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A BIBLICAL VIEW OF PRAYER AND ANOINTING FOR HEALING

Clinton Wahlen
Associate Director
Biblical Research Institute
Silver Spring, MD

Introduction

Countless examples of miraculous healing or cure are found in Scripture. But a

biblical view of healing involves more than physical restoration. It also has a spiritual

dimension. Recognizing this, however, raises the question of the relation between sin and

disease, forgiveness and healing. Another issue is the role of prayer and the use of oil and

other means for healing. Can religious ritual be differentiated from the use of magic or is

the categorization dependent on the observer and religious polemic? How important is the

spiritual fitness or expertise of the healer?

In order to address these and other questions, we will examine quite broadly the

practice of healing in the Old and New Testaments, paying close attention to the practices

of prominent healers in the Bible which have particular relevance for this study. The

practice of Jesus and the apostles holds special importance for the church, as does the

instruction given by James to anoint the sick with oil. Based on this focused survey of

biblical material, some guiding principles for healing ministry can be derived.

I. Healing in the Old Testament

A. General Considerations

The most important statement in the OT concerning healing is found in Exod

15:26: “I am the LORD who heals you.”1 As the context makes clear, healing refers to
1
The verse supplies one of God’s covenant names and is translated more literally “I am
the Lord your Healer.” The participial form used here, occurring only nine times in the
2

making Israel whole again by bringing them out from slavery and preserving them from

the diseases of the Egyptians.2 The root used here, rp’, is the most important term for

healing and has the basic meaning of “restore, make whole” and refers in every case to

“restoring a wrong, sick, broken, or deficient condition to its original and proper state.”3

The OT describes health holistically4 in the sense of total well-being, peace, prosperity,

fertility, longevity, strength, righteousness, and obedience.5 It implies not only soundness

of body but also belonging within Israel and harmony with God.6 The Hebrew language

does not conceive of the body in isolation from the person. It is living flesh and bone,

mind and spirit. When health is promised “to the bones” (Prov 16:24) it means fully,

entirely, through and through, as opposed to the superficial healing of flesh wounds

(2 Kgs 8:29; 2 Chr 22:6) or skin ailments (Lev 13:18) and in contrast to the remedies

provided by false prophets which are inadequate to heal Israel’s deep and persistent

OT, usually means “doctor, physician” (Gen 50:2bis; Jer 8:22; Job 13:4; 2 Chr 16:12). The
remaining three occurrences refer to God as healer (2 Kgs 20:5; Ps 103:3; 147:3). On the
Ugaritic equivalent (asû), see esp. Hector Avalos, Illness and Health Care in the Ancient
Near East: The Role of the Temple in Greece, Mesopotamia, and Israel (HSM 54;
Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1995), 166-67.
2
If Israel remained faithful the diseases of Egypt would be placed on their enemies (Deut
7:15; 30:7), but if unfaithful then they would suffer from these diseases and more,
ultimately forfeiting all the blessings God had given them (Deut 28:22, 27-29, 59-63).
For ancient Mesopotamian views of illness and healing, especially in connection with the
Mesopotamian healing god Gula, see Avalos, Illness and Health Care, 99-231. Michael
L. Brown, Israel’s Divine Healer (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1995), 72-78, points
out that Exod 15:26 may best be read against the background of the polytheism of the
surrounding peoples.
3
M. L. Brown, “rapha”, TDOT 13:596, 597. The range of meaning includes Elijah’s
repairing the altar of the Lord (1 Kgs 18:30; cf. LXX’s iaomai!),
4
Gerhard F. Hasel, “Health and Healing in the Old Testament,”AUSS 21 (1983): 191-202
here 191; John Wilkinson, The Bible and Healing: A Medical and Theological
Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998), 10, 17-19.
5
See Wilkinson, 11-16.
6
Note the parallelism of mrph with shlm in Jer 8:15; 14:19 and with khyym in Prov 4:22;
also that the result of healing is said to be peace, prosperity, and covenant faithfulness
(Jer 33:6).
3

rebellion (Jer 6:14; 8:11).7 Real healing must also ultimately reach the heart (Hos 14:4;

Eze 36:24-28).

Occasionally disease is seen as the outward evidence of God’s judgment upon sin

as when Miriam is struck with leprosy (Num 12:9-10) or Asa’s feet become diseased

(2 Chr 16:10-12). Wholeness and holiness in the Hebrew Bible, while not etymologically

related as they are in English, are closely related conceptually. The person’s relation to

God as a whole human being is “the basic interest of the Old Testament. The Hebrew

mind was not interested in the body for its own sake.”8 Both health (Exod 4:11; Job 5:18)

and holiness (Lev 20:8; 21:8, etc.) have their source and rationale in God.

Oil in Israel was used in several different ways.9 It was used in various offerings

and to supply the lampstands of the temple, for anointing the sanctuary (including its

furnishings and equipment), priests (especially the high priest), and kings. Oil was also

used to soothe wounds (Isa 1:6), to anoint oneself after bathing (Ezek 16:9) or for

banquets (Amos 6:6), and in the purification ritual for leprosy (Lev 14:15-18).

There are some instances in the OT where God is shown healing directly. Four

cases involve infertility, three of which were explicitly healed as a result of prayer.10

(1) God healed the women of Abimelech’s household in response to Abraham’s prayer

(Gen 20:17-18). While Abimelech’s innocence is stressed (vv. 4-6), it does not contribute

7
Conversely, an incurable disease extends to the bowels (2 Chr 21:18). And rejecting
God’s persistent pleading through his messengers is a kind of unpardonable sin (2 Chr
36:16; cf. Mark 3:29).
8
Wilkinson, 18 following J. A. T. Robinson, The Body: A Study in Pauline Theology
(London: SCM, 1952).
9
Both Hebrew words for oil (yitshar and shemen) refer to olive oil, the latter being the
more common word. Yitshar is almost always used together with grain and new wine in
reference to God’s blessings (e.g. Num 18:12; Deut 7:13; 11:14; 12:17, etc.). Further, see
H. Ringgren, “shemen, shamen, shaman,” TDOT 15:249-53.
10
The healing of Sarah’s womb is connected with a theophany (Gen 18:11-14; 21:1-20).
4

to the healing but seems rather to have prompted divine intervention so that Abimelech

would not sin by defiling Sarah.11 (2) Rebekah was able to bear children in response to

the intercessory prayer of Isaac (Gen 25:21)12 who, unlike his father Abraham, chose to

rely on God for fulfillment of the divine promises of progeny (Gen 17:19; 21:12) rather

than seeking a human solution to his wife’s infertility. Isaac may have had to wait some

years for the answer to his prayer since it was twenty years after marriage that Rebekah

conceived.13 (3) Rachel proffered her servant Bilhah to bear children for Jacob. When a

son was born Rachel credited God with having “heard” her voice (30:6), suggesting that

she had been praying all along for children. That Rachel continued to pray for children of

her own is affirmed by v. 22: “Then God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her

and opened her womb.”14

B. Prophetic Models of Healing

As has already been mentioned, the OT portrays God as the ultimate healer of

Israel. Still, human intermediaries occasionally become conduits of the divine power for

healing. In view of the holistic definition of health given above, virtually the entire OT

11
Divine intervention to preserve Sarah’s purity is implied in v. 6, a notion which
receives significant elaboration in 1QapGen XX.8-32 which describes God sending a
chastising and purulent spirit to physically afflict the king and his household (see Clinton
Wahlen, Jesus and the Impurity of Spirits in the Synoptic Gospels [WUNT 2/185;
Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004], 39-41).
12
The verb ‘tr, used twice here (for Isaac’s entreaty and God’s answer to it), is commonly
used for intercessory prayer as when Manoah prays for divine relief of his wife’s
barrenness and Moses intercedes on behalf of pharoah for the plagues to be stopped (cf.
n. 17below below); so Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50
(NICOT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995), 176. There is possibly a reference in
4Q173 I.4 to the “intercessions of the Teacher of Righteousness” (E. Gerstenberger,
“atar,” TDOT 11: 458-60 here 460.
13
Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26 (NAC 1B; Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman &
Holman, 2005), 386.
14
Rachel’s praise to God and wish-prayer for another son gives no hint that the
mandrakes referred to in vv. 14-15 assisted in the conception (so also Hamilton, 278).
5

could be seen in terms of healing, i.e. as God working through patriarchs, priests, and

prophets for the restoration of human beings, especially Israel. However, this study

focuses more particularly on those instances of healing that involve a physical restoration

of health.

The OT mentions a large number of different physical ailments15 together with

various remedies and healers.16 Of the people involved in OT depictions of healing, four

appear most prominently: Moses, Elijah, Elisha, and Isaiah. The balance of our attention

in this section will examine references to healing connected with these individuals.

1. Moses. In describing the plagues brought on Egypt, the pharaoh sometimes

implores Moses to pray to YHWH with the result that particular plagues are removed,

though the last two instances immediately add that pharaoh’s heart was hardened.17 In

other words, while pharaoh’s response conditioned the outcome, God’s gracious action to

remove the plagues in answer to Moses’ prayers of intercession also had an effect,

namely, the further hardening of pharaoh’s heart.18 Examining the episodes of Israel’s

rebellion against Moses’ leadership, God’s wrath punishes the people with a plague but in

each case the plague is stopped through the intervention of Moses, sometimes in tandem

with others. Miriam’s leprosy,19 portrayed as a punishment from God for her and Aaron’s
15
See the discussion of epidemic and systemic diseases (affecting whole groups and
individuals respectively) in Wilkinson, 36-52.
16
Our survey is necessarily brief and restricted to major healing narratives. Under our
definition of healing, other stories could be considered such as that of Hannah who
prayed to God for a son, vowing to give him as a Nazirite, and receiving encouragement
and affirmation of her wish from Eli (1 Sam 1). However, considering additional
examples would add little to what we are able to understand from the narratives selected.
17
Timing of the removal of frogs (Exod 8:8-10) and flies (Exod 8:28-31) evidences YHWH
as the supreme God; pharoah’s confession of his sin and of YHWH’s righteousness ends
the plague of hail (9:27-29, 35); pharoah’s plea for forgiveness and for Moses’
intercession stops the plague of locusts (10:16-20).
18
See n. 12above above.
19
The Heb. term for leprosy (tsr’t) seems to refer to a broader group of scaly skin
6

rebellion against Moses, is healed following Aaron’s plea to his brother and Moses’

fervent prayer to God;20 however, Miriam is excluded from the camp for seven days

(Num 12:1-2, 9-15). Following the peoples’ opposition to Moses’ leadership, a plague

kills 14,700 but ceases as a result of Moses’ intervention and Aaron’s intercession with

the censer to make atonement for Israel (Num 16:41-50). Later, venomous serpents are

said to bite the people after they complain about food and water but those who look at the

bronze serpent on the pole erected by Moses are healed (Num 21:5-9).21 At Peor, idolatry

and intermarriage result in a plague that kills 24,000 but judges are appointed to kill the

guilty and the zeal of Phinehas is credited with stopping the plague (Num 25:1-9). On

three other occasions, Moses’ intercession preserves the nation from being consumed by

divine wrath.22 In most of the above examples, prayer is the dominant means for healing

and/or preservation of life. Significant, however, is that in one instance the prayer of

diseases, the nature of which resembles the peeling-off skin of a stillborn child, as
described in Num 12:12, rather than specifically to Hansen’s disease (see E. V. Hulse,
“Nature of Biblical ‘Leprosy’ and the Use of Alternative Medical Terms in Modern
Translations of the Bible,” PEQ 107: 87-105); cf. the NIV’s translation “infectious skin
disease.”
20
So Philip J. Budd, Numbers (WBC 5; Waco, Tx.: Word, 1984), 137. That Moses’
prayer is an earnest plea for healing and not “bereft of emotion” (pace Jacob Milgrom,
Numbers: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation [The JPS Torah
Commentary; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990], 98) is indicated by the
verb, which describes the manner of Moses’ prayer (cf. Exod 15:25; 17:4) and which is
employed for “an appeal to God by one in pain” (Baruch A. Levine, Numbers 1-20 [AB
4; New York: Doubleday, 1993], 333, citing Deut 26:7; Isa 19:20; Ps 34:18; 107:28).
21
The bronze serpent does not function apotropaically to ward off the serpents but is
designed to help the people already bitten. Only after the people confess their sin and
Moses prays for the people does God prescribe the remedy; those who look upon the
serpent will be healed. As R. Dennis Cole, Numbers (NAC 3B; Nashville, Tenn.:
Broadman & Holman, 2000), 349 notes, “The verb translated “look” (ra’a) often carries
with it the idea to see with belief or understanding, and it is to be so interpreted in this
context.”
22
Exod 32:9-14 (the golden calf episode); Num 14:11-23 (the unbelief and intent to
return to Egypt at Kadesh-Barnea); 16:21-24 (the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and
Abiram); cf. Deut 9:18-29; 10:10.
7

Moses by itself does not seem to be sufficient—when the people rebel after the death of

Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. In this case, a ritual also becomes necessary: Aaron

intercedes with the censer to make atonement.23

The healings in the Pentateuch fit within the larger framework of the covenant:

obedience brings supernatural blessings and health while disobedience brings

supernatural infliction of disease; also, supernatural healing follows repentance. For this

reason, Brown refers to them as “covenantal healing.” By contrast, he labels the

supernatural healings depicted in the books of Kings and Chronicles “prophetic healing”

because no cause for the illness or death is given.24 They include the raising of the

widow’s son at Zarephath through Elijah (1 Kgs 17:17-24),25 the healing of Naaman’s

leprosy and the raising of the Shunammites’s son through Elisha (2 Kgs 5; 4:8-36), and

the healing of Hezekiah through Isaiah (2 Kgs 20:1-11; 2 Chr 32:24-26; cf. Isa 38:1-8).

2. Elijah

During the famine announced to Ahab by Elijah, the prophet’s supply of water

from the Wadi Cherith ran out and he was instructed to find a woman in Zarephath who

would feed him (1 Kgs 17:7-9). Despite the miraculous supply of meal and oil, the

widow’s child died. The way in which the story is told raises the question of

anthropology. According to the narrative, “his illness was so severe that there was no

23
This priestly act is highly unusual in that it takes place outside the tabernacle. Milgrom
even suggests that “it was a special emergency measure, improvised on the spot”
(Numbers, 141).
24
Brown, Israel’s Divine Healer, 92-93.
25
Some identify this as a resuscitation rather than a resurrection (e.g., Marvin A.
Sweeney, I & II Kings: A Commentary [Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2007],
215; Wilkinson, 60; cf. Donald J. Wiseman, “Medicine in the Old Testament World” in
Medicine and the Bible, ed. Bernard Palmer [Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1986], 13-42 here
42) but more commonly the departure of the nephesh is considered to refer to the child’s
death.
8

breath [neshamah] left in him” (v. 17). The absence of breath means the absence of life

(cf. vv. 18, 20). So when Elijah prays for the soul (nephesh) of the child to return (v. 21),

the petition is for the child’s being to be restored to its normal condition.26 At the

return/restoration of the nephesh, the child comes to life again. While Elijah “stretched

himself upon the child three times,” there is no indication that this caused life to return to

the child but rather that the Lord answered Elijah’s prayer (v. 22).

3. Elisha

A very similar resurrection story appears in connection with Elisha. A woman

shows kindness to the prophet and Elisha promises that she will have a son the following

year, and this prophecy is fulfilled. Some years later, the woman’s son is stricken with an

illness and dies.27 At her plea Elisha comes, sending Gehazi on ahead to place the

prophet’s staff on the boy, but this proves futile. When Elisha arrives, he goes into the

room to be alone with the child. He prays to the Lord, presses his face against the boy’s

face, and stretches himself over the length of the boy’s body, all of which again appear

futile. Elisha’s pacing back and forth emphasizes his anxiety at this apparent failure.

Finally, after stretching himself over the boy a second time, the child revives, sneezes

seven times, and opens his eyes (2 Kgs 4:35). In this case, the healing required more than

prayer. The action of the prophet not once but twice was also required.

The healing of Naaman’s leprosy also required action and, in this case, no prayer

is offered. Elisha does not even come out to meet Naaman but sends a servant to give him

26
The word neshamah is used also in Gen 2:7 which is the locus classicus for
anthropology: human nature, the “soul” (nephesh), is a combination of body made from
“dust” (‘aphar) and spirit or “breath.” When the breath departs, the soul leaves with it
and the person is no more. This wording explicitly excludes the possibility of
resuscitation (cf. n. 25above above).
27
On the range of possibilities suggested for the illness, see Wilkinson, 45.
9

instructions for what seems like a “self-cure.” After coming such a distance, Naaman no

doubt expects much more, especially in light of the Syrian king’s involvement and the

enormous gift Naaman brings. But to cure leprosy Syria’s wealth, power, and political

influence is useless. The one power capable of healing can do so even from a distance.

Naaman is told to wash in the Jordan seven times in order to be cleansed of his leprosy.

In this case the healing depends, not on the prophet or any hand waving by him (2 Kgs

5:11), but entirely on responding to the prophetic message. Naaman almost leaves

unhealed but is finally persuaded to try the remedy and, through obedience, finds healing.

4. Isaiah

Isaiah told Hezekiah to set his house in order because he would die soon (Isa

38:1). Being in the prime of his life, Hezekiah was unwilling to accept this prophecy

(v. 10) and so prayed for healing, reminding God of the faithful and good life he had

lived and weeping bitterly (2 Kgs 20:3). Immediately after this prayer and as a direct

result of it, God spoke to Isaiah, instructing him to return to Hezekiah, to apply a poultice

of figs, and to give the king this divine assurance, “I have heard your prayer, I have seen

your tears; behold I will heal you; on the third day you shall go up to the house of the

Lord” (20:5).

The poultice is not mentioned as the cause of healing but rather it comes as a

result of God’s response to Hezekiah’s fervent prayer, tears, and desire to live longer, an

appeal which met with God’s favor. The element of covenant relation appears to have

outweighed even the word of the Lord spoken previously by Isaiah. Another factor seems

to be the potential the king’s healing held as a testimony to the Babylonian envoys of
10

YHWH’s mercy, power, and relation to His people.28

C. Healing in the Wisdom Literature

In the wisdom literature, healing is mentioned fairly often.29 In the Psalms, it

usually appears in connection with “prayer for preservation and healing” which often

includes “a confession of guilt and a request for mercy.”30 At times healing is physical

(Ps 6:2; 41:4) and individual (30:2) while at other times it is corporate (107:20), but never

far away is the confession of the Lord as the healer.31 Sometimes healing is associated

with covenant faithfulness (Prov 3:8) or with forgiveness and being saved from death (Ps

6:5; 30:9; 103:3-4; cf. Isa 38:17-19).32 Known sin should be confessed and forsaken

before healing can be expected (Ps 38:4, 19; Prov 28:13). Psalm 39 includes illness

vocabulary, confession of sin, and a prayer for recovery (vv. 8-11). Psalm 88 may be

intended as a prayer to be offered while ill,33 but there is no appeal for healing nor

expectation of recovery. Physical suffering rather than healing sometimes seems to be

God’s will. On the positive side, God’s wisdom brings life to the one who cherishes it in

his heart and also is what brings healing to the flesh (Prov 4:22). Human words too, if

28
Both 2 Chr 32:31 and Isa 39:3-7 indicate an element of contingency and therefore hint
at the possibility of a more positive outcome.
29
The word rapha’ occurs in Job 5:18; 13:4; Ps 6:3 [Eng. 2]; 30:3 [Eng. 2]; 41:5 [Eng. 4];
60:4 [Eng. 2]; 103:3; 107:20; 147:3; Eccl 3:3; Lam 2:13.
30
Klaus Seybold and Ulrich B. Mueller, Sickness and Healing (Trans. Douglas W. Stott;
Biblical Encounters; Nashville: Abingdon, 1981), 44 who see healing liturgies behind
these psalms; e.g., in Ps 32, YHWH’s hand of discipline is recognized, followed by
searching one’s conscience, confession of guilt, and prayer which make healing and
forgiveness possible (58). Further on prayer and healing in the Psalms, see Klaus
Seybold, Gebet des Kranken im Alten Testament: Untersuchungen zur Bestimmung und
Zuordnung der Krankheits- und Heilungspsalmen (Mainz: Kohlhammer, 1973).
31
See Ps 103:3; 147:3 (emotional as well as physical healing). Cf. Brown, Israel’s Divine
Healer, 151-52: “National recovery, bodily healing, and spiritual rejuvenation all flowed
from one source: the Lord.”
32
Similarly, Ibid., 150.
33
So Avalos, Illness and Health Care, 257.
11

they are “truthful, wise, comforting, and upbuilding”34 can bring healing, acting like a

tree of life (Prov 15:4).

OT Summary and Conclusion

From this brief survey of healing in the Old Testament, there appears to be no

clear formula for healing apart from the obvious point that it usually flows from reliance

upon God within the larger context of covenant faithfulness. At the same time, the

healing power of God is not scripted or ritualized. Sometimes it is connected with the

faith and/or participation of the supplicant (Naaman, Hezekiah). At other times, as in

Pharoah’s requests to Moses for prayer, it arises more from desperation than from faith.

Sometimes the personal presence of the healer (better, the human instrument through

which God’s healing power is revealed since human intermediaries are never called

roph’im)35 seems to have made a difference (Elisha). At other times the healing takes

place at a distance from or in the absence of a representative from God (Naaman).

II. Healing in the New Testament

A. General Considerations

1. Historical Context

In the Greco-Roman period, the practice of ancient medicine underwent

significant development. Most dominant was Hippocrates, whose influence continued

through the first and second centuries of the Christian era through such physicians as

Celsus and Galen. Judging from the extensive writings of these and other physicians, the

process of healing began to be removed from the magico-religious realm and placed on a
34
Brown, 164.
35
Avalos, Illness and Health Care, 286, pointing out that when the term is applied to
humans it usually underscores the ineffectiveness of physicians (287-90); so also Hasel,
“Health and Healing in the Old Testament.”
12

more “scientific” basis despite reliance on philosophical models with their metaphysical

presuppositions.36

Influential alongside such medical practitioners, whose services were

prohibitively expensive except in extreme cases (cf. Mark 5:26 par.),37 were the numerous

healing centers with temples and rituals honoring various healing deities spread

throughout the Roman empire.38 Visitors to these centers found reports of healing

inscribed on stone plates, included among which was this affirmation: “Because the help

of human physicians had failed, the sick came to the god for whom the impossible is

possible.”39 Within a Jewish context, as we have seen from the OT, YHWH was the healer

of Israel and so traveling to healing centers would be a denial of faith. The Jerusalem

temple was renowned as a center of forgiveness and atonement but not healing. In fact,

the stringency of purity regulations in the Second Temple period beyond even that of the

levitical laws, hindered those with physical ailments from approaching the temple.40 The

nearby pool of Bethzatha, however, reputedly provided such possibilities (John 5:2-4).

Still, as the invalid’s complaint illustrates (v. 7), the crowdedness of some healing centers

36
See, e.g., J. Keir Howard. Disease and Healing in the New Testament: An Analysis and
Interpretation (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2001), 14-19.
37
Cf. Hector Avalos, “Health Care,” NIDB 2:763: “Christianity may have attracted
patients who were too poor to afford the fees charged in many Greco-Roman traditions,”
citing Matt 10:8; cf. Acts 8:19-20.
38
Joel B. Green, “Healing,” NIDB 2 (2007): 755-59. These deities included Isis,
Asclepius, Hygeia (health personified, cf. Gk. hygieia), and others.
39
Quoted in Seybold and Mueller, 101, who also note some overlap between physicians
and healing centers: Galen called himself the therapist of Asclepius and physicians cared
for the sick at the Asclepion in Kos (102).
40
Thus, e.g., the lame man sits outside the gate called “beautiful” in Acts 3:2 but, after
being healed, goes into the temple with Peter and John (v. 8). Further, see Wahlen, Jesus
and the Impurity of Spirits, 83 and n. 75, 113 and n. 27. Cf. Hector Avalos, Health Care
and the Rise of Christianity (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1999), 44: “chronically ill
patients were excluded altogether from the temple and from the community itself.”
13

seems to have “effectively denied access for the persons who most needed healing.”41

Besides prayer, many relied on folk healers, “holy men,” and/or assorted

“miracle” remedies. A few no doubt resorted to a combination of these options. Rabbi

Chanina ben Dosa (2nd half 1st c AD) was said to heal by means of prayer, the fluency of

his prayer indicating whether or not the supplicant was healed (b.Berakhot 34b).42 In

addition to such healers, a larger support system that included family members and others

within the society contributed to the healing process.43 In Jewish circles, because sickness

was frequently considered a punishment from God,44 cures often included religious

components. Forgiveness normally had to be sought before healing could be expected:

“The sick person will not arise from his sickness until one [God] has forgiven him all his

sins [Ps 103:3 quoted]” (b.Nedarim 41a).

Anointing with various oils was performed in ancient Greece and Rome for a

variety of reasons, both common and religious: as perfumes and after bathing; as

offerings to the gods or in connection with other religious or magical rites; before and

after meals, sometimes with religious connotations; as a way of reverencing or preserving

sacred stones and statues; in burial rites. Oil was also used medicinally but not usually

with religious connotations during the Second Temple period.45 A magical view of
41
Avalos, “Health Care,” 763, who adds that, in some traditions, healing was confined to
certain days, making Jesus’ healings on Sabbath more significant (cf. Luke 13:14-16).
42
See also Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew, 72-78 (and notes): reputed ability to heal,
exorcize and even raise the dead by the power of prayer and simple command.
43
See John J. Pilch, Healing in the New Testament: Insights from Medical and
Mediterranean Anthropology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 26.
44
E.g., Job; also John 9:1-2, but Jesus rejected this (John 9:3; Luke 13:1-5); cf. Seybold
and Mueller, 126-27.
45
Luke 10:34 (as also in earlier times, Isa 1:6; Jer 8:22; 46:11; 51:8); cf. Celsus, Med.
3.23.3; Philo, Dreams, 2.58; Josephus, J.W. 1.657 (also Ant. 17.172), describing how
physicians (unsuccessfully) treated a severe illness of Herod the Great by lowering his
body into a large vessel of warm oil. Rabbinic sources also attest the medicinal use of oil
(John Lightfoot, Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica,
14

anointing with oil, particularly in connection with baptism for the expulsion of and/or

protection from demons, is found mainly in post-NT period sources.46

[Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1979], 2:415); Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck,
Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch (6 vols; Munich: C. H.
Beck, 1922–1961), 1:249, 427, 986. See also Angus Bowie, “Oil in Ancient Greece and
Rome,” in The Oil of Gladness, 26-34.
46
For references, see Heinrich Schlier, “aleiphō”, TDNT 1: 230-31; see also Thomas M.
Finn, “Anointing,” Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (ed. Everett Ferguson; 2d ed.;
New York: Garland, 1990), 43-45; regarding the Test. Sol. 18:34 within its larger context,
see Wahlen, Jesus and the Impurity of Spirits, 61. The NT references to anointing should
be distinguished from later church anointing in connection with baptism (Jeffrey John,
“Anointing in the New Testament,” in The Oil of Gladness: Anointing in the Christian
Tradition [ed. Martin Dudley and Geoffrey Rowell; London: SPCK, 1993], 64-72).
15

2. Overview of Healing in the New Testament

The NT writers employ various words for healing,47 each with a slightly different

nuance that also varies somewhat depending on the context in which they are used. The

healing stories in the Gospels and Acts describe a variety of maladies ranging from

organic defects such as crippled limbs or blindness to demon possession, but healing is

consistently attributed to the power of God working through Jesus and the apostles rather

than to any specific medical expertise or remedy. The common people, however,

sometimes associate things connected with these miracle-workers as having a kind of

magical power. These things include Jesus’ garment (Mark 5:28), Peter’s shadow (Acts

5:15),48 and cloths belonging to Paul (Acts 19:11-12).49

The Pauline epistles, on the other hand, in reference to specific cases of illness,

give no suggestion that healing is always in accordance with God’s will, nor do they

explicitly mention healing by anything other than natural means. Epaphroditus became ill

and almost died, but was eventually able to return to Philippi after his recovery (Phil

2:25-30). Timothy was advised to use wine medicinally for his frequent stomach ailments

47
Most common is therapeuō and iaomai and their cognates. But the words sōzō and
apokathistēmi in the sense of healing also appear as do stereoō, apallassō, holoklēros,
hygiainō, and related words. Further, see Wilkinson, 77-83. Verbs related to the
cleansing of leprosy and the expelling of demons are more specialized and not as
pertinent to this study. Further, on their use in the Synoptic Gospels, see Wahlen, Jesus
and the Impurity of Spirits, 83-89, 114-20, 144-51.
48
Wilkinson, 177 contrasts the desire of “some” in v. 15 for Peter’s shadow to fall on
them with the “all” actually healed in v. 16 as well as the explicit mention in v. 12 that it
was by the “hands” of the apostles that people were healed rather than by their shadow.
49
Jesus’ use of spittle, which seems to be used as an extension of his person, should be
distinguished from this. Cf. Seybold and Mueller, 156 (whose observations, however,
apply more to pagan than biblical notions of power): “Breath and spittle are considered
the mediators of special powers which these substances conduct from the power bearer to
the sick person. Spittle, like blood, is particularly effective; it is ‘condensed breath’ which
comes out of the miracle worker.” Similarly, they see the use of oil in connection with
healing as “power transferral” (186) but that the healing is from the Lord Himself (187).
16

(1 Tim 5:23).50 Trophimus, being sick, was left behind by Paul in Miletus (2 Tim 4:20).

Paul himself prayed three times for his “thorn in the flesh” to be removed but the Lord

told him to bear this suffering patiently (2 Cor 12:7-9).51 Paul does acknowledge miracles

of healing as a gift of the Spirit possessed by some. But his consistent use of the term

charismata “gifts of grace” in connection with such miracles (1 Cor 12:9, 28, 30) is

simultaneously a reminder of the source of the miraculous power and that healing can

neither be commanded nor guaranteed.52 More prominent for Paul is the life in Christ

which includes suffering for his sake (2 Cor 4:8-12).53

Several NT passages seem to refer to healing in a more metaphorical or spiritual

sense. Heb 12:12-13, resuming the athletic metaphor with which the chapter begins,

urges readers not to act like defeated runners with limp hands and knees paralyzed by

cramps but to be strong and to make sure their feet are heading straight to the finish line.

They are not to turn aside from their faith in Jesus54 through whom alone is healing. The
50
Wilkinson, 193 indicates that two principal options have been suggested for the use of
wine in this passage: (1) as an antiseptic mixed in with water to ensure that the water
would be safe to drink (cf. 2 Macc 15:39); (2) as an aid to digestion on the assumption
that Timothy may have suffered from chronic gastritis. The explicit mention of “frequent
ailments” seems to favor the second option (so Samuele Bacchiocchi, Wine in the Bible:
A Biblical Study on the Use of Alcoholic Beverages [Berrien Springs, Mich.: Biblical
Perspectives, 1989], 246).
51
Some explain Paul’s thorn in the flesh as non-physical (religious opposition or
persecution, mental anxiety or depression, or some form of temptation such as pride,
doubt, sensuality or ill-temper), while others suggest various physical ailments as
possibilities (stammering, deafness, bodily injury, chronic pain, disease of the nervous
system, eye problem, epilepsy, malaria or a chronic infection). See Wilkinson 205-6; also
Martin, 2 Corinthians, 413-16 who on pp. 417-18 points to contextual evidence,
including Paul’s likening of it to the sufferings of Christ in vv. 9-10, to support
interpreting the thorn in the flesh as physical.
52
Similarly, Albrecht Oepke, “iaomai ktl.”, TDNT 3: 214. Note also M. Dennis Hamm,
“Healing, Gifts of,” ABD 3 (1992): 89, that the “charismata iamatōn are precisely
experienced as gifts of God, not simply as human abilities.”
53
Further, see Keith Warrington, “Healing and Suffering in the Bible,” International
Review of Mission 95 (2006): 159-62.
54
Cf. the only other NT uses of the verb ektrepō in 1 Tim 1:6; 5:15; 6:20; 2 Tim 4:4.
17

idea here is very similar to 1 Pet 2:24-25, where readers are reminded that they “were

straying like sheep” but that Jesus bore their sins that they might not sin but live for

righteousness. By His wounding for sin, he writes them, “you have been healed.” In both

these passages, the acceptance of Jesus’ vicarious suffering brings healing from spiritual

weakness and sin.55 A kind of spiritual healing is also in view in Rev 3:18, where Jesus

exhorts the Laodiceans to anoint (enchrisai) their eyes with eyesalve in order that they

may see.

The last reference to healing in the NT is the mention in Rev 22:2 that the leaves

of the tree of life are “for the healing (therapeian) of the nations.” This verse illustrates

the artificiality of making too sharp a distinction between physical and spiritual healing.56

The new creation will effect a total, holistic restoration in harmony with the conception

of healing that permeates the Old Testament. This idealized healing encompasses body,

mind and spirit. In James 5 also, the spiritual and physical components of the anticipated

healing seem to be so blended as to make it difficult if not impossible to distinguish them.

This passage more than any other in the New Testament also seems to ritualize healing

and so requires more detailed consideration. In general, however, the observation of

Avalos is worth remembering:

Christianity exhibited some significant differences in the role of


prayer in healing. Many Greco-Roman traditions combine prayer with
elaborate rituals at healing centers, but Christianity’s emphasis on the
value of faith alone or on very simple rituals served to eliminate the need

Ceslas Spicq, TLNT, 1:462 n. 2 finds close parallels in Xenophon (An. 4.5.15: “Turning
aside in that direction [ektrapomenoi], they sat down and refused to go further”); also in
Philo (Spec. Laws 2.23); he translates the occurrence in Heb 12:13 “not deviate” (1:463).
55
1 Pet 2:24c (tō mōlōpi iathēte) apparently quotes Isa 53:5 (tō mōlōpi … iathēmen).
56
Alluding to Ezekiel’s vision of progressive restoration toward an Edenic paradise: the
river of God makes stagnant waters fresh (literally, “the waters shall restore to health
[hygiasei]”) and causes trees to flourish, the leaves of the trees providing “health” or
“healing” (hygieian, 37:8, 12); cf. LSJ 1841-42.
18

for travel to such centers (see Matt 8:8; John 5:1-9). Likewise, Christianity
resisted temporal restrictions on when healing could be administered
(Mark 3:2-5).57

B. Prayer and Anointing in the Gospels and Acts

1. Jesus’ Healing Ministry

Healing occupies a sizeable role in the gospel of the kingdom proclaimed by

Jesus. In fact, preaching and healing constitute inseparable signs of the in-breaking power

of God’s kingdom,58 “a reminder that behind the healing ministry of Jesus and others

stands Yahweh the healer.59 Approximately 33-40% of each gospel comprises narratives

of healing.60 While counts of the exact number of healing miracles performed by Jesus

vary depending on which stories are considered to reflect the same episode, a summary of

what we can glean from the healing narratives found in the four gospels makes a useful

point of reference and appears as an appendix to this paper.61 With few exceptions,

whenever the means employed by Jesus is specified (on 3 occasions it is not), the healing

takes place by a touch or a word (21 of 28). Besides these, saliva is involved in three

instances (always in combination with either a touch or a word or both) and once Jesus is

57
Avalos, “Health Care,” 763. In fact, Jesus seems intentionally to have healed on the
Sabbath as a sign of the redemption available through the kingdom proclamation (see
n. 68 below).
58
See Matt 4:23; Mark 1:15 (followed by references to exorcisms and healings in 1:21-
2:12); Luke 4:18-19 (citing Isa 61:1-2); 7:22 par. (healing and proclaiming the good news
as evidence to John the Baptist of Jesus’ messianic mission); 9:6 (the disciples’ kingdom
proclamation likewise has this twofold character of preaching and healing); John 9:35-41
(healing the blind is emblematic of Jesus’ work as the light of the world, cf. 1:9; 8:12;
12:46).
59
Green, “Healing,” 758. Calling the in-breaking kingdom the Grundthema of every
healing story, see also Ferdinand Hahn, “Heilung und Heil aus der Sicht des Neuen
Testaments” in Ärztlicher Dienst weltweit: 25 Beiträge über Heil und Healing in unserer
Zeit (ed. Wolfgang Erk and Martin Scheel; Stuttgart: Steinkopf, 1974), 175-85.
60
See Wilkinson, 65: 40% each in Matthew and Mark, 35% in Luke, and 33% in John.
61
See pp. 34 below.
19

touched rather than vice-versa.62

The dominant word for healing in the Gospels is sōzō, which can also mean

“save.”63 Together with its cognates in the NT, it forms the basic vocabulary for salvation

in the New Testament. The word embraces not just physical healing or cure but total

healing or wholeness,64 and “always reestablishes a person’s integrity by removing from

him chronic impairment: blood flow, blindness, leprosy, lameness, or possession.”65 In

other words, healing involves not only the elimination of physical danger, distress or

illness but a restoration to wholeness and represents a sign of the redemption which the

kingdom proclamation offers. The story of Jesus healing the paralyzed man brought to

him on a pallet is apropos here; forgiveness becomes the implicit prerequisite for

complete healing (Mark 2:1-12 parr.; cf. John 5:14).66 Especially significant is the healing

by Jesus specifically of those whose purity and fitness to approach God in temple

worship was considered dubious by virtue of their physical ailments,67 including healings

62
Sometimes the gospel writers mention Jesus healing groups of people but providing
few further details (e.g., Matt 8:16-17; Mark 1:32-34, 39; 3:11; Luke 4:40-41).
63
It occurs almost as frequently as therapeuō and iaomai combined. On the specific
terminology for healing in the NT (excluding sōzō), see F. Graber and D. Müller, “Heal,”
NIDNTT 2 (1976): 163-72.
64
Compare the identical assurances of Jesus in Luke (hē pistis sou sesōken se), which
nevertheless tend to be translated differently: to the sinful woman who anointed him and
whose sins were forgiven, “Your faith has saved you” (7:50); but to the Samaritan leper,
“Your faith has made you well” (17:19). Further, see Frederick J. Gaiser, “‘Your Faith
Has Made You Well’: Healing and Salvation in Luke 17:12-19,” Word and World 16/3
(1996): 291-301.
65
Walter Radl, “sǭzō”, EDNT 3:320.
66
Michael L. Brown, Israel’s Divine Healer, 230 argues that Jesus’ words to the paralytic
“would be inexplicable unless the connection between the man’s condition and his sin
was presupposed.” See also Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.:
Pacific Press, 1940), 267. The priority of forgiveness to cure and the connection between
the two in order to experience total healing is suggested by Ps 103:3; cf. Gaiser, 300.
67
See n. 40 above. Notable is the curing in Matthew of the blind and the lame who
approached him in the temple, obviating the implicit problem of his potentially defiled
listeners remaining in that holy place (21:14; cf. 15:30-31).
20

on the Sabbath.68 To the woman cured of a constant blood flow, Jesus not only assured

her of physical healing, but also uniquely addressed her as “Daughter” and spoke to her a

blessing (“Go in peace”) thereby giving reassurance that her impurity had been removed

and her place in Israel’s religious society restored.69 Through these healings, Jesus on the

one hand affirmed the close connection between holiness and wholeness and even seems

to have affirmed sin as the cause of disease, while at the same time denying personal sin

as the necessary explanation for all disease.

In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ healing work focuses on the miraculous element

with deeds of supernatural power or authority (dunamis) witnessing to the in-breaking

kingdom, while in John it becomes a sign (sēmeion) of His messiahship and illuminates

the nature of His kingdom.70 Motivations which are connected with Jesus’ healing

miracles include showing compassion and the desire to answer a cry for mercy (Luke

18:38), rewarding expressions of faith (Matt 8:13; 9:29), manifesting God’s glory (John

9:3; 11:4), and showing the fulfillment prophecy (Luke 7:22-23).71 At the same time, it

should be remembered that “Jesus is the Savior who refuses to save himself (Luke

23:35), the physician come not to heal himself (Luke 4:23), the one whose ministry and

whose service lead to the cross.”72

Immediately striking, in terms of this study, is that the Gospels give no clear

68
John C. Brunt, A Day for Healing (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1981). See
also the emphasis on the “redemptive nature” of the Sabbath healings in Samuele
Bacchiocchi, Divine Rest for Human Restlessness: A Theological Study of the Good
News of the Sabbath for Today (Berrien Springs, Mich.: self-published, 1980), 151-58.
69
R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC; Grand
Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002), 238.
70
Cf. Wilkinson, 97-98.
71
There also appears to be at least one healing out of necessity in order that Jesus’
intentions would not be misunderstood (Luke 22:49-50).
72
Gaiser, 300.
21

instance of Jesus ever healing by means of prayer or anointing. Even in connection with

resurrections from the dead, Jesus offers no audible prayer such as Elijah or Peter did

(1 Kgs 17:21; Acts 9:40). One possible explanation for this is that all of Jesus miracles

were done with others looking on (cf. Matt 6:6), though, in the case of Lazarus, it seems

at a minimum that Jesus offered up a silent prayer either beforehand or in the moment

(John 11:41-42).73 A more plausible explanation may be found in the uniqueness of

Jesus’ relationship with the Father as Son.74 This will become more evident by way of

contrast as we turn to descriptions of the disciples’ healing work.

2. The Apostles and Healing

Mark tells us that the disciples of Jesus, in connection with their mission to Israel,

urged repentance (cf. 1:15), expelled demons, and healed the sick by anointing them with

oil (6:13). This verse, which is part of Jesus’ mission instruction to his disciples, indicates

by the use of three verbs in the imperfect (exeballon, ēleiphon, etherapeuon) the ongoing

character of the apostles’ work throughout the period of their mission. The expelling of

demons is clearly distinguished from the healing of the sick.75 According to the verse,

anointing the sick (arrōstous) with oil facilitated healing. The context suggests that this

73
Mark 9:29 indicates that in difficult cases the disciples should pray but the text gives no
hint that Jesus prayed in this instance.
74
While the Christology of each of the canonical gospels carries its individual nuance, all
connect Jesus’ exorcism and healing work with his status as Son: Mark 1:11; 2:10-12;
5:7; 9:7, 25-27 (all of which are paralleled in Matthew and Luke); John 5:21, 25-26; 11:4,
27; 20:31. On the various emphases in the healing miracles of each of the Synoptic
Gospels, see Wahlen, Jesus and the Impurity of Spirits, 83-86, 114-17, 133, 144-47.
75
There is no thought that the demons caused sickness; otherwise the mention of healing
would be more closely connected with the exorcisms. Further, see Wahlen, Jesus and the
Impurity of Spirits, 84 n. 77, 88; William L. Lane, The Gospel according to Mark: The
English Text with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans,
1974), 209-10 and n. 42; France, Mark, 251 considers likely that the use of oil here was
symbolic “of God’s care for and restoration of the patient.”
22

healing was miraculous so that the oil functioned symbolically rather than medicinally.76

The use of oil, representing the spirit-power available in connection the kingdom

proclamation,77 also demonstrates the apostles’ dependence on divine power, unlike Jesus

who healed the sick and expelled demons without external means.78

In Acts, healing comprises only 4.5 percent of the book, far less than any of the

gospels.79 Besides demon possession, ailments healed include lameness, paralysis,

blindness, and dysentery. There are also two resurrections, of one who died of disease

(10:40) and another from an apparently fatal head injury (20:10).80 Luke (like the Gospel

of John) tends to use the word sēmeion for healing miracles in Acts.81 This label, together

with acting “in the name of Jesus,”82 testifies that the apostles’ work is not only a

continuation of Jesus’ ministry but imbued with the same power. However, by

comparison with the work of Jesus described in the Gospels, not only are the healing

miracles in Acts far fewer in number (less than half as many), they also do not appear to

be integral to the accomplishment of the apostolic mission.83


76
According to John, “Anointing in the New Testament,” 51 the apostles “expect and
achieve physical healing.”
77
So also France, Mark, 251.; similarly Julius Schniewind, Das Evangelium nach
Markus: Übersetzt und erklärt (NTD 1; Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1958), 97.
78
So Henry Barclay Swete, The Gospel according to St. Mark: The Greek Text with
Introduction Notes and Indices (3d ed.; London: Macmillan, 1909), 119; John,
“Anointing in the New Testament,” 51 (but also makes the unwarranted suggestion on p.
52 that Mark attributed this practice to the apostles based on local church practice). That
Jesus healed either by word or touch and occasionally with saliva shows that healing
proceeded from His person (cf. Mark 5:30) and that He was not indebted to any external
substance.
79
Wilkinson, 157; similarly, Warrington, 158.
80
Ibid., 158. Further on healing and exorcism in Acts, see Wahlen, Jesus and the
Impurity of Spirits, 145, 147, 165-67.
81
E.g., Acts 4:16, 22, 30; 8:6-7; other words include holoklēria (Acts 3:16, a NT hapax).
82
Use of Jesus’ name is connected not only with miracles of healing and exorcism (Acts
3:6; 4:10; 8:12-13; 16:18; cf. 19:13, 17) but also with the apostles’ preaching and
teaching (4:18; 5:40; 9:27), baptism (2:38; 8:16; 10:48), and potential martyrdom (21:13).
83
The healings, while they encouraged many to believe the gospel, appear incidentally
23

Prayer is mentioned in connection with healing only twice. The first instance is

Peter’s resurrection of Dorcas. There is some similarity with Jesus’ resurrection of Jairus’

daughter, again showing the apostles’ work to be reminiscent of Jesus’ ministry .84

However, the fact that Peter kneels and prays before turning toward Dorcas and telling

her to arise is distinctive (Acts 9:40). The second instance of healing in connection with

prayer is Paul’s healing of the father of Publius, who was feverish with dysentery. Going

in to where he was lying, Paul healed him through prayer and the laying on of hands.

Faith on the part of the friends of Dorcas clearly played a role in her resurrection. It may

also have been involved in the healing of Publius’ father, but this is not explicit.

C. Prayer and Anointing in James 5

We turn now to the only instance in the New Testament of prayer and anointing

being used in combination to effect healing. Oftentimes anointing the physically ill is

performed only after exhausting all human means of recovery. The tendency of turning to

God as a means of last resort is mentioned by Philo, who describes those who suddenly

seek God for healing as having no “firm faith” and “Facing-both-ways”

[epamphoteristais]:

…they first flee to the help which things created give, to


physicians, herbs, drug-mixtures, strict rules of diet, and all the other aids
that mortals use…. But when no human help avails, and all things, even
healing remedies, prove to be but mischievous, then out of the depths of
their helplessness, despairing of all other aid, still even in their misery
reluctant, at this late hour they betake themselves to the only saviour, God.
He, for He knows that what is done under stress of necessity has no sure
foundation, does not in all cases follow His law (of mercy), but only when

(Acts 3:1-10; 9:32-35; 20:7-12) or by request (14:8-10; probably also 9:36-42; 28:7-8).
The one narrated exorcism seems to occur almost as a last resort (16:16-18).
84
In addition to the exclusion of people from the sick room, the words spoken to Dorcas
by Peter in Aramaic would be Tabitha qumi, almost identical to Jesus’ words to Jairus’
dead daughter Talitha qumi (Mark 5:41).
24

it may be followed for good and with profit.85

While Philo’s estimate of such people sounds similar to those James refers to as unstable,

doubting, and “double-minded” (1:6-8),86 the New Testament nowhere insists on a

perfect faith in order to effect a miraculous cure.87

The passage relevant for our study (Jas 5:13-18) begins more generally and seems

to be largely about prayer.88 Verse thirteen begins, “Is anyone among you suffering

[kakopatheō]? Let him pray.” Three different verbs for the sick and suffering, each with

distinct connotations, are employed in this passage. The noun form of this first verb is

found a few verses earlier in reference to the suffering/misery (kakopathia) and patient

endurance of the prophets (cf. Matt 23:37; Luke 9:22), also specifically mentioning Job

(vv. 10-11).89

Despite the focus on suffering, physical weakness, and illness, there is in this

passage only one explicit reference to healing and it occurs outside of the prescribed

ritual of prayer and anointing for the sick. Within the more general context of Christians

confessing their sins to one another, James urges his readers to pray for one another “that

you may be healed [iathēte]” (v. 16). The occasional link between forgiveness and

healing, which this study has noticed in other passages, appears to be present here also.

85
Philo, Sacrifices, 70-71 (LCL 147, 149, the Gk. term appearing on p. 146).
86
On the meaning of “double-minded,” see Eduard Schweizer, “dipsychos” TDNT 9: 665;
Peter H. Davids, The Epistle of James: A Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC; Grand
Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1982), 74-75. A similar idea appears in 1QH XII.10-18;
T.Benj. 6.5-7; cf. the midrash on Deut 26:16 not to pray with “two hearts” (Tanḥ. 12-13).
87
E.g., despite the fact that the supplicant retained some unbelief, Jesus expelled the
unclean spirit from the man’s son (Mark 9:24-27).
88
Prayer is mentioned eight times in six verses. Three different nouns are used for prayer
(euchē, deēsis, proseuchē) and two different verbs (proseuchomai and euchomai).
89
Two possible nuances exist for kakopatheō: toil/hardship or suffering (BDAG 500;
Spicq, “kakopatheō , kakopatheia,” TLNT 2:238). In view of the context, the latter is
most likely, as commentators on this passage generally conclude and also BAGD 397.
25

But this reference seems primarily to refer to healing in a broader sense, i.e., to spiritual

healing and restoration, which follows the confession of sin and prayer.90 And even if

physical healing should be the intended meaning in this verse, it results not from

confession or forgiveness but from prayer. There is no suggestion that sin is the cause of

illness. Rather, prayer is in focus, suggesting that even the practice of anointing does not

by itself guarantee healing. As a careful study of this passage makes clear, the petition for

healing remains subject to God’s will.

Two different words for the sick appear in vv. 14-15. The verb astheneō appears

in v. 14, “Is anyone among you sick?” Literally, it means “weak” and stresses physical

illness or incapacitation.91 In the Gospels and Acts, this word and its cognate are used

almost exclusively to refer to the sick healed by Jesus and the apostles.92 Verse fifteen

uses a different term, “ill” (participial form of kamnō, v. 15), which is the more general

word for the patient93 but may have a stronger connotation here, suggesting someone

physically worn out or wasting away.94 In fact, the word is sometimes used of those who

are dying.95 Such a circumstance would help explain the unusual procedure of the sick

person summoning the elders of the church to come and pray over (ep’ auton) him/her,
90
Iaomai is used here in this broader sense (BDAG 465) and is fairly frequent in the NT
(e.g., Matt 13:15; Luke 4:18; Acts 28:27; Heb 12:13; 1 Pet 2:25).
91
In 2 Cor 12:5-10, Paul prays for a “thorn in the flesh” to be removed but God told him
to bear this sickness, because His grace is made perfect in “weakness” (astheneia, used in
both vv. 5 and 10). In other words, though never welcomed or enjoyed, suffering is not
necessarily bad and, in fact, is to be expected as we faithfully proclaim the gospel
because we will be attacked by Satanic forces. In fact, Paul’s illness afforded him an
opportunity to preach the gospel in Galatia (4:13, “weakness of the flesh” specifies a
physical illness, Gustav Stählin, “asthenēs, astheneia, ktl.,” TDNT 1:493).
92
E.g., Matt 10:8; Mark 6:56; Luke 4:40; 5:15; John 4:46; Acts 5:15; 9:37; 19:12, etc.
93
Spicq, “kamnō,” TLNT 2:252.
94
Louw-Nida §23.142.
95
BDAG 506-7 (citing Wis 4:16; 15:9; Sib. Or. 3, 588); Spicq, TLNT 2:252 n. 3. Note
also how Job describes himself poetically as approaching the grave: “I pray as I am dying
[kamnōn] and what have I accomplished?” (Job 17:2; cf. 10:1).
26

implying that the illness is incapacitating96 and/or too urgent to be done in connection

with a regular church gathering.97

The “elders” are not just older members but the appointed leaders of the church,98

thus helping to reinforce the importance of a spiritual rather than merely a “medical”

solution or family/folk remedy.99 The anointing itself, as the grammatical subordination

of the action suggests, is to be done during the season of prayer, not before,100 and serves

to exclude the use of magical charms or incantations which were so common in the

ancient world, even in Jewish circles.101 In fact, early Christianity’s prevailing practice of

prayer to God for healing contrasts sharply with the syncretistic and magical rites that

came into the church in subsequent centuries:102 “Neither the prayer, nor the oil, nor the
96
So Ralph P. Martin, James (WBC 48; Waco, Tx.: Word, 1988), 206. On the unusual
expression ep’ auton, see Luke Timothy Johnson, The Letter of James: A New
Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 37A; New York: Doubleday, 1995),
332. There is no hint in the text that the laying on of hands was involved (Wilkinson,
256-57; pace John, “Anointing in the New Testament,” 55), an interpretation at least as
early as Origen, Homily in Leviticus, 2.4, who includes “imponant ei manus” in quoting
the verse.
97
Similarly, Davids, 192; Pedrito U. Maynard-Reid, James: True Religion in Suffering
(The Abundant Life Bible Amplifier; Boise, Id.: Pacific Press, 1996), 212.
98
A church role analogous to the Jewish leaders in the local synagogue (Davids, 193;
James B. Adamson, The Epistle of James [NICNT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans,
1976], 197) but distinctively Christian (contrast the more general reference to “assembly”
synagōgē in 2:2; pace Maynard-Reid, 212-13). Besides frequent references to Jewish
elders, presbyteroi also occurs in a technical Christian sense, both in Acts (11:30; 14:23;
20:17) and in other epistles (1 Tim 5:17; Titus 1:5; 1 Pet 5:1, 5).
99
As Robert J. Karris, “Some New Angles on James 5:13-20,” Review and Expositor 97
(2000): 211 suggests, it also may point to the role of the church family as the primary
means of support rather than the paterfamilias “who would dispense herbs and charms”
(Ralph Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity [New
York: Norton, 1997], 59 quoted by Karris on p. 210).
100
The participle is a contemporaneous aorist. See James Hardy Ropes, The Epistle of St.
James (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1916), 305; Adamson, 197; pace Johnson, 331.
101
So also Ropes, 305; Adamson, 197. On magic and healing in the ancient world, see
Howard Clark Kee, Medicine, Miracle and Magic in New Testament Times (SNTSMS
55; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Susan R. Garrett, Demise of the
Devil: Magic and the Demonic in Luke’s Writings (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1989).
102
Compare the apostolic opposition to magic (Acts 13:6-12; 19:18-20) with the
27

name of the Lord spoken by the miracle worker work magically or automatically here,

because the author expressly emphasizes that the Lord himself will lift the fallen one.”103

As we have seen, oil was commonly used medicinally in the ancient world but its

role here in connection with prayer follows closely the New Testament example of the

apostles employing it for miraculous healing and is emblematic of the power of the Spirit

present through the kingdom ushered in by Jesus.104 The oil’s kingdom significance

should not be too surprising in view of the fact that already in the Old Testament oil in

connection with anointing symbolizes the Spirit.105 At the same time, the NT uses

different Greek words in order to distinguish anointing by the Spirit for ministry (chriō)

from the anointing of the sick for healing or of the dead for burial (aleiphō), the latter

term being used here.106 However, regardless of what type of anointing is mentioned, the

oil in itself represents divine power—in this case divine power for healing rather than any

medicinal efficaciousness in the ritual, because the anointing is to be done “in the name

of the Lord” (v. 14).107

increasingly “magical” understanding of the sacraments later on as well as Gallagher’s


reference to the tendency of Christians to dabble in magic evident from the fourth-
century canons of the Synod of Elvira (Eugene V. Gallagher, “Magic,” EEC, 559-60).
See also n. 46 above.
103
Seybold and Mueller, p. 187.
104
See above, pp. 13 and 21.
105
The anointing of David and Saul with oil is connected with both divine and demonic
spirit influence in 1 Sam 16 (on which see Wahlen, Jesus and the Impurity of Spirits, 26);
likewise the coming Davidic king is anointed with the Spirit of God (Isa 61:1; Zech 4:6;
cf. Dan 9:25).
106
John, “Anointing in the New Testament,” 59. Jesus was anointed (chriō) by the Spirit
(Luke 4:18, quoting Isa 61:1; Acts 4:27; 10:38; Heb 1:9), as are His followers (2 Cor
1:21; and, with the noun form chrisma, 1 John 2:20, 27bis); but the body of Jesus was
anointed (aleiphō) for burial (Mark 16:1; John 11:2; 12:3; cf. Luke 7:38, 46) and the
apostles and elders anoint (aleiphō) the sick for healing (Mark 6:13; James 5:14).
Interestingly, compound forms of chriō are used for anointing the blind with healing
ointment (John 9:6, 11; Rev 3:18). On the later practice of anointing in connection with
baptism, see n. 46 above.
107
Ingo Broer, “elaion,” EDNT 1: 425.
28

The prayer offered on behalf of the sick by the elders is to be a “prayer of faith”

(v. 15). The word for prayer (euche) is used in the NT only here in this sense.108 The un-

prefixed verb form (euchomai, possibly more literary)109 is used twice by Paul in the

sense of intercessory prayer that the church may be restored “to moral and spiritual

health” (2 Cor 13:7, 9).110 James is not suggesting that healing depends only on the faith

of the elders and not that of the person who is ill, because the sick person himself, rather

than someone else on their behalf, must summon the elders.

This does not mean that an anointing should not be done in the extreme situation

that the sick person is unconscious or otherwise physically unable to do so. In fact, while

miraculous healing in the Gospels and Acts almost always depends on the faith of the

supplicants, one exception in Mark 2:1-12 is instructive.111 In view of the paralyzed

man’s inability to come to Jesus for healing, his friends carry him there. Particular

reference is made to “their faith” (v. 5), indicating that the faith of his friends, if not

decisive, at least played an important role in the man’s healing. Likewise, elders of the

church may “bring to Jesus” in prayer someone physically unable to request their

108
Its basic meaning is “wish” (cf. Spicq, euchomai, euchē, 2:152-54) but in the LXX
often means “vow” (which is also the meaning in the other two occurrences of the word
in the NT: Acts 18:18; 21:23). On various forms of wish-prayers in Scripture, see Clinton
Wahlen, “The Temple in Mark and Contested Authority,” Biblical Interpretation 15
(2007): 251-52.
109
Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek
Text (NIGTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2005), 923 n. 28.
110
C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (HNTC; New
York: Harper & Row, 1973), 339.
111
Other exceptions are the healing/exorcism miracles performed at a distance (Matt
8:5-13; 15:21-28), both times Jesus noting the remarkable faith of the one interceding for
the distressed person (Matt 8:10; 15:28). In two other cases fathers beg Jesus to help their
sons, but faith seems to be lacking; healing comes only after faith is clearly expressed
(John 4:47-50; Mark 9:17-27). Even resurrections by Jesus, while not strictly healings,
also stress the role of faith for their accomplishment (Mark 5:36, 39-40; John 11:25-27,
39-40).
29

intercession. That the paralyzed man concurs with his friends’ efforts is clear from the

fact that Jesus forgives his sins, which also finds a parallel in the assurance in James that

“if he has committed sins it will be forgiven him” (5:15b). Finally, the “prayer of faith”

mentioned by James is connected perhaps also with the assurance found in the

succeeding verse: “the effectual plea of a righteous person is powerful” (5:16), which is

then illustrated by Elijah’s prayer of faith that brought three and a half years of drought

followed by abundant rainfall (5:17-18).112

The result of the ritual, described in seemingly unconditional terms in v. 15, is

that “the prayer of faith will save the sick.” James 5:15 uses a more general word for

healing meaning “save” (sōsei) not heal (unlike v. 16).113 The possibility of healing is

certainly implied, but no healing is explicitly promised. Rather the prayer offered in faith

will save the sick and the Lord will raise him (or her) up. The use of egerei, which is

commonly employed for resurrection from the dead as well as for Jesus resurrecting the

saved at His return,114 ultimately refers to the resurrection. In fact, just a few verses later,

James reminds his readers that convincing a sinner to return to God will save [sōsei] him

from death (v. 20). Therefore, the probable reference in v. 15 is more likely not to a

miraculous physical healing but to the eschatological gift of eternal life bestowed on the

saved whose bodies will be glorified and who will be restored to perfect physical health

at the second advent (1 Cor 15:40-44; Phil 3:21).

112
Cf. 1 Kgs 18:41-45. Karris, 215-16 draws attention to Giovanni G. Bottini (La
preghiera di Elia in Giacomo 5,17-8: Studio della tradizione biblica et giudaica. Studium
Biblicum Franciscanum Analecta 16 [Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing Press, 1981], 172) ,
who notes a parallel idea in The Lives of the Prophets 21.4-5 (OTP, 2:396) and the
significant OT background in Deut 11:13-17; cf. 1 Kgs 8:35-36; Luke 4:25.
113
The other four occurrences of sōzō in James refer clearly to eschatological salvation
(1:21; 2:14; 4:12; 5:20). So also Johnson, 332.
114
1 Cor 15:52
30

Even after all the conditions mentioned in James 5 are met—summoning the

elders, praying and anointing in the name of the Lord, praying a prayer of faith,

confession of sin to one another and praying for one another—it must be recognized that

the NT nowhere gives a carte blanche guarantee for miraculous healing. There are some

assurances given that sound as if we can be certain to receive whatever we pray for.115

However, such an assurance always assumes a submission to whatever God’s will is.116 A

prayer offered in faith will always also be offered in submission to God’s will; otherwise

it would be a prayer of presumption. Prayer, in itself, presupposes that the result depends

more on God’s intervention than human exertion. Nevertheless, a place remains for the

human element, which apparently is indispensable or prayer would be meaningless.117

Perhaps the larger emphasis of the passage is on prayer rather than on the anointing itself

specifically because the final outcome, whether or not a person is physically healed, must

ultimately be left with God.

Conclusion

In light of this biblical overview of prayer and anointing for healing, a number of

points stand out. First and foremost, healing comes from God and therefore comprehends

complete restoration of the person, physically, spiritually, and socially. Health includes

not only physical well-being but peace, prosperity, purity of heart, holiness, and
115
E.g., Mark 11:24; John 14:13-14; John 16:23-24.
116
This is made clear, e.g., in 1 John 5:14; cf. John 15:7. Note also the helpful corrective
of Joel James Shuman and Keith G. Meado, Heal Thyself: Spirituality, Medicine, and the
Distortion of Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 43: “whereas religion
once taught its adherents to worship God, whether in sickness or in health…, religion
now teaches its adherents to worship their desire for health and to use God—whomever
that may be—to facilitate that desire.”
117
Note the paradoxical nature of Jesus’ teaching: God knows what we need before we
ask (Matt 6:32) but we are still supposed to ask (Matt 6:11; 7:7)! Cf. Ellen G. White, The
Great Controversy, 525: “It is a part of God’s plan to grant us, in answer to the prayer of
faith, that which He would not bestow did we not thus ask.”
31

obedience. Closely connected with health is the idea of separation from sin. While it is

only exceptionally that disease comes as a direct judgment of God on sin, all disease is

ultimately the result of sin, which helps to explain the occasional association between

forgiveness and healing. Disease is a symptom of sin but it is not in itself sinful, nor does

individual sin necessarily explain a particular disease. Sinful practices sometimes bring

disease and rebellion against God leads to judgments in the form of disease and death.

But repentance and forgiveness at their deepest level have to do with sin more than

disease; and they ultimately guarantee the banishment of disease because, through the

coming of Jesus Christ, God’s kingdom has removed sin’s power and sin’s sting and

provided salvation.

Prayer opens up the possibility for God to work in healing and making whole,

sometimes directly but most often working through others to effect healing, including the

cure of disease and physical restoration. Healing also depends very much on the

supplicant’s response, including the confession of sin and repentance. Furthermore, it is

available not only for Israel but even for those outside the covenant such as Naaman. This

illustrates the essential role of faith which in the New Testament becomes the

predominant element in miraculous healing: “According to your faith, let it be done for

you” (Matt 9:29). The healing power of the kingdom is not limited by national or ethnic

boundaries but flows freely to Gentiles, in some ways more freely to them than to the

children of Abraham (Matt 8:10-11). The role of prayer underscores the fact that healing

can never be commanded but is always subject to God’s will and occurs as the result of

God’s mercy.

Throughout history, various support systems and health care centers existed to
32

promote healing. To the ubiquitous folk healers with their remedies and “holy men”

calling upon their gods, the Greco-Roman world added physicians with expertise in the

then “modern” methods of healing. Mostly, however, these centers, healers, and doctors

exhibited only limited medical success. Many and varied maladies are mentioned in the

Gospels and Acts but these pose no hindrance to the advancing kingdom but actually

serve to further the spread of the gospel through reports of divine healing. The power of

God is at work through Jesus and His appointed representatives. Sometimes the people

attribute magical qualities to things associated with their person but Scripture univocally

credits all healing to the power and will of God rather than to any human instrumentality.

The healing work of Jesus manifests a new and special quality in that it takes

place unmediated even by prayer, apparently flowing out of His unique relation to God as

Son. Alongside these miraculous evidences of the kingdom’s onset is the clear indication

that the Christian pathway is defined by the cross and marked by suffering. Following in

the footsteps of Jesus leads to difficulties and “thorns in the flesh” which require abiding

faith, patient endurance, and unwavering faithfulness. Thus, in the epistles, we find that

many are not healed, not even Paul despite his persistent prayers. Suffering for Christ

becomes a privilege and healing the notable exception when it serves to advance God’s

kingdom intent. Healing from sin and freedom from fear of death is never far away and

constitutes a far more important NT theme which finds its ultimate realization in the earth

made new with a healed people and the tree of life with its healing leaves.

Of the many ways in which oil was used in the Second Temple period, it rarely

carried religious connotations. Throughout Scripture, though, its role is usually a spiritual

one. It signals God’s calling, evidences divine blessing, and symbolizes the operation of
33

the Holy Spirit. The NT word for anointing most relevant for this study (aleiphō) is

connected to healing and burial but not to baptism. The apostles healed the sick by

anointing them with oil, not medicinally but by means of the kingdom power of the Spirit

imparted by Jesus. Miraculous healings occur not as part of their mission but as an

accompanying sign, witnessing to the truthfulness of their proclamation as eyewitnesses

of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and to their apostolic authority. Likewise in

James, not healing but prayer and the spiritual role of the church through its elders is the

focus. It is a prayer of faith that matters most, of the elders as well as of the person who

appeals for their ministry on his or her behalf. Thus it is not the ritual itself but the

spiritual reliance on God and His will that is effectual for healing. Furthermore, of greater

weight than physical cure is the moral condition of the person which is prerequisite to

healing, if not physically then in any case certainly and ultimately when raised to receive

final salvation and the gift of eternal life. Complete healing only takes place at the second

advent. God’s healers today may employ practical, medical means to effect physical cure

but should also recognize that their work is not done until it takes care of the whole

person, not just for this life but with eternity in view.118

118
Very helpful early on in the preparation of this study has been Ann Hamel, who has a
Ph.D. in clinical psychology and whose second dissertation is particularly relevant to this
subject: “An Examination of Formational Prayer as a Theosomatic Approach to the
Treatment of Trauma in Missionaries” (D.Min. diss.; Ashland Theological Seminary,
2007). The holism of the Bible’s concept of health and healing is increasingly
recognized, including in more popular and practical treatments of the subject. See, e.g.,
Francis MacNutt, The Prayer that Heals (Notre Dame: Ave Maria, 1981); also helpful
(despite a less biblical approach to spiritual warfare) is Charles Kraft, Deep Wounds,
Deep Healing (Ann Arbor: Servant Publications, 1993). A classic treatment of healing
from a holistic biblical perspective is Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1942).
34

Appendix

Jesus’ Miracles of Healing, Exorcism, and Resurrection

Category Description Reference(s) Means

Blindness
1. At Bethsaida Mark 8:22-26 saliva, touch
2. Bartimaeus Matt 20:29-34//Mark 10:46-52/Luke 18:35-43 touch//word
3. Man born blind John 9:1-41 saliva mud, word, water
4. Two blind men Matt 9:27-31 touch, word

Leprosy
1. Man full of leprosy Matt 8:1-4/Mark 1:40-45/Luke 5:12-16 touch, word
2. Ten lepers Luke 17:11-19 word

Miscellaneous
Infirmities
1. Paralyzed man Matt 9:1-8/Mark 2:1-12/Luke 5:17-26 word
2. Crippled man John 5:1-9 word
3. Man with withered hand Matt 12:9-14/Mark 3:1-6/Luke 6:6-11 word
4. Woman bent over Luke 13:10-17 word, touch
5. Ill slave of a centurion Matt 8:5-13/Luke 7:1-10 (distant) word/unstated
6. Severely ill son John 4:46-54a (distant) word
7. Mother-in-law with fever Matt 8:14-15/Mark 1:29-31//Luke 4:38-39 touch//word
8. Woman with flow of blood Matt 9:20-22/Mark 5:25-34/Luke 8:43-48 fringe touched
9. Deaf and mute man Mark 7:31-37 touch, saliva, word
10. Man with dropsy (edema) Luke 14:1-6 touch
11. Man with severed ear Luke 22:50-51 touch

Demon Possession
1. In Capernaum Synagogue Mark 1:23-28/Luke 4:33-37 word
2. After the Sabbath Matt 8:16-17/Mark 1:32-34/Luke 4:40-41 word/unstated/touch
3. Near Gerasa Matt 8:28-34/Mark 5:1-20/Luke 8:26-39 word
4. Epileptic boy Matt 17:14-21/Mark 9:14-29/Luke 9:37-43a word
5. Mute man Matt 9:32-34b unstated
6. Mute man//and blind Luke 11:14-16//Matt 12:22-23 unstated
7. Mary Magdalene Mark 16:9/Luke 8:2 unstated
8. Syrophoenician woman Matt 15:21-28/Mark 7:24-30 (distant) word

Raising the Dead


1. Jairus’ daughter Mark 5:21-24, 35-43/Luke 8:40-42, 49-56// touch, word//
Matt 9:18-19, 23-26 touch
2. Widow’s son at Nain Luke 7:11-17 touch, word
3. Lazarus John 11:1-44 [prayer]c/word

a
While some consider the stories of the healing of the royal official’s son in John 4:46-54
and the healing of the centurion’s slave in Matt 8:5-13/Luke 7:1-10 to derive originally
from a single event, there are sufficient differences to suggest otherwise (see Craig S.
Keener, The Gospel of John, 1:631-32).
b
The description of the healing in Matt 9:32-34 is so similar to the healing narrated in
Matt 12:22-23 that some consider the former to be a “doublet” (on which see France, The
Gospel of Matthew, 368-69).
c
Prayer, while not narrated, is referred to in John 11:41.