Medical Expressions in Luke Chapter One

Posted: May 26, 2021 in General

Apostle Paul calls Luke “our dear friend, the doctor,” who is considered as the author of Luke-Acts (Col 4:14). As a trained physician, he used some of the correct medical jargons in his writings. In that sense, Luke theologically reinterprets some of the medical terms or interlocks the medical knowledge that he acquired with that of his theological and historical discourse in Luke. In the current reflection, we attempt to see Luke’s usage of medical terminologies with an exclusive focus on chapter one of the Gospel.  

The verbal expression epecheirēsan means “have taken in hand” (see Luke 1:1; Acts 9:29; 19:13) is a derivation of epichepeō (means, “to put hand to a thing” or “to undertake”). This is used to refer a physician’s practice of laying hands on a patient. It can also mean her/his active role in undertaking a patient for investigation. In the text, the word is used with a sense of undertaking the work of writing the Gospel materials.

The noun form diēgēsin means “a declaration,” “a narrative,” or “a history” (1:1). In the ancient world, it was used as a reference to a medical prescription or a treatise. The root word diēgēsis even indicates the medical history or description of a person. In the passage, it is a word that makes a reference to the life history, message, and other details regarding Jesus Christ.

The adjectival form Autoptai means “eye-witness” (1:2), the root for the modern expression “Autopsy,” is a term used to determine the cause of death, to observe the effect of disease, and to establish the evolution and mechanisms of disease processes. In Luke 1:2, the word is used to decipher about a careful witness of the traditions forwarded by the Gospel writers.

The noun form hupēretai means “ministers” or “attendants” (1:2), which in the Greco-Roman sense can refer to “medical assistants.” Usually, the medical attendants were waiting for the instructions of the doctor so that they may fulfil everything possible to the diseased people. In Luke 1:2, the expression “servants of the word” amply describes the role of the Gospel writers in writing them down in connection to the person and work of Christ.

The participle form parēkolouthēkoti, means “having investigated” (1:3), is a reference to a medical investigation. In the modern medical sense, it is an activity of a doctor by way of a thorough check-up or a careful examination of the body parts. Here, Luke uses the expression with a different meaning, i.e., a detailed scientific examination of the events related to Jesus of Nazareth.

The noun form steira, means “barren,” “sterile” or “incapable of bearing children” (1:7: 1:36; 23:29; Gal 4:27), is a reference to a medical condition. It is someone’s inability to become pregnant after one year of intercourse without contraception involving a male and female partners. The reference about Elizabeth in Luke 1:7 indicates that she was infertile even after living with Zechariah for so long.

The masculine perfect participle probebēkotes, means “having advanced” (1:7), is a derivation of probainō (means, “to go forward,” or “to advance”). It is used to indicate the physical and emotional developments of human beings as the years go by. In Luke 1:7, it is stated that Zechariah and Elizabeth were physically in an advanced stage. This is an indication about their physical advancements and emotional degradation due to their barren nature.  

The aorist infinitive thumiasai, means “to burn incense” (1:9), is an exclusive expression in Luke referring to fumigating with herbs. Though it is used as a religious activity in the text, the roots of the word are in the ancient practice of fumigating human body with herbal treatment. In the contemporary context, Ayurveda treatment with herbal fumigation is a well-known medical practice. In the text, Zechariah’s religious activity in the temple is at view. 

The verbal form gennēsei in 1:13 means “shall bear,” is a derivation of gennaō (means “to beget,” “to generate,” “to give birth”). The medical term Gynaecology is one of the derivations of this word. The angelic utterance to Zechariah is “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.” The expression here illuminates the medical knowledge of the Gospel writer.

The participle siōpōn, means “dumb” (1:20), is a derivation of siōpaō. The word siōpaō means “to be silent,” “calm” or “dumb,” which is considered as a human inability. Zechariah was turned to be “dumb” due to his unbelief in the oracles of God. The evangelist uses this expression to indicate his unexpected and new physical condition.

The verbal expression sunelaben (1:24) means “conceived.” It is a physical development of “becoming pregnant” or “causing a baby to begin to form in the womb.” In the contemporary context, it can be ascertained through the means of a medical examination. In the text, the narrator indicates that “his [Zechariah’s] wife Elizabeth became pregnant.” The work of God in the family is made obvious as Elizabeth turns from her barrenness to the condition of conception.

The noun form parthenon (1:27) means “a virgin” or “a maid.” A virgin is described as “someone who has never had sex.” In medical terms, virginity test is the practice and process of determining whether a girl or a woman is a virgin. In Luke 1:27, the narrator describes as follows: “In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” Here, Mary is considered as a woman who has never had sexual relations.

The noun form gastri means “womb” (1:31), is a derivation of gastēr. This part of the body is also considered as the source for “gastric.” Womb is the human body part where life takes its shape. The text clearly says that “And behold you shall conceive in the womb and bear a son.” This is an indication about the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb.

The noun form gērei in 1:36 means “old age,” which is considered as the last of the three physical stages of human kind (i.e., childhood, young age, and old age). Here, the physical stage (old age) and the infertile condition of Elizabeth are explained to Mary in order to emphasize the fact that “nothing is impossible with God” (1:37). 

The verbal form anephōnēsen in 1:42 means “called out,” a reference to a voice exercise. In the medical world, this term is used to indicate the various sounds a rhetorical speaker or a musician produces to modulate her/his voice. In the text, the activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of Elizabeth is emphasized (as the child is leaping in her womb). This activity of the leaping of the child made her to utter the voice in a strange manner and sing about the blessedness of God in the life of Mary (1:42-45).

The aorist infinitive peritemein means “to circumcise” or “to cut around” (1:59), a reference to the cutting around of the male’s foreskin. Though it is a religious practice, it also has several medical significances as the protective efficacy of male circumcision increases with time from surgery. In the text, the circumcision of John the Baptist is in view.

The neuter noun form paidion is translated as “a child” (1:59), referring to an infant of eight days or a small child. The medical terminology Paediatrics is a field in which children’s physical, psychological, cognitive, and emotional aspects are treated. In the text, the childhood of John the Baptist and his circumcision are emphasized.  

The noun form pinakidion means “a writing table” (1:63), referring to a small tablet for writing medical observations. Ancient doctors used such tablets to put their medical tools and to write prescriptions to the diseased. In the text, the dumb Zechariah asks a writing tablet to write the name of the new born child who was later on called John.

The adverbial form parachrēma means “immediately” or “instantly” (1:64), referring to immediate healing or death because of affliction. In the text, the divine punishment was upon Zechariah. Immediately after naming John, Zechariah was cured of his dumbness as his mouth was opened, his tongue was loosed, he began to speak, and he started praising God.

The above details demonstrate how the medical jargon is embedded within the narrative framework of Luke’s Gospel. As Luke fuses his medical knowledge dynamically with that of his theological conviction, a reader of the Gospel can understand the scientific nature of the Lukan rhetoric. This Lukan style reflects how the third evangelist used his secular profession when he turned to his missiological and theological interpretation of the Christ event. Luke’s Medical-Theological fusion introduces a new way forward in Christian thinking.

In the Pandemic/Post-Pandemic context, the medical world is experimenting innovations so that new vaccines and medicines can be introduced to the global community. As Luke envisages a new approach in communicating the Gospel message and comforting the Christian community in the first century context, a new way forward in which medical assistance and emphasis on divine healing can be intertwined to deal with the affected humanity. The new situation demands a missiological approach, in which God the Creator and human beings as the stewards of the created order work together, for liberative action. The Lukan approach to combine the medical and the theological in his rhetoric can be further explored in today’s context so that both are to be integrated at the practical human situations.

Johnson Thomaskutty

Dean of Biblical Studies

Union Biblical Seminary

Pune, India


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