Twice in her 2010 book The Christ of the Miracle Stories, Wendy Cotter tells this story about the Roman emperor Hadrian:
He was on a journey, and a woman on the roadside asked him to speak to him.
“I haven’t time,” he said, brushing her off.
“Cease, then, being emperor!” she cried out with sharp sarcasm.
He stopped, went back and talked with her.
This, Cotter says, is an example of the virtue of epieikeia, the willingness to hear — really hear — the words of someone else, even someone considered by society inferior in some way, and to recognize the wisdom in the person’s words.
As the leader of the Roman empire in the early 100s, Hadrian was the most powerful man on earth. Yet, in this and other incidents, he showed an open-mindedness in dealing with other people, a readiness to take in opinions and ideas that were different from those he held.
“Spunky, noisy, pushy and outrageous”
It may seem odd to start off a review of a book about Jesus with an anecdote about a Roman emperor. Yet, this story is an example of the way that Cotter has mined the documents of the first and second centuries A.D. get a better sense of the cultural context of those who saw Jesus firsthand as well as the earliest Christians.
For example, what were the social expectations and reactions when a beggar shouted at Jesus from the side of the road? (Pretty much the same as today when a homeless guy yells loudly at passersby.) How did people expect a Roman centurion to treat someone like Jesus? (In a brusque domineering manner, very much different from the respectful and self-effacing attitude of the one who came to ask for a cure for someone in his retinue.)
What the Hadrian story tells us is that the willingness to listen to others from a different social level or even simply with different ideas was an unusual quality in those early times (just as it is today). The idea that someone as important as the emperor would pay attention to a nobody like this woman was so striking that commentators and biographers noted it.
The Hadrian story is one of many such non-Christian writings that Cotter brings to bear in her analysis of the miracle stories of Jesus in order to provide a framework in which to better understand what’s going on.
But the Hadrian story is also an example of what happens to Jesus in many of these stories. He is confronted by people who just won’t follow the social conventions — by petitioners who, Cotter writes, are “spunky, noisy, pushy and outrageous.” She also describes them as bold and brash and rude. Three of them, in fact, cut a hole in the roof of a home in the hopes that, by lowering their paralyzed friend down into the room where Jesus is, he’ll get a cure.
These people, asking for themselves or others, know that, by breaking social bounds, they are certain to be castigated by the “better” people around them. Yet, they accept that in order to get Jesus to hear them.
And he does.
But not always right away.
Cotter’s book is wonderfully energetic, clear and direct, a surprisingly nimble-footed work of biblical investigation that is accessible to non-experts and scholars alike.
Her focus is on seven miracle anecdotes from the gospel of Mark and one (the story about the centurion) from the gospel of Luke.
Her goal is to figure out how the earliest Christians — the ones in the three decades prior to the writing of Mark’s gospel — heard and communicated the message of Jesus. This tells what was important to them, what lessons they drew, what resonated for them.
Were those earliest Christians more “Christian” because they lived closer to the time of Jesus? Not necessarily. But knowing what they taught and believed can still be helpful to 21st-century people wanting to follow Jesus.
A biblical detective story
Mark’s gospel was written around 66-70 A.D. and later used as a template for the gospels of Luke and Matthew.
In the years before Mark wrote his gospel, these miracle stories were circulating among the Christian communities. Mark took them and fashioned them for his own telling of the Jesus story. Then, Luke and Matthew took Mark’s gospel and refashioned it for their own messages. You can read Luke and Matthew and clearly see how they adapted Mark’s text, adding here, cutting there, de-emphasizing one aspect while playing up another.
It’s not so easy to identify in the Mark text what parts were from earlier written and verbal accounts that he used as raw material and what parts were added by him. That’s because we no longer have those earlier accounts to make the comparison.
So, scholars have worked to figure out the earlier material through an increasingly refined version of literary analysis. They have many interpretations and many disagreements, so Cotter goes through each miracle story and explains, through her analysis of the texts and the evaluations of other scholars, which parts she thinks were in the pre-Markan stories and which weren’t.
It’s a kind of biblical detective story.
By the way, the one story from Luke (which does not appear in Mark) is included because it is from what is believed to have been a document of the early Christians, called the Q document. The same process of winnowing out what Luke put in is done in order to get to that earlier anecdote.
“Help my unbelief!”
The subtitle of Cotter’s book is Portrait through Encounter, and that’s the underlying reason for looking deeply into the miracle stories.
Yes, the miracle stories show the power of Jesus, but they show much more.
They show that the people who came to ask for help from Jesus were willing to do whatever they needed to to get a hearing. They were socially transgressive, even to the point of cutting a hole in the roof.
They were impolite and boorish and abrasive and sarcastic. They acted as if they didn’t know their place. They seemed moved by an inner compulsion to get the attention of Jesus. Of course, they were desperate for a cure for themselves or someone close to them.
But, also, after reading Cotter’s book, I think they were moved by a compulsion of faith — either faith itself or a desire for faith. “Help my unbelief!” This, it seems to me, was a compulsion to find and follow the right way of living. And they saw or, at least, hoped that Jesus was that way.
“A portrait of Jesus”
Even more, these stories show Jesus the man as he interacts with these petitioners. Just as the modern biographer of an historical figure will seek out anecdotes of such encounters in order to highlight the subject’s character and personality, the miracle stories from the pre-Gospel days are similarly revealing about Jesus. Cotter writes:
Such miracle stories reveal a portrait of Jesus himself as cannot be derived from the parables and apophthegms [i.e., sayings], the wisdom and the teachings of Jesus. These forms represent the ideas of Jesus, not his behavior with ordinary flawed people. It seems as if the narrators of the miracle stories have gone out of their way to increase the rough-and-ready character of the petitioners who approach Jesus.
Against the cultural backdrop of “proper” manners, these petitioners are forward, pushy, and insistent. This is meant to introduce a tension in the listener, who wonders how Jesus will deal with this person. Surely these rude people deserve to be corrected. Instead, and certainly surprisingly, Jesus does not seem to pay any attention to their behavior, but he rather sees past it to the desperation that brings them to him, and to the unshakeable confidence that explains their determination, a confidence that astonishes Jesus….
The first-time listener awaits some reproof, but instead sees Jesus move over to the side of the petitioner and answer not only with the miracle, but in a way that shows recognition of the person’s need.
“Even the dogs”
Consider Jesus and the Syrophoenician mother, a Gentile who goes to ask Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter.
The initial response of Jesus is rather cold — well, actually, insulting:
“Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
“A rather righteous Jesus puts her in her place,” acting on the conservative Jewish understanding that believers need to take care of believers. Nonetheless, it does seem pretty rough to call the woman and her daughter dogs. Cotter quotes one scholar, “Any intelligent Hellenistic woman, addressed in such terms by a barbarian, would have immediately reacted by slapping the man’s face.”
Instead, with what Cotter calls “sweet wit,” the mother says, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
To which, Jesus replies, “For this saying, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.”
Jesus heard the mother. Not just heard the sounds of her words but heard the validity of what she said.
He changed his mind. In fact, she changed his mind. Cotter writes:
“For this saying” indicates that Jesus sees that she is right, and that his division between the children and the dogs does not justify his dismissal of her, his refusal to exorcize the demon from her pagan daughter.
But more, “for this saying” also conveys a shaming of Jesus at the readiness of the mother to sustain the blow of the insult if only she can show him how, retaining his attitudes toward her and her daughter, he will still save her.
The Syrophoenician mother is an example of the love that endures even insult and maintains one’s foothold if only help may be brought to the needy.
So, the story is a model for the early Christians of putting love above insult or other challenges. And the response of Jesus also provides a model.
Here Jesus shows that virtue of praos, that meekness which recognizes the truth that a subordinate speaks; and also there is the virtue of epieikeia, that understanding which comes from listening to another, considered inferior, and recognizing the wisdom of that person’s words.
Like Hadrian, Jesus shows himself in these stories as someone willing to really hear what another person says and, as a result, to change his mind.
This is an extraordinary insight into the personality of Jesus. Cotter’s analysis of the other miracle stories provides further arresting glimpses into the person who Jesus was and was, throughout his life, becoming.
As portrayed in the pre-Mark miracle stories and as delineated in The Christ of the Miracle Stories, Jesus was not rigid, pompous or stony-hearted.
He could listen. He could hear. He could pay attention. He could see the person, no matter how socially inappropriate that person was.
Those were the lessons that the early Christians were getting from these stories.
They’re good lessons for us today.
Patrick T. Reardon