Sin and Sickness – Matthew 9:1-8

Some of the scribes who have gathered to hear Jesus teach think Jesus blasphemed when he forgave the paralytic’s sin without healing him.

Jesus heals a paralytic

“This fellow” or “this man” may be pejorative, something like “who does this guy think he is?” in Matthew 8:27 the disciples ask, “What kind of man is this” after he calms the sea. But the question “who is this man?” is at the heart of all the stories in Matthew 8-9, Jesus is revealing who he is, the God who forgives sin, but the scribes do not accept that claim. There is a contrast between the demon possessed men in 8:29 who know Jesus is the Son of God and these Jewish scribes, who deny he could be the God who forgives sin.

What does it mean to blaspheme?  In the Law, blasphemy is a misuse of the name of God, a “verbal slander against God” and the punishment for this offense of death (Bock, “Blasphemy” in DJG, 84) or example, in m. Sanhedrin 7:5, a blasphemer has “fully pronounced the divine Name.” As is well known, the punishment for pronouncing the name of God was death punishable by death (Lev 24:10-16). In m. Sanh. 6.4 some sages say, “Only the blasphemer and the one who worships an idol are hanged.” Philo said “But if anyone were, I will not say to blaspheme against the Lord of gods and men but were even to dare to utter his name unseasonably, he must endure the punishment of death; (Mos. 2.206).

Ironically, but the end of this section of Matthew, Jesus declares the Pharisees have committed “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (12:30-32). As far as the scribes are concerned, the many has not been forgiven since he is still paralyzed. They seem to interpret his condition as the result of sin.

For some writers in Second Temple Judaism, God punished sin with physical illness. In Matthew quoted Isaiah 53:4 as fulfilled in Jesus’s healing, “He took up our infirmity and bore our diseases” (8:17). Psalm 103:2-3 says the Lord both forgives sin and heals disease. When Hezekiah was afflicted with a deadly boil, he may have assumed there was a connection between the disease and punishment for sin. In the Prayer of Nabonidus (4Q242), the king is afflicted with a disease until a Jewish exorcist “forgave his sins.”

Psalm 103:2-3 Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases.

4Q242 (4QPrNab ar) 4QPrayer of Nabonidus ar [I, Nabonidus,] was afflicted [by a malignant inflammation] 3 for seven years, and was banished far [from men, until I prayed to the God Most High] 4 and an exorcist forgave my sin. He was a Je[w] fr[om the exiles… (Martı́nez and Tigchelaar)

Ned. 41A R. Alexandri in the name of R. Hiyya bar Abba, “A sick person does not recover from his ailment before all of his sins are forgiven: ‘Who forgives all your sins, who heals all your diseases’ (Ps. 103:3).”

As is the case in Matthew 8:16-17, it is also possible the illness was caused by demonic influence. Like the owners of the pigs in the previous story, the scribes are less concerned about the paralyzed man than Jesus’s blasphemous statement claiming to forgive sin.

Jesus Responds by Healing the Paralytic (Matthew 9:4-7). Jesus knows their thoughts, as he will the Pharisees in 12:25. In both cases, these thoughts consider Jesus to be claiming divine authority in a way which is offensive to God.

“Which is easier?” Jesus asks. Nolland calls this a “riddling question” that depends on the saying “your sins are forgiven.” God grants the authority to heal to humans, even the disciples will be given authority to heal (Matthew 10:1), but only God can forgive sin. Therefore, it is easier (for a human) to heal than to forgive sin (Brown and Roberts, Matthew, 91). On the other hand, anyone can say “your sins are forgiven,” that does not make them forgiven.  The problem is that there can be no proof a person’s sins are forgiven (or not). However, healing a paralyzed man is verifiable. He if stands up and walks, then he has been forgiven.

Jesus then heals the paralytic so that they will know “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” In Daniel 7:14 a son of man is given authority to judge the Gentile nations and establish the final kingdom of God. By using the phrase “Son of Man has authority,” Jesus is alluding to Daniel 7 and claiming to be God’s appointed representative who is qualified by God himself to render judgment, to punish or to forgive sin.

Jesus made an extraordinary claim, to have the authority to forgive sin, then verifies that the man’s sins have been forgiven by healing his paralysis in full view of a crowd.

It is important to understand that this passage disconnects the man’s illness from any punishment for sin. We do not know why he is sick, and it does not matter since the story is about Jesus’s authority, not whether (or not) a person’s sin is related to their illnesses.

The crowd saw the man stand up and walk out of the house and they are amazed. But is this fear or amazement? Normally φοβέω refers to fear (in Matthew 8:26 Jesus asks the disciples why they are so afraid, the noun there is δειλός, cowardly, timid). Later when Jesus walks on the water, the disciples are afraid because they think they have seen a ghost, and when Peter attempts to walk on the water, he sees the waves and is afraid.

The crowd does glorify God “who gave such authority to men.” Why plural, men? It is possible his anticipate Matthew 10. Jesus will authorize his own disciples to drive out demons and heal all kinds of sickness. In John 9, Jesus explicitly contradicts the belief that a person’s illness or infirmity was caused by their sin.

Matthew does not tell us anything more about the once-paralyzed man or his friends. His focus on in Jesus’s claim to have authority to forgive sin. Just as the crowds were amazed when Jesus taught by his own authority (7:28-29) and the disciples were amazed when he calmed the sea (8:27).

But like the people in the area of Gadarene who were frightened by Jesus’s restoration of the demon possessed man, now a crowd is afraid of  him, yet they glorify God.

Jesus Has Authority Over Sin – Matthew 9:1-2

In the previous two stories, Jesus demonstrated his authority over satanic powers. First, he calms the chaos of the seas and second, he commanded demons to leave two men who were living among the tombs. In both cases he is in “enemy territory” where Satan has the advantage. Now in 9:1-7 Jesus will demonstrate his authority over sin and sickness by healing a paralytic man. The one who silences the chaos of the seas and commands demons also has the authority to forgive sin. Matthew is making a clear Christological statement about who Jesus is as well as tracking a range of responses to Jesus, amazement, fear, and rejection.

Jesu Heals the Paralytic

The story appears in see Mark 2:1-12 and Luke 5:18–26. As is usually the case, Matthew’s version of the story is brief compared to Mark and Luke. “Matthew’s narration is surprisingly slim at this point” (Brown and Roberts, Matthew, 91). Matthew omits the situation (a large crowd in Peter’s house), the four friends who lower the paralyzed man through the roof, and the paralytic does not pick up his mat when he departs. An interesting addition is calling Capernaum “his town.”

Having returned to Capernaum, which Matthew calls “his own city” (ESV), a paralytic is brought to Jesus. In Mark’s version of the story, Jesus is teaching in Peter’s house and a crowd has gather which prevents four men from bringing the man to Jesus through the door.They are forced to dig a hole in the roof in order to lower the paralytic into Jesus’s presence. When Jesus sees their faith, he forgives the man’s sin.

It is possible the story was so well-known Matthew did not need to include all of the details since his focus is on who Jesus claims to be and the reaction of the scribes and the crowd. On the other hand, Nolland suggests the paralytic did not express faith (the other men who brought them did); since Matthew focuses on faith in Jesus as a basis of healing (see 8:10), he abbreviated the story to avoid the implication the healed man did not express faith (Nolland, Matthew, 380).

Paralysis was one of several impurities which would prevent this man from going up to the Temple to worship. The lame were not permitted to serve as priests or Levites (Leviticus 21:16-24), although they can eat from the offerings, they are not permitted to “come near to offer the Lord’s food offerings.” In the Rule of the Congregation (1Q Sa).

Deuteronomy 15:21 (ESV) But if it has any blemish, if it is lame or blind or has any serious blemish whatever, you shall not sacrifice it to the Lord your God.

1QSa 2:3-7 No man, defiled by any of the impurities 4 of a man, shall enter the assembly of these; and no-one who is defiled by these should be 5 established in his office amongst the congregation: everyone who is defiled in his flesh, paralysed in his feet or 6 in his hands, lame, blind, deaf, dumb or defiled in his flesh with a blemish 7 visible to the eyes, or the tottering old man who cannot keep upright in the midst of the assembly. (Martı́nez and Tigchelaar; see also those who are not permitted to participate in the final war in The War Scroll, 1QM 7:4)

Rather than healing the man, Jesus pronounces the man’s sins forgiven. Jesus declares the sins forgiven even though there has been no sacrifice or other means of atonement made. If the man was struck with paralysis because of an illness, then his friends may have thought he was under the judgment of God for some sin he may have done. They should have begged God forgive the man gone up to the Temple to offer sacrifices on his behalf.

For Jesus to claim to forgive sin is to claim divine authority. Only God forgive sin in the Old Testament (Exodus 34:7; Isa 43:25-26) and the literature of the Second Temple period.

Exodus 34:7 (ESV) …keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

Isaiah 43:25–26 (ESV) “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins. 26 Put me in remembrance; let us argue together; set forth your case, that you may be proved right.

4Q398 f14–17ii Remember David, who was a man of the pious ones, [and] he, too, 2 [was] freed from many afflictions and was forgiven.

4Q417 f2i:14 Be like a humble man when you conduct a case […] 15 grasp. And then God will see, and his anger will turn away, and he will forgive your sins [f]or before [his] an[ger] 16 no-one can endure.

11Q5 19:12-14 When I recall your power my heart is strengthened, 13 and I rely on your kind deeds. Forgive my sin, YHWH, 14 and cleanse me from my iniquity.

In a similar situation, Jesus forgives the sin of a woman in Luke 7:49. He gets a similar reaction from the witnesses: they are shocked he claims authority to forgive since forgiving sin done through the sacrifices and only granted by God.

What is Jesus claiming in this story? Is there a difference between claiming to have the authority to forgive sin and claiming to be God?

Jesus Has Authority Over Demons – Matthew 8:28-34

After calming the storm, his disciples asked, “what sort of man is this, that even the winds and sea obey him?” (8:27). In the next demonstration of Jesus’s authority, he commands demons and they obey him.

Jesus and Legion

Two men with demons confront Jesus as his boat arrives on the shore. Since this is the first exorcism in Matthew, it is important to talk briefly about what exorcism was in the first century. As with his healings, Jesus commands the demons to leave without invoking any other authority. Exorcists in the first century invoked powerful names in order to force demons out, In Acts 19:13-16 the seven sons of Sceva used the names Jesus and Paul as power names to cast out demons. In a passage obviously shaped by Matthew 8:28-34/ Mark 5:1-21/Luke 8:26-40, the Testament of Solomon 11 describes a lion-shaped demon with a legion of demons at his command who can only be cast out by the name Emmanuel.

T.Solomon 11.6 So I said to him, “I adjure you by the name of the great God Most High: By what name are you and your demons thwarted?” The demon said, “By the name of the one who at one time submitted to suffer many things (at the hands) of men, whose name is Emmanouel, but now he has bound us and will come to torture us (by driving us) into the water at the cliff. As he moves about, he is conjured up by means of three letters.

Jesus does not have any elaborate preparations or rituals for an exorcism. In other Second Temple literature, casting out a demon was often a complicated process. In Tobit 8:1-3, for example, Tobias is instructed to place a liver and heart from a fish, mix it with live ashes of incense in order to make smoke, and then the demon will flee “to the remotest parts of Egypt” where an angel will bind him.

In order to cast out the demon Kunopegos (a demon who controls the waves, “I cause a type of seasickness when I pass into men”), Solomon learns he can only be cast out by the angel Iameth (possibly related to the Greek word for healing). The demon is then cast into an elaborate arrangement of bowls and ropes:

T.Solomon 16.6–7 So I said to him, “Tell me by what angel you are thwarted.” He replied, “By Iameth.” 7 Then I ordered him to be cast into a broad, flat bowl, and ten receptacles of seawater to be poured over (it). I fortified the top side all around with marble and I unfolded and spread asphalt, pitch, and hemp rope around over the mouth of the vessel.

Matthew’s description of the men is brief: they are so fierce no one can pass by the tombs.  In Mark this strength is further described: the man was often chained but he always broke his chains, and no one was strong enough to subdue him (Mark 5:3-4).  “Very fierce” (ESV, NRSV) or “so violent” (NIV) translates the adjective χαλεπός. This word describes an animal that is so violent and dangerous it is difficult to deal with. Although it is used only here in the New Testament, it is common in classical Greek, describing violent dangerous men (Thuc. 3.42.3) as well as a difficult enemy (Thuc. 3.40.6) (BrillDAG).

These two men are therefore described like wild animals, attacking anyone who tried to pass by the cemetery on the road. Think of these demon-possessed men as something like a “junkyard dog.” Nolland calls them a “public menace” (Nolland, Matthew, 375).

The demons know who Jesus is, the Son of God.  “What have you to do with us” is an idiom which means something like “we have no common interests.” Like the demons in Acts 19:13-16, these demons attempt to demonstrate power over Jesus by using his real name. They intend to use this knowledge to stop Jesus from tormenting them.

They identify him as the Son of God, or the son of the Most High God in Mark/Luke. Satan himself used this title for Jesus in Matthew 4:3, 6 and eventually the disciples will use the title for Jesus (after Jesus walks on the water, 14:33; Peter’s confession, 16:16) and a centurion who witnesses the death of Jesus uses the title (perhaps ironically, 27:54)

The demons ask if Jesus has come to “torment us before the time?” In the pseudepigraphic Testament of Solomon, the fate of the demon is usually to be bound or tormented, often put to work gathering material for the Temple.

There is an appointed time for these demons to be judged and tormented. For example, in Matthew 25:41 the Son of Man will return with all of his holy ones to judge. In 1 Enoch 1:9 the God of the universe will come out of his dwelling with a great display of power (1:3-7) and render judgment on the righteous and the wicked (1:8-9).

1 Enoch 1:9 Behold, he will arrive with ten million of the holy ones in order to execute judgment upon all. He will destroy the wicked ones and censure all flesh on account of everything that they have done, that which the sinners and the wicked ones committed against him.

The demons ask Jesus to send them into a herd of pigs rather than simply casting them out.  Why is there a herd of pig nearby? The population on the east side of the lake is Gentile, an area known as Decapolis.

The herd of pigs is some distance away, since they are tended by pig-herders who would not keep the herd to a cemetery with demonic menaces! Pigs are not taken out into the pasture to graze, so it is likely this is a small farm raising pigs for the Greek and Roman population of the region. In addition, they go back to their village and report what has happened and then return, so they must be closer to the village.

Jesus commands the demons and they open, entering the herd of pigs. Matthew adds the command, “Go” (an imperative form of ὑπάγω). The word also appears in Matthew 4:10 Jesus when tells Satan to go, and the same word is used in 16:23 in response to Peter’s rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan!”

The pigs destroy themselves by rushing down the steep bank into the sea and drowning. What is the point of destroying the pigs? People who are possessed are usually self-destructive, perhaps this is simply a reflection of this tendency.

Matthew omits the reaction of the two men. In Mark and Luke, the man wants to follow Jesus, but Jesus sends him back to his own people. In Matthew, we have no idea what the former possessed me thought of Jesus.

The herdsmen, however, go back to their town and report what Jesus did, “especially what happened to the demon possessed men.” It may be the case the farmers are more concerned at the loss of their pigs than the restoration of the two demoniacs! Mark 5:13 says there were 2000 pigs in the herd. If this is the case, this is a major financial loss for a wealthy Gentile farmer. However, even though we do not know what they reported, the focus is on Jesus’s power over the two men no one else was able to control.

Rather than react to Jesus’s power over the demons with amazement like the Jewish people at the end of the Sermon on the Mount (7:28-29) or after he casts out a demon in a Jewish region (9:32-34), the townspeople beg Jesus to leave their region.

The reaction of the people of the village to Jesus’s authority over demons is surprising, but it anticipates the reaction of the Pharisees in Matthew 12:22-24.

Jesus and the Demons – Matthew 8:28-34

There are several significant different between much-abbreviated exorcism story in Matthew and the parallel story Mark 5:1-21 and Luke 8:26-40. Luz concludes Matthew “has omitted so many details from his Markan source that one can hardly ask why in each individual case” (Luz, Matthew, 23).

  • First, the location is the country of the Gadarenes rather than Gerasenes. This matter is complicated by textual variants, the Alexandian witnesses for Matthew has Gadarenes, the majority has Gerasenes; but that is reversed for Mark and Luke.
  • Second, there are two demon possessed men rather than one.
  • Third, the description of the demon’s strength is more brief and the demon does not identify itself as Legion.
  • Fourth, the men identify Jesus as “Son of God” rather than “Son of the most high God” (Mark 5:7; Luke 8:28).
  • Fifth, Mark and Luke say Jesus gave the demons permission to go into the pigs, in Matthew he commands them with the word “Go.”
  • Finally, although the locals beg Jesus to leave the region, Matthew omits Jesus’s conversation with the formerly demon-possessed man (Mark 5:18-20; Luke 8:38-39).

Does this miracle happen in “the country of Gadarenes or Gerasenes? Gadara and Gerasa are two different places with very similar names in Greek, and the name for the traditional site is Gergesa. All three names appear in the textual tradition, although Gerasenes is probably correct based on the parallel stories in Mark and Luke.

The traditional location of this miracle is Gergesa, known also as Kursi, is on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. This identification dates to Origin and Eusebius, although Eusebius recognizes the problem of Matthew’s Gadara. By the sixth century Christians built a church at the site and several caves on the cliffside were used by monks. Nolland suggests this identification was made because the place has cliffsides near the Sea of Galilee.

Gadara (“hot springs”) is a territory south of the Yarmuk River about five miles from the Sea of Galilee, but the region may have extended to the Sea. The modern village of Umm Qais is associated with Gadara. Gadara was part of the Decapolis after Pompey (63 B.C.) although it was a Hellenistic city long before that time.

Cliff where demon posessed pigs leapt into the sea

The confusion may have been caused by the fact Gerasa (modern Jerash) is 37 miles from the short of Galilee, the tombs would not be associated with that city, and the distance is too great for the pigs to run into the sea. In my view, Kursi may very well be the location, but it is impossible to be dogmatic on this issue.

Why does Matthew say two men were among the tombs? Mark and Luke tell the same story with only one demon possessed man. There are a wide range of possible solutions to this problem.

  • Donald Hagner, for example, suggests the extra man was added as a reference to the Jewish tradition of two witnesses (Matthew, 1:225).
  • Following D. A. Carson, Mike Wilkins suggests Matthew had independent knowledge of the second man (Matthew, 353; Carson, “Matthew,” 217).
  • Others suggest that since Matthew omitted Mark’s reference to Legion (“for we are many”) he interpreted “Legion” as a reference to more than one possessed man.
  • One intriguing suggestion is Matthew added the extra man in order to bring the number of people healed in chapters 8-9 to twelve (Green, Matthew, 102. Cited in Davies and Allison, 2:80).
  • Rudolf Bultmann suggested Matthew had a fondness for doubling things (History, 316).

As with the location of this exorcism there are several other possibilities, likely the comments will offer other suggestions!

Why are they “among the tombs”? On the one hand, this may simply be a result of the oppression of the demons. However, the location highlights Jesus’s willingness to go into areas of uncleanliness from the perspective of the Pharisees. He enters a Gentile region and enters a cemetery in order to heal two demoniacs.

Are these men Jewish or Gentile? Jeannine K. Brown suggests they are Jewish because Jesus focused his ministry on the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Brown and Roberts, Matthew (THCNT), 90). When Matthew describes a Gentile who expresses faith in Jesus it is always in contrast to the lack of faith among his own people (the centurion in 8:5-13, for example).

If these are Jewish men, then they are in a state of maximum impurity: demon possessed, living among the tombs in a Gentile region near a pig farm.

Jesus Has Authority Over Creation – Matthew 8:23-27

The story of Jesus calming the sea is one of those classic Sunday School stories, perfect for flannelgraph time. Yet there is far more to this story than our childhood memories might recall. In some ways, this story is still about discipleship. After rejecting two disciples who are not able to commit themselves to Jesus’s high standard of discipleship, we now learn that even the disciples who were willing to leave family and reputations behind and got in the boat with Jesus have “little faith” in who Jesus really is. That is the second thread in this brief story, Jesus is the God who commands the seas and silences the winds and waves. But there is a third, darker thread to this story. The storm is not a normal storm, this is a satanic attack on Jesus, something which becomes clearer when he arrives on the other side of the lake and encounters two demoniacs (Matt 8:28-34). Jesus will silence demons in the same way he silences the storm in 8:23-27.

Jesus Calms the Sea

Matthew has an abbreviated version of the story found in Mark 4:35-41. Mark mentions other boats were with Jesus’s boat and that Jesus was asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat. The words of the disciples are omitted, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” and Jesus’s words rebuking the storm are also omitted (“Peace, be still”). Although Jesus’s words to the disciples are slightly different the gist is the same (they have little faith). Luke 8:22-25 is quite similar. Instead of “teacher” the disciples call Jesus Master (ἐπιστάτης, twice) and he adds the phrase “they were in great danger.” In all three versions Jesus and the disciples reach Gerasenes (or Gadarenes in Matthew) and encounter a demoniac (or two, in Matthew).

After hearing he is about to leave Capernaum and go to the other side of the lake, two would-be disciples approach Jesus (8:18-22). Jesus responds to them with enigmatic sayings which show how difficult it is to be a true disciple of Jesus.  Jesus then gets into the boat with his disciples to cross the sea. These are presumably his true disciples, the beginnings of the twelve. Jesus does not appoint the twelve until chapter 10.

First, Jesus falls asleep and a great storm threatens to swamp the boat. First, Jesus is asleep in the boat during a violent storm and needs to be awakened (v. 25).  In Matthew 20:8 the same word will be used for raising the dead. This may be an indication of total exhaustion. As a human Jesus was exhausted by a long day of teaching and healing and simply was worn out. In the other hand, Jesus is so confident that he will not be killed crossing the lake that he is able to lay down and sleep in the presence of his enemies (the chaos of the sea, cf. Psalm 3:5-6).

Second, this should be a short trip across the lake, a trip the disciples have made many times. The Sea of Galilee is not a large lake and early evening boat trip cutting across the lake would be faster than a crowd could follow. In addition, the will land near the Gentile region of Decapolis where a Jewish teacher is unlikely to draw a huge crowd. This trip should take about two hours, but because of the storm it well into the night before the disciples decided to wake Jesus from his sleep.

Third, this is not just a normal bad storm on the Sea of Galilee. In the Old Testament, a raging sea is often used as a metaphor for the enemies of God. In Daniel 7:2 a series of nations rise from the raging, churning sea, nations who all oppress God’s people. Even in Genesis 1:2 the Spirit of God hovers over the chaotic, formless and void waters before God imposes order on the chaos in the days of creation. Matthew says the storm is a violent storm (σεισμὸς μέγας), Mark and Luke describe it as a “furious storm” (λαῖλαψ), a word used only in Mark 4: and Luke 8:23 (and 2 Peter 2:17, false teachers are driven by strong winds).

The Disciples are Terrified (8:25). The storm is so great the disciples are terrified. Presumably at least four of these men are Peter and Andrew, James and John, men who were raised in Galilee and were used to fishing on the lake at night.

The disciples fear they are about to die because of this storm, so the awaken Jesus and call him to save them from the storm. The disciples address Jesus as Lord (Κύριε). The second would-be disciples also called Jesus Lord, although it not clear he meant anything more by this than a respectful title. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says not everyone who calls him Lord will enter the kingdom of Heaven (7:21).

They say to Jesus “Save us!” Although Christians are used to hearing “saves” in the context of personal salvation (Eph 2:5, 2:8 for example), the word is common in the Old Testament when someone is crying out to the Lord to be rescued from some real-life danger.  For example, Psalm 3:7. “Arise, O Lord! Save me,” the LXX uses κύριε, σῶσόν με, virtually the same phrase as Matthew 8:25. The reason David’s enemies have risen up against him, his son has rebelled against him and his life is in real danger. Psalm 3 concludes with the line, “Salvation belongs to the Lord.” It may be a coincidence, but in Psalm 3:5 the psalmist is so confident in the Lords salvation that he lays down and sleeps and is sustained by the Lord when he awakens even though he is surrounded by his enemies.

Remarkably Jesus calls his disciples cowards! The word δειλός is a rare in the New Testament, used here and in the parallel story in Mark 4:40. The word can have the sense of fearfulness but is used for timidity and cowardice (BrillDAG). It is rare in the LXX, used in Judges 7:3 for the men who were afraid of the upcoming battle, similar to 1 Macc 3:56. In 2 Chronicles 13:7 it is used to describe the “certain worthless scoundrels” who supported Jeroboam. Depending on how you want to hear these words, Jesus could be calling out his disciples for being timid (having little faith) or calling them a bunch of cowards!

In either case, the problem is they lack confidence in Jesus to protect them from this unusual storm. In Mark 4:38, the disciples say “don’t you care we are perishing,” in Matthew they call out to Jesus to save them from certain death.

Jesus then rises and rebukes the winds and the sea, resulting in “great calm.” To rebuke someone is to silence them. Jesus rebukes demons and orders them to be silent, but he also rebukes his disciples. When Peter sought to correct what he took to be Jesus’s misunderstanding about his role as messiah (the word rebuke is used), Jesus rebukes Peter (Matt 16:22).

After he rebuked the sea, there was a “great calm” (γαλήνη μεγάλη). “Calm” is an unruffled surface on a body of water (BDAG); it is a “dead calm.” The word is used as a metaphor for tranquility or serenity (BrillDAG). Whatever the storm was like (supernatural chaos), this is the exact opposite, a supernatural calm.

What is the Point of this Story? Following Mark, Matthew presents Jesus as the God who controls the seas. The sea was considered by most ancient cultures to be a place of chaos that only the gods can control. But in the Old Testament God is the one who controls the seas.  For example, Psalm 89:9 describes God as ruling the raging of the sea and the waves.

In Psalm 89:8-10 and Job 26:12-13 Rahab refers to a primordial sea dragon. Although this is a terrifying and powerful creature, God slaughters it completely. The sea is a dangerous place which threatens to destroy God’s people. Just as God controlled the chaos of the waters in Genesis 1:2, he unleashed that chaos at the time of the flood.

Jesus rebuked the winds and the seas, a clear allusion to Psalm 107. The Psalmist describes God as “rebuking the Red Sea” when he brought Egypt up out of Egypt. Psalm 107:29, the Lord himself calms the sea, 107:25-27 describes the terrifying storm, in vs. 28 they cry out to the Lord in their trouble; vs. 29 the Lord stilled the sea, the storm was waves were hushed, the waters are quiet, and the Lord brought them to their desired haven (v. 30).

The sea was considered by most ancient people to be a place of chaos, only the gods can calm the chaos of the sea. Psalm 89:8 indicates God controls the sea and calms the waves. In the Psalms, the writer often describes himself as drowning in deep waters, only God can rescue him (Pss 18:16; 69:2, 14–15).

By calming the sea, Jesus reveals who he is to his closest disciples, but they do not fully understand at this point who he is.

Jesus Heals Peter’s Mother in Law – Matthew 8:14-16

Peter’s mother-in-law has a fever and is perhaps suffering from malaria or some other disease. Jesus heals her on the Sabbath and she begins to serve him.

Christ Healing Peter's Mother in law, John Bridges

First, if Peter have a mother-in-law, then Peter was a married man. In Matthew 19:27 Peter says he has left everything to follow Jesus, including his house and wife. However, 1 Corinthians 9:3-5 implies Peter was married when Paul write that letter.

Second, what illness was his mother-in-law suffering? The verb πυρέσσω and the cognate verb πυρετός are rare in the New Testament and the only the verb appears in the LXX in Deuteronomy 28:22 where translates the Hebrew noun קַדַּחַת (qaddaḥat). This kind of fever is associated with the curses for covenant unfaithfulness and only appears elsewhere in Leviticus 26:16.

Matthew’s version of Mark 1:29-34 is briefer and omits the fact this occurs on the Sabbath. Luke 4:38-41 also sets the healing on the Sabbath, but Jesus does not touch her hand, but rather rebukes the fever. Luke adds the fact she was tormented (passive participle of συνέχω) with a high fever (πυρετῷ μεγάλῳ). Compare this to the father of Publius in Acts 28:8, he was suffering with dysentery.

Davies and Allison point out the connection between a fever and demonic activity in the Testament of Solomon 7. In this apocryphal story, Solomon questions the demon Lix Tetrax who describes himself as causing fevers which last for a day and a half.

Testament of Solomon 7.5–6 “I create divisions among men, I make whirlwinds, I start fires, I set fields on fire, and I make households non-functional. Usually, I carry on my activity in the summertime. If I get the chance, I slither in under the corners of houses during the night or day. I am the direct offspring of the Great One.” 6 I asked him, ‘In which constellation do you reside?” He replied, ‘Toward the very tip of the horn of the moon when it is found in the South—there is my star. Therefore, I was assigned to draw out the fever which strikes for a day and a half.

However, there is nothing else in the story to imply this woman was under demonic oppression. Perhaps an outsider might have considered the possibility she had a demon, but that is not at all the point of this story.

After she is healed, she immediately serves him (Jesus). On the one hand, this may refer to her returning to her role as a hostess for a Sabbath meal for an honored guest. But on the other hand, this is the first person in Matthew’s gospel who serves Jesus. As Donald Hagner comments, “She ministered to him in grateful response to what he had done for her—a fundamental aspect of discipleship: (Hagner, Matthew, 209).

Walter Wilson recently suggested Matthew re-worked this story to recall Elisha and Shunammite woman’s son (2 Kings 4:18-37). He points out the healing of the leper in Matthew 8:1-4 alludes to the healing of Naaman, a gentile military officer with leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-14). When Elisha entered the house, he there was a child lying dead on the bed; when Jesus entered the house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in the bed.  In both cases, the women serve the prophet (2 Kings 4:16; Matt 8:14).

Wilson and others who draw parallels to Elisha are likely correct. Just as the Sermon on the Mount drew comparisons to Moses as Israel’s lawgiver, these miracles draw comparisons between Jesus’s healing ministry and the two greatest prophets from Israel’s history.

But there is more here. The first three miracles in Matthew 8 concern people who would be excluded from worship at the temple and would certainly not be the sort of people expected to express faith in a Jewish teacher like Jesus.

That evening, many are healed (8:16). In the parallel story in Mark 1:29-34 Jesus was in the synagogue on the Sabbath and returned to Simon and Andrew’s home when he healed Peter’s mother-in-law.

Matthew concludes these three healing stories by declaring Jesus fulfills Isaiah 53:4 (Matthew 8:17). The verse is part of the four “Servant songs” in Isaiah, the most significant is 52:12-53:12. Matthew’s quotation here follows the LXX, which has the gist of the MT.

Isaiah 53:4 (ESV) Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.

Isaiah 53:4 (LES2) This one carries our sins and suffers pain for us, and we regarded him as one who is in difficulty, misfortune, and affliction.

How does Jesus “take up” illness? In the first century, sin and sickness were often connected. This is more clear in Matthew 9:1-8 when Jesus forgives a paralyzed man’s sin, prompting the teachers of the Law to accuse him of blasphemy.

Bibliography: Wilson, Walter T. “The Uninvited Healer: Houses, Healing and Prophets in Matthew 8.1-22.” JSNT 36 (2013): 53–72.

Who are the “Many Who Come from the East and West” in Matthew 8:10-12?

In Matthew 8:10-12 Jesus draws a contrast between the “sons of the kingdom” who will not participate in the eschatological feast and those who will. The ones who do recline at the table with Abraham are “many from the east and the west.” Just who the many who enter the banquet and sit at the head table in the eschatological banquet has been a matter of discussion in recent scholarship.

Great Feast Abraham Beyeren

Since Jeremias, the majority opinion is that the included “many” are believing Gentiles and that the excluded “sons of the kingdom” are unbelieving Jews (Jesus’ Promise to the Nations, 51). Jeremias gives five features of Jesus’ view of the eschatological pilgrimage of the Gentiles (57-60). First, God reveals himself to all humanity (Isa 2:2; 40:5). Second, God calls everyone to Zion (Isa 45:20–22). Third, the journey of the Gentiles to Zion, from Egypt and Assyria (Isa 2:3, 19:23). Fourth, the nations will worship at the “world–sanctuary” (Isa 56:7, 66:18). Last of all is the messianic banquet on the world–mountain (Isa 25:6–8). Matthew 8:11 is, for Jeremias, an interpretation of Malachi 1:11 highlighting the in–gathering of the Gentiles (62).

In a 1989 article, Dale Allison challenged this consensus opinion by arguing the “many from the east and the west” are Jews from the Diaspora rather than Gentiles replacing Jews at the eschatological feast. While he does not interact with Allison’s article, John Nolland argues a “re–application of the gathering of Israel to the gathering of the Gentiles is to claim too much.” Jewish eschatological thinking always allowed for Gentile participation in the Jewish eschatological gathering. (Matthew, 357).

Allison points out there is no text in the Hebrew Bible or the Second Temple Period, which describes Gentiles as coming from the east and west. Isaiah 59:19 describes a pilgrimage from the east and west when the Redeemer comes to Zion for those in Jacob who have turned from transgression. Psalm 107:3 describes Israel coming from the east, west, north and south. Philo (Spec. Leg. 1.69) uses this language (“from the east and west”) to describe the return of Diaspora Jews from Alexandria and Babylon to Jerusalem for festival days. For other texts describing a pilgrimage from the “east and west, north and south.” (See LXX Ps 106:2–3 [ET 107:2–3], Isa 43:5–6; Zech 8:7–8, 1 Enoch 57:1).

Psalms of Solomon 11 combines the gathering of the children of Zion (PsSol 11:2, cf. Isa 52:7; 54:1–4) with the voice of one bringing good news to Zion.

Psalms of Solomon 11.1–4 Sound in Zion the signal trumpet of the sanctuary; announce in Jerusalem the voice of one bringing good news, for God has been merciful to Israel in watching over them. 2 Stand on a high place, Jerusalem, and look at your children, from the east and the west assembled together by the Lord. 3 From the north they come in the joy of their God; from far distant islands God has assembled them. 4 He flattened high mountains into level ground for them; the hills fled at their coming.

The Zion is to clothe herself with garments of glory (PsSol 11:7, cf. Isa 52:1) because the way through the wilderness has been prepared by leveling the path and turning the desert into paradise (PsSol 11:4–5, cf. Isa 40:4, 41:17–18). This pilgrimage only concerns Jews scattered throughout the world as they return to Zion and Jerusalem.

Allison also argues that even if there is an allusion to an eschatological pilgrimage of the nations to Zion in Matthew 8:11, it cannot be assumed that the original hearers would have thought of this pilgrimage as universal salvation of Gentiles (163). Allison cites several Second Temple Period texts which show that the Gentile pilgrimage in the future will be one of judgment, not salvation. As early as Ezekiel 39 the nations come to Israel, but instead of finding salvation at an eschatological banquet, they are utterly destroyed and become the food for the banquet (Ezek 39:17–20).

Allison is correct that at least some streams of Second Temple Period Judaism did not envision a future conversion of the nations, but rather their destruction. The source for this diversity is the ambiguity is the foundation eschatological banquet text, Isa 25:6–8. In fact, this is the only text in the Hebrew Bible which may connect the pilgrimage of the nations to Zion with the messianic feast. In every other text, the nations travel to Zion to pay homage to the God of Israel, but the feast is celebrated only by Israel. Allison concludes that Jesus would not have turned the metaphor of the messianic banquet upside down by replacing Israel with the Gentiles. Rather, he was indicating that the Jews who thought they ought to be sharing in the messianic banquet will be replaced by other Jewish guests, perhaps even those from the Diaspora (165).

While agreeing with many of Allison’s points, Michael Bird nevertheless maintains that the consensus view is essentially correct (“Who Comes from the East and the West?,” 441–57). Bird points out the book of Isaiah has both a “pilgrimage of the Gentiles” (Isa 2:2–4) and an eschatological banquet (Isa 25:6–8). Allison does not think Jesus’ audience would have read the two texts together since there is no pilgrimage and conversion of the nations in the eschatological feast.

Following Craig Keener, Bird points out that Jesus and other Second Temple Period thinkers frequently read Isaiah synthetically. “Even if he drew on only a single text, [Jesus] understanding of that text would be informed by the others” (Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 270, n.26). Similarly, Warren Carter is convinced Allison is correct about inclusion of the Diaspora but does not see this as a non–inclusion of the Gentiles (Matthew and the Margins, 203). The context of Matthew 8:8–10 is the compelling factor for Carter. Matthew has placed this saying into a context which highlights Gentile conversion.

If it was only Matthew inserting the saying into the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant, then perhaps Bird and Carter have a valid point. But the literary unit of Matthew 8–9 should be considered as a whole. This section is a series of miracles and conflict stories between two teaching sections (Matt 5–7 and 10).  In this larger section Jesus comes into contact with various outsiders: a leper, the demon–possessed, tax collectors, the blind and lame, as well as a Gentile. The faith of the Gentile centurion stands as part of a series of events which demonstrate that Jesus extends mercy to the outsiders.

In fact, there is nothing in Matthew 8:5–13 which anticipates the Gentile mission which would have been the case when Matthew finally wrote his Gospel. If Matthew were creating a story to show that Jesus was extending salvation to the Gentiles, then Jesus should have shared a meal with the Gentile as he did the (Jewish) tax–collectors and other sinners in Matt 9:9–13. That the centurion knows it is not lawful for Jesus to enter his home may imply that this man was a God–fearing Gentile not unlike Cornelius (Acts 10:28). Luke describes the Centurion as a patron of the Synagogue at Capernaum (Luke 7:4–5).

When read within the context of Matthew’s gospel, this saying about an eschatological banquet does not so much refer to geographical Diaspora Jews, but rather a sociological Diaspora. An additional factor is the placement of the saying in Luke 13:29, where there is no hint of Gentile salvation in Luke. In fact, read within the context of Luke–Acts, the “many from the east and west” are in fact Diaspora Jews gathered at Pentecost who hear the preaching of the Apostles and receive the Holy Spirit.

In summary, this saying is an explicit reference to the eschatological banquet. But Jesus expands the banquet to include people on the fringes of the Jewish life. The saying is less about a future banquet than Jesus’s ongoing ministry of table fellowship. Only a chapter later, many do in fact come to sit with Jesus and celebrate with him as a bridegroom (Matt 9:9–13).




Jesus Heals the Centurion’s Servant – Matthew 8:5-13

Jesus returns to Capernaum, Peter’s village, where is met by a centurion asking him to heal his servant who is suffering greatly (Matthew 8:5-6). Like the story of Jesus healing the leper in the previous paragraph, Jesus will cross cultural barriers by responding to this Gentile’s request.

Centurion's Servant Healed

Jesus left Nazareth and began to live in Capernaum (Matthew 4:13), likely living in Peter’s home (8:14). He will return to the village in 11:23 and 17:24. The modern route from Nazareth to Capernaum is about 30 miles, but the way drops from 1138 feet at Nazareth to 680 feet below sea level at Capernaum (at current lake levels). In the first century Capernaum would not have been very large, perhaps no more that 1700 residents. The village is right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and there is evidence of at least seven docks for fishermen. There is also evidence of a small synagogue under the impressive fifth century building modern tourists visit.

Having finished the Sermon on the Mount Jesus walked to the shore of the Sea of Galilee where Peter and his family lived. From the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount to Capernaum is perhaps three and a half miles by the modern road, less if Jesus is able to take a more direct route.

The centurion is a Gentile, but it is at least possible he is a God-fearing gentile. Was there a Roman garrison in Capernaum in the first third of first century? This is often stated, but rarely proven. Mike Wilkins, for example, states “recent excavations reveal a military garrison at Capernaum had its headquarters to the east of the Jewish village” although he does not offer a footnote for this recent excavation (Wilkins, Matthew, 341).

There is little evidence for Roman military presence in Galilee prior to AD 44 (Wahlde, “Archaeology and John’s Gospel”). In the 1980s a Roman bathhouse was found near the eastern border of the village, right on the property line between the Franciscan and Orthodox properties. At present, the bathhouse is dated to the second or third century (it is similar to small bathhouses in Gaul and Britain from the period), but the excavators suspect an earlier bathhouse was present when the later was built.

Why would a typical Roman soldier think a Jewish healer would have this kind of authority? If he is simply a pagan Roman centurion, he may have tried all other methods, both medical and divine, to heal his servant. If he was a God-fearing Gentile, then he may have had faith in the God of Israel to heal. In either case, he had heard Jesus was known for healing all kind of illness and approaches on behalf of the servant. The point of the passage is that a Gentile expressed more faith than the Jews in the region, especially the Pharisees.

The centurion approaches Jesus and shows unusual respect for him. The verb translated “asking for help” (NIV) or “appealing to him” (ESV, NRSV) is προσκυνέω, “to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure” (BDAG). It can mean anything from “greet with affection” or “welcome respectfully” to “worship (like a god).” Although it is unlikely the man is worshiping Jesus like a god, it is significant Matthew has chosen this word to express the centurion’s attitude toward Jesus. This Gentile considers Jesus worthy of respect and honor.

His request is simple: heal my servant. It is possible to translate the noun παῖς as “servant” or “son.” In fact, John has son (υἱός), but Luke has “servant” (δοῦλος). It may be the case that the ambiguity of παῖς led to the different terms in Luke and John, and it is also possible the servant was so beloved by the centurion he considered him as a son. (See this post from Ian Paul for the suggestion the servant was the centurion’s gay lover. Dwight Gingrich points out the noun “παῖς (pais) usually carries no sexual connotations whatsoever.”)

In either case, he is paralyzed and suffering greatly. The verb translated “suffer” (βασανίζω) refers to extreme distress and is used for torture in some contexts. Matthew adds the adverb “greatly (δεινῶς), “an extreme negative point on a scale relating to values” (BDAG). When your doctor asks you how bad your pain is on a scale of one to ten, the servant’s pain goes all the way to eleven.

Jesus is willing to go to the servant and heal him, but the centurion knows a Jewish person would not enter the home of a Gentile.For example, in Acts, Peter initially refused to enter the home of Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile who was so godly that the Lord sent an angel to personally answer his prayers. In Acts 10:28 Peter says, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation.”In the Mishnah, m Ohol. 18:7, “Dwelling places of gentiles [in the Land of Israel] are unclean.”

The centurion says he is not worthy (οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανός) of a visit from Jesus in his home. Instead, the centurion recognizes Jesus is authority and knows Jesus only has to say the word, and his servant will be healed.

Jesus is amazed at the man’s faith, telling his followers that he has met no one in Israel who has a similar faith.  “No one in Israel” as opposed to the gentile centurion has expressed a belief in Jesus’s authority over illness. Why is this surprising? There are several texts in Isaiah which suggest the messiah would have a healing ministry, Isaiah 35:5-7. 61:1-4. If Jesus was known for “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” and healing every disease and sickness (Matt 4:24), then the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees should have made the connection to these prophecies about the coming eschatological age. In the next few pages of Matthew, the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees will question Jesus’s authority and cast doubt on the origins of his power.

Skipping over 8:10-12 for now, the story concludes in verse 13, the servant is immediately healed. In the leper story, Jesus says he is willing to heal, and in this story, Jesus once again expresses his authority by healing the servant by his word, crossing over social and cultural boundaries to care for someone at the lowest rungs of society.



Jesus Heals a Man with Leprosy – Matthew 8:1-4

In the first three stories in Matthew 8, Jesus heals three people of the fringes of Jewish society, demonstrating his authority of physical illness and fulfilling Isaiah 53:4. In Matthew 8:1-4 Jesus heals a man with leprosy by touching him.

Jesus healing the leprous man is an example of the triple tradition (Matt 8:1-4//Mark 1:40-45//Luke 5:12-16). Matthew omits Jesus’s response in Mark 1:41. There Jesus either has compassion on the man (the majority of manuscripts) or he is indignant (D and some old Italian versions). Matthew also drops out the man’s disobedience to the command to stay silent (Mark 1:45, “instead he went out and began to talk freely). Matthew tells the story as simply as possible in order to emphasize Jesus’s authority over illness.

A person with rotting skin like leprosy was considered as good as dead. Their disease was often associated with God’s judgment (cf. 2 Chr 26:20). As ceremonially unclean and as contagious persons, they were required to keep themselves separate from society and to announce their approach with the words “Unclean, unclean!” (Lev 14:45–46; cf. Luke 17:12). In Numbers 5:2 the leprous are to be “put out of the camp.” When Miriam is punished with leprosy Moses pleads with God to heal her saying “Let her not be as one dead.” Leviticus 13-14 has a wide range of rules for people with skin conditions and in Deuteronomy 24:8-9 Israel is to be very careful with lepers, “remember Miriam!” There are several stories which describe leprosy as a punishment from God (2 Kings 5:7; 7:3-10; 15:5; 2 Chron 26:16–21).

Leprosy is a concern in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the Temple Scroll, lepers and menstruating women should have a place to live outside a city to live so they do not defile people in the city. The section just prior to this quote instructs the readers to “not be like the Gentiles” who bury their dead everywhere, but rather build cemeteries outside the city to avoid corpse uncleanliness. No one with leprosy or a skin disease was allowed to enter the Temple (11Q20 Col. xii:3).

11Q19 Col. xlviii:14 And in every city you shall make places for those contaminated 15 with leprosy, and with sores and with scabies so that they do not enter your cities and defile them; and also for those who have a flux 16 and for women when they are in their menstrual impurity and after giving birth, so that they do not defile in their midst 17 with their menstrual impurity. And the leper who has chronic leprosy or scabies and the priest has declared him unclean. (trans. Garcı́a Martı́nez and Tigchelaar)

This is similar to the Mishnah which lists lepers along with several other “fathers of uncleanliness.” These things render a person unclean by contact. If a leper touched a plate or a bowl, then that vessel was unclean and any food eaten from that vessel would be rendered unclean.

m. Kelim 1:1 The Fathers of Uncleannesses [are] (1) the creeping thing, and (2) semen [of an adult Israelite], and (3) one who has contracted corpse uncleanness, and (4) the leper in the days of his counting, and (5) sin offering water of insufficient quantity to be sprinkled. Lo, these render man and vessels unclean by contact, and earthenware vessels by [presence within the vessels’ contained] airspace (trans. Neusner).

In addition to this, the tractate m. Nega’im concerns various skin diseases and how they affect the cleanliness of clothing, homes, etc. as well as methods for purifying a leper.

m. Nega’im 13:11 A leper who entered the house—all the utensils which are there are unclean—even up to the beams.

m. Nega’im 14:1 A  How do they purify the leper? (B 1) He would bring a new flask of clay, and (2) put in it a quarter-log of living water, and (3) bring two undomesticated birds. C He slaughtered one of them over the clay utensil and over the living water. D He dug [a hole] and buried it before him [the leper]. E He took cedarwood and hyssop and scarlet wool and bound them together with the ends of the strip [of wool] and brought near to them the tips of the wings and the tip of the tail of the second [bird]. F He dipped [them in the blood of the slaughtered bird] and sprinkled [the blood] seven times on the back of the hand of the leper. G There are some who say, “On his forehead.” H And thus did he sprinkle on the lintel of the house on the outside.

The man kneels before Jesus, a sign of respect, probably not worship. When the leper asks to be made clean, he is asking Jesus not just to remove his painful disease, but to be allowed back into Jewish life, including living again with his family and worship at the Temple.

Jesus responds by touching the man and he is immediately made clean. No one touches a leper since touching make the person unclean and they may contract the disease themselves. Touching the untouchable violates the law (cf. Lev 5:3).

Jesus then tells the man to say nothing but rather go to a priest to offer a gift. Why does Jesus command silence? Although it is more clear in Mark, there is a “messianic secret” theme in Matthew’s gospel. In Matthew 16:20 he tells his disciples to tell no one that he is the Messiah, and in 17:9 he tells the three witnesses of the transfiguration to tell no one about their experience until after the resurrection. The usual explanation is that healing a leper would have confirmed Jesus is the messiah and drawn even larger crowds, crowds of people who would misunderstand the nature of Jesus’s messianic activity.

m. Nega’im 14:7 A On the eighth day [Lev. 14:10] one brings three beasts: a sin offering, and a guilt offering, and a whole offering. B The poor person would bring sin offering of fowl and a whole offering of fowl [Lev. 14:21]. 14:8 A He came to the guilt offering and put his two hands on it and slaughtered it. B And two priests received its blood, one in a utensil and one by hand. C This one who received [the blood] in the utensil came and sprinkled it on the wall of the altar. D And this one who received it by hand came to the leper. E And the leper immersed in the court of the lepers. F He came and stood in the gate of Nicanor. G  R. Judah says, “He did not require immersion [on the eighth day, having done so on the seventh].”

Why would Jesus require a proof of healing? A gift after a skin disease is cleared was Moses commanded so that he can once again be part of Jewish society. “Jesus is thus shown to be faithful to the stipulations of the Torah in spite of an infraction of the command not to touch” (Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 199). People with skin conditions were considered unclean for a period of seven days, after which time they had to submit to a priest for inspection and make a series of washings and offerings to be restored to a state of ritual cleanliness.

When Jesus touches the leper he crosses a boundary most of his contemporaries would not even approach. He showed compassion for the leper even though there was fear and loathing for the leprous man. How does Jesus’s action of touching the leper provide a model for contemporary ministry?


Were Lepers Considered Unclean in the Bible? Matthew 8:1-2

In Matthew 8:1-2, a man with leprosy approaches Jesus and asks to be made clean. It is important to understand leprosy in the context of the first century. In modern usage, leprosy refers to a specific medical condition known as Hansen’s disease. The Greek λεπρός covers a side range of skin conditions, so it is perhaps better to call this a “bad skin condition” (although this runs the risk of making the reader think the man just had a really bad case of acne). In classical Greek, the word λεπρός referred to skin that was scaly, rough, or harsh or things that were “mangy” (BrillDAG).

Jesus heals a leper

People with skin conditions were considered unclean for a period of seven days, after which time they had to submit to a priest for inspection and make a series of washings and offerings to be restored to a state of ritual cleanliness.

However, in a recent JBL article, Myrick Shinall has challenged the consensus view that people with leprosy were shunned in Jewish society. He argues the text usually cited in the commentaries are inconsistent and fragmentary and is more interested in diagnosing leprosy rather than excluding the leper from society (924). There is considerable variation of exclusion because of leprosy. Although Miriam is sent outside the camp, Naaman is permitted to go anywhere (2 Kings 5) and Uzziah was forced to live in a separate house, but the text does not describe the king as in isolation (2 Chron 26).

Shinall then argues there is no social isolation in the various leper stories in the Gospels (932). There is nothing in Matthew 8, for example, that indicates this leprous many was living a life of social isolation, and later Jesus will enter the home of Simon the Leper and eat with him (Matt 26:6). Shinall understands Simon’s name as indicating he was currently suffering from leprosy; he is not “Simon, the former Leper.”

The problem Shinall addresses is the common, an inaccurate portrayal of Second Temple Judaism as overly concerned with purity in contrast to the loving Jesus who reached out to lepers. He sees this as a clear bias against Jews in early church writers and implicit in modern commentators. If the motivation for overplaying social exclusion is slandering the Jews, then it should be dropped (934).

I am in agreement with his final conclusion: do not slander the Jews in your teaching and preaching on this passage (seriously, don’t). However, social isolation because of one’s status is exactly the point of the three stories in Matthew 8:1-17. Jesus touches the leper and Peter’s mother-in-law, as I will show later, she is suffering from a fever which is associated with the curses for covenant unfaithfulness. The middle story in this section has Jesus talking with a Gentile, risking a violation of purity laws.

The contrast is not between a kind and living Jesus and the whole of Second Temple Judaism, but with the way Pharisees practiced purity. Contact with a leper, a Gentile and a feverish woman were all grave risks for rendering someone unclean and would require a person to make appropriate washings in order to return to a state of cleanliness.

This needs to be unpacked more, but for now, I will state here that the Pharisees were the sub-group within Judaism who attempted to live in a state of ritual purity at all times. They are also the group who will come into direct conflict with Jesus over these kinds of purity issues.

Bibliography: Myrick C. Shinall Jr., “The Social Condition of Lepers in the Gospels,” JBL 137.4 (2018): 915-34.

See also: J. K. Elliott, “The Healing of the Leper in the Synoptic Parallels.” TZ 34 (1978) 175–76;  Ituma, Ezichi, Enobong I. Solomon, and Favour C. Uroko. “The Cleansing of the Leper in Mark 1:40–45 and the Secrecy Motif: An African Ecclesial Context.” Hervormde Teologiese Studies 75.4 (October 2019): 1–11.