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.
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.
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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