Jesus as Faith Healer

I’ve never understood exactly what Jesus is trying to demonstrate, and to whom, with regard to the Christian view of his healing miracles.

How faith healing works

If he wanted to be effective and merciful, he should have healed thousands in a big city like Jerusalem, instead of just one person on any given occasion.

If he wanted to demonstrate God’s power to the world, he should have gone to a Greek or Roman place of healing in Caesarea, and healed all the difficult cases that the doctors were struggling with.

He didn’t seem to want to do either of those things – just as a faith healer never goes to a hospital to heal the people there.

It looks suspiciously like (the Christian, unhistorical) Jesus and the faith healer only work to cure you of your love of money – “the root of all evil”.

Maybe the answer is in the name, “faith healer” – all they can really heal is your faith!

Jesus’ Healing v. Greco-Roman Medicine

Here is Jesus healing in Mark 9: 20-27.  The father of an epileptic boy, believing that the problem is a demon inhabiting him, asks Jesus to heal him. The boy is summoned.

And when the spirit saw Jesus, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus  rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.

Here is Greek healing, earlier than Jesus, from Wikipedia:

Ancient vaginal speculum

Another of Hippocrates’s major contributions may be found in his descriptions of the symptomatology, physical findings, surgical treatment and prognosis of thoracic empyema, i.e. suppuration of the lining of the chest cavity. His teachings remain relevant to present-day students of pulmonary medicine and surgery. Hippocrates was the first documented chest surgeon and his findings are still valid.

Hippocratic medicine was notable for its strict professionalism, discipline, and rigorous practice.The Hippocratic work On the Physician recommends that physicians always be well-kempt, honest, calm, understanding, and serious. The Hippocratic physician paid careful attention to all aspects of his practice: he followed detailed specifications for, “lighting, personnel, instruments, positioning of the patient, and techniques of bandaging and splinting” in the ancient operating room. He even kept his fingernails to a precise length.

The Romans, naturally, are better known for the engineering aspects:

The Romans invented numerous surgical instruments, including the first instruments unique to women (vaginal specula with a screw device which when turned forces a cross-bar to push the blades outward), as well as the surgical uses of forceps, scalpels, cautery, cross-bladed scissors, and the surgical needle. Romans also performed cataract surgery.

Jesus came to preach, to heal and to cast out demons;  this in the Roman Empire when it was discovering anesthetics and making major medical advances. Presumably if Jesus came to the United States today he would avoid places like Johns Hopkins and hang out with the snake handlers in the backwoods of the South.

This reduces the credibility of Jesus-as-God to zero. But it supports the idea that Jesus was a Jewish fundamentalist, working within the framework of Jewish law and tradition, and ignorant and hostile regarding all things Roman.


In Praise of Ignorance

“All men, by their nature, desire to know,” Aristotle wrote. Knowing that we lack knowledge, we seek it. In seeking knowledge we discover things which often make our lives more dangerous, but overall better. We have longer, healthier and more richly diverse lives than our neolithic ancestors, and it is thanks to our search for knowledge.

The search for knowledge stops, in the individual and in society, when there is a sense that all the answers are known. While the Greeks questioned everything, knowledge (and speculation, even if it didn’t lead to proof, certainty or fact) expanded rapidly. Coupled with Roman organization and engineering, there were enormous innovations in everything from underfloor heating, to urban water and sewer systems for cities of a million inhabitants, to the use of anesthetics in surgery, to the invention of the safety pin.

Ancient Roman engineering was superior to Britain's until the 19th century

The Greeks and Romans allowed for a diversity of religions, or for none at all, all of which promoted free inquiry. Then monotheism got a strangle hold on the Empire; Christianity provided Certainty and The Truth; scientific inquiry was crushed; and (not coincidentally, according to historians in the line of Gibbon) the Roman Empire collapsed. Western Europe had 700 years of the Dark Ages.

Meanwhile Islam came out of nowhere in the 7th century and expanded into different areas and cross-fertilized Greek and Indian learning. “Seek knowledge,” the Prophet Muhammad advised, “though it be in China” – which was the ends of the earth to him. As it turned out, China indeed had a wealth of knowledge to add to the mix. Islam was in the forefront of science for a thousand years. Western Europe came into contact through the Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries, and Arabic culture and scientific texts kicked off the Renaissance. You can see it in the Arabic words that entered European languages as fresh concepts in the Middle Ages: admiral, alchemy, algebra… calipers, candy, chemistry, cipher, cotton… magazine, mattress, muslin… all the way to zenith and zero.

Arabic scientific advances led to the European Renaissance

And then Islam, being the most advanced, decided everything essential was known from the Qur’an… it provided Certainty and The Truth; scientific inquiry was crushed; and, not coincidentally, the various Islamic empires stagnated and were overrun.

And in both the US and the Islamic world today, the argument in several states is over who has the right to teach (Comparative) Religion and history in general… geology and biology and science in general… should it be those secular, agnostic or downright atheistic scientific types, or should it be those for whom Religion has provided Certainty and The Truth?

Let’s have a little more acknowledgement of our ignorance. Uncertainty and free inquiry have always produced better results than Certainty and divinely-revealed Truth.

What the Romans knew of the Universe

We think, with some justification, of the Greeks as thinkers and the Romans as doers. This doesn’t mean the Romans were ignorant. They commonly used Greek slaves as teachers for their children, and Greek learning was known to educated people throughout the Roman Empire – partly because the Greeks themselves lived throughout the Empire. The Ptolemys ruling Egypt, who included Cleopatra, were Greeks.

Reconstruction of Eratosthenes' map of the world

According to the history books, it was the Greeks who first suggested that our earth is a sphere. Aristotle argued this in On the Heavens around 340 BC. First, you always see the sails of a ship coming over the horizon first and only later its hull, which suggests that the surface of the ocean is curved. Second, he realized that the eclipses of the Moon were caused by the Earth casting its shadow on the moon. Third, the Greeks knew that the North Star appears higher on the northern firmament and lower in the south. Aristotle explained this correctly with the parallactic shift that occurs when moving between two observation points on a spherical object. Separately, the idea that the sun rather than the earth was the center of the universe was proposed by the Pythagoreans and by Aristarchus of Samos around 270 BC. (However, Aristotle dismissed the idea of this heliocentrism.)

Around 240 BC Eratosthenes (Libyan-born, living in Alexandria in Egypt) calculated the circumference of the earth; he knew that the sun was directly overhead at Aswan on the summer solstice; he observed from the shadow of a vertical pole that on that day the sun was a fraction over 7 degrees off from vertical in Alexandria (almost due north of Aswan); and, from generations of Pharaonic surveyors, he knew the distance between the two places: 5,000 stadia. He gave the earth’s circumference as 252,000 stadia. Depending on whether he meant the standard Greek stadium or the Egyptian stadium, he was accurate to within either 16% or 2% of the earth as it is.

He also calculated the distances to the moon and to the sun, and was reasonably correct about the moon (and possibly extremely accurate about the sun). Having created the armillary sphere when he was 20, and originated the term “geography”, and created a useful map of the known world, he still had time to be an athlete and a poet.

Uneducated people 250 years later in Palestine thought that a bright star had moved across the sky and stayed over the house in Bethlehem where a certain child was born. For them, the heavens were the physical abode of God and his messengers, a mile or two above the earth, up in the clouds with the sun, moon and stars.

Well-educated Greeks and Romans were beyond such nonsense.

Unasked questions: Sunlight

Creates Light, and Day and Night, in Day 1... doesn't create Sun and Moon until Day 4.

How can I have been in and around the Bible for decades, and never noticed the totally bizarre concepts in the first chapter of Genesis?

I don’t mean the impossible ideas of later chapters – not the talking snake, not the angels having sex with “the daughters of men”, not the assumption that every animal species on earth lived within walking distance of Noah’s ark… those ideas may be unscientific, preliterate, and so on, but they’re not as mind-bogglingly irrational as this:

“And God said, Let there be light… and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.” Genesis 1: 3-5.

“And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night… And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also… And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.” Genesis 1: 14-19.

I’m still pondering this! Day 1: he makes Light, and Day and Night, and morning and evening. (Day 2, he makes heaven and sea and earth. Day 3, he makes grasses and fruit trees.) Then, on Day 4, he makes the sun, moon and stars…?!?

How could even an unscientific, preliterate, myth-creating narrator come up with something as nonsensical as that? (If Day and daylight are independent of the Sun, does the author of Genesis think that it is purely coincidental that daylight and the appearance of the Sun occur together?) Or how could even the worst story-reteller garble a narrative that badly in writing it down? And how the hell can ultra-Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians believe that every word of the Bible as we have it today is literal fact?

(And how could I have created a skeptical protagonist like Matthew in ‘The Gospel According to the Romans’, and omitted to have him question Jesus on the believability of Genesis? No wonder there are no surviving dialogues of Jesus with Greek philosophers, they would have destroyed him! I may have to add a couple of sentences to the novel.)