Is There a Doctor in the Text? -- Medical Terminology and the Gospel of Luke

Elsewhere I questioned why there was so much skepticism in some scholarly circles about the authorship of Acts by a companion of Paul. I focused on the “we passages” as an indication that the author participated in some of the events narrated and noted the failure of alternative explanations to account for them. Though I have not discussed it here, I also believe that the external evidence of Marcion, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, the Papyrus Bodmer, Clement of Alexandria, the Muratorian Fragment, and the Anti-Marcionite Prologue of Luke, add considerable weight to such authorship.

Another line of argument for Lukan authorship developed in the late 19th century. In 1882, W.K. Hobart published The Medical Language of St. Luke, in which he provided extensive linguistic evidence that the vocabulary of Luke was paralleled by the language of Greek medical writings. This seemed strong evidence of authorship by a physician, such as Luke. However, in 1920 H.J. Cadbury published a study demonstrating that the language Hobart had relied on was not unique to medical writings, but in most cases was simply the language of educated Greeks. As a result, it is now widely accepted that Hobart’s correlations cannot bear the weight they were intended to. All that can be said of the state of the question is that the "medical terminology" points to a Greek man of high learning and culture. Though this is consistent with a physician, it is also consistent with just about anyone in a position to write what he did for a patron such as Theophilus.

Nevertheless, there remains internal evidence -- thought not as determinative as Hobart’s study initially suggested -- that points to authorship by a physician. Here I will discuss two examples.

The first example is the narrative of the bleeding woman who sought healing from Jesus. It is found in all of the synoptic gospels. In his narrative, Mark emphasizes that doctors had been unable to do anything for the woman despite her having paid them all of her money. The woman “had endured much at the hands of many physicians” and had “spent all that she had” on them but had received no help at all. Mark 5:24-34. Mark also suggests that the treatments by the physicians were not pleasant.

Luke, on the other hand, redacts out the rather negative presentation of doctors. He does not mention that the woman had spent all of her money attempting to get healed. Nor does he mention that “physicians” had not been able to help her or that the treatments were unpleasant. He simplifies all of this by merely noting that she “could not be healed by anyone.” Luke 8:43-47.

Matthew -– in line with his tendency to shorten Mark’s miracle stories -- simplifies the story so much that he does not mention any of the women’s attempts to be healed. Matthew 9:20-22. Unlike Matthew, however, Luke is not simply shortening the story. Rather, he generalized a small part of the text and eliminated the less-than-flattering depiction of physicians. Thus, the explanation for Luke’s redaction is not obvious, unless we take the idea of Lukan authorship seriously.

The second example is the synoptic accounts of Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. When writing about Peter’s sick mother-in-law, the Gospel of Luke adds a medical term to specify the severity of the fever involved. Here are the relevant passages:

Now Simon's mother-in-law was lying sick with a fever; and immediately they spoke to Jesus about her. And He came to her and raised her up, taking her by the hand, and the fever left her, and she waited on them.

Mark 1:30-31.

The Gospel of Matthew follows closely the Markan text.

When Jesus came into Peter's home, He saw his mother-in-law lying sick in bed with a fever. He touched her hand, and the fever left her; and she got up and waited on Him.

Matthew 8:13-15.

Both Mark and Matthew chose to indicate the severity of the fever by indicating that Peter’s mother-in-law was bedridden. But the Gospel of Luke takes a different tact:

Then He got up and left the synagogue, and entered Simon's home. Now Simon's mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked Him to help her. And standing over her, He rebuked the fever, and it left her; and she immediately got up and waited on them.

Luke 4:38-39.

The Greek term translated “high” is an “ancient medical term [] for a high-grade fever that might have included dysentery.” Darrell Bock, Luke 1:1-9:50, page 436. The distinction, as noted by Cadbury, made by physicians was between “great” or “high” fevers and “small” ones. JBL 45 (1926) 194-95, as cited by John Nolland, Luke 1:1-9:20, page 211. Other commentators believe Luke was simply emphasizing the greatness of Jesus’ miracle. This strikes me as oversimplistic if meant to rebut the notion that Luke’s concern here is with the appropriate medical terminology because all of the synoptic gospels emphasize that the fever was a bad one. Only Luke chose to do so by using more sophisticated medical language.

Remember, Mark leaves no doubt that the fever is a significant one as the mother-in-law was bedridden by her sickness. So too with Matthew. The fact that Luke was the only one who chose to use a medical term to emphasize the degree of sickness –- note that he leaves out the reference to her “lying sick in bed” –- is still a notable distinction indicating a greater awareness of, or at least concern for, the medical arts. In any event, the fact remains that whatever his motive, Luke is aware of the appropriateness of the more precise description.

Although it can no longer be argued that the Gospel of Luke is full of precise medical terminology that only a physician would have written, it can still be argued that there is textual evidence -- though not as compelling -- that this Gospel was written with someone familiar with and concerned about the medical arts.


check Weissenrieder, Annette, Images of illness in the Gospel of Luke: insights of ancient medical texts Tübingen : Mohr Siebeck, c2003.
Conzelmann said Luke was confused about geopgraphy. However, using the same information, Weissenrieder located the spot being described by Luke in the Valley of Jezreel. Weissenrieder further demonstrated how by climatic conditions of this area would cause many inhabitants to be afflicted with a skin condition probably erroneously diagnosed as leprosy. Finally, Weissenrieder has made findings that are consistent with the possibility that Luke was a physician.
Richard H. Anderson
Layman said…

Thanks for the comment and the recommendation. Looks like a worthwhile book, though pricey.


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