Healing in the New Testament: Insights from Medical and Mediterranean Anthropology

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Healing in the New Testament: Insights from Medical and Mediterranean Anthropology

  1. Review

    The focus of the Good News of Jesus of Galilee was "The time has come; the Kingdom of God is upon you; repent and believe the Gospel." (Mk 1:14?15) The Kingdom of God was his vision of a "domination? free" society, as an alternative to the Roman "domination" order, in which he and his people lived. The Kingdom of God would be "upon you" whenever the justice of God was experienced as political equality, economic equity, relationships of mutuality and inclusive communities. It has been said that everything Jesus said and did served a "function in relationship to that proclamation and derives its meaning from it." (Norman Perrin) The mission and ministry of Jesus was to point to his vision of the Kingdom of God by his teaching and to give substance to his vision by his actions.

    One way Jesus gave substance to his vision of the Kingdom of God was by his ministry of healing. In this seminal book, we are assisted in our reading and understanding of the healing stories in the canonical Gospels, by John J. Pilch, Professor of Biblical Studies at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. He is a pioneer in using insights from the social sciences for understanding the social world contexts of Biblical texts. In this book he uses, in particular, the disciplines of medical and Mediterranean anthropology to gain insights for interpreting the healing stories in the New Testament. It is the theme of this book that an interpreter of the healing stories of the New Testament will "benefit from turning to medical anthropology for assistance." For as health and sickness are variously defined in different cultures, so distinctive kinds of therapy appropriate to the defined areas are used to respond. Therefore it is vital that the healing stories of the New Testament be read in their cultural context. Pilch explains the difference between two interpretative models of health and sickness, the biomedical model of Western culture and what he calls the "cultural" model of the Mediterranean world of the first century. The biomedical model is focused on health through the cure of disease. The cultural model is focused on health through the healing of illness, understood as psycho?social experiences of changes in a person’s "states of being" resulting from a perceived disease. It is Pilch’s thesis that the cultural model is more helpful in understanding and interpreting the healing stories of the New Testament.

    He uses the story of the healing of the leper (Mark 1:40?44) as a test case of the cultural model What was called leprosy in the time of Jesus was not what modern medicine calls leprosy. It was not Hansen’s disease caused by a bacillus, but a flaky skin condition like psoriasis or eczema (see Leviticus 13:9). The leper who met Jesus (Mark 1:40?44) suffered from the disease of psoriasis or eczema and from the illness of the social stigma of uncleanness or impurity in a society structured around a purity system. People who were unclean in such a society suffered social rejection and personal isolation. When Jesus touched the leper and said to him, "be clean" the story tells us, "immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean." The story seems to say that he was cured ofhis disease (the leprosy left him) and healed of his illness (was made clean) The healing of his illness was his acceptance back into the community and the restoration of his self? image as a human being. His encounter with Jesus resulted in an experience of the Kingdom of God!

    If that story, and other healing stories are interpreted through the biomedical model, the result is apt to be a confusion of disease and illness, as well as of curing and healing, and therefore less than helpful. One question that many of the healing stories poses is, "Did Jesus cure disease or heal illness?" Pilch states, that we are unable to determine whether Jesus cured anyone since there is no possibility of ascertaining this as the definition of curing ("destroying or checking a pathogen, removing a malfunctioning or non?functioning organ") requires. Another question follows, "Is it possible to be healed without being cured?" Pilch states, "Jesus and all the people of his culture dealt with sickness as illness and not as disease." Pilch then devotes separate chapters to the healing stories in Mark, Matthew, Luke? Acts, and John. Each chapter contains a "Professional Sector" oriented toward those readers in the organized healing professions, a "Popular Sector" for the lay reader, and a "Folk Sector" for those readers who have a foot in both sectors. There are, at the end of the book, "Discussion Questions" for each chapter and a Glossary of key terms, used throughout the book, mostly drawn from the anthropological disciplines.

    This book is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand and interpret the healing stories of the New Testament, which evidence that the Good News of the Kingdom of God is "upon" us.

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