Healing as Literature in the Synoptic Gospels – Introduction

INTRODUCTION AND DEFINITIONS

This post is a look at how the healing stories of Jesus fit into the writing of the Synoptic Gospels. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, the “Synoptic Gospels” contain Matthew, Mark, and Luke; but not John. The reason these three are “synoptic,” is because they are so similar to each other. John is not a member of the Synoptic club because the writing is so different than the other three. The Synoptic Gospels all share the same outline, much of the same content, many of the same stories, some of the same teachings, and so on.

Jesus used different works of power. He healed, he cleansed, he cast out demons, he calmed storms, he forgave, and he raised the dead. Throughout this post, I will be including all of these under any of the words “miracles, “works of power,” or “healing;” but most of all, “miracles.”

In future posts I will extract the purpose of each miracle and show how each miracle revealed something about Jesus, who he was, and what people in his day learned about him; for this post, I will be looking at the structure of each of the Synoptic Gospels (focusing most of all on the book of Mark) and I will show how the miracles of Jesus fit within the framework of the Gospels as literary works. The placement of the works of Jesus within the structure of the Gospel is very important to understanding what miracles were all about for the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

THE LITERARY CONTEXT

Most of the miracles recorded from Jesus’ ministry were used for two different literary purposes. The first purpose was to open the readers’ eyes to see that Jesus had authority over at least 8 types of world powers, and therefore pushing the readers to ask the question, “Who is Jesus?” In the world of First Century Judaism, God was the only one who had authority over any of these powers; so for Jesus to have authority over all of them was eye opening not only to the disciples, but to the readers of each Gospel who were also asking, “Who is Jesus?”

The second purpose the Synoptic writers used miracles in their literature was to summarize or introduce sections within the Gospels. These miracles are kind of like short stories designed to introduce or conclude a chapter within a modern novel.

Most of Jesus’ miracles fall under one of these two categories.

MY STUDY METHOD

MatthewFor this post and the several more to follow, I created an Excel spreadsheet for each of the 3 Gospels and looked at every miracle of Jesus within the structure of the books.

In my spreadsheet, I asked several questions about each miracle. For example, I recorded if “faith” was mentioned during a miracle and I recorded if and what commands were given after a miracle. These sections will be addressed in future posts.

In my 3 Excel worksheets, I recorded every miracle mentioned within the Synoptic Gospels and I placed them within the structure of each book. The Pink lines you see are the heading titles for each section of each book (which are the same for all three Gospels). The first heading in all three books is “Discovering Jesus.” The second is “Defining Jesus,” the third is “Debating Jesus,” and the final is the “Death and Resurrection of Jesus.” You will notice that the vast majority of miracles took place within the first section of each book – under the section called “Discovering Jesus.” I left out the earliest sections found in both Matthew and Luke (the Birth narratives) because Jesus performed no miracles in those sections; so I began all three books with Jesus ministry and made the first section in each book to be the section wherein the disciples discovered who Jesus was.

LukeMark, which is thought to be the first Gospel written, placed 86% (19 of Jesus’ 22) of Jesus’ miracles in the first section. Matthew positioned 88% (23 out of 26) of Jesus’ miracles within the first section. And Luke put 71% (17 out of 24) within the first section. The obvious conclusion is that the first section holds the key to understanding the importance and the interpretations of most of Jesus’ work and and how his miracles related to who he was, so I will begin with the first section.

THE FIRST TYPE OF MIRACLE – DEMONSTRATING AUTHORITY

MarkThe first section in each of the Synoptic Gospels was written to answer three questions: “Who is Jesus? “How does he have so much authority?” and “Where does his authority come from?”

Mark answered these questions in the first words of the gospel, saying, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” he repeated this claim within the first story of the Gospel when in John’s baptism God spoke from heaven, “You are my son whom I love.” After John’s baptism, the bold statement that Jesus is the Son of God receded into the background and the readers were left to draw their own conclusions based on the miracles and teachings of Jesus.

Questions about who Jesus was, how he had such authority, and from where his power came were asked several times in different ways by people in the stories of the Gospels. The people in the synagogues asked such questions such as, “Where does this man get such authority?” The disciples asked, “Who is this man, that he can calm the seas?” The religious leaders asked, “Who can forgive sins, but God alone?”  These questions about Jesus, having to do with “who,” what,” and “how,” were answered correctly (before Peter’s confession) only by demons who knew who Jesus was, “What have we to do with you, Son of God?”

Today, when we read the Gospels, many already believe that Jesus was and is God. Others believe Jesus claimed that he was God or a prophet or someone else. The point is: Jesus is already known to us in one way or another. In the First Century, people didn’t know who he was and asked over and over again, “Who is this guy, who heals the sick, controls nature, forgives sin, and cleanses the unclean?”

As will be shown in future posts, the miracles and healing Jesus performed addressed at least 8 dominant powers from the world in which Jesus lived. His works of power demonstrated to the First Century that he had authority over sin, over nature, over words, over the world of clean and unclean, over death, over conception, over demons, and over Rome.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke were not in your face about telling us Jesus had authority in these areas. The Synoptic Gospels gently and indirectly informed, step by step, that Jesus had this type of authority; and as it did record step by step, the books were designed to build our interest and our curiosity by asking, “Who is this?” and recording the many responses that people had when they saw Jesus in action, and letting us in the secret through the mouth of demons, through the baptism of Jesus and through the introduction of the book.

Toward the end of this first section, in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” After they gave several answers, Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered that Jesus was the Christ, upon which Jesus acknowledged that he received that from the Holy Spirit.

Peter and the disciples concluded that Jesus was the Christ because they experienced his authority over so many different areas of life and death. But their conclusion that Jesus was the Christ was incomplete. They saw, but self and national interest partially blinded them to a complete understanding of the Christ and what it meant to follow the Christ, so Jesus began to teach his disciples that following the Christ was not the glory and wonder that they, the culture, and the times assumed it would be. Jesus handed his disciples a bombshell, “The Son of Man must suffer and die.” Hearing those words, the demonic side of the Spirit filled revelation came out when Peter rebuked Jesus for saying that the Christ must suffer and die.

THE SECOND TYPE OF MIRACLE – CONCLUDING AND INTRODUCING

Blurred TreesThe second category of healing is the type that introduces or ends a section within the book. The healing story immediately preceding Peter’s confession (which was twisted by national and self interest), was the healing of a man who was blind. Jesus spit in his eyes and asked if he saw anything, but unfortunately, after Jesus spit in his eyes, he could only see in part (or as he said, “I see men as trees walking.”); so Jesus spit again in his eyes and he saw clearly. It is not by chance that this episode directly preceded Peter’s confused confession. Mark placed it here as a metaphor for what the disciples were going through and where they were at (this applies to the reader too). The disciples saw, but they only saw in part; they needed clarity. They needed the teaching of Jesus in section two, in which he told his disciples all about the price and the duty of following him. At the end of section one, the disciples were like the man who saw men as trees walking.

In the beginning of section two, there is another miracle story of people struggling with their faith. Days before Jesus saw a man, the disciples tried to but were unable to cast a demon out of a young boy. The boy’s father came to Jesus and Jesus talked to the father  about faith and healing, whereupon the man cried, “I believe, help my unbelief!”  It is a story of the disciples unable to master their skills. It is also a story used as a metaphor of the struggle the disciples were going through. They believed, but could not wrap their heads around the concepts of suffering and death involved. Section two dove into humility and life in the kingdom. Beyond the introductory miracle just mentioned, there are no other miracles in section two for Matthew and Mark until the summary of section two is recorded with another metaphorical type of miracle.

At the end of section two, as Jesus walked into Jerusalem after teaching the disciples about suffering and duty, Jesus healed a blind man who immediately saw clearly. Once again this episode is a metaphor for the disciples and the reader as well. Knowing that Jesus was the Christ was only half the story. Healing of the disciple’s spiritual eyes could only happen when they got the whole picture of who Jesus was. It was only after section two was completed that they were ready to see clearly.

Even today, knowing that Jesus is Lord is but half the story because it is mixed with cultural and personal self-interest. Only by learning and accepting that Jesus is the Christ and learning that following Jesus means humility and accepting the cross, one will see clearly.

Just because the Synoptics used miracles, deliverance, and healing as metaphors in well placed positions does not mean that the works of power didn’t happen. The book of John openly used miracles as metaphors. When Jesus healed the blind, he said, “I am the light.” When he fed 5,000, he said, “I am the bread of life.” When he raised Lazarus, he said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” John was outright obvious in using metaphors; the other Gospels were less obvious, but they did use certain miracles at certain places within their books to say something about the disciples metaphorically.

In Matthew and Mark, transitional/metaphorical miracles were the only works of power mentioned in the second and third sections of the books. Luke veered a bit away from the other two by placing 4 extra works of power within the second section that were not transitional or metaphorical in nature. In Matthew and Mark only the transitional/metaphorical miracles are within the second and third sections.

CONCLUSIONS

Miracles of Jesus (which include deliverance,  healing, and other works of power) usually fell under two different categories:

1) Miracles that said something about the person and the authority of Jesus answering the questions, “who, “where,” and “how;” and

2) Miracles that were used as metaphors, placed as transitions within the structure of the Synoptic Gospel writings.

I would like to share an experience I had of how a real modern healing can be metaphorical in nature in today’s world, but first, I need to give you some of the rules needed when reading or hearing stories of healing. So for my next blog, I will focus on some of those guidelines.

 

 

 

 

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