Bible Characters, Illness and the Perils of Posthumous Diagnosis

Posted: March 1, 2011 in Biology

Source – http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=1499

I’ve been reading an interesting book lately entitled Asperger’s Syndrome and High Achievement: Some Very Remarkable People by Ioan James.  The book gives short biographical descriptors of arrange of famous figures ranging from Thomas Jefferson to Isaac Newton, Jonathan Swift to Albert Einstein.   As the author himself puts it: ‘This book describes the lives and personalities of twenty of the most remarkable people of the past who may well have had Asperger’s syndrome’.  Hmm…..the phrase ‘may well have had’ surely presents a bit of a difficulty?  I suspect that a posthumous assessment based on biographical material and conjecture is not a reliable way to make an accurate diagnosis of such a complicated condition.    

Diagnosing’ historical figures, even religious ones, with a range of medical conditions – syndromes or illnesses – isn’t a new phenomenon.  In his 1948 book The Psychiatric Study of Jesus: Exposition and Criticism, the famous theologian and medical doctor, Albert Schweitzer, presented a critique of three scholars who had seemingly uncovered incontrovertible evidence in the New Testament corpus that Jesus suffered from mental illness.  Schweitzer skilfully, systematically and comprehensively rebuffed any such suggestions and blamed the erroneous diagnoses on the use of unhistorical corroborating material, overemphasis on hypothetical symptoms and de-contextualization of literary ‘evidence’.

Case closed then you might think?  Well, not quite.  Despite Schweitzer’s concise critique and warnings against the practice of posthumously diagnosing disease in biblical characters, such studies still appear from time to time.  For example, I recently came across the following:   

Mathew SK, Pandian JD. Newer insights to the neurological diseases among biblical characters of old testament. Ann Indian Acad Neurol 2010;13:164-6.  The abstract from the paper is as follows:

Many people over the years have studied the Bible from a medical point of view offering diagnoses for the symptoms and signs that appear to have afflicted numerous individuals in the Bible. We review the biblical characters in the Old Testament and offer newer insights to their neurological diseases. We first look at the battle between Goliath and David. Interestingly, Goliath probably suffered from acromegaly. We propose autism as a diagnosis for Samson which would precede the first known case of autism by centuries. Isaac was a diabetic, and he probably had autonomic neuropathy. Few verses from the books of I Samuel, Psalms, and Ezekiel reveal symptoms suggestive of stroke. Jacob suffered from sciatica, and the child of the Shunnamite woman in II Kings had a subarachnoid hemorrhage. These instances among others found in the Old Testament of the Bible offer newer insights on the history of current neurological diseases.

Sceptical?  Are such conclusions sound or indeed enlightening? You can read the full text of the article and make up your own mind by visiting: http://www.annalsofian.org/text.asp?2010/13/3/164/70873.

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