Holistic medicine

Illness and Health in the Bible

Illness and Health in the Bible

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Review: C. van Schaik & K. Michel: The diary of mankind / What the Bible reveals about our evolution
An anthropologist / evolutionary biologist and a historian study the Bible together and thus take a new look at the most widely distributed book in the world - from an enlightening perspective. Instead of speculating on the "work of God" like theologians or demonstrating the inhumanity of biblical laws like religious critics, they decode the Bible as a chronicle of elementary incisions in history.

The displacement of Adam and Eve hides a traumatic experience - the transition from hunters and gatherers in small groups to settled farmers. This break meant violence that was contrary to the first nature of man.

Mankind's biggest mistake

Biologist Jared Diamond described becoming sedentary as humanity's greatest mistake, and it led to quantity rather than quality. The life of hunters and gatherers was also no easy task, but with more free time and less work than settling down - but above all with more social justice.

The climate on the edge of the biblical places and after the last ice age was so favorable that the hunters and gatherers became sedentary: hunting prey such as horses, deer, donkeys and antelopes thrived in abundance so that the hunters did not have to hunt the animals. The population grew so enormously that hunting and gathering no longer fed the people. Agriculture was not primarily progress, but a bitter necessity.

Diseases could now spread from animals to humans much faster, nutrition became one-sided, and field work meant drudgery. Life expectancy dropped dramatically.

Inequality and inheritance war

In the time of hunters and gatherers, ethical ideas of equality, fraternity and social cooperation were shaped. Agriculture and animal husbandry necessarily brought private property with it - this gave birth to “sin”: unjust succession and, as a result, the struggle for inheritance, states and class societies, concentration of power, despotism, slavery and the deprivation of rights of women.

Utopia of a beautiful life

But how did the memory of this anthropological trauma get into the Bible, a work that was created millennia after this Neolithic revolution? The authors offer plausible answers to these questions: First, the Bible is largely based on older material, and classic episodes come from the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt - Flood, Garden of Eden, Messiah or Angel.

Secondly, it could be a past utopia - enriched with contrasting experiences: When hundreds of authors contributed to the Bible, groups of people still lived as hunters and gatherers.

Medicine and social law

"God's punishments" in the Bible show how small groups grew into mass societies that brought with them a plethora of previously unknown problems - especially inequality, oppression and epidemics. For example, the Bible is widely used medicine, a set of rules to prevent diseases, and also a social code.

Abstract laws instead of personal ties

Mass societies required abstract laws that were contrary to first nature, that is, our biological feelings. Rituals bound people who had no personal ties.

Since contemporaries did not know the causes of natural disasters, they were considered "God's punishment". What appears to be superstition made it possible to develop meaningful rituals by establishing a causal connection and to survive by means of this culture. In the Old Testament, catastrophes are an engine for cultural evolution.

First and third nature

The New Testament finally creates a connection between what anthropologists call our first nature, that is, our innate behaviors and feelings, and our third nature, the abstract laws.

Accordingly, Christianity addresses compassion for the weak and poor just as it demonizes the “others” as unbelievers: it leaves both our altruistic and murderous impulses free. These impulses of the first nature are opposed by God himself, who embodies the abstract principle as a pure spirit.

Cultural protection system against new threats

According to the authors, the monotheism of the Jews can be seen as a cultural protection system in the face of new threats, in which the priests directly linked these threats as "punishment from God" with their own task of interpreting "God's will".

It is precisely this view of the Torah that the authors masterfully succeed. According to them, the Tora's precise health regulations show how the Jewish tribes suffered from previously unknown epidemics that infected them in the metropolises of Mesopotamia. The "great whore Babylon" as a Judeo-Christian symbol of moral depravity takes on a tangible meaning in terms of the spread of epidemics.

The "Great Whore Babylon"

Since the cause of the diseases was unknown to the people, they suspected "God's anger", which punished the "sinners", and tried to calm this "anger" in advance by introducing hygiene, health and moral regulations, which they had to keep to the smallest detail.

If the Jews saw illness as a punishment for sin, the "Great Whore Babylon" is based on real observations. Viruses and bacteria spread uninhibitedly in the mass quarters of Babylon (and the other metropolises), while epidemics could not spread among the migrating hunters and gatherers, since the pathogens hardly spread from one small group to the next.

Despite the false premise, the Jewish priests contained infectious diseases by means of religious purity laws. They punish sexual intercourse with animals and homosexuality with death, they impose maximum sentences for those who sprayed their semen in public areas and did not place their feces like urine on the latrines provided for them. They declared a large number of animal species as food for taboo etc.

Sodomy transmits diseases

Sex with animals multiplied the number of sexually transmitted diseases. The researchers explain from the lifestyle that there was no natural taboo for these sexual practices. There are hardly any opportunities for hunters and gatherers to have sex with (wild) animals, so there was no reason to develop a natural disgust.

The animal breeders now had an abundance of animal sexual objects. Added to this was the social structure: the hunters and gatherers had been sexually permissive. But with private ownership, relationships were also property, and moreover, the majority of young men went empty-handed because they lacked the inheritance, property, and status to marry. Cattle, sheep and goats remained for the sexually excluded.

According to the authors, just emphasizing the mortality of sex with animals in the Torah several times shows how widespread it must have been among ranchers and farmers.

Prevention of STDs

The Old Testament suppresses the self-determination of women and puts them under the rule of the patriarchs. Punishing extramarital sex as worthy of death was, according to the authors, also aimed at preventing STDs.

This explains why polygyny was allowed, but prohibited extramarital sexual pleasure for women: men with multiple women had the greatest risk of becoming infected with venereal diseases when women were traveling out of wedlock. According to the authors, the elite, in particular, panicked to keep “their” women “pure” - sexually transmitted diseases would also be a motive for the cult of virginity before marriage, which Islam and Christianity adopted from the Old Testament. The less sex a woman had before marriage, the lower the risk of becoming infected with sexual diseases.

Hunters and gatherers, on the other hand, hardly suffered from venereal diseases and still frequently practice premarital sex.

The power of the dead

According to the authors, even the oldest religious ideas can be interpreted as fear of illnesses; they refer to ancestral cults. On the one hand, people experience in a dream that they "detach themselves from the body", on the other hand, the dead "visit" us in their sleep. Our ancestors made no difference between a dream figure and a ghost.

The fear of the “ghosts of the dead”, however, was due to the fact that the dead can kill. Corpses lying around attracted predators - rotting bodies are a breeding ground for infections.

From this, our ancestors derived the knowledge that the dead killed without doing anything. So the "ghosts of the dead" were suspected of being behind every evil - they became the first gods.

The diseases of the sedentary

The sedentary life not only led to class rule; Floods such as earthquakes, droughts or storms hit people much more than hunters and gatherers before. The settled could not move on if the grain withered.

The cattle bring the epidemics

Even worse, however, were the new epidemics that had previously been unknown to humans. Pathogens overcame the species barrier because the cattle breeders now lived close together with sheep, goats and cattle. The worst diseases all came from pathogens that had developed from animal diseases: plague, tuberculosis, malaria, cholera, smallpox and flu.

The early settlements of farmers offered such pathogens a paradise. If a virus previously wiped out a group of hunters, it took away the basis for its existence. In the cities, the density of people increased a hundredfold, the reservoir for viruses and bacteria multiplied.

Cities become virus paradises

In addition, the sedentary people also offered the pests an excellent living space. Waste accumulated in the fixed locations, and microbes entered the drinking water with the excrement of animals and humans. According to the authors, the fossilized fecal matter of the early farmers shows that the amount of roundworms and whipworms increased drastically with sedentariness.

The origin of the diseases remained a mystery until the 18th century. It is part of human nature to look for an author. That was our ancestors' ghosts. In contrast to their presumed work with hunters and gatherers, these struck more relentlessly than ever before among settled farmers and townspeople - now they have become more powerful than ever before.

Culprit and guilt

The culprit was named - the ghosts. But why did they strike so cruelly? The answer was: You were angry because people hadn't appreciated the spirits. They punished because people had become guilty. In order to avoid this, it was no longer enough to make amends for the "punishment", but to prevent it so that the spirits did not get angry at all.

Priests created "catalogs of sins", and new rules were formed into complex systems. Priests were considered masters in winning the favor of the gods. Religion and medicine became identical.

The new morality created a rigidity that hunters and gatherers would never have taken on. According to the authors, the origin of this religious totalitarianism was that the gods obviously imposed collective punishments: epidemics, droughts or floods. Consequently, in such a causality, the misconduct of individuals could lead to divine punishment for an entire society.

From illness to sin

Although people did not know the cause, they recognized that illnesses occurred particularly in the context of sexuality, hygiene and eating. Consequently, the Torah is overflowing with laws that strictly regulated these areas. Physicality and sex are elementary to our first nature, and it rebelled against the sexual hostility of the Old Testament. This hostility towards sex, which declared pleasure to be sin, has its origin in the fact that diseases spread through sex.

The authors emphasize that the hygienic laws introduced on the basis of a false premise actually prevent diseases. At the same time, every new plague "proved" the presence of the mighty gods, and every new catastrophe led to religious zeal. "The virulence of diseases made the virulence of religion."

Protection against diseases

Medicine, according to anthropologist George Murdock, was an applied religion. God constantly threatens diseases in the Old Testament that he brings as punishment for sins - and "God" describes in detail what suffering is involved. God is literally called a doctor who spares illness from those who keep his commandments. The diseases with which this "doctor" threatens include "Egyptian ulcer", smallpox, grind and scabies, but also madness, blindness and confusion of the mind.

He punishes Miriam with leprosy when she doubts the authority of Moses, killing thousands of Israelites who violate his laws - with a plague. For the Jews, following the "divine commandments" was prophylaxis against illness.

Blood, sperm and sin

The ancient Jews associated purity with the order of God, with life and health, impurity with sin, sickness and death. However, the things that are considered impure in the Torah are also infectious in the clinical sense: faeces, carrion and body fluids. Those who were unclean had to clean themselves - they had to wash and were quarantined.

The Old Testament deals excessively with body fluids, and “God” explains Aaron specifically, for example, how to deal with a discharge from the penis. The person concerned has to wash his clothes and himself with water, and those who touch him must do the same. Anyone who comes into contact with a leper's saliva must also wash thoroughly. If a leper touches them without washing their hands first, they have to wash off with water and wash their clothes. A leper was considered to be pure if he had no leprosy for seven days and then washed thoroughly again.

So the Torah writers knew that body fluids were related to disease. These body fluids, which needed special cleansing, included sperm and the blood of menstruating women. The authors conclude: "The hygiene regulations of a hospital should hardly be more detailed today."

The god of the latrines

During the war, the Torah dictated that the soldiers had to relieve themselves outside the camp, where they scraped their excrement with a shovel.

Jared Diamond showed why such rules were necessary in biblical times: hunters and gatherers left their excrement piles together with microbes and worm larvae when they moved on. In the later army camps, however, people were crammed together in a confined space, and that is why God was interested in latrines. To this day, epidemics have disproportionately killed more soldiers than the weapons of the enemy.


The biblical passages cited by the authors on specific diseases are more reminiscent of a medical manual than a religious script. This is how a person should go to a priest when there is an elevation on his skin and it becomes a leper.

The priest declared him unclean and included him for seven days. If after three weeks the area has turned pale and is not eating itself, the priest should speak to him. But if the rash continues to eat, the priest speaks impure.


The Bible equates physical malformations with diseases - other things were hardly possible with medical knowledge at the time. Since these malformations were also punishments from God, those affected were not allowed to become priests.

The AT does not leave it at general places, but enumerates who is not allowed to become a priest: people with disfigured faces, deformities, humps or stuntings, furthermore those with a white spot in their eyes, scabies or damaged testicles.


Touching carrion was taboo among the old Jews. Anyone who touched human corpses was considered unclean for seven days and cleaned with a special water.


The Bible reports how God sent a plague to the Israelites after they "whored" and ate with the Moabite daughters. 24,000 people died of "God's curse", a plague. In fact, sexual intercourse and eating with strangers can lead to infections.

God defuses an ethical dilemma

"Jahwe's health care has only one motto: law-abiding"

Illness was a punishment from God in the Torah, and the sick man was guilty. This justifies isolating the sick from society, which makes sense scientifically to prevent infection - for the sick, however, it means isolation like outlawing, additional suffering.

The Torah was not about the individual needs of patients, but about protecting the community. "God" helped out of an ethical dilemma that medicine has still not been able to solve: "Isolation of infection sources makes sense to prevent epidemics. But to the first nature it seems inhumane to give solidarity to sick people. "


The anthropologist's perspective also shows the Bible as a work in the history of medicine, in which protection from disease was the trigger for the enactment of laws that are still valid in Jewish and Christianity today.

If you read the Bible with the eyes of Van Schaik and Kai Michel, you get unprecedented views of pioneering cuts in the history of human cultures. It's worth reading. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Carel van Schaik & Kai Michel: The Diary of Humanity. What the Bible Says About Our Evolution. Reinbek near Hamburg. December 2017.

Author and source information

Video: Scientific Foreknowledge of the Bible: Germs and Disease. Proof for God (August 2022).