In two previous posts, The Uncertaintist discussed why it appears that Mark may have intended his version of the story of Jairus’s daughter not to be a resurrection miracle (link). In Matthew’s telling, Jesus definitely restores a dead girl to life. Luke seems content to leave Jairus’s daughter ambiguous, but introduces a different and completely clear raising miracle, the widow’s son (link).
Regardless of what each author intended, some educated first century readers would have recognized the young adolescent girl’s condition as a possible case of a malady peculiar to women. According to the medical beliefs of the time, the affliction convincingly imitated death, but was easily and quickly curable. If that was the girl’s problem, then Jesus would have been telling the simple truth when he said in all three synoptic gospels that she wasn’t dead, but asleep
The youngest canonical gospel, John, replaces both Jairus’s daughter and the widow’s son with its own raising story, that of Lazarus of Bethany. The clear storyline of Lazarus’s return to life seems to have evolved organically from Mark and Matthew‘s versions of Jairus’s daughter, with Luke‘s raising of the widow’s son as an “intermediate form.”
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.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus restores to life the deceased young daughter of a man named Jairus. Versions of the incident appear in the other two synoptic Gospels, Mark and Luke, but not in John.
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.