Chirping, muttering and groaning

Saturday, 27 March

I must say that it has been an enlightening few weeks! Leonard’s ‘lecture’ on magical words in the Gospels was fascinating and my understanding of these biblical passages has been challenged on a number of levels. He is not as mad as I first thought and I’m starting to agree with him in some respects…or maybe I’m just going mad too! I have resolved my inability to remember the finer points of our discussions by taking a notepad to my sessions at Elmfield House, but I suspect that Leonard would not approve of my sneaky record-keeping (particularly since he frequently stresses the importance of secrecy) and so I will be very discreet and try to make notes as soon as possible after each session; on the return bus journey home if not in the bathroom when changing back into my everyday clothes. 

During our session at Elmfield House yesterday afternoon the topic of conversation moved on from magical words to magical sounds and Leonard revealed that it is not only Jesus’ words in the Gospels that could be classified as magical techniques but also the sounds that he made. He asked me to re-read Mark 7:34 and observe the groan that Jesus emits during the healing of the deaf-mute. I failed to understand the implications of the sound at first (a groan is an entirely natural noise, isn’t it?) but to Leonard it represented so much more.

He explained that the magicians of antiquity would often emit strange noises during their magical rituals and groaning in particular was associated with the magical manipulation of the dead. He gave the example of the magicians in chapter eight of the Book of Isaiah who consult the dead by ‘chirping and muttering’ and he said that the popular - albeit often derogatory - title of ‘goes’ that was applied to lower class magicians derives from the Greek verb form of goes (‘to groan’) due to the loud cries and groans that these magicians would employ when contacting the dead. Since groaning and other similarly strange sounds were frequently employed during these common magical practices, Leonard argued that we cannot ignore the parallels between groaning as a magical technique and the presence of a groan in Jesus’ healing ministry.

Jesus’ use of foreign words and groaning noises in the Gospel healing accounts did seem very suspicious, but I was eager to find out how Leonard felt about the healing stories that did not use spoken words or sounds but instead involved physical techniques. For instance, I have always found Jesus’ application of mud and spittle to the eyes of the blind to be particularly odd, but perhaps this was a healing technique that was commonly employed in the ancient world? 

Leonard explained that the medicinal value of spittle has been extensively recorded in a number of Jewish, Greek, Roman and early Christian sources and it was particularly recommended for the treatment of minor eye diseases and skin conditions such as boils, sores and snake bites. However he was quick to add that there is no evidence to suggest that saliva was considered to be a cure for blindness and, most significantly, it appears that most ancient spittle cures owed their effectiveness to common superstitions rather than the medicinal properties of the saliva itself. He said that the act of spitting was employed for a variety of magical purposes in antiquity (such as to increase luck, to curse enemies or to ward off epilepsy and witchcraft) and the influence of this magical thinking on spittle healing cures is evident in the popular belief that a cure could not be achieved by the application of just anyone’s saliva - as would be expected with a medicinal cure - but the saliva must come from a prominent healer, magician or an individual with important social standing such as a king or prince. In view of the popularity of these widely-held superstitions regarding the magical use of saliva, Leonard argued that Jesus’ mud and spittle healing could be easily explained; Jesus is exploiting his patient’s confidence in the magical benefits of spittle and the application of Jesus’ spittle - when combined with his reputation as a powerful healer - would have been a very potent remedy in the mind of a patient who was suffering from a psychosomatic illness…

Leonard’s rationalisation of this healing story made perfect sense, but he has an exceptional ability to explain these miracle stories in such a straightforward and matter-of-fact way that I am almost disappointed that the mysterious elements of these stories are so easily dispelled. In fact rather than imposing magic upon the Gospels, I feel that Leonard is taking a great deal of the magic out of them for me!