PHYSICIAN (רֹ֣פֶא; ἰατρός, G2620). A physician is a person skilled in the art of healing. Perhaps the earliest recorded physician in history was Imhotep of Egypt. He lived and practiced medicine nearly 3,000 b.c., and was so highly regarded by the Egyptians that they worshiped him as a god. See Medicine.

The early Egyp. physicians were primarily priests, and secondarily medical men. Sickness was considered due to the presence of evil spirits in the afflicted person, and these evil spirits had to be exorcised by incantations and magic known only to the priests. Some herbs were used, wounds sutured and fractures splinted. Skulls with holes cut through them have been dug up by archeologists in North Africa and Europe. This type of surgery (trephining) was done presumably to allow demons to escape—possibly as a cure for intractable migraine headache.

The priest-physician concept of medicine had an important point in its favor. Modern physicians are heard to say repeatedly that ninety per cent of their patients have psychogenic ailments and need psychological, or psychiatric aid rather than drugs. Perhaps, ninety percent is too high an estimate; but a priest or doctor who can win a patient’s trust, calm his emotions, and give him confidence that all will be well, has usually done more good in that way than with the medicine he prescribes.

As time went by, Egyp. knowledge of medicine increased. Some of the physicians became specialists in surgery, embalming (Gen 50:2), and obstetrics. The first recorded female obstetricians were the Heb. midwives Shiphrah and Puah (Exod 1:15).

About 300 b.c. a famous school of medicine was started in Alexandria, Egypt. The faculty had the benefit of considerable medical knowledge from Greek, Roman, Babylonian and Indian sources. It is well for Bible students to remember this. If Luke was trained at the Alexandrian school, or by graduates of that school, his medical knowledge had considerable scientific basis. Some of this appears in his gospel when he gives details concerning the diseases of people Jesus healed.

Among the Greeks, Aesculapius (c. 1200 b.c.) was a physician regarded as a miracle worker. History records that he would spend time with his patient explaining the ailment and giving advice. Then he would keep the patient in the temple, put him to sleep with hypnosis or drugs, and the patient would be well the next day.

Hippocrates (about 460 b.c.) is considered the founder of scientific medicine. He refused to believe in demons as the cause of diseases. He used only a few medicines and had strong faith in the body’s ability to cure itself.

The amazing Aristotle (about 350 b.c.) was the first great biologist and studied intensively both plants and animals. He taught medicine and other sciences in the academy at Athens, and wrote many books about his findings.

Physicians are not mentioned in the Bible as often as might be expected, and their attitude toward diseases is interesting. The thought, so prevalent in other countries that evil spirits were the principal causative agents of disease, was largely discarded. Minor ailments, such as headaches, constipation and flatulence were allowed to correct themselves, prob. with the aid of home remedies. Serious illness was considered a visitation from God, and if healing occurred, it was because God willed it so (Deut 32:39, “I wound and I heal.”) Even when medication was prescribed, as when cakes of figs were applied to Hezekiah’s boil (2 Kings 20:1-7), the emphasis is on God’s intervention rather than on the figs.

However, there were many physicians in Israel. The Talmud speaks of a physician specifically assigned to the Temple for the benefit of the priests. It also records that every city had its own physician, and that he was required to obtain a license to practice from the city authorities.

The Heb. midwives are well spoken of in the Bible, and they must have been good. When Tamar had her twins, the midwife was faced with a difficult problem. The first baby trying to be born had an arm extending to the outside of Tamar’s body. That could only mean that the baby was in a transverse position and just could not be born that way. Delicate and dangerous manipulation was necessary to correct the faulty position, and it was successfully accomplished.

The detailed laws of Moses concerning personal cleanliness, isolation of contagious disease, and emphasis on sanitary camp conditions, are still a source of amazement because of their practical value.

Did Heb. physicians have to contend with venereal disease? Leviticus 15:2-15 contains some very strict rules pertaining to “discharge.” Some believe that this refers to venereal disease. However, it is more likely to refer to dysentery, which was so prevalent and so dangerous in those days. One need only to think of typhoid fever to realize how wise the strict rules were.

Garlic, rue and mandrake were three herbs frequently used. Rue is a strongly-scented, bitter herb used for medicinal purposes. Mandrake has a long, divided root, which some thought resembled a human being. It was used to stimulate conception, and also as a cathartic.

In the NT, the skills of physicians are ignored, excepting with reference to Luke, “the beloved physician.” What a comfort it must have been for Paul to have Luke as his personal physician; and what a privilege it must have been for Luke to be closely associated with such an intense and devoted Christian leader as Paul!

The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:34) was not a physician, but his treatment of the wounded man was good. The wine, although not a strong alcohol, could help to clean and asepticize the wound, while olive oil would give some soothing relief from pain.

Timothy may have been troubled with gas in his stomach, which led Paul to suggest the use of some wine. If the ailment had been an ulcer, wine would have been contra-indicated.

Many sick, deformed and injured persons are referred to in the NT, but they were not cured by physicians. Cure was effected by miracles and faith healing (James 5:14, 15).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

To the pious Jew at all times God was the healer (De 32:39): "It was neither herb nor mollifying plaister that cured them, but thy word, O Lord, which healeth all things" (The Wisdom of Solomon 16:12). The first physicians mentioned in Scripture are those of Egypt. Long before the sojourn of the Hebrews in that land, Egypt had a priestly class of physicians (snu) and a god of healing (Imchtp). From the ancient medical papyri which have been preserved, the largest of which is the Papyrus Ebers, we know that the medical knowledge of these physicians was purely empirical, largely magical and wholly unscientific. In spite of their ample opportunities they knew next to nothing of human anatomy, their descriptions of diseases are hopelessly crude, and three-fourths of the hundreds of prescriptions in the papyri are wholly inert. Even their art of embalming was so imperfect that few of their mummies would have remained in any other climate than that of Egypt. Physicians of this kind who were Joseph’s servants embalmed Jacob (Ge 50:2) and Joseph (Ge 50:26). It was not until the foundation of the School of Alexandria, which was purely Greek, that Egypt became a place of medical education and research.

There is no evidence that at any time the priests of Israel were reputed to be the possessors of medical knowledge or tradition. In the ceremonial law they had explicit instructions as to the isolation of those suffering from skin eruptions, so that they might recognize certain obstinate and infectious forms which caused ceremonial uncleanness, but with this duty as sanitary police their function ended and they used no means to cure these diseases. There is, as far as I know, no record or tradition of a priest-physician in Bible times. The records of cure by the prophets, especially Elisha, are mostly recorded as miracles, not as cures by treatment. The salt which cured the noxious water at Jericho and the meal by which the poisonous gourds were rendered innoxious, like the manipulation of the Shunammite’s son, can scarcely be regarded as adequate remedies. There is an implied reference to a healer of wounds in Ex 21:19, as also in Isa 3:7, and it is recorded in Pesachim, iv.9 that there was in existence in the time of the monarchy a book of cures, cepher rephu’oth, supposed to have been written by Solomon, but withdrawn from public use by Hezekiah. The first specific mention of Hebrew physicians is 2Ch 16:12, but Asa is obviously regarded by the Chronicler as reprehensible in trusting to their skill. In 2Ki 8:29 Joram, king of Israel, is said to have gone to Jezreel to be healed. Not far from this, across the Jordan, was Gilead, which possibly may also have been a place resorted to by those needing medical treatment, as indicated by Jeremiah’s query: "Is there no balm in Gilead? is there no physician there?" (Jer 8:22). Job, irritated by the platitudes of his friends, calls them physicians of no value (13:4).

In the New Testament our Lord’s saying, "They that are whole have no need of a physician," etc., shows that there were physicians in Galilee (Mt 9:12; Mr 2:17; Lu 5:31), and in Nazareth He quotes what seems to have been a proverb: "Physician, heal thyself" (Lu 4:23). There were physicians in Galilee who received fees from the woman of Caesarca Philippi who had the issue of blood (Mr 5:26; Lu 8:43). Of her there is a curious story told in Eusebius (VII, 18).

There are several Talmudic references to physicians; in Sheqalim ii 1, it is said that there was a physician at the temple to attend to the priests. A physician was appointed in every city (Gittin 12b) who was required to have a license from the local authorities (Babha’ Bathra’ 21a). The familiar passage in Ecclesiasticus 38:1-15 the Revised Version (British and American) in praise of the physician gives him but limited credit for his skill: "There is a time when in their very hands is the issue for good," and later, "He that sinneth before his Maker, Let him fall into the hands of the physician."

Luke, called "the beloved physician" in Col 4:14, is said by Eusebius to have been a native of Antioch and a physician by profession. According to Origen he was the unnamed "brother whose praise in the gospel is spread through all the churches" (2Co 8:18). There are evidences of his professional studies in the language of his writings, though of this probably more has been made by Hobart and others than it really merits. Had we not known of his profession it is doubtful whether it could have been conjectured from his choice of words. Sir W. Ramsay calls attention to the two words used of the healings at Melita in Ac 28:8-10: for the cure of Publius’ father the word used is iasato, but for the healing of those who came later it is etherapeuonto, which he renders "received medical treatment." From this he infers that Luke helped Paul with these (Ramsay, Luke the Physician, 1908).

See also

  • Occupations and Professions