Reviews of

Paul and the Miraculous: A Historical Reconstruction

In Baker Academic, Brandon Walker, Graham H. TWELFTREE, Miracle discourses, Paul on January 23, 2015 at 6:21 pm


2015.01.01 | Graham M. Twelftree. Paul and the Miraculous: A Historical Reconstruction. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Press, 2013. 390 pp. Pbk.

Reviewed by Brandon Walker, University of Nottingham.

Many thanks go to Baker Academic for providing us with a review copy.

This latest book by Graham Twelftree illuminates the important, but often neglected issue of Paul and his relationship with the miraculous. Twelftree’s agenda in this book is to examine Paul’s understanding of the miraculous in his life and ministry (26-27). One important thesis that is set forth is that while Paul did not completely distance himself from being perceived as a miracle worker, he did not directly claim to perform miracles. The distinction is an important one. While Paul witnessed miracles occurring in relation to his preaching of the gospel, he did not lay personal claim to them. In other words, he did not claim the power-authority that caused the miracles.

The book is laid out in five sections and ten chapters. The first chapter lays out Twelftree’s methodological agenda in this chapter by gleaning Paul’s understanding of miracles in a historical reconstruction. Paul is usually addressed as a thinker and theologian, with little attention to his experience of miracles. The author defines a range of experiences that Paul likely deemed as ‘miraculous’ as experiences that are brought about by and revealing God (1.5).

The second section, chapters two to five, examines Paul’s theological understanding and experience as it relates to his Jewish inheritance. Twelftree argues that healings, exorcisms and prophecy were generally considered ‘miraculous’ and part of the ‘intellectual furniture’ of a first century Jew such as Paul. For evidence he examines Josephus, Philo and the Essenes. The Jews of the Essene community practiced exorcism and healings. Though there were diverse eschatological expectations, many among these groups believed there would be miracles or signs as part of the new age. The eschatological expectations may have been discussed and even manifested in the synagogue. Though he does not directly state going to the synagogue in his letters, it is unlikely Paul would not have attended and may have witnessed healings there (pg. 53).

In the third chapter, the author examines the role of Paul as a prophet. As Judaism consisted of a long line of prophetic tradition, establishing the relationship between miracle and prophecy is an important step of the thesis of this book. Paul’s self-understanding was primarily that of a prophet and saw his conversion and apostolic call in prophetic terms (Gal 1:15). The relationship between this prophetic self-understanding and miracles is an important one. Though Paul saw himself in prophetic terms, this only opened up the possibility for him to see himself as a miracle worker. Twelftree makes the important point that while not every prophet was a miracle worker in Jewish tradition, the greatest miracle workers were prophets (89-90).

The fourth chapter looks at proselytization in the Jewish and Hellenistic world that Paul enacted his ministry. Though it has been asserted that miracles and proselytizing within Judaism may have provided a backdrop for Paul’s own activity, the author argues that there was hardly, if any Jewish proselytization during the time of Paul (contra George Foot Moore and Joachim Jeramias). Through careful examination of New Testament and Greco-Roman literature, Twelftree concludes that there were no Jewish or peripatetic teachers in the Hellenistic world that were known for their miracle working (105). This places Paul in a unique position as a missionary and a prophetic preacher who may have witnessed miracles as a result of his preaching.

The Christianity that Paul inherited is examined in chapter five. If some of the Jesus tradition in Mark entailed miracles, it is likely that the Christianity that Paul received held some miracle stories along with the belief in an eschatological defeat of Satan. The Q tradition along with some sections of John’s gospel also held miracles to be part of its community beliefs. Given this evidence, it is unlikely that Paul could have avoided inheriting a miracle free Christianity. Along similar lines, if Paul met with some of the early leaders of the Jesus movement such as Peter, it is likely that he would have heard of Jesus’ deeds of power.

The third section of the book (chapters six and seven) relates specifically with Paul’s experience and ministry. According to Paul’s letters he had a wide range of experiences that he related to the work of God in his life. Paul’s conversion and calling (Gal 1:13-17; Cor 9:1; Gal 1:13-16) were likewise perceived as miraculous given Paul’s broad understanding of miracle. His experience of illness, most notably the ‘thorn in the flesh’ (2 Cor 12:1-10) and persecution (2 Cor 11:24, 12:10), displayed God’s sustaining grace and rescue. The use of the passive ‘was given’ (ἐδόθη) in 2 Cor 12:7 indicates that Paul saw the ‘thorn’ given by God. He likely saw the weakness and sickness among those improperly partaking of the Eucharist as a judgment miracle (1 Cor 11:30). The charismata of 1 Cor 14 are also discussed, particularly glossolalia and prophecy. These passages demonstrate that the miraculous was not merely something Paul contemplated, but were tangibly realized events in the life of Paul (178).

The seventh chapter concerns the miraculous in the ministry of Paul. Building on the fact that Paul was a Jew who may have witnessed miracles in the synagogue, understood the eschaton to be in part realized, viewed himself in line with previous prophets, and inherited a Christianity that told of miracles, the author comes to the point where he addresses miracles in the ministry of Paul. In 1 Cor 4:19-20, Paul equates the kingdom of God with miraculous power just like Jesus before him (Matt 12:28) and gives insight into Paul’s understanding of realized soteriology and eschatology. Like Jesus, Paul correlates the origin of the miracles to come from the presence of the Holy Spirit (1 Thes 1:5).

A lengthy discussion is given of 2 Corinthians 12:11-12, specifically the phrase ‘signs and wonders’ which is first used in the New Testament by Paul to likely mean a wide range of supernatural phenomena. Polybius used the phrase referring to the superstition of the Romans. Similarly, Josephus used the phrase, but in reference to divine signs and portents such as a star standing over Jerusalem like a sword (J.W. 6.288). Paul uses the phrase to justify his apostolic position against the ‘super-apostles.’ Again, the use of the passive (κατειργάσθη) ‘were performed’ indicates that Paul did not stake a claim on the miracles, but rather saw them coming from God (213). In contrast to his opponents, a level of humility and self-deprecation presents Paul emphasizing the point that he did not set out to perform miracles, but rather to proclaim Christ crucified with God performing miracles occurring in in his midst.

The fourth section is dedicated to Paul’s interpreters, namely Luke, the epistles written in his name (Ephesians, Colossians), and from those who may have been part of a Pauline community (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus). Concerning Luke, the author takes up the problem of whether or not he had access to the historical Paul and to what extent the apostles’ teaching influenced him. He reaches the conclusion that, given a later dating of composition (c. 90 CE) some elements in Luke’s account could be helpful in recovering historically reliable data concerning Paul, but most likely some of it is based on local traditions.

Regarding some of the miraculous accounts related to Paul’s interpreters, Twelftree states, ‘when applying the often blunt tools of historical-critical analysis to the miraculous elements associated with Paul, I was unable to establish them as probably originating in, or being faithful to, first-hand reports of his life.’ (270). One particular example of this is the snakebite on Malta (Acts 28:1-4). According to local experts in the area, there never have been poisonous snakes on the island (266 n. 280). We know that shipwreck and being bit by a viper was a common motif in antiquity and Luke likely utilized this to enhance the portrayal of Paul (Greek Anthology 153, 159). Nevertheless, there are some points of contact between the historical Paul and Luke’s depiction of him, namely that he was a preacher and God performed miracles through his ministry.

Chapter nine covers the pseudepigraphical Paul or the ‘remembered’ Paul. Here the author covers Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thesalonians and the Pastoral Epistles. Given the general consensus of later dates of these texts, Twelftree deals with these texts as useful for determining how important the miraculous was in relation to the remembered Paul.

From Colossians there is some memory of Spirit-inspired songs (Col 3:16) that recall the charismata in 1 Cor 14:23-33 (275). Like Colossians, Ephesians does not indicate miracles were related to Paul, but seems to indicate possible miraculous occurrences in relation to singing (Eph 5:19). 2 Thessalonians is concerned with the coming of satan and false religion, but there is no evidence to suggest the community remembers Paul as a miracle worker. Like the previous works, Hebrews and James provide no evidence relating Paul to the miraculous. This leads the author to conclude that the prominence of miracle working was not a central part of the memory of Paul in all places. Some Christians esteemed miracles more highly than others.

The final section and chapter wraps up the book with some concluding observations. As the first interpreter of Christian traditions Paul’s understanding and experience of miracles is important. Paul had a wide range of what might be considered ‘miraculous’, all of which was related with his life and ministry. From his conversion experience, which he viewed as miraculous, to his call to apostleship and the proclamation of the gospel as the ‘power of God’ (Rom 1:16), the place of miracle is important for Paul.

This book is an important contribution to New Testament and Pauline studies. Though there are a few works addressing the issue of Paul and miracles, this is generally an area left on the periphery of research. Unlike Fee’s God’s Empowering Presence this book is oriented specifically on Paul’s understanding of the miraculous and not completely on Pauline pneumatology. Chapter eight, which deals with Acts, might be challenging for more conservative readers, especially those who see Luke’s second volume as normative for the Christian life. Twelftree dismantles several long held assumptions concerning the background of Paul and establishes the fact that while Paul saw chiefly saw himself as a prophetic missionary proclaiming the gospel, this gospel would have been void if miracles were not present (Rom. 1:16).

The overall argument is well laid out. Given Paul’s theological background as a Pharisee and his Christian inheritance, it is likely that the miraculous was more important for him than often realized by contemporary readers. One particularly positive contribution is a rather wide definition of what can be considered ‘miraculous.’ By defining the miraculous for Paul as any experience that is brought about by and revealing God (1.5), Twelftree makes room for some experiences that might not be considered ‘miraculous’ such as works of service and teaching (Rom 12:6-8).

One area that might need further exploration in light of Twelftree’s thesis is the terminology of ‘miracle worker.’ There is an apparent tension between what are considered ‘signs of an apostle’ (2 Cor 12:12) and receiving credit for them. While Paul may not have seen miracles as a qualifying part of his apostolic calling, Twelftree argues that it was an important part of Paul’s ministry along with suffering hardships, planting churches and preaching the gospel (216-217). In light of the use of the passives in verses indicating that God worked the miracles combined with the fact that Paul never set out to perform miracles, to what extent can we consider Paul a ‘miracle worker?’ This further highlights the significance of Jesus who acted in his own power-authority and some of his followers, like Paul, who failed to claim the origin of the miracles in themselves, but rather the God who performed them in their midst.

Dr. Twelftree (Ph.D. Nottingham) is currently Charles L. Holman Professor of New Testament at Regent University. He is an expert in the area of the Historical Jesus, miracle and exorcism and has written extensively on these topics. This book is appropriate for anyone interested in Pauline studies, New Testament or early Christian experience.

Brandon Walker
University of Nottingham
atxbw [ at ]

  1. […] You can find my recent review of Paul and the Miraculous here. […]

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