Many historians of Christianity are convinced that along with the preaching of the kingdom, the historical figure of Jesus functioned as a talented healer. Most believe this implicitly as the figures of famous travelling physicians abounded in all ages and in most places on the planet. Schweitzer saw his mission in Lambarene as Christ’s calling, i.e. central to his view of Jesus as not just a preacher but an activist par excellence for a benevolent God. The late Morton Smith argued fervently (Jesus the Magician) that Jesus’ fame as a healing magician was that which assured him of his post-mortem following. Steven Davies (Jesus the Healer), went a step further, portraying Jesus as essentially a pre-modern psychotherapist, utilizing his own experience of the Spirit possession as a tool of his trade.
I do not believe that the historical Jesus was a healer. My objection to that idea is twofold. Paul, in his discourse on gifts in 1 Cr 12, sees healing as one of a number of gifts of the Spirit, which proceeds from the risen Lord. It appears that Paul was quite blunt about his differences with other strands of the nascent Jesus traditions in matters of the messianic kingdom , the crucifixion, resurrection from the dead, tongue speaking, work ethic, lapsing morals, table manners, and the like, but no word from him about rival claims regarding successful cures in the name of the “other Jesus”. I find it hard to credit that if a number of other apostles went around exorcising demons and curing all manner of disease by laying on hands wholesale under a different gospel, that Paul would not have used the word pharmakeia more than once in the Galatians.
It would also have been very difficult for Jesus to do healing miracles for whole cities (Mk 1:32), and somehow manage to miss on the enduring respect and bonding that would have naturally flowed from his sustained successes. For this and other reasons I prefer to read the Markan Jesus crowds as symbolic hyperboles of the growth of Mark’s own community transposed back symbolically to Jesus own historical time frame. A far-reaching fame assumes implicitly his patients collectively were ungrateful monsters who could not return his love and generosity as people of all times and places naturally will do when they receive relief from pain and suffering. If Jesus was preceded to Jerusalem by his reputation as a great healer, his death is not explicable. Inversely, if Jesus received his reward, and still referred to his contemporaries as a ‘faithless generation’, then something is not working right in the scenario. Reading the situation by the logic of Thomas A.Harris P-A-C therapy : if Jesus was Ok and the people he was helping were not Ok, a whiff of paranoia will linger about the stage props. The objection that Jesus believed himself an prophet of the last days only exacerbates the problem. The end of the world did not materialize.
In a nutshell, this is then the basis of my scepticism. If the historical Jesus had a track record as a healer then Paul would have had to acknowledge his track record as a healer – one way or another. And the cures would have been remembered in ways different than the first narrative gospel portrays them. Mark speaks of them only in riddles.
The Spirit as Manifestation of Manic Excitement
As I began to show in my previous essay (Mark’s Recursive Gospel), the writing is an allegory of the travail of Pauline Spirit of the risen Lord on earth, which begins with the revelation of the Sonship to (actually, in) Jesus of Nazareth on his baptism. From then on Jesus is not only a human but also the Spirit of the heavenly Christ as taught by Paul , who has come to, and was empowered on, earth. Jesus then has a double identity, with the spirit overshadowing (if not obliterating) the historical man of flesh and blood. The Markan community is not yet a Christian church, but a society of Christ mystics (and a group of supporters), who themselves become individually entered into periodically by the Spirit, lifted into dizzying heights of euphoric glory where they receive revelations and empowerment, only to be brought down and humbled by the Lord, in often horrendous bouts of agitated, depressive psychosis, which they experience as a torture of annihilation. After Paul, they liken the disassembly of the Spirit to the cross on which Jesus of the Nazarenes expired along with the grafted Spirit. The ministry of Jesus of Nazareth is built on a mystical cycle, in which the Spirit appears suddenly, easily dominates everyone and everything, then begins to doubt itself, then is overpowered and captured by the profane reality to be finally mocked, tortured and annihilated on the cross. This underlying allegorical cycle coincides with typical stages of a manic episode (see Goodwin-Jamison, Manic Depressive Illness, Oxford U. Press, 1990, p.77).
For our purposes here, let us define the Spirit as the internal experience of altered consciousness which suggests to the excited subject an alien entity or an emanation thereof. This apprehended entity, in the early stages of manic intoxication, validates perceptions, and manipulates abstract objects outside of an orderly process of cognition. It is probable but not yet proven by neuro-physiological research that significant inversions of hemispheric dominance are triggered during some forms of severe manic excitation and sponsor the subjective ‘reality’ of a separate entity engaging in the proximity of or within the individual. It is in the nature of the disorder that a confrontation ensues between the former cognitive, verbal self and the newly constructed Spirit when the latter’s suggested delusionary schemes fail cognitive testing. In the increasingly dysphoric and chaotic communication with the Spirit, that will be now defied as an impostor, the subject feels persecuted and eventually, often through severe terror attacks, recaptures most of the former stasis of self. This would be the normal, desirable outcome of an episode of mania.
There are roughly four functions of the Spirit in the gospel of Mark. By far the most prominent and important, is the glorious affirmation of the subject which converts depression and releases the sufferer from the bonds of physical ailments and mental anguish. Second, the Spirit is said to be Holy, as it is believed unconditionally by Mark’s community that it represents the obverse of a destructive demonic agency. It is recognized and deferred to as such by demons themselves, who being ‘demons’ are dumb and without the insight of wisdom. But they, paradoxically, are the only characters who in the story know the nature of Jesus. They are forbidden to speak by Jesus, as they are antagonists. Their silencing confirms Jesus’ divine status and mission. The Spirit also is the gnosis itself, which in Mark, is earned by faith (4:11-12) in the Spirit’s purpose, - to spread the word of God. In Mark, faith cannot exist without gnosis. They are two inseparable aspects of the kerygma.
The Role of Humour In Mark
Now to the controversial part of my theory, the fourth function: On the successive parsing of the text and as I was finding more and more pointers to bipolar challenge in the author's habits of expression, I was being drawn closer to the element of the absurd in Mark. This was not just irony, I thought.
As I was scanning the gospel for clues, I was puzzled by the Jesus’ command to the leper not to speak of the cure (1:40-45), but only to show himself as cleansed to the priest. I could not make sense of the cured man’s defiance and the result of his ‘speaking freely’ of Jesus prowess as a healer resulting in Jesus having to take cover in the bush. This was outrageous yarn, but one that I had seen before in modern prose. I could not quite remember in who, though. No, not Vonnegut ! He was brilliant and crazy as a bedbug, but he was brutally forthright: nothing in his writing was hidden or coded. It was not Chesterton either though he was close: perhaps one cannot quite be a happy glutton and a mystic at the same time. I knew I had seen elsewhere the constant Markan talking past the point, his perverse preaching of nonsense, yet a gripping and mesmerizing incantation, free from rules of logic and a meaningful discourse, yet through all the humbug pointing at something very deep, a malady at the soul’s darkest corner , which consumes life in […what, already ?] . I convinced myself that Mark was a convulsive, a haunted genius like Dostoyevsky. But who was his modern twin ? As I was passing to the cure of the paralytic, I almost had him. I read:
And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "My son, your sins are forgiven."
I chuckled and then it struck like a bolt of lightning ! Of course, this is Mark’s therapy for [Angst] and his cosmic literary twin, Franz Kafka. Through these absurd exaggerations, and foolish self-contradictions, the forging of failed fantasies as the fulfilment of a divine plan, claptrap about a god who nobody listens to, about a god who is defied by everyone, a god who will not be acknowledged when he descends among the pitiful creatures of flesh to do good and answer their prayers, a god who is senselessly accused on earth of being the superman that he is and they have all been waiting for to deliver them and who for this must be nailed by them to crude carpentry. This is madness : a cathartic release and breaking free from the paralysing grip of helplessness, the silencing of the whispers of the devil who appears as reasoned sanity that insists there will be no relief from the approaching stench of death that comes after the last drop of the bitter drink in the cup of meaningless existence.
I grabbed The Trial from the shelf. Yes, yes: here it is, the yearning of the soul to be loved, recognized, to have the undivided attention of Grace. It would do anything for a chance to be in the presence of Grace ! But there is the deadening sense of one’s inadequacy, the sense one cannot reach it, or when standing before it, the fear of being judged as wicked, weak and unworthy. In a key scene of Kafka’s hero K. attends the first session of the court of inquiry that is to look into his case. He was summoned to appear before the Magistrate on Sunday. Sunday is the time of rest for everyone but the persecuted. (I am pointing this out for the learned exegets to consider the issue of the unreasonably extended working hours of the Sanhedrin.) After a frantic search for the hall of the Court (which is situated among ordinary apartments in a residential building), K. is shown into the Court hall through a laundry room:
K. felt as though he was entering a meeting hall. A crowd of people of all shapes and ages – they did not seem to bother about the newcomer – filled a middle-sized room with two windows, which just below the roof was surrounded by a gallery, also quite packed where the people were able to stand only in a bent posture with their heads and backs knocking against the ceiling…some had brought cushions with them to keep their heads from getting bruised.
Not very many people find Franz Kafka’s nihilistic melodramas funny. I earned a reputation of a weirdo at university when my roommate’s girlfriend caught me rolling around in a Lazyboy with Kafka’s Short Stories in my hand gasping for breath over the Sermon from the Cage by the Hunger Artist. “You think Kafka’s funny ?”. She was incredulous. I told her “as you can see - to some people, yes”. The word got around.
Max Brod writes in his biography of Kafka that Franz thought of his novels as private literature which was for his intimate circle only. He told Max – his best friend - that the stories and novels had no meaning to anyone who did not know him personally. He asked Max to destroy the manuscripts after he died. Brod relates how during his private readings from his exquisite and morbid imagination Franz occasionally broke down laughing, and as others joined, tears were streaming down his cheeks.
Like Kafka, Mark knows the limits of the intellect because he knows the big helpless babe that lives inside the skull next to it. But Mark’s manic defense is stronger than Franz’es; it will break Paul’s injunction on telling stories about the paradoxical abasement of God in human existence. He will summon the courage to write up Jesus Christ, not him crucified but him inter faeces et urinam natus - the Jesus that Paul did not want to know anything about ! Mark will rewrite Paul’s gospel as a narrative that would shame God if he were to deny it is true. The story has to be absurd to be believed. If God wants to exist as a human, he will have to agree to be dissed, mocked and killed for no other reason than that he was born and must die! If one does not see raucous comedy in that, then one’s Christ will be an empty, pathetic peddling of salvation to the humourless.
Like Paul, Mark knew that his ecstatic experiences were his credentials. He knew the polymorphous, perverse nature of his illness from the inside, but he found the gut to wrestle with the arbitrary madness of God. Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him. The disobedience of those Mark’s Jesus cured or the witnesses of the cures to Jesus injunctions not to speak (1:43, 5:43, 7:36), is in reality a stubborn defiance of God. These are hilarious, self-pointing allusions to what psychiatrists today call pressure of speech . Mark more or less gives away his playfulness in 7:36 :
And he charged them to tell no one; but the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.
But of course, they could not obey Jesus because they acted under gross compulsions brought about by the state of mind in which their made his acquiantance. It's the kind of humour that I heard once from this terrific character rolling around the stage in a wheelchair in a Montreal comedy show: 'Not that I am complaining, dear God, but I always wanted to be a standup comedian !'
The Health Benefits of Mania
In Mark’s idiom the cures Jesus performs are allegories of the known beneficial health effects of a sudden mood conversion (from depression to manic states), ones we may safely assume were observable in antiquity by those who had the challenge and those around the sufferers who either were fearful of them, or amused by them or – much less frequently - believed either in the divine status the sufferers claimed for themselves, or in the reality of their connections to the highest places. The latter issued from those sufferers whose delusional schemes were more sophisticated intellectually, and thus better managed and calibrated to their social standing.
I will argue in my writing that the original Jesus-professing communities were formed around a hard core of intelligent manics (pneumatics, ecstatics) who had a measure of insight into their condition and were able to control the more debilitating effects of the ailment by a form of communal therapy. Like the earliest Christians, the apocalyptic communities that preceded them, i.e. the Qumran and the James the Just congregation in Jerusalem (I will explain that one later) were formed with similar aims - to usher the elect visionaries into a messianic kingdom that will confirm their glorious visions. My focus will be on Paul and Mark, the founders of the two textual genres that shaped the early Christian movement, which was not yet a coherent religion but allied and competing communal networks by and (primarily) for people who were going individually through difficult personal challenges.
The idea that madness (generically called ‘mania’) had beneficial effects and in fact that we humans are lucky to have different forms of it around was known well before the break of the ages. Socrates is quoted in Plato’s Phaedrus to the effect that some of our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness. He distinguished four beneficial manias: prophetic (patron is Apollo), telestic or ritual (Dionysius), poetic (the Muses), and erotic (Aphrodite). By the time of Paul and Mark, the highly educated people of Mediterranean antiquity had a fairly sophisticated, rational view of mental illness, but were not yet quite able to isolate physical from mental illness. Cicero, ahead of his time, actually did separate them (as morbi animi vs morbi corporis in the Tusculan Disputations) but old ideas persisted and he made no impression on the medical profession of his day and century. Old ideas faded away slowly. Hippocrates described epilepsy as an organic disease of the brain in 5th century BCE. It did not displace the popular notion of epileptic fits as attacks by a god. Both mania and depression were described medically but were thought of as separate disease until Aretaeus of Cappadocia (1st or 2nd century CE) showed they are sometimes a manifestation and phases of the same disorder. At any rate, even if medical view of the mood disturbances existed, it would not have made a large impact on popular image of the problems. The traditional belief complexes proved themselves much more resistant to new information than is the case in our own times.
The word ‘mania’ occurs only once in the New Testament, in the response of Festus to Paul’s rambling testimony of Christ (Acts 26:24).( The governor ascribes the madness of the sage to his great learning, so as not to offend). To which, Paul answers, ‘I am not mad (μαινομαι) most excellent Festus but I am speaking the sober truth’. Paul would have been convincing if this encounter happened, for I assume he would have looked sober and in possession of his faculties during that encounter. And this would have convinced Festus and Aggrippa of his harmlessness. The great secret of Paul success lied in the metamorphic nature of the illness, and his uncanny ability to control to a degree some of its debilitating effects, and thereby mesmerize his audience of people similarly affected with his Cosmic scheme. The common elements of their suffering, its periodic disappearance, and its sudden conversions into periods of explosive, unfettered joy and grandeur in Paul and his fellow prisoners of Christ, mystified also a group of well-wishers and God-fearers socializing with them who were convinced that these men and women were the chosen ones of God.
The healing by these saints who had Christ in them, likely began with requests for their 'laying hands' on the outer group members who witnessed the bizzare and frightening displays of ecstasy, followed by a return of the saints to their senses. The stories of miraculous cures then spread and the communities grew.
That Paul refused to be ashamed of Christ i.e. by the humiliating external view of his own bipolar challenge, was a great inspiration to Mark. Robert Price observes (in the Incredible Shrinking Son Of Man) the parabolic nature of the Markan healings. He asks smartly: ‘what are we to make of the fact that Jesus healing miracles fall well within the range of known somatization disorders, presumably susceptible to psychosomatic healings ? Does it mean that , having modern medical analogies, they do not rest simply upon myth and fiction ? If there had not been some kind of a reality check, wouldn’t the scope of Jesus’ miracle stories be much wider than it is ?’ The answer I believe is, yes ! If Paul and Mark were just the ordinary, garden variety of lunatics, they would have appropriated the manic glory for themselves, as was and is the fashion, because manics will be manics (and that only), until their demons are bound and their houses are plundered. Evidently that did not happen with a fourth-century physician Menecrates who thought himself Zeus. The demon was not bound in Al-Hakim, the millennium Fatimid caliph, crazed by the ‘command of God’ in his title, which had him order Christians to wear millstones around their necks and dishonest merchants in Cairo anally raped in public by a slave with a huge penis, on whom he bestowed the title “the machine of sodomitic punishment” (Joseph A. Massad, Desiring Arabs, U. of Chicago, 2007, ff. 303). Ron L. Hubbard, the father of Scientology, had a demon who knew of Mark’s plundered house. ‘Do you think you might be mad’ he was asked in an interview. ‘Oh yes’, said he, ‘the only one who does not believe himself mad is the madman’. Nothing , the sage said, seems nobler to the devil than his humble service to the devil.
Jesus’ cures are a limited license because they are the things that the Spirit actually does; real cures that the mania, so despised by others, actually brings to the sufferer. Anyone who observed florid manics will be immediately struck by the enormous amount of physical energy they are capable of generating. Anyone who wrestled with them knows, they are veritable God's dynamos. And their bodies really are being “healed” by the strange excitement. Eczemas and other skin conditions (which were conflated with Hansen’s disease as ‘leprosy’ (lepra) in antiquity) disappear on short order, as many of them are simply physical manifestations of depression. The revved up cardio-vascular output takes care of many ailments, even serious medical conditions which may have been present for years. There is also a tendency in manics to wander around (so called ‘fugues’), which takes them out of environments which may have caused, or contributed to, their poor health. Another well-known effect of manic excitement, is that the subjects experience a greatly elevated threshold of pain. This is the ‘authority to tread on serpents and scorpions’ that Jesus confers on his disciples (in Luke 10:19). The later annex to Mark records the picking up snakes and immunity from drinking ‘any deadly thing’ (Mk 16:18) based on the manic experience of disappearing pain and greatly improved immune system. Naturally, there is a little bit of license about the 'any deadly thing', that one may drink, but it is not altogether a tall tale either, as the difficulty with putting down the shamanic Rasputin with just potassium cyanide well illustrated. In ordinary bipolars, being distracted by the Spirit, means above all that they are no longer consumed by minor aches and ailments, which are imaginary, or real but out of proportion to the severity of the underlying physical problems.
The uncanny resistance of manics to pain was a well-known fact in antiquity, which among other things, tempted authorities go into extremes in their curiousity to find out the limit of endurance that would make a furiosus come to his senses. Josephus recounts the bloody scourging of Jesus ben Ananus by Albinus (Wars 6.5.3), in which the prisoner’s ‘bones were laid bare’. And, ‘yet he did not make any supplication for himself or shed any tears but,…at every stroke of the whip his answer was, ‘Woe, woe to Jerusalem’’.
The healing of the paralytic in Capernaum and the narcoleptic Jairus daughter are examples of rapid remission of manic/depressive stupor. Her state before being raised by Jesus, would be a state of spiritual death as described by the Thanksgiving Hymn (1QH) at Qumran:
My spirit is imprisoned with the dead
for (my life) has reached the Pit;
my soul languishes (within me)
day and night without rest
But this state of almost total helplessness also bespeaks of the things at their worst before getting out of control on the other end. Emil Kraepelin observed "manic" stupor as often the phase of the illness which immediately precedes a switch into madcap cheer. The modern compendium Manic-Depressive Illness cited above prefers “depressive” stupor to describe the severe psychomotor inhibition which the patient exhibits during this period of deep mourning:
The patient, usually, is confined to bed, is mute, inactive and uncooperative. His bodily needs require attention in every way; he has to be fed, washed and bathed. Precautions have to be made to prevent the retention of faeces, urine and saliva. In some cases all attempts at movement are strongly resisted. In other cases the muscles are more flaccid, and the body and limbs can be molded into any position. On the surface it may seem as if there was a total absence of feeling and emotions, but that is often more apparent than real, for after recovery many patients give a vivid account of the distress they have experienced. The idea of death is believed by some to be almost universal in stupor reactions, and may be regarded as a form of expiation for the wickedness for which they hold themselves responsible…..(ibid., 40)
Jesus laying his hands on the deaf man with a speech impediment near Decapolis (Mk 7), is as I indicated one of the ecstatic stories, which had the function clearing the deck in roars of hearty laughter. Observe Mark’s taking the sufferer away from the multitude to perform his medical procedure “in private”. What would that accomplish, if other cures are public ? My take on it is that, by writing it like that (and in this case for an added effect, likely reciting it for a group) Mark wanted lay stress on the individual experience of the Spirit one-on-one. The description of Jesus expertly manipulating his charge, by plugging his ears (don’t listen to anyone but me !), spitting on him (so what of the outsiders who spit on you to make you feel worthless ?), and touching his tongue (transferring to him the utterance), would have the desired effect of making the initiated reader and hearer (!) of the gospel feel a special person, a Jesus’ intimate in the close circle of his eklektoi. By this sort of hyper-concretization of the Spirit as Jesus of Nazareth up close and personal, and the reader/hearer participating in (knowing thge mystery of) the tale, would have the healing effect of rebuilding the intelligent sufferer’s confidence in dealing with her challenges, internally and externally, by providing insight into her condition. The members of the community know the ‘reality’ of ‘Jesus’ and they are not thrown by Mark’s dissembling that is to fool or mock the faithless outsiders.
Unfortunately, this holier-and-smarter-than-thou attitude of Mark speaks also of his spiritual limits. It seems to have been a trait inherited from Paul as charismatic groups have a tendency to take on the personalities of their leaders. Mark’s gospel and parables within it were aimed to injure the Petrine rivals, and often unnecessarily so. The two-stage curing of the blind man in Bethsaida, is another blatant example of a mean trashing of the earthly Jesus disciples. In the narration, it comes after the second feeding of the multitude which the disciples do not get – yet again. (I believe Werner Kelber solved the mystery of the second feeding – it was not Mark’s mishandling his sources speaking of a single event). Mark devises a two-stage cure of a blind man, who after the first phase can only see ‘men’, who ‘look like trees, walking’. This ridicules the Petrines’ lack of spiritual insight, which of course has to be corrected by the proper medicine by Jesus as Pauline spirit.
In my reading of the battle of the gospels, this story infuriated Matthew, as he saw in it a brutish assault on his own traditions, and an exhibit of Pauline pompous gnostic arrogance. He would prove to Mark that that he and his mocking troopers own no monopoly on the Spirit and Jesus. The judge-not section of the Sermon, I read as Matthew’s focused attack on the Paulines’ false sense of superiority ( 1 Cr 2:15-16) in access to Christ through the Spirit. He bores into Mark for the Bethsaida two-step cure: ‘How wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam [is] in thine own eye?’ Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.' Matthew then delivers a killer of a blow to the followers of Paul who would preach Christ to the heirs of Peter and demand their submission : Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.. If Jesus did not say that in fact, he could not have said it any better. For verily, trample Mark’s pearls Matthew did, and brilliantly so.
My perspective assumes that the psychological touchpoints of the manic-depressive challenge have not changed in history. Most manics are both, genuinely convinced that they belong to an elite favoured by God or gods (or simply ‘superior’ if they are atheists), and in the same measure, accursed and abandoned by them or harassed by the devil, when they are low (or simply ‘done for’ or ‘emptied of purpose’ if atheists). The other thing to understand about this fairly common condition is that unlike other mental disorders, e.g. schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s, this one is not degenerative. When the manic excitement subsides, most often in a few weeks, the subject’s rational faculty returns, even if deeply affected by the experience of altered mentation. The subjects will realize as a rule after the first episode that they went off the deep end, and most will feel profoundly embarrassed about the way they carried on. At the same time, they are hooked on the intensity of the ecstatic highs and some are willing to pay any price to stay in the cycle. The first few months after the excitement subsides will be critical to establish the pattern of the subject’s response to the new challenge. The ancients did not have mood-control medication but they had brains just like ours. And our brains can be very resourceful when challenged in new and unusual ways.
But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, 'We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'
Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.
I am big; I am small; I contradict myself'
- Walt Whitman
Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.
I am big; I am small; I contradict myself'
- Walt Whitman