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
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
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." 
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. 
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
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.
 The Complete Gospels, Ed. R J Miller, Polebridge
 Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Intervarsity Press, 1992