Healings In Coptic Literature


When began the conquest of Egypt, that country had behind it both a very old literature and a very long religious tradition. The inhabitants of the Nile Valley had from time immemorial had recourse to their divinities to obtain cures when traditional medical practice proved powerless. Just as ancient medicine continued to be practiced, as the treatises in Coptic prove, so recourse to a supernatural power continued to enjoy favor among the Egyptians.

But if a well-established paganism maintained itself when it had no competitors, found itself altogether differently placed, obliged as it was for many generations to struggle to annihilate those fallen gods which had been degraded to the rank of evil demons. Thus into the accounts of miraculous healings there enters an avowed missionary purpose.

According to the ancient idea, both pagan and Christian, illness came from a god or a demon, as a punishment from a god or as the vengeance of an evil spirit. Thus God or the divinity concerned could heal and restore health.

We should not cultivate too many illusions about the sentiments that motivated pious Copts in Egypt to seek shelter in their faith. They are no different from people of other religions who turn to God for help either through true or because other means failed. The powerlessness of the doctors is sometimes described in the texts, which even portray them as being by magicians and enchanters. What this means is that the list of illnesses cured miraculously coincides more or less with that of the afflictions the doctors could not cure or relieve.

In listing some 120 miraculous cures from Coptic texts, we find a wide range of illnesses. To compare such a list with that of diseases treated by medical means and duly enumerated by W. Till in his work on Coptic medicine would be very instructive. However, most diseases classified by Till are not found among those with miraculous cures. Thus no mention is made of trichiasis, blepharitis, xerophthalmia, sclerophthalmia, amblyopia, diseases of the ear (other than deafness), diseases of the mouth, haemoptysis, stomach trouble, diseases of the bladder, and smallpox. On the other hand, lists of miraculous cures include diseases not in medical books. Such diseases, except, perhaps, for blindness in one eye, can be explained as stemming from psychosomatic causes. Those mentioned are catalepsy, blindness at birth, acquired blindness, blindness in one eye, deaf-muteness, dumbness, dropsy, delayed childbirth, sterility, paralysis, even some instances of the resurrection (on the borderline of medicine).

The majority of the diseases miraculously cured and also medically treated could be rarely diagnosed by a modern doctor using present-day terminology, for they are not characterized by what causes them but are described only as symptoms, in view of the still rudimentary state of the science of that age. Cases of demon possession provide the largest group. The medical texts are silent on these, for they were perhaps not regarded as true diseases. For them, illness came from God. Although it was very often a punishment from heaven, it remains nonetheless true that between divinity and man there was an intermediate entity, a catalyst, as we would say today, in the shape of the illness itself, on which the doctors could sometimes act.

Being possessed was the direct intrusion of an infernal power into the victim’s body. Properly speaking, it did not belong to the field of medicine and (like epilepsy) has only recently—in the nineteenth century—been included in the latter. Here is the list of the other diseases that are common to the two fields of medicine and miracles: migraine, acute painful mastitis, hepatitis, pains in the side, abdominal pains, three instances of persons with hemorrhoids cured of their trouble, pains in the lower limbs, nine instances of crippled persons, lame and infirm, fractures, dislocations, one case of gout, skin diseases (but it is difficult to define “cutaneous’), cases of leprosy (but we cannot be absolutely sure it is the disease caused by Hansen’s bacillus), one case of fever, and a snakebite.

Such, then, is the picture obtained from Coptic accounts. There is no lack of interest, but many inaccuracies frequently prevent positive identifications. As to the veracity of these accounts, only an exhaustive study going into the tiniest details would enable us (if even then) to decide what is properly historical and what is sheer imagination in the lives of some Coptic saints. For there is every likelihood that many of these persons are sheer inventions, and some of the others have had their biographies expanded by invented episodes, to the extent that if these sections are eliminated, one risks reducing them to mere names.

The Coptic record could not be taken into account for a scientific study of the phenomenon of miracles (whether one believes in them or not) such as is carried on at Lourdes today. But it might be appropriate to be less skeptical regarding the cures effected on the tombs of the saints: We know of “miracles” elsewhere, obtained from saints who never existed.

Of greater religious interest is the comparison that can be made, and that cannot fail to be particularly instructive, between these texts and the miracles related in the New Testament. Apart from a blind and deaf person who was possessed, a hunchback and a case of dysentery, all the other diseases or infirmities miraculously cured in the New Testament are cured, on one occasion or another, in one or more Coptic texts. And such parallels are not at all arbitrary, since several times the Coptic texts clearly refer to such cures effected by Jesus or by certain apostles, to indicate more effectively that saints, following in Jesus’ footsteps, were his intermediaries and that God was effecting the through them.

These extraordinary healings could be produced in various circumstances and by various means: the presence of the saint, a slap he gives, the use of water or of the oil of the lamp burning before the altar, a prayer of the saint’s, an order he gives, his breath, touching his clothes, the blood of a martyr; in one instance someone who was the victim of demon possession was hung up by Saint Menas. Miracles likewise occurred at the tomb, and sometimes while the sick person was asleep. The cure may have been asked for by the sick person, by a third party, or not asked for at all.

Most of the saints to whom these miracles are attributed suffered martyrdom, actual or legendary, under DIOCLETIAN, but we also find some who experienced it under DECIUS (Macarius of Tkow); two others lived later, PETER I of Alexandria (end of the fourth century) and Hilaria (end of the fifth century).

It is possible to glean other information here and there about the lives of the sick in Christian Egypt. Those whom we call “mentally ill” were not shut up in an asylum but wandered freely.

Doubtless, the clinical accounts provided in Coptic hagiography often leave something to be desired as to accuracy. The authors were not doctors, and even if they had been, their descriptions would hardly satisfy a modern practitioner, the more so since the historicity of these miracles is a matter for caution. But many of these cures could be explained psychosomatically. Healings due to an empirical kind of psychotherapy must surely have occurred sometimes. It is not known whether they lasted. Clearly there is no text that tells us so, but if we may suspect an origin in the psyche for certain headaches, dumbness, some types of paralysis, and even something that initially might seem to be epilepsy, it is quite clear that a well- established leprosy cannot clear up instantaneously even if the psychological factor in some instances had a part to play. As to resurrections (if it is not catalepsy or seeming death that is involved), these are mere copies of Gospel miracles. It is a question of rather than of science.

If the doctor sometimes proved powerless, we must not conclude that he was the object of mockery or derision. Luke the evangelist was a doctor, as were Colluthus the Coptic martyr and Saints AND DAMIAN, who, though not Egyptian, were held in honor in Egypt. If the Egyptian of pharaonic days prized first and foremost ancient rather than new remedies, and perhaps because of that attitude abstained from medical research, we must, nevertheless, note that the hope of cures by other (supernatural) means left the door open for progress. Without having a clear idea of what they were actually doing, the Copts, by reading and hearing these pious stories, maintained the hope of improved medicine.


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