The Historical Jesus
Jesus the Healer
If any aspect of the life of Jesus
illustrates the gulf which has opened up between modernity and the traditions of
the Church, it is his healing ministry.
Those on the traditional side of the divide seek to preserve by this means or
that the proposition that Jesus healed people because he was able to tap into
the creative powers of God. In that sense, the gospel accounts are of what we
would today call the miraculous.
On the other side are those who seek to give Jesus pride of place in their
lives. But in doing so they want to place him somewhere in the system of
contemporary knowledge. This system admits large areas of mystery in the
universe. But it also asserts that our world does not allow miracles.
Many assume almost without question that the healings of Jesus were
miraculous. It therefore becomes important to briefly examine what might be
meant by healing as reported in the gospels. Only then does it make sense to go
on and look at specific instances.
The problem of miracles is sometimes avoided in discussions today. One way of
doing this is to describe the unusual as "miraculous". So if a child with a rare
disease today is cured by unusual medical intervention, it is called a
Another type of "miracle" is one in which a cure comes about by mysterious
means. That is, the fact of the cure is undisputed but the "how" of the cure is
unknown. So, for example, there are many well-documented cases of compete and
permanent remission from otherwise fatal cancer. Nobody knows how such
remissions occur. They just "happen" and in that sense are often called
It may be that the accounts of Jesus healing fall into these two categories.
If that is the case, then the only question remaining for those whose mind-set
is modern is, "Is the evidence that these events occurred good history?"
There is, however, a third category. It is that the proposal that healings in
which Jesus was involved happened because he was able to circumvent the usual
ways in which the world works. This used to be termed "overruling the laws of
nature" by those who thought that they knew the rules. More recently it has been
widely acknowledged that the way nature works is more fluid and mysterious than
was once supposed. While many of the rules remain as valid as ever, they have
been superceded by overarching uncertainties.
Whichever of the three broad categories above is selected, they are all
preceded by the historical question. Whatever the nature of the healing events,
did they actually happen?
In considering this question, it's important to recognise that the
descriptions of healings we find in the gospels were not unusual for the times.
So, for example, in the early third century Apollonius of Tyana was credited by
some with healings similar to those of Jesus - including healing the blind, the
lame, the paralysed, women, exorcising demons and even raising a dead girl to
Having said this, long before the first century healing had begun moving away
from religion and miraculous explanations. Works of Hippocrates had been
assembled more than three hundred years earlier in the great library at
Alexandria. By the second century his original writings had been supplemented
and obscured by many pseudo-writings and letters. In contrast to popular
conceptions of ancient medicine, the Hippocratic school taught that disease is a
If an inventory of Jesus' healings is taken from the gospels, they seem to
settle down into four major categories (following J P Meier ).
There are accounts of
- curing crippled or paralysed people;
- curing blindness;
- healing skin disease (not necessarily leprosy);
- restoring hearing or speech;
and a number of other ailments, not always specified - such as
the "fever" of Peter's mother-in-law and the "illness" of the centurion's
servant. I don't here deal with raising people from the dead as healings. These
seem to me to be in entirely another category.
Whatever the nature of the healings ascribed to Jesus, one thing should be
stressed. It is that they cannot all be struck out of the gospels because they
are unusual. To put this another way: if the accounts of Jesus healings are
dismissed as unhistorical, then so must almost all the other material which
makes up what I here call the "bare bones Jesus". However skeletal the bare
historical bones turn out to be, the evidence is as strong for Jesus as a healer
as it is for almost anything else we know about him.
It would take too long to analyse each of the 16 or so healing accounts here.
Instead I go into some detail with a few of them, and then very briefly
summarise the rest.
The Paralysed and the Crippled
Mark 2.1-12: The man let down from the roof This passage bears
signs of two conflated traditions: [a] a healing and [b] a controversy about
forgiving sins. They are stitched together somewhat clumsily. For example, the
Greek text reads literally "They uncovered the roof where he [Jesus] was and dug
it up ..." The author may have been thinking about a tiled roof, while the
earlier tradition had in mind the clay roofing of a Palestinian dwelling.
Some conclude that the controversy is likely to be the later of the two
strands, and that the healing is the earlier. Whatever the case, the healing is
made to appear striking by "... everyone there saw the man get up and walk out
carrying his mat".
Mark 3.1-6: The man healed on the Sabbath
This is one of the accounts of healing which doesn't easily pass the test of
historicity. This is because it's too closely conflated with controversy about
healing people on the Hebrew Sabbath. The latter controversy was certainly a
factor in the life of Jesus. But it was as certainly exaggerated by later
Christian communities, who were in conflict with the current Hebrew authorities.
Nevertheless, this passage tells us for certain that Jesus sometimes
deliberately transgressed the Sabbath commandment. It is backed up by the
historical saying about the Sabbath in Mark 2.27.
A factor which reduces the likelihood of this healing being "what actually
happened" is its similarity with 1 Kings 13.4-6 in the Old Testament. There King
Jeroboam's arm is suddenly paralysed and then healed by "the prophet". Early
Christians (writing well after the fall of Jerusalem in 70) needed to establish
a worthy background in antiquity. The Old Testament proved vital in
demonstrating to the Roman world that they had deep roots in the past and were
not just a group of upstarts .
Mark 10.46-52: Blind Bartimaeus
Signs that various accounts have been stitched together abound in the gospels.
Here, Jesus arrives in Jericho and leaves again in the very next sentence. The
name of the blind man gets duplicated as "son of Timaeus, Bartimaeus". Bar
Timaeus in Hebrew means "son of Timaeus". The word translated "Teacher" is
here Rabboni. This is only found elsewhere in John 20.16 and may be an
indication that part of this passage is quite late.
Because of these and other problems, J P Meier remarks that
Considering the heavy theological freight that the healing of Bartimaeus
carries, we would be naive to treat the story as a videotape replay of an
event ... yet at the same time there is much in the story that points to
primitive tradition ... 
Passages which demonstrate definite discontinuity from the rest of the
gospels may be thought of as more likely to be historical. Apart from Jairus in
Mark 5.22, no names are ever mentioned in healings, even when one would have
been appropriate. This indicates that the Bartimaeus account is more likely to
be good history than not. Similarly, the title "son of David" in this context is
very Hebrew and unusual in this context and to Mark's Gospel as a whole. It is
not the sort of thing later Christians would have inserted.
Early Christians tended to picture Jesus as a king in heaven who would soon
come back to set up the kingdom of God. In this context Jesus as "son of David"
attaches more easily to King Solomon. Meier says that
By the 1st century ad, King
Solomon - who was the only individual reigning monarch to be called Son of
David in the OT - had acquired a reputation in Jewish circles as a great
exorcist and healer. 
This way of defining Jesus is rare in the gospels. This indicates that the
account has its origins in the earliest traditions. It does not match later
Christian theology about the meaning of Jesus.
Like the rest of the gospels, this weight of evidence doesn't add up to
absolute proof of historicity. But it is of sufficient strength to include it in
the body of "bare bones" history.
The above three are drastically abbreviated examples of how the historicity
of the healings of Jesus is dealt with by scholars. Further instances below are
followed by very brief summaries .
John 5.1-9: The Bethzatha Pool The
basic elements of this passage produce reasonably good history. But the detail
about waiting for the movement of the water does not appear in earlier
manuscripts. There are textual indications that the Sabbath controversy part was
Luke 13.10-17: A Crippled Woman The
Sabbath controversy is structurally distinct from the healing account. It can
stand alone. The healing is unique to Luke. In contrast, the healing is too
slight to stand alone as good history.
Mark 8.22-26: The Blind Man at Bethsaida
Neither Matthew nor Luke include this story. It contains signs of editing. It is
very close to Mark 7.32-37 which is almost its twin. It consists of two
stages, which is another indication of heavy editing. Despite this, the core
(verses 22-28) is probably close to an original account.
John 9.1-41; 10.19-21: A Man Born Blind
The last two verses seems to have been split off from the body of the account by
later revisers. John's Gospel (which is probably much later than the others)
tends to heighten the extraordinary elements of the original material more than
the other gospels. The whole passage is crammed with theology. Only verses 6 and
7 survive as anything like history.
Mark 1.40-45: A Man With a Skin Disease
This is another story with a link to the Old Testament - 2 Kings 5.1-9. The
healing corresponds to the Hebrew law about cleansing lepers. The author also
includes one of his favourite themes that Jesus didn't want his special status
made public. This account survives uncertainly and, if taken as historical, then
only in reduced form in verses 40-42.
Luke 17.11-19: The Healing of Ten Lepers
This account occurs only in Luke (though it seems to be a variant of Mark
1.40-45). Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles. There he tells how Philip
successfully visits Samaria (8.4-25), so we know that Luke has some investment
in including the Samaritan here. Hebrews and Samaritans were deadly enemies,
worshipping from different centres. It is highly unlikely that these Samaritans
would have agreed to let Hebrew priests examine them (verse 14). There is no
other evidence that Jesus ever worked amongst Samaritans.
Mark 1.29-31: Healing of Peter's Mother-in-Law
We know from Paul (1 Corinthians 9.5) that Peter was married. There seems no
theological reason for including this story in the larger section about Jesus in
Capernaum. It seems that this is an accurate, if brief, account of something
which actually happened.
Mark 5.25-34: The Woman Who Was Bleeding
This forms part of a larger narrative about the raising of Jairus' daughter from
death. The actual details are improbable to us today, clothed as they are in
what seems to be magic. Only if we are generous does this survive as history,
and then only in very brief form.
Luke 14.1-6: The Man With Dropsy
This is similar to Mark 3.1-6 in context and purpose. Like that, this account
doesn't have the right features to give it the character of good history.
Mark 7.31: The Deaf-mute This story
has no close parallels in the gospels. There are indications that this account
comes from very early tradition. A number of words which occur here occur
nowhere else. Saliva was often thought of as a healing agent in the ancient
world. Similarly, the actions which accompany the healing are unusual. The word
is Aramaic - the language which Jesus spoke and which analysts find lurking
behind the Greek text of the gospels. It is likely that this story reflects an
actual event in the life of Jesus.
 Following A Marginal Jew, Volume 2, 1994
 See the convincing argument for this in Josephus and the New Testament,
Steve Mason, Hendrickson, 2003