Second Temple Jewish Attitudes to Medicine: Evidence from Ben Sira, Qumran, and Economic Trade

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review


It is here proposed that ancient Jewish attitudes towards medicine and physicians were by far more positive and supportive than has been previously thought. Focusing on Judea within the Second Temple period of Judaism (515 BCE to 70 CE), a new analysis is given of Ben Sira’s poem on the physician (Sir 38:1-15) as well as both archaeological and literary evidence concerning the production, trade, and reputation of pharmacological products from Judea. The audience of Ben Sira’s poem is here proven to be potential readers who are not sceptical of medicine, but rather using medicine too liberally without considering personal piety—iniquity being a common cause of illness throughout the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. Furthermore, it is demonstrated that, far from harbouring widespread negative scepticism towards medicine, as is commonly supposed in modern scholarship, Second Temple Jews were familiar with, and depended upon, the far-reaching reputation of Judean pharmacological goods such as balsam, soap-ash (lye) from Atriplex halimus, and bitumen extracted from the Dead Sea. The argument that Judeans rejected medicine is less likely due to the famous reputation of many of the natural resources being produced in Judea for medicine and other uses, contributing towards economic trade and international reputation as these goods were traded across the Greek and Roman world. The findings suggest that Second Temple Judea did have an important role to play in the history of medicine in the ancient Mediterranean world.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)24-38
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of the Social History of Medicine and Health
Issue number2
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 9 Dec 2018

Bibliographical note

This article is published in Chinese translation, as the journal is a small print-only publication in China written in Mandarin. I have uploaded the accepted manuscript as I have written it in English, rather than the Chinese version.


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