Reviews of

Miracle Discourse in the New Testament

In Brandon Walker, Duane F. WATSON, Gospel of John, Gospels, John, Miracle discourses, New Testament, Paul, Society of Biblical Literature, Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation, Synoptic Gospels on April 2, 2013 at 11:30 pm


2013.04.03 | Duane F. Watson, ed. Miracle Discourse in the New Testament. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012. ISBN 1589831187.

Reviewed by Brandon Walker, University of Nottingham.

Many thanks go to SBL for kindly providing us with a review copy.

Miracle Discourse in the New Testament is a collection of essays that were originally presented at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in 2001.  Miracle discourse itself has been analyzed and critiqued since the Enlightenment and has come to the fore with the publication of the works of Wendy Cotter, Graham Twelftree and most recently Craig Keener. The papers presented in this particular volume dialogue with Cotter’s Miracles of Greco-Roman Antiquity and her latest work, The Christ of the Miracle Stories: Portrait through Encounter.  The book follows a canonical order and shows the advantages of examining miracle discourse from a socio-rhetorical method (15).

It has a bibliography, index of primary sources and index of modern authors.

The first chapter by Vernon K. Robbins, “Sociorhetorical Interpretation of Miracle Discourse in the Synoptic Gospels,” provides a socio-rhetorical analysis of miracles within the Synoptic gospels.  Robbins relates the various rhetorolects or rhetorical dialogue with the miracle stories in the gospels.  According to Robbins there are six primary rhetorolects that are displayed and interact with each other in the gospels.  They are: wisdom, miracle, apocalyptic, prophetic, priestly, and precreation. Each of these rhetorolects provides nuances and texture to the accounts providing rhetorical insight to the narratives.  The miracle rhetorolect features unusual enactment of the power of God in the created realm of the universe (18) and “moves beyond description into a mode of early Christian argumentative discourse” (19-20).

An example of rhetorolects intersecting or blending is the account of the leper bowing down to Jesus in petition for healing (Mark 1.40). This story displays a priestly rhetorolect blending with the prophetic rhetorolect as bowing down was a means of showing honor or worship. Jesus acts as a prophet with the healing of a leper with a word. These combinations provide insight into how they viewed Jesus (31-32).

In the miracle discourse, there are often cases (i.e. blind man brought to Jesus) followed by results (Jesus heals him of his blindness), with no comment or logical connections or explanations of how Jesus healed him or who the people thought Jesus was in relation to his ability to heal. Robbins concludes that while there are many miracle stories in the gospels, there is little miracle discourse.  Early Christians used miracle discourse and transformed it into wisdom rhetorolect to “create an entire system of reasoning about God, about Jesus, and about the inner recesses of the hearts and minds of people” (84).

Focusing on Luke-Acts, L. Gregory Bloomquist builds on Robbins, but reduces the range of miracle rhetorolects to two: thaumaturgical and gnostic-manipulationist or magic.  The thaumaturgical related with petitioning a god or deity, whereas the gnostic-manipulationist involves coercion of a god or deity through rituals, pronouncements or formulas.  The thaumaturgical utilizes inductive or paradigmatic reasoning that relies on images, descriptions and analogies.  The gnostic-manipulationist involves logical and deductive reasoning that are tightly argued through assertions, clarifications or rationales to be convincing.   These two rhetorolects can intertwine or be used to subordinate one rhetorolect over the other.  They leave certain questions open regarding miracle narratives such as why audience members respond in fear after witnessing a miracle?  Relying on cultural understanding, thaumaturgical discourse helps move the hearers away from gnostic-manipulationist (logical, formulaic) thinking towards “less rationally assured conclusions that are beyond existing cultural logic” (8).

Todd Penner provides a fascinating examination of the Res Gesti with the miracles of the apostles in Acts.  Acknowledging the hesitancy of scholars to address the authenticity of miracles by distancing Luke from magic, or “sanitizing” the miracles in Luke-Acts, Penner argues that acts of power by the apostles provide insight into the sociocultural context of Acts (130).  Miracle stories in Acts negotiate and identify the locus of power in narrative, provide insight into the political and cultural discourse (136-137).  As “divine men” (theios aner) the apostles proved the expansion of the kingdom of God and the peace of Christ against that of the Roman imperial ideology.  Penner notes the problematic nature of using the “divine man” category and means to “stress that one should be thinking in terms of a broadly conceived and highly variant culture of perceived divine interactions with humans” (143. n. 59).

The words and deeds of the apostles prove to be equally as powerful rendering their opponents powerless. The parallel of word (logon) and deed (ergon) is language of the polis that seeks to advance ones identity by taking away from another (170).  From Jerusalem to Rome, the apostles claimed territory from Rome rendering the emperor impotent through miracles.  These acts of power demonstrate Christ’s Res Gestae as Christian expansion displayed Jesus “mercy” and “justice.”

Gail O’Day’s chapter, “Miracle Discourse in the Gospel of John,” shows how the meaning of the miracle in the gospel of John is embedded in the miracle accounts and throughout the rest of the gospel (180). These stories serve as “signs” for later narratives and point to the person of Jesus and his message (178). O’Day focuses on several miracles throughout John and notices the self-referentiality and cross referencing.  The chapter concludes with the noted lack of exorcism in John, which for O’Day refers back to the prologue of John on how and if one response to the light (John 1.9).

Duane Watson examines Paul’s letters and the relationship between Paul as a rhetors and his miracle working in the chapter titled, “Miracle Discourse in the Pauline Epistles: The Role of Resurrection and Rhetoric.” Watson points out that there is no mention of Jesus’ miracles in Paul’s letters and notes that this is to be expected, as it was not common for rhetors to mention miracles or oracular events in their performances (195).  With the extant Pauline letters we have references to Paul’s own miracle working; however, they are not used directly for argumentation.

Regarding the book of Revelation, David deSilva tests Robbins definition of miracle discourse as a “rehearsal of unusual and dramatic displays of God’s power to restore life and health, furnish food, or remove personal crisis” (3). In an effort to identify how and where John invokes the elements of miracle discourse in Revelation, there is little to no expectation that God intervenes to relieve the diseases, distress or burdens of life.  Rather, Revelation uses other modes of discourse, namely prophetic and apocalyptic. Through examining the numerous possibilities for miracle discourse to be present in the book, deSilva concludes that “there really is no significant miracle discourse in Revelation” (209). Robbins definition does not fit the paradigm for what is considered miracle discourse in Revelation, as the miraculous phenomenon does not benefit humankind.

In the chapter titled “Miracle Discourse in the New Testament: A Response”, Wendy Cotter summarizes the other papers and provides her own critical analysis.  While the socio-rhetorical approach is helpful, Cotter points out that it does not necessarily take into account the Greco-Roman milieu of early Christianity.  Moreover, the six rhetorolects that Robbins provides are not always useful.  For example, the application of “apocalyptic” in instances of exorcism is not useful when exorcisms were common throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. Cotter believes that by locating the sources of power in Bloomquist’s approach is “fresh,” but is divided into categories that ancient narrators would not use (215).

Davina Lopez concludes the volume with a chapter on methodology and miracle discourse. Lopez provides concerns and suggestions for examining miracle discourse, pointing out that readers of miracle stories and socio-rhetorical analysis come to the texts with presuppositions, ideologies and commitments as to what accounts to use or leave out. Using the rain-miracle of Marcus Aurelius which saved the Romans against their northern foes, Lopez shows how various people groups claimed the miracle for themselves—Christians, Chaldeans, Egyptians and Romans each claimed that their god supplied the miracle.  Claims of “what happened” are not pure historical stories, but discourses originating and using particular allegiances that “interrupt dominant articulations of knowing and doing” (238).  Using the visual representation of the rain miracle on the Column of Marcus Aurelius located at the Piazza Colonna in Rome, Lopez underscores the idea that the source of the miracle is open to interpretation and what “really happened” is in the eye of the beholder.  Lopez challenges readers to reflect on what is gained by these choices and in the interpretation of miracle stories.

Miracle Discourse in the New Testament is a fascinating read for anyone interested in socio-rhetorical criticism of the New Testament and miracle.  The contributors to the volume are experts in the area of socio-rhetorical criticism and the essays are well thought through.  The chapters vary in size and Robbins chapter is particularly lengthy (67 pages). However, the insights each of the authors provide perceptive socio-rhetorical analysis of miracle discourse and would be useful to students of the New Testament as well as seasoned experts.

Brandon Walker
University of Nottingham

atxbw [ at ]

  1. What is the main thesis of this article? Are you arguing that miracles are open to interpretation because the gospels failed to have extensive discourse? Miracles are innumerable in the synoptic gospels. It would be difficult to understand the hermeneutical implications without it. Also, could you please explain the notion of early Christian miracle discourse and wisdom rhetorolect? Thanks for your feedback.

  2. I’ll leave it to this posts’ author to offer an response; I’ll just note this is a book review, rather than an article with a thesis to argue for, etc.

  3. I agree with Dan, there is no specific thesis I am arguing. As the book is an edited volume, there is not a specific thesis, but rather many theses which I have attempted to outline. Cotter provided many constructive critiques in her chapter and I did not feel the need to add to it.
    Robbins thinks that the blending of the different rhetorolects, specifically miracle, priestly and apocalyptic, creates ‘networks of reasoning about Jesus as a miracle worker.’ (42-43). One example given are the miracle summary in Matt 4.23-25 where Jesus teaches, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing diseases. Jesus teaching displays a wisdom rhetorolect, where his proclamation of the kingdom displays a prophetic rhetorolect.

  4. […] posting some reviews or links to reviews I have done elsewhere. Hope others will find them helpful. Here is a link to the review of Duane Watson’s edited volume on Miracle Discourse in the New […]

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