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Life and Death in 1st Century C.E. Palestine

“Now when Jesus had crossed over again by boat to the other side, a great multitude gathered to Him; and He was by the sea. And behold, one of the rulers of the synagogue came, Jairus by name. And when he saw Him, he fell at His feet and begged Him earnestly, saying, “My little daughter lies at the point of death. Come and lay Your hands on her, that she may be healed, and she will live.” So Jesus went with him, and a great multitude followed Him and thronged Him” (Mark 5:21-24).

 Who is not touched by the anguish of this father’s poignant words—Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue, now humbly begging Jesus to heal his dying child? She was his only daughter, a mere twelve years of age. Death was no stranger to the families of Palestine and the extended Greco-Roman Empire. Galilean babies often died young or in childbirth, as did their mothers. For all children of a family to survive into adulthood was a rare thing indeed. Thankfully this episode had a happy ending.

Afflictions prevalent

Scenes of suffering and petition replay throughout the pages of the Gospels—only the individuals’ circumstances change. In the same chapter in Mark, Jesus healed a woman suffering from a hemorrhagic condition, and a man who was demon possessed. When one reads the Gospel accounts with an eye to ailments and healing, it becomes apparent many suffered a variety of afflictions, and all sought relief—by miracle, or from rudimentary (by modern standards) methods of the day.

Dr. Paul Kitchen, in his paper, “Medicine and Surgery in the 1st Century C.E. in Galilee,”[1] lists diseases that likely existed at that time:[2]  

English: This child is showning the pan-corpor...

English: This child is showning the pan-corporeal rash due to the smallpox variola major virus. Smallpox is a serious, contagious, and sometimes fatal infectious disease. The name smallpox is derived from the Latin word for “spotted” and refers to the raised bumps that appear on the face and body of an infected person. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Some types of cancer
  • Infectious diseases
  • Skin diseases, including leprosy, and probably head lice and scabies
  • Parasitic infections
  • Pneumonia
  • Tuberculosis
  • Poliomyelitis
  • Smallpox killed many, especially in the crowded cities in the Roman Empire.
  • Anthrax swept the Empire in 80 C.E.
  • Malaria killed many in Rome itself.

What Jesus saw

A quick search through A. T. Robertson’s A Harmony of the Gospels reveals accounts of those suffering from a variety of health issues coming to Jesus for His healing. Some maladies are noted generally, as in Luke 7:21, where Luke records that Jesus “cured many of infirmities, afflictions….” Others, however, are quite specific. For instance:

  • Fever (John 4:46-54)
  • Leprosy (Mark 1:40-45)
  • Paralysis or palsy (KJV) (Matthew 8:6)
  • Blindness (Matthew 9:27-31)
  • Deafness (Mark 7:32-37)
  • Withered hand (Mark 3:3)
  • Multiple accounts of demon possession

What about the general population? 

The next blogs will explore what treatments and remedies were available to the general populace in the Greco-Roman Empire during the first century.


[2] Dr. Kitchen comments that due to the absence of Hebrew literature addressing disease or medicine in ancient times, he relied on the Dead Sea Scrolls and writings of the Rabbis for his sub-topic: “What illnesses existed at the time of Jesus?”

About womenfromthebook

Mine is a life-long interest in the women of the Bible, and I enjoy exploring the world in which they lived, and discovering the challenges that they faced. I have enough curiosity about them to last the rest of my life.

5 responses »

  1. I appreciated this Blog; I am doing a Bible Study on Medical Resources for the noted illnesses at Jesus’ Time. I am curious whether the intensive Roman committment to public Health systems (spurred by Greek Physicians) reached Palestine’s common folk or justlimited to the power-people, like the Herods. the military, and the Sadducees. It seemed there were no preal Physicians among the Jews, only the Priests who functioned in that capacity. Comments from the Blog’s authors??

    Reply
    • Hello, and welcome to our blog!

      The best and most comprehensive source I found on this topic is by Dr. Paul Kitchen. Here is a link to his paper: aulkitchen.wikispaces.com/file/view/MEDICINE_AND_SURGERY_IN_THE__1st_CENTURY.v10..pdf
      He was actually pursuing a PhD on this topic but died a couple of years ago. I have a book by Henri Daniel-Rops, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, in which he states there were physicians in Israel. He includes a quote from a Jewish source that the rabbis cautioned, “The disciple of wise men should not live in a town that has no physicians…” Also, “It is forbidden that any man should live in a town without physicians” (pp 324-5). According to his research, there were official physicians attached to the Temple for the treatment of the priests. I can’t speak to the credentials or skill-level of these men, but it seems they did exist. I have a feeling that the poor fell through the cracks when it came to medical aid.

      I hope this has helped with your research.–Karen Meeker

      Reply
  2. Hello, and thank you for your comment. This is a really fascinating study, and gives me a sense of the challenges for families during that period of time. If you check the citation of the paper written by Dr. Kitchen, you will be impressed by all the information there–especially his end notes.

    Reply
  3. Margaret Howard

    Thanks for your blog. Especially interested in your next one about treatments used during the first century!

    Reply

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