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A few awful facts about leprosy in New Testament times:

  • The term used for leprosy in the New Testament was a general reference to seemingly-incurable skin infections. It could have included the formal affliction, which we now call Hansen’s Disease, or any other “acute skin disease characterized by inflammation.”
  • By Mosaic law, priests—not doctors— were charged with diagnosing leprosy in people (Leviticus 13:2), and sometimes they tried to treat the disease with “different kinds of baths, ointments, and poultices made of herbs and oils.”
  • The process for diagnosing leprosy went something like this: 1) A person with serious skin infections such as tissue-crusts on the skin, severe rashes, or “whitish-red swollen” spots would go to a Temple priest to be examined. 2) The priest would look to see if the infection had penetrated the skin, or if hair in the affected area had turned white. If so, he would declare the person “unclean” with leprosy. If not, a seven-day quarantine was instituted, with a new examination for leprosy schedule for afterward (Leviticus 13:2-8).
  • Being diagnosed with leprosy was a death sentence, physically, socially, economically, and spiritually. A leper was considered physically unclean—and contagious—as well as spiritually unclean. That meant a leper was completely shunned from normal activities of community life and banned from inclusion in worship in the Temple or any synagogue. The leper couldn’t hold a job, couldn’t live in a home with non-lepers (including his or her own family), couldn’t shop in a market, couldn’t own property, couldn’t touch or hug or hold hands, nothing. The leper’s only option was begging for scraps, isolation, and waiting to physically deteriorate and die.

This was the awful situation of the man who came to Jesus, begging to be healed. We do not know how many years he had endured this horrible disease, but we can be sure of one thing: It must have taken great courage—and great faith—for this unnamed leper to brave the antagonistic crowds surrounding Jesus and to ask for his miracle.

 

Works Cited:

[JHT, 161; ILJ, 185-188]

 

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