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Monthly Archives: November 2012

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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