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All Scripture citations are to the King James (Authorised) Version, unless noted otherwise.

Question: How might one explain the unusual healing methods attributed to Peter (Acts 5: 12-16) and Paul (Acts 19: 11, 12)?


Acts 5:

12 And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people . . . . 15 Insomuch that they brought forth the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and couches, that at the least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them. 16 There came also a multitude out of the cities round about unto Jerusalem, bringing sick folks, and them which were vexed with unclean spirits: and they were healed every one.


Acts 19:

11 And God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul: 12 So that from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them.


Answer: We couple these texts together because they share similarities which at first glance may seem mysterious and at odds with other New Testament accounts.


Acts 5

This chapter narrates events in the early history of the Christian church in Jerusalem, when the faith was growing in popularity. It must have been a remarkable thing to witness the healing that the apostles performed, including the casting out of evil spirits.


People came from all around (v. 16). So many, in fact, that it was impossible for the apostles to lay their hands on everyone. Peter being the acknowledged leader, some of the people reasoned that the power to heal lay principally in his person and that, perhaps, if they could not get to him, the mere shadow of his passing would be sufficient to effect a cure. The biblical text says only that they hoped (‘at the least’) that they would be healed by this method, not that this is necessarily what occurred. Verse 16 seems to summarise the overall effect of the work of the apostles (the people ‘were healed every one’).


Acts 19

The Apostle Paul preached and taught at Ephesus for at least two years, and became well known in the city and its environs (v. 10). He performed ‘special’ or extraordinary miracles, ‘so that from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs [towels] or aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them’ (v. 11).


Assuming that these miracles were performed over the two-year period of Paul’s sojourn in Ephesus, we can probably rule out a single healing session, with people thronging him. But if no mass healing was under way, with the consequent difficulty of getting to the head of the queue, it is difficult to explain why handkerchiefs and aprons were even seen to be necessary. In other cases, where the crowds were large and the wait long, some took emergency measures. See, for example, Mark 2: 1-12, where the friends of the man on the stretcher broke through the roof of the house and lowered him into the presence of Jesus. There was no provision made in this instance for ‘remote’ healing.


Note that on only four occasions did Jesus heal remotely: the daughter of the Greek woman (Mark 7: 25-30); the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8: 5-13; Luke 7: 1-10); the nobleman’s son (John 4: 46-53); and the opportunistic healing of the woman who touched the hem of His garment (Mark 5: 24-34; note that when this miracle occurred, Jesus was on His way to heal the daughter of Jairus). Nowhere is it said that Jesus healed through the distribution of ‘handkerchiefs and aprons’ or called on the crowds to simply touch Him. In short, it was rare for the healing to be conferred other than in the presence of the healer.


Expelling Evil Spirits

The formulation of Acts 19: 12 is similar to that of Acts 5: 12, 16: (a) There are ‘signs and wonders’ and Paul’s ‘special miracles’; (b) the sick are cured of their ailments and the evil spirits are cast out. Acts 19: 11 says that Paul’s ‘special miracles’ were brought about at his ‘hands’. Compare Acts 8: 14-19; 14: 3. According to Acts 19: 13, 14, imitators followed. But notice that no handkerchiefs or aprons were employed by the impostors, from which we may infer that they copied Paul’s method the laying on of hands. This seems to be borne out by v. 16, which says that the would-be healers were attacked by their client, suggesting that they were standing before him.



The biblical narrative being spare, it leaves a number of unsettling questions, answers to which can only be guessed at.


For instance:


What does it mean that these handkerchiefs and aprons came from Paul’s body? Was he wearing them and they were stolen from him, as happens with some celebrities today?

Were they wiped against Paul’s hand, arm or face in order to be impregnated with healing power?

How long did the towels, etc., retain their power? Were they used once and discarded, or several times? And how would this latter assumption square with the biblical teaching that the gifts of the spirit including healing passed away after the last apostle died?

If the method was successful, why wasn’t it used before and after the phenomenon recorded only in Acts 19?

Since a confession of faith or repentance was customarily exacted from those who sought healing, are we to believe that these handkerchiefs and aprons were effective only for believers, or did they work on all who handled them, without discrimination?

Summing Up

Since the accounts in both Acts 5 and 19 are rendered as valid by most translations, they must stand, though we might prefer that they did not. The notion of remote healing through the agency of a talisman or holy relic seems to be at odds with the general tenor of the New Testament.



Copyright July 2012

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