Thoughts on Mark 5:21–43

In Mark 5:21–43, Jesus supernaturally heals two people: Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the issue of blood. Most interpreters rightly affirm that these miracles are meant to reveal Jesus’ identity as the Messiah and Son of God. But is there more going on here? When we consider the details of Mark 5:21–43 in light of the Old Testament, Jesus’ ministry to these two women reveals something else about his identity; namely, he is a priest superior to the priests of Israel.

In Mark 5:21–43, Jesus comes into contact with two people who should have rendered him ceremonial unclean: the woman with the issue of blood and the dead body of Jairus’ daughter (cf. Lev 15:27; Num 19). In narrative context, these events follow right after Jesus’ healing of the man with the unclean spirit (Mark 5:1–20). Having been identified as the “Son of the Most High God,” Jesus proceeds to heal, by touch, two ceremonially unclean women (Mark 5:21–43).

Jairus appears on the scene first. He is one of the “rulers of the synagogue” (Mark 5:22). Mark refers to Jairus three more times in this narrative, each time using the description “ruler” or “ruler of the synagogue” instead of his name (Mark 5:35, 36, 38). His position is obviously an important part of the narrative, but why? Maybe, Mark wants his readers to see that this ruler of the synagogue came to Jesus to find something that the law was unable to provide.1 The ruler of the synagogue’s daughter (θυγάτριον) is sick and on the verge of death (Mark 5:23). He has found no solution for her condition in the law, so he falls (πίπτω) at Jesus’ feet imploring him to put his hand on her that she may “be made well and live” (σωθῇ καὶ ζήσῃ, Mark 5:23).

Jesus agrees to go with Jairus, but his journey is interrupted. Jairus’ daughter is under the shadow of death, but so are the daughters (θυγάτηρ) of Israel (cf. Mark 5:34). A desperate woman has been suffering from a discharge of blood for twelve years. The law renders her ceremonially unclean, but it has no power to remedy her situation either. Even the physicians (ἰατρός) of the land have offered no solution (Mark 5:26). Perhaps the physical condition of these two daughters and the failure of the physicians evokes Jeremiah 8:22 to show that these physical ailments are symptoms of a much bigger problem in Israel. Israel’s idolatry provoked Jeremiah’s questions:

Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician (ἰατρός) there?
Why then has the health of the daughter (θυγατρὸς) of my people
not been restored? (ESV)

Jeremiah lamented the spiritual epidemic in the land. Everyone from “prophet to priest” was corrupt and there was no righteous king in Zion (Jer 8:10, 19). Fast forward several hundred years to the setting in Mark 5 and the situation is similar. Israel is spiritually sick and nobody—not the rulers of the synagogues, not the physicians, not the priests, not the law—has the remedy. There is no balm in Gilead and no physician who can heal.

Happily, for the two daughters in Mark 5, there is a priest and a king roaming Israel who can heal. In the case of the woman with the issue of blood, Mark emphasizes the fact she was healed simply by touching Jesus’ “garment” (ἱμάτιον), a detail reaffirmed three times in the narrative (cf. Mark 5:27–28, 30). Contact with an unclean woman and a corpse did not render Jesus unclean, but instead, power went forth from Jesus, and his garments, to bring healing.
In this respect, scholars are right to refer to Jesus’ healing power as his contagious holiness. There is no Old Testament precedent for a priest (or anyone for that matter) ever making an unclean person clean. Although Ezekiel 44:19 indicates that the priestly vestments could communicate holiness to the people:

Ezekiel 44:19 And when they go out into the outer court to the people, they shall put off the garments in which they have been ministering and lay them in the holy chambers. And they shall put on other garments, lest they transmit holiness to the people with their garments. (ESV)

A similar concept appears in the law of the sin offering in Leviticus 6:27.

Leviticus 6:27 Whatever touches its flesh shall be holy, and when any of its blood is splashed on a garment, you shall wash that on which it was splashed in a holy place. (ESV)

Assuming the garment (ἱμάτιον, LXX 6:20) in Leviticus 6:27 is or at least includes the priest’s clothing, it is apparent that the garment itself became holy by coming into contact with the blood or flesh of the sacrifice. Though not the priest himself, the garments worn by the priest (Ezek 44:19) and the sacrifice made by the priest (Lev 6:27) were able to render other objects and people holy. Similarly, by touching unclean persons with his flesh (the corpse of Jairus’ daughter, Mark 5:41), or by bringing them into contact with his garment (woman with the issue of blood), Jesus transmits holy healing power. Surely, Jesus’ garment did not contain any special power in and of itself. Its ability to heal was a function of the person wearing it, much like the fact that the garment of the priest communicated holiness because it was the priest’s garment and because it had come into contact with the holy sacrificial offering. Jesus’ flesh and the garments on his flesh could heal unclean people because, in part, he was a superior kind of priest, and, perhaps, because his flesh would become this priest’s superior sacrifice.

  1. I owe this observation to Dr. David Schrock.