The Haemorrhaging Woman

Fleur takes a look at this incredible yet unnamed woman's story as described in Scripture and through art.

There are very few paintings of this gospel encounter partly because the woman is unnamed and therefore, it makes it harder to visualise the story. Yet in other respects this mystery adds to its power since women across the world would have experienced similarly misunderstood conditions. This may also explain why there is a 4th century Roman fresco of Christ healing a bleeding woman in the catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter. Such an early depiction of this short miraculous event obviously captured the early Christian imagination with its exposure of how men ostracised women for an illness they didn’t understand, and of how Jesus overrode the prevailing purity laws to heal someone in prolonged distress.

In our modern painting by Daniel Cariola, the action is at foot level. Not only does this highlight the focus of the story but it reminds us that the heroine is anonymous and faceless. The woman is healed by touching Jesus’ hem so she would have to bend right down in order to be in the correct position. Touching his hem also showed respect, she doesn’t feel she’s worthy to meet Jesus at eye level. This woman has to resort to secrecy because she isn’t welcomed anywhere with her illness. She comes to Jesus incognito, her condition carefully concealed but she comes with determination. All of those aspects are symbolically conveyed by this painting’s viewpoint. We see that right in the centre of the painting, as her finger touches Jesus’ clothing, there’s an illuminated spot indicating the transmission of power from him to her. Subtle as it is, this interpretation perfectly represents the miracle of this story.

The Encounter between Jesus and the haemorrhaging woman by Daniel Cariola. Oil on canvas. 1998. The Encounter Chapel, Magdala.

Jesus healing the bleeding woman or the “woman with an issue of blood” appears in Matthew 9: 20-22; Mark 5: 25-34 and Luke 8: 43-48. In the Gospel accounts, this miracle immediately follows the Gerasene exorcism and is intertwined with the raising of Jairus’ daughter. However, there are several differences of detail between the gospels.In Mark, the story takes place while Jesuswas travelling to Jairus’ house, amid a large crowd.

The woman’s condition is not clear in terms of a modern medical diagnosis but because of the continual bleeding, she would have been regarded in Jewish law as ceremonially unclean. The flow of blood would need to stop for at least seven days or this woman would have lived in a state of uncleanness and enforced social and religious isolation. So for 12 years she would have been imprisoned in her home by this illness. It would also have prevented her from either getting married, or from having full relations with her husband (as stated in Leviticus 15:25-27); and might have been cited by him as grounds for divorce.

In Matthew’s gospel he does not say the woman failed to find anyone who could heal her (as do Mark and Luke), that she spent all her savings paying physicians only for the illness to have grown worse (as Mark does). Neither is there a crowd in Matthew’s account; Jesus immediately notices that the woman touched him instead of having to ask and look around the crowd to discover who it was. Nor does the woman tremble in fear or tell him why she did it. Jesus is not said to feel a loss of power according to Matthew; the woman is only healed after Jesus talks to her, not immediately upon touching his cloak.

Matthew 23:5 describes how the woman touched the fringe of Jesus’ cloak, using the same word which appears in Mark 6. The fringe was imbued with a mystical quality because the Pharisees wore long fringes or tassels to emphasise their piety, although Jesus condemns them for this attention-seeking in Mark 12: 30-40 and Luke 20: 45-47. Nevertheless, this was a daring plan for the woman since according to Mosaic Law, those who were ceremonially unclean weren’t allowed to touch anyone, let alone a prophet. She doesn’t know he is the Son of God yet, but she does know he is a holy man and healer, a man of God.

The true miracle in this story isn’t the healing of the woman’s body against the odds, but that her faith remained healthy. Her belief that she could be well again, despite all the evidence to the contrary, if she could only see Jesus in the flesh. “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed” (Mark 5:28). Word of Jesus’ astounding acts of healing had spread all over Galilee, even to the village of Capernaum where this woman lived (Mark 5:27), so a 60 mile round trip to glimpse the Messiah was nothing compared with 12 years of despair.

By law, this woman’s touch would have made Jesus unclean. And yet by grace, the opposite happened. In Mark 5: 20 her encounter with Jesus meant that “Immediately her bleeding stopped.” Without any words, a touch or look from Jesus, she was well again, simply by believing he could heal her and daring to act on that belief. And when her faith was rewarded, Jesus noticed her. “He turned around in the crowd and asked, ‘Who touched my clothes?'” (Mark 5: 30). And Jesus kept looking around to see who had touched him even though the disciples reminded him that many people were pressing in on him in the crowd. Jesus wasn’t looking to accuse the person but to affirm them which the woman wouldn’t have been expecting. So when she “fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth” (Mark 5: 33), she risked her life once again. The public humiliation to explain her plan to the crowd “why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed” (Luke 8: 47) could have led to severe punishment. It automatically made Jesus ritually unclean. Yet he continues on his way to the house of the devout Jairus, whose house would then have become ritually unclean by his presence.

Suddenly, by using the single word ‘daughter’ from Jesus to this woman (Matthew 9: 22, Mark 5: 34 and Luke 8:48), the pain and isolation of 12 years evaporated. The use of daughter restores her to both her family and community. It sets an example for others who “begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed” (Mark 6: 56). There are two other examples of this sort of healing taking place in the book of Acts: Peter’s shadow is said to have healed those whom it touched as he passed by (Acts 5:15-16) and handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched Paul brought healing to their owners (Acts 19:11-12). Touch in the Bible has several meanings, and approaches to touch separate the Old and New Testaments with the shift from Pentateuchal prohibitions in both secular and religious law to Jesus’ all-inclusive kingdom values. Jesus frequently used touch to heal a person or people. He washed his disciples’ feet before he died, and allowed a woman to anoint his own feet, but after he rose, he gently prevented Mary Magdalene from clinging to him, from delaying his journey back to God. Touch is not the end of the process but sometimes the means.

Jesus isn’t angry with the woman he has just healed, he blesses her with God’s peace and restores her self-esteem and place in society. Jesus is also clarifying that what he had just done is not magic or superstition which would have been an important distinction in the pagan public square. It is by faith that people are healed not by trickery or sorcery. Jesus confirms to the woman that it is her faith in God that has healed her and she can’t wait to start her new life.

Interesting facts. This is the earliest known painting of this story from the 4th century frescoes in the catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter, situated in south-east Rome.

The healing of a bleeding woman, Rome, Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter, 4th-century.

In Mark and Luke’s gospels, the woman falls down before Jesus; in the 4th-century images as we see here, she kneels. By this time Jesus is clearly acknowledged as the unique Son of God and so worship is appropriate to him.