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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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GESTURES.—Dr. Johnson defines ‘gesture’ as (1) ‘action or posture expressive of sentiment’; (2) ‘movement of the body.’ Adopting these definitions, we may consider the significance of the gestures recorded or implied in the Gospels.

1. Christ heals or blesses with an outward gesture.—In most of these cases the gesture is probably intended to confirm faith; a visible sign accompanies the action. Thus (a) we read of our Lord taking the sick person by the hand, as in the case of Simon’s wife’s mother (Mark 1:31 and || Mt.), Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:41 and || Mt. Lk.), and the child with the dumb spirit (Mark 9:27). Similarly St. Peter takes by the hand the man at the gate of the temple and Tabitha (Acts 3:7; Acts 9:41). Dr. Swete (on Mark 9:27) suggests that this gesture was used when great exhaustion had preceded. (b) Jesus lifted up His hands to bAct_19:13less (Luke 24:50). (c) Jesus stretched forth His hand to heal, and touched or laid hands on the sick, as in the case of the leper in Mark 1:41 (and || Mt. Lk.). In Acts 4:30 the Apostles speak of God the Father stretching forth His hand to heal. Other instances of Jesus’ touching the patients, doubtless, as a rule, to confirm their faith, are: the blind men in Matthew 9:29; Matthew 20:34 (the parallels to the latter in Mk.-Lk. mention no touching), the bier on which the widow’s son at Nain lay (Luke 7:14), the woman with the spirit of infirmity (Luke 13:13), perhaps the dropsical man (Luke 14:4, see Plummer, in loc.), Malchus (Luke 22:51, the only account of this healing). Further, St. Luke speaks of a large number of sick folk brought to our Lord at sunset, when He ‘laid his hands on every one of them and healed them’ (Luke 4:40, not || Mt. Mk.). The healings by anointing would also involve a touch, as by the Twelve (Mark 6:13), or in the case of the blind man anointed with clay (John 9:6); cf. James 5:14 for the custom in the Apostolic Church. Similarly we read of the sick touching Jesus,—the woman with the issue oMar_5:27(Mark 5:27 and || Mt. Lk.), the sick at Gennesaret and the neighbMar_6:56(Mark 6:56 and || Mt.); and Luke 6:19 Luke 6:19) says that ‘all the multitude sought to touch Him, for power came forth from him and healed them all.’ This ‘touch’ of the Lord is recalled by the cures that are recorded to have been worked by handkerchiefs or aprons carried away from the body of St. Paul (Acts 19:13), and by the shadow of St. Peter (Acts 5:15, where it is implied that many tried to touch him). And inasmuch as the Apostles would follow the example of Jesus in lesser and greater things alike (cf. Acts 4:13), we find that they adopted His gestures, whether for healings or for invocations of the Holy Spirit, or even in speaking. For the touching by laying on of hands, see Acts 6:6; Acts 8:17 f., Acts 13:3, Acts 19:6 and Acts 9:12, Acts 28:8; the last two are cases of healing, (d) Jesus laid on hands to bless, as in the case of the little children (Mark 10:16 and || Mt.). We read twice in Mk. of our Lord’s taking children in His arms (Mark 9:36; Mark 10:16 ἐναγκαλισάμενος), a gesture ascribed to Him in Mk. only, though a similar phrase is used of Simeon in Luke 2:28 ἐδέξατο αὐτὸ εἰς τὰς ἀγκάλας [αὐτοῦ]. In another way we read of Jesus’ blessing with a gesture of the hand, as at the Last Supper (λαβὠνεὐλογήσας, Mark 14:23) and at the meal at Emmaus (Luke 24:30; Luke 24:35). (c) Jesus breathed on His disciples when ‘sending’ them after the Resurrection, saying, ‘Receive ye the Holy Spirit: whosesoever sins ye forgive,’ etc. (John 20:22 f.). Here the gesture is of a different nature; our Lord, still using an outward sign, makes it signify that which is bestowed—the gift of the Spirit (πνεῦμα ἅγιον, without the article). Breath is the emblem of the Spirit, and by this gesture Jesus shows that the Holy Ghost is the ‘Spirit of Christ’ as well as of the Father (see Westcott, in loc.).

On the other hand, in some cases Jesus healed with a mere word. One cannot, indeed, always conclude that He did not use any outward gesture, such as touching, merely because an Evangelist is silent on the matter (e.g. cf. Mark 10:52 with Matthew 20:34); but in some cases, at least, Jesus healed in absence. The following are examples of cases where apparently no gesture was used: the paralytic (Mark 2:10 and || Mt. Lk.), the man with the withered hand (Mark 3:5 and || Mt. Lk.), the centurion’s servant (Luke 7:10), the ten lepers (Luke 17:14), the nobleman’s son at Capernaum (John 4:50 ff.). We find the same difference in the healings in Acts; thus, in Acts 9:34; Acts 14:10 no gesture seems to have been used.

The use by our Lord of an outward gesture or sign in His ministerial acts was only in accordance with Jewish thought. We may recall Moses stretching forth his hand over the Red Sea (Exodus 14:16; Exodus 14:21; Exodus 14:26; cf. Exodus 17:11), and, by way of contrast, the stretching out of the hand in OT as an act of punishment (Exodus 7:5; see other instances collected by Plummer in his note on Luke 5:13). It may be thought that this usage of Jesus in His ministry paved the way for His afterwards appointing outward signs in Baptism and the Eucharist, and for the Apostles’ employing them for other Christian rites, such as ordination.

2. Christ uses gestures to emphasize His words, or as an expression of emotion.—(a) We read of the stretching forth of the hand toward the disciples when Jesus claimed them as His mother and His brethren (Matthew 12:49); cf. St. Paul’s gesture when addressing Agrippa (Acts 26:1). We cannot put under this head the hand outstretched in Matthew 14:31; Matthew 26:23, as there it does not express emotion; but we may compare with the above gesture the hands outstretched in prayer (1 Kings 8:22, Psalms 28:2; Psalms 134:2, 1 Timothy 2:8). A 4th cent. writer has interpreted our Lord’s ‘stretching forth his hands’ (cf. St. Peter, John 21:18) of His accepting suffering voluntarily (Testament of our Lord, i. 23). (b) We read of many gestures with the eyes. Jesus looked up to heaven at the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (Mark 6:41 and || Mt. Lk.), in His last prayer before going to Gethsemane (John 17:1), at the healing of the deaf man with an impediment (Mark 7:34), and the raising of Lazarus (John 11:41). It is doubtless due to the first two of these passages that we find in many ancient Liturgies, from the Apostolic Constitutions onwards, this gesture ascribed to our Lord when He consecrated the Eucharist—as in the Greek St. James (in the Syriac St. James it is only implied), St. Mark both Greek and Coptic, Abyssinian (or Ethiopia), St. Basil, Roman and Ambrosian. The gesture is one of prayer, and implies that prayer accompanied the actions described (see Job 22:26; cf. the publican, Luke 18:13). Again, the references to the ‘glance’ or ‘look’ of our Lord are very frequent. In Mark 3:5 it conveys His righteous anger (|| Lk. does not mention the anger). In Mark 3:34; Mark 10:27 (and || Mt.) and Luke 6:20; Luke 20:17, it apparently emphasizes the truth taught. In Luke 22:61 it brings conviction of sin to St. Peter after his denials. In Mark 10:21 it is a mark of love; here, as so often, St. Mark alone relates the feelings of our Lord’s human soul. The glance to emphasize truth must also be understood where we expressly read of Jesus’ ‘turning’ to those whom He is addressing (Mark 8:33, Luke 7:9; Luke 9:55 etc.). On the other hand, no special significance must be attached to passages where our Lord’s ‘look’ is mentioned, but where it was merely that He might see, as Mark 5:32 (and || Mt.), Luke 19:5; Luke 21:1. Corresponding with this gesture of Jesus is the keen ‘gaze’ or ‘fastening of the eyes’ which we read of in the case of the people of Nazareth (Luke 4:20), the maidservant (Luke 22:56), St. Peter (Acts 3:4; cf. Acts 3:12), the Sanhedrin (Acts 6:15), St. Stephen (Acts 7:55), Cornelius (Acts 10:4), St. Paul (Acts 13:9; Acts 14:9; Acts 23:1)—all having ἀτενίζειν, one of St. Luke’s favourite words; in the case of St. Paul it is difficult to reconcile with the idea that the ‘stake in the flesh’ was ophthalmia. (c) The gesture of kneeling or prostration is mentioned only once of our Lord, in Gethsemane (Mark 14:35 and || Mt. Lk.), the first two Evangelists speaking of prostration, the third of kneeling. As standing was the usual attitude for prayer* [Note: Our Lord sat to teach, the usual custom (Matthew 5:1, Mark 4:1, Luke 4:20; Luke 5:3, John 8:2, cf. Acts 16:13).] (Mark 11:25, where see Swete’s note, Luke 18:11; Luke 18:13), we must interpret this kneeling or prostration as specially signifying deep distress, as in the early Church it signified special penitence, being forbidden by the 20th canon of Nicaea on festival occasions like Sundays and Eastertide (so Tertullian, de Cor. Mil. 3). And so it was significant of deep distress in the case of St. Stephen (Acts 7:60), and probably of St. Peter when he raised Tabitha (Acts 9:40); in the case of St. Paul’s farewells it would be due to the great solemnity of the occasion (Acts 20:36; Acts 21:5, cf. also 1 Kings 8:54, Ezra 9:5, Daniel 6:10, Ephesians 3:14). Nevertheless, the usual standing to pray would not preclude the gesture of prostration at intervals to express special devotion, as is the case to this day among all Eastern Christians. To signify reverence the gesture of kneeling or prostration is frequently practised in the Gospels. We read of many thus kneeling to Jesus—the leper (Mark 1:40 and || Mt. Lk.), demoniacs (Mark 3:11; Mark 5:6), Jairus (Mark 5:22 and || Mt. Lk.), the Syrophœnician woman (Mark 7:25 and || Mt.), the rich young man (Mark 10:17), the blind man (John 9:38), Mary of Bethany (John 11:32), the lunatic’s father (Matthew 17:14, not || Mk. Lk.), Salome (Matthew 20:20, not || Mk.), the Magi (Matthew 2:11), St. Peter at the miraculous draught of fishes (Luke 5:8), and so the soldiers in derision (Mark 15:19 and || Mt.). The devil tempts our Lord to kneel to him (Matthew 4:9 and || Lk.). The women prostrate themselves at the tomb (Luke 24:5). Cornelius attempts to do so before St. Peter (Acts 10:25), St. John before the angel (Revelation 19:10; Revelation 22:8). (d) A gesture to emphasize speech may probably be understood in Mark 12:29 where it may be that Jesus pointed to the scribe’s phylactery, which contained the words, ‘Hear, O Israel,’ etc. (c) An isolated gesture is the stooping to write on the ground in the ‘Pericope adulterae’ (John 8:6; John 8:8), apparently signifying ‘intentional inattention.’ Westcott (in loc.) remarks that the very strangeness of the action marks the authenticity of the detail. (f) We read of gestures expressing grief. Jesus sighed at weakness of faith (Mark 7:34; Mark 8:12), and groaned (or was moved with indignation, ἐνεβριμήσατο), shuddered (ἐτάραξεν ἑαυτόν), and wept at Lazarus’ grave (John 11:33; John 11:35; John 11:38); He shuddered at the thought of the betrayal (John 13:21), and wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41 ff.).

To speak generally, it may be noted that the Fourth Evangelist is more chary of chronicling our Lord’s gestures than the Synoptists. He dwells rather on Jesus’ words than on the actions with which He accompanied them.

3. Various gestures by others.—To an Oriental people, gesture is almost as natural a method of expressing the meaning as speech. We find in the Gospels frequent references to such a method of communication. This is not only when no other is possible, as when dumb Zacharias makes signs (Luke 1:22) and the people make signs to him (Luke 1:62 : perhaps he was also deaf); just as in Acts, St. Peter has to make signs to procure silence in Acts 12:17, and St. Paul in Acts 21:40 and perhaps Acts 13:16. But we find such expressive gestures as shaking off the dust (Mark 6:11 and || Mt. Lk.; this is our Lord’s command to the Twelve), to signify the dissociating of oneself from an offender. So Paul and Barnabas did at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:51), and so Paul ‘shook out his raiment’ against the unbelieving Jews at Corinth (Acts 18:6). Again, rending the garments was a common Jewish gesture of consternation or grief, often mentioned in OT (e.g. Genesis 37:29; Genesis 37:34, Joel 2:13); in the Gospels we find it mentioned only of Caiaphas (Mark 14:63 and || Mt.); in Acts (Mark 14:14) only of Paul and Barnabas at Lystra. Smiting the breast as a sign of grief we find in Luke 23:48 (where D [Note: Deuteronomist.] adds τὰ μέτωπα), and in Matthew 11:17 (ἐκόψασθε) and Luke 18:13. Wagging the head was the derisive gesture of the passers-by at the Crucifixion (Mark 15:29 and || Mt.; cf. 2 Kings 19:21, Job 16:4, Lamentations 2:15, Sirach 12:18; Sirach 13:7). Pilate’s gesture of washing his hands (Matthew 27:24) has furnished a proverbial saying, but it was familiar to the Jews (Deuteronomy 21:6). The kindred idea of washing the hands to express innocency (i.e. ridding oneself of evil) is found in Exodus 30:19 f. and Psalms 26:6; Psalms 73:13, and is a great feature of the Church Orders and the great Liturgies. Lastly, we notice the kiss as the sign of love, real or feigned, as in the case of the sinful woman (Luke 7:45), of Judas (Mark 14:45 and || Mt. Lk.), and of the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:37). It is true that the kiss was the ordinary way of greeting a Rabbi (see Swete on Mark 14:45), but in all these cases much more than ordinary courtesy is intended by the gesture, and probably καταφιλεῖν in these passages means ‘to kiss fervently,’ or (in the case of Judas) ‘ostentatiously.’ For the kiss in OT, cf. Genesis 29:11; Genesis 33:4; Genesis 45:15, Exodus 18:7, 1 Samuel 20:41, 2 Samuel 15:5; 2 Samuel 19:39; 2 Samuel 20:9, many of which passages speak of kisses of greeting like that of Judas, to which Joab’s is indeed strangely similar.

A. J. Maclean.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Gestures'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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Monday, May 25th, 2020
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