Historical Cultural Context
Modern Western readers of the Bible are ever curious about the health problems Jesus appears to have addressed effectively. The fever experienced by Peter’s mother-in-law, the people afflicted with demons, the “various diseases” (Mk 1:35) presented to Jesus all raise a host of questions. The basic questions are, what really happened? did Jesus really do it?
Contemporary medical anthropologists offer some helpful insights. They distinguish between disease as a biomedical malfunction that afflicts an organism, and illness as a disvalued human condition in which social networks are ruptured and life’s meaning is lost. Curing is aimed at disease; it is a rare occurrence. Healing is aimed at illness; it occurs infallibly all the time for all people. Everyone works out a new meaning in life no matter what the predicament.
It is nearly impossible for us to know what diseases afflicted the people who came to Jesus for help. But the texts do reveal the social consequences of their affliction and how Jesus remedied those consequences as well as the affliction, whatever it was. Consider Peter’s mother-in-law.
The ideal marriage partner in the ancient Mediterranean world is a first cousin, specifically, the young man’s father’s brother’s daughter. Moreover, the wife always moves into the husband’s household, for the sons continue to live with their father even after marriage. But they have a place of their own in an often large housing complex.
Peter’s mother-in-law, the wife of his father’s brother, should be living in her husband’s house. If he has died, she should be living with one of the sons, or if they have died she would return to her family. That she is in Peter’s house suggests that she may have no living family members to take care of her. In the Middle Eastern world, this is a fate worse than any sickness, indeed, worse than death. As often happens in Jesus’ ministry, the challenge is more than the woman’s fever.
Jesus the Folk Healer
In the ancient world, professional physicians did not attempt to heal people. If they failed, they could be put to death. They preferred to talk about illnesses, after the fashion of philosopher-physicians. These are the physicians to whom the New Testament refers when it (infrequently) uses that word (Mk 2:17; 5:26; Lk 4:23; 8:43; Col 4:14).
Folk healers were more abundant and were much more willing to use their hands and risk a failed treatment. Peasants had easy access to such healers and resorted to them frequently. In the Gospels, Jesus is portrayed as a folk healer: a spirit-filled prophet and teacher who has power over unclean spirits and a wide variety of illness.
One very consistent element in Jesus’ healing activity is that he restores sick persons to their proper status, role, and place in the community. Lepers declared cleansed rejoin the holy community of God. The dead restored to life return to membership in their family.
That Peter’s mother-in-law immediately began to serve Jesus and his disciples demonstrates that Jesus has really healed her. She is strong enough to resume her status, role, and normal function in the home. Jesus has restored meaning to her life. In typical Mediterranean fashion, she reciprocates the favor by serving him and those with him.
The teaching and healing ministry of Jesus challenge America’s continuing efforts to reform its health care delivery system. Above all, people need meaning in life. That’s what healing is about.
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University