The Bible and Modern Medicine
Does being a Christian mean that we live happier healthier lives? The answer is not necessarily so, but we can do a great deal to reduce risks to our health by following the apostle Paul’s advice that we should ‘treat our body as a temple of the Holy Spirit’, as something God given to be treated with proper respect.
There is a great deal of emphasis in the present day on keeping physically fit amounting to an obsession with some people but the foundations of healthy living have their origins in Christian teaching and beyond going back to the law of Moses in the Old Testament.
The Bible is not a scientific document but within it there are laid down principles of living that can be adopted and applied in the present day particularly in terms of personal behaviour.
The Mosaic Law found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy contains instructions on community health that make it a forerunner of public health systems operating in all countries with modern health care systems. The laws acted as a guide for the Israelites after they left Egypt to spend forty years leading a nomadic life in the desert, and subsequently as a nation in the land of Israel. They set them apart from the surrounding nations and were not derived from existing laws. They covered control of infectious disease (especially skin diseases), selection of food, sewage disposal, the supply of water and hygiene generally. One simple instruction on the disposal of human waste (Deut 23:13) advised that excreta should be buried away from the area in which they were living. This alone would have had a significant effect on the reduction of gastrointestinal infections but it was a lesson ignored in this country until medieval times when waste was still thrown into the streets.
The law recognised that diseases could be passed from person to person and that isolation of an infected individual would reduce the spread of disease. Indeed the word quarantine was adopted by the Italians in the fourteenth century. They observed that the Jewish use of a period of forty days segregation of patients with some diseases gave them immunity from certain plagues.
The law also listed foods there were regarded as clean and unclean. These may have appeared arbitrary restrictions at the time but by not eating pork for example they avoided a range of diseases that can be acquired from eating pig meat. These include the pig tapeworm (Taenia soilium) the pig roundworm (Trichinella spiralis) both of which can give rise to serious and potentially fatal diseases. Modern farming techniques and proper food preparation make these diseases rare nowadays but they would have been a severe health hazard at the time.
Addiction to alcohol, tobacco and non-medical drugs is a major cause of illness in our society. Drugs and tobacco are a relatively modern phenomenon but the common factor is addiction, and addiction to alcohol was a problem in Biblical times as now. For a good description of a hangover and the damaging effects of alcohol read Proverbs 23:29-35. The passage ends with the imbiber pleading, ‘When will I wake up so I can find another drink!’
Alcohol in excess is a poison damaging the liver, brain and heart. It also creates a dependency, which is the problem common to drugs and tobacco. It is the loss of self-control over a person’s body and mind that is contrary to Christian teaching. Paul writing to the Ephesians said (ch.15: 18) Do not get drunk on wine which leads to debauchery, instead be filed with the Holy Spirit.
Equally Paul knew of the benefits of wine. He wrote to Timothy (1Tim 5:23) Stop drinking only water and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses. He was advising moderation which a consistent message given in New Testament where the drinking of wine is always part of a meal.
There is a threshold effect for the consumption of alcohol. The Department of Health advises that men should not drink more than 3 - 4 units of alcohol per day, and women should drink no more than 2 - 3 units of alcohol per day
Up to this level there is no evidence of harm and good evidence of benefit in reducing heart disease and strokes especially when alcohol is taken with food. But for drugs and tobacco there is no such threshold. Exposure to smoke for example even by sharing a home with a smoker is harmful especially for young children.
The Biblical descriptions of the management of physical illness reflect the limited knowledge of the time. The principle of caring for and supporting the sick and their families is however built into the law and reflected in the healing miracles of Jesus. The parable of the Good Samaritan sets a standard of care and concern combined with practicality that should act as a model for our own response to those in need.
Modern medicine has conquered or made manageable most major illnesses and disorders, at least in the First World, and the potential to extend that knowledge world-wide is limited by lack of political control and individual greed for which there is no human solution.
In this country the main health issues for the next generation are coping with the frail elderly, obesity and insecurity and unhappiness. The Christian principles of caring, family values, moderation and faith do provide answers for these problems but only if men and women collectively accept that if present day values that ignore the Gospel message will not work.
Modern Medicine and The Bible. Alan W Fowler. Ortho Books. High View, Litchard Rise, Brigend CF31 1QJ UK.
The New Bible Dictionary. Inter-varsity Press