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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.”

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.

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