Medical Terminology in Luke

On the medical jargon of Luke

Reuben A. Hubbard is assistant professor of health education at Loma Linda. University, Loma Linda, California.


PAUL CALLS Luke "the beloved physician" (Col. 4:14) and apparently sought Luke out as a helper because of his skill in this respect. Luke did "double service as a physician and a gospel minister."1 The medical historian Bettmann says, "The doctor speaks in the gospel of Saint Luke. The most cultured of the evangelists was known as Saint Luke the 'beloved physician,' and Christ's deeds were described by him with literary skill and medical insight. . . . The many accounts of miraculous healing are told in Saint Luke more fully than in any other gospel, with understanding and in a language that only a doctor would use." 2

The interest in pursuing the evidences of Luke's medical training dates back to the last century, when such able scholars as Adolph Harnack, William Kirk Hobart, and W. M. Ramsay published books on the subject. Even though they may have tended to over state their case (especially Hobart), much of their research is still valid.

The Medical Jargon of Luke

In such passages as the following we find evidence that Luke used jargon typical of physicians of his time: "And it came to pass, that the father of Publius lay sick of a fever and of a bloody flux: to whom Paul entered in, and prayed, and laid his hands on him, and healed him. So when this was done, others also, which had diseases in the island, came, and were healed" (Acts 28:8, 9). The Greek expression puretois kai dusenterio sunechomenon, "suffering from a fever and dysentery," are terms used in ancient medical literature.3 The other Gospel writers used puretos in the singular for a fever, but Luke always uses it in the plural (puretoi, puretois), which was the correct medical usage as found in the Hippocratic writings.4 The contrast between iasato ("cured") and etherapeuonto ("were treated") in Acts 28 should be noted. Paul cured Publius's father; the others who came were treated.

In describing the man suffering from dropsy, Luke employs the medical terminology hudropikos, a word occurring nowhere else in the Bible, but which appears frequently in the medical literature, especially in the writings of Hippocrates. The word hudropikos is derived from hudor, "water," and means literally "a surplus of fluid in the body tissues." 5

Luke gives an interesting eyewitness account of the snake that bit Paul: "And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand. And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among them selves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live. And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm. Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god" (Acts 28:3- 6).

The word kathepsen (translated "fastened" in the King James Version) appearing in this account was a technical word used by physicians to describe poisonous matter that invades the body. Hence Harnack concludes: "The serpent really bit the apostle and the poison entered into his hand. Thus the passage only receives its right interpretation when brought into connection with the ordinary medical language of the times." 6 The word therion ("beast") is the medical term for a venomous reptile, although Luke also uses echidna ("viper") in verse 3. He also uses atopon ("harm"), a term that denotes unusual symptoms in the medical literature. Galen used this term in connection with the bite of a rabid dog.7 Pimprasthai, a medical term found only in Luke's writings in the New Testament, is the word for "inflammation," as found in the Hippocratic works of Aretaeus and Galen.8 The word appearing in Acts 28:6 for "fallen down," katapiptein, is again peculiar to Dr.Luke and is also the term Hippocrates, Aretaeus, Galen, and other medical writers used to denote what happens when a person collapses suddenly from a wound.9

Luke's Description of Disease and Treatment

Luke's description of the woman with the infirmity again illustrates the keen observation of one who was trained in the medical profession and who was familiar with correct medical terminology. "And, behold, there was a woman which had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bowed together, and could in no wise lift up herself. And when Jesus saw her, he called her to him, and said unto her, Woman, thou art loosed from thine infirmity. And he laid his hands on her: and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God" (Luke 13:11-13).

The word translated "infirmity," astheneias, denotes a "weakness" or "frailty." 10 Luke carefully records the patient's history in such notations as "eighteen years." He diagnoses the condition as sugkuptousa, a Greek medical term that refers to curvature of the spine. 11 He describes the condition further in these words: me dunamene anakupsai eis to panteles, "not being able to become erect entirely." "Thou art loosed," apolelusai, is the ancient Greek medical term for relaxing tendons and membranes and for taking off bandages. 12 Hobart feels that the description of the miracle reflects Luke's medical training: "St. Luke states that the several stages in the process of recovery—first the relaxing of the contracted muscles of the chest (apolelusai); and as this of itself would not have been sufficient to give her an erect posture, on account of the stiffening of the muscles through so many years, the second part of the operation is described by (anorthothe) the removal of the curvature." 13

Another incident reported by Dr. Luke reveals his knowledge of the first-aid treatment of his day. The story of the good Samaritan reads, "He had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him" (chap. 10:33, 34). Bettmann tells us that the "good Samaritan treated the wound expertly," adding, "St. Luke added a number of medical touches, which prove him distinctly a physician well versed in wound treatment as practiced in his time. The use of wine for the soothing of wounds was recommended by Hippocrates and later by Galen, an early recognition of the antiseptic qualities of alcohol. Experience also taught the ancients that wounds bathed in oil would heal better. The coating would serve to protect the wound from what we now know to be external contamination." 14

In the story of Peter's mother-in-law, Luke writes: "And Simon's wife's mother was taken with a great fever; and they besought him for her" (chap. 4:38). Mark's account reads, "But Simon's wife's mother lay sick of a fever, and anon they tell him of her" (chap. 1:30). Matthew says, "And when Jesus was come into Peter's house, he saw his wife's mother laid, and sick of a fever" (chap. 8:14). Although these ac counts appear very similar at first glance, Luke uses two medical terms in his account that do not appear in either Mark's or Matthew's. The words translated "was taken with a great fever" are sunechomene pureto megalo, a phrase often used by Hippocrates and Galen, and found elsewhere in ancient Greek medical books, but in the New Testament used only by Luke. 15 Galen indicates that ancient physicians distinguished fevers by the terms megas and mikros, or "high" fevers and "slight" fevers. 16 As Mark and Matthew were unaware of "correct" medical terminology, they reported the story in the common "lay language," whereas Luke, being a physician, employed the exact medical nomenclature.

Luke's description of the leper also presents an interesting contrast to the accounts of Matthew and Mark. "Behold a man full of leprosy," he states (Luke 5:12). Mark says simply, "And there came a leper to him" (Mark 1:40). Matthew records, "There came a leper" (Matt. 8:2). Only a physician was likely to note the advanced state of the dis ease. 17 Describing the man with palsy, Luke wrote, "a man who was paralyzed" (Luke 5:18, R.S.V.) instead of "a paralytic" (Mark 2:3, R.S.V.). Ramsay comments, "He could hardly ever rest satisfied with the popular untrained language used about medical matters by Mark." 18

In describing the demoniac of Gadara, Luke wrote, "And when he went forth to land, there met him out of the city a certain man, which had devils long time, and ware no clothes, neither abode in any house, but in the tombs" (Luke 8:27). Neither Matthew nor Mark mention the details Luke observes. Luke recognized that one of the symptoms of the insanity of the man was the fact that he wore no clothes because of his propensity to shred his garments. 19

In presenting the case history of the woman with the issue of blood, Luke states, "And a woman having an issue of blood twelve years, which had spent all her living upon physicians, neither could be healed of any, came behind him, and touched the border of his garment: and immediately her issue of blood stanched" (Luke 8:43, 44). After carefully noting the duration of her illness ("twelve years"), Luke uses the word este for "stanched." This is the precise medical term used for the stop page of bodily discharges. The entire passage is given in medical terms, in contrast to the descriptions by Matthew and Mark.20

Bettmann, referring to the healing of the man with a withered right hand, concludes: "Where other evangelists referred to cases of 'lameness,' Luke, adding significant clinical history, described the man as congenitally lame ('from the womb of his mother'). Throughput his text he tried to convey the concise clinical significance of the miracles and was careful to make fine distinctions, as between atrophy, the withered hand, and apoplexy, the sud den stroke." 21

Luke notes that it was the "right hand" (chap. 6:6), a significant detail that the physician would observe, but which neither Matthew nor Mark bothered to note. 22 Bettmann maintains, "It was, however, in spirit more than in terminology that Luke approached the modern physician. Sympathy for the suffering fills the pages of his gospel. He had a keen understanding of women's frailties, and knew the relation of sickness to mental anguish." 23

There is no question but that Luke was a beloved physician. Yet he was much more. Serving as evangelist, preacher, teacher, and counselor, he was a physician of both soul and body. Through his ministry people not only were blessed with a more abundant life now but could confidently look forward to eternal life in the hereafter.


1 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, D.C., Review
and Herald, 1946), p. 544.

2 Otto L. Bettmann, A Pictorial History of Medicine (Springfield, Thomas, 1956), p. 49.

3 Adolf Harnack, Luke the Physician (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1907), pp. 176, 177.

4 William Kirk Hobart, The Medical Language of St. Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1956), pp. 52, 53.

5 The SDA Bible Commentary, on Luke 14:2.

6 Harnack, op. cit., pp. 177, 178.

7 Hobart, op. cit., p. 289.

8 G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1936), p. 360.

9 Hobart, op. cit, pp. 50, 51.

10 Abbott-Smith, op. cit., p. 64.

11 The SDA Bible Commentary, on Luke 13:11.

12 Hobart, op. cit., p. 21.

13 Ibid., p. 22.

14 Bettmann, op. cit., p. 49.

15 Hobart, op. cit., pp. 3, 4.

16 The SDA Bible Commentary, on Luke 4:38.

17 Ibid., p. 740.

18 W. M. Ramsay, Luke the Physician (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1956), p. 57.

19 Hobart, op. cit., p. 14.

20 Ibid., pp. 14, 15.

21 Bettmann, op. cit., p. 49.

22 Matt. 12:10; Mark 3:1.

23 Ibid.

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Reuben A. Hubbard is assistant professor of health education at Loma Linda. University, Loma Linda, California.

May 1977

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