Peter’s mother-in-law

Fleur compares the Synoptic gospel accounts of the healing of Peter’s Mother-in-Law while studying James Tissot’s painting of this miracle.

The story of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law appears in all three synoptic gospels:

Matthew 8:14-15
When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.

Mark 1:29-31
As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.

Luke 4.38-39
Jesus left the synagogue and went to the home of Simon. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked Jesus to help her. So he bent over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. She got up at once and began to wait on them.

While the three accounts are very short they have some interesting differences of detail:
In Matthew’s account it is Jesus who heals Peter’s mother-in-law of his own volition rather than being asked to, as in the other two accounts. In both Mark and Luke’s accounts, they call Peter by his earlier name – Simon, and the healed woman gets up and immediately waits on “them” whereas Matthew says she rose and waited on “him” only.

There are interesting variations on how Jesus healed the woman: Matthew says that he touched her hand; Mark says Jesus took her hand and Luke says that Jesus bent over her.  

At that time, if a Jewish person touched someone who was sick they would become unclean. Jesus is defying the rules while remaining undefiled. Since Matthew is writing for a Jewish audience this event would be scandalous. Whereas Mark emphasises the servant nature of the story with the idea of taking the woman’s hand and then helping her to stand up. And she in turn serves him in gratitude. As Luke is a doctor he includes more medical elements in his account – he bends over the woman to heal her just as a wise doctor knows the importance of a good bedside manner. Only Luke states that she had a high fever. In Jesus’ time, a doctor would have assessed the severity of the fever first, and so Luke would have wanted to know the precise details of this episode to ensure that he recorded the facts accurately in his gospel. This would have given his account real medical authority and therefore, be received as a genuinely true miracle.

Luke also says that Jesus rebuked the woman’s fever. We have no idea what kind of fever this was or what caused it since in the ancient world there were many Hebrew and Aramaic names for fever and several remedies used against it. Nevertheless, on a later occasion, Jesus famously rebuked the wind and the waves to end a storm on the Sea of Galilee in Luke 8:24. And Luke also uses the word ‘rebuke’ when Jesus casts out a demon during an exorcism in the Capernaum synagogue in Luke 4:35; as well as on other occasions against the disciples. When Jesus rebuked something or someone it implied that evil was present, and therefore the evil must be must be identified and called out for the healing to happen. In the Bible, demon possession covered all types of psychic or physical reactions caused by spiritual forces not ordained by God.

In this delicate gouache painting, the French artist James Tissot, suggests that the mother of Peter’s wife had made a brave attempt to welcome Jesus into her house, but collapsed in the effort. The real tenderness we see here as Jesus helps the woman up is typical of his ministry. He touched lepers, children, women, the sick, and even objects, such as the water jars at the Marriage Feast in Cana. The laying on of hands is something Jesus did frequently. It symbolises the unique bestowal of blessings and authority. It represents God’s power to set a person, people or an object apart for a holy use, whether for service, healing, protection or guidance. It was most significantly used at the Last Supper and again at the Supper of Emmaus when Jesus broke and blessed the bread in fellowship and remembrance of his life and death, inviting the disciples to do the same whenever they and their followers met in his name.

As this painting is set in the courtyard of the house Peter’s family lived in, in Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee, let’s consider their lives. Peter was a fisherman by trade who worked with his brother Andrew and several co-workers. The family lived a short distance from the synagogue. In 1968, archaeologists believed they found Peter’s house when they discovered the remains of a first-century home. Because two ancient Christian churches were later built over the site, it is feasible that this is the very home where this miracle took place. The home was typical for Capernaum with multiple dwellings clustered around an L-shaped courtyard as Tissot has conveyed in part. Here Peter, his wife, his wife’s mother, his brother Andrew and others lived together. It was customary for a son to care for his parents but Peter’s compassion for his wife’s mother reflects a broader care and respect for the wider family. It also implies a man of wealth and consequence.

Just as Jesus breaks tradition by healing on the Sabbath, this faithful woman, now healed, instead of recuperating slowly, is already up and preparing a meal on the Sabbath. Since working on the Sabbath was forbidden, Jewish women would normally prepare the food on the previous day and stoke the fire before sunset to keep it warm. Jesus has saved her embarrassment as the hostess and so this woman’s first thought, once recovered, is to show her gratitude to the Lord by getting the food ready, to serve Jesus and others in their hunger.

She anticipates Jesus own later teaching “The Sabbath was made for humans not humans for the Sabbath!”

She recognises that Jesus has done much more than just heal her in her distress. He has enabled her to continue to care for her daughter and their household. This loving act ensures that these women will be able to survive together in Peter and Andrew’s absence when they leave their fishing nets and families to become disciples of Christ. 

Peter’s mother-in-law isn’t named and doesn’t make a fuss, she simply returns to her duties knowing that everyone will be fed. Her no-nonsense approach is her strength as well as her gift. All the while, we notice in Tissot’s interpretation, that life goes on in the ordinary with the black cat perched on the wall looking down on the action, and Peter anxiously witnessing one of many miracles by his new master.

Further Reading:

Daily Life at the Time of Jesus – by Miriam Feinberg Vamosh. Abingdon Press Ltd.