Book review by John Hillman
Being with Ian’s new book is like a being on a dig with a skilled archaeologist. The fragments that he unearths, often dealt with in the footnotes, are as fascinating as the main narrative. To change the metaphor, it is not so much a whodunnit – we know who did it – but how was it done. The title alone indicates the stance Ian adopts – Jesus is to be seen as a Wonderworker, not as someone who performs anything supernatural. Using the word ‘miracle’ would beg the question and exploring the question is what this book is about. Ian takes us into the belief framework of the time of Jesus – in particular contemporary beliefs around the nature of disease and healing. Today we might see the sickness of people healed through Jesus as psychosomatic in origin, but that concept would have been foreign in those times; body and mind were not distinct.
Equally individuals were embodied within their society. Sticking closely to the Gospel texts, as well as drawing on a fascinating range of contemporary documents, Ian circles the topic, looking closely at the incidents in which Jesus acted and people were healed. The agent of the healing is often the faith of the sick person or those close at hand, rather than Jesus himself. If I have not misread him, Ian is rejecting the notion of Jesus doing something supernatural; he is liberating (sometimes by words or by touch) something natural. Admittedly the natural may include phenomena still ‘not readily explained with the reigning scientific orthodoxy’ such as the placebo effect, but though Ian touches on this it is not central to his argument. At the time of Jesus, illness would have been seen as resulting from an imbalance, a disequilibrium, within society – in terms for instance of the alienation of those ostracised because they were ritually unclean. (The pandemic as an outcome of imbalance is something maybe we need to examine too.) Sickness was seen as essentially relational and so too were the healings effected through Jesus. Ian shows how relationality lies at the heart of Jesus’ life and teaching. Reading this book, I find I am more than ever drawn to the man Jesus whom Ian speaks of as one who broke boundaries. This fascinating book invites us to unearth this world of Jesus’ healing ministry.