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Citation for Medicine

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"Medicine." In The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Ed. Bruce M. Metzger, Michael D. Coogan, Hector Ignacio Avalos. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. May 26, 2022. <http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/opr/t120/e0474>.


"Medicine." In The Oxford Companion to the Bible. , edited by Bruce M. Metzger, Michael D. Coogan, Hector Ignacio Avalos. Oxford Biblical Studies Online, http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/opr/t120/e0474 (accessed May 26, 2022).


Although the existence of survivable surgical procedures on the skull (trephination) is attested from the Neolithic through the Arab periods, it is particularly difficult to identify and evaluate the therapeutic value of most specific treatments mentioned in the Bible. Such healing practices include the use of “balsam” from Gilead (Jer. 46.11), “mandrakes” for infertility (Gen. 30.14), and “bandages” (Ezek. 30.21).

Archaeoparasitologists have recently established the probable existence of certain intestinal diseases (e.g., tapeworm [taenia] and whipworm [trichuris trichiura] infections) in ancient Israel, but the precise identification of most diseases in the Bible has been notoriously difficult, especially in cases of epidemics (Num. 25; 1 Sam. 5.6–12). The condition usually translated as “leprosy” (Hebr. ⊡āraʿat) receives the most attention in the Bible (Lev. 13–14), but it does not have a simple modern equivalent because it probably encompassed a large variety of diseases, especially those manifesting chronic discoloration of the skin. Infertility was viewed as an illness that diminished the social status of the afflicted woman (Gen. 30.1–20).

The Hebrew Bible has at least two principal explanations for illness. One, represented by Deuteronomy 28, affirms that health (Hebr. šālôm) encompasses a physical state associated with the fulfillment of covenant stipulations that are fully disclosed to the members of the society, and illness stems from the violation of those stipulations. Therapy includes reviewing one's actions in light of the covenant. The book of Job offers a contrasting yet complementary view, which argues that illness may be rooted in divine plans that may not be disclosed to the patient at all and not in the transgression of published rules. The patient must trust that God's undisclosed reasons are just.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Israelite health‐care system depicted in the canonical texts is the division into legitimate and illegitimate consultative options for the patient. This dichotomy is partly related to monolatry, insofar as illness and healing rest ultimately on Yahweh's control (Job 5.18) and insofar as non‐Yahwistic options are prohibited. Since it was accessible and inexpensive, prayer to Yahweh was probably the most common legitimate option for a patient. Petitions and thanksgiving prayers uttered from the viewpoint of the patient are attested in the Bible (Ps. 38; Isa. 38.10–20).

Illegitimate options included consultants designated as “healers” (2 Chron. 16.12: Hebr. rōpĕʾîm, NRSV: “physicians”), non‐Yahwistic temples (2 Kings 1.2–4), and probably a large variety of “sorcerers” (Deut. 18.10–12). Warnings in the canonical texts, along with archaeological evidence for fertility cults, indicate that such “illegitimate” options were used widely in ancient Israel.

The foremost legitimate consultants in the canonical texts are commonly designated as prophets, and they were often in fierce competition with “illegitimate” consultants. Stories of healing miracles (e.g., 2 Kings 4; 8) may reflect an effort to promote prophets as the legitimate consultants. Their function was to provide prognoses (2 Kings 8.8) and intercede on behalf of the patient (2 Kings 5.11). Unlike some of the principal healing consultants in other Near Eastern societies, the efficacy of the Israelite prophets resided more in their relationship with God than in technical expertise. The demise of the prophetic office early in the Second Temple period probably led to the wide legitimation of the rōpĕʾîm (see Sir. 38.1–15).

Another accepted option for some illnesses, particularly in the preexilic period, was the temple. In 1 Samuel 1, Hannah visited the temple at Shiloh to help reverse her infertility. 2 Kings 18.4 indicates that, prior to Hezekiah, the bronze serpent made by Moses as a therapeutic device (Num. 21.6–9) was involved in acceptable therapeutic rituals in the Temple of Jerusalem. Bronze serpents have been found in temples known to have been used for therapy during the first millennium BCE (e.g., the Asclepieion at Pergamon).

By the postexilic period the Priestly code (P) severely restricted access to the temple for the chronically ill (e.g., “lepers” in Lev. 13; nd14; cf. 2 Sam. 5.7 on the blind and the lame) because of fear of “impurity.” “Leprosy” alone probably encompassed a wide variety of patients. The theology of impurity, as a system of social boundaries, could serve to remove socioeconomically burdensome populations from society, the chronically ill perhaps being the most prominent. In effect, the Priestly code minimizes state responsibility for the chronically ill, leaving the eradication of illness for the future (Ezek. 47.12; cf. Isa. 35.5–6). (See Purity, Ritual.)

Thanksgiving or “well‐being” offerings (Lev. 7.11–36) after an illness were probably always acceptable and economically advantageous for the Temple. Offerings after an illness also may have served as public notice of the readmission of previously ostracized patients to society (Lev. 14.1–32).

The community responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls added to the priestly list of illnesses that excluded from the normal community and expanded the restrictions for “leprosy,” the blind, and the lame (1QSa II.4–9). Socioeconomic reasons, as well as the fear of magical contamination, may be responsible for such increased restrictions.

Perhaps the most far‐reaching consequence of the Priestly code was the growth of chronically ill populations with little access to the Temple. Since Jesus and his disciples appear to target these populations (Matt. 10.8; Mark 14.3), early Christianity may be seen, in part, as a critique of the priestly health‐care system. In early Christianity illness may be caused by numerous demonic entities who are not always acting at Yahweh's command (Matt. 15.22; Luke 11.14; see also Exorcism; Satan) and not necessarily by the violation of covenant stipulations (John 9.2). Emphasizing that the cure for illness may be found in this world, early Christianity preserved many older Jewish traditions regarding miraculous healings (Acts 5.16; 9.34) and collective health (James 5.16), although the influence of Hellenistic healing cults (e.g., the Asclepius cult) also may be seen.

K. Seybold and U. B. Mueller (Sickness and Healing, 1978) provide a recent study of biblical medicine, although a new comprehensive study is needed to integrate the recent work by paleopathologists (e.g., Joseph Zias, Death and Disease in Ancient Israel, Biblical Archaeologist 54 [1991]: 146–59) and medical anthropologists (e.g., Arthur Kleinman, Patients and Healers in the Context of Culture: Explorations of the Borderland Between Anthropology, Medicine and Psychiatry, 1980).

Hector Ignacio Avalos

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