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Health Care and the Rise of Christianity (review)

From: Journal of Early Christian Studies
Volume 9, Number 2, Summer 2001
pp. 286-287 | 10.1353/earl.2001.0033

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Journal of Early Christian Studies 9.2 (2001) 286-287

Book Review

Health Care and the Rise of Christianity

Hector Avalos. Health Care and the Rise of Christianity. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishing, 1999. Pp. ix + 166. $12.99.

In recent years, Hector Avalos has contributed to Early Christian studies through his work on the topics of illness, medicine, social institutions and pagan religious traditions in the Ancient Near East. In his newest book, this medical anthropologist considers how early Christianity functioned as a health care system whose wide array of benefits attracted new converts. The nature of Christianity -- low ritual requirements, promulgation of ubiquitous prayer, offer of free physical healing, transcendence over customary laws -- formed a healthcare strategy superior to contemporary religious traditions. Avalos shows in detail how the Jewish Levitical and oral laws encumbered the healing procedure, while polytheism confused the sick populace of Greco-Roman religious traditions. Moreover, geography, cost, time, and socioreligious stigma hindered sick members in these systems from healing opportunities. His emphasis is on the beneficial system of health care that Christianity offered -- its collection of superior features for healing over the lesser systems of Judaism and paganism (3).

The most beneficial contribution of the book is the subject matter on the religious and medical anthropology of the Mediterranean world. Avalos displays his broad knowledge of archeology, manuscripts, and religious myth, constructing them into understandable health care systems with variable benefits and disadvantages for individuals in antiquity. New Testament healing pericopes and related material in the early church fathers substantiate the Christian healthcare system. However, there is little evidence that the new faith as a systemwas a primary impetus for attracting any converts. They came for healing, but one wonders how many weighed out healthcare options and so converted.

Unfortunately, the work seems to reduce the sole success of Christianity to its alternative healthcare system. Would these benefits alone have attracted people to the new religion of a crucified messiah and convicted Roman criminal? Assuming no difference in healing efficacy (4), would an ineffectual healthcare system -- albeit one both convenient and free -- keep permanent converts to Christianity? Avalos could have more accurately described the healing that Christianity offered as part of a larger system of appeal, emphasizing the eternal health-care of the resurrection. The respect for women, the preeminence of the poor over the rich, the faith of any common person over that of the "pious" Pharisee, the welcome due the disreputable adulteress, tax collectors, foreigners, and children, as well as the free and unencumbered opportunity for healing col-lectively brought numerous converts to Christianity. Avalos does not attempt to fit the healthcare system phenomenon into the larger anthropological context of the rise of Christianity.

The bibliography is stout and the endnotes are interactive. Avalos's material descriptions are concise, allowing for a fluid read. Do not expect primarily analysis on the rise of Christianity, as the Greco-Roman and Jewish medical religious systems consume much of the book. Early Christian studies is indebted to Hector Avalos, this time for his compilation of the healthcare issues, his reminder that healing was a major interest in the early church's understanding of Christ, and his example that medical anthropology can be a legitimate approach to early Christian studies.

W. Brian Shelton, Saint Louis University

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