Biblical Leprosy and Hansen’s Disease

The Jerusalem Post has a very informative article on leprosy, a disease also known Hansen’s disease. The article clarifies the difference between the leprosy that appears in the Bible and Hansen’s disease.

Hansen’s disease was named for Dr. Gerhard Henrik Armeur Hansen, a Norwegian doctor who discovered that real leprosy was caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium leprae.

The following is an excerpt from the article:

THE LEPROSY (tzara’at in Hebrew) mentioned 55 times in the Bible that has terrified humanity since ancient times gave Hansen’s disease a bad rap. Dermatologists say the condition that struck Miriam for speaking against her brother Moses (for marrying a Cushite woman), Naaman (in Kings II) and King Uziah (in Chronicles II) was a disease that turned their skin (and even hair) white; this symptom is connected to vitiligo – an autoimmune condition in which skin pigments are destroyed. In the Bible, this illness was regarded as divine punishment for “evil talk” and other sins. It is also described as afflicting the walls of buildings, leather garments and other clothing.

But the great Jewish sage and physician Maimonides presciently wrote during the Middle Ages that there was no connection between the biblical disease and what later became known as Hansen’s. The word “leper” is a metaphor, a symbol of stigma. For many centuries, “leprosy” was considered a curse of God, often associated with sin. It did not kill, but neither did it seem to end. Instead, it lingered for years, causing the tissues to degenerate and deforming the body. Most people don’t believe it still exists. Leprosy is unfortunately the name still used in the US, Brazil and India for the bacterial disease, and the disease is still a major health problem in many parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

But Hansen’s does not turn the skin white. To blame for the confusion – which condemned endless victims of Hansen’s to abandonment by their families and confinement in institutions so as not to “spread” it, was the Third Century BCE Greek Septuagint mistranslation of the Hebrew text. For the word tzara’at, the translators erroneously used the word leprosum, the adjectival form of the Greek word lepra.

The article in the Jerusalem Post also deals with the closing of the “Lepers’ Hospital” in Jerusalem and the work of Dr. Ruth Wexler with Hansen’s patients at the Hadassah Medical Organization.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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2 Responses to Biblical Leprosy and Hansen’s Disease

  1. ASHER says:

    So r u saying that the leprosy of the bible is what we call today vitiligo?

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    • Asher,

      Vitiligo occurs when the skin loses its pigmentation cells. When this happens there are discolored patches in different areas of the body. In the Hebrew Bible, the word for “leprosy” is used to designate several kinds of skin diseases, including Vitiligo, Hansen’s disease, and other kinds of skin problems.

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