Ps 146:7, 8-9, 9-10
How do you know the gnostic writings provide us with a less historically accurate depiction of Jesus than the Gospels?”
That question was put to me a few years ago after I had given a talk about The Da Vinci Code at a Catholic parish. The man who asked it was apparently upset I doubted Dan Brown’s claim that the so-called “Gnostic gospels” described a believable, human Jesus, while the four canonical Gospels had created a deity who had little or nothing to do with the real world.
My answer was simple: “I read them.” No need to take my word for it when the evidence is readily found on the printed page. The Gnostic “gospels” aren’t gospels in the sense Christians use the word. They lack historical narrative, concrete details, historical figures, believable people, and details about social and religious life. The Jesus they describe has hardly any interest in the material realm. After all, the primary goal of Gnosticism, which came to maturation in the second century, was to escape the physical world. The Gnostic Jesus talked endlessly (and often nonsensically), but wouldn’t get his hands dirty.
Compare that with today’s Gospel reading, the story of Jesus healing the deaf mute, which is unique to the Gospel of Mark. It is a masterful and pithy account, filled with theological and spiritual riches. Jesus and the disciples were spending time in Gentile territory, circling north and then east before traveling south to the district of Decapolis, which is east of the Jordan River and south of the Sea of Galilee. During his previous visit to the region, Jesus had freed a man from demonic possession by sending the unclean spirits into a herd of swine (Mk. 5:1-20). Word of his return had apparently spread, and he was asked to heal a man who was both deaf and mute.
The primary source for Mark’s Gospel was Peter, and the detailed description of the healing indicates the head apostle was profoundly moved by what he witnessed. There are seven specific actions described by Jesus: he took the man away from the crowd, touched his finger to the man’s ears, spit, touched the man’s tongue, looked to heaven, groaned, and said, “Be opened!”
In many ancient cultures, saliva was believed to possess healing properties. What is perhaps more striking for the modern reader is the intimate physicality of the action, as when a mother uses her saliva to rub dirt from her child’s cheek. The healing was not the work of a dispassionate doctor, but of the Lover of Mankind, the healer of body and soul. The Son, in becoming man, did not reluctantly put on flesh and blood, but was truly Incarnate, embracing humanity fully, completely, wholly. “That power which may not be handled came down and clothed itself in members that may be touched,” wrote Ephrem the Syrian, the great fourth-century theologian, “that the desperate may draw near to him, that in touching his humanity they may discern his divinity.”
Whereas the Gnostic Christ fled the material realm and ultimately failed to meet man where he lives, the real Christ—the Creator of all things seen and unseen—entered into time and history, experiencing the heat, the hunger, the sorrow, the weariness, and the pain.
But this miracle, like all of Jesus’ healings, was about far more than relief from physical ailments and illness. It was a sign that the Kingdom was established, that streams of living water had been loosed in the desert, and that the poor were being offered the riches of faith and everlasting life. Jesus embraced all of humanity—Jew and Gentile, healthy and ill, hearing and deaf, speaking and mute—because each of us needs to be touched and transformed by his hands and his word.
So, one reason (out of many) the Gospels are far more believable than the Gnostic writings is they describe real people in the real world meeting a Man who really heals both body and soul.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the September 6, 2009, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)