A Charisma for the Historical Jesus

Funk and Wagnalls Standard Encyclopedic Dictionary defines charisma as combining the Greek terms for “grace and favor”. Charisma is: (1) an extraordinary spiritual grace that benefits others; (2) extraordinary personal power, or charm.

2007 marks the 40th anniversary of perhaps the greatest and most influential book ever written on the Historical Jesus, Rediscovering the Teachings of Jesus, by Norman Perrin (1967). Ironically, it is not Jesus’ teaching that I wish to focus on. Rather, it is the view put forth in Perrin’s trail-blazing book that the Historical Jesus was indeed an exorcist-magician-physician-healer. Could this be the historical fact that explained his charisma and the crowds alleged to have gathered around him?

As Perrin points out, there were numerous exorcist type individuals contemporary to Jesus. This is a historical fact. Jesus was not unique in this sense. What was unique about Jesus’ healing is that it is almost linked invariably to himself admonishing witnesses to have a “greater faith that saves”. This indicates to me that Jesus himself was also surprised, astonished and amazed by his own newly found ability to heal individuals in need. Healing was an intense and urgent experience for Jesus! His healing power was also a great source of controversy in his life. He was good at healing! His opponents also acknowledged his healing power, but questioned the source of that power. They even accused him jealously of blasphemy. He was mad. He had a demon. Not only is this controversy over his healings stated repeatedly in the gospels, but near contemporary, non-Christian and Jewish texts also refer to Jesus as a strange exorcist and magician. Jesus’ own faith and confidence in his radical vision of God seems to have grown stronger with each successful healing. All the while, he admonished patients and witnesses to have greater faith; surely a reflection of the greater faith growing within himself. Greater faith in Jesus’ ministry and his intimately accessible God was, he thought, the correct response to the experience of his healing power. Greater faith in a loving God in spite of any appearances to the contrary, can heal! Perhaps it is no surprise that more successful healing stories are attributed to Jesus than any other person in history!

One sentence, taken in isolation, and put on the lips of Jesus by Perrin (and every serious scholar since) appears to sum up Jesus’ own experience of his surprising healing power:

But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you (Luke 11:20)

Successful exorcisms were a challenging event for those who confronted them, but they were comparatively meaningless until they were interpreted. Here, in Luke 11:20, Jesus interprets his own exorcisms! His successful exorcisms are nothing more and nothing less than a PRESENT manifestation of the Kingdom of God he was authoritatively teaching people about. Jesus was so excited about his healing power, he pretty much became the Kingdom of God he proclaimed! The presence of the Kingdom was a matter of human individuals experiencing his healing power, which he wanted to give to others. Sharing in his great faith meant anything was possible. This was a unique aspect of his teaching and is what his followers understood faith to be.

And yes! Demons were real entities to Jesus and his contemporaries! Jesus was clearly in conflict with them! It was a strange and new conflict, and a responsibility not to be taken lightly! The conflict was sometimes reflected upon by Jesus as a very serious and humbling situation. The time of God’s activity as King was NOW, and the conflict was real! Victory and defeat were both real possibilities in Jesus’ reflective mind! The outcome of the battle may be certain. But ever increasing greater faith was required and the casualties of the battle were going to be real, not sham! After all, Jesus’ friend and mentor John the Baptist had just been murdered recently!

The crux of the Historical Jesus is that people must share in his strong faith; so that they too can heal with the same faith he associated directly with the response one should have to his healing power. In Perrin’s words:

“We can say that behind the tradition (of exorcism and healing) there must lie a hard core of authenticity…The unique element in the tradition in comparison with its parallels is that which has the highest claim to authenticity…Although we cannot, today, construct a single authentic healing or exorcism narrative from the tradition we have, we are none the less entitled to claim that the emphasis upon FAITH of the patient, or his friends, in that tradition is authentic…we are arguing for the authenticity of such an element in the historical ministry of Jesus: he did help those who confronted him in their need in a way his contemporaries regarded as remarkable, and he did link this with the faith of the people concerned.”

The argument boils down to this: Jesus was a successful exorcist-magician-physician-healer, who proclaimed faith in a Kingdom of God breaking into reality during his ministry. If this were not so, then the radical Kingdom of God he proclaimed would surely have been regarded as a vain and empty sham! But it wasn’t! A great trust in God as the correct response to his healing power remains the specific challenge to all who wish to share in his faith, even today!

But sharing faith in Jesus’ God is nothing to boast about. As Jesus said. “humbling yourself if you want to be exalted is required” and “the greatest among you must be servant of all.” Humility and non-violence, even “love of enemies” are the necessary daily acts of faith and the only hope for avoiding defeat. Boastfulness and violence will defeat the Kingdom:

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence plunder it (Matthew 11:12).

Violence can never stop violence. Violence only creates revenge and vengeance, that always recoils back on itself. We see this truth in the present reality of the war in Iraq.

There is only one very special text in the New Testament that seems to describe the Historical Jesus going about his business of being an exorcist-magician-physician-healer. It reveals an image I wish to leave readers with, because it describes a mere, humble man of great faith with a wish to try and help, while summoning up his God without boasting. This is Mark 7:31-37:

1) Jesus puts his fingers in the patient’s ears.

2) He spits on his finger and touches the patient’s tongue with that finger.

3) He looks up to the sky and says, “EPHPHATHA”, which means in Aramaic, “BE OPENED.”

John Mitrosky


Topics: Jesus Studies. Resource Types: Articles.

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