Jesus Heals a Person with Leprosy
Christ Heals a Leper, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1650
Where Science Meets Religion by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson February 27-March 5: Matthew 8; Mark 2–4; Luke 7
We read in Matthew 8:1-4, “When he was come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him. And, behold, there came a leper [a person affected by leprosy] and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus saith unto him, See thou tell no man; but go thy way, shew thyself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them.” There are other references in the New Testament to Jesus healing people affected by leprosy (Mark 1:40-45; Luke 5:12-15 – these accounts may be of the same person described in Matthew; Luke 17:11-19 – healing ten people with leprosy). Then there is a reference, in Matthew 26:6 and Mark 14:3, to “Simon the leper,” who lived in Bethany and where Christ sat at meat with his disciples. We are not told why Simon was called a leper – did he have leprosy at the time Jesus was there and, if so, why did Christ not heal him – or was he a person who formerly had leprosy whom Christ had healed and just had the name from the past? We simply do not know – we are not given any additional information in the scriptures.
We also don’t know for sure exactly what leprosy was in Jesus’ time. The Law of Moses was given some twelve to fifteen hundred years before Christ’s time on earth. Given the conservative nature of Judaism, it is likely that there were few, if any changes to what is recorded in Leviticus. However, as the description in Leviticus is somewhat vague, additional diagnostic criteria may have been added by priests who were trying to obtain a more exact diagnosis. Furthermore, now – two thousand years later – we have very different diagnostic criteria for leprosy than what is presented in Leviticus.
We are told in the article, Leprosy in the Bible, posted by The Leprosy Mission International, “In ancient times, leprosy was a ‘catchall’ term for any disease that particularly affected the skin. This means it is possible that the individuals associated with leprosy in the Bible may well have had a different skin disease from what we today know as leprosy.” The website goes on to state, “Some translations of the Bible use the term ‘leper’ to describe those who were affected by leprosy. ‘Leper’ is a derogatory term that is used to hurt people affected by leprosy across the world and we ask everyone to avoid using this word.” “We encourage Bible publishers to change the term ‘leper’ in future printed editions so that it reads ‘person affected by leprosy’. We also ask that, if you are reading the Bible in public (e.g. in church or at a Bible Study Group), please do not read the word ‘leper’ if it is written in the version of the Bible you are reading. Instead, please replace it with the term ‘person affected by leprosy’.”1
Alan Gille stated in his post, “Biblical Leprosy: Shedding Light on the Disease that Shuns” on the website Answers in Genesis, “The term ‘leprosy’ (including leper, lepers, leprosy, leprous) occurs 68 times in the Bible—55 times in the Old Testament (Hebrew = tsara’ath) and 13 times in the New Testament (Greek = lepros, lepra). In the Old Testament, the instances of leprosy most likely meant a variety of infectious skin diseases, and even mold and mildew on clothing and walls. The precise meaning of the leprosy in both the Old and New Testaments is still in dispute, but it probably includes the modern Hansen’s disease (especially in the New Testament) and infectious skin diseases.” “The term ‘Hansen’s disease’ was not given until 1873, when Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen described the leprosy bacillus... Only at this point was a precise definition for leprosy made available.”… “Others have suggested that the translation of tsara’ath includes “molds.” The recent discovery of a highly toxic mold (Stachybotrys sp.), which contaminates buildings and causes respiratory distress, memory loss, and rash, lends support to the translation of tsara’ath to include ‘mold.’ As noted, tsara’ath incorporates a collection of contemporary terms, including Hansen’s disease, infectious skin diseases, and mold (or even mildew) diseases.”2
The criteria for diagnosing leprosy in Old Testament times is outlined in Leviticus chapter 13. The first sign described was, if a “…man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, a scab, or bright spot…” (v. 2) and if “…the hair in the plague is turned white, and the plague in sight be deeper than the skin of his flesh…” then “…it is a plague of leprosy: and the priest shall … pronounce him unclean.” (v. 3). However, “If the bright spot be white in the skin of his flesh, and in sight be not deeper than the skin, and the hair thereof be not turned white; then the priest shall shut up [quarantine] him that hath the plague seven days: And the priest shall look on him the seventh day: and, behold, if the plague in his sight be at a stay, and the plague spread not in the skin; then the priest shall shut him up seven days more [fourteen days total quarantine]: And the priest shall look on him again the seventh day: and, behold, if the plague be somewhat dark, and the plague spread not in the skin, the priest shall pronounce him clean: it is but a scab: and he shall wash his clothes, and be clean. (vs. 4-6) But “…if the priest see that…the scab spreadeth in the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean: it is a leprosy.” (v. 8)
Here is another diagnostic criterion: “…if the rising be white in the skin, and it have turned the hair white, and there be quick raw flesh in the rising; It is an old leprosy in the skin of his flesh…” (vs. 10-11) Furthermore, surprisingly, “…if a leprosy break out abroad in the skin, and the leprosy cover all the skin of him that hath the plague from his head even to his foot, wheresoever the priest looketh; Then the priest shall consider: and, behold, if the leprosy have covered all his flesh, he shall pronounce him clean that hath the plague: it is all turned white: he is clean. But when raw flesh appeareth in him, he shall be unclean.” (vs. 12-14)
The problem with this “diagnosis” in Leviticus 13 is that that description of leprosy does not actually fit with what we now know of leprosy today – formally known as Hansen’s disease, a low-level infectious disease caused by a slow-growing bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae.3 “The disease manifests commonly through skin lesion and peripheral nerve involvement. Leprosy is diagnosed by finding at least one of the following cardinal signs: (1) definite loss of sensation in a pale (hypopigmented) or reddish skin patch; (2) thickened or enlarged peripheral nerve, with loss of sensation and/or weakness of the muscles supplied by that nerve; (3) presence of acid-fast bacilli in a slit-skin smear.”4 None of these three criteria apparently could have been met by the Old Testament description of leprosy: the diagnostic criteria in Leviticus does not include any statement of sensory loss in the affected area and people at the time knew little if anything about nerves, and nothing of bacilli.
According to a post at medicinenet.com by Sruthi M., entitled, “Does Leprosy Turn Your Skin White?”, “The first sign of leprosy is often the development of a pale or pink-colored patch on the skin. The patch may be insensitive to temperature or pain. [A] Skin patch, which is considered one of the symptoms of leprosy, differs in color from the rest of your skin. In African Americans, these skin patches are lighter. In Caucasian people, the patches are reddish. Leprosy does not cause the skin and hair to turn white (like in vitiligo).”5
According to the Mayo Clinic website, “Vitiligo is a disease that causes loss of skin color in patches. The discolored areas usually get bigger with time. The condition can affect the skin on any part of the body. It can also affect hair and the inside of the mouth.” “Normally, the color of hair and skin is determined by melanin. Vitiligo occurs when cells that produce melanin die or stop functioning. Vitiligo affects people of all skin types, but it may be more noticeable in people with brown or black skin. The condition is not life-threatening or contagious. It can be stressful or make you feel bad about yourself.” “It's unclear exactly what causes these pigment cells to fail or die. It may be related to: A disorder of the immune system (autoimmune condition), Family history (heredity), [and or] A trigger event, such as stress, severe sunburn or skin trauma, such as contact with a chemical.”6
We don’t know for sure what the disease of people in Christ’s time who presumably had been diagnosed by a priest as having leprosy actually looked like or what the diseased area looked like when the “leprosy was cleansed.” However, we can read the story of Naaman, who was cured of leprosy, in 2 Kings 5:14, “Then went he [Naaman] down, and dipped himself seven times in Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God [Elisha]: and his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.” So we are told that his flesh looked like that of “a little child” after he bathed in the Jordan River, but we don’t know what it looked like before he bathed in the river. Because the term “leprosy” apparently covered a wide range of diseases, it is very difficult to speculate how the skin disorders exhibited by Naaman or those designated as unclean because of leprosy during Christ’s time actually presented.
With nothing else to go from, I will attempt to outline the first set of criteria listed in Leviticus (13:2-3) as the basis for the description of those with leprosy who were healed by Christ: the skin had a rising, a scab, or bright spot; which was deeper than just the skin; and the hair in the area was white. If this is what the lesions of those cured of leprosy by Christ looked like, then what changes would have occurred to make them “clean”?
I will begin with the hair. We are told in Matthew 8:3 that “…immediately his leprosy was cleansed.” If the leprosy involved white hair (Leviticus 13:3) then the only way for that leprosy to be cleansed would be for the white hair to fall out. There is a common question asked in Anatomy and Physiology courses – we included that question in most if not all of the A & P textbooks I coauthored for twenty five years: Tradition holds that when Marie Antoinette learned of her impending execution, her hair turned white overnight. Could that have happened? Why or why not? The answer is that Marie Antoinette’s hair could not have turned white overnight because a hair is not a single structure whose color can be changed like changing a light bulb. Rather each hair has a complex structure with a medulla, cortex and cuticle comprised of over 20,000 dead, keratinized cells per inch.7 Only the cortical cells are pigmented and that melanin pigment (the main pigment among others) is pumped into those cells, by melanocytes, as they are growing in the matrix of the hair follicle. A typical scalp hair grows about half an inch per month. As the hair shaft emerges from the skin surface, the cortical cells die and the pigment is trapped inside. If the melanocytes stop producing pigment, the hair is left yellow or white. The melanin in the shaft can be bleached out or extraneous pigment can be added. However, for hair to change color naturally, that change has to occur from the follicle out – at the rate of about half an inch per month. As Marie Antoinette was found guilty of treason (among other charges) in the early morning of 16 October 1793, and executed by guillotine at 12:15 p.m. the same day, her hair, which had been sheared for her execution, could hardly have had time to turn white.
During the two and one half months that Marie was a prisoner in the Conciergerie, one inch or so of the roots may have become white, and after her hair was shorn, that white may have been prominent – thus fostering the notion that her hair turned white overnight.
Now let’s return to the cases of leprosy healed by the Savior. We are told in Leviticus 13:37, “But if the scall be in his sight at a stay, and that there is black hair grown up therein; the scall is healed, he is clean: and the priest shall pronounce him clean.” The process of black hair growing where there apparently had previously been white hair would have required at least several months. Therefore, the immediate cleansing from leprosy, accomplished by the Savior, as stated in Matthew 8:3, likely did not involve any change in hair color.
Another consideration of leprosy, as outlined in Leviticus 13:18-19 and 23, is that, “The flesh also, in which, even in the skin thereof, was a boil, and is healed, And in the place of the boil there be a white rising, or a bright spot, white, and somewhat reddish, and it be shewed to the priest…[and] if the bright spot stay in his place, and spread not, it is a burning boil; and the priest shall pronounce him clean.” This “boil” associated with “reddish,” and/or “raw flesh” (v. 10) sounds a lot like Erythema nodosum leprosum (ENL), or type 2 lepra reaction, a multi-system immune-mediated complication in patients with chronic, recurring multibacillary leprosy, which can occur in up to 30% or 40% of people with leprosy.8 ENL patients usually present with painful, reddish blisters/boils in their skin.9 It was discovered in the 1960s that treating a leprosy patient with thalidomide could significantly reduce ENL lesions overnight.10
Another condition of cleansing from leprosy can be seen in Leviticus 13:31-34, “And if the priest look on the plague of the scall, and, behold, it be not in sight deeper than the skin, and that there is no black hair in it; then the priest shall shut up him that hath the plague of the scall seven days: And in the seventh day the priest shall look on the plague: and, behold, if the scall spread not, and there be in it no yellow hair, and the scall be not in sight deeper than the skin; He shall be shaven, but the scall shall he not shave; and the priest shall shut up him that hath the scall seven days more: And in the seventh day the priest shall look on the scall: and, behold, if the scall be not spread in the skin, nor be in sight deeper than the skin; then the priest shall pronounce him clean: and he shall wash his clothes, and be clean.” Therefore, Christ’s healing of these people with leprosy may have involved something like what is seen with ENL, that the depth of the lesion may be drastically reduced in a very short amount of time – so that the lesions were reduced immediately. However, authentication of this reversal apparently required a fourteen-day evaluation by a priest. We are told in Luke 17:14, concerning the ten men with leprosy, “And when he saw them, he said unto them, Go shew yourselves unto the priests. And it came to pass, that, as they went, they were cleansed.” This may have been that fourteen-day ritual as outlined in Leviticus 13:31-34.
Whatever the actual scientific mechanisms involved, I believe that Jesus did indeed perform miracles, such as curing leprosy, and that those miracles conformed to what we call natural laws – although most of the natural laws through which those miracles were performed have not as yet been discovered.
Please join me for my weekly discussions of Where Science Meets Religion – The Infinite Creation – 6 PM each Thursday at the Century Ward meeting house (at 4th and Fredregill, Pocatello). Last week we discussed the Earth’s Baptism. This coming week we will begin to discuss the creation of life on the Earth and anything else you want to discuss. I will also be Zooming the sessions: Meeting ID: 935 754 2152 Passcode: nka
Trent Dee Stephens
1. leprosymission.org/what-is-leprosy/leprosy-in-the-bible; retrieved 21 February 2023
2. answersingenesis.org/biology/disease/biblical-leprosy-shedding-light-on-the-disease-that-shuns; retrieved 21 February 2023
3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]. cdc.gov/leprosy/index.html; retrieved 14 February 2023
4. World Health Organization; who.int/health-topics/leprosy#tab=tab_2; retrieved 14 February 2023
5. medicinenet.com/does_leprosy_turn_your_skin_white/article.htm; retrieved 21 February 2023
6. mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/vitiligo/symptoms-causes/syc-20355912; retrieved 21 February 2023
7. this number was calculated from the data in: beautytmr.medium.com/the-three-layers-of-hair-54e1b2afb223; retrieved 23 February 2023
8. Upputuri, Brahmaiah et al., Thalidomide in the treatment of erythema nodosum leprosum (ENL) in an outpatient setting: A five-year retrospective analysis from a leprosy referral centre in India, PLoS Negl Trop Dis., 14:e0008678, 2020; retrieved 14 February 2023
9. cdc.gov/leprosy/health-care-workers/reactive-episodes.html; retrieved 14 February 2023
10. Stephens, Trent D., and Brynner, Rock: Dark Remedy: The Impact of Thalidomide and it Revival as a Vital Medicine, Perseus Books, Cambridge, MA 2001