Here is an intriguing guest post! And a controversial one. Did Jesus actually heal people?
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Our guest poster is Doug Wadeson, himself a medical doctor with (obviously) a lifelong interest in healing but also a keen interest in the historical study of the NT Gospels. In this series he combines these two interests and provides some some unusually interesting reflections.
The Gospels portray Jesus as performing amazing miracles. Some of them have to do with nature, such as calming a storm or turning water into wine. Most have to do with healing a variety of afflictions, including leprosy and possibly other infectious diseases (like Peter’s mother-in-law, and maybe Jairus’ daughter?), blindness, being mute and deaf, paralysis (or some form of crippling disease), one case of a bleeding disorder (maybe dysfunctional uterine bleeding?) and most remarkably, raising two people from the dead. He was also said to exorcise demons which apparently caused seizures and mental disorders, so I would also classify those as healing miracles.
The faithful believe Jesus performed such miracles; after all, he was the Spirit-empowered divine Son of God. Skeptics believe such miracles are purely legendary. But even if so, there likely was some basis for portraying Jesus as a great healer. The Gospels tell us that Jesus believed in the power of prayer (as in Matthew 21:22, “And whatever you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive it all.”), and that he was a compassionate person, caring about the downtrodden and afflicted (as in Matthew 9:36, ‘Seeing the crowds, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and downcast, like sheep without a shepherd.’). So, it seems quite reasonable that Jesus would have prayed for those in need of healing. But, did he succeed in healing them? All of them? Some of them? How many would Jesus have to heal in order to secure a reputation as a great healer?
Let’s examine Jesus’ first recorded miracle. In Mark 1:23-28 we read of a man with “an unclean spirit.” When Jesus rebukes the spirit, ‘After throwing him into convulsions and crying out with a loud voice, the unclean spirit came out of him.’ This is not the only story connecting convulsions with demon possession. Later in the same Gospel is a more complete description: “…whenever it seizes him, it slams him to the ground, and he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth and becomes stiff” (see Mark 9:14-29). A classic description of a grand mal seizure, again supposedly caused by demon possession. It is understandable that people of that time would attribute seizures to demon possession. A person seems perfectly normal one moment, and the next he loses control of his faculties and writhes on the ground as if possessed. Lacking a medical explanation, people resorted to a superstitious one.
So, could Jesus heal epilepsy? I would suggest that he did not have to. Seizures tend to be episodic; intervals between seizures can be anywhere from minutes to months. Although seizures can be protracted most are relatively brief, less than two minutes. If you pray for someone having a seizure the odds are that the seizure will end soon. There may be a “post-ictal” period of lethargy but otherwise the person is back to normal. The demon is gone! He has been healed! Thank you, Jesus! If you had a son afflicted in this way and a dynamic religious figure like Jesus prayed for him and the seizure ended, wouldn’t you want to believe that your son was healed (or cleansed)? Jesus had a peripatetic ministry; by the time the next seizure occurred Jesus could have been many miles away. The family might be aware of the relapse, but the disciples traveling with Jesus, who became the tellers of his story, would go away thinking they had witnessed a miracle. (I suspect they did become aware of some relapses, and Jesus addressed that; I’ll discuss it later.)
I have my own “miracle” story concerning epilepsy. I had an acquaintance with a rather persistent form of epilepsy and despite multiple medications he would still have seizures on occasion. Typically he would presage a seizure by getting a glazed look in his eyes and stroking his nose. One day we were at a mutual friend’s house and he got that glazed look in his eyes and started to stroke his nose. So I spoke directly to him, calling him by name and getting his attention. No seizure occurred. Our mutual friend was amazed, “You talked him out a seizure!” It was nothing supernatural. A seizure is an electrochemical storm in the brain that disrupts its normal function. If you can interrupt that cascade of events then the seizure is averted. I got his attention and short-circuited the seizure. Or possibly it just wasn’t going to develop into a full-blown seizure anyway, and I got lucky! (Rather, he got lucky.) That’s all that happened on that day. There was no miracle. But it impressed our friend. As I’m sure Jesus’ disciples were impressed.
It seems that psychiatric disorders were also attributed to demon possession. Later in Mark 5 we meet a man said to be possessed by many demons, such that they called themselves “Legion.” This description sounds like someone severely disturbed: “Constantly, night and day, he was screaming among the tombs and in the mountains, and cutting himself with stones.” Jesus calmly talks to the man, casts the demons out of the man and into a nearby herd of pigs, and the man returns to his right mind. Like seizures, psychosis and other mental aberrations can be episodic. Perhaps Jesus was the first person bold enough to engage the man in conversation, rather than confronting him in fear, and this calmed him down. Again, this would have been very impressive to his disciples. It is interesting to note that Jesus does not let the man accompany them, but sends him back home, so his disciples would never know if the healing was permanent.
 In one case Jesus raised an unnamed man in Nain according to Luke 7, and in the other He raised up Lazarus in John 11. In each case the miracle is not confirmed by the other Gospels, which is most remarkable in the case of Lazarus since it happened near Jerusalem and that Gospel (alone) says it is the very event that led to Jesus’ eventual arrest and crucifixion!
 Most scholars recognize Mark as the earliest Gospel. Paul wrote earlier, but never mentioned any of Jesus’ miracles.
 Interestingly, in ancient times it was believed that if you knew the demon’s name you could control him.
 Another possibility could be pseudoseizures, which are consciously or unconsciously caused by emotional, social or even financial influences. I have seen several cases in my career. When confronted by an impressive figure like Jesus such a person might forego their seizures, at least until the excitement and attention had faded.
 The pigs then rush into the lake and are drowned. Is it possible that Legion scared the pigs into a stampede, but the villagers attributed it to the demons? Or could this be nothing more than a later embellishment?