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A biblical materia medica

The Pharmaceutical Journal Vol 265 No 7128p918-919
December 23/30, 2000 Christmas miscellany

By Arthur Williams, FRPharmS

The Bible contains references to some 128 distinctive species of plants ranging from great trees such as the cedar of Lebanon to shrubs and herbs. Difficulties do exist with identification but in many instances the identity of the plant can be established without doubt. There are many references in the Bible to the place of plants and plant materials in religious ceremonies, rites, feasts and commands but there are very few references to the use of plant materials for medicinal purposes. Perhaps this was because healing was considered to be in the gift of God and any attempt to promote the use of plant materials as healing agents could perhaps be seen as idolatrous. In order to describe the possible medicinal uses of biblical plants the framework of a materia medica has been adopted.
Given the lack of historical evidence a number of assumptions have been made in both the classification system and the content of the materia medica. However, many of the plant products included have therapeutic properties which are supported by scientific evidence. References are given as appropriate, some of which will be well known; others, perhaps, less so.
A number of plant products are mentioned in the Bible in connection with the compounding of incense, embalming and anointing. While these procedures cannot be described as medicinal or therapeutic there are clearly some similarities.
Categories chosen for this biblical materia medica are aphrodisiacs, drugs acting on the central nervous system and those acting on the gastrointestinal tract. Sections on preservative aromatics, embalming agents and topical applications have also been included. If space allowed, a section on “borderline”substances could be compiled which would probably include balm, gums such as tragacanth, henna (camphire), hyssop and saffron. It would perhaps be over-ambitious to include a section on nutraceuticals but this would give the opportunity to explore theories on the nature of manna (Exodus 16, 12-13, Numbers 11, 9) and the recipe given for nougat (Genesis 43, 11).


The roots of mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) have long been associated with properties relating to human reproduction. Perhaps this was in part due to the forked root of the plant, which was thought to resemble the lower half of the human body. The roots contain hyoscine and produces a distinctive odour. “Thou must come in unto me; for surely I have hired thee with my son?s mandrakes. And he lay with her that night”(Genesis 30, 16).

Drugs acting on the central nervous system

Wormwood (Artemisia absinthum) is referred to a number of times in the Old Testament. The plant contains bitter, aromatic and toxic substances and in more recent times has been used to make a liquor. Deuteronomy, Jeremiah and Lamentations all have references but in Lamentations 3, 15, the quotation “He hath filled me with bitterness, he hath made me drunken with wormwood”gives some indication as to its actions. Wine is of course very active on the CNS but is included under the topical applications section.

Drugs acting on the gastrointestinal tract

There are biblical references to dill, garlic and mint, all of which are known to have beneficial effects on the digestion.
Dill (Anethum graveolens) has carminative properties; mint (Mentha longifolia) has long been valued as a carminative and anti-spasmodic. It is fairly likely that over the festive season some of us will be using one or other of these to combat over-indulgence. It is clear that these plants were highly valued. In Matthew 23, 23 we read ”… for ye pay tithe of mint and anise [thought to be dill] and cummin”.
Garlic (Allium sativum) has beneficial effects on the gastrointestinal tract. Numbers 11, 5 gives a wonderful account of feasting. Perhaps it is no surprise that garlic was included in such a gastrointestinally challenging report: “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick.”
Wine is advocated in 1 Timothy 5, 23: “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach?s sake and thine often infirmities.”Current advice on the benefits of red wine may have been anticipated by Paul the Apostle in his letter to Timothy.

Preservatives, aromatics and embalming agent

Given the very basic state of both public and personal hygiene in biblical times, it is no surprise that products within the classification of preservatives, aromatics and embalming agents were highly valued in addition to their vitally important uses in religious rites. References to the medicinal use of these products are very few but it is perhaps not unreasonable to assume some medicinal use. Cassia (bark from Cinnamonum cassia) and cinnamon (bark from C zeylanicum) were combined with myrrh (oleo-gum-resin from Commiphora molmol) to make a holy ointment (Exodus 30, 23-25): “Take thou also unto thee principal spices, of pure myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, even two hundred and fifty shekels, and of sweet calamus two hundred and fifty shekels, And of cassia five hundred shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, and of oil olive an hin: And thou shalt make it an oil of holy ointment,an ointment compound after the art of the apothecary: it shall be an holy anointing oil.”
Myrrh is (together with frankincense) well known as an ingredient of incense and is associated in the Bible with the birth, life, suffering and death of Jesus. Myrrh contains a volatile oil and gummy substances. It is interesting to note that myrrh has recently been demonstrated to have some anti-inflammatory action.1 Before the crucifixion, Jesus was offered, but refused, a mixture of wine and myrrh (Mark 15, 23). Presumably this was an attempt to provide some form of rudimentary pain relief prior to His barbaric execution. Other aromatic agents referred to in the Bible include frankincense and spikenard: “Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus”(John 12, 3). Spikenard is thought to have been derived from Nardostachys jatamasani. It contains a volatile oil consisting of esters such as bornyl isovalerianate, bornyl acetate and bornyl formate. These esters hydrolyse to produce a fragrant odour.

Topical applications

There is no doubt that topical applications were a feature of treatment in biblical times. Isaiah 1, 6 contains a very clear statement about the use of ointments: “From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment.”
Of the seven species mentioned in Deuteronomy 8, 8 three species, fig (Ficus carica), olive (Olea europaea) and the vine (Vitis vinifera) are of great importance from the symbolic, economic and medical aspects. Valuable medicinal products were derived from each species.
Figs The fig tree is mentioned 57 times in the Bible. It is a symbol of prosperity and continuity. The Jewish proverb “to sit under one?s vine and one?s own fig tree”says it all. Apart from the use of figs as food, dried figs were used as a topical application.
“And Isaiah said, take a lump of figs. And they took and laid it on the boil, and he recovered”(2 Kings 20, 7). This is one of the few clear references in the Bible to the use of a plant product for medicinal purposes.
Dried figs contain 50 per cent invert sugar and some sucrose, and these sugars would act as osmotic “drawing”agents. Today we may prefer to use magnesium sulphate paste BP or more likely an effective antibiotic.
Olive oil The olive tree is still one of the most important and valuable trees in the world. The Bible contains 60 references to the olive tree which was, and still is, highly valued as a source of shade and food. Olive oil was an essential ingredient of holy anointing oils and ointments. The use of olive oil as a healing agent is vividly described in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10, 34): “And he went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine… .”
In Ecclesiastes 10, 1: “Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour.”This is not a problem for the present-day apothecary but it does perhaps show an awareness of quality assurance issues.
Wine Over 70 references to wine in the Bible confirm its great importance both symbolically and as an article of commerce. The use of wine as a topical application has already been mentioned, as has the offering of wine and myrrh to Jesus. During the crucifixion Jesus was offered vinegar (soured wine) with gall added (Matthew 27, 34) and wine mixed with hyssop (John 19, 29). It is difficult to associate these mixtures with any possible benefits to the recipient.

This brief attempt to structure a biblical materia medica has indicated the need for more research into the history of medicines during biblical times.
Even today plants and plant materials referred to in the Bible are of great importance in the daily lives of many people throughout the world. We still have reason to be grateful for the verse in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, Genesis 1, 11: “And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.”


1.Battu GR, Zeitlin IJ, Gray AI. Anti-inflammatory compounds from myrrh. Pharm J 2000;265:427.


Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 20003898

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