Healing with Spittle
Categories: Gospel of Mark, Jesus, Jesus (Healings)
Why did Jesus resort to using "spittle" in several of his healings? And what good explanation is there for the healing in Mark where a blind man comes to Jesus for healing? Jesus healed him and then asked if it worked. Instead of saying, "YES," the man replied that he could see "men like trees walking."
The use of spittle only occurs in Mark (7:33; 8:23) and John (9:6). Nonetheless, this has intrigued scholars for eons. Explanations have ranged from using spittle to capture the men's full attention (that it was necessary in order to communicate with them) to thinking these actions corresponded to ancient techniques of healers. Many believed that spittle had a medicinal value. But since this was the prevailing pagan view, it is unlikely that rabbis would have encouraged its use in healings.
More recently, however, scholars have noted that people in many cultures believed that human excreta (like blood, milk, saliva, menstruation) were all forms of pollutants. But in those cultures, under certain conditions and in the hands of an authorized person, those same pollutants could be transformed into instruments of blessing. Under those circumstances, blood could cleanse and saliva could heal. If this applies to the ancient Hebrews (and they certainly thought those elements were unclean), then by using spittle Jesus was claiming to have that religious authority.
In John, he goes a step further by mixing the spittle with clay and applying the paste to the man's eyes. This violated several Sabbath laws (making the clay went against the law that prohibited "kneading" on the Sabbath; placing the mixture on the man's eyes broke the law against anointing), which led to the Pharisees accusing him of violating the Sabbath.
In Mark, however, the stories have a slightly different focus. The use of spit might reflect the same thinking as in John, but the placement of the stories is key. The first one, in 7:33, involves a man who can't hear. It comes after a lengthy section where Jesus had been preaching and teaching, announcing the arrival of the kingdom of God. The people, who should have had ears to hear, didn't. Yet, the ears of this man, a gentile, were opened. He could hear. Symbolically speaking, this man stands as a foil, both for the disciples and the religious authorities. Despite numerous signs and explanations, their ears were shut. Perhaps one was beginning to think that no one could hear, that hearing was too hard, that it was impossible. So Mark inserted this healing of deafness as if to counteract that notion. People can hear and this story proves it. It is a word of encouragement for us, the reader, to take heart. Despite the way things seem to be, hearing is possible; it can happen even with a deaf man.
In a similar manner, the healing in 8:23 involves that of blindness. It, too, follows a lengthy section where the disciples and the religious authorities have demonstrated their inability to see and understand Jesus' teachings and healings. Not surprisingly, people bring a man to Jesus for healing who, physically, can't see. But after spitting on his eyes and laying hands on him, Jesus asked the man if he could see anything. No other healing includes such a question. Unexpectedly, the man replies, "I see people; they look like trees walking around." The man's response is clearly less than we might have expected. A rousing, "Yes," would have been the norm. Yet this response is precisely what provides the symbolic parallel with the disciples. At best, this man's vision has been partially restored. He can see a little. He also has some point of reference. He knows what trees look like; he has some level of knowledge.
This matches the visual acuity of the disciples. They also have some level of knowledge, but they, too, are half blind. Jesus' question to the man about whether he could see anything echoes the one he just asked of the disciples, "Do you still not see?" (See Mark 8:17) Because Jesus once again laid his hands on the man's eyes (and then they were opened), we are hopeful that he will persevere with the disciples as well. With the help of Jesus, the disciples, too, can move from blindness to sight. Indeed, in Mark, the very next story involves Peter's confession, "You are the Christ." Perhaps the disciples will be able to "see" shortly. This two-step healing suggests a process of revelation, as much for the disciples as for the blind man.