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Disability Criticism

Disability criticism is the study of impairment from the perspective that there is nothing intrinsically negative about those conditions or forms of embodiment that have traditionally been evaluated as disabilities. It is a form of identity criticism that takes as its starting point the idea that disability is not a stable biological phenomenon but, rather, a social construct of individual societies that changes over time and according to context. In this way, a particular impairment might be evaluated negatively in one social situation and positively in another. The classic example of this is the evaluation of wheelchair use in various situations. In the context of a marathon, wheelchair use is a considerable advantage: wheelchair users consistently outpace runners by a considerable amount. Faced with a set of stairs, however, the use of a wheelchair becomes a disability. In some instances, a biological phenomenon might, over time and with changing social norms, cease to be considered a disability at all. For example, many people in the ancient world considered being female to be a negative physiological shortcoming or disability. Aristotle, for instance, compares the formation of women in the womb to underbaked bread (Hippocrates, Regimen 1.34). Women are literally the product of inadequate cooking. In the modern world gender is considered natural and neutral and, thus, if prejudice against women continues to exist, it is not grounded in the idea that being female is a biological defect. These constructions of disability are often tied to medical standards and to related understandings of gender, race, ethnicity, and class. Like other forms of identity criticism, disability criticism of the Bible describes the ways in which these valuations of impairments are made and function both for the original authors and audiences of the Bible and for modern readers.

History of Scholarship.

Disability criticism emerged in both the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1980s. In the United Kingdom, disability criticism grew out of Marxist concerns for an oppressed underclass and heavily emphasized society as the root of disability. For a discussion of the historical and political underpinnings of UK research (see Oliver 1990, pp. 1–10). In the United States, disability criticism is an offshoot of feminist criticism. American disability critics see disability as a facet of identity akin to gender and race.

Regardless of their critical pedigree, all disability critics have divided historical treatments of disability into three chronologically successive models: a religious model, a medical model, and a social or cultural model, each of which has a different view of the nature, cause, and proper response to bodily differences. The religious model, which critics assume was predominant until the Enlightenment, posits that disability is a form of punishment caused by sin against God or in a demonic interference, which is removed using religious measures and divine intervention. In this model, both the disability and the disabled person are, therefore, aligned with sin and evil. The medical model, which gained prominence with the “rise of science” in the Enlightenment, viewed disability as a medical condition caused by external agents (e.g., disease) or some inherent deficiency (e.g., genetic predisposition). As with any disease, the proper response to disability was to attempt to cure or eradicate it using medical measures.

The final period, precipitated by the rise of disability criticism, is referred to either as the social model or the cultural model of disability. The social model emphasizes the social constructedness of “disability” in contradistinction to “impairment.” According to this view, the impairment that leads an individual to use a wheelchair becomes a disability only when this individual encounters discrimination in society. Consequently, it is only prejudice that actually disables a person. The cultural model, advocated by Lennard Davis, Sharon Snyder, David Mitchell, and Rosemary Garland Thompson, blurs the boundaries between impairment and disability, positing that the experience of disability includes a larger complex of social structures. The cultural model sees disability not just as a medical condition or issue of discrimination, but as an embodied experience that encompasses both human variation and socially mediated difference (Mitchell and Snyder 2006). With respect to the distinction between the “social model” and the “cultural model,” a certain ideological cleft can be traced between scholars in the United Kingdom and those in the United States. This can be attributed to the varying underlying commitments of their work. The cultural model as advocated by Lennard Davis, David Mitchell, and Sharon Snyder dominates in North American scholarship and has come to form the theoretical underpinnings of American biblical scholarship on disability in, for example, the work of Jeremy Schipper and Rebecca Raphael. For a succinct summary of the history of disability studies see Schipper (2006, pp. 15–24).

Study of Disability in the Bible to 1985.

Prior to the advent of disability criticism as a discrete and theorized area of study in the humanities in the 1980s, scholarly approaches to cases of disability in the Bible assumed that the authors of the Bible were working with a religious model of disability. Scholarly analyses followed the medical model of disability and consisted, as Hector Avalos (1999) has argued, almost exclusively of medical diagnoses. These kinds of analyses of disability concerned themselves with diagnosing, using modern medical terminology, those conditions that impressed the modern scholar as particularly troublesome. Famous examples of this include scholarly efforts to identify Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7) and the translation of the ambiguous yet ubiquitous “skin abnormality” (ṣāra‘at) of Leviticus 13–14. In both of these cases, scholars have played amateur physician. In his magnificent commentary on Leviticus, for example, Jacob Milgrom (1991) writes both that the symptoms of the condition resemble psoriasis and that he consulted a respected dermatologist about the condition. Discussions about the nature of Paul’s condition in 2 Corinthians were similarly modernist. Until recently, this kind of modern diagnostic translation constituted the dominant approach to disability.

Metaphorical interpretations of disability in the Bible, by contrast, approached stories and language of disability as symbols. All references to disability were treated as imagery for more serious moral, religious, and ethical failings. To a certain extent, this approach mirrored the linguistic tendency of society as a whole, in which terms such as “lame,” “dumb,” or “turn a deaf ear/blind eye” are used as colloquial terms and phrases for stupidity and willful ignorance. Where scholars engaged with metaphors of disability for practical theology or pastoral care, they reinforced the idea that disability was always negative, even as they sought to avoid the dangerous ethical implications of this assessment. These efforts followed one of two lines of argumentation. The first was that the presence in the text of individuals with disabilities—for example the reproductively challenged matriarchs in Genesis or impaired individuals in the Gospels—demonstrates that God selects or cares for individuals with disabilities. The fact that God “works through” the apparently barren matriarchs and that Jesus spends so much time with the disabled is seen as evidence of God’s care for everyone. The difficulty with this line of argument is that the matriarchs do not remain infertile and those who encounter Jesus with faith are healed. The idea that God chooses the disabled is overshadowed by the idea that God’s favor is evident only in their healing.

The second approach to disability in the Bible, advocated primarily by biblical theologians, focused on the eschaton and the resurrection of the body. In the kingdom of heaven, they argue, the disabled would be vindicated because they would be healed. Both this and the caring approach to disability in the Bible assumed that disability was always secondary, inferior, and negative, reproducing the biases that they sought to avoid.

Biblical Studies and Disability 1985 to the Present.

The advent of critical disability theory and the recognition that the category of disability is both constructed and representative of social experiences and culture has had a profound impact on historical studies. This impact, in turn, has led to a renaissance in the study of diseases and disabilities in the Hebrew Bible and the application of the “religious model of disability” to scriptural texts. The construction of categories of disability, especially in the priestly literature of the Hebrew Bible, has been the subject of renewed interest. Much of this work has taken up the methodological finesse of disability studies as a redress to the unreflected diagnostic approach of prior historical criticism to great effect.

Additional interest in the subject emerged out of social-anthropological study of the Bible and the work of social scientists, in particular Hector Avalos, whose two books Illness and Health Care in the Ancient Near East (1995) and Healthcare and the Rise of Christianity (1999) reconsidered illness and disability in terms of their social and economic capital and function. Avalos’s arguments about the centrality of healthcare and access to healthcare in the ancient world offered a fresh and radically new take on the ways in which religion worked in ancient societies and the reasons for the success of the Jesus Movement. Avalos’s work, while not self-consciously tied to critical disability theory, prefigured much of the subsequent work in the field since. In a similar vein, John Pilch examined the New Testament and Jesus’s role as healer using medical anthropological models (2000). His work, begun in the 1980s, utilized anthropological distinctions between disease and illness and explored the way that Jesus functions as a healer in the New Testament. He argued that Jesus responds to purity concerns and illness as a holy person and on behalf of his father. Healing, Pilch demonstrated, involved social rehabilitation and reassimilation. Healing was not merely physical, but also social. Persons of disability were cast out by society and, in healing them, Jesus reintegrated the disabled into the mainstream. Pilch’s work gestures toward the general principle that disability is a social construct. In the case of the story of the healing of woman with the flow of blood in Mark 5:24B–34, for instance, her condition is seen as disabling in the sense that she is alienated and distanced from society.

Disability studies first entered biblical scholarship in the work of constructive theologians and especially in the work of Nancy Eiesland, whose 1994 book, The Disabled God, made the first inroads into theological engagement with disability criticism. Eiesland’s study included an influential analysis of Gospel stories about the resurrection of Jesus and the nature of Jesus’s resurrected body, in which she proposed that the retention of the wounds of crucifixion in the body of Jesus offered a positive perspective that subverted traditional theological understandings of disability.

In the late 1990s, under the influence of disability theory and theologians like Eiesland, biblical scholars began to alter the ways in which they approached passages about disability. Rather than assuming that there is an essential quality to disability in the Bible, they began to look at the ways in which disability serves to order biblical society. Explicit interest in disability studies was often tied to political activism on behalf of persons with disabilities and the efforts of constructive theologians like Eiesland, whose writings were intended to serve pastoral functions. The relative newness of disability studies meant that these scholars, like feminist critics before them, had to justify both the intrinsic value and the scholarly credentials of their work. The volume of essays, This Abled Body, edited by Avalos, Schipper, and Sarah Melcher in 2007, offered the first effort to bring scholars together to do work that was both biblical and engaged constructively with disability and theology.

The first major monograph on disability, Jeremy Schipper’s pioneering work on Mephibosheth, published in 2006, drew attention to a number of important ways in which disability had been misrepresented. Schipper’s work was the first monograph in biblical studies to present disability as a facet of human identity akin to gender or race and to argue that disability is grounded in real lived experience. Schipper made the observation that disability was more common and extended in antiquity than in the modern world. The limitations of ancient medicine were such that a much higher proportion of ancient audiences had disabilities and received passages concerning disability differently. Disability was not an incidental detail in the biblical text, but instances of disability were rather sites of interpretation.

Even apart from the methodological difficulties that ancient texts present to trained medics (e.g., brief descriptions of conditions, the absence of important medical data such as blood tests, the incomplete nature of the medical history, etc.), diagnosis ignores the different cultural value ascribed to these conditions. Even if the terms “sacred disease” and “epilepsy” do refer to the same condition, equating the sacred disease with epilepsy obscures the specific cultural value attached to the sacred disease in the ancient world. Diagnostic biblical scholarship persists, however, in the historically grounded work of JoAnn Scurlock and Burton R. Andersen (2005) and the pastorally minded contributions of Donald Capps (2008).

An alternative perspective on disability has been pursued by scholars like Saul Olyan and Tracy Lemos, whose work on the Hebrew Bible analyzes the way that categories of disability and the violence associated with disability serve to organize society, to deny access to religious locations, and to inscribe hierarchy in the communities for which these texts were written. Olyan’s Disability in the Hebrew Bible: Interpreting Mental and Physical Differences (2008) examines the ways in which textual representations of disability express patterns of social inequality. The book is grounded in historical and philological analysis of the Hebrew Bible and, while taking a sensitive approach to disability, insists upon using ancient categories of analysis.


The ethics and politics of disability still have great currency among modern biblical scholars. For a large number of theological interpreters—Hans Reinders, Amos Yong (2011), and Thomas Reynolds among them—interest in disability stems from pastoral concerns or issues of relevance and applicability in the modern world. In the work of these authors, biblical scholarship remains, or should remain, constrained by the interests of the disabled.

At the same time, however, even as pastoral or theological interpretations of biblical disability continue to play a prominent role among systematic and practical theologians, biblical scholarship has focused on contextualizing disability in the ancient world. These new approaches focus on differentiating between different lines of thought in ancient literature, using ancient medical literature and practices to reappraise the presentation of disability in the Bible, and revisiting the topic of disabled imagery and rhetoric in the writings of individual authors.

The uncritical adoption of the religious model of disability meant that in the past scholars rarely distinguished between different lines of thought, perspective, and argumentation among biblical authors. Many scholars generally assumed that, when it comes to disability, biblical authors are united in a way unparalleled by their varied approaches to any other theological question. Recent scholarship by Joel Baden and Candida Moss (2011) on the presentation of skin disease in the Hebrew Bible has contrasted the perspectives of the biblical authors with one another. Rather than assuming that all authors subscribed to the religious model of disability, Baden and Moss have demonstrated the ways in which the etiologies of disease and valuations of various conditions differ from one author to another.

The work of Rebecca Raphael (2009) explicitly adapts various methodologies from disability studies in her rereading of disability in narrative and poetry. Raphael adapts Mitchell and Snyder’s idea of narrative prosthesis—the way in which the disabled serve to initiate and propel the plot of a work only for the disability to disappear in the resolution of the tale to remarkable effect. Additionally, Raphael explores the use of the senses in various biblical texts by tracing images and metaphors of audition throughout the Hebrew Bible to contrast the ways in which different senses were privileged by individual sources. The interest in the ways that the senses and imagery of sensory impairment are identified, grouped, and assessed is paralleled in the work of Louise Lawrence (2011). Sensory criticism, which is informed by cross-cultural anthropology of the senses, pays particular attention to the ways in which biblical authors used and privileged the senses in biblical texts. In her work on Mark, Lawrence identifies the account as an “audio-centric” text, which she sees as a deliberate strategy to resist the dominance of sightedness in contemporary imperial propaganda.

Recent New Testament scholarship that engages disability has sought to resituate miracle stories and descriptions of disability within the rich landscape of ancient Greco-Roman medicine, aesthetics, and culture. Influenced by the work of Robert Garland and Martha Rose, New Testament scholars have begun to see the ways in which imagery of disability in the Bible and early church is influenced by contemporary culture. This interest, exemplified in the work of Avalos, Parsons (2006), Moss, and Lawrence, is also found in treatments of non-canonical texts. The work of Nicole Kelley (2009) on disability in early Christian literature exemplifies this approach. Kristi Upson-Saia’s work on scarred bodies in the resurrection in the thinking of Augustine offers a reappraisal of the ways that scars are treated in early Christian texts about the eschaton that reflects ancient aesthetics and discourse about scarring. This study, with its focus on the idealism of resurrected bodies, parallels Schipper’s and Moss’s more recent works on eschatological imagery of healing in Isaiah and in the early church.

“Second wave” biblical scholarship on disability has challenged assumptions about the ways that disability functions positively in certain narratives. Rather than attempting to diagnose unambiguous examples of disability, these scholars focus on the rhetorical function of disability for ancient authors and on the intersection of disability and other hermeneutical approaches. The 2012 collection, Disability Studies and Biblical Studies, focuses on integrating disability criticism with feminist, historical-critical, queer, reception-historical, and postmodern approaches to scripture. While disability critics were initially interested in producing readings that spoke to persons with disabilities in distinction to historical-critical readings, recent scholarship has seen disability criticism as a helpful supplement not only to theology but also to historical-critical, rhetorical, and other identity-based criticisms.



  • Avalos, Hector. Health Care and the Rise of Christianity. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1999. Here Avalos offers an alternative vision of the spread of Christianity predicated on the free healthcare that it offered to the poor.
  • Avalos, Hector. Illness and Health Care in the Ancient Near East: The Role of the Temple in Greece, Mesopotamia, and Israel. Atlanta: Scholars, 1995. This was the first work to look at the different venues in which healthcare took place in terms of social function. Rather than assuming modern medical practices, Avalos looked at the role of healing centers in the ancient world as an entrée into the Biblical text.
  • Avalos, Hector, Jeremy Schipper, and Sarah Melcher, eds. This Abled Body: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies. Semeia Studies 55. Leiden: Brill, 2007. The first collection of essays on disability in the Bible, this volume focuses more on the Old Testament than the New.
  • Baden, Joel S., and Candida R. Moss. “The Origin and Interpretation of ṣāra‘at in Leviticus 13–14.” Journal of Biblical Literature 130:4 (2011): 643–661.
  • Capps, Donald. Jesus the Village Psychiatrist. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.
  • Dorman, Johanna. The Blemished Body: Deformity and Disability in the Qumran Scrolls. Groningen: Rijksuniversiteit, 2007. Dorman’s is the first study of disability in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
  • Eiesland, Nancy. The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1994. This groundbreaking and innovative study of disability in theology includes discussions of the resurrection appearances of Jesus.
  • Garland, Robert. The Eye of the Beholder: Deformity and Disability in the Graeco-Roman World. 2d ed. London: Bristol Classical, 2010.
  • Kelley, Nicole. “The Deformed Child in Ancient Christianity.” In Children in Late Ancient Christianity, edited by Cornelia B. Horn and Robert R. Phenix. Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum 58. Mohr Siebeck: Tübingen, 2009.
  • Lawrence, Louise, “Exploring the Sense-scape of the Gospel of Mark.” Journal for the Study of New Testament 33:4 (2011): 387–397. This article is a sensory-critical analysis of Mark, which argues that the focus on audition is a deliberate effort to reject imperial values.
  • Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 1–16. Anchor Bible 3. New York, Doubleday, 1991.
  • Moss, Candida R. “Heavenly Healing: Eschatological Cleansing and the Resurrection of the Dead in the Early Church.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79:3 (2011): 1–27. Moss discusses the eradication of disability in early Christian constructions of resurrected bodies.
  • Moss, Candida R. “The Man with the Flow of Power: Porous Bodies in Mark 5:25–34.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129:3 (2010): 507–519. Moss uses ancient medical theories of disease to argue that the body of Jesus is fundamentally weak.
  • Moss, Candida R., and Jeremy Schipper. Disability Studies and Biblical Studies. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011. This collection of essays is a dialogue between disability studies and feminism, queer theory, Foucault, reception history, source criticism and ancient medicine.
  • Oliver, Michael. The Politics of Disablement: A Sociological Approach. New York: St. Martin’s, 1990.
  • Olyan, Saul M. Disability in the Hebrew Bible: Interpreting Mental and Physical Differences. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Olyan examines hierarchy and social structures in, especially, priestly material in the Bible.
  • Parsons, Mikeal. Body and Character in Luke and Acts: The Subversion of Physiognomy in Early Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2006. Parsons uses Greek physiognomical treatises to analyze the healing miracles in the Luke-Acts.
  • Pilch, John J. Healing in the New Testament: Insights from Mediterranean and Medical Anthropology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000. As a social scientific analysis of the New Testament healing stories, this work incorporates anthropological analysis and models to discuss the New Testament.
  • Raphael, Rebecca. Biblical Corpora: Representations of Disability in Hebrew Biblical Literature. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 445; New York: T.&T. Clark, 2009. Raphael uses Disability Studies, especially the notion of “narrative prosthesis” to analyze a wide variety of texts about impairment in the Hebrew Bible.
  • Schipper, Jeremy. Disability and Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Schipper offers a piercing analysis of the history of scholarship and the ways in which scholars have neglected the fact that the suffering servant is disabled.
  • Schipper, Jeremy. Disability Studies and the Hebrew Bible: Figuring Mephibosheth in the David Story. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 441; New York: T.&T. Clark, 2006. In this first major monograph on disability in the Hebrew Bible, Schipper takes Mephibosheth as his starting point for discussing the ways in which disability is central to understanding the Old Testament.
  • Scurlock, JoAnn, and Burton R. Andersen. Diagnoses in Assyrian and Babylonian Medicine: Ancient Sources, Translations, and Modern Medical Analyses. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005. This work is an excellent treatment of Assyrian and Babylonian medical texts and the ways in which they diagnose and treat disease.
  • Snyder, Sharon L., and David T. Cultural Locations of Disability. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
  • Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
  • Yong, Amos. The Bible, Disability, and the Church. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2011. A recent theological study of disability in the Bible and Christian theology, this book is concerned with theology and practicality, not necessarily history.

Candida R. Moss

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