New Testament Miracle Stories in their Religious-Historical Setting:
A Religionsgeschichtliche Comparison from a Structural Perspective
by Werner Kahl
(FRLANT 163. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1994. Pp. 259. N.P.)

Reviewed by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D. - Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520
Published in JBL 115/3 (1996) 540-542

The main goal of this 1992 Emory University dissertation is stated in the brief introductory chapter: "to illumine the structure and function of the NT miracle traditions by assessing them in their religionsgeschichtliche (RGL) context" (p. 11 - his abbreviation and italics). The title promises a bit more than the book contains, however, since Kahl focuses mainly on those Synoptic miracles "which relate a miraculous restoration to health in the broadest sense and the raising of dead persons" (p. 12). Furthermore, although drawing on over 100 "Jewish" and "pagan" narratives for his structural comparisons (a major strength of the book), Kahl says little about the historical "context" or "setting" of the various traditions.

After a helpful "Survey of the History of Research" (Chap. II), which serves to contrast previous scholarship on miracles with his own approach, Kahl begins to explain his structuralist terminology and "methodology" (Chap. III), based mainly on the work of A. J. Greimas. A crucial distinction is made between a narrative's structural slots (motifemes), and the "phenomic" content filling such slots (allomotifs and motifs - p. 39). The main narrative program (NP) of a "restoration miracle" describes the transformation from a situation of lack (L) to one of lack liquidated (LL), the actual performance (P) of which is carried out by the active subject (AS) to the benefit of the subject of circumstance (SC). The motifeme P is always preceded by a preparedness phase (Prep), and followed by a sanction phase (S). Prep involves the know-how (savoir-faire), ability (pouvoir-faire), will (vouloir-faire), and/or obligation (devoir-faire) of the AS, while S is subdivided into "sanctions" of the performance (is the SC really healed?) and of the preparedness (did the AS have the required competence?). Elements of Prep and S may be presumed, briefly asserted, or demonstrated in an instrumental narrative program (iNP), while L is sometimes the result of a prior narrative anti-program (NAP). Thus the basic structure of all miracle narratives involves a sequence of only four motifemes (L, Prep, P, and S), which together make up Greimas' "Narrative Schema," although more complex stories might also incorporate some iNPs and NAPs (pp. 41-45).

Chapter IV ("Morphological Analysis: Motifemes and their Realizations") comprises the bulk of the book (pp. 56-152). After listing all the miracle narratives used, Kahl analyzes the many different ways the four basic motifemes are filled (or remain latent) in these texts. He introduces further terminology differentiating the vague term "miracle worker" into either a bearer of numinous power (BNP), a petitioner of numinous power (PNP), or a mediator of numinous power (MNP), probably Kahl's most important contribution overall (pp. 63-64).

In his "Evaluation of the Morphological Analysis" (chap. V), Kahl explains that since only one basic structure underlies all miracle narratives, any differences stem merely from the various authors' choices (individually and/or culturally determined) of which motifemes to emphasize and how to realize them (with what combination of motifs and iNPs). Some illuminating examples, including a structural analysis of four versions of "healing at a distance" (Mt 8:5-13; Lk 7:1-10; Joh 4:46-53; and b.Ber 34b), show how certain narratives, seemingly parallel in motifs, may function very differently due to an author's "refocalizing" of the narrative emphasis. Arguing that any classification of miracles based on motifs is inadequate (although admitting that "health" is a motif also!), Kahl begins his own classification by observing where the narrative's focus lies, whether on "the initial lack," on "a subject invoking a BNP," on "the preparedness of the BNP," or on "the preparedness of the MNP." Moreover, a miraculous restoration of health is not always the main point of a narrative, but could function as an iNP for a different main NP. Finally, Kahl summarizes the "characteristic features" of the miracle narratives from the Jewish, pagan, and NT traditions, and convincingly concludes that Jesus and Apollonios of Tyana are the only two ancient "miracle-workers" regularly depicted as "immanent BNPs" (permanently incorporating numinous power), while all other BNPs are transcendent (Yahweh and Greek gods), and all other humans who seem to perform miracles are merely MNPs or PNPs (pp. 228-32).

The book ends with a brief "General Conclusion and Prospect," a German summary, and an extensive bibliography. Given the large amount of untranslated French, German, and Greek, this book is clearly intended for specialists only, yet no "Index" is included (although promised in the table of contents!), making the book difficult to use as a research tool. With mostly careful application of his methodology, Kahl does make other important individual observations, such as differentiating between various functions a single motif may have when used in different motifemes. For example, "taking by the hand" is not always the means of healing (Mk 5:41), but could also prepare the main action (Mk 8:23), or demonstrate the success of a healing (Acts 9:41). Yet the book is unfortunately marred by many typographical errors ("Stetting" on the title page!) and some terminological inconsistencies.

Such problems make the last two diagrammed examples of Chap. III particularly confusing (p. 47: Mk 1:29 clearly belongs in the Preparedness rather than the Performance column for the main NP, or else should be labeled as an "iNP"; p. 51: either Mk 9:27 belongs in the Sanction column, or the labels should read "iNP4a,b"; p. 52: "P2b" should be "NP2b"). Furthermore, one might think that the "miracle worker" (Jesus) is the "active subject" in these two pericopes, but the fever and mute spirit are surprisingly considered the ASs since the P stages of the main NPs are restricted to ἀφῆκεν αὐτὴν ὁ πυρετός (Mk 1:31) and κράξας καὶ πολλὰ σπαράξας ἐξῆλθεν (Mk 9:26), respectively, while almost everything prior is relegated to the Prep stage (or to subordinate iNPs). But does this argument not overemphasize the grammar of the text? For example, if one says, "A burglar killed the homeowner," the burglar is clearly the AS; but if one says, "The burglar pulled the trigger, and the bullet struck and killed the homeowner," then in Kahl's analysis, the (personified) bullet becomes the AS, while the burglar is just a "mediator" who gives power to the bullet; the bullet's action alone comprises the P, while the burglar is involved only in the Prep motifeme. Would it not be better to include the combination of (direct) cause and effect in the "performance" stage? Similarly in NT exorcisms, is Jesus not the main performer, given the use of ἐπιτιμᾶν and ἐκβάλλειν, whether or not the fever or demon is explicitly said to "leave" or "depart from" the person?

Related to this is the more general problem that Kahl places some structurally and functionally divergent material in both the Prep and the S motifemes. Aren't demonstrations that health has been restored and sanctions of the characters involved functionally different enough to warrant making these two separate motifemes (not just allomotifs)? Kahl himself intimates as much through his varying designation of the fourth motifeme as LL or S.

While these are primarily suggestions for fine-tuning Kahl's work, some scholars may question whether the considerable effort required to become familiar with his structuralist terminology and to apply it consistently is commensurate with the results obtained. I think that Kahl's book does attain some important insights, but would also suggest that the terminology be reevaluated so as to make the analysis clearer and more accessible to the reader.

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