Month: December 2012

Women in Roman Religious Life

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Lefkowitz and Fant assert that the politically oppressed often turn to ecstasy as a temporary means of possessing the power they otherwise lack.  In relation to this assertion we see from a number of ancient texts and archaeological evidence that Roman women had an important place in the religious life of the empire and had a number of important roles. So here is a brief overview for you in light of the Roman religious festival of Saturnalia.

One of the most significant roles of women in Roman religion is found in the Roman cults and festivals.  Several of these were confined to women and were used to enlist divine aid and designed to uphold ideals of female conduct.  Pomeroy outlines that cults and festivals involving Fortuna were an important part of women’s religious life and roles.  Fortuna Virginalis, for instance, protected adolescent girls who ceremonially dedicated their small togas to her when they came of age and donned a stola while transferring to the protection of Fortuna primigenia.  This is just one example of how females interwove with religious activities as through the worship of these goddesses ensured the protection of those who would go on to produce the children of the state.  Women also played a role in the commendation of relatives to the divine powers.  For instance, the commendation of nieces and nephews at the Matralia which was only attended to by respectable women.  The role of women in the worship of goddesses and festivals was a significant part of state interests such as with the worship by women of the verticordia which was associated with domestic harmony, virtue and marital fidelity.  Augustus often emphasized such cults to do with women in the interest of the state.  Juvenal on the other hand, condemned many of these cults and practices and presents a more distorted picture based on women neglecting the cults designed for them.

From the statue in Rome. Costume of a chief ve...
From the statue in Rome. Costume of a chief vestal

The roles of women were not just confined to Roman cults, but also associated with a number of foreign cults that had made their way into the body of Roman religious importance.  Pomeroy explains that one such cult was the cult of Isis which made its way throughout the Roman Empire and while in often dramatic contrast to many of the traditional cults was especially attractive.  This attraction was caused by the way that anyone could relate to Isis and this was particular the case with women who had a massive role to play in its upkeep.  Archaeology and written evidence from Pompeii illustrates that many women were affiliated with this cult, such as one so called Julia who was a public priestess of the cult at Pompeii.  This individual woman also shows us that such women could hold a certain authority in their localities, as Julia while holding this title of Priestess of Isis also had a number of businesses and authority over her own estates and income, as well as being a prominent member of society.  This illustrates Pomeroy’s assertion that religion afforded an outlet for those whos lives were circumcised in other ways.

Imperial and ordinary women also held a large role in Roman religious activity even outside the priesthood.  Cicero, while often oversimplifying the association between women and religion, shows that women had a significant sense of obligation and participation in relation to religion.  This is seen in accounts of how his wife Terentia would associate herself with religion and take part in a number of religious ceremonies and practices as an obligation to the divine and state.  Plutarch also describes such roles of women in religious activities such as with the Bona Dea (the good goddess) when sacrifice was offered to the goddess annually in the house of the consul by either his wife or mother.  Plutarch also tells of certain festivals where women had roles even in earlier times, such as the Agrionia where the daughters of Minyas were chased by a priest ceremonially.

One of the most significant roles that a woman could have in Roman religion was that of a Vestal virgin.  Wildfang tells us that the vestals were inseparable from the Roman’s view of themselves and the state, which illustrates just how important the Vestals were to the state.  This in itself is indicative of the kind of power that the vestals held in the minds of the Romans and the kind of authority.  Juvenal would not even go as far to criticise the vestals.  These virgin priestesses belonged to no man and could incarnate the collective, the city itself.  And the hearth they tended with its undying flame was symbolic of the continuation of both family and community, as Pomeroy explains.  Their role was so entwined with the interests of the state that, as Livy explains, vestals often came under suspicion for it was conceivable that their misconduct had contributed to the misfortunes of the state.  This is a specific example of the firmly established principle of Greek and Roman thought connecting the virtue of women and the welfare of the state.  Aristotle also alludes to this ideology blaming Spartan women for the deterioration of Sparta; as does the Emperor Domitian who perceived a connection between popular morality and female degeneracy.  While the lives of vestals were severely regulated they held an emancipation and authority which other women did not.  The XII Tables show this, telling of how the vestals were to be freed from the power of their pater familias and the Vestals looked after a fire whose quenching threatened the very fundament of the city’s existence, the pax decorum.  Augustus tells of how the vestals had increased privileges like all ‘priests’, which could be taken to mean that they had the same authority as their male counterparts in the priesthood.  Suetonius and Vetruvius also indicate the privilege and authority of these women, telling us that they alone of women held seats in the imperial podium.

The vestals were not though the only public priestesses to hold authority in the Roman Empire.  The priestesses of Ceres, for instance, along with those of Fortuna were also entwined with the interests of the state and held the prestigious duty of administering a state cult.  Pomeroy tells that the cult of the Hellenized Ceres was exclusively in the hands of women and excluded men and those of low birth.  The Priestesses of these cults and other had the exclusive privilege of representing the city in the performance of holy rites.  Miletus explains that it was the role of the priestesses to throw meat on behalf of the city and no one else was to do so before them.  This indicates a certain control over religious matters on the part of the female.  Other evidence also pertains to the role of the priestess in religious practices.  An epitaph for a priestess from Rome around the end of the third century explains that such women were in charge of sacred objects and implements and marched in processions of religious significance before the whole city.  The authority of such Priestesses is again seen in example like from Pompeii with the Genius of Augustus dedicated by the Priestess Mamia with the use of her own funds and land.

Mark 7:31-37, The Healing of a Deaf and Mute Man

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Mark 7.31-37 records the miracle story of the healing of a deaf and mute Man.  This post will explore the verses and their connection to redaction, history and tradition.

Mark 7.31 describes the journey of Jesus and his disciples to the area in which this miracle of the healing of a deaf and mute man takes place.  When one looks at this journey on a map, the first thing that stands out is that Jesus appears to make a massive detour by going North and through Sidon from his starting point in Tyre. It is difficult to surmise why Jesus is said to take this root. Its absurdity indicates that the trail was historically accurate, simply because why would anyone make up such a detour and then not give pause to explain the addition. It has been suggested that Jesus took this route in an attempt to gain the necessary seclusion for the instruction of the Twelve which he had twice before failed to gain.[1] This is demonstrated in Mark 6.31-32, ‘Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat…So they went to a solitary place.’ Mark 7.24 closely precedes the miracle story in Mark 7.31 following.  It again demonstrates this required seclusions; ‘Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre.  He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence a secret.’

Decapolis, the area of Jesus’ destination, was a ten-city group on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire. Eusebius explains that the region included Hippose, Pella, Scythopolis, Philadelphia, Gerasa, Dion, Kanatha, Damascus, Raphana and Gadara (the site of the famous healing baths).[2] Each of the ten cities included numerous smaller settlements and dominated trade routes.  This presented Jesus and his disciples with an abundance of people, especially of the middle and lower classes, to which to expose to his teachings. Decapolis is also mentioned in Mark 5.20.  This occurrence acts as a preliminary exposure for the people of the region; ‘So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.’ This verse similarly parallels the reaction of the people in Mark 7.37. It is interesting to remember that the places mentioned in Jesus’ journey were inhabited by a large number of Gentiles, especially Decapolis which was a nominally Gentile region.

The state of the disabled man is interesting in its description.  The inability to speak clearly does not necessary mean that the man is neither dumb nor mute; more so it could be caused by the man’s deafness. The term μογιλαλον is a rarely found word which only again occurs in Isaiah 35.6; ‘Then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the mute shall sing; for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert.’ This verse in Isaiah and its preceding verses suggest that the wording of Mark was referring to a much earlier tradition from the Old Testament in Isaiah 35. Μογιλαλον could also mean ‘stammerer’ which would attest the man’s inability to articulate due to his deafness.

The movement away from the crowd in Mark 7.33 may have simply been to avoid the distraction and the unnecessary publicity. This verse could emulate the idea presented by Jesus’ journey mentioned above; an attempt to gain some seclusion in which to teach and perform his miracles. The reason for this act remains under debate. The act appears elsewhere in Mark 8.23 which could suggest a link to the secrecy motif in Mark and the association of Jesus’ identity and his actions which will be explored later in this paper.

Reasons that are possible for the act of taking aside from the crowd could be as simple as to conceal the manner of the cure, in order to be not distracted, and not to attract unwanted attention. This may be part of the historical Jesus, a window into his thought processes and attitude to what he was doing.  Similarly it is indicative of an addition by Mark in accordance with his motives to keep the identity of Jesus quiet within the population until the end; while maintaining Jesus’ relation to divinity and keeping the audience of his gospel informed.

Jesus’ methodology in curing the man is full of vivid detail which is indicative of the Markan gospel. Jesus put his fingers in the man’s ears. Then spat and touched his tongue. On first observation one notes that Jesus is identifying the ailments for everyone to see. There have been some hypotheses suggesting that Jesus is more so communicating with the man here saying that he understands his pain. This is a plausible hypothesis as it initially shows that Jesus can relate to human suffering. One hypothesis goes so far as to suggest that it is a form of sign language, while possible, the argument made in its favour is far too simplistic.

Medicine in this time and region was basically inexistent. Morton Smith explains that healing institutions and medicine remains primitive in Israel to this very day, and that in ancient times anyone with healing ‘powers’ was upheld in high regard by the population and highly sought after.[3] One of the main cures that healers provided was simply the placebo effect that accompanied the use of charms and medicinal cures. Jesus’ methodology for curing the deaf and mute man is indicative of the placebo healing method. Jesus was by then known for his cures and teachings and people really believed that they would be cured and hence were by faith alone in many cases. The healing in this story appears to be designed to evoke the co-operation of faith and to present the idea that, with faith, you will be opened to the will and teachings of Christ. Mark’s gospel often acted as a handbook, this story could have been used by Mark to convey this instruction. The ability of Jesus’ hands and saliva to heal is also suggestive to the audience of his divine nature. That he could remove the sins by simple actions.

The use of saliva was a significant and accepted remedy in the period and region. It is also seen in Mark 8.23, ‘He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spat on the man’s and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”’ The appearance of this cure in John 9.6 is implicit of the acknowledgement of saliva as a remedial cure; ‘Having said this, he spat on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes.’ The use of saliva was a well-known remedy mentioned even in Pliny the Elder. Pliny’s Naturalis Historia contains a whole chapter on the remedial uses of human saliva. Pliny first notes what Marcion of Smyrna says on the remedy before noting that Salpe (a female healing authority) believed that saliva could cure numbness if applied correctly.

  1. The Efficacy of Saliva

Stiffness is removed from any numbed limb if you spit into your bosom or if the upper eyelids are touched with Saliva. [4]

Placement of the hands in order to heal is repeated several times throughout the synoptics and could be interpreted as an acknowledged healing procedure in the period or an illustration of Jesus’ powers to heal. Mark 5.23 reads ‘Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.’ This healing touch is also expressed in Mark 6.56; ‘…they placed the sick in the market places.  They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed.’  This suggests that Mark uses the touch of Jesus in Mark 7 as he does elsewhere, as a mark of Jesus’ divinity and that faith heals. Luke similarly emulates this healing technique and the message of divinity and faith in 4.40; ‘When the sun was setting, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them.’ The touching of the ears is found in one notable synoptic comparison with Luke 22.51.  This verse tells of the who’s ear has been severed and Jesus heals him by touching the afflicted body part.

The look up to heaven and accompanying sigh in 7.34 give a connection to heaven and the divine that suggest that they are involved in the healing of the deaf and mute man. The sigh is an indication not that Jesus had difficulty in healing the man, but more likely a representation of the feelings Jesus felt.  This links back to Jesus’ human side, his ability to relate to humanity, to be human.  This is an important idea in Mark’s gospel as well as the other synoptics.  Luke particularly represents Jesus as the perfect ‘man’; as an example to humanity.

The sigh is an indication of Jesus’ emotions concerning the man and the compassion he feels towards him.  He is expressing his pity for the hardships of human life and the horrible things that can happen to undeserving people.  It is this form of human emotion and relation with Mark often likes to express in his gospel in relation to Jesus.

The magic word “Ephphatha!” used in Mark 7.34 could be a sign of the historical Jesus.  It means ‘be opened’ in Aramaic which many believe Jesus spoke along with Greek and Hebrew. Nazareth, where Jesus is said to originate from, was primarily Aramaic-speaking. The use of the word in this miracle story is implicit of the historical Jesus as Aramaic was a common language in the first century AD in Israel and the surrounding areas. The New Testament contains many examples of Aramaic (and Hebrew) additions, including Ephphatha. Some scholars believe that the gospel writers had access to Aramaic sources which they took from.  For instance, Q was possibly a collection of Aramaic writings. So the use of the Aramaic word and phrase may be representative of source material as well as the historical Jesus.

Other examples of the inclusion of Aramaic and Hebrew phrase are found throughout Mark.  Mark 5.41 includes the phrase Ταλιθα κουμ (טליתא קומי) which is Aramaic in a Greek transliteration. This generally translates to ‘Little girl, Get up.’ Mark 14.36 contains the Aramaic word Αββα (אבא) in Greek transliteration which is originally an Aramaic form borrowed into Hebrew. This phrase is also found in Romans 8.15 and Galatians 4.6. Εφφαθα (אתפתח) could be the passive imperative of the verb ‘to open’ and is also given in Greek transliteration, similarly to these other examples. Mark’s explanation of the word at the end of Ephphatha is indicative of his writing for a Gentile audience which he believed required him to provide some often highly detailed explanations.

In the days of Jesus, ailments such as deafness and muteness were often seen as either punishment for sin or possession by demons.  Jesus’ ability to cure these ailments presents him as one who can forgive sin and overcome demons.  This picture of Jesus would have been a powerful illustration of who Jesus was.  This may account further for the secrecy at the end of the story in relation to Mark’s addition of the Messianic secret.  The curing of the man highlights the identity of Jesus, so though the actual command for secrecy does not deal with the identity of Jesus as the Messiah, the miracle story as a whole attests to the fact.

Mark 7:37 expresses the amazement of the people who witnessed the miracle. This amazement is a logical reaction to witnessing such an act; even in this enlightened day one still is in awe of even a simple magic trick.  But why was this added to this particular story? Firstly, it is by far not the first inclusion of the reaction.  It appears numerous times throughout Mark (Mark 6.51, 5.42, 1.22, 16.8). The multiple uses of this reaction indicate that Mark is attempting to highlight the extraordinary nature of Jesus’ acts and teachings.  This amazement in turn would have provided a base for the revelation of Jesus’ identity at the end of the gospel. It is difficult to isolate whether this feature is redactional or historical, it is too logical a reaction for this to be determined; it could be both.

The amazement in hand with the people’s reaction in talking more about the miracle also says something of the Jesus presented in Mark’s gospel. It presents Jesus as a man of humility in that he wishes not to proclaim his own achievements; he is seen as a modest soul. This could be interpreted as Jesus setting an example, a form of his teaching.  Jesus, as the messiah, is not likely to be represented as one in danger of being ostentatious. The taking away from the crowd, the amazement expressed by the people and their talking of the act is implicit of the historical Jesus in that he would have recognised that there were those that saw him as an evil doer.  By taking the man away from the crowd Jesus limits the audience to only those who may have faith already or a wish for faith.  The amazement expressed by the audience and the modesty of Christ mean that others are more likely to believe what they are told.

The people talk more about the act the more Jesus asks them not too, which is essentially a logical and human reaction to being amazed or on hearing something unusual. Mark’s motive and Jesus’ attitude will be discussed below concerning this addition but first one should consider the message that this verse conveys in relation to its placement and context. It can be interpreted readily as if our ears are open to the teachings of God and Christ then we will have our tongues loosened to praise and prayer.[5] So while this verse appears to be an act of human nature, it also potentially holds an important message which coincides with Mark’s purpose.  It is instructional in that it outlines the benefits and result of opening oneself to God’s teachings; just as the man who is healed is ‘opened’ to the world.

The line ‘he has done everything well’ is an interesting point for interpretation It is plausible that this line refers to the idea which is pushed in all the synoptics that Jesus is the exemplar man. Luke particularly raises this view of Jesus. Mark 7.31-37 emulates that Jesus is indeed human in that he understands human reaction and emotion.  It also, in this line, expresses that he is what humans should be; someone who does things well, to the best of their ability, who understands others and forgive sins (just as he forgives the sins which are metaphorically the ailments of the deaf and mute man.)

Mark 7.36 expresses Jesus’ command to the witnesses not to tell anyone of the event that had taken place. This is not the only indication of secrecy in the Markan gospel; Mark 1.43-44, Mark 5.43 and Mark 7.24, and their synoptic counterparts (Matthew 8.4 and Luke 5.14 for 1.43-44, and Luke 8.56 for Mark 5.43) exhibit this also. There is evidence to suggest that these miracle stories and this command for secrecy was not directly to do with the messianic secret because the actual identity of Jesus is not an issue. Mark’s secrecy motif though indicates that the gospel writer did acknowledge these acts as works of the Messiah.[6]  This indicates a link between Jesus’ commands and the Messianic secret. It is possible that this was the originally use of these sayings, to provide a link between the identity of the Messiah and the acts that he performed.  When one considers redaction then Mark could have recorded the verses without their original sense (the link to the identity of the Messiah), if he chose to interpret them in a different way.

Jesus’ wish for secrecy appears obvious, but this assumes the attitude of Jesus based purely on his words and not on reaction.  With Jesus telling the people not to talk of the miracle, they talked more.  By this time Jesus would have surely been aware of the reaction people would have to his miracles and his commands.  Jesus’ intention could have been a form of reverse psychology which acted as a catalyst for the spread of the story.  This is though an issue of interpretation, attitude and redaction criticism which remains in contest.

Mark 7.31-37

31.) Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis.

32.) There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged him to place his hand on him.

33.) After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spat and touched the man’s tongue.

34.) He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means, “Be opened!”).

35.) At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue loosened and he began to speak plainly.

36.) Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it.

37.) People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

Matthew 15.29-31

29.) Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down.

30.) Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them.

31.) The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.

Luke 4.38-44

38.) Jesus left the synagogue and went to the home of Simon. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked Jesus to help her.

39.) So he bent over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. She got up at once and began to wait on them.

40.) When the sun was setting, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them.

41.) Moreover, demons came out of many people, shouting, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew he was the Christ.

42.) At daybreak Jesus went out to a solitary place. The people were looking for him and when they came to where he was, they tried to keep him from leaving them.

43.) But he said, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.”

44.) And he kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea.

Matthew 15.29-31 provides us with the means for synoptic comparison for the healing of the deaf and mute man miracle in Mark. Matthew’s version is a summarised version but still maintains several key features of the Markan version. These include; Jesus’ journey down the Sea of Galilee, the great crowds that confront Jesus and his disciples, the healing miracles (though they are more general and there is no detail in Matthew), the amazement of the people and their clear need to tell and praise what they had seen. Matthew’s version does not have the same emphasis and focus that Mark’s has but it maintains its placement and essence.

Matthew’s version is likewise placed between the two feedings and straight before the feeding of the 4000. The two feedings in Matthew illustrate the Markan priority Matthew generally exhibits; however the healing here, while having similarities, is outside the Markan priority.  This was probably in part due to Matthew’s differing motives and foci, but there is also evidence that Matthew decided to take this story from a separate independent source.  This is seen in the Greek wording in comparison to Mark. Unlike the feedings, the healings in Matthew have very few of the same words and phrase that Mark uses.  The only initial similarity in wording is seen in the ‘Sea of Galilee.’ One would expect that Matthew would at least use the same term for mute or amazement if he was taking from Mark, but he does not.  This suggests that Matthew and Mark both had sources which told of Jesus’ journey and healing of men but these sources were independent to the authors and both made their choices based on personal preference, if indeed they had a choice or more than one source. Matthew for instance, was not so concerned about the secrecy motif and so did not require additions concerning identity and secrecy.

Luke again only summarises the healing of many and does not recall the instance in Mark 7.31-37. Luke 4.38-44 tells of many people bringing Jesus various kinds of sickness and Jesus laying his hands on them healed them. Luke does not maintain the placement that we see in Matthew and Mark. Luke does though emphasise that Jesus wished to keep his title as the Son of God quiet; he silences the demons that shout ‘You are the Son of God!’ and would not allow them to speak because ‘they knew he was the Messiah’ (Luke 4.41). This indicates that Luke, like Matthew, knew of stories telling the journey and healings of Jesus but sources or at least motives differed between the synoptics.

Luke 4.43 emphasises an idea which, as discussed, could be behind the long detour that appears in Mark 7.31. Luke 4.43 expresses the travelling that Jesus must do to spread the word of God; this is expressed in Mark in the journey Jesus takes to Decapolis. There is also the need for privacy to teach which complements the idea that Jesus wished to get away from the crowds; if not to keep his divine identity a secret, then to teach his disciples in peace. Luke 4.44 shows that Luke’s audience and motive were unlike Mark’s which may explain the summarising of this miracle. Luke clearly highlights synagogues and Judea. From this, we see that Luke wrote for a Jewish audience or at least one with foreknowledge of Jewish customs. Luke, and similarly Matthew, did not need to provide such a Gentile orientated and specific miracle, so they could have easily decided to omit it or summarise it. Mark’s audience and motive benefitted from the inclusion of this miracle in full.

The miraculous healing in Mark 7.31-37 is part of two cycles of stories which each contain a water based miracle, three healings and a feeding. The healing of the deaf and mute man is accompanied by the blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 6.45-51), and the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7.24-30). The placement of the miracle in Mark 7.31-37 is interesting considering its placement between the two feeding stories in Mark (the feeding of the 5000 and of the 4000). The healing of the blind and mute man illustrates the opening of the mind, mouth and ears.

During the feeding of the 5000, the disciples question the motives and actions of Jesus which requires Jesus to use strong imperatives. During the feeding of the 4000, after the miracle story has occurred, the disciples are more cooperative and confess their lack of understanding. The healing of the deaf and mute man represents the need for open ears to the teaching and actions of Jesus, and it is with this understanding that the attitude of the disciples appears to change as seen in the second feeding. This is further shown in the use of words within the two feedings; ‘During those days ANOTHER large crowd gathered’ (Mark 8.1), the repetition of ‘How many loaves do you have,’ and ‘ this remote place.’ The repetition suggests that the two feedings are meant to be at least associated with each other if not with the miracle stories which separate them.

Mark 7.31-37 is indicative of Mark’s writing for a specific audience. Mark probably wrote for the Christian community of which he himself was a part of; a mainly gentile audience. This is exhibited in Mark’s explanatory remarks such as with Ephphatha, ‘which means “Open up”’.  A Jewish/Palestinian audience likely would be aware of its meaning due to its Aramaic and Hebrew connections; a Gentile audience would require the explanation. Mark’s decision to write in Greek also suggests that his audience was made up of non-Jews. If Mark was writing for a Jewish audience it falls to reason that he would not have included such explanations and language.

Mark’s audience is important because the audience is in the role of the ‘privileged observer.’ In this role they are able to experience things that only the character of Jesus is privy to, such as the meaning beside the seclusion from the crowd, the importance of the detour in his journey and the actions of sighing and looking towards heaven before undertaking the healing miracle act. This is emphasised elsewhere in Mark, for instance, at the baptism when God speaks “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Only Jesus and the audience are privy to this event.

Where this miracle story originally was sourced from is highly debatable, especially since the synoptics do not have specific parallels. As discussed earlier, both Luke and Matthew have accounts of Jesus healing the deaf and the mute; however, these accounts are highly generalised in comparison to Mark.  From other parallels it is fairly certain that Luke and Matthew had access to Mark.  This makes for an interesting point of enquiry, especially for Matthew who usually expressed a Markan priority. It is possible that Luke and Matthew both decided that the miracle was not significant enough to express the Markan priority in this case.  Considering the differing motives of all three synoptics, this is plausible, especially when one considers that they did not make entirely the same decision. This is seen in Matthew’s placement of the healing miracle account at the same point as Mark’s where Luke decides to place it closer to the beginning of his gospel with even less emphasis.

All the synoptics appear to have knowledge of the healing miracles which suggests that both Luke and Matthew either used independent sources or summaries or made the personal decision to summarise the account. It is plausible that Mark’s choice to include the account in detail was a decision relating to his audience and motifs.

Mark could have viewed this story as an opportunity to express the link to his Gentile audience. Tyre, Sidon and Decapolis, as mentioned, were historically areas of non-Jews; this would have created an association which appealed to his audience; made them part of Jesus’ journey and teachings. Matthew and Luke did not require this association with their not specifically Gentile audiences. Mark’s secrecy motif is also strongly expressed in this miracle story and Mark could have consciously chosen to convey the story with this in mind, catering his account to further highlight and evolve this motif to include not just the identity of Jesus in himself but his identity through the acts which he performed.

The parallels to this miracle story are not confined to the biblical texts. There are parallels which suggest further that the healing of the deaf and mute man was a story based in history and tradition. Tradition is exhibited by the healing spells that make up a large part of the Greek Magical Papyri.  In the time of Jesus, there was a strong tradition of miraculous healing with the use of bodily fluids, magical words and the touching of afflicted areas.  The Epidauros inscriptions contain parallels where the God Asklepios was said to touch the afflicted area and heal the ailments in dreams.

A man who had the fingers of the hand crippled except one came to the God as a supplicant…While sleeping he saw a vision…the God appeared and seized upon the hand and stretched out its fingers. As it turned out, he seemed to bend the hand to stretch the fingers one by one. When he straightened all of them, the God asked him if he still disbelieved the inscriptions upon the tablets of the temple. He said “No.”[7]

Like the miracle story in Mark, this inscription tells of belief on witnessing the acts of a divine figure. Such parallels show that there is a historical acknowledgement of these forms of healing and also a basis, if not in biblical traditions, then in the healing traditions of the society in which the authors lived.

There is the idea that obstructions can be removed in order to cure ailments; an acknowledged healing tradition which could refer to both physical and metaphorical obstructions. Tacitus tells of how deformities and ailments could be healed if a healing for e were applied.[8] This refers to the will of the Gods and divine service an interest similarity to the looking up to heaven and the divine identity of Jesus in Mark 7.31-37.

Mark 7.31-37 and the synoptic miracles certainly have a basis in Jewish tradition. jBerakoth 9.1 and Deuteronomy 4.7 both tell of a Jewish boy who calms the sea with prayers to God. The divine presence and prayer appears to be an important part of many of these miracle stories, just as it is in Mark 7.31-37 with Jesus’ sigh and silent appeal towards heaven.

The miracle stories in the synoptics make up only a fraction of the miracle or miracle-like stories which are recorded or referred to in ancient literature. It is a genre which the biblical authors adopt for their own purposes. Iamblichus in his Life of Pythagoras records that Pythagorus mastered the Daunian bear, a miracle in that it was thought impossible; a creature that harmed the surrounding population.[9] He also tells of omens, symbols and signs that are often related to miracles, which parallels miracle stories such as the appearance of the doves at the baptism of Jesus. Iamblichus even refers to the calming of storms; a parallel to one of the most well known synoptic miracles.

Mark 7.31-37 appears to be a collection of redactional, historical and traditional features which have been brought together to best fit the motive and audience of Mark.  The miracle of tis healing specifically caters for the understanding of Mark’s Gentile audience which suggests that Mark could have manufactured the story.  At the same time, there are indications of the historical Jesus in the use of Aramaic, the detour and the human side shown.  Ancient and biblical traditions also appear as seen by the magical and healing parallels throughout contemporary literature.

The question of sources here is a difficult one.  It is believed that Matthew and Luke both had access to the Markan account; and Matthew had a Markan priority.  Why then would Matthew not include the miracle in its Markan form? For Luke it was usual to omit Markan text in favour of independent sources or summaries.  This could suggest that Luke and Matthew had a source/s that they held in higher regard for this area of the text.  It is more likely that this miracle story was so heavily Markan and catering for Gentiles, that both Luke and Matthew independently decided to change it to suit them by making it generic. This hypothesis is based also on Matthew’s addition of the healing miracles at the same temporal place as Mark, showing a remnant of that Markan priority prevalent throughout the rest of Matthew.

Further Reading

Betz, H.D., The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (Chicago, 1986)

Cartlidge, D.R. and Dungan, D.L., Documents for the Study of the Gospels (Minneapolis, 1994), pp.151-164

Drane, J., Introducing The New Testament (Oxford, 1993)

Eusebius, Onomasticon, s.v

Goodrick, E.W. and Kohlenberger III, J.R., The NIV Handy Concordance (London, 1982)

Guthrie, D., Motyer, J.A., Stibbs, A.M., and Wiseman, D.J. (eds.) New Bible Commentary (Leicester, 1992)

Hay, L.S., Mark’s Use of the Messianic Secret, in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol.35, No.1 (Mar., 1967), pp.16-27

Lockyer, H., Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Cambridge, 1986)

Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician (London, 1978)

Perrin, N., The Christology of Mark: A Study in Methodology, in The Journal of Religion, Vol.51, No.3 (Jul., 1971), pp.173-187

Pliny the Elder, The Natural History (Trans. Bostock, J.)(London, 1855)

Tacitus, The Histories [] 4.81

[1] Guthrie, D., Motyer, J.A., Stibbs, A.M., and Wiseman, D.J. (eds.) New Bible Commentary (Leicester, 1992)

[2] Eusebius, Onomasticon, s.v

[3] Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician (London, 1978)

[4] Pliny the Elder, The Natural History (Trans. Bostock, J.)(London, 1855) 28.38

[5] Guthrie, D., Motyer, J.A., Stibbs, A.M., and Wiseman, D.J. (Leicester, 1992), op.cit.,

[6] Hay, L.S., Mark’s Use of the Messianic Secret, in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol.35, No.1 (Mar., 1967), p.21

[7] Cartlidge, D.R. and Dungan, D.L., Documents for the Study of the Gospels (Minneapolis, 1994), p.151

[9] Cartlidge, D.R. and Dungan, D.L., (Minneapolis, 1994), op.cit., p.153