Leprosy In The Bible
- Biblical leprosy is probably not leprosy as we know it today. The scholars who first translated the Bible from Hebrew to Greek used the term lepra when faced with the untranslatable Hebrew word tsara’ath. The writers were not medical students but good observers who recorded what they saw. Nothing they described fits clinical descriptions of modern leprosy. Also, no independent evidence from archaeology supports the idea that modern leprosy existed among the Hebrews during Moses’ time.
- Hebrew tsara’ath included a variety of ailments. The Hebrew word tsara’ath that was translated as leprosy didn’t define a specific disease. It referred primarily to uncleanness or imperfections according to ritual standards. For example, an animal to be sacrificed had to be perfect; otherwise it was tsara’ath. A person with any skin blemish was tsara’ath. The symbolism extended to rot or blemish on leather, houses, and woven cloth. Other Old Testament references to leprosy are about punishment or consequences of sin. Balance these passages against others where God sent different afflictions for disobedience: the plagues on Pharaoh and Egypt, the Bubonic plague of the Philistines, the foot disease of King Asa of Judah. Leprosy is not singled out from other afflictions.
- References to leprosy differ between the Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew word tsara’ath and references to leprosy throughout the Old Testament have two particular contexts: 1) reference to the ceremonial laws and ritual uncleanness, and 2)punishment for consequences of sin. All New Testament references to leprosy are in the Gospels and in the context of healing and social wellbeing.
- Jesus touched people with leprosy. People with leprosy traditionally have suffered banishment from family and neighbors. Jesus broke with tradition, treating people with leprosy by touching them. He had dinner in the home of Simon, who had leprosy.
- Today the Biblical term “leper” has come to mean “a social outcast”. Use of the term “leper” reminds people with leprosy of the stigma traditionally associated with the disease. Compassionate people should not use this label.