Jesus’ Healing v. Greco-Roman Medicine

Here is Jesus healing in Mark 9: 20-27.  The father of an epileptic boy, believing that the problem is a demon inhabiting him, asks Jesus to heal him. The boy is summoned.

And when the spirit saw Jesus, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus  rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.

Here is Greek healing, earlier than Jesus, from Wikipedia:

Ancient vaginal speculum

Another of Hippocrates’s major contributions may be found in his descriptions of the symptomatology, physical findings, surgical treatment and prognosis of thoracic empyema, i.e. suppuration of the lining of the chest cavity. His teachings remain relevant to present-day students of pulmonary medicine and surgery. Hippocrates was the first documented chest surgeon and his findings are still valid.

Hippocratic medicine was notable for its strict professionalism, discipline, and rigorous practice.The Hippocratic work On the Physician recommends that physicians always be well-kempt, honest, calm, understanding, and serious. The Hippocratic physician paid careful attention to all aspects of his practice: he followed detailed specifications for, “lighting, personnel, instruments, positioning of the patient, and techniques of bandaging and splinting” in the ancient operating room. He even kept his fingernails to a precise length.

The Romans, naturally, are better known for the engineering aspects:

The Romans invented numerous surgical instruments, including the first instruments unique to women (vaginal specula with a screw device which when turned forces a cross-bar to push the blades outward), as well as the surgical uses of forceps, scalpels, cautery, cross-bladed scissors, and the surgical needle. Romans also performed cataract surgery.

Jesus came to preach, to heal and to cast out demons;  this in the Roman Empire when it was discovering anesthetics and making major medical advances. Presumably if Jesus came to the United States today he would avoid places like Johns Hopkins and hang out with the snake handlers in the backwoods of the South.

This reduces the credibility of Jesus-as-God to zero. But it supports the idea that Jesus was a Jewish fundamentalist, working within the framework of Jewish law and tradition, and ignorant and hostile regarding all things Roman.


7 comments on “Jesus’ Healing v. Greco-Roman Medicine

  1. Behold the power of…Alchemy! 😀


  2. “This reduces the credibility of Jesus-as-God to zero.”

    I think the true believers would argue the exact opposite. God doesn’t need surgical instruments or clean fingernails. He just heals. Exactly as the ‘faith healers’ on TV do today.


    • You have a point, Greta, and you have given me the theme for today’s post!


    • Religious people used to think of epilepsy as ‘possession’ by either a demon or a god. But as Hippocrates pointed out:

      “Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. We will one day understand what causes it, and then cease to call it divine. And so it is with everything in the universe.” – Hippocrates, c. 460 – 377 BCE


  3. Ootintadus says:

    I would argue that religion was usually a step in the right direction, too, at least at first. In the old testament, religion laid down some bare minimum laws for a good society (commandments). In the new, Jesus advocated a more evolved paradigm, love of thy neighbors, forgiveness, compassion. Similarly Islam when it was a hot new religion bestowed legal rights upon women and generally improved their situation over what was going around.

    The trouble with religions’ attempts to deal with societal problems is that they are always wrapped in a mystical backstory rather than reason. Thus, the benefits bestowed by some religious tenet are likely not to be viewed rationally as time goes on as well as being subject to corruption in support of the power funnel that most religions are.

    Maybe the reason we still have religion despite all that we as a society have learned is that neither science nor philosophy speak to the human condition where it is usually lived. There is not much of a charitable outreach function of science or philosophy, there is no bonding ritual that ties ones family and community together. Neither provides a real program for dealing with our dual or multiple natures (emotional, intellectual, sexual, conscious, unconscious). Even though science may tell us much about our nature, it doesn’t also offer a compelling program for how to live with ourselves or each other or face mortality, nor does it speak to a lot of human issues. One could infer a lot of that, but addressing the human condition is not really the scientific program, just discovering what is true. Meanwhile religion does all of that, packs an emotional punch, and you don’t have to be very bright or educated to benefit–in fact that less you know, the less you have, the better it meets your needs.

    If you want to wean people off religion and toward a secular view of things, one should offer a comparable program–a charitable arm, an education program, a coherent worldview, opportunities for fellowship and a means of bonding society together.


    • Ootintadus, I agree with everything you say, with the single exception of your understanding of Jesus and his message. Your interpretation is certainly in line with the interpretation of St Paul and Christianity.

      However, my novel and this blog are predicated on contextualizing Jesus within the 200 years of uprisings against the Roman occupation of Palestine – uprisings that only ended with the massacre, enslavement and deportation of almost all Jews from the province.

      When you read the words and actions of Jesus within that context, it is hard not to see him as a fundamentalist Jew, advocating a return to the Shema (“Hear, O Israel…”) as the greatest commandment, and trying to cleanse the country of the idolatrous, pig-eating, uncircumcised Westerners who wouldn’t even learn the local language.

      Regardless, I fully agree that science and secularism fail to meet the human’s emotional and social needs. Nationalism has been one counterproductive substitute. It is an evolving situation.


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