Three accounts in the New Testament tell us how, on different occasions, Jesus healed individuals in what seem to be very strange ways.
In the first case, near Decapolis Jesus healed a man who was deaf and near-mute by putting his fingers into the man’s ears, then spitting and touching the man’s tongue (Mark 7:31-37). Later, in Bethsaida, he healed a blind man by spitting on the man’s eyes and putting his hands on him (Mark 8:22-26). On another occasion, in Jerusalem Jesus healed a man born blind by spitting on the ground, making mud with the saliva, and putting it on the man’s eyes (John 9:6).
Numerous suggestions have been made to explain why Jesus utilized such strange actions in the course of these healings. Perhaps the most common explanation is that he was “recreating” the person’s hearing or sight using mud as a symbol of the original creation of man from the “dust of the earth” (Genesis 2:7). This might account for the possible reference to creation made by those who witnessed the miracle recorded in John: “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind” (John 9:32 ESV). But this may be no more than an expression (Acts 3:21, etc.), and the idea does not explain the use of saliva alone in the two accounts that do not mention mud.
Another explanation is that just as he rejected human religious traditions in other cases, Jesus used mud in direct contradiction of Jewish traditions that prohibited healing on the Sabbath by mixing mud with spittle. This idea is based on the fact that the Mishnah specifically states “To heal a blind man on the Sabbath it is prohibited to inject wine in his eyes. It is also prohibited to make mud with spittle and smear it on his eyes” (Shabbat 108:20), but apart from the fact that, again, only one of the three recorded miracles involved making mud, the Mishnah dates to after the time of Jesus. It is even possible that the prohibition against healing with mud and spittle came about as a result of Christ’s miracle.
A better understanding of these miracles is gained by considering the evidence we find in the Book of John. It is important to remember that John’s Gospel does not simply follow the pattern of the other three Gospels which were written much earlier. Instead, John – who doubtless had seen the other Gospels – went to lengths to supplement their accounts with additional information that he remembered, but which the other Gospels did not include.
Keeping this in mind, it is important to note the context of John’s account. In John chapter 8 the apostle carefully records an extended argument between Jesus and the Jews who opposed him. Throughout this account we see that Jesus repeatedly stressed his Sonship and relationship with the Father: “Then they asked him, “Where is your father?” “You do not know me or my Father,” Jesus replied. “If you knew me, you would know my Father also”( John 8:19), “They did not understand that he was telling them about his Father” (John 8:27, etc.). At one point in this chapter the Jews even made a thinly veiled accusation against Jesus “…We are not illegitimate children…” (John 8:41), and Jesus’ response was to stress, once again, his true Sonship: “… If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me … My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me” (John 8:42, 54).
Now, getting back to the mud and spit miracles, we should note that saliva was widely believed to have healing properties in the ancient world. For example, the classical writers Celsus, Galen, and Pliny all mention its medicinal properties – especially the saliva of distinguished persons – and it is even said that the Emperor Vespasian was urged to spit in the eyes of a blind man in order to heal him. So it is perhaps not surprising that the Jews of the First Century seem to have had a tradition that the saliva of a legitimate, firstborn heir could have healing properties against several infirmities – including blindness (Talmud, Bava Batra 126b).
So given the widespread beliefs in its medicinal properties, it is possible that Jesus used saliva in some of his healings as a physical sign that he was healing the person involved. But the background of Jesus’ legitimacy and Sonship found throughout John chapter 8 suggests that it was this issue that was the specific context for the healing in John 9 – and perhaps the other, related situations. By using saliva in these healings, Jesus demonstrated not only his ability to perform miracles, but also that he was indeed a legitimate and firstborn son – the Firstborn Son of God.