Friday, 22 April 2011

The historical Jesus reconstructed - Part 3: Miracles

Miracles and healings in Kfar Nahum

The fishing town of Capernaum (Kfar Nahum) played an important part in Jesus’ ministry. He seems to have lived there for a time, and he is credited with performing several healings there.

When Shabbat came, Yeshua entered the synagogue and taught. In the synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What do you have to do with us, Yeshua of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are - the Holy One of God’. Yeshua rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent and come out of him!’. The unclean spirit convulsed the man, cried out with a loud voice, and came out of him; and everyone was amazed. (Mk. 1.21-27 etc.)

A typical account of one of Jesus’ exorcisms. The words attributed to the unclean spirit have probably been edited. Likewise, whether or not the healing took place on the Sabbath is debatable: I have recorded several instances of Jesus performing cures on the Sabbath, and it is possible that the motif migrated between different stories.

Yeshua entered the house of Shimeon and Andreas; Yakov and Yohanan were with them. Shimeon’s mother-in-law was lying sick with a fever, and they told Yeshua about her. He came to her, took her by the hand, and lifted her up. The fever left her, and she gave them hospitality. (Mk. 1.29-31 etc.)

The other stories of healings that took place in Capernaum do not involve exorcism. In this narrative, it may be that the presence of James and John (Yakov and Yohanan) is unhistorical, an aside added by the gospel-writer to emphasise their closeness to Jesus.

As he was entering Kfar Nahum, a centurion came forward to Yeshua, beseeching him and saying, ‘Master, my boy is lying at home in terrible distress.’ Yeshua said to him, ‘I will come and heal him.’ The centurion answered him, ‘Master, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my boy will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me, and I say to one of them, “Go,” and he goes, and to another, “Come,” and he comes.’ When Yeshua heard him, he was amazed, and said to his followers, ‘Truly, I say to you, I have not found such faith even in Israel’. To the centurion, he said, ‘Go; let it be it done for you, since you have believed’. And the servant was healed at that very moment. (Mt. 8.5-13 etc.)

‘Boy’ in this narrative may mean either ‘son’ or ‘slave’. Jesus’ surprise at and appreciation of the gentile soldier’s faith has a good chance of being historical.

It was reported that Yeshua was in his house. A large number of people gathered there, until there was no longer enough room for them, not even around the door; and he preached to them. Four men came to him carrying a man who was paralysed. They could not get near to him because of the crowd, and so they took off the roof of his house. When they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralysed man was lying. When Yeshua saw how great their faith was, he said to the paralysed man, ‘My son, your sins are forgiven’. Some lawyers who were sitting nearby began to ask themselves, ‘Why is this man talking like this? This is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’. Yeshua realised what was in their minds, and he said to them, ‘Why are you thinking like this? Which is easier, to say to this man, who is paralysed, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Get up, take up your pallet and walk”? But so that you may know that this man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ - he addressed to the paralytic - ‘I say to you, get up, take up your pallet and go home.’ Straight away, he got up, took up the pallet and went out before their eyes; and they were all amazed, and praised God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’. (Mk. 2.1-12 etc.)

The traditions of Jesus healing the man on the pallet and disputing with the lawyers about his forgiving sins may originally have been separate. It is interesting to note that, once again, it is the faith of the invalid which impresses Jesus and calls forth the cure.

Miracles and healings elsewhere in Galil

A man came up to Yeshua, knelt before him, and said, ‘Teacher, I beg you to attend to my son, for he is my only child. There is a spirit that takes possession of him: he cries out suddenly, and the spirit convulses him until he foams, and shatters him, and refuses to leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.’ Yeshua answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation! How long am I to bear with you? Bring your son here.’ While his son was coming, the demon tore him and convulsed him. Yeshua asked his father, ‘How long has he had this demon?’. His father replied, ‘Since he was a child, and it has often thrown him into fire and into water to kill him. But if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.’ And Yeshua said to him, ‘If you can! Everything is possible to him who believes.’ Thereupon the father cried out and said, ‘I believe: help my unbelief!’. A crowd was gathering rapidly. Yeshua rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You dumb and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again’. The spirit cried out, convulsed the boy terribly, and came out of him. The boy was like a corpse, and most of the people said, ‘He is dead’, but Yeshua took him by the hand and lifted him, and he stood up. (Mk. 9.14-27 etc.)

We start once again with an exorcism story - though, as the next narrative shows, the distinction between exorcisms of evil spirits and ‘normal’ healings could be blurred. Jesus’ indignation at his contemporaries’ lack of faith seems genuine (note again the motif of faith calling forth healing), and comes across in other sayings too.

Yeshua was teaching in one of the synagogues on Shabbat. There was a woman who had had a spirit of sickness for eighteen years: she was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. When Yeshua saw her, he called her to him and said to her, ‘Woman, you are freed from your sickness’. He laid his hands upon her, and immediately she was made straight, and she praised God. But the president of the synagogue was indignant because Yeshua had healed on Shabbat, and he said to the people, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done: come on those days and be healed, and not on Shabbat’. Yeshua replied, ‘You hypocrites! Don’t you all untie your oxen and donkeys from their mangers on Shabbat, and lead them away to water them? This woman is a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years: shouldn’t she be freed from her bond on Shabbat?’ (Lk. 13.10-16)

Yeshua entered the synagogue. There was a man there who had a withered hand, and the lawyers watched him, to see whether he would heal him on Shabbat, so that they could accuse him. Yeshua said to the man with the withered hand, ‘Come here’; and he said to the lawyers, ‘Is it lawful to do good on Shabbat or to do harm, to save life or to kill?’. They said nothing. Yeshua said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand’. The man stretched out his hand, and it was healed. (Mk. 3.1-5 etc.)

Two stories about Jesus healing on the Sabbath. His defences of his actions (and the saying about pulling a sheep out of a well recorded earlier) may go back to a single original saying, and may originally have been spoken in contexts different from the particular healing stories to which they have become attached. Indeed, it may be that one or both of the foregoing healing stories was made up in order to provide a context for a saying that had been transmitted as an independent piece of tradition.

Yeshua and his disciples went to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. Yeshua took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village. He spat on his eyes, laid his hands upon him, and asked him, ‘Do you see anything?’. The man looked up and said, ‘I can see men, but they look like walking trees’. Yeshua again laid his hands upon his eyes. The man looked up, and his sight was restored: he saw everything clearly. (Mk. 8.22-25)

The people brought to Yeshua a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment and begged him to lay his hand upon him. Yeshua took him aside, away from the multitude, put his fingers into his ears, spat on him and touched his tongue; then he looked up to heaven, sighed, and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’ (that is, ‘Be opened’). The man’s ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. (Mk. 7.32-35)

A leper came to Yeshua. He knelt and begged him: ‘If you wish it, you can make me clean.’ Yeshua stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do wish it: be clean’. And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. Yeshua then sent him away, and told him, ‘Go and show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded.’ (Mk. 1.40-44 etc.)

A woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years and could not be healed by any one came up behind Yeshua and touched the fringe of his garment. Immediately her flow of blood ceased, and Yeshua said, ‘Who was it that touched me?’. Kepha said, ‘Master, there are crowds of people all around you who are pressing against you!’. But Yeshua said, ‘Someone touched me: I felt power going out from me.’ When the woman saw that he had realised what had happened, she came, trembling, and fell down in front of him. In front of everyone, she explained why she had touched him, and told them how she been healed straight away. Yeshua said to her, ‘My daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.’ (Mk. 5.25-34 etc.)

A synagogue president called Yair came to Yeshua, fell at his feet, and begged him, saying, ‘My little daughter is nearly dead. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be cured and live’. Yeshua went off with him, but while they were still on their way a man came from the synagogue president’s house and said to the president, ‘Your daughter is dead: do not trouble the teacher any more’. When Yeshua heard him, he replied, ‘Do not be afraid: just believe, and she will be well’. When he arrived at the house, everyone was weeping and wailing for the girl, but Yeshua said, ‘Do not weep: she is not dead, but sleeping’; and they ridiculed him. He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha, cum’ (which means, ‘Get up, little girl’), and the girl straight away got up and walked. Everyone was overcome with amazement. (Mk. 5.22-42 etc.)

A certain man called Eliezer was ill. His sister Miryam sent to Yeshua, saying, ‘Master, your friend is ill’. When Jesus came, he found that Eliezer was already dead. Many of Miryam’s neighbours had come to her house to console her; but when she heard that Yeshua was coming, she went to meet him, and the others followed her. She fell at his feet, saying to him, ‘Master, if you had been here, my brother would not have died’. Yeshua asked her, "Where have you laid him?’. The others said to him, ‘Come and see’. Yeshua wept, and they said, ‘See how he loved him!’. He came to the tomb; it was a cave, and a stone lay upon it. Yeshua said, ‘Take away the stone’. They took away the stone, and Yeshua cried with a loud voice, ‘Eliezer, come out!’. The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Yeshua said to the others, ‘Unbind him and let him go’. (Jn. 11.1-44)

Yeshua came to a town called Nain. A man who had died was being carried away for burial, and when Yeshua saw his mother, he had pity on her, and said, ‘Do not weep’. He came and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. ‘Young man,’ he said, ‘I say to you, arise’. The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Yeshua gave him to his mother. Everyone was seized with awe, and they praised God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us!’ and ‘God has visited his people!’. (Lk. 7.11-16)

Of all the foregoing three stories, this one is perhaps most likely to be unhistorical, in part because of its somewhat sensational nature, in part because it appears only in Luke, and in part because in its original form it seems to have been influenced by a story about the prophet Elijah recounted in the Old Testament. Many scholars who are sceptical of the historical value of John would say that the previous story is dubious too, and indeed the details of the tomb and the graveclothes (if nothing else) appear to have been added to emphasise the miraculous nature of Jesus' action. The people’s identification of Jesus as a prophet is likely to reflect the interpretation that was placed on his ministry by many of his contemporaries.

Miracles and healings outside Galil

Yeshua came to Gerasa, and there came to meet him a man with an unclean spirit who lived among the tombs. No-one could bind him any more, even with a chain: he had often been bound with fetters and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart and broke the fetters in pieces, and no-one had the strength to subdue him. Day and night, he constantly cried out among the tombs and on the mountains, and bruised himself with stones. When he saw Yeshua from afar, he ran and fell down before him, and Yeshua said, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’. He cried out with a loud voice and said, ‘What have you to do with me, Yeshua, Son of the most high God? I beg you in God’s name, do not torment me!’. Yeshua asked him, ‘What is your name?’. He replied, ‘My name is Legion, for we are many’, and they begged him anxiously not to send them out of the country. But he did so; and the unclean spirits left the man. (Mk. 5.1-15 etc.)

In the gospels, this story has become entangled with a strange and probably unhistorical tradition about Jesus sending some demons into a herd of pigs (the famous ‘Gadarene swine’). As reproduced here, however, it is probably historically based, though the words of the evil spirits, which bestow on Jesus the ‘Son of God’ title that was so important to the early Church, are likely to be editorial.

Miracles and healings in Jerusalem and on the way there

On the way to Jerusalem, Yeshua passed through the border lands between Galil and Samaria. As he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and shouted to him, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us’. When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests’, and as they went off they were cleansed. (Lk. 17.11-14)

Yeshua came to Jericho with his disciples; and as he was leaving the city in the midst of a great crowd, Bar Timay, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Yeshua of Nazareth who was passing, he began to cry out, ‘Yeshua, Son of David, have mercy on me!’. Many people rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he cried out all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’. Yeshua stopped and said, ‘Call him here’. And they called the blind man to him, saying, ‘Take heart and get up: he is calling you’. He threw off his cloak, sprang up and came to Yeshua. Yeshua said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’. The blind man said to him, ‘Master, let me have my sight back’. Yeshua said to him, ‘Go on your way; your faith has healed you’; and immediately he recovered his sight. (Mk. 10.46-52 etc.)

‘Son of David’ is a slightly anomalous title in early Christian literature, and it is likely that it goes back to Jesus’ lifetime. It has clear Messianic overtones. Note again the motif of faith being responsible for the sick person’s healing.

In Jerusalem by the sheep gate, there is a pool, called Bethesda in Hebrew, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids - people who were blind, lame and paralysed. One man was there who had been ill for 38 years. When Yeshua saw him lying there, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’. The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no-one to put me in the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way down there, someone else always goes in ahead of me.’ Yeshua said to him, ‘Get up, pick up your mat and walk’. At once, the man was cured, and he picked up his mat and began to walk. (Jn. 5.2-9)

As Yeshua went on his way, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. He spat on the ground and made clay from the spittle, then put the clay on the man’s eyes. ‘Go,’ he said, ‘and wash yourself in the pool of Siloam’. The man went and washed himself, and came back seeing. (Jn. 9.1-7)

Saying about exorcisms

‘Are grapes harvested from thorns, or figs from thistles? Every good tree bears good fruit, but every bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree good fruit.’ (Mt. 7.16-18 etc.)

‘No-one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man - then he can plunder his house.’ (Mk. 3.27 etc.)

‘Truly, I say to you, men will be forgiven all their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.’ (Mk. 3.28f etc.)

The preceding sayings seem to have been said by Jesus when accused of casting out demons by the power of Satan. The second is perhaps particularly interesting for its eschatological flavour, implying as it may do that Satan has now been bound with the advent of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Yohanan said, ‘Master, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he does not follow with us’. But Yeshua said to him, ‘Do not forbid him; for he that is not against you is for you’. (Mk. 9.38-40 etc.)

‘When an unclean spirit has gone out of a man, it passes through deserts seeking rest, and if it finds none it says, “I will return to the house which I came from”. When it returns, it finds it swept and tidied, and it brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they go in and make their home there, and the man ends up in a worse state than he was in to begin with.’ (Mt. 12.43-45 etc.)

The desert is the abode of demons in the OT. The idea is traceable back to ancient Mesopotamian texts.