Psychoneuroimmunology and Jesus’ Healing Miracles

Daniel J Gaztambide. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 2: Medical and Therapeutic Events. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.

Words were originally magic and to this day words have retained much of their ancient magical power. By words one person can make another blissfully happy or drive him to despair…. Words call forth emotions. ~ Sigmund Freud (quoted in Capps 2000, 191)

You cannot write a prescription without the element of placebo. A prayer to Jupiter starts the prescription. It carries weight, the weight of two or three thousand years of medicine. ~ Eugene DuBois (quoted in Sternberg 2000, 164)

Faith heals, and that’s a fact. ~ John Dominic Crossan (1998, 297)

Was the historical Jesus able to cure individuals’ physical ailments by transforming their faith and beliefs? Is the miracle tradition in the Gospels historically reliable? By employing the fields of historical Jesus studies, medical anthropology, and psychology, I hope to provide some answers to these pressing questions. I first discuss recent scholars’ opinions concerning the healing miracle tradition and its historicity, followed by a consideration of recent advances in the study of emotions, belief, and physical health.

In this exploratory study, I concentrate on employing the interdisciplinary field of psychoneuroimmunology, the study of how our thoughts and beliefs affect our brains’ and bodies’ health, as a lens through which to interpret the healing tradition. Through it I develop a general framework from which to study and understand Jesus’ healing activity. I then illustrate the interpretive capacity of this general framework in terms of a specific case from the Gospel of Mark and attempt to concretize our theoretical propositions. Finally, I outline my preliminary conclusions and point out some future lines of research.

Recent Historians Discuss Healing Miracles and the Historical Jesus

Can miracles actually happen? If defined as something that defies the normal function of nature and all probability, Ehrman (1999, 2000) argues that it would be impossible for a historian to show that they happen. From Ehrman’s perspective, a historian cannot measure or test the action or inaction of an event that defies all probability. For Ehrman, it is of importance that we (2000, 199) “realize that in the ancient world miracles were not understood in the quasi-scientific terms that we use today.” People in the ancient world did not understand miracles as violations of the natural order of things, for in most cases, the natural world was not perceived as separate from a supernatural realm (Ehrman 2000).

The question for people of the ancient world was not if miracles could happen, but rather “(a) who was able to perform these deeds and (b) what was the source of their power? Was a person like Jesus, for example, empowered by a god or by black magic?” (Ehrman 2000, 199). Considering the inability to properly test whether miracles can happen with any probability, coupled with the distance in ideology between the ancient and modern worlds, Ehrman concludes that the historian would (2000, 202) “not be able to confirm or deny the miracles that he [Jesus] is reported to have done.”

It is where Ehrman fears to tread that Meier (1994; see also Powell 1998; Capps 2000) steps in. Meier accepts as irrefutable fact that Jesus did perform deeds of great repute “that were deemed by himself, his supporters, and his enemies to be miracles” (Powell 1998, 140; see also Capps 2000, 16). He critiques those who reject the miracle tradition altogether as imposing a naturalistic philosophy on the evidence, but cautions that he is not proposing that Jesus actually did miracles. His argument is rather more nuanced. Like Ehrman, he argues that people in the ancient world believed that miracles were a part of the daily interaction between the human and the divine. Thus it fits the context of Jesus’ era, so that the attribution of miracle working to him fits the environment.

Furthermore, the miracle tradition has multiple attestations in the Gospel documents, meaning that the tradition that Jesus performed spectacular deeds was probably not the invention of the early church. On the basis of this evidence, Meier argues that Jesus performed acts that he and his contemporaries interpreted as miracles, and that this was probably the aspect of his ministry that “contributed the most to [Jesus’] prominence and popularity on the public scene—as well as to the enmity he stirred up in high places” (Capps 2000, 17; see also Powell 1998, 140). Meier contends that if, in spite of the available evidence, the miracle tradition is to be rejected as unhistorical, then (1994, 509-34, particularly 512) so should every other Gospel tradition about him (see also Powell 1998, 140; Capps 2000, 16) since it has equal or stronger historical reliability than other facts commonly accepted within historical Jesus scholarship, such as Jesus’ use of the phrase the Kingdom of God, his use of the term Abba in his prayers, or that he was a carpenter (Powell 1998, 140).

Although his boldness is appreciated, Meier nevertheless leaves open the question of whether those deeds of Jesus interpreted as healing miracles involved any actual healings. This is a questioned tackled by models drawn from medical anthropology, popularized in the works of Crossan (1992, 1998) and Pilch (2000). Like Ehrman and Meier, Pilch and Crossan also make the distinction between miracles as conceived by moderns and as understood in the ancient world. They also extend the discussion in making a distinction between modern and ancient conceptions of healing and health (Crossan 1998, 293; Pilch 2000, 19-38), criticizing past uses of modern medicine in interpreting ancient health systems. Both scholars adopt a hermeneutical distinction provided in medical anthropology between healing illness and curing disease. Disease is defined as the actual biological malady in a person’s body, while illness is defined as the social and interpersonal meanings constructed and attributed to that malady (Crossan 1992, 336-37, 1998, 295-96; Pilch 2000, 19-38; see also McGuire 1988, 6). Hence a person with leprosy would not only suffer from a biological condition (the disease), but also from the social taboos of their culture (the illness). Crossan and Pilch argue that by providing alternative social support and alternative meanings to the conditions of those who suffered, Jesus was able to heal their illness.

By removing social stigma (via declaring the unclean to be clean, for example), Jesus could make life more bearable for those who suffered from disease. Jesus then could heal illness as defined by medical anthropology, but could he cure disease? Pilch and Crossan answer with a resounding no (Crossan 1998, 297-303; Pilch 2000, 142). Pilch, in particular, goes to great length to make the argument that asking whether Jesus actually cured people’s diseases imposes Western medical notions on the ancient mind. He argues that Western medicine is generally focused on treating disease, while ancient medical systems were more concerned with treating illness (Pilch 2000, 60). Theoretically, then, lepers and other ill individuals would have perceived Jesus as having healed them, although their physical symptoms remained (Powell 1998, 89).

Is it valid to refer to these so-called healings as miracles? Crossan defines miracles not as an actual intrusion of the supernatural on the natural, but rather as (1998, 303) “a marvel that someone interprets as a transcendental action or manifestation.” By defining miracles within the realm of subjective experience, Crossan seems to state that miracles are in the eye of the beholder. This definition has some problems, to which we shall return later on. For now, we will focus on critiques of Pilch’s and Crossan’s medical anthropology models.

The division between healing illness and curing disease, in particular, has evoked some strong criticisms. Borg, in his review of Crossan’s work, writes (1994, 43), “Can ‘healing illness’ without ‘curing disease’ make much sense in a peasant society? Are peasants (or anybody else, for that matter) likely to be impressed with the statement ‘your illness is healed’ while the physical condition of disease remains?” (see also Capps 2000, 25). This sentiment is also shared by Capps, who adds that (2000, 34) “illness (as socially defined) and physical disease are interactive,” hence such a dichotomy is drawn too rigidly. Just, in an article for the Review of Biblical Literature, conveys a similar attitude toward the medical anthropology employed by Pilch:

Did the woman with the flow of blood continue bleeding, and merely find new meaning and social acceptance for her physical condition? Are not the Gospels claiming that there was also some type of physical transformation? It seems too little to explain Jesus’ entire “healing” activity merely in terms of hermeneutical transformation or social acceptance, even if the nature of the biblical texts do not allow precise diagnoses of people’s physical “diseases,” nor provide biomedical explanations of how Jesus “cured” them. (Just 2001, 4)

Although Just is in agreement with Pilch’s critique of the ethnocentrism of past biblical scholarship (which relied too heavily on Western biomedical models), he also critiques Pilch’s assumption that “Western biomedical approaches had absolutely nothing to contribute to our understanding of biblical texts” (Just 2001, 3). A combination of both medical anthropology and modern medicine, Just pleads, would probably enhance our understanding of healing in the ancient world.

Borg (1994), however, is more critical about the use of modern medical science in studying the healing-miracle tradition. Not unlike scholars reviewed previously, Borg regards the miracle tradition as indisputably historical and cites multiple attestations in the Gospel sources as evidence. Although miracles may be a difficult concept for moderns, Borg argues that in the ancient world, they were considered to be common events. Even Jesus’ enemies did not deny that he could do such things, but rather questioned under what power they were performed—did he heal via the power of God or of an evil spirit (see Powell 1998, 105-6)? It is this commonality with the historical context that makes the miracle tradition credible. But how does one understand these extraordinary healings? Borg contends that a scientific explanation (1994, 66) “that stretches but does not break the limits of our modern worldview” would fail to account for—or understand—the fact that healings were experienced as acts of an “otherworldly power.” Here we can discern Borg’s fear that modern scientific evaluations of the miracle tradition would be reductionistic in nature, reducing the healings to some simple physiological phenomenon and devaluating the ancients’ experience of divine intervention.

The last scholar to be considered in this review is the psychologist Donald Capps (2000; see also Capps 2004). Concurring with Borg and Just in their critique of the sharp distinction between illness and disease and the assertion that Jesus could heal one but not cure the other, Capps goes on to present his thesis that many of the diseases Jesus treated were produced by socially and interpersonally produced anxieties. He argues that by changing the socially constructed meanings that produced anxiety (i.e., the illness), Jesus could have actually cured disease—defined as the somatization and internalization of those meanings in the body as biological symptoms (Capps 2000, 34).

Capps draws on Sigmund Freud’s contention that anxiety is accompanied by physical maladies that affect the body and argues that (2000, 170) “both disease and illness have psychological causes and explanation.” Both take place within and are affected by societal and personal relations as well as the subjective perception of the individual. One interesting insight of Capps’ study is that one of the most effective components of Jesus’ healings (2000, 217) “was his [Jesus’] recognition that he could not heal without a true attitude of trust by those who were beneficiaries of the healing,” remarking on the necessity of faith on behalf of the individual for the healing of the disease to take place and on Jesus’ repeated acknowledgment posthealing that it was the person’s faith that had enacted the miracle.

An analysis of these six scholars reveals at least four themes that their discussions share in common. First, there is a nearly unanimous consensus that in the ancient world, miracles were considered part and parcel of the natural order of things, which makes Jesus’ healing ministry fall within the environment of the first century. Second, there is the recognition that in terms of multiple attestations of sources, the miracle tradition has a stronger presence than many other traditions that are usually considered as factual (such as Jesus’ use of the term Abba in prayer or his career as a carpenter).

Unlike the first two themes, which seem to have a general consensus, the later two are fraught with greater diversity and debate. The third theme is that of process: how was it that Jesus healed? Here we can discern the debate between the use of medical anthropology and other modern medicine interpretations. Could Jesus remove anxiety and heal illness without curing disease, or could he heal illness and, in doing so, treat or even cure disease? The fourth theme involves epistemological, ontological, and ethical problems (Crossan 1998, 303-4): regardless of which interpretive model is used to understand the healings Jesus purportedly performed, there is the question over whether those acts can or should be considered miracles. If miracles are defined as a purely subjective interpretation of a seemingly marvelous event (like Crossan), should Jesus’ healings be considered as miracles? If miracles are defined as the experience of an intrusion of an otherworldly power (as Borg), how should one classify Jesus’ deeds?

By employing the tools of neuroscience, psychoneuroimmunology, and Psychoanalytic psychology, we hope to provide some answers to the second set of questions discussed. First, we will try to answer if it is possible for Jesus to cure disease by healing illness. Second, we will attempt to elaborate a definition of the miracle experience that takes into account both the subjective and objective factors involved.

Connections between Emotions, Stress, and Health: A Crash Course on Psychoneuroimmunology

An authority on the emerging field of psychoneuroimmunology, Sternberg (2000, 21-32) reveals some of the latest research connecting emotions and health. The empirical evidence shows that emotions are not just ethereal concepts floating around in the mind, but are tied to specific physiological conditions in the body. Each emotion (love, fear, sadness, etc.) is most easily recognizable by the physical effects of which it is a part such as the balance of certain chemicals in different areas of the body, the tension or relaxation of muscle fibers, heart rate, or blood pressure (see also Flaherty 2003, 149-68). One of the leading neuroscientists promoting the recognition of the physical effects of emotion, Antonio Damasio (2003), has constructed a model that not only accounts for the emotional states of the body, but also those perceptions of emotional states—usually referred to as feelings. An emotional state involves a certain physiological state of the body, which is then mapped in certain areas of the brain. These body maps are where feelings actually take place. So Damasio writes (2003, 88), “The substrate of feelings is the set of neural patterns that map the body state and from which a mental image of body state can emerge” (see also Flaherty 2003, 141-48).

For example, when we perceive an object that irritates us—that makes us angry—there is a delicate feedback process between the external object and our internal world. Anger begins with the actual physiological changes that take place during the emotion: the tension of the muscles, an increase in blood pressure and heart rate, and increases in cortisol (which we will discuss shortly). This state of the body is then mapped in the brain via a variety of neural patterns that come together to constitute an image of what the body looks like during the emotion anger. These body maps provide the experience of feeling, the mental idea of what is going on in the body. The emotion anger leads to the feeling of anger: we thus become aware that we are angry. Along with emotion and feeling also come thoughts and memories: “This really angers me,” or “I ought to punch him in the nose.” Emotion in the body leads to feeling in the brain, which leads to thoughts and memories. Damasio (2003, 71) makes it clear that this process can also work in reverse: thoughts and memories can also lead to emotions and feelings in a complex, two-way network.

As just discussed, one of the ways in which the brain and the body are connected is by the feedback mechanism underlying emotions and feelings. Physical states in the body (emotions) affect the neural mapping of the brain (feelings and thoughts), and the mapping of experiences on the brain (thoughts and feelings) affect the physical states of the body (emotions). We will now take a closer look, via the discerned biological pathways between brain and body, at how this discussion relates to health and, subsequently, healing.

In the presence of a bodily infection, the body’s stress response is activated. Immune cells begin to reproduce to deal with the insult to the body, producing substances called interleukins (Sternberg 2000, 53-54). These interleukins then travel to the hypothalamus in the brain and stimulate it to release cortico-tropic-releasing-hormone (CRH) into the pituitary, which in turn releases adreno-cortico-tropic-hormone into the adrenal glands above the kidneys. The adrenal glands then release a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol serves a crucial role, for it not only shuts down the production of immune cells—so that they do not turn on the body once the infection is gone—but also shuts down the production of CRH in the hypothalamus (Sternberg 2000, 57-58). It is cortisol’s “negative-feedback mechanism … [that] prevents the stress response from spiraling out of control” (Sternberg 2000, 58). This process is triggered not only by a physical infection of the body—such as a virus or a bacteria—but also by the presence of a stimulus that is deemed threatening to the organism (such as a predator or a stressful social situation). According to Sternberg (2000, 93), this observation leads the endocrinologist Alan Munk to theorize that the stress response, with its release of cortisol, “was there to ready the organism for a fight and to protect it from injury. He proposed that the dampening effect of steroids on the stress response formed a logical, built-in brake to the system to keep it from overshooting once the stimulus was gone.”

During a stressful event, the immune system is momentarily toned down so that other aspects of ourselves may receive an extra boost in energy: our attention becomes focused, our muscles prepare for fight or flight, or our ability to make quick decisions under drastic situations becomes heightened. Some of these dose effects of stress are “good, [but] too much [stress] is bad” (Sternberg 2000, 110). Our bodies have the capacity to undergo short-term amounts of stress without incurring any long-term deleterious effects. “However,” Sternberg (2000, 111) writes, “when the stress turns chronic, immune defenses begin to be impaired.” In fact, chronic stress results in increased cortisol, which can devastate the immune system to such an extent that one becomes more susceptible to disease. This can be quite deadly since an individual whose immune system has become flattened could easily die from septic shock when even the simplest bacteria penetrate the body. After a while, the body’s reserves of cortisol would become depleted, so that in the face of anxiety and stress, the immune system would overshoot itself. Without cortisol to tone down the production of immune cells, the body would soon turn on itself and instigate autoimmune diseases. Anxiety, fear, or depression could upset the balance of the body’s stress response—in the direction of susceptibility to infection or to the proliferation of autoimmune diseases, devouring the host.

In talking about stress, we are not merely referring to vivid, physical threats, but also to mythical or socially constructed threats (one thinks of the medical anthropological definition of illness). The perception that one is a social outcast, or that one will not be able to succeed in life, is a stressor that can be just as powerful as a physical threat of bodily harm (Sternberg 2000, 122; see also Flaherty 2003, 176-81). Hence illness—defined within medical anthropology as a socially constructed narrative—can heighten one’s biological susceptibility to disease. If illness or socially constructed narratives can serve as stressors that can worsen or even trigger disease (see Sternberg 2000, 117-18), then could healing illness play a role in curing disease? If the belief that we are worthless or in a state of constant damnation can harm our bodies, could the belief that we are delivered from such a state heal them as well?

Conditioning, Expectation, and Placebo: The Power of Faith

We learn, psychologically as well as physiologically, through conditioning—the repeated exposure to a certain stimulus in the context of a certain response. Learning, and the expectation that comes with it, is also a crucial aspect of belief. Such faith, as it turns out, is not limited to the field of religious experience. Sternberg (2000, 164) writes that

there is an element of this sort of learning in every prescription we take: we have learned that medicines can make us better. We believe it. That amount of actual improvement in illness that comes from this learned expectation is called the placebo effect. It is the psychological component of that cure. About one-third of the therapeutic effect of every pill comes from the placebo effect … In the first half of the twentieth century, physicians recognized that the placebo effect was a powerful healer, and they used placebo sugar pills to treat illness, not just to test a drug’s effects. (emphasis added)

The placebo effect is a phenomenon in which a drug that is supposed to have no actual physiological effect actually stimulates some measurable change in a person’s physical health, simply because the person believes the drug will have an effect. This response has been found not only when inert drugs are used on an unsuspecting patient, but also in a variety of other settings. For example, patients suffering from angina pectoris (a type of severe chronic chest pain) were given fake operations (usually resulting in a surgical incision that was not supposed to have any actual effect) under the guise that they were being given a medical procedure that would eliminate their ailment. It was found that the belief that these sham surgeries would have an effect was the causal agent that produced the intended result of curing the patient’s angina pectoris (Hurley 1991).

Some further studies would help illustrate the point. A qualitative study reported by Dr. Bruno Klopfer is most illuminating. A patient of his who suffered from severe cancer demanded that he be given a new drug, which had been promoted as a so-called miracle cure in a scientific journal. After a single dose, Klopfer reports that the man’s cancer “melted like snowballs on a hot stove” (Hurley 1991, 30). The man was healed of his cancer and returned to life as normal. Unfortunately, the patient became aware of studies that attacked the efficacy of the miracle drug, and suddenly, his cancer began spreading again. He returned to Dr. Klopfer, who (acting from a hunch) told him not to believe those studies and gave him another dose of the drug, claiming that they were an “improved” dose. The patient’s cancer once again receded, and he began to recover, until he read another scientific journal in which the miracle drug had been conclusively proven as ineffective on cancer. Several days later, the patient passed away (Hurley 1991, 29-30).

Another study at a hospital found the following remarkable results: a ward of pregnant women was selected for a study testing the effectiveness of the placebo effect. Pregnant women, as some may know from hearsay or personal experience, are prone to bouts of morning sickness, nausea, and vomiting. They were told by the experimenters that they were going to be given a medicine that would help deal with morning sickness, but were instead given syrup of ipecac, which is one of the most powerful substances used to induce vomiting in humans. Thus women predisposed to nausea were given a nausea-inducing agent but were told that it was actually an antinausea medicine. The experimenters fortunately found out that the belief that syrup of ipecac would counter morning sickness overcame the actual physical effect the substance was supposed to evoke (James Jones, personal communication).

If belief not only contributes to the biological effect of a pill, but can also counter the purpose of a substance, while creating another effect altogether, what can be said of belief itself? This question ties in more directly with our concerns regarding religion and the healing experiences reported in the Gospels. Sternberg writes that at least some of the effects on health of religious activities, such as prayer or faith, must come from the placebo effect. In other words, “however the placebo effect is brought into action, whether by making a prayer or by believing in a pill, once in play, it acts through well-defined nerve pathways and molecules—molecules that can have profound effects on how immune cells function. A part of prayer’s effect might come from removing stress—reversing that burst of hormones that can suppress the immune cell function” (Sternberg 2000, 169).

Here we find a theme that relates to Capps’s (2000, 2004, 59-70) contention that one of the key elements in Jesus’ healings was the creation of a transformative narrative that removed anxiety and stress from the lives of the afflicted. Bringing together his Psychoanalytic theory with this psychoneuroimmunology research, it becomes highly probable that healing illness by removing anxiety and stress can have a curative effect on disease. By removing stress and anxiety, it is possible for the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal connection to relax its creation of immune-suppressive hormones and allow for the immune system—and the whole person—to return to a stable biological balance.

There is further evidence that elaborates on the effects of belief and prayer. Not only has it been shown that they have a balancing effect on the body by removing stress and returning it to homeostasis, but there is also evidence that argues for what might be termed the positive effects of faith. It is now generally understood that there is a physiological phenomenon that is a mirror image to the stress response. While the stress response is a negative feedback mechanism that keeps the immune system from devouring itself, Benson’s “ ‘relaxation response’ is a stereotypical physiological response made up of a cascade of nerve chemicals and hormones” that deliver a variety of “soothing molecules [that play] a role in healing” (Sternberg 2000, 171). Essentially, faith and prayer have the capacity to trigger this relaxation response, which serves a role not only in counterbalancing the biological effects of stress, but also in negating its long-term effects.3

This research is not without controversy, however, as to how the placebo effect interacts with the various physiological pathways between belief and health. Although from the perspective of this study, healing illness can treat or even cure disease, there still remain questions regarding the specific ways in which the placebo effect functions and what is needed to trigger it. Although some pathways, such as those related to pain and endorphins, have been mapped out, there are still many processes that remain generally unknown (Hurley 1991, 29, 31). Although the stress and relaxation responses are thought to play a role in belief and its effect on disease, little is known on how—for example—believing that taking a pill or performing a prayer can treat or cure a patient of cancer.

One of the theories formulated to help explain some of the conditions necessary for the placebo effect is the conditioning theory. The conditioning theory asserts that an important factor affecting whether the placebo effect takes place is the extent to which a person has learned to have faith—the expectation that an effect will take place if it is believed to take place (Stewart-Williams and Podd 2004). In discussing conditioning, this theory posits that the meanings learned from cultural, social, and religious environments are crucial to the placebo effect (Barrett et al. 2006).

Consider the case mentioned earlier of the cancer patient who believed in the miracle cure. Because of cultural and social factors, the patient must have believed that if scientists, who are generally idealized in modern Western society, said that a particular drug was the perfect cure for his cancer, then it must be true. The patient may have been conditioned to expect the medicine to elicit a certain result—to cure him of his cancer. Conditioning, then, may have been crucial to the formation of his worldview: he must have learned that scientists strive to find real cures that actually work. Thus, although the drug was proved in the end to be inert, his belief that it would help him initially cured him.5 Unfortunately, when that belief was violated, and his worldview and so-called faith were challenged, the cancer returned and took his life.

If, through faith, an individual in the modern era can be healed by a pill that was biologically useless, what can we say about individuals in the ancient world who had learned—who had been conditioned to believe—that holy men, prophets, charismatic leaders, or messiahs had the power to heal their bodies? Considering the environmental cues discussed earlier through the works of historical Jesus scholars, would the conditioning present in the first century have made the ancients more prone to experience the placebo effect? Healing of mind and body … through faith? Can we call these healings miracles?

The Question of Subjectivity and Objectivity and a Solution via Damasio and D. W. Winnicott

If it is true that healing illness can cure disease, and that Jesus’ words and deeds could have had the effect of producing psychophysiological relief on those around him, then what should we term these acts? Healings? Miracles? Crossan’s argument that a miracle is a spectacular event or deed that is interpreted (1998, 303) “as a transcendental action”seems to place it within the realm of personal interpretation and subjective experience. Borg’s argument, that we must recognize that individuals like Jesus or Apollonius portrayed themselves and were experienced to be people through whom otherworldly power operated, seems to express a desire to validate the reported experiences as real and not reduce them to simple subjective interpretation. One is concerned as to what extent Borg may concede these experiences of miracles a place in the realm of the objective. It is at this juncture that I intend to bring together the neuroscience research of Damasio (2003) and the Psychoanalytic theory of Winnicott (as cited in Jones 1991) to discern a solution that may take us beyond this subjective-objective impasse regarding miracles.

For Damasio, feelings are perceptions comparable to other perceptions such as the visual system. Light comes in from an external object into our retinas and forms an image on our sensory maps. Likewise, feelings also have an object at the origin of the process: the body. As argued earlier, an aspect of emotions lies in their physical correlates in the state of the body. The state of the body is then represented in the brain as neural mappings of the different emotional states. These body maps are crucial in the experience of feelings, which are the perceptions of those bodily states. Apart from being linked to the internal state of the body (emotions), feelings are also connected to what Damasio calls the (2003, 91) “emotionally competent object” that initiates “the emotion-feeling cycle.” An emotionally competent object could be the sight of a breathtaking panorama (such as a seascape or delicate forest) or a loving partner, or even belief in a person or institution. These emotionally competent objects can lead one to experience emotion, which is then mapped in the brain to produce the experience of feeling. Unlike other perceptions, such as sight, feeling plays a powerful role in the transformation of both the internal body state and the external emotionally competent object.

Damasio writes (2003, 92), “You can look at Picasso’s Guernica as intensely as you wish, for as long as you wish, and as emotionally as you wish, but nothing will happen to the painting itself. Your thoughts about it change, of course, but the object remains intact, one hopes. In the case of feeling, the object itself can be changed radically. In some instances the changes may be akin to taking a brush and fresh paint and modifying the painting.”

In modifying the emotionally competent object—in this case, by painting over parts of a Picasso—one also modifies the emotions and physical states existing within the body. After our masterpiece has been modified, our emotion may change from dissatisfaction to satisfaction with the finished work, which is then experienced as the feeling of completeness and renewal. In this sense, then, by transforming the external, the internal is also transformed. Damasio writes that we perceive (2003, 92) “a series of transitions. We sense an interplay, a give and take” between the subjective internal experience and the objective external world.

We find a similar discussion on the interaction and transformation of the internal and external worlds in the work of the Psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott (as cited in Jones 1991; see also Jones 1996, 106-26, 2002, 82-85; Winnicott 1971). Winnicott (as quoted in Jones 1991, 57), whose work has proved pivotal in the contemporary psychology of religion, opposes the rigid dichotomy of the subjective and the objective worlds, arguing for “an intermediate area of experiencing, to which inner reality and external life both contribute … [an area that serves in] keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated.” Winnicott names this area the transitional space, which gives an individual the capacity to engage in what he calls transitional experiences. These experiences, he argues, are “always on the theoretical line between the subjective and that which is objectively perceived” (Winnicott, as quoted in Jones 1991, 59). This area of play is “outside the individual, but it is not the external world.” It is where a person “gathers objects or phenomena from external reality and uses these in the service of some sample derived from inner or personal reality” (Winnicott, as quoted in Jones 1991, 59), which inevitably transforms the external phenomena by infusing them with a plethora of meanings, feelings, and affects. Winnicott (as quoted in Jones 1991, 59) notes that there is a type of precariousness in the transitional experience in “the interplay of personal psychic reality and the experience of control of actual objects. This is the precariousness of magic itself, magic that arises in intimacy, in a relationship that is found to be reliable.”

Bringing Damasio and Winnicott together, I would argue that a miracle is a certain type of transitional experience, where the subjective and the objective are entangled in an ongoing drama of mutual transformation. This definition of miracles and our use of Damasio’s research are especially relevant to the discussion of the healing miracles present in the Gospels (as well as in other ancient writings). As we have shown with the work of Sternberg, emotions and beliefs can play a powerful role in health and disease. The logical result, as we have shown, is that healing illness (defined as the subjective, psychological, and social interpretations of disease) can cure disease (defined as the objective, empirical physical condition).

It seems salient, then, to argue that the healings reported in the Gospels involve the manipulation and transformations of the subjective meanings that were attributed to disease (healing illness, as Pilch and Crossan posit) as well as the transformation of the objective physical ailment and the body’s condition (curing disease). Hence we notice an interplay between the objective and subjective spheres, which, for Damasio, forms part of the emotion-feeling cycle and, for Winnicott, forms the building blocks of the transitional experience. Our conclusion, then, is that a miracle is a particular type of transitional experience, where subjective internal worlds and objective external worlds both contribute.

An Illustration: Jesus and the Capernaum Paralytic

We will now more concretely illustrate our model for the study of the healing miracles in the New Testament Gospels. We will use the story of Jesus’ healing of a paralytic as a test case. I present the following narrative from the book of Mark:

A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. So many gathered that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins….” He said to the paralytic, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mk 2:1-11, NIV)

The first observation that might be taken from the vantage point of our model involves a conjunction of the historical and environmental considerations discussed previously and the theories of conditioning relevant to the placebo effect. Since we are discussing the era of first-century Palestine, we are speaking of a time when it was commonly believed that certain persons (sorcerers, prophets, magicians, priests, etc.) could work great wonders of miraculous healing. This Weltanschauung implies that the people of this time were conditioned to perceive the world in such a way. In this story, the people actively seek Jesus; some seek to hear his message, while others (like the paralytic and his friends) seek healing. The paralytic in this story, then, must have had faith in Jesus, believing that he could cure him of his malady. The most obvious proof of this conviction is how persistent and ingenious the paralytic and his companions were in getting through to see Jesus—by point of digging a hole in the roof of the house and lowering him toward Jesus.

The second observation also involves historical context but also aspects of the illness-disease continuum of medical anthropology. Jesus notices the great faith that the paralytic and his companions must have had as they lowered him into the house. Jesus also noticed that the paralytic was suffering from a physical malady, which, like many diseases of the day, was probably correlated with the person’s cultic and religious failure. It was a commonly accepted theology in the ancient Near East that God (or the gods) punished sinners with catastrophe and disease and uplifted the righteous with good health and just rewards. Hence, instead of simply proclaiming that the paralytic is cured, he declares, “Your sins are forgiven.”

To single-handedly transform the meaning of the person’s condition from one of sinfulness (and disease) to one of redemption (and hence good health) by forgiving sins was probably not what was expected from Jesus. If there were a natural remission of the paralytic’s condition, one might have assumed that God had forgiven his sins. In this scenario, the remission of the disease would have led to the remission of the illness. But what we have in this passage is Jesus treating the illness directly, which would have been assumed to have an effect on the person’s physical condition.

This act on Jesus’ behalf leads to a debate with the scholars of the Jewish law present, and also to our third observation. It is perhaps not unlikely that the scholars’ doubts would have affected the paralytic, if he himself did not question Jesus’ authority. “How indeed,” the paralytic might have thought, “could Jesus declare my sins forgiven if only God could do such a thing?” Jesus critiques the presumption of the scholars concerning his authority in declaring the paralytic’s sins forgiven. By standing up to their critiques, Jesus portrays himself as someone with competency and authority; hence “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” It is after asserting his authority that he turns to the paralytic and tells him to “take your mat and go home.” At once, the paralytic “got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all.”

The issue of authority here is relevant because of Jesus’ role as a healer. It has been found that one’s trust in a physician’s (certainly a type of healer) authority and ability is a mediating variable of the placebo effect (see note 6). Also, trust is a crucial factor that is necessary to engage in the transitional experience (Winnicott 1971). By asserting his authority, Jesus—as Borg notes—presents himself as someone who could be trusted to operate such otherworldly authority (Borg 1994). It was then that the healing as a whole was probably complete.

By transforming the meaning-state of the person through the forgiveness of sins, and by asserting his authority as a healer, Jesus cured him of his paralysis. This transformation of meaning and healing of illness, we argue, triggered a placebo effect, which produced the curing of the disease and transformation of the person’s self. The specific biological pathways through which such a process took place are probably related to the psychoneuroimmunological factors of anxiety and the functional aspects of belief discussed previously. Within the model put forth in this chapter, the ex-paralytic had indeed experienced a miracle, defined as a particular type of transitional experience, where the subjective and objective both played a role in the healing.


This chapter has sought to bring the tools of neuroscience, psychoneuroimmunology, and Psychoanalysis as interpretive lenses, read one atop another, to bear on the questions related to the healing miracles in the New Testament Gospels. Historical Jesus scholarship as well as insight from medical anthropology and psychology have been brought together to conclude that (1) emotions and beliefs can play a powerful role in the triggering and healing of disease and that (2) the evidence from the New Testament reports that Jesus healed individuals’ physical bodies as well as their psychological states, which leads to the integration of both conclusions to argue that (3) the historical Jesus probably did trigger such healings in those around him. Subsequently, we have argued that these healings should be understood as miracles, insofar as miracles are understood under the lens of Winnicott’s concept of the transitional experience, where both inner and outer worlds interact.

Future venues of research should consider new studies from psychology as well as anthropology and set forth to reexamine or outright reject aspects of this chapter’s arguments on account of new evidence, insofar as their conclusions on issues such as the placebo effect or the research on the interaction of belief and health prove contrary to those reviewed here.

Here I have sought to outline a general framework from which to understand the healing miracles in the New Testament. Future studies, then, might profit by using this general framework in a more specific inquiry on the nature of Jesus’ healing ministry such as the types of meanings of illness that were transformed and the reported effect on a person’s physical condition, or how healing others had an effect on Jesus’ own personality and beliefs.

The personal hope of the author, and his greatest desire as far as future research is concerned, is that the discussion of psychology and medical anthropology presented here be extended in further studies. Another proposal for further study is that the psychological models and arguments presented here be used in the study of other healing figures of the ancient world such as Apollonius of Tyana or the Buddha. I think it would be profitable to discern exactly how much of the healing miracle traditions of other figures in the ancient world may be read under the lens of this chapter. Of course, this would naturally extend beyond biblical studies and into classical studies as well as all sorts of enterprises of history, particularly in relation to religion.

What would the purpose of such psychohistorical research on religion be? What would we gain intellectually, aesthetically, and scientifically from such an endeavor? In discussing the apparent gap between the ancient and modern worlds in regard to disease and health, Crossan (1998, 293) writes,

I speak of Jesus and his companions as healing others. What exactly did that mean for them, and what does it mean for us in engagement with them? I am not satisfied with explanations that say something like this: those ancient people had strange or even weird ideas, but we must just accept and describe them. Or this: they have a right to their superstitions and we must not disparage them. When explained like that, no ancient ideas can challenge us. They simply confirm our superiority and our more adequate knowledge of how the world works … They talked about evil spirits and demonic forces responsible for sickness and death. We speak of sanitation and nutrition, of bacteria and germs, of microbes and viruses. How are they not wrong if we are right, and vice versa?

Although Crossan’s language here seems more reified (either they are totally wrong and we are right, or they are totally right and we are wrong), I agree with his general sentiment. Our systems of health generally do not speak in terms of spiritual forces, and the ancients’ systems of health did not generally speak in terms of biological forces. Sometimes this fact leads us to bat aside the ancients’ views on health as the preposterous products of illusions. In rejecting their views outright, however, we may become guilty of medical ethnocentrism. Perhaps, in the past, this attitude may have been permissible due to lack of research, but with more studies revealing the regulatory role of beliefs and behavior in disease, it has now become untenable, highly uncritical, and unscientific.

By assessing the effectiveness and function of ancient medicine, we challenge ourselves to move beyond our modern hubris and better understand the ways of our ancestors. By challenging ourselves to do this, we also challenge them by asking, What is the nature of your cure, and what is the meaning of your disease? How did you survive without our science, and how did you suffer without it? This process is also reciprocal since by challenging the wisdom of the ancients, we also invite them to challenge us. How far has our science led us away from their ways? How has this new knowledge changed the way we view health? In what ways have we made progress toward bettering society? In what ways has our progress proved detrimental to society’s mental and physical health?

These are difficult but wonderfully intriguing issues, and one suspects that the best way to answer them is by looking back through history with all our available scientific tools and data and emphatically ask these questions. By challenging our ancestors as well as ourselves, we may yet stir up resources for the development of more holistic, comprehensive, and pragmatic models of human health.