Alternative Medicine, Bible Style: Jesus’s Bizarre Approach to Medicine

Alternative Medicine, Bible Style: Jesus’s Bizarre Approach to Medicine February 27, 2016

from Michelangelo's Sistine ChapelReligion in the West is mostly unregulated, like alternative medicine. Both make bold claims without evidence of efficacy. For both, it’s buyer beware. I cringe at the thought of gullible people throwing their money at stuff with bogus claims—homeopathy, magnetic bracelets, detoxing foot pads, aromatherapy, chelation therapy, colloidal minerals, iridology … and religion.

Christians are on the same page when they shake their heads at Scientology, whose story amounts to little more than a $100,000 sci-fi novel metered out in installments, or Heaven’s Gate, the cult whose members killed themselves to get to an alien spacecraft.

Traditional Christians are skeptical of the historical claims of the LDS church. Joseph Smith translated “golden plates” by using magic translating rocks, you say? Show us the plates.

Ditto for Sathya Sai Baba, who had millions of followers and died in 2011. He was an avatar (deity on earth) and performed many miracles, including curing himself of paralysis from a stroke and raising people from the dead. Christians wonder, have scientists corroborated these claims?

They’ll shake their heads at Steve Jobs, who attempted to cure his (very treatable) cancer with alternative medicine. He realized his mistake only when it was too late.

They’ll laugh with skeptics at the end-of-the-world claims of Harold Camping or fans of the Mayan calendar that ended in December, 2012.

But they stop laughing when the topic turns to Jesus.

The healing miracles of Jesus in the gospels record a number of outdated ideas about disease.

  1. Evil spirits cause disease. In the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac, Jesus expelled many demons from a man into 2000 pigs, which ran into a lake and drowned. Demons cause physical crippling as well (Luke 13:10–13). We learn that knowing precisely how to expel the various kinds of demons is an art (Mark 9:25). And getting rid of an “impure spirit” doesn’t help because it’ll just find a bunch of its friends and turn the newly cleansed person into a drunken fraternity party (Luke 11:24–6).
  2. Sickness can come from sin. Jesus healed a disabled man at the Bethesda pool but warned him,

You are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you. (John 5:14)

We also see sickness as a consequence of sin when he forgives the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof to get access to Jesus (Mark 2:2–12).

  1. Magical healings. Jesus healed a blind man by making mud with his spit and putting that on the man’s eyes. After he washed them, the man could see. (John 9:6–7). But don’t think that this magic is flawless. In the parallel story in Mark 8:22–5, Jesus needs two tries to get it to work.
  1. Healings by Jesus touching. Jesus used touch to cure a leper, a person with a fever, and two blind men. He also raised the dead.
  2. Healings by touching Jesus. A woman touched Jesus and was healed without Jesus doing anything, as if he were a medicine battery.

At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him (Mark 5:30).

  1. Healings with magic spell. We learn that the Aramaic word ephphatha means “be opened” That’s the word Jesus used to cure a mute man (Mark 7:33–5). He said, “Talitha koum!” (“Little girl, I say to you, get up!”) to raise a dead girl (Mark 5:35–42).
  2. Healing at a distance. Jesus doesn’t even have to be there. He healed the centurion’s servant remotely (Matthew 8:5–13).

So what have we learned? According to the gospel story, some illnesses are caused by sin, and others are caused by demons. Expelling demons is a waste of time, because they’ll just return with more demons. Jesus can cure with special techniques, he can cure just by a touch, he can cure by being touched, he can cure with spells, and he can cure at a distance without touching at all.

I don’t know what to make of this hodge-podge of techniques except to wonder why Jesus didn’t just put up his feet and heal thousands of worthy people remotely or eliminate entire diseases like cancer and smallpox.

Apologists may argue that Jesus didn’t cure much because he had no interest in doing so, and yet the gospels disagree. A crowd followed Jesus, and

he had compassion on them and healed their sick (Matt. 14:14).

Seeing a widow at the funeral of her only son, Luke says:

his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry” (Luke 7:13)

and then he raised her son. He heals people, at least in part, for the same reason a modern doctor does, because of compassion. He also used it as proof of his divinity. To the followers of John who asked him if he were the real deal, Jesus said:

Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. (Luke 7:22) 

Reject any claims that Jesus did less healing in his ministry than that done by an average doctor because healing wasn’t important to him.

Alternative medicine vs. religion

Alternative therapies give hope where science offers none, and Americans spend $34 billion each year on them. The same is true for religion, and Americans give three times that amount to religious organizations.

Some of the nutty claims can be put to the test. In a TED video (scroll to 2:20), magician James Randi swallows an entire bottle of sleeping pills. Not to worry—it’s homeopathic medicine, guaranteed to have no active ingredients.

Does Christianity offer anything more? The gospel stories of the healings of Jesus sound like a nutty infomercial rather than historical fact.

Idiots, the lame, the blind, the dumb,
are men in whom the devils have established themselves,
and all the physicians who heal these infirmities,
as though they proceeded from natural causes,
are ignorant blockheads.
— Martin Luther

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 3/20/13.)

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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  • MNb

    “They’ll laugh with skeptics at …. But they stop laughing when the topic turns to Jesus.”
    I am not so sure at all. The christians who stop laughing when the topic turns to Jesus seem the ones who also are ready to accept many of the other ridiculous claims you mentioned.
    At the other hands those christians who are skeptical to those other ridiculous claims tend not to literally believe the miracle stories about Jesus.
    The Resurrection is the miracle they cling to.

    For instance 1. is widely recognized, including by those laughing christians, as an insulting joke at the expense of the Romans. What I find far more intriguing about the story is what it tells about animal rights in Jewish society during Jesus’ time – a view Jesus apparently shared. That’s very human of course, but I would expect more from the Son of God. I certainly would not expect him to be outdone by Buddha in this respect.
    And that manages to piss off many a liberal christian too.

    • buttle

      “For instance 1. is widely recognized, including by those laughing christians, as an insulting joke at the expense of the Romans.”

      Nope. Why would Mark insult the romans? It doesn’t make any sense. If you can confirm this is the most prevalent interpretation even among scholars i have to conclude nobody knows what Mark is talking about.

      • MNb

        “Nope. Why would Mark insult the romans?”
        Because he was a jew, his readers were jews and they didn’t like Roman occupation.

        “i have to conclude nobody knows what Mark is talking about.”
        As you obviously are the ultimate authority on such matters the rest of the world can only fall on their knees and kiss your feet in admiration for so much profound wisdom.

        • buttle

          “Because he was a jew, his readers were jews and they didn’t like Roman occupation.”

          Why would you ever think that? If he was a jew he wasn’t completely aware of jewish customs, up to the point of making several blunders duly noted by most scholars (and some of those were even noted and corrected by Matthew). But regardless if he was a jew, his readers surely were NOT jews and while they didn’t approve of wars and famines they did NOT blame the romans for them. There is no hope of understanding what Mark was doing if even this obvious detail is missed.

          “As you obviously are the ultimate authority on such matters”

          That’s why i asked if your misunderstanding of Mark is actually reflected by modern scholarship (which you were appealing to). In such a case i’ll happily take the minority side: i’d rather be alone than wrong. But i have a lot of troubles coming up with a coherent majority view of the scholars on Mark.

        • MNb

          “That’s why i asked …”
          To get confirmed that you are the ultimate authority?
          I’m happy to confirm it again. I am speechless and in awe.

        • Greg G.

          Mark uses Aramaic words and Latin words. He never explains the Latin words but he does translate most of the Aramaic words into Greek. He even gives the value of a Palestinian coin in terms of a Roman coin. We can infer that Mark’s intended audience read Koine Greek and knew Latin but not much Aramaic. That would rule out Jews who would be under the Roman occupation of Palestine and Judea.

      • Michael Neville

        All right, but apart from sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

        • Greg G.

          Brought peace.

    • How is it a joke at the Romans’ expense?

  • Myna Alexanderson

    I don’t know why people get caught up in magical thinking, but they do. I can only believe it comes from fear. Steve Jobs, for all his resources, intellectual, financial, social, might have chosen a more integrative approach (the network of modern medical knowledge/technology in conjunction with other modalities), but for whatever internal reasoning chose the sole alternative route. One reads about parents who deny their terminally ill child medical treatment because Jesus will cure the disease, or a blade of grass will or whatnot. It’s like a brick wall that an iron cannon ball cannot blast through. It’s a form of arrogance, and a refusal to face reality. But even more than this, it is a terror, I think, to directly face that what one has clung to, may have been terribly, terribly wrong…even when it didn’t make sense to begin with.

    • MNb

      “I can only believe it comes from fear.”
      Not only from fear; in general from the desire to control uncontrollable things. All chessplayers (including me) practice it before a game.

      • Myna Alexanderson

        Yes, you are certainly correct. The control factor is most definitely a critical component.

  • RichardSRussell

    Q: What do they call alternative medicine that’s been validated by science?
    A: Medicine.

  • ningen

    Re. #5 (At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him (Mark 5:30).)

    The description here suggests that healing takes power/energy. It’s not energy-free. Does healing conform to physical laws of conservation? Would Jesus get hungry from healing a lot of people? If the healings are truly miraculous, though, why should there be any cost at all?

    • busterggi

      That’s what black holes are for – they suck in matter & energy to power Jesus’ batteries.

  • wtfwjtd

    The apostle Paul in One Corinthians taught that doing the Lord’s supper wrong caused physical ailments: “that is why many among you are weak and sick, and some have fallen asleep…”
    When you piss the Lord off, even if unwittingly, bad things happen…or so we are told.

    • Kevin K

      So, one Corinthian went into a bar?

  • Kevin K

    Jesus probably would have been anti-vaxx…

    • Jim Jones

      The spit was his vaccine.

      • Kevin K

        Jesus spit = vaccination!! Like it.

  • Grace Armstrong

    Nice topic