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Monthly Archives: November 2012


As I mentioned in a past post, next week is Thanksgiving here in America. Traditionally it is a day for friends and family to gather from near and far, enjoy a meal, and pause to reflect on the many blessings of the past year. Mine are too many to count, but among them, I’m grateful for the internet which makes this blog possible. And for all of you who have joined Mary and me on our journey of discovery.

English: The story of a thanksgiving day, as i...

English: The story of a thanksgiving day, as in the offering of first fruits in Deuteronomy 26:1-11, illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company between 1896 and 1913 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Bible is such an incredible book: It never grows old; its treasures are never fully mined; its personalities so intriguing; its wisdom profound. The potential contained between its covers gives me hope in a sick and troubled world. I am so thankful for it, and for the One Who graciously inspired it.


There will be no new posts until December 10 when we will take a look at some amazing women of courage.

May God’s richest blessings be showered upon us all in the coming year.

Hannah’s Song


Hannah’s story is a tale of good and evil. For thousands of years it has appealed to our desire for fairness, for good to be rewarded and evil punished.  The story occurs at a bad time in Israel’s history, and it begins with conflict. The author skillfully described the characters—a suffering wife, a jealous rival, an appeasing husband, a failing priest and his reckless sons.

A key factor in the story is Hannah’s inability to have children. It was a shameful condition—she couldn’t produce an heir. As a consequence, her husband took a second wife. Adding to Hannah’s despair was the belief that God closed wombs as punishment for something sinful.

To be barren “was more than a physical or social problem. Deep religious meanings were attached…whether temporary or permanent, barrenness was thought to be the curse of God. It is hard for us to imagine how devastating these events would have been for the childless wife. She was spiritually ruined, socially disgraced, and psychologically depressed. She was married to a husband who wanted a child to assure the continuation of his family line. That husband might continue to love her, but she felt that was small consolation.”[1]

But God reversed things. He answered Hannah’s prayer for a son. In time she returned him to the LORD’s service in the temple. At the time of Samuel’s presentation to the high priest, Hannah stated, “I am the woman who prayed for this child, and the LORD has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the LORD. For his whole life he will be given over to the LORD” (I Samuel 1:27-28).

Hannah’s song of praise

For the occasion she composed a poem (song, prayer, ode) of praise. Whether she sang the words or recited them is not known. But I picture her confident, composed, reverent and buoyed in spirit as she presented Samuel to One who would “guard the feet of his saints” and dedicated him to One who owns “the foundations of the earth” (I Samuel 2:8-9).

Hannah’s hymn is a classic praise song, and scholars have written extensively about it. My observations barely touch the surface. I see in Hannah’s praise/song four truths about God:

  • He is the Source of joy.
  • He is holy.
  • He corrects injustice.
  • He satisfies hunger.

God is the Source of joy

Hannah attributed her joy to the LORD. Essentially it flowed from His greatness. Samuel was a joy. Motherhood was a joy. Her improved status was a joy. But God was first in her heart—before husband, children and circumstances. Her praise/song begins where joy begins.

Hannah:  My heart rejoices in the LORD; my horn is exalted in the LORD. I smile at my enemies, because I rejoice in Your salvation.

God is Holy

During the period of the Judges, Israel had fallen away from God. Without godly leadership, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Even Hannah’s marriage with the husband she loved was an arrangement that seemed the right way to “get children.” Polygamous marriages violate God’s pattern of “holy” matrimony (Genesis 2:24-25).

That God is “holy” means He is morally perfect and absolutely separated from evil.[2] Hannah’s world was enmeshed in evil. Nothing was perfect and sinless. Nothing on earth was like God.

No one is holy like the LORD, for there is none besides You, nor is there any rock like our God.

God corrects injustice

Even the temple was corrupt. Eli did not deal with his wicked sons. They slept with women in the temple and commandeered food from the altar. People in Shiloh for the holy days came to temple in a drunken state. Eli lost a sense of proportion. He made unjust accusations. The sins of the priests in particular were “very great in the LORD’s sight” (I Samuel 2:17).

In her hymn Hannah praises God for setting things right between strong and weak, rich and poor. He brings down the mighty and lifts the fallen. She prophesied that God would give power to His king, His anointed, the Messiah.

The bows of the mighty men are broken, and those who stumbled are girded with strength…He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the beggar from the ash heap, to set them among princes and make them inherit the throne of glory…He will guard the feet of his saints, but the wicked shall be silent in darkness…the LORD will judge the ends of the earth. He will give strength to His King, and exalt the horn of His anointed.

God satisfies hunger

Famine and hunger are mentioned over ninety times in the Old Testament. Hannah’s story does not mention a famine, but she would have been familiar with Israel’s droughts and weather-related history.  She would have known about the famine in Joseph’s day and Egyptians indenturing themselves for food.

She praises God for ending physical hunger and satisfying the longings for children, judgment and strength.

Those who have hired themselves out for bread, and the hungry have ceased to hunger. Even the barren has borne seven…The LORD will judge the ends of the earth.

Living her song

In what we know of the rest of her life, Hannah lives her song. She was blessed with three more sons and two daughters. She saw her son become a righteous judge in Israel. In her lifetime Eli died and his sons were slain. ♦ Mary Hendren

[1] “Birth and Infancy, The Childless Couple,” Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible

[2] Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, pp. 337-338

Mary’s Song

The announcement

“Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her,”Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:26-33)

The words of Gabriel filled her with awe, some fear, and wonderment. She, a virgin, would conceive and bear “the Son of the Highest!” Still, bolstered by her faith and trust, she managed to answer, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (verse 38).

John MacArthur, in his book, Twelve Extraordinary Women (2005), wrote, “There’s no evidence that Mary ever brooded over the effects her pregnancy would have on her reputation. She instantly, humbly, and joyfully submitted to God’s will without further doubt or question. …Her great joy over the Lord’s plan for her would soon be very evident” (page 114).

Miracle and blessing x two

Mary was not the only one touched by a miracle. Her relative, Elizabeth (whom some say could have been in her eighties), would also bear a son—this after having endured a lifetime of barrenness. These two, John and Jesus, would work in tandem, each fulfilling his awesome part of God’s unfolding plan.

Mary’s heart song

Her heart full of awe and reverence, Mary rejoiced with what is now known as “the song of Mary,” or her “song of thanksgiving.”[1]Perhaps its inspiration came to her as she walked from Nazareth to south of Jerusalem where Zacharias and Elizabeth lived. The long walk allowed plenty of time for pondering the angel’s words.

view of Nazareth

view of Nazareth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not capable?

Some may wonder if a young unschooled girl was capable of composing such a magnificent song. It reflected knowledge of scripture and Old Testament concepts and phrases,[2] but she had not attended a synagogue school—that was reserved for boys. She must have learned it at home.

Jewish parents strove to provide a “well-rounded education” for their daughters and sons. Synagogue school for boys supplemented what was taught to all children at home: practical skills and “wisdom centered around one’s relationship with God.”[3] The major concern of Jewish parents was that their children come to “know the living God.”[4]

“Familiarity with the OT was not at that time so unusual for a pious Jewess like Mary as to bar her from consideration as its author. Moreover, it reflects qualities suitable to the mother of the Lord” ( Expositor’s Commentary, Vol. 8, page 835). This commentary notes the “ability of people in ancient times to absorb and remember the spoken word, especially the biblical word.”

It is likely that Mary and her siblings had a strong foundation in the Old Testament scriptures and an understanding of their relationship to God.

Offering praise

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.

 Mary began by magnifying God.  “The verb megalunein…signifies ‘to celebrate with words, to extol with praises.’This is the only way in which God can be magnified, or made great; for, strictly speaking, nothing can be added to God, for he is infinite and eternal; therefore the way to magnify him is to show forth and celebrate those acts in which he has manifested his greatness.”[5]

Mary offered humble reverence:

For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and Holy is His name (verse 48).

 Highly favored

God favored her with a unique role in human history. She would be remembered for it. Things would never be the same after that. Some commentators state that Mary’s praise of God’s power in verses 51-53 refers to the past and the future. “These verses portray a ‘reversal’ in the end times, when those who have abused power will be judged and those who have suffered persecution will be exalted. Mary was looking forward to the day when God’s people are no longer oppressed, but are instead blessed by the Lord. God’s strength with His arm figuratively describes His activity and power as Savior of His people.”[6]

Mary understood her role in the promises God made to Abraham:

He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever (verses 54-55).

 Happily blessed

The word “blessed,” from the Greek makarios, conveys being especially favored, happy and privileged. Gabriel stated that Mary was blessed among women (Luke 1:28). Three times Elizabeth used the word “blessed”: blessed among women, blessed the fruit in her womb, blessed in believing (verses 42-45). Mary recognized she would be remembered as a woman “blessed.”

Undoubtedly, she enjoyed many happy hours with her baby. She may have been an especially joyful and grateful mother. Her natural love for the infant Jesus was enriched by God’s love for His Son through her. What a pleasure it must have been to hold her child, to look in his eyes, to see his first steps.

However, the state of being blessed referred to by Gabriel, Elizabeth and Mary herself related to her privilege of bearing “the Son of the Highest,” the “Son of God” (verses 32, 35), and not necessarily to her happiness.

Why a “song”?

Sometimes the use of certain words leads to questionable impressions. For instance, translators have labeled Mary’s exaltation as a “song.”[7] And indeed through the ages her words have been incorporated into hundreds of musical compositions in various forms; they figure prominently in the liturgy of various denominations even today. These hymns or “canticles” can be sung or spoken,  and customarily have musical accompaniment.

Did Mary set out to compose a song with future use or presentation in mind? The Bible account does not give that indication. Rather it would seem her words were a spontaneous outpouring of a deep devotion to God–a prayer, if you will–which somehow Luke was able to quote in his Gospel account.

Upon reflection

I believe Mary composed the song herself, that her parents instructed her in the ways of God, that she loved the scriptures. To me, her betrothal signifies a sound-minded, realistic appreciation for marriage and family. Because her song touches on prophetic themes, I believe God inspired her words.—Mary Hendren (with Karen Meeker)


[1] Luke 1:46-55

[2] Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, note on Mary’s song, p. 835.

[3] “Childhood and Adolescence,” Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible, p. 452.

[4] Ibid, p. 453.

[5] Adam Clarke Commentary, note on Luke 1:46, Online Bible.

[6] NKJV Study Bible, Second Edition, note on Luke 1:50-53.

[7] Did you ever wonder where the chapter and section headings found in Bible translations came from? “With the exception of the titles in Psalms, the Bible’s authors didn’t write their books of Bible with chapter or section headings in mind. They were added later by translators in order to help organize and divide the Bible into easier to digest pieces.

You’ll note headings in most English translations of the Bible, though they do vary across different translations. For example: Genesis 1 begins with the heading: “The beginning” in the New International Version 1984 translation, “The Account of Creation” in the New Living Translation, and there’s no header at all in the King James Version. A side by side comparison of Genesis 1 in five translations easily highlights the differences in section headings.”

Songs of the heart

The Woman’s Study Bible lists ten instances of hymns or songs that are associated, loosely or directly, with women. It is an interesting list including the individual songs of Miriam, Deborah, and Mary, and generic references to anonymous people, as in II Samuel 19:35: “Can I hear any longer the voice of singing men and singing women?”

In all instances cited, the accompanying descriptions indicate times of celebration, worship, and praise (see topic “Hymns and Songs Associated with Women”).

The most well-known songs are contained in “The Book of Psalms.” It is a collection of 150 compositions written by various people (but principally David)  to be performed in some way. The very term “psalm” comes from a Latin term, Liber Psalmorum, derived from the Greek word for “a song sung to a stringed instrument,” (Songs of the Heart, Nahum M. Sarna,1993, page 10). Both men and women singers lifted their voices in praise, or sometimes lamentation, to the great God of Israel. These have inspired many beloved hymns sung in worship services today.

In the next posts we will be looking at two other songs—the songs of Mary and Hannah. Each has a central inspiration. By direct miracle, they were promised sons—sons destined to be used mightily by the God Who gave them.

Next week: hymns and songs of praise

My thoughts have definitely turned to Thanksgiving, now just days away here in America. The best part for me is always family, especially the times when we have  rehearsed our individual blessings and thanksgiving as we go around the table. It is humbling to hear what God has done or made available in each of our lives.

Thanksgiving oven

Thanksgiving oven (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, most Thanksgivings also revolve around food—turkey, dressing and all the trimmings. This year my thoughts have not only been on family and meal-planning, but on freedom, and God’s graciousness—His endless gifts of blessings and plenty.

Sometimes I find it difficult to put into words how thankful I am, properly acknowledging God as the Great Giver He is. Gifted people over the ages poured out appreciation and exaltation in words and melodies that touch the heart. Others chose poetry and prose. Next week we’ll revisit two songs, prayers really, offering praise with such eloquence that they have resonated over thousands of years—the songs of Hannah and Mary.

The ageless pursuit of health

In previous posts we explored general public health conditions in the Roman Empire and the province of Palestine. While there were obvious concerns and attempts to provide sanitation and control disease, the fact is, life often hung precariously in the balance.

Life is short

Lynn H. Cohick, in her book Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (2009) provides grim data: “Using statistics from modern, preindustrial communities to estimate demographics in the ancient world, we find that the average life expectancy was twenty-five years” (119). Dr. Paul Kitchen is a little more optimistic: “If a person lived beyond the dangerous years of childhood, he or she might expect to live until the fifties….However we know that few people lived beyond the biblical threescore years and ten.”[1]

Sickness was a constant threat, and its first line of treatment is strangely familiar—the help of extended family, and home remedies (many of which were probably passed down through generations). That failing, a physician was sought, depending on the family’s ability to pay.

General practitioners

According to Dr. Kitchen, physicians of the day wore several different hats, acting as pharmacist, physiologist, doctor/physician, and surgeon. They traveled (perhaps on a circuit), made home visits, and performed surgery on location when necessary.

Alfred Edersheim notes that “among the regular Temple officials there was a medical man, whose duty it was to attend to the priesthood who, from ministering barefoot, must have been specially liable to certain diseases. The Rabbis ordained that every town must have at least one physician, who was also to be qualified to practice surgery, or else a physician and a surgeon.” [2]

Regarding treatment options, Edersheim continues: “Cold-water compresses, the external and internal use of oil and of wine, baths (medicated and other), and a certain diet, were carefully indicated in special diseases” (page 152). Page twenty-two of Dr. Kitchen’s article contains a table of suggested remedies available to 1st century doctors in Palestine.[3]Here are a few that might have been of particular interest to mothers and families:


Feverfew (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Headache: chamomile, aloe, lemon balm, pepper
  • Wound care: balsam, olive oil, wine, honey, balm, myrrh or frankincense, hyssop, juniper, fig sap, yarrow oil
  • Fever: wormwood
  • Morning sickness: cumin, feverfew
  • To improve lactation: castor oil, fenugreek
  • Anxiety: fennel
  • Sore feet: wormwood
  • Worms: laurel, wormwood

Wikipedia adds these for more general use: [4]

  • Elecampane: used to help with digestion
  • Garlic: beneficial for health, particularly of the heart
  • Fenugreek: used in the treatment of pneumonia
  • Silphium: used for a wide variety of ailments and conditions—especially for birth control [5]
  • Willow: used as an antiseptic

Some common treatments mentioned in the Bible

Holman’s Bible Dictionary notes:

“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. …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).”[6]

Did you say cabbage?

Here is an interesting bit of trivia: “Cabbage has been grown in the West since approximately 400 BC. It is a plant that has high therapeutic qualities. Since ancient Greek times cabbage was used as a remedy for the digestive system, skin problems, fever, and a fortifier for aching joints. The Romans used to eat raw cabbage when indulging in too much alcohol, to avoid getting drunk. Cabbage was always on hand for treating most family problems….”[7]

One last question

One might ask if there were hospitals during this period of time. The answer is yes, but not like the familiar high-rises we visit today. The Romans built such facilities to care for their wounded soldiers. Separate buildings like barracks were constructed within the camp, mainly to keep the smell and screaming of the injured from demoralizing their sleeping comrades. Some of the larger camps featured operating rooms, baths, kitchens, latrines with running water, and a dispensary.[8] There is evidence that one such hospital existed in Jerusalem.

It took some time before hospital facilities became available to the general population. Again, from Dr. Kitchen: “Before the Christian era there is no evidence of hospitals or sanatoria for the sick in villages or in Roman cities in that day. Most medicine was practiced by the patient’s bedside. It was a personal or family affair and there is not sense of public duty towards the sick.”

In summary

The Gospel accounts record wonderful instances of crowds of the sick and afflicted thronging Jesus to experience His miraculous healing. Sadly, though, throughout much of the Roman Empire, even in Palestine, most had no access to such a blessing. Instead, they relied on Roman administrators to introduce engineering innovations designed to improve public health, and to slow the spread of disease.

Ordinary families depended on their own resources to deal with all-too-familiar sicknesses, and death. Wives, mothers, and female family members were the principal caregivers in such cases.

It is hoped these brief excursions into life in 1st century Palestine have given readers a new appreciation of its women, and the daunting and often heart-breaking challenges they faced.

[2] Sketches of Jewish Social Life, Alfred Edersheim (1994), Updated edition, Hendrickson Pub., page 151

[3] See Note 1.

[5] Lynn H. Cohick mentions a discussion by the Greek physician, Soranus of Ephesus, addressing  the topic of contraceptive measures. These reportedly included the use of olive oil, cedar resin, or honey on the opening of the uterus, or plugging the opening with fine wool (page 150).

[8] Kitchen, page 6, “Did hospitals exist in towns in the provinces of the Empire?”

“Unclean!”: the scourge of leprosy

The term “leprosy stigma” means a strong feeling of being shameful and unaccepted. The physical appearance of a person with leprosy can be so disturbing that the afflicted are shunned. Until the 20th century, lepers were consigned to a leprosarium because there were no effective ways to deal with the disease. It was contagious, and there was no cure.

Descriptions of leprosy and its medicaments have been found in early records from India, China and Egypt. In ancient treatments, physicians bathed the afflicted in sheep’s blood. They injected patients with arsenic, creosote and/or mercury. They tried cobra venom, scorpion venom and bee stings. And none of them worked. Early practitioners were “shooting in the dark” when it came to leprosy.

Difficult to define

The Hebrew word tsara’ath is translated leprosy.The precise meaning of the word leprosy in both the Old and New Testaments is still in dispute, but it possibly includes the modern Hansen’s disease (especially in the New Testament) and infectious skin diseases.

Jewish high priest wearing a hoshen, and Levit...

Jewish high priest wearing a hoshen, and Levites in ancient Judah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Israel it was the responsibility of priests to distinguish between minor skin irritations and leprosy (Leviticus 13), and to determine when one was deemed cleansed of it. There is some discussion as to whether this was a contagious disease or essentially a matter of being ceremonially unclean. Whatever the case, it is quite clear that one had to live outside the camp of Israel until the priests were certain the disease was gone.

Herein lies the controversy

If leprosy of the scriptures was indeed Hansen’s disease, it initially manifested itself as superficial sores before spreading to other parts of the body. In the later stages of the disease, sufferers developed facial tumors, claw hands, twisted limbs, a loss of pain sensation and blindness. However, it is possible Hansen’s is not related at all to the “leprosy” the priests dealt with. That suggests a better picture for ancient Israel because no one would have to live outside the camp very long.

The following citation illustrates the emotion attached to the specter of Hansen’s disease and the term “leper”:

“Incurable by man, many believed God inflicted the curse of leprosy upon people for the sins they committed. In fact, those with leprosy were so despised and loathed that they were not allowed to live in any community with their own people (Numbers 5:2). Among the sixty-one defilements of ancient Jewish laws, leprosy was second only to a dead body in seriousness. A leper wasn’t allowed to come within six feet of any other human, including his own family. The disease was considered so revolting that the leper wasn’t permitted to come within 150 feet of anyone when the wind was blowing. Lepers lived in a community with other lepers until they either got better or died. This was the only way the people knew to contain the spread of the contagious forms of leprosy.”[1]

The Jewish Encyclopedia, however, offers another observation:

“In the Biblical description, one is immediately impressed by the absence of all allusion to the hideous facial deformity, the loss of feeling, and the rotting of the members. If such conspicuous manifestations had existed they could not possibly have escaped observation. The Levitical code prescribed that the several examinations of the person suspected should be made at intervals of seven days, thus enabling the priest to note the progress of the disease. Leprosy is an exceedingly slow disease, particularly in the beginning, and a fortnight would show absolutely no change in the vast majority of cases. Moreover, the “lepra Hebræorum” was a curable disease. When the leper was cured the priest made an atonement before the Lord, and expiatory sacrifices in the form of a sin-offering and a trespass-offering were made also. Modern leprosy is, except in isolated instances, incurable.”

Scientific advances

English: Gerhard Amauer Hansen, Norwegian bact...

English: Gerhard Amauer Hansen, Norwegian bacteriologist who discovered the bacillum for leprosy. Since this photograph was likely taken before 1923 as Hansen died in 1912, it is public domain in the United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1873 Gerhard Hansen identified and described mycobacterium leprae, the bacteria that causes leprosy. Although it was thought of as a skin disease, the bacterium actually attacks the peripheral nervous system. It shows up initially on the skin and spreads by skin contact and droplets from the respiratory tract. It is still classified as contagious but no longer considered highly contagious. With the development of sulfur drugs and programs supported by the World Health Organization, the incidence of leprosy has dramatically decreased worldwide. It hasn’t been totally eradicated yet, and leper colonies exist in India, China, Romania, Egypt, Nepal, Somalia, Liberia, Vietnam and Japan.[2] But it is no longer considered incurable.

Apart from Jesus’ work of compassion, it wasn’t until “the introduction of multidrug therapy (MDT) in the early 1980s that the disease could be diagnosed and treated successfully within the community”[3] For thousands of years it was handled outside the community because there was no other recourse.

An occasion to glorify

Not much is said about leprosy in the New Testament except for incidences of miraculous healing. It became an occasion to glorify God when Jesus healed lepers and enabled them to live as free beings.

That Jesus healed ten lepers and only one returned to thank Him is stunning. Jesus marveled at this oversight, this lack of living commensurately. He had released them from strict isolation into life in the community. They forgot to come back and thank Him. ♦ Mary Hendren

[1] “Why is leprosy talked about so much in the Bible?”

[2] “Leprosy,” Wikipedia

[3] “Leprosy,” Wikipedia

Disease: striving to meet the challenge 1st century style

Since disease has been a factor in the lives of individuals and nations for eons, it stands to reason there have been many attempts to slow or eradicate its spread altogether. That was true in the 1st century Roman Empire and continues to this day.

Public health measures from the Torah

When it came to implementing basic principles of health and sanitation, the Jews in Palestine benefited tremendously from their law. YHWH gave instructions early in their history that figured prominently in the welfare of Israel as a nation. Note the following examples:

  • Quarantine (Leviticus 13:46)
  • Laws concerning washing and bathing[1] (Leviticus 15; Numbers 19)
  • Food laws (Leviticus 11)[2]
  • Proper disposal of human waste, reducing the risk of typhoid, cholera, and dysentery (Deuteronomy 23:12-13)
  • The Sabbath, a weekly day of rest from exhausting labors and stress (Exodus 20:8-11)

The Romans and public health

The Romans, too, were concerned about the health of their citizenry. Hygiene was of major importance, as were exercise, and clean drinking water. Throughout the environs of their empire, the disposal of sewage presented a challenge. Historians record that it was common to find human and animal excrement on city streets, even in Rome itself. Of course, such filth resulted in not only a stench that fouled the air for miles, but also attracted swarms of flies and encouraged the spread of disease.

Roman engineers addressed street sanitation by constructing underground and above-ground aqueducts to supply water to sewers (installed under city streets) and public bathhouses.[3]In some locations, toilets with running
water were put in place. Dr. Paul Kitchen mentions a large public bath in the city of Nazareth. (See link in footnote 1.)

Ancient Latrine in Ephesus

Ancient Latrine in Ephesus (Photo credit: Ken and Nyetta)

Even with these innovations disease managed to thrive, partially due to the public bath by-product of dirty, stagnant water, teeming with bacteria, and the consequence of using lead pipes as conduits for water—that of lead poisoning.

While many efforts centered mainly in large cities, rural towns and villages grappled with the same challenges but with little assistance.  It would take decades for such life-saving initiatives to spread throughout the realm.


In the next blogs, we will examine a dreaded disease,  the “medical profession,” and treatment options for the average person during New Testament times.

[1] Jeremiah 2:22 mentions washing with lye and soap. According to Rendel Short, The Bible and Modern Medicine (1952) page 11, soap making has a long history. “They used lye (natron) a fossil carbonate of soda boiled in olive oil with ash from certain plants added….” Cited in note 43,

[2] Some who study the history of disease note that not eating pork probably lessened the chances of transmitting tapeworms.

[3] “The baths were used by both rich and poor. Most Roman settlements contained a public bath of some sort. In Britain the most famous are at Bath (then called Aquae Sulis by the Romans). The entrance fee for the baths were extremely small – usually about a quadrans (1/16th of a penny!). This extremely low price was to ensure that no-one did not bathe because it was too expensive.From the writings of Seneca, we know that the Romans spent large sums of money building their baths. Seneca wrote about baths with walls covered in huge mirrors and marble with water coming out of silver taps! “And I’m talking only about the common people.” (Seneca) The baths of the rich included waterfalls according to Seneca. Even people who were sick were encouraged to bathe as it was felt that this would help them to regain their good health.”

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?”

Coming next week….

This week we touched on the topic of Bible women in the workplace, profiling two in the New Testament. One of the challenges in looking back to ancient times is scanty physical evidence or few existing records. Because of that, curious students of the Bible often must look at the cultural norms surrounding a particular woman, read accounts written by people of the time (the works of Josephus, for instance) and then, if you will, “tease out” a perception of what she might have been like, or how she might have interacted in her community. I believe Mary Hendren’s post, “Purple,” is an excellent example of this process at work.

Next week: sickness and health

It is obvious when reading the Gospels that Christ spent much of his ministry healing the sick. Sickness and suffering was (and is) a fact of life, and every generation has to deal with that reality—especially women who generally are the caregivers. Join us for a glimpse of the health challenges and environmental conditions facing people in first-century Palestine.

Stamp for marking semi-solid sticks of eye oin...

Stamp for marking semi-solid sticks of eye ointments (collyria) before they harden, inscribed with four remedies prepared with saffron by a Junius Taurus from a prescription of a Pacius. Stone, 1st-3rd centuries AD. Said to be from Naix, northern France. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Until then, thanks for joining us on this journey of discovery!

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