigmatic fields

1. Roles

Sequence of persons

Field of roles

2. Motifs

Sequence of motifs

Field of motifs

3. Themes

Compositional forms

Field of themes

4. Genres

Composition within the framing genre

Field of all the synoptic genres

5. Framing narratives

Composition of the framework

Field of the synoptic gospels

1.2    Diachronic Approach

1.21 The reservations which Theissen has about a purely synchronic approach to the study of miracle stories come to clearest expression in the second, diachronic part of his inquiry. In the introductory, methodological section of the book he agrees with Güttgemanns that “also literary structures are of a ‘generative’ nature” (31), i.e., “on the basis of compositional and paradigmatic structures (such as presented above) many further miracle stories can be generated” (31). He quotes Güttgemanns’ rejection “with the majority of linguists … that the ‘meaning’-function of a text, e.g., a gospel, can be explained by means of historical categories as the diachronic outcome of a process of addition and aggregation of small units of ‘meaning’.… It (i.e., the meaning function of a text) is rather for most linguists the performative manifestation of a ‘meaning’-constitutive basis, i.e., of ‘grammar’ ” (Güttgemanns, 1972:12; Theissen: 32). Without going into details at this stage, what Güttgemanns means is that a text, such as a gospel, is not to be understood as the sum total of its constitutive parts (with some redactional connections between them), but as a whole, determined by text-grammatical factors, in a way similar to the grammatical determination of a sentence, the meaning of which, too, cannot be understood as the sum total of the meanings of its constituent words.

1.211 Theissen also rejects the “one-dimensional approach which considers literary development exclusively as a relationship of (a series of) individual texts” which can be unraveled, like peeling off archaelogical layers, to reveal the original (28). He has in mind here individual genres within the Synoptic Gospels, rather than the Gospels as a whole. This one-dimensional view of the tradition of a text can be presented as follows, where a, a’ and a” represent three texts and the arrow the development between them. One could also say they represent layers of tradition.

Diagram 8


1.212 “If, however, we approach texts not only with regard to their interrelationships, but as realizations of conceptual and field structures, the diachronic analysis of texts is enriched with an additional dimension.” Theissen provides the following graphic presentation of this enriched concept of a diachronic development of texts, in which A and A” represent a development in the basic structure from which the series of texts a, a’ and a” originated.

Diagram 9


In this presentation the vertical arrows from A = A to a and a’ evidently represent two different realizations of the same basic structure, the horizontal arrow between a and a’ presumably indicating a dependence of a’ on a, probably in the sense of determining the choice of possibilities in a’, thus a diachronic relationship. Structurally, however, the relationship appears to be synchronic, deriving from the basic structure A = A. The relationship between texts a’ and a” on the other hand reveals also a diachronic relationship with regard to the basic structure, indicated by the horizontal arrow between A and A”.

Theissen concedes: “Synchronic actualization of a genre in different specimens and diachronic alterations within the history of the tradition of a single specimen [represented by his texts a, a’ and a”] are, of course, only partially comparable” (29).

1.213 A synchronic generation of texts would have to be presented as follows, making use of Theissen’s diagrams as a basis.

Diagram 10


From the stock of possibilities provided by the genre a specimen is generated in each case without dependence on the others, even though they may be drawing from the same source for the story, i.e., even though they may be determined by some of the same limits in their choice of motifs. In the same way the generation of two specimens of the genre “review” appearing in this issue of Semeia was partially limited in the choice of motifs and especially variants of the genre by Theissen’s study, each author without any knowledge of what the other was doing. To illustrate this by means of a classical example from OT form criticism: The confessional formulations in the Hexateuch do not all go back to an originally simple formulation, Deut 26:5–9, repeatedly expanded and subsequently combined with another line of development, the Sinai tradition, as Gerhard von Rad argued (1958:9–86; 1961:127–134; cf. further, Noth, 1948:48–67), but to different actualizations of the genre “confession” drawing from the stock of motifs and variants provided by the traditions of Israel. Actually, as we shall see, Theissen’s view is in at least one respect very similar to that of von Rad, namely, in that he believes that the structure of the Gospels as framing genre was provided by the narrative genre of the miracle story. Note, however, that this applies only to the structure A → A”, not to the unravelling of archaeological layers, such as in von Rad’s development from the confession of Deut 26:5–9 to the final composition of the Hexateuch.

1.214 Thus, although Theissen rejects the traditional form critical view of a one-dimensional, diachronic development from a simple original, he also rejects an exclusively synchronic approach. What is at issue for Theissen is formulated most precisely in his reply to the statement quoted earlier from Güttgemanns, where he rejects the explanation of the “meaning”-function of a text such as a gospel “by means of historical categories as the diachronic outcome of a process of addition and aggregation of small units of ‘meaning’.… For most linguists it is the performative manifestation of a ‘meaning’-constitutive basis, i.e., of a ‘grammar’ ” (Güttgemanns, 1972:34; cf. Theissen: 32). Theissen points out that Güttgemanns’ statement contains in principle three (decisive) contraries: diachronic/synchronic, part/whole and base/performance. He registers his reservations about Güttgemanns’ statements by taking up each of these contraries.

1.2141    Diachronic/Synchronic

“Linguistic phenomena (sprachliche Erscheinungen) undoubtedly receive their meaning through synchronic linguistic structures. Even for the literary level the following holds to begin with: the synchronic factors of a text are more decisive for its meaning than the diachronic factors” (32). However, that does not diminish the importance of diachronic research, for the following reasons.

1.21411 The synchronic meaning can be grasped better when it is compared with previous formulations of a text (32).

1.21412 Recourse to the past is integral to a text. This is most evident in the explicit diachronic recourse, the quotation, but is also true for excerpted sources, revised drafts, thematic examples, intentional archaisms, etc. And in a special way oral tradition is a recourse to what is received from the past. Tradition takes place in awareness of handing down from the past (32f.).

1.21413 It is not clear why the third point is a reservation against a synchronic approach, since it applies equally well, if not more decisively, for such an approach. He points out that a “text cannot be limited to what is consciously brought to expression in it …” (33). It is a different point when he adds: “Also the genre structures of which the narrator is unaware were appropriated in an historical process” (33). The point he seems to want to make is in any case wrong. The fact that the narrator partakes of the structures provided by the culture does not argue in favor of a diachronic approach. Those inherited structures are comparable with the given structures of language (Saussure’s langue, Chomsky’s competence) and not with particular performance acts generated from language in particular oral or written texts (Saussure’s parole, Chomsky’s performance).

1.2142    Part/Whole

Theissen argues that the relationship between part and whole does not in principle coincide with the contrast between diachronic and synchronic. “The relationship between part and whole is integral to every text, independently of its past or post history. The demand always to interpret a text as a totality is generally recognized as the hermeneutic circle of part and whole” (33). Thus: “Even though one must consider the gospel as a totality (synchronically), it is meaningful to investigate the particular elements with regard to fissures, tensions and inconsistencies which could provide hints at a history of the reproduction of the text” (33, Theissen’s parenthesis).

He concedes, however, that recognition of the diachronic dimension of the text should be separated from the question of the relevant (sachliche?) meaning of the whole for the sense of the text, since the principle of totality cannot be applied in the same way to all texts. “We expect a less homogeneous production in the case of a collection [presumably, he means, such as a gospel], than in that of a coherently written letter [presumably such as the NT letters]. When the parts of a genre [presumably, once more, such as a gospel] did not originate synchronically, they should in each case be interpreted individually. And when a text reveals more than one diachronic formulation, each should be interpreted as a whole—self-evidently also the final formulation. Diachronic and synchronic considerations cannot be played out against each other here” (33f.). A text revealing “more than one diachronic formulation” presumably means the history of the tradition of a particular part, such as a specific miracle story which can be investigated as an individual whole.

1.2143    Base/Performance (Chomsky: Generative Grammar/Performance)

The generative approach, Theissen argues, is no argument against the history of tradition. “It belongs after all to the definition of the ‘generative base’ or ‘competence,’ that it always ‘generates’ (erzeugt) a number of performance texts, and thus also a variety of formulations of a text in a history of any tradition. Precisely when one accepts the distinction between a virtual genre structure and its realization in a variety of genre specimens, does it become necessary to inquire tradition-historically” (34).

This last point is not clear to me. Why should tradition-historical inquiry become necessary precisely when the distinction between a virtual genre structure and its realization in a variety of genre specimens is accepted? It should be remembered that the “generation” of a performance text does not mean more than that the “virtual genre structure” assigns a structural description to the performance text. That has no necessary connection with the question of whether or not “a variety of genre specimens” are related diachronically, i.e., tradition-historically. As Chomsky writes in connection with a sentence: “When we say that a sentence has a certain derivation with respect to a particular generative grammar (in the case of the miracle stories one should say the generative text grammar of the genre), we say nothing about how the speaker or hearer might proceed, in some practical or efficient way, to construct such a derivation. These questions belong to the theory of language use—the theory of performance” (9).

These three points could be considered the program for the second, diachronic, part of Theissen’s inquiry.

1.22 In the first chapter he investigated variations in the gospels of four representative motifs.

The introductory motif of the coming of the miracle worker. It now appears that this motif is not an original part of the genre, but was originally an “oral introductory frame.” Mark (or his predecessor), followed by Matthew and Luke, integrated it as part of the miracle story itself. “The motif was transposed from the level of comment in the oral framing to the compositional level of a coherent narrative. It no longer announces the narrative, but has become part of it” (133).

1.222 As a motif of crossing a boundary, Theissen discusses faith. It was not presented as one of his thirty-three possible motifs of the miracle stories. He concludes here that it is not one among other motifs of crossing the boundary, connected to humans, but the essence (Inbegriff) of all such motifs (142). It is not a new motif in the Synoptics, but in extra-NT miracle stories faith is characteristically the result of the miracle, not its presupposition. However, there are also extra-NT miracle stories in which the motif of faith precedes the miracle, although in those cases the motif is not expressed by means of the words “faith” or “to believe.” Theissen also cites at least one story in which “faith” not only precedes, but is a presupposition for the miracle (VA 1.9). The formulation, “for those who want, (the god) gives,” is similar to the NT “for the one who believes everything is possible,” even if it is not as daring, fundamental (136).

Faith, thus, is a traditional motif of miracle stories, but in the Synoptics it is characteristically varied by changing its binding to other motifs of boundary-crossing at the compositional level (136). In Mark faith is the crossing of the boundary with emphasis on the volitive aspect, connected with the motif of hindrance (“I believe. Help my unbelief”). Matthew introduces the cognitive aspect of the certainty of the power of Jesus, connected with the motif of the call for help. In Luke the affective aspect dominates; the motifs, acclamation and gratitude express the essence of faith (139–142). The variations of the motif of faith in the Synoptics are variations of the choice of motifs to which it is connected, hindrance (Mark), call for help (Matthew), or acclamation and gratitude (Luke). In each case, thus, it is the actualization of possibilities given by the paradigmatic field of motifs in different ways (142). “These redactional revisions of the motifs are not to be separated from each other as mere archaeological. They must be understood as restructuring of compositional relationships” (142).

A boundary-emphasizing motif: The command to remain silent. Mark transposed this motif from its traditional location in the exposition to the end, and thus located it in his redactional summaries, understanding it as a generalization of the command (Machtwort) of 1:25. Furthermore, he relates it to the secrecy motif which is associated with the person of Jesus outside the miracle stories. Mark extended the use of the original commands to maintain silence and to secrecy which had their original locus (Haftpunkt) in the miracle stories to other genres as well, and related them to the personal dignity of Jesus. “With that he combined two traditional traits: The exorcistic command to maintain silence is indeed directed against the apotropaically utilized knowledge of Jesus’ personal dignity (by the demons), but it is not intended for the sake of secrecy. The command to silence after the ῥῆσις βαρβαρική is intended for the sake of secrecy, but it does not concern the personal dignity of Jesus. The two combined produce: The personal dignity of Jesus becomes the topic of the secret” (153).

The strict separation of tradition and redaction in “archaeological” layers once more proves erroneous. “The Markan use of the command to silence is more appropriately described … as the creative realization from a given stock of motifs which constitutes the genre of miracle stories” (154).

1.224 Finally, acclamation which apparently had originally been part of the framework, like the motif of the coming of the miracle worker, also became part of the miracle stories themselves in the Synoptics, particularly in the case of Luke (163–168). On the other hand, this is a motif Mark avoided actualizing because it conflicted with his secrecy motif (168–173).

Thus Theissen concludes that “tradition and redaction cannot always be separated in accordance with a model of archaeological layers, but should be understood as variations of given compositional and paradigmatic possibilities” (173). These are, respectively, (a) integration of the framing motifs of the coming of the miracle worker and of acclamation into the miracle stories themselves; (b) varying actualizations of the motif of faith in the three Synoptics; (c) actualization of the command to maintain silence as secrecy motif even outside the miracle stories by Mark; and (d) his non-actualization of titular acclamation because it contradicted his secrecy motif.

It should be noted that here already, in the actualization of possibilities provided by the motif of the command to maintain silence by Mark, Theissen argues for the projection of the influence of the miracle stories beyond the genre itself on the structure of the Gospel as framing narrative.

1.231 Of less significance for us here is Theissen’s discussion of the individual genres in the Gospels in terms of their condensation, or expansion, and of the introduction of additional motifs due to affinity. An example of the latter occurs in the Lukan version of the healing of the mother-in-law of Peter, where the fever is “reprimanded” as if it is an exorcism (Luke 4:39). This is due to the affinity of this healing miracle with an exorcism when it is stated that the fever left her (Mark 1:31).

1.232 Also of less significance for us here is his discussion of the characteristic features of and the relationship between the oral and written tradition.

1.24 Of greater importance is the discussion of the compositional activity within the “framing genre” of the Synoptic Gospels, under three headings.

Connecting compositions. The evangelists made use of a stock of five connecting forms: temporal, local, recourse to preceding events in the introduction of a new pericope, motivation of acting persons by events from preceding pericopes, and the bridging of a longer period by a general statement such as “(and) it happened,” a genitive absolute, etc. This stock was not new but was drawn from the smaller units, including the miracle stories. Mark preferred local and temporal connections, Matthew connections by recourse to and motivation by events in preceding pericopes, and Luke by general statements. According to Theissen the miracles are more rounded off individually in Matthew and Luke, than in Mark (cf. 204f.).

Typifying composition, which applies specifically to the summaries, e.g., of miracle stories. These consist largely of the combining of genre-specific motifs, e.g., of the miracle stories, as actualizations of genre specific fields and sequences in which the formulations are revised in such a way that they could apply to a number of cases.

Grouping compositions, when a particular point of view (e.g., tension between Jesus and his opponents, or key words, such as faith/disbelief) functions to group together, e.g., a number of miracle stories that are then distinguishable from other such groupings.

1.244 Of the greatest importance is what he calls the overarching composition, because that is what gives structure to the whole. There are three such overarching structures in Mark.

1.2441 The aretological structure. The entire Gospel has a thrust towards acclamation and recognition of the dignity of Jesus, which finds its final expression in the confession of the centurion at the cross (Mark 15:39). The dignity of Jesus remains in the background in the first chapters, but the thrust of the Gospel is increasingly towards that confession.

1.2442 The mythic scheme proposed by Philipp Vielhauer (1964, 1965) based on the Egyptian ritual of adoption, representation and enthronement in the baptism, transfiguration and crucifixion of Jesus, culminating in the confession of the centurion. The application of this scheme, however, is based on the previous aretological structure. It anticipates the acclamation in the confession of the centurion, whereas the secrecy motif retards the development. The secrecy motif places accents at three decisive locations, but alone it does not provide unity to Mark.

Biography. The imperfect (ἦν) in the confession of the centurion looks back at a completed life. However, the biographical concerns are not carried out completely in Mark. There is no childhood history to correlate with the passion. This concern is carried out by Matthew and Luke.

The overarching structure which provides the unity in Mark is aretological, a structure which is derived from the genre of the miracle story. “Mark extends the arch between miracle and intended recognition of Jesus, which is integral to all miracle stories, to the Gospel as a whole. The compositional structure of the miracle stories is the foundation for their overarching composition: A miraculous, secretive event provokes a confession” (214).

In Matthew and Luke it is the biographical structure which provides unity, and in John the mythical scheme is actualized. But whereas it is the framework of Matthew and Luke which carries the miracle stories, it is the miracle stories which bear the frame in the Gospel of Mark (224).

This is Theissen’s greatest achievement in the attempt to overcome the separation of tradition and redaction—or is it a tour de force? In the Gospel of Mark “the miracle stories became a miracle story with secretive retarding acclamation” (214). If the presumption is correct that Mark intentionally did not actualize final acclamations which made use of christological titles, it would support the conception of a gospel composition based on the aretological acclamation. “In that case Mark would have modified all other acclamations because of the central significance of the acclamation of the centurion at the cross by not realizing any titular acclamations although they belonged to his (virtual) form-critical field of motifs” (213). Thus, Theissen calls the Gospel of Mark “an ‘aretological gospel composition’ based on the actualization of the motifs of secrecy and acclamation” (214).

1.3    Functional Approach

The third, and final, part of the inquiry concerns the functional approach to the miracle stories. In three chapters Theissen discusses the social, religious, and existential functions of the miracle stories.

1.31    The Social Function

Whereas the places of healing and of oracles promote the maintenance of the established order, and sorcery and magic represent an individualistic reaction against growing social disintegration, the charismatic faith in miracles makes a claim for a new lifestyle. The early Christian miracle stories belong to the latter.

The intention of these miracle stories was to witness to a revelation of God which reached towards everyone, and which all were expected to recognize. At the same time, however, they were very much determined by the problems of only a segment of society, the lower social classes, reflecting a country mentality, the attempts of the poor to overcome the socio-economic limitations to which they were subject, and the tension between cultures of the Hellenistic age. This intention of the miracles to promote universal recognition of the divine revelation conflicts hermeneutically with the fact that they are determined by the specific problems of a very particular social layer in the Hellenistic world. This is a conflict which cannot be resolved by a functional analysis, but it can be transcended by recognizing the miracle stories as collective symbolic acts, promoting a new life style which transcends both the social limitation out of which they emerged, as well as the intentions which they understood to have been theirs (261).

1.32    The Religious-Historical Function

The faith which comes to expression in the early Christian miracles reveals some very specific features, but was at the same time part of a more general religious-historical development. The period in which they emerged was characterized by a re-emergence, after 300 years of almost complete absence, of the charismatic miracle worker in the Hellenistic world.

Early Christianity, however, understood itself as unique in that environment. Unique with Jesus was indeed the combination of apocalypticism and charismatic miracle activity. And in the development of the genre of the miracle story in primitive Christianity, this uniqueness was further enhanced. “Within the framework of the genre-specific structure of the miracle story Jesus is seen in a new light. He appears as the marvelously enhanced figure of the historical Jesus. His miracles become increasingly paradoxical, miraculous” (279). “It is as if traditional miracle motifs have moved into a new field of force which developed to the extreme possibilities inherent in the genre. Sharper than elsewhere the light falls here on breaking through (the barriers) of human expectations and everyday sensibilities” (281).

The religious-historical determination of early Christian miracle stories as part of a more general religious-historical development and their exclusivist intentions once more produce a hermeneutical conflict. However, it was precisely because the figure of Jesus was enhanced beyond all measure in these miracle stories as symbolic acts that they could produce new impulses in this more general religious-historical development. “Only from such a figure, enhanced by symbolic transformation, could the motivating power flow which was able to produce that thoroughgoing change in the understanding of existence in antiquity associated with the name Christianity” (282).

1.33    The Existential Function

In order to determine what had been particular about the early Christian miracle stories, it would not help to diminish the miraculous in them as if it had been a mere external shell. According to Theissen the miraculous should rather be emphasized he describes their existential meaning as follows: “Early Christian miracle stories are symbolic acts in which the concrete negativity of human existence is overcome by an appeal to the revelation of the holy. In their enactment they pass beyond the limits of the humanly possible, for which they appeal to the ‘holy one of God’ who exorcises the demons, multiplies the loaves, walks on water and raises the dead” (295).

The miracle stories rebel against a hostile reality, a reality made even more real by the symbolic acts of the miracle stories which transform it into the images of demons. This rebellion against a hostile reality does not come merely from the power of the human longing to be able to do so, but is called forth by an experience which demands that one should reach “beyond limits which could previously not be crossed.” Thus, they possess a symbolic dimension which points beyond every human attempt to cope with existence (296).

2. Assessment

It would appear that Theissen sought to achieve at least two goals with his study: a comprehensive inquiry into the Synoptic miracle story in terms of its structure, development and function in primitive Christianity. Related to this, but distinguishable from it, is the controversy with Güttgemanns’ criticism of form criticism. Theissen answered Güttgemanns by accepting certain features of the latter’s criticism in his own presentation of the Synoptic miracle story. However, the inquiry is more than a reply to Güttgemanns. Even though Güttgemanns’ criticism may have been, at least partly, a strong motivation for the inquiry, the comprehensiveness of the presentation can be considered as a goal in its own right.

In response to Güttgemanns and other linguists, Theissen has taken on the unavoidable task of a linguistically informed interpretation of the Synoptic miracle story—like Sisyphus his rock.

2.1 From a linguistic point of view the first, or synchronic, part of the study is the most successful. I believe that it also comes closest to being methodologically sound. The miracle stories become understandable as actualizations of the possibilities inherent in the genre of the miracle story. There is a certain irony, however, in that whereas Theissen limited his investigation to the Synoptic miracle stories, it is the perspective provided by the genre of the Hellenistic miracle story in general, on which he repeatedly draws, that provides the greatest insights. The study brings to light very successfully the primitive Christian miracle story as part of a larger reality of the Hellenistic world.

Theissen recognizes this especially in the third part of his study, where he identifies as a hermeneutical problem the fact that this contradicts the intention and self-understanding of primitive Christianity. Theissen’s solution, however, tends to affirm primitive Christianity, allowing it to stand out in its environment, e.g., by arguing that it was precisely because the figure of Jesus was enhanced beyond measure in the Synoptic miracle stories as symbolic acts that they could produce new impulses in their more general religious-historical development (282). More realistic would be to allow primitive Christianity to be recognized as part of its environment, which would not have to mean a denial of its particularity, which should also not happen in connection with any other movement of Hellenistic times, religious or otherwise. It is methodologically unsound to operate as if the rest of Hellenism is a single, sometimes even amorphous, mass over and against which Christianity alone is distinctive.

Looking at the other Hellenistic religions en masse from the point of view of the NT does not provide an appropriate perspective. The view of the whole from the perspective of a part necessarily distorts the vision. The point of view from the Hellenistic religious movements as a whole, on the other hand, can provide a very profitable perspective on the NT. Deriving one’s perspective from the Synoptic miracle stories, as Theissen does, is a case in point. The most profitable insights of his inquiry are provided when he changes his perspective to that of the Hellenistic miracle story as a whole. (It would be something else again when Christianity is compared with a single other Hellenistic religion or philosophy, as part compared with part, but that does not concern us here.)

Actually it may be possible to come to a proper understanding of what is involved only by extending the scope of the inquiry beyond the Hellenistic age to an investigation of the miracle story as a worldwide phenomenon. Only in that way could, e.g., the question arise whether the stories of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath (1 Kgs 17:7–16), the miraculous increase of the supply of balsam at the death of Anselm (Vita Sancti Anselmi 2.68), the miraculous increase of sugar and cloth after the death of the Tibetan saint, Jetsün-Kahbum (cf. Evans-Wentz: 301–303), and the feeding of the multitude (Mark 6:32–44; 8:1–10; par.s; John 6:1–5) are not all variants of a single miracle story, i.e., of the inexhaustible gift. If that is the case, can their interrelationships be explained diachronically, or are they related synchronically? If the latter were to be the case, what would it reveal about the miracle story in general? What light would it shed on the Synoptic miracle story in particular? And what significance does it have for the genre that, in the case of the Jetsün-Kahbum story, elements of a healing miracle have been incorporated into a gift miracle story?

It should be noted furthermore that the features of Christianity which Theissen discusses in the third part of his study do not come to expression in the miracle stories themselves, but in the Gospels of which they are only parts. Even where these features do come to expression in the miracle stories—and this is by no means generally true—it is necessary to take into consideration to what extent this is due to the perspective on them provided by their being parts of the Gospels. Thus the third part of Theissen’s study is basically a discussion, not of the miracle stories themselves, but of the Gospels, focusing on the functions which the miracle stories fulfill in them.

2.2    The Sequence of Motifs in a Miracle Story

An excellent statement by Theissen is that in narrating a miracle story, the narrator merely actualizes roles and motifs from a limited number belonging to the genre (82). His seven roles and thirty-three motifs may not be exhaustive, but there should be no question that only a limited number of roles nad motifs are available to the narrator if he or she wants to remain true to the genre. The actualization of roles and motifs that do not belong to the genre would tend to make a transition to another genre, e.g., an apophthegm or a controversy, depending on the roles or motifs actualized.

2.21 Questionable, however, is Theissen’s conception of the narrator’s freedom or determination in the choice of, e.g., a motif or its location in the compositional sequence. Because some motifs always occur in the same location he concludes that their location is fixed, whereas the localization of those that occur in more than one place in different miracle stories is variable.

There would have to be more evidence before the distinction could be formulated in this way. A recurrent localization pattern may indeed suggest the possibility of determination, and the more persistent the localization, the stronger the suggestion becomes. However, such patterns only indicate a certain tendency, not necessarily determination. It could be that up to that point in time no narrator had found it necessary to actualize a possibility that did exist.

2.211 Let me illustrate this by means of the localization sequence of parts of speech in English. Staging is a linguistic means by which a speaker or writer introduces a focus in a sentence (or a discourse) in terms of the topic of the sentence, which is placed at the beginning with the comment following, e.g., in these sentences (cf. Grimes: 152–155, from whom most of the examples have been taken).

6.    George sold Harold a book for ten dollars.

7.    Harold was sold a book by George for ten dollars.

8.    A book was sold to Harold by George for ten dollars.

9.    Ten dollars was what George sold a book to Harold for.

In English we are drilled not to construct a reprise sentence such as the following, although children who have not yet been so drilled are known to actualize this variant:

10.    Ann she traded me two cookies for a lollipop.

However, in French such a reprise construction is quite normal, e.g.:

11.    Moi, je ne peux pas vous donner soixante francs pour ce livre.

In English a verb as topic is very uncommon, but not unacceptable, resembling Irish brogue:

12.    Sold Harold a book for ten dollars, did George.

Thus, one would have to conclude that sequence of parts of speech in sentences are not fixed, except by the actual practice of the language in a linguistic community.

A language, such as English, is not a pre-given entity, but the range of possible linguistic expressions acceptable in a linguistic community. From a universal range of possibilities, a particular linguistic community may rule out a certain number, such as, e.g., the reprise construction which is acceptable in French, but not in English. There is nothing which rules out the possibility that certain currently unacceptable possibilities may in due course become accepted, and others that are currently part of the range of possibilities become ruled out, and thus archaic.

2.212 The same applies to the compositional sequence of motifs. Persistent patterns do not prove that a sequence is fixed, but only that in the miracle stories investigated certain compositional sequences are persistently actualized without variants, whereas in the case of other sequences a range of possible variants are actualized. That certain variants were actualized only by certain of the evangelists may be compared to the limited actualization of possible variants of a language in a dialectic community. The limited perspective of the Synoptic miracle stories leaves Theissen’s judgments concerning freedom and determinism, concerning what is typical or variable, with a particularly unsound basis. Compare in this regard the great care with which Vladimir Propp investigated the Russian folk tale (cf. especially 2f.).

Innovation in the narration of miracle stories is thus the actualization of possible variants of which use was previously not made. That the conventions of the genre as practiced in a particular community may be more firmly established in the case of some sequences than of others would be the most one could say about relative determination and freedom, where certain sequential patterns persist.

2.22 Strict determination would occur only when the actualization of a motif or a sequence effects a transition into a different genre. It is conceivable that all the components of a story could individually be considered roles and motifs which belong to the genre of the miracle story, but that they occur in such a sequence that it is not a miracle story, but, e.g., a fairy tale. In such a case the components would, of course, be identified as roles and motifs of a fairy tale.

2.221    This is analogous to what could happen with words in a sentence, depending on their compositional (or syntactic) sequence, e.g., in the following two sentences:

13.    Scrap that move, and

14.    Move that scrap.

Note that the altered syntactic sequence not only changes the meanings of the words, even from verb to noun and vice versa, but also gives expression to different themes—to use another of Theissen’s categories. In the first case it may concern the strategy in a game, in the latter a clean-up operation.

2.222 Precisely formulated, parts are functions of a whole. That is a major reason why Propp classified the elements of the folktale in terms of their functions (19–24). Parts do not constitute a whole, but are constituted into a whole on the basis of a theme, as Theissen so well formulated in connection with roles and motifs in a miracle story (17f.). Sentences and miracle stories are wholes, but so are the Gospels. That Theissen did not give sufficient attention to the latter fact is the major deficiency in his inquiry. This problem of parts and the whole will concern us again below.

2.3    The Problem of “Themes”

Serious difficulties arise in connection with Theissen’s discussion of what he calls “themes.”

2.311 He attributes to them what are recognizable as two distinct functions: (a) As the basic conception (Grundgedanke) of a narrative it organizes roles and motifs in a compositional whole (17) and, (b) as a more comprehensive unit it arranges the miracle stories in sub-genres (17f.). Theissen, however, does not distinguish between theme as a “basic conception” of a miracle story and as the “more comprehensive unit” which results when the roles and motifs are organized in a compositional whole by means of such a basic conception. It would be more appropriate to call the latter “types,” comparable to the three types of the genre of the overarching narrative which he identified as follows (irrespective of the question whether or not his identification of these types is correct): Mark as an aretological gospel composition, Matthew and Luke as biographical compositions, and John as a mythological composition.

2.312 A certain closeness between theme and resultant “type” is obvious, but it is nevertheless necessary to distinguish between the basic conception (Grundgedanke) (or what may appropriately be called the theme, e.g., a healing which the narrator wants to narrate) and the resultant miracle story type, which he actually produces. In actually telling the story about the healing (theme) the narrator finds himself subject to the restraints laid upon him by what Theissen describes as the field of themes (124), but should more appropriately be called the field of (miracle story) types. If it is a healing miracle which he wants to narrate it will of necessity have a personal orientation, with the patient as main actor coming to the fore, and would have to be told from a human perspective. The result is a healing miracle story. The “choice” of a theme already determines the type of restraints to which the narrator will be subject in the production of the miracle story.

The same applies in the case of the overarching narratives, i.e., the Gospels. The choice of, e.g., aretology as theme immediately subjects the gospel writer to the restraints of an aretological composition, to which he remains subject as long as he remains true to his theme.

2.313 These two features, theme and textual type restraints, may be compared to M. A. K. Halliday’s ideational and textual features (34–45), or at least to aspects of them. Halliday recognizes an additional feature which does not have to concern us here, i.e., interactional, namely, the involvement of the interaction between narrator or writer and hearers or readers in the production of a text. Leaving this interactional feature aside, it is obvious that it is not merely the theme as basic concept which provides cohesion to a series of roles and motifs, and rounds it off, but also the textual restraints appropriate to it in accordance with the field of miracle story types, as described by Theissen, under the designation “field of themes.” That Theissen does not distinguish between theme as the basic conception of a miracle story and as the resultant (oral or) literary type is obvious when he includes themes in the “inventory of literary (or oral) units” which constitute the genre of miracle stories (20f.; cf. diagram 7).

2.3211 In any case, theme is not a “genre constitutive unit” (cf. 20f.). As a basic conception it contributes to the genre of the miracle story in a very different way from that of the roles and motifs. Theissen apparently senses this when he lists “compositional forms” in the column of “compositional sequences” for themes (see diagram 7). Obviously a theme cannot be in a compositional sequence in a miracle story, but may have an influence on the form of such a sequence.

2.3212 The further formalization which Theissen provides for genres and “framing” narratives in this diagram is also inadequate. In the column of compositional sequences one should have, in the case of genres, simply “sequence of genres,” i.e., as they occur within the “framing” narratives. In the case of the latter one should have “sequence of ‘framing’ narratives” in the same column. Luke/Acts is the only immediate example of such a sequence that comes to mind. In the final column Theissen’s entry for “framing” narratives, “field of the Synoptic Gospels,” is certainly not correct. Something like it might have been appropriate if there had been a category, “types of ‘framing’ narratives,” but the designation in that case would have to be “field of types (i.e., of Synoptic Gospels),” meaning aretology and biography. The entry in the last column for “framing” narratives should be “field of ‘framing’ narratives” and should include the Synoptics, John, Acts, Q, Gospel of Thomas, Vita Apollonii, Memorabilia of Xenophon, etc.

2.322 As a literary unit, i.e., as a type of miracle story, a “theme” can obviously not be a “constitutive unit” of the genre. In the sense of a type it cannot even be considered in the same class as roles and motifs, and also not in the same class as genres insofar as they are components of the overarching composition of the Gospel. As literary units, “themes” do not constitute a separate category, but a sub-category of the genre of the miracle story, as Theissen himself recognizes. Roles and motifs are components of the genre of miracle stories, which in turn, along with other, similar, originally independent, genres, are the components of the overarching genre of the Synoptic Gospels. Each of these two genres are represented by more than one type, based on distinct themes: exorcism, epiphany, healing, gift, saving and norm, in the case of the miracle stories, and aretology and biography, in the case of the Gospels. The mythologically structured Gospel of John is constituted in a different way. The themes determine the structural restraints from the field of miracle story types, and, in the case of the Gospels, from the overarching narrative genre types.

2.4    The Limits of the Inquiry

2.41 A serious drawback is Theissen’s limitation of the focus of his inquiry to the Synoptic miracle stories. They do not constitute a representative body of material on which such an inquiry can be based. This becomes evident when certain motifs, which he had identified in the first, synchronic part of his study as belonging to the inventory of the miracle story, are exposed as not really belonging to it in the second, “diachronic” part, i.e., the motifs of the coming of miracle worker and of acclamation, 1 and 31, respectively. These motifs were integrated into the genre itself from the oral framework by the evangelists Mark and Luke, respectively. This is a discovery that could have been made in the first part if the genre of the Hellenistic miracle story in general had been the focus of attention. The Synoptic miracle stories are not representative of the genre of the miracle story, making an adequate synchronic study of them impossible. As already indicated, the only redeeming feature is that Theissen constantly appeals to extra-Synoptic miracle stories as well.

2.42 But what is more important, the integration of the abovementioned motifs into the Synoptic miracle stories themselves was also not a diachronic development of the genre of the miracle story, but a feature in the production (generation) of the Gospels. The miracle stories in question are no longer true to the genre, but have become integrated as functions in the overarching narrative genre of the Gospels. This is even more decisively so in the case of the other two motifs which Theissen discusses in this second part, “faith” and “the command to remain silent.” Theissen’s own discussion makes very clear that the way in which especially Mark made use of these motifs was to give expression to the overall theme of his Gospel. To put it very simply, the evangelists were not narrators of miracle stories. Theissen’s second part might in many ways more appropriately have been designated a synchronic approach, albeit an inadequate one, to the Gospels as realizations of the genre of the overarching narrative, in contrast with the also inadequate, synchronic discussion of the genre of the miracle story in the first part.

2.5    The Problem of Part and Whole

The greatest, and most decisive weakness in Theissen’s approach is his inability to recognize that the interpretation of parts of a whole must proceed from the point of view of the whole.

2.51 This comes to clearest focus in his reply to Güttgemanns concerning the part/whole issue, particularly in his statement about the hermeneutic circle of part and whole. He writes: “The relationship between part and whole is integral to every text, independently of its past or post history. The demand always to interpret a text as a totality is generally recognized as the hermeneutic circle of part and whole” (33). The reference to a hermeneutic circle already suggests that the perspective of the whole is not dominant, but reciprocated by that from the parts. Thus he continues a little further on: “Even though one must consider the gospel as a totality (synchronically), it is meaningful to investigate the particular elements with regard to fissures, tensions and inconsistencies which could provide hints at a history of the reproduction of the text” (33, Theissen’s parenthesis).

This is correct, but only if the perspective of the whole is maintained throughout. The meaning of the parts is determined by the structure of the whole. The degree to which this is not true reflects the degree to which what is being considered is not a whole.

2.511 A case in point is the collection of contradictory traditions about the meaning of the parables in Mark 4:11f., 13ff., 33, and 34, which have not become a whole in Mark 4:10–33, but which have been organized as such in Matt 13:10–35 (cf. Boers: 9–18). Nevertheless, even then an understanding of Mark 4 must still proceed from the perspective of the whole, including the evangelist’s probable misunderstanding of some of the traditions he quoted. A correct historical critical understanding of these traditions assists in understanding the passage as a whole only in a negative way. The correct understanding of these traditions is not the understanding of the evangelist. This is most clearly shown by Matthew’s redaction of Mark’s material in which he revised the traditions to conform with the conception of the whole, as a comparison of Mark 4:10–13, 33–34 with Matt 13:10–15, 18, 34–35 reveals (Boers: 9f.). Matthew merely made explicit what had already been in Mark’s mind, undoubtedly adding some of his own emphases.

2.512 Theissen’s own investigations in his second, so-called diachronic part, reveal that what happened to the miracle stories in the Synoptics is similar to what happened to these parable-interpretation traditions in Mark, culminating in Matthew. It is of course useful to investigate the history of a tradition, also with a view to the interpretation of a new whole into which it has been incorporated. The meaning of such a tradition as part of this new whole, however, is not revealed by its (diachronic) history, but by the (synchronic) understanding, or misunderstanding, which the author of the whole had when he made use of it in the production of his text. The investigation of the meaning of the tradition, independent of its incorporation into the new whole, is like the clarification of the paradigm of possible meanings of a word, independent of its occurrence in a sentence. Its real meaning in the text, similar to the meaning of a word in a sentence, is determined by the syntagmatic choice from these possibilities.

2.513 It is not possible to understand what a sentence, such as “the table is large,” means by itself, even though we may be familiar with the paradigms of possible meanings of its words, as well as the choices from these paradigms that have already been determined by its syntactic structure, e.g., that the verbal meanings of table are excluded. Only the structure of a larger whole, constituted by means of other sentences or the situation in which the sentence is pronounced, determines which of the paradigm of possible meanings is actualized in it, i.e., whether what is large is, e.g., a table around which persons can sit, a type of cut diamond, or the flat part of a mountain.

Mark 4/Matthew 13 reveals that in some cases an author may not even actualize an available possible meaning of a part, but create a new one, in this case in conformity with the meaning of other contrary traditions. This happens, not infrequently, in our daily use of language, clumsily when we miss the correct meaning of a term, but most effectively by competent writers who bring out new meanings.

2.514 That the structure and meaning of the parts can become completely submerged under the structure and meaning of a new whole into which they have been incorporated is shown by Matt 1:18–2:23. In the composition of this part of his Gospel, the author made use of two very well structured sources, a cycle of Joseph stories (1:18–21, 24f.; 2:13–15a and 2:19–21) and a story of the magi and Herod (2:1–12, 16), each with its own distinct theme. In the case of the first the theme is the pious actions of Joseph, the father of Jesus, in obedience to the command of an angel, three times, in dreams; and in the second it is the contrasting modes of behavior of the magi and Herod, possibly with the sub-theme of the opposition between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The structures of these sources and their themes have become submerged to the point of unrecognizability under the new structure and meaning of the Gospel. The (sub-) theme of this part of the Gospel is the birth of Jesus Christ. The author of the Gospel had little sensitivity for the structures and meanings of the parts in the production of a new whole. Unlike Mark, however, Matthew was able to constitute a unified whole, typically with a minimum of change in the material he used.

2.52 Theissen comes very close to discussing the genre of the overarching narrative when he interprets Mark as an aretological composition and Matthew and Luke as biographical compositions, but he never considers the material from that point of view. Even if Mark’s structure were derived from the genre of the miracle story it would still not be true that in this Gospel “the miracle stories bear the frame of the gospel” (224). The structure of the whole still bears the parts, even if that structure may have been derived in dependence on the structure of some of the parts.

2.521 The question is not, as Theissen formulates, “whether the gospel form represents something new that can no longer be understood as the actualizing of given possibilities” (197). The alternatives assumed in this question are wrong.

For Theissen the alternative to the gospel form being new is obviously that it was derived diachronically as a development from a previous structure, as illustrated in diagram 9 above. The form (or structure) of the gospel was derived from that of the miracle story. This can be diagrammed as follows:


The structures which Theissen proposes for Matthew and Luke (biographical gospel compositions) and for John (based on a mythological scheme) obviously do not conform to this pattern. The mythological scheme, similar to an ancient Egyptian enthronement ritual (Vielhauer), e.g., is obviously derived from elsewhere. But having argued that in the case of Mark they are carried by the aretological structure, Theissen apparently does not consider it necessary to inquire into the independent significance of these overarching schemes.

There is, however, another alternative to the gospel form being new. As overarching compositions the Gospels are synchronic actualizations of the possibilities available from the paradigmatic field of the genre. Representative specimens of this genre include the Synoptics, John, Q. Gospel of Thomas, Vita Apollonii, and from an earlier period, Xenophon’s Memorabilia. If Theissen had focused on this genre itself it might have been interesting to compare the specimens which constitute overarching wholes, such as the Synoptics, John, and the Vita Apollonii, and those which do not, such as Q and the Gospel of Thomas, with Xenophon’s Memorabilia possibly representing a mixed form. So pitifully brief is the attention Theissen gave to this overarching genre that he could only conclude that the two “framing” genres, i.e., saying collections (Q and Gospel of Thomas) and Gospels (Synoptics and John), are based on the teaching genres (sayings, etc.) and narrative genres (miracle stories, legends, etc.).

2.522 One is left with the impression that his concern with text-linguistics was subservient to the purpose of showing how the Gospels are products of a development within primitive Christianity itself. The miracle stories so to speak generated the Gospel of Mark from within.

Theissen did not succeed in giving a linguistic, i.e., synchronic, interpretation of the Synoptic miracle stories, clarifying the structures which determined their production, because he did not persistently address himself to the question whether what was involved was a matter of competence or of performance. The task of the linguist is to interpret the function of langue, not its actualization in parole; to interpret competence, not performance. Far more than what Theissen recognized is explainable as competence—as products of the restraints of the genres of the miracle story and the overarching or encompassing narrative. Only after the full contribution of such competence factors has been clarified, can the particular performative contribution of primitive Christianity be recognized.

3. Conclusion

And so, in the end it would seem that it was I who, like Sisyphus, had been condemned to roll this rock up the mountain, only to find that it rolled back again to the valley below. Contrary to the myth, however, the engagement in this task was not fruitless. Even though Theissen’s attempt cannot be considered successful, it has shown how a text-linguistic approach to the Gospels can be made. His inquiry will certainly have to be taken into due consideration in future attempts.

Works Consulted

Boers, Hendrikus

1971    Theology of the Ghetto. A New Testament Exegetical Study concerning Religious Exclusiveness. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Chomsky, Noam

1965    Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press.

de Saussure, Ferdinand

1922    Cours de linguistique generale. Paris: Payot et Cie.

Grimes, Joseph E.

1975    “Signals of Discourse Structure in Koine.” Ed. George MacRae. Pp. 151–164 in Society of Biblical Literature 1975 Seminar Papers. Vol. 1. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press.

Güttgemanns, Erhardt

1970    Offene Fragen zur Formgeschichte des Evangeliums. München: Chr. Kaiser Verlag.

Güttgemanns, Erhardt

1971a    “Die linguistisch-didaktische Methodik der Gleichnisse Jesu.” Pp. 99–183 in Studia Linguistica Neotestamentica. München: Chr. Kaiser Verlag.

Güttgemanns, Erhardt

1971b    “Theologie als sprachbezogene Wissenschaft.” Pp. 184–230 in Studia Linguistica Neotestamentica. München: Chr. Kaiser Verlag.

Güttgemanns, Erhardt

1972    “Linguistisch-literaturwissenschaftliche Grundlegung einer neutestamentlichen Theologie.” Linguistica Biblica 13/14: 2–18.

Halliday, M. A. K.

1973    Explorations in the Functions of Language. London: Edward Arnold.

Noth, Martin

1948    Überlieferungsgeschichte des Pentateuchs. Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer.

Propp, Vladimir

1975    Morphology of the Folktale. Austin/London: University of Texas.

van Dijk, Teun A.

1972    Some Aspects of Text Grammars. A Study in Theoretical Linguistics and Poetics. Janua Linguarum Series Major 63. The Hague/Paris: Mouton.

Vielhauer, Philipp

1964    “Erwägungen zur Christologie des Markusevangeliums.” Ed. Erich Dinkler. Pp. 155–169 in Zeit und Geschichte. Dankesgabe an Rudolf Bultmann zum 80. Geburtstag. Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck).

Vielhauer, Philipp

1965    Same as 1964, now also pp. 199–214 in Aufsätze zum Neuen Testament. München: Chr. Kaiser Verlag.

von Rad, Gerhard

1958    “Das formgeschichtliche Problem des Hexateuch.” Pp. 9–86 in Gesammelte Studien zum Alten Testament. München: Chr. Kaiser Verlag.

von Rad, Gerhard

1961    Theologie des Alten Testaments. Vol. 1. München: Chr. Kaiser Verlag.

An Imperfect Union: Reflections on Gerd Theissen, Urchristliche Wundergeschichten

Paul J. Achtemeier

Union Theological Seminary in Virginia

1.1 This book is an eloquent witness to the steadily increasing interest on the part of biblical scholars in the miracle stories contained in the New Testament. A steady stream of books and articles, devoted to an examination of a whole range of problems associated with such narratives, has appeared over the past decade or so, with the result that, if we are no closer to a satisfactory way of resolving the problems they pose for the modern interpreter, at least we are beginning to be clearer on the role they played not only for those who heard and revered the stories now contained in our gospels, but also for their non-Christian contemporaries, who also delighted in similar tales. This study by Professor Theissen sets for itself the task of describing the genre to which the New Testament miracle stories belong, of using that information to account for the way the various gospel writers made use of the stories, both as individual units and as factors which influenced the way each gospel author conceived his total narrative, and of seeing how gospel miracle stories functioned as sociological and existential interpretamenta within the structure of the primitive church. It is an undertaking that is massive in scope, and Theissen has worked at those tasks with mixed results. It will be the burden of this review-article to look at some of the accomplishments and disappointments of the book.

1.2 Theissen makes clear from the outset that he understands his work to be a refinement of the methodological way opened up by the form critical study of the gospels. Taking as clue the title of the method (Formgeschichte) and its attempt to identify the locus of a form’s origin (Sitz im Leben), Theissen organizes his book in three major segments. The first looks at the “form” of the miracle story (Formgeschichte) and attempts, in a synchronic study, to locate the contours of the Gattung to which it belongs. He proposes to do that by comparing all of the relevant texts belonging to that Gattung, and, by abstracting those recurring elements which are relevant for the miracle story, to arrive at a description of the Gattung. He understands this to be not only the goal, but also the method of what he terms “classical form criticism” (17). The second of the major segments concerns itself with the historical dimension of the miracle tradition (Formgeschichte). In this segment Theissen undertakes a diachronic analysis of the miracle story, seeking to show that the transmission of miracle stories is better understood as the realization of potential narrative possibilities within the overall Gattung than on the archaeological model of uncovering layers of traditional accretions. To use the language of Noam Chomsky and others, it is better to see the various miracle stories as “performances” of an underlying “competence” rather than as stones that gather layers of moss. The third major segment seeks to locate the Sitz im Leben of the miracle stories in terms of the social function they performed and hence the social strata from which they emerged, in terms of the historical locus they occupy within the larger Hellenistic culture, and in terms of the existential need they satisfied within the ethos of the primitive church. Since the church was embedded in a specific historical and cultural milieu, it is not possible to draw hard and fast boundaries between the social strata within the church and outside of it, any more than one can specify an exclusive Christian need to be filled by miracle stories.

1.3 It is one of the major strengths of Theissen’s work that he is aware of that fact. Time and again he has recourse to the data available from the entire Graeco-Roman world of the Hellenistic period, and makes explicitly clear why one cannot automatically differentiate between Christian and Hellenistic attitudes toward miracles (e.g., 134). He draws on the Greek magical papyri to illustrate the wide range of the motif of secrecy which attended both the performance and the telling of miracles in the Hellenistic world (143–144). He draws an illuminating comparison between magicians and charismatic miracle workers in terms of the social intention and impact of their performances (eg., 240–244). He draws on a wealth of information to characterize the time within which accounts of miracles done by Jesus and his followers originated and were handed on (262–272). He struggles manfully if indirectly with the problem of the “reality content” (my phrase) of miracle stories, drawing in the course of the discussion on writings by Feuerbach, Freud, and a host of others from the fields of psychology and the sociology of knowledge, and leveling unsparing criticism on those biblical scholars who use historical research as “an instrument of modern apologetics” (293).

1.4 Theissen’s work has also produced a host of useful exegetical insights, which are scattered throughout the book. To give but one example, his method allows him to explain how certain elements, potential in any miracle story, may appear or disappear as the story is transmitted, thus allowing some elements to remain when others which explained them are omitted. Thus, Matthew, intent on retaining the motif of “faith” from the story of the paralytic in Mark 2:1–12, but following his normal practice of reducing the miracle story to a sparer form, retains the mention of faith (9:2) while omitting the act of digging through the roof which demonstrated that faith in the Markan account. Similarly, Theissen argues that the mention of “other boats” in Mark’s telling of the stilling of the storm (4:36) is best explained as Mark’s retention of a gattungsgemässes Motiv (appearance of crowds) while omitting the original motif that accounted for their presence (180).

1.5 There are only a few of the ways Theissen demonstrates his useful grasp of the wide-ranging problems he has undertaken to discuss, and only a few indications of the useful results his discussion has produced.

2. That is not to imply, however, that Theissen has mastered either the breadth of the problems with which he seeks to deal, or the nuances of the method by means of which he seeks to deal with them. He has not, and it will be the task of the remainder of this review to indicate some of the ways Theissen falls short of reaching his goal or of clarifying his methodology as he proceeds. Let me in what follows divide my remarks into three categories of problems I had with the book, listing them in ascending order. First, I want to point to some of the aggravations I found in Theissen’s monograph, second to some of the mistakes I think he made, and thirdly to some of the flaws in his method and hence in his argument as a whole.

2.11 First, then, some aggravations, by which I mean those internal errors of scholarly judgment and composition that could have been avoided, but whose presence makes it that much more difficult to concentrate on the main theses of the book. Such an aggravation is that fact that while Theissen tries to assign each of his 33 motifs to some “compositional locus” in the miracle story, he does not give any systematic indication of what he considers those loci to be. One must thus struggle through the assignment of motifs to their “compositional locus” without having any idea of what those loci are. Not until after the inventory of the motifs is one allowed to know what the four loci are. A simple statement outlining the loci before they are employed would have aided the reader considerably.

2.12 Another aggravation is the overgeneralizations that crop up from time to time. For example, Theissen affirms that “faith and motifs of hindrance are combined in all Markan miracle stories” (139), and then is able to give but four examples, hardly “all” Markan miracle stories. Again, Theissen would like very much to be able to account for the subject matter of miracles (the sick, the hungry, the possessed) on the ground that they represent the preoccupations of the lower classes. He affirms that the “miracle-believing imagination” dwells on matters that are distant from the upper classes (250). Yet only one page later, he is forced to admit that miracles and miracle stories were also popular precisely with those upper classes! Yet is that so strange? Are the upper classes not also afflicted (and Theissen also knows they are) with illness, and lonely alienation (for Theissen, the root cause of the phenomenon of exorcism)?

2.131 Self-contradiction is another form of aggravation with which one is confronted in this book. For example, Theissen quite rightly exempts the cries of those possessed by demons from the category of cries for help. As he correctly observes, “They are a defense against the miracle worker” (63). Yet not five lines later, Theissen can cite, as an example of Matthew’s tendency to double the number of those who cry for help in miracle stories, the two demoniacs (Theissen even cites the Greek word!) who cry out in Matt 8:29–30. Which of these two statements is to be believed, that the cry of those possessed is or is not a cry for help?

2.132 Another form of self-contradiction consists in an author’s unwillingness or inability to apply to his own work principles he invokes against the work of others. For example, Theissen in a most trenchant fashion castigates those who would use Pauline evidence to support statements about gospel miracle traditions, in this case to support the contention that there is a miracle-critical element in gospel miracle traditions. Pauline evidence is to be “excluded” “since it has nothing to say which aids an understanding of the gospel traditions” (291). Yet on the very next page Theissen finds one of his postulates about the gospel miracle traditions confirmed by, of all things, Pauline evidence! To support his argument that the request for a “sign from heaven” (Mark 8:11–12) refers to a cosmic sign, Theissen writes: “In Paul also ‘sign’ and ‘cosmos’ belong together (1 Cor. 1:2f)” (292, n. 5), thus doing for himself what he had denied to others: supporting an argument about the synoptic traditions with Pauline evidence. In a similar vein, while Theissen is quite aware of the need to respect the diversity represented by the various NT traditions, he is capable of referring (on the same page) to “the synoptic miracle stories” as though somehow they represented a homogeneous tradition. They do not, as he has earlier demonstrated. In their present form, they have been shaped by specific issues with which Matthew, Mark and Luke have sought to deal. As we will see below, this confusion of specific traits in individual synoptic treatments with general traits of a postulated “synoptic miracle tradition” leads Theissen to some far more serious flaws in his treatment.

2.14 Other aggravations could be cited: a tendency on the part of Theissen to be attracted to rationalist explanations of the miracles as natural events (e.g., “the miraculous multiplication of loaves is surely related to the fact that the primitive Christians engaged in mutual support” [249]—an explanation analogous to the “miracle of sharing” others have found in that story); the use of categories (unliterary oral material, unliterary written material, literary written material [190]) which other students of oral literature have found quite inappropriate (e.g., Albert Lord, in his examination of Yugoslavian folk literature); but let the present listing suffice.

2.21 A second type of difficulty I have with Theissen’s work I categorized earlier as “mistakes.” Let me point to some of the mistakes I think he has made. For example, Theissen can argue that since charismatic miracle workers came almost entirely from those eastern lands under the rule of Rome, their attempt to repristinate earlier cultural values is a reaction against politically superior foreign powers (255). Yet it was precisely such an appeal to the repristination of earlier cultural values that provided the ideology for the Emperor Augustus in his transformation of Rome into a new form of political organization. It was simply a tendency of the times (as Theissen himself elsewhere admits [271]). Hence, such a sociological explanation for the ideologies represented by charismatic miracle workers is at this point out of place. Augustus hardly represented a reaction against politically superior foreign power.

2.22 Again I would have to argue that his analysis of Mark 9:14–29 is mistaken, in particular his claim that the cry “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24) is an “expression of tested faith” (139). Since I have argued that case extensively elsewhere, I will not rehearse it here. Let me simply point out that the father’s estimate of his own faith as insufficient is never corrected, nor is there any indication that that faith ever rose above the level of ambiguity. One looks in vain for any comment of Jesus about either the father or his faith (contrast, e.g., Mark 5:43).

2.23 As a final example, let me cite Theissen’s discussion of the relationship between Mark 6:14–16 and 8:28. Theissen wants to argue that 8:28 represents Mark’s transformation of the traditional 6:14–16, in which Mark has turned the indirect speech of the unknown crowds (6:14–15) into the direct speech of the disciples (8:28). In that way, Mark displaced the discussion of the true meaning of Jesus (his Würde) to the esoteric framework of a discussion among the disciples. Mark was motivated to do this by his theory of the messianic secret. Theissen concludes: “In 6:14f (Mark) can apparently permit only a few inadequate opinions which attempt to understand the wonder working Jesus. Only in the esoteric circle of a conversation among the disciples can the titular acclamation summoned forth by the miracles occur” (172). Yet the same titles occur in 6:14–15 as occur in 8:28. What is it that makes them inadequate in 6:14–15 and adequate in 8:28? Does Mark say they were wrong in 6:14–15? Does he say they were right in 8:28? Indeed, one gets the clear impression that even the additional title in 8:29 (Christ) leaves something to be desired (cf. 8:31–33). Why, furthermore, would the disciples at this point represent an adequate framework within which to allow a discussion of the acclamatory titles summoned forth by Jesus’ mighty deeds? We have been informed by Mark that they not only do not understand, they cannot understand (Mark 6:25: “their hearts were hardened”). It would appear that the titles which were “unworthy” in 6:14–15 are just as unworthy in 8:28. Indeed they lead directly to a condemnation in 8:28, something of which there is no hint in 6:14–15. It would seem that neither set is adequate in Mark’s understanding. Theissen’s desire to find the source of all such acclamations in the miracle stories, displaced in Mark because of his theory of the messianic secret, has led him to see in two passages of scripture more than I suspect Mark intended to be found there.

3. With this last point, we have touched on a major thesis of Theissen’s book, and we must turn now to a more careful examination of that thesis, and the way it is developed. Such an examination will lead us to the third type of problem I found with the book, namely some flaws. Since the flaws I want to discuss are all related to method, it will be necessary first to sketch out a few of the methodological principles that Theissen intends to follow.

3.1 One of the goals Theissen sets for himself in this study is the determination of a compositional “Gattungsstruktur” which underlies all miracle stories (19). He intends to locate the units and structures which belong to this Gattung by abstracting them from the variations of person, motif and theme that appear in the various miracle stories (24). In that way, he hopes to isolate a structural Gattung that has acted as a norm governing the construction of all actual miracle stories. To use other language, he is seeking the “competence” that governs and structures the “performances.” That means, further, that not all elements belonging to the Gattung will be realized in every specific miracle story (15), but that the total structure is nevertheless implied in every such story. Any element that can appear in a miracle story without destroying its sense is in effect a potential addition to any miracle story in which it does not appear. Again, in terminology other than that used by Theissen, one can speak of “zero morphemes,” i.e., elements that can appear in a miracle story, but do not appear in some specific story. The possibility of including them must nevertheless be reckoned with. That means that one can analyze individual stories on the basis of what is absent as well as present, gaining a perspective on the intention and value of a specific “performance” on the basis of the total “competence” of the Gattung. It is Professor Theissen’s intention to exploit the resources offered by this type of analysis, both synchronic and diachronic, in a study of the miracle stories of primitive Christianity.

3.21 Theissen proposes three items which are significant in narrative prose: persons, motifs, and themes (13). His task is then, on the basis of a “field inventory,” to identify and classify the items. He finds seven “persons”: demons, the sick, opponents, crowds, disciples, miracle worker, and companions (of those seeking help), and derives from them seven themes of miracle stories: exorcisms, healings, miracles that involves legal norms, miraculous feedings (donation miracles), sea miracles (miracles of rescue) and epiphanies, each linked (in order) to one of the seven groups of persons (55). There is a problem here, of course, in that he is not able to list seven themes, only six, nor is he able to find a theme for “companions.” Theissen tries to cover this problem by arguing that companions divide themselves among exorcisms and healings, and thus form a subgroup within those two themes, but his failure ever again to use those “subgroups” points to this flaw in his inventory.

3.22 The same problem attends his inventory of motifs. Such an inventory is absolutely essential, since Theissen wants to account for the presents variety of miracle stories in the New Testament, primarily not on the basis of the diachronic development (the model of archaeological levels), but on the basis of the synchronic potentialities inherent within the Gattung “miracle story.” Rather than accounting for the appearance and disappearance of elements within a given miracle story on the basis of a “history” of the story, he will account for the differences on the basis on that some potential motifs will have been actualized instead of others. In other words, permutations in stories are better accounted for in terms of the overarching Gattung and its variety of potential realizations rather than on the basis of changes motivated by purely historical forces. For that thesis of work, Theissen will have to enumerate all motifs that belong to that ideal Gattung, so that he can account for all such changes. He will further have to find out which elements belong with one another, and which elements bring others in their train. He attempts to do this in his inventory of motifs (58–81), in which he enumerates 33, an enumeration for which he claims comprehensiveness: he calls the list Inventarisierung und Beschreibung aller Motive (81). The difficulty is, the list is not complete. Although he classifies Epiphanie as one of his themes, he has omitted the motifs characteristic of that kind of miracle story from his inventory, as he himself admits (103). Still later, Theissen catalogs the motifs in their relationship to one another (Entgegengesetzter Motiven, 83–89), and arrives at three grids containing 30 motifs. Does this mean those now omitted were unimportant? Have some been combined with others? What is the relationship of these 30 to the “complete” list of 33? Obviously, Theissen is having difficulty with his potential Gattung. He himself admits that “alternative analyses are quite imaginable” (89). But what does it mean to have a potential Gattung that is imaginable in a variety of ways? How will that help in the analysis of the various individual miracle stories?

3.23 Other classifications display the same tentative character. In classifying types of miracles in terms of those oriented to persons and those oriented to some subject matter (personorientiert and sachorientiert [124]), Theissen is not able to arrive at any kind of satisfactory ordering. Why, for example, is an exorcism more oriented to persons than a miracle of rescue? In the latter it is, after all, not the sea that is saved, but the disciples. Or why is a miracle of donation more subject-oriented than a healing, when in both cases a lack is filled for people in need (Theissen’s own terminology)? It is not the bread, but the people that benefit from the multiplication of loaves. For that reason this whole attempt at classification seems a bit forced. Again, in an attempt to classify miracles in the category of “persons,” Theissen arrives at the subdivision of “chief actors,” (demon, ill person, miracle worker) and “secondary actors” (disciples, crowd, opponent [121–123]), although he himself is forced to admit that in certain miracles, the second group can also function as chief actors. What then is accomplished by such a classification at all? The forced nature of these classifications gives one the impression that Theissen has not mastered the method he is seeking to employ. It is almost as though he knows such classifications are essential, but is unable to carry them through with any consistency or inner necessity. The reader is thus forced to await some more objective form of classification.

3.3 Let us return to the main methodological presupposition: miracle stories consist of a portion of all potentially usable motifs. Every specific miracle story therefore represents a choice made by the narrator, whether that narrator is consciously aware of that procedure or not (82). Thus, the miracle-story traditions in the gospels actualize structurally a priori possibilities. Theissen sets himself the task, on the basis of this axiom, of demonstrating how the diachronic traditioning process can be accounted for in terms of the potential Gattung. That is to say, Theissen seeks to illuminate the diachronic process on the basis of the synchronic analysis, thus explaining what from a purely diachronic viewpoint is difficult if not impossible to explain. Changes in the various miracle stories are to be accounted for “not only on the basis of diachronically prior formulations, but also against the background of structurally prior possibilities contained within the Gattung itself” (185). The continuity of the tradition is thus to be sought not in a historical process of adaptation, but on the level of the virtuelle Gattung (197).

3.31 An instructive example of the way in which Theissen seeks to make such methodological insights fruitful lies in the treatment he gives to the acclamation which comes at the conclusion of a few miracle stories in the gospels. Theissen correctly observes that the motif is not so common in pre-Christian miracle stories that one can speak of “a stereotyped final motif in ancient miracle stories” (79). Nevertheless, because an acclamation can be present in a miracle story without reducing it to nonsense, one can conclude that its absence simply means that “a paradigmatically present motif has not been realized in composition” (170). To use other vocabulary, it is a “zero morpheme” in most miracle stories. Theissen carries such reasoning one step further when he affirms that even when an acclamation is not narrated, it is nevertheless still the intention of the miracle story (168). In short, the purpose of telling the miracle story is the acclamation. Parenthetically I think it is useful to point out that such acclamatory conclusions seem to be much more clearly the intention of the Lukan writing, where to a much greater degree than in the other three gospels, miracles are taken to be unambiguous signs pointing, even leading, to faith in Jesus. At this point, it would have been more useful had Theissen taken seriously his own observation that we must be careful to note the variety within the New Testament in this instance even within the gospels. He likes to speak of the “synoptic miracle tradition,” yet following his own strictures, he would have been better served analyzing the Markan, Lukan, Matthean and Johannine forms of the miracle story, to see what particular emphases each attempted to make with the telling of the miracle stories, and only then attempting to generalize on the “synoptic miracle tradition.” He does have comments on the use of miracles by each gospel author, but only long after he has established the “synoptic Gattung.”

3.32 To resume our discussion of the way in which Theissen seeks to exploit his method in the treatment of acclamation as the intended goal of every miracle story, we must note next that Theissen accounts for the frequent absence of acclamations in Markan miracle stories by arguing that Mark has deliberately omitted titular acclamations, because he wants to use such a titular acclamation as the climax to the gospel, namely, the confession of the centurion under the cross (Mark 15:39). Here, in the presence of a miracle (Mark 15:38), Mark finally uses in its full sense the titular acclamation which, given his understanding of the earthly career of Jesus, he could not use in miracle stories narrated earlier on in his story of that career. Thus, for Mark, the Gattung “gospel” is a “creative actualization of compositional and field structures of small Gattungen,” in this case the miracle story (211). Mark has taken the characteristics of composition of his whole gospel from the major motifs of the miracle stories: acclamation (defined as knowledge of the true nature of Jesus) and admiration. He writes: “The most important elements (Momente) of this overarching compositional context consist in part of acclamations at the conclusion of miracle accounts (1:28; 2:12; 4:41; 7:37; 15:39), in part of acclamatory exclamations which have been transferred to expositional portions of the gospel (6:2; 6:14; 8:28).” Thus, the climax of the gospel, anticipated in the confession of Peter (which in its turn is linked to miracle stories through its similarity to 6:14–16) is the confession of the centurion beneath the cross: “Surely this man was God’s son.”

3.33 I have great difficulty with this solution both with respect to the derivation of the Gattung “gospel,” and with respect to the key element: acclamation. Aside from the fact that, as I have sought to show elsewhere, it is difficult to the point of being impossible to see either the confessional act of the centurion, or the content of that confession (“Son of God”) as any kind of key or climax to Mark’s gospel, that confession simply cannot be related to the miraculous in the way Theissen would like. Mark makes quite explicit that the centurion’s exclamation is the direct result of Jesus’ death, not the miraculous destruction of the temple curtain. The Greek makes that unavoidable, since Mark repeats in v 39 the word he used to describe Jesus’ death (ἐξέπνευσεν) in v 37. It was Jesus’ death, not some miraculous occurrence, that prompted the centurion’s “confession.”

3.41 That in its turn points to what I see as a serious flaw in this whole discussion, namely the total absence of references to Jesus’ suffering in the Gattung “miracle story.” If recent research in the gospel of Mark has shown anything, it has shown that the theme of Jesus’ suffering and death is the key to understanding it. Theissen salutes that fact in passing when he notes that the inadequacy of the confession of Peter lies in the fact that suffering is absent from Peter’s acclamation. Yet Theissen remains oblivious to the fact that it is just that motif that is also absent from the miracle story. “Suffering” is not a zero morpheme in the Gattung miracle story; it is simply not a possible morpheme. When that is realized, one sees that Theissen’s attempt to explain Mark by saying: “From miracle stories a miracle story was derived with secretively retarded acclamation” collapses (214).

3.42 Again, Theissen is aware of all this, for when he turns from accounting for Mark as an aretalogical unity to a consideration of Mark as a biographical unity, he simply ignores miracle stories in favor of the passion. Now, we are told, Mark created the unity in his gospel by the use of a motif (Jesus’ suffering) taken from the passion story, specifically from Mark 14:1–2 (219), and relocated at specific points in the gospel: 3:6; 11:8; 12:12 (the latter two “not motivated in their respective contexts” [218]). One begins to wonder what the purpose of Theissen’s book really is. Is it really a discussion of “primitive Christian miracle stories”? Or is it an attempt to solve a whole variety of problems under a convenient, and not always observed, rubric? I have a feeling the book would have been more useful had it not been allowed to range quite so far afield.

3.5 That the difficulty Theissen experienced in relating suffering to a Gattung “gospel” is not accidental, but structural to his mode of argumentation, is confirmed when we turn to his exposition of the purpose of the miracle story. Growing directly out of his reflections on acclamation, and his affirmation that the motif “faith” is integral to all miracle stories (frequently as “zero morpheme,” since references to faith are absent far more often than present in gospel miracle accounts), Theissen affirms that the purpose of the miracle story is missionary. It wants to convert to faith which eventuates in acclamation (168, 257–258). Since the purpose of missionary activity is a new way of life, miracle stories are “collective symbolic acts, in which a new way of life is revealed” (261). Here again, a structural defect in Theissen’s argument becomes apparent: where in any miracle story is there any hint of ethical admonition, or evidence of such a “change in life” of those observing the miracle, or even of those benefitting from it? Where is such an admonition ever coupled with a miracle story in the gospels? Where are ethical exhortations motivated by the occurrence of a miracle? Paul writes admittedly missionary letters, full of such advice. Is it merely accidental that he recites not one miracle? Theissen is of course too careful a scholar not to have noted that problem. He writes: “We sense hardly anything of a radical change in the way life is carried on, or of those strict requirements which were laid upon primitive Christian missionaries (cf. the commissioning speeches in Matt. 10 and the Didache)” (259). Indeed we do not. His explanation? Miracle stories have simply become so “popular” (volkstümlich) that they nowhere betray “that they were bound up with so eccentric (exzentrische) a way of life as that of the primitive Christian missionaries” (259). One can, with this methodology, presume that any element present in one story belonging to a given Gattung is potentially present in every other similar story, but can one realistically call upon an element nowhere present in a specific form as nevertheless potentially present in the Gattung?

3.6 Such procedure, again, is not accidental. Theissen repeats it when he comes to speak of the uniqueness of Christian miracle accounts. He argues that what was new about Jesus as miracle worker, and thus about primitive Christian miracle faith, was the combination in them of present and future eschatology. Because the present calamitous times have been broken by Jesus’ miracles, episodic salvation could occur. Because such episodic salvation/healing could occur, one could announce that future salvation was already at hand in the present. Such a combination, Theissen avers, is not to be found in the ancient world, not even in Qumran (276–277). But again, what of the miracle stories themselves? Where in them is a word about this eschatological dimension of the miracles? It occurs in “Q” sayings (which Theissen rather obviously thinks reflect Jesus’ own understanding of his miracles), but not in any miracle story itself. How can the absence of this “novum” of the Christian faith in miracle stories be explained, in view of the fact that that faith was derived from such miracle stories? Theissen can answer only by analogy. Just as Paul’s unique doctrine of justification by faith was lost to the Paul recounted in Acts, and just as the condemnation of holy self-righteousness was lost to the John the Baptist recorded in Mark 6, so through a kind of “popular displacement” (volkstümliche Verschiebung), the characteristic eschatological element unique to the Christian understanding of miracles has disappeared from their accounts (277–279). But can we really be convinced by imaginary constructs in place of evidence? In the cases of Paul and John and Baptist, we at least have evidence concerning their unique theological emphases. Where is there any evidence of an eschatological framework within the miracle stories themselves? To be sure, such an argument gives wonderful contemporary significance to miracle stories. It is surely good news to our present “calamitous times” that “episodic salvation” is at least potentially capable of occurring. Perhaps the desire to find contemporary relevance has led Theissen into this virtually indefensible position.

3.7 Whatever the reason, we see here again the flaw in methodological procedure which enables Theissen to make of the absence of a motif the key to understanding a Gattung.

3.8 Yet perhaps the problem lies in the very nature of the task Theissen has set for himself. One gets the impression that he would like to combine, methodologically, elements of both the form critical and the linguistic modes of analyzing NT materials. The way in which Theissen’s argument proceeds forces one to ask whether this may not in the end prove to be impossible. In the present work, the two methodologies seem to be struggling for dominance, with one method being pressed into service to justify the insights of the other. It is, at best, an imperfect union. Theissen has surely addressed significant issues, and he has shed much light in many areas of his inquiry. He has brought to his investigations a wide range of learning and an impressive breadth of information. Yet in the final analysis, the flawed combination of two methodologies has rendered the work less useful than one would have wished. Whether the problem lies in this particular attempt at combining the methods, or is endemic to the attempt itself, remains to be seen.

Works Consulted

Achtemeier, Paul J.

1975    a “The Lukan Perspective on the Miracles of Jesus: A Preliminary Sketch.” JBL 94: 547–562.

Achtemeier, Paul J.

1975b    Mark in the series Proclamation Commentaries. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Achtemeier, Paul J.

1975c    “Miracles and the Historical Jesus: Mark 9:14–29.” CBQ 37: 471–491.

Güttgemanns, Erhardt

1976    Erhardt Güttgemanns’ Generative Poetics Ed. Norman R. Petersen; trans. William G. Doty. Semeia 6. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press.

The Early Christian Miracle Story: Some Observations on the Form Critical Problem

Hans Dieter Betz

Divinity School, University of Chicago


This essay addresses the methodology of analyzing miracle stories briefly and then provides a detailed outline of two complex stories by way of example.

The miracle story is not to be confused with the miracle event: these stories never narrate the miracle itself because the miracle by nature is a divine mystery. All miracle stories carry an interpretation; it is important to distinguish between primary and secondary forms of interpretation. Miracle stories are sometimes “disturbed” by other literary genres. The phenomenon of the mixture of genres calls for further reflection. Because of the multitude of compositional possibilities, every miracle story should be permitted its own individuality.

“The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus” and “The Healing of a Boy Possessed by a Demon” are outlined in detail. Each story has three sections (opening, main, concluding section). Literary forms and motifs are identified and their distribution noted. The number, character, treatment, and “history” of dramatis personae are indicated. The collusion of compositional elements is exposed so as to make clear the course of the narrative.

1. Present form-critical research on the New Testament miracle stories has entered into a critical phase. This development is indicated especially by Gerd Theissen’s work Urchristliche Wundergeschichten. Ein Beitrag zur formgeschichtlichen Erforschung der synoptischen Evangelien (1974). As Theissen has shown, the miracle story is a literary phenomenon and must be treated in terms of literary analysis. He has demonstrated, furthermore, that all New Testament miracle stories are compositions out of a limited number of components which he calls “motifs” and “themes.”

Without entering into a detailed discussion with Theissen, the present paper assumes that this approach is basically correct and that future research will have to start with his work. Before turning to the analysis of two exemplary miracle stories, a few general observations on the methodology of interpreting miracle stories may be in order.

The miracle story is not to be confused with the miracle event. In fact the miraculous event itself is never described by the story. Rather, at the precise point within the narrative where the miracle is about to happen a “gap” occurs. After the “gap” the narrative states as a fact that the miracle has happened. The reason for this peculiar phenomenon is that the miracle as an event is by nature a divine mystery and, as far as language is concerned, an arrheton: human language is not capable of expressing the divine.

What then is the miracle story? The miracle story is neither the miracle itself nor talk about the miracle but a narrative with the special assignment of serving as a kind of language envelope for the transmission and communication of the “unspeakable” miracle event.

The relationship between the miracle story and its interpretation also deserves special consideration. In fact there are various kinds of interpretation connected with the miracle story. One kind of interpretation is intrinsic: as narratives all miracle stories carry an interpretation. The very fact that the miracle story is told is an interpretation, and the same must be said with regard to every detail narrated by the story. In addition to this intrinsic type of interpretation there are various secondary types which consist of insertions, supplements, or new frameworks. A clear distinction between these different types of interpretation can not always be made. More reflection is needed at this point, so that we can learn to distinguish better between narrative and interpretation.

Since no miracle story is without interpretation, the question is only, which types of interpretation can be identified, and how far has the process of interpretation developed? If this assessment is true, no radical difference exists in this point between the Synoptic and the Johannine miracle stories. Rather, the Synoptic material shows the same process at an earlier level, while the Fourth Gospel has carried further and perfected the methods.

Another feature of miracle stories is that they are sometimes “disturbed” by other literary genres. Frequently, dialogues are inserted in which theological themes are discussed. Or the miracle story can be narrated in such a way that it “flips” over into the genre of a “call narrative” or “conversion story.” Such “disturbances” may even push the miracle story to the point where it loses its character and changes into another literary genre. More reflection is needed to account for this phenomenon of mixture of genres.

While Theissen has shown that the miracle stories are composed out of a limited number of components, the observation should be added that there is at the same time an almost unlimited variability of these compositional elements. These elements should not be taken as solid pieces which are mechanically arranged in different ways. Just as important as the selection of motifs is the treatment to which the selected elements are subjected. Because of the multitude of possibilities every miracle story in the New Testament has its own individuality. One should, therefore, approach these stories as small works of literary art (Kleinliteratur) and not as products of narrative technology.

Two miracle stories will be discussed in the following sections of this paper, “The Healing of the Blind Bartimaeus” (Mark 10:46–52), and “The Healing of a Boy Possessed by a Demon” (Mark 9:14–29). These two stories, of which only the Markan versions will be considered, may serve as illustrations of the way in which all miracle stories can profitably be analyzed, beginning with the texts as they now stand.

Each of these miracle stories has three sections, an opening, a main, and a concluding section. Careful attention must be given not only to the identification of literary forms and motifs but also to the quantitative distribution within the scenes in which they occur. The stories also contain various internal developments: the dramatis personae are important not only because of their number, character, and treatment, but also because of their “history” within the story. Persons may move from the fringe of the story into the center and back to the fringe, a movement often indicative of the person’s “history” and “purpose” in the story. Other developments are those from mind contact to face-to-face contact, or from visual to verbal to face-to-face contact. The analysis has the purpose of exposing the various compositional elements as well as their collusion, so that the reader can follow the course of the narrative more closely and more consciously. As a result, the reader should be able to understand the individuality of every story and the message it intends to convey.

2. The Healing of the Blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46–52)



I. Opening Scene



A. Redactional framework



B. Reference to time and place



C. Introduction of persons




1. Jesus




2. Disciples




3. Crowd




4. Bartimaeus





a. His name





b. His illness





c. His occupation





d. His location



D. Bartimaeus’ approach to Jesus




1. Establishment of mind contact: he hears of Jesus’ fame





a. Type of contact: rumor





b. Message: the name Jesus of Nazareth suffices




2. Establishment of verbal contact





a. Type of contact: shouting





b. Message






(1) Petition/prayer: “have mercy on me”






(2) Messianic title: “Son of David Jesus”





c. Rebuke of Bartimaeus by crowd






(1) Type of rebuke: oral threat






(2) Message: Order to be silent





d. Response of Bartimaeus






(1) Response to crowd: ignoring the rebuke






(2) Repetition of shouting







(a) Intensification of shouting







(b) Repetition of message








(aa) Petition/prayer








(bb) Messianic title: “Son of David”





e. Response of Jesus to Bartimaeus’ plea






(1) End of the peripatos: he stops






(2) Introduction of intermediaries (“they”)







(a) Order by Jesus to call Bartimaeus







(b) Carrying out of the order by intermediaries








(aa) Type of action: they call








(bb) Their message









α) Encouragement: “take heart”









β) Order to get up: “rise up”









γ) Reported reason: “he is calling you”





f. Bartimaeus’ response






(1) Types of response







(a) Throwing off the mantle (indicates immediacy of remorse)







(b) Springing up






(2) Result: coming to Jesus in person, establishment of face-to-face contact


II. Main scene



A. Face-to-face encounter of Jesus and Bartimaeus




1. Jesus’ question to Bartimaeus




2. Bartimaeus’ answer





a. Address: “Master”





b. Petition (metaphorical?): “let me receive my sight”



B. Occurrence of the miracle (arrheton)



C. Dismissal




1. Order of dismissal




2. Reason for dismissal



D. Statement (observation) of the accomplished healing




1. Immediate occurrence




2. Evidence


III. Concluding scene: description of discipleship


A peculiar feature of this miracle story is the lengthy and highly developed opening scene (vv 46–50). It contains a careful description of the main person, Bartimaeus (v 46b). His approach to Jesus is described in great detail: Bartimaeus starts out from mind contact through rumor (v 47a), moves on to verbal contact (v 47b), and finally, having overcome the rebuke of the crowd (v 48), to face-to-face contact (v 51). This long opening scene is not incidental but expresses the intent of the story. In vv 49–50 the miracle story “flips over” into another literary genre, the “call story.” In the course of this episode Bartimaeus becomes a disciple of Jesus and addresses him as “master” (v 51).

The main scene (vv 51–52) is comparatively brief and simple, an indication that it serves only as “material” for the main theme of the story, the call of Bartimaeus to discipleship. The petition in v 51 “let me receive my sight” may or may not have metaphorical overtones (cf. v 52). The terminology of blindness and vision often becomes an opportunity for further metaphorization (see, especially, the parallel versions Matt 20:33–34; 9:29–31; Luke 18:41–43; cf. also my article in JBL 90 [1971] 318–319, 324–325). As an arrheton the miraculous event is not described: it is supposed to happen between verse 51 and verse 52.

The concluding scene (v 52) briefly describes Bartimaeus’ new life as a disciple of Jesus and thus reveals again the intent of the whole story.

3. The Healing of a Boy Possessed by a Demon (Mark 9:14–29)



I. Opening scene



A. Presupposed context: Jesus’ return from the mountain, together with Peter, James, and John




1. Report of Jesus’ return, together with Peter, James, and John, in order to reunite with the other disciples




2. Establishment of visual contact: “they see” (from afar)




3. Presentation of a “typical” picture consisting of





a. A great crowd





b. The other disciples surrounded by crowd





c. The opponents (“scribes”) debating with the disciples





d. Jesus and his inner circle (Peter, James, John) watching from afar



B. Encounter between the crowds and Jesus: a “typical” picture




1. Establishment of visual contact





a. The whole crowd sees him





b. They see him suddenly




2. Reaction of the crowd (as to a “divine man”): a “mob scene”





a. They are struck by amazement





b. They run towards him





c. They kiss him




3. Dialogue between Jesus and the crowd





a. Jesus’ question to the crowd





b. Answer by a spokesman for the crowd (= the father)






(1) Address of Jesus: “teacher”






(2) Report about his past action: “I brought my son to you.”






(3) Report about the condition of the boy







(a) General diagnosis







(b) Description of the destructive effects of the possession








(aa) Demon “attacks” the boy








(bb) Demon “throws” the boy








(cc) Symptoms









α) Foaming









β) Grinding of the teeth









γ) Stiffness






(4) Report about a (past) petition made to the disciples







(a) The addressees of the petition







(b) The content of the petition







(c) The failure of the disciples: “they could not do it”





c. Jesus’ reply to the crowd (including the disciples?)






(1) Address of the crowd






(2) Two rhetorical questions







(a) “How long am I to be with you?”







(b) “How long am I to put up with you?”






(3) Command to bring the boy to him



C. Encounter between Jesus and the boy, that is, the demon




1. Report about completed action: they (who?) had brought the boy




2. Establishment of visual contact between the demon and Jesus




3. Attack of the demon against the boy





a. Reference to time: “at once”





b. Description of the demonic attack






(1) The action of the demon: “it tore him about”






(2) Symptoms







(a) Falling down







(b) Rolling about







(c) Foaming



D. Encounter and dialogue between Jesus and the father of the boy




1. Jesus’ turning to the father and his question




2. The father’s reply: a report about history of the case





a. Length of time





b. Dangerous nature of the attacks






(1) They occur often






(2) Demon has thrown him into fire and water






(3) Demon intends to destroy the child




3. The father’s petition on behalf of the boy





a. Naming of conditions: “if you can” (i.e., do better than your disciples)





b. Request





c. Reason for request (christological?)




4. Jesus’ reply to the father





a. Quotation of the father’s remark “if you can”





b. Reply by a “dogmatic” (or: proverbial) statement




5. The father’s reaction





a. Reference to time: “suddenly”





b. Reference to ecstasy





c. A paradoxical confession of faith






(1) Confession of faith: “I believe”






(2) Petition/prayer: “Help my unbelief!”


II. Main scene



A. Description of the scene: a “typical” picture




1. Jesus “beholds” the situation




2. Crowds running together




3. [Foreground: the boy, the father, the disciples]



B. Therapy




1. Threat against the demon




2. Content of the threat





a. Address of the demon (identification)





b. Self-identification of Jesus





c. Command to get out



C. Occurrence of the miraculous event (arrheton)



D. Reaction of the demon




1. Initial resistance




2. Departure



E. Evidence of accomplished exorcism




1. Appearance of failure





a. The boy looks like dead





b. The crowd concludes that he is dead




2. Evidence of success





a. Jesus takes the boy’s hand





b. Jesus lifts the boy up





c. The boy stands upright


III. Concluding scene



A. Description of the situation




1. Change of scene




2. Another “typical” picture





a. Jesus and his disciples separate from the crowd





b. Reference to locality: a house





c. Jesus portrayed as teacher



B. A theological dialogue




1. Statement by the disciples of the “problem”: “why could we not cast it out?”




2. Jesus’ reply: a demonological instruction





a. Identification of the class of demons





b. Information as to how to deal with it






(1) By “prayer”






(2) Some MSS add: “and by fasting”


The opening scene (vv 14–24) is lengthy and detailed, an indication of its importance for the intent of the story. The number of dramatis personae is comparatively large, and groups of persons are shifted around several times, so that the scene appears quite busy. The main content of this first scene is the approach by or to Jesus. It is phrased clearly: from visual contact from afar (v 14) to encounter with the crowd (v 15) to encounter with the father (v 17) to encounter with the boy (v 20). The approach continues in the main scene with the confrontation with the demon (v 25) and the final encounter with the disciples (vv 28–29). The main person is certainly not the boy to be healed but his father who is picked up from the crowd (v 17) and moved towards conversion: verse 24 “flips over” into a “conversion story,” another literary genre. The dialogue between the father and Jesus in verses 22–23 not only leads to the conversion of the father climaxing in his paradoxical confession of faith (v 24), but also to the concluding scene (vv 28–29). The main scene is of normal length and contains the account of the exorcism, but this scene is only secondary in the intent of the story. It provides the “material” for the conversion of the father. The crowd’s skepticism (v 26) is no doubt set against the disciples’ impotence (vv 18, 23, 28), and a tension is created which requires a solution (vv 28–29). Despite the length of the exorcism scene, the main focus of the story is not upon the boy’s healing but upon the father and his conversion. He gradually moves out of the skeptical crowd (v 22) to conversion (v 24) and membership in the group of disciples (vv 28–29). The miraculous event itself is presupposed to occur between verse 25 and verse 26; as an arrheton it is not described. The concluding scene (vv 28–29) changes the situation and depicts what seems to be a house-church, with Jesus teaching the disciples a lesson on demonology. This scene dissolves the tension between the faith of the new disciple and the old disciples who proved incapable of doing the miracle. This scene, therefore, seems to indicate the final major focus of the whole story. It is the “faith” of the Christian disciples at various levels, including reflections on the “unbelief” of the crowd in distinction from that of the father (v 24) and the old disciples (vv 18, 22, 28–29). The reference to the proseuche in verse 29 may presuppose arcane magical material. If so, it would mean that the story is told to the outside, while an esoteric side of discipleship including secret teachings is admitted.

4. In conclusion, some future tasks in form-critical studies of the miracle story may be stated briefly and tentatively. The general goal must be to learn what a miracle story is—something we should not at present pretend to know with precision. Based upon the general literary genre of the miracle story we may then be able to determine what a “Christian” miracle story is.

It would be useful if we had detailed analyses of every New Testament miracle story along the lines proposed in this paper. These analyses could then be developed into a commentary on the miracle stories. Such a commentary would spell out the various literary movements of the narratives as well as the various levels of interpretation. The next step would be the conception of a history of the New Testament miracle story, in which the miracle stories would be treated according to their literary forms and genres, beginning with the simpler and moving to the more and more developed stories. In this way one could follow the successive stages in the life and history of these stories and their growing penetration by theological reflection.

Non-Christian miracle stories should be investigated in a similar manner within their own religious tradition, e.g., in the Asclepius cult of Epidaurus. Comparisons of such histories of miracle stories could then demonstrate characteristic features in each of them, so that characteristically Christian features and developments could be separated from those common to all miracle stories.

5. Bibliographical suggestions for further study along the lines of this paper: The work of Theissen should be studied carefully and critically: Gerd Theissen, Urchristliche Wundergeschichten. Ein Beitrag zur formgeschichtlichen Erforschung der synoptischen Evangelien (Gütersloh: Mohn, 1974). As far as my own work is concerned, see my essay, “The Cleansing of the Ten Lepers (Luke 17:11–19),” JBL 90 (1971) 314–328. The approach suggested in that paper is thoroughly discussed in the work by Wilhelm Bruners, Die Reinigung der zehn Aussätzigen und die Heilung des Samariters Lk 17, 11–19 (Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1977). My review of this work will appear in Theologische Literaturzeitung 103 (1978). On the history of early Christian literature, see the important work by Philipp Vielhauer, Geschichte der urchristlichen Literatur (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1975). Vielhauer has clearly seen the task of writing such a history as the history of its literary forms. Cf. my review of the work which will appear in Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok 43 (1978).

The Structure of the Gospel Miracle Stories and Their Tellers

Antoinette Clark Wire

San Francisco Theological Seminary


This paper proposes to investigate the interactions between and among characters in miracle stories as the constructive and hence interpretive key, following the lead of Theissen (1974). It is perhaps the kind of interaction which determines the elaboration of the story from a stock of action motifs common to Hellenistic miracle stories. The aim is to find a base that makes it possible to speak of the story itself, the story that belongs to the oral teller and hearer for whom the story is the whole unit of communication, as distinguished from the story embedded in a literary context.

The study is limited to gospel miracle stories, but extended to include non-Christian materials manifesting a correlative form of interaction. All gospel miracle stories fall into one of four categories according to their organizing interaction: the exorcism, the exposé, the provision and the demand.

The exorcism stories in the gospels dramatize Jesus’ direct attack, struggle with and expelling of powers which possess and enforce their will over people. These are compared with four stories from The Life of Apollonius of Tyana. The stories announce a triumph over the kind of evil that is direct, violent, uncontrollable and annihilating.

The exposé features a struggle between Jesus and religious authorities concerning what is permitted in individual conduct. Comparable interactions are found in traditions of the Tannaim. The interaction results in an exposé of standard procedures and exalted egos and a fissure in an otherwise closed legal system. The miracle reenforces this fissure.

Several stories in the gospels and Elijah-Elisha cycle depict how the needs of a group for food or drink are provided. The interaction is between miracle worker and an unnamed crowd or group. The contexts in which these stories may have been told, to judge by the interaction, are situations of hunger, scarcity or oppression where people have lost hope in their ability to provide for themselves.

The demand story is built out of the struggle for and the realization and telling of a demand addressed to the miracle worker. Comparable stories are found in the gospels and in the Asclepius steles from Epidauros. There is opposition to the demand in these stories and the overcoming of this opposition is the key to the story’s function: the teller calls the hearer to break out of a closed world and to demand, struggle and realize miracle in human life.

The structure of the miracle story as such is the juxtaposition of an oppressive context and an extra-ordinary breaking out of it. This indicates that all types of miracle stories had a common function and were told by the same or overlapping groups of people.

0.1 There are good reasons why not much has been said recently about the miracle tellers whose stories are preserved in the New Testament. Not that the gospels lack direct statements about their motivations. Luke says they told what happened to return praise to God for his saving acts (5:26; 7:16–17; 9:43) as the tenth leper so rightly did (17:15–18). In John 9 the once-blind man, asked the third time to tell what happened to him, says to his critics, “Why do you want to hear it again? Do you too want to become his disciples?” (9:27). A third very different reason for miracle telling is found in Matthew’s and Luke’s sayings source. Jesus says, “Go tell … what you see and hear: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed … and happy is the one not offended by me” (Matt 11:4–6; Luke 7:22–23). Here the miracle tellers are prophets who bring the joy and offense of God’s just rule. Matthew turns the telling function from prophecy to apologetic: “Thus was the word of Isaiah the prophet fulfilled, ‘He has taken our weaknesses and borne our diseases’ ” (8:17). Mark even hints at an allegorical meaning for the number of baskets of food left over after the feeding miracles (8:17–21), suggesting that miracles were being used in esoteric teaching.

This mass of testimony is suspicious not so much because it is conflicting—different practices could well develop in a half century of miracle telling—but because each view is highly typical of the text where we find it. And literary evidence for the author’s hand often appears in style or seams or use of sources. Even what might seem the naive, “unadulterated” reason for miracle telling, to get someone to come and see, when it is described by Mark as crowds streaming in from Tyre and Sidon “having heard the kinds of things he was doing” (3:7–8) or by Luke as Herod’s desire to see Jesus “having heard about him and hoping to see some sign done by him” (23:8), even it loses its credibility. These mighty crowds and mighty people flocking to Jesus are at the heart of Mark’s and, with broader strokes, of Luke’s dogmatic conception of the instantly expanding Christian community.

0.2 What of the oral miracle tellers and their purposes? Is our access to them irreparably cut off because they did not write? We can try tearing away literary accretions from the once oral stories, but we may be left with shreds, and shreds of stories will not help determine purposes. For that we need wholes, but to finish the circle, the only wholes we have are gospels, with some good guesses about written sources. The form critics offered hope through an analysis by form of all Hellenistic miracle stories from which could be determined the situation where they were traditionally used and their purposes there. But results were very general and the proposed function of the stories in missionary propaganda depended more on New Testament and other written use of miracle stories than it did on their form.

0.3 A recent study by Gerd Theissen (1974) applies structuralist analysis to the synoptic stories, most fruitfully by diagramming the stories’ characters in their roles as related to each other, suggesting that different story types are formed by different kinds of interactions, which in turn determine the elaboration of the story by choice from a stock of action motifs common to Hellenistic miracle stories. Unfortunately he does not differentiate carefully the kinds of interactions in a story (beyond naming the persons interacting), nor does he maintain focus on these interactions as the constructive and hence interpretive key, so the promise of finding a structure that is not dependent on the motifs but generative of them is not achieved. If this could be found a base might be provided for speaking of the story itself, which belongs to the oral teller and hearer defined as the persons to whom the story is the whole unit of communication, as distinguished from the story as generated to play a part in a larger communication, which belongs to its writer and reader.

0.4 It is this kind of investigation I want to test out. It will not be an historical investigation into the time when the story was orally transmitted, as if the story were once “in the raw,” bare of motifs generated by its structural interaction, or as if the historical stages in its growth could be determined by logical deductions from its literary structure. My intent is strictly a structural study of the literary story which is part of a larger whole to find in that part the basic interaction that is the organizing center of the whole story, meaning by “whole story” not the entire story with all its pieces but the story as a self-organizing and complete unit of communication. Yet such a structural investigation does make the premise of a human interaction in which this story is the whole story, assuming a teller and hearer whose live interaction provides the context in which the story’s interaction has a complete meaning. And if, as is generally accepted, these gospel stories did have an oral pre-history as independent units, the meaning of the historical interaction of any one-time teller and hearer, that is, the meaning of once telling the story, cannot have violated the structural interactions within the story that had for them a complete meaning. The structure may not tell us their age, sex, and location, and it gives no clue about how long or how often the story was thus told in its own right, but it makes the basic point about the story’s intention which should be a major contribution to historical reconstruction concerning the tellers.

0.5 A story’s interaction is a single phenomenon but it can be analyzed in any number of different ways. One method is to describe the interacting forces which engage each other. Another approach contrasts the tension that brings on the interaction with the resolution that comes out of it. A further method is to focus on the interaction itself as the point at which the interacting parties meet and the transformation happens. None of these approaches presumes any particular motifs or their sequence because it is the interaction which constitutes the story. Individual motifs in their sequence are generated to heighten this interaction or they are added for extraneous reasons and do not belong to the story that is a whole. Yet it is through known motifs in a particular order that the primary interaction of a story is evident. The story is like a sentence which can be written in active or passive, with pronouns or nouns, many modifiers or none. In any form it has one point and the task of the analyst is to clarify this organizing interaction which makes every part function together as one whole.

0.6 There is a question whether the gospel miracle stories provide an adequate sample for a structural analysis. On the one hand, the selection seems too narrow, representing as it does only part of the evidence we have for the miracle story genre in the Hellenistic period and an even smaller part of the total examples of that genre. For this reason results will not be comprehensive. But the gospel stories do provide a chance to test a method. In order to keep in mind that these interactions are not uniquely Christian, one other group of stories will be analyzed under each interaction described, giving further evidence of this type in use by tellers of single stories and by collectors. Although this provides only a token breadth, it does extend the base for analysis and make clear the generic character of both the interactions found in the gospel miracle stories and of the ways stories are combined in literary units.

On the other hand, the selection of stories seems too broad and the gospel stories too various to be analyzed together, spanning as they do many decades, communities and retellings of the same stories. The situation can be simplified somewhat by ignoring for our purposes all stories which are literarily dependent on other stories under consideration because they are at least twice removed from the story which stands as a whole. Also, certain stories can be eliminated which have miraculous elements but do not qualify as miracle stories by any interaction between a miracle worker and another party, for example the epiphanies, the fig tree cursing and some demonstrations of omniscience. All other gospel miracle stories fall into one of four categories according to their organizing interaction: the exorcism, the exposé, the provision and the demand. In a very few cases a story succeeds in integrating two interactions into one drama, as if rotating on two axes, and it will be discussed under each interaction.

Occasionally a story suffers such violence by its integration into a gospel that only a vestige survives of what seems to have been its basic interaction. What is remarkable is that this does not happen more often since we have no story that has not become a part of a gospel.

1. Exorcism

1.1 The exorcism stories in the gospels dramatize Jesus’ direct attack, struggle with and expelling of powers which possess and enforce their will over people. There are only four whole stories that are built on this interaction, each found in Mark with other renditions literarily dependent on it—the man with the unclean spirit (Mark 1:21–28), the rebuke of the storm (Mark 4:35–41), the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1–20), and the epileptic boy (Mark 9:14–29). In the stories of the storm and the boy, people struggle with Jesus to get his intervention, adding another interaction to the story which will be discussed with the demand miracles. The Syrophoenician woman’s story (7:24–30) does not fit here because her struggle to achieve Jesus’ intervention supplants any struggle of Jesus with the unclean spirit and becomes the one organizing interaction of that story. And the very brief exorcism story which brings on the accusation that Jesus is possessed has been so condensed that the story as a whole is not an exorcism but an exposé of Jesus’ accusers (Matt 9:32–34; 12:22–30/Luke 11:14–23). Of course the many interpretations of exorcism in the gospel sayings material and summaries are not spoken by the tellers of whole miracle stories.

The four exorcism stories are integrated into the whole that is Mark’s gospel. Rather than working from what is typically Markan to pare off Markan features and reach the oral stories behind them, I will move in the other direction to claim for the teller’s stories that which belongs to the interaction itself and makes the story an independent whole. The same method can be applied to Philostratus’ exorcism stories in The Life of Apollonius of Tyana though they are more elaborate, granting that there is no proof in either case that the whole stories ever had oral tellers. Philostratus tells of a demon threatened away by a letter (3:38), a plague averted by stoning the demon disguised in a beggar (4:10), a laughing demon exorcised (4:20) and a young man rescued from a vampire (4:43). Although not all four are exorcisms in the narrow sense, they are stories governed by this interaction in that a miracle worker attacks and overcomes a spirit or demon who threatens to destroy people.

1.2 In these eight stories the two interacting forces are the exorcist and the power that threatens people with destruction. This power is understood to be unambiguously evil—loud (Mark 1; 5; 9; VA 4.20), disrespectful (Mark 1; 5; VA 3.38; 4.20, 25), violent (Mark 4; 5; 9; VA 4.10), in fact in the process of killing the person (Mark 4; 9; VA 3.38; 4.10, 25). Though one may be deceived into thinking this power to be a human being (VA 4.10, 20, 25), it is not. The people in each story are victims of this power for which they have no responsibility and over which they have no control that preys on them through storms, plagues or vampires (Mark 4; VA 4.10, 25) or has even taken possession of their minds and bodies including voice (Mark 1; 5; VA 4.20), eyes (Mark 9; VA 3.38) and limbs (Mark 5; 9; VA 3.38). The spirit in one story is multiple (Mark 5) but it is never associated with a wider cosmic evil figure or time and seems to be strictly in business for itself, perhaps therefore being reluctant to be forced out of a promising location. The other interacting force, the exorcist, is pictured with a certain remoteness from the violence of the possession, usually having just come to the scene from elsewhere (Mark 1; 5; 9; VA 10), being just awaken (Mark 4) or the problem having been brought to him (VA 3.38). But the remoteness is more than physical. It is the confidence and mastery of the exorcist, shown also in his calmness, his almost clinical questions about the name or character or length of stay of the demon (Mark 5; 9; VA 3.38; 4.25). The closest thing he shows to emotion is the relentlessness of the exorcism itself. In each of the stories about Apollonius the demon’s deception is exposed by the exorcist’s wisdom (4.10, 20, 25), but Jesus’ wisdom is mentioned in only one case (Mark) and, being unmotivated there by any deception in the story, is probably secondary. The crowd’s final questions asking the identity of Jesus whom the spirits obey (Mark 1; 4) also lacks an integral function in the stories, except possibly in the most rhetorical sense.

1.3 The interaction occurs in the meeting of the destroying spirit and the exorcist. The demon’s stance is from beginning to end defensive and conciliatory—avoiding a meeting (VA 3.38), claiming no offense, seeking protection by knowing the exorcist’s name (Mark 1; 5), directly begging not to be tormented, destroyed, stoned, or sent out of the country (Mark 1; 5; VA 4.10, 25), offering to go out into some visible object and never possess anyone again (Mark 5; VA 4.20). The mute demons convulse at the sight of the exorcist (Mark 9) or glare with fiery eyes (VA 4.20). Conversely the exorcist’s stance is commanding throughout. He is said by the narrator to rebuke the spirit (Mark 1; 4; VA 4.25); he commands it in direct discourse to be silent (Mark 1; 4) or to go out (Mark 1; 9; VA 4.20); he instructs how to destroy the spirit or gives a communication threatening the spirit (VA 3.38; 4.10); he permits it to go where it has suggested (Mark 5). Though the exorcist unquestionably has the upper hand, it is not without struggle that the demon is expelled or exposed as can be seen in the resistance of the vampire (VA 4.25), the violence of the beggar’s death (VA 4.10), the convulsions and cries of the demon who leaves the epileptic boy as if dead (Mark 9) and the destruction of the pigs and the statue into which the demons choose to go (Mark 5; VA 4.20). Only two stories tell more about the possessed party than the fact of recovery and these two descriptions of the new discipleship are anti-climactic, hence probably literary (Mark 5; VA 4.20). As Theissen puts it, the person rescued is only the battlefield in these stories, not a principal in its action. Yet the function of the person possessed by demons (of the sea possessed by storm, the city by plague) is not insignificant. The one caught in this possession is the reason for the story, providing not only the reason within the story for the meeting of exorcist and demon but also providing to the teller and hearer a point of identification in this struggle of exorcist and demon. The person is a battlefield in no neutral sense but as one’s own town under enemy occupation might become a battlefield. Therefore the principals of the story are not finally the center of the story. The center is the interaction between them in which the town or person is liberated, making the crowds fear (Mark 4; 5) and marvel (Mark 1; 5) and clap their hands (VA 4.20).

1.4 The exorcism, as a whole story fit for an oral teller, lacks some of the features which makes it attractive to Mark and to Philostratus. Following the vampire story (VA 4.25), Philostratus even informs his readers that many people have heard this best-known of Apollonius’ stories without the entire narrative about the deception of Menippus, a clear sign that his purported source, Damis, has adapted an oral tale to accent Apollonius’ wisdom. What the independent story cannot lack is the dramatic interaction itself in its full force, the unequivocal mastery of the exorcist over a spirit who wills and executes human destruction. The specific meaning of the whole stories is a matter for historical reconstruction using all the evidence available for the period and the communities in question. The tellers may anticipate further exorcism of individual demons or the expulsion of political “legions,” a mastery over storm, quake and famine or over violence itself. The stories in any case announce a triumph over the kind of evil that is direct, violent, uncontrollable and annihilating.

2. Exposé

In certain gospel miracle stories the struggle is aligned between Jesus and the religious authorities concerning what is permitted in individual conduct. The interaction takes place both in their idiom as an argument of law and in a miracle event which precipitates or confirms the argument. Two miracles in John’s gospel (5:1–18; 9:1–41) lead to controversy only by the addition of a Sabbath dating which is not integral to the miracle story, indicating that the stories themselves are not based on this interaction. There are six gospel stories in which the miracle and controversy are found joined in one interaction: three Sabbath healing stories (Mark 3:1–6; Luke 13:10–17; 14:1–6), the Beelzebul controversy (Matt 12:22–30 / Luke 11:14–23; Matt 9:32–34), the temple tax miracle (Matt 17:24–27) and the paralytic’s healing (Mark 2:1–12).

A parallel group of stories is not easy to find, possibly because miracle and legal argument are not usual bedfellows, but more likely because miracle stories which put in question standard traditions do not ingratiate themselves to later scribes of that tradition. Among the Tannaim of the first two generations (70–120 CE), we do find a controversy on the admissability of a bat ḳol (voice from heaven) in deciding a case of law (t. Neziruth 1.1 [Zuck. 283]; m. Yebam. 16:6). Three stories from this controversy will be used as a parallel because they cite a miracle in a matter of law although in the first two cases the part of the story quoted by the rabbis for legal precedent is not sufficient to determine the interaction of a whole story, and in all cases arguments other than the miracle are not preserved within the story.

1.    Remarriage [of a widow] is to be permitted on the basis of lamplight or moonlight [inspection of the corpse] or on the basis of a bat ḳol. It once happened that someone stood on a hill top and called out, “So-and-so, the son of so-and-so from such-and-such a place is dead.” They went and found no one there and they permitted his wife to remarry. (m. Yebam. 16:6; t. Yebam. 14.7 [Zuck. 259])

2.    … but one should follow either Beth Shammai in both their strict and rigorous laws or Beth Hillel in both their strict and rigorous laws. This refers to the time prior to the bat ḳol. But after the bat ḳol sounded, the halaka always follows Beth Hillel, and everybody transgressing the words of Beth Hillel is deserving of death. It was taught: “A bat ḳol came forth and said, ‘Both are the words of the living God, but the halaka is always in accordance with Beth Hillel!’ Where did the bat ḳol come forth? R. Bibi said in the name of R. Johanan: ‘in Jabne.’ ” (y. Yebam. 1. (6-end); cf. b. Ber. 52a)

3.    We learnt elsewhere: If he cut it into separate tiles placing sand between each tile R. Eliezer declared it clean, and the Sages declared it unclean and this was the oven of Aknai. Why Aknai? Said Rab Judah in Samuel’s name: “Because they encompassed it with arguments as a snake (Akna) and declared it unclean.” It has been taught: “On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument but they did not accept them.” He said to them: “If the halaka agrees with me, let this carob tree prove it.” Thereupon the carob tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place—others say four hundred cubits. “No proof can be brought from a carob tree,” they replied. [The same occurs when a stream flows backwards and when the walls shake.] Again he said to them: “If the halaka agrees with me, let it be proven from Heaven!” Where upon a bat ḳol sounded and said: “Why do you dispute with R. Eliezer, whereas the halaka agrees with him in every instance.” Then R. Joshua arose and said: “It is not in heaven” (Deut 30:20). What did he mean by this? Said R. Jeremiah: “Since the Torah had already been given at Mt. Sinai, we pay no attention to a bat ḳol, because thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mt. Sinai, ‘After the majority must one incline’ ” (Exod 23:2).

R. Nathan met Elijah and asked him, “What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour?” “He laughed and he said: ‘My sons have defeated me, my sons have defeated me.’ ” It was said: “On that day everything that R. Eliezer had declared clean was brought and burnt in fire.” Then they took a vote and excommunicated him. (b. B. Mes. 58b–59a; cf. y. Mo’ed Qat. 3.1)

2.2 The conflicting parties in these gospel and rabbinical stories are, on the one side, those who defend a standard or strict construction of the law and, on the other those who break through the law’s restrictions with a miracle. Each seek to expose the other party as false before God and thereby to take from them the power to determine right conduct in this case. The effect of the interaction is a crucial fissure in a system which claims to be sole determiner of who is right and who is wrong. It is a small but telling crack in the case of the widow given freedom to remarry though her husband’s corpse is not found to verify his death by law. In the case of the bat ḳol siding with Beth Hillel an entire school of legal interpretation is given precedence, and it cannot be without significance considering the parallels that the miracle is used by the more liberal interpreters against the strict constructionists. In the same vein R. Eliezer tries by miracle to declare clean an oven that the majority call unclean. R. Joshua’s quotation in response, “It [the Torah] is not in heaven,” is a classic statement of the exclusive authority of a closed system—when the Torah has been given there is nothing left behind in heaven to speak. Although in both Talmudic versions of this story this quotation decides the argument and explains R. Eliezer’s excommunication, the story’s own interaction unmistakably favors R. Eliezer from the opening etymology comparing his opponents’ arguments with snakes to the bat ḳol itself and finally to God’s “My sons have defeated me,” the latter softened here to a jest.

2.3 The gospel stories demonstrate the same interaction, with Jesus’ word and miracle power exposing the bankruptcy of stated religious authority. Although the scribes speak briefly in these stories to define the Sabbath and temple tax laws and accuse Jesus of being possessed (Luke 13:14; Matt 9:34; 12:24/Luke 11:15; Matt 17:24), their testing of him is more often silent and it is Jesus who dominates. Invariably he makes his verbal point by a single question, one about farm animals (Luke 13:15; 14:5) or practical politics (Matt 12:25 par; 17:25) or which of two things is better or easier (Mark 2:9; 3:4). In each case the answer is obvious, as is its application, exposing the absurdity of the particular restrictions being laid down. The sequence of miracle and argument is immaterial to the interaction. The miracle may follow and confirm the verbal argument, demonstrating in a concession to the authorities’ lack of understanding that the son of man can forgive sin (Mark 2:10) and that they will pay the temple tax (Matt 17:27), or carrying out a previously defended Sabbath healing (Mark 3:5). And the miracle may precede and then be defended by a question as in two Sabbath healings (Luke 13:10–17; 14:1–6) and in the accusation that Jesus’ exorcism is demonic which is put to rest by the question about Satan’s divided kingdom (Matt 12:25–26 par). Each of the Sabbath stories notes the consternation of the authorities. The role of the persons released from restrictions in the interaction is not primary, but again as in the exorcisms they are both the cause and benefactors of the interaction within the story and the point of identification for its sellers and hearers.

2.4 The purpose of the whole-story tellers is not specified in detail by the stories’ interaction but there is no mistaking their delight at the exposure of those who dictate a restrictive morality. They lose no sleep over what might happen if the remarried woman’s husband reappears, if the laws of purity and the Sabbath are unobserved or the temple left without its tax base. The “ethics” of the story in each case is negative, purgative, in a social sense revolutionary, breaking down the restrictions erected in God’s name to maintain order and privilege. Also there is no positive interest in articulating a theology concerning this God who does good without taking tribute and without assuring the divine purity by a sacred day or temple or atonement system. The constructive ethical and theological tasks are not important to the tellers. Their focus on the exposing question and the confirming act of power suggests that they are not a defined group responsible for the future of others but a broad scattering of people in a structured society relishing an exposé of standard procedures and exalted egos.

3. Provision

3.1 Three gospel miracle stories tell how the needs of a group for food or drink are provided—the multiplication of bread (Mark 6:30–44; 8:1–10; John 6:1–14), the great catch of fish (Luke 5:4–11; John 21:4–8) and the wine made from water (John 2:1–11). In each case the stories seem to have changed focus considerably in the literary stage, making a recovery of the organizing interaction more difficult. The interaction seems to take place between the miracle worker who takes the initiative, instructing the people to act in a certain way as if there were no lack, and an unnamed crowd or group in need who have not asked for help and may dispute the instruction but nevertheless bring the miracle about by doing what is instructed.

The only group of parallel stories I know are found in the Elijah-Elisha cycle, specifically the food provision miracles of the meal and oil (1 Kgs 17:8–16), the oil (2 Kgs 4:1–7), the soup (38–41) and the barley loaves (42–44). The obvious problem in this comparison is the time lapse between the two sets of stories, specifically for our focus on the story as a whole in itself, the possibility of literary dependence based on some identification of Jesus with these prophets. But first a description of the interaction which these seven stories share.

3.2 Theissen points out in the analysis of his “Geschenkwunder” that there is no request for a miracle. But he does not point to the reason for this lack of request, namely, that the story’s tension is based on a conflict between the people’s resignation to their lack and the miracle worker’s instruction to act as if there is no lack. This is particularly clear in Peter’s objection that he has just fished all night after Jesus’ instruction to drop the nets (Luke 15:31), but also in the objections to Elisha’s and to Jesus’ “You feed them” when the food is insufficient (2 Kgs 4:43; Mark 6:37), the implied objection in Mary’s warning to the wedding servants (John 2:6) and the widow’s objection that she has only one thing left to eat before she dies (1 Kgs 17:12; cf. 2 Kgs 4:2). Even in the final story there is tension expressed when the sons of the prophets cannot eat the soup which the prophet instructed them to boil because someone has shouted “Death in the pot!” (2 Kgs 4:40). The sequence of instruction and objection is immaterial to the interaction, also the specific nature of the needs involved. Even the miracle worker’s—or should I say the prophet’s—action in throwing meal in the pot, blessing the bread or prophesying abundance is not crucial. The interaction is realized and the tension resolved only when the people proceed to give, distribute, take, fish, pour, eat, as they do daily and as they have been instructed to do at this time. The excess which results simply accentuates the breakthrough that has occurred.

3.3 It is not clear to me in what context whole stories with this interaction would be told. The obvious answer may come closest, that is, in situations of hunger, scarcity or oppression where people have lost hope that they can provide for themselves. The realism of this hopelessness is given full respect in the stories and it is overcome only by a word of power that instructs what common experience has proven impossible. When this instruction is followed, the people do not simply realize the underrated possibilities of their given situation. Their daily action becomes miracle against the oppression of their life’s structures and dozens of jars are filled with oil, fish overflow boats, twelve baskets are left over. The ultimacy of want is overcome and sufficiency is given within life that life does not give.

3.4 To what extent these stories lend themselves to extended meanings beyond food wants can be seen in the gospel stories at the literary stage—the Cana miracle shows Jesus’ glory; the feeding miracle in Mark an esoteric point on Gentile inclusion and, in John at least, the Lord’s Supper; the great catch affirms the world mission—all in contrast to the Elisha stories which largely retain the focus on hunger satisfied. In fact, the gospel stories even in their integrally generated motifs do not deal with starvation but with the circumstantial want of crowds away from home, disappointed fishers and embarrassed hosts. Historically this could reflect the decrease in mass starvation during famines in the post-Augustan period in comparison with monarchic Israel. In any case all provision stories signify not only food provided but care, security, sufficiency, and physical and social well-being, clearly a universal interest. If there is any dependence of the Gospel stories on the Elijah-Elisha cycle, as for example the multiplication of the barley loaves, the evidence does not prove the kind of literary borrowing that would exclude the telling of whole stories.

3.5 A few non-feeding stories in Luke and John have certain characteristics of provision miracles. The raising of the widow’s son during the funeral procession (Luke 5:11–17) lacks any request for healing, includes a non-verbal instruction to stop the procession (though its fulfillment does not cause the miracle), and recounts that “he gave him to his mother.” The instruction-fulfillment pattern is present in Luke’s ten lepers story (Luke 17:11–19) and John’s story of the officials son, but the previous demand dominates both stories. The closest to a provision story may be the healing of the man born blind (John 9:1–12) with no demand and with an instruction-fulfillment miracle in an apparent reflection of Elisha’s healing of Naaman (2 Kings 5). Yet these stories could be purely literary creations and so lack the specific organizing interaction necessary to whole stories, or they could be demand stories; in the first the demand being sufficiently implied in the notice that the dead boy is “the only son of his mother, and she was a widow” (Luke 5:12) and in the last the demand being supplanted by John’s editorial introduction (John 9:1–5).

4. Realized Demand

4.1 The demand story not only begins with a demand but is built out of the struggle for and the realization and telling of that demand. In the exorcism and exposé the interaction occurs as a struggle by the miracle worker to destroy or expose his opposition for the benefit of a passive party. The struggle in the provision story is between the miracle worker and the hesitations of the needy persons who are instructed to take the active role in their own behalf. In the demand story the demanding party takes from the beginning an active role in the struggle and overcomes. Perhaps because this group of miracle stories is the largest of the four, it has been said that the request for healing is a standard element in gospel miracles, but in fact there are no demands in the three groups of stories analyzed above. But here and the demand is the crucial factor in the interaction and is accentuated by opposition in one of three different ways. For comparative purposes simultaneous analysis will be made of certain Asclepius miracle stories inscribed on steles at Epidauros about 300 B.C. It is not fair to these Asclepius steles to treat only a few of their 43 stories among which seem to be some that are not demand stories, but here it cannot be helped. One gospel story should be mentioned initially as anomalous: a request is made for Peter’s mother-in-law’s healing but there is no intensifying of the demand to make a true demand story, possibly because the connection to Peter was sufficient reason for its telling.

4.2 In one kind of demand story Jesus throws back on the person the demand made, in a rebuke or a question about their faith. Matthew interprets this rebuke as a requirement to have faith in the miracle worker’s craft as a precondition for a miracle: “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” (Matt 9:28). Similarly the steles tell how Asclepius strikes two incredulous persons with injuries and then heals them when they come pleading (11; 36), while two others who are already suppliants yet incredulous of his cures he heals and adds a token penalty (3; 4). John shows Jesus rebuking those who hesitate to open Lazarus’ tomb, “If you would believe you would see God’s glory” (John 11:40). There are indications in language and thought that all three collectors here may be making themselves heard—Matthew accenting Jesus’ works (cf. 9:33, 34; 11:2–3; 12:23), the Asclepius priests who inscribed these steles warning the cynical visitor, John or his source proclaiming God’s glory through miracle belief (2:11; 20:30). But the basic tension in these stories between the person’s demand and their hesitation as revealed by the miracle worker’s rebuke is constitutive of each story’s interaction and cannot be secondary.

Perhaps the rebuke once was closer to the statements of exasperation found in other stories: “If you don’t see signs and wonders you will not believe” (John 4:48); “Do you want to be well?” “Why are you such cowards? How can you have no faith?” (Mark 4:40); “O faithless generation? How long will I stay with you? How long can I tolerate you?” (Mark 9:19). Here faith does not mean credulity in Jesus’ miracles but it means something like power to meet the crisis in confidence. A similar view appears in Jesus’ rebuke to a father’s “If you can, help us!” saying, “If you can? All things are possible to one who believes.” The man’s response, “I believe, help my unbelief,” shows that the reference is not to Jesus but to the demanding man as the one whose belief can make all possible. Although Mark’s and John’s editing cannot be excluded as a possibility in any of these cases, the stories would then require some substitute for the tension these statements provide, and except for John 4:48 more integral tension would be hard to find. In contrast to all these stories note how Luke uses Jesus’ rebuke to nine lepers to praise one man’s thanks, thus losing all tension between the demanding and the unbelieving self (Luke 17:15–19). The interaction that constitutes this first group of demand stories is precisely this tension dramatized by the conflict between the one who makes a despairing or caustic demand and the other who provokes him or her to make the solid demand that brings healing.

4.3 A second format for developing the “initiative against opposition” tension in a demand story is to accent the difficult conditions facing the petitioner. The largest group of gospel demand stories take place under some such physical condition which intensifies the problem of getting help beyond anything in the illness itself. The crowd surrounding Jesus most often serves this function. After describing the people who let the paralytic down through the roof to reach Jesus, the story teller interprets, “Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralytic …” (Mark 2:1–5). The crowd actively tries to silence the blind Bartimaeus, causing him to shout louder for Jesus. After healing him Jesus says, “Go, your faith has healed you” (Mark 10:46–52).

The most remarkable story of the crowd’s obstruction is the story of the hemorrhaging woman in which the crowd serves both to impede her access, showing she believes even touching his clothes will heal, and to impede Jesus’ discovery of her, showing that her faith has healed even without his will. This he confirms: “Daughter, your faith has saved you” (Mark 5:24–34). In turn this crowd, including this woman herself, is the obstruction in the story of Jairus’ daughter. By their delaying Jesus he does not arrive before word comes that the girl has died, yet then with Jesus’ encouragement—”Don’t be afraid, only believe”—the father’s faith overcomes8. Other stories in which difficult conditions intensify demands are the epileptic boy’s healing where the disciple’s disability does not make the father give up, and the healing of the centurion’s servant where distance inspires his statement about authority and Jesus’ response, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Luke 7:1–10; Matt 8:5–13).

4.4 Obstruction is a less important factor in the Asclepius stories. It does appear in the crowd’s scoffing at a man with no eyeball who nevertheless slept in the Abaton and was healed (9), also perhaps in the lame man whose crutch was taken so he chased after the thief (16). But there is no strong accent on people overcoming obstacles and no attribution of the miracle to their faith.

4.5 The most intense heightening of demand stories is found in a third group where the miracle worker himself becomes the opposition. Of course if he simply refuses to act there is no miracle, hence no story, as the sayings tradition witnesses concerning the Pharisees’ request for a sign (Mark 8:11–13/Matt 16:1–4; Matt 12:38–42/Luke 11:16, 11:29–32). But there is a miracle story if the miracle worker relents or if the miracle worker refuses not the miracle itself but the story—the free circulation of the news about the event—and if that refusal is ignored.

It is possible that the miracle worker relents in one Epidauros story about a woman not healed at the temple. She then meets Asclepius on her return home and is healed (25). Yet it is not said that the miracle had once been refused and the implication may be that the god had been away (23). There is an element of bargaining with Asclepius for a healing in the story of the boy who said he would pay ten dice so the god laughed and healed him. But a serious struggle against miracle refusal is found only in Mark’s story of the Syrophoenician woman (7:24–30). It begins, appropriately, with Jesus’ effort to remain hidden and her demand breaking into his house of seclusion. His counter-demand and explanation, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right …,” is met by her telling retort that even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs. One wonders if this story may represent others which were not included in the written collections, lacking the “redeeming social value” of this argument for gentile mission to make up for the offense of the woman’s brazen success. The final saying, “On account of this word, go; the demon has gone out of your daughter,” parallels the saying, “Your faith has made you well,” in the stories with physical obstacles to people’s demands. Here where the demand wins out against the miracle worker its triumph in the interaction is even more pronounced than when the miracle worker provokes it or the crowd opposes it.

4.6 Most difficult to analyze are the stories of Jesus’ silencing healed persons. Since Wrede’s 1901 study of the messianic secret as a theme in Markan theology (1971:124–149), these commands have often been attributed to Mark, though Wrede himself sees the variety of silencings in the gospel to prove many different traditional sources. In 1925 Fridrichsen found Mark’s hand in the repetitiveness of silencing terminology but recognized the leper’s silencing (1:40–45) as pre-Markan (1972), originating possibly in Jesus’ aversion to publicity and preserved to stress Jesus’ respect for the priests and Mosaic law. Recently Tagawa distinguished a traditional silencing in miracles involving special gestures (5:21–43; 7:31–37; 8:22–26) from the silencing which Mark may create in order to accentuate the contrary and irrepressible tide of Jesus’ fame (1:40–45; 7:31–37). Similarly Theissen (143–154) recognizes that the tradition in magical literature forbidding mention of the secret methods used suggests that Mark already found silencing in the Jairus’ daughter and the deaf mute stories (5:21–43; 7:31–37). In two stories he sees the pre-Markan reference to a person’s being sent “home” being heard as a silencing by Mark who then adds his contrasting point on the spreading of the news (Mark 5:19f; 8:26). In the final silencing story Theissen suggests that Jesus thus tries to get priestly clearance for the healed man (1:40–45).

Although with somewhat different arguments all of these interpreters take Jesus’ silencing of the healed persons to be an early feature of at least some of the stories, but they attribute to Mark’s dramatic tension any words which follow about contrary widespread telling of the stories. Beyond Mark’s effective use of this theme—”the more he silenced them the more they told” Mark 7:36)—his hand is suggested here because two silenced stories lack any note about contrary telling (Mark 5:43; 8:26) and because the silencing commands in the magical papyri also lack this feature (Theissen: 144f.).

But it is a mistake to think that because Mark combines esoteric silencing and proclamation that the whole stories he uses must be esoteric in the style of the magical papyri. Any story which calls for its own suppression involves a contradiction since the story is in fact being told. This is the case whether or not the teller or collector reflects explicitly on this contradiction by adding a closing line about the spread of the stories against the command. And since this last line does not change the interaction but simply accentuates it, it cannot be categorically excluded from the whole story. The repeated use in these lines of the verb κηρύσσω (announce, proclaim, Mark 1:45; 5:20; 7:36) is also insufficient evidence of redaction unless σώζω (heal, save) and πίστις (belief, faith) are also excluded from the stories because they became Christian technical terms. The argument is no better that story tellers do not tell themselves into their stories: “And I alone survived to tell you”; “So it is that we set out the bread each full moon.”

4.7 The exact nature of this contradiction of silencing and telling in the whole stories used by Mark cannot be determined by Mark’s use of them or by the magical texts which are not demand stories. Lacking even Epidauros parallels, the whole stories must interpret themselves with help from other demand stories in which there is opposition to the miracle worker. Three observations can be made. The command not to tell is always addressed to the one who made the initial demand. Where anyone is described telling a story, it is the demander or the nearest equivalent in a story who tells it (Mark 1:45; 5:20; 7:36; Matt 9:31; John 5:11; 9:9, 11, 15, 20f., 27; 12:9–11). This means that the story tellers and gospel writers see themselves as passing on this person’s story, not an impersonal account but a story with the protagonist’s point of view. Second, the teller has a role within the story because it is the teller who is contradicting the command for silence as much as the demander who first told the story. In this way the teller makes explicit his or her full advocacy of the demander’s point of view. Third, the teller betrays no qualms about an open telling of the story, no defensiveness, no reservation of details or esoteric implications as if there were any concern about disobeying the command. For some reason the story itself overrides the silencing in its content and the tension between the one demanding and the one doing the miracle is resolved very simply on behalf of the demander, with much the same reversal explicit in Jesus’ saying when obstructions intervene, “Your faith has made you well.”

4.8 I assume that the interaction found within the demand stories reflects their function in an “external” interaction between actual tellers and hearers of whole stories. These demand stories—whether intensified by a rebuke for expecting too little, by life’s common obstructions or by direct opposition from the miracle worker—should therefore tell something about this human interaction in which they were told. At least it is clear that the teller seeks to draw the hearers into a demanding stance. This excludes a simple entertainment motive, let alone ridicule of miracle. If the purpose of the teller were to increase demand for healing miracles per se, one would expect more focus on the miracle act and more exaggeration of the miraculous (Epidauros 21; 23; possibly Mark 8:22–26). If the stories are told and retold in order to return praise to the healer for the miracle, one would expect repeated and extensive doxologies and there would be no reason for the stress on initiative against opposition. Compare these stories to the canonical and Qumran thanksgiving psalms in which a person tells their deliverance from illness or enemies in order to fulfill a vow to praise God for answering their complaint, proving God faithful (Ps 22:25; 30:9; 116:12–19; Isa 38:18f.; 1QH 3:19f.; 6:2–5, 10–12/1QS 10:15–17, 23). The first Epidauros story begins in this way by quoting the words a healed woman wrote on a votive tablet in praise of Asclepius, “Wondrous is not the tablet but the divinity.” Yet this account and the others in Epidauros which mention thank offerings do not see the story itself as a thank offering. Nor do the gospel accounts. The crowd’s wonder and acclamation is not understood as story-telling, and even Luke who accentuates the healed person’s praise to God (13:18; 17:5; 18:43; Acts 3:8) does not see this as a story. Mark’s single indication of story-telling as praise appears in Jesus’ words to the Gerasene demoniac, “Tell them what the Lord has done for you and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19). This could reflect an early reason for telling this exorcism but it is not in the context of a demand story.

The focus on opposition overcome in the demand story must be taken as the key to its function as a whole story. If the demanding stance into which the teller draws the hearer cannot be limited narrowly to demand for miracle healing and cannot be modulated into praise for the healer, it must also not be reduced to assertiveness training. Some Asclepius stories in which the god teaches foresight (2) and courage (35–38) do come close to this. The rebukes of Jesus could possibly be seen in a didactic sense, but not the demand stories accenting obstacle situations or struggle against the miracle worker. The story celebrates rather than teaches the faith which won out. It is the kerygma or good news belonging to the person whose demand is realized that the teller now claims for the hearer by retelling his or her story. It is a challenge, his bold cries for help, her pressing through the crowd to touch Jesus’ coat, her demand for the crumbs under the table, the miraculous healings, the words of praise, “your faith made you well,” his claim to the story against Jesus’ opposition. The stories have their own point and it is not fascination with the miraculous act. They do not spin like planets around the sun of the healing god’s glory but are sparks in the fire of human resistance, and the healer both willingly and not serves this flame. The healing is for the woman, not the woman for the healing. Whatever her experience once was, and we cannot reach back to that, the teller calls the hearer to break out of a closed world and to demand, struggle and realize miracle in human life.

The healer is as important for what he does not do as for what he does. The easy grace of Asclepius, Jesus’ direct responses, even possibly the attempted silencing of the stories, give them both a low profile. Even outside the miracle story tradition both figures were known for their accessibility and sympathy and Jesus is connected with the call to ask, seek and knock and the parables of the importunate widow and the friend at midnight. Any apparent denigration of Jesus’ role in this view of the miracle stories comes from our hindsight by comparison with gospel confessions and church dogmatics, since there is no evidence of any tendency by the tellers to lessen Jesus’ stature. Even in the stories where Jesus opposes the demand he is always drawn with respect as one who provokes people in their own cause and leaves them whole and in possession of their own story.

5. Conclusion

As long as miracle stories are identified by some definition of what is miraculous or by some basic sequence of events such as problem, miraculous resolution and proof, there is no question that they form a distinctive group or genre. But the question rises when stories are grouped according to their organizing interactions whether there is any integrity to the miracle story genre, or to put it in terms of my presumption of tellers of whole stories, whether the same kind of people told the various kinds of stories. It is possible that each type described above has its own context and function and there is no such thing as a miracle story teller.

5.2 To tellers themselves every story is the whole story and comparison or the search for a common denominator misses the point, but an analyst can see that these miracle stories do share a basic structure more general than their specific organizing interactions. This structure may be called the miracle story form if it is kept clear that no particular motifs or sequence is constitutive of it. The whole miracle story is in the first place an affirmative statement, not a question or command; a narrative of specific events, not a description, analysis or deduction. The narrative tells a marvelous breakthrough in the struggle against oppressive restrictions on human life. Exorcisms tell the overthrow of arbitrary, violent and total oppression, controversy miracles the exposé of moral and social restriction, provision stories a break in the oppression of want and human resignation to it and demand stories the initiative that breaks out of physical and psychological impotence. This structure might be mapped in terms of a circle burst open or a mold broken. The narrative tells only liberation from the bonds; it gives no analysis or proposed reconstruction. It is because of this common structure of miracle stories that an occasional story can combine successfully two interactions. This occurs in the paralytic’s healing where the breakthrough of Jesus’ forgiveness against the authorities confirms and is confirmed by the friend’s literally breaking through the roof to get the paralysis healed (Mark 2:1–12; cf. 5:1–20; 9:14–29).

5.3 This basic structure of the miracle story—the juxtaposition of an accepted oppressive context and an extraordinary breaking out of it—along with the survival of genuine mixed types within this structure, indicates that the miracle stories had a common function and were told by the same or overlapping groups of people. Full specification of why people told these stories, down to subordinate hypotheses of who spoke when and where and how, must wait for this structural analysis of stories to be joined to a historical study of their social, economic, political and cultural context as it can be gleaned from details within the stories and other sources for this period. But the stories’ structure gives already, as only the structure can give, the basic pointer or intentionality of whole miracle stories in whatever setting they are told, including even modern settings. When Mark, John, Philostratus, the Epidauran priests, the editing rabbis or we ourselves are not using a story in line with its structure, this reminds us that the new whole made by the collector has its own intention with its appropriate structure and is not a miracle story.

5.4 Returning finally to the question of why the gospel miracles as whole stories were told, a projection can be made from the miracle story structure found here toward the interaction between teller and hearer in which the story might function. The stories are structured around an extraordinary rift in a given, closed system. This shows that the teller of the story affirms both a realistic, even tragic, view of the human condition and a transforming event that changes the human condition. If the hearers share neither of these views, it is difficult to see how the story would interest them; if they share both views the telling would confirm what they already know and be redundant, unless their convictions are wavering. The probability is that they share the harsh experience which the teller assumes as the given condition of the story but have not heard or are not convinced of a transformation of that condition. In spite of my abstract language here to show the common structure of the stories, every story in fact tells a concrete event of food in want, exposé of the powerful, exorcism of the destructive, or demands that break through debility. The kerygma or announcement of such concrete, total change in the common lot is the whole story of the tellers to the hearers.

Works Consulted

Brown, Raymond E.

1971    “Jesus and Elisha.” Perspectives 12: 85–99.

Fridrichsen, Anton

1972    The Problem of Miracle in Primitive Christianity. Trans. R. Harrisville and J. Hanson. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House.

Gottwald, Norman K.

1974    An Attempted Typology of Marvel Stories in the Elijah-Elisha Narratives according to Function Components. Unpublished.

Guttman, Alexander

1947    “The Significance of Miracles for Talmudic Judaism.” HUCA 20: 363–406.

Tagawa, Kenzo

1966    Miracles et évangile, le pensée personelle de l’évangeliste Marc. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Theissen, Gerd

1974    Urchristliche Wundergeschichte. Ein Beitrag zur formgeschichtlichen Erforschung der synoptischen Evangelien. Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn.

Wrede, William

1971    The Messianic Secret. Trans. J. Greig. Cambridge: Jas. Clark & Co.

“And He Followed Him”: Miracles and Discipleship in Mark 10:46–52

Paul J. Achtemeier

Union Theological Seminary, Virginia


The story of the restoration of sight to blind Bartimaeus has been reproduced by Mark pretty much as he received it, including the title, “son of David,” aside from introduction and conclusion. A close comparison with the customary form of the miracle story and with Luke 5:1–11 shows that the account of Bartimaeus is not a miracle story in form but a “call story.” The naming of someone other than Jesus, the focus of attention on that person, and the exemplary character of the actions of that person are traits of a “legend” rather than a miracle story.

In view of the negative trajectory of the davidic ancestry of Jesus in Mark 11 and 12, it is unlikely that Mark inserted the title into the story of Bartimaeus. This fact enables one to see more clearly the relative insignificance of the title within the story itself. At the crucial moment Bartimaeus calls Jesus ῥαββουνί (10:51) and his faith is confirmed. These terms belong to the language of discipleship. These factors indicate that Mark located the story in this gospel where he did, not because the reference to the son of David prepares the way for the triumphal entry, but because this story, together with the account of the healing of the blind man in 8:22–26, form an inclusio to set off a major section of Mark’s gospel on the meaning of discipleship.

In contrast to Luke, Mark does not hold the view that miracles sustain a positive relation to faith and discipleship. He does not therefore treat the story as a call to discipleship based on miracle. Rather, he takes such a story from tradition and adapts it to his own purposes: persistent faith as necessary preparation for the passion and physical blindness as a symbol of the disciples’ inability to understand.

0. The story of the restoration of sight to a blind begar named Bartimaeus occurs at a point in Mark where Jesus is about to begin his activities in Jerusalem. It would be important to examine this account for no other reason than that. In addition to its locus, however, the story presents other problems which give it promise for the critical investigator: the appearance of the (for Mark) enigmatic title “son of David,” and the difficulty in identifying the formal structure of the story, to name but two. Our investigation will proceed in the following way: after seeking to determine how much of the story came to Mark as tradition, and how much that tradition may have developed in the course of its transmission, we shall ask about its formal characteristics as a “miracle story.” We shall then ask about the significance of its present placement in Mark’s gospel, which will also involve an inquiry into the importance for Mark of the title “son of David.” Finally, in an effort to gain perspective on the force of the Markan narrative in which this story is placed, we shall compare it very briefly with some material from the gospel of Luke, after which we may be in a position to draw some tentative conclusions on the nature and meaning of this pericope.

1.0 Our first step, then, is to attempt to trace the various stages through which our story has moved. As is often the case, Matthew and Luke, by their treatment of Mark, indicate where they found difficulties with the prose of that gospel. Since such narrative difficulties often betray seams in editorial adaptation, or anomalies created by the combination of traditions, they are worthy of careful investigation.

1.1 The first such problem concerns the double notation of locus, Jericho. Cast in a form frequent in Mark, the first indication (καὶ ἔρχονται εἰς Ἰεριχώ) is commonly held to be due to Mark’s editorial activity. Both Matthew and Luke noted the awkward situation thus created, and solved it in different ways, Matthew by noting that the event occurred after the group left Jericho (20:29), Luke saying it occurred prior to entry (18:35). As they now stand, these notations on location enable Mark to continue his narrative of Jesus on the way to Jerusalem.

1.2 A second problem is the over-loaded genitive absolute, by which the disciples are included in the narrative. This too touches on a theme Mark has been pursuing, namely the trip of Jesus with his disciples to Jerusalem. Again, Matthew and Luke corrected and difficulty, Matthew by making the genitive absolute plural (in Mark, the participle is singular: ἐκπορευομένου) to include the disciples, and then giving a separate notice about the crowd (20:29), while Luke omitted reference to both groups of people.

1.3 A third difficulty centers in the name of the blind beggar, Bartimaeus. This is the only story in which the recipient of a miraculous healing is named in Mark, and with one exception (Jairus, 5:22, although D omits the name there), the only miraculous healing where anyone save Jesus is named. The interpretation of the perhaps Aramaic “Bartimaeus”, with the Greek phrase ὁ υἱὸς Τιμαίου, could be understood as Mark’s interpretative addition, were it not for the fact that in all other such instances, Mark gives the Aramaic word first, and then the interpretation. Furthermore, as the story now stands, the Greek reader will not identify the two names, and will probably assume the blind beggar, whose father was Timaeus, bore the name Bartimaeus7. Matthew and Luke, perhaps aware of these problems, omit any reference to the beggar’s name.

1.4 It would seem probable, therefore, that Mark, in fitting this story into his narrative, provided the first mention of the location in order to get Jesus to the place near which the story occurred, and added the reference to the disciples, and perhaps to the crowd, who accompanied Jesus. The story itself will have included reference to the fact that as Jesus was leaving Jericho, he passed a blind beggar who was named Bartimaeus, and who was sitting by the roadside.

1.51 Within the story itself, some scholars have found evidences of Markan composition, although there is less unity there than there was concerning the opening verse. The use of ἤρξατο with an infinitive, normally a Markan construction (both Matthew and Luke modify it here), has been thought by some to betray Markan editorial work. The difficulty is that if this phrase does introduce a Markan insertion, it represents Markan use of a title, son of David, which is, to say the least, not a normal title for Jesus in this gospel11. A second place where some have thought to see Mark’s hand is in the crowd’s rebuke to the blind man. Such scholars see here the typical Markan enjoinder to silence to anyone who utters the true mystery of Jesus, i.e., the “messianic secret”. If these are Markan insertions, then most of verses 47–48 will have been due to Mark, and we can find, or should be able to, valuable clues to Mark’s christology.

1.52 Two points, however, would argue against these verses representing Markan insertions. First, as we shall see, the title “son of David” is not significant for Mark’s understanding of Jesus. It is difficult to understand why Mark would want to insert a title which bears no meaning for him. On the other hand, he may have placed the story here just because the title was already present in it, in an attempt to say something about its relevance to Jesus, and particularly to Jesus’ fate in Jerusalem. We shall have to return to that problem. Second, the attempts of the crowd to silence Bartimaeus have little in common with other instances of the “messianic secret”. It is rather bizaare to have a crowd desire to preserve a secret (from whom?), and in fact, this element in the story is probably intended more to demonstrate the persistence of Bartimaeus in the face of opposition, than to silence his confession of Jesus as son of David. Such persistence is the point of at least two other miracle stories in Mark (5:25–34; 7:25–30), one of which (5:25–34) also has in common the saying of Jesus: “Your faith has saved you.” It seems likely therefore, that the substance, if not the form, of these verses was also to be found in the story as Mark got it from the tradition.

Finally, there is general agreement that the final words of the pericope, ἐν τῆ ὁδῷ, have been added by Mark to call attention once more to the way Jesus is now going, namely, to the passion. Hence, it would appear that aside from the introduction and conclusion, Mark has reproduced the story pretty much as he received it, including the title, “son of David” (cf. Burger: 59). Had it been one of Mark’s major redactional intentions to introduce that title by means of this story, one must wonder why he did not also make that title explicit in the following story, the entry into Jerusalem. The parallel account of that entry in Matthew (esp. 21:9) shows how easily redactional change could introduce the title. That Mark did not employ that simple device probably means that he, unlike Matthew, had no interest in the title, was not working with it himself, and hence we may conclude, its presence in our story means it was already contained in a story which Mark employed at this place for other reasons.

1.6 Where the story may have originated is difficult to determine, as is, on literary grounds, any development it may have undergone prior to its inclusion in Mark. The presence of Aramaic words—ῥαββουνί, Βαρτιμαῖος—may point to a Palestinian origin for the story, although the word used to describe Bartimaeus’ act with his cloak (casting off rather than putting on) is clearer with regard to Greek than Palestinian custom19. The original purpose of the story is also difficult to determine on literary grounds, since it contains both a miracle and words normally associated with discipleship. All of this indicates that a further step is necessary if we are to understand the original provenance and intention of this story, and it is to that form critical analysis that we must now turn.

2.1 As I have tried to show elsewhere, one can usefully describe the elements necessary to narrate a miracle story as the problem which is to be resolved, the solution which in fact resolves it, and some kind of proof or demonstration that the problem has in fact yielded to the solution. Although few stories in Mark contain only those elements (one such is found in 1:30–31), those elements are regularly present in NT miracle accounts, as they are also in non-biblical stories of that kind in the Hellinistic world. The elements are regularly expanded by a request for help, added detail about any of the three elements, and a public acclamation of the wondrous deed, although such expansions are not necessary to the structure of telling a miracle.

2.2 Even allowing for such expansion of detail, however, the story of blind Bartimaeus in Mark is a problem. The miracle itself is attached almost as an afterthought to Bartimaeus’ stubborn refusal to be intimidated by the crowd, and the solution is virtually no solution at all. It is simply a dismissal after a comment by Jesus identifying that stubbornness as faith. The proof is limited to three words (καὶ εὐθὺς ἀνέβλεψεν), although perhaps Bartimaeus’ ability to follow Jesus is to be taken as an indication that he can now make his own way, and need not be confined, as he formerly was, to sitting beside the road along which other people moved.

2.3 Matthew and Luke have both taken steps to conform this story more clearly to the miracle paradigm. Luke eliminates part of the dialogue between the blind man and the crowd, puts an empowering word as solution before Jesus’ statement about faith, and adds to the proof (as he frequently does) an acclamation, in this case both by the blind man and the crowd. Matthew similarly has Jesus, not the crowd, summon the blind men (Matthew has two), and adds the detail of a healing gesture to the solution: Jesus touches the eyes of the blind men. When both Matthew and Luke omit the name of the one healed, they conform to the normal practice that the only person named in a miracle account is Jesus.

2.41 All of this means that the attempt to locate a “pure miracle story” at the basis of this account, to which details were then added, is difficult in the extreme. Some scholars have tried to reconstruct such an underlying miracle story, but that entails not only the omission of parts of the story as it now appears in Mark (e.g., the dialogue between Bartimaeus and the crowd, vv 47–48), but also the reassignment to Jesus of words now credited to others (e.g., v 49) (Robbins: 232; Burger: 45), and even the re-introduction of elements now absent in Mark’s account (e.g., a healing gesture by Jesus) (so Robbins: 233). We can leave aside for the moment the fact that all such constructions presume as an earlier form of Mark’s story a story now very similar to the ones in Luke and Matthew, which on other grounds seem dependent on the Markan narrative. What emerges from such an analysis is the clear indication that the story of blind Bartimaeus as it now stands in Mark had as its intention something other than the narration of a wondrous healing by Jesus. A healing is present in the story, but in such abbreviated form that it appears to have been subordinated to some other intention.

2.42 That fact emerges even more clearly if we compare Mark 10:46–52 with the one other story of the healing of a blind man in Mark, which is found in 8:22–26. This latter account is a parade example of a miracle story. Problem (v 22, along with the request for help), solution (vv 23–25a) and proof (vv 25b–26) emerge and can be disengaged with clarity and precision. The blind man remains anonymous, and passive, and Jesus is clearly the center of attention as he overcomes this particularly difficult case of blindness (cf. vv 24–25a). Such a comparison makes all the more evident the unique elements in the story of Bartimaeus: he is named, he is the center of the story, and he emerges as a follower of Jesus. It is his persistence, not that of Jesus (cf. 8:23–25a), which ultimately allows the healing to occur.

2.43 It is precisely this diminution of the elements of a miracle story in favor of elements of a “bibliographical-legendary” (Koch: 218) nature that may give a clue to the kind of story with which we here have to do. If we may characterize as “legend” those stories in which someone other than Jesus is named, and hence have interest focused on them, and in which the actions of that person will teach the reader what to emulate or avoid, then this story of Bartimaeus, whose persistent faith, even to the point of following Jesus, is eminently worthy of emulation—this story would be much more nearly characterized as “legend” than “miracle story.”

2.44 If that comparison of Mark 10:46–52 with 8:22–26 showed the structural differences between the former account and a regular miracle story, a comparison with Luke 5:1–11 may clarify the way in which a miracle can function within a “legend.” It is clear in Luke 5 that although a miracle is included, it is not the main point of the narrative. Nevertheless, as Luke tells the story, one gets the impression that the concluding positive response of Peter is related to the miracle he experiences. One could analyze the elements in Luke 5:1–11 in the following way: after an editorial introduction (1) in verse 1, the scene is set (2) in verses 2–3. A dialogue ensues in which the central character, Peter, is engaged in a kind of verbal conflict with Jesus (3) in verses 4–5a, which is then resolved (4) in verse 5b. The chief character, Peter, acts (5) in verses 6a and then the miracle is described (6) in verses 6b–7. A second dialogue between Peter and Jesus occurs (7) in verses 8–10a, followed by a word of comfort (8) in verse 8b, and the story concludes with the reaction of the central character, Peter, to these events (9) in verse 11. If we analyze the story of Bartimaeus, we will find that all of these nine elements are present, that in all but two instances they occur in the same order, and that all the material in the story of Bartimaeus can thus be accounted for. After the editorial introduction (1) in verse 46a, the scene is set (2) in verse 46b. A dialogue ensues in which the central character, Bartimaeus, is engaged in a kind of conflict (3) in verses 47–48, although in this case it is a dialogue between the crowd and Bartimaeus, rather than between Bartimaeus and Jesus. The conflict is resolved (4) in verse 49 and a word of comfort is spoken (8), although again it is spoken not by Jesus, but by the crowd. The chief character, Bartimaeus, acts (5) in verse 50, and there follows a dialogue between Bartimaeus and Jesus (7) in verse 51. The miracle is then reported (6) in verse 52a, and the story concludes with the reaction of the central character, Bartimaeus, to these events (9) in verse 52b.

2.45 Several items are worth noting here. In Luke, both dialogues occur between Jesus and Peter; in Mark, the first is between the crowd and Bartimaeus. In Luke, the word of comfort is spoken by Jesus, in Mark by the crowd. If someone in the course of the tradition, for whatever reason, substituted the crowd for Jesus in the Markan account, the two stories would be very similar. Just that substitution has been repeatedly suggested by scholars who have examined this pericope. Again, two elements have been put in another place in the Markan account: the word of comfort and the report of the miracle, displacements which have the effect of separating the comfort from the mighty act, hence de-emphasizing the miracle. In the Markan account, the miracle is less prominent than in the story in Luke. The important point here, however, is this: those elements which distort the story in Mark as far as the normal miracle story is concerned are precisely the elements that cause it to resemble most closely the story in Luke, and the story in Luke is the story of the call of a disciple. Is it possible that the healing of blind Bartimaeus may also have functioned originally as the account of how he became a disciple of Jesus? Several indications point in that direction.

2.46 Chief among them, of course, is the general configuration of the story which we have just discussed: it is shaped to point more to Bartimaeus’ persistent faith than to the restoration of his sight, and the general form is similar to a story in Luke which is an account of how Peter became a disciple. If this had originally been a story of that kind, it would explain why the blind begar has a name, and why interest focuses so intently upon him. That a person could thus become a disciple of Jesus, and not be included in a list of the twelve is clear from the account of the call of Levi (Mark 2:13–14). Obviously the tradition knew of more disciples, and the origin of their call, than were included in lists of the twelve. Again, such an assumption about the original nature of the story of blind Bartimaeus would explain why, singularly in Mark, the recipient of a miracle followed Jesus, why his faith is so much the issue, and why the miracle assumes secondary importance. It may also explain the presence of the enigmatic title “son of David,” showing the readiness of Bartimaeus to acknowledge in Jesus one worthy of following. It could also explain the presence of the second title, ῥαββουνί, whose only other use in the NT (John 20:16) clearly denotes master-disciple relationship, and which, in its more common form, ῥαββί, appears as address in the synoptic tradition exclusively between Jesus and his followers (see Roloff: 122). In addition to all this, if, for some reason, Mark were reluctant to present disciples in the light cast upon it by the story of Bartimaeus, we could account for certain anomalies in the story concerning the crowd, viz. their active role, but above all, the fact that they, not Jesus, summon Bartimaeus to Jesus. As we noted above, were Jesus substituted for the crowd, he would function in Mark 10:46–52 almost precisely as he does in Luke 5:1–11, the story of the call of Peter.

2.5 If this story was originally meant to tell of the way one Bartimaeus came to be a follower of Jesus, i.e., a form of “call story,” the question that immediately arises concerns its placement in Mark: why was it placed so late in the narrative, so long after the stories of the way other disciples came to follow Jesus (viz. 1:16–20; 2:13–14; cf. 3:14–19)? Was it because he wished to use this story to bring into his narrative the title “son of David” as in some way appropriate to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem? Or was it his view of the nature of discipleship and/or miracle that caused him to put it where he did? We must turn to an investigation of those questions. We begin with the title “son of David.”

3.11 Scholars have suggested two interpretations of the title “son of David” in the NT which are based on traditions found in the OT and developed in the Hellenistic period. The first of those traditions sees in the title “son of David” primarily the designation of a politico-nationalistic figure. The expectation that Israel’s glorious future was tied to a descendant of David is based in 2 Sam 7:12–16, and what may be the clearest expression of the form that expectation took for the Judaism of the NT period can be found in the Psalms of Solomon, particularly 17:4, 21–32. Here the “son of David” is ruler and king, who will wreak vengeance on Israel’s enemies and reestablish the hegemony of Jerusalem.

It is in light of such a background that some scholars have understood the title “son of David” in the NT to be largely a political designation, referring to the nationalistic hopes of a conquered Israel. As an example, Burger points to Luke’s omission of the title in his account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as motivated by a desire to avoid just such political overtones32.

3.12 A second possibility of understanding “son of David” draws on Solomon’s growing reputation in the Hellenistic world, among Jews and gentiles alike, as a practitioner of the magical arts. Solomon’s reputation was based on 1 Kgs 5:9–14 (Eng. 4:29–34), which was increasingly interpreted as magical knowledge (e.g., Wisdom of Solomon 7:15–22) in the Hellenistic period (e.g., Josephus, Ant. 8.2.5) and beyond. Since in the NT those who address Jesus with this title are primarily those in need of exorcism or healing (so Duling: 235), and since the messianic King in Judaism was never identified as a wonder-worker, some scholars have suggested that the title “son of David” in the synoptic gospels reflects rather the traditions about Solomon, the healer and exorcist par excellence, than the political traditions of David’s descendant.

3.21 The absence of Jewish expectations that the messianic king would work miracles has led some scholars to suggest that the use of the title “son of David” in the NT owes more to post-Easter Christian reflections on Jesus than to any clear OT or Jewish traditions. Only against a Christian background can we understand the combination of the traditions of Jesus as miracle worker, and as descendant of David. In that light, Räisänen argues that it was for christological reasons that Mark placed the story of Bartimaeus where he did. Because both Mark and his readers would have understood the title as messianic (149), its placement here would help Mark develop Jesus’ christological significance. Matthew shows that the title did have some resources for a christological portrayal of Jesus, but was that also true for Mark? Was it in fact for its positive christological significance that Mark chose to place its first use in his gospel at this place? To answer that question, we must look at the use of the title “son of David” in Mark.

3.22 That Mark understood Jesus as son of David always has as its counterpole the saying of Jesus in 12:35–37, where the simplest interpretation remains: the Christ (for Mark clearly Jesus) is not the son of David the scribes await. In order to set that apparent meaning aside, one must turn to 10:46–52, and argue either that the title was added by Mark, hence assuring its positive significance, or that Mark valued it because of some other clue in the story (the supposed secret in v 48, or the faith in v 52 which is supposedly expressed in Bartimaeus’ identification of Jesus as son of David). The next occurrence, Mark 11:9–10, is then understood in the light of the Matthean changes, one of which is to include the title itself (Matt 21:9), and one is then ready to find in 12:35–37 the opposite of its most obvious meaning, namely that it supports the idea of messiah as son of David.

3.23 If we begin the investigation, however, not with the ambiguous statements about Jesus as son of David (in 10:46–52 the title is abandoned in v 51; in 11:1–10 it does not appear), but with the passage that most unambiguously speaks of Jesus as son of David, namely 12:35–37, and work from the clearer to the unclear passages, the results will be quite different. The point then appears to be the growing denial of Jesus as son of David, rather than a growing affirmation of that fact. Let us pursue such an investigation, to see what light it sheds on Mark’s understanding of the title “son of David.”

3.24 It is generally acknowledged that 12:35–37 came to Mark from his traditions. It is also generally acknowledged that the intention of the passage is to say that the scribes are wrong when they say that the Christ is the son of David, although most scholars quickly qualify such an acknowledgment39. Yet there are other passages in Mark which point to his difference, if not hostility, to Jesus’ davidic background. In 2:23–27, where Jesus defends himself against Pharisaic objections to his disciples’ rupture of the Sabbath law, Jesus cites David as a precedent for such behavior. The obvious statement, however, that a descendant of David should be permitted the same latitude as his forebear is not made. Had Mark, or the tradition, been intent on showing Jesus’ davidic ancestry, this would have been an excellent place to make that point. Again, in 6:1–3, there is a perjorative discussion of Jesus’ parentage, with no hint of the idea that Jesus’ descent was in any way significant. In fact, the point is just the opposite: it is just his descent that proves him unimportant (see Burger: 58). At the very least, Mark has passed up opportunities to point to the davidic descent of Jesus in these two places.

3.25 The usual way to wrest a positive meaning from 12:35–37 is to argue that its intention is not to deny davidic sonship to the messiah, but to say that one must affirm more than that he is davidic. One must also affirm that he is son of God. Support is gathered for such a view from Rom 1:3–4, where Jesus as son of David κατὰ σάρκα is contrasted to Jesus as son of God (e.g., Burkill: 34, n. 8; Burger: 166–167), and from the parallel passage in Matt 22:41–45, where its use in a gospel which, by its genealogy, clearly proved that this passage could be interpreted in other than a negative sense, is seen as significant (Gibbs: 461; Kingsbury: 596). Yet the major christological title in Mark is not son of God, but rather as I have sought to show elsewhere (1975b: chap. 5), son of Man (cf. the programmatic statement in 10:45, which Mark has placed as a kind of title over his account of the passion). Furthermore, the changes Matthew has made in the introduction to this story show clearly enough the difficulty he had in finding a positive meaning in Mark’s account.

3.26 A more subtle way to find this “son of David but more” intention in Mark 12:35–37 is to point to the change in interrogative particles with which the question is introduced the first (v 35) and second (v 37) times. In 35, the question is introduced with πῶς; in verse 37 it is changed to πόθεν. Hahn and others have argued strongly that this change is the key to the pericope, since the second question now intends to ask, not “how” can the Christ be David’s son, the meaning of verse 35, but rather, “in what sense” can the Christ be thought of as David’s son. The answer is then “not exclusively,” since he is also the kyrios and the son of God (Hahn: 261; Schweizer: 146). If in fact, however, it is correct that πόθεν means not “how” but rather “in what sense” or “to what extent,” and the answer is “only partially,” since the messiah is also, or even more importantly, son of God or even son of Man, then Jesus is summoning the scribes to debate, with the intention of getting them to concede a point, even as Jesus has conceded a point to them (i.e., messiah is admittedly son of David, but he is also more). In that case, the silence of the scribes is a contemptuous refusal to debate, not the sullen silence of the defeated.

3.27 Yet the context in which Mark has placed this pericope argues decisively against such an interpretation. If πόθεν retains its more obvious meaning of “how” (a meaning the parallel question in v 35, with its πῶς, makes most obvious), then Jesus is confounding the scribes, as he confounded chief priests, elders, Pharisees and Sadducees in the preceding narrative (11:27–12:27). He is telling the scribes, as he told the Sadducees, that they are unable to understand Scripture (cf. 12:24). That Mark understood Jesus’ intention as hostile, not as an invitation to debate, is clearly indicated by the contrast Mark draws between the acceptance of Jesus by the crowds and that accorded him by the authorities (12:37b), and still more clearly, by the hostile sayings against scribes which Mark places immediately following this pericope. The point is that both their theology (understanding of Scripture—12:35–37) as well as their actions (hypocrisy—12:38b–40a) will earn them condemnation (12:40b). In that context, it is unlikely Mark thought of Jesus as engaged in widening the scribes’ comprehension of Scripture by conceding a point to win a point.

3.28 In sum, it is only by over-subtle interpretation (i.e., the πῶς—σπόθεν differentiation), or by drawing on other NT evidence, that a positive statement regarding Jesus as son of David in Mark’s theology can be drawn. Shorn of the support of Matthew, or the tradition in Rom 1:3–4, the point of 12:35–37 is the one most often recognized, if not acknowledged: Mark does not think the Messiah, and for him that means Jesus, is of davidic descent.

3.3 With that understanding of 12:35–37, 11:9–10 now appears in a clearer light as well. Whatever the origin of these verses, they are notable not for the clarity with which they affirm Jesus’ davidic sonship, but rather for the unusual ambiguity with which they refer to any such relationship between Jesus and David. Again, Matthew is frequently used as, if not the overt, at least the covert aid to the interpretation. Yet it is precisely the comparison with Matthew that shows how simple it was to turn the Markan form of the story into an acclamation of Jesus as son of David. By the simple expedient of adding the title “son of David” and omitting the ambiguous reference to the “coming kingdom of our father David,” Matthew has transformed the passage into a statement about Jesus’ davidic sonship43. Had it in fact been Mark’s intention to call attention to Jesus’ davidic sonship with this tradition, he would surely have followed the procedure of Matthew, who did pursue such an intention. That Mark did not introduce such changes indicates clearly that such was not his intention. Seen in the light of the negative tone Mark set on the messiah’s davidic sonship in 12:35–37, the ambiguity in 11:9–10 concerning Jesus as son of David becomes all the clearer. Rather than finding in 11:9–10 a further step toward a climax of Jesus as son of David, these verses point, if anywhere, in the opposite direction. Through their ambiguity, they prepare the way for the negative judgment in 12:35–37.

3.4 In view of the negative trajectory on Jesus’ davidic sonship we have seen in Mark 11 and 12, new light is now also cast on 10:46–52. It now becomes clear that Mark will not have inserted that story at this point in his narrative because of any desire to begin a climactic development of the idea of Jesus as son of David. Quite the contrary, the title is nowhere so clearly used of Jesus as it is in 10:47–48, and since from that point on Mark seems to want to de-emphasize, if indeed not discredit it entirely, two conclusions may be drawn. First, it is unlikely that Mark inserted the title into this story, since he obviously did not intend to make further positive use of it. One has the opposite impression: because it was already in the story, which Mark for other reasons wanted to use here, Mark included it, but thereafter arranged his material in such a way that its negative valence becomes clear. Secondly, such a perspective now enables us to see more clearly the relative insignificance the title plays in the story of blind Bartimaeus itself. While it may be over-subtle to point out that Bartimaeus was still blind when he called Jesus “son of David”45, it is nevertheless clear that the title is not the point of the story. The title is changed at the crucial moment (to ῥαββουνί in v 51). That leads to a further confirmation that the point of verse 52, with its reference to Bartimaeus’ faith, points not to the title he used, at least not to “son of David” which he abandoned at the critical instant, but rather to his persistence in refusing to be kept from Jesus (cf. 7:26–30) (Räisänen: 150; Taylor: 449; Nincham: 283; Schweizer: 128).

3.51 If, then, Mark did not place the story of blind Bartimaeus where he did because of any desire to use it as a vehicle for christological affirmations about Jesus, either by title added or already present, how are we to account for its appearance here? Some have found the clue in the double reference to its locus, Jericho. Located there, the incident represents an event in the course of Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, and hence is meant to serve as a transition to events in that city (e.g., Roloff: 121, 125; Räisänen: 151; Burger: 63). I think that unlikely for two reasons. First, scholars who urge such a reason for the present locus of the story in Mark must also urge that the transition is, for Mark, understood in christological terms, i.e., the movement is from the title “son of David” in the Bartimaeus story to an account of the entry of David’s son into Jerusalem, and on to his passion. As we have seen, however, such an interpretation places more weight on the christological freight of references to David in both the Bartimaeus story and the account of the entry than either of them is capable of bearing.

3.52 Second, and more importantly, I would want to urge that the story of Bartimaeus plays a much larger role in the plan of Mark’s gospel than simply that of transition, or introduction to a subsequent section of that work. Rather, the story of blind Bartimaeus, along with the story of the healing of the blind man in 8:22–26, forms an inclusio to set off a major section of Mark’s gospel: the instruction to the disciples into Jesus’ fate and their necessary response to it. In that sense, both the story in chapter 8, as well as the story of Bartimaeus, serve as transitional pericopes, but their meaning is far from exhausted in that respect. They include between themselves a section containing traditions related to discipleship, and marked by a thrice repeated pattern of passion prediction, misunderstanding by disciples, and words from Jesus on true discipleship. The story of Bartimaeus thus stands as the climax of the central section of Mark’s gospel in which the nature of true discipleship is discussed.

3.53 If, as I suggested earlier, we have in the account of Bartimaeus a story which originally functioned as an account of the calling of a disciple, we may have the clue as to why Mark felt this was an appropriate location for it. What more appropriate way to conclude a section on discipleship than with the story of the way one man became a disciple? I would suggest that that was the reason which made this pericope seem appropriate to Mark to put at just this place in his narrative: its healing of blind Bartimaeus made it useful as the conclusion of a section begun with the healing of a blind man (an appropriate symbol for opening the minds of disciples by means of the teachings included between the two stories), and its emphasis on discipleship made it all the more appropriate for its present context. In that way, Mark showed Jesus seeking to open the blind eyes of his followers to the true significance of following him.

3.6 One question remains unanswered: why would Mark not have thought this appropriate as the story of the calling of a disciple? That Bartimaeus did not appear in the list of the twelve is not sufficient reason. Levi is also absent from the list, but the story of his call found its proper place in Mark’s narrative. To answer our question, we must turn to an investigation of Mark’s understanding of discipleship, and of miracle.

4.1 I want to propose that when Mark used the story of blind Bartimaeus as he did, he acted in accordance with his overall understanding both of discipleship and of miracles. A brief comparison with the attitude of Luke to these two items will help bring into bold relief Mark’s understanding of the relationship between the two. In the following discussion, two points of comparison will be drawn: the attitude toward miracles and faith, and toward miracles and discipleship.

4.21 Luke’s positive attitude on the relationship between faith and miracles can be plainly seen in those accounts in Acts where a wondrous deed performed by a follower of Jesus awakens faith in those who experience or observe it (e.g., Acts 9:35, 42; 13:12; 16:30, 33; 19:17). The repeated references to “signs and wonders” which the disciples do in the course of their missionary work (2:43; 5:12; 6:8; 8:6; 14:3; 15:12) also points to a positive relationship between the two. The same phenomena can be observed in the gospel. More than any other evangelist, Luke appends to miracle stories references to the fact that those who had observed the miracles, or who had benefited from them, give praise to God (e.g., 5:25; 7:16; 9:43; 13:13; 17:15; 18:43), an attitude which belongs to the Lukan understanding of faith (cf. Acts 1:13; 2:22–23, 36; 4:27; 10:38). The emphasis on “seeing” in Luke, less prominent in the other gospels, also points to the significance of miracles for faith in Jesus (compare with their parallels, Luke 10:23–24; 19:37), and Luke’s use of the story of the ten lepers (17:11–19) in the context of a discussion of the meaning of faith (17:1–10) shows further the significance of this connection.

4.22 Contrasted to the kind of understanding of the relationship between miracles and faith found in the Lukan writings, the attitude toward miracles in Mark comes into sharp relief. When faith is mentioned or implied in miracle stories, it seems to be regarded as in effect prior to, not as a result of, the miracle (cf. 2:3–5; 5:23, 34; 7:29), or the story is shaped to describe the absence of faith in those who have observed and anticipate miracles from Jesus (9:14–29). When something like faith does result, it is made public contrary to Jesus’ wishes (1:44–45; 7:36–37), or the person who proclaims it nevertheless does so in contrast to Jesus’ instructions (contrast 5:19, “how much the Lord has done,” with 5:20, “how much Jesus had done”). Mark apparently has less confidence than Luke in the ability of Jesus’ mighty acts to awaken useful faith in Jesus.

4.31 Closely related to this, and more important for our immediate consideration, is the relationship between miracles and discipleship. For Luke, miracles constitute a clearly legitimate basis for discipleship. Jesus’ ability to perform wondrous deeds is announced (4:18–21, 23) and demonstrated (4:31–41) before any account of calling disciples, and the call of Peter, interwoven with a miracle, leaves little question that the mighty act has motivated Peter to his acknowledgment of Christ as master. Luke is so intent on this that he even placed the story of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law before Peter’s call. Again, the calling of Levi is made to follow directly on the report of a miracle which is identified as such by a technical term (παράδοξα, 5:26–27). Luke further identifies the women who followed Jesus as ones from whom he had expelled demons (8:2–3); Mary Magdalene is among them. Even the missionary journey of the twelve is situated in such a way by Luke that it follows directly the accounts of four miracles (8:22–9:6).

4.32 Once more, the contrast with Mark is striking. The only event other than the material about John the Baptist that precedes the calling of the first disciples in Mark is the summary of Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom of God (1:14–15). Only after they have followed (1:16–20) are any miracles reported, and then the first exorcism is framed in such a way that the emphasis lies not on the act of power, but on the power inherent in Jesus’ teaching (1:21–28). The call of Levi (2:14) is preceded by a reference to Jesus’ activity as teacher (2:13), and the missionary journey of the twelve is prefaced not by miracles, but by an account of Jesus’ failure as miracle worker (6:5). Nowhere in Mark is there any hint that miracles are adequate grounds for discipleship. The only adequate grounds for Mark is readiness for martyrdom (8:34; Luke weakens this with his addition of the words καθʼ ἡμέραν in 9:23), something for which, in Mark’s view, it would seem, knowledge of miracles is inadequate preparation.

4.4 In light of such a contrast, it is not hard to see why Mark would want to deal as he did with a story which related a miracle to the point at which Bartimaeus became a disciple of Jesus. What was clearly possible for Luke (cf. 5:1–11) is just as clearly impossible for Mark. Yet the story of blind Bartimaeus did understand faith in a way Mark found useful (cf. 10:52 with 5:34), and the symbolism of physical blindness for the disciples’ inability to understand (compare 10:46–52 with 8:22–33) was also something Mark apparently wished to employ. If Luke shows that it was clearly possible within the early Christian tradition to relate in a positive way discipleship and miracles, a point also made in the story of Bartimaeus, Mark shows that it was clearly possible to reject such a view, a point made by the Markan treatment of that story.

5. In summary, all that we have seen of the way Mark relates miracles to faith and discipleship comports with the suggested origin and current placement in Mark of the story of blind Bartimaeus. The anomalies within the story can perhaps best be explained on the theory that it originated as the story of how a disciple of Jesus came to become that, and the way Mark has used it is surely in line with his understanding of the place of miracles in relation to discipleship. Mark clearly thinks of discipleship primarily in relation to the passion of Jesus (cf. 8:34–35), a point made clear by the repeated predictions of the passion precisely within the section dealing most clearly with the nature of discipleship (8:22–10:52). That same point may be indicated by the placing of the story of Bartimaeus just before the beginning of the events in Jerusalem which culminated in the passion. In that way, the proximity to those events, a proximity emphasized by the Markan addition of ἑν τῇ ὁδῷ in 10:52, a clear reminder of the “way” of Jesus to the cross—that proximity also aids in detaching the story from its original connection of discipleship with miracle and attaching it to the passion. Discipleship now means: following Jesus in the way of the cross. In dealing with the story of Bartimaeus as he does, Mark has continued to use his sources in the service of his major task: to take captive the Jesus traditions in the service of his hermeneutical desire to subordinate them to the story of Jesus who died and rose again (see Koch: 131; cf. Luz: 30).

Works Consulted

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1963    The Christology of the New Testament. Trans. S. C. Guthrie and C. A. M. Hall. Rev. ed. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Duling, D.

1975    “Solomon, Exorcism, and the son of David.” HTR 68: 235–252.

Evans-Wentz, W. Y., ed.

1969    Tibet’s Great Yogi Milavepa. 2d ed. London/Oxford/New York: Oxford University.

Fisher, L.

1968    “Can this be the Son of David?” Pp. 82–97 in Jesus and the Historian, Written in Honor of Ernest Cadman Colwell. Ed. F. T. Trotter. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Gibbs, J. M.

1963–64    “Purpose and Pattern in Matthew’s use of the Title ‘Son of David.” NTS 10: 446–464.

Gordon, C. H.

1957    Adventures in the Nearest East. Fairlawn, NJ: Essential Books.

Grundmann, W.

1959    Das Evangelium nach Markus. Theologischer Handkommentar zum neuen Testament 2. Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt.

Hahn, F.

1963    Christologische Hoheitstitel. FRLANT 83. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht.

Johnson, S.

1960    The Gospel according to St. Mark. New York: Harpers.

Kelber, W.

1974    The Kingdom in Mark. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Kertelge, K.

1970    Die Wunder Jesu im Markusevangelium. München: Kösel Verlag.

Kingsbury, J. D.

1976    “The Title ‘Son of David’ in Matthew’s Gospel.” JBL 95: 591–602.

Klostermann, E.

1926    Das Markusevangelium. Handbuch zum neuen Testament 3. Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr.

Koch, D.-A.

1975    Die Bedeutung der Wundererzählungen für die Christologie des Markusevangeliums. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Lohmeyer, E.

1959    Das Evangelium des Markus. Kritisch-Exegetischer Kommentar über das neue Testament. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht.

Luz, U.

1965    “Das Geheimnismotiv und die markinische Christologie.” ZNW 56: 9–30.

Nineham, D. E.

1968    The Gospel of St. Mark. London: A. and C. Black.

Räisänen, H.

1976    Das “Messiasgeheimnis” im Markus-evangelium. Schriften der Finnischen Exegetischen Gesellschaft 28. Helsinki.

Robbins, V. K.

1973    “The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus (10:46–52) in the Marcan Theology.” JBL 92: 224–243.

Roloff, J.

1970    Das Kerygma und der irdische Jesus. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht.

Schweizer, E.

1968    Das Evangelium nach Markus. Das neue Testament Deutsch 1. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht.

Taylor, V.

1957    The Gospel according to St. Mark. London: Macmillan.

Theissen, G.

1974    Urchristliche Wundergeschichten. Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn.

Wrede, W.

1907    “Jesus als Davidssohn.” Pp. 147–177 in Vorträge und Studien. Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr.

Books Received

Semeia is pleased to list books received which would be of interest to its readers. Listing does not guarantee review. Semeia will give major review attention to select titles; others will be reviewed more briefly.

Review items should be sent to the Editor.

Sebeok, Thomas A., ed.

1977    A Perfusion of Signs. Bloomington and London: Indiana University.

Sebeok, Thomas A., ed.

1978    Sight, Sound, and Sense Bloomington and London: Indiana University.

Romeo, Luigi, ed.

1978    Ars Semeiotica 2. International Journal of American Semiotic. Boulder: Ars Semeiotica Press.

Published: January 15, 2015, 12:55 | Comments Off on CHRISTIAN MIRACLE STORIES, by ArchBischof Uwe AE.Rosenkranz
Category: ROSARY 4 z Bishop

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