Jesus’ miracles of healing in the Gospels are often taken as evidence that the historical Jesus himself was a healer. Studies have accordingly been undertaken into ancient healing practices. The associations between ‘medicine’ and ‘charms’, the physical and the supernatural, is well-documented. We have books about Jesus titled “Jesus the Healer” and “Jesus the Magician”. (I like much that I find in these, by the way.)
Presumably the gospel stories of Jesus’ miracles of healing are thought to be based on traditions that Jesus really was a healer of some kind. Crossan, for example, argues from anthropology and the social nature of illness that Jesus’ acts of healing “worked” because he brought, for example, the outcast leper, into a communal fellowship.
But what if we take the miracles of healings in the Gospel of Mark just as they are written. Let’s not presume they are exaggerations of historical deeds.
Let’s instead read them “just as they are” and see how they might compare other “just as they are” narratives and look at the literary and ideological traditions in which they are written.
I believe that when we do that we will find another source for the miracle stories that really leaves no room for any “historical tradition”.
Thomas L. Thompson has said somewhere in a similar context that when we attempt to historicize or rationalize the miraculous in the Bible, all we end up doing is destroying the original stories. Not all that different from Douglas Adams quip that if you take apart a cat to see how it works, all you end up with is a non-working cat.
A consideration of the wider context offers a quick and obvious answer to the question of the author’s inspiration for the miraculous healings of Jesus.
First, a few examples of what we are talking about here:
Mark 1:30-31 — But Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick of a fever, and anon they tell him of her. And he came and took her by the hand, and lifted her up; and immediately the fever left her
Mark 1:42 — And as soon as he had spoken, immediately the leprosy departed from him, and he was cleansed.
Mark 2:11-12 — I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house. And immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went forth before them all
Mark 3:5 — he saith unto the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it out: and his hand was restored whole as the other.
None of these sound anything like a witch doctor or shaman healing processes. But there is another very obvious set of analogies.
Not all, but much, of the first two following sections is derived from my current reading of The Liberated Gospel: A Comparison of the Gospel of Mark and Greek Tragedy by Gilbert G. Bilezikian.
The literary and theological purpose of the miracle stories in Mark
1. To demonstrate his identity as the Son of God
Jesus’ healings are supernatural miracles. A single word or touch is enough to restore lepers and the maimed instantly. (There is one exception that in fact proves the rule, as I will explain.)
Jesus lives in two worlds in Mark. In the spirit realm we find the demons, angels, and God himself, all recognize him as the Son of God. But in the world of flesh he is unrecognized, at least in the early chapters where most of the miracles are narrated. Jesus is the Son of God acts as such in all his dealings with people, but their failure to recognize his true identity leads them to misunderstand him and even falsely accuse and condemn him. This is the stuff of classic Greek tragedy. Failure to recognize the true identity of a leading protagonist (e.g. Oedipus, Dionysus) leads to conflicts that end in an atoning death.
In authentic tragic fashion, the resulting conflict ultimately causes the entrenched leaders to obtain the execution of their own Messiah as a false pretender. (p.64)
The Gospel of Mark sets up this conflict in the earlier chapters: Jesus is shown to be the Son of God himself, while the human actors remain uncomprehending, and some of them hostile.
To establish Jesus’ true identity the evangelist has shown that:
- Heavens open for him (1:10)
- God speaks to him from heaven (1:11)
- Satan combats him (1:13)
- Angels assist him (1:13)
- Demons recognize and fear him (1:24, 34; 3:11)
- he has power over the demons (1:25-27; 3:27)
- he speaks with authority (not like the scribes) (1:27)
- he asserts his authority over the sabbath day itself (1:28)
- he raises the sick, and heals the maimed and the lepers (see above)
- he knows the thoughts of others (2:8)
- he demonstrates his “dominion over evil and, therefore, His authority to forgive sins (2:1-12).”
- he has dominion over storm and sea (4:39; 6:48)
(The above scripture references can be located online at the Gospel of Mark here.)
In response to all of the above the other (human) actors in the drama are either out of sight or hearing, react with uncomprehending amazement, or plot to kill him for overshadowing their authority.
And that is the context in which we read of Jesus’ miracles of healing. They are not exaggerations of long-ago tales of much inferior efforts to heal people, perhaps with embarrassing details of uttering magic chants removed. They are of the same miraculous type as ancients attributed to their gods!
The following is copied from an earlier post:
Of the Mesopotamian god Marduk
You take by the hand and raise the injured from his bed
Of the Egyptian goddess Ishtar
The sick man who sees your face revives; his bondage is released; he gets up instantly.
At your command, O Ishtar, the blind man sees the light,
the unhealthy one who sees your face, becomes healthy.
O deity of men, goddess of women, whose delights no one can conceive, where you look one who is dead lives; one who is sick rises up.
(Extracts from B. R. Foster, Before the Muses, vol.2, cited in Thomas L. Thompson’s The Messiah Myth, p. 329)
The miracle-healing Jesus of the gospels has good company. Like Marduk and Ishtar, he did not need to rely on magical rituals to heal. A mere word or command, or simply taking one’s hand, is clearly enough to heal instantaneously for a deity.
This sort of instantaneous divine healing was part of the mythological view of ancients. The Marduk and Ishtar examples are only representative, having been convenient at hand. Others in the Greek and Roman world can be found in Miracles in Greco-Roman Antiquity available on Google books.
2. To demonstrate his Messiahship
Mark loves ambiguities, and he plays with the Son of Man sayings of Jesus to the max. The Son of Man was meant to be understood as a title of the Messiah; but without the caps, the son of man was simply one human among many. So Mark uses the expression to play with the tension between the real identity of Jesus and the failure of his people to recognize that identity.
One of the signs of the Messiah was that he would heal.
Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing (Isa. 35:6)
I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people,
As a light to the Gentiles, To open blind eyes, (Isa. 42:6-7)
3. To emulate the miracles of old
If the idea of an instantaneous divine healing by a word or touch was part of the thought-world of ancients, Mark has also taken some of his literary expression of such miracles from other Jewish literature. The most well-known case of this is Mark’s imitation of the miracle of Elijah raising the Shunamite woman’s son to relate the tale of Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus.
Do see my 2007 webpage on these comparisons at vridar.info — the details, including comparative tables, are too lengthy to be inserted here.
The similarities of content and structure must be studied alongside the attempt of the later author to emulate the character or action of the former.
The exception that proves the rule
There is one notable exception to the healing illustrations I cited at the opening.
And he cometh to Bethsaida; and they bring a blind man unto him, and besought him to touch him.And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought.
And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking.
After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly.
I said this was the exception that proves the rule that Jesus’ healings are divinely instantaneous and whole.
Several commentators explain what appears here to be a clear symbolic meaning of this two-stage miracle. Mark is not depicting partial competence on the part of Jesus. This miracle comes after a series of doublet scenarios in which the disciples are depicted as “doubly dense” as to understanding Jesus. First there is the feeding of the 5000, and then the feeding of the 4000. The astonishing point in this doublet is that although the disciples were excusably befuddled over how Jesus was going to feed 5000 in the wilderness, they remained just as obtuse when confronted shortly afterwards with the problem of how to feed the 4000. Nonetheless, after Jesus explains the lesson to them the second time, we find that they do indeed begin to see who Jesus really is. Or at least Peter does.
Note only two verses after the above passage in Mark:
And Jesus went out, and his disciples, into the towns of Caesarea Philippi: and by the way he asked his disciples, saying unto them, Whom do men say that I am?
And they answered, John the Baptist: but some say, Elias; and others, One of the prophets.
And he saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Peter answereth and saith unto him, Thou art the Christ.
The insight of the disciples did not happen the first time. It took a second round of similar miracles, and explanations from Jesus, for them to understand. (I personally wonder, however, if the author intended that the first confession of Peter was the “half-sight” of the half-healed blind man: his confession was tainted with ignorance about the nature of the Christ.)
So this appears to be what the author intended to be understood as the meaning implicit in Jesus’ two-fold action to heal the blind man at this particular point.
There is no “embarrassment” here for any reader of the gospel of the author over some presumed difficulty Jesus had in healing a certain blindness. The scene is figurative. It is literary.
Readers have missed the point if they interpret it as a reflection on a historical person.
Why even suspect there was a real physician behind it all?
I see no reason to attribute the healing miracles of Jesus in Mark’s gospel to “oral traditions or legends” that originated in real acts of healing.
Given the way that
- the way that the miracles of Jesus read like echoes of the same types of miracles performed by divinities,
- the miracles performed were expected of the Messiah,
- some of them strongly appear to be expressed as literary emulations of other miracles of Jewish legend,
- the dramatic function of the miracles itself is to demonstrate the divinity of Jesus;
what need is there to even raise the question: Did the historical Jesus ever perform acts of healing that might be taken to be miracles over time?
The healings of Jesus in Mark’s gospel are as mythical as any performed in the imaginative literature and popular beliefs.
If this is enough to explain what we read in Mark, then why add unnecessary hypotheses about a historical figure whose shaman-like historical healings could not have been much different from any other healer of the day?
By attempting to historicize or naturalize the transcendent or supernatural, don’t we simply destroy what we have?
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