Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Notes on Mark: Leprosy

Jesus Heals the Leper by Alexandre Bida

MARK 1:40-45
I am so used to thinking of Jesus healing lepers that I really have never given a second thought as to just what leprosy is ... except that I knew there is (or used to be?) a leper colony on Hawaii and eventually bits of you would fall off. Here we have the whole agonizing description of the three types of leprosy. It gives me an entirely new appreciation for the unbelievable suffering lepers endured and the fact that Jesus was so unafraid that he would touch the lepers to make them whole.
The fate of the leper was truly hard... Let us look first at the facts.

There are three kinds of leprosy. (i) There is nodular or tubercular leprosy. It begins with an unaccountable lethargy and pains in the joints. Then there appear on the body, especially on the back, symmetrical discolored patches. On them little nodules form, at first pink, then turning brown. The skin is thickened. The nodules gather specially in the folds of the cheek, the nose, the lips and the forehead. The whole appearance of the face is changed until the man loses his human appearance and looks, as the ancients said, like a lion or satyr. The nodules grow larger and larger; they ulcerate and from them comes a foul discharge. The eye-brows fall out; the eyes become staring; the voice becomes hoarse and the breath wheezes because of the ulceration of the vocal chords. The hands and the feet also ulcerate. Slowly the sufferer becomes a mass of ulcerated growths. The average course of the disease is nine years, and it ends in mental decay, coma and ultimately death. The sufferer becomes utterly repulsive both to himself and others.

(ii) There is anesthetic leprosy. The initial stages are the same; but the nerve trunks also are affected. The infected area loses all sensation. This may happen without the sufferer knowing that it has happened; and he may not realize that it has happened until he suffers some burning or scalding and finds that there is no feeling whatsoever where pain ought to be. As the disease develops the injury to the nerves causes discolored patches and blisters. The muscles waste away; the tendons contract until the hands become like claws. There ensues chronic ulceration of the feet and of the hands and then the progressive loss of fingers and of toes, until in the end a whole hand or a whole foot may drop off. The duration of the disease is anything from twenty to thirty years. It is a kind of terrible progressive death of the body.

(iii) The third kind of leprosy is a type -- the commonest or all -- where nodular and anesthetic leprosy are mixed.
The Gospel of Mark
(The Daily Bible Series*, rev. ed.)
Now, let's think about something else -- what did the leper seek? Healing, of course. But there are many sorts of healing as we shall see. Certainly this helped me see the deeper meaning beneath the request and healing.
In approaching Jesus, the leper makes a bold move. Not only does he violate the strictures of the law, but he risks encountering the familiar reaction of horror and revulsion at the sight of a leper. He kneels, a sign of both supplication and reverence (Ps 22:30; 95:6). His plea, If you wish, shows his utter confidence in Jesus' power. Significantly, he does not ask Jesus to heal him but to make him clean. His deepest desire is to be free once again to partake in the worship of God's people.


Jesus tells the cleansed man to show himself to a priest and offer the sacrifice prescribed for cleansing from leprosy (see Lev 14) ... The prescribed rite was to take two clean birds, one to be sacrificed and the other, dipped in the blood of the first, to fly away free (Lev 14:3-7). If the man complied with Jesus' word, he might have discovered a symbolic image foreshadowing Jesus' own sacrifice and helping him understand more deeply what Jesus had done for him. But for now, he is unable to contain his delight. ...

* Not a Catholic source and one which can have a wonky theology at times, but Barclay was renowned for his authority on life in ancient times and that information is sound, as are many of his general reflections.


  1. The thing to remember about the scriptural accounts is that leprosy as described in the Gospels was not necessarily the disease we know as Hansen's disease, for which Fr Damien's colony at Molokai was established. Under the purity code of Leviticus, any newly-developed skin blemish or visible rash/sore/discoloration, especially whiteness (which accompanies vitiligo and other non-leprosy conditions) made the sufferer ritually unclean and therefore unable to participate in the life of the community. It was this ritual uncleanness, which could be transmitted simply by being in the presence of--but most definitely by touching--an unclean person, and not strictly fear of physical contagion, that mandated the exclusion of the leper until his or her condition could be evaluated as resolved by a priest and the necessary sacrifices offered.

  2. I understand what you're saying about leprosy vs. skin conditions, etc. However, I myself would really wonder if anyone (or most people anyway) understood the difference so that they weren't afraid of physical contagion. I think of how people act today, for example how they acted when AIDs was first on the scene and no one knew anything about it except that it killed you. And I think of the 1st century (and before) and leprosy ... and I think a whole lot of it was due to fear of physical contagion as well as the ritual uncleanness. :-)