To Cure Cancer, “Cleanse me with Hyssop”, or Pizza!

Again, as in my post about hyrax intelligence, scientists seem to have found proof of ancient wisdom from the Bible, and this time it has real practical use, as a cure for cancer.

The king and psalmist David wrote, after his adultery with Bathsheba,

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean.

Psalm 51:7 (NIV)

Now the cleansing he had in mind here was more spiritual than physical. But why did he mention hyssop? In the Bible this plant, ezov in Hebrew, seems to have been used mainly as an instrument for sprinkling water or blood as part of cleansing rituals. But that hardly makes sense in the context of David’s psalm.

Anyway, what was hyssop? There is a genus of plants, Hyssopus, now known by that name, but it seems unlikely that the biblical accounts refer to any of these species. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia,

The plant, which at the present day, is considered as more probably the hyssop of the Mosaic ritual, is the Origanum maru.

Origanum syriacumNow “the present day” here is 1910. A more recent source suggests that the biblical hyssop was Origanum syriacum, also named by the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, but there seems to be some confusion between this plant and Origanum maru. In any case the ancient name may well have referred to more than one species. However, it does seem likely that the biblical hyssop was a member of the oregano family.

The relevance of this is in a new report from Science Daily Component of Pizza Seasoning Herb Oregano Kills Prostate Cancer Cells. Apparently a researcher has shown that carvacrol, a constituent of oregano which is best known as a herb used in pizza, causes the death of at least some cancer cells.

Though the study is at its preliminary stage, she believes that the initial data indicates a huge potential in terms of carvacrol’s use as an anti-cancer agent.

Oregano oil, the main component of which is carvacrol, has also been claimed as

useful as an antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal agent rivaling even pharmaceutical antibiotics … also a powerful parasitic expellant, is valuable as a food preservative, and has been used to decontaminate foods from potentially harmful pathogen’s

– but I would be sceptical about such claims which come from a site selling this oil. The oil is generally taken from common oregano, Origanum vulgare, but carvacrol is also the main component of the oil of Origanum syriacum.

So what did the biblical authors know about the herb they called ezov? Surely it meant more to them than a sprinkling instrument. Its use in cleansing rituals suggests that it was also known in itself as a cleansing agent for the body. The ancient Greeks certainly knew of the healing properties of oregano, and it seems likely that the Hebrews would also have done. But it seems to have taken until the 21st century for scientists to recognise this.

Meanwhile, as man in the age group at risk from prostate cancer, I will use this as an excuse for eating more pizza!