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Sunday, August 06, 2006

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"Walking Trees": The science of the miracle at Bethsaida

In 1994, I wrote about the perceptual psychology of the New Testament accounts of the curing of blindness in St Mark's Review, an Anglican journal based here in Canberra. The article was entitled “Seeing is perceiving" and appeared in No. 159, pp. 30-31. I have a copy on the Internet on this page (scroll down). I mentioned the case of the curing of "the Man Born Blind" and also the miracle at Bethsaida, in which case the blind man famously remarked after Jesus first attempted to cure him that he "saw men, like trees, walking"; after which Jesus completed the cure and the man saw clearly.

In 1995, famed neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks referred to the miracle at Bethsaida in a footnote to a chapter of his book "An Anthropologist on Mars". He had similarly written, in a 1993 essay in The New Yorker on which the chapter was based, that "There is a hint of it even in the Bible, in Mark’s description of the miracle at Bethsaida; for here, at first, the blind man saw 'men as trees, walking,' and only subsequently was his eyesight fully restored."

In 1999, Australian Creationist writer, Russell Grigg, wrote a good article on the same point in the journal "Answers in Genesis". He cited Professor Sacks, but not my article in St Mark's Review, which covers many of the same points made by Mr Grigg. While I am not a Creationist, I am pleased that Mr Grigg is as impressed as I am by the possibility that the New Testament account gains believability when we consider what modern medicine now knows about vision and perception. I think it is an exciting point, which deserves a lot more attention.

It is interesting that Professor Sacks (a secular Jew, I understand) simply alluded to the curious nature of the Bethsaida miracle story, with its hint of an optical cure followed by a separate perceptual cure. I, on the other hand, implied that the account of the miracle is made more believable by what we have learned since Biblical times about sight and vision. Finally, Mr Grigg stated this point very directly.

Julian

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