Hanayn ibn Ishaq: disciple of Jesus and Galen

For Christian physicians in the ancient Islamic world, Jesus and Galen were revered figures.  Mythic popular history expressed that reverence with claims that Galen and Jesus were historical contemporaries, that Galen sought out Jesus’ medical knowledge, that Galen discussed with Mary Magdalen Jesus’ cure of a man blind from birth, that the apostle Luke was one of Galen’s pupils, and that the son of Galen’s sister was the apostle Paul. Any serious reader of Galen at any time in history would recognize these stories to be complete fantasies.

Hunayn’s autobiographical epistle presents Hunayn as a disciple of Jesus and Galen.  Hunayn is known for his careful translations of Greek works and his wise judgments about the authenticity of works attributed to Hippocrates or Galen.  Hunayn surely would not have believed any fanciful biographical claims relating Jesus and Galen.  However, as a well-read, well-connected scholar at the center of literary activity in ninth-century Baghdad, Hunayn probably would have been aware of these stories.  Hunayn’s autobiographical epistle relates Jesus and Galen through a highly respected scholar doing highly respected scholarly work.  Providing respectable testimony to the relation of Jesus and Galen may have been a motivation for the writing of Hunayn’s autobiographical epistle.

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Nutton (2001) provides a historically encompassing view of how Galenic medicine was made appealing to Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  A chronology placing Jesus and Galen as contemporaries is appended to Ishaq ibn Hunayn’s Ta’rih al-atibba.  Rosenthal (1954) for text and translation, Zimmerman (1974) for chronological analysis. Id., p. 329, places Ishaq’s source as the Muslim world c. 800.  Swain (2006), pp. 398-402, argues for a Greco-Roman source, particularly the Alexandrian Greek John the Grammarian (Yahya al-Nahwi), c. 600.  According to the Andalusian pharmacologist Ibn Juljul of Cordova (d. 1009):

At a time when Christianity was spreading, he {Galen} was told that a man who cured the blind and lepers and revived the dead had appeared in Jerusalem at the end of Octavian’s reign. He commented that he probably had supernatural powers to do it, and asked whether any of that man’s companions were left. On being informed that there were, he left Rome for Jerusalem. He died on the way, in Sicily, then called Sataniya, and was buried there.

HP p. 160.  The story of Galen’s discussion with Mary Magdalen is preserved in Greek in Michael Glycas, Annales, iii.231; Nutton (2001) p. 30, Swain (2006) p. 403.  The story about Galen and Luke is in Syriac author Bar Bahlula’s tenth-century lexicon.  Swain (2006) p. 405.  In his Arabic book “Reservoirs of Experience and Wonders of Wonders,” the Persian biographical writer al-Bayhaqi (d. 1169/1170) stated:

If there had been no other apostle than Paul, the son of Galen’s sister, it would have been enough. Galen himself sent him to Jesus to say that owing to weakness and old age, he was unable to come to him. Galen believed in Jesus and ordered his sister’s son, Paul, to swear allegiance to him.

HP p. 141.  The phrase “it would have been enough” echoes the “dayenu” of a traditional Jewish Passover prayer. Al-Bayhaqi’s source for this story was the Baghdad-based Christian philosopher Ibn al-Tayyib (d. 1043), known in Latin as Abulpharagius Abdalla Benattibus.  Swain (2006) p. 405.  Ibn Abi Usaybia, who typically records accurately but does not critically evaluate his sources, declared: “The claim that Galen was a contemporary of Christ and went to see him and believed in him is not true.”  HP p. 141.


HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294Online transcription.

Nutton, Vivian. 2001. “God, Galen and the Depaganization of Ancient Medicine.”  Pp. 17-32 in Biller, Peter, and Joseph Ziegler.  Religion and medicine in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge, Suffolk: York Medieval Press.

Rosenthal, Franz. 1954.  “Ishāq b. Ḥunayn’s Taʾrīf al‐Aṭibbāʾ.” Oriens 7(1): 55–80.

Swain, Simon. 2006. “Beyond the Limits of Greek Biography: Galen from Alexandria to the Arabs.” Pp. 395-433 in Brian McGing and Judith Mossman (eds.), The limits of ancient biography. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales.

Zimmermann, F. W. 1974. “The Chronology of Isāq ibn unayn’s Ta’rih al-atibba’.” Arabica, 21(3): 325-330.

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