We’ve always been curious about ichthyosis in history, and researching that topic has been one of my ongoing projects. Yeah, I know, I’m a bit of a nerd that way, but if I wasn’t, you wouldn’t be reading this, would you?
I started off my search in thinking about the story of Jesus healing the leper in the Book of Mark in the Bible.
Mark 1: 40-42: “A man with leprosy came and knelt in front of Jesus, begging to be healed. “If you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean,” he said. Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out and touched him. “I am willing,” he said. “Be healed!” Instantly the leprosy disappeared, and the man was healed. (NLT Bible)
Now, I’m not a Biblical scholar by any stretch of the imagination, but I have always been fascinated by the relationships between science, history and religion and how they shaped our modern world. Rachel has a bit more background on both the religious and history fronts, and we started talking about this a few months ago in between raking the leaves.
After a bit of research, I discovered that leprosy is actually mentioned 68 times in the Bible. Of note: Miriam is stricken with “white leprosy” for questioning Moses. Namaan the Syrian leper is healed by bathing in the Jordan river. David curses Joab and his descendants after the murder of Abner. And King Uzziah lives out his life as a leper after burning incense. The Hebrew word for leprosy is tsara’ath, which also translates as “to strike down.”
Leviticus 13, in the discussion about what is unclean or imperfect, describes in detail how to determine who has leprosy and what to do about it. A priest determined whether a skin lesion or a rash was an illness or leprosy, and those that were determined to have leprosy were essentially kicked out of town so they didn’t spread their defilement.
45 “Those who suffer from a serious skin disease must tear their clothing and leave their hair uncombed.[c] They must cover their mouth and call out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ 46 As long as the serious disease lasts, they will be ceremonially unclean. They must live in isolation in their place outside the camp.
Biblical scholars have written many articles about this topic, and while there appears to be argument over whether “unclean” referred to spiritual cleanliness or being in a state of sin versus being a health risk to the community, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. That is, if you’re afflicted with a skin disorder or disfigurement, you’re both a risk of spreading it to everyone else and also you did something sinful that made God give you the illness in the first place.
Modern-day leprosy is only diagnosed after an infection of mycobacterium leprae, which isn’t particularly contagious unless you have extended contact. Prior to 1870ish, leprosy often referred to any disfiguring condition, some contagious, some not. In some cases, there are reports of houses and clothing with leprosy, too. Most likely it’s some form of mildew, but it’s certainly not mycobacterium leprae, which only affects animals. There’s also no such thing as “white leprosy,” as Miriam had, but there is a fungal condition called tinea versicolor, and a melanin deficiency problem called vitiligo, but neither are contagious.
The general consensus is that there isn’t enough information in the Bible to tell exactly what these lepers had, but it was most likely a variety of skin lesions – probably a mix of vitiligo (the skin loses its color), psoriasis, ringworm, eczema, ichthyosis, boils, blisters, and various rashes. Leviticus tells us,
26 But if the priest finds no white hair on the affected area and the problem appears to be no more than skin-deep and has faded, the priest must quarantine the infected person for seven days. 27 On the seventh day the priest must examine the person again. If the affected area has spread on the skin, the priest must pronounce that person ceremonially unclean, for it is clearly a serious skin disease.
Basically, if it heals after a week, it’s not leprosy. If it heals after 2 weeks, it’s still not leprosy. But if it is there longer than 2 weeks, then you’re a leper and you’re out of the community unless you mysteriously heal on your own.
What really amazes me is that something written 2000 years ago still had impact on how we treated people as recently as 1900. I recently wrote about a Sherlock Holmes story where the main character was frantically searching for his friend, who was in hiding to keep the world from knowing that he had been diagnosed with leprosy, and his family, trying to keep the secret in check, insisted that he was off traveling the world.
This is a series of posts. Here are links to all entries: