BookREVIEW: Medicine, Miracle, and Myth in the New Testament
J. Kier Howard
Resource Publications 2010
Reviewer Lorraine Quinn.
J Keir Howard writes authoritatively as an experienced doctor and practicing Anglican priest; he looks closely at the language used to describe healing in the Old and New Testaments through comparison with contemporary texts and suggests biological and psychological rationales for the cures effected by Jesus, the apostles and other recorded figures.
Academics have traditionally attributed many of the supposed cures by Jesus in the course of his ministry to the skills of some sort of travelling folk healer, who created myths that were gradually appropriated for theological reasons by the early Christians and eventually found their way consolidated into written texts. This short and accessible book systematically examines many of the instances of illness mentioned in the gospels and elsewhere in the bible and lays out possible factual medical diagnoses for each one.
In this, Howard offers little that is new. For years scriptural scholars and scientists have theorised over the exact nature of the medical conditions referred to in the Old and New Testaments. Each generation in turn has interpreted biblical accounts of blindness, demonic possession, paralysis and other manifestations of unwellness in the light of the medical knowledge and practices prevalent in their own era, thus reflecting the development of medicine over the years. Accordingly, the author suggests credible biological explanations for many of the illnesses referred to in the bible.
One example is the condition that has traditionally been translated as ‘leprosy’ but which in modern times could be more accurately diagnosed as psoriasis and which is known to go into spontaneous remission within a short period of time. Another example would be instances of blindness, which, if due for example to cataracts as the author suggests, could be simply cured through the ancient method of ‘couching’. This is still used in some cultures today to relieve the condition and involves pressing on the front of the eye, similar to Jesus’ described technique of healing through touch. In addition the narrative time compression in the bible can make any cure seem immediate and therefore even more miraculous when captured in the written word and read. To an extent, the author follows the pattern established by previous academics of interpreting biblical illnesses through the lens of contemporary medical thinking. The approach makes the book appealing and accessible to any reader who is curious about the history of medicine.
Interpreting the bible in the light of contemporary science is particularly evident in relation to conversion disorders which he defines as a ‘term used to describe mental illnesses in which the patient displays the symptoms and signs of physical illness…in order to escape from some form of unpleasant or demanding situation which may not always be recognised by the patient’ (p111). For example Howard works from the assumption that Zechariah’s temporary loss of speech and hearing in Luke’s gospel (Luke 1:18-33 and 59-65) was a genuine event. He suggests that physically it could have been brought about by a medical condition such as stroke, resulting in aphasia, and old age, causing deafness.
However the psychological origin he puts forward for the same set of symptoms also rings true – Zechariah had an emotionally charged dream that he would become a father despite his old age and that of his wife Elizabeth. Zechariah then developed these two sensory disorders in order to avoid the subject and as a defence mechanism against the people around him, essentially rejecting his wife and denying reality. His symptoms were essentially psychosomatic, and improved somewhat following another emotional episode at the naming ceremony of his child.
The notion of abreaction that the author describes in treating patients with apparent conversion disorders in the bible is especially absorbing, where they work through suppressed emotions that have been converted into physical symptoms, resulting in the release of those symptoms. Issues such as guilt and sin, the importance of forgiveness in alleviating suffering and the after-effects where the former sufferer is described as re-entering society and re-establishing relationships with their fellow men are some of the additional topics related to abreaction which are discussed in the book as elements of Jesus’ ministry.
In a moment of whimsy I did wonder what kind of counselling or psychotherapy training He had which allowed Him to practice so successfully. More seriously and as a result of reading this book, I have thought about how many of our cases as therapists in the twenty-first century are due to spontaneous improvements which would have happened anyway, but which appear almost miraculous to our credulous clients. The corollary of course is that there is indeed something soulful, the transpersonal, about the connection between client and therapist that allows healing to take place, irrespective of the modality in operation.
As a therapist I would have liked a deeper exploration of how psychology and Christian theology co-exist, although the bibliography is especially useful as it gives a balanced range of references from medical and spiritual perspectives. In addition the overall layout of the book is clearly structured, with each instance of illness and cure from the bible presented and analysed as a separate stand-alone section. Having the chapter and verse references for the story makes it easy to find in any edition of the bible and as a result encourages further independent reflection.