Gospels

The healing of a paralytic in Mark 2:3-12

The healing of a paralytic in Mark 2:3-12

In the blog article Jesus’ house in the gospel of Mark is the Herodian palace in Tiberias I uncovered the four ‘house’ passages in Mark as military in nature, with Jesus’ house as a veiled mention of the Herodian palace in Tiberias turned into the headquarter of the revolutionary army. In the first fragment, Mark 2:1-12, the soldiers are gathered outside the headquarter and Jesus proclaims to them the message of liberation from the Roman yoke. During Jesus’ speech a paralytic is ushered in who seems to be healed miraculously. Below I will try to show that the story of the paralytic in verses 3-12 is an encoded military event which is closely connected to the military gathering in verses 1 and 2.

The story of the paralytic is not presented identically in the three synoptic gospels. The first and maybe most significant difference is the presentation of the paralytic. In Mark he is carried by four men, in Luke and Matthew an unspecified number of men is bringing him in on a bed.

Mark 2:3: And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men.
Luke 5:18: And behold, men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed.
Matthew 9:2l: And behold, they brought to him a paralytic, lying on his bed.

It is enticing to interpret Mark’s version with Luke and Matthew in mind, concluding that the four men in Mark must have been carrying the paralytic’s bed and that Mark has omitted this detail. If, on the other hand, the four men in Mark were carrying the paralytic without a bed, this verse could describe a situation in which someone is brought forward against his will, restrained by four men, one for each limb. The gospel of Mark being the oldest, this possibility deserves serious attention. Maybe this story is about a healthy ‘paralytic’ who on his arrival was struggling against the men who had detained him. The bed in Matthew and Luke, and the pallet further on in Mark, may be added to camouflage a military event as a healing story.

In a military context, what could a paralytic be? The Greek παραλυτικός (paralutikos) stems from the verb παραλύω which has ‘to loose from the side, to detach’ as basic meaning, and specifically in a military context it means ‘to release’, ‘to set free’ or ‘to be exempt’ from military service. The Greek historian Herodotus tells the story of a slave who asked the Persian king Xerxes to exempt the oldest of his five sons from military service. He does so using the verb παραλύω (παράλυσον τῆς στρατηίης – paraluson tès stratèiès: ‘exempt (him) from the campaign’). Xerxes angrily rejected the old man’s supplication, had his oldest son tracked down, arrested and killed. Xerxes then ordered the body to be cut in two and the two halves exposed at both sides of the road the Persian army followed.

Maybe four combative rebels arrested a man who was shirking military service, and brought him before Jesus to be tried summarily. They saw the man’s offence – shirking, desertion or cowardice – as serious and hoped for a corresponding punishment. Bringing the παραλυτικός before their leader while he was giving a speech on bravery and self-sacrifice was the ideal opportunity to have the shirker punished severely.

Jesus however, who was not an uncultivated peasant but an educated Essene priest, was not guided by the heated revolutionary atmosphere but by the relevant writings. He seems to have been inspired by the War Scroll, the war instruction book among the Dead Sea Scrolls, which in turn relied upon the book of Deuteronomy from the Hebrew Bible.
War Scroll column X verse 5 goes as follows (my underlining): Our officers shall speak to all those prepared for battle. They shall strengthen by the power of God the freely devoted of heart, and shall make all the fearful of heart withdraw.
Deutoronomy 20:8 is even more explicit: The officials shall continue to address the troops, saying, “Is anyone afraid or disheartened? He should go back to his house, or he might cause the heart of his comrades to melt like his own.”
Given the situation Jesus took a risk. Would his fanatic followers accept his sentence contrary to their expectation? This is why Jesus assesses the situation first: And when Jesus saw their trustworthiness, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” A more earthly translation of Jesus’ verdict could be: “Boy, your faults are condoned.” What these faults were is implied in the boy being a παραλυτικός, an anxious youth who was not fit for war.
Then Jesus anticipates unspoken criticism on what he is doing. I believe this criticism is directed towards Jesus’ appropriation of the function of judge.
Finally Jesus confirms his sentence: “I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.” As I believe the pallet/bed phrase being secondary, Jesus says to the boy, who is lying on the ground in front of him, to rise and go home, applying the instructions of the War Scroll and Deuteronomy. The bystanders are amazed and say “We never saw anything like this!”, expressing their surprise at Jesus’ unexpected and courageous verdict.