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Disability in the New Testament

In the ancient world, people thought that when individuals were disabled—they were blind or they couldn’t walk or they had some kind of physical infirmity—that they got this infirmity because they had done something wrong, because they had angered a deity and they were being punished; and it was really their responsibility, either they had sinned or perhaps even their parents had sinned. So disability was divine punishment. The problem with this is that then in the New Testament, everyone who meets Jesus gets healed, which seems to imply that anyone who has faith, who is part of the community of Jesus followers is going to be healthy and if they aren’t, it’s because they haven’t done something right.

And so, you have passages of people coming to Jesus like the man who’s blind in Mark 8 and asking Jesus for healing; and Jesus performs what’s a combination of sort of a magical healing and a medicinal healing (magic and medicine are sort of interchangeable here). So the man displays faith and Jesus heals him. At the same time, this is problematic for modern audiences because what we see when we hear these passages is that the people that God loves, the people whom Jesus loves are people who ultimately get healed; and this is difficult for us to hear because there are lots of people who do have disabilities.

So, we also have to bear in mind, other passages in the New Testament in which disabilities serve positive functions. So even though in the Gospel of Mark, everyone who encounters Jesus is healed when Jesus himself is resurrected from the dead in Gospel tradition, he still has the marks of the wounds that he received when he is being crucified and, in fact, these wounds which are still bleeding, these wounds are the mechanics by which doubting Thomas can recognize Jesus. They become part of his identity and they serve a very positive function for him. Paul also writes about how his own personal infirmity, the thorn in the flesh he calls it, his weakness, which is a term for sickness in the ancient world, He says that this is a positive thing and that he’s perfected in his weakness. So, even though we have this kind of overarching view of disability as negative and God is eliminating or curing that disability; we also have places where disability serves positive functions for Jesus, the disciples and by extension, the Christian communities.

  • Candida R. Moss

    Candida R. Moss is a professor in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Ancient Christian Martyrdom (Yale, 2012) and co-edited (with Jeremy Schipper) Disability Studies and Biblical Literature (Macmillan 2012). She consults for and appears in numerous documentaries focused on early Christian history.