Levine and Witherington footnoted a 2018 Journal of Biblical Literature article by Myrick C. Shinall, Jr., titled “The Social Condition of Lepers in the Gospels.” It’s available for reading at www.jstor.org. If you don’t take advantage of the resources at this site, I’d encourage you to do so. I register through my Google account. The search function is useful, and I almost always find something interesting and insightful to assist with my weekly interpretation. If you’re a regular here, you know that I try to curate what I find. But there’s no substitute for first-person reading.
Shinall is assistant professor of surgery and medicine at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He is also a member of Vanderbilt’s Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society. Thus, he knows whereof he speaks when it comes to the psychosocial realities of illness and exclusion.
I’ll share some of the high points of Shinall’s article, because it tends to contradict some of the consensus views of lepers and leprosy in the gospel accounts. These consensus views include the notion that lepers were socially ostracized and isolated in the first-century Mediterranean world. Lepers were treated thus by Jews because they were regarded as ritually impure. Contact with ritually impure persons rendered others ritually impure. Contact with lepers was avoided. Thus, Jesus was a moral hero and courageous boundary-breaker when he healed lepers.
“I challenge this consensus,” Shinall writes, “and argue that neither the gospel texts nor available background information on Second Temple Judaism demands that we read the leprous characters of the gospels as outcasts” (page 916). Just as a reminder, what the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament label as “leprosy” is any disfiguring skin condition that might render the sufferer as corpse-like in appearance.
We need not assume that the sufferer had contracted Hansen’s disease, nor that we are talking about any one type of skin disfigurement. “Leprosy” is a catch-all term in both testaments and beyond.
Were lepers socially isolated in Second Temple Judaism? Not necessarily, Shinall argues. The evidence outside the New Testament is inconsistent in its testimony regarding the exclusion of lepers and taboos against touching them. The gospel texts don’t describe the lepers as excluded from society or suffer such taboos. In fact, the witness of the gospel texts offers some evidence that lepers were included in normal social intercourse. For example, Jesus dines at the home of “Simon, the leper.” That story doesn’t reek of exclusion and taboo.
“Reading such exclusion into the gospel stories,” Shinall writes, “creates a number of problems, not the least of which is insidious anti-Judaism” (page 917). This is one of the reasons his article shows up in the Levine and Witherington footnotes. Stories of Jesus healing lepers are often interpreted in such a way as to make Jesus look good by making Jews look bad. These stories, especially in the Lukan account, contrast Jesus (and often his disciples) with the Pharisees and the scribes. But the content of that contrast matters. And it is not, Shinall argues, that Jesus crosses purity and taboo boundaries while others do not.
Shinall examines the Torah regulations regarding leprosy. He also reads closely the works of Josephus, Philo, and the Dead Sea Scrolls in this regard, as well as the Mishnah. “In summary,” he writes, “the available evidence provides an inconsistent picture of the degree of the leper’s social stigma in Jesus’ time” (page 924). Josephus and the Dead Sea scrolls have some brief notes that might lead to exclusion of lepers. However, rabbinic reflections tend more toward some degree of inclusion.
“Although the sources describe some level of ostracism for the leprous in some places,” Shinall summarizes, “the weight of the sources does not warrant the assumption that Second Temple Jews made a consistent effort to avoid social and physical contact with lepers” (page 924-925). That inconsistent picture is reflected in the gospel accounts as well. He writes that “social isolation [of lepers] figures only sporadically in these stories, further evidence that the segregation of leprous people varied over time and location” (page 925). Closer reading is required.
Shinall looks at the actual meaning of leprosy in biblical texts. In Numbers 12, Miriam – the sister of Moses – is afflicted with leprosy as punishment for grumbling against God. Miriam is excluded from the wilderness camp for seven days. That is not on the basis of Levitical purity rules, but rather on the basis of her shame at grumbling against God. Most important in this instance, I think, is the connection between leprosy and some offense against God. We’ll return to that in a future post.
Of course, Jesus refers directly to the story of Naaman, the Syrian leper (the story is in 2 Kings 5). Jesus makes this reference in Luke 4, as part of his inaugural sermon in Nazareth. Naaman was not socially excluded in his Syrian context. Elisha at first declines to meet with Naaman face to face, but this cannot be due to purity concerns. After all, he sends his servant for a physical meeting, and the servant returns to Elisha for a physical meeting. “In the story of Naaman, leprosy, both through its remedy and its infliction,” Shinall writes, “manifests Elisha’s connection to God. The story,” he continues, “contains no evidence of social exclusion attached to the affliction” (page 926).
Shinall notes that in the Lukan account, the Naaman story is used to illustrate the inclusion of outsiders rather than the breaking of purity boundaries. I would add that the Naaman story also portrays the praise of that outsider for the God of Israel. Naaman confesses the power of Israel’s God and takes home some Israelite dirt in order to bring some of that power and blessing with him physically back to Syria. This connection is worth remembering as well as we interpret our text.
Shinall reviews the gospel accounts involving lepers. The story of Jesus healing a leper in Matthew 8, Mark 1, and Luke 5, does not indicate or require the social and/or physical isolation of that leper. That isolation must be read into the story rather than read out of it. “All three evangelists,” Shinall argues, “set the story in ways that challenge the notion that the leprous were excluded from Galilean society” (page 930). In addition, in all three accounts, Jesus touches the leper. The accounts record no reluctance on Jesus’ part and no shock in this regard from the spectators.
The consensus interpretation of the social exclusion of lepers in the gospel accounts requires what Shinall calls the “Heads I win, tails you lose” strategy of exegesis. On the one hand, Jesus’ contact with lepers shows a bold rejection of Jewish ritual laws. On the other hand, keeping one’s distance shows the power of these laws to exclude. Jesus looks good by making Jews look bad (see page 931). Yet, as soon as Jesus “flouts” the law in our text, he then orders the ten to obey that same law by showing themselves to the priest.
“None of these gospel stories demands that we envision the leprous characters as being excluded from any aspect of society,” Shinall argues. “In fact, many of the stories provide indirect evidence for the participation of lepers in the society of Jesus’ time. Without bringing to the gospels the dubious assumption that leprosy in Jesus’s time meant ostracism,” Shinall continues, “interpreters would not find social isolation in the texts themselves” (page 932).
Why do modern interpreters engage in such eisegesis? Shinall argues that this view minimizes Jesus as miracle worker and maximizes him “as an advocate for inclusivity” (page 934). I don’t find this particular argument all that compelling, but we need to at least hear it. “The lack of evidence for readings that presuppose the wholesale exclusion of lepers should be reason enough for exegetes of the gospels to drop this line of interpretation,” Shinall concludes. “That such readings involve slandering Judaism for the sake of a relevant Christianity make it all the more imperative that we find better ways to approach these texts” (page 934).
What, then, are those “better ways” to approach our text? Let’s set aside the exclusion/inclusion lens. Instead, let’s take our cue from Jesus in Luke 4. Who recognizes the presence of the kingdom of God when that kingdom is embodied in front of them? Not the Pharisees, apparently. Not the other nine lepers, apparently. Instead, it is “this foreigner.” Perhaps not quite as foreign as Naaman the Syrian, but certainly close enough. Will we recognize the presence of the kingdom of God among us when it/he is close enough to reach out and touch us?
And will we allow “foreigners who are enemies” to show us the way? “Sometimes our enemies are our persecutors (Luke 1:71, 74), and sometimes we love them “expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:35),” Ira Brent Diggers writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “But in other cases, our enemies are not really our enemies—they are neighbors from whom we can learn and with whom we may be reconciled…Maybe we are the self-assured disciple who needs to hear Jesus’ praise of the Samaritan leper, or maybe we are the Samaritan leper who can only praise God and thank Jesus!”
References and Resources Myrick C. Shinall Jr. “The Social Condition of Lepers in the Gospels.” Journal of Biblical Literature 137, no. 4 (2018): 915–34. https://doi.org/10.15699/jbl.1372.2018.454556.