The detail which I have excluded from the healing story in Mark 5.25-34
(see also Matthew 9.20-22 and Luke 8.43-48) may be good history. But
it's more likely to be editorial addition by the author of Mark's Gospel.
If some protest about this, my point is that the detail which the
author of Mark has put in, probably to make a theological point, makes
little or no difference to the history, to "what really happened."
Traditionally, we are supposed to regard this as yet another earthy
miracle performed by Jesus. According to this line of thought, Jesus
healed the woman using extra-mortal powers because of his great compassion
and because she showed "faith" by touching his clothes and trusting him to
The details added by the author indicate to me that the above
interpretation could well have been early. That is, when people first
heard the oral version of the event, they sought to give it meaning in
their own way.
But what makes more sense to me is in the light of the kind of thinking
and religion which prevailed in Judaism in Jesus' time. Today we often
don't realise how important was the concept of ritual cleanliness to a
Jew. It could take extreme form.
For example, the Qumran community (which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls)
set aside special areas for menstruating women. They placed great emphasis
on ritual cleanliness. A nearby dam collected and stored water and fed in
through a complicated system of channels and pipes cut in the limestone
into the community buildings. About a dozen miqwaoth or ritual
baths, including some of the largest ever found in Palestinian
excavations, ensured that the Essenes could purify themselves adequately.
A massive pool on the southern side of the complex had two low partitions
to separate the impure descent from the pure ascent.
Amongst ordinary Jews this degree of ritual contamination was not as
strongly stressed. Nevertheless, a bed or chair used by a menstruating
women was considered unclean. Anyone she touched would be unclean for the
rest of the day (Leviticus 15.9).
The main theological point of cleanliness laws related to the presence
of Yahweh in his people. Leviticus 18 forbids a man to have sexual
intercourse with a woman while she was menstruating. The laws also applied
to food. Blood could not be eaten, nor could certain kinds of unclean meat
such as pork. Procedures for cleansing a defiled person were laid down.
The various rites and lengths of impurity were linked to the supposed
severity of defilement. Impurity from contact with an animal carcass
lasted only until the same evening. A woman who gave birth to a girl
remained impure for eighty days. A Jew could not eat with a Gentile
without being contaminated.
The laws of cleanliness are laid down without explanation. Holiness
(the opposite of impurity for the Jews) implied wholeness, freedom from
deformity (Leviticus 21.17-21). Perhaps the laws had something to do with
this aspect of life. But the point is that Jewish people followed the Law
because it was there, not because it made rational sense.
Let's now come back to the woman Jesus healed. Because of her chronic
illness she would have been permanently excluded from worship and
from touching anyone else. She would have been an outcast from society,
almost a non-person.
She could have suspected that her touch might contaminate Jesus. But
perhaps because he taught that we can't be contaminated in that way, she
hoped something would happen. The author stresses that the act
nevertheless needed considerable trust on her part.
Perhaps Jesus performed some sort of miracle, as traditional teaching
would have it. Perhaps the bleeding was psychosomatic and her trust
somehow cured her at a deep level. Who knows for sure? What we can be
reasonably certain about, however, is that one who had been excluded was
Many of the first Christians were probably marginalised in society -
slaves, the poor, prostitutes, tax collectors and the like. Perhaps this
accounts for the survival of this account in the years between the event
and the writing of the Gospels.
My impression is that as the Christian
faith moved from Jewish Christians into the Roman and Persian worlds the
issue of ritual cleanliness became less and less important. The controversy
between Paul of Tarsus and the Jewish Christians over the matter of eating
unclean food illustrates what happened in the early days. But by the time
the Gospels were written down, the emphasis on contamination was much
reduced. None of the Gospel authors makes a great deal out of it - although
it remains something worth reporting on.
I have often wondered why so much
emphasis was placed in the early Jewish-Christian communities on what is now
called the Eucharist. In the early days of Christianity the elaborate
rituals the Churches now usually attach to the Eucharist did not exist. It
was a simple meal, no doubt with theological meaning harking back to the
last supper and the death of Jesus.
But the meals almost certainly also
made the point that just as Jesus ate with "tax collectors and sinners," so
also the Christian fellowship could bar nobody from the community meal on
the grounds of ritual uncleanness.