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.