Jesus’ cures often involved some sort of physical touch. Although he healed the sick with merely a word on occasion, such was the exception to the rule (cf. Matthew 8:5-13). Rather, the normative practice of both Jesus and his followers involved the laying of hands upon the faithful (Mark 1:31; 41, 7:32-33, 8:23, Luke 4:40, 13:13, cf. Mark 16:18, Acts 19:11, 28:8). Jesus was thus widely known as one who healed with the touch of his hands (Mark 5:23, 7:32, 8:22).
Strange as it might sound to us, many people also believed that touching Jesus’ clothes could affect healing (Mark 3:10, 5:27-30, 6:56, Luke 6:19). In such cases no agency on the part of Jesus was required—power “went out from him,” sometimes without him knowing (cf. Mark 5:30). In the same way, Peter’s shadow, Paul’s napkins, and Elisha’s bones healed illnesses without the direct action of their respective owners (Acts 5:15, 19:12, 2 Kings 13:21).
This raises two questions I’d like to try to answer:
1) How can healing take place apart from the will of the healer? and 2) Why is healing so strongly associated with physical touch?
The God who heals
As to the first question, the critical thing to emphasize is that cures, and deeds of power more generally, were accomplished by God’s spirit through a spiritual vessel, usually a human being (e.g. Jesus, Peter, Paul, etc.). God performed deeds and signs “through Jesus” (Acts 2:22, cf. Acts 10:38, John 3:2, 5:36), “by the hands of Paul” (Acts 19:11), and “through the apostles” (Acts 15:12, cf. 1 Cor 12:8-11).
In conjunction with the patient’s faith then, God’s will alone was efficacious for healing regardless of the spirit’s human vessel (e.g. “your faith has made you well [according to God’s pleasure]”). In other words, it was God’s power and will that brought about healing, not the power and will of the spirit-possessed healer. With a touch, the healer or patient could complete the circuit, but it was God who supplied the current (cf. Mark 6:5).
Sharing the spirit through touch
As to the second question, our modern view of spirits and their interactions with the material world presents a problem. Ancient people did not conceive of spirit as wholly distinct from and wholly independent of the physical world. The two functioned together in somewhat predictable ways. As Dr. Ehrman puts it, spirit was believed to be neither intangible nor immaterial; it was rather a “highly refined material that could not be seen with the eyes.” It was a substance of which even a body could be composed (cf. 1 Cor 15:44-45): “it is sown a natural body (σῶμα ψυχικόν), it is raised a spiritual body (σῶμα πνευματικόν)… the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.”
Since then spirit was understood to be substantial, one common and intelligible way by which spiritual power was transmitted was through physical touch, usually the laying on of hands (cf. Acts 20:9-10, 1 Kings 17:21, 2 Kings 4:34). The spirit itself, not just its power, could likewise pass from one body to another via touch (Acts 6:5-6, 8:7; 18, 19:6, Hebrews 6:2, 1 Tim 4:14, 2 Tim 1:6).
Non-human vessels of spirit
The spirit’s vessel and conduit was not always a human being, however. Here are a few examples.
- Clothing: The garments of Jesus and Paul were imbued with the same power that inhabited their bodies and hands. By touching their clothes with faith, one could access God’s healing power stored inside them.
- Oil: The spirit could also find a home in oil. By anointing the sick with oil for healing the early Christians were appropriating a longstanding association dating back to the time of king David. Immediately after being anointed with oil by Samuel “the spirit of YHWH came powerfully upon David” (1 Samuel 16:13, cf. 1 Samuel 10:1-9). Those early Christians who received the spirit were thus “anointed” with spirit as one was anointed with oil (1 John 2:20-27, 2 Cor 1:21-22, Luke 4:18, Acts 10:38). In this way they became “Christians,” that is, “anointed.” What this suggests is that the first Christians anointed their sick with oil in order transmit the spirit’s power to the patient (cf. Mark 6:13, James 5:14). The spirit moved through and/or resided in the oil just as it resided in objects Jesus and Paul wore. Elisha’s purifying flour presents an interesting parallel (2 Kings 4:41).
- Saliva: The same healing processes could be accomplished through the use of water and saliva. Just as Christians readily characterized the spirit as a kind of oil with which to anoint, so too did they conceive of the spirit as drink to be consumed (Isaiah 44:3, 1 Cor 10:4, 12:13, John 4:14, 7:37-39, Acts 2:33). Once swallowed, it stands to reason that the spirit could then be regurgitated in saliva: “out of the believer’s heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38, cf. 4:14). This is perhaps the context behind the three healings in which Jesus applies his saliva to the patient (Mark 7:31-37 8:22-26, John 9:1-11, cf. Revelation 3:18, 2 Kings 5:10). Though many have suggested a medicinal or magical background for such cures, Jesus was at his core a spirit-healer; he healed by the power of the holy spirit within him, not by medicine or magic.
Spirit enough at last
Before closing, let’s consider one of the saliva healings in detail.
Some people brought a blind man to Jesus and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.
Here in Mark 8:22-26 Jesus restores a man’s sight in two stages. After Jesus initially spits into the man’s eyes (πτύσας εἰς τὰ ὄμματα αὐτοῦ) and puts his hands on him (ἐπιθεὶς τὰς χεῖρας αὐτῷ), the man can see people as trees. When Jesus rubs him a second time, his vision is clear.
The implication of the story is relatively clear: more spiritual power was needed to heal the man than the initial dose supplied. Jesus applied that power with his hands and with his saliva.
(Perhaps uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus secured a proper cure after two tries, Matthew and Luke decline to record the episode. No other wonders in the Gospels require multiple attempts; though see Mark 9:14-29 where Jesus must remove a demon his disciples failed to cast out because they did not do so “through prayer and fasting.”).
As modern people, we tend to be be skeptical of the ways ancient people conceived of the physical and spiritual worlds as overlapping. We tend to think Christianity transcends the mythological thought-patterns of the past and we assume God operates among us without the aid of hands, oil, and spit—if he operates among us at all. If such props must be used, then they are strictly symbolic and have no real bearing on the outcome of the cure.
We should take stock of these modern biases before we insist that the early Christians only appear to transmit the spirit’s power through hands, oil, and spit; that they followed such procedures merely to ingratiate themselves to their pre-modern onlookers.
Jesus and his disciples were, after all, ancient people with ancient perceptions of the cosmos. The spirit, therefore, moved in mysterious ways, often through humans and physical objects.