Erich Lessing

Jesus cleanses a leper. His condition is represented by spots all over his body, not unlike some recorded cases of Hansen’s disease (the formal name for leprosy). This illumination from a 12th-century manuscript depicts a miracle described in the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 8:2–3; Mark 1:40–42; Luke 5:12–13).

But was the malady really leprosy? Perhaps not. The words lepra and lepros, which occur 13 times in six accounts about Jesus, originally served as generic terms for skin problems and for people so afflicted and only later became mistranslated as “leprosy” and “leper.” An absence of descriptions precludes identifying these lepra cases as leprosy. Similarly, the comparable Hebrew word, tsara‘ath, used in some form 55 times in the Hebrew Bible, was also mistranslated as “leprosy.” The symptoms described in the Hebrew Bible show that tsara‘ath applies to a variety of skin conditions possibly including true leprosy.

Although the Bible has contributed to the stigmatization of people with Hansen’s Disease, such stigmatization exists worldwide, even in places where the Bible is unknown. In the accompanying article, Kenneth and Carolyn Mull examine the medical facts about leprosy and the Bible’s description of “leprosy” and its perspective on why people are afflicted.