Good question! People in the first century were certainly no different than we are today except we now have advances in public health. Medical interventions in the western world give us a much better standard of health. We also live much longer today, despite the Old Testament claims about the longevity of Methuselah, the grandfather of Noah who died at 969 years. In Jesus’s time, curing illness was much different than today. People depended on faith healers. Jesus was one of the many faith healers who journeyed throughout the countryside healing the sick. As far as we can ascertain Jesus never charged for this service; other faith healers of his time did require payment.
People thought that all diseases were triggered by an evil demon which possessed a person. In order to be cured, you needed to have the evil demon cast out of you. In other words, you needed an “illness exorcism”. There are still a few pseudo-Christians around today who will perform this service for you, usually at a cost, and most often without documented success.
In the Old Testament, Psalm 90 talks about human beings making it to three score years and ten (age 70). A few more might make it to 80 years of age. In the Old Testament there are fictional characters like Methuselah (Genesis 5:21–27), the imaginary grandfather of Noah, who supposedly lived to 969 years. In reality, when Jesus was crucified in his thirties, he was already considered to be in society’s older age group.
All first century people, from the emperor in Rome, to the lowest slave in the tin mines in Greece, had external parasites such as lice. There was no way to control them. Public health was not a known practice. As well, people thought that parasites did nothing except make you itch. Today we know that parasites cause some serious health issues. People also suffered from internal parasites like worms. I remember 60 years ago some of my friends, living on farms, having to take worm medicine. In Jesus’ day, dysentery was prevalent and often killed people. Diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, and nausea were all common symptoms of internal parasites. Malaria, common in the Middle East, was caused by a parasite as well.
Medical knowledge was generally unknown in the first century. How the body worked was a mystery to people. For example, pregnancy was a great mystery for all people and the answer they came up with was wrong. The general misunderstanding most people had, that in order to have a baby, all that was needed was for a man to plant the seed into the woman, much like planting a pumpkin seed in the raised bed in the back yard. She provided nothing more than a warm and fertile environment for the seed-child to grow. I don’t know how they explained a child born that resembled its mother.
This was the world of first century Palestine where Jesus found himself. So how does one explain such miracles as curing blindness by spitting into some dirt and rubbing it on the blind person’s eyes (John 9:1–12). That probably did not happen. However, today there are occasionally stories told where people are suddenly cured of a disease for which there seemed to be no cure. These are called spontaneous remissions. You have often heard the expression “mind over matter”. There are instances today where people get in touch with their bodies and literally “will wellness”. I think first century had the same sorts of miracles.
I have often heard the expression “there but for the Grace of God go I”. What it means is that God intervened on your behalf to relieve you of something which could have been much worse. This is the whole basis of the business of sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John Paul 2 was beatified on the evidence that a nursing sister, who had Parkinson’s Disease, prayed to him after his demise, and was cured of Parkinson’s Disease by the late Pope’s heavenly intervention. Why would God choose her over the hundreds of other folks who also suffered from the same disorder? It seems a little unfair to me.
I suspect Jesus was able to help many in his day who were suffering from some sort of illness. He was a man of faith who was able to reduce anxiety by reassuring his followers that God was with them.
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