Home » The Bible and Beyond » Blog » Healing in the Bible: How Bodies Became Battlegrounds for the Healing Gods

Healing in the Bible: How Bodies Became Battlegrounds for the Healing Gods

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Detail from an etching and aquatint in brown showing a scene based on the text from Acts 3:4-31. Peter makes a blessing gesture to a paralyzed beggar, sitting on the ground in front of the Beautiful Gate of the temple, with a stick next to him. John on the left. A crowd watches.

Detail from “Peter and John heal a paralyzed man at the temple gate,” etching and aquatint in brown by printmaker Benjamin Martini, after a drawing by Jan Luyken. Produced sometime between 1777 and 1780. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons. Click image to see the entire piece.

Healing is such a beautiful thing! Anybody who has been released from a debilitating disease knows the indescribable joy that follows. No wonder the man who had been lame from his birth began to leap and praise God when Peter healed him at the Beautiful Gate of the temple! (Acts 3).

But it’s startling how this happy story quickly turns to a blame game between the healer and the community observers. The witnesses had been “filled with wonder and amazement,” but Peter rebukes them for assuming that he and John possessed the healing power. Then he blames them for rejecting the holy and righteous one and killing the “author of life” – implying Jesus, the source of the healing power.

Christianity, a religion of healing

We write often on the subject of healing in antiquity on the Bible and Beyond blog because, as scholars often note, Christianity is a religion of healing. But our modern concepts of healing often miss the critical nuances of its practice in the evolution of Christianity. So we continue to explore the vast topic of Christian healing from many angles. We’ve discussed the Jewish origins of healing, the connection between healing and salvation, the relationship between demons and healing, magic versus healing, and ancient pandemics, to name some of the recent topics. Today, I want to explore why bodies became battlegrounds for the healing gods, and whether Jesus healed that way or not.

More concern with the source of power than with the people who were suffering

Judging from Peter’s accusations that the witnessing public had killed the source of the healing power, readers might decide that Peter was more concerned with this power source than with the feelings of the person who experienced the healing.

This attitude is certainly picked up by Irenaeus, an early Church Father, who refers to miraculous healing only in the context of refuting the wrong healing sources. He never mentions any particular cases of healing, but he is clearly more concerned with the distinction between true and false miracles.

The common phrase, “signs and wonders,” is used in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and may hint at the purpose of healing works. When God warned that he would “harden Pharaoh’s heart and multiply [God’s] signs and wonders” (Ex 7:3), we feel the competition between the God of Moses and the power of Pharaoh.

Centuries later, Jeremiah the prophet recounted these signs and wonders:

You showed signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, and to this day in Israel and among all humankind, and have made yourself a name . . .You brought your people Israel out of the land of Egypt with signs and wonders, with a strong hand and outstretched arm. (Jer 32:20-21)

The God of Israel is proven to be above all the gods because the signs indicate the power, and the wonders indicate God’s use of the power in a marvelous way.

Signs are proofs of the “true power”

Furthermore, in Deuteronomy, we learn specifically that if the people see signs or portents that come about from gods whom they did not know, then they must not heed that source. “For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Deut 13:3). Signs are proofs of the correct source of truth. But if signs come from sources besides the biblical direction, those sources are enemies to be destroyed. “Those prophets or those who divine by dreams shall be put to death for having spoken treason against the Lord your God” (Deut 13:5).

During the Second Temple period (when Peter healed the man at the temple gate), evil spirits constituted powerful beings as part of Jewish cosmology. They were not material realities, but they caused material experiences of suffering. Therefore, confronting them involved some kind of ritual or spiritual power.

David had expelled the evil spirit that attacked King Saul. The book of Tobit tells how Tobit had expelled the evil spirit who killed his bride’s seven previous husbands. According to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus was an expert exorcist. Among these and many other stories of casting out evil spirits, there is no hint of rebuke against these deeds.

Women and other ‘less-male’ people are empowered by the “wrong source”

But with women, the story changes. The Book of Enoch explicitly blames women for the power of their sexual allure. And later, in the Second Temple period again, various women in Herod’s court were held responsible for concoctions causing love and murder. Whether there was any truth in these stories, masculine anxiety about feminine power commonly presented their actions as occult, subversive, and dangerous. Philo also distinguished between the honorable “scientific” activity of Persian Magi from objectionable practices by anyone on the margins of the male intellectual élite.

Both Hebrew writings and the New Testament convey the idea that the power of healing served to distinguish ‘the true power’ from false powers. Its most important purpose was to guide witnesses of healing works to the source behind the works, to find the ‘true’ power.

The power of Jesus may be different

All this historical evidence of vying for power puts an intriguing light on Jesus, who seems to have been the most powerful healer in all the biblical accounts. He certainly does teach the importance of finding the right source and to be specifically aware of ‘false powers.’ But he also integrated his healing with his moral teaching and the gathering of students.

When he healed Lazarus, Jesus did thank God out loud “for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me” (John 11:42). He also wanted to clarify the true source of healing power. But interestingly, after Lazarus got up, Jesus told the witnesses merely to “unbind him and let him go” (John 11:44).

The right God was to be honored, but his compassion for both the sick man and the witnesses shines through. Jesus may have been teaching a new kind of healing that demonstrated the power of his God but refrained from turning people who were ill into battlegrounds for the healing gods.

Special thanks to Yuval Harari for their insights and examples of ‘signs and wonders’ in the chapter on “Ancient Israel and Early Judaism” in Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic (2019).