If you were raised Catholic like me, you’re probably familiar with the biblical stories of how Jesus cured those affected by leprosy. In these portrayals, leprosy is described as a skin disease, a sign of uncleanliness or as divine punishment. On one side the stigma surrounding leprosy finds its roots in this time period. While on the other hand the tales of Jesus’ treatment of the affected, inspired churches to fight leprosy for centuries. Here, I would like to present the contrasting history of leprosy in the bible and the effects that are still felt to this day.
Leprosy in the Bible
The first mention of leprosy in the Bible can be found in the Book of Leviticus, believed to date back to 532-332 BC in the Old Testament. Here, leprosy serves as a general term including various skin diseases, ailments, and even mold. These range from conditions like psoriasis to the disease recognized today as leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease.
One prevailing theory suggests that during the translation from Hebrew to Greek, the Hebrew word tzaraat, which actually refers to different types of skin ailments, was translated as leprosy or ‘scaly.’ This later became exclusively associated with the disease we now know as leprosy. Thus, it is likely that most references to leprosy in the Bible, including instances of Jesus healing the afflicted, don’t relate to Hansen’s disease specifically.
Christianity & Leprosy
Christianity’s involvement in tackling leprosy dates back to the earliest days of the church. Although an exact year is uncertain, it is clear that Christian missions played an important role in combating the impact of leprosy. The compassion-driven efforts of Christian missionaries and organizations are deeply rooted in history, leaving a mark on the lives of those affected.
Over the centuries, Christian missionaries established leprosy hospitals, colonies, and communities dedicated to caring for individuals suffering from this disfiguring disease. Inspired by the teachings of Jesus and the spirit of compassion, these devoted individuals provided medical treatment, emotional support, and spiritual guidance to persons affected by leprosy. They challenged the prevailing stigma and discrimination, striving to restore dignity and enable the reintegration of individuals into society. However, it goes without saying that some of their methods, like the leprosy colony, are now grossly outdated.
While the church was fighting against leprosy, their holy book, the Bible was a major source of the stigma surrounding leprosy. In biblical times, leprosy was often viewed as a divine punishment, a mark of sin or impurity. Such beliefs fostered fear, ostracism, and discrimination. The biblical portrayals of leprosy reinforced a narrative that associated it with moral wrongdoing, leading to social exclusion and isolation.
Moreover, the imprecise understanding of leprosy in ancient times contributed to the perpetuation of stigma. Combined with a lack of distinction between Hansen’s disease and the broad term of leprosy in the Bible. The generalization of leprosy as a single, contagious, and incurable affliction fueled centuries of fear and prejudice. Christianity is by no means the only source of stigma surrounding leprosy. However, we can’t ignore its relation to Europe’s colonization of the world and therefore the cultural importance Christianity had and still has to this day.
Combating centuries of stigma ingrained into many cultures is not an easy feat. While Christianity, the Bible and the many missionaries have a conflicting past. It’s hard not to credit the church’s contribution to the improvement of the lives of persons affected by leprosy, even if some of those methods are now considered outdated. Luckily, improvements in medical science have ridden most of the world of the ancient disease. However, the battle against the disease and the stigma surrounding it are still being fought. Organizations like NLR are doing their best to educate more people about the signs and actual effects of leprosy. Help us, as we fight until No Leprosy Remains.
Voluntarily written for nlrinternational.org by Yannick Wirjosentono. Opinions stated in the article are on personal title of the author and do not necessarily express NLR’s views.