the scope of ancient competition in medical knowledge

Ancient competition in medical knowledge had wide geographic scope.  Asaph’s Book of Medicines, a Hebrew text from the tenth century or earlier, describes southern Europe, northern Africa, Mesopotamia, and southwest Asia as comprising a common space for pursuit of medical knowledge:

The sages of India, Macedonia and the Nestorians excelled all the remaining peoples in the study of the medical books.  The sages of India toured the land to find medicinal trees and incense trees; the sages of Aram found various medicinal herbs and seeds.  They translated all the medical books into Aramaic.  The sages of Macedonia were the first to practice medicine in the land; the sages of Egypt began to find connections in the stars to foretell the future according the the signs of the zodiac and the celestial bodies; they learned the books of the Chaldean Wisdom translated by Kanghar son of Ur son of Kesed, and they performed all the crafts of the astrologers.  Their wisdom was the greatest until the rise of the Aesculapius (one of the sages of Macedonia) and forty astrologers who had studied the translated books.[1]

In mid-tenth-century southern Italy, the ambitious Jewish scholar Shabbetai bar Abraham, called Donnolo the doctor, sought “to understand the science of medicine and the science of the planets and constellations”:

my heart bade me to explore the science of the Greeks, the Arabs, the Babylonians and the Indians.  I did not rest until I had copied out books by Greek and Macedonian scholars in their original language and with their explanations; I also made copies from books by Babylonian and Indian scholars.[2]

Under the Abbasid caliphs in the eighth and ninth centuries, scholars in Baghdad gathered and translated into Arabic medical knowledge from ancient Greek, Syrian, Persian, and Indian sources.  Geographic distance and language differences did not prevent the emergence of a large communicative space before modern communication technologies.

A large communicative space coexisted with distinctive cultural interests.  Asaph’s Book of Medicines sought to incorporate Greek medical knowledge, including medical astrology, within distinctive Jewish culture. Shabbetai Donnolo worked on the same scholarly task.  He noted:

a few {Jewish scholars} said that indeed there was nothing to be learnt from books by Jews on the constellations.  This science, they said, was to be found among the nations, and their books were not written in accordance with the ideas in books by Jews.[3]

Shabbetai Donnolo justified his cosmopolitan studies thus:

After careful study I found that, in everything regarding the science of the planets and constellations, these books were the same as those by Jewish scholars: the opinions of all were correct and identical.  Then I saw from the books by Jewish scholars that this whole science derived from the Baraita of R. Samuel the Exegete.  And the books by non-Jewish scholars also agree with this Baraita.  It is just that Samuel made his book very difficult to understand.[4]

The literature of who invented what first (we did) is voluminous and spans all cultures and times.  Scholars have long had to dance to make broad learning acceptable within the narrow interests of their particular circumstances.  Vast changes in communication technology have not changed human social nature.

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[1] Trans. Muntner & Rosner (1971) p. 2.  Nestorians (early Christians), Aram, and Aramaic all characterize an area about present-day Syria.  This description makes clear the close connection between medicine and astrology in the ancient world.

[2] Trans. Sharf (1976) p. 10.

[3] Id. p. 9.

[4] Id. p. 10.


Muntner, Sussman, and Fred Rosner, trans. & ed. 1971.  The Book of Medicine of Asaph the Physician: Commentary (vol. 1) and translated text (vol. 2).  Document 06-501-N-L, Prepared under the Special Foreign Currency Program of the U.S. National Library of Medicine and U.S. National Institutes of Health, Public Heath Service, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294.

Sharf, Andrew. 1976. The universe of Shabbetai Donnolo. New York: Ktav Pub. House.

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