Jesus healed the sick. Sometimes he would pray for them. Sometimes he would heal them with words. Sometimes he would lay hands on them. He even, at least one time, healed from afar.
And there were three times when he healed with his saliva. (Mark 7:31-33, Mark 8:22-23, John 9:11). Why did Jesus use such an odd medical procedure?
Why did Jesus spit?
We get a hint of the answer from the context of the three accounts of such healings we find in the Gospels. We’ll examine specifically the blind man in John 9 because that healing seems to be in response to a challenge posed by the religious leaders of the day.
The immediate context of this healing is a discussion (argument?) in John 8 between Jesus and the religious leaders about who exactly Jesus was. The leaders accused him of demonic possession, of being a Samaritan, and of being of illegitimate birth.
Several times during this exchange Jesus subtly uses two words (“I am”) when referring to himself (“I am the light of the world”, “I am from above”, “I am not of this world”, “I am he”, “Now I am here”, “You will realize that I am he”), and in due time he is not so subtle (“Before Abraham was, I am”).
These words raised the hackles of his listeners because it is an echo of how God described himself from the burning bush, where Moses was told the name of God: “I AM WHO I AM”, and “I AM has sent me to you”. (Exodus 3:13-14)
By the end of Jesus’ “discussion” with the religious leaders, they knew exactly what Jesus was implying about who his identity, and they attempted to stone him to death for blasphemy (John 8:59).
Jesus escapes their wrath and immediately encounters the blind man whom he heals with a paste made from dirt and his saliva.
So why did Jesus spit on the ground and put mud in the man’s eyes?
The answer might be understood in terms of what the religious leaders own tradition. This act of Jesus was to reinforce his argument that everything he had said about himself was true.
Quoting from the Talmud, which represents the religious traditions and teachings of the rabbis of the day: “There is a tradition that the spittle of the firstborn of a father is healing, but that of the firstborn of a mother is not healing.” (Bava Batra 126b)
Let’s see how this fits the context, particularly in the previous chapter of John 8. Jesus repeatedly refers to his Father (verses 16, 17, 19, 29, 38, 42, 49). The religious leaders, who knew a bit of Jesus’ history, couldn’t resist reminding Jesus of their suspicions around the circumstances of his birth (“We are not born of fornication. We have one father – God. Verse 41), thereby insinuating that his birth was illegitimate.
When Jesus healed the blind man with mud mortared with saliva, he was (beg your pardon) spitting in the eye of his enemies. In effect he was saying, “I am who I say I am. I am the firstborn son of my Father, whom you claim to know, when in fact you are sons of the devil.
This event illustrates not only the lesson Jesus was trying to teach, but it also reveals how an understanding of the religious and cultural milieu of the day can enrich your understanding of the Book.
It also answers that beginning question, “Why did Jesus spit?”