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How Did Jesus Heal People?

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Detail from an ancient Roman carved stone sarcophagus depicting Jesus healing with a wand.

Photo of one portion of the the Sarcophagus of Adelfia, showing Jesus healing with a wand in hand (far right). Photo by Davide Mauro, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Click image to view the whole piece.

Most people—especially Christians—agree that Jesus healed people. But how he did it remains a perplexing topic. Most of the earliest artwork depicting Jesus as a healer shows him holding a wand in his hand, as if it was an act of magic. But I am not familiar with any written evidence of Jesus’s use of a wand in his healing practice.

The meaning of healing in antiquity was complex then as it is now, primarily because there were multiple competing systems of healing then, as there are in the twenty-first century. Medical healing was probably the predominant system of healing in the ancient Mediterranean world. Magic was also a predominant system of healing.

Magic was not what we think it is today.

Magic in antiquity was probably best understood as an efficacious religious ritual, practiced by people who sincerely expected to heal. Academic libraries now usually have a collection of these spoken rituals in a book called the Greek Magical Papyri.

Whether or not Jesus held a magic wand when he healed, those who depicted him with a wand conveyed a popular concept of magic quite different from the entertaining kind of magic we know today. People in antiquity generally disparaged magic as a means of healing, not because it was merely a trick but because it involved some invisible or mysterious power that was unlike their own particular system.

As one scholar puts it: “Magic refers to efforts to control supernatural forces for one’s own ends by means that rest on some peculiar and secret wisdom” (Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 212). This is why most methods of healing in antiquity regarded systems other than their own as ‘magic.’ Some of Jesus’s opponents referred to him as a magician.

But the line between the magical and the more philosophical-medical systems of healing at the time is blurry. Both kinds of healers usually needed the proper combination of gnosis and medicine (or, drugs) to be effective. Gnosis—a knowledge of the divine order and rule—conveys a knowledge of the divine source of life and drew the healer into the world of the gods and demons. Jesus may have been viewed by his peers as such a magician.

The early stories about Jesus included magic-like acts, such as walking on water and providing instantaneous food for thousands. He told his disciples that if their faith was strong enough, they should be able to move mountains with a command.

The distinction of Jesus as a healer

But one of the distinctive differences between Jesus and other magicians is that he demonstrated the divine power for the purpose of glorifying God, not for his personal ends. Here is where a closer look at Jesus and his healing works begins to distinguish him from other healers. His attitude toward healing was integrated with salvation, so the entirety of one’s being—body, mind, and soul—all belong to and were governed by a renewed relationship to God, the loving Father.

Our modern notions of healing and salvation blind us to the ancient relationship between the two. Another scholar of ancient healing works explains how “healings are acts in between ‘already accomplished’ and ‘not yet complete’” (Henricksen, 121). They show us how God’s saving presence is already here but not yet fully understood.

Healing as a necessary component of salvation

If salvation was the renewed relationship to God, then healing was the act that inspired and enabled the full salvation. Healing would therefore have been seen as a necessary component of salvation because it was the visible (or existential) evidence that Christ had power on earth to dissolve the separation between God and God’s creation.

Casting out demons would have been consistent with Jesus’s goal of establishing this renewed relationship with God because the general fear of demons in antiquity stemmed from a belief in powers opposed to God. Since a knowledge of demons and their names constituted power over them, Jesus’s response to this widespread belief demonstrated his confidence in the supremacy of his Father’s (God’s) reign.

Knowing the truth, the key to Jesus’s healing

Jesus, a ‘knower,’ offers a more textual-based portrayal of Jesus as a healer than Jesus with a magical wand. There is no written record of Jesus providing his disciples with wands when he sent them out to heal in his name. But he did tell them to “know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32).

The argument that Jesus’s healing works were fabricated tales proving Jesus’s supremacy over other gods overlooks the fact that Jesus was a teacher as well as a healer. His teaching conveyed a persistent conviction in the power and presence of the divine realm, and his ‘gnosis’ of it was the truth that made people free.

When our medically educated modern minds balk at the idea of spiritual means for healing, we tend to de-emphasize both the spiritual significance of healing and its theological importance. Changes that happen without physically explicable means challenge us, but most physicists readily admit that modern physics has nothing to say about heavenly realities. Theologically, we need some evidence of the integration of life in relationship to God as a loving Father-Mother.

If Jesus had the authority to cast out demonic influences through his absolute trust in the divine power and truth, and his authority derived from his gnosis—or knowledge of life not born of the flesh—then the wand may have become a physical representation of Jesus, the gnosis-teaching healer.