Tyler O’Neil on how Christians saved lives and spread the gospel during Roman plagues of the second and third centuries
Christians facing the coronavirus today would do well to remember how the selfless love of the early church helped spread the gospel in a world much more hostile to Jesus’ message than our world is today.
Christianity spread in the face of persecution for many reasons, but in two cases it spread in the midst of deadly plagues – because Christians risked their lives to save others.
Two historic plagues ravaged the Roman Empire: the Antonine Plague (165–180 AD) and the Cyprian Plague (249–262 AD) These plagues killed roughly a quarter to a third of the population, striking down emperors (Marcus Aurelius, Hostilian, and Claudius II Gothicus), and ravaging the empire. As in the case of the coronavirus today, panic spread because the society did not understand the disease.
As sociologist Rodney Stark noted the in The Triumph of Christianity: How Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion, Christians responded to the plagues differently from their pagan neighbours.
‘During the first plague, the famous classical physician Galen fled Rome for his country estate where he stayed until the danger subsided. But for those who could not flee, the typical response was to try to avoid any contact with the afflicted, since it was understood that the disease was contagious. Hence, when their first symptom appeared, victims often were thrown into the streets, where the dead and dying lay in piles,’ Stark wrote.
Bishop Dionysius recounted the events in Alexandria, Egypt, during the Cyprian Plague: ‘At the first onset of the disease, they [pagans] pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.’
Yet Christians sought to help the sick, even risking their own lives. As Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, put it: ‘Although this mortality had contributed nothing else, it has especially accomplished this for Christians and servants of God, that we have begun gladly to seek martyrdom while we are learning not to fear death.’
‘Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbours and cheerfully accepting their pains,’ Dionysius recalled of his fellow Christians. ‘Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead … [a death that] seems in every way the equal to martyrdom.’
Even basic care is likely to have powerfully reduced the death rate. As William McNeill pointed out in Plagues and Peoples, ‘quite elementary nursing will greatly reduce mortality. Simple provision of food and water, for instance, will allow persons who are temporarily too weak to cope for themselves to recover instead of perishing miserably.’ It is entirely plausible that Christian care for the sick would have reduced mortality by as much as two-thirds, Stark argued.
This Christian charity did not just save lives – it also spread the gospel. Historians have long struggled to understand how a small group of Christians after Jesus’ ascension – Acts puts the numbers at 120 and 5,000 – eventually outnumbered all other faiths in the Roman Empire (with an estimated population of 60million).
Using estimates from historical sources, Stark found that growth from 1,000 Christians in 40AD to 33million Christians in 350AD required a growth rate of 40% per decade. While this growth seemed miraculous to Christians at the time and historians afterward, it can also be explained through the expansion of social networks.
When Christians risked their lives to help their pagan neighbours during the plagues, two things happened. Pagans who did not come into contact with Christianity were more likely to die, and pagans who received Christian charity were more likely to live – and to develop relationships with the Christians who saved them. A pagan saved from death may befriend the Christians who saved him, and he may have lost his previous friends from the plague. By saving pagans, Christians not only demonstrated the love of Jesus but also spread social influence.
Stark has long found that social networks are essential to religious conversion. While new believers say they are satisfied by true doctrine, friendships with other believers are also essential when it comes to choosing a faith. This is not to say that faith doesn’t matter or that the Holy Spirit is not involved in conversion – the process in each person’s heart is still a mystery – but from a social science standpoint, relationships are key to understanding a person’s decision to publicly identify with a religion.
Christians in the second and third centuries AD lived counter-cultural lifestyles. They stood out because they refused to sacrifice to Roman emperors (who were considered gods) and they stood out because they cared for the sick, the orphans, and the widows. They saved children who were left to die (an early form of abortion/infanticide) and they founded the first hospitals.
When early Christians risked their lives to save pagans during the plagues, they lived out the teachings of Jesus Christ, providing concrete evidence that their lives had been changed by the Holy Spirit of charity. Their sacrifice was a witness to those around them, and it helped spread the gospel by expanding their social networks.
Christians today should adopt the same spirit of charity, although it may look entirely different in practice. Social distancing helps limit the spread of the coronavirus, and Christians should value the lives of others more than the comfort and social opportunities of daily life.
Christians can also support charitable enterprises doing God’s work in this difficult time. The Christian charity Samaritan’s Purse airlifted a field hospital and other supplies to Italy on 17 March to help that country’s overwhelmed health system care for coronavirus patients. Samaritan’s Purse’s DC-8 aircraft carried roughly 20 tons of medical equipment, a respiratory care unit developed for the coronavirus, and 32 disaster relief personnel, including doctors, nurses, and respiratory specialists, who will stay in Italy for at least a month.
‘We are going to Italy to provide life-saving care to people who are suffering,’ Franklin Graham, the charity’s president, said in a statement. ‘There is a lot of fear and panic around the country, but we trust that God is in control. We continue to pray for everyone affected by this global health crisis and for our medical team as they respond.’
Edward Graham, youngest son of Franklin Graham and assistant to the vice president of programs for Samaritan’s Purse, put it succinctly: ‘Medicine is a magnet for the gospel.’
Not every Christian can or should get up and fly to Italy to help with the crisis – there will be work to do in your own homes and communities. But Christians around the world should help however they can, with the same spirit as the early church. Acts of charity can reap a tremendous harvest for the gospel.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.
Photograph: The Philistines of Ashdod attacked by plague. Lisbon National Museum of Ancient Art. Photograph by Daniel Villafruela.