ABSTRACT: Medicine in The Land of Israel in the First Centuries CE

Cathedra, 91 (1999), pp. 31-78  Meir Bar-Ilan


The purpose of the article is to study the source of medical knowledge which physicians in Eretz Israel drew upon during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, including a discussion of some Tannaitic works that relate to anatomy and to medical knowledge during the second century CE.

Some Tannaitic traditions explicitly refer to Alexandria as their source of medical knowledge. By way of analogy, it is argued that other Tannaitic writings dealing with anatomy also drew upon sources originating in Alexandria. A school of medical knowledge established by Herophilus (330/320 - 260/250 BCE), considered to be the father of anatomical science, was active in Alexandria. The school was unique in the Hellenistic world in that its adherents practiced dissection and even vivisection. These practices resulted in the advanced anatomical knowledge of these physicians for which we have evidence in both Hellenistic medical sources and in Talmudic sources. Theodoros, a physician active in Lydda, practiced medicine in the Herophilic tradition. Additional references to medicine and anatomy in Talmudic literature connect physicians in Eretz Israel with those in Alexandria. The Tannaim acknoledged the medical expertise of these physicians, and their halachic decisions reflect the transition from traditional to scientific practice of medicine.

In the cultural sphere, Eretz Israel was eclipsed by Alexandria and came under its great influence in several areas, including medicine. The affinity of medicine and philosophy, as well as the status of the physician as an 'agent of culture', can offer an explanation for the relationship of Eretz Israel sages to Stoic and Sceptic (but not Aristotelian) philosophy, just as was the case in Alexandria. The issues discussed in the article may also have indirect bearing on a reassesment of the writings of Asaf and Maimonides.