IT IS COMMON IN MANY EASTERN CHURCHES to see people touching or kissing the priest’s vestment as he passes in procession. In this way, they express their veneration for Christ in the Gospel book, the Holy Gifts or other sacred object he is carrying. They are doing liturgically what people in Eastern cultures did regularly to express reverence for or dependence upon their religious or ethnic leaders – or even family elders – for centuries.
We read in the Gospels that people would reach out to touch the hem of Christ’s garment in the hope that they would thereby come into contact with holiness and obtain a blessing. On His arrival at Gennesaret, for example, we are told that “When the men of that place recognized Him, they sent out into all that surrounding region, brought to Him all who were sick, and begged Him that they might only touch the hem of His garment. And as many as touched it were made perfectly well” (Matthew 14:35, 36). The woman with the issue of blood in Lk 8 had the same hope.
The “Issue of Blood”
Modern commentators have debated whether this woman suffered from a genetic blood disease such as hemophilia or a menstrual disorder of some kind. This issue is not raised in the Scriptures, which focus on the results rather than the cause of her condition. In Mk 5 we read that she “had suffered many things from many physicians. She had spent all that she had and was no better, but rather grew worse” (v. 26). Not only had her condition worsened, but she had become impoverished in the process (she “had spent all her livelihood on physicians” – Luke 8:43).
The Gospels, written for Gentile converts, do not mention another effect of her illness which would have been extremely important to Jews. Whatever the origin of the hemorrhaging, it caused the woman to be ritually unclean according to the Torah. “If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, other than at the time of her
[customary] impurity, or if it runs beyond her [usual time of] impurity, all the days of her unclean discharge shall be as the days of her [customary] impurity. She shall be unclean. Every bed on which she lies all the days of her discharge shall be to her as the bed of her impurity; and whatever she sits on shall be unclean, as the uncleanness of her impurity. Whoever [else] touches those things shall be unclean; he shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and be unclean until evening” (Leviticus 15:25-27}. Bodily discharges of any kind, being “of the earth,” rendered a person or anything they touched unfit for the heavenly action of worship (“defiling the tabernacle” – Leviticus 15:31). Neither this woman nor anyone who had contact with her could observe the Holydays or offer even the daily sacrifices in the temple on any day she suffered this hemorrhage. Some have surmised that, if she had been married, her husband probably would have divorced her as she would have been unable to care for her children or for others without making them all unclean. She was, in effect, as much of an outcast as a leper as far as participation in the life of her people was concerned. Touching Jesus changed all that.
What Did She Touch?
In Luke 8:44 we are told that this woman “came from behind and touched the border of His garment.” The phrase translated here as “the border of His garment” is more properly rendered as “the fringe of His robe.” The ordinary dress of Jewish men in Christ’s day consisted of a tunic over which they wore a mantle large enough to cover them from head to foot. The Torah prescribed than this garment be fringed with tassels (tzitzit); “Speak to the children of Israel: Tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a blue thread in the tassels of the corners. When you shall have the tassel, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them” (Numbers 15:38, 39).
Some rabbinic authorities considered blue as the “color of God’s glory”. Covers for the temple vessels were made in this color. Touching the blue-threaded tassel, then, is an attempt to connect with the glory of God.
This garment, reduced in size, is the prayer shawl worn by observant Jews today at worship. Some Orthodox Jewish men wear a kind of scapular under their street wear. Its tassels often may be seen hanging outside their shirts.
Who Was This Woman?
Although the story of this woman is recounting in Matthew 9 and Mark 5 as well as in Lk, her name is never given and she is not mentioned again. Later writers tried to remedy the “defects” in the Gospels by recounting “life stories” of characters like this woman whom the Scriptures mention only in passing. Thus, in the fourth-century Acts of Pilate this woman, now given a name, is portrayed as trying to give evidence at Jesus’ trial: “And a certain woman named Bernice crying out from afar off said: ‘I had an issue of blood, and I touched the hem of his garment, and the issue of blood which I had had for twelve years was stopped.’ The Jews say: ‘we have a law, that a woman’s evidence is not to be received.’”
Another fourth-century attempt to “bolster” the Gospel is found in Eusebius’ Church History. He notes that “They say that the woman with an issue of blood, who, as we learn from the sacred Gospel, received from our Savior deliverance from her affliction, came from this place [Caesarea Philippi], and that her house is shown in the city, and that remarkable memorials of the kindness of the Savior to her remain there.
“For there stands upon an elevated stone, by the gates of her house, a brazen image of a woman kneeling, with her hands stretched out, as if she were praying. Opposite this is another upright image of a man, made of the same material, clothed decently in a double cloak, and extending his hand toward the
woman. At his feet, beside the statue
itself, is a certain strange plant, which climbs up to the hem of the brazen cloak, and is a remedy for all kinds of diseases.
“They say that this statue is an image of Jesus. It has remained to our day, so that we ourselves also saw it when we were staying in the city” (Book 7.18).
Later Eastern chroniclers such as Sozomen and John Malalas were not as cautious about the story of this statue as was Eusebius. They accept the story as unqualified fact.
Modern historians suggest that the statue originally depicted the submission of Judea to the Emperor Hadrian but was later give a Christian meaning. The statue was destroyed during the reign of Julian the Apostate and a statue of that emperor erected in its place.
A much later legend based on the story of this woman is the legend of “Veronica’s veil”. In the medieval West, it was said that the woman with the issue of blood was called Veronica (the Latin form of Bernice). She was described as having wiped the face of Jesus on the way to His crucifixion. Although there is no mention of this incident in the Scriptures, it became part of the medieval devotion, the “Stations of the Cross.” In fact, the “veronica” (meaning true image) was not a person, but a relic – perhaps the image of Edessa – brought to Rome in the twelfth century.