Viruses in Year of Our Lord 28 (or thereabouts)

Ever since noted nominal Christian and Robert E. Lee High School alumnus Francis S. Collins became Director of the National Institutes of Health scores of scientist (actually not that many) and hordes of science journalists and religious commentators have been striving to show how religion and science can exist peacefully in our otherwise divided world. And it’s not just that writers can get lucrative prizes from the Templeton Foundation. (Although, since the prize money is adjusted to exceed the Nobel Prize remuneration, it’s not something to sneeze at. So there is actually an incentive to combine confused metaphysical meanderings with science. It’s easier and more lucrative than finding the Higgs boson.) It probably also has something to do with this whole split-the-difference, why-can’t-we-all-just-not-argue-so-much tendency that our Commander-in-Chief has introduced into our intellectual lives.

Given all the temptation to otherwise churn out poorly thought-through pablum, it’s good to see a rigorous treatment of the intersection of the divine and the materialistic. Such an effort was recently contained in the scientific periodical, Virology Journal, which published an article (peer-reviewed?) entitled “Influenza or not influenza: Analysis of a case of high fever that happened 2000 years ago in Biblical time” by Kam L.E Hon, Pak C. Ng and Ting F. Leung of the Department of Paediatrics, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Prince of Wales Hospital, Shatin, Hong Kong SAR, China (open access). When you look up this citation in the table of contents you will see it tagged with “highly accessed.” This tag is designed, according to the journal, “to identify those articles that have been especially highly accessed, relative to their age, and the journal in which they were published.” And why wouldn’t you want to access this one? You get Ole’ Time Religion and clinical precision all in one paper.  It’s like attending a Baptist revival at the Sloan-Kettering Memorial Cancer Center.

Influenza treatment by Jesus of Nazareth in 11th century manuscript from the Abbes Hitda von Meschede

In this study the pediatricians attempt to review the diagnosis made and treatment administered by Jesus of Nazareth of a woman (Simon Peter’s mother-in-law) who was sick with a “febrile illness.” (A quick check of my King James Version concordance does not reveal where “febrile” is used. Perhaps it’s in one of those versions that God did not authorize. This is puzzling, however, since their footnoted references are to: The Holy Bible, New King James Version Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers; 1982, one of God’s authorized publishers.  The “New” in front of King James is worrisome, I have to admit.)

The doctors use three contemporary (plus or minus a hundred years or so) sources (Matthew, Mark and Luke) but rely more heavily on Luke because he was a doctor (his board certifications, however, were not recorded).  They go through a number of possible etiologies like atropine poisoning, avian flu or H1N1 “swine flu,” and so forth. One of the difficulties was that Luke evidently was not a good diagnostician, but they excuse at least one of his shortcomings by noting that “the Fahrenheit temperature scale was not invented until 1724” (a statement they give authority for in a footnote so that it would head off controversy).

One possibility they give serious consideration to, but ultimately reject, is demon possession. So as not to misstate their careful analysis I will quote in full:

“One final consideration that one might have is whether the illness was inflicted by a demon or devil. The Bible always tells if an illness is caused by a demon or devil (Matthew 9:18-25, 12:22, 9:32-33; Mark 1:23-26, 5:1-15, 9:17-29; Luke 4:33-35, 8:27-35, 9:38-43, 11:14). The victims often had what sounded like a convulsion when the demon was cast out. In our index case, demonic influence is not stated, and the woman had no apparent convulsion or residual symptomatology.” (Footnote omitted.)

Elijah Resuscitating the Son of the Widow of Sarepta by Louis Hersent

So having eliminated the alternatives to the best of their ability, they conclude she suffered, before being cured by Jesus of Nazareth, from the very first described “human influenza disease.” The authors use this as an example of how the Bible is valuable as a text for the history of medical procedures. They point to, for example, “the first pediatric case of mouth-to-mouth cardiopulmonary resuscitation” performed by Elisha (אֱלִישַׁע, a/k/a Saint Eliseus) (which they miscite to Kings 4:34-35 — it’s actually 2 Kings 4:34-35).

The authors state they have no competing interests that would have influenced their conclusions or analysis.

So there you have it. Pretty straight-forward science. You can imagine, therefore, the stir that was caused when yesterday the editor-in-chief in agreement with the authors retracted the piece on the ground that it “does not provide the type of robust supporting data required for a case report and that the observations made are mostly speculative” (provisional abstract; provision pdf).

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