Ian Wallis, a former Principal of the Yorkshire Ministry Course, Vicar of St Mark’s and Chair of CRC, continues to teach and write in the areas of biblical studies and contemporary theology. In this theological reflection he looks at the nature of healing in relation to Jesus' ministry.
According to the Gospels in the New Testament, Jesus earned a reputation for healing disease and liberating those oppressed by evil spirits. This article explores the evidence for such a claim before concluding that its most likely source is in transformative encounters between Jesus and sufferers through which their debilitating symptoms were alleviated, if not healed. Such encounters were extraordinary, although not strictly-speaking miraculous, and, in terms of contemporary medical science, find a partial analogy in the placebo response.
Even a cursory reading of the Gospels reveals that Jesus earned a reputation for healing. In fact, few claims about him are more securely grounded in our earliest sources than this. Yet, from the perspective of a contemporary Western worldview, Jesus’ reputation for healing is highly problematic. For one thing, what actually happened – was Jesus able to cause sufferers to recover from debilitating, if not life-threatening, conditions such as blindness, paralysis, leprosy and chronic blood-loss without recourse to medicine, surgery or any other form of medical intervention? And, if he was, how were such healings accomplished – did he possess supernatural powers that were unconstrained by the very natural processes that underpin effective medical treatment today? These are challenging questions and to help us engage with them, we need to keep a number of observations in mind:
Although we use the language of miracle in different ways, its technical meaning to denote a happening beyond scientific explanation which transcends the laws of nature is relatively recent (cf David Hume, 1711-76). Certainly, there is no biblical equivalent nor would it have been a meaningful concept within a theocentric worldview where God was believed to be the creator and sustainer of the universe. One implication of this was that all healing was thought to be ultimately of divine origin, although God might choose to administer that healing through intermediaries, such as physicians or medicines (cf Sirach 38).
Further, Hume’s contention that a miracle is ‘a violation of the laws of nature’ is called into question by the recognition that the so-called ‘laws of nature’ are descriptive rather than prescriptive in status: they purport to describe the natural order, not to determine it, and are, in principle, open to revision. Some scientists prefer to speak of an evolving universe evolving habits through time, rather than being shaped by predetermined laws from the outset. What is key for our purposes is the provisional nature of our understanding of these laws or habits which opens up the possibility that phenomena take place which currently cannot be accounted for by scientific inquiry and yet which are entirely natural in origin: they may appear extraordinary, but they are not strictly-speaking miraculous.
We should also note that, whilst in certain parts of the Greco-Roman world medical knowledge and treatment were advancing, there is little evidence to suggest its influence held much sway in first-century Galilee. Healthcare provision there will have been extremely limited with disease treated symptomatically rather than pathologically, where the emphasis falls on care rather than cure. That said, the curative or palliative properties of some plants had been recognized and was being exploited in some quarters, notably among the Jewish group known as the Essenes, although there was little if any understanding of the means of their efficacy.
Here we should introduce an important distinction. We mentioned earlier how belief in God as the source of all healing was not necessarily thought incompatible with recognising the therapeutic effectiveness of medicines and physicians. This is because, as Aristotle had demonstrated much earlier, they reflect different levels of causation. God was deemed to be the final cause as the source constantly seeking our wholeness, whereas medicines and physicians were efficient causes by which God’s overarching commitment to our well-being was fulfilled.
As knowledge of efficient causes was limited in first-century Galilee, it shouldn’t surprise us to discover that illness and healing tended to be interpreted theologically. This, in turn, brings into focus their relational dimension. As with many cultures, Israelite faith was conversant with the notion of an individual’s body being a microcosm of the body politic to which he or she belonged. In this case, Israel was in covenant with Yahweh with the result that any dis-ease within that covenantal relationship caused by transgressing God’s law would result in dis-ease within the Israelite transgressor and sometimes others as well. So the remedy to the bodily malaise of the latter was to restore order or right-relating within the covenantal body of the former through repentance and forgiveness.
Interestingly, in this instance, transgression could be thought of as an efficient cause of disease with repentance its concomitant for healing: ‘No one gets up from his sick-bed until all his sins are forgiven.’ (Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 41a). Another cause of illness that was gaining recognition in Jesus’ milieu was spiritual oppression; before then, sickness, like healing, belonged to the divine prerogative. Although, usually associated with symptoms characteristic of various forms of psychosis, some physical symptoms could be attributed to demons or evil spirits, such as deafness or muteness (cf Mark 9.25-26).
With these preliminary observations in mind, we turn to the gospel accounts of Jesus’ healings. The first thing to note is that they are by no means homogenous and serve different functions within the evangelists’ testimonies to Jesus. For example, in the Synoptics, they tend to be presented as acts of compassion and instantiations of Jesus’ message about the emergence of God’s sovereign presence (eg Mark 1.39; Matthew 4.23), whereas in the Fourth Gospel they are signs pointing towards Jesus’ true identity (eg John 4.54; 6.14; 7.31).
Or, again, explicitly in the Synoptics and, by implication in John, healing is not the sole prerogative of Jesus; rather, his disciples were also expected to preach Jesus’ kingdom message and to demonstrate its proximity through exorcism and healing (eg Mark 3.14-15; 6.7; Matthew 10.1; cf John 14.12). This is significant in that it suggests the kind of healing attributed to Jesus was characteristic not so much of his unique abilities as of the potentialities associated with God’s reign to which he bore witness.
Thirdly, the gospel healing narratives refer almost exclusively to presenting symptoms, such as blindness, lameness, skin complaints, etc. With the exception of conduct deemed sinful or spiritual oppression mentioned previously, no diagnoses, bio-medical or otherwise, are supplied. What is more, we now know that pretty much all the symptoms Jesus healed can have efficient causes within the spectrum of either biological-organic or psycho-social factors or a mixture of both. Unlike some of the cures attributed to the Greco-Roman healing god Asclepius, Jesus doesn’t supply missing body parts or repair fractured bones, although Luke alone records him restoring the severed ear of one of his arrestors (Luke 22.49-51) – a detail that may well have originated in the mind of the Evangelist (cf Mark 14.47/Matthew 26.51-52).
Fourthly and at greater length, it is striking what the gospel narratives highlight as being significant for healing to take place. Here are some of the major ingredients:
Personal Encounter & Relationship
Frequently emphasised in many of these narratives is how sufferers struggle to reach Jesus (eg Mark 2.1-4; 5.24-28; 7.25-27; 10.46-49), thereby emphasizing the subsequent encounter which can be narrated in some detail to illustrate the role of personal relationship within the healing dynamic (eg Mark 5.23-34 & 7.24-30). The tactile quality of those encounters is often stressed in the form of intentional bodily contact such as touch (eg Mark 1.31, 41; 3.9-10; 5.41; 7.32-33) or, more specifically, the laying on of hands (eg Mark 1.40-41; 5.23; 8.22). Occasionally, bodily substances such as saliva, which was reputed to possess therapeutic properties, is mentioned – supplying a further channel for healing (Mark 8.23).
In a sense, this is another expression of personal encounter and relationship. It goes without saying that there are many different sources and forms of authority. Possessing no institutional or societal status, Jesus earned a reputation for possessing charismatic authority which he exercised coercively when exorcising and consensually in relation to other forms of healing. That is to say, with respect to the latter, when Jesus uttered a performatory declaration (eg ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ or ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.’ Mark 2.5; 5.34) or a directive command (‘Stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’ or ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ Mark 2.11; Luke 17.14), their efficacy was dependent upon recipients choosing to embrace their newly acquired identity (eg as someone forgiven, healed or cleansed) and to inhabit it wholeheartedly. According to many of the gospel narratives, sufferers’ willingness to acknowledge Jesus’ authority and to come under its sway were vital for a beneficial outcome: the paralytic and leper, for instance, weren’t healed or cleansed and then opted to stand up or be pronounced clean by the priest; rather, it was as they responded to Jesus’ authority that they became well.
This is the quality receiving most attention in the gospel healing narratives – faith of sufferers, their supporters or even, in all probability, Jesus himself (eg Mark 5.34; 2.5; 9.23). Given that Jesus will have been known by reputation alone to most of the people who approached him for healing, this can’t have been a christologically-developed belief in him; more often than not, it is portrayed as a trusting conviction that Jesus can help, leading to personal investment in concrete action as that conviction is put to the test. A woman rendered ritually impure through chronic blood loss ploughs through crowds undeterred by the ramifications; a blind man throws caution to the wind to secure an audience; undeterred by the throngs, stretcher-bearers vandalize some home-owner’s roof to lower their friend at Jesus’ feet (Mark 5.23-34; 10.46-52; 2.1-12). These are bold, risky, morally-ambiguous moves of total investment and concomitant vulnerability. And it is this quality of faith that Jesus identifies as possessing therapeutic efficacy: ‘Your faith has made you well’ (Mark 5.34; 10.52; Luke 17.19)
We could carry on exploring other factors deemed significant within the healing dynamic, such as compassion on the part of Jesus or tenacity with the respect to the sufferer, but space does not permit. In drawing our review of the gospel material to a close, however, it is noteworthy what is rarely, if ever, highlighted. None of the healing accounts, for example, record Jesus praying (cf Mark 7.34) or invoking God’s Spirit (cf Luke 11.19-20/Matthew 12.27-28) which can’t be accidental. In whatever way we choose to account for these absences, they have the effect of locating the healing dynamic firmly on the horizontal plain, within the personal interactions and relationships of those involved.
How, then, should we account for Jesus’ reputation for healing? One ‘liberal/progressive’ approach is that proposed by Dominic Crossan, who draws on a distinction from medical anthropology between disease – the biological, mental or psychological malfunctioning of the body – and illness – the personal and social response to such malfunctioning. He goes on to claim that Jesus didn’t (and couldn’t) cure disease but was able to heal illness by transforming sufferers’ experience of their conditions. He cites the example of Jesus’ encounter with a leper in Mark 1.40-44 who, he maintains, was cleansed by Jesus of his ritually impure status and, as a consequence, was rescued from social isolation and restored into community life whilst still suffering his skin condition.
Self-evidently, this approach is attractive to the Western worldview, but, to my mind, it is ultimately unpersuasive for at least two reasons. Firstly, it fails to account for Jesus’ popularity – it is difficult to envisage how an iterant preacher would have gained a reputation for healing by encouraging communities to take better care of their infirm. Secondly, most of the presenting symptoms mentioned in the Gospels didn’t render sufferers ritually unclean nor were they socially-isolating or did they carry moral opprobrium. The paralytic of Mark 2, for instance, was evidently being well looked after otherwise he would never have made it into Jesus’ presence (Mark 1.1-12)!
So how, then, should we account for Jesus’ reputation for healing? By acknowledging that the most plausible source of that reputation is in encounters with Jesus which proved to be transformative through, amongst other things, relieving debilitating symptoms and, with that, any sense of being dis-eased with God. If Jesus’ message was of the proximity of God’s reign of blessing, how better to demonstrate it that by liberating the oppressed.
But how was Jesus able to do this? Theologically-speaking, Jesus’ healing – like all healing – were acts of God, in the sense that God was the final cause. In terms of proximate or efficient causation, a partial analogy is supplied, perhaps, by the placebo-response where the healing dynamic engendered within trusting encounter between practitioner and patient who both believe in the therapeutic efficacy of a particular substance, procedure or encounter and who wholeheartedly invest themselves in it can yield, to use the distinction drawn above, both curing of disease and healing of illness. This would explain why it is inter-personal factors such as faith, personal encounter and authority that are stressed in the gospel healing narratives. It would also account for why Jesus expected others to share in his healing ministry because, as manifestations of God’s sovereign presence, they were accessible to all who shared his convictions and, equally importantly, were willing to live in their light.
Suggestions for further reading
John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (New York: Harper Collins, 1994)
Wendy Cotter, The Christ of the Miracles Stories: Portrait through Encounter (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010).
Eric Eve, The Healer from Nazareth: Jesus’ Miracles in Historical Context (London: SPCK, 2009)
Gary B Ferngren, Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2009)
Jan-Olav Henriksen & Karl Olav Sandnes, Jesus as Healer: A Gospel for the Body (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016)
John Pilch, Healing in the New Testament: Insights from Medical and Mediterranean Anthropology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000)