Social Distancing in the Bible

Contemporary young woman with leprosy

“Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as they have the disease, they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.” (Lev. 13: 45–46)

Social distancing was once a common means of protection against contagious diseases, since Antiquity and through the Middle Ages. The Enlightenment and subsequently modern medical science hoped that proper diagnosis and medical care would effect final cures to previously deadly or uncurable diseases. Social distancing came to be viewed as an inhuman treatment of sick people, who were reclassified as „patients” in the modern hospital system. But the COVID-19 global pandemic has brought social distancing back into practice, on a global scale. It might be interesting to take a look at how social distancing was defined and practiced by the oldest source we have on the practice — the Bible.

Leviticus or the 3rd Book of Moses in the Old Testament contains laws and regulations practiced by the Levites, the priests of the semi-nomadic Jewish tribes. These laws were passed down orally and attributed to Moses the Prophet, before they were written down. Committing them to writing probably happened in the Temple in Jerusalem, after more Jews became sedentiary and agriculturalist. Together with Deuteronomium (Laws), Leviticus contains what is referred to as the Mosaic Law, although these laws did not actually come from Moses. They represent an oral, legal tradition developed by Jewish semi-nomadic tribes under desert conditions. The laws frequently contradict each other, indicating that the Temple scribes gathered them from several tribes (12 tribes in all), and that they were invented to answer specific situations as they arose.

Leviticus contains clearly defined laws of „purity” — this could range from ritual purity during ceremonies, to treatment of human bodily fluids. Bodily fluids were feared by ancient people, since urine, feces, spit and blood can be highly contagious. Ancient peoples had no modern medical theories of contagion, but they experienced diseases spreading by air or contact. Hence they developed laws of „purity” and regulated interaction among people who appeared sick or had bodily discharges. The laws of Leviticus also prohibits contact with or the movements of menstruating women and men who have continuous fluid discharge from their penis.

The Levites functioned as both priests and medical practitioners, since their theory of purity did not make a distinction between sin and disease. Disease was sometimes considered a punishment for sin, and sin was considered a „disease of the soul”. Hence, both sins and diseases had to be „purified” ritually. Sin was purified through sacrifical rites, and disease was purified through social distancing, treatment with water and fire, and sacrificial rites after the Levites had declared the sick person „clean”. The sacrifical rites then signified the return to society. While sick people were sentenced to social distancing by the priests, they also had to warn healthy people of their coming by crying out „unclean”, or rattling bells. This gave the healthy people a chance to step aside and create distance.

What is leprosy, or Hansen`s Disease?

Leprosy or Hansen`s Disease is a contagious and fatal infection caused by Mycobacterium leprae or Mycobacterium lepromatosis, that slowly destroys neural pathways, causing limbs to become gangrenous and making amputation necessary. It also causes blindness and dementia, as it attacks the brain. The first signs of leprosy are skin lesions. There was no cure before the 20th century. The most detailed regulation of sickness in the Mosaic Law (Leviticus) pertains to leprosy.

The Bible uses the word for leprosy differently than medical science does today. Since the two bacterias that causes leprosy were not identified before the 19th and 21st century, respectively, biblical people had no means of separating „Hansen`s Disease” from other forms of contagious skin lesions, or even non-contagious skin lesions, such as exczema and psoriasis. Not until the sick person developed gangrene or blindness, making leprosy the obvious diagnosis. But barely symptomatic individuals could infect other people before leprosy slowly progressed to the final stages. This represented a problem for the Levites who were tasked with determining who was to be declared „unclean” and cast out of society. Furthermore, contagious skin diseases could also attack organic material in the houses people lived in, such as animal hides used for bed covering or carpets used for wall covering. Leviticus terms these rashes on clothes and buildings to be „leprosy” too (Lev. 14: 55.)

Tora scroll from Italy, 18th Century

Leviticus also contains a detailed description of symptoms, to help priests make their decision. This description reminds us uncannily of the current medical description of “Hansen`s Disease”. If someone developed a white spot on the skin, they were taken before the priest. The priest was then mandated to keep the patient in isolation for 7 days, with no exceptions, to observe how the white spot developed. Some Biblical patients are recorded to have recovered (this is theoretically possible, with a strong immune system). If the white spot disappeared, the patient could be declared “pure”, had to wash his clothes, perform the necessary sacrificial rites, and return home. But if the white spot looked worse, the quarantine had to be extended for another 7 days of observation, and if the spot did not shrink, then the patient was declared “impure”. This meant permanent quarantine. The lepers had to form their own communities at the edge of settlements. There, they were allowed to make a living as beggars or craftsmen. They were allowed to sell the goods they made.

Mud brick house from the Middle East

A house vould also be declared „unclean”, if there were signs of rashes on the walls. Considering that Bronze/Iron Age houses often contained organic materials, such as straw in the clay walls, sheepskin and leather hides as bed coverings or carpets as wall coverings, it is possible that bacteria that feeds on organic materials could also spread to other obects and literally „infect the house”. In this case, the priest would strip the house, and burn the „unclean” materials. Possibly the house could be demolished.

“When anyone has a defiling skin disease, they must be brought to the priest. The priest is to examine them, and if there is a white swelling in the skin that has turned the hair white and if there is raw flesh in the swelling, it is a chronic skin disease (original text: leprosy) and the priest shall pronounce them unclean. He is not to isolate them, because they are already unclean.” (Lev 13: 9–11)

But then comes the surprise: after all these serious measures taken against people, clothes and houses, the priests declare there is a way back to society, even for the terminally ill lepers. When leprosy has spread over the whole body and coloured all the skin „white”, then the priest shall declare the leper for „clean” again, and s/he could return to society after a sacrifical rite. This rite was to consist of two birds: one bird was sacrificed and the other bird bathed in the blood of the dead bird, before it was let loose. Then the leper had to spend another 7 days in quarantine, before giving a sacrifical lamb to the Levite, which was to be sacrificed as atonement for sin. The leper was to be doused in the blood of both the bird and the lamb, and then he was finally declared „clean”, and could return home.

It seems like the Levites were almost aware of stages in the development of leprosy, and knew when it was most contagious. It also indicates that they were under pressure from the community, as family and neighbours may want their loved ones back.

Sosial Distancing in the Age of Jesus

Several Gospel stories recount Jesus meeting with and healing lepers. It appears from these stories that the lepers stayed together, which is in accordance with the Mosaic Law`s admonishment that they must live outside of the nomad`s „camp”. At a later stage of Jewish social development, they lived outside of villages or city walls. That this was still happening due to the Mosaic Law`s continued social validity, becomes apparent when Luke tells us how ten lepers met with Jesus:

„Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy[b] met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him — and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17: 11–14)

This story shows that the lepers kept Mosaic Law by standing at a distance from a healthy person (Jesus). It also shows a respect for the Mosaic Law, because the lepers had to present to the local priest, to be ceremoniously declared “clean” and be able to return to society.

But it also contains a morality that is not present in Mosaic Law, namely, that the purification of the lepers is two-fold. 9 lepers are cured of leprosy, because they see Jesus as a “healing rabbi” (there were several of those about). But only one is cleansed of his sins, and presumably will enter Heaven, because he recognizes a special type of Divine Power within Jesus. When Jesus says: “Your faith has made you well”, he refers to the curing of the man`s soul from the disease of sin, which was Jesus` true mission on earth — the saving of souls. Viewing sin as a disease or impurity of the soul also harks back to the Mosaic Law, but while the oral traditions of the Levites could provide no definite solution to Sin, Jesus came to remedy that, and brought a New Covenant (Testament) between God and Man, replacing the Old Covenant (Testament) between God and Moses.

Jesus heals 10 lepers, Byzantine mosaic

What was it really like to be a leper in the age of Jesus?

We learn from the many conflicts between Jesus and the religious leaders of his time (Sadduceans, Phariseans, etc.) that the latter had created and were following more regulations, which went far beyond the prescriptions of the Mosaic Laws.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others. “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23: 1–12)

The extra regulations invented by the Phariseans also seem to have been extended to the lepers. Jewish Virtual Library describes what Josephus, who wrote shortly after the death of Jesus, said about leprosy in contemprary Jewish society:

Josephus, who was both a priest and lived during the time of the Temple, in his description of the Mosaic laws, states that it was forbidden to the leper to “come into the city at all [or] to live with any others, as if they were in effect dead persons.” He makes a sharp contrast between this law and the fact that “there are lepers in many nations who are yet in honor, and not only free from reproach and avoidance, but who have been great captains of armies, and been entrusted with high office in the commonwealth and have had the privilege commonwealth and have had the privilege the army of Syria (II Kings 5, especially vs. 5 and 18)(https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/leprosy)

Jewish Virtual Library also describes what the Talmud (collection of later Jewish oral refulations) says regarding contact with lepers:

(Acc. To the Talmud, leprosy) seems to have existed in Ereẓ Israel in mishnaic and amoraic times. R. Johanan and Resh Lakish stated that it is forbidden to walk four cubits, or 100 cubits (dependent upon whether there was a wind blowing at the time) to the east of a leper; R. Meir refrained from eating eggs which came from a district where lepers lived; R. Ammi and R. Assi never entered such a district; when Resh Lakish saw one he would cast stones at him, exclaiming, “get back to your location and do not contaminate other people”; and R. Eleazar b. Simeon would hide from them (Lev. R. 16:3). As Katzenelson points out, since the segregation enjoined in the Bible no longer applied in talmudic times, this segregation and its consequences were the result of popular feeling, and not a legal requirement. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/leprosy

The oral traditions recorded in the Talmud represent a developmental stage after the age of Jesus, hence the society of Jesus represented a transition period, when the Mosaic Law was still valid and observed, but in the process of being phased out.

Both the Mosaic Laws regarding social segregation and the rabbinic behaviour described in the Talmud stand in strong contrast to the way Jesus behaved towards lepers. Jesus showed a deep compassion towards all outcasts of society, incl. lepers, and he even touched a leper in the second story regarding Jesus healing lepers.

A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed. Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere. (Mark 1: 40–45)

Jesus heals the leper, by Jean-Marie Melchior Doze, 1864

All three Synoptic Gospels retell this same story, but accentuate different aspects of it. Mark accentuates that Jesus actively broke Mosaic Law by touching a leper. The experience of being touched must have left a shocking impression with the sick and outcast man, and contributed to his enthusiastic telling of his personal experience, despite of Jesus asking him not to mention it.

In another Gospel passage, Jesus encourages his apostles to go out and heal lepers, as He has done. There is an implicit encouragement to ignore the Mosaic Laws by doing so, especially if we compare Jesus` and the Apostles behaviour to the rabbinic behaviour towards lepers described in the Talmud:

“These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give. “Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts — no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep. (Matt 10: 5–8)

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