Technology During Biblical Times: Medicine

Often we hear that the Bible was written by dumb shepherds. I know when I think about the people of the Bible, I think about people in desolate towns with nothing but sand, and they’re wearing robes. In reality, Biblical times had more advance technology than we give them credit for. This second installment, we are going to look at medicine. Is our medicine any better?

Medication

During the Biblical times, they did not have the understanding of chemistry like we do today. In fact, what we consider chemistry was not really thought to come about until around 1661 AD. There were aspects that would help build modern chemistry, i.e. making glass, using fats for soap, plants for medicine, and alloys for metals. However, there was nothing to the extent of saying if we put these atoms or molecules together we will create this.

Diet

Healthy living was seen to be based mostly on healthy eating. Food was seen as a way to control, inhibit, and dispel disease. Also, food was seen as the vector to control the bodies important fluids (bile, blood, and phlegm). Romans were very keen on preventative medicine.

Plants

Romans used a wide range of herbal medicines and some other remedies. Pedanius Dioscorides was a Greek botanist, pharmacologist, and physician who lived approximately 40-90 AD (for comparison, the Apostle Paul was killed somewhere between 64 AD and 67 AD). Dioscorides practiced in Rome when Nero was the ruler. He wrote a 5 volume pharmacopeia called “De Materia Medica,” which listed over 600 herbal cures; this pharmacopeia would be used for the next 1500 years.

During Jesus’s time, medicine was highly influenced by the Greeks. Since their medicine revolved around the four fluids (black and yellow bile, blood, and phlegm); bloodletting, vomiting, baths, heating, cooling, and sweating were common. However, plants and herbs were very commonly used too. Here are 10 of those that were most commonly used during Jesus’s time.

  • Frankincense: Used as an antiseptic, helps with digestive problems, coughs, colds.
  • Myrrh: Used as an astringent, antibacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-inflammatory. Was used to improve circulation, boost the immune system, reduce fevers, treat digestive problems, and treat coughs and colds.
  • Garlic: Has antibacterial, anti-viral, anti-parasitic, and antioxidant properties. It was used for digestive and overall health.
  • Fennel: Was thought to be beneficial to the eyes. It is a rich source of vitamin C and other antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Borage: Rich in omega 9 fatty acids. Was used to reduce fevers and rheumatisms and used as an anti-depressant or relaxant.
  • Pomegranate: The roots of the plant were cooked and used to eliminate tapeworms, the flowers were used to treat dysentery and ulcers of the mouth.
  • Tarragon: The leaves were used to settle an upset stomach and stimulate lost appetite. When brewed as a tea it could help with sleep issues. Chewing it was prescribed to help numb a toothache.
  • Cabbage: Eating it raw was considered beneficial for headaches, poor eyesight, and organ health.
  • Blackberries: Used for issues of the gums and tonsils and used to neutralize snake venom. The leaves of the plant were used to treat mouth and skin ulcers.
  • Hyssop: Used in tea for coughs and shortness of breath. It was also made into a paste and used as a chest rub for chest decongestant. Hyssop was also used to relieve arthritis and rheumatism and to treat bruises, cuts, and wounds.

Surgical

Most Roman surgeons obtained their experience from the battlefield. They used to sterilize their equipment by having their tools placed in boiling water. When the surgeons had to perform procedures, they used scopolamine (still used today) and opium to relieve the pain, then used acid vinegar to clean up wounds.

Galen

The Roman physician Galen (129-199 AD) is regarded as one of the top medical researchers of the Roman world. He had some procedures that would not be seen again until more recent times. His theories were the main theories that dominated Western medicine for well over a 1000 years.

During his time, Hippocrates’ theory of the four humours was predominate, believing that health was dependant on the balance of blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Food was thought to be the balancing agent for these four fluids. Surgical procedures were to only be used for drastic measures. This is interesting as roughly 1800 years later we are starting to get back to diet fixes our bodies better than medical practices.

He performed cataract surgeries by removing the cataract after placing a needle behind the lens of the eye. In his journals he describes preparing a clean room for doing surgeries. The Romans were very keen on cleanliness not only for surgeries but in everyday life.

Maternity

Cesarean sections did take place from time to time. The women would not survive but the baby would sometimes. Usually this procedure was performed when the mother had already died, and the Cesarean was the only hope for the baby to survive.

Trepanation

Trepanation is a procedure that is performed by drilling a hole into the skull to relieve intracranial pressure, this procedure is still used today. Through archeological digs it has been found that ancient societies in Central and South America, Africa, Asia, Europe and Middle East have performed these thousands of years ago. Due to looking at how the hole regrew from the procedure it can be determined that some patients died right away, while others lived for a few weeks, and others healed completely and live for an extended period of time.

Dentistry

Archeological digs have also revealed that dental practices were occurring as early as 200 BC. One such dig found a skull that had dental fillings. A bronze wire had been inserted into the canal of the tooth. Some of the remains from Roman catacombs show that gold was used for fillings.

Surgical Tools

  • Rectal speculum: Hippocrates mentioned this instrument, it allowed physicians to examine the rectal cavity.
  • Bone levers: Used to put bones back in place.
  • Cupping vessels: Used for bloodletting.
  • Tile cautery: An instrument that had several purposes, like stopping bleeding, cutting flesh, or removing growths.
  • Scalpels: Usually made of bronze or steel. Used to make cuts, has the same uses as today’s scalpels.
  • Obstetrical hooks: Instrument used by Roman and Greek doctors. There were sharp and blunt hooks. The blunt hooks were used primarily as probes for dissection and for raising blood vessels. Sharp hooks were used to lift tissue so that they could be extracted, and to retract the edges of wounds.
  • Bone drills: This instrument was used to remove diseased bone tissue from the skull and to remove objects from bone, such as weapons.
  • Male catheters: Used in order to open up a blocked urinary tract to let urine pass. Early catheters were hollow tubes made of steel or bronze (this just makes me hurt thinking about it).
  • Surgical saw: This was used to cut through bone, in the case of amputations.
Surgical Instruments found in Pompeii

Hospitals

Hospitals were established by the Roman medical system. Slaves and soldiers were mainly the occupants of these hospitals. Richer Romans were more likely to have their own physician, usually a Greek physician.

Hospitals started showing up, around the 1st and 2nd century AD. Each legion’s hospital was built to house up to 10% of the legion’s 5000 men. These hospitals also had washing and latrine facilities, kitchen, dispensary, a large hall, and usually a reception ward.

Medicine Then and Today

By far medicine is more advanced than it was back in Biblical times. However, much of the foundation that we have today in medicine came from the research done during the time Jesus was on Earth. Today there is a push to get back to natural medicines, more use of herbs and other plants to alleviate illnesses. Why is it important to recognize the medical capabilities of the times when Jesus was on Earth? It shows that when Jesus performed his healing miracles, there was some good medical knowledge at the time. People could get treated for their ailments. They had an understanding of many of the diseases today, even though it might not be called the same, i.e cancer.

Interested in what construction was like during Jesus’ time? Check out my post about it . . . here.

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Sources:
Medicine in the Ancient World by Sarah Yeomans
10 Medicines Used During Jesus’ Times by Dr. Aaron Tabar
Ancient Roman Medicine by Daniel Murrell, MD
Roman Medicine

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