Plants have been used extensively for medicinal purposes from the time when disease first entered the world. These plants were processed into medicines using various techniques, for example cold pressing the plant to extract the oil, as is done in order to extract olive oil; or infusions of the plant material in oil. Resins such as frankincense and myrrh were ground into a powder and some plants were dried before being ground into powdered form.
The Balm of Gilead was well-known for its healing properties and by all accounts was a very expensive and effective treatment:
As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt.
– Genesis 37:25 (NIV)
In this passage the balm is given special mention along with myrrh, which was an expensive resin. Further on in Genesis, the balm was again mentioned as among the best products of the land:
Then their father Israel said to them, “If it must be, then do this: Put some of the best products of the land in your bags and take them down to the man as a gift – a little balm and a little honey, some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds.”
– Genesis 43:11 (NIV)
The healing properties of the balm of Gilead are inferred in a number of instances throughout the Old Testament:
The men designated by name took the prisoners and from the plunder they clothed all who were naked. They provided them with clothes and sandals, food and drink, and healing balm.
– 2 Chronicles 28:15 (NIV)
Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?
– Jeremiah 8:22 (NIV)
“Go up to Gilead and get balm, O Virgin Daughter of Egypt. But you multiply remedies in vain; there is no healing for you.”
– Jeremiah 46:11 (NIV)
Babylon will suddenly fall and be broken. Wail over her! Get balm for her pain; perhaps she can be healed.
– Jeremiah 51:8 (NIV)
The balm of Gilead is thought to be the species Commiphora gileadensis, a member of the family Burseraceae, as are frankincense and myrrh  . This was an exceptionally expensive resin and was useful for the treatment of a variety of ailments, including headaches, cataracts, and diminishing eye sight. The resin was extracted using knives of bone, stone or glass. Deep cuts using iron or steel would apparently cause the tree to die . In the Medieval period this oil was thought to delay aging and cure “evil vapours of the stomach” and so was probably used as a poison antidote. The balm of Gilead was also used to treat wounds, colds, tremors, urinary tract stones, ulcers, spasms and ruptures and as an anticoagulant, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and to reduce fevers, heart rate and blood pressure .
Myrrh was used in Greco-Roman times as a painkiller and anti-inflammatory, being prescribed for pain in the ear, eye, nose, anus (probably for haemorrhoids), the side, and the liver. Being in the same genus as the Balm of Gilead, it would have similar phytochemical components and so similar properties and uses. It is mentioned in the gospel of Mark as being given to Jesus at Golgotha just before he was crucified:
Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it.
– Mark 15:23 (NIV)
Myrrh also promoted healing and was used in plasters to bandage broken heads and in the treatment of bladder stones, abscesses, inflammation of the genitals and uvula and to induce menstruation.
In the gospel of Matthew there is a different medicinal plant mentioned as being given to Jesus at Golgotha which was mixed with wine before his crucifixion:
There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it.
– Matthew 27:34 (NIV).
According to Tenney, gall is the juice of the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, which induces a deep sleep .
Aside from these plants, the bible mentions healing oils in a number of places, but no specific ingredients are given:
They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.
– Mark 6:13 (NIV)
Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord
– James 5:14 (NIV)
Based on the historical record of medical practices at the time we can assume the use of certain plants and oils for treating various ailments. Olive oil in itself was viewed as medicinal and Greek physicians would often massage their patients and athletes with oil as a treatment for ailments or sports injuries . Medical practice in Jesus’ time was expensive and rudimentary. Most treatments consisted of rest, massage, and changing diets .
Frankincense was used by Greco-Roman medical practitioners in a number of medicinal applications . It aided in clotting blood and was used to heal wounds, stop bleeding, treat haemorrhages emanating from the throat and mouth. It also served as an antidote to poisons such as hemlock. The analgesic properties of frankincense made it useful for treating chest pains and pains in the side. Frankincense was also used to treat abscesses, haemorrhoids, ulcers and bruises . In some instances, it was even said to be used to treat paralysis.
- S. Ben-Yehoshua, C. Borowitz and L. O. Hanus, “Frankincense, Myrrh, and Balm of Gilead: Ancient Spices of Southern Arabia and Judea,” in Horticultural Reviews Volume 39, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012, pp. 1-76.
- J. A. Duke, Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Plants of the Bible, New York: CRC Press Taylor and Francis Group, 2008.
- M. C. Tenney, The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974.
- E. Amiel, R. Ofir, N. Dudai, E. Soloway, T. Rabinsky and S. Rachmilevitch, “β-Caryophyllene, a Compound Isolated from the Biblical Balm of Gilead (Commiphora gileadensis), Is a Selective Apoptosis Inducer for Tumor Cell Lines,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 2012, 2012.
- G. W. Van Beek, “Frankincense and Myrrh,” The Biblical Archaeologist, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 69-95, 1960.