Baker Academic

Friday, April 10, 2020

The Historical Jesus in the Time of Coronavirus by Joan Taylor

The Jesus Blog is pleased to host this guest post from Prof Joan Taylor.

It is Easter, and yet this is not a year when we will get together with family, or go to our churches and meetings to remember the events of Jesus’s last days. We will not gather together to celebrate the proclamation of his livingness. We are, in many parts of the world, in lockdown. We sign off emails by saying “stay safe.” We are anxious, isolated, and unsure what the future holds. We hear a lot about death. People are losing loved ones. It feels as if there is a demon on the loose, and any one of us could be taken.
Recently, it was me. My husband and I got the virus, and we went through the lonely days of seeing it play out. It felt like a creature that could move in different ways in the body it inhabited. Along with a cough and sore throat, for my husband it was headaches, muscle aches, tight chest, and a bad rash. For me it was soft to begin with, then it went to a fever, nausea, diarrhoea, loss of taste and smell, my nose feeling like it was inflamed inside, and I had an immense tiredness. It took a different shape on different days, and things went up and down. There was the fear it would turn worse, go deep into the lungs, but finally it weakened.

Over the course of days when I couldn’t do much, I thought a lot about Jesus of Nazareth, walking around Galilee, healing the sick. I thought of how Jesus ‘rebuked’ the fever of Peter’s mother in law (Mark 1:30-31). I rebuked my fever! It made me think of how much the folk beliefs of Jesus’s time would have made so much sense to people, before medical science worked out what viruses were. Even with all the knowledge Google could give me, the virus felt like a thing invading me and I wanted it evicted from my body.

There have been some great studies on how Jesus healed, by Stevan Davies, John Dominic Crossan, Pieter Craffert, Elaine Wainwright, Graham Twelftree, among others. Some scholars would say it was more a kind of psychosomatic healing, or his healing had a placebo effect, because he couldn’t really have cured anyone. Others look to anthropological models of how traditional healers work. I started to get really intrigued by the immune system, and realised how little we understand it. Covid-19 is mystifying because, while some people are succumbing because of known factors that make the immune system weaker, others who are strong and fit are also being defeated. It makes me think that somehow Jesus (like other traditional/alternative healers but more so) could do something to strengthen people’s immune systems very rapidly. When Jesus offered ‘release’ (the same word as ‘forgiveness’ in NT Greek), what was the effect, not only emotionally but physically, on the immune system?

As a Covid-19 sufferer, you are isolated, and fearful of passing the virus on to anyone. You feel like you are a source of contamination. No one should come near. You can only limp along together with a fellow sufferer, if you are lucky. Anyone possessed by a demon who made them ill in Jesus’s world was unclean, but Jesus, as a rule, directly touched people with his hands. In Greek, the word for ‘heal’ in the Gospels is actually quite often the same word for ‘save’, so synagogue ruler Jairus in Mark 5:23  falls at his feet and begs Jesus: ‘My little daughter is at the point of death: please come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be healed/saved, and she will live.’ It makes me think also about soothing touch, and what that also does to our immune systems. Yet here we are, and we cannot touch each other.

One thing that struck me too is that Jesus ‘saved’ people from the grip of demons/illnesses, and never apparently got sick himself, at least not in what the Gospels tell us. I have never noticed this before, that in a place where there were deadly diseases like tuberculosis and typhoid, it is actually an unstated miraculous feature that neither Jesus nor those to whom he passed on his power, who were commissioned to anoint people with oil and drive out demons (Mark 6:13), were hit with contagious illnesses.

What we are experiencing in terms of mortality in this disease is still not as bad as for people of the ancient world. There were not that many old people, for a reason. Children often died. Your spouse and close family members could die of some illness anytime. We are told that Jesus, with a reputation as a healer, gathered huge crowds. You bet he did!

I am very grateful now to be almost recovered. I know a lot of people were praying for us, sending us blessings and positive energy, and I felt that powerful warmth of care. I strongly believe it made a difference and am enormously thankful.

But I have also reflected on the causes of this particular virus, unleashed from a market trading in rare wild animals, ripped out of their natural habitats for the sake of human greed. We have a clear chain from the exploitation and abuse of the natural world to our current crisis, from greed to death.

Jesus is quite clear that God and nature are firmly on one side. The earth itself, the natural world, is in the hands of God, and operates according to God's design and care. Jesus looks to nature in his parables to understand what the Kingdom of God is about: God feeds birds and clothes flowers, and thus nature communicates God's message (Mark 4:26-32; 13:30; Matt. 6:25-33). In the 'Nature Miracle' stories Jesus and nature are linked: Jesus can calm down a storm, multiply more food to feed people gathered in community to hear him, or expect water to take his weight and walk on it (mark 4:35-41; 6:30-52; 9:1-10). 

Recently there have been the odd voices saying that somehow God has sent this virus as a punishment for sins, of one kind of another. However, in Jesus’s teaching, God does not punish people by nature, though nature will eventually join with God in the ‘birthpangs’ of the new age (Matt. 24:7-8). Jesus is clear that illness is not actually from God; it is from Satan. Jesus fights against Satan and all his minions.

In the present time, for Jesus, God makes the sun come up and sends rain on good and bad alike, and accidents happen here without God punishing anyone either (Matt. 5:45; Luke 13:2-5). Nature sustains humans, and God directs natural processes, with all their benefits and hazards to humans included. Nevertheless, in Jesus's teaching God does not presently have unfettered rule of the world; that is for when the Kingdom comes. To be on the side of God now, we are to care for the sick, the weak and the marginal, and for creation. We are to tend seeds, watch birds, and take lessons from the mustard trees (Mark 4:30-32).

For Jesus it's the human will, like Satan, that is outside God's control in this age. Human decisions are made by free choice. And we can make very bad decisions. Jesus really warns against greed (Luke 12:15). We can choose to be greedy, wilfully hurt nature and God's creatures and bring disaster upon ourselves.

So now, at Easter 2020, as I reflect on Jesus, I am left feeling both grateful to be better and also sad. I am sorry we all have to go through this, and lose so much. I study Jesus as a historian, but I also learn from Jesus. I hope this crisis can help us all understand more about Jesus and his call for people to repent. I hope we can share his beautiful vision of a transformed, better world.

Saturday, April 4, 2020