About the Times
With so many conflicting energies – Roman invaders, Greek pagan settlements, the Samaritan factor, Jewish cutthroat aristocrats – second temple Jews would have been particularly sensitive to offenses against their religious convictions. The historical narrative relentlessly paved that road.
This was the era that produced the popular Jewish renewal prophet John the Baptist (Craig S. Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (2009), p. 167).
That witnessed the emergence of the ultra-conservative Essene movement (see Heerak Christian Kim, Jewish Law and Identity: Academic Essays (2005), pp 216-217).
This was the era of Samaritans secretly scattering bones of the dead throughout the temple porticoes (Reinhard Pummer, The Samaritans: A Profile (2016), p. 62), perpetuating longstanding animosity between Samaritans and Jews (Gary N. Knoppers, Jews and Samaritans: The Origins and History of Their Relations (2013), pp. 220-228).
This was the era that Pilate’s troops mounted standards with the Roman emperor’s image in the Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem (Susan Sorek, The Jews Against Rome: War in Palestine AD 66-73 (2008), p. 29).
As well as Pilate’s blind theft of temple treasury funds for the erection of an aqueduct (Susan Sorek, The Jews Against Rome: War in Palestine AD 66-73 (2008), pp. 29-30).
This was the era of Gaius Caligula who chose to have his statue displayed inside the Jerusalem Temple. [Then Roman governor] “Petronius knew that so sacrilegious an action would be bound to evoke Jewish horror and that it would risk instigating an uprising” (Martin Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations (2008), p. 383).
This was the era of “Jesus son of Hananiah, a ‘crude peasant’ who repeatedly pronounced God’s judgement in the Temple courtyard and the alleyways of Jerusalem …” (Barbara R. Rossing, “Prophets, Prophetic Movements, and the Voices of Women,” in Christian Origins, A People’s History of Christianity, Volume 1 (2010), p. 265).
This was the era of a new Moses named Theudas who envisioned parting the Jordan River (i.e. Red Sea) (Dale C. Allison, Jr., The New Moses: A Matthean Typology (1993), pp. 78-79).
And this was the era that witnessed enormous, life-changing, social upheaval that would later catapult to calamitous military defeats and the dissolution of the Jewish state (all classically trained historians focused on first and second century Palestine would have no hesitation admitting as much).
There is no doubt that these events were, at least in part, incited by fanatics such as the Sicarii and Zealots. And ultimately the last stand of the Sicarii at Masada added a violent exclamation point to the era (Nachman Ben-Yehuda, Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel (1995)).
For those of us interested in history, during the first century the great lawgiver was still without question considered the undisputed spiritual leader of all Judaists, universally celebrated for shepherding the Children of Israel out of Egypt into the Sinai Desert and eventually to the freedom and “milk and honey” of the Promised Land.
"Moses was consistently remembered as a prophet in late Second Temple communities – and in Jewish, Samarian, and Christian groups as well after the destruction of the Jerusalemite temple in 70 CE. At times, simple references to him as a prophet indicate that the ‘fact’ that Moses was prophet was common ‘knowledge’ in the social memory (e.g. Sir 46:1; Wis 11:1; Tg. Ps. 90:1)" (Ehud Ben Zvi, “Exploring the Memory of Moses ‘The Prophet’ in Late Persian/Early Hellenistic Yehud/Judah,” in Remembering Biblical Figures in the Late Persian and Early Hellenistic: Social Memory and Imagination (2013), p. 337).
During the second temple period, so celebrated was the memory of Moses that stories about him were not limited merely to worshipping Jews. Even many pagans had a working understanding of Moses and his mission. “At the core of practically every Gentile account of Moses is his role of lawgiver to the Jews. Though lawgiving was important both to Greeks and to Romans, the emphasis must have originated from Jewish conceptions, a supposition borne out by the Jewish sources in which the provision of laws by Moses is consistently highlighted" (John Lierman, The New Testament Moses: Christian Perceptions of Moses and Israel in the Setting of Jewish Religion (2004), p. 124).
Probably a surprise to some modern readers, at least for torah believers those memories were not mere fodder for children’s tales. Repeatedly across the epochs the Hebrew people had given their lifeblood for upholding deific beliefs largely influenced by the cultic activities of their famous, legendary leader. Thus the yearly Jerusalem festivals that, at some symbolic level, reenacted aspects of their visually wide-ranging religious heritage planted firmly in the memory stream of a condemned murderer (Ex 2.11-15) who once, in a desolated, bygone setting, spoke with G-d.
Along with reported active participation in the Jewish festivals, the most likely reason the influential Hebraic facet of Yeshu’s memory persisted, even after his followers were exiled to pagan regions, was that he had time and again performed Mosaic signs. This conclusion is broadly and at times aggressively defended in New Testament studies (this list is extensive and covers nearly a century of academic studies).
Preserved in a primitive fragment of pre-Christian tradition is the unadorned and unflattering observation, “When the Christ appears, will he do more signs than this man has done?” (Jn 7.31, RSV). In direct reference to the standing of Jesus among his peers, this thread was undoubtedly solidified many decades before the shared conversation had ever elevated Yeshu’s memory to anything even resembling divine status. Without any hesitation, this conclusion is self-explanatory in the question itself. “Will he do more signs than this man?” The Mosaic signs, not Christological dogma, were the focus of memories originally preserved in rural village storytelling.
Along these lines the miracle signs – as originating tradition – were encountered primarily in very early, rurally-based memories, probably a “source tradition.” This source was at least partially preserved in the decades removed Gospel of John. Brown, Bultmann, Fortna, Schnackenburg, and Von Wahlde are among other high-profile scholars who at some point in their professional work defended the Johannine “source tradition” proposal. Typical thinking reflected from this group of scholars: “[I]n its earlier phase(s), the Gospel of John was crafted within a Jewish/Palestinian milieu by an author intimately acquainted with Judaism” (Michael A. Daise, Feasts in John: Jewish Festivals and Jesus' "hour" in the Fourth Gospel (2007), p. 2). Thus, we should not forget that the theme of mosaically inspired "signs" blended seamlessly with this overall presentation.
The signs theme represented a direct link, not to some supernatural figure appointed to be a sacrifice for others, but to the trek of Moses in his perilous sojourn on behalf of the Chosen People eluding the Egyptian forces of pharaoh. "When we [evaluate references to Moses in the Fourth Gospel] … we discover that every one of them can be found in Jewish texts which put us in touch with the first century. … To a considerable degree they are representative of the very life nerve of Judaism, and they are stated in John’s Gospel with great precision" (J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, Third Edition (2003), p. 102).
And the most important aspect: for many of the original followers of Yeshu-ha-Notzri, in their day such “signs” were not centuries removed in recitation around village campfires. These miraculous acts in many cases were performed before their very eyes. This important narrative theme, while understandably an enduring controversy for some academics today, is vigorously persistent in all the traditions surrounding memories of Jesus and his activities. Even Paul made brief mention of this phenomenon that in some ways contrasted strikingly against fundamental beliefs of his new Christian proclamation.
"Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles" (1 Cor 1.20-23, RSV).
Primitive stories insisted that real human beings, demographically identified with what most of us today would call the poor, witnessed the miracle signs of Jesus. Not symbolically. Not in any metaphorical sense. But in the everyday here and now.
These signs directly linked to ancient memories of the great lawgiver. And the poor remembered those miracles performed by Yeshu. And celebrated them in storytelling inside local village community settings. Among fellow workers in the fields. With fishers gathering in the nets. In village assemblies debating important issues of the day. In annual pilgrimages to the Jerusalem Temple. In intimate family discussions along with close friends. Rural villagers remembered the Mosaic signs of a rabbi called Yeshu from the neighboring village of Nazareth. And in some cases their lives were transformed.