Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Medical Facepalm of Biblical Portions

I like modern medicine. Considering things like c-sections allowed me to exist in the first place, vaccines have protected me from a large number of diseases, there is much to like. Some of the stuff out there could use work, in part because it is not scientific medicine, and sometimes anti-scientific. Therapeutic touch is one example because the only test of efficacy showed it to be worthless yet this is completely ignored by promoters, including the nurses that use it to this day.

One would hope that the peer-reviewed literature would filter out most of the things that cannot be supported by the evidence. But not always.

Via PZ (see also Aetiology), I have come across an article in Virology Journal which talks about the oldest cases of influenza in recorded history. Interesting subject and worthy of study. What's the source?

The New Testament.

Now we have gone from science to credulity. It's given away that the authors are not critical of their source when they say "The Bible describes the case of a woman with high fever cured by our Lord Jesus Christ." Our Lord Jesus Christ? That is devotional language, not a secular, scholarly way of describing the situation. It also doesn't help that the authors do not cite any biblical scholarship concerning their claims about the authenticity of the story or that Luke was a physician. Also by citing all the Synoptic Gospels, the authors of this "study" seem to think this gives three testimonies of the same story.

Let's nip this in the bud. The Gospels Mark, Matthew, and Luke are not independent witnesses. Matthew and Luke derive most of their material from Mark, and Mark was written after 70 CE, perhaps much later. The tradition that the names attached to the Gospels wrote them is late; it was until the mid-2nd century that these works were anonymous. That means that Mark did not write Mark and Luke did not write Luke. The physician Luke comes from Colossians 4:14, but even this letter of Paul is probably inauthentic. The claim that the testimony of the woman in Luke 4:38-39 comes from a doctor is thus wrong on multiple levels: we don't know who wrote this, it is derived from G. Mark, and there is nothing about a doctor Luke that is dependable.

So let's go to the original story, that in Mark 1:29-33. Both before and after this episode with the feverish woman there are healings of those with demonic possessions. So it is in the middle of this, the beginning of Jesus' ministry, that the authors of this study wish to say they have some authentic medical report. We have to ignore already the supernatural surrounding the tale in just one case.

How did Mark come to this knowledge? Usually biblical scholars figure that many or most of these stories come from an oral tradition, so what we have in Mark is at best hearsay. So we are trying to do a diagnosis based on the telephone game at best! Many scholars have more recently moved to find a great number of these stories in the Gospels to be literary creations, and the healing stories are a part of that.

Healing stories are also very common in the ancient Mediterranean world. The god Asclepius was a well-known deity that supposedly cured the sick. Isthtar/Innanna, a most ancient goddess in Babylon/Sumeria, was said to cure the sick in devotional literature. Even the emperor Vespasian was said to have healed people (Dio, Roman History 66.2).

In other words, we only have the word of Mark for this story, and supposing he did not create the story itself, at best we have decades-old hearsay, hearsay that even the Gospel of John didn't find useful to report. Heck, eve the letters of Peter didn't find this important to mention, and the woman is supposed to be Peter's mother-in-law! (Oh, but those epistles of Peter are fakes, too.)

What I find laughable is the part where the authors are supposed to declare their competing interests. Sure, I don't think they were pain to do this study (who would?), but the whole thing exists because of the credulity of the authors. I guess this got past peer-review because no one at Virology Journal does biblical studies. Who knows about the Synoptic Problem amongst the medical profession after all? Nonetheless, there should have been some critical thought here.

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