A Question about Laying on of Hands

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Acts, Jesus


It seemed that touching the sick or injured had negative implications for the Jews. True? If so, what is the importance of Jesus and his disciples touching or laying on of hands as part of some healings?


It is true that touching a sick or injured person rendered an observant Jew unclean. This is based on laws found in Leviticus chapters 11-15. Those laws tried to encompass all aspects of daily life. Leviticus 11 had to do with clean/unclean animals. That evolved into dietary restrictions. Leviticus 12-15 dealt with human issues that might lead to impurity. These involved childbirth, diseases, ritual purification, and bodily fluids. Uncleanness from skin disorders is addressed in Leviticus 13 and its solution is in chapter 14. Numbers 19 prohibits the touching of a dead body as well as its solution. The idea behind these laws was based on God's holiness.

Let's put things in context. Though scholars think the book of Leviticus was given its final form during the exile, tradition has it that it was given to Moses at Mount Sinai. This is shortly after Moses brought the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt. During that 400 year period of enslavement, the Israelites had become familiarized with many of Egypt's polytheistic gods. Leviticus emphasizes God's holiness. In order to have a pure relationship with God, the people also needed to be personally holy. Leviticus, then, provided a guide for the people for maintaining that relationship, as well as a method for restoring it if/when it was lost. Being ritually pure not only allowed the Israelites to approach God, but it also allowed them to be in fellowship and communion within the community.

This was traditional Jewish practice. Yet, in Mark 1:45-48, we read that Jesus reached out and touched a man with leprosy. Regardless of whether it was an accurate diagnosis, lepers were outcasts in that society. It was thought to be incurable. So even though these people were still alive, they were considered as if they were dead. Not only were they excluded from any worship functions, but they were also totally cut off from society, including their families. In fact, as they moved around, they were required to announce, "Unclean, unclean!" The idea was that it would give people along their path time to protect themselves by moving out of their vicinity. Given these circumstances, it is remarkable that this leper marched up to Jesus, imploring him for help. In doing that, he was violating every regulation in the book.

But Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. That was never supposed to happen. Yet, Jesus does not acknowledge such boundaries. In fact, his touch overcomes them. There is no indication anywhere that Jesus ever went through any ritual purification rites after this touch. The same is true for the disciples when they put their hands on others for healing purposes. This healing touch would not lead to defilement; instead, it removed it. When Jesus verbally confirmed the man's healing, he was immediately free.

True, in this story Jesus sent him to "show himself to the priest," but the man did not follow through with that. He was no longer unclean. Yet, by instructing him to do so, traditional scholars have argued that Jesus acknowledged and affirmed the role of the temple in the religious lives of the community, including its sacrificial system.

However, there are problems with this interpretation. How is it that in the beginning of the story, Jesus blatantly violated Jewish law by touching the leper, while at the end of the story he sternly ordered the man to follow the law? It's almost as though Jesus goes from one extreme to the other in the same passage. Additionally, Jesus' concern for cultic piety seems very out of character; besides being in the synagogues on the Sabbath, Jesus is never shown in the context of organized piety. In fact, he almost always transgresses traditional aspects of piety.

More recently, scholars have noted that the whole purpose of the temple, through its rituals and sacrificial system, was to help people stay close to God. But this man couldn't even go there. He wasn't even allowed to get close to it. So perhaps Jesus did want him to go back to the priests. But the presence of this man standing before them was a witness to the failure of their system. They had the glorious temple; they had all the ceremonies; they had all the pomp and circumstance. They had all the rules and regulations. But none of that could heal him. The priests could only condemn him and protect others from becoming like him. Jesus healed him with a touch; the only thing the priests could do was to affirm his healing was complete. This is not a story about enforcing the cultic rules; this story stands as an indictment against them. Above their rules stands the healing work of Jesus and the disciples.

If you have any questions related to the Bible, please feel free to email us.