THE BIBLE: Testing the Science of that ‘Bronze Age Book’ vs. Modern Medicine

Written by Wes Walker on February 27, 2015

“Just another Bronze-Age book of fairy tales.”

Maybe you’ve heard that line. Maybe you’ve said it yourself.

Not a new idea, it’s been making the rounds for centuries. Certainly since European academics decided to call themselves “Enlightened”.  Scripture was discarded. Ancient writings from a more primitive time.

Sixteenth-century men of science dismissed ancient writers like Paul or Moses as foolish. Meanwhile, their own “leading-edge” medicine was written by Galen. In the Second Century.

A physician from Antiquity held greater authority on human physiology than any other thinker for a Millenium and a half. And still, the ancients were dismissed as “gullible”, “primitive” and “backward”.

Galen’s wisdom (including blood-letting) has since been refined or discarded.  Like other faddish pseudo-medicine since the Enlightenment. (E.g. Tobacco-smoke enemas, and lobotomy.)

For all our medical savvy, even the importance of basic concepts like handwashing took until well after the Enlightenment to figure out.

So, why don’t we try a little empirical test of the ancient wisdom of this “Bronze-Age book?”

Modern medicine has standards like diagnostic tools. Infection controls. Proper handling/disposal of biohazards. Sanitation. Quarantine.

How does the “anti-science” Bible stack up against modern medicine?

First, the question of language. Objections are raised today because of the “non-medical” language used, particularly in Moses’ writings.

But suppose YOU were thrown backward in time. Addressing an agricultural society, with no medical understanding, how would you explain infection control? If their language has no equivalent concept for “microbe”, how might YOU get your point across?

In the Hebrew context, Moses established complex ritual purity laws. In this system, if you were exposed to something that would contaminate you, you became ceremonially unclean.

The language Moses used — “unclean” — was not so different from our use of “unsanitary”.

Furthermore, these rituals limited ceremonially unclean people from close contact with others for a specific period of time (often requiring washing, contact being restricted until evening).

How did our “Bronze-Age” Book address “uncleanness”?

Sanitation.  Sewage treatment and collection finally became a standardized practice in the early 20th Century. (!) The connection between cholera outbreaks (and other sewage-related hazards) to sanitation was not always understood. Yet Deuteronomy 23:12,13 makes it clear that bowel movements are to be both covered up (bring a shovel, it says) and conducted “outside the camp”. Contrast this against “civilized” Europe’s chamber pots flung into the streets from second-story windows by contemporaries of Scripture’s Enlightenment-Era critics.

Sterilization. Fabric was to be washed, or have the ruined part of fabric cut away if contaminated by mold, etc. Porous cookware was to be destroyed.  Metal cookware to be scrubbed, and exposed to flame. Open jars of water were considered contaminated, but sealed ones were not. Even infestations of mold in a home had specific instructions, with destruction of the home being the remedy of last resort.

Body Fluids. They are a potential disease transmission vector. Today, this is overcome by the 19th century innovation of “universal precautions” (i.e. handwashing with soap). In Moses’ writings, fluids (i.e. blood, semen) were to be washed from clothes. The person was also expected to bathe, and he would once again be “clean” at evening.

Speaking of sex, in an age with neither barrier method or penicillin, there was no better prescription for sexual wellness than faithful, married monogamy.

The role of doctors. There were no doctors in the ancient world; priests filled that role instead. Some may resent this.

Today, that job is done by doctors; our most educated, respected people have sufficient training to handle complex diagnostic questions beyond the skill of the general public. Doctors use objective measuring tools and diagnostic procedures. Previously, medical experts studied and applied Galen’s notes. The Hebrews, in turn, looked to Moses.

Did Moses shortchange people by sending them to the priests with their medical questions?

We’ll have to consider a few factors. Was a different group more fit for the job? Were priests adequately trained for the job? Were the priests’ methods reasonable? Effective?

In the time of Moses, was any other group more capable of filling that role in an agricultural nation? Probably not. Priests were literate and educated.

Considering the Era they lived in, were the priests at least adequately trained in medicine?

True, they weren’t ready to scrub up for surgery, but their methods still resemble our own modern techniques.

Contrary to secular superstition, ordinary illness was treated as mundane, not supernatural. As such, attention was given to particular symptoms presented in determining the right course of action.

For example, do you have a rash? Show the priest. Some symptoms are harmless, others are not. Symptoms, and their changes over time are measured. Is the condition superficial or deep? Is it spreading?  Has it affected the color of hair growing from the follicle? These are all Scriptural questions used to guide diagnosis, in line with approaches still used today.

What else? Infectious people must cover their mouths with their hands. Touching corpses makes you unclean (This, of course, was a “revolutionary” discovery made in 1847 by Ignaz Semmelweis). Medical isolation (quarantine) was the Biblical prescription for certain illnesses.

I ask you, good reader, if it wasn’t until the 19th or 20th century that our medicine finally rivaled Moses’ “Bronze Age” admonitions, why are we so quick to dismiss the Bible as merely (a) superstition and (b) man-made mythology?

Is it possible — just possible? — that it’s the Skeptics, not the Faithful, that are blinded by their biases?