the perfect physician can revive the dead

Human nature encompasses illness and death.  Universally human as well, like love, is the hope that some person or power can restore health and life.  Asclepius, the ancient Greek ideal physician, reputedly healed the sick and revived the dead.[1]  The Christian Gospels tell of Jesus of Nazareth curing lepers, restoring sight to the blind, giving the lame and paralyzed graceful movement, and bringing the dead back to life.[2] Physicians of various sorts throughout human history undoubtedly have treated illnesses.  Subsequent to such treatments, many sick persons undoubtedly have gotten better.  Compared to claiming medical efficacy in treating the sick, claiming to have revived the dead requires much more faith.  Only the perfect physician can revive the dead.

In intense status competition among physicians in the ancient Islamic world, at least six physicians were associated with claims to having revived the dead.  These stories of reviving the dead are formally realistic, mimetic narratives.  For example, here’s the story of the physician Ibn Jumai` reviving the (apparently) dead:

One day, when Ibn Jumai` was sitting in his pharmacy near the Candle Market in Fustāt, a funeral procession passed by.  After looking at it, he shouted to the kinsfolk of the dead, that their beloved was not dead and that if they interred him, they would be burying a living person.  The people stood open-mouthed at this, astonished at his words, and refused to believe him.  Then they said to one another: “It will not harm us to check what he says.  If he is right, so much the better; and if he is wrong, nothing will have changed.”  So they called to him to approach and said to him: “Prove what you have told us.”  He instructed them to return home, remove the shrouds from the body and carry it into the bathroom.  There he poured some hot water on it to warm it up, and treated it with aromatic substances, which had resulted in his sneezing.  So the people were able to note some sign of sensation in it.  When it made some slight movements, Ibn Jumai` said: “Rejoice at his return to life.” He then continued treating him until he recovered consciousness and felt well.  This was the beginning of Ibn Jumai`’s fame as a practitioner and scientist.  It seemed as if he had performed a miracle.  Later, he was asked how he had known that the body carried on a bier and covered with shrouds still had some life in it, and he replied: “I looked at his feet and saw that they were turned upward, whereas the feet of those who are dead are stretched out flat.  So I guessed that he was alive, and my guess proved correct.”[3]

Ibn Jumai` was a physician to Salāh ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb (Saladin), the twelfth-century Egyptian sultan.  Ibn Jumai` was also a Jew.  Accounts of reviving the dead are associated with physicians from non-Muslim minorities: Jews, Christians, Indians, and Sabians.[4]  Stories of reviving the dead are claims to extraordinary medical skill.  Describing particular physicians from non-Muslim minorities as the perfect physician may help to explain and justify their unusually high personal status.[5]

Claims about reviving the dead played into disputes over the proper time between death and burial.  For more than 1500 years, Jewish law has generally required burying the dead before the subsequent nightfall.[6]  By no latter than the eleventh century, some scholars in the Islamic world thought that Galen had written a treatise entitled, “On the Prohibition of Interment until Twenty-four Hours after Death.”[7]  This book apparently was concerned with the burial of persons who physicians could revive.  While ostensibly positioned as a claim to medical expertise (no medical figure had more authority than Galen), it probably was actually a thrust in inter-religious polemics.

Today, the Lazarus Phenomenon refers to persons whom doctors have declared dead, but who, usually less than an hour later, are recognized to be alive.  No reputable doctor today would want to be associated with a literal claim to reviving the dead.  That’s not out of respect for Asclepius or Jesus.  Avoiding malpractice, rather than being perfect, is the more important concern for physicians today.

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[1] Edelstein (1945), vol. 1, T. 56, T. 66-93; vol. 2, pp. 39-47.  Claims that Asclepius revived the dead date back to at least as far as 600 BGC.  Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 1019-24, states, “Even him {Asclepius} who possessed the skill to raise from the dead — did not Zeus put a stop to him as a precaution?” Wright (2003) pp. 76, 83 states:

Nobody in the pagan world of Jesus’ day and thereafter actually claimed that somebody had been truly dead and had then come to be truly, and bodily, alive once more.  … The ancient world was thus divided into those who said that resurrection didn’t happen, though they might have wanted it to, and those who said they didn’t want it to happen, knowing that it couldn’t anyway.

That’s not correct.  Claims that Asclepius, and probably other physicians as well, had revived the dead surely existed in the ancient world.  While Endsjø (2009)’s interpretation of Paul’s beliefs is questionable, that work rightly emphasizes that ancient Greeks valued bodily physicality and hoped for restoration of bodily life after death.  Most humans throughout history have probably shared that value and hope.

[2] John 11:1-44 (reviving Lazarus); Luke 7:11-17 (reviving the widow’s son at Nain); Luke 8:40–56 (reviving the daughter of Jairus); Luke Mark 5:21–43, Matthew 9:18–26,  Luke 5:13 (healing leper); Luke 5:24 (healing paralytic); John 9:1-11 (curing the blind); Mark 1:40-5 (healing leper), and many other cases recounted in the Gospels.  Jesus to his followers was the perfect physician.

[3] HP pp. 730-1.  I have corrected a minor, obvious mistake in the translation. Aulus Cornelius Celsus (c. 25 BGC to 50 GC) describes a similar incident:

rumor has spread it about that some have revived whilst being carried out to burial. … Asclepiades {Asclepiades of Prusa, a Greek physician}, when he met the funeral procession, recognized that a man who was being carried out to burial was alive

Celsus, De Medicina, II, 6.13-15.  Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Bk. XXVI, Ch. 8, notes of Asclepiades of Prusa:

he acquired a great professional reputation, and a no less extended fame; which was very considerably enhanced by the following incident: meeting the funeral procession of a person unknown to him, he ordered the body to be removed from the funeral pile and carried home, and was thus the means of saving his life.

Natural History, Bk. 7, Ch. 37, also refers to this story.

[4] Ibn Abi Usaibia recounts stories of the following physicians reviving persons widely thought to be dead:

  1. Salah ibn Bahlah (Indian).  HP pp. 604-7.
  2. Ibn Jumai` (Jew). HP pp. 730-1.
  3. al-Yabrūdī (Jacobite Christian).  HP pp. 786, 789.
  4. Thābit ibn Qurrah, as claimed by grandson, Abū al-Hasan Thābit ibn Sinān (Sabian community residing in Harrān).  HP pp. 413-4.
  5. Abū al-Hasan al-Harrānī and son Abū al-Hasan Thābit ibn Sinān, son and grandson of Thābit ibn Qurrah (Sabians who converted to Islam).  HP pp. 434-6.

[5] Religious belief and medical skill interact ironically in a poem praising the physician Awhad al-Zamān:

You composed the Bursha`thā when I was suffering;
Since then I have never suffered any disorder.
If the dead had not been resurrected after the coming of Jesus,
You would have revived them with Bursha`thā!

HP p. 511.  Awhad al-Zamān, who composed the Bursha`thā, was a Jewish physician who converted to Islam.  He would not have believed, as Christians do, that Jesus resurrects the dead.  The physician Abū al-Qāsim Hibat Allāh ibn al-Fadl authored the poem.  He lived in twelfth-century Baghdad.  Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah described Abū al-Qāsim as: “one of the best physicians.  He was also an oculist, but poetry got the better of him.  He was a witty man with a sharp tongue and wrote a book of poetry.” HP p. 508.

[6] Deut. 21:22-23 requires that a person executed by hanging be buried on the same day.  The writers of the Talmud interpreted that passage to apply to all dead persons.  Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin, 46 a-b, and Talmud Yerushalmi, Nazir, ch.7, 1.  See Kottek (1988).

[7] HP pp. 193, 436.  `Ubayd Allāh ibn Jibrā’īl ibn `Ubayd Allāh ibn Bakhtīshū` referred to that supposed Galenic text in his book “Virtues of the Physicians,” a work that he wrote in 1030-31.  HP pp. 149, 197.


Edelstein, Emma Jeannette Levy, and Ludwig Edelstein. 1945. Asclepius: a collection and interpretation of the testimonies. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.

Endsjø, Dag Øistein. 2009. Greek resurrection beliefs and the success of Christianity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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.

Kottek, Samuel S. 1988. “The controversy concerning early burial: a historic chapter in Halachah.” ASSIA – Jewish Medical Ethics, Vol. I, No. 1, May 1988, pp. 31-33.

Wright, N. T. 2003. The resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

One thought on “the perfect physician can revive the dead”

  1. The claim of reviving the dead encroaches upon the power of God. In the incidences narrated, the persons might not be dead, but in the state deep coma, which might not have been understood well in those days to the level of scientific knowledge that existed at that time.

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