by Doug Ward

OXFORD, OHIO-Miraculous healings were a prominent aspect of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. His healing miracles showed God's love and compassion, announced the arrival of the Kingdom of God, and gave evidence that he is the Messiah (Luke 7:18-23).


Sometimes the healings of Jesus communicated additional meanings as well. One fascinating example is the "two-stage" healing of a blind man recorded in Mark 8:22-26. The significance of this healing was explored in a sermon delivered by Dr. Daniel B. Wallace at Oxford Bible Fellowship on March 8, 2015. Wallace, a Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, explained in his sermon why he believes that Mark 8:22-33 is a pivotal passage for our understanding of the message of Mark's Gospel.


Twin Healings

Dr. Wallace noted that there are only two healings reported by Mark that are not mentioned by either Matthew or Luke. One is the miracle of Mark 8:22-26, and the other is the healing of a deaf man with a speech impediment in Mark 7:31-37.


These two miracles have some key elements in common. For one thing, they share a connection with Isa 35, a prophecy describing the messianic age. Of that era Isaiah says,


"Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy (Isa 35:5-6, NIV).


The Greek word for "had a speech impediment" in Mark 7:32 ( mogilalos) appears nowhere else in the New Testament. The same word also appears only once in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, for the "mute tongue" in Isa 35:6.1 Mark's use of this unusual word suggests that he had Isa 35 in mind when he described the miracle in Mark 7:31-37.


There is further reference to Isa 35:5-6 in the public reaction to the healing in Mark 7:37: "He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak." In reporting the healings of a deaf man in chapter 7 and a blind man in chapter 8, Mark is implying that the messianic age has begun with the coming of Jesus.


Another feature common to both healings is Jesus' use of saliva. Jesus seems to have applied saliva to the tongue of the man with the speech impediment (7:33) and spit on the eyes of blind man (8:23).


Since these actions were not required for a healing to take place, it is worthwhile to ask what symbolic value they may have had. In this regard, some commentators point to a tradition mentioned in the Talmud (b. Baba Batra 126b) that the saliva of a father's firstborn son had healing power. So it is possible that Jesus' use of saliva in these healings testified to his status as God's "only begotten Son" (John 1:14,18; 3:16).


On the other hand, spitting in someone's face, as Jesus did to the blind man, was usually an insulting gesture. Dr. Wallace illustrated this point with several scriptures (Num 12:14; Deut 25:9; Job 17:6; 30:10) and some discussion of customs from the late Second Temple period and rabbinic tradition.2 For example, the Community Rule of the Qumran sect includes the provision, "And the person who spits in the midst of a meeting of the Many shall be punished thirty days" (1QS 7:13). The Mishnah, the written compilation of the Jewish "oral Torah" that dates from about 200 A.D., says that one should not spit on the Temple Mount (Berakhot 9:5).3 Another ruling in the Mishnah specifies a fine of 400 zuz (about four months' pay) for spitting in the face of another. Moreover, a person who was spit upon in a village whose population included an idiot, a Gentile woman, or a Samaritan woman became ritually unclean (m. Tehar 5:8).


There is one rabbinic story (recorded in Leviticus Rabbah 9:9) that relies upon the fact that saliva could be both a healing agent and an insult. A woman who loved to hear the teaching of Rabbi Meir (a famous sage of the second century A.D.) once arrived home late after a teaching session. Her upset husband said that she could not come back to his house until she had spit in the face of the teacher. When Rabbi Meir learned of her situation, he pretended to have an eye ailment and persuaded the woman to spit in his face seven times in order to treat the condition, thus allowing her to return to her husband.


Wallace speculated that Matthew and Luke may have chosen not to use the incident from Mark 8:22-26 in order to avoid having to explain Jesus' puzzling behavior. He noted that some Church fathers seem to have been troubled by the account and sought to spiritualize it. For example, Ambrose (c. 340-397 A.D.) taught that the spitting in Mark 8:23 represented the washing away of sin in baptism, while Jerome (337-420 A.D.) held the account to be symbolic but not historical.


For modern historical Jesus scholars, however, the awkward questions raised by this account add to its credibility. The historicity of Mark 8:22-26 has been defended based on the criterion of embarrassment, the principle that the gospel writers would not have invented incidents that would be embarrassing to explain.


The Healing and its Symbolism

Why, then, did Jesus heal the blind man in two stages and spit in his face? To answer this question, Dr. Wallace considered the healing in its context in Mark 8.


When the blind man was brought to Jesus at Bethsaida, Jesus led the man outside the village before spitting in his eyes. Wallace speculated that Jesus may have wanted to avoid making the man ritually unclean by spitting on him inside the village.


In any case, after shocking the man by spitting in his face, Jesus asked him what he saw. "I see people; they look like trees walking around," he answered. Apparently he had not been born blind, since he could identify people and compare them to trees.


At this point, the man's vision had partially returned. In a second stage, Jesus completely restored his eyesight, so that "he saw everything clearly" (v. 25). Jesus then instructed him to go home without passing along the news to anyone in the village (v. 26).


In Mark's gospel this healing comes immediately after an episode in which Jesus' disciples have difficulty comprehending his instruction (vv. 14-21). Spiritually speaking, the disciples were experiencing blindness.


On the way to Caesarea Philippi, twenty five miles to the north, Jesus engaged them in a discussion of his identity. As he had asked the blind man, "Do you see anything?", he now asked his disciples, "Who do you say I am?" Peter answered that Jesus was the Messiah (v. 29). Jesus then asked them not to publicize this information, as he had asked the blind man not to spread the news of his healing (v. 30).


But what were the implications of Jesus' messianic identity? Jesus went on to explain that his mission called for him to suffer, die and then be raised from the dead (v. 31).


This news was startling to the disciples, as the blind man must have been startled when Jesus spit in his face. They hoped, as did many Jews at that time, that a Messiah would soon deliver them from Roman oppression and fulfill the words of the prophets about the restoration of Israel. And so Peter rebuked Jesus at the suggestion that Jesus was destined for suffering and death (v. 32).


Like the blind man after the first stage of his healing, the disciples had partial vision of who Jesus was and what they would be called to do. They saw Jesus as a towering figure, as the blind man had seen blurry images of people that looked like trees, but they did not see Jesus clearly. Jesus rebuked Peter and taught the disciples what it meant to follow him (vv. 33-38).


The Hinge of Mark's Gospel

Dr. Wallace explained that the two-stage healing of the blind man in Mark 8:22-26 symbolizes the experience of the original disciples of Jesus. He also asserted that chapter 8 is a pivotal section of Mark's gospel that raises some important questions.


Like the blind man, the disciples had only partial vision at first. The blind man then received clear vision. Would the disciples also come to understand Jesus and their calling more clearly? This question hangs over the second half of Mark's gospel. If, as many scholars now believe, Mark ended his gospel on a "cliffhanger" at verse 8 of chapter 16, then this question is left open.4 Readers are left to ponder their own response to the gospel message.


Dr. Wallace challenged the members of his audience to think about their own spiritual vision. We will be disappointed, Wallace said, if we try to see Jesus as anything other than what he really is. To see Jesus clearly, we have to see him in his suffering and accept the calling that Jesus describes in Mark 8:34-35: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it."


1See William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, New International Commentary on the New Testament, Eerdmans, 1974, p. 264.


2One good reference on these customs is the book Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus by Jodi Magness, Eerdmans, 2011.


3There was a similar ban on spitting in Roman temples (Epictetus, Discourses 4.11:32).


4For more on the ending of Mark's gospel, see the article, "Lessons from the `Sudden Ending' of Mark's Gospel" in Issue 18 of Grace & Knowledge.

Issue 30


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