- New Perspectives on Health and Disability in Late Ancient Judaism and Christianity:A Response
The essays collected in this special issue represent some of the varied approaches of current research in medicine, healing, and religion in late antiquity. Reading these eight essays against the introduction it strikes me that they fall into four main orientations. One essay, of Bond, hews most closely to traditional interests and methods of the history of medicine, in particular the history of healers, in this case healers by touch, the iatrilipta and others. La Valle and Henning take the more exegetical approach well exploited in New Testament studies by applying ancient medical knowledge to make sense of or recontextualize obscure or inadequately understood passages in early Christian literature. Balberg and Belser are interested in the cultural history of illness and disability, drawing variously from medical anthropology, feminist theory, and disability studies. And three essays (Leyerle, Mayer, and Wright) focus on healing the emotions. All are rooted in careful exegesis based on ancient philosophy, medicine, and rhetoric. In my brief remarks I will address some aspects of these papers that strike me as particularly thought-provoking.
Bond collects an impressive range of evidence from Greek and Roman literary and epigraphic sources to describe the liminal and controversial role that healers by touch occupied in the early and late Empire. This reflects the conflicts among disciplines (physicians, philosophers, trainers, magicians, and so on) familiar from Galen and others, the Roman ambivalence toward Greek medicine, and a generalized anxiety about the use of touch as healing. The changing status and role of the various types of massage therapists, trainers, and anointers is particularly interesting, and certainly helps to put the practices of the Christian movement in a new light. As Bond lays out the history of medical and para-medical massage in such fascinating detail, I am struck by the comparative paucity of similar, ancient evidence for the techniques and popular understanding of Christian anointing. In particular, while Greco-Roman massage and Christian unction share the central use of oil, how similar were the techniques of touch practiced in these two contexts? When bishops, monks, and priests anoint the sick or penitent with oil, or lay hands on the baptized or ordained, I envision their touch to be far [End Page 405] more reserved than the intimate touch of the masseur or “boy-rubber,” who presses, rubs, pulls, and scrapes. In the late ancient monastic literature that I am familiar with, monks use and provide both blessed and ordinary oil for anointing. Ordinary oil used for anointing (unlike the blessed) is presumed to be sexually dangerous, whether used on oneself or another, and thus closely monitored. While early Christian use of oil for healing would be practiced in less ascetic contexts as well, I would presume a similar Christian suspicion of any sort of intimate touch. Perhaps this is a faulty presumption. And while critics of early Christians were quick to lampoon aspects of Christian ritual as horrific acts of deviance, I know of no critique of their use of oil and touch, which is noteworthy given the widespread denigration of the varieties of massage therapists in the early Empire. In any case, I think Bond’s very interesting essay points to the need and value in pursuing more research into the use and moral status of touch among late ancient Christians.
LaValle offers an extremely plausible explanation of Clement of Alexandria’s theology of divine pneuma. In this case LaValle not only demonstrates the medical context of Clement’s theological explorations, but identifies the likely source of his pneumatic theory in the work of Diogenes of Apollonia. LaValle’s work is an example of how a mastery of ancient medical knowledge significantly enriches our understanding of religious thought and practice. Henning surveys ancient explanations of the causation and phenomenology of paralysis as a way to push back against the views of previous scholars, who have found it unremarkable that the Act characterizes Peter’s daughter’s severe paralysis as rendering her undesirable as a sexual partner or for marriage (at least in a Roman context). Henning wishes to probe deeper into why the fictional...