Modern Scientists – Ancient Theologians

Howard Andersen, PhD, Academic Dean, Northwest Baptist Seminary

As politicians and health authorities seek to control and advise populations about what to do under the risky conditions of our Covid -19 pandemic, strong appeals are made to the authority of modern science. This is not surprising, since science is dedicated to understanding the physical world and the virus is a purely physical phenomenon. Advice from our scientists is that, at least till a vaccine is developed, we should all wash our hands frequently and distance ourselves from others, which includes avoiding touching our faces, others, and surfaces.  This advice is pretty much a stock-in-trade answer, and clearly is not a new finding from any very recent work in the science lab.

Very interestingly, the practices of handwashing and distancing in an effort to avoid contracting a disease have an ancient history. The Mishnah, which is a nearly 800-page record of the thinking of ancient Hebrew theologians from about two centuries before Christ to about two centuries after Christ, contains detailed protocols for washing and for distancing in order to avoid contamination and disease.

Of course, the matter of “distancing” is well known to readers of the gospels, brought to popular attention by such movies as Ben Hur in connection with the disease of leprosy. The Mishnah includes some 20 pages detailing protocols to be observed in the detection, diagnosis, reduction of spread, and treatment of leprosy. This diagnostic and treatment regime is largely based on the biblical book of Leviticus (e.g., chapter 13), with its origins some 1200 years earlier still. The concern is to diagnose the disease, stop its spread, treat, and to then retest. Diagnosis includes careful and detailed observation and recording of symptoms. Treatment includes various quarantines often in sets of seven days followed by further examination. Sometimes, in stubborn cases, the need to isolate is made semi-permanent. There are also protocols for washing or burning clothing (Personal Protective Equipment) that has been in contact with the disease.

Similarly, the Mishnah contains a half dozen pages giving detailed protocols for the washing of hands. This includes how much water to use, what kind of water, how it must be poured and details about what will re-contaminate the hands and require rewashing. Enough to make a modern surgeon blush! There is a reference to this also in the gospels at Mark 7:4.

So, while we must hope and pray that modern science will give us a vaccine against Covid–19 sooner rather than later, in the meantime we must carry on with the ancient practice of distancing ourselves from others and the frequent washing of our hands.

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