The article of the month

IS THAT IN THE BIBLE? by Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p.

Apart from those ostentatious rituals of expectoration allowed on the baseball diamond, we live in a culture generally averse to the public discharge of saliva—which is why the “No Spitting” sign that once graced New York’s Chinatown post office was oddly amusing. In this regard, 1st-century Palestine reflects what was evidently common in Chinatown, minus the official interdiction, more than our otherwise less spittle-riddled world.  

Confronted with Jesus’ two healings by spittle recounted in the Gospel of Mark (7:31-37; 8:22-26) and recognizing that ancient people often happily spat, contemporary scholars have labored to explain the Lord’s behavior as magical, medical, or somehow characteristic of the healing practices of the day. Spitting does indeed function in ancient apotropaic and exorcistic contexts and it might be possible to see this background at work in the story. Even contemporaries evidently found the tale peculiar, however; for Matthew and Luke were both content to leave the Messiah’s miraculous saliva unnarrated in their Gospels.

Perhaps the strangest thing of all about Jesus’ healing through his sacred spit is that it parallels a similar story. The Roman emperor Vespasian reputedly pulled the same stunt on a blind man in Egypt, precisely at the time Mark’s Gospel was being composed. In fact, Vespasian was at the time not yet actually reigning as emperor, but was only the general leading the Roman campaign against the Jews in Judea. The story was part of a PR campaign meant to legitimate this soldier’s claim to the imperial throne: a propaganda coup in the brutal contest that had opened up after the death of Nero, a quest for the supreme prize of world-dominating power. While Vespasian already had the support of the Roman army, the curious and widely circulating story of his miraculous healing powers was meant to show that he also had the specific favor of the healing god Sarapis, a powerful patron whose endorsement of the general’s candidature invested him with an aura of divine selection.

Sarapis was not the only deity whose divine patronage Vespasian claimed. His grand military victory over the Jews was interpreted to mean that the YHWH, the Most High God of the Jews, was also on Vespasian’s side. The Jewish historian Josephus even publicized the idea that Vespasian represented the fulfillment of the ancient messianic promise that from the land of Israel would come the ruler of the whole world—not a Jew, as it turned out, but rather a man acclaimed as emperor by his soldiers while on Jewish soil.

Read against this historical context, with Vespasian usurping less Nero’s throne than the Messiah’s universal dominion (Nero was also a usurper on this order), the story of Jesus’ Caesar-like healings gains a whole new resonance. Probably written in Rome, Mark’s Gospel is filled with many subtle critiques and subversions of imperial power and claims. It would not be hard to hear in the story of Jesus’ spitting a challenge aimed at the Roman pseudo-Messiah, acclaimed as Lord by his loyal Legions. Jesus alone is the true divi filius, the universal King and ruler of all, endorsed by God and acclaimed by a Roman soldier: Truly this man was the Son of God! (Mk 15:39).

 

Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p., is a Dominican priest of the Province of Saint Joseph and professor of the New Testament at the École biblique de Jérusalem.