Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus

The accounts in the gospels of Jesus healing lepers are not as straightforward as they might appear at first glance.

It seems that there are only two accounts of such healings in the gospels. The earliest occurs in Mark (1.40-45). Matthew (8.2-4), Luke (5.12-15) and the Egerton Gospel (2.1-4) reproduce this account with relatively minor changes.

The second account is found only in Luke's Gospel (17.11-19). But comparison with the others indicates that the author of this gospel may have reproduced not a different account, but an elaboration of the original. 

Similarly, the Egerton Gospel healing resembles the Markan account in some ways:

Just then a leper comes up to him and says, "Teacher, Jesus, in wandering around with lepers and eating with them in the inn, I became a leper myself. If you want to, I'll be made clean."

The master said to him, "Okay - you're clean!"

And at once the leprosy vanished from him . Jesus says to him, "Go at once and have the priests examine you. Then offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded - and no more sinning." [1]

Another complication is that the Greek word lepros, usually translated as "leprosy" in older versions of the gospels, can mean any skin disease at all. The wider use of the word derives from the Hebrew Scriptures. The Hebrew word was translated as lepra in the Greek version (the Septuagint) of the Old Testament. It covers a wide variety of illnesses as well as mold on cloth or on the wall of a house. It can also refer to psoriasis, ringworm and other skin ailments.

Many maintain that the gospels introduce stories to support the claim by the early Church that Jesus was the Messiah. If this is true, it may be that these accounts of healing serve that purpose. Where this happens in the gospels their historical worth is reduced, if only because an ulterior motive is introduced. P Illingworth writes that at the time Jesus moved around the Palestine countryside ...

The supernatural cleansing of lepers was ... expected as one of the signs of the Messianic age. [2]

If so, this would fit the mention of Jesus' healings to messengers from John the Baptist (Matthew 11.2-6; Luke 7.22).

An important aspect to these healings was that anyone with a skin disease (whether leprosy or not) was considered unclean. They would not have been allowed to carry out their religious obligations. A priest would certify a person clean and then allow sacrifice to be made. For Jesus to declare a person clean was to usurp the priestly role, which may explain why he is portrayed as telling the healed to report to a priest.

It may be difficult for people today to understand fully the impact of uncleanness on a person in Palestine during the first century. It was not that he or she was merely excluded from going to church. There was no distinction between secular and sacred as there is today. So the person was in effect excluded from respectable society. An unclean person was relegated to a sort of underclass. Anyone who touched him or her would themselves have been made unclean.

The modern mind tends to seek for an explanation of these healings. We want to know if this really happened as a matter of good history. If Jesus stimulated some sort of self-healing process, we need to know that. And if he superceded natural laws, contrary to our understanding of how the world works, we need to know for sure. For if he did perform a miracle healing of leprosy, we might have to change the way we think the universe operates.

Unfortunately, the gospels don't allow an assured answer.

Perhaps one way ahead is to appreciate exactly what leprosy is. It's technical name is Hansen's Disease. Hansen discovered the cause of leprosy in 1873. It turns out to result from infection by a bacterium which is highly resistant to treatment. Men get it more easily than women, and Europeans tend to get a type more severe than that found elsewhere.

The leprosy bacterium gets into the skin through contact. Sulphone drugs were used to treat it around 1940. They controlled rather than killed the bacterium. Leprosy is now resistant to this class of drug.

Treatment is now multi-drug, using blister packs which apply the drug combinations to each skin lesion. The number of sufferers has been falling in recent years. One estimate is that around two million people worldwide have leprosy. It affects many children. 

The implication of the above is that if those mentioned in the gospel had leprosy, Jesus would have had to kill the bacterium and restore damaged nerves and blood vessels. In the worst cases he would also have had to restore mutilated limbs and perhaps also the blindness which often results from leprosy.
[1] The Complete Gospels, Ed. R J Miller, Polebridge Press, 1994
[2] Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Intervarsity Press, 1992