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“If you can help, then do it!” Discussions of Health and Medicine in Late Antique Religious Communities

As the ongoing coronavirus pandemic aptly illustrates, health and medicine are concerns not only for the individual, but for the community and the environment within which he or she lives. Our lives are bound up with one another and depend on the mutual aid and care of the friends, family, doctors, nurses, and many others around us. This was no less true in the ancient world, where individuals often turned for medicinal advice and treatment to the ritual experts of their particular religious communities. Priests, monks, rabbis, ulama, and imams frequently provided religiously sanctioned cures and prescriptions for the variety of ailments that beguiled and plagued men, women, and children in daily life.

The boundaries of religious communities suggested not only who the ill and troubled might seek their cures from, but likewise circumscribed what kinds of medical action were considered acceptable to be pursued at all. In a fourth-century sermon in Antioch, the priest John Chrysostom criticized his audience for going to Jewish synagogues to seek cures, saying “it is better to die than to run to God’s enemies and be cured that way.” A similar story appears in the Jerusalem Talmud, when Rabbi Joshua ben Levi’s grandson is cured by someone reciting an incantation that contained Jesus’ name: the rabbi then remarks, “It would better for him if he had died rather than this!” This kind of sentiment also appears in a story of the Prophet Muhammad’s Companion Abdallah b. Ukaym al-Juhani: when Abdallah is asked why he does not wear an amulet in order to heal his skin infection, he answers that “death is better than that” and cites a Prophetic statement that “One who hangs something [such as an amulet] is entrusted to it,” meaning that the amulet user will have to call upon the amulet for healing without the benefit of God’s mercy. These stories illustrate that—for some religious elites at least—death was considered a better option than pursuing medicinal activities that broke the boundaries defining religious communities and their acceptable behaviors.

At the same time, these stories likewise hint at the fact that such violations of religious distinctions and categories actually happened all the time, as individuals tried whatever they could to maintain or regain their health. John Chrysostom and Rabbi Joshua would likely not have complained about members of their communities going to Jewish or Christian healers, respectively, unless they saw that people were doing exactly that. As Galit Hasan-Rokem writes in her discussion of late antique Jewish sources, “Medical conditions push people to their limits,” leading to “abstruse transgressions of boundaries, of individual as well as of group identity.”

Indeed, while we saw above that some sources argue that “death is better” than violating the boundaries of religious communities and behaviors, other texts make clear that the maintenance of health was considered an area in which a less strict approach to such issues was considered both appropriate and commendable. For example, while the rabbis maintained the unique significance of the laws of the Torah for the identity of the people of Israel, they held that one “shall live by them [the laws], but not die by them,” a principle called piquach nefesh (“saving life”). Thus, in a discussion in the Babylonian Talmud regarding whether or not the rules of the sabbath can be broken in order to provide someone medical care, one rabbi notes that one should “violate one sabbath on his behalf, so that he can keep many sabbaths,” i.e. live a longer life. A similar attitude appears in Islamic discussions of medicine: in one story, a man comes to the Prophet Muhammad to report that someone has been stung by a scorpion (or, in an alternate version, has been bewitched by sorcery), and asks the Prophet’s permission to perform an incantation to heal this ill person. While the usage of incantations is a disputed issue within Islamic sources—and they are sometimes called “idolatry” or “sorcery” by the Prophet—here the Prophet elides such concerns, stating, “If you can help your brother, then do it!” Like the rabbis willing to break the sabbath for the sake of keeping someone alive, the Prophet here is willing to overlook the perhaps religiously problematic nature of a cure for the sake of its helping one’s fellowman.

While health was an area of life in the ancient world in which religious identity could be performed, it was simultaneously a place for the violation of such communal boundaries that religious elites often wished to scrupulously maintain. As borders harden around us in the face of our own, very modern and dire health concerns, it is worth considering these stories and discussions of cross-boundary transgressions and interactions. They provide not only illustrations of the lengths to which people will go for their (and their friends’ and families’) health, but also models for the importance of “saving life” and “helping your brother” that still resonate in discussions of medical ethics today.


Adam Bursi is a postdoctoral fellow in the ERC-project “SENSIS: The Senses of Islam” in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Utrecht University.