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WHAT THE BIBLE REALLY SAYS
By: J. R. Hyland

Chapter 19: MIRACLES AND TABOOS

TABOO: Forbidden by custom or tradition.  MIRACLE: a wonderful happening that is beyond the known laws of nature.

This dictionary definition of a miracle applies to phenomena the gospel writers attribute to the ministry of Jesus. He cured the sick, fed the hungry, restored the out-cast to community and gave full ability to the disabled: they were “wonderful hap-penings” that brought healing to distressed bodies and minds. But many of the miracles he performed also broke the religious taboos of his time. He brought heal-ing to those who were considered enemies of the Jewish people and had physical contact with those who were considered unclean and therefore a source of contamination.

The Gospel of Mark tells of a healing event that violated deeply entrenched socio-religious taboos. Judaism had developed many prohibitions regarding who or what was considered unclean. For the most part, such persons were diseased, disabled or had done something in violation of religious law. But women were predestined to go through cycles when they were considered contaminated and therefore to be shunned, simply because they were female; menstruating women were considered unclean, impure and anyone who touched either their person or any chair or bed they had occupied was defiled by that contact.[1]

Jesus rejected that taboo in an encounter with a woman who had an ongoing flow of uterine blood and, therefore, was categorized as being continuously menstruous. The Bible reports that it happened as he was on his way to the home of the leader of a local synagogue, whose daughter was very ill and who had begged that she be healed.

"Then Jesus started off with him. There were so many people going along that they were crowding him from every side. There was a woman who had suffered terribly from severe bleeding for twelve years. . . She had heard about Jesus. So she came in the crowd behind him, saying to herself, “If I just touch his clothes I will get well”

“She touched his cloak and her bleeding stopped at once; and she had the feeling inside herself that she was healed of her trouble.  At once Jesus knew that power had gone out of him, so he turned around in the crowd and asked ‘Who touched my clothes?”

His disciples answered, “You see how the people are crowding you; why do you ask who touched you?”  But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. The woman realized what had happened to her, so she came, trembling with fear, knelt at his feet, and told him the whole truth.[2]

The woman was trembling with fear when she told him what had happened because the crowd could turn on her in a rage. Her presence in their midst contaminated anyone she had brushed up against- -even touching their clothing rendered them unclean. And adding to that outrage, she had defiled Jesus, who was now unclean and under the Law be unable to minister to anyone else until he could undergo ritual purification.[3]

But unlike the men of his own time, Jesus treated women with a dignity and respect that refused to make them objects of ritual impurity. He spoke tenderly to the frightened woman, calling her ‘daughter’ and commended her for what she had done. He also pronounced his blessing upon her telling her to leave, in peace.[4]  After he vindicated the woman, no one in the crowd would have dared to abuse her.

In his healing ministry Jesus broke many other taboos: there were Sabbath healings as well as the touching of corpses and lepers. And his healing power was available to those who were considered enemies of the Jewish people.

The Gospel of Matthew tells of a Roman centurion, an officer of the occupying army, whose beloved servant was seriously ill. The centurion asked that the man be restored to health and Matthew reports that not only was the man healed, but Jesus praised the Roman for having greater faith than he had seen demonstrated among his own people. And he used the occasion to refute the teaching that the pagan Gentiles were outcasts who would never enjoy the blessings of God’s kingdom. Not so, Jesus said; many gentiles would enjoy the Kingdom, while there would be many descendants of Abraham who would not.

“When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. Lord, he said, my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering. Jesus said to him I will go and heal him. The centurion replies, Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.....When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, I tell you the truth. I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west and will take their places at the feast of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of that kingdom will be outside in the darkness where there will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.”[5]

The Gospel of Luke records another healing in which Jesus praises a man considered both an enemy of His people and accursed of God. He was a Samaritan and a leper, in a time when lepers were outcast from all other men. They lived miserably outside of any town, wandering among the scrub and rocks, foraging for food and compelled to shout “unclean, unclean” if they came in sight of another person. Their fate was sealed by the proscriptions of religious law which demanded that they be expelled from among the people.

“Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going to a village, ten men who had leprosy stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, he said, Go, show your-selves to the priest. And as they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him- -and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”[6]

The Samaritan who came back praising God in a loud voice had no doubt that it was the power of goodness- -of God- -that had cured him. When Jesus asked where the other nine lepers were and why they did not give praise to God, he was recalling other times when His own people attributed the works that he did to negative forces; to an evil intent.[7]  They looked for ways to denigrate what he did and tried to make the triumph of wholeness over illness or disability an occasion of law-breaking.

“(Jesus) went to a synagogue, where there was a man who had a paralyzed hand. Some people were there who wanted to accuse Jesus of doing wrong, so they asked him ‘Is it against our Law to heal on the Sabbath’?”[8]

The Sabbath was a day on which no work was to be done and Jesus knew the legal answer to that question; it would be against the Law. The predominant school of Pharisee, the Shammaites, did not even allow praying for the sick on the Sabbath. But Jesus refuted the hypocrisy and lack of compassion that dictated such interpretations of the Law and reminded the religious leaders that the Law allowed them to rescue an animal from harm on the Sabbath.

“What if one of you has a sheep and it fails into a deep hole on the Sabbath? Will he not take hold of it and lift it out. So then our Law does allow us to help someone on the Sabbath”[9]

Jesus rejected the kind of religious doctrine that tried to nullify the need for compassion. Mercy and concern for others, whether human or animal, was more important than adherence to man-made rules.

He called the man with the paralyzed hand up to the front of the synagogue and said to him “Stretch out your hand’. He stretched it out and it became well again, just like the other one. Then the Pharisees left and made plans to kill Jesus.”[10]

What was perceived as a miraculous and healing event would not be allowed to interfere with the authority of the religious status quo, although the same religious celebrated those warriors who had killed their enemies on the Sabbath.[11]

Because miracles are seen as a supernatural triumph of good over evil, the question of what Jesus considered a miraculous event becomes an important issue. When John the Baptist sent disciples to ask Jesus if He was really the Christ, the anointed one who would lead his people in triumph; Jesus cited what had taken place: the blind see, the lame walk, the diseased were restored to health and the poor had the gospel preached to them.

His ministry was the antithesis of the triumphant militarism expected of the Messiah. With few exceptions, the miracles recorded in the Old Testament were harmful to other persons: signs that witnessed to the nature of a violent and   destructive Deity; a God who relied on men to kill His enemies. From the time when the Egyptians were drowned in the Red Sea, to the destruction of Jericho under the leadership of Joshua and the endless battles with the Philistines, the Hebrew people prayed and offered sacrifices to a partisan Deity whose favor was the guarantee of the miraculous destruction of their enemies.

But the Bible reports that the power Jesus demonstrated was never destructive. They were events that witnessed to the nature of the God who empowered him: a God who healed and made whole whether the person was Jew or Gentile, ally or adversary, clean or unclean. The scriptures also report that people rejected his healing ability for a variety of reasons.

In some instances, they claimed no miracle had taken place: such reports were a sham, offered by liars or ignorant and gullible persons. Others rejected miracles because they saw them as being violations of religious law or alternatively, attributed them to some evil intent or power.

The reaction to reports of miracles in biblical times is similar to the contemporary reaction to such reports. Those who accept the infallibility of the natural laws that have been defined and developed by human beings, will not accept an event that is affected outside the contemporary understanding of those laws. This attitude continues, although historical evidence shows that what seemed miraculous in one age is taken for granted in another.

In one of the miracles reported in the Old Testament and attributed to the prophet Elisha, an ax head is made to float in the waters of the Jordan River- -something everyone knew was impossible.[12]  Only wood could float and all ships were built from it. Although at the time no one understood the concept of displacement that would allow iron to float, the rules governing that possibility did exist. But at a time when the principle was unknown it seemed to be a miracle; “a happening beyond the known laws of nature.” And because it seemed to go beyond natural law, there were those in the time of Elisha who called it a miracle. And there were others who would not accept that such a thing could have taken place.

Contrary to popular, contemporary opinion, not all the people of ancient times were gullible or accepted reports of happenings outside of what was considered the norm. Neither is it true that “back then” everyone believed in God; they did not. The Old Testament speaks of those who do not believe in God, calling them “fools.”  And those ancient scribes were also sophisticated enough to characterize atheists as “those who did not believe in their hearts.” They knew that in a culture which de-manded lip-service to a belief in Deity, atheists would not openly broadcast their lack of belief.

John’s Gospel related the story of a healing that incorporates many of the objections that people raised when a miracle seemed to have taken place in their midst. A man, who had been born blind, was restored to sight on the Sabbath, a violation of reli-gious law. Others rejected the healing because they were convinced it was due to a demonic power. And there were those who pronounced it all a fraud: the man had never been blind; therefore, there had been no miracle.

“As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man who had been born blind. His disciples asked him, Teacher, whose sin caused him to be born blind? Was it his own sin or his parents’ sin? Jesus answered. His blindness has nothing to do with his sins or his parents’ sins. . .After he said this, Jesus spat the ground, and made some mud with the spittle; he rubbed the mud on the man’s eyes and told him. Go and wash your face in the Pool of Siloam. So the man went, washed his face and came back seeing.”[13]

This was not the kind of ritualistic healing attempted by priests, clad in their expen-sive vestments, swinging gold braziers of incense and chanting proscribed prayers in the Temple precincts. Compared to those elevated rituals, using mud to give sight to a man born blind would have seemed just as gross- -just as unspiritual- - to the people of Christ’s time as it would today. The only problem was that in spite of the pomp and circumstance and the lofty nature of the symbols used at the Temple, no one who was born blind had been healed there.[14]

Once again, the religious leaders were angry because someone had healed on the Sabbath. “Some of the Pharisees said, ‘the man who did this cannot be from God, for he does not obey the Sabbath law.’ ”[15]

But the most important religious authorities did not bother to rule on this complaint because they did not believe that a healing had taken place.

“The Jewish authorities were not willing to believe that (the man) had been blind and could now see...they called his parents and asked them ‘is this your son? You say that he was born blind; how is it then, that he can now see?’ ”[16]

“His parents answered. ‘We know that he is our son, and we know that he was born blind. But we do not know how it is that he is now able to see, nor do we know who cured him of his blindness. Ask him; he is old enough and can answer for himself!”[17]

Faced with evidence that the man had, indeed, been born blind, the authorities came up with another objection: they did not want to believe that Jesus could have cured him. They wanted the man to reject that claim and attribute the cure directly to God. So they summoned him to testify before them.  “Now give God the glory, they said. We know (Jesus) is a sinner.”[18]

But the man who had been born blind was not interested in discussions about how or why he recovered. He told the authorities “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see.”[19]

The miracles reported in the Bible were greeted in the time of Christ in the same way they would be greeted today. There was joy, there was hope, there was denial, and there were charges of fraud and charlatanry. There were attempts to explain seeming cures in terms of unseen forces. In times past, those forces were thought of as spirits, good and evil, who filled the unseen world with their power. In modern times, they are attributed to unseen forces of a different kind: to the powers of the mind, conscious and unconscious; to mall hypnosis; to placebo effects or to spontaneous remission.

But today, as in the time of Christ, those who have been restored to wholeness are not concerned with debates over whether or not miracles are possible. However, there is one thing they do know, they were ill or disabled and now they are not. They had been broken in mind or body and now they are whole. And whether the authorities who challenge their recovery are medical, religious or legal it has little impact on them. Like the biblical man who had been blind, they are not interested in speculative discourse: “One thing I do know; I was blind but now I see.”


[1]  Leviticus 15:19-23  NIV

[2]  Mark 5:24-33 TEV

[3]  Later Jewish tradition denigrated women even further than the prohibitions contained in Leviticus.  e.g.  Mishnah Toharot 5:8, in which the observant Jewish male avoided touching women altogether, because they had no way of knowing if anyone outside the family circle was menstruous. This custom continues today among strictly observant Jews.

[4] Luke 8:43-48  TEV

[5] Matthew 8:5-8, 10-12 NIV

[6]  Luke 17:12-19  NIV

[7]  Matthew 12:22; Mark 3:20-30; Luke 11:14-23 NIV

[8]  Matthew 12:9 TEV

[9]  Matthew 12:11-12  TEV

[10] Matthew 12:13-14  TEV

[11]  During the Maccabean warfare, 2nd century B.C.  See BBC- -NT  p. 142

[12]  2 Kings 6:4 - 7.  This miracle is discussed in “All the Miracles of the Bible,”  p.123, Herbert Lockyer, Zondervan Publ. House, Grand Rapids, Mi. 1961

[13]  John 9:1-6 TEV

[14]  The use of dirt to create sight is an echo of the second creation account of Genesis. The first account tells of a very high order of creation; of human beings created in the image of God. (Genesis 1:27). But the second account is of a much lower order: it says that God created Adam from the dirt of the earth (Genesis 2:7). And it was these descendants of Adam to whom Christ was ministering.

[15]  John 9:16 TEV

[16] John 9:19 TEV

[17]  John 9:20-23 TEV

[18]  John 9:24 TEV

[19]  John 9:25 TEV

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