There was a tradition of belief in the classical world that human saliva had certain properties that made it harmful to snakes and animals, but nonetheless it could be in certain circumstances used in healing humans.
In the first century c.e., a Jewish scholar and reputed miracle worker lived in Galilee. No, in this case it was not Jesus, but rather Hanina Ben Dosa. It is said of him in the Talmud:
A certain person once came before Rabbi Hanina and said to him, ‘I am sure that this man is firstborn’. Rabbi Hanina said to him, ‘How do you know?’ — The person replied to him: ‘Because when people came to his father, he used to say to them: “Go to my son Shikhath, who is firstborn and his saliva heals’. Might he not have been the firstborn of his mother only [but not of his father]? There is a tradition that the saliva of the firstborn of a father heals, but that of the firstborn of a mother does not heal.
And here is that other teacher and reputed miracle worker from Galilee in a late (1908) Russian icon:
The title inscription reads:
“THE HEALING OF THE DEAF-MUTE”
It is a pleasant icon, with the mild expression of Jesus influenced by the softness of Western European art. By tradition, the deaf-mute is often depicted, as in this example, as a youth. The flower he holds in this right hand is a pleasant touch. The icon was originally ordered by a school for deaf-mutes. The saints in the upper corners are too small to read their name inscriptions, but those with Jesus are John the Theologian, the Apostle Peter, and the Apostle James.
At the bottom of the icon is a second inscription telling us the source of the event depicted:
OT MARKA GLAVA 7 STIKH 31
“FROM MARK, CHAPTER 7, VERSE 31
And this is what we find beginning there:
31 And again, departing from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, he came to the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the coasts of Decapolis.
32 And they bring to him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to put his hand upon him.
33 And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue;
34 And looking up to heaven, he sighed, and says to him, Ephphatha, that is, “Be opened.”
35 And right away his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spoke plainly.
36 And he ordered them that they should tell no man: but the more he ordered them, so much the more a great deal they reported it;
37 And were beyond measure astonished, saying, He has done all things well: he makes both the deaf to hear, and the mute to speak.
As you can see, the numbers on the icon are written in Cyrillic number-letters.
In Suetonius, this is recorded about the Roman Emperor Vespasian, who ruled from 69-79 c.e.:
Vespasian, the new Emperor, having been raised unexpectedly from a low estate, wanted something which might clothe him with divine majesty and authority. This, likewise, was now added. A poor man who was blind, and another who was lame, came both together before him, when he was seated on the tribunal, imploring him to heal them, and saying that they were admonished in a dream by the god Serapis to seek his aid, who assured them that he would restore sight to the one by anointing his eyes with his spit, and give strength to the leg of the other, if he would but touch it with his heel. At first he could scarcely believe that the thing would in any way succeed, and therefore hesitated to venture on making the experiment. At length, however, by the advice of his friends, he made the attempt publicly, in the presence of the assembled multitudes, and it was crowned with success.
Similarly, we find in the Histories of the Roman historian Tacitus this account, also of Vespasian:
In the months during which Vespasian was waiting at Alexandria for the periodical return of the summer winds and settled weather at sea, many wonders occurred which seemed to point him out as the object of the favor of heaven and of the partiality of the Gods. One of the common people of Alexandria, well known for his blindness, threw himself at the Emperor’s knees, and implored him with groans to heal his infirmity…He begged Vespasian that he would deign to moisten his cheeks and eyeballs with his spit … Vespasian, supposing that all things were possible to his good fortune, and that nothing was any longer past belief, with a joyful face, amid the intense expectation of the multitude of bystanders, accomplished what was required…the light of day again shone upon the blind. Persons actually present attest this, even now when nothing is to be gained by falsehood.
Beginning at Mark 8:22 in the New Testament, we find this:
22 And he [Jesus] comes to Bethsaida; and they bring a blind man to him, and besought him to touch him.
23 And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw anything.
24 And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking.
25 After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly.
26 And he sent him away to his house, saying, Neither go into the town, nor tell it to any in the town.
The account in John 9 gives us another example of Jesus using “spit magic,” as discussed in a previous posting:
Jesus uses a rather odd healing method here. He mixes his own spit with earth, rubs the wet mud mixture onto the blind man’s eyes, then tells him to go wash it off in the pool of Siloam. The man does so, then returns, able now to see.
A rather typical example of the icon type for the Sunday of the Healing of the Blind Man — Κυριακή του τυφλού/Kyriake tou typhlou — is this one, from the 16th century and the Dionysiou Monastery on Mt. Athos in Greece:
The inscription is not difficult:
If we fill out the abbreviation and separate the words, it reads:
Ὁ ΧΡΙCΤΟC ΙΩΜΕΝΟC ΤΟΝ ΤΥΦΛΟΝ
Ho Khristos Iomenos Ton Typhlon
“Christ Heals the Blind [man]”
At left we see Jesus applying the wet mud to the blind man’s eyes:
Now just a sidelight regarding Mark 7:31:
31 And again, departing from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, he [Jesus]came to the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the coasts of Decapolis.
That is close to the King James Version rendering, but it is not exactly what the Greek text of Mark says:
31 Καὶ πάλιν ἐξελθὼν ἐκ τῶν ὁρίων Τύρου [a]ἦλθεν διὰ Σιδῶνος εἰς τὴν θάλασσαν τῆς Γαλιλαίας ἀνὰ μέσον τῶν ὁρίων Δεκαπόλεως
“And again leaving the region of Tyre, he came through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, through the midst of the region of Decapolis.”
Critics often use this as an example of the lack of accurate geographical knowledge of the anonymous writer of the gospel called “Of Mark.” Their point is that to go to the Sea of Galilee from Tyre via Sidon means that Jesus went about 25 miles north to Sidon and out of his way to get to a place that was some 39 miles south of Tyre, and to get to the Decapolis one had to actually go some distance south on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
We can see how odd that is if we look at a map:
We can also see how odd it would be to go to the Sea of Galilee “through the midst of the region of Decapolis,” because one comes to the sea from the north before reaching the Decapolis.
The author of Matthew apparently tried to correct the oddity by saying simply in Chapter 15:
21 Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts [region] of Tyre and Sidon.
And he emends the return of Jesus southward like this, completely omitting any mention of the Decapolis:
29 And Jesus departed from thence, and came nigh to the sea of Galilee; and went up into a mountain, and sat down there.