Creativity with the Name of Jesus the Healer in the Gospel of Mark

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by Neil Godfrey

(Church converted to night club and named The Healer)

Classicist John Moles presents a case for the Gospels making creative use of the name of Jesus in order to drive home its unique status as the power that tends, cleanses, heals and saves. In the Gospel of Mark — the portion of his Histos article I am addressing in this post — this creative play on the name of Jesus culminates in the final crucifixion and resurrection scenes where the name emerges as a saving healing power of cosmic proportions.

John Moles is examining the common classical use of literary puns as found in early Christian literature. He draws our attention to the meaning of the name of Jesus itself (the name itself, not the person) and how this is played with for theological purposes by literary composers.

I have given my reasons for thinking of the Gospels as something akin to parabolic or metaphorical narratives. Jesus and the disciples, especially in the Gospel of Mark, can be read very easily as two-dimensional ciphers to dramatize theological lessons. (I am aware that much secular ancient literature was not strong on building three-dimensional characters but the Gospels, I believe, go beyond this.) So this article by John Moles has my mind racing across those earlier thoughts. What was in the minds of the evangelists? Was “Mark” imagining he was writing about a real person or was he creating a character to represent a theological name of powerful import to the faithful? Now this is not of itself a mythicist argument. (And John Moles himself is definitely not a mythicist.) The same question could well be raised of an author who was writing in response to a faith that in other ways was derived directly from a historical person, but for whom that historical person was lost and replaced by a “Christ of faith” idea. If any conclusions are to be drawn either way then they must be led by other evidence in addition to, or that otherwise embraces any argument in relation to, the literary one. So let’s just focus on the nature of the literary qualities in relation to the name of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark as presented in his fascinating article.

In the following I will add my own comments in italics to my notes from Moles’ article. My own notes will probably often veer from the single theme Moles adheres to in his article.

The name of Jesus is announced in the opening sentence:

1:1   Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησου Χριστοῦ.
1:1   the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ

The name appears again three times before his first act of “healing” the man with the unclean spirit in the synagogue of Capernaum. Is there also significance that when Jesus is named it is as one who is “coming” and then “calling” others to follow?

1:9. And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.

1:14. Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God

1:17. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.

Moles writes of the first “healing” that it of

the man with ‘an unclean spirit’ (23), who hails Jesus as ‘Jesus the Nazarene’ (24) (remarkably and significantly, no introduction is needed), and is rebuked by the named Jesus (25). The ‘unclean spirit’ (26) departs and the people commend Jesus’ new and authoritative teaching, including his authority over ‘unclean spirits’ (27). (my bold)

As pointed out in my previous post one of the puns on the name Jesus (to the Greek a name meaning Healer) are words related to “cleansing” (ἀκαθάρτῳ  / katharizo).

I would also think that the name of the setting, Capernaum, related to the word “comfort”, is of poignant significance — especially so given that another one of the punning words expresses the idea of “tending”. Capernaum may not be a Greek name but Mark does appear to have been at least bilingual with a knowledge of Aramaic (and Latin, too?) as well as Greek.

21And they went into Capernaum; and straightway on the sabbath day he entered into the synagogue, and taught.

22And they were astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one that had authority, and not as the scribes.

23And there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean ( ἀκαθάρτῳ ) spirit; and he cried out,

24Saying, Let us alone; what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? art thou come to destroy us? I know thee who thou art, the Holy One of God.

25And Jesus rebuked him, saying, Hold thy peace, and come out of him.

26And when the unclean ( ἀκαθάρτῳ ) spirit had torn him, and cried with a loud voice, he came out of him.

27And they were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? what new doctrine is this? for with authority commandeth he even the unclean ( ἀκαθάρτῳ ) spirits, and they do obey him.

After this,

Several healings follow, one group of which is described in terms of ‘tending’ (34), while ‘cleansing’ is used of the man with a skin-disease (40, 41, 42, 44). The sequence already illustrates how healing often involves other areas, notably those of purity and impurity. In the subsequent healing of the paralytic (2.1– 12), Jesus is twice named (5, 8), though there is no (other) significant vocabulary.

So what does this mean to a student of classical literature?

Many Classicists nowadays, I think, would already feel that Mark’s dramatic and emphatic foregrounding of Jesus’ ‘healing ministry’ is underpinned by the very name of Jesus, which seems to be deployed both strategically (1.1, 9, 14, 17) and locally (1.24–5; 2.5, 8) in a telling way. The logic would be that the combination of Jesus’ much-repeated name, which means ‘healer’, with the lexicon of ‘tending’ and ‘cleanness’ and ‘uncleanness’ effects ‘punning by synonym’, a process further helped by the intrinsic importance attached to names (both of exorcist and demon) in exorcisms, whether Jewish or pagan. Certainly, in Mark, as in the others, use of Jesus’ name increases—sometimes dramatically—in healing contexts. By comparison with Classical texts (with which, as we have seen, Mark has some affinities), such punning would be quite elementary, naive even, by comparison with a text such as Pindar’s Fourth Pythian, which puns in subtle and allusive ways on ‘Jason’ as ‘healer’.

Illness and Sin go hand in glove in the New Testament, and Jesus’ healing applies to sin as much as to the flesh. This is seen in Mark 2 that begins with the healing of the paralytic (the one lowered through the dug-out roof) after Jesus declared his sins forgiven. This scene is followed by Jesus eating with the sinners at the feast thrown by the newly called tax-collector disciple, Levi. In response to the religious critics Jesus called himself a healer:

They that are whole have no need of the healer ( ἰατρός ), but they that are sick (2:17)

John Moles additionally points to assonance and alliteration in the Greek here “reinforcing the link between [Jesus] and [healer]”.

Jesus’ next healing is in connection (twice) with “tending” (therapeuo) the man with the withered hand. Then there is the healing of the man with the “unclean” spirit (Legion — whose demons possess pigs and send them to their deaths). The name Jesus is used to bracket the main healing scene (5:6, 20) and appears at climactic moments before finally being announced to all as having done great things.

The next healing scenario involves the woman with the flow of blood for 12 years and the twelve year old girl raised from apparent death. The cluster of puns and their meaningful relationships is described by Moles:

In the healings of Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the flow of blood (5.22–33), Jairus requests that his daughter ‘be saved’ (23), the woman has ‘suffered many things by many healers’ (26), the verb ἰάομαι and the name Jesus are juxtaposed (29–30), and there is emphasis on the woman’s ‘being saved’ (28, 34) and being ‘in sound health [ὑγιής, 34] from her scourge’. There is significant overlap between ‘healing’ and ‘saving’. The juxtaposition of the verb ἰάομαι and the name Ἰησοῦς, proximity of cognate noun (ἰατρῶν), and proximity of alternative etymology (‘saved’) are telling. The punning on Ἰησοῦς and ἰάομαι is clear. The named (36) Jesus’ then ‘raises up’ (41–42) Jairus’ apparently dead daughter. Since both these episodes involve questions about ‘cleanness’ and ‘uncleanness’, and since Ἰησοῦς here appears, etymologically, both as ‘saviour’ ~ ‘healer’ and as ‘healer’ simplex, there is some sense, at least just below the surface, that the ‘healing’ done by Ἰησοῦς transcends, or sublates, the complex problematics of the Jewish purity laws. This sense becomes explicit when, in chapter , Jesus (unnamed) is arrestingly described as ‘making all foods clean’ (7.19).

There follow other healing episodes associating Jesus with “tending” “cleansing” or removing the “unclean”, with “saving” in the healing sense, especially with the healing of Bartimaeus during which Jesus is named five times and in which the man’s faith heals him. But there is no special punning vocabulary with every mention of Jesus in healing scenes.

All this, Moles concludes,

seemingly prepares for the next item (which, if so, illustrates Mark’s unobtrusive literary skill).

Up till now Mark has often punned on the name Jesus (= ‘healer’ in Greek) and “healing/healer”. “Saving” has been used regularly in the healing application, too, and once even when he raised Jairus’ daughter from death:

Now on the cross scoffers shout (chapter 15):

30Save thyself, and come down from the cross.

31Likewise also the chief priests mocking said among themselves with the scribes, He saved others; himself he cannot save.

One recollects where near the beginning Jesus said:

They that are whole have no need of the healer ( ἰατρός ), but they that are sick (2:17)

So at this dramatic moment we have Jesus, Son of God, bearing the name meaning in Greek “The Healer” and in Hebrew “Yah (God) saves”, alone and apparently cut off from God/Yah who does not save him even when he cries out.

Then Jesus cries out and onlookers think he is calling for Elijah — another pun, as Moles explains:

  1. Elijah also raised people, in particular (like Jesus) one from the dead
  2. Elijah had functioned as “an anticipatory paradigm” for Jesus by likewise being martyred as John the Baptist
  3. Elijah, meaning Yah is God, is cognate with the name Jesus.
  4. The cry for help, a line from Psalm 22, is spoken in Aramaic and the word for God here is “eloi” — another pun on Elijah (in Greek Elias) — so even his cry for help is interpreted as a cry for Elijah. (Mark also uses the Greek for God which also is punned against the name of Jesus.)

The effect of this intense and varied punning is to ratchet up the identity and theodicean problems of the crucifixion to the very highest pitch. Is ‘Yahweh’ ‘God’? Does he ‘help’? Does he ‘save’? Can the crucified ‘Jesus’ bring/be the ‘salvation’ of ‘Yahweh’?

But of course all these problematics are resolved by the wider Christian narrative. Practising Christians who use Mark already know, and new readers who read Mark to the end learn, that the horrible mockery is refuted by the resurrection . . . , when Jesus ‘rose’ (. . . ἠγέρθη), just as some of those he himself ‘saved’ in ‘healing’ ‘rose’ or ‘were raised’ by him . . . . , and in some cases from death or effective death. So Jesus’ resurrection is the greatest ‘healing’ of all, the ‘healing’ of death itself. Mark’s soteriology of the crucifixion is rammed home by a whole series of significant name plays.

I have sometimes wondered if at the Passion scenes “Mark” was also figuratively and literally reversing the sick-healer motif that was constructed in the Gospel up till this point.

Jesus is blinded (blindfolded),

and bound (unable to move all his limbs freely),

and spat upon (made unclean like a leper),

and dies — by “exiting” his spirit (along with the one that possessed him at baptism?) with a shout as the demons had once left their bodies.

Is he not here taking on all the sins, the diseases, of those he once healed and tended? And as Moles draws out, he also is figuratively identified with John the Baptist, or at least John the Baptist is found to be the one who announced — in deed as well as in word — the “coming one”. (Theologically John surely is shown in so many ways to be the representative of the Law and the Prophets.)

As I covered in my previous post, Moles further sees stylistic functionality in Mark’s “over-use” of the present tense. The healing power of Jesus is an ever-present phenomenon.

Given the way Mark has played with the name of Jesus the “healer” as the one who stands against all “the ills” of the world as they were understood and symbolized in the Gospel, Moles speaks of “Jesusology” rather than Mark’s “Christology” — stressing he is using it in a nonpejorative sense.

Moles’ discussion of the punning on the name of Jesus begins with the Gospel of Mark. That was the first gospel written. Others followed and built upon what Mark had started, sometimes taking it in different directions, including by means of variant puns As I have the opportunity I may discuss some of these in future posts, too, especially if I can see I would like to add a few reflections of my own into the mix.

Moles concludes his discussion of puns on the name Jesus in Mark as follows:

Although the Greek of Mark, himself apparently bilingual in Greek and Aramaic and perhaps even also Latin-speaking, is certainly rough enough, and is apparently sometimes technically distorted by imperfect efforts to render Aramaic into Greek and by the sometimes inappropriate incursions of Latinisms, its creativity qua Greek should also be recognised, and Mark’s deployment and exploitation of the Ἰησοῦς-ἰάομαι pun (and of related puns) is an excellent example of this. There are marked felicities (as noted) in this Gospel’s literary handling and disposition of this material, too.

The full import of Moles’ thesis is best appreciated by viewing it across all the Gospels and Acts. The full article by John Moles is available here.

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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “Creativity with the Name of Jesus the Healer in the Gospel of Mark”

  1. Perhaps pertinent to this matter of “Jesus” the healer:

    Salles-Dabadie, in his “Recherches sur Simon le Mage,” suggests that Simon of Samaria may have been a physician before he ventured into “magic”. The reason: The extant fragments of Simon’s Great Announcement (Apophasis Megale) contain a curiously detailed section on the human body drawn from the De Alimento of Hippocrates. For example:

    And the air ducts, which we said were channels for breath, embracing the bladder on either side in the region of the pelvis, are united at the great duct which is called the dorsal aorta.

    The Apophasis uses the information from Hippocrates as part of an allegorical explanation of the Garden of Eden. The Garden, according to Simon, is an allegory for the womb.

    As Salles-Dabadie sees it, Simon’s use of a medical writing makes better sense if the magician was drawing on information with which he was already otherwise familiar. He says that at that epoch medical studies willingly made incursions into philosophy, but that there is no other example of a metaphysic utilizing medical data.

    I would add that there are other examples too in antiquity of physicians who upgraded from healing bodies to healing souls (e.g., Alexander of Abonoteichus). I don’t know of any where the trajectory went in the reverse direction. In any case, I am tentatively adding Salles-Dabadie’s suggestion to my gMark-is-an-allegory-about-Simon theory. There may be more than meets the eye behind the use of the proverb: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” And: “Physician, Heal yourself!”

    1. I am not rejecting your thesis, but no doubt you agree it is worth putting to the test. There was a time when Luke was believed to have been a physician because of the supposed frequency of uniquely medical terms in his works.

      What do you see as the weakest elements of your thesis?

      1. Regarding the supposedly unique medical terms in Luke’s works: Henry J. Cadbury demonstrated that terms in question were not uniquely medical. He showed that the supposedly technical medical terms were also widely used in non-medical literature of the time. So, yes, even if the Apophasis Megale passage displays literary dependence on the writing of Hippocrates, it still remains to be seen whether the terms and information mined there also turn up in non-medical literature of the time. Not a project I care to undertake!

        As for the weakest elements of my Simonian theory: There are enough of them but their weakness, as I see it, derives in large part from one key problem: The absence in the extant record of a clear instance of the kind of succinct myth that I posit. There is no clear instance of a simple myth about a divine Son of God who descended to this world for a few hours to trick its princes into wrongfully crucifying him by transforming his appearance and surreptitiously switching places with a failed Jewish Messiah being led out by the Romans for crucifixion.

        There are a number of reasons to think that such a myth did exist. The double transformation of Simon Kyrenaios and Jesus, for instance, in the passion account that Irenaeus attributes to Basilides. And the curious release of Jesus Barabbas (Son of the Father) during the passion account. And Paul’s neglect not only of a healing, preaching, miracle-working Jesus, but also of any mention of passion incidents that occurred before the meeting with Simon Kyrenaios: no crowning with thorns, or being clothed in purple, or abandonment by disciples, or denial by Peter, or loss of a popularity contest to Barabbas.

        There is also the Vision of Isaiah (i.e., chapters 6 -11 of the Ascension of Isaiah) in which the Father’s command to his Son (10:8-12) is to descend, fool the spirit princes of the world and judge them. No command to heal, preach, or to gather disciples. I am aware that the original version of the Ascension is not extant. But it is hard to see why, if the Father commanded healing, preaching, and miracle-working in the original text, those commands would have been left out by those who subsequently corrupted it.

        And the Ascension of Isaiah, in fact, makes a decent candidate for another reason. Paul appears to quote it in 1 Corinthians immediately after relating how the rulers of this age ignorantly crucified the Lord of glory:

        But AS IT IS WRITTEN, “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the heart of man, what God has prepared for those who love him”. (1 Cor. 2:9)

        The best match by far for this verse, quoted by Paul as Scripture, is in the Slavonic and Latin versions of the Ascension of Isaiah (11:34). 1 Corinthians is thus, I contend, the earliest indication of the existence of the Ascension of Isaiah. The verse is missing from the Ascension’s Greek version, but there is a plausible reason for its deletion: The verse was controversial. Hegesippus says it contains “empty words” and that “those who say them are liars” since, according to him, the holy scriptures only say ‘Blessed are your eyes because they see and your ears because they hear” (Mt. 13:16).It seems, then, that either Hippolytus did not know the Ascension of Isaiah or did not accept it as Scripture. And, assuming he knew 1 Corinthians, for him Paul must have been one of the liars who quoted the verse as Scripture.

        But until such time as unmistakable proof of the succinct myth turns up, the similarities I see between gMark on the one hand and what is known about Simon’s life and teaching on the other can never be anything more than speculative. IF a manuscript should turn up with the myth in it—-say, a manuscript with the original text of the Ascension of Isaiah—-then, I think my case that gMark’s Jesus is an allegorical stand-in for Simon becomes stronger. The existence of the succinct myth would break the link between the crucified Son and the healing, teaching, miracle-working Son in the earliest written gospel. And it would demand some kind of explanation for how the second part came to be, and why it was connected to the earlier part. Simon is the only figure named in the early record who claimed to be a new manifestation of the Son who suffered in Judaea. That claim together with all the other confusion of Simon, Paul, and the Son in the early record would, I think, merit that Simon be given frontrunner status.

        1. Was not Luke’s medical association based on scattered word choices while the Great Announcement specifically called upon technical medical analogies.

          The apparent options are tantalizing. I want to revisit the Ascension of Isaiah again.

          1. The Rev. Robert Taylor, in his “Diegesis” (early 1800s, numerous reprintings), concludes that Luke’s identification as someone with a medical background indicates that he was a Therapeut. The Therapeutae of Egypt were a sect of Judaism known for their focus on healing (thus the persistence of its name in that context), which apparently predated the time of Jesus. They were described by Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 BCE – 50 CE), someone who was active in the area and during the time Jesus was supposedly the Tom Cruise of his era, drawing crowds to the point of prompting spontaneous parades everywhere he went. Yet Philo apparently was unaware of all this…

  2. Your comment in your introduction reminded me of something:

    “Was “Mark” imagining he was writing about a real person or was he creating a character to represent a theological name of powerful import to the faithful?”

    Mircea Eliade, in his book The Myth of the Eternal Return: or, Cosmos and History (first printing, 1949, in French; translated by William R. Trask of Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), recounts a Romanian tale about a young woman’s suitor, who, a few days before their wedding, was bewitched by an evil fairy who threw him off a cliff to his death. Rushing to his body, his bereaved fiancée spontaneously launched into a beautiful funeral lament. Upon learning of this tale, Eliade was astonished to find it had happened only some 40 years before, and that the former fiancée was still alive! Her account of the situation was that her fiancé simply slipped off a cliff in a rather mundane and ordinary accident. He was mortally injured, but did not die immediately. Upon his death, she participated with the rest of the villagers in customary funeral rites, including the standard ritual lamentations. What is fascinating here is that, when others were told of her memory of the actual incident, which she had both observed and participated in, they discounted and rejected it, stating that the woman’s mind had clearly been twisted by her extreme grief, to the point her memories could not be trusted. Eliade concludes that, for the villagers, “it was the myth that told the truth; the real story was only a falsification.” (pp. 44-46).

    So much for the apologetical claim that eye witnesses would have objected so strenuously to the mytholigizing of a historical Jesus’s life events that no such process of mythologization could possibly have been successful. People believe what they want to believe; that is as true today as thousands of years ago (and not only with regard to religion). No Christian today converted because he intensively researched the extant ancient texts and decided that the evidence for a historical Jesus was overwhelming. It’s all an emotional appeal, and I can’t allow for the primitive and superstitious ancients somehow being credited with being less emotional and more rational than modern, educated people.

  3. The juxtaposition of the verb ἰάομαι and the name Ἰησοῦς, proximity of cognate noun (ἰατρῶν), and proximity of alternative etymology (‘saved’) are telling.

    Another pun involves a Latinism. In the story of the Gerasene demonaic, Mark 5:9, Jesus asks his name. The verse says “He said (lego), ‘Legion (legio) is my name.'” So lego and legio are right next to each other in the text with lego being a word for “speak” and legio meaning “many soldiers”. The Cyclops in The Odyssey is named “Polyphemus” where “poly” means “many” as in “polygon” and “phemus” means “speak of” as in “blasphemy”. Polyphemus is depicted as being naked and Mark 5:15 mentions that Legio is clothed after the exorcism. Polyphemus had sheep and Legio had swine. There are many parallels and reversals between the two tales.

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