Biblical scholars and medical scientists agree that true leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, almost certainly did not exist in first century Palestine. The disease was brought to the Middle East from India by the armies of Alexander the Great about 300 B.C., but no trace of true leprosy has been found in any of the ancient bones excavated in Israel. Only one case was discovered in Egypt, and the bones were dated to the first century of the common era!
True leprosy is only mildly contagious. Even spouses do not usually “catch” it from their infected partners. Yet the scaly condition described in Leviticus 14 and 15 is feared not because it is contagious but rather because it is polluting. “Biblical leprosy” is not “catchy;” it’s “dirty”; and it makes individuals and the community “dirty;” “impure;” “unclean.”
Finally, neither the Hebrew nor Greek Bible uses the correct word for “true” leprosy. Instead, the words they used describe a repulsive, flaky, or scaly condition affecting the skin, clothes, and walls of the home.
History and anthropology rather than medicine and science help us understand why our ancestors in the Faith were so concerned about this “leprosy!”
Leprosy and Boundaries
The “purity” laws in Leviticus 11-15 deal with boundaries. Leviticus 11 pertains to the mouth, an opening in the body through which “approved” and “unapproved” foods cross the body boundary and enter the interior. Leviticus 12 concerns conception and childbirth, processes that cross the body boundary through the female body opening.
Leviticus 13 and 14 describe a repulsive, flaky or scaly condition affecting the skin, clothes, and walls—three kinds of boundaries. In each case the biblical text reflects the concern about whether or not the problem is deeper than the skin or, in other words, whether it has “pierced” the boundary. Finally, Leviticus 15 discusses male and female involuntary discharges or leaks escaping the body’s boundaries through body openings difficult (impossible?) to control.
Anthropologists point out that a society concerned with maintaining safe and secure body boundaries is also concerned with safe and secure societal or geographical boundaries. Rules governing the physical body replicate rules governing the social or geographical body.
In this same historical period the purity laws of Leviticus 11-15 began to be rigidly enforced. Marriage laws protected the boundaries of society; purity laws protected the human body boundaries. One set of laws (purity) reflects and reinforces the other set of laws (marriage). And the reason for all these laws is to ensure that Israel would remain “holy as the Lord is holy,” a recurring theme in Leviticus.
Healing Challenges Boundaries
Luke reports that ten people afflicted with a repulsive, scaly skin condition (weakened body boundaries) approach Jesus and ask for mercy (Lk 17:13). In the Mediterranean world, mercy describes that human quality that motivates a person to meet his or her interpersonal obligations. In effect, the ten people in Luke are asking Jesus to give them what he owes them! And what would that be?
In another instance, a leper asked Jesus “to be made clean” (Mt 8:1-2; Mk 1:40-45; Lk 5:12-16). Their condition posed a polluting threat to their community. They were excluded from the community and, most importantly, from common worship. They had to remain outside the boundaries. What such people are “owed” is membership in the holy community, restoration to that membership if it has been suspended. The ten who ask for mercy acknowledge that Jesus can restore them to the holy community.
Jesus as healer was constantly challenging existing boundaries and pushing them ever outward. Sinners, the blind, the lame, and lepers were welcome within the boundaries of the holy community Jesus was forming. Healing, technically, means restoring meaning to life; curing technically refers to resolving biomedical problems.
The cultural world of Jesus knew it was God alone who heals. Jesus was a gifted intermediary or broker. Nine of those healed went to Jerusalem to give “praise to God” in the presence of the priests; one came to “praise God” in Jesus’ presence.
Even though Jesus had not mentioned offering the sacrifice out of consideration for this Samaritan, the Samaritan knew full well he wouldn’t be welcome or perhaps even permitted to enter the Jerusalem Temple. Hence he gave praise to the One who healed him and to that One’s broker, Jesus. Moreover, it was only the Samaritan who said “thank you” to Jesus.
In the ancient Middle East, to say “thank you” is to end a relationship. A popular modern saying affirms, “Don’t thank me; you will repay me [with a favor when I am in need].” The Samaritan recognized it would be impossible to repay his Galilean benefactor or approach him again if the problem returned, as it often did.
The Judean lepers were a different story. As members of the same in-group, they could approach Jesus anywhere at any time. The Samaritan knew he was in the “wrong” place at the “right” time, and such an opportunity might never occur again for him.
The Samaritan’s repulsive skin condition is ameliorated; Jesus welcomes him into the community. Other Judeans and Galilean the modern followers of Jesus, imitate our Master or his compatriots?