by Dr. Erin K. Vearncombe
If you were asked to describe Jesus to someone who had never heard of him before, what would you say? Who would you say he was and what did he do? What was he known for, in his own time and place?
High on the list would be describing Jesus as someone who performed miracles — wonderous or astonishing acts, done always in service of others. Some of our most famous stories about Jesus center on his miracles: he multiplies a scarce quantity of food so that it can feed a hungry crowd; he stills a storm; he raises people from the dead! He also heals a great many individuals, restoring them not just to physical wholeness, but to social wholeness too, to a life within community.
We know that Jesus was not the only miracle-worker in the gospel stories. In Matthew 10, for example, the audience hears that Jesus sent his students out into the surrounding towns and villages to cast out unclean spirits and to heal all manner of sickness. However, we hear little else about the miracles of Jesus’ students — the focus tends to stay on Jesus.
What about other miracle-workers in the gospels? Did this power to perform wonders reside only with Jesus and his students? Was this a power afforded only to men? Could women be miracle-workers too?
Miracles have traditionally been attributed to men, as characteristic of male leadership within the early Jesus movements, and we find a similar gendering of miracle work in the wider world of the ancient Mediterranean as well.
Did women perform miracles?
Tackling our assumptions
Mark 5:25-34 offers an excellent opportunity to tackle our gendered assumptions about miracle work. At first glance, this passage reads like a conventional miracle story. Jesus has already performed some impressive miracles, and word has gotten out. He is pressed upon by a great crowd. Within that crowd is a woman who, we are told, has suffered from very heavy menstrual bleeding (what sounds like menorrhagia) for twelve years, and doctors have only made the situation worse. She approaches Jesus, knowing that he has a power, or perhaps, that he is a power, she can harness to make her well again. All she has to do is touch his cloak.
When the woman touches his cloak, Jesus feels power leave him, and he looks around in the crowd for the recipient of that power. The woman approaches him fearfully and tells him what she has done. The story ends with Jesus acknowledging the unnamed woman’s action: “Daughter, your trust has made you well” (Mark 5:34). Jesus confirms that her knowledge was true and that her act was effective.
Based on what we know of Jesus so far and on traditional interpretation of this story, Jesus performs another healing miracle by transforming an anonymous woman from a state of both physical and social separation (the woman’s illness would have rendered her continually unclean) to a state of wholeness and reconnection. The story itself just continues on to the next miraculous event, essentially saying, “Nothing to see here, folks. Move along!”
But we need to look again.
Women were miracle-workers too
Who is the miracle-worker in this story? Surely, Jesus has performed many miracles himself, but in this particular case, the miracle-worker is the unnamed woman.
When we read closely, the woman’s role as her own healer, her own miracle-worker, becomes increasingly clear. This woman knows that Jesus is a source of great power, to the point where she tells herself she need only touch his cloak to heal herself of her twelve years of suffering. She touches Jesus’ cloak and she knows in her body, we are told, that she is healed. The power has transferred from Jesus’ body to her own.
This is not a feeling, it is knowledge. She uses her knowledge to take action on her own behalf. While Jesus’ body may be the source of the power, it is the woman who uses it, bringing about her own transformation.
According to Mark’s story, Jesus does not know what has happened. He looks around trying to figure out where the power he was holding in his body went. The woman, acting from her own awareness, sees his confusion and approaches Jesus again to tell him what she has done. She is a commander of power. She is the miracle-worker.
While the last line of the story is usually translated with the more modern word “faith” (and all of our more contemporary understandings of that word), the more appropriate translation in this context is “trust.” “Daughter, your trust” – her trust, her full knowledge that she could perform this miracle for herself – “has made you well. Go in peace.”
A powerful model
A re-reading of this story encourages us to to consider the power of miracle-working women in the earliest communities gathered around Jesus. While we might not be able to answer all of our questions about gender and the Bible, we might be surprised at the answers we are able to find hidden in plain sight. This unnamed woman in Mark 5 certainly deserves to be celebrated for her agency and advocacy on her own behalf.
It is still challenging for women, and even more so for trans and nonbinary people, to advocate for basic rights of health and safety and for access to healthcare resources. This anonymous woman, passed over for so long in so many different ways, offers us a powerful model of self-advocacy and hope. She is the one who takes control of her situation, accessing and using the power embodied in Jesus to bring about her restoration to wholeness. She is the true miracle-worker of Mark’s story.