Evidence #189 | April 26, 2021


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During his ministry among the Nephites, Jesus healed people suffering from a variety of afflictions, some of whom were described as “leprous.” A variety of serious skin maladies were known in pre-Columbian times that can appropriately be called leprosy.

Leprosy in the Book of Mormon

When the resurrected Jesus appeared to the people of Nephi, He healed the sick including some that were characterized as “leprous” (3 Nephi 17:7). Some have claimed that this reference to leprosy is out of place in an ancient American book,1 yet evidence suggests leprosy was present during pre-Columbian times.

Jesus Teaching in the Western Hemisphere (Jesus Christ Visits the Americas), by John Scott. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org.

Biblical Leprosy

The Hebrew word rendered as leprosy in modern Bible translations is tzaraat. Although readers today often equate Biblical leprosy with what is now known as Hansen’s Disease, it is unlikely that this was the malady referenced in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. Current biblical research on the meaning of tzaraat suggests, rather, that the Hebrew term covered a broad spectrum of contagious skin diseases, some more serious than others.2 It was likely “a generic term for many skin conditions used at a time when medical diagnosis was very limited and terminology was very general.”3

The book of Leviticus outlines seven conditions under which a person might be considered leprous, and thus ritually unclean (Leviticus 13:1–59). These descriptions, as one recent study notes, could designate a variety of skin ailments that were believed to spread through physical touch.

Potential countertypes of biblical leprosy include psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis, favus, dermatophyte infections, nummular dermatitis, atopic dermatitis, pityriasis rosea, crusted scabies, syphilis, impetigo, sycosis barbae, scabies, nerodermatitis or scarlet fever (although in both cases there are no hair color changes), lupus erythematosus, lichen sclerosus et atrophicus, folculitis decalvans, morphea, saccoid and lichen planopilaris, and psoriasis.4

The Law of Moses specified how tzaraat was to be identified. When this was established, the individual, considered ritually unclean, was prohibited from public worship. They were also to be excluded from social interaction with others until the malady was judged by the priest to be cured. These restrictions understandably had unfortunate and often difficult repercussions for the leper who would feel alienated from family, friends, and the broader community. The social stigma associated with tzaraat can be seen in the reactions of biblical figures such as Miriam, Naaman the Syrian, and men and women in the New Testament who experienced the miracle of being cleansed or cured from such maladies (Numbers 12:10–16; 2 Kings 5:1–19; Matthew 8:1–2; Luke 17:12–19).

Naaman at the River Jordan. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Skin Diseases in Pre-Columbian America

There is evidence that a variety of skin maladies existed in the pre-Columbian New World that might be characterized as tzaraat or leprosy.5 The Aztecs, for example, described a disease known as teococoliztli, which Spanish historians designated leprosy.

The Mexicans called it teococoliztli, “the divine, i.e. the genuine, the true, the incurable disease,” teococoxqui being the name of the lepers themselves, and in the more advanced stages, where the disorder developed boils and ulcers, they were called teococoxcapapalanqui (“leproso de lepra pestilencial y espantable.6

According to Bernardino Sahagun’s Aztec informants, the god Tezcatlipoca was responsible for various physical maladies including “leprosy.”7 Sahagun also described a pre-Columbian feast associated with the Aztec god Tlaloc and other deities in which some donned costumes of insects, animals, and people. “And also all [these] appeared—those who played the roles of the poor, those who sold vegetables, those who sold wood. Also appeared one in the guise of a leper.”8 The association of this malady with ancient Mexica gods and feasts strongly supports the existence of skin diseases appropriate to that designation in pre-Columbian times.9

Statue of the Aztec god Tlaloc, who was said to cause certain diseases, including leprosy. Image via atlasobscura.com.

Linguistic evidence for such skin diseases is also found among the Maya. According to Annette Kern, Karl Kramer, and Otwin Smailus, “The Maya suffered from a wide range of skin diseases. When looking through the medical documents written in Yukatec and Spanish a large portion is related to this topic. There exist leprosy (hauay), ringworm (chac onoob), mange (ueech), eczema (uez), and scabies (kuch), just to name some of them.”10

John Sorenson has also noted several pre-Columbian diseases which would fit the characterization of leprosy.11 Leishmaniasis,12 Chagas Disease,13 and Pinta14 are several possibilities.15


Historical and linguistic sources demonstrate that a variety of serious and infectious skin maladies were known in pre-Columbian times. Several of these maladies are consistent with the Hebrew term tzaraat, which had a broad range of meanings and is often translated as “leprosy” in English bibles. With this context in place, the report in 3 Nephi of Christ healing those who were “leprous” is at home in an ancient American setting.

John L. Sorenson, “Was There Leprosy Among the Nephites?” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, ed., John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 231–233.

John L. Sorenson, Images of Ancient American: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life (Provo, UT: Research Press, 1998), 84–87.

Bible:Leviticus 13:1–59Numbers 12:10–162 Kings 5:1–19Matthew 8:1–2Luke 17:12–19Book of Mormon:3 Nephi 17:7


Leviticus 13:1–59

Numbers 12:10–16

2 Kings 5:1–19

Matthew 8:1–2

Luke 17:12–19

Book of Mormon:

3 Nephi 17:7

  • 1 Thomas Key, The Book of Mormon in the Light of Science, Fifteenth edition (Marlow, OK: Utah Missions, 1997), 47–48.
  • 2 Kenneth V. Mull and Carolyn Sandquist Mull, “Biblical Leprosy: Is It Really?” Bible Review (April 1992): 33–39, 62; Andrzej Grzybowski, “Leprosy in the Bible,” Clinics in Dermatology 34 (2016): 3–7; David P. Wright and Richard N. Jones, “Leprosy,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols., ed. David Noel Freedman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992), 4:277–282.
  • 3 Mull and Mull, “Biblical Leprosy: Is It Really?” 38.
  • 4 Grzybowski, “Leprosy in the Bible,” 5.
  • 5 Robert Lehmann-Nitsche, “Lepra Precolumbiana: Esayo Critico,” Revista del Museo de la Plata 9 (1899): 337–368; Hugo Pesce, “Lepra en El Peru Precolumbino,” Anales de la Facultidad de Medicina, Lima, Peru 38, no. 1 (1955): 48–64.
  • 6 Eduard Seler, “Leprosy in Old Mexican Documents,” in Collected Works in Mesoamerican Linguistics and Archaeology, 5 vols., ed. J. Eric Thompson and Francis B. Richardson (Culver City, CA: Labyrinthos, 1991), 2:55; Alonso de Molina, Vocabulario en Lengua Castella y Mexicana (Mexico: En Casa de Antonio de Spinosa, 1571), 100.
  • 7 Bernardino de Sahagun, Book 3—The Origin of the Gods, Chapter 2, in Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, 13 parts, ed. and trans. Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research and the University of Utah, 1978), 4:11.
  • 8 Bernardino de Sahagun, Book 2—The Ceremonies, in Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, 2:163.
  • 9 “It is scarcely conceivable that if the frightful disease of leprosy had been known to them as a new disease they would have reported so in the above account. Another possibility, however, should not be overlooked, i.e. that another disease may have been designated in antiquity by teococoliztli, perhaps the jiote, and that they applied this name to leprosy.” Eduard Seler, “Leprosy in Old Mexican Documents,” in Collected Works in Mesoamerican Linguistics and Archaeology, 2:56.
  • 10 Annette I. Kern, Karl Kramer, Otwin Smalius, “Of Curing and Vultures,” in A Celebration of the Life and Work of Pierre Robert Colas, ed. Christophe Helmke and Frauke Sachse (Verlag: Anton Saurwein, 2014), 294.
  • 11 John L. Sorenson, “Was There Leprosy Among the Nephites?” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 231–233.
  • 12 Dietmar Steverding, “The History of Leishmaniasis,” Parasites and Vectors 10, no. 1 (2017): 4.
  • 13 Dietmar Stverding, “The History of Chagas Disease,” Parasites and Vectors 7, no. 1 (2014): 2–3; Francisco Rothhammer, et. al., “Chagas Disease in Pre-Columbian South America,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 68 (1985): 495–498; Alexandre Fernandes, et. al., “Pre-Columbian Chagas Disease in Brazil: Trypanosoma cruzi I in the Archaeological Remains of a Human in Peruacu Valley, Minas Gerais, Brazil,” Memorias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz 103, no. 5 (August 2008): 514–516.
  • 14 Lola V. Stamm, “Pinta: Latin America’s Forgotten Disease?” American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 93, no. 5 (August 2015): 901–903.
  • 15 Georgieann Bogdan and David S. Weaver, “Pre-Columbian Treponematosis in Coastal North Carolina,” in Disease and Demography in the Americas, ed. John W. Verano and Douglas H. Ubelaker (Washington, D.C. and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992), 155–163.
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