I was reading Matthew’s gospel recently as part of reading through the Bible in a year in 2019.
After the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5 to 7, there are two chapters (8 and 9) where Jesus travels around Galilee and the Gentile area of the Gadarenes healing “every disease and every affliction.” (Matthew 9:35 ESV). These chapters include ten specific stories of healing in quick succession. Interspersed among these are some specific incidents where Jesus begins to explain more about his ministry, and also one other miracle of the calming of the storm on Galilee.
We are so familiar with these stories it’s easy to miss what’s going on and the remarkable nature of what Jesus is doing. What’s perhaps surprising, though, is that the disciples seem to miss some of this too. Other gospels record the amazement of the crowds and how Jesus’ fame spread “so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town” (Mark 1:45), but in Matthew’s gospel the amazement is reserved at first for the calming of the storm: “And the men marvelled, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him’ ” (Matthew 8:27)
This got me thinking. Why were the disciples not more amazed by the healings? Surely that was marvellous enough?
Further research reveals that in fact “The retelling of biblical narratives in postbiblical Jewish texts indicates that magic and miracles permeated the world of the Jews in the second temple period” . There were several miracle workers operating at the time of Jesus, for example Honi the “circle drawer” and his grandchildren, who made it rain and healed the sick .
Of course I’d forgotten too that Jesus himself refers to other healers. When accused by the pharisees of casting out demons by the “prince of demons” Jesus reminds them that their sons cast out demons too – so how are they doing it? (Matthew 12:24ff). The pharisees could see that something more was going on.
Nevertheless the disciples and the crowds were amazed (and frightened sometimes too) by what Jesus was doing. Something unique was going on, that was for sure. But it wasn’t simply that Jesus was healing the sick.
It will take more than a short blog post to unpack all of that, but here are few bullet points which I noted across these two chapters:
- Jesus heals remotely – he doesn’t even need to be there (Matthew 8:13)
- The healings are radically inclusive, the outcast, tax collectors, sinners, even the gentiles – not just those worthy (9:10-13)
- Nothing is impossible – the blind, mute, utterly demon possessed, even the dead – all cured!
- Many of the healings introduce an element of faith, in Jesus himself (e.g. 8:13, 8:26, 9:22, 9:28)
- The pharisees are scandalised by Jesus linking healing to forgiveness of sin (9:6)
All three of the synoptic gospels include the story of fasting and new wineskins among these healings, which indicates that something completely new is happening. Mark records that the people marvelled at “a new teaching with authority.” (Mark 1:27) Matthew reports that the crowds “marvelled, saying, ‘Never was anything like this seen in Israel.’ ” (Matthew 9:32)
Yes, there had been teachers and healers before. But never like this…
 Gideon Bohak and Geza Vermes, Jewish Miracles Workers and Magic in the late Second Temple Period in Levine, Amy-Jill. Jewish Annotated New Testament. Oxford University Press, 2017, p.680ff