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Bible Dictionaries
Deaf and Dumb

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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1. Link between deafness and dumbness.—(a) It appears impossible to separate these two maladies of deafness and dumbness, whether one approaches them from the standpoint either of the scientist or of the student. The consequence of the former disease is that the sense of hearing is diminished or abolished; the consequence of the latter is that the power of articulating sounds is defective or impossible. There is, indeed, no physiological connexion between the maladies; but the acute stage of either leaves the patient now with a correspondent incapacity of hearing, now with a correspondent incapacity for speaking. The acutest form of these maladies is seen when congenital; then the link is observed at its closest: the maladies, so to speak, draw into one, and the remedies which surgery or treatment, and the artificial aids of hand, or lip, or sign language can afford, are invariably applied as if these maladies had some common source and a unity of their own.

(b) This conception of an inherent unity between deafness and dumbness is curiously illustrated by the Greek adjective with which this article is chiefly concerned. κωφός is derived from the root κοπ, i.e. that which is smitten, crushed, or blunted, opposed to ὀξὺς, ‘sharp,’ ‘keen.’ Thus κωφός is used in Homer of a blunt weapon,* [Note: xi. 390.] of the dumb earth [Note: xxiv. 44.] [cp. Lat. bruta tellus], and, with a wonderful picturesqueness, of the noiselessness of a wave before it crashes upon the shingle. [Note: xiv. 16.] It is thus only by a slight metaphorical turn that the adjective stands to describe the impairment or loss of powers of the mind or body; and so of vision, of hearing, and articulating.

2. References in the Gospels.—In the Gospels κωφός (the word is not found outside them in the NT) is applied only to the two maladies under discussion, i.e. to describe the dwarfed and blunted powers of the deaf and dumb. Indeed, as it furnishes a common description of both maladies, a less careful student would be in danger, at least in the chief characteristic passage (Mark 7:31-37), of misrendering, or rather misapplying, the adjective, which plainly signifies ‘deaf.’ But later in the same Gospel (Mark 9:25) κωφός probably means ‘dumb.’ This free transference of the adjective by the same writer, as descriptive now of the one malady and now of the other, is clearly not due to any scientific knowledge of the Second Evangelist; it was enough for him that it connoted the crushing, maiming character of both diseases. It is curious to note that even St. Luke the physician, in the three passages in which the word occurs, uses κωφός in this double application (Mark 1:22, Mark 11:14 of dumbness, Mark 7:22 of deafness). St. Matthew again uses the expression indifferently as applicable to deafness (Matthew 11:5) or dumbness (Matthew 9:33).

It is, of course, mainly on our Lord’s works of healing that the interest of the question turns. A glance will be sufficient at the striking passage in the opening of St. Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1:5-22) in which the announcement of the birth of the Baptist was made to the aged Zacharias. It is significant to observe that Zacharias was on this occasion the victim not merely of lack of faith in the angel’s message, but of real alarm at the vision. The penalty for this lack of faith was temporary speechlessness. Its infliction was indeed pronounced by Gabriel, but it may well be supposed that it was brought about by natural causes. There are many instances in which sudden emotion has brought on deafness or dumbness, and, strangely enough, there are instances on record in which a sudden emotion, like terror, has led to the restoration of lost powers of this character. The medical faculty always regard hopefully patients who have become suddenly deaf or dumb from these instantaneous causes, and it may be assumed that neither Zacharias himself nor his friends regarded the visitation as permanent, apart from Gabriel’s consoling limitation of its consequences.

Two miracles recorded by St. Mark have suggestions about the deaf and dumb which are full of interest, and to which only inadequate commentary is possible within the space of this article. The former is that wrought by the Lord, on the edge of the Holy Land, upon an unnamed sufferer (Mark 7:31-37). He is described as deaf, and as having an impediment in his speech. The strange term* [Note: μογιλἁλος; there is no English equivalent. The French word balbutiant approaches its meaning closely.] here employed (Mark 7:32), which does not occur elsewhere in NT and is found only once in LXX Septuagint (Isaiah 35:8), indicates at once the closeness of link between the two maladies which has been already emphasized, and also declares that the man was not so dumb as he was deaf. He spoke, but only with difficulty; a trial, no doubt, to others as to himself. In this narrative, given by St. Mark with such extraordinary vividness of detail, [Note: See present writer’s article in Expositor (v. iv. [1896] p. 380) on ‘He took him aside.’] —the taking aside, the mysterious remedies applied, the sigh, the word spoken, not of magic but of power, [Note: The Aram. Ephphatha (v.34) applies not only to the man’s hearing but to his speech; to the open ear, but also as by a frequent Hebraism to the open lip.] —in all these we see the Divine figure of the Son of Man as traced by St. Mark, in His compassion for suffering humanity, in His teaching as significant by action as by word, in His sublime confidence that He had that to give, for which He looked not in vain from heaven. St. Mark puts in simple, unscientilic terms the record of the cure. The sufferer’s ears were opened, his tongue was no longer a prisoner, speech came back orderly and intelligible to those around.

The other miracle, also recorded by St. Mark (Mark 9:14-29), is upon one whose dumbness was linked with demoniacal possession. An examination of the passage shows how the case had baffled Christ’s disciples. The father of the possessed felt that he had in the Great Teacher his final resort. Our Lord’s question elicited the reply that the malady, aggravated by demoniacal suggestion, was congenital. The man’s dumbness was of the acutest form. The narrative of the miracle is not out of line with the experience of the medical faculty. It is not only that deafness and dumbness are allied, but the patient at his worst and unhappiest suffers some form of dementia or idiocy. With the former instance, which lacked the distressing epileptic symptoms, our Lord dealt directly. In the latter He faces an evil, hostile power, ‘Thou speechless* [Note: The rarer word ἁλαλον is used in vv.17, 25.] and dumb spirit, come out of him, and enter no more into him.’ The former cure was calmly, quietly brought about. This was accompanied by awful convulsions. But the issue in both was the same, neither physical defects nor demoniacal agency resisted the word of pity and of power.

It is to be observed that none of our Lord’s miracles excited such interest or won such admiration as those wrought upon the deaf and dumb. This would answer to common experience, the restoration of sight to the blind, for it is none other than this which special treatment in Germany seems now and again to have brought about, and of which one marvellous instance is known to the present writer, would not cause such astonishment as the recovery of a deaf or dumb friend. Blindness does not interrupt personal relationship as deafness and dumbness do, and, the moment hearing and speech are recovered, the results and consequences are communicable to others. It is no wonder, therefore, that the astonishment of the multitude passed into praise. Its verdict was, ‘He hath done all things well’ (Mark 7:37).

3. Spiritual applications of deafness and dumbness.—The senses of which these human bodies of ours stand possessed are so wondrous in their character and operations, that one would expect to find in Holy Scripture lessons drawn from them of great spiritual import. And so it is. The open eye, clear, candid, trustful, is a figure it faith throughout both Testaments (Psalms 119:18; Psalms 121:1, Proverbs 20:12, Mark 8:18, John 12:40, Romans 11:8). With equal force the open ear is significant of obedience. Students of the Psalter and of the Prophets will bear in mind the denunciations poured, both for spiritual deafness and dumbness, upon a people which refused to listen to the voice of Jehovah, and which was silent when the Divine Name and His praise were concerned (Psalms 81:11 etc., Isaiah 6:10). On the other hand, again, through both Testaments, from Samuel to St John the Divine, a commendation and blessing has ever attended the ear willing to receive, the lips open to prayer and to praise. It is in and through the combination of these that the message of the Gospel can be disseminated (Romans 10:10; Romans 10:17). And so of all the spiritual gifts, most dear to Apostolic men was παρρησία. (Ephesians 6:20), born of the courage of conviction, and marking a mind and temper capable of standing at the last before the Son of Man.

B. Whitefoord.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Deaf and Dumb'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​d/deaf-and-dumb.html. 1906-1918.
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