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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia

 

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PHYSICIAN

fi-zish'-an (rophi; iatros): To the pious Jew at all times God was the healer (Dt 32:39): "It was neither herb nor mollifying plaister that cured them, but thy word, O Lord, which healeth all things" (The Wisdom of Solomon 16:12). The first physicians mentioned in Scripture are those of Egypt. Long before the sojourn of the Hebrews in that land, Egypt had a priestly class of physicians (snu) and a god of healing (Imchtp). From the ancient medical papyri which have been preserved, the largest of which is the Papyrus Ebers, we know that the medical knowledge of these physicians was purely empirical, largely magical and wholly unscientific. In spite of their ample opportunities they knew next to nothing of human anatomy, their descriptions of diseases are hopelessly crude, and three-fourths of the hundreds of prescriptions in the papyri are wholly inert. Even their art of embalming was so imperfect that few of their mummies would have remained in any other climate than that of Egypt. Physicians of this kind who were Joseph's servants embalmed Jacob (Gen 50:2) and Joseph (Gen 50:26). It was not until the foundation of the School of Alexandria, which was purely Greek, that Egypt became a place of medical education and research.
There is no evidence that at any time the priests of Israel were reputed to be the possessors of medical knowledge or tradition. In the ceremonial law they had explicit instructions as to the isolation of those suffering from skin eruptions, so that they might recognize certain obstinate and infectious forms which caused ceremonial uncleanness, but with this duty as sanitary police their function ended and they used no means to cure these diseases. There is, as far as I know, no record or tradition of a priest-physician in Bible times. The records of cure by the prophets, especially Elisha, are mostly recorded as miracles, not as cures by treatment. The salt which cured the noxious water at Jericho and the meal by which the poisonous gourds were rendered innoxious, like the manipulation of the Shunammite's son, can scarcely be regarded as adequate remedies. There is an implied reference to a healer of wounds in Ex 21:19, as also in Isa 3:7, and it is recorded in Pesachim, iv.9 that there was in existence in the time of the monarchy a book of cures, cepher rephu'oth, supposed to have been written by Solomon, but withdrawn from public use by Hezekiah. The first specific mention of Hebrew physicians is 2 Ch 16:12, but Asa is obviously regarded by the Chronicler as reprehensible in trusting to their skill. In 2 Ki 8:29 Joram, king of Israel, is said to have gone to Jezreel to be healed. Not far from this, across the Jordan, was Gilead, which possibly may also have been a place resorted to by those needing medical treatment, as indicated by Jeremiah's query: "Is there no balm in Gilead? is there no physician there?" (Jer 8:22). Job, irritated by the platitudes of his friends, calls them physicians of no value (13:4).
In the New Testament our Lord's saying, "They that are whole have no need of a physician," etc., shows that there were physicians in Galilee (Mt 9:12; Mk 2:17; Lk 5:31), and in Nazareth He quotes what seems to have been a proverb: "Physician, heal thyself" (Lk 4:23). There were physicians in Galilee who received fees from the woman of Caesarca Philippi who had the issue of blood (Mk 5:26; Lk 8:43). Of her there is a curious story told in Eusebius (VII, 18).
There are several Talmudic references to physicians; in Sheqalim ii 1, it is said that there was a physician at the temple to attend to the priests. A physician was appointed in every city (Gittin 12b) who was required to have a license from the local authorities (Babha' Bathra' 21a). The familiar passage in Ecclesiasticus 38:1-15 the Revised Version (British and American) in praise of the physician gives him but limited credit for his skill: "There is a time when in their very hands is the issue for good," and later, "He that sinneth before his Maker, Let him fall into the hands of the physician."
Luke, called "the beloved physician" in Col 4:14, is said by Eusebius to have been a native of Antioch and a physician by profession. According to Origen he was the unnamed "brother whose praise in the gospel is spread through all the churches" (2 Cor 8:18). There are evidences of his professional studies in the language of his writings, though of this probably more has been made by Hobart and others than it really merits. Had we not known of his profession it is doubtful whether it could have been conjectured from his choice of words. Sir W. Ramsay calls attention to the two words used of the healings at Melita in Acts 28:8-10: for the cure of Publius' father the word used is iasato, but for the healing of those who came later it is etherapeuonto, which he renders "received medical treatment." From this he infers that Luke helped Paul with these (Ramsay, Luke the Physician, 1908).
Alexander Macalister

Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'PHYSICIAN'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". bible-history.com - ISBE; 1915.

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