Disease and medicine in the ancient world (Luke 4)

Illustration: ancient surgical instruments.

Ancient doctors were few in numbers, expensive, lacking in knowledge of effective treatments and, although learned for their time, still quite ignorant and superstitious. Temples to Asclepius, the Greco-Roman god of healing, were found all over the Mediterranean world. These temples were somewhat like the spas of today, therapy consisted more of rest, massage and a modified diet than of what we would call medicine. Religion also played a major role. A common healng method was “incubation”, whereby the sick person would sleep in the confines of the temple of Asclepius in the hope of receiving a dream-revelation from the god. Those who had been healed made special contributions to the temples, which often included plaster reproduction of whatever parts of their bodies had been healed. These were set on display as testimonies to the healing power of the god.

The second century orator and chronic invalid Aelius Aristides, in his Sacred Tales, gives us an insight into the need people had for healing and the methods employed to that end. After falling ill on a journey to Rome and enduring brutal surgery at the hands of Roman doctors, Aristides became a devotee of Asclepius. The cures prescribed for him  in the dreams included bathing in a churning river during winter, poring mud on himself before sitting in the courtyard of the temple, walikng about without shoes all winter and blood-letting from various parts of his body.

It was in such a world that Jesus performed His ministry of healing. Unlike many doctors connected to temples, Jesus healed without charge or fanfare. Also, He did not follow any specific ritual that might have been regarded as the key to tapping into magical, healing power. Sometimes He would touch a person; in other instances He might place a daub of mud on a blind man’s eyes (John 9:6) or simply speak a word (Matthew 8:13). In short, Jesus’ healings pointed to the power of God that dwelled within Him; they did not encourage people to seek out rituals for magic healing but were part of His proclamation  of the kingdom. Physical healing pointed always to the restoration of creation.

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