Reasons to entertain a smidgen of doubt about Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus

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by Neil Godfrey

Is this story a unique historical event that was related by eyewitnesses or do we have evidence that the author was basing this narrative on a similar story or stories well known to him? What is the more rational belief: that the dead rise or that authors imitate and adapt stories well known to them?

2 Kings 4:8-37

Mark 5:21-43

The woman grasps Elisha by the feet

Jairus falls at the feet of Jesus

Her son has just died

His daughter is at the point of death

The mother has faith all will be well

The father has faith all will be well

While Elisha and the mother are travelling to the child Elisha’s servant brings news that the child is dead.

While Jesus and the father are walking to the child Jairus’ servants bring news that the child is dead.

Elisha makes himself alone in the room with the child.

Jesus puts all the others out of the room so only he and his closest associates are with the child.

Elisha makes physical contacts with the child and he is restored to life

Jesus takes the child by the hand and she is restored to life

The woman responds with worship

The parents are amazed.

There’s more

John Shelby Spong observes even additional points of contact between the stories than I have listed there, such as the fact that in both cases the one requesting the healing had to travel some distance to find Elisha/Jesus who was walking that way, and that there were delays in each case before their arrival.

See also another set of details set out in a table on Michael Turton’s commentary.

Uncharacteristic control over crowds

While imitating the Elisha story the author of Mark’s gospel has found it necessary to break his habit of showing Jesus at the mercy of crowds. Until now Jesus has been forced out into the wilderness or into a boat because of crowds flocking to see him (1:45; 3:9). But with the Elisha story as his template he now has Jesus quite capably commanding the crowds not to follow him on his way to Jairus’ house (5:37) and once there he even “puts” others out of a room (5:40) so he and his closest can be alone with the child.

Some people experienced with crowd management issues might consider Jesus’ crowd control demonstrations a greater miracle than raising the dead.

Awakenings from “sleep”

Jairus means “he enlightens/sees” or “he awakens”. “Coincidentally” the Elisha story twice uses “awakening” imagery in relation to the resurrection of the Shunammite’s son:

Now Gehazi went on ahead of them, and laid the staff on the face of the child; but there was neither voice nor hearing. Therefore he . . . told him, saying, “The child has not awakened.” And when Elisha came into the house, there was the child, lying dead on his bed. . . . then the child opened his eyes.(2 Kings 4.31-35)

Mark has employed the same image not only by his choice of the name “Jairus” but explicitly in the narrative itself:

When he [Jesus] came in he said to them, “ . . . The child is not dead, but sleeping.(5:39)

When Jesus says that Jairus’ daughter is sleeping and not dead he is mocked. That has led some who read the story literally to wonder if Jesus could recognize that the girl was merely in a coma. But surely it is obvious that Jesus is saying that to him death is but a sleep from which anyone he wills will awaken. The parabolic meaning of this story is further suggested by the artificiality of the symbolic number and chiastic structure linking this to the story of the bleeding woman.

If Jairus, the father of the girl raised from the dead, means “Enlightened/Awakened”, and a central theme of that miracle was the blindness of all who knew the one raised (apart from Jesus and his three inner disciples), then are we being overly observant to wonder if the next foreign word that is used means “Be Opened”, or “See” — Ephphatha?

Is not “Mark” or the author of the Gospel drawing special attention to the need for readers to Understand, See, Be Enlightened, Awakened — the very message that Jesus was at pains to try to teach repeatedly to his disciples?

Symbolism and artifice do not prove nonhistoricity, of course. But if we have a story that is so rich in symbolism and artifice and little else, what reason do we have to assume its content’s historicity?


The story concerns the ruler of a synagogue. Archaeologists have uncovered no remains of synagogues in Galilee from the mid first century c.e. For recent research on the famous Capernaum synagogue see S. Loffreda’s article Coins from the Synagogue of Capharnaum.

Steve Carr (2004) points out that Mark 5:22 speaks of multiple synagogue rulers.

“One of the rulers of the synagogue.” Diaspora synagogues may sometimes have had more than ruler, as at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:15), but Palestinian synagogues normally had only one. Matthew 9:18, drops this phrase. (From Michael Turton’s commentary.)

Purpose of the story

Is there any evidence that Mark is “recording” this story because he wants to inform readers of what “really happened”? There is so much “craft and artifice” to the story (cf also the note on the “uncharacteristic control of crowds” above) that this seems highly unlikely:

  • although Jairus was a well known name its meaning and use in this context seems too convenient;
  • symbolic meanings and artificial presentation dominate the story: the story is about a 12 year old girl and carefully brackets another story of a woman haemorrhaging for 12 years; the whole point of this and similar miracles in the gospels is to portray Jesus as having power over death; — See above for more detailed discussion of this.
  • since the author is writing in Greek all that Jesus said it is surely “quaint” that in this instance he chooses to include the Aramaic words used by Jesus to perform the miracle of raising the child from the dead: “Talitha cumi”. This surely smacks of the introduction of a kind of “magic words” for literary effect;
  • the story of a healing of a Jewish girl and woman is paired with a story of a healing of the demoniac in a gentile area (5:1-20) – a coupling device regularly used by Mark to illustrate that Jesus’ message is for both Jew and Gentile (cf 5:30-44 with 8:1-10), as pointed out by Kelber (1979). Compare Matthew and Luke who place Jesus’ miracles among the Jews only, reserving miracles among gentiles to the time of the church;
  • Kelber’s observation is, I think, pertinent (my emphasis):
    We saw Jesus proceeding from what turned out to be the Jewish side of the lake. On his arrival at the Gentile side he performed the most massive exorcism ever — as if to cleanse the Gentile land altogether. Then we observed him returning to the Jewish side and performing his greatest miracle ever — the resurrection of Jairus’s daughter. There is a logic to these crossings and to the events before and after them. It is not the logic of a break with the Jewish side and an unswerving pull toward the Gentiles. Rather it is a logic which embraces both sides of the lake. The Jewish and the Gentile land are sanctioned, as if both belonged to the Kingdom of God. (p. 33)
  • the story is one of a chain that are part of Mark’s plan to portray Jesus’ intent to hide his identity (5:43) until the time for his death (14:62).

There are seemingly many reasons on the table to account for this miracle narrative without having to assume, without any evidence, that the intent was to report an historical event. There is another possible reason motivating the author to write this story the way he did:

“Those with him” are given access to the mysteries

Maurice Casey treats the narrative of three companions as grounds for believing that one of those characters must have been truly present at a real event and passed on the account of what happened. Few children are as naive as that in relation to their stories. If consistency is a virtue, then should we not reason that the transfiguration was also passed on by an eyewitness from among the same three who, alone of the twelve, witnessed that event, too? Perhaps we could imagine a rational explanation along the lines of the sun being behind Jesus and the disciples being partly blinded by that when they tried to look at him. And having fasted at high altitude they were open to other auditory and hallucinatory experiences.

Or is it simpler to think, as does Rick Strelan, that the author is seeking to characterize an inner band of disciples to be like angelic watchers being given access to secret mysteries, so secret they involve even some danger. So three times before the Passion Narrative Jesus took Peter, James and John “with him” in order to give these chief watchers access to the mysteries not available to all.

1. The Raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:35-43).

These three disciples are repeatedly designated as “those with him” in this scene, emphasizing their special status as they, alone, are permitted to follow him to the room where the mystery is to be revealed. It is further emphasized that no-one else was allowed to follow them. “The mystery is that of death and that of a 12-year-old girl who was unclean socially and ritually and highly ‘dangerous’. “As the legendary watcher-angels are in the presence of the Holy One, so the appointed watchers of Jesus are granted permission to be in Jesus’ presence.”

2. The Tranfiguration (Mark 9:2-8)

As indicated above, Mark’s audience may well have understood this scene to be Mount Hermon of the Watcher legend.

3. Revelation (Mark 13)

Why would anyone make it up?

Purpose does not in itself mean the story is not historical. But when we see other evidence for the origins of the story, seeing indications of purposes other than “simple reporting” helps us understand the larger picture of what the author was doing when he constructed his narratives. It certainly answers the question, “Why would anyone make it up?”

So we have multiple possibilities for motive and a visible means of planning the structure and details of the fabrication, and suspicious signs of anachronisms and unrealistic detail (even apart from the miracle).

If against all this we wish to suggest the narrative is historical because of the phonetic transmission of the Aramaic words, “Get up”, would we not be reasonable to agree with Robert Funk who said that words spoken, “Girl, get up!” are not distinctively memorable and do not consist of the sort of phrase that would be transmitted verbatim through multiple agents in the re-telling. (Michael Turton’s commentary)

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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “Reasons to entertain a smidgen of doubt about Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus”

  1. Maurice Casey’s argument as outlined on page 267 of his book is that people knew that Elijah/Elisha cured people ,and they were prophets.

    They knew that Jesus was a prophet, so that is why they turned to him in expectation of cures.

    And even Casey trashes miracle stories if it is blatantly obvious even to him that they come from the LXX.

    So why the double standards of Casey? Why does he trash Luke’s account of the widow of Nain, but not Mark’s account of Jairus?

    Because the book is not a work of scholarship.

    1. Right. And now we have two mainstream, ‘critical’ scholars working on, or intending to write, a book to discredit Jesus mythicism, both of whom have shown a generous helping of naivete, special pleading and questionable scholarship (which may be what it takes to undertake such a task). What are the odds we’ll get anything half decent from either of them?

      Thanks to Neil for a very nice post.

      By the way, has anyone heard whether McGrath has truly decided not to further review my book on the Matrix?

      1. McGrath did assure one sceptic on his blog that he will indeed complete the whole book. He has had time to review every series of lengthy tv programs, he says, so he seems to imply he has the ability to do mindless things over long spans of time. Unlike most academics I know personally he doesn’t seem overly busy with academic work and he is now back where he can resume posting his usual half dozen or so posts daily, so I expect he will pull out his pre-prepared anti mythicist diatribes and see how he can fit random references from pages in your book into them soon enough.

  2. 1.John Marsh “St. John” Pelican London 1968 pages 236-7
    With reference to g”John” 4. 46ff

    “The present story is unmistakably like that in the synoptics of the healing of the centurion’s servant……
    The following exigisis [omitted] will therefore assume that John is retelling the story of the healing of the centurion’s “boy”, whether son or servant”.

    2. Story told about Rabbi [therefore post Jewish War of 66-73 CE] Hanina ben Dosa, student of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai [mid first century to early second century]
    or, in other words, after the purported time of JC but prior to the probable writing of any of the gospels and therefore another possible template for the healing stories with their variatins in the 4 canonical gospels.

    “Healings through Prayer

    Our rabbis say, once upon a time Rabban Gamliel’s son got sick. He
    sent two men of learning to Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa to beg him mercy from
    God concerning him. He saw them coming and went to a room upstairs and
    asked mercy from God concerning him. When he had come back down he said
    to them, “Go, the fever has left him.” They said to him, “What? Are
    you a prophet?” He said, “I am not a prophet nor am I the son of a
    prophet. But this I have received from tradition: if my prayer of
    intercession flows unhesitatingly from my mouth, I know it will be
    answered, and if not, I know it will be rejected.” They sat down and
    wrote and determined exactly the moment he said this, and when they came
    back to Rabban Gamliel he said to them, “By the Temple service! You are
    neither too early nor too late but this is what happened: in that
    moment the fever left him and he asked for water!”

    [Source: http://dir.groups.yahoo.com/group/AncientBibleHistory/message/21989?var=1
    I originally got the ben Dosa story from some book but could find my notes, this was from a quick web search, the site has a few other parallels as well which I haven’t checked out]

    3. Note the emphasis on ben Dosa able to heal from a distance viz [from above]:
    “When he had come back down he said to them, “Go, the fever has left him …”

    Which can be compared to “John’s” :
    4.49 – “Go the fever has left him…” and 4.52 “So he asked them the hour when he began to mend and they said to him
    ‘yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him. The father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him ‘Your son will live'”

  3. Is it possible that the synagogues part was put in later? Rather than Matthew dropping the reference to synagogues, maybe the phrase wasn’t added when to Matthew when it was added to Mark? I mean, if synagogues didn’t exist, wouldn’t it need to be added later?

    More generally, is it possible that Mark was created in a stratified way over the years?

      1. “One of the rulers of the synagogue.” Diaspora synagogues may sometimes have had more than ruler, as at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:15), but Palestinian synagogues normally had only one. Matthew 9:18, drops this phrase.

        1. Of course. I was reading a bodgie translation online and missed that. Have been thinking about the many changes Matthew makes to Mark’s story, and its position in the narrative, and may decide to do a post discussing my thoughts on this. It will include, perhaps, a suggestion for why Matthew omitted the synagogue reference and other details. I have found in other cases where Matthew changes Mark he does so to convey a fairly transparent theological interest.

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