Book Review: The Miracles of Jesus

August 29, 2014 | 5 comments
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 Eric D. Huntsman, The Miracles of Jesus, Deseret Book, 164 pages.

This book is the third in a series (Good Tidings of Great Joy covers the stories of Jesus’ birth and God So Loved the World his death) by Eric D. Huntsman, who is an associate professor of ancient scripture at BYU.

As he did in the other two volumes, Huntsman deftly combines insights from the field of New Testament studies with devotional application. The paper is heavy, the artwork is gorgeous, and the layout is reader-friendly. You can gift this book to people who are not Mormon studies geeks and they will most likely actually read it.

What I most appreciated about this book is that Huntsman did not present the miracles as if they were just one magic trick after another. Instead, he positions Jesus’ miracles as symbolic efforts to, first, suggest Jesus’ relationship to a fallen world full of disease and suffering and, second, to uncloak Jesus’ full identity. These are important points that, I think, can often be lost in the “wow factor” of Jesus’ miracles.

While there is some close reading of the texts, the amount of material here meant that the summary-to-explication ratio was higher than in his other volumes. Still, Huntsman frequently engages the texts granularly, with special attention paid to the Greek text; that the book remains accessible to the non-geek is a testament to his talents. And while I suspect that some readers might have benefited from a glossary, I’m happy to see Deseret Book encourage its audience to reach a little.

I could grouse about some of Huntsman’s choices. For example, I don’t think that the best reading of the Transfiguration (see Mark 9:2-8) is as a miracle that Jesus performed (see Huntsman, pages 32-36); in Mark, the verb is passive (so: Jesus is transfigured [by someone else, presumably God]; he does not do the transfiguring). And Huntsman’s decision to group all of the healing miracles of women under one subheading (“Healing Women”) while treating the healings of men individually must have stemmed from a desire to emphasize the very important observation that Jesus’ interactions with women were culturally transgressive, but it is possible to read this grouping as overplaying the gender of those healed while flattening their individual (i.e., non-gender-related) circumstances. And his efforts to relate the miracles in chronological order are, I think, misdirected. (This is inside baseball stuff, but: since Mark is the earliest gospel and since ample evidence suggests that Mark was not written in chronological order, any effort to order the events of Jesus’ ministry is doomed by a lack of evidence.) But these are minor issues.

The strength of the book is in its clear explication of the miracles and brief theological and devotional conclusions. I was particularly touched by his discussion of Jesus as a model for grieving in the moments before Lazarus is raised: when Martha couches her grief in a doctrinal discussion, Jesus does the same. But when Mary meets Jesus with tears, Jesus cries as well (see page 117).

For an LDS writer, Huntsman shows an unusual level of sensitivity to the differences between the gospel accounts and this is definitely a welcome development in LDS biblical studies. At the same time, I am concerned at how the unsuspecting reader will respond to the idea that, for example, Matthew doubled the number of possessed men (compare Mark 5:1-20 with Matthew 8:28-34) and blind men (compare Mark 10:46-52 with Matthew 20:29-34) due to his penchant for doubling (perhaps to conform to the law of witnesses). These first encounters can be troubling (“If Matthew could invent a possessed man and a blind man, what else might he have invented?”). Historicity is addressed in terms of how historical criticism can undergird historicity in an appendix (which also does an admirable job of commenting on form and narrative criticism), but specific guidance in thinking through the discrepancies between the gospels might be helpful as well.

I love genre-bending books and category killers. I don’t know anyone else who writes this kind of thing–a coffee table book full of defensible scholarship. Huntsman’s approach of combining legitimate biblical studies with LDS devotional application is a healthy model for a sometimes-embattled field, not to mention a welcome read for both Mormon studies geeks and normal people.

The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book.

 

5 Responses to Book Review: The Miracles of Jesus

  1. Cameron N on August 29, 2014 at 11:09 am

    I’m a big fan of both Eric Huntsman and J. Kirk Richards and their work, so I’ll definitely be picking this up. I took two of Eric’s NT classes at BYU and enjoy amusing my wife by pointing him out in the MoTab.

  2. Terry H on August 29, 2014 at 11:46 am

    This is on my list as well. I think it will be one of the best N.T. releases from Deseret Book for the upcoming year unless you’re aware of something else.

  3. Kevin Barney on August 29, 2014 at 8:04 pm

    Eric is da bom. Thanks for this review.

  4. el oso on September 1, 2014 at 6:45 pm

    Best wishes to Eric and the entire Huntsman family with the passing of his mother today. Our family has fond memories of her. Yesterday we sang several extra hymns in sacrament meeting that were not on the program. The young woman directing the music did very well and received several compliments on her directing. She had been in the stake choir at a very young age with Marilynn directing in stake conference. Marilynn could certainly develop the talent well.

    I am looking forward to another outstanding contribution from Eric. He has set a high bar of scholarship for the “faithful” scriptural commentaries.

  5. Eric D. Huntman on September 2, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    “I was particularly touched by his discussion of Jesus as a model for grieving in the moments before Lazarus is raised: when Martha couches her grief in a doctrinal discussion, Jesus does the same. But when Mary meets Jesus with tears, Jesus cries as well (see page 117).” Needless to say, this strikes me with almost-overwhelming poignancy now as I continue to vacillate between spiritual reflection and soul-renching, heart-rending grief over the lost of my sweet mother. But as I wrote in the sidebar “When Death Comes,” to the righteous death can be sweet, and I witnessed that, against all expectation, as my daughter and I help Mother’s hand and watched her softly pass.

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