Recently, I read a thesis done in 1999 on Jesus’ use of spittle in the healing of the blind man in Mark 8:22-26. The author of the thesis is Sarah Bourgeois and it was completed at Dallas Theological Seminary.1
This healing in Mark is interesting for a couple of reasons. One is that this is the only place where Jesus heals a person in a two-stage process.2 The first part of the miracle took place “out of the town” (Mark 8:22). After Jesus “had spit [ptusas, temporal participle] on [or, into] his eyes and put His hands on him, He asked him if he saw anything” (Mark 8:23). The man answers that he can only see in an incomplete manner: “I see men like trees, walking” (Mark 8:24). The Lord then lays His hands on him again and then he is completely healed of his blindness.
This account is also interesting because it is only one of three times in which Jesus uses spittle in a healing. The other two are Mark 7:31-37 and John 9:6. Not only is the use of spittle rare in such healings, this account in Mark 8 is the only time the Lord is specifically said to spit into a person’s face/eyes.3
These facts raise a number of questions. Why did Jesus use spittle in this miracle? How might a first-century observer view such a thing? Why did Jesus heal the man in stages? In this article, I will summarize the conclusions of Bourgeois’s thesis in these areas. Even though she did not address the application of her findings from a Free Grace perspective, her conclusions, if accurate, do have a bearing on issues such as a proper understanding of the Gospel and discipleship. In the last half of this article, I will discuss these applications.
II. THE USE OF SPITTLE IN THE ANCIENT WORLD
Bourgeois devotes a chapter to how spittle was viewed by the ancient world.4 She discusses the topic from a variety of sources, including Persian, Greek, and Jewish writers that date from the sixth century BC through NT times. Some of these sources indicate that spitting in public was considered impolite and beneath the dignity of somebody in leadership. Spitting in somebody’s face was a sign of utter rejection.5
Among the Greeks, spitting was seen as a means to ward off evil spirits or appease the gods. It was a superstitious practice. It could help in the healing of certain diseases since the gods could be won over by this action. The act of spitting to bring good luck could involve spitting into one’s “bosom.”6
Non-Jewish sources speak of the fact that spittle had certain healing qualities. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century, says that spittle can help heal certain skin diseases. Two other second-century writers agree.7
Pliny also lists other ailments that spittle can help cure. These include epilepsy, neck pain, and numbness in the limb. However, the spit is not applied to the area affected. In the case of neck pain, the spittle should be applied to the knees. For a numb limb, it should be spit into the bosom or placed on the eyelid. Also, spitting on the ground can increase the potency of any healing remedy.8
Of particular interest is the healing of certain eye conditions with spittle. Pliny also says that spittle can help in this area. Saliva, if applied to the eyes in the morning, can act as an eye ointment. As Bourgeois points out, however, Pliny does not say how the spittle is applied to the eyes or even whose spittle it is. In other places, Pliny intimates that spittle is more effective if it comes from somebody who is fasting. By fasting he means the spittle comes from somebody before he has eaten that day. It is important to note, however, that this is not a parallel with the healing in Mark 8. In Pliny’s account, the spittle must be placed in the eyes over a long period of time. In addition, it does not heal. It only provides relief.9
The first-century Roman historian Tacitus records a well-known incident of spittle healing a blind man. A citizen living in Egypt asked the visiting Roman emperor Vespasian if the emperor would apply spittle to the blind man’s cheek and eyes to cure his blindness. No doubt this was due to the fact that the emperor was seen as in some sense divine. The emperor asked his physicians if such a cure would be possible. The physicians said it was possible since the man was not completely blind. Tacitus says the emperor granted the man’s request and that the healing took place. However, this example is not a good parallel with Mark 8. The emperor does not spit in the man’s eye. There are also elements of magic involved in it.10
Bourgeois also points out that this account of Vespasian argues against the view that the use of spittle to heal was considered normal in the first century. Vespasian at first considers the man’s request as being ridiculous.11 This was not the norm, but a supernatural, magical event.
III. SPITTLE IN JEWISH SOURCES
Bourgeios has a fairly lengthy discussion on how Jewish sources, such as the OT and Apocrypha, treat spittle.12 An important point to notice is that at the time of Christ, there is no evidence that the Jews saw spittle as having healing properties. It is only in later writings, such as the Talmud, that one finds instances of using spittle to heal.
At the time of Jesus, accepted Jewish writings such as the OT see spittle as something that is offensive. Spitting at somebody was seen as an offensive act. If a man did not marry his dead brother’s childless widow, she was to spit in his face (Deut 29:5). Spitting in somebody face was a great disgrace (Num 12:14; Job 17:6; 30:10; Isa 50:6).
The first-century Jewish historian Josephus tells us that one religious group, the Essenes, were careful not to spit when others were around. At Qumran, there was a thirty-day punishment meted out if somebody in the assembly spit in the presence of others.13
In other writings, spittle was seen as a metaphor for something that had little value.14 In Leviticus, to be spit upon by certain people made one unclean. These included those who had a discharge. The person spat upon had to wash their clothes and bathe themselves.15 Later Jewish writings interpreted this to include menstruating women. It is important to notice that spittle in and of itself was not unclean. It depended upon from whom the spittle came.
What is significant about the first-century Jewish sources is that Jesus is the only person who uses spittle in a healing process. The other references concern uncleanness or giving offense. Spitting on somebody was a sign of disrespect and a sign of disgrace.
For Bourgeois, the critical element of the Jewish sources is that at the time of Jesus, the Jews did not see spittle as a means to heal.16 She takes issue with Lane’s comment that the use of spittle and the laying on of hands to heal was a common occurrence in Jewish literature.17 The use of spit in the eyes is not found until later Jewish writings, where it is used to heal eye scabs. However, even in these later instances, the saliva is placed in the eyes and one does not spit in the eyes of the person in need of healing.
IV. MARK 8 AND THE SYNOPTIC PROBLEM
As Bourgeois points out, this account of Jesus’ healing by using spittle is sometimes used in the Synoptic debate.18 Some who believe that Mark was written first argue that Jesus’ action of spitting in the man’s face was seen as offensive. The account (as well as the account in Mark 7:33-36) is not found in Luke and Matthew supposedly because Luke and Matthew wrote later and took the offensive accounts out. They wanted to make their Gospels less offensive for the readers, and therefore clean up Mark’s rough edges. Thus, the use of spittle in Mark 8 argues that Mark was written first.
Farmer, however, argues that Jesus’ actions are not offensive. Farmer believes that Matthew was the first Gospel written. What Jesus does in Mark 8 by spitting in the man’s eyes is not offensive, but the normal way of healing in that day.19
However, the issue might have nothing to do with the Synoptic problem. The use of spittle by Jesus in Mark 8 could very well be offensive and yet have nothing to do with which Gospel was written first. Mark may have had a particular purpose in including this offensive detail. In that case, Matthew and Luke did not have the same purpose and therefore did not include it.
V. JESUS’ USE OF THE SPITTLE
As stated above, particularly in Jewish writings, spittle was not used for healing purposes. In none of the ancient literature do we find a parallel with Jesus’ healing here in Mark 8. It also needs to be noted that the text itself suggests that the spittle was not what healed the man. Jesus spit once, but laid hands on the man twice. It seems that the spittle was not to be seen as what healed the man, but the touch of the Lord. It was only after the laying on of the Lord’s hands the second time did the healing take place. What is also interesting is that Jesus does not explain the use of spittle to the man or the disciples. The context must determine the meaning of the spittle.
Carson suggests that the use of spittle by Jesus here is a theological statement. Spittle was considered a contaminant and Jesus uses it as a source of blessing. Only in the hands of an important person could such a thing be possible. It is similar to Jesus’ touching of a leper. Such contact did not pollute Jesus, but instead caused healing.20
The problem with this view is that, as discussed above, spittle in and of itself was not considered a contaminant. Jesus was not considered a person with a discharge who produced unclean spittle. Keener points out that spittle was considered disgusting. This seems to find more support in the view of spittle in the first-century sources.21
Bourgeois states that the more important question to ask is: How did the people who witnessed Jesus spitting in the man’s eye interpret such an event? As mentioned above, there are examples in the OT of spitting in somebody’s face. It was always a sign of public disgrace. In addition, spitting in the presence of others was considered disgusting in Jewish sources as well.22
Jesus’ spitting into the face/eyes of this man would have been seen as both disgraceful and disgusting. The answer to why Jesus did this is found in the larger context. Bourgeois is one of many that see this healing of the blind man in light of the rest of the book of Mark. Her findings support the fact that the healing is a picture of the disciples.23
Many have noted that this healing of the blind man is an illustration of the disciples. The two-stage healing is a parable of the disciples in Mark. They are “blind” about Jesus. They only have a partial understanding of the One in whom they have believed. They will also go through a two-stage “healing” in their understanding of Him.24
Even though Peter and the disciples do not have a clear picture of the kind of Messiah Jesus would be, and what His mission involved, they were still believers in Him. They knew He was the Messiah. John makes it clear that they believed He was the Messiah early in His ministry (John 1:41-50). They already had eternal life, as the purpose of the Gospel of John states (John 20:30-31). Peter confirms that faith in Mark 8. Mark’s point here in Mark 8 was not that the disciples were not eternally saved. It was also not the case that Jesus was keeping His Messiahship a secret. They “saw” who Jesus was and they believed that. However, they needed to see something shocking and disgraceful about the One in Whom they had already believed.
VI. JESUS’ “DISGRACEFUL” TEACHING
Bourgeois’s thesis does an outstanding job of pointing out that the spitting in this man’s face is best understood as a disgraceful and disgusting act. It also contributes to the idea that this is a picture of the disciples’ understanding of Jesus.
After the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida, Jesus begins His journey to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, He will be rejected by the nation of Israel and crucified. The journey to Jerusalem in Mark 8:27–1:1 is known as the discipleship section of Mark. In this section, Jesus teaches His disciples what awaits Him in Jerusalem and what it means to follow Him.
It is clear in this section that the disciples do not understand that Jesus is going to be crucified. Three times in this section Jesus tells them this is what is going to happen (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34). Each time He does so the disciples show that they do not understand.
The disciples think that when Jesus gets to Jerusalem He is going to reign. Part of their misunderstanding is that they think that when they get to Jerusalem Jesus will dole out positions of authority (10:37). For the disciples, following Jesus means glory, power, honor and riches.
The first time Jesus tells the disciples that He will be crucified in Jerusalem is in Mark 8:31. Mark tells us that the Lord “began” to tell them this. It is very instructive that He tells them immediately after Peter, speaking for the group of disciples, confesses that Jesus is the Christ (8:29).
Immediately before this confession is the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida. The man is healed in stages. It is unacceptable to suggest that Jesus was unable to heal the man completely the first time because of the difficulty of the healing. As God, Jesus did not need two attempts to complete the healing.
It is also unacceptable to suggest that Jesus could not heal the man completely the first time because of the man’s lack of faith. Throughout Jesus’ ministry the Lord healed large numbers of people. Certainly some of them had doubts, but it was never a problem in the healing process.
Bourgeois’s thesis certainly helps in understanding that in the first century spittle was not seen as having healing properties. This was not the purpose of the spittle. We are probably also on the wrong path to see the spittle as entering into the world of the blind man. The purpose of the spittle was not so the blind man could feel what was going on.
We should certainly reject the idea that the spittle was used in some superstitious or magical way. Jesus was not doing something so that the people would interpret it as appeasing the gods.
Instead, these events picture the disciples. When Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, he reflects the “sight” of the disciples. With Peter’s confession they show that they “see” this truth about Jesus. As stated above, they were believers in Him and had eternal life. There is no Messianic secret.
However, they needed to see something else. In this sense, their sight is only partial. They are like the blind man when Jesus placed His hands on him the first time.
They need to have “sight” about something else. They will only see this later. Only then will they see what they need to see, and see clearly. It concerns the mission of Jesus. They will come to this sight in stages.
What they do not see clearly is what Jesus teaches them in this section. It is that He is going to suffer and die. When Jesus first tells the disciples this, Peter rebukes Him (8:32).
When Jesus says He is going to be rejected and die, it is a shocking statement. For Peter and the other disciples, it is a disgraceful thing to suggest that the Christ would meet this kind of fate. Such a death was disgraceful in the extreme, reserved for the worst of criminals. That is not what the disciples thought awaited Him in Jerusalem.
If Bourgeois’s thesis is correct that in first-century Israel Jesus’ spitting in the eyes/face of the man would have been considered shocking and disgraceful by the disciples, it would be a great illustration of what Jesus immediately tells them. Spitting in the face of somebody was like a slap in the face. Jesus’ statement that He would be killed in Jerusalem was also like a slap in the face. They had just said He was the Christ. The idea that the long awaited Messiah would become a curse by crucifixion was disgraceful.
These things would explain this unique healing by the Lord. It is the only time Jesus spits into somebody’s face and the only healing done in stages. Both the spittle and two-stage healing fit the context of Mark as well as gives the reader a graphic illustration of the disciples.
But this shocking revelation by the Lord does not only concern Himself. It has a direct application to the disciples. If they want to follow Christ, they can expect the same experience of suffering and hardship. This would also be shocking.
VII. A CALL TO FOLLOW CHRIST
After telling the disciples that He is going to suffer and die, the Lord then gives them the opportunity of following Him (8:34-38). Since He is going to the cross in the supreme act of self-denial, He tells them that if they follow Him they must also take up their crosses and deny themselves. Like Him, they must give up their lives.
In other words, the shocking, disgraceful revelation of the Lord about His immediate future applied to them. These men, who thought they were soon to be powerful and rich and obtain positions of glory and honor, were told that if they follow Him the same disgraceful fate awaited them. Such a prospect concerning themselves would also have been shocking.
Mark wants the reader to see that the shocking and disgraceful aspects concerning the actions of the healing of the blind man of Bethsaida were also related to the costs of following Christ. The disciples did not see clearly what following Him involved. When Christ tells them what will happen to Him, He is in the process of healing their “blindness” about what it means to follow Him.
For readers of the JOTGES, this brings up an extremely important point. How does discipleship, or following Christ, relate to the gospel? Jesus places a great price on following Him. The costs are high and the demands shocking. But must one pay this price in order to have eternal life?
VIII. THE MEANING OF DISCIPLESHIP
In Mark 8, Jesus not only makes a startling statement about what awaits Him in Jerusalem, He also makes a startling statement about what it means to follow Him (Mark 8:34-38). It is a serious mistake to equate following Jesus with becoming a believer. When one believes in Jesus for eternal life they receive it as a free gift. The NT makes this clear in such passages as Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 and the woman at the well in John 4, as well as His words to Martha in John 11:25-26. Paul says the same thing in Eph 2:8-9. However, following Jesus, as He makes clear in this passage, is very costly.
Many, however, do not make this distinction.25 They say that all believers are disciples of Jesus. All of them follow Him. All of them pay that price. MacArthur clearly states this. With passages such as Mark 8:34-38 in mind he states that eternal salvation is only for those who forsake everything. He further states that this discipleship is part of saving faith.26
This understanding of discipleship is usually just assumed, if not explicitly stated. Marshall, in discussing discipleship, equates it with an initial coming to Jesus that involves obedience.27 In relation to Mark 8:34, Lane states that following Christ is a commitment that all Christians have and distinguishes them from those who do not recognize who Jesus is.28 However, the disciples knew who Jesus was.
Toussaint is a little ambiguous about whether being a disciple is equivalent to being a believer. In discussing the parallel passage in Matthew, where Jesus calls His disciples to follow Him, Toussaint says that the “disciples must endure suffering, and when the Son of Man comes in His glory, they will be rewarded.” However, he does not say what the reward involves, whether it is simply entering the Kingdom or being rewarded in it.29
It is difficult to determine Bourgeois’s view of discipleship. It is not the point of her thesis and she is certainly limited by space. She correctly points out that the disciples do not understand exactly what kind of Messiah Jesus will be. They do not understand that He will suffer and die. Such a misunderstanding makes discipleship impossible (italics mine).30 However, she does not say whether in her view the disciples are believers, and thus have eternal life, even though they have this misunderstanding.
If one is to understand the meaning of Jesus spitting into the eyes of the blind man, he or she must understand the difference between being a believer and being a follower of Jesus. Bourgeois makes a strong case for concluding that Jesus’ actions in healing the blind man would have been seen as disagreeable and disgraceful in the first century. It also strongly appears that it is a picture of the disagreeable statement He makes about following Him. His future is a disgraceful one. But it is also clear that Jesus says that those who follow Him face the same fate.
This would have been shocking and disagreeable to the disciples. But the same is true for anybody who follows Christ. The costs are great. They are shocking. They can involve giving up one’s family and even life itself.
But we cannot equate that with believing in Him for eternal life. The costs for believing in Him are nothing. There is nothing shocking about that. There is nothing that results in disgrace by believing in Him. That future is one of eternal life in the Kingdom.
Peter was already a believer when he rebuked the Lord when He told him that He was going to die. That was not the question. The question now was whether Peter and the others would join in the suffering and disgraceful path the Savior was going to travel.
Bourgeois makes an important contribution to the meaning of the whole discipleship section of Mark. When Jesus spit into the eyes of the blind man at Bethsaida such actions would have stood out. It was not the normal practice of Jews in the first century to spit in the eyes of a blind person to heal such blindness. There is not a single parallel in any extant writings of healing this way. Only in later Jewish writings is saliva applied to sick body parts to help in some way. Even in these later cases, the sick person had saliva applied and was not spit upon. It is interesting that of the three times Jesus uses spittle in a healing, this is the only time He actually spits into the face of the person.
Howard agrees with this assessment. Even though many commentators point to the example of Vespasian, accounts in Pliny, and a few other instances, they are not parallel. These examples are different and include such things as magic, evil spirits, and the saliva of snakes.31
Instead, the action of the Lord was shocking. The spittle is not to be seen as something that heals. It was a disgraceful act. The Lord was about to give the disciples shocking news. He was to die a disgraceful death. In the first century, death on a cross was the height of disgrace.
Like the healing of the blind man, the disciples did not see these things clearly. What Jesus says is repulsive to them. They would come to this understanding only later, even though they already saw that Jesus was the Messiah.
The Lord was calling the Twelve to follow Him on the path of disgrace. They were challenged to take up their own crosses. The costs involved in such a decision were extremely high. The idea that such a cost was involved in following the King was shocking. Following the Messiah was thought to bring honor and glory in this world.
It is of utmost importance, however, not to conclude that one must pay those costs in order to be spiritually saved. There is a difference between being a believer and being a disciple. Eternal life is a free gift through faith alone. When most Christians come to faith, they are like the Twelve. They believe in Jesus as the Christ. In Him one receives eternal life. It is only later that they understand the high costs of discipleship. Their eyes are first opened to who Jesus is. He is the one who gives eternal life to anybody who believes in Him for it. Later, if they are properly taught, their eyes are open to the costs of discipleship. They, like Peter and the others, are like the blind man at Bethsaida.
Such costs are, at first sight, shocking. But as Free Grace theology has rightly noted, they have nothing to do with the reception of eternal life as a free gift. Indeed, the Lord Himself tells us in the discipleship section of Mark that those believers (who already have eternal life) who pay these costs will be rewarded in the Kingdom for taking up their cross and following Him (Mark 8:35; 9:35; 10:43-44). Such a believer will be great in the Kingdom. The shocking news the disciples received after the shocking actions of the Lord in the healing of the blind man contained demands of high costs for the believer in Jesus Christ. But such costs are worth the price. Once one sees these things clearly, the proper decision becomes obvious.
1 Sarah L. Bourgeois, “Mark 8:22-26: Jesus and the Use of Spittle in a Two-Stage Healing” (Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1999).
2 The healing of the blind man in John 9 is not a two-stage healing. Jesus applied mud to the man’s eyes and he was not healed until he washed it off. However, the healing was completed all at once, and not in stages.
3 In the John 9 passage, Jesus spits on the ground. In the Mark 7 passage it does not say where Jesus spit. However, the most natural understanding is that He spit on His finger and then touched the man’s tongue with the spittle. In this way, Jesus applied His spit to the man’s tongue. See Adelo Y. Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2007), 370 and William Hendrikson, The Gospel of Mark (Edinburgh: Butler & Tanner, 1975), 303.
4 Bourgeois, “Mark 8:22-26,” 8-33.
5 Xenophon, Cyropaedia 8.1-42; Sophocles, Antigone 1230, as cited by Ibid.,” 9-12.
6 Pliny, Natural History 28.7.35-36; Lucian, The Ship or the Wishes 15, as cited by Ibid., 15-18.
7 Pliny, Natural History 18.2.8-9; 28.6.30-31; Galen, On the Natural Faculties 3.7.163; Celsus, De Medicina 5.28.18, as cited by Ibid.
8 Pliny, Natural History, 28.7.35-38.
9 Ibid.; Bourgeois, “Mark 8:22-26,” 14-18, 38.
10 Tacitus, Histories 4.81.
11 Bourgeois, “Mark 8:22-26,” 40.
12 Ibid., 20-32.
13 Josephus, J.W. 2.147; 1QS 7.13, as cited by Ibid., 30.
14 4 Ezra 6:36; Sirach 26:22.
15 See, for example, Lev 15:8.
16 Bourgeois, “Mark 8:22-26,” 31.
17 William Lane, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 285.
18 Bourgeois, “Mark 8:22-26 ,” 45.
19 William R. Farmer, The Synoptic Problem: A Critical Analysis (New York, NY:Macmillan, 1964), 166-67.
20 D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 364.
21 Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, New Testament Edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993), 156; Bourgeois, “Mark 8:22-26,” 57.
22 Ibid., 58.
23 Ibid., 59.
24 Elliott S. Johnson, “Mark VIII.22-26: The Blind Man from Bethsaida,” NTS 25 (1978-79), 383; Ernest Best, Mark: The Gospel as Story (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1983), 67-68; M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 2006), 233; R. Alan Culpepper, Mark, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007), 283; D. Edmund Hiebert, Mark: A Portrait of the Servant (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1974), 200-201; Collins, Mark, 394; C. S. Mann, Mark, AB, vol. 27 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1986), 336; Joel Marcus, Mark 8–16, The Anchor Yale Bible, vol. 27a (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 597-600; Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1–8:26, WBC, vol. 34a (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1989), 379; John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005), 258. Guelich notes that this is a common understanding of the healing, even though he does not accept it because he sees the miracle as occurring where it does in Mark simply due to the author’s redactional activity. Hiebert says it is clear that Jesus is using the miracle as an illustration because He purposefully heals the man in stages. He shows that this is on purpose when He asks the man if he sees anything. Jesus had never asked a question like that before. Donahue and Harrington say it is not only an illustration for the disciples, but the reader as well.
25 I remember when I first heard teaching on this passage in Mark 8. I was in seminary and the professor rightly pointed out that the healing of the blind man was a picture of the disciples. However, it was not made clear whether the disciples needed to receive eternal life or if the Lord was teaching those who were already believers (and thus already had eternal life) what He would demand of the believer who followed Him.
26 John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 78, 135. In this issue of JOTGES, Jerry Pattillo gives a Biblical interpretation of Mark 8:34-38 in his article on the “salvation of the soul.”
27 I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978), 275, 592.
28 Lane, Mark, 307.
29 Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold the King: A Study of Matthew (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1980), 208.
30 Bourgeois, “Mark 8:22-26 ,” 59.
31 J. K. Howard, “Men as Trees, Walking: Mark 8.22-26,” Scottish Journal of Theology 37 (1984): 165, n6.