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Skin Disease and Social Exclusion

People with skin diseases were not necessarily excluded from ancient society to the extent that interpreters often assume.

Meester van Antwerpen, Christus geneest de melaatsen (detail), ca. 1485–1491, woodcut, 94 mm x 130 mm. Courtesy of Rijksmuseum.

Throughout the Bible, several characters suffer from a condition called tsaraat in Hebrew and lepra in Greek, which most English translations render “leprosy.” There are also legal regulations regarding this condition in the Pentateuch. This was not the disease today called “leprosy,” also known as Hansen’s disease. Rather, tsaraat refers to discoloration of skin, as well as cloth and buildings, and does not neatly correspond to a single skin disease in our modern classification. Although the Hebrew Bible does not describe tsaraat as being contagious, Lev 13 provides detailed laws regarding the identification and treatment of people with tsaraat. Those who have it are unclean and must dwell outside the camp as the Israelites travel to the promised land (Lev 13:46–47, Num 5:2). But the full picture of the place of people with skin disease in ancient Israelite and Jewish society is more complicated than that.

Were people with skin disease excluded from society according to the Hebrew Bible?

The narratives of the Hebrew Bible are not clear about the isolation people with this skin condition actually faced once the Israelites had settled in the land. King Uzziah contracts tsaraat and must leave his palace in Jerusalem (2 Kgs 15:5, 2 Chr 26:21). However, the gentile Naaman and Israelite Gehazi visit the court of the king of Israel despite each having tsaraat (2 Kgs 5:6, 27; 2 Kgs 8:4). During a siege of Samaria (the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel), four people with tsaraat are outside the city walls, presumably due to the skin disease (2 Kgs 7:3–10). Nevertheless, they expect to be admitted to the city if they ask. Other Jewish literature is similarly inconsistent about the exclusion of people with skin disease from society. In the end, there is simply not enough evidence to conclude that ancient Israelite and Jewish society systematically excluded people with skin disease.

Were people with skin disease excluded from society according to the New Testament?

The gospels give little indication that people with lepra suffered total exclusion from society or that Jesus broke social norms by interacting with them. When ten people beg Jesus for healing, they stand at a distance, perhaps because society segregated them, but the text does not say this explicitly (Luke 17:12). In the other stories of Jesus healing a person with skin disease, the person approaches Jesus, and Jesus touches him without indication that this violated norms (Matt 8:1–3, Mark 1:40–42, Luke 5:12–13). In Luke this healing occurs in a city, and in Matthew it occurs among the crowds as Jesus comes down after giving the Sermon on the Mount. No one remarks that it was unusual for the person with skin disease to be in either location. During the last week of his life, Jesus attends a dinner at the home of “Simon the leper” along with other guests who appear unaware of any social pressure to avoid this house (Matt 26:6, Mark 14:3).

These gospel texts thus provide a more complicated picture of the place of people with skin disease in Jewish society at the time of Jesus. The texts do not say that people with skin disease necessarily faced life-altering social exclusion or stigma. Some individuals with skin disease do seem to be on the fringes of society, while others do not experience any isolation. Moreover, other Jewish literature gives conflicting evidence about the degree of isolation these people faced. Interpretations that presume these characters were always social outsiders stem from later Christian exegesis that seeks to make Jesus look superior to the Jewish society in which he lived. This is not what the New Testament texts themselves portray.

  • Myrick C. Shinall Jr., MD, PhD, is associate professor of surgery and medicine in the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He obtained his Master of Divinity followed by a PhD in New Testament and Early Christianity from Vanderbilt. He is the author of Miracles and the Kingdom of God and “The Social Status of Lepers in the Gospels” (Journal of Biblical Literature).