Jesus the Healer

02/02/2011 10:47 am ET | Updated May 26, 2011

For many, Gabrielle Giffords' recovery from an assassin's bullet has been nothing short of miraculous. Her case highlights how healing involves the spirit as much as medicine. For too long the role of the spirit in healing has been denigrated as nothing but a "placebo effect." But recent studies suggest that placebo healing is real, and understanding it may shed light on how healers of the ancient past, such as Jesus, had such powerful positive effects on those around them.

Two recent reviews of the placebo effect (Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 52, p. 518; Lancet, 375: 686) argue forcefully for the scientific legitimacy of this form of mind-body healing. While its effectiveness can vary, and unquestionably it has limitations, placebo healing is neither imaginary nor miraculous. Instead, it is where the social context of treatment plays a critical role in unleashing the body's natural healing and pain-coping mechanisms. So important is the social context that one review argues that the term "placebo effect" is better understood as "interpersonal healing."

Two factors are central in creating the healing social context: (1) the quality of the interaction between the patient and caregiver and (2) the strength of the patient's beliefs and expectations about the efficacy of the treatment being administered. Thus, placebo healing is most likely to occur when a doctor conveys genuine empathetic concern for the patient and when the patient is convinced that the treatment offered is an effective one. In addition to these two factors, the role of ritual in treatment also looms large in promoting placebo healing. For example, the simple repetitive act of taking a pill (even an inert one) can reduce symptom severity, and more frequent (inert) pill-taking produces even greater symptom relief.

The reviews also emphasize the fact that both healing and physical aliment have different aspects. Healing consists of both natural healing and technical healing. Natural healing refers to the body's own healing response to infection or trauma, such as the immune system fighting off a virus. Technical healing refers to the full array of medical and surgical interventions used to treat various ailments. Similarly, disease and illness compose two distinct aspects of any physical ailment or disorder. Disease refers to the physical processes responsible for one's symptoms. Illness refers to the patient's personal and social experience of those symptoms. Disease affects the body; illness affects the person. All of these aspects are inter-related and contribute to the overall experience of being sick or injured. For example, the stigma attached to certain diseases (AIDs for example) can make one a social outcast. This social rejection can dampen the immune system, exacerbating symptoms and rendering medical interventions less effective.

These findings are relevant to the ongoing debates about Jesus as a healer. University of Heidelberg (Germany) New Testament scholar Gerd Theissen has recently presented an analysis of Jesus' healings that dovetails nicely with what modern research tells us about the placebo effect (see his chapter in the book The Problem of Ritual Efficacy, 2010, Oxford Press). First off, Theissen rejects all arguments that Jesus' healings are inauthentic. Some scholars have contended that the historical Jesus performed no "miraculous" healings -- these were added much later in an attempt to bolster his messianic credentials. Theissen finds no convincing evidence of this. The Jewish Messiah was not necessarily expected to perform miracles, he contends, and the earliest accounts of Jesus assume miraculous deeds. Thus, the notion that they were added later is unfounded.

So if Jesus was a healer, how did he do it? Theissen points to two unique properties of Jesus' healings. First, unlike most traditional healers of the ancient world, Jesus consistently emphasized faith as critical to healing -- both the faith of the one being healed as well as the faith of those around him or her. For example, consider the blind men healed in Matthew 9:29 or the companions of the paralytic who lower their friend from the roof so that Jesus could heal him (Mark chapter 2). In both cases, Jesus remarks specifically on how the faith of either the ones being healed (the blind men) or of the healed person's companions (the paralytic) was responsible for the healing itself. Furthermore, where faith is absent so is healing power. In the sixth chapter of Mark, Jesus is said to have been unable to perform "mighty work" because of the peoples' unbelief.

Second, and again in contrast to most traditional healers, Jesus used only a small, highly personalized set of ritual actions when healing. Typically when healing, Jesus did not invoke elaborate prayers or call down powerful forces, nor did he employ potions or instruments. Instead, his ritual elements were simple and personal: he took the sick person aside, touched the person or whispered in his or her ear. Jesus' use of simplified and personalized ritual actions heighted the intimacy between himself and the sick person. In short, faith and intimacy are the hallmarks of Jesus' healing.

These hallmarks create exactly the context modern research tells us is critical to placebo healing. Furthermore, unless one pleads for miracles, it is unlikely that Jesus' actions had any direct effect on the person's disease. Instead, Jesus was addressing illness -- how the person experienced their ailment. But by positively affecting the person's illness, this may very well have unleashed natural healing forces that positively affected the person's disease. This was not charlatanism or late-night "hour of power" phoney-baloney. Real healing happened here.

By calling Jesus' healing "placebo healing," is its impact diminished? Are we explaining away the miraculous and thereby (in the eyes of the Christian) questioning Jesus' divinity? Some may see it this way. But is it not also the case that seeing Jesus' healing in this way intensifies his humanity -- an equally important and often neglected dimension of who Jesus was.