Faith healing is as old as religion itself. Historically, the medicine man, shaman, or sorcerer was capable of appealing to the spirit world, whether beneficent or evil, to set aside the order of nature, tap mysterious cleansing forces, and achieve wondrous things. Faith healing was widely used in primitive cultures before the development of modern medicine. No doubt it had important psychological and sociological functions. Obviously there were quacks and charlatans who deceived innocent people desperate for some help. On the other hand, many people were no doubt comforted by the healers, who offered balm to ease their pain and suffering. Faith healers provided an outlet for those unable to cope with adversity and illness and do not know where else to turn. People are always troubled by disease, and if they can find no medical help, even today they may turn to faith healers.
Undoubtedly, the strong belief that one can be healed by a charismatic healer or magnetic personality may for some people have a powerful effect. In many cases, sick persons will after a period of time recover without medical treatment--though shamans will often take credit for their new-found health. Moreover, some of the ancient herbs and medicines developed over long periods of time may have curative powers, as Native American tribes have learned. But perhaps more important, and more directly, is the power of the placebo effect. Some illnesses are due to stress and anxiety, and some anxious persons may be restored to health by belief in an individual or process, a cleansing ritual or ceremony. The person's psychological state thus can have a positive effect in curing some illnesses.
The real question is not about psychosomatic illnesses, but whether or not and to what extent people may be cured of entirely organic and physiological disorders by "miraculous" means. Can a person's limbs mend more rapidly? Can he or she be cured of cancer, diabetes, or psychosis by divine intervention?
No doubt the persistence of belief in faith healing has its roots in religious convictions. There are hundreds of accounts of faith healing in the Old and New Testaments. Jesus Christ first established his reputation on the basis of the claim that he was a wonder worker who could heal people of otherwise inexplicable or intolerable afflictions. Our knowledge of Jesus' ministry is dependent entirely on a questionable source, i.e., the New Testament. The letters of Paul were written many years after the death of Jesus. Paul did not know him directly. Likewise, the four Gospels were most likely written some 35 to 70 years after Jesus' death. Much of the New Testament was transmitted by an oral tradition whose accuracy is unreliable. Since none of the Gospel writers knew Jesus directly, their accounts of his faith healing are based on secondhand and thirdhand testimony. Any earlier accounts of Jesus' ministry or his sayings have been lost.
The Gospel according to Matthew tells us that Jesus' fame spread widely and that ". . . sufferers from every kind of illness, racked with pain, possessed by devils, epileptic, or paralyzed, were all brought to him, and he cured them."(1)
We read the following account of his healing:
After he had come down from the hill he was followed by a great crowd. And now a leper approached him, bowed low, and said, "Sir, if only you will, you can cleanse me." Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, "Indeed I will; be clean again." And his leprosy was cured immediately. Then Jesus said to him, "Be sure you tell nobody; but go and show yourself to the priest, and make the offering laid down by Moses for your cleansing; that will certify the cure."(2)
Unfortunately there is no way at this date to corroborate (a) that the man had leprosy, or what other condition he may have suffered from, or (b) that he was cured immediately and permanently.
According to Matthew, when Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came up to ask for help. …