The exam period is underway and - boy oh boy - the pressure is mounting! I might take a short break from blogging next week so that I am not distracted from my revision plan, so please do not think that I have abandoned you if there is radio silence for a short while.
Another postcard from Leonard arrived yesterday morning (my postman must be wondering who on earth this Leonard person is by now). The picture was Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire and Chateau Noir and since it arrived on the morning of my first exam I was expecting - and somewhat hoping for - an encouraging word or two, but instead the message on the reverse rather disappointingly read:
Did you know that when Cezanne was painting Mont S-V, he would move his easel only a metre or so, to the r. or l. and start another? It is possible to arrange perspectives on either side of a particular painting…I find that it is always good to have a fresh perspective…and a fresh canvas…
I called into Elmfield House late yesterday afternoon to reassure Leonard that I had survived my first exam. He was pleased to see me and he ushered me straight into the workroom to tell him all about it, seating me in the cream leather armchair with a glass of orange juice and a huge slice of carrot cake. It made a pleasant change to have a casual chat for once without being stared at and repositioned every few minutes. I felt more like a guest and less like an artist's tool.
Although Leonard was interested to hear my account of that morning’s exam and he listened intently to every word that I spoke, I could see that he was preoccupied with something and I suspected that he had an appointment elsewhere that he was being too polite to tell me about and so, after half-an-hour or thereabouts, I thanked him for the cake and told him that I should be on my way home to revise for my next exam. At that point he suddenly roused from his distracted state and asked if I could stay for a few minutes longer as he had an exercise for me - not a 'run-around-the-room kind of exercise' he was quick to add but, if I was feeling up to it, he would like to ask my opinion on a matter as his 'consultant theologian'. He said that there is a riddle that every reader of the Bible has missed for centuries and he wanted to see whether I was clever enough to spot it and, if possible, solve it. I could not resist the challenge so I agreed to stay for a little longer and Leonard quickly grabbed his bible, flicked through the pages and handed it to me opened on chapter eight of the Gospel of Matthew. I recognised the passage from my New Testament classes; it was the healing of the centurion's servant:
‘And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him and saying, Lord, my servant lies at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. And Jesus said to him, I will come and heal him. The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goes; and to another, Come, and he comes; and to my servant, Do this, and he does it. When Jesus heard this he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say to you, I have not found so great faith…. And Jesus said unto the centurion, Go your way; and as you have believed, so be it done to you. And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour.’
I told Leonard that I was familiar with this story, to which he smiled and posed me the following question: how does the healing of the centurion’s servant take place at a distance and at the same time that Jesus gives his blessing for the healing to be performed? I confessed that I had not considered how Jesus was able to heal from a distance, so Leonard presented me with three possible solutions: maybe it was just a coincidence and the servant had started the natural healing process at the same time that the centurion approached Jesus? Or perhaps Jesus performed a telepathic healing? Or did Jesus whisper a prayer request to God that the author of the Gospel has failed to mention? A telepathic healing sounded very odd indeed and a simple coincidence seemed doubtful as Jesus’ response to the centurion implies that Jesus has the final and decisive say in whether the healing takes place or not. But it was equally unlikely that the words of a prayer would not be recorded. Unconvinced by any of these theories, I told Leonard that I found these explanations to be unsatisfactory and I pressed him for his own thoughts on the passage.
Leonard said that cures from a distance were reported of other healers in antiquity and this type of healing was typically achieved using three different methods: 1) through a form of sympathetic magic in which healing energy leaves the body of the healer and travels to the location of the sick individual, 2) as a result of the healer splitting himself into two halves - the physical self and the spiritual self - and sending the spiritual half to perform the healing, or 3) by employing gods or minor spirits to carry out the healing on the healer’s behalf. I tried to question Leonard further on the first two options but he quickly abandoned those lines of enquiry, telling me that they are 'fluff and distraction' because the central focus of the Gospel story is not concerned with the innate healing powers of Jesus himself but rather on the third point; his authoritative command over subordinates who will carry out the healing on his behalf.
Leonard explained that the centurion compares Jesus’ position to his own by saying that they are both acting under a higher authority and they both have an authoritative, military-like command over others who will respond immediately to their orders. Since the centurion knows that a word of command to his soldiers can produce immediate results, he urges Jesus that it is not necessary for him to attend the bedside of his servant as others will carry out the healing if he will ‘speak the word only’, i.e. issue a command to others who will perform the healing on his behalf. Jesus’ positive response reveals that the centurion is correct in his observation and he is rewarded by the healing that takes place almost immediately.
Leonard paused, leaving an obvious question hanging in the air, so obligingly I asked: “who are these obedient ‘others’? Who are Jesus' soldiers?”
“No-one knows for sure,” he answered, "and the mysterious comparison remains like this…”
He ripped a page from his drawing pad and sketched the following diagram:
Antipas -> Centurion -> Soldiers
God -> Jesus -> ???
Studying the diagram, I found myself at a loss for an answer. “Who do you think these subordinate ‘others’ are?” I asked. Leonard blustered through a list of identities that have been proposed by various commentators on the Gospels - some argue that they are the diseases themselves that obey Jesus, some think that they are the demons that are responsible for causing the diseases, some believe that they are the disciples who were coincidently healing the servant at the exact time when the centurion encountered Jesus - however I could tell that Leonard was dismissive of these theories, so I pressed him harder for his own thoughts on the matter.
“And you? What do you think?” I enquired.
Leonard proposed that the centurion is referring to spiritual beings that are under Jesus’ control and obedient to his every command. More specifically, since the passage plays upon the concept of willing servants - a dynamic that is emphasised by the author of Luke who has the centurion physically send messengers to Jesus - Leonard argued that these spiritual beings must be willing spirits rather than compelled demons. I asked whether these willing spirits could be angels and Leonard agreed that Jesus’ ability to summon angels to his aid is mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew in which we read that angels served Jesus immediately following his temptation in the wilderness, however he said that if the anonymous spirits that are at Jesus’ disposal are to be recognised as angels or some other form of divine subordinate then the reader of the Gospels is faced with a serious problem: a command over demons was a skill that was ordinarily accredited to an exorcist, but the mastery of good spirits was considered to be the work of a magician.
Leonard then launched into a very interesting lecture about the various spiritual intermediaries that bridged the gap between humans and the gods in the ancient world. He told me that whenever a worldview acknowledges the existence of malevolent or benevolent spirits there is usually an accompanying magical worldview that teaches that wondrous feats can be achieved through the magical manipulation of these spirits, hence the prevalence of magical texts detailing how to exploit these spirits and secure one as an attending spirit - or a ‘familiar spirit’ – that were in wide circulation throughout the ancient world. Leonard said that magicians procured attending spirits from a number of sources - some were angels, some were demons, some were the souls of the dead and some were even the gods themselves – and they were put to work in all manner of magical operations from curses to love charms. Since the spirit world was a popular source of these magical servants and employing these spirits to perform miracles on the magician’s behalf was a common and widespread practice, Leonard said that Jesus’ contemporaries may have considered it to be entirely plausible that Jesus could be employing attending spirits from a variety of divine and/or demonic sources and manipulating them in order to produce miraculous effects.