A Revision of the “Catalogue” of Biblical Medicinal Plants
A large body of research has attempted to identify and catalogue “plants mentioned in the Bible,” especially medicinal plants, mostly based on linguistics and philology. Fundamental flaws of these attempts include the unfamiliarity of most researchers with Biblical-era languages; myriad mistranslations of the collection of works called “the Bible,” many of them deliberate; and disagreement over which works are properly included in the collection, not to mention researchers’ general unfamiliarity with the flora of the ancient Middle East or “Holy Land,” the boundaries of which are also subject to debate. One writer listed “at least 176 plant species” as Biblical medicinal plants (BMPs), but many are not related to the flora of the region and were never grown or traded there. Only ~100 plants are widely recognized as having a Biblical citation, and many do not have known medicinal uses.
Research based on post-Biblical Jewish sources (the Mishna and Talmud) listed traditional plant names that could be identified with certainty, those that could be identified with high reliability, those that were highly reliable but not “fail-safe,” those that were unidentifiable or had very low reliability, non-specific names like “thorn” or “lily,” and names that might not be plant-related. A total of 75 valid plant names was reported. Talmudic literature in particular traces the use of medicinal plants to Antediluvian times.
The authors review ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian knowledge of medicinal plants. The pharmacopoeia of both cultures comprises about 200 plants, most unidentified. Research continues with translations of ancient Akkadian texts using cognates from other Semitic languages, e.g., Aramaic and Hebrew. While ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts are replete with plant medicine recipes, the Bible cites few uses of botanical remedies. More insight is gained from ethnobotanical studies, archaeological reports, and contemporary documents like the Tel el-Amarna scrolls. Taken together, the evidence points to a broad, sophisticated knowledge of the use of plants/plant products in medicines and as food and wine preservatives, and to a similarly sophisticated knowledge of botanical resources. Trade throughout the ancient Middle East and Fertile Crescent brought new plants and medical knowledge to the area on an ongoing basis.
Ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures did not differentiate between magical and medicinal treatments; generally, both were administered together, and demons or evil spirits were considered the primary agents of disease. The authors contrast this with “Biblical” practice, stating that, “In the Bible, magic and exorcism were forbidden,” and quoting others to the effect that the early Israelites had the medical knowledge of the Egyptians but looked to their G-d for help instead. This certainly applies to the part of the Bible known as the Old Testament, or pre-Christian Jewish Torah; it barely mentions evil spirits. Instead, it often attributes illness to displeasing G-d. The Christian New Testament offers examples of an ongoing belief in demons as a cause of disease and in the ability of healers – specifically, Jesus and his disciples – to cast them out (see, e.g., Matthew 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-17; Luke 4:31-41). The authors tread lightly through the religious terrain, but despite widespread regional use of plant remedies, none of the cultures or belief systems of the Biblical-era Holy Land had much knowledge of disease agents aside from the supernatural. Some traditional plant remedies of the region have been reported to rely on the doctrine of signatures.
The authors constructed a list of BMPs based on research from several fields, post-Biblical Jewish sources, and a few stated assumptions and limitations. They first list plants named in the Bible specifically for medicinal use whose medicinal use was known in either Mesopotamia or Egypt or is seen in archaeological sources (Group 1). Group 1 includes just five plants, including fig (Ficus carica, Moraceae; two Biblical citations), nard (Nardostachys grandiflora syn. N. jatamansi, Caprifoliaceae; two, noted as being from the New Testament), Biblical-hyssop (Origanum syriacum, Lamiaceae; two), balm-of-Gilead (Commiphora gileadensis, Burseraceae; three), and mandrake (Mandragora officinarum,Solanaceae; one).They then list plants named non-medicinally in the Bible but known medicinally in Egypt or Mesopotamia (Group 2; n = 27), those not cited in the Bible but known medicinally in post-Biblical sources and/or Egypt or Mesopotamia (Group 3; n = 13), and those fitting other patterns (Group 4; n = 6). About 60% of the suggested BMPs are foreign species; 40%, indigenous; 60%, imported; and 30%, domesticated, with many belonging to more than one group. About 87% have other, non-medicinal uses, with 16 edible and eight used in rituals; six, perfume or cosmetics; and five, incense. It is noted that some Biblical plants can be identified only at genus level, e.g., Artemisia sp., or even to two genera, e.g., Cupressus/Juniperus sp. Evidence for and against the inclusion of each species, as well as the exclusion of numerous plants named in previous lists, is reviewed. The 48 proposed BMPs on the revised list have been in continuous medicinal use in the region for generations.
Identification of more Mesopotamian plants’ medicinal uses and ongoing archaeological and palynological research enhances the possibility of identifying more Biblical-era botanical remedies. In a report on the “top 25 bioactive compounds of medicinal plants” as sources of new drugs, six (24%) are also among the suggested BMPs. Apocryphal Biblical texts and post-Biblical Arabic medical literature should also be examined for potentially relevant references to plants and plant remedies.
Dafni A, Böck B. Medicinal plants of the Bible – revisited. J Ethnobiol Ethnomed. November 27, 2019;15(1):57. doi: 10.1186/s13002-09-0338-8.