Jesus was not a healer (1)

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by Neil Godfrey

Jesus heals the paralytic of Bethesda
Image by Nick in exsilio via Flickr

Jesus no more healed people than he was born of a virgin or walked on water or rose from the dead.

The Gospels do not portray Jesus as a physician or literal healer of some sort. They portray him as the Christ, or Messiah, and they introduce stories of healings only in order to portray him as that Christ and spiritual Saviour, not as a greater Asclepius. The Gospel authors did not use raw material from oral tradition or eye-witnesses to any healings. They relied on the Old Testament prophecy that in the messianic age the sick would be healed, the blind see, the cripples walk. And even that Old Testament prophecy was figurative. The healings in the Gospels are just as symbolic as the so-called “nature miracles” of Jesus stilling the storm and walking on water.

(I like the author of Jesus the Healer so I feel a bit awkward about the title of this post, by the way.)

Here is one of the healing prophecies that obliged the Gospel authors to introduce healing narratives into their Gospels: Isaiah 35:3-6

3 Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;

4 say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”

5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.

6 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.

The Gospels do not lose the irony of placing these Old Testament images in a setting that does not have outward appearances of “divine retribution”. Mark’s gospel in particular drips with the irony: the vengeance is heaped upon the spiritual powers and rulers of the world and only the elect, like Elisha and his servant (2 Kings 6:15-17), have the wit to see this spiritual warfare (2 Cor.10:4; Eph. 6:10-17).

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke explicitly state that it is this prophecy that lies behind the miracles of healing they attribute to Jesus.

Matthew 11:2-5

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy[b] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.

Luke 7:18-23

John’s disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, he sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’”

At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy[a] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.


Now I think that is good evidence that the healing stories are not about historical healings but are about creating a narrative to demonstrate that Jesus is the fulfilment of prophecy.

After all, look at what I think many scholars consider to be pious fabrications for the simple reason that the details are “foretold” in the Old Testament:

  • the dividing of Jesus’ garments at the cross (Matt. 27:18; Ps. 22:18)
  • darkness at noon on the day of judgment (Matt. 27:45; Amos 8:9)
  • Jesus betrayed for thirty pieces of silver (Matt. 26:15; Zech. 11:12)
  • Jesus was taken to Egypt as a child and returned again (Matt. 2:14f; Hos. 11:1)
  • Jesus given vinegar on the cross (Matt. 27:48; Ps. 69:21)

There are many more. Some scholars have the wit to see that even the scattering of the disciples (Matt. 26:31; Zech. 13:7), the cleansing of the temple (Matt. 21:12ff; Mal. 3:1), the words on the cross (Matt. 27:46; Ps. 22:1); the betrayal by Judas, the burial of Jesus in the stone tomb, as all being inspired by “prophetic” insights into the Jewish scriptures.

So why stop with these and decide to declare other narrative details are really historical, or based on genuine historical events? Where is the consistency? Is there anything about the healing stories that clearly sets them apart from the above sorts of details that many will concede are drawn from scriptures rather than history?

Is not the whole point of the story about Jesus to explain who it was — that it was the Christ and Son of God — that was crucified and resurrected. The central message of the Gospels is the resurrection following the death of Jesus, and the narrative leading up to that climactic event is mostly about identifying this crucified-resurrected one as the Son of God, the Christ.

As such, it is quite a stretch to suggest that the Gospels are “biography” or “history”, even by ancient standards of the equivalents of those terms.

In the next post (or maybe the one after that) I’ll examine some of the healings in detail to show how they have nothing to do with preserving memories of real events but everything to do with theological symbolism.

I am aware that some people like to have their black jellybabies and eat them too and think that the Gospel authors have written up eyewitness reports (maybe passed down an oral tradition pipeline) with a lot of theological trappings to inject them with theological meaning. If that were the case then we can reasonably expect some superfluous leftover details that don’t make the editors’ cuts. But if we find every detail drenched in theological meaning then what choice are we left with other than to relegate the healings to the same shelf as the virgin birth, the dividing of Jesus’ garments at the foot of the cross, and the walking on water?

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Neil Godfrey

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13 thoughts on “Jesus was not a healer (1)”

  1. Neil Said:
    “But if we find every detail drenched in theological meaning then what choice are we left with other than to relegate the healings to the same shelf as the virgin birth, the dividing of Jesus’ garments at the foot of the cross, and the walking on water?”

    Wishful thinking, perhaps?

  2. I like to think that the miracles of Jesus are not solely from the OT but also paganism, as illustrated here: http://www.pocm.info/pagan_ideas_miracles.html

    We do not need the OT to explain the origin of similar pagan miracles, of course. There were certain ‘super powers’ that a pagan godman was expected to have, and Jesus is just another pagan godman, only “Jewish,” using the standard ideas about pagan godmen that were current then and the OT.

    1. I had forgotten I have not long ago posted on this topic till your comment prompted me to search something on my blog. On the similarity of pagan miracles with those found in the gospels:

      Jesus: a saviour god just like the kings of Babylon and Egypt

      Other gods who healed the blind and raised the dead

      Historical proof that Isis healed more than Jesus

      Jesus was no physician

      But my post is not really a sign of early dementia, but will be continued by taking on the question from another perspective (slightly, anyway) with particular reference to Spong again.

  3. The Ravenna mosaic you chose as part of your blog entry (the Healing of the Paralytic) brings to mind a wall painting found in the baptismal chamber of the church at Dura Europos (c. 235 C.E.), said to be the earliest known representation of Jesus. It strikes me that, in both images, the Paralytic carries a bed whose framework is filled up with a netting of threads. Apparently, the beds of late antiquity were rather standardized.

    The miracle certainly illustrates your point that the healing miracles are literary pieces of art. According to Wolfgang Roth (Hebrew Gospel: Cracking the Code of Mark, 1988, p. 56), the motif is borrowed from the story in 2 Kings 1:2-17a. King Ahaziah, however, was not healed, as he did not trust in God but in Baal-zebub. The gospel writers reverse the situation by having Jesus grant salvation because of faith (Mark 2:1-12).

    1. I suggested another symbolic meaning of the healing of the paralytic in this post last year that I like better than the Ahaziah lattice drop. Mark’s gospel draws on several sections of the Elijah-Elisha narrative and this lends some support to the Ahaziah episode as sparking its author’s imagination. But what he was really interested in was adding meaning to the death and resurrection idea at the heart of Jesus. Many of the details of both images and word-links in the earlier chapters of Mark are found again in the final chapters. One of these is the pairing of the idea of a dead man being placed in a tomb/house whose entrance was blocked, and that had been “hewn out”, and from which he was “resurrected” and exited quite freely.

      1. Thanks for referring me to the post entitled “The taming of Mark’s unruly faithful,” which I much enjoyed. Your comments on Luke’s version, “a positive example of decorous behaviour,” are particularly memorable. One has to agree that, once again, Mark embarrasses Matthew and Luke.

        Since you also mentioned Christian sarcophagi, I thought I should consult Robin Margaret Jensen’s book, Understanding Early Christian Art (2000). As far as art is concerned, Jensen argues in favour of a baptismal interpretation of this miracle:

        “Often the presence of water seems to unify the artistic motifs. For instance, the late third-century sarcophagus in Sta. Maria Antiqua combines images of fishers, baptism, Jonah (tossed overboard and reclining), along with the Good Shepherd, philosopher, and orant… The proximity of other biblical scenes that are either directly or indirectly baptismal in theme supports the baptismal interpretation of the fishing images. These scenes include portrayals of Jesus’ baptism, scenes from the Jonah narrative, Moses striking the rock, the healing of the paralytic, the woman at the well, and the raising of Lazarus… Chamber 21 of the Catacomb of Callistus in particular contains two parallel combinations of scenes that include Moses striking the rock, a man fishing, the paralytic carrying his bed (referring to the Johannine story which mentions an angel stirring up water for a healing purpose), a baptism, and a banquet scene…” (p. 48). Jensen notes that, in early Christian literature, “New Testament stories that refer to the miraculous healing or transforming powers of water were often treated as baptismal typologies.” From this point of view, it makes sense that the third-century wall painting I referred to in my previous comment was discovered in a baptistery.

        It seems reasonable to ask whether the Markan version of the healing of the paralytic is connected to the death and resurrection idea. The link between baptism and death and resurrection (cf. Romans 6:4-5 and Colossians 2:12) may perhaps explain why the Johannine author introduces the element of water into this miracle (John 5:2-9a). On the other hand, the Johannine author may just as well have been influenced by the Christian-Asclepius controversy and the baths of Asclepius in second-century Jerusalem, because the words used to describe the healing of the paralytic, who had been sick for thirty-eight years, are “hygiEs genesthai” (5:6, 9, 11, 14), an expression commonly found in the healing testimonies of Asclepius but found nowhere else in the New Testament (see K. H. Rengstorf, Die Anfänge der Auseinandersetzung zwischen Christusglaube und Asklepiusfrömmigkeit, p. 16).

        1. I have always assumed people are familiar with the baptismal motif tying the narrative beads of the Gospel of Mark into a single ornament. Maybe I should post soon on the argument underlying that. And of course the baptism motif is all part and parcel of the death and resurrection concept.

          Yes, the Gospel of Mark begins and ends with baptism motifs. (The young man at the end, which was originally at 16:8 as most of us probably know, is delivers a message that is a counterpart’s to John the Baptist’s at the beginning, and is dressed in the early Christian baptismal garb.

          But your comment with its emphasis on the Gospel of John obliges me to think of all those early Christian artworks (the healed paralytic carrying his “bed” is a favourite theme) is related more closely to the Gospel of John than the Gospel of Mark.

          Either way, the image is burdened with symbolism. Mark and John are the “symbolic” gospels par excellence. And those artworks give no indication of the scene taking place in a house surrounded by crowds. But then again, the art scenes suggest a young man is healed, and that goes against the Gospel of John scenario.

          Thanks for giving me something to think about and keep me awake when sleep escapes me.

          Michael Nordbakke cited some Greek words from John. They (=”made whole”) can be identified in their contexts at: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%205:6,%209,%2011,%2014&version=YLT

          P.S. — I went back to read that earlier post of mine you referred to and was once again embarrassed at the typo after typo in it. I do, I really DO wish that people who read my posts would send feedback to alert me to this and/or that typo!

          P.P.S. — Noticed the image I included here has a country setting for the healed paralytic. Makes sense. It was surely an independent story floating around begging this and that author to fasten it to this or that narrative context.

          1. I just had the pleasure of reading your entry of June 3, 2007, “Baptism: Another Markan trap? Or, The Gospel of Perfection.” You write: “The dug out roof and the dug out rock represent tombs. Jesus found life through death. So does the paralytic. He finds perfection, he finds Jesus, by dying, being ‘dying with Jesus’…” It is hard not to agree. The bizarre scene in which four men lower their friend through the roof does indeed create associations to the death and resurrection theme.

            By the way, it seems that the Markan version of this miracle is relevant also in a different context, namely, Mark’s less-than-elegant Greek, with which you have recently been dealing. According to Joanna Dewey, the five episodes related in Mark 2:1-3:6 form a tightly constructed literary unit:

            A (2:1-12); B (2:13-17); C (2:18-22); B’ (2:23-28); A’ (3:1-6).

            She claims that the parallels between A and A’ and between B and B’ were purposely formed. In A (the healing of the paralytic), the word “rise” (egeiro) is used three times. This is understandable, as the subject of the story is a man unable to stand and walk. However, in A’ (the healing of the man with the withered hand), the occurrence of the word “rise” (egeiro) is unexpected, as the man with the withered hand presumably had no trouble standing. Dewey concludes that using the word “rise” here serves to bring the verb into the story. (There is a summary of these arguments in John Dart, Decoding Mark, pp. 47-50.)

            1. Please let me add that, in the Markan account of the resurrection (16:1-8), the young man says: “He was raised (EgerthE).” The word “raised” is “egeiro.” Like Paul, Mark avoids the word “resurrection (anastasis),” cf. 1 Corinthians 15:4: “kai hoti egEgertai tE hEmera tE tritE.”

              Hence, it is probably not a coincidence that, in the Markan version of the healing of the paralytic, the word “eigero” is used three times (2:9, 11, 12). Is Mark alluding to the three days Jesus was dead? However this may be, all this adds to the case that the real subject of this miracle is not, for Mark, the act of healing, but death and resurrection.

            2. I haven’t read Joanna Dewey (that I recall) but she sounds like one whose work I should read. The unity of the section is undoubted in my mind. Note how the different settings are each introduced by “again”: Jesus “again” visits Capernaum (=”vllage of comfort”); Jesus “again” passes by the sea; Jesus “again” enters the synagogue. Mark is directing his reader to interpret this collection of episodes in the context of those in chapter one.

              Did Jesus literally go the rounds of these places “again” with the happy chance of being able to involve himself in controversies and acts that just happened to demonstrate more significant spiritual messages than those at the first? Or is this all the creative work of an author who is writing a symbolic tale? The questions are rhetorical. It is nonsense to approach this text with a view to analyzing it for “history”. Literary analysis is the first step any historian must take to her sources in order to understand what questions can be asked of them.

              (This is where the McGraths fall completely flat on their faces before they start. This analysis of Mark shows how ignorant they are of how to do real history when they insist that literary analysis has nothing to do with historical inquiry.)

              I suspect that this section in Mark is related in some way to 1 Kings 12-13 but I am unable to be sure. Yet it might be significant that the new cult of the northern kingdom of Israel drew its leading followers from the laity to replace the levitical priests who were associated with Jerusalem, and here we have Levi associated with the riff-raff in opposition to the representatives of Jerusalem; this proceeds through images of rending and pouring out of the old symbols and culminates in the healing of a withered hand of some sort.

              This is one of those suggestive comparisons I have long been meaning to attempt a detailed study on with a view to seeing if this can be reasonably argued to be one of Mark’s sources for his chapter 2 to 3:6.

              When I first read Mark right through as a teenager, I did so as part of a reading of all the gospels in sequence. Matthew presented itself just as I expected a gospel to read. But after reading Mark for the first time I was quite stunned. It was not at all what I had expected of a gospel and totally unlike Matthew. I really did not know what to make of it. It is helpful to recall our first impressions, I think, lest we begin to wonder if we are overanalyzing Mark and seeing more in it than is warranted. It is warranted to try to understand why it does create such a “dark” first impression before we become too accustomed to rationalizing all its bizarreness to the orthodoxy of Matthew and Luke.

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