Miracle Stories: The God Asclepius,
the Pythagorean Philosophers,
and the Roman Rulers
Wendy Cotter, C.S.J.
The Jesus miracles, like all first-century material, require a full cultural contextualization within the Greco-Roman world, the only world available to the author and the audience for whom the stories were written. Assiduous and constant reference to that culture, its values, presuppositions, and favorite icons must establish the controls for the responsible evaluation and elucidation of each story's most probable messages. Two elements combine in the Jesus miracles—the work of power and the particular circumstances of encounter between Jesus and the petitioner/s—which help communicate the significance of his power and the revelation of his character.
Most studies focus on the first of these elements, striving to set up a backdrop for Jesus' miraculous works; several important scholars have contributed invaluably to the endeavor, such as Barry Blackburn, Howard Kee, Harold Remus, and Graham Twelftree. Gerd Theissen has focused special attention on the classification of the Jesus miracles, but he differs from the aforementioned scholars in arguing that it was Christianity that made the miracle story plentiful and popular rather than that the Jesus stories shared the same world stage with well-known accounts of other heroes and gods.
All Christians participated in the Mediterranean Greco-Roman world, including the Jews. Nevertheless, scholarship does not always reflect this fact. Most scholars confine their study of Jesus' miracles to Old Testament allusions or to subsequent stories in late Rabbinic traditions. It certainly is true that several of the Jesus miracles do indeed show that the author intended a reference to a Septuagintal story, or hero. But unless the general stories known throughout the Mediterranean world by both Jews and non-Jews are studied, any intended allusions to them will be completely ignored, and a statement made about Jesus' person, power, and message will be lost. And this has happened.