Healing Women

By Eric D. Huntsman. Cross-posted at New Testament Thoughts

In a culture and time period that were so male-centric, the attention that Jesus paid to women was noteworthy.  All four of the gospels, and especially Luke, contain stories of Jesus healing women, teaching them, including them in his parables, and even allowing them to become part of his ministry.  In addition to three individual stories about Jesus healing women, Luke also includes a summary that notes how Jesus was accompanied in his Galilean ministry by a group of women “which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities,” including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, “and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance” (Luke 8:2–3).  All this is particularly striking in the cultural context of the gospels, in which Jewish men would be wary of interaction and especially any kind of physical contact with women to whom they were not related.[1]  The fact that none of these women are directly named allows them to serve as types of all women whom Jesus invites to come to him and be healed. 

The first of these stories, the curing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law of a dangerous fever in Capernaum (Mark 1:29–31; Matthew 8:14–15; Luke 4:38–39), is one of the first miracles recorded in the Synoptic gospels, occurring early in Mark and Luke, on what has sometimes been called a “paradigmatic day.”  This day, which was a Sabbath, seems to have served as a model of Jesus’ activities throughout his ministry—on it he taught in the synagogue, cast out a devil (see Chapter 3 below), healed Peter’s mother-in-law, and then at sunset healed and cast out devils from a large crowd of needy people (Mark 1:32–34; Matt 8:16–17; Luke 4:40–41).  In each account, upon being healed, Peter’s mother-in-law immediately begins “to serve” (Greek, diēkonei; KJV, “waited on”), presumably providing those present with a meal and providing for their other needs in a domestic context.  Her service, however, might also be intended to illustrate how all women, when they are made whole by Jesus, are called to serve in a broader sense. 

The three Synoptics tell this story with subtle differences, perhaps intended to emphasize different aspects of what Jesus did on that occasion.  According to Mark, when Jesus entered Simon’s home, those present told him that his mother-in-law was lying sick with a fever.  Without any concern about touching an unrelated woman who might, depending upon the nature of her illness, also have been ritually impure, Jesus raised her up by the hand, whereupon her fever left her.  The word Mark uses for “raised,” ēgeiren, is a form of the same word used in John 5:8 when Jesus bids the man at the Pool of Bethesda “to rise,” and here it may likewise be symbolic of the eventual, final healing that comes to all in the resurrection.[2]  In Matthew’s account, no one tells Jesus of the woman’s sickness: rather he comes directly into the house on his own looking for her. When Jesus touches her hand, she rises and begins to serve Jesus specifically, whereas in the other accounts she served all present.  This one-on-one interaction between the woman and Jesus gives this healing story the feel of a call or commission story, suggesting that it is perhaps a metaphor for how women can be called to serve Christ.[3]  Luke, on the other hand, heightens the scope of Jesus’ healing, noting that the woman’s fever was “severe,” and rather than having Jesus touch or raise her from her bed, Luke reports that Jesus stood over her and “rebuked” (epitimēsen) the fever, using the same word with which Jesus reprimanded the storm in Mark 4:39 and with which he also rebuked devils as he cast them out.  There is no report of any particular faith expressed by Peter’s mother-in-law: while those who asked Jesus to see her in Mark and Luke presumably felt some confidence that he would be able to help her, her healing is primarily portrayed as an act of compassionate intervention solely on the part of Jesus.

On the other hand, the woman who suffered from a persistent hemorrhage of some kind (Mark 5:25–34; Matthew 9:20–22; Luke 8:43–48), had such faith that she said to herself, “If I may touch but his clothes, I shall be whole” (Mark 5:28).  Then at the moment she touched the hem of his garment, she was immediately healed.  So strong was her faith that Jesus sensed power (Greek, dynamin; KJV, “virtue”) flow out of him as she touched him (Mark 5:30; Luke 8:46).  The word for “power” here is the same one that the Synoptics also generally use for “miracle.”  In other words, a miracle seems to have occurred almost entirely because of the woman’s faith without the direct volition of Jesus (cf. the Brother of Jared’s faith in Ether 3:6–20).   But Jesus did not seem concerned about the woman’s actual touch, revealing that he was more concerned about her well-being than he was about contemporary Jewish purity rules.  A woman with this kind of affliction would have been socially and religiously marginalized,[4] but rather than rebuke her for possibly defiling him, he instead made her an example of faith, declaring, “Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole (Greek, sesōken se)” (Mathew 9:22, emphasis added).  Significantly, here again Matthew uses the phrase that actually means “has saved you” (cf. Matthew 8:29; 14:30; Luke 17:19),[5] reminding us again that such healings are often types of the much greater spiritually healing that comes through Christ.

A third healing of a woman appears only in Luke, when Jesus helped a woman who was bent over with some crippling disease, perhaps an extreme form of osteoporosis (Luke 13:10–17).  Though not exclusive to women, this disease has been common among them, particularly in antiquity when so many women subordinated their nutritional and other needs to their children and husbands.[6]  This woman came into the synagogue on the Sabbath, and Jesus, unconcerned about touching an unrelated woman or appearing to “work” on the Sabbath, laid his hands upon her.  Immediately she straightened herself and was healed.  Luke notes that she had suffered from this condition for 18 years, which is the same amount of time that Israel had been in bondage to their enemies the Moabites, Philistines, and Ammonites (see Judges 3:14; 10:8).  Jesus preceded this healing by proclaiming, “Woman, thou art loosed (Greek, apolelysai) from thine infirmity” (Luke 13:12, emphasis added), and the word that he uses here actually means “released, set free, or liberated.”[7]  As a result, the bent woman’s healing becomes a symbol of how Jesus liberates us—from sickness, from sin, and from oppression.  Her response was to glorify God, which Luke describes using the imperfect tense (edoxazen), which in Greek suggests that she began and kept glorifying God.  These interwoven ideas of restoration to proper physical form, liberation, and glorifying God make the healing on the Sabbath particularly appropriate, since the Sabbath was not just a day to abstain from work: it represented God’s finishing his work and pronouncing it good, a weekly recollection of their deliverance from Egypt, and a regular opportunity to praise God.[8] 

[1]Witherington, Women and the Genesis of Christianity, 65, 86–87, 118–120, 201–202; Reid, Choosing the Better Part, 2–4, who nonetheless warns of the ambiguous portrayal of women in Luke.

[2]Witherington, Women and the Genesis of Christianity, 76.

[3]Reid, Choosing the Better Part, 101–102.

[4]Reid, Choosing the Better Part, 138–39.

[5]Meier, A Marginal Jew, 2.709.

[6]Reid, Choosing the Better Part, 164.

[7] Schneider, “apolyō,” Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, 1.140.

[8]Witherington, Women and the Genesis of Christianity, 79; Reid, Choosing the Better Part, 165–68.