Historical Culture Context
Jesus the Healer
Today’s reading provides an excellent opportunity to reflect upon health and healing in the ancient Mediterranean world. Modern Western readers must suspend all that they know of the wonders of contemporary scientific medicine in order to enter a world where germs, microscopes, “cat scanners” and the impressive array of modern drugs were unknown.
The Hemorrhaging Woman
This woman suffered from her problem of menstrual irregularity for twelve years. Mark is often unfairly accused of physician bashing for his comment that she “suffered much under many physicians, spent all she had, and was no better but grew worse” (Mk 5:26).
The ancient world knew at least two kinds of healers: professional physicians and folk healers. Mark tells us that until the moment she encountered Jesus, the hemorrhaging woman put all her trust and resources in professional physicians. Perhaps she was of elite status. Luke, who is very likely not a physician and probably not the one mentioned by Paul in Colossians 4:14, says the woman “could not be healed by anyone” (Lk 8:43).
Professional physicians in antiquity have little if anything in common with contemporary physicians. Because the Hebrews considered God to be their chief healer (Ex 15:26) they developed an ambivalent attitude toward professional physicians, as reflected in Sirach 38:1-23.
Folk healers in antiquity were much more commonly available to the peasants. They were willing to use their hands (Jn 9:6), touch people (Mk 8:22-26), and even risk failed treatments (Mk 6:5-6). In the gospel reports, people definitely identified Jesus as a folk healer, specifically a spiritfilled prophet who could still storms, conquer malevolent spirits, and restore people to their rightful and proper place in community.
In modern anthropological terms, we cannot know whether Jesus cured anyone because curing is directed toward disease (germs, viruses, and the like), and we have no evidence of the diseases his petitioners may have been suffering. Moreover, even in classical Greek literature, there is no indication that cures were expected to be permanent.
But in the same terms, Jesus definitely healed all who wanted to be healed. Healing is the restoration of meaning to people’s lives no matter what their physical condition might be. Curing is very rare, but healing takes place infallibly, 100 percent of the time, because sooner or later all people regain meaning in life and resume their rightful place in society.
This is certainly what Jesus accomplished for the hemorrhaging woman. Her condition rendered her ritually unclean and not only prevented her from entering the Temple but also required that she remove herself from the community, the equivalent of social death in the Mediterranean world.
Notice that Jesus sometimes is unaware of and has no control over his power (Mk 5:39). The woman evoked it without his awareness or permission. Nevertheless, Jesus declares what he and the woman know has occurred: “the condition no longer exists; welcome back to the community, daughter!”
The Dead Teenager
In the first century, 60 percent of live births usually died by their mid-teens. The scene presented here was a very common one.
Like other ancient healers, Jesus sometimes used a formula. The fact that the Greek Gospel retains Jesus’ Aramaic words “Talitha koum” (“little girl, get up”) reflects the ancient belief that power is in the original words and not the translation. Some associate this with magic.
The crowd’s laughter at Jesus’ claim that the girl is only sleeping challenges his honor. Jesus’ command that the family say nothing is his way of getting even with the crowd. They’ll never know what happened.
As proof that the girl is healed, that is, restored to her rightful place in community, Jesus commands that she eat with her family. Jesus the healer restores meaning to life and returns people to communal solidarity.
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University