Holman Bible Dictionary 
Few of the effective ways of preventing and treating disease that people take for granted today were available then. Immunization against disease was unknown. The discovery of antibiotics, vitamins, hormones, anesthetics, and most effective surgical procedures lay far in the future. Illness struck quickly with devastating results. Life expectancy was short.
Providers of Medical Care Ancient Near Eastern literature contains numerous references to physicians and medical practice. A Sumerian physician, Lulu, lived in Mesopotamia about 2700 B.C. A few decades later, a famous Egyptian named Imhotep established a reputation as a physician and priest. He also became noted as a great architect. He designed the Step Pyramid at Saqqara.
The Code of Hammurabi, from about 1750 B.C., contains several laws regulating the practice of medicine and surgery by physicians in the Old Babylonian Kingdom. Although the profession of medicine was in its infancy, the many practitioners slowly improved their skills.
The Egyptians made more rapid progress in medical knowledge and its application to patients than did the Babylonians. Their physicians tended to specialize. Each would limit his practice to one part of the body, such as the eye, the teeth, or the stomach. Egyptian doctors, like others, often used herbs in their medications. These were collected from many areas of the world and were often grown in gardens connected with the temples of Egypt. Egyptian physicians became respected throughout the ancient world. Their skill was even admired in a later period by the Greeks, who eventually became the foremost physicians.
The Old Testament has only a few references to physicians. These persons most likely had been trained in Egypt. Physicians were called upon to embalm the body of Jacob ( Genesis 50:2 ). King Asa sought medical care from physicians for his diseased feet ( 2 Chronicles 16:12 ). Some non-medical references are made to physicians ( Jeremiah 8:22; Job 13:4 ). It is unlikely that many trained physicians lived among the ancient Hebrews.
The great Greek physician, Hippocrates, born about 460 B.C., is often referred to as the Father of Medicine. Hippocrates believed that disease had natural causes. He relied mainly on diet and various herbs to treat his patients. Around 300 B.C. the Greeks established an important medical school in Alexandria, Egypt, which flourished for several centuries and trained many physicians. The school was noted for its large library and laboratory facilities. Dissection of the human body was permitted, and some limited advances were made in the knowledge of anatomy.
Greek physicians became renowned throughout the Mediterranean world. Medicine gradually became more scientific and less controlled by magic and superstition. The Greeks acknowledged their debt to the Egyptians and were particularly appreciative of the information these doctors had gathered about the use of plants in medical practice.
By the time of Jesus, the city of Rome had become an important medical center. Many physicians practiced there. Originally they were in the slave class, but their profession gradually became esteemed. Julius Caesar granted Roman citizenship to Greek physicians practicing in Rome. The Romans made significant contributions in the area of public health, including the provision of a relatively pure water supply, an effective sewage disposal system, and the establishment of a food inspection program. The Romans also established a network of hospitals, initially founded to care for the needs of the army.
Outlying regions of the empire, such as Palestine, apparently had few well-trained doctors, although little information is available concerning professional medical care outside the large cities. The majority of people probably were born and died without ever being treated by a trained physician.
The New Testament mentions physicians only a few times. Jesus noted the purpose of a physician is to treat the ill ( Matthew 9:12; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:31 ), and he referred to a common proverb, “Physician, heal thyself” ( Luke 4:23 ). Mark and Luke related the story of a woman who had sought the help of physicians but had not been healed ( Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:43-48 ). Paul, in Colossians 4:14 , remarks that his colleague, Luke, was a physician. Luke was a Gentile, but his hometown is unknown. The source of his medical training is also unknown, but it is possible that he went to medical school in Tarsus, Paul's hometown.
In many lands, priests were assigned medical duties. This was true among the ancient Hebrews, where priests were major providers of medical services. They were especially responsible for the diagnosis of diseases which might pose a threat to the community ( Leviticus 13:1 ). Priests in Israel apparently played little role in the actual treatment of ill persons.
During the time of the New Testament, the Roman god of healing, Aesculapius (known by the Greeks at an earlier time by the name of Asklepios), was popular. Many of his temples, staffed by his priests, were scattered throughout the Mediterranean world. Persons seeking healing thronged these temples. They often brought small replicas of the portion of the body that was afflicted by disease to these temples and left them with the priests. Other sites, for one reason or another, became renowned as places of healing. A good biblical example of this is the Pool of Bethesda ( John 5:1-15 ). The pool of Siloam also is connected with Jesus' ministry of healing ( John 9:7 ).
Most of the medicine practiced in ancient Palestine and in other outlying parts of the Roman Empire was probably unprofessional. This was certainly true in Old Testament times. Women, trained by apprenticeship and experience served as midwives. Some persons became adept at setting broken bones. Families were left to apply their own folk remedies in most cases of illness, perhaps in consultation with someone in the community who had become known for his or her success in the treatment of various ailments. Fortunately, the human body has considerable ability to heal itself. Despite obvious medical limitations, many of the patients recovered; and many of the remedies used were “successful.”
Methods of Treating Disease The Bible contains little information about the treatment of disease, except through miraculous means. Much of the data concerning this subject has to be obtained from other ancient literature. Most of these records come from the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Some are even older. For example, a clay tablet containing fifteen prescriptions from a Sumerian source has been found. This dates to about 2200 B.C.
An examination of these old records, often fragmentary and obscure, reveals that most medicines were derived from three sources. The majority came from various parts of many different plants. Early physicians also used substances obtained from animals, such as blood, urine, milk, hair, and ground-up shell and bone. In addition, certain mineral products were commonly used, including salt and bitumen. The use of these medicines was often accompanied by magical rites, incantations, and prayers. In the earliest periods, in particular, lines were not clearly drawn between religion, superstition, and science.
Modern doctors and Bible students have an almost impossible task as they try to diagnose accurately ailments mentioned in the Bible. Various infectious diseases undoubtedly accounted for a large number of the cases of serious illness and death. Nutritional deficiencies, birth defects, and injuries were common. The symptoms produced by these and other types of physical afflictions were treated by a variety of means.
Prevention is always the best form of treatment. Since the cause of most illness was unknown in the biblical period, relatively little could be done, however, to prevent disease. Ancient people did realize a contagious nature to some illnesses. In these cases, attempts were made to quarantine the afflicted person and prevent close contact with healthy individuals ( Leviticus 13:1 ).
The Hebrew word translated, “leprosy,” in Leviticus 13:1 is a general term used to describe a number of different skin eruptions. Although true leprosy occurred in ancient times and often caused changes in the skin, many of the persons brought to the priests undoubtedly suffered from more common bacterial and fungal infections of the skin. The priests had the duty of determining, on the basis of repeated examination, which of these eruptions posed a threat to others. They had the authority to isolate persons with suspected dangerous diseases from the community.
Isaiah 38:1 relates the story of the very serious illness of King Hezekiah. The cause of his illness was a “boil” ( Isaiah 38:21 ). The Hebrew word translated, “boil,” is translated, “sore boils,” in Job 2:7 . It is also the word used to describe the eruption occurring on men and beasts mentioned in Exodus 9:8-11 (compare Leviticus 13:18-20; Deuteronomy 28:27 ).
The illness of Hezekiah was treated by applying a poultice of figs ( Isaiah 38:21 ). Hezekiah almost certainly had some type of acute bacterial infection of the skin. Prior to the discovery of antibiotics, these dangerous infections could cause death. Although it is unlikely that the figs had any medicinal value, they were probably applied in the form of a hot compress. Heat is an effective treatment for infections of the skin.
The use of hot and cold compresses and baths was widely employed in the ancient world to treat illness, although the Bible itself has little to say about this. Herod the Great, according to the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, spent his last days at his winter palace in Jericho, where he sought relief in hot baths from his intense suffering. His physicians also bathed him in warm oil.
Medical care in biblical times frequently employed the use of different kinds of salves and ointments. Olive oil was used widely, either alone or as an ingredient in ointments. The use of oil for the treatment of wounds is mentioned in Isaiah 1:6 and Luke 10:34 . Oil also became a symbol of medicine, and its use was coupled with prayer for the ill ( Mark 6:13; James 5:14 ).
Changes in diet were often suggested to the ill person. Since knowledge of nutrition and its role in the prevention and treatment of disease was so rudimentary, it is unlikely that many persons benefited from this approach. Nevertheless, through such trial and error, eventually some success was achieved. The dietary laws contained in the Old Testament were given for religious, not medical, reasons.
Herbs and various products obtained from many different plants were among the most popular of ancient medicines. These were applied to the body as a poultice, or, in many cases, taken by mouth. Frankincense and myrrh—gum resins obtained from trees—were commonly used to treat a variety of diseases, although their main use was in perfumes and incense. Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historia, described many of the substances used by physicians in the first century to treat disease. In retrospect, it is obvious that most of the herbs employed could not have been very effective. Some may have even been harmful. Some plants are, of course, poisonous ( 2 Kings 4:39-41 ). On the other hand, some of the products may actually have been of some benefit. Many modern medicines are derived from plants.
Wine was commonly thought to have medicinal value. One of its uses was to alleviate pain and discomfort. Wine, mixed with gall and myrrh, was offered to Jesus prior to His crucifixion, but He refused to drink it ( Matthew 27:34; Mark 15:23 ). Wine also was used to sooth stomach and intestinal disorders ( 1 Timothy 5:23 ) and to treat a variety of other physical problems. Beer was also widely used as an ingredient in several medicines, especially by the Babylonians.
Mental illness and epilepsy were not uncommon in the ancient world, and the victims suffered greatly. Their sickness was usually associated with demonic powers. The afflicted person was often isolated, and even abused in some cases. King Saul became mentally unstable, and it is of interest that he gained some help from music ( 1 Samuel 16:23 ), a form of therapy that has proved to be beneficial in some cases of mental illness. Perhaps the most dramatic example of mental illness related in the Bible concerns the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar ( Daniel 4:1 ). No treatment is described, but the king's sanity was restored when he acknowledged the true God.
Sterility was a great burden in biblical times. A childless couple was pitied by all. When Leah suffered a temporary period of sterility, she sent her son, Reuben, to the field to obtain mandrakes. Her barren sister, Rachel, also asked for some of the mandrakes ( Genesis 30:1 : 9-24 ). The root of the mandrake was widely used in the ancient world to promote conception, although there is no reason to believe it was truly effective. It was also used as a narcotic.
Most babies were born without the benefit of a physician. Midwives were frequently sought to give help, especially in the case of difficult deliveries ( Genesis 35:16-21; 1 Samuel 4:19-22 ). Babies were often born with mothers seated on a special stool ( Exodus 1:16 ). Many mothers and babies died during childbirth, or in the first few days and weeks after delivery. The high death rate was due to infection, blood loss, poor nutrition, and the absence of good medical care before, during, and after childbirth. The custom of breast-feeding fortunately did help prevent some illness.
Several examples of sickness are mentioned in the Bible where no description of the treatment given is described. King Asa had a disease of the feet ( 2 Chronicles 16:12 ). The nature of the treatment provided by his physicians is not given, but it was unsuccessful, and he died after two years. He may have been afflicted with gout, but this is uncertain.
King Jehoram died with a painful intestinal disorder ( 2 Chronicles 21:18-20 ). King Uzziah died of leprosy ( 2 Chronicles 26:19-23 ). King Herod Agrippa I died of some kind of parasitic disease ( Acts 12:21-23 ). Several kings died of injuries received in battle. Ahaziah died following a fall from the upper portion of his home in Samaria ( 2 Kings 1:2-17 ). When illness or accident occurred in the ancient world, it mattered little whether one was a royal person or a commoner—in either case, only limited medical help was available.
Several illnesses accompanied by fever are mentioned in the Bible ( Matthew 8:14-15; John 4:46-52; Acts 28:8 ). In the last cited reference, the ill man also had dysentery. Dysentery has several causes, but a very common and serious type in the biblical world was caused by amoeba, an intestinal parasite. Most fevers were due to infectious diseases, including malaria. There was no effective treatment for any of these infections, and death was all too often the outcome. Infections of the eye often resulted in blindness.
Small children were particularly vulnerable to illness, and the death rate could be high. The Bible tells of many children who suffered illness and sometimes death ( 2 Samuel 12:15-18; 1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:18-37; Luke 7:11-15; Luke 8:40-56; John 4:46-52 ). It was in such instances that the lack of effective remedies was most painfully apparent.
Since there was relatively little good medical care available and since illness so often led to disastrous results, it is not unexpected that sick persons in biblical times frequently asked for divine help. The Hebrew people were no exception to this practice. They often sought the help of God directly through prayer or through some person who was believed to possess special God-granted power to heal. A large number of the miracles described in the Bible are miracles of healing.
Surgery The only surgical procedure mentioned in the Bible is circumcision. This was done for religious rather than medical reasons and was not ordinarily performed by a doctor. In many ways, however, advances in surgery occurred more rapidly than progress in other branches of medicine in many countries. Descriptions of operations have been found in ancient literature, and some old surgical tools have been found in the ruins of ancient cities. Skeletons and mummies sometimes bear the traces of ancient surgical procedures.
Boils were lanced; broken bones were set; arms and legs were amputated. Holes were drilled into skulls to relieve pressure, and stones were removed from the urinary bladder. Teeth were also extracted. Ancient mummies have been found with gold fillings in their teeth. In addition, false teeth, using human or animal teeth, were being prepared by at least 500 B.C. Other kinds of daring operations were performed. Surgery called for boldness both on the part of the doctor and the patient. Despite the lack of modern antiseptics, anesthetics, antibiotics, and blood transfusions, many of the operations were successful.
Jesus and the Treatment of Disease One of the major ministries of Jesus was the healing of ill persons. They flocked to Him in large numbers, often after having tried all the remedies available in their day. They were desperate for help.
Jesus did not believe that all illness was the direct result of sin ( John 9:1-3 ). He had the power, however, both to forgive sin and to heal ( Matthew 9:1-8; compare Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26 ). Ordinarily, He did not use any kind of secondary means to treat the afflicted, although on several occasions He used spittle ( Mark 7:32-35; Mark 8:22-25; John 9:6-7 ). Some of the illnesses treated by Jesus probably had a psychosomatic basis; but many others undoubtedly had organic causes, including birth defects, accidental injuries, and infections.
Regardless of the cause of their distress, people found that Jesus could truly help. There can be no doubt that the ability of Jesus to perform miracles is seen most vividly in His healing ministry. The blind, the deaf, the lame, and sufferers of all varieties found in Him the help that was often not available through regular medical channels.
Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary 
In the primitive ages of the world, diseases, in consequence of the great simplicity in the mode of living, were but few in number. At a subsequent period the number was increased by the accession of diseases that had been previously unknown. Epidemicsalso, diseases somewhat peculiar in their character, and still more fearful in their consequences, soon made their appearance, some infesting one period of life, and some another; some limiting their ravages to one country, and some to another. Prosper Alpinus mentions the diseases which are prevalent in Egypt, and in other countries in the same climate: they are ophthalmies, leprosies, inflammations of the brain, pains in the joints, the hernia, the stone in the reins and bladder, the phthisic, hectic, pestilential, and tertian fevers, weakness of the stomach, obstructions in the liver, and the spleen. Of these diseases, ophthalmies, pestilential fevers, and inflammations of the brain, are epidemics; the others are of a different character. The leprosy prevails in Egypt, in the southern part of Upper Asia, and in fact may be considered a disease endemic in warm climates generally. Accordingly, it is not at all surprising, if many of the Hebrews, when they left Egypt, were infected with it; but the assertion of Manetho, that they were all thus infected, and were in consequence of the infection, driven out by force, in which he is precipitately and carelessly followed by Strabo, Tacitus, by Justin Trogus, and others more recent, is a mere dream without any foundation. The appearance of the disease externally is not always the same. The spot is commonly small, and resembling in its appearance the small red spot that would be the consequence of a puncture from a needle, or the pustules of a ringworm.
The spots for the most part make their appearance very suddenly, especially if the infected person, at the period when the disease shows itself externally, happens to be in great fear, or to be moved with anger, Numbers 12:10; 2 Chronicles 26:19 . They commonly exhibit themselves in the first instance on the face, about the nose and eyes; and gradually increase in size for a number of years, till they become, as respects the extent of surface which they embrace on the skin, as large as a pea or bean; they are then called שאת . The white spot or pustule, בהרת , morphea alba, and also the dark spot, ספחת , morphea nigra, are indications of the existence of the real leprosy, Leviticus 13:2; Leviticus 13:39; Leviticus 14:56 . From these it is necessary to distinguish the spot, which, whatever resemblance there may be in form, is so different in its effects, called בהק , and also the harmless sort of scab, which occurs under the word סמפחת , Leviticus 13:6-8; Leviticus 13:29 . Moses, in the thirteenth chapter of Leviticus, lays down very explicit rules for the purpose of distinguishing between those spots which are proofs of the actual existence of the leprosy, and those spots which are harmless, and result from some other cause. Those spots which are the genuine effects and marks of the leprosy gradually dilate themselves, till at length they cover the whole body. Not only the skin is subject to a total destruction, but the body is affected in every part. The pain, it is true, is not very great, but there is a great debility of the system, and great uneasiness and grief, so much so, as almost to drive the victim of the disease to self-destruction.
2. Moses acted the part of a wise legislator in making those laws which have come down to us concerning the inspection and separation of leprous persons. The object of these laws will appear peculiarly worthy, when it is considered, that they were designed, not wantonly to fix the charge of being a leper upon an innocent person, and thus to impose upon him those restraints and inconveniences which the truth of such a charge naturally implies, but to ascertain, in the fairest and most satisfactory manner, and to separate those, and those only, who were truly and really leprous. As this was the prominent object of his laws that have come down to us on this subject, namely, to secure a fair and impartial decision on a question of this kind, he has not mentioned those signs of leprosy which admitted of no doubt, but those only which might be the subject of contention; and left it to the priests, who also fulfilled the office of physicians, to distinguish between the really leprous, and those who had only the appearance of being such. We find mention, in the rules laid down by Moses for the purpose of ascertaining the true tokens of leprosy, of a cutaneous disorder which is denominated by him bohak. The words of Moses, which may be found in Leviticus 13:38-39 , are as follows: "If a man or woman have white spots on the skin, and the priest see that the colour of these spots is faint and pale, it is, in this case, the bohak that has broken out on the skin, and they are clean." A person, accordingly, who was attacked with this disease, the bohak, was not declared unclean; and the reason of it was, that it is not only harmless in itself, but is free from that infectious and hereditary character which belongs to the true leprosy. "The bohak" says Mr. Niebuhr, "is neither infectious nor dangerous. A black boy at Mocha, who was attacked with this sort of leprosy, had white spots here and there on his body. It was said that the use of sulphur had for some time been of service to this boy, but had not altogether removed the disease." He then adds the following extract from the papers of a Dr. Foster: "May 15th, 1763, I myself saw a case of the bohak in a Jew at Mocha. The spots in this disease are of unequal size. They have no shining appearance, nor are they perceptibly elevated above the skin; and they do not change the colour of the hair. Their colour is an obscure white, or somewhat reddish. The rest of the skin of this patient was blacker than that of the people of the country was in general, but the spots were not so white as the skin of an European when not sunburnt. The spots, in this species of leprosy, do not appear on the hands, nor about the navel, but on the neck and face; not, however, on that part of the head where the hair grows very thick. They gradually spread, and continue sometimes only about two months; but in some cases, indeed, as long as two years, and then disappear, by degrees, of themselves. This disorder is neither infectious nor hereditary, nor does it occasion any inconvenience. "That all this," remarks Michaelis, "should still be found exactly to hold at the distance of three thousand five hundred years from the time of Moses, ought certainly to gain some credit to his laws, even with those who will not allow them to be of divine authority." The pestilence, in its effects, is equally terrible with the leprosy, and is much more rapid in its progress; for it terminates the existence of those who are infected with it almost immediately, and at the farthest within three or four days. The Gentiles were in the habit of referring back the pestilence to the agency and interference of that being, whatever it might be, whether idol or spirit, whom they regarded as the divinity. The Hebrews, also, every where attribute it to the agency either of God himself, or of that legate or angel, whom they denominate מלאכּ? .
3. The palsy of the New Testament is a disease of very wide import. Many infirmities, as Richter has demonstrated, were comprehended under the word which is rendered palsy in the New Testament.
1. The apoplexy, a paralytic shock, which affected the whole body.
2. The hemiplegy, which affects and paralyzes only one side of the body.
3. The paraplegy, which paralyzes all the parts of the system below the neck.
4. The catalepsy, which is caused by a contraction of the muscles in the whole or a part of the body, for example, in the hands, and is very dangerous. The effects upon the parts seized are very violent and deadly. For instance: when a person is struck with it, if his hand happens to be extended, he is unable to draw it back. If the hand is not
extended when he is struck with the disease, he is unable to extend it: it appears diminished in size, and dried up in appearance. Hence the Hebrews were in the habit of calling it "a withered hand," 1 Kings
Leviticus 13:4-6; Zechariah 11:17; Matthew 12:10-13; John 5:3 .
5. The cramp, in oriental countries, is a fearful malady, and by no means unfrequent. It originates from the chills of the night. The limbs, when seized with it, remain immovable, sometimes turned in, and sometimes out, in the same position as when they were first seized. The person afflicted resembles those undergoing the torture βασανιζομενοι , and experiences nearly the same exquisite sufferings. Death follows the disease in a few days, Matthew 8:6; Matthew 8:8; Luke
Matthew 7:2; 1Ma_9:55-58 .
American Tract Society Bible Dictionary 
Were introduced into the world by sin, and have been greatly increased by the prevalence of corrupt, indolent, and luxurious habits. Besides the natural causes of diseases, evil spirits were charged with producing them among the Hebrews, Job 2:7 Mark 9:17 Luke 13:16 2 Corinthians 12:7 . The pious Jews recognized the hand of God in sending them, Psalm 39:9-11 90:3-12; and in many cases special diseases were sent in punishment of particular sins, as Abimelech, Gehazi, Jehoram, Uzziah, Miriam, Herod, the Philistines, etc., and those who partook of the Lord's supper unworthily, 1 Corinthians 11:30 . Christ manifested his divine goodness and power by healing every form of disease; and in these cases, as in that of king Asa, 2 Chronicles 16:12 , it is shown that all the skill of physicians is in vain without God's blessing. The prevalent diseases in Bible lands were malignant fevers, cutaneous diseases, palsy, dysentery, and ophthalmia. Almost every form of bodily disease has a counterpart in the maladies of the soul.
Morrish Bible Dictionary 
There are four Hebrew words and four Greek words so translated, but, like the English word, they do not specify the nature of the complaint. God promised to Israel that if they would be obedient He would take away from them all sickness, and would put upon them none of the evil diseases of Egypt which they had known. Deuteronomy 7:15 . When the Lord was on earth He healed every sickness and every disease among the people. Matthew 9:35 . On the ground of obedience they failed to attain freedom from diseases, but their Messiah healed them all in grace. See the various names of the specific diseases, as Fever etc.
Fausset's Bible Dictionary 
The effect of sin's entrance. Healed by the Lord Jesus, as Isaiah foretold, "Himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses" ( Matthew 8:17; Isaiah 53:4; 1 Peter 2:24). His bearing our guilt in His manhood, assumed with all its infirmities, was the ground of His sympathetically feeling for and relieving our sickness by His miraculous power. At His second coming His people "shall not say, I am sick," for "they shall be forgiven their iniquity" ( Isaiah 33:24).
Smith's Bible Dictionary 
Diseases. See Medicine .