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Medicine and Health Care in Early ChristianityReview - Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity
by Gary B. Ferngren
Johns Hopkins, 2009
Review by Diana Soeiro
Jun 8th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 23)

Gary Ferngren's book title is the result of a compilation of several articles written between 1982 and 2006. Though they have been merged, rewritten and partly adapted and modified, as you read it there is a sense that each chapter (apart from the first and last ones) has an individual structure. Although there is an effort to make the book result as a hole there are themes that are recurring adding nothing new and arguments that one would expect to be given, to defend a specific point, that never take place. Having said this, it is important to clearly state that the author has an impressive knowledge of bibliography on the subjects of Greece and Rome, Science and Religion, and Ancient Medicine -- which are the author's research and teaching areas since 1970 at Oregon State University (Department of History).

The book's main question is: what were the attitudes of early Christians to medicine and physicians? The question is addressed based on two guideline-questions: 1) what kind of healing did Christians employ and 2) was it miraculous healing or healing by natural means (i.e., medicine)? (p. 1)

On chapters 2,3 and 4 Ferngren tries to prove that Christian medicine was an appropriation of Greek, and Roman, knowledge and that, contrary to common view, they accepted a naturalistic view of illness and health (i.e. demons as causation and exorcism as the cure was not the only option and moreover it was not the dominant approach). Also, miraculous and religious healing played a minor part.

The topic itself poses an immediate difficulty and that is the scarcity of sources. Not only concerning Christian views on healing but also on Greek medicine sources. Vivian Nutton, a researcher on Ancient Medicine that Ferngren refers to frequently in his work, as opposing to his views, also considers the surviving sources of "fragmentary nature". (p. 2) This causes a serious problem when one attempts to make sense out of them in order to make History. In order to overcome this Ferngren recurs frequently to the Bible as main document perhaps because it is the most reliable and non-fragmentary one.

On chapters 5 and 6 Ferngren dwells on the concept of philanthropy trying on one hand to distinguish his meaning on the Graeco-Roman period and later on to early Christianity; on the other hand showing that it was the understanding of the concept of philanthropy that has established the ideological and theological background that led to the creation of the hospital (4th Century CE.). Philanthropy started as the act of giving and benefiting those of your own social status while in early Christianity it has extended to those from a lower social status'. This meant that healing, and most importantly, care (p. 145) should be given to those in need. Firstly because all men were equal and secondly because being ill was not a punishment or a possession, it was rather an opportunity to restore one's spiritual connection with God (restoring your physical health was secondary). This philantropic impulse, conducted by early Christians closely associated with monastic orders, has inspired the creation of public institutions were the recovery of health was aimed at. 

Ferngren always sustains his views making the most of the available data also exposing others scholars' arguments -- sometimes agreeing and others not.

What one may question while reading the book is what the author felt the need to make clear in Chapter 1 titled "Methods and Approach" where he establishes the concepts and states his assumptions. For instance, Ferngren states that in the 5th century b.C. "a new kind of medicine arose in Greece that was based on the application of theory to disease as a means of providing explanatory models". (p. 5) And this "medicine" is the knowledge that spread during the Hellenistic period (323-330 BCE.) up to the Byzantine Empire (330-1453 CE.). This basic idea guides the book and it may seem inconsequential.

But the consequence is that such concept of medicine eliminates several aspects of the culture that are important to understand what "theory of disease" was in that context. Moreover it seems to imply that these "explanatory models", as soon as they come to exist, were not in contact with many other forms of conceiving illness and healing as they for sure were. By taking such a statement as an assumption throughout the book we get what I think it is a biased view on ancient medicine where one stands from a point of view that clearly states "to know", before time, that medicine would become the dominant type of healing approach because it was "scientifically" the most accurate one and that was somehow already implied since its early beginnings.

This, I believe, it is a reductive perspective of the complexity of the understanding of illness and healing in times when things were changing and new approaches were being taken, not only motivated by events that were occurring in the Christian religion, but also by many other cultural and social events (being war and territorial expansion two of them). Several healing systems co-existed simultaneously during those times and none of them should be neglected in favor of the most "scientific" one. Ferngren himself quotes Nutton that states that in paganism (Graeco-Roman period) there was no tension in medicine but rather a striking collaboration between priest and doctor while Christianity introduced new tensions into the relationship between religion and medicine. (p. 146) He chooses to quote Nutton in order to show that this is not so again recurring mostly to events related with the Christian movement and the Bible. 

To sum it up, Ferngren's book is one that takes as a starting point the contemporary concepts of religion and science and only then looks back on ancient history taking these as its background. Though Ferngren is very accurate in his sources and detailed in his arguments this perspective guides the whole rationale of the book which I think it offers a biased view on the topic forcing it to fit a frame that did not exist in the Graeco-Roman world and during the early days of Christianity.


© 2010 Diana Soeiro



Diana Soeiro (b. 1978) works and lives and Lisbon. She is currently pursuing her Philosophy PhD thesis "Colour as shelter; Architecture as care" at the New University of Lisbon.


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