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The woman with the discharge of blood—who spent all her living on physicians (Luke 8:43-48)—was without hope. Her experience—spending all her living—was probably somewhat typical. Israel generally disdained physicians in Bible times for their expense. The other reason was their average success rate, which was nowhere near our doctors’ success rates today. In Egypt they made progress understanding human anatomy by dissecting human bodies. But they made little progress in understanding disease. Today’s blog connects a brief summary of despised occupations with ancient medical practices and inspirational thoughts.
Physicians would usually help only the wealthy because only the rich could afford them (Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus). Many doctors were slaves, and Rome did pay public doctors to treat the poor. In fact, Alfred Edersheim says, “The rabbis ordained that every town must have at least one physician, who was also to be qualified to practice surgery, or else a physician and a surgeon” (Sketches of Jewish Social Life). But I avoided quoting or recommending Edersheim until today, and even now do so with some reservations.
Edersheim wrote his classics in the 1800’s after doing a fine job of studying the Mishnah, Midrash, and Talmud at length. These are ancient Jewish writings which date back to during and mostly after Jesus was here. But since then archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls have proven wrong numerous conclusions Edersheim made. Palestine was quite different after the temple was destroyed. Just keep this in mind.
Joachim Jeremias (in Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus) also quotes from the Mishnah when he makes the above chart of despised trades in first-century Palestine. He writes,
There was a whole series of trades which were despised, and those who practiced them were, to a greater or less degree, exposed to social degradation. A number of lists of such occupations was drawn up, and here we give the four most important…. In list 1, nos. 1-6…the trades which a father should not teach his son for they are the “craft of robbers” …particularly notorious for leading to dishonesty.
In this first list, we find physicians and shepherds. I already covered why shepherds were regarded as untrustworthy.
…trades concerned with transport. There the temptation was great for men to embezzle some of the good entrusted to them. In fact the list has all forms of transport which existed at that time with the exception of carriers, doubtless because they were employed for short distances only and so could be better supervised…. As for the shopkeeper (6), he was tempted to cheat his customers…. Physicians, who elsewhere also are assessed unfavourably, are included among “crafts of robbers” because they were suspected of…attendance on the rich and neglecting the poor…. Butchers were suspected of being dishonest because they were tempted to sell for human consumption meat…of animals with some fatal physical blemishes.
In one of my former blogs, I covered superstitions and unexplained deaths. Add to the ancient doctors’ incompetency this distrust of their honesty, and we see better what we take so much for granted.
Luke was a physician (Colossians 4:14). This blog is a reminder of what God can do with the faithful few in the midst of a corrupt and/or degraded institution like ancient medicine. When we read Luke and the book of Acts, we should keep this in mind.