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Were Jesus’ Healings a Placebo Effect?

John, a physician living in San Francisco’s East Bay, was always pretty good with patients. So good, in fact, that many of them preferred to have John himself and not one of his assistants doing the hands-on work of bandaging and injecting and whatever else needed to be done to ensure they were well cared for. Somewhat jokingly, he guessed that his white coat, stethoscope and professional demeanor probably helped to instill a sense of confidence in his patients and bring about good results.

These days such a phenomenon might be described as a type of placebo effect – that is, when a patient’s physical improvement can be traced to what Ted Kaptchuk and Franklin Miller report in a recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine includes “identifiable health care paraphernalia and settings, emotional and cognitive engagement with clinicians, empathic and intimate witnessing, and the laying on of hands.”

Come again? If that bit about “laying on of hands” sounds like something you might read in the Bible, it is.

“As the sun was setting,” it says in the gospel of Luke, “all those who had friends suffering from every kind of disease brought them to Jesus and he laid his hands on each one of them separately and healed them.”

For a good two thousand years, many people have assumed there must have been something about Jesus’ particular style of laying on of hands that led to so many remarkable and supposedly miraculous cures – of leprosy, blindness, dementia and so on – prompting some to try and replicate this method themselves. How disheartening it must have been for them, then, to learn that they weren’t seeing anywhere near the same results or, worse, that such an approach is nothing more than a placebo.

Or is it?

Were anyone today able to heal as effectively and as consistently as Jesus simply through the use of his or her hands, it’s likely we would have heard about it by now. So either Jesus possessed some unique ability, or there was something else, something more profound, happening during his interactions with others that the gospel writers didn’t or couldn’t fully explain.

Mary Baker Eddy felt certain that these healings had less to do with what Jesus did with his hands and a lot more with the love his touch conveyed and what he chose to see in those who came to him for healing. “Jesus beheld in Science the perfect man, who appeared to him where sinning mortal man appears to mortals,” she writes in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. “In this perfect man the Saviour saw God’s own likeness, and this correct view of man healed the sick.”

Eddy’s insight came as a result of years of study – both religious and medical – as well as plenty of field-testing. This proved to her that not only were the cures effected by Jesus not miraculous in the conventional sense of the word, but that they were decidedly repeatable by anyone who adopted and nurtured his same spiritual vision, purity and love.

“Late in the nineteenth century I demonstrated the divine rules of [what I termed] Christian Science,” writes Eddy. “They were submitted to the broadest practical test, and everywhere, when honestly applied under circumstances where demonstration was humanly possible, this Science showed that Truth had lost none of its divine and healing efficacy, even though centuries had passed away since Jesus practised these rules on the hills of Judæa and in the valleys of Galilee.”

This is encouraging news, especially for those whose view of man includes at least some sense of our relationship to the Divine and the spiritual nature of health. And even for those who may not be so inclined, the idea that Jesus presented a scientific healing method that can be practiced today provides a valuable – and viable – avenue for further exploration.

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