Jesus was no physician

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by Neil Godfrey

Christ healing a bleeding woman

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:

  1. Heavens open for him (1:10)
  2. God speaks to him from heaven (1:11)
  3. Satan combats him (1:13)
  4. Angels assist him (1:13)
  5. Demons recognize and fear him (1:24, 34; 3:11)
  6. he has power over the demons (1:25-27; 3:27)
  7. he speaks with authority (not like the scribes) (1:27)
  8. he asserts his authority over the sabbath day itself (1:28)
  9. he raises the sick, and heals the maimed and the lepers (see above)
  10. he knows the thoughts of others (2:8)
  11. he demonstrates his “dominion over evil and, therefore, His authority to forgive sins (2:1-12).”
  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.

Mark 8:22-25

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:

Mark 8:27-29

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?

If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat.
If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat. Image via Wikipedia
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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “Jesus was no physician”

  1. The subject of miracles (especially healings and exorcisms, not so much weather phenomena and water-to-wine transformation) has occupied a great deal of my thoughts recently. Perhaps that’s because a couple of months ago I read Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca’s memoirs for the first time. (See –> http://books.google.com/books?id=RMQRAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_slider_thumb#v=onepage&q&f=false) It’s extremely difficult for us to imagine how primitive people viewed mental and physical illness. And given the number of “cures” Cabeza de Vaca performed as he made his way across the American continent, one has to wonder how many illnesses were brought on by hysteria.

    Things to ponder: Why are there no exorcisms in John? What is the relationship between sin and illness? Recall when the disciples asked Jesus why the blind man was cursed. Did he sin? Had his parents sinned? Jesus said, “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” Does that mean under normal circumstances that illness is divine punishment for sin?

    Are demon possession and physical sickness related? That is, are they two species of the same genus? When Mark says of Peter’s mother-in-law “the fever left her” is he using a turn of phrase, or does he mean the spirit that caused the fever departed from her body? Do minor spirits cause colds, fevers, lameness, etc., while major spirits cause dementia and madness?

    Finally, I would add one more purpose to your list.

    4. To shift the burden of faith to the reader (the individual Christian believer)

    A miracle requires three things: the power of God, the will of Jesus, and the faith of the recipients. I think the alternate reading of Jesus being moved with “anger” at the leper is correct. The leper says, “If you’re willing, I can be healed.” Jesus says sternly, “Of course I’m willing! Be healed!” There is never a question as to the power of God or the will of Jesus; the only variable is human faith. To question either God or Jesus is borderline blasphemy.

    The burden of faith is evident in the story of the Woman with the Issue of Blood. Jesus walks through the crowd like some spiritual power capacitor, waiting to discharge. All the woman has to provide is faith. In this case, Jesus will appears to be set perpetually to the “on” position. He (apparently) didn’t even consciously choose to heal the woman; she’s zapped by the holy Van de Graaff generator.

    Further proof of necessary faith is the hometown debacle in Mark 6:4-6. It isn’t that Jesus abilities are diminished (Nazarite == Kryptonite?), but that his friends and neighbors don’t believe in him.

    This requirement of belief — the burden of faith — is a strong theme throughout Mark. If you aren’t healed, it’s you’re own damn fault!

    1. You no doubt know of Stevan Davies’ book re illness and healings: http://users.misericordia.edu//davies/thomas/summaryone.htm

      Interesting questions. After a thorough 5 minute think I started out writing all sorts of fascinating insights by way of response but ended up finding I had contradicted myself and the evidence itself by the end of it all so I have to concede ignorance 🙂

      Yes, agree there is the didactic reason for the miracle, too. I sometimes wonder if Matthew and Luke were a bit worried that Mark took faith way too far.

      I don’t recall hearing that explanation for Jesus being angry with the leper, before. Is that your own? Something to ponder.

      1. Regarding the angry leper in Mark, some ancient manuscripts read ὀργισθείς (with anger) instead of σπλαγχνισθείς (with compassion). The TNIV and NEB/REB go with the former. The TNIV at Mark 1:41 reads: “Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’

        I’ve read some rather shallow explanations by online apologists who say that Jesus was angry at the situation in general. More than one commentator said he was angry at all the evil in the world. Some think he was upset with the Torah restrictions on people with skin diseases. Oh, please.

        I thought I had something new to offer with the explanation that Jesus was indignant about the leper questioning his will (If thou art willing? If?!). However, it turns out I’m a Johnny-come-lately. For a fine discussion of the variants and why “with anger” is likely the original text, see Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus pp. 132-139 (in the chapter, “Originals That Matter”). He sums up “my” point quite well: “What’s striking in these stories is that Jesus’s evident anger erupts when someone doubts his willingness, ability, or divine authority to heal. Maybe this is what is involved in the story of the leper as well. As in the story of Mark 9, someone approaches Jesus gingerly to ask: ‘If you are willing you are able to heal me.’ Jesus becomes angry. Of course he’s willing, just as he is able and authorized. He heals the man and, still somewhat miffed, rebukes him sharply and throws him out.”

        One of the first scholars to come up with this rationale appears to be a guy named Mark Proctor whose doctoral dissertation, “The ‘Western’ Text of Mark 1:41: A Case for the Angry Jesus” (Baylor University, 1999), is cited all the time. So far, I have not been able to find a copy of this work, but some Christian bloggers have suggested that Bart lifted Proctor’s work. (Fundamentalists’ screeds against Ehrman are hilarious. He’s so conventional, bland, if not downright conservative, when it comes to historical Jesus studies and textual criticism, and yet they treat him as if he were a Dutch Radical!)

      2. Thank you for the book tip. It’s new to me. I’m way, way behind on my non-fiction reading. (I’ve clearly been spending too much time reading Wodehouse on my new Nook!)

        Neil: “…ended up finding I had contradicted myself and the evidence itself by the end of it all so I have to concede ignorance.”

        I know the feeling. 🙁 Every time I think I have a handle on the Gospel of John, I come to realize that I don’t. No wonder scholars like to hang out in the Synoptics.

      3. I think it is in Dennis MacDonald’s Mark-Homer book that one finds the explanation lies in Jesus being angry because the healing request threatened to blow his incognito cover.

        But the “of course” in Jesus’ reply does seem to offer a more direct textual handle on the question. The only problem for me is that it makes Jesus out to be a real jerk: “How dare some poor sod in need question my loving compassion! (Zap!) There! Now go off and hang your head in shame.” Maybe Mark thought that was appropriate for a Son of God.

        Another thought — though it doesn’t explain anything — is the second time Jesus is with a leper, or in Simon the leper’s house, there is presumably no healing and it is the disciples who become angry with Jesus for placing himself above the poor.

      4. The only problem for me is that it makes Jesus out to be a real jerk …

        There are a few places in Mark where Jesus is a jerk. The cursing of the fig tree comes to mind immediately. He also is pretty harsh with The Twelve at various times.

        I don’t think Mark was averse to making Jesus act like a jerk when it fit his theological motive.

  2. 1. “Mark” 8.23-24

    “[23] And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the village; and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands upon him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?”
    [24] And he looked up and said, “I see men; but they look like trees, walking.”

    2. Inscription at the Temple of Asclepios at Epidaurus

    A certain Alcetas of Halice was cured of blindness by the god “and the first things he saw were the trees in the temple precincts”

  3. *And than Joseph spit AD40 onto Neil’s fiction monitor to help him see clearly.*

    “2. To demonstrate his Messiahship”

    Neil, I Am well pleased that B is helping you not just see what “Mark” wrote, but also understand what it means. This is the Theme of Chapter 8, the Two Part understanding/healing. The primary theme of “Mark” is that the Disciples saw, but they didn’t understand. The first two stories of Chapter 8 give this theme figuratively and the third time it is explicit:

    1) The feeding story.

    The Disciples see the feeding miracles but they don’t understand what it means:

    “Mark 8:17 And Jesus perceiving it saith unto them, Why reason ye, because ye have no bread? do ye not yet perceive, neither understand? have ye your heart hardened?

    Mark 8:18 Having eyes, see ye not? and having ears, hear ye not? and do ye not remember?”

    They see the temporary literal feeding of the hungry but don’t see the permanent figurative meaning that all you need is Jesus to take of you.

    2) The seeing story.

    Here, in the first part, the blind man goes from not being able to see, to being able to see. In CONTRAST to the Disciples he understands WHAT he is seeing even though he can not see clearly:

    “And he looked up, and said, I see men; for I behold [them] as trees, walking.”

    In the second part of the healing he clearly sees. Note the figurative language. Spits in the eye to allow him to see? Marcan irony. And than the figurative goes all the way with hands on the eyes.

    3) The Messiah story.

    The first two stories set-up the third which is the historical point being made. In the first part, Peter/Disciples see WHO Jesus is, the Messiah. But they don’t understand WHAT that means. “Not understanding” really means not accepting:

    “Mark 8:31 And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, and the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

    Mark 8:32 And he spake the saying openly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him.”

    The Disciples see (promote) Jesus as the Messiah but they reject Paul’s understanding of a suffering Messiah. Their Messiah is a Teaching and Healing Messiah and after Jesus died they continued this Ministry.

    “Mark” is pure Pauline, knowledge of the Messiah is a two part process. First, look for Jesus in the Jewish Bible. Second, understand what that means. This is the process, not historical witness.

    Note that Chapter 8 ends the Complication part of the Greek Tragedy and Chapter 9 is the Crisis or Recognition Scene:

    “Mark 9:7 And there came a cloud overshadowing them: and there came a voice out of the cloud, This is my beloved Son: hear ye him.”

    The first part is to hear/recognize/see the voice. The second part is to understand/accept what it says, “hear ye him.” Per “Mark” what the Messiah is supposed to do is what the Messiah says he is supposed to do. Or for Paul, what Paul says the Messiah says. Again, by narrative the Disciples never accept what Jesus says is his Passion Mission. Of course they understood what Jesus meant by “rising from the dead”, hell, “Mark” says Jesus said it plainly. They did not accept this as Jesus Mission (because Jesus, the real one, never said it).

    In an Irony that I think the author of “Mark” would really appreciate it is the Christians who are just like “Mark’s” Jesus’ supposed opponents who do not understand what “Mark”/Jesus meant because they take the stories of Chapter 8 literally and it is the Skeptics like us who understand what “Mark” meant because we see the figurative meaning. In order to understand “Mark” you have to see that none of it is true.


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