Jesus the Apprentice

The Origin of Jesus’ Reputation as Healer

By Daniel Frayer-Griggs

From The Fourth R
Volume 29, Issue 2
March – April 2016
Download the PDF version

Faith, Healing, and Reputation

There is an ancient Christian gospel known as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas,1 which imaginatively portrays the early years of Jesus in Nazareth from age five to age twelve. In this apocryphal gospel, the young Jesus performs miraculous deeds that include fashioning living sparrows out of clay, pronouncing death hexes on playmates, causing blindness to befall fellow villagers who oppose him, restoring amputated limbs, lengthening boards of wood for his father, Joseph the carpenter, and raising the dead. While the more menacing of these deeds attributed to this boy wonder appear uncharacteristic of the Jesus portrayed in the canonical gospels, the intention of the author of Infancy Thomas is clear: to demonstrate that, at least in one regard, Jesus was the same yesterday and today and forever. Jesus the miracle worker was always and ever a miracle worker. His powers are intrinsic to his very being. While this is obviously not the sort of text we can use as a source for reconstructing the historical Jesus, the very implausibility of the portrait it sketches raises significant historical questions: when did Jesus begin to perform mighty deeds? And is there any way we can approximate the origin of his reputation as a healer and exorcist?

Standing in stark contrast to Infancy Thomas’s depiction of the young Nazarene’s unbridled success as a miracle worker is Mark’s depiction of the adult Jesus’ return to Nazareth after he has begun his ministry of healing in Galilee. Here in Mark 6 we find a much more plausible scenario than that presented in Infancy Thomas. Because of the unbelief of those in his hometown, Jesus “could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them” (6:5). Jesus, who in the environs of Capernaum and elsewhere is regarded as a doer of mighty deeds, enjoys little to no success in his hometown because there he is known only as “the carpenter, the son of Mary” (6:3). He is a man of no reputation. The implication of the rejection at Nazareth is that Jesus was not known as a healer and exorcist in his hometown because he performed no such deeds until after he had left that place, whenever that may have been.

A large number of the healing and exorcism stories recounted in the gospel tradition present Jesus as a healer whose success rests upon his reputation and the high esteem in which others hold him.

While there is a broad consensus that Jesus was regarded by many of his contemporaries as a miracle worker, healer, and exorcist, concord quickly turns to discord the moment one broaches questions regarding the nature of those purported miracles, healings, and exorcisms. While acknowledging there exist a variety of interpretations regarding the nature of these events, I wish to note that a large number of the healing and exorcism stories recounted in the gospel tradition present Jesus as a healer whose success rests upon his reputation and the high esteem in which others hold him. For instance, whereas Mark explains Jesus’ inability to heal many in Nazareth on the basis of the “unbelief” of those in his hometown, elsewhere in the synoptics the evangelists attribute Jesus’ successful healings to the faith or belief of the petitioner. In the healing of the hemorrhaging woman in Mark 5:34, the granting of sight to blind Bartimaeus in Mark 10:52, and the curing of the Samaritan leper in Luke 17:19, Jesus tells those formerly suffering affliction, “Your faith has made you well.” The petitioner’s faith is likewise instrumental in Peter’s healing of the paralytic in Acts 3:16. And somewhat surprisingly, the faith of others seems to be effective by proxy in the healings of the paralytic in Mark 2:5 (Matt 9:2; Luke 5:20), the daughter of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:27, and the centurion’s servant in Luke 7:9. While I do not assume the historical authenticity of all of these traditions, they establish a recurrent motif that suggests a strong link between faith and healing in the Jesus tradition. Jesus’ success as a healer was contingent upon the faith that others placed in his power. It is their faith that makes them well. In addition to the gospel evidence cited above, one can also observe this correlation between faith and healing in anthropological work on folk healers. Traditional folk healers tend to be successful because others believe in their power to heal. The link between faith and healing in the gospel tradition is thus historically plausible.

Traditional folk healers tend to be successful because others believe in their power to heal. The link between faith and healing in the gospel tradition is thus historically plausible.

The faith of those who come to a healer is, of course, inspired by the healer’s reputation. It is noteworthy, therefore, that the opening chapters of the Gospel of Mark in particular are concerned with demonstrating how Jesus’ fame and reputation grow with each subsequent healing. After narrating Jesus’ first exorcism, Mark reports, “At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee” (Mark 1:28). And a few paragraphs later, after the cleansing of the leper, Mark states that the leper “went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter” (Mark 1:45). Through these healings reported in Mark’s gospel, Jesus establishes his reputation as a healer, and his growing reputation in turn attracts larger and larger crowds of people who come to him for healing, so much so that crowds make it impossible for Jesus even to have a meal in his own home (Mark 3:20). Successful healings establish and enhance reputation, and this enhanced reputation leads to more successful healings. In this instance, the old adage is true: success breeds success. However, this raises a further question: if successful healers are dependent upon the faith of those seeking healings, and if that faith assumes the folk healer already possesses a reputation as a successful healer, how does one acquire a reputation as a healer in the first place?

Sharing Reputation

Before proposing an answer to that question, I wish to make the further observation that there is a corporate aspect to reputation. Reputation can be shared. This is why most traditional healers come from families of healers or begin as apprentices to healers. Quesalid, a healer among the Kwakiutl people of British Columbia, whose well-known story was recorded by the pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas and made famous by Claude Levi-Strauss, the “father” of the anthropology of religion, provides an instructive illustration of the importance of apprenticeship. Quesalid was a skeptic who went to the shamans to learn their secrets in order to expose them as frauds, but the only way he could do so was to become their apprentice. Through his acquaintance with the shamans, however, he himself acquired the reputation of a shaman. When he was asked to come heal the daughter of a well-to-do family and acceded to the request, perhaps no one was more surprised than he when his healing was successful. As Levi-Strauss insightfully and memorably quipped, “Quesalid did not become a great shaman because he cured his patients; he cured his patients because he had become a great shaman.”2 It was because of his reputation as a shaman, because others regarded him as a shaman and believed in his powers, that he was an effective healer. And it was through his apprenticeship, during which he learned the rituals of the shamans, that he acquired such a reputation.

Moreover, it is significant that Jesus’ ministry as a healer and exorcist gave rise to a movement of healers and exorcists. When Jesus sends out his disciples, he gives them authority to cast out demons, and they go out and heal in his name. As Mark describes it, “He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits … So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” (6:7, 12–13). Notably, the twelve are successful presumably on account of Jesus’ reputation as a healer and exorcist. They have a share in his authority because of the corporate nature of reputation. This is seen in the many instances where the disciples and early Christians heal and cast out demons in the name of Jesus. For instance, when Jesus sends out his followers with the exhortation to “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (Matt 10:8// Luke 10:9), he seems to take it for granted that anyone in his movement can perform healings. Further, as Mark 9:38–41 suggests, the name of Jesus becomes an effective means even for one who is not his follower. So if we are to trust our sources on this point, it appears that Jesus’ followers and non-followers alike were able in some way to participate in or make use of his reputation.

There is good reason to suspect that John the Baptizer, like Jesus, was a reputed healer and exorcist.

In light of the ways in which reputation can be shared, an answer to our question regarding the origin of Jesus’ reputation may be intimated in Jesus’ response to the query posed to him in Mark 11:28: “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you the authority to do them?” Throughout Mark’s Gospel Jesus’ authority is linked to his ability to perform healings and exorcisms, and in light of these links between Jesus’ authority and his healing, it is striking that in Mark 11:29–30 Jesus’ evasive response to the question regarding the origin of his authority invokes the reputation and authority of John the Baptizer. By posing the counter question, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Jesus links his own authority to that of John, “for all regarded John as truly a prophet.” But why this appeal to John if it is Jesus’ healing authority that is challenged? In answer to this question, I believe there is good reason to suspect that John, like Jesus, was a reputed healer and exorcist.

John the Healer and Exorcist

While it is often assumed that we should uncritically accept the claim that “John [the Baptizer] performed no sign” (John 10:41) as a straightforward statement of fact, a number of traditions may indicate, to the contrary, that John was a reputed healer and exorcist. Consider the following:

(1) Mark 6:14 reports that King Herod heard of Jesus’ reputation, and that some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” The word here translated “powers” often refers to miracles or mighty deeds, as it does, for instance, in Mark 6:2 where the people of Nazareth marvel at the “deeds of power” done by Jesus (see also Mark 6:5). It would appear, therefore, that this tradition, wherever it originates, assumes that John too was regarded as one who performed deeds of power, for it is on account of such deeds that Jesus is mistaken for the Baptizer.

(2) John’s location in the wilderness and his ability to draw large crowds into remote regions have reminded many of the so-called “sign prophets” (several apocalyptically-minded prophets active in Palestine during the first century CE), who used the promise of miracles to entice followers into the wilderness. The Jewish historian Josephus describes some of these “sign prophets” in this way: “they persuaded the multitude to act like madmen, and led them out into the desert under the belief that God would there give them tokens [miraculous signs] of deliverance” (War 2.258–59). If John too were perceived as a miracle worker of some sort, this would explain his ability to attract such large crowds into the wilderness. Moreover, John is frequently identified as a prophet, even “more than a prophet” (Matt 11:19), and in this period prophecy and miracles were closely intertwined. Justin Martyr, a secondcentury Christian apologist, writes in his Dialogue with Trypho that prophets “were worthy to be believed because of the miracles which they performed” (7:14-15).

(3) In Mark’s prologue John identifies Jesus as the “the one who is stronger than me who is coming after me” (Mark 1:7). Notably, as many commentators have observed, elsewhere in Mark’s gospel the adjective strong and its cognates are linked with exorcism, as when Jesus binds “the strong man” (3:27) and when no one “had the strength to subdue” the Gerasene demoniac (5:4). So when John identifies Jesus as the stronger one, we may have an implied reference to his power over the demons. What is often overlooked, however, is that in this passage there appears to be a dual typology at work. John, who is “clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist” is portrayed as Elijah (Mark 1:6; see 2 Kgs 1:8), while Jesus takes the role of Elisha. Just as Elisha asked to follow after Elijah and received Elijah’s spirit at the Jordan (see 2 Kgs 2:6–15), Jesus comes after John and receives the spirit at the Jordan (Mark 1:9–10). Further, as Sirach 28:12 has it, Elisha performed “twice as many signs” as Elijah, so when Mark identifies Jesus as stronger than John, this tradition may further the Elijah/Elisha typology, implying that while John and Jesus were both exorcists, Jesus eventually becomes the stronger one.

(4) A tradition in Matthew and Luke has Jesus saying, “John came neither eating nor drinking, and you say he has a demon” (Matt 11:18; with slight variation in Luke 7:33). This charge is particularly reminiscent of the accusation made against Jesus, “he has Beelzebul” (Mark 3:22), which is made on account of Jesus’ exorcisms. Notably, it is John’s neither eating nor drinking—that is, his fasting—that leads to this charge, and as is well known, fasting is frequently associated with exorcisms. Where Mark 9:29 has Jesus state with regard to certain demons, “This kind can come out only through prayer,” some ancient Greek manuscripts add “and fasting,” and while most scholars believe the “and fasting” to be a later addition, the link between fasting and exorcism is ancient. Perhaps then John was accused of being demonpossessed not only because he fasted, but also because— like Jesus—he cast out demons.

(5) Luke 1:7 has an angel of the Lord appear to Zechariah to tell him that John will “go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah,” and as I have already noted above, the word here translated as power often refers to the ability to perform miracles. This is especially so with reference to the miracle-performing prophet Elijah. While Luke’s narrative is clearly legendary, the link made between John and “the power of Elijah” is reminiscent of the same association in Mark 6:14 and may give voice to a memory of John as one who was known for his deeds of power.

(6) Finally, the remark in John 10:41 that “John performed no sign” seems overly apologetic. It is one of many other negative statements the Gospel of John makes regarding the Baptizer, all of which conform to the program expressed explicitly in John 3:30, where John states, “He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease.” It is plausible therefore that the claim “John performed no sign” is intended to counter an earlier tradition that preserved memories to the contrary.

These various traditions cumulatively suggest that John the Baptizer was remembered as a healer and exorcist. If this observation is correct, it may have far-reaching implications for our understanding of the significance of Jesus’ baptism by John and the relationship that existed between the two men.

Jesus as John’s Disciple and Apprentice

Jesus’ baptism by John is one of the least disputed pieces of data in historical Jesus research, and there remains a general consensus that Jesus’ ministry began in some way with John. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine early Christian scribes creating the tradition according to which Jesus submitted to John’s “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). Like many others, I am of the mind that theirs began as a mentor-disciple relationship and that Jesus’ baptism by John indicates not only an appreciation for the Baptizer’s preaching and teaching, but also a submission to his authority. John 3:22, which claims, “Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized,” may even contain a reliable tradition that Jesus spent some time assisting John in his ministry. If so, it would stand to reason that Jesus took up some of the practices of the Baptizer, practices he had presumably learned during the period of their mentor-disciple relationship, which we might identify as an apprenticeship of sorts. What else might Jesus have learned from John?

In light of the foregoing argument that John may have been a healer and exorcist himself, it is particularly significant that, at least according to the synoptic gospels, it was at his baptism that Jesus received the spirit by which he subsequently healed and cast out demons. Mark 1:10 reports, “just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the spirit descending like a dove on him.” And while the narratives, reported by the synoptics, about Jesus’ being driven by the spirit into the wilderness to be tested by Satan may be fictional, they illustrate the link between Jesus’ reception of the spirit and his conflict with demonic powers. Luke continues his narrative by stating, “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country” (Luke 4:14), further indicating that his ministry of healing and teaching began soon after his reception of the spirit at his baptism. In light of this observation, it may be particularly noteworthy that when Jesus’ authority is challenged in Mark 11:28, he appeals specifically to the baptism of John (v. 30) and not simply to the authority of the Baptizer.

We have good reason to conjecture that it was as John’s apprentice that Jesus first learned the techniques he employed as a healer and exorcist.

To be sure, if the traditions enumerated earlier indicate that John the Baptizer was regarded by many as a healer and exorcist, and if Jesus’ own ministry as a healer and exorcist had its origin in John’s baptism, it would seem likely that Jesus’ reputation as a healer and exorcist was in some way derivative of John’s authority and reputation. Indeed, in the aforementioned narrative from Mark 6, Jesus’ miracles are explained by the belief that he is John raised from the dead; and that Jesus is mistaken for the Baptizer, on account of his mighty deeds, suggests that at least in some regions John had a reputation as a miracle worker that surpassed that of Jesus. With this in mind, we may conjecture that it was as John’s apprentice that Jesus first learned the techniques he employed as a healer and exorcist. While the gospels themselves remain silent on such matters, there are anthropological grounds for this hypothesis, for in most cultures traditional healers gain entry into their profession through either familial inheritance or vocational apprenticeship. This is especially the case regarding exorcists, whose craft tends to be highly ritualized in culturally specific ways. Consequently, if he had no mentor from whom to learn such culturally scripted rites, Jesus would appear to be an anthropological anomaly, whereas if he did have such a teacher, there is no better candidate for this role than John the Baptizer.

As I noted at the outset, Infancy Thomas assumes that Jesus’ miraculous powers were intrinsic to his very being and that his gift of healing was always with him. Yet common sense and the scene of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth, where those in his hometown are scandalized by his newly acquired status as a healer, indicate this was not so. To the contrary, the link between faith and healing in the synoptic gospels and in anthropological accounts of folk healers indicates that such healers are successful because others believe in their powers and that reputation plays a quintessential role in all of this. Jesus appears to have acquired a reputation as a healer sometime between his departure from Nazareth (presumably in his early adulthood) and his successful ministry of healing in Galilee in the late 20s or early 30s CE. Any attempt to pinpoint with greater accuracy precisely when and how this took place is admittedly speculative. However, the hypothesis I have sketched here accounts for much of the tradition we have received. It takes seriously the apparent mentor-disciple relationship between John and Jesus; it incorporates a complex of frequently overlooked traditions that suggest John too was reputed to have performed mighty deeds; and it explains why the gospels link Jesus’ reception of the spirit with his baptism by John. Jesus, I have argued, acquired his status and authority as a healer in the same way that most traditional healers do—from his teacher and mentor, just as it was from him that his own disciples acquired their authority to heal and cast out demons

Copyright © 2016 Westar Institute. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

Daniel Frayer-GriggsDaniel Frayer-Griggs (Ph.D., Durham University) is an adjunct faculty member in the Theology Department at Duquesne University. He is the author of Saved through Fire (forthcoming, 2016), and his articles have appeared in such journals as the Harvard Theological Review, Journal of Biblical Literature, and Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus.


1. For an introduction, text, and notes to this gospel see The Complete Gospels (Polebridge, fourth edition, 2010), pp. 379–89.

2. Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology (Basic Books, 1963), p. 180.

Browse Related Books

The Complete Gospels
Robert J. Miller, editor

"Combining an engaging commentary, lucid and energetic translation and accessible scholarship, it equips any interested reader to join the quest for the historical Jesus."
Publishers Weekly

Structural Anthropology
by Claude Lèvi-strauss

"Levi-Strauss is not only one of the extremely few scholars of sufficient distinction to be able to say, without presumption, what social anthropology is about; but he has also actually demonstrated...that he is pre-eminently worth listening to. He does not simply practice social anthropology, he makes exciting and original contributions to it."

Gospels, Jesus, and Christian Origins
by William O. Walker, Jr.

"… [we explore] some of the field’s knottiest problems through the eyes of a meticulous craftsman who is, above all, a master teacher. We are equally amazed by Walker’s patience in analyzing details, the clarity of his explanations, and the honesty with which he discerns what we can and cannot know and what, finally, is important."
—Wayne A. Meeks, Yale University