DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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The Historical Jesus
Jesus the Healer

If any aspect of the life of Jesus illustrates the gulf which has opened up between modernity and the traditions of the Church, it is his healing ministry.

Those on the traditional side of the divide seek to preserve by this means or that the proposition that Jesus healed people because he was able to tap into the creative powers of God. In that sense, the gospel accounts are of what we would today call the miraculous.

On the other side are those who seek to give Jesus pride of place in their lives. But in doing so they want to place him somewhere in the system of contemporary knowledge. This system admits large areas of mystery in the universe. But it also asserts that our world does not allow miracles. 

Many assume almost without question that the healings of Jesus were miraculous. It therefore becomes important to briefly examine what might be meant by healing as reported in the gospels. Only then does it make sense to go on and look at specific instances. 

The problem of miracles is sometimes avoided in discussions today. One way of doing this is to describe the unusual as "miraculous". So if a child with a rare disease today is cured by unusual medical intervention, it is called a "miraculous healing". 

Another type of "miracle" is one in which a cure comes about by mysterious means. That is, the fact of the cure is undisputed but the "how" of the cure is unknown. So, for example, there are many well-documented cases of compete and permanent remission from otherwise fatal cancer. Nobody knows how such remissions occur. They just "happen" and in that sense are often called "miraculous".

It may be that the accounts of Jesus healing fall into these two categories. If that is the case, then the only question remaining for those whose mind-set is modern is, "Is the evidence that these events occurred good history?"

There is, however, a third category. It is that the proposal that healings in which Jesus was involved happened because he was able to circumvent the usual ways in which the world works. This used to be termed "overruling the laws of nature" by those who thought that they knew the rules. More recently it has been widely acknowledged that the way nature works is more fluid and mysterious than was once supposed. While many of the rules remain as valid as ever, they have been superceded by overarching uncertainties.

Whichever of the three broad categories above is selected, they are all preceded by the historical question. Whatever the nature of the healing events, did they actually happen?

In considering this question, it's important to recognise that the descriptions of healings we find in the gospels were not unusual for the times. So, for example, in the early third century Apollonius of Tyana was credited by some with healings similar to those of Jesus - including healing the blind, the lame, the paralysed, women, exorcising demons and even raising a dead girl to life.

Having said this, long before the first century healing had begun moving away from religion and miraculous explanations. Works of Hippocrates had been assembled more than three hundred years earlier in the great library at Alexandria. By the second century his original writings had been supplemented and obscured by many pseudo-writings and letters. In contrast to popular conceptions of ancient medicine, the Hippocratic school taught that disease is a natural event.

If an inventory of Jesus' healings is taken from the gospels, they seem to settle down into four major categories (following J P Meier [1]). There are accounts of

  • curing crippled or paralysed people;
  • curing blindness;
  • healing skin disease (not necessarily leprosy);
  • restoring hearing or speech;

and a number of other ailments, not always specified - such as the "fever" of Peter's mother-in-law and the "illness" of the centurion's servant. I don't here deal with raising people from the dead as healings. These seem to me to be in entirely another category.

Whatever the nature of the healings ascribed to Jesus, one thing should be stressed. It is that they cannot all be struck out of the gospels because they are unusual. To put this another way: if the accounts of Jesus healings are dismissed as unhistorical, then so must almost all the other material which makes up what I here call the "bare bones Jesus". However skeletal the bare historical bones turn out to be, the evidence is as strong for Jesus as a healer as it is for almost anything else we know about him.

It would take too long to analyse each of the 16 or so healing accounts here. Instead I go into some detail with a few of them, and then very briefly summarise the rest.

The Paralysed and the Crippled
Mark 2.1-12: The man let down from the roof
  This passage bears signs of two conflated traditions: [a] a healing and [b] a controversy about forgiving sins. They are stitched together somewhat clumsily. For example, the Greek text reads literally "They uncovered the roof where he [Jesus] was and dug it up ..." The author may have been thinking about a tiled roof, while the earlier tradition had in mind the clay roofing of a Palestinian dwelling.

Some conclude that the controversy is likely to be the later of the two strands, and that the healing is the earlier. Whatever the case, the healing is made to appear striking by "... everyone there saw the man get up and walk out carrying his mat".

Mark 3.1-6: The man healed on the Sabbath  This is one of the accounts of healing which doesn't easily pass the test of historicity. This is because it's too closely conflated with controversy about healing people on the Hebrew Sabbath. The latter controversy was certainly a factor in the life of Jesus. But it was as certainly exaggerated by later Christian communities, who were in conflict with the current Hebrew authorities. Nevertheless, this passage tells us for certain that Jesus sometimes deliberately transgressed the Sabbath commandment. It is backed up by the historical saying about the Sabbath in Mark 2.27.

A factor which reduces the likelihood of this healing being "what actually happened" is its similarity with 1 Kings 13.4-6 in the Old Testament. There King Jeroboam's arm is suddenly paralysed and then healed by "the prophet". Early Christians (writing well after the fall of Jerusalem in 70) needed to establish a worthy background in antiquity. The Old Testament proved vital in demonstrating to the Roman world that they had deep roots in the past and were not just a group of upstarts [2].

The Blind
Mark 10.46-52: Blind Bartimaeus  Signs that various accounts have been stitched together abound in the gospels. Here, Jesus arrives in Jericho and leaves again in the very next sentence. The name of the blind man gets duplicated as "son of Timaeus, Bartimaeus". Bar Timaeus in Hebrew means "son of Timaeus". The word translated "Teacher" is here Rabboni. This is only found elsewhere in John 20.16 and may be an indication that part of this passage is quite late.

Because of these and other problems, J P Meier remarks that

Considering the heavy theological freight that the healing of Bartimaeus carries, we would be naive to treat the story as a videotape replay of an event ... yet at the same time there is much in the story that points to primitive tradition ... [1]

Passages which demonstrate definite discontinuity from the rest of the gospels may be thought of as more likely to be historical. Apart from Jairus in Mark 5.22, no names are ever mentioned in healings, even when one would have been appropriate. This indicates that the Bartimaeus account is more likely to be good history than not. Similarly, the title "son of David" in this context is very Hebrew and unusual in this context and to Mark's Gospel as a whole. It is not the sort of thing later Christians would have inserted.

Early Christians tended to picture Jesus as a king in heaven who would soon come back to set up the kingdom of God. In this context Jesus as "son of David" attaches more easily to King Solomon. Meier says that

By the 1st century ad, King Solomon - who was the only individual reigning monarch to be called Son of David in the OT - had acquired a reputation in Jewish circles as a great exorcist and healer. [1]

This way of defining Jesus is rare in the gospels. This indicates that the account has its origins in the earliest traditions. It does not match later Christian theology about the meaning of Jesus.

Like the rest of the gospels, this weight of evidence doesn't add up to absolute proof of historicity. But it is of sufficient strength to include it in the body of "bare bones" history.

The above three are drastically abbreviated examples of how the historicity of the healings of Jesus is dealt with by scholars. Further instances below are followed by very brief summaries [1].

John 5.1-9: The Bethzatha Pool  The basic elements of this passage produce reasonably good history. But the detail about waiting for the movement of the water does not appear in earlier manuscripts. There are textual indications that the Sabbath controversy part was added later

Luke 13.10-17: A Crippled Woman  The Sabbath controversy is structurally distinct from the healing account. It can stand alone. The healing is unique to Luke. In contrast, the healing is too slight to stand alone as good history.

Mark 8.22-26: The Blind Man at Bethsaida  Neither Matthew nor Luke include this story. It contains signs of editing. It is very close to Mark 7.32-37 which is almost its twin. It consists of two stages, which is another indication of heavy editing. Despite this, the core (verses 22-28) is probably close to an original account.

John 9.1-41; 10.19-21: A Man Born Blind  The last two verses seems to have been split off from the body of the account by later revisers. John's Gospel (which is probably much later than the others) tends to heighten the extraordinary elements of the original material more than the other gospels. The whole passage is crammed with theology. Only verses 6 and 7 survive as anything like history.

Mark 1.40-45: A Man With a Skin Disease  This is another story with a link to the Old Testament - 2 Kings 5.1-9. The healing corresponds to the Hebrew law about cleansing lepers. The author also includes one of his favourite themes that Jesus didn't want his special status made public. This account survives uncertainly and, if taken as historical, then only in reduced form in verses 40-42.

Luke 17.11-19: The Healing of Ten Lepers  This account occurs only in Luke (though it seems to be a variant of Mark 1.40-45). Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles. There he tells how Philip successfully visits Samaria (8.4-25), so we know that Luke has some investment in including the Samaritan here. Hebrews and Samaritans were deadly enemies, worshipping from different centres. It is highly unlikely that these Samaritans would have agreed to let Hebrew priests examine them (verse 14). There is no other evidence that Jesus ever worked amongst Samaritans.

Mark 1.29-31: Healing of Peter's Mother-in-Law  We know from Paul (1 Corinthians 9.5) that Peter was married. There seems no theological reason for including this story in the larger section about Jesus in Capernaum. It seems that this is an accurate, if brief, account of something which actually happened.

Mark 5.25-34: The Woman Who Was Bleeding  This forms part of a larger narrative about the raising of Jairus' daughter from death. The actual details are improbable to us today, clothed as they are in what seems to be magic. Only if we are generous does this survive as history, and then only in very brief form.

Luke 14.1-6: The Man With Dropsy  This is similar to Mark 3.1-6 in context and purpose. Like that, this account doesn't have the right features to give it the character of good history.

Mark 7.31: The Deaf-mute  This story has no close parallels in the gospels. There are indications that this account comes from very early tradition. A number of words which occur here occur nowhere else. Saliva was often thought of as a healing agent in the ancient world. Similarly, the actions which accompany the healing are unusual. The word Ephphatha is Aramaic - the language which Jesus spoke and which analysts find lurking behind the Greek text of the gospels. It is likely that this story reflects an actual event in the life of Jesus.

____________________________________________________
[1] Following A Marginal Jew, Volume 2, 1994
[2] See the convincing argument for this in Josephus and the New Testament, Steve Mason, Hendrickson, 2003

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