The Plague of Uncleanness?
The Ancient Illness Construct “Issue of Blood”
in Luke 8:43–48
Illnesses are not invariable throughout history. The way a sick body is viewed is not constant over different periods of time. Rather, it is always influenced by the cultural codes associated with various illnesses at a particular time.1 In Judaism, this is especially true with regard to the illness constructs for “leprosy” and “issue of blood,” which play a role in the stories of the Synoptic Gospels. In the Judaic context, these constructs are associated with implications of medical, ritualistic, and social origin. In today’s exegesis, “leprosy” and “issue of blood” are cited as paradigms for uncleanness. It is often argued that normal or “harmless” (Wohlhers 1999) bodily functions are identified as unclean—either arbitrarily or with misogynistic intent—and used as grounds for social exclusion or equation with the dead. Jesus, so runs the argument, by touching the leper and the hemorrhaging woman critiques this marginalization (Bovon speaks of a “critique of the Law” [2002:338]).
I intend to show that the author of the Gospel of Luke rejects the ritualistic implications of the illness in favor of a medical interpretation. Jesus functions as a “healer” of both physical and social bodies.
Almost no interpretation of Luke 8:43–48 has managed to avoid analysis of previous tellings, even though this analysis is often not acknowledged as a separate step in the process. Of primary interest is the irregular female issue of blood described in Leviticus 15 (LXX) as(lit. flow of blood). If Leviticus 15 is included in the interpretation, the text functions as evidence of the woman’s illness. This is supported first by the fact that no ancient author uses exactly this terminology to describe menstruation (Sclvidge 1989:619; Vogt 1993:113ff.). Furthermore, the text assigns no precise meaning to the actual