Why were so many people in poor health in Jesus’ time?

We should be careful to preserve our farmland and fishing waters so that the nation’s food security is protected.

Nov 27, 2021


By Anil Netto

We are so accustomed to reading Gospel accounts of Jesus healing the lame, the disabled and the blind that we sometimes overlook an obvious question: why were so many people disabled and falling ill in the first place?

What had gone wrong for the people of Galilee? After all, this was supposed to be the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey.

Many people thronged around Jesus to listen to his every word. But many also desperately needed his healing.

Even before his ministry began, Jesus gained a reputation for healing. Everywhere he went, so many people were pleading with him for healing. The sea of misery and suffering around Jesus must have been so overwhelming that he sometimes took time off to be alone and ponder over events.

What was behind all this misery?

We know the importance of a balanced diet — fruit, vegetables and dietary fibre, protein, grains, calcium.

Think of the older biblical accounts of healthy staple foods such as grapes, wheat, figs, dates, pomegranates and olives.

Galilee was a fertile land, ideal for farming. The fertile land around Nazareth was especially suited for growing vegetables and fruits. The secret was its natural springs supplied by underground aquifers.

But then something happened. Many small independent farmers gradually lost their farms due to poor harvests, which made it impossible for them to service their debts. So, they lost their inherited family land to the wealthy landed gentry, who consolidated these lands into larger estates.

The healthier food, like grapes, wheat, figs, dates, pomegranates and olives, were then grown mostly behind the walls of these large estates and exported to other regions – not so much for local consumption.

Remember the early migrant workers in what was then Malaya – some of them survived on rice and a bit a salted fish. Perhaps this was not too dissimilar to the diet of many in Galilee in the time of Jesus. By then, their diet had largely been reduced to bread and salted fish.

Before Jesus performed the miracle of the multiplication of food, all that the boy had to offer him were five loaves of bread and two small fish. These loaves were poor quality barley bread – the black bread of the Galilean peasants.

That was the sad state they had been reduced to when Jesus was teaching them to pray for their daily bread.

But, unlike before, the bread for the masses was no longer made from the more nutritious emmer wheat — but barley, which was once used for animal fodder.

No longer did many ordinary people have access to a varied, healthy diet that included grapes, wheat, pomegranates and olives.

Deprived of essential minerals and vitamins like calcium and Vitamins A and C, the health of many ordinary Galileans suffered. Eye problems, skin diseases and lesions, osteo problems and stunted growth plagued the people like never before.

This was happening in the four decades leading up to the start of Jesus’ ministry from the Herodian era.

This was the time of the exploitation of the people by King Herod and, later, his son Antipas, in Galilee, facilitated by Roman imperial backing.

Herod indulged in a string of mega-projects while Antipas was busy trying to impress Rome with his reconstruction of Sepphoris and the building of a new town, Tiberias, to curry favour with the new Roman Emperor Tiberius.

The result: ordinary Galileans groaned under a threefold rise in their already burdensome tax, largely to raise funds for these megaprojects.

As they struggled to put nutritious food on the table for their families, the health — mental, emotional and physical — plunged to critical levels. And as their natural immune systems weakened, they increasingly turned to Jesus for miraculous cures.

Back then, if someone had a serious illness, it was often assumed that the parents or ancestors had done something wrong.

Jesus put to rest such misconceptions and the resulting psychological stress by saying that his or her sins had been forgiven. This was the first step in the healing process: they had to know their illness had nothing to do with whatever their sins were. Jesus would have sized up the situation around him. He would have seen how the landed gentry and the local elites’ accumulation of wealth came through the exploitation of the people and the confiscation of their farmlands. This was taking a huge toll on the people’s health and causing widespread suffering.

In our times too, fishing waters and farmlands are being destroyed or degraded to make way for land reclamation, high-end property development and other mega-projects. As a result, the nation is not self-sufficient in many food items.

As our food security grows more and more vulnerable, and bad weather further erodes food supply, prices of essential items rise, as we are witnessing now. This makes it harder for the masses to put nutritious food on the table for their families. The health of the lowincome masses may suffer from their inability to afford a balanced diet.

We should be careful to preserve our farmland and fishing waters so that the nation’s food security is protected. Father, give us this day our daily bread and protect our food sources from all threats. 

Reference: Isbouts, Jean-Pierre (2008). Young Jesus. New York: Sterling Publishing

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