The Historical Jesus in Context

By Amy-Jill Levine; Dale Allison Jr. et al. | Go to book overview

8
The Galilean Charismatic and Rabbinic Piety:
The Holy Man in the Talmudic Literature

Alan J. Avery-Peck

Israelite religion from its beginnings recognized the existence and power of charismatic miracle workers and faith healers. In scripture, the power to heal and to affect natural phenomena primarily was associated with the priesthood and prophets who magically restored life (e.g., the story of Elisha and the son of the Shunammite women [2 Kings 4:19–37]) or prescribed other effective means of healing (e.g., bathing in the Jordan, proposed by Elisha to cure Naaman from leprosy [2 Kings 5], or the fig plaster used by Isaiah to restore health to Hezekiah [Isaiah 38:21]).

By late antiquity, Jewish sources reveal a fully articulated theory both of disease and of its cure alongside a broader perspective on the ability of holy men to manipulate the invisible forces at work throughout the human world. As Geza Vermes describes in Jesus the Jew, by the first centuries, Jews imagined a world populated by a vast array of demons that were responsible for evil and illness. These demons were overcome, and humans were healed of disease or spared other evils, through the intervention of charismatic miracle workers and faith healers, whose distinctive piety and closeness to God empowered them to defeat the forces of evil, whether through exorcism, prayer, or other ritual or magical methods. Vermes describes these individuals, frequently depicted as born or active in Galilee, and their power in the same terms he understands the special gifts of Jesus, “a man whose supernatural abilities derived, not from secret powers, but from immediate contact with God, [which] prove[d] him to be a genuine charismatic, the true heir of an age-old prophetic religious line” (69).

Strikingly, the Rabbinic Judaism that emerges in the first centuries CE largely rejects the model of prophet and charismatic leader prominent in Judaic writings from scripture through the literature of Qumran, the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonical literature, and Hellenistic authors such as Josephus. Rather than on models of a personal piety that might provide an individual with special access to God and God's blessings, the Rabbis focus on the activities of the schoolhouse, seeing in

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