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  • Writer's pictureMeg Grimm

Medicine of the Bible: Hebrew Medical Practices in Bible Times


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In the early seventeenth century, the Protestant Reformation awakened the first systematic studies of medicine of the Bible. However, these texts dealt only with the Old and New Testaments and did not include the Talmud or other Jewish literature. Writers were also either Bible scholars or students of medical history, but rarely both. Until Julius Preuss.



Julius Preuss


Julius Preuss (1861-1913) was a learned scholar in Hebrew literature as well as in medical and general history. He had attended a Jewish school in his youth and studied the Talmud with famous Rabbis. Preuss' extensive knowledge of Jewish thought coupled with his scientific method eventually produced a book that would become the authority on medicine in Bible times to this day.


Preuss' Biblisch-Talmudische Medizin (Biblical and Talmudic Medicine), first appeared in 1911, the same year Preuss himself became ill. The Berlin physician died two years later at the age of 52, humbly leaving the world as quietly as he could, since “no one should deliver a funeral oration, memorial address or the like for me…”, but leaving the world with his magnum opus. The original manuscript for the book is housed in the Jewish National and Hebrew University Library in Jerusalem. Every major medical library possesses at least one copy. It was later translated into English by Dr. Fred Rosner.


The book spans anatomy and physiology, sicknesses, treatments, injuries, surgeries, dentistry, gynecology, obstetrics, dietetics and more. Preuss paints the clearest known picture of Hebrew medical practices of Bible times. However, even with such a detailed volume on the subject, Preuss’ remarkable findings still leave us in very much the same position as the study of herbs from the Bible.


He writes, “There does not exist a work from Jewish antiquity devoted to medicine, nor even a compendium of natural history, such as that of Plinius. The Torah and the Talmud are primarily law books, and medical matters are chiefly discussed only as they pertain to the law.”

There you have it. There is no such thing as Jewish medicine the way there is Egyptian or Greek medical science. There is no systematic documentation of medical practices in Biblical or Talmudic literature, save for small remarks here and there. According to Preuss’ own admission, his work is “artificial,” and “produced…solely for the purpose of clarity...not based on the arrangement in the original sources.” The author further notes that “only the smallest fraction” of Talmudic rabbis were physicians, rendering most of the medicinal comments as nothing more than “folk medicine.”

In fact, Preuss discusses straightaway in chapter one that there was not a prevalent role for physicians in Jewish antiquity especially compared to other cultures. Everywhere else in ancient history, medical practitioners were divided into three categories – physicians, surgeons and magicians. In Jewish antiquity alone, the division cannot be authenticated.


However, although rarely depicted favorably in the Bible, we are to understand that physicians did exist. For some examples, Job refers to his friends as physicians of no value. (The book of Job is believed to be the oldest book of the Bible because it makes no mention of the Mosaic Law.) Jeremiah commented that no physician resided in Gilead. King Asa sought the aid of physicians. And Jesus Himself said that it is the sick that need a physician.

Below is an overview of ancient Hebrew medical practices according to Preuss.


Physicians


The word used for physician was rophé (Hebrew) or asya (Aramaic). It meant an “ordinary practicing physician” who served all needs, from surgeon to dentist. As early as the time of the temple, amputation of diseased limbs was being done by the rophé. Those considered qualified understood the use of both scalpel and internal medications. The Talmud also advised not to live in a city that had no rophé.

However, beyond remarks such as these, there is little indication that Hebrew physicians had the same role as physicians today. For instance, in the Tosefta’s list of Temple officials, physicians are not included. As another example, Jewish sources do not seem familiar with physicians being paid a lump sum as salary from the communal treasury as was done in other places. There is also no mention in the literature of military physicians.


“I have nothing to report concerning military physicians in Jewish antiquity,” writes Preuss. In fact, during the Jewish War, the Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai requested physicians from the Roman Vespasian – an account which Preuss notes as possible confirmation that the Jews did not have military physicians of their own.

In addition, some believe Hebrew priests doubled as medical practitioners as they did in other civilizations, but Preuss found no proof. In the detailed Biblical instructions about leprosy, for instance, the priestly duty was merely to observe if leprosy was healed, not to attempt to treat it. In fact, an allegory in the Midrash depicts a physician, not another priest, being called to treat a priest suffering from epilepsy.

Lastly, though some of the prophets may have possessed knowledge of medicine (Isaiah’s poultice, II Kings 20:7), they are never designated as physicians though the name rophé was in existence.


As an aside, for those who like the term healer more than physician, Preuss writes the following:


It seems that the names rophé and asya in the Talmud do not denote one’s profession in the modern sense, but possibly encompass the term “learned physician” and certainly also “lay practitioner.” Thus one should be careful to translate the word rophé as “healer,” and not as “physician.”


Hospitals


In addition to the limited role of physicians, “Jews did not have hospitals during the time of the Talmud," Preuss writes. "This fact cannot be denied by any apologetics.”

However, Preuss informs us that such an establishment would have been a complete reversal from the Jewish tradition of hospitality. Care of the sick was a holy duty. The cleanliness of the patient’s house was among the obligations of visitors, as well as prayer. The religion of a patient made no difference. It was customary that relatives and friends visited first, and then acquaintances. If an illness occurred suddenly, all visited immediately. Therefore, homes became hospitals.

“A person who became ill while traveling was brought to the nearest guesthouse…if the patient can reach the city, then every house is open to him.” - Preuss


Medicine


Also of little mention and perhaps even absent from Jewish literature is the apothecary.


“It is not easy to ascertain who prepared the medicines…It is also not certain how much the physician simultaneously served as an apothecary, according to the custom of the remainder of antiquity,” writes Preuss. The perfumer mentioned in the Scriptures may have only worked with soaps, bathing and beauty products, not necessarily medicines.


It is also interesting that the chapter on Materia Medica (plant and animal remedies) is one of the smallest in Preuss’ volume, and it reveals little except that there is little to reveal. Of the drugs which Preuss describes in this section, many have the potential to do more harm than good, especially if used incorrectly (such as destroying tissue), or they are fantastical. The herb called Samthar was thought to have the power to grow back together a severed head to its body “were it not for the action of a certain wind which plays or blows upon the wound.”


However, we know from our own Bible reading that salves, or ointments, were in use in Bible days. Preuss tells us that their bases were tallow (rendered animal fat) and wax. For eye salves, pastes were made into the form of loaves called collyria. When needed, the loaves were rubbed into salve, possibly with a liquid.


Also in common use were plasters, the equivalent of wound dressings. They were made of mixtures of substances such as mud, clay, plants and herbs and were applied to wounds for protection and to absorb seepage. Preuss notes that there was a type of plaster called retiya, its contents now unknown except for wheat flour. Another type “was made either of leather or material, or linen or wool wags.” (For additional information on plasters, see: “History of Wound Care” Shah, Jayesh B. Published online 2012 Apr 19.)


“To treat a wound,” Preuss notes, “one applies moch (cotton or lint) and sponge, as well as garlic and onion peels, which are secured with a thread. Alternatively, one skillfully applies a bandage.” The balm of Gilead of Jeremiah 8:22 was also likely applied in wound care. Rushes were sometimes attached to injured fingers, sometimes cushioned with flocks of wool. Olive oil was used to sooth and protect. Isaiah 1:6 states, “From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness – only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with olive oil.” We see the Good Samaritan “pouring on oil and wine" before bandaging the victim's wounds. (Luke 10:25-37) Writes Preuss, “According to Mar Samuel, a wound should always be treated with oil and warm water.” (pg. 239)


Poultices were also in use. Different from plasters, poultices were masses of moist materials spread over a wound or pain to treat that part of the body. Isaiah had a poultice of figs made for King Hezekiah to heal a boil (2 Kings 20:7). Preuss also discovered in Jewish literature “a poultice recommended by a wise woman for all types of pain (which) consisted of seven parts of fat and one part of wax.”


Regarding medications, those described in the Talmud were mostly derived from the flora, but the most important item from the fauna was honey. Pearls were also included in animal remedies, supposedly crushed and dissolved into a drink which only rich men could afford. However, rather than overwhelming evidence that the Hebrews were skilled botanical healers, drugs seem to have been neglected in favor of even more simple practices.


“Over and above medicaments, non-medicinal remedies of various types are mentioned in the Talmud,” says Preuss. Among them are warm cloths for abdominal pain, music to sedate the mentally ill, sunbaths or bathing in the Dead Sea, bread soaked in wine for eye compresses, unripe gourds on the forehead for cooling, drinking water from the Siloa Springs, and regulation of diet.


Folk Medicine


“One must be unusually careful in describing the pharmacology of antiquity,” writes Preuss. There is so great a difference in the content of ingredients from ancient history to present day. Prior to chemistry, where we can take the needed parts from their sources, medications were more complex, not less.


Even into the sixteenth century, the apothecary was required to have on hand “wood lice, rain worms, ants, vipers, scorpions, frogs and crabs; also the skull of a dead person who was not buried, the bone from the heart of a hart, sparrow brains and hare brains, teeth of wild pigs and elephant skin, frog hearts, fox lungs, wolf intestines, human fat and so on.” Perhaps that description alone can give insight into what could be found in folk medicine. Ancient remedies may not be so worthy of our praise today as we tend to think.


Throughout his book, Preuss includes any notes on folk medicine that apply, but if eating dog excrement for pleuritis, except from a white dog, of course, was considered just as reliable as gargling olive oil for throat pain, should we try the excrement because we know the olive oil works? Are all folk remedies worthy of serious study? Although found in Jewish literature, some practices could have been influenced by pagan cultures and the occult. How much credit should Christians really give folk medicine as a whole? (Note: Pleuritis is inflammation of tissue in lungs and chest cavity.)


Consider the following. Preuss found four folk remedies for what we call migraines, which ancients labeled as “excess of blood in the head.” One remedy was to take schurbina (a type of cedar), bina (tamarisk?), fresh myrtle, olive leaves, chilpha (willow), clove and jabla (a certain herb, cymedon); cook them together and take 300 cups for each side of the head. (Migraines can sometimes affect only one side of the head.) Another remedy called for cooking white roses with all the leaves on and taking 60 cups for each side of the head. Since Roman medical writer Celsus also recommended rose water for migraines, it might be worth a try. Pine hearts were also used as a treatment. However, a last remedy found right alongside the others reads as follows:


One takes a wild cock and slaughters it with a white zuz (piece of money) over that side of the patient which is painful (so that the blood flows on the head of the patient). One should be careful with the blood, however, in order not the blind the patient’s eyes. Then one hangs the slaughtered cock on the door-post. When the patient enters the house, he should rub his head against the bird, and he should do the same when he leaves. (pg. 305)


Although it may be tempting to believe folk medicine has had the answers all along and the remedies are safer or more simplified, I submit that ancient pharmacology has always been rife with superstition and magic. A little exploration of Hippocrates, Celsus, or Dioscorides’ medical encyclopedia the Greek Herbal would prove as much. Even rational Galen claimed that the god Asklepios visited him on occasion through dreams to provide certain medical wisdom. Although a mixture of herbs might legitimately promote healing, would a Christian want to inadvertently take a potion that was once whispered into a diviner’s ear by a familiar spirit? Or one that was once meant to be effective only with an accompanying incantation?

This may sound absurd, but the more I learn about alternative healthcare, the more I learn to be vigilant and to take occult influence seriously. (See more here.) We want to be careful not to discard valuable information from the past but consider also that a little yeast ruins the whole batch (1 Corinthians 5:6). Besides, just because something is from Jewish history doesn’t mean it aligns with God’s Word and is acceptable for Christ-followers. Conventional medicine based on new scientific research and experimental results may not be perfect, but it leaves little room for magic today.

Furthermore, we should also not underestimate folk medicine’s potential for harm. Without the full picture, folk remedies can be quite dangerous. Remember, ancients put their poisons to use. Preuss also writes of a certain powder that when dry does no harm to normal skin, but if applied to a wound, it “goes to the depths thereof.” This was done to Rabbi Abbahu, “and if his disciples had not rapidly scratched it off, the thigh would have been destroyed.” What if you didn’t get that memo?


The Not-So-Secret Hebrew Secret to Good Healthcare


If the Hebrews did not have deeply-rooted medical practices, efficient physicians, sick houses, apothecaries or botanists, what did they do?


It is eye-opening to learn that the Hebrews were not given medical instructions from God nor did they depend on their own medical science enough to even document it. Furthermore, they were also warned to avoid the practices of other cultures. Occult magic was often involved in pagan medicine. To me, this substantiates one thing.


God repeatedly told His people that He was their Healer. He promised that if they looked to Him and obeyed His commands, they would retain His blessing. He would deliver them from their enemies, provide for them and heal their sicknesses. Their obedience (including His dietary and sanitation laws, by the way) would prevent them from even encountering the diseases that other nations suffered.


He said, “If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.” (Exodus 15:26; Deuteronomy 7:12-15)


Sure, use some oil and bind up your wounds the way the Good Samaritan did for the poor traveler. Make some salves and poultices, like Isaiah. Visit the rophé. But no notable medical provisions were made in all those thousands of years because Yahweh was the provision.

In the New Testament, like today, Christians represented many different cultural backgrounds. Still, no references exist in the New Testament for systematic models of medical treatment of the times nor the language or methods of the medical tradition from Hippocrates (460 BC) to Galen (210 AD). Notably, there is also no indication of the nature of the medical role of Luke, the “beloved physician.” In fact, the author of Acts (believed to be Luke) makes no move to assist Paul when he is bitten by a poisonous viper, nor does he try to cure the father of Publius (Acts 28:3-8). (This Paragraph Source: Kee, Howard Clark. Medicine, Miracle and Magic in New Testament Times. Cambridge University Press, 1986. Print.)

Like God did in the Old Testament, over and again, Jesus healed what the physicians could not. The message is clear. Our dependence was never meant to be on men. Nor on the rest of creation, even though it’s God’s workmanship. God may use people, their established healthcare practices, or natural means, but it’s a Christian’s duty to look to Him. Often, we justify looking to creation for healing because God made it, but maybe God never saw it that way. (Romans 1:25)


for I am the Lord, your healer. (Exodus 15:26c)


Now that we have exhausted all efforts for unlocking ancient Hebrew medicine and healthcare practices from the Bible, we can look with new eyes at something that is mentioned in Scripture and has captured a lot of attention today, essential oils and herbs of the Bible here.


 

Meg Grimm writes biblical studies and research articles that help set women free from impractical expectations of the world. Her goal is to unveil true beauty and provide sensible body care principles from a godly perspective. See her books here. 


 

Main Reference: Preuss, Julius. Translated by Dr. Fred Rosner. Biblical and Talmudic Medicine. Jason Aronson Inc., London. 1993. Print.


Additional: "Preuss, Julius." Encyclopaedia Judaica. Encyclopedia.com. 16 Feb. 2019, https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/preuss-julius

*Note: Both the Mishnah and the Tosefta are anthologies that record laws attributed to sages from the Tannaitic Period (0-200 CE). Tosefta literally means “addition.”

Source: Salzberg, Alieza. “Mishnah and Tosefta” My Jewish Learning. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/mishnah-tosefta/


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