Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.09.49

Christian Flügel, Spätantike Arztinschriften als Spiegel des Einflusses des Christentums auf die Medizin. Beihefte zum Göttinger Forum für Altertumswissenschaft Band 20.   Göttingen:  Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006.  Pp. 410.  ISBN 978-3-89744-258-0.  €59.00.  

Reviewed by Thomas J. Kraus, Hilpoltstein (
Word count: 1149 words

The present volume is Christian Flügel's dissertation in the field of history of medicine defended at the Ruhr-Universität, Bochum/Germany, in 2005. Flüegel (hereafter F.) focuses on "31 epitaphs and other inscriptions by Christian physicians between the 2nd and 6th century AD" with the help of which he hopes to demonstrate "the influence of the rising Christian religion on medical research" (according to the English abstract on the back cover of the book). Of course, such an objective cannot do without the help of other academic disciplines, so that F. sees the topic of his work determined by the triangle of classical philology, early Christian history, and the ancient history of medicine (see his preface, p. 7). However, F. performs the demanding task of carrying out such an interdisciplinary approach just partly successfully. Although the presentation and the discussion of the individual inscriptions are mainly sound and offer thought-provoking impulses, the introductory chapters about the socio-historical background and the method applied are rather problematic. Thus, an assessment of the quality of F.'s work will depend on the personal background knowledge, interest, and expectations of the individual reader; but it may be doubted that scholars, researchers, and/or (advanced) students from one or more of the academic disciplines touched by F.'s presentation -- and these include epigraphy and even papyrology -- will really profit from what they find in this dissertation. The information provided seems more suitable for a more general readership with some basic knowledge about the issues tackled in this book.

The book is divided into three major parts, an introduction (pp. 15-62), the presentation of the inscriptions (pp. 63-306), and a summary and discussion of the results (pp. 307-369). In addition, the book comes with a bibliography (pp. 370-385) that distinguishes between primary sources, secondary literature, and journals, series and lexica, a list of abbreviations (pp. 386-389), a very helpful alphabetical list of the inscriptions investigated (pp. 390-392), and three indices (a glossary of names: pp. 393-404; modern authors and names: 405-406; subjects: 407-410).

The introduction opens with a general, excessively brief survey of the socio-cultural setting, into which the medical inscriptions of late antiquity are placed.1 F. often bases his accounts or (brief) reports on general works or handbooks so that a well-balanced and a more in-depth depiction of the subject matters under discussion does not take place, and the information is sometimes oversimplified or inaccurate 2 Also, F.'s work lacks a sound differentiation between diverse groups of people (according to class, education, background, living conditions, etcetera), which is essential for an evaluation of the people's thoughts of and attitudes towards the interrelation between medicine and religion (and even magic).3 Finally, a major shortcoming of F.'s approach is that he does not address the subject 'magic', though it is of essential significance for any discussion of religion and medicine.4

F.'s aim is to assess the selected epitaphs in order to find out whether or not early Christianity had any influence on medical research and the medical profession (pp. 45, 51-52). In this subchapter F. is careful and shows a high awareness of the problems involved: he is right in pointing out that today we possess archaeological artifacts that were often found accidentally and that represent a random temporal and geographical stratification (p. 48). As far as his sample is concerned, F. draws from his teacher Christian Schulze's prosopography, which consists of about one hundred and ninety inscriptions, of which about one hundred and fifty deal with the role and work of (Christian) physicians in late antiquity. F. singles out thirty-one inscriptions that he considers as relevant for the aim of his study.5 Finally, F. refers to the temporal (the period before the middle of the third century; the persecutions from Decius until Diocletian; the Constantinian shift starting in 312) and geographical structure (Egypt, North Africa, Syria, and Rome) that he applies to the inscriptions in order to classify them (pp. 53-59).

In the main part of F.'s volume, which is itself subdivided into eight subchapters, the specific question of how Christianity may have influenced medicine and the medical profession is tackled by the help of at least one or, more often, more inscriptions, each of which is presented, in both the original language and a German translation. After an interesting and adequate discussion, F. narrows down the date and location of the place where the inscription was found. Each of the eight subchapters ends with a list of references. The questions tackled are (the main topics of the relevant inscriptions in parentheses): (1) the ecclesiastical sexual morality and the medical profession (the female physician Scantia Redempta), (2) the ecclesiastical image of women and the medical profession of women (the deaconesses and the female physician Amazon), (3) the love commandment -- 'Love thy neighbor' -- and the medical profession (the Levite Dionysius), (4) the ecclesiastical offices and the medical profession (effects of the development of institutions and hierarchy), (5) pastoral care and the medical profession (development of 'a medicine of the soul' and the example of the priest-physicians), (6) religious convictions and schools of physicians (the preference for special schools of medicine by Christian physicians), (7) the Christian protection of life and medicine in connection with pregnancy, birth, and children (the midwife Stephanis), and (8) the belief in the resurrection and iatro-theology (the impact of Christian ideas of passion and afterlife). One might question whether the inscriptions really show what F. wants to see in them, but his argumentation is generally sound, and he leaves no doubt that what he writes is both provisional and open to further investigation (see, for instance, p. 312).

More serious, and consequently more of a problem, is that F. mostly refrains from contextualizing the inscriptions with relevant sources from the same period of time (papyri, literary sources, and other epigraphic artifacts). Therefore, the pictures he paints for the backgrounds of most of the inscriptions remain pale, and the socio-cultural settings he describes are vague.6

The lengthy final chapter, the summary and discussion of the results (pp. 307-368), is more or less a repetition of the results pointed out at the end of each of the previous eight subchapters. F. appropriately differentiates between the Christian influence as regards content and the Christian impact on structure, i.e. hierarchy and ecclesiastical offices (pp. 309-312), and he correctly realizes that the sample he presents does not allow any reliable statistical conclusions (p. 313). His evaluation of the temporal and geographical range of the inscriptions, though stylistically somewhat redundant, is plausible. F.'s final conclusion is concise, and very welcome: the inscriptions really show that there was a certain influence of (early) Christianity on medicine and the medical profession (p. 368). Consequently, it is hoped that this study will motivate further studies that will contextualize the sources for the interaction of medicine and early Christianity with the help of all kinds of different literary genres, textual witnesses, and archeological artifacts.


1.   Of course, the conceptions of medical and religious ideas prior to the rise of Christianity cannot be depicted in an appropriate way on just three and a half pages (pp. 15-18). Furthermore, it is surprising that F. relies on a Catholic theologian while evaluating an issue that has its home in classical history. In his introduction, for instance, F. is heavily dependent on the works of the two theologians Michael Dörnemann (Krankheit und Heilung in der Theologie der frühen Kirchenväter, Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum 20. Tübingen 2003) and Norbert Brox (Kirchengeschichte des Altertums, Leitfaden Theologie 8. Tübingen, 6th ed., 1998). Cf. the frequent references to these in the index on page 405.
2.   For example, the date of the Muratorian Fragment (p. 24 n. II) is not undisputed and neither it nor Athanasius of Alexandria settled the dispute about the final form of the canon of texts as it seems to be implied by F.'s note (cf. the texts preserved by some of the major biblical codices of the fourth and fifth centuries and fragments of probably apocryphal gospels from that period of time). Another instance is the brief note V on page 33 that deals with Celsus and his lost work Alethes logos (quotes as "Alethes légos" [Sic!]). In order to assess Origen's reference to Asclepius in his Contra Celsum a little bit more information about the background, the extent, and the specific purpose of that work would have been interesting. Another problem is that F. mentions "Die antike hellenistische Medizin" ['The ancient Hellenistic medicine'] (p. 16), but does not clearly define what he accepts as 'medicine' in his study. Besides, one must doubt whether 'the ancient Hellenistic medicine' existed at all and whether the work of Hippocrates of Cos really had the universal effect that F. implies.
3.   One might add that F. does not stick to the same level of comparison when he is utilizing his sources. So, he correctly presents the inscriptions and some other sources in their original languages (Latin and Greek), but refrains from doing so in regard to still other sources for which he adapts a given translation. It would have been more adequate to quote from the Greek Bible (or at least from the Old Latin or the Vulgate) than to rely on the German Einheitsübersetzung (p. 60), which itself contains strains of (modern) theological interpretation. Then it would be easier to trace similarities and differences between the inscriptions and the other sources on the level of syntax and/or vocabulary.
4.   What about the complicated relationship between religion and magic that was for long defined as the relationship between two irreconcilable polarities? This relationship has recently been defined anew and in an unbiased way, so that magic has been accepted as integral part of religion and religious practice. Cf. J.N. Bremmer, The Birth of the Term 'Magic', ZPE 126 (1999) 1-12, and idem, The Birth of the Term 'Magic', in: idem/J.R. Veenstra (ed.), The Metamorphosis of Magic from Late Antiquity to the Early Modern Period, Groningen Studies in Cultural Change 1. Leuven et al. 2002, 1-11, 276-271; H.D. Betz, Magic and Mystery in the Greek Magical Papyri, in: C.A. Faraone/D. Obbink (ed.), Magika Hiera. Ancient Greek Magic & Religion. New York/Oxford 1991, 244-259; H.D. Betz, Introduction to the Greek Magical Papyri, in: idem (ed.), The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation Including the Demotic Spells. Chicago/London, 2nd ed., 1992 [paperback edition2 1996], xli-liii; G. Luck, Arcana Mundi. Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Baltimore/London 1985, 3-60. Most recently about medicine, magic, and religion, S. Trzcionka, Magic and the Supernatural in Fourth-century Syria. London/New York 2007, 5-23.
5.   Cf. C. Schulze, Medizin und Christentum in Spätantike und frühem Mittelalter, Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum 27. Tübingen 2005. This is Schulze's Habilitationsschrift ('professorial dissertation'). In the course of reading (and later on p. 307) the reader learns that F. investigates into thirty-two inscriptions, of which thirty-one have to do with Christian physicians.
6.   Relevant titles are legion, so that it should be sufficient to refer to M.-H. Marganne, La chirurgie dans l'Égypte gréco-romaine d'après les papyurs littéraires grecs. Studies in Ancient Medicine, Leiden 1998, and I. Andorlini, Greek Medical Papyri I and II. Firenze 2001 and 2005. For literary texts see, W. Mühri, Der Artz im Altertum. Sammlung Tusculum, Munich 2001, and, for a first orientation (German translations only), J. Kollesch and D. Nickel (eds.), Antike Heilkunst. Ausgewählte Texte aus den medizinischen Schriften der Griechen und Römer, Stuttgart 1994.

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