Matthew and Luke weigh in on Jairus’s daughter

In all three synoptic Gospels, Jesus remarks that Jairus’s unconscious daughter is asleep, not dead, in reply to others who insist she has died. As described in the previous post (link), Mark told the story to be consistent with Jesus correcting onlookers’ hasty misdiagnosis of a coma as death. Erroneous death declarations were a recognized hazard in the ancient world. Some of Mark’s contemporaries believed that a death-like but easily and rapidly reversible comatose condition sometimes afflicted women.

Mark set his story within a context that supported a matter-of-fact reading of Jesus’s remark. If Jairus’s daughter was dead, then a boy who seemed dead to onlookers should have been dead, too. Pilate’s skeptical reception of Joseph’s testimony about Jesus’s death in Mark underlines the flimsy foundation for the announcement of the children’s deaths. If disciples had seen Jesus revive a dead girl, then it needs explanation how the disciples utterly fail to understand Jesus’s predictions of his resurrection.

Matthew dissolves Mark‘s ambiguity by having Jesus assert plainly that the dead have been raised, referring to Jairus’s daughter. Luke introduces a different revitalization which Jesus refers to when stating that the dead have been raised. This leaves Luke free later on to tell his own ambiguous version of Jairus’s daughter’s story without diminishing his Jesus’s demonstrated authority over death.

How Matthew tells the story of Jairus’s daughter

Matthew is brief, using only nine verses (9:18-26) to Mark’s twenty-three (5:21-43). As soon as Jairus meets Jesus, he says his daughter is already dead. Jairus doesn’t say for how long, but at most some hours if he follows Jewish customs of prompt burial.

The woman with twelve years’ bleeding is crisply healed (verses 20-22). Jesus arrives at Jairus’s house, without mention of who enters with him. Then (verses 23-26, link):

When Jesus came into the ruler’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd in noisy disorder, he said to them, “Make room, because the girl isn’t dead, but sleeping.” They were ridiculing him.

But when the crowd was sent out, he entered in, took her by the hand, and the girl arose. The report of this went out into all that land.

Compared with Mark, Matthew finesses the issues of how long the girl might have been dead and of how Jairus knew that his daughter really was dead. The audience never learns the girl’s age, lessening the connection with the woman’s affliction and mooting any medical knowledge educated readers might have about comas among women.

The disambiguation of Jesus’s remark comes a little later, in verses 11:2-6. John the Baptist sends two of his disciples to speak with Jesus, who lists among his accomplishments that “the dead are raised up.” This refers to Jairus’s daughter, since Jesus raises nobody else in Matthew.

Nothing in the rest of the gospel undercuts the “death as sleep” interpretation of Jesus’s speech to the mourners. Matthew tells the difficult exorcism (17:14-21), but nobody says that the boy is dead. Pilate grants Joseph of Arimathea’s request for Jesus’s body without an inquest (27:57-58). As would be expected, disciples who knew that Jesus had raised a dead girl have no question after the transfiguration about Jesus’s mention of the Son of Man rising (17:9-10), nor is there any indication that the they fail to understand the resurrection portion of Jesus’s predictions of his passion (16:21, 17:22-23, 20:18-19). In some editions of Matthew, notably the Textus Receptus which underlies the King James Version, Jesus commissions the Twelve to raise the dead themselves (10:8).

Luke’s adds another raising story

Similar to Matthew, Luke has Jesus tell John’s disciples that the dead are raised up (7:22). However, this doesn’t refer to Jairus’s daughter, whose story comes later in Luke. Rather, it refers to the raising of a widow’s only son (told at 7:11-17, shortly before John’s disciples appear). From verse 13 on (link):

When the Lord saw [the widow], he had compassion on her and said to her, “Don’t cry.” He came near and touched the coffin, and the bearers stood still. He said, “Young man, I tell you, arise!” He who was dead sat up and began to speak. Then he gave him to his mother.

Fear took hold of all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and, “God has visited his people!” This report went out concerning him in the whole of Judea and in all the surrounding region.

Jesus speaks plainly, the narrator tells us as a matter of fact that the boy was dead, the spectators react appropriately to a great miracle, and the subject is male, not a coma-prone woman.

Although Jesus’s disciples have a firm foundation in Luke to understand what raising means, their actual level of understanding of Jesus’s future resurrection is portrayed as low. Unlike Mark, Luke excuses their lapse. An understanding of Jesus’s passion prediction has somehow been hidden from them (9:44-45 and 18:31-34; only the latter mentions resurrection).

How Luke tells Jairus’ daughter’s story

Luke‘s version (8:40-56, 17 verses) is about midway in length between Mark‘s (23 verses) and Matthew’s (9 verses).

(Verses 40-42) Jairus meets Jesus. We learn that Jairus’s daughter is an only child, twelve years old, and dying.

(Verses 43-48) The woman who’s been bleeding for twelve years heals herself by touching Jesus’s clothing.

(Verses 49-51) The announcement of the girl’s death is similar to the scene in Mark, and once again, Jesus enters the house with only his disciples Peter, James and John and the girl’s parents.

(Verses 52-53) Jesus tells the mourners, “Don’t weep. She isn’t dead, but sleeping.” They ridicule Jesus, and the narrator explains that that is because they see or know the girl is dead. (In English, the verb here, eido, to see, is widely translated as to know, link. This is possible, but Luke is allowing ambiguity, even if his English translators mostly aren’t).

(Verses 54-56, link)

But he put them all outside, and taking her by the hand, he called, saying, “Child, arise!” Her spirit returned, and she rose up immediately. He commanded that something be given to her to eat. Her parents were amazed, but he commanded them to tell no one what had been done.

The balance struck in Luke

Luke keeps many of the story points by which Mark introduced ambiguity into his version of the incident. The brevity of the girl’s brush with death brings to mind the ancient prevalence of false diagnosis of death. Her age, twelve years, and its echo in how long the bleeding woman suffered might remind Luke’s educated audience of a women’s disorder.

On the other hand, in favor of the reversal-of-death interpretation of the story, Luke’s narrator’s remark that Jairus’s daughter is an only child plainly recalls the raising of the widow’s only son. The suggestion that the mourners might know that the girl is dead can only support, with debatable strength, that the girl really is dead.

That Jesus has previously said that the dead are raised might entail that this is a second occasion. However, in Acts (widely thought to have been written by Luke), there is both an unambiguous raising miracle (Peter and Tabitha, 9:36-42) and a very ambiguous one (Paul and Eutychus, 20:7-12). Eutychus seems dead after a bad fall, Paul handles the unconscious man and announces, “Don’t be troubled, for his life (psyche) is in him.” At no point does the author clarify whether or not “his life” was ever anywhere else.

Luke invites no comparison between the difficult exorcism (9:38-43) and Jairus’s daughter: as in Matthew, nobody says the boy is dead. Similarly, there is no “Pilate’s inquest.” Pilate simply grants Joseph of Arimathea’s request for Jesus’s body (23:50-53).

One aspect of Luke’s version is a remark of crafted opaqueness, as ambiguous as Jesus’s remark about sleep and death or Paul’s “his life is in him.” “Her spirit returned,” says the authoritative narrator. To some ears, that her spirit had left her body could be taken as a flowery way to say that she was dead.

What is translated as “spirit” here, pneuma, is also the word for ordinary “breath.” Just as the verb to see can mean to know, but doesn’t always, so, too, it is the translator’s choice whether pneuma is spirit, breath or even life itself. Unsurprisingly, spirit and life are the English translators’ favorites (link).

Suppose that Luke meant spirit. Death is not the only way that ancients believed consciousness could depart the body. Famously, Paul didn’t know whether he was in or out of his body when he visited the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12:1-4).

The notion of reversible body-soul separation also appears in Pliny’s Natural History shortly before his description of the female death-like coma (both are in book 7, chapter 53).

… With reference to the soul of man, we find, among other instances, that the soul of Hermotinus of Clazomenae was in the habit of leaving his body, and wandering into distant countries, whence it brought back numerous accounts of various things, which could not have been obtained by any one but a person who was present. The body, in the meantime, was left apparently lifeless…

Some in Luke’s ancient audience would find her spirit returned to be an apt way to say that she was no longer apparently lifeless. Some of them might even recognize the two nearly contiguous segments of Pliny’s Natural History as a potential influence upon Luke’s treatment of both Jesus’s remark about a young woman’s only-apparent death, as well as how and when spirits might reunite with bodies.

In a future post …

John’s gospel doesn’t include the story of Jairus’s daughter, but his raising of Lazarus offers parallels and contrasts to how his predecessors told this category of miracle.


Images: Gabriel Max, La Résurrection de la fille de Jaïre (1878) and detail from The raising of the young man of Nain, by Lucas Cranach (1569)

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