A peculiar feature of all three tellings is that Jesus says aloud that the girl has not died, but is sleeping. In harmony with Matthew, this statement is often read today the same way in all three versions: not as a statement of fact but rather as a teaching metaphor. That is, Jesus’s supposed meaning is that the girl has died, but that death isn’t a permanent condition. However well that interpretation fits Matthew, it is less clear that it suits Mark.
In the first century, among many ways that unconsciousness might be mistaken for death, some educated people believed that women were at special risk to fall into a state that resembled death. The condition was reversible, and rapidly so. Unlike Matthew, Mark does nothing to dissuade his educated readers from thinking that Jairus’s daughter is an example of this phenomenon. On the contrary, in the story details Mark chooses and in the context of his gospel as a whole, premature diagnosis of death appears to be the interpretation which Mark intends for at least some of his potential ancient audience.
That is to say, Mark portrays Jesus as telling the factual truth of the case. In this portrayal, Jesus’s use of “sleep” is indeed a figure of speech, but not a euphemism for death, rather an apt layman’s descriptive term for a comatose state, one kind of which was believed at the time to endanger women especially.
The story as Mark tells it
(Mark 5:21-24) A synagogue official named Jairus approaches Jesus, begging him to cure his daughter by a laying-on of hands. She is near death, Jairus says. Jesus and Jairus set off for Jairus’s house, through a great throng of people.
(Verses 25-34) A woman in the crowd interrupts their progress. She has suffered bleeding for twelve years. She pioneers a novel healing technique, touching Jesus’s garments without otherwise interacting with him. This innovation will later be adopted by Jesus’s healing ministry (verse 6:56). This first time, however, the contact takes Jesus by surprise, and time elapses while he sorts out who touched him.
(Verses 35-37) People come from Jairus’s house saying that his daughter has died. Jesus hears this and tells Jairus not to be afraid, but to believe. Jesus enters the house with the parents, three of his disciples disciples, Peter, James and John, and nobody else.
(Verses 38-40) Inside, he finds mourners. He says to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead, but sleeps.” They laugh at him, and he shoos them outside. Jesus and his five companions go the child’s room.
And the meat of the story, verses 35-43 (World English Bible, link):
Taking the child by the hand, he said to her, “Talitha cumi!” which means, being interpreted, “Girl, I tell you, get up!” Immediately the girl rose up and walked, for she was twelve years old. They were amazed with great amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and commanded that something should be given to her to eat.
Medical knowledge of the time
Premature diagnosis of death appears in the early Christian literature. For example, Paul reports having survived a stoning (2 Corinthians 11:25; also told in Acts 14:19-20). That entails his assailants falsely thinking they’d killed him, when they had only badly battered him and he was immobile.
In his Natural History (book 7, chapter 53), Pliny the Elder writes about people who appeared to have died, some even to the point where mortuary arrangements had begun, but who really hadn’t died. After some anecdotes about premature cremations or near-cremations, Pliny remarks, “Such then is the condition of us mortals : … that we cannot be sure of any thing, no, not even that a person is dead.”
In particular, Pliny writes of women and the “morbid state” of having an apparently lifeless body, and the speed with which a woman could recover:
… The female sex appear more especially disposed to this morbid state, on account of the misplacement of the womb ; when this is once corrected, they immediately come to themselves again. The volume of Heraclides on this subject, which is highly esteemed among the Greeks, contains the account of a female, who was restored to life, after having appeared to be dead for seven days.
Heraclides was a 4th Century BCE Pythagorean philosopher.
Pliny’s book is roughly contemporary with the canonical gospels, and the source he cites for this medical belief is centuries older than Christianity. Knowledge of this belief was available to both Mark and his early audiences. While Pliny gives us the evidence of this largely forgotten lore, his book is not necessarily Mark’s source. However, as will be shown in a later post in this series, there is a hint that Luke may have used Natural History to craft his telling of Jairus’s daughter’s story.
Mark’s choice of story details supports Jesus’s remarks being taken at face value
Mark’s account of Jairus’s daughter is at least ambiguous as to whether or not she has died. Jesus’s remark contrasts sleep and death as two distinct states. Mark’s first readers, whether or not they were already Christian adherents, might seriously entertain the possibility that Jesus spoke the plain truth.
While Paul had pioneered the sleep-for-death figure of speech in Christian literature (e.g. three times in 1 Corinthians chapter 15 alone), he doesn’t say that his “sleep” is not death. Jesus says just that of the girl’s sleep, in as many words. The death that precedes Paul’s resurrection is an occasion for a thoroughgoing irreversible supernatural transformation (1 Corinthians 15:35-44). Jairus’s daughter, in contrast, is restored to health, not made into a different order of being.
For those readers who were acquainted with the supposed specifically female coma phenomenon, the story of the woman who bled for twelve years cues recollection of the range of women’s complaints. When Jairus’s daughter is finally revealed to be twelve years old, readers learn that the “child” or “girl” is old enough to be menstruating, and so she is also at risk of other “female troubles.”
Even for readers unacquainted with the female coma belief, Mark’s choice of story details do little to defeat suspicion that the girl hasn’t died. Only a short time passes between the announcement of her death and her recovery. The announcement itself is made by laymen, not medical professionals (a distinction which is reinforced by a passing reference to the ineffectiveness of the professionals who’d treated the bleeding woman).
Comparison with other elements of GMark
In all, Mark narrates three occasions when uncertainty shades a report of someone’s death.
When Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate for Jesus’s scourged and crucified body, Pilate wonders whether Jesus has really died. That is, he does not accept the word of the reputable witness standing before him. Pilate sends for the officer who has supervised Jesus’s execution, a man who plausibly has had experience with the dead and nearly dead. Only with the assurance of that expert does Pilate authorize Joseph to attend to Jesus’s entombment (9:42-45).
The cautious insistence on experienced corroboration and leisurely pace of Pilate’s inquest into Jesus’s death contrast with the hurried anonymous pronouncement of Jairus’s daughter’s death. Only in Mark does Pilate express doubt.
A more striking contrast occurs when another child is wrongly proclaimed dead and Jesus revives him. In this story (9:17-27), Jesus is once again approached by the father of an afflicted child, a boy this time, and the problem is a demon. Although the boy is not then in immediate danger of death, the demon has more than once tried to kill the boy in the past. As Jesus counseled Jairus, so Jesus counsels this father to believe.
Finally, Jesus gets down to business (verses 26-27):
After crying out and convulsing him greatly, it came out of him. The boy became like one dead, so much that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and raised him up; and he arose.
The “evidence” about whether this boy really died is similar to that for Jairus’s daughter: a mortally dangerous affliction, crowd-sourced diagnosis of death, recovery in short order, and an identical gesture by Jesus to effect the recovery. Nevertheless, there is little or no constituency for this being a case of Jesus raising the dead.
Both Matthew (17:14-18) and Luke (9:38-43) tell versions of this difficult exorcism, and both tell versions of Jairus’s daughter, as will be discussed in a later post. The announcement of the boy’s death is unique to Mark; only Mark invites his audience to compare the two youngster’s “reported deaths.”
Maybe most telling, Mark consistently depicts Jesus’s disciples as failing to understand him when he predicts that he will rise from the dead. For example (9:9-10), Jesus instructs Peter, James and John (the disciples who witnessed what happened in Jairus’s house) not to discuss the transfiguration “until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” Their reaction to this? “They kept this saying to themselves, questioning what the “rising from the dead” meant.” This doesn’t sound like they’ve seen first hand a demonstration of Jesus’s power to raise a dead girl.
A bit later (9:30-32), just after the “difficult exorcism” might have reminded the disciples about Jairus’s daughter, Jesus predicts his passion, including mention of how “on the third day, he will rise again.” The disciples’ reaction this time? “They didn’t understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.”
Mark’s depiction of Jesus’s disciples’ cognitive capacity is generally unflattering. Even so, they would need to be extraordinarily dense to have no glimmer of understanding what “rising from the dead” might mean if three of them had seen Jesus perform the feat.
Next time …
The Uncertaintist looks at the handling of Jairus’s daughter and related stories in other Gospels, including how Matthew reverses some of Mark‘s key choices to narrate a clear raising miracle.
Image: William Blake’s depiction of the scene in Jairus’s daughter’s room.