Why bother with wonders if selling Jesus in the Graeco-roman world?
- Thinking out loud: ever since the English Deists up through Bousset and
Bultmann, it has been suggested that Jesus¹ miracles were first comparable
to and then later explicitly derivative of Graeco-roman and Hellenistic
wonders. But if so, I¹m wondering to what end?
If early Christianity is to be seen primarily as a philosophy (which several
scholars have argued is how the ancients would have seen it), how many
philosophical movements required the working of wonders to establish the
credibility of their founder? And given that the increasing skepticism and
naturalism in the first century (as per Lucian and Cicero) could lead to
charges of invention and fabrication, and the near certain potential for
accusations of sorcery (as per Celsus), why run the risk when wonders were
not part of the standard warrants of attestation? Why not instead simply
rely on the ethical impact of Jesus (such as Origen referred to in defending
against Celsus¹ charges of sorcery and trickery and as 19th century liberals
were wont to emphasize)? In other words, why the need for wonders if they
were in fact so problematic and unnecessary?
If seen as a religion with Jesus as a new deity, which of course begs the
enormous question of why anyone would have thought the teacher Jesus to be a
deity in the first place, then how many of the new religions from the east
felt that they needed to be attested by the wonder working power of the
central figure? Franz Cumont has argued that the Oriental religions
succeeded in the West because they appealed more strongly to the senses and
emotions, spoke directly to the individual, and satisfied the intellect via
their written scriptures. Notice the absence of any reference to wonders. As
far as I am aware neither the Cybele nor the significantly more successful
Isis were known for their manifold wonders (remember Jesus has an
extraordinary 35, give or take, distinct wonders/miracles attributed to
Further, as Koskenniemi has observed reminding us of what older handbooks
noted long before, wonder-workers per se seem to have gone out of fashion in
the Gentile world during the two centuries before and first century and a
half after Jesus, about 350 years in total. (One of the major defects
Bultmann inherited from Bousset was a lack of discrimination in terms of
date and genuine parallels). The one or two healings associated with Prryhus
and Vespasian seem rather scanty evidence upon which to build a reputation
as a wonder worker while in the East Eunus¹ wonders were confined to oracles
and breathing fire from his mouth. Not until the end of the second century
do we find a bevy of names flourishing, which suggests that the desire for
wonders comes a little too late to have influenced the gospels.
So, historically speaking, in terms of a putative Hellenistic agenda why
bother? Anyone have some suggestions?