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Medicine and The Bible

Sometimes, when I am a step ahead of my email (yes, this is a rare occurrence), I get a chance to spend some time just browsing all the great online products OUP publishes. This morning, I spent some time in Oxford Biblical Studies Online and found an article about the relationship between medicine and the bible that I thought you would all enjoy. The article is from The Oxford Companion to the Bible and was written by J. Keir Howard. Check it out below.

It is generally agreed that modern Western medicine takes its origin from two main sources, the Greek ideals enshrined in the Hippocratic tradition, to which was added the influence of the biblical teaching of love of one’s neighbor (Lev. 19.18; Luke 10.25–37). Thus, although Western medicine owes much to its classical heritage, especially as this has been reinterpreted since the Renaissance, it was the added dimension of a biblically based ethic that gave it a distinctive approach, centered in a profound respect for the person.

The pragmatism of Greek ideals is reflected in writings dealing with the exposure of unwanted or weak infants and with solutions to the problems of the chronically ill. The latter, being useless to themselves and to the state, should be allowed to die without medical attention (Plato, Republic 407). Biblical religion, on the other hand, had the frame of reference of a transcendent God to whom humankind was ultimately answerable; this gives rise to a profound respect for the dignity and innate value of the individual, seen as created in the image of God (Gen. 1.27). The responsibilities of biblical faith, whether Jewish or Christian, in the relations of people with one another are summed up in texts like “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19.18) and “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7.12;…). From the standpoint of medicine, this was admirably summed up in the prayer of the great Jewish physician Maimonides (1135–1204 CE): “May I never see in my patient anything else than a fellow creature in pain.”

The influence of such biblical precepts introduces an element of moral obligation into medical ethics as it developed in parallel with the rising influence of Christianity in the later Roman empire and throughout the medieval period in Europe. It also provided the spur to the church to establish hospitals that provided care for the sick; refuges that gave shelter to the blind, sufferers from leprosy, the mentally ill, and others outcast from society; and dispensaries for the poor. This same obligation, at a much later stage, led to the development of medical missionary work in conjunction with, yet distinct from, the growth of evangelistic concern that took place in the nineteenth century.

In providing a moral base for such developments, the Bible has given to modern medicine a great deal more than it might now care to acknowledge. Nevertheless, the centrality of respect for the person that originates in the Bible has now become enshrined in modern medical codes, such as the Geneva Convention Code of Ethics (1949) and the Helsinki Convention (1964) of the World Medical Association.

On the other hand, as a result of the ways in which the Bible has been interpreted and applied, there have been times when its influence on medicine has been negative. Until there was any proper understanding of the causative factors in disease and the actual disease processes themselves, there was a tendency to see sickness as the result of divine visitations and punishment for wrongdoing. The Bible itself knows little of physicians as such (see Medicine), and in the faith of Israel it was God alone who was the healer and giver of life. Most references to physicians are uncomplimentary (as in Mark 5.25–26, more temperately put in Luke 8.43) or at best neutral. Other than the reference to Luke “the beloved physician” (Col. 4.14), the only positive remarks about medical practitioners occur in Sirach 38.1–15, where the reader is exhorted to “honor physicians for their services.” Even in this passage, however, the emphasis is on the need for confession of sin before any true healing could take place and the role of God as healer. (Note the much later dictum of Ambroise Paré [1510–1590]: “I treated the patient, but God healed him.”)

In the Bible itself, it is the religious component that dominates in a situation where religion and medicine are inextricably bound together. This is seen particularly in Israel’s legal codes, which did not separate physical disease from ritual purity. Thus, while the sanitary code of the Torah contains regulations that were of major importance in the promotion of health and the prevention of epidemic diseases in the community, they are set within a religious framework. Ultimately, it was God alone who sent disease and disaster as a punishment for wrongdoing or, alternatively, rewarded the good with health and well‐being (see, e.g., Exod. 15.26; Deut. 7.12–15).

The establishment of such a causal relationship between disease and a failure to meet religious and moral obligations was, in some sense, an attempt to answer the unanswerable question, “Why me?” It was seen especially with regard to contagious and disfiguring diseases, of which the best example is the disease complex unfortunately called leprosy in most English translations. Various ritual prescriptions were applied to such diseases in order to avoid the contamination of the community, which was seen as more important than the healing of the sick person. Similar ritual restrictions were also imposed in relation to normal physiological functions (see, e.g., Lev. 12; 15.16–33). Thus, consulting a physician for help could be construed as denial of the primary role of God and evidence of lack of faith in him, as well as lack of willingness to acknowledge personal sin (2 Chron. 16.12).

Many of these concepts were perpetuated in Christianity, even though such a simplistic viewpoint was challenged in the Bible (e.g., in the book of Job and John 9.1–3). The early church, however, undoubtedly interpreted such views too literally, and medical treatment was displaced by an emphasis on prayer and fasting in order to chasten the individual. From the Renaissance onward, however, medicine and theology became increasingly divorced from one another, allowing the development of medicine along the now‐familiar lines of scientific principles from the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries onward. Nonetheless, there has always been in Christianity a healing ministry that has been seen as biblically based (see, e.g., Luke 10.9). In general, this has not been considered as in competition with orthodox medicine but rather as complementary to it. Some more recent developments in healing ministries derived from biblical literalism, however, seem to be an attempt to return to a prescientific worldview, and will inevitably be in conflict with modern medical practice.

Recent Comments

  1. Cheryl

    Hence the emphasis on miraculous healings: raising from the dead, restoring sight, and (from the sound of the symptoms) healing the woman who touched the hem of his garment from endometriosis.

  2. Lee

    Re: Mark 5:25-26 and the woman who “suffered much under many physicians” – considering what George Washington went through some 1,800 years later, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if she really did suffer!

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