The prophets of Biblical legend functioned as conduits of divine energy and might. They conducted God’s power, whether that power was to save or to destroy. Moses tore open the waters for Israel but shut them upon their pursuers. Elijah multiplied oil and meal to sustain the lives of his friends but called forth fire against his enemies. Elisha raised a widow’s son from the dead but unleashed bears upon insolent boys.
In this way the Hebrew prophets effected God’s justice upon the earth, justice to vindicate and to condemn, to heal and to injure.
The first biographers of the prophet Jesus, however, attribute only deeds of mercy to their protagonist. Though Jesus cleanses lepers, casts out vile spirits, and breaks fevers, he never once turns those same spiritual powers against evildoers. He threatens punishment at the eschaton as what John P. Meier calls the “Elijah-like” prophet of the age to come, no doubt, but he does not dole out justice among sinners during his ministry. Thus according to the Evangelists, Jesus breaks the mold provided by his prophetic tradition, exerting spiritual influence only toward restorative ends.
There may be more to the story, though. For one, Jesus’ closest students were sometimes agents of judgement and plague.
- Peter called upon God to punish Simon Magus for his duplicity: “may your silver perish with you!” (Acts 8:20-24). Simon subsequently entreated Peter to defend him from God’s kindled wrath: “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.” Paul invoked divine curses against his adversaries as well: “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall!” (Acts 23:3, cf. Galatians 1:8-9, 1 Cor 16:22).
- “Filled with holy spirit,” Paul struck the magician Elymas with temporary blindness (Acts 13:8-11). When the proconsul saw what Paul had done, he fearfully believed in Paul’s Lord.
- The two witnesses of Revelation epitomize the early Christian evangelistic programme (cf. Koester’s Revelation, 505-509). They are presented as prophets of impending doom who, like the prophets of old, devour their foes with fire, cause famine by shutting up the sky, and turn waters into blood (Revelation 11:4-6). Such spirit-acts confirm their message: God will soon smite Jerusalem (11:13).
This admittedly sparse data suggests that early Christians were occasionally compelled by the spirit to dispense divine retribution. These first followers of Jesus were not merely healing prophets, but also prophets of pain. In this function Jesus had at the least served as their spiritual benefactor (cf. Luke 9:1), if not also as their model.
Further, there are hints that Jesus himself directed spiritual power against God’s foes.
- On a couple of occasions Jesus expresses the desire to induce figurative blindness in his opponents. He uses parables “in order that” (ἵνα) people might “look but not see” (Mark 4:12) and he works to reduce “those who see” (οἱ βλέποντες) to “blind men” (τυφλοὶ) (John 9:39, cf. 12:37-41). Such a desire could have sometimes extended beyond the merely metaphorical and into the realm of spirit-acts.
- Jesus’ enemies routinely accused him of “having a demon” in reference to his work as a wonder-worker (Mark 3:30, John 8:48, cf. John 7:20, 10:20-21). Since demons could blind (Matthew 12:22), silence (Mark 9:17), and cripple (Luke 3:11) their victims, a possessor of evil spirits could surely have used such powers to his own advantage. It is therefore possible that this particular accusation followed Jesus because he was known to use spiritual powers against his opponents. The same could be said of the rumors that Jesus intended to destroy the Temple by some miraculous feat (Matthew 27:39-43, Mark 14:58, 15:29, cf. Acts 6:13).
- Jesus used the thoughts of his opponents against them. By knowing “what was in man” (John 2:25), Jesus attacked vulnerable and foolish thoughts with the help of the spirit (cf. Matthew 9:4, 12:25, Luke 6:8, 9:47, Isaiah 11:2-4).
- As an example of faith that can throw “this mountain” into the abyss, Jesus withered a fig tree (cf. Jeremiah 51:25, Exodus 15:17, Isaiah 41:1-16)—a clear sign of Zion’s coming demolition (cf. Jesus’ violent prophetic action in the Temple). Jesus likewise hurled the porcine demonic Legion into oblivion to signal the end of Pagan domination over the nations. Led by the spirit then, Jesus was capable of both wounding and restoring.
- Unlike the earthly Jesus, the Jesus exalted to God’s right hand pours out wrath-wonders against human beings. This Jesus defends the integrity of his sacred meal with plagues (1 Corinthians 11:27-32), orchestrated the bursting of Judas (Acts 1:15-20), extinguished Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), blinded Paul (Acts 9:9), smote Herod with an angel (Acts 12:21-23, cf. Matthew 13:41-42, 16:27), threatened to throw a false-prophetess on a sick bed along with her followers (Revelation 2:22-23), and otherwise executes God’s judgements among the peoples (cf. John 5:27, Revelation 6:1ff). While Jesus’ exaltation in large part explains these acts of power and judgement, surely God’s spirit empowered and authorized Jesus to inflict similar wounds while he was on the earth.
- We might hesitantly include the material preserved in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (2nd century) as well. The Thomasine Jesus curses a boy to death and then blinds the boy’s parents. Has Thomas remembered something of historical value here?
To seek and save the lost
Taking all of this into account, I think we can cautiously conclude that the Jesus of history, like his predecessors and successors, dabbled in what his opponents deemed “black magic.” He was sometimes a spiritual conduit of God’s wrath against sinners.
Even still, the Evangelists are careful to never directly attribute any such acts to the earthly Jesus. John comes the closest, perhaps, having his Jesus thrust a detachment of soldiers to the ground by the power of his word.
The reasons for this reluctance on the part of the Evangelists, however, are probably polemical and apologetic in nature:
- Jesus’ singular mercy toward Israel highlighted the outrage of Israel’s response. God had sent his son to “seek and save the lost” but the nation murdered him in cold blood. Such wanton insolence justified the divine vengeance that was to come within a generation.
- Jesus was innocent of anything that could be interpreted as wrongdoing (cf. Luke 23:41; 27). Since he only did “good, healing all who were oppressed by the Devil” (Acts 10:38), his execution lacked any legal or moral justification. The Jewish and imperial authorities therefore had no reason to investigate Jesus’ disciples either.
There were thus strong incentives to portray Jesus as merely compassionate shaman.
Prophet of pestilence in eschatological context
So what are we to make of a disaster-dealing Jesus? Here’s what I propose.
Jesus’ healing ministry confirmed the approach of God’s kingdom over the earth (cf. Isaiah 61:1-11). By mending individual Israelite bodies, Jesus was announcing God’s intention to mend Israel’s body politic. This salvation of Israel, that is, the restoration of a righteous Davidic kingdom, would bring healing not only to God’s faithful people, but to the nations as well.
And so, just as the healing power of the kingdom was breaking into the present evil age through Jesus’ curative works, so too, I would argue, was the destructive power of the kingdom disabling those who stood in the way of the churches (cf. 1 Thess 2:16). Just as Jesus “proclaimed the day of the Lord’s favor” through spirit-healing, so too did proclaim “the day of our God’s vengeance” by afflicting the wicked in both word and deed (Isaiah 61:2). These plague-wonders, wrought at the hands of Jesus and his followers, were both individual acts of divine justice and signs pointing to the day when the Lord’s fury would cover the earth.
While such noxious deeds of power didn’t define Jesus’ predominantly celebratory and restorative ministry (nor the ministries of his followers), there is reason to believe the spirit within Jesus was inflamed against sinners on occasion.