Outline

I. Healing the sick in body and mind is a manifestation of divine power in both Jewish and Greco-Roman traditions and is found in earliest and later Christianity.

A. Greco-Roman religion knew both of healing shrines and of individuals whose healing power certified them as "divine men" (see Apollonius of Tyana).

B. Judaism's ancient traditions of prophetic healers continued to live among certain rabbinic teachers (see Elijah, Chanina ben Dosa).

C. In Christianity, healing has, like speaking in tongues, been both a powerful and a polarizing phenomenon.

1. Some Christians virtually identify the good news with healing, making it the sign of authentic religion.

2. Others are suspicious of healing, both because of its long tradition of fakery and because of its theological implications.

II. Evidence for the practice of healing in Christianity is widespread and prominent.

A. In each of the canonical Gospels, Jesus is portrayed as the healer of physical illness—especially of the sort that separated people from community—and of mental or spiritual alienation (exorcisms).

B. The Acts of the Apostles attributes the power to heal to the Jerusalem apostles (Acts 3:1-7; 5:12-16), to Philip (8:4-7), to Peter (9:32-43), and to Paul (14:6-10; 16:18). The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles makes healing by the apostles a constant feature of their ministry.

C. In addition to the charge that Jesus was a magician who practiced black magic, the apostles also seemed to practice necromancy, a form of black magic in antiquity, in which the spirit of a dead person (especially a criminal) would be invoked in order to accomplish something negative. The apostles would heal with the words "in the name of Jesus" and, in the eyes of the ancients, this practice could easily be understood as necromancy.

D. The incidental comments in the letters of Paul (1 Cor. 12:28-30; 2 Cor. 12:12; Gal. 3:5) and James (5:1317) support the picture of healing as a practice in the earliest communities.

III. The meaning of healing as a religious experience in early Christianity must be derived from the interpretation given it by literary sources.

A. We lack what most we would want as analysts of religious experience, namely firsthand testimony to the process of healing. The sources provide only indirect testimony to the feelings of those who are healed (see, e.g., Mark 9:21-24; 10:51; John 5:7; 9:25; Acts 3:1-9).

B. Five distinct (though sometimes overlapping) meanings are associated with healing in the early Christian writings:

1. Healing is a sign of God's powerful presence in the world and, therefore, serves to validate the agency of the healer as a divine messenger. This is a constant in the Gospels and Acts (especially the Apocryphal Acts) but also in Paul's letters.

2. Healing symbolizes the compassion of the healer, above all the compassion of Jesus, which points to the mercy of God toward humans.

3. Healing can signify stages of transformation for discipleship, an empowerment that enables humans to overcome impediments to God's service. Paul's healing from blindness in his conversion is the obvious example.

4. Healing symbolized the restoration of the sick to community and, by extension, the healing or restoration of the community itself. Here, we see the link between "healing" and "saving" (both using the Greek verb sozein), both in the Gospel and in the Letter of James.

5. Healing symbolizes faith, in God, in the healer, perhaps even in the possibility of transformation.

IV. With all its ambiguity, healing has remained one of Christianity's continuing claims on the experiential, above all on the power of the Resurrection.

A. Healing "in the name of Jesus" was, in the earliest period, testimony that the Resurrection of Jesus invoked by Christians was real, present, and powerful.

B. Throughout the history of Christianity, manifestations of healing power have certified the healer as a "saint," that is, as one whose life embodies the presence of the resurrected one.

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