Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Synoptic Docs-ology

Gary Ferngren, in his fascinating book Medicine & Health Care in Early Christianity (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009; 246 pages), points out that the ancient Church was not at all adverse to a naturalistic understanding of disease causation, whether the ailment was of body or of mind.  Not every illness was attributed to demons (although demons there were, and are, to harass and combat the Incarnate One and the saving Kingdom of heaven come to earth).    In fact, as Ferngren documents, the compassionate, charitable and selfless Body of our Lord was exceedingly adept in competing with secular physicians inside the community at large ... and the latter guild of professionals, attempting to make a living from the medicinal arts, belly-ached plenty about it.

Perhaps it was the hole in his pockets, or that rust on the stethoscope, which made the arch-critic Celsus especially bitter towards the rising tide of Christianity. 

But God is always gracious, understanding and seemingly bemused towards His creatures.  And He's not above a gentle nudge in the ribs, or all-Fatherly or all-knowing "wink-wink," towards those of high degree. 

Consider the narrative of the woman with a distressing hemorrhage (a case, perhaps, of fulminating menorrhagia?) of 12 years duration, as related to us in the blessed Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke.  The woman was healed of her torment through a faithful encounter with the Lord's hem, as He winds His way to wrest Jairus' daughter from Death's cold grip.

St. Matthew, who knew his way around those earthly accounts with a bottom line, is business-like to the point of brusqueness.   He expends three verses in stating the bare facts:  Jesus heals a woman of a bloody disease, of chronic condition (Mt 9:20-22).  As they say in the waiting room, in a similar nod to terseness:  "Next."

St. Luke, the beloved clinician, is much more detailed than the former tax-collector (Lk 8:43-48), but with the demeanor of one chagrined and  stately apologetic.  The evangelist  acknowledges (v. 43; Authorized Version) that the poor dear "spent all her living upon physicians, but could not be healed by any."  I don't know.  There's probably a reason why, according to tradition, St. Luke is also said to have taken up art as a vocation. You can almost hear him advising the green interns and residents:  "The patient's Prozac may disappoint, fellows; but the palette's red ochre ... like the blood of Jesus ... never will!"

St. Mark's Gospel, some claim, was dictated to the younger man by St. Peter himself; and indeed, it has a certain excited, breathless and quick-moving character to it ... as if the words were issued moments before a martyr's execution.   Here, though, the reportage (Mk 5:25-34) is noteworthy for its extraordinary thoroughness, and it is altogether revealing to the bone:  The woman, we learn (v. 26; Authorized Version), "had suffered many things under many physicians,  and had spent all that she had and was no better, but rather grew worse." 

Grew ... "worse?" 

Speaking as a doctor to all doctors ... including Hippocrates, Galen and the contrarian Celsus ... all I can say is "Stick out your tongues and say 'Ouch;' and then as you kneel,  'Jesus is Lord'!" 

Your (unworthy) servant,
Herr Doktor

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