Mark 1:40-42 - Jesus Heals a Leper
As a matter of process, the historian must always be sceptical about ancient claims concerning divine intervention or miraculous deeds. Though the believer might object to such apparent prejudice, given that there is wide a preponderance of such claims in ancient literature there are only two realistic alternatives available to the historian: either to proceed as though all miraculous accounts in all ancient histories are true, or proceed as though all miraculous accounts in all ancient histories are false. Special pleading for the historicity of Biblical miracles simply won't do: by what objective criteria could we accept Jesus' purported divine capacity to heal people and reject Julius Caesar's purported divine capacity to heal people? Whatever process might lead us to accept Biblical miracles in lieu of all others, it could certainly not rightly be called "history".
Given all that, there is still one objection to the rejection of Biblical miracles that warrants our attention: the fact that some of them are as well attested in Biblical literature as those more mundane aspects of Jesus' biography that most Biblcial scholars are prepared to take for granted.1 I don't believe that this is cause for contemplating the historicity of miraculous deeds (the above argument still stands) but I think it does require us to at least give a considered account of the miracle stories, and what we are to make of them. Simply dismissing them as unhistorical won't teach us anything.
In this account of the healing of the leper, we get our first indication that there is a "symbolic" aspect to many of the miracle accounts in the gospels that we may miss if we concern ourselves only with the issue of their historicity.2 In the case of Mark's account of the healing of the leper, our clue for a deeper symbolism comes from his use of the word "clean" and its relationship to OT theology.
For Jews of the day (including Mark, almost certainly) leprosy was not merely seen as the set of physical symptoms caused by the Mycobacterium leprae bacterium (obviously they were neither familiar with the idea of bacteria nor its implications for public sanitation), it was just as importantly seen as an affliction which deemed one as ritually impure or "unclean" in a religious sense. Such a designation not only held grave consequences for one's ability to exist in everyday society, it was also an indictment of sinfulness that could not be alleviated without the assent of (suitably intermediated) divine authority. That is to say, the OT treats the diagnosis and prognosis of leprosy as the sole domain of the priest (Lev. 13:1 - 14:57): it is he alone who is permitted to declare your fitness (or otherwise) to participate in public life and religious ritual. It is this idea of "cleanliness" in the context of leprosy that is brought before Jesus.
"If you choose", the leper says to Jesus, "you can make me clean" (v. 40). (Not "you can cure me", note, but rather "you can make me clean".) Jesus obliges: "I do choose", he says, "Be made clean!" (v. 41). Some manuscripts say he made this declaration out of pity, others out of anger, but the theological import of this miracle is clear: Jesus not only has the authority to to cure disease, he has authority over ritual cleanliness and uncleanliness, an authority previously reserved for Yahweh and his Aaronic priestly caste. Mark, then, is not so much demonstrating Jesus' power to heal people with this miracle, he's rather demonstrating Jesus' authority to absolve sins.3
As a means of emphasising this point, Mark then has Jesus tell the man to "go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them" (v. 44), ostensibly "a demonstrative testimony or 'witness' against the priests and the costly offerings required by their code".4 This theme of Jesus' authority in relation to the priestly caste (especially the Pharisees) and OT law is extremely common throughout the Gospel accounts (especially gMark and gMatthew) and one we will find ourselves regularly returning to, so I shall leave it there for the time being.
The pericope closes with another example of Markan secrecy ("See that you say nothing to anyone..." - v. 44) and an indication of Jesus' growing notoriety (v. 45).
1 - One of the criteria for determining the historicity of Biblical events is that of "multiple attestation": if something is attested in more than one independent tradition, we can probably treat it as being more probably true, ceteris paribus, than an event preserved by only a single tradition (and when we're reconstructing the historical Jesus, probabilities are the best we have to go on).
Another criterion we might wish to invoke is that of embarrassment: that is, we might be well within our rights to suggest that we should be more accepting of reports concerning events that might be considered "embarrassing" to the authors (depending on the view they are attempting to promote), in preference to reports concerning events that the authors may have been motivated to invent or contrive. Events attested in all four gospels that (to me at least) also satisfy the criterion of embarrassment include Jesus' being from Nazareth (note: not Bethlehem!), Jesus' baptism at the hands of John the Baptist, Jesus causing a raucous at the Temple, Jesus' trial at the hands of Pilate and Jesus being crucified.
With regards to miracles, it is only the miracle of the loaves and fishes (Mk. 6:30-44; Mt. 14:13-21; Lk. 9:10-17; Jn. 6:1-13) that is specifically attested in all four gospels and surely none of the miracle accounts can be said to pass the criterion of embarrassment. Although Jesus' healing powers (the subject of this post) are attested in all four gospels, only three record this particular incident, and - even then - the Matthean and Lukan accounts are derived entirely from the account in Mark.
2 - Note that I use the term "symbolic" as opposed to "metaphorical". "Symbolic" merely implies that that the author intended a deeper meaning to the event described, whereas "metaphorical" implies that the event was contrived as a symbolic fiction to begin with. Liberal scholars enjoy wielding the term "metaphor" to sweep uncomfortable passages under the carpet without having to properly address them, but I'm not sure that such an attitude is intellectually honest. While there may have been a theological subtext to many of the gospel miracle accounts, that's not quite the same as suggesting that the gospel authors believed them to fictitious in the sense that the term "metaphor" implies.
3 - This is made more explicit in our next pericope, the healing of the paralytic: cf. Mk. 2:5.
4 - The New Oxford Annotated Bible: NRSV Ed., p. 60 NT.