Help my unbelief

In Mark 9 we read about the healing of the epileptic boy (there are parallel accounts in Matt 17 and Luke 9). This record powerfully demonstrates not only the importance of faith for a disciple but more – the willingness of the Lord to bridge the gap when our own resources are inadequate.

The gospel of Mark introduces itself as

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1 NRSV)

This will become a key theme of Mark’s; not the just the demonstration of Jesus’ sonship but also the challenge of determining who this man was. In Mark 9:14-29 we find a version of the healing of the boy with epilepsy. The incident is striking not just for the nice healing story but, for the readers, the learnings about discipleship. Faith in Jesus unleashes divine power. More encouragingly, Jesus as a faithful and merciful high priest works with, and overcomes, the limitations of our faith.

The lead up to the healing

Jesus has returned from the transfiguration, coming down the mountain with Peter, James, and John. These three alone witnessed the transformation in Jesus and his interaction with the long-dead Moses and Elijah. The Lord descends and finds his followers in argument and chaos. This might suggest the comparison with Moses coming down from Sinai to find Israel in disarray, however Mark seems not to underline the point overly. Consistent with his sparing use of Old Testament quotes and prophecies (in direct contrast to Matthew), Mark lets Jesus’ teaching and actions validate his sonship and gospel. Mark has illustrated the radiant power of the Son of God in this otherworldly event. As Evans observes, the three closest disciples (and the reader) have been instructed to listen to Jesus (Mark 9:6) – above all else. Now

“Jesus commands, perhaps ironically, a deaf-mute spirit, and the spirit obeys …”[1]

The power of Jesus’ position as son of God will translate directly into the life of the faithful.

As Jesus comes closer the crowd ran towards him with “awe” (NRSV), “amazement” (NET). Why? Marcus (and he is not alone) makes the case that Jesus had some residual afterglow from the transfiguration and suggests:

It may be that our story intends a comparison as well as a contrast: Moses’ radiance is terrifying, but Jesus’ is both awe inspiring and attractive (on this paradoxical combination, see Otto, Idea, passim). See also 2 Cor 3:12–18, which compares and contrasts the radiance of Christ with that of Moses.[2]

The theory is attractive, however again this is not Matthew’s gospel (who seems to draw direct comparisons with Moses particularly through to Matt 7). Both Matt 17 and Luke 9 omit this amazement. Given how it would aid their themes (particularly Matthew’s) with the omission goes any suggestion of a post transfiguration afterglow. The Greek itself is unique to Mark and indicates great amazement, awe, distress, or excitement (see the Complete Word Study Dictionary[3]). The word is used in conjunction with “immediately”, εὐθύς, a signature expression of Mark’s narrative. Contextually and consistent with the parallel records, it seems best to understand the crowd’s reaction is one of over-excitement and enthusiasm to see what Jesus would do in the controversy which was boiling in his absence.

Mark tells us in Mark 9:14 that the scribes/legal experts were debating with the remaining disciples. The disciples had failed to heal the possessed child. The Lord earlier (Mark 6:7) gave them authority to cast out demons. Perhaps this failure reflected on him. This seems to be the basis of the dispute, for when Jesus asks, the father provides their failure as the issue de jour.

Jesus reaction is unusual. He is exasperated with the collective faithlessness of the crowd. The Lord was not a robot and the gospels reveal the occasional frustration, grief, and anger. He was the son of Mary, he experienced the range of human emotion. His particular comment recorded by Mark picks up on the Old Testament, but in a different way to the parallel accounts. Collins notes:

Jesus’ remark about the faithless generation echoes Deut 32:20* LXX, “For it is a perverse generation, sons in whom there is no faithfulness” …whereas the parallels in Matt 17:17* and Luke 9:41* echo Deut 32:5* LXX, “a crooked and perverted generation”. This difference makes clear that “faith” or “trust” is the key theme in the Markan story.[4]

It is most likely that Jesus predominantly spoke Aramaic. This is consistent with specific quotations captured in the gospels (eg Mark 5:41, Mark 15:34) and what we know about the use of language from history. While Hebrew was clearly in use in religious circles and contexts, “the majority of scholars accept the notion that the primary language of Jesus and His disciples was Aramaic”[5]. Mark is specifically choosing this distinct Greek wording in his translation to point us at faith as the critical take-away from this event.

The condition of the boy

The boy’s father expresses the terrible plight of his son. While the Lord commences dialogue with the father, the lad has what sounds like an epileptic fit. Jesus continues the discussion. While this may appear dispassionate, Jesus is taking control of the situation and (for the benefit of his readers) Mark is able to convey all the important details of the case.

Matt 17:15 says the boy was “moonstruck” and the solution was to expel a demon; Mark omits the moon’s influence and merely reports on the demon possession. Jesus and the gospel writers accepted the misunderstandings of the original audience, as Boulton notes “the language used is accommodated to the thoughts and ideas of the times then current”.[6] Jesus preferred to first develop faith and help people rather than instruct the hearer on every fine point of detail.

Epilepsy was (and remains) a terrible condition. In ancient time it was obviously less understood and carried significant social stigma:

Epilepsy was popularly regarded as a contaminating and contagious disease; see, for example, Apuleius (Apology 44:11), who says that fellow slaves spat when they saw an epileptic slave, that nobody dared to eat from the same dish or drink from the same cup as him, and that he was eventually sent away “lest he contaminate the family” (cf. Theophrastus, Characters 16; Pliny, Natural History 28, 35; see Temkin, Falling Sickness, 8, and cf. 114–17).[7]

The boy had suffered from childhood (v21); Collins informs us of the significance of this fact:

This reply may indicate that he had reached puberty. According to Celsus, the disease was sometimes spontaneously cured by the onset of puberty in the case of boys and of menstruation in the case of girls. But usually it persisted until the day of death without danger to life. According to The Sacred Disease, when the disease has become chronic, it is incurable. Galen wrote that a typical case of epilepsy began in childhood, and if it was not cured or did not disappear with puberty, it would increase and become worse and worse.[8]

Ie this fact is important as it tells us that in the opinion of the healers of the day, the boy is incurable. There was no hope. The father’s plea to Jesus “if you are able to do anything” v22 suggests the family may have sought assistance from other healers. At very least it conveys less than full confidence that Jesus can help.

How much faith to be saved?

Mark alone gives us detail of the interaction between Jesus and the father. In the other records the man asks and Jesus rebukes the general lack of faith in the people then heals the boy. Mark alone records the son having a seizure and this conversation with the distraught father. This serves Mark’s desire to illustrate saving faith. In verse 23, Jesus responds to the father:

“Then Jesus said to him, “If you are able?’ All things are possible for the one who believes.” (NET)

Jesus clearly picks up on the father’s expression in v22 “if you are able”. The text is somewhat corrupted as the Greek is awkward and a variety of readings have arisen. Metzer observes that “Jesus is repeating the words of the father in order to challenge them”[9] He states the subject of the verb should be Jesus – not the father (in contrast to the KJV and others who make the father the subject). Similarly, the NET notes observe Jesus as the subject is supported by earlier and important textual witnesses.[10]

This textual point makes more sense of the ambiguity in v 23. Who is the one who believes? The disciple or Jesus? Marcus notes that:

Paul captures a similar ambiguity in Phil 4:13, where all-sufficiency is ascribed both to the Christian (“I can do all things”) and to Christ (“through him who strengthens me”).[11]

However in view of Jesus responding to the implied question (or even challenge?) of the father, it is apparent that v23 is the power of Christ’s faith making all things possible. The faith of the disciples was still under development. I would not like to be benchmarked to them let’s be clear, however they did have some theological and practical growth in front of them still. Their faith was not sufficient to effect the healing of this boy. The father confesses the inadequacy of his faith. However one man there had faith sufficient for the healing and more. Jesus.

The father’s response is raw and emotional, resonating with every disciple in trial and confronting the limits of their faith.

“I believe; help my unbelief

The gospels show us how Jesus lived, not out of historical interest, but to illustrate the character and modus operandi of our living high priest. The way Jesus deals with this desperate father is the way Jesus deals with us and our needs now:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses…Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need Heb 4:15-16 NRSV

It ought to engender confidence in us, or, to use a word resonating with the Markian context – faith. Boldness even.

How much faith do we need to be saved? Who knows. A more relevant question is ‘how much faith do we need for God to work with us and transform our lives?’ Clearly the answer to this question is ‘not much, just some’. The father expressed more doubt than faith. However he got two very important things correct:

  1. He asked the right question. (‘Please help my unbelief’)
  2. He asked the right person.

We erect artificial hurdles in our minds (and faith communities) imagining a given level of understanding and faith is required for God’s power to blow away our demons. Jesus didn’t. As a high priest he did, and will, offer himself as the bridge between our needs and our capacity. We need to ask. And we need to ask him.

The healing and the aftermath

Having plumbed and exhausted the spiritual reserves of the father, Jesus takes control of the situation. Seeing the excitable crowd gathering (v25) he commands the demon to exit the child and not return. We think nothing of this approach to healing by the Lord. It is consistent with other miracles he did. This means we miss the impact his technique (I use the word carefully) would have made on the witnesses. Keener informs us:

Exorcists usually tried to subdue demons by incantations invoking higher spirits, by using smelly roots or by pain-compliance techniques. Jesus here uses only his command, showing his great authority[12]

Jesus, the one whose voice the three on the mountain were commanded to listen to (Mark 9:7), now speaks to the deaf and dumb boy v25 and is heard. The unbelieving crowd, initially at least, failed to perceive the power of God among them. They thought the boy, now lying still, was dead rather than understanding the boy was now saved from his affliction. The hand of God might often be understood and judgements on situations offered too early.

Of the boy’s reaction and the father’s response we remain uninformed. Perhaps in the absence of detail we are left to consider our response to the voice of Jesus. Were they responsive beneficiaries of grace or no? Did the father’s faith grow? Did they become trusting disciples of the Lord, no longer seeking others to aid them? Mark is silent. Mark has yet another point, of more value to his readers to explore.

There remained but one more problem; one unresolved question. Why couldn’t the disciples who had been given the authority to cast our demons do the job? They had done so previously. They approach Jesus privately with this question in v28. Jesus response is that:

“This kind can come out only by prayer”

Note that some translations carry forward an addition to the text which suggests fasting was also required. The NET notes explain:

Most witnesses, even early and excellent ones (𝔓45vid א2 A C D L W Θ Ψ f1, 13 33 𝔐 lat co), have “and fasting” (καὶ νηστείᾳ, kai nēsteia) after “prayer” here. But this seems to be a motivated reading, due to the early church’s emphasis on fasting (TCGNT 85; cf., e.g., 2 Clem. 16:4; Pol. Phil 7:2; Did. 1:3; 7:4). That the most important witnesses (א* B), as well as a few others (0274 2427 k), lack καὶ νηστείᾳ, when a good reason for the omission is difficult to find, argues strongly for the shorter reading.[13]

As Jesus was criticised for his notable lack of fasting in Luke 7:33, it makes sense that this is an addition to the text.

However still a problem remains, as noted by Collins:

It is striking that the means recommended, prayer, does not occur in the story itself[14]

What are we to make of this? I suggest the answer is not necessarily prayer on the spot that Jesus is referring to. We know Jesus devoted time to prayer (Matt 14:23), sometimes an entire night (Luke 6:12) and the disciples, observing his prayers asked for guidance (Luke 11:1). Rather than be bemused by the lack of prayer in this instance, perhaps we should understand that Jesus was a man of prayer, his life was marked by it.


Mark’s gospel aims to present the son of God in action, usually in the service of others. In the healing of the epileptic boy, we see not just the importance of faith and prayerful life, but the Lord’s ability and willingness to compensate for our inadequacies. If we have the ability to call on Jesus then we can have confidence that

“he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” Hebrews 7:25 NET


  1. New American Standard Bible, 1995 Edition: Paragraph Version. (1995). La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation. All Bible quotations in this article are taken from the NASB.
  2. Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Pharaoh. In Baker encyclopaedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 1669). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
  3. Hoffmeier, J. K. (1999). Israel in Egypt (p. 151). Madison Avenue, NY: Oxford University Press.
  4. “There is a close connection between the Pharaoh and Maʿat expressed in the saying that the Pharaoh united himself or fraternized with her. He is also the chief upholder of m3ʿt. Like the gods, he lives from m3ʿt, he is happy in m3ʿt, he loves m3ʿt, he does m3ʿt, he even eats and drinks m3ʿt in the same way as the gods do. The Pharaoh is often depicted presenting a statuette of the seated goddess to other gods like Amun as a symbol of his successes in keeping disorder out of Egypt.” K. A. D. Smelik, “Maʿat,” ed. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (Leiden; Boston; Köln; Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge: Brill; Eerdmans, 1999), 534.
  5. Stephens, J (2016). Ancient Mediterranean Religions: Myth, Ritual and Religious Experience. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
  6. “Each plague is a reminder of the supreme power of God who holds chaos at bay, but who, if he chooses, will step aside and allow the chaos to plague his enemies.” Enns, P. (2000). Exodus (p. 231). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  7. Micaiah was so consistent that Ahab saw straight through his initial platitude, though perhaps it was delivered with more than a dash of sarcasm.
  8. Walter Brueggemann has a nice turn of phrase: “The task of prophetic imagination is to cut through the numbness, to penetrate the self-deception, so that the God of endings is confessed as Lord.” Brueggemann, W. (2001). The Prophetic Imagination (Second Edition, p. 2). Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
  9. R. Goldenberg, “The Problem of False Prophecy: Talmudic Interpretations of Jeremiah 28 and 1 Kings 22,” in The Biblical Mosaic Changing Perspectives, ed. R. M. Polzin and E. Rothman (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982). Quoted in House, P. R. (1995). 1, 2 Kings (Vol. 8, p. 237). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers. “R. Goldenberg (1982) has stated how rabbinical texts attempted to explain the problem of two prophets possessing God’s word, yet only one of them being worthy of obedience. Goldenberg claims the text says: ‘It is not enough to identify the prophet sent by the Lord. You must also know why the Lord has sent that prophet and the result the prophecy in question was designed to produce.’”
  10. Lawsuit and covenant judgement: Is 1:2-3Jer 2:4-13.
  11. Allusion to confront the existing order: “vineyard”, Is 5:17; “whitewashing”, Ez 13:9-12Mt 23:27.
  12. Lament, reflection and renewal: La 2:13193:20-24.
  13. Hope and encouragement of promise and salvation: Mic 4:3. Note this is often achieved by reminding the audience of the benefits of covenant fidelity: Mal 3:10-12. Interestingly, the picture of salvation is often painted in terms which address the concerns of an agrarian society, e.g. Mal 4:4.
  14. Brueggemann, W. (2001). The Prophetic Imagination (Second Edition, p. 2). Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Author: Daniel Edgecombe