Jesus raises a dead girl. (Or was she only asleep?)

by K.W. Leslie, 08 May

When Jesus rescued the president’s daughter. (No, seriously.)

Mark 5.21-24, 35-43 • Matthew 9.18-19, 23-26 • Luke 8.40-42, 49-56

There’s a story in the middle of this story, about a woman with a bloodflow. I’ll get to it later.

Mark and Luke tell this story after Jesus’s side trip to the Dekapolis, and Matthew puts it after Jesus taught on fasting.

Mark 5.21-43 KWL
21 After crossing back over the lake in the boat,
a great crowd again gathered around Jesus. He was on the shore.
22 One of the synagogue presidents, named Jaïr, saw him, fell at his feet,
23 and urged him to come with him, saying this: “My daughter is at the point of death.
If you come lay your hands on her, you can save her; she can live.”
24 Jesus went with him. The great crowd followed—and was crushing him.
Matthew 9.18-19 KWL
18 While Jesus said these things, look: A ruler came and knelt before him,
saying this: “My daughter died just now, but come lay hands on her and she’ll live.”
19 Getting up, Jesus followed him, as did his students.
Luke 8.40-42 KWL
40 Upon Jesus’s return, the crowd greeted him, for they were all expecting him.
41 Look: A man named Jair came. This man had become president of the synagogue.
He fell at Jesus’s feet and prayed that he come to his house,
42 for he had an only-begotten 12-year-old daughter, and she was dying.
As Jesus was going away with Jair, the crowd was choking him.

Maybe you caught the discrepancy; most Christians totally miss it. In Mark and Luke the girl’s at the point of death. In Matthew she’s already died.

Changes the story a little; there’s no longer any sense of urgency in getting to the house before death takes her. Not that curing illness, or curing death, makes any difference to Jesus. Does to doctors—and to us, because we have a bad habit of projecting our limitations upon God. We gotta not do that. Jesus can cure anything. Death too.

But the girl being dead already is why Matthew doesn’t include this bit in mid-story about people running up to tell them she’s died. Didn’t need to.

Mark 5.35-36 KWL
35 While they were speaking, some came against the synagogue president,
saying this: “Your daughter died. Why keep bothering the teacher?”
36 Jesus refused to listen to their message, and told the synagogue president, “No fear. Just trust me.”
Luke 8.49-50 KWL
49 While Jesus was still speaking, someone from the synagogue president’s house came,
saying this: “Your daughter has died. You needn’t bother the teacher.”
50 Jesus, hearing this, told Jair, “No fear. Just trust me: She’ll be saved.”

So was the girl already dead or not? Obviously most Christians vote not—because it’s a more dramatic story that way. But that’s not enough of a reason to pick one gospel over the other. I lean towards the idea she wasn’t dead yet, mainly because there’s no good reason to make it up. “Don’t be afraid; just trust me” is a common theme in the gospels regardless.

Jair’s faith.

This story introduces us to Jair (Greek Jahiros) —not to be confused with Jair ben Siguv, who ruled Gilead, Manasseh back during the time of the judges. Jg 10.3-5 This Jair was the president of the local synagogue. Matthew places this event in Jesus’s adoptive town of Kfar Nahum. Mt 9.1

Christians tend to think of synagogues as Jewish churches, rabbis as Jewish pastors, and Jair as one of those pastors. That’s not accurate. Synagogues were schools, created by the Pharisees to perpetuate the Law and the Hebrew heritage. Rabbis are teachers, and Jesus was one of those rabbis—but a traveling rabbi, one who went from synagogue to synagogue, whose students followed him as he taught.

Rabbis didn’t run the synagogues then. Its day-to-day duties were handled by one of the prominent men in the community, the president. Sometimes he was president because he bankrolled the synagogue, though Pharisees prefer he be one of the more devout men in town. He kept the building clean, approved the rabbis, supervised the services, and made sure the local widows and orphans and Levites were getting food. Some of the presidents even lived onsite so they could do their jobs more efficiently.

Ruins of the third-century Kfar Nahum (Capernaum) synagogue, likely built atop the first-century synagogue where Jesus taught. David Shankbone, Wikimedia

We’re pretty sure Kfar Nahum only had the one synagogue. Thus it was Jair’s synagogue where Jesus’s first lesson in the gospels took place—and where Jesus had to interrupt it for an exorcism. It was where Jesus cured the man with the paralyzed hand. No doubt Jair was very familiar with Jesus. He might even have disapproved of Jesus curing the sick on Sabbath. But today his daughter’s life was at stake, so it was time to put all that aside: Jesus was the only one who could save her.

I’ve seen dramatized versions of this story where Jair’s daughter was sick a really long time, likely with some chronic childhood illness. Yet Jair never brought her to Jesus to be cured, ’cause he was a proud and stubborn Pharisee, skeptical of Jesus, and didn’t wanna be associated with him. That is till his daughter was on her deathbed, and Jair got desperate. But I don’t buy it.

I wonder whether the writers of such dramatizations have any children. If your kid is slightly sick, and you hear of some well-known faith healer, much less know the guy personally—heck, you saw him cure the sick, right there in the middle of a lesson—you go get him. Doesn’t matter if you’re hesitant about his theology: You know God works through him. Your kid’s in pain. This ain’t the time to go, “Well, I don’t approve of his interpretation of Sabbath being made for people…” You go get the rabbi!

The only reason Jair hadn’t got to Jesus sooner, was because Jesus was out of town. Didn’t know where. (May not have realized Jesus had just been interacting with gentiles in Mark and Luke, or with sinners and taxmen in Matthew, and was therefore ritually unclean. Probably wouldn’t have cared anyway.) Once he finally tracked Jesus down, he bowed the knee and begged the Master. He wasn’t struggling with his convictions; he was acting on them. You don’t fall on your face before Jesus unless you know he can do for you. And Jair’s statement clearly showed he had faith in Jesus: “If you come lay your hands on her, you can save her; she can live.” Mk 5.23

Since in Matthew his daughter had already died, Jair’s faith is all the more impressive: Jesus wasn’t just being asked to cure the sick, but raise the dead, and Jair believed he could do it. You realize in the gospels, Jesus hadn’t yet raised the dead? But Old Testament prophets had done that, 1Ki 17.17-22, 2Ki 4.32-35, 13.20-21 so why not Jesus?

So Jair’s faith might be fun to play around with in movies, but if we’re reading the actual bible, Jair’s faith is exemplary. Yeah he was a big deal in Kfar Nahum, but he didn’t hesitate to fully prostrate himself before Jesus. Other folks would. They’d figure their status was all the honor anyone needs: “I’m a big deal” (or “My office is a big deal”) “so it’s a big deal that I’ve called upon you.” Jair knew better. Maybe he even believed Jesus was Messiah; maybe not. Either way he knew Jesus was the big deal. Not so much himself.

Jair’s faith is exactly the sort which God is happy to respond to. Jesus would’ve come with Jair even if he didn’t know him personally, even if Jair hadn’t asked humbly, because Jesus is kind like that. But Jesus is pleased when he gets to respond to people who have great faith. When we have faith at that level, Jesus is pleased to help us out too.

Jesus’s faith.

So let’s touch upon the mid-story bit where Jesus and Jair are informed the girl died as they were on their way:

Mark 5.35-37 KWL
35 While they were speaking, some came against the synagogue president,
saying this: “Your daughter died. Why keep bothering the teacher?”
36 Jesus refused to listen to their message, and told the synagogue president, “No fear. Just trust me.”
37 He refused to let anyone accompany them save Peter, James, and James’s brother John.
Luke 8.49-51 KWL
49 While Jesus was still speaking, someone from the synagogue president’s house came,
saying this: “Your daughter has died. You needn’t bother the teacher.”
50 Jesus, hearing this, told Jair, “No fear. Just trust me: She’ll be saved.”
51 Coming to the house, Jesus didn’t permit anyone to enter with him
but Peter, John, James, and the father and mother of the girl.

Nowadays we try to hold death back with CPR and defibrillator paddles and epinephrine shots. But nearly everyone sees death as an absolute stopping point. Jair might possibly have lost hope at that moment. Curing a sick girl is one thing; raising a dead girl is another. Thus the story switches from Jair’s faith to Jesus’s. Rather than say, “Oh she’s dead? Oh well then,” our Lord was immediately at Jair’s side to say, “Trust me,” and prod him to keep going. And Jair knew God can raise the dead, so he did keep going.

And now we see Jesus’s exemplary behavior: He encouraged Jair to keep the faith. Partly by virtue of his own faith: He knew what the Father would empower him to do. He might’ve even been forewarned the girl would die enroute. But he didn’t really need to be, because Jesus knows full well that death is just as curable as illness. His faith was strong enough for the both of them. Our faith should be strong enough to pull others along as well.

Not dead but asleep?

Like the discrepancy between whether the girl was dead or not at the beginning of the story, there’s a much bigger one here, which Christians also seem to have developed a blindspot about: Jesus publicly stated the girl wasn’t dead, but asleep.

Mark 5.38-40 KWL
38 They came to the synagogue president’s house and found an uproar,
mourning, and a lot of howling.
39 On entering, Jesus told them, “Why this uproar and mourning?
The child’s not dead, but asleep.”
40 They were mocking him, and he threw everyone out.
Jesus took the child’s father and mother, and those who came with him, and entered the child’s room.
Matthew 9.23-24 KWL
23 Jesus, coming into the ruler’s home, seeing the pipers and the crowd making noise,
24 said, “Leave: The girl’s not dead, but asleep.”
Luke 8.52-53 KWL
52 Everyone was weeping and mourning for her.
Jesus said, “Don’t weep: She’s not dead, but asleep.”
53 Knowing only that “she died,” they ridiculed Jesus.

You might remember Jesus said something similar about Lazarus of Bethany in John: First he ambiguously said Lazarus was asleep. Then he realized ambiguity wasn’t working, so he flat-out told his students Lazarus was dead.

John 11.11-15 KWL
11 Jesus said these things, and after this he told his students, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go so I can wake him.”
12 So the students told Jesus, “Master, if he sleeps, he’ll be cured.”
13 Jesus was saying this about Lazarus’s death; they thought by “sleep” he meant sleep.
14 So then Jesus told his students bluntly, “Lazarus died.
15 I’m glad for your sake, so you can believe!
So I’m not there; but we should go to him.”

Sleep has always been a euphemism for death. But when sleep meant death in John, Jesus said so. As for the other gospels, for this story of Jair’s daughter, Jesus intentionally said the girl was asleep and not dead. He didn’t want people to think he was using a euphemism: He wanted people to really think she was asleep.

Which means she was asleep. ’Cause the alternative is that Jesus was deliberately lying. Which he doesn’t do.

So people only assumed she died. They’d been told she was dead—either by rumor, or by someone who clearly didn’t have the medical training to know any better. They’d already started with the sad flute music; they’d already started wailing for her.

In ancient Israel, there were actually women you could hire for funerals, who’d make an extra-loud show of wailing, and keep the atmosphere nice and mournful. Christians have always speculated some of these professionals were in the crowd. And sometimes we criticize them, ’cause fake mourning sounds like hypocrisy to us. It kinda is. But when you hire preachers and organists and funeral homes, and you expect them to be solemn for your sake even though they don’t know the deceased, it’s a little more like that: The ancients knew the professional mourners weren’t really mourning. They just wanted the ambience.

Considering Jair hadn’t lost hope, but turned to Jesus, it’s really unlikely he hired mourners. (His wife might have.) But it could also be that these mourners weren’t professionals; just people connected with the synagogue who thought they oughta show up and comfort the president. Whenever civic leaders or their family members die, there are always well-wishers who show up and mourn with them. Some of them truly are sad for them. Others are trying to suck up a little.

Either way, we figure they weren’t truly mourning ’cause they started to mock Jesus. When you’re truly grieving, you’re dismissive at best, outraged at worst, whenever someone says, “You sure you checked her pulse correctly?” You don’t make fun of the guy who says, “Stop all the noise; you’ll wake her.” That is, unless you’re not really all that sad, and are going through the motions because it’s what you do at the time.

Nothing annoys Jesus more than hypocrites, so he threw them out. Mark uses the same word, ekvalón/“throw out,” which he also used when Jesus threw out demons. Mk 1.39 Wouldn’t be surprised if Jesus used just as much force. But he didn’t need these people interfering with what he was gonna do next—which was to cure the girl.

See, not only did these folks lack faith; they mocked faith. We encounter that sometimes. I meet skeptics and cessationists who absolutely won’t believe I’ve seen God cure the sick. They think I’m either lying, deluded, or deceived. I’ve been in ministries were such people were there while I was trying to pray for others. Not only are they no help, but their rotten attitude poisons the faith of everyone around. Jesus had to be rid of them. Had he left them in the atrium, Jair and his wife’s minds wouldn’t’ve been on God. They’d have been, to some tiny but irritating degree, on, “What must everyone outside think of this?” The doubters were a distraction. They needed removal.

Though I should mention Luke never says Jesus threw anyone out; the text makes it look like Jesus cured her right in front of ’em all. ’Cause he can do that too, y’know.

Waking the sleeper.

Pagan witch-doctors and priests tried to cure the sick with incantations. Long, drawn-out incantations sometimes. The thinking was the more you spoke to the gods, the more likely they were to take you seriously. So it needed to be an impressive display of pagan faith. The Pharisees were guilty of falling into this same mindset; today’s Christians frequently do too. Follow a formula, quote the psalms, pray it in Hebrew or Latin, follow the ancient customs—as if God’s a calculator, and doing the formula right gets the results we want.

In contrast, Jesus taught us that’s ridiculous; don’t bother with such things; the Father knows our needs already. Brief prayers are just as good as long. Often they show more faith: You didn’t earn God’s favor with your many words, but he’s gonna act anyway.

We don’t know what Jesus specifically prayed. Nor that he even needed to pray. Maybe he prayed silently. But when he went into the room, all he said was talíta kumí, Aramaic for “Little lamb, get up.” Mark translated it korásion soí légo égheire/“Girl, I tell you, arise.” The local language, not some special holy language. Nothing more needed.

Mark 5.41-42 KWL
41 He gripped the child’s hand and told her, “Talítha kum” (which is translated, “Get up, I say”)
42 and the girl instantly got up, and was walking around—she was 12 years old.
They were amazed and ecstatic.
43 Jesus ordered them strongly: “Nobody can know of this,” and, “Give her food.”
Matthew 9.25-26 KWL
25 Once Jesus threw out the crowd, entering the room,
he gripped her hand and raised the girl.
26 This story got out to all that land.
Luke 8.54-56 KWL
54 Taking the girl’s hand, Jesus called out, saying, “My child, get up.”
55 Her breathing returned, and she immediately got up.
56 Her parents were astounded.
Jesus instructed them to tell no one what happened.

Part of the reason Christians think the girl actually was dead, despite what Jesus said, is where Luke stated epéstrepsen to pnéfma aftís/“her spirit returned”—as the ESV and NIV have it. If her spirit was gone—absent from the body, present with the LORD 2Co 5.8 —she’s dead, right? But it doesn’t necessarily mean that. Pnéfma also means “wind” and “breath.” Her wind returned—she could breathe again. Possibly her illness was a respiratory problem. Maybe she had pneumonia. Maybe she was turning blue, and that’s what made people think she was dead. But now she wasn’t; she could get up and walk around.

And eat; Jesus made sure they fed her something. Some preachers like to claim her parents were so overjoyed they forgot to feed her, which is a dumb interpretation but Christians have a bad habit of sharing dumb interpretations all the same. It’s more likely when she was ill she couldn’t keep anything down, and now she could. Also possible: Since rumor had got out she was dead, people might think she was a ghost. That was easily disproven, as ghosts don’t eat—something Jesus pointed out when he proved he was no ghost after he was raised. Lk 24.42 Either way, she was fully cured; this wasn’t a quick fix, nor the illusion of a cure.

As usual, Jesus tried to keep the story quiet. Fat lot of good it did. Jair was too well-known, had publicly asked Jesus for help, and mourners had thought she was dead. Still, Jesus tried to postpone the inevitable backlash—which was coming.