8. Magical Touch


Therapeutic touch was an important method of healing in antiquity and the sick would often seek contact with powerful individuals from whom it was believed their touch alone would suffice to bring about a cure. The touch of a powerful miracle worker even had the potential to resurrect the dead; for example, Philostratus reports that Apollonius of Tyana stopped the funeral procession of a young bride, touched her, spoke inaudibly to her and she immediately came back to life.[1] In the Old Testament, Elijah and Elisha are depicted as resurrecting a boy by stretching themselves full length on his corpse (in 1 Kings 17:21 and 2 Kings 4:34 respectively). Even contact with the saintly dead was thought to heal and Augustine demonstrates this in the story of a blind man whose sight was restored when he touched the remains of the martyrs Gervasius and Protasius with his handkerchief.[2]

Current medical research has undertaken thorough investigation into the healing properties of touch and both charismatic religious groups and holistic therapists recommend the procedure of ‘laying on hands’ as a method of healing. Although many contemporary religious groups maintain that their abilities to heal through touch derive from a higher spiritual power, the ancients did not strictly rely upon spiritual sources for this ability but most often appealed to a neutral, independent and amoral power that was held within and emanated from certain individuals or objects and could be transferred through contact with that person. This power, categorised by modern anthropologists under the term mana, permeates both the ancient and modern magical worldviews to the extent that Lévi-Strauss states: 

‘conceptions of the mana type are so frequent and so widespread that we should ask ourselves if we are not confronted with a permanent and universal form of thought.’

Various attempts have been made by anthropologists to explain the mystical mechanics behind touch as a method of transferring mana. Most studies have made a direct, or indirect, appeal to the laws of sympathetic magic by asserting that energy is transmitted according to the law of extended personality (in which contact with a person allows the patient to share in his power) or the Frazerian theory of ‘magical contagion’. 

All three Synoptic authors mention touch as a method used by Jesus to heal the sick. For example, Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law in Mark’s Gospel by taking her by the hand and lifting her up (Mk. 1:31) and he also touches the leper when healing him (Mk. 1:41).[4] By portraying Jesus as able to heal the sick through contact alone, did the Gospel writers presume that Jesus’ healing power had a mana-like quality? There is evidence which suggests that mana was considered to be an active source of miracle-working power during Jesus’ lifetime and a magical or mana-like interpretation is certainly implied on occasions in the Gospels in which this healing power appears to be unavailable (Mk. 6:5[5]) or Jesus experiences fluctuations or intermittency in the presence of his power. For example, Lk. 5:17 tells us ‘the power of the Lord was present (ἠν) for him to heal’, which in turn suggests that there were other occasions when it was not present. An example of this apparent loss or absence of power is found in Mk. 5:30//Lk. 8:46 and this passage provides valuable evidence that Jesus’ healing power had an independent nature and, most importantly, that this healing power had mana-like properties. 

II. THE WOMAN WITH A HAEMORRHAGE (MK. 5:25-34//MT. 9:18-22//LK. 8:43-48)

The magical overtones present in the story of the woman with a haemorrhage confirm that there is a impersonal, mana-like power at work in Jesus’ ministry. All three Synoptic accounts state that the woman who approaches Jesus to be healed has been suffering with her illness for twelve years (Mk. 5: 25//Mt. 9: 20//Lk. 8:43) and the cluster of aorist participles in the Markan version conveys the sense that the woman has been seeking healing for some time (Mk. 5:25-27). The woman’s motivation to approach Jesus is revealed in the evangelists’ descriptions of her inner thoughts; she believes that if she can simply touch Jesus’ clothing then she will be healed (Mk. 5:28//Mt. 9:21). When the woman touches Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, the healing power reacts immediately (εὐθύς) and Jesus only becomes aware that a healing has taken place after the event and when he senses that ‘power had gone forth from him’ (τὴν ἐξ αὐτου δύναμιν ἐξελθουσαν, Mk. 5:30). Not only is Jesus unaware that he has transmitted healing power, but he remains unaware afterwards as to who touched him (‘who touched my garments?’, Mk. 5:30). The statement ‘someone touched me’ in Lk. 8:46 may well indicate that the author of Luke preferred to associate the transferral of healing power with Jesus’ physical body rather than his clothes, particularly since there are other occasions in which the author of Luke is uncomfortable with the transmission of power through Jesus’ clothes. For example, although the observation that healing power could be received by simply touching Jesus’ clothes is made even more unequivocal in Mk. 6:56//Mt. 14:36 (‘they besought him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment; and as many as touched it were made well’), the author of Luke simply reduces this contact to ‘the crowd sought to touch him’ (Lk. 6:19). 

Transference of Jesus’ healing power through his clothes and, most importantly, without his knowledge, suggests that his healing power behaves automatically, independently and more like the ancient concept of mana. Perhaps in an attempt to correct a manistic interpretation of the potency of Jesus’ healing power, all three evangelists stress the importance of faith and/or add a blessing from Jesus that is required in order for the healing to take full effect, thereby suggesting that the healing power was transferred at the will of Jesus. The author of Mark detracts from an automatic, manistic transference of power and stresses that faith was the active element which allowed the healing to take place (‘your faith has made you well’, ἡ πίστις σου σέσωκέν σε, Mk. 5:34). Similarly, the author of Matthew preserves the woman’s touch but includes a blessing given by Jesus before the healing can take place, effectively shifting the emphasis from the act of touching to the initial faith of the woman (Mt. 9:22). We will come to address the importance of the faith of the woman in this passage in Chapter 13, but for the time being it is important to observe that faith is not an important factor in the Lukan version of this story (Lk. 8:40-56) since there is no mention that the woman believes that she will be healed by touching Jesus and the healing is almost accidental. 

Some commentators reject an automatic, mana-like interpretation of Jesus’ healing powers in this passage and prefer instead to highlight the relationship between Jesus’ δύναμις and the Holy Spirit. The attribution of Jesus’ miracle-working capabilities to the Holy Spirit is a particularly Lukan idea and it is within Luke’s Gospel that we often find the terms δύναμις and πνευμα used interchangeably, as well as the ‘power of the Lord’ (δύναμις κυρίου e.g. Lk. 5:17) and the ‘power of the spirit’ (δυνάμει τοιυ πνεύματος, e.g. Lk. 4:14). The author of Luke also has the crowds attribute Jesus’ healings to God (cf. Lk. 5:25-26; 7:16; 9:43; 13:13, 17:15; 18:43). However, although most scholars would agree that the author of Luke makes an explicit association between δύναμις and God or the Holy Spirit, some individuals disagree and argue that Luke does not regard the Spirit as an agent of Jesus’ miracles. 

Since God’s spirit is represented in the Old Testament as a power that would be temporarily bestowed upon people to allow them to perform a miracle, then a spiritual source could account for the apparent intermittency in Jesus’ healing power.[6] However, accounting for the fluctuations in Jesus’ δύναμις on the basis of its reliance on a selective bequest from God is a theory that is contradicted by Jesus’ ability to transmit this power to the disciples (Mt. 10:1//Mk. 6:7-13//Lk. 9:1). Furthermore, it is difficult to situate the Holy Spirit within this pericope with the aim of excluding a mana-like understanding of Jesus’ healing power as the Spirit is noticeably absent in all three Synoptic accounts. All three Synoptic authors agree that there are no prayers or imprecations asking the Spirit to perform the healing and it is not subsequently accredited with the miracle when Jesus discovers that the healing has occurred. 

Some attempts have been made to explain the apparent absence of God or the Holy Spirit throughout this account. The most frequent explanation is that Jesus is to be understood as a charismatic healer and therefore he is not required to make a request. Nevertheless, by excluding an appeal to a spiritual third-party and implying that Jesus’ healing power is an in-dwelling energy that is held within himself, all three Synoptic authors portray Jesus as a miracle-worker who is performing his miracles through possession of a personal power. If the reader of the Gospels is to understand that Jesus’ in-dwelling, numinous power is a mana-like energy, then we can disconnect this particular healing from any divinely appointed power source and situate it firmly within the realms of magic. However, if we must accept that Jesus’ healing power derives from a spiritual source in this instance, then we must also permit the possibility that this spiritual power is owned by Jesus within himself

Many scholars have found it difficult to account for Jesus’ apparent role as a possessor of spiritual power in Mk. 5:25-34 and parallels. However, by identifying Jesus’ possession of a spiritual power and emphasising his jurisdiction over how it is applied, we are firmly laying the foundations of spiritual magic. Although compounding strata of Christian tradition has ensured that an inclination towards a Lukan connection between Jesus’ du,namij and the Holy Spirit remains the default option for the majority of modern readers of the Gospels, a divine source of Jesus’ healing power would not have been the primary option for a first-century audience. The early reader would certainly have been familiar with the ancient worldview which maintained that the environment was filled with an abundance of demons, angels, souls of the dead and numerous other invisible, spiritual powers that could be manipulated, most often through magical means, to achieve similar miraculous results as those accredited to Jesus in the Gospels. Since the magicians of antiquity often had no need to appeal to these spirits in order to obtain a miracle as the spirits, or even the gods, were restrained, or bound, in such a way that they would simply perform the miracle on request, the reader operating within this spiritual environment may have presumed that Jesus had possession of a spiritual power source in the same way that magicians and mediums in antiquity had possession of a spirit. 

With the spectre of the Holy Spirit lingering in the background of many of the healing accounts in the Gospels and Jesus’ opponents also recognising a spiritual power at work in his miracles, it is necessary to shift our attention from an examination of techniques of natural magic and consider whether there is evidence in the Gospels which suggests that Jesus was practicing a form of spiritual magic. However, before we make any rash judgements regarding Jesus’ magical manipulation of his spiritual powers in the Gospels, we must engage with the theory that the relationship between Jesus and his spiritual power-source is to be understood as passive spirit-possession, or ‘possession by’ a spirit.

 Extract from Helen Ingram (2007) Dragging Down Heaven: Jesus as Magician and Manipulator of Spirits in the Gospels, PhD, The University of Birmingham, UK.


[1] Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, 4. 45.
[2] Augustine, Confessions, 9. 7. 16.
[3] C. Lévi-Strauss, ‘Introduction a l’oeuvre de Marcel Mauss’ in Marcel Mauss, Sociologie et Anthropologie (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1950) pp. xliii. For a thorough investigation into the theory of mana, see M. Mauss, A General Theory of Magic, trans. Robert Brain (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972) pp. 108 – 121. See also Walter Grundmann, ‘du,namai / du,namij', TDNT vol 2, pp. 287-91.
[4] For the ‘laying on of hands’ as a method of healing within the Gospels, see Mk. 1:41; 6:5; 16:18; Mt. 20:34; Lk 4:40.
[5] Although in this particular instance Jesus appears to refuse to perform a miracle since it is required for spectacle only. Similarly, Eunapius reveals in his Lives of the Sophists that Iamblichus refused to do a miracle when asked by one of his disciples since he thought that it was ‘irreverent to the gods’ (Eunapius, The Lives of the Sophists, trans. Wilmer Cave Wright, The Loeb Classical Library, (London, 1921) p. 369).
[6] For example, in Judges 14:6 the Spirit of God comes upon Samson to endow him with great strength.

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