Oxford Dictionary of the Bible
by W.R.F. Browning (NY: Oxford University Press, 1996)
Physicians In OT times there were professional healers in Palestine but they were not well regarded (Job 13:4), even in the 1st century CE (Mark 5:26). But Ecclus [=Sir.] 38:1 ff. urged respect for their services, so that it was not sarcastic to call Luke a 'beloved physician' Col 4:14, and Luke has traditionally been held to be the author of the third gospel and the Acts.
by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)
Physician. The Bible word means "bandager." In early times priests had some medical duties, as in the diagnosis and treatment of leprosy. Lev. 13:1-3. Physicains in later times used medicines, oils, and ointments to treat patients. In Egypt physicians were also embalmers. Gen. 50:2; 2 Chron. 16:12; Job 13:4; Mark 5:25-26; Luke 4:23; Col. 4:14.
edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)
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physicians, those healing illnesses by profession. The ot text does not provide a representative sample of the illnesses and therapies obtaining in ancient Israel. The physician healer (Heb. ‘healer,’ Jer. 8:22; 2 Chron. 16:12) and midwife (e.g., Gen. 35:17; 38:28; Exod. 1:15-22 [following the Masoretic Text vocalization]) come under the category of medical personnel. In addition, priests and prophets or miracle workers (e.g., 1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:14-37; 5) are shown providing medical services; prophet (Isa. 38; 2 Kings 20:1-11) and patriarch (Gen. 20:7, 17-18) at times served as intermediary between God and king on the occasion of illness. Information regarding modes of healing may even be inferred from divine attributions (e.g., Ps. 147:3).
As with other ancient cultures, there was in Israel no necessary conflict between belief in divine, demonic, and/or human causation of illness or between requests for divine assistance and the application of practical therapy. Prayer played a role in some treatments. Certainly, miraculous cures are occasionally described (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 5:1-14). It is unnecessary to seek scientific explanations for such cures. Here and there we may be dealing with natural remission or psychogenic illness amenable to certain therapies, but on the whole, the stories are intended to demonstrate the supernatural powers of God and/or of the miracle worker. Yet it must be assumed that belief in natural causes of illness existed and that rational diagnoses seeking autonomous causes of illness co-existed with other approaches. Practical aids included: bandages, salves, poultices, bone setting (e.g., Isa. 1:6; Jer. 8:22; Ezek. 34:4, 16). A good perspective on biblical medicine is provided in Ecclus. 38:1-15. The general absence of incantations and magical therapies (exorcism) from the Hebrew Bible should not lead us to conclude that they did not exist in ancient Israel.
Worthy of special mention are the different kinds of medical personnel and types of documentation in ancient Mesopotamia, because of its general influence on the culture of Israel. Professional handbooks and correspondence of royal courts provide detailed and reliable information on the approach to illness of and types of therapeutic activities undertaken by the ashipu (exorcist) and asu (doctor).
While many healing miracles are reported of Jesus in the nt Gospels (e.g., Matt. 8:1-4; Mark 5:1-20; Luke 13:10-13; John 9:1-7), the term ‘physician’ is never applied to him. Jesus assumed that such healing activity would also characterize his followers, something the Gospels (e.g., Mark 6:13) and Acts (e.g., 3:1-8; 14:8-10) record, but again, the title ‘physician’ is never applied to them either. Physicians were known in the nt world, however, even though their skills were not held in high esteem (e.g., Mark 5:26), and a physician named Luke, whom tradition has identified as the author of the Third Gospel, is mentioned as a companion of Paul (Col. 4:14).
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iaomai [to heal], iasis [healing], iama [healing], iatros [healer]
A. Sickness and Healing outside the Bible.
1. Primitive Views. In early times the only physical ailment that can be understood is a wound in battle. Sicknesses that are not understood are thus seen as attacks by alien powers which can be overcome by magic or sacrifices. But the healing properties of plants and animals are also discovered and play a role in treatment.
2. Rationalization of the Art of Healing in Ancient Medicine. The Egyptians were among the first to develop medicine, using a strange blend of research and theory (2600-1600 B.C.). They lanced sores, set bones, stitched wounds, filled teeth, and used drugs, but also found a place for magic. The Greeks put the art of healing on a more empirical basis (6th cent. B.C. on). Doctors formed a guild bound by the Hippocratic oath, and were trained in schools. Specialists in eyes, teeth, ears, and women’s complaints emerged in Rome, and many physicians became wealthy.
3. Miracles of Healing, Gods of Healing, and Savior Gods in Hellenism. Religion and superstition merged with medicine. Sickness was often seen as a punishment, and we find gods of healing, especially Apollo and Aesculapius. Temple sleep supposedly had healing value in such shrines as Epidauros, which were very well appointed. Whether surgery was performed during sleep is debatable, but there was no rift between priest and doctor except in detail, e.g., on the nature and treatment of epilepsy. Miraculous healings are reported, such as the curing of the blind and lame by Vespasian and Hadrian. The gods are healers and saviors in both an inward and a cosmic sense. Thus Aesculapius is seen as the founder of medicine and Eros as the patron of gymnastics and agriculture as well as medicine. The gods mediate the healing presence of Zeus, whose goal is human happiness in a predominantly natural sense.
4. The Literal and Figurative Use of the Words. a. The literal sense is most frequent, but b. the Greeks extend the terms to other fields in the general sense “to restore,” e.g., by removing intellectual defects, or avenging wrongs, or correcting evils. Along these lines Epictetus thinks of the philosophical school as iatreion.
B. Sickness and Healing in the OT and Judaism.
1. The Religious Evaluation of Sickness. In Israel some ailments, such as mental illness, leprosy, and mortal sickness, are associated with demons, but we also find the beginnings of hygiene, and the conviction develops that God sends or withholds sickness. Thus it may be a sign of divine wrath (Is. 38), but this raises problems for the righteous (e.g., Job) when there is no obvious cause. When there is, repentance is a way to healing (2 Sam. 12:15ff.). Judaism tries to assign particular ailments to particular sins, but recognizes that sickness may also be a chastisement of love or a means of alleviating eternal pains.
2. Magic and Medicine; God the Healer (Literally). Belief in God discredits magic, but relics continue (cf. conjurations in Judaism). Egyptian and Greek influences (Gen. 50:2) produce more empirical medicine (cf. Is. 3:7; Jer. 8:22; hygienic rules in Sir. 19:2-3, etc.). Anatomy and surgery command respect. But God is the true Doctor. The priest is put in charge of health (Lev. 13:49ff.). If physicians are praised as the work of God (Sir. 38), prayer plays an important role (38:13-14); cf. the censuring of Asa for resorting to physicians rather than God (2 Chr. 16:12). Philo is no less ambivalent, recognizing good doctors but pointing to God as the true Healer. In later Judaism warnings against doctors go hand in hand with the training of many rabbis as physicians and the use of physicians in the temple. Prayer is the chief means of healing, as in many psalms with their sequence of complaint, petition, and thanksgiving (Pss. 6; 16:10; 38; 107:17ff.). If the terms may at times be figurative, the literal sense is original. The relation between prayer and miraculous healing is fluid (cf. Naaman in 2 Kgs. 5 and the raising of the dead in 2 Kgs. 4).
3. Healing in the Figurative Sense. God heals by withdrawing judgment, which may take the form of either sickness or other calamities. Thus healing has a broader sense, especially in Jeremiah (3:22 etc.). Repentance and remission of sins are prerequisites, so that healing and forgiveness go closely together. iasthai denotes God’s gracious turning, with the binding up of a wound in the background. Thus restoration of fellowship is the crucial thing from which physical or mental restoration flows. The prophet is anointed by God to bind up the broken in heart (Is. 61:1) by announcing good tidings. The Servant of the Lord undergoes vicarious suffering to make expiation, so that the paradoxical conclusion is reached that “by his stripes we are healed.” Philo favors the figurative use, but more for inner healing than for forgiveness, though this healing comes from God, the logos, or the divine ennoia.
C. Sickness and Healing in the NT.
1. Sickness and the Art of Healing in the Light of the NT. At times the NT relates sickness to demons (cf. possession and Mt. 12:22ff.), but it also sees it as judgment (Rev. 6:8), although not in terms of a rigid dogma of retribution (cf. Mk. 2:5; Jn. 9:3-4; 11:4). Paul, then, can classify it with all other sufferings (Rom. 8:28) even under the burden of what was perhaps a physical ailment that God did not remove (2 Cor. 12:7ff.). Sickness in the NT is seen to contradict God’s plan for creation, so that in spite of Mk. 5:26 there can be no opposing any effort to free us from it (cf. Lk. 10:34; Col. 4:14; 1 Tim. 5:23).
2. Jesus the Physician. The Use of the Terms in the Gospels. Jesus made a great impression as the Healer. All the Gospels, especially Luke, use iasthai for his work. iasis is literal in Lk. 13:32, and figurative only in quotation. Jesus calls himself “physician” more than once (cf. the parabolic saying in Mk. 2:17 and the proverbial saying in Lk. 4:23).
3. Jesus’ Miracles of Healing in the Light of the History of Religion. Stories of similar healings to those of Jesus raise many questions.
a. Tradition. Many accounts of healing come from excavations at Epidauros. Some of the healings are grotesque, but others seem to be authentic. The stories of healings in Judaism contain legendary accretions, but often the essentials may well be historical. When two or more recensions are present, these confirm the tenacity of popular tradition. No original testimony exists to the miracles of Jesus, nor can one trace an unbroken tradition (in spite of Papias), so that expansion may well have taken place in some instances (cf. Mk. 5:21ff.; Lk. 7:11ff.; Jn. 11:1ff.). Yet there can hardly have been substantial change after the first century. The tradition took its basic form before the written record (cf. 1 Cor. 15:6) and authenticates itself by vividness and simplicity (as compared to apocryphal stories). The community arose under the impress of mighty acts which could hardly be replaced and which Christians themselves showed no eagerness to imagine (cf. the fact that the Baptist is credited with no miracles, and the matter-of-fact account of what happened to Paul in Acts 14:20 and what he said in Acts 20:10). Common features of miracle stories are (1) the failure of medical skill, (2) an encounter, and (3) the quickness and sureness of the miracle. Motives in telling the stories vary, e.g., to give confidence at Epidauros, to show the power of keeping the law among the rabbis, and to lead to faith in Christ in the Gospels.
b. The Nature of the Miracles. Nature miracles are recounted at Epidauros and in Judaism. A few occur in the Gospels, but healings are more common. The ailments cured include more than nervous disorders, and there are also exorcisms. The stories are told, not from the standpoint of the patients or self-seeking priests, but from that of the mercy of Jesus, so that love, not egoism, is the central force. There are no animal healings, no payments, no punishments, and no burlesque elements. Jesus will not use miracles to cause a sensation and the only demand he makes is for discipleship, so that spiritual blessing may be enjoyed as well as physical healing.
c. The Cures. The mode of healing in the Gospels is simple and involves no empirical therapy. There must have been some special reason for the use of spittle in Mk. 7:33; 8:23; Jn. 9:6. We find no healing sleep, and laying on of hands replaces cruder contacts. Some healings are at a distance. Healing is often by word, not in the sense of magic, but by Jesus’ word of command in answer to appeals for help and in virtue of the power received in prayer (Mk. 9:29; cf. the rabbis). A precondition and consequence is faith. Jesus himself has faith, demands it of those whom he heals, and promises power to the disciples only as they have faith. The faith required, however, is not a belief in the credibility of the miracles but faith in Jesus himself. It involves a relationship of trust, a conviction of God’s power, and the resultant commitment of obedience. This faith, which is well illustrated in Mt. 8:5ff. (the centurion), receives not merely physical healing but the full health of salvation (Mk. 5:34; Lk. 7:50).
d. Theological Appraisal: The Uniqueness of Jesus’ Healings. Miracles of healing are well attested from various sources, and natural “laws” are relative, so that one cannot rationalistically rule out the healings of Jesus. The impact of the personality and special powers of Jesus must also be taken into account. Since these are put in the service of God’s own work in history, we should not measure them by ordinary standards. Compared to other healings, those of Jesus are unique by reason of his own holy and merciful love, which is both supremely intensive and supremely comprehensive, and which embraces both the outer and the inner being. Jesus does not sever the connection between evil and sin, yet he does not view sickness as retribution nor believe that freedom from sickness is a primary goal. His chief concern is to free from sin, and while he may use healing as a first step in this direction, he may also give forgiveness first (Mt. 9:2) or even confer forgiveness where there is no need of healing (Lk. 7:47ff.). The healings may also sometimes serve a pastoral point, e.g., when performed in the context of a dispute (the sabbath in Mt. 12:9ff., the right to forgive in Mt. 9:1ff.). The miracles are not spectacles, but they are signs (Jn. 2:11, 23; 4:48, etc.). They are simple but powerful demonstrations that the promised age of fulfilment has come (cf. Mt. 11:5 and Is. 35:5-6). From them the Baptist should perceive that God’s rule is present (Mt. 12:28). Failure to see this is guilty obtuseness (Lk. 12:54ff.). The miracles are proleptic victories—a foretaste and pledge of the final victory. Jesus invades Satan’s kingdom with power (Lk. 10:18). Nothing can resist him, for even though he is put to death, the kingdom comes thereby. This messianic and eschatological context gives the healings of Jesus a uniqueness in religious history which is the uniqueness of his whole person and mission.
4. Healing in the Apostolic Age. If Jesus gives his disciples power to heal (Mk. 3:14-15), this is not an endowment for selfish use but an equipment for effective witness by act as well as word. The power may reach a limit (Mk. 9:18), is not to be used for profit (Mt. 10:8), and may be exercised even outside the apostolic circle when the name of Jesus is invoked (Mk. 9:38ff.). With their eschatological faith in Jesus, the first witnesses take up the fight against bodily suffering (Acts 3:1ff. etc.). If primitive features occur, especially on the part of the healed, the acts of power, like the healings of Jesus in missionary preaching (Acts 2:22), awaken faith (Acts 2:43 etc.) and further the progress of preaching (Rom. 15:18-19 etc.). The gift of healing is an operation in the name of the exalted Lord (Acts 3:16), or an operation of the Lord himself through the Spirit (Acts 9:34). It is a special charism, given particularly to commissioned witnesses, but confers no claim or magical exemption from serious or persistent sickness (cf. Phil. 2:26; 2 Tim. 4:20). Healing may be a gift, but it is still a theme in godly intercession (2 Cor. 12:8; Jms. 5:13ff.). The figurative use of the group occurs in the NT only in OT quotations (except in Heb. 12:13). Thus the warning of Acts 28:27 quotes Is. 6:10, and 1 Pet. 2:24 quotes Is. 53:5. In both instances the reference is to restoration through forgiveness and the resultant saving benefits. The use in Heb. 12:13 is ethical. In an exhortation to Christian conduct, this is compared to the making of straight paths so that what is lame may be healed.
D. The Gospel of the Healer and Healing in the Early Church. The missionary vigor of Christianity owes much to the power with which it brings release from bondage to demons and destiny and to the selfless love with which believers take up the cause of the sick and needy. With an emphasis on liberation from sin, the figurative use (partly under OT influence) becomes more prominent again, as when Jesus is called iatros (cf. the similarity of sound of Jesus and iasthai) and Hellenistic motifs are transferred to him. Literal use of the group is rare. It occurs in OT quotations in 1 Clement and Barnabas, and the figurative use is especially common in Hermas (e.g., Visions 1.1.9; Mandates 4.1. 11; Similitudes 5.7.3) with a hint of infusion of grace as well as remission of sins.
[The original article, of which the above is a condensed version, was written by Albrecht Oepke and may be found in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume III, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965, pages 194-215.]
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