The Disability of the Bible

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Published:
February 28, 2022

"Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he." I remember, as many Christians do, regularly singing these lines when I too was a wee little man. Though, of course, the reality of my wee-ness is fundamentally different from Zacchaeus’s. I grew to become 6 foot 4—maybe a little too tall for England—but physical growth was not part of Zacchaeus’s fate.

Zacchaeus is one of a long list of disabled people in the Bible. The list is longer than we usually think. For some, the biblical authors have given us their names, like PaulBartimaeusJacob, or Mephibosheth. For the most, we only know them by their disability; like the slave-girl in Philippi who has a Pythian spirit, or the man born blind in John 9. Some stories of disabled people in the Bible contain a healing, but many do not.

Let’s think a little about disability and Bible.

Physiognomy

It is and has been common to associate someone’s appearance with their character. I often hear a phrase like “they have an honest face.” This is very peculiar if you think about it. How can a face be honest? Or people call certain activities “lowbrow,” meaning they are uncultured or uncivilized. In the ancient and not so ancient world, there was an entire field of study dedicated to deriving inner qualities from physical characteristics: physiognomics. It was, basically, nothing more than making a pseudo-science of judging books by their covers.

The Bible is no different. Why is it important that Saul and David were beautiful? Why is the bad king Eglon fat? Why else couldn’t people with “blemishes” become priests and take part in the services of the temple? What led the disciples to assume that the blind man was a sinner or, at the very least, that his parents were?

Did judging books by their covers influence how people saw Zacchaeus? I think it did. The story shows how stigmatized Zacchaeus was from the very beginning. He is introduced as a chief tax collector and a rich man. Luke regularly groups tax collectors with sinners and definitely does not like the rich! Right after that he is called short in stature, so short that he can’t even see over a crowd! For any ancient audience, there is no doubt. This man is clearly a sinner.

What Is Disability?

Scholars of disability have pointed out that there are different ways of looking at it. On the one side, we can look at disability from a medical point of view. This places disability within the individual. The individual is then responsible for “solving” their disability, with medication, prostheses, assistance, or whatever. In this way of looking at people, the problem lies in the body of a person and the solution is up to them.

From within the disabled community, a different way of looking at disability arose, what we call the social model. Disabled people pointed out that the problem was not their bodies but rather the expectations society had of their bodies. A wheelchair user can easily get around, as long as we don’t insist that everyone should be able to climb stairs. A Deaf person can easily communicate, as long as we don’t insist on only speaking. From this point of view, it is society that is disabling people, not their bodies.

With these models in mind, the first thing that we could think about is Zacchaeus’s inability to see Jesus. If we think of disability as purely an individual situation, then Zacchaeus does exactly what we expect from disabled people. Their problem lies in their body, and Zacchaeus just needs to get taller. Either he must climb trees or carry a stepladder around, that way he can be just as tall as the rest.

But if we think slightly more carefully from the experience of disabled people, what is the actual reason Zacchaeus could not see Jesus? The obvious answer is because he was too small, but this answer falls woefully short. Zacchaeus couldn’t see Jesus, and I am quoting Luke here, “on account of the crowd” (Luke 19:3). Maybe I’m reading a little too much into it, but to me it looks like Luke doesn’t think it’s Zacchaeus’s problem that he cannot see. Luke blames the crowd. They could have stepped aside, made a little room, and let Zacchaeus stand at the front.

Now we can see what the social model does—it highlights our biases. Much of society is “ableist.” That means it expects everyone to be able-bodied in the same way, and people who cannot live up to that norm are marginalized. Yet reality is that almost everyone is not able-bodied, at least not all the time! Luke’s story of Zacchaeus is another in his long list of stories that are concerned about the outcast, the marginalized.

Ableism and the Bible

This thinking about ableism and disability has fundamentally shifted how many people read certain Bible texts. Firstly, we need to honestly admit that in some places the authors of the Bible repeat ableist language and stigmas—just like they repeat racist, sexist, or patriarchal language. Take for example blindness. Very often the Bible calls people who cannot understand difficult teachings or who are stubborn in their ways “blind,” leading more than 500,000 hits for “spiritual blindness” on Google.

In other places, the Bible challenges our ableism, asking us to think differently about our own bodies. Let me give a simple example from a book on disability and the Bible. Jesus has famous words about removing your eyes if they cause you to sin (Mark 9:43–48). At first glance, this is the time-old story of disability being somehow worse, of disability being undesirable. Sin is so bad that disabling yourself is better. It would be better to be blind than to desire another person.

But on closer examination, there is more going on here. We know that often in the Bible disability is seen as a punishment for sin. Yet Jesus here is saying that sin can be avoided through disability. Indeed, it is the able-bodied, seeing person who is led astray. The disabled blind person is safe. Disability here is not the mark of sinfulness but rather a preventative cure.

The Disabled Jesus

Disability might be much more than simply a cure; it might be at the core of the gospel. Paul’s famous thorn in his flesh springs to mind here (2 Corinthians 12:7–10). Paul tells the Corinthians that he is tormented by this thorn: his body is in pain. He remembers that he begged God three times to heal him, and three times God refused. God’s justification is simple. “Power is perfected in weakness.” The word the Bible has here literally means something like “un-strength.” The link to our word “dis-abled” is rather obvious.

“Power is perfected in disability,” Paul writes, “and whenever I am disabled, I am strong.” This statement is paradoxical to say the least. At the same time, it is key to all of Paul’s theology and his understanding of Jesus’s sacrifice. God’s absolute power was perfected in ultimate weakness: the cross.

Paul readily admits how problematic Jesus’s death on the cross was; it is a scandal and absolute madness. The savior of the world should not die on a cross. The cross is an ultimate example of disability, both from a medical and a social viewpoint: Jesus was completely unable to do anything and was completely stigmatized by society. Yet it is this symbol and this action that stands at the center of Paul’s faith. His view of the cross is one where disability conquers. And just as Jesus’s disability opens up the possibilities of salvation and a new world, Paul’s disability allows him to share in Christ’s suffering and atonement.

Jesus’s death and—remember he still carries the scars—permanent disfigurement reminds us that Christians need to think differently about ability and disability. Though disability often marginalizes people, it is at the absolute core of the gospel. Jesus’s death and Paul’s theology move disability from the margins of society to the center of Christianity. To summarize, I don’t think I could say it any better than my friend Isaac Soon does:

“Paul’s paradox of power in weakness puts disability right where it belongs. Disability isn’t at the margins. It’s not liminal. It doesn’t dwell in the interstitial spaces. It is at the center. It brings everything together. To remove disability from Christ was to remove the scandal of the cross, and while his pagan interlocutors would no doubt have found this paradox to be nonsense—a world turned upside down—for Paul the role of God’s power in weakness was a sign that the world had been finally turned right-side up.”

 

Notes & References:

My thoughts on Paul’s theology of disability have been heavily inspired by Martin Albl, “For Whenever I Am Weak, Then I Am Strong: Disability in Paul’s Epistles.” In This Abled Body: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies, edited by Hector Avalos, Sarah J. Melcher, and Jeremy Schipper, 145–58. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007.

The example from Mark 9 is based on the introduction in Candida Moss and Schipper Jeremy’s Disability Studies and Biblical Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

 


Tom de Bruin is a biblical studies scholar from South Africa, the Netherlands, and the UK. He has been a pastor and union administrator in the Netherlands, and senior lecturer in New Testament at Newbold College, UK. Find him on Twitter or his website, tomdebruin.com

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

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