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Historical Cultural Context
23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Year B
September 5, 2021
John J. Pilch

Deaf and Mute

The Greek word often translated as “deaf” may sometimes mean “mute.” Indeed in Matthew 11:5 and Luke 7:22, the deaf are made to hear, while in Matthew 9:32; 12:22; and Luke 11:14, the deaf are made to speak. The association of both meanings with one Greek word is understandable because the two skills are related. Speaking involves the ability to imitate what one hears.

Spitting is a common Middle Eastern precaution against evil.

In this story, Mark intends the meaning “deaf” since he adds another very specific Greek word that means “unable to speak properly.” That this man could speak at all suggests he may not have been congenitally deaf, or that his hearing loss was not total.

Jesus’ Healing Activity

First, Jesus takes the man aside “in private.” Given the very public and nosey nature of Mediterranean culture, privacy is practically impossible. Also, people tend to stand very close to each other. Touching or leaning against other people is not at all a problem. What Jesus did here was gain some elbowroom or breathing space for himself and his client.

Second, given the readiness of people in this culture to touch and make contact with others, Jesus’ laying on of hands does not have the significance it might have in antiseptic and aloof Western culture. In antiquity, the hands were the customary vehicle by which a healer transmitted therapeutic power to the client. At other times, the healer’s garments transmitted healing power without the healer’s awareness or will (Mk 5:28-29). Sometimes the healer could be effective at a distance by word alone (Lk 7:7).

Third, spitting is a common Middle Eastern precaution against evil. A person who suspects another of possessing or casting the “evil eye” will spit to deflect or deactivate that power. The Galatians “spit” when they saw Paul whom they suspected of having an “evil eye” (Gal 3:1, literal translation of “bewitched”). Traditional healers routinely use this strategy to ward off evil.

Fourth, Mark is careful to report the precise Aramaic word used by Jesus: ‘eppattah, or as reported in English translations, ephphatha. The ancients believed that words contain power. If translated, the word would lose its power. By reporting the original Aramaic word, Mark underscores Jesus’ power as a traditional healer.

The result: immediately the man’s ears were opened, the bond of his tongue was released, and he spoke properly or plainly.

John J. Pilch
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John J. Pilch was a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible.
Go to to find out more.

Art by Martin Erspamer, OSB
from Religious Clip Art for the Liturgical Year (A, B, and C).
This art may be reproduced only by parishes who purchase the collection in book or CD-ROM form. For more information go

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