As modern science has advanced, belief-systems that attribute human welfare and suffering to the scheming of angels and demons have retreated in equal proportion. Few Christians today would procure an exorcist to alleviate a crippled spine, for instance. Even in cases of extreme antisocial behavior, activity traditionally attributed to malevolent spirits, most modern Christians are happy to cede ground to less well-established scientific frontiers like psychology and neuroscience. In this way, western Christians have by in large accepted the materialistic worldview produced by the Enlightenment.
The New Testament texts, of course, continue to resist any such capitulation to modern science.
The early Christians believed spirits were sometimes, if not usually, to blame for various conditions that modern people would attribute to physical and/or mental disorders. Jesus heals the mute and blind (Matthew 9:32-34, 12:22-32, Luke 11:14), the crippled (Luke 13:11-17), the epileptic (Mark 9:14-29), and the insane (Mark 5:1-20, cf. Acts 19:11-20) all by means of exorcism.
For the early Christians then, at least in these cases, the principle issue was not, as modern people would put it, psychosomatic malfunction, but rather demonic possession generating debilitating illness. According to this pre-scientific framework, once the spirit had fled (or, more generally, God’s curse had been removed, cf. John 9:1-3, 1 Corinthians 11:29-30, Deuteronomy 28:21-22, Leviticus 26:16), so too would the symptoms. Ignorant of the body’s internal workings, few other explanations were available to the people of Antiquity.
A cure for demons
A case could be made that the early Christians viewed virtually all illness in terms of spiritual warfare. There is a strong tendency in the Gospels, for instance, to conflate the language of healing with the language of exorcism.
One instructive example of this is the case of Peter’s mother-in-law. When she is bedridden with fever, Jesus “rebukes” (ἐπιτιμάω) the illness as if it were a spiritual being (Luke 4:39, cf. Luke 4:35, 4:41) and the disease seemingly obeys the healer’s command.
Working in the opposite direction, Jesus is sometimes said to “heal” (θεραπεύω) people of their evil spirits rather than to cast them out (Matthew 4:24, 12:22, Luke 8:2; 36, cf. Acts 5:16). Luke’s description of one particular a spirit as a “mute demon” (δαιμόνιον κωφόν) further illustrates the intimate link between illness and spirit-possession.
At its root then, disease appears in our texts to be a manifestation of spiritual possession, a slavery to Satan and his minions (cf. Luke 13:16). As the formula in Acts 10:37-38 suggests, everything Jesus did was directed toward conquering the Devil in this regard: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were overpowered by the devil, for God was with him” (cf. 1 John 3:8).
What all this indicates is that it is possible that Jesus conceived of himself not as a healer per se, that is, as someone who miraculously restored broken and infected bodies to working order, but rather as an exorcist who achieved cures by casting out wicked spirits. As conduits of God’s mighty spirit, Jesus and his first followers believed that by displacing the forces of evil they could eradicate various demon-caused maladies.
Taking into account the Beelzebul Controversy, this seems to be is precisely how Jesus’ enemies understood his startling deeds (cf. Mark 3:22, Matthew 11:27-28, John 10:20-21). Jesus was a healer primarily, or perhaps only, inasmuch as he was a suspiciously-powerful manipulator of spirits.