Monthly Archives: October 2021

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? The Value of Human Life (What If– 15)

In the Greco-Roman World life was cheap, expendable. This was especially true if you were a woman, a child, a foreigner, or simply poor. People often sacrificed their own children in order to placate the gods. If a baby was not wanted (this was especially true if the baby was a girl), it was often killed or simply laid on the street to be picked up by a stranger or simply die of exposure. Abortion was widespread, even though major figures like Hippocrates and Galen opposed it. One of the meanings of pharmakeia (the Greek word at the root of the English “pharmacy”) is sorcery or abortion. What the two actions have in common is the use of drugs or potions to create an effect (sorcery) or to induce an abortion.

Another evidence that life was cheap in the Greco-Roman world is that 70% of the people in the Roman Empire were slaves. Slaves had no rights or social standing. They could be killed with impunity on the whim of their masters. Female slaves could be offered as sexual favors to guests. The institution of slavery treated human beings as less than human. So did the cruel sports that the Romans enjoyed, which included killing other humans for sport and entertainment (gladiators).

The Greco-Roman world also had little respect for women. Women had few rights and no social value. Even when they were free citizens, they were only slightly above slaves on the social pecking order. They were generally not permitted to speak in public. They could be used as sex slaves unless they were protected by a father, a husband, or another male relative. The widespread practice of polygamy demonstrated that women had less value than men in relationships. In fact, it was Christianity’s regard for women that was often used against it. Treating women with respect and dignity was considered a sign of weakness in the Greco-Roman world.

The Greco-Roman world also had a low view of the poor. The Stoics taught that it was undignified to associate with the poor, the weak, and the outcast. As a result there is no record of charitable effort as such in the ancient world. When the Roman upper classes were distributing food or other support to the poor, it was not an act of caring concern for the poor, it was patronage for the purpose of accumulating honor and prestige for the giver. The Romans drew a distinction between caritas and liberalitas. Caritas (charity) was a Latin word that meant to give freely to those who can=t give back. Liberalitas, on the other hand, meant to give something in order to get something in return, whether that was favors or simply honor and attention. The more people that came to you for help, the greater in social standing you appeared to be. The world into which Jesus was born did not consider most human lives to be of great value.

Then Jesus came. He reinforced the teaching of His Jewish heritage. Human beings were made by God in His image (Gen 1:27) and were, therefore, crowned with glory and honor (Psa 8:5). But that was only the starting point for Jesus’ message about human dignity. Human beings were souls for whom He died (1 Cor 8:11). Jesus valued children and urged them to come to Him (Matt 19:14) when others would have driven them away. Instead of running away from lepers, Jesus treated them with kindness and compassion. Although he knew that Judas was about to betray him, He did not “throw him under the bus” in front of the other disciples (John 13:27-29). Though He was fully aware of Simon the Pharisee’s past history, he did not expose the details of that history to the other dinner guests (Luke 7:39-47). Thought the Pharisees were cruel and hypocritical in bringing the woman taken in adultery to Jesus, He uplifted her, but not at the expense of the Pharisee’s reputation in the community. He let them preserve their dignity (John 8:5-9). Jesus treated even the bitterest of opponents with respect and kindness.

Jesus behavior toward women, in a Greco-Roman society that did not respect them, also drew a sharp contrast with the norm. He treated Mary like a disciple at a time when women were not seen as deserving of an education (Luke 10:38-42). He did the same with her sister Martha at a later time (John 11: 20-27. He even allowed women to travel with His entourage, something rabbis would have frowned upon (Luke 8:1-3). He delegated his message to Samaria to a woman of low reputation in that town (John 4:27-30, 39-42). He took time to offer words of approval and comfort to the woman who found healing by touching His garment (Mark 5:25-34). This treatment of women would have stood out in first-century society.

Jesus not only treated the poor and the outcasts with great kindness and dignity, He taught those around him to do the same. One memorable teaching was the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). He put the elites of Jewish society and their attitudes toward those less fortunate in sharp contrast with that of Samaritans, who were a despised class in Jewish society. A representative of those elites was forced to acknowledge that selfless help to the unfortunate was the right thing to do. He encouraged His disciples to treat the unfortunate the same way that they would treat Him, their teacher. After all, He Himself had left the riches of heaven and become poor in human terms in order to lift up the poor and neglected (2 Cor 8:9). Even the circumstances of His torture and death made a statement about true power and dignity. He was dressed in royal robes and wore a crown of thorns. In His kingdom, suffering with Him put one at higher status than earthly power equations. The teaching and behavior of Jesus would change everything.

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Health Care II (What If– 14)

As was the case with science and research, the basic insights and structures that make modern medicine possible were birthed in a context of Jesus’ followers and influence. Since the story is not widely known, let me review a few key examples. The world’s first vaccine (for smallpox) was invented by Edward Jenner (1749-1823). Through this single medical advance Jenner may have directly saved more lives than any other person in history. In his own words, he confessed the motivation for his work was his relationship with Jesus: “I am a follower of Christ. I am a tool in the hands of God.” Another well-known health care pioneer was Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), an English social reformer who was also the founder of the nursing profession. She wrote, among other things, “Christ . . . came into the world to save sinners . . . to deliver men from sin and its consequences.” Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), a French chemist and microbiologist, led the way in understanding the causes and prevention of disease, laying the foundation for public health and much of modern medicine. Joseph Lister (1827-1912), a British surgeon, pioneered antiseptic surgery. Both Pasteur and Lister were fervent Christians. And the name of the “Red Cross” speaks eloquently to the motivations of its founders. As in other areas of science, the key developments in medicine were motivated by Jesus.

The same can be said for the concept of the modern teaching hospital. In the United States, the best research hospitals were founded mostly by Christian denominations or by groups of believing Christians. The original research hospital, Massachusetts General (a clinical arm of Harvard Medical School today), was founded by a pastor named John Bartlett. Bartlett had a passion for the poor and the neglected of society, motivated by Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus said: “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.” At that time (early 1800s) most medical care was done in people’s homes, with doctors making “house calls”. This meant that quality health care could only be afforded by the wealthy, who could pay not only for the visit but for all the doctor’s travel time as well. No location in the Boston area provided round the clock care to the general public. Bartlett reasoned that if you could gather a group of doctors in one place, the poor and the underserved could travel to that place and receive affordable care. And so Massachusetts General Hospital opened up in 1821.

In Baltimore Maryland, a number of years later, a Christian named Johns Hopkins founded a teaching hospital that combined clinical care with education and research, possibly the first true teaching hospital. The motto of Johns Hopkins Medical Center (now called simply Johns Hopkins Medicine) is: “The truth will set you free.” As noted earlier in this series, that was one of the most famous sayings of Jesus. Like Pastor Bartlett, the original Johns Hopkins was motivated by Jesus to advance the science of medicine. In fact, the top ten research hospitals in the world by most accounts were all originally staffed by Christian-educated medical doctors. Most of these ten are readily recognizable names: Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic. Johns Hopkins Medicine, Massachusetts General, University of Michigan Medical Center, University of California at San Francisco Medical Center, UCLA Medical Center, Cedars-Sinai, Stanford University Medical Center, and New York Presbyterian Medical Center. Nine of the ten were founded by committed Christians. The tenth, Cedars-Sinai, was founded by Jews, but even that hospital was largely staffed by committed Christian doctors. There are many hospitals in the world that were founded by people of other religions or no religion. What is significant is that these ten are the “seed” research hospitals that created the medical breakthroughs that all hospitals seek to emulate today.

While the United States and these ten hospitals have led the way in medical research, mission hospitals around the world have been founded by committed Christians of many denominations to continue the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus in nearly every place. Not least among these is the extensive cohort of Seventh-day Adventist mission hospitals that were inspired by Jesus through the writings of Ellen G. White. Many of these are among the most respected medical establishments in their respective countries. The crown jewel of Ellen White’s vision for “continuing the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus” is Loma Linda University Health in southern California. With assistance from LLUH, not only are SDA mission hospitals being strengthened in their mission, but some ten medical and dental schools have risen up in far-flung places like Mexico, Argentina, the Philippines, India, Peru, Chile, Nigeria, Rwanda, and more. And so Jesus’ influence on the medical profession and its clinical counterpart continues.

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Health Care (What If– 13)

A big surprise when I was doing my research on the historical impact of Jesus was how crucial His ideas were to the advances of modern medicine. As usual, let’s begin with the context, health care in the Greco-Roman world of Jesus’ day. There were a number of positives in that context. Hippocrates (460-c. 370 BC), contemporary of Socrates and Plato, is often called the “Father of Medicine”. He established medicine and healing as a distinct discipline of study. He believed diseases had natural causes, they were not punishment from the gods. But his work only went so far, because he was largely ignorant of anatomy and physiology. Like the Greek philosophers of his time, he seems to have felt that hands-on research was beneath his dignity.

A century or so after Jesus, Galen (129-c. 216 AD—Greek: Klaudios Galȇnos) crossed the boundaries of hands-on research to dissect monkeys and pigs, since dissection of humans was strictly forbidden at that time. In this way he developed a rudimentary understanding of anatomy and physiology. He also broke with the traditions of his day in seeing mind and body as a unity, the one affecting the other. So he pioneered theories of psychosomatic healing. He also performed some rudimentary surgeries. He is, perhaps, most famous for founding the great medical school in Pergamum, the ruins of which can be visited today. Because of his philosophical convictions, a number of psychosomatic treatments were performed there, so he could be called the father of whole person care.

But there is in fact no direct line from Galen to modern medicine. He was so famous later on that his erroneous theories were as influential as his promising ones, holding back the advance of medicine in the Middle Ages. And there were other problems. The last time I visited the ruins of Galen’s medical school and clinic, I noticed an 820 meter roadway leading to the entrance. Triage involved the patient having to walk that whole distance. If they made it, they were admitted for treatment, if they didn’t make it they were sent away. Health care in the Greco-Roman world was for “useful” people, not for general public. Among those useful people were soldiers, elites and gladiators. Helping the sick was considered a sign of weakness, so the sick were often ostracized, unless they were wealthy and powerful. “imperfect” children were often drowned, as they would never be “useful”.

A stronger foundation for modern medicine could be found in ancient Judaism. The sanitary practices in the Pentateuch, for example, foreshadow many public health practices today. Belief in one God steered the Jews away from magic as a response to sickness. Belief in the wholeness of human beings and in the goodness of the body would have made a huge difference in the Greco-Roman world had it taken Judaism more seriously. But then Jesus came and transformed these biblical ideas in a way that changed everything.

The first thing one notices about Jesus is that He seems to have spent much more time healing than teaching or preaching. And He not only commissioned His disciples to preach, but also “to heal” (Luke 9:2, ESV). Whenever His disciples entered a town, the first thing they were to do after having something to eat was to “heal the sick” that were in that town (Luke 10:8-9, ESV). Not only that, Jesus’ healings were in the context of great compassion for those He was healing (Matt 14:14; 20:34; Mark 1:31; 5:19; 6:34, etc.; Luke 7:13). And who can forget the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46), where Jesus tells His disciples that he identifies with the hungry, the thirsty, the naked and the sick. Along with Paul, Jesus acknowledged that the human body was a temple of God and should be treated with similar respect (John 2:19-21; 1 Cor 6:19-20). These teachings and practices of Jesus were in direct contrast with those of the Greco-Roman world.

It is clear that the early church understood Jesus’ commission to heal the sick to apply to them as well as His disciples. In the early centuries, before the church became the religion of the Empire, Christians did not prioritize the elites for healing but helped those who needed it the most, such as orphans, widows, the poor, the deformed, and the disabled. Once Christianity had become the religion of the Empire, one of the first actions (at the Council of Nicea) was a decree that hospitals should be erected wherever there were churches. Basil in the East and Fabiola in Rome founded the world’s first true hospitals. In contrast to Galen, these Christian hospitals focused on the poor. The wealthy were treated at home or at elite centers of healing. The cross-fertilization between the cathedral hospitals and cathedral schools created the seedbed of modern medicine, which we will explore in the next blog.

Let me close by acknowledging the dark side of the church on this issue. The early Christians went along with Greco-Roman society in forbidding the dissection of human bodies, so scientific medicine didn=t advance dramatically until after Reformation. Then things began to take off.