The early church was no stranger to plagues, epidemics, and mass hysteria. In fact, according to both Christian and also non-Christian accounts, one of the main catalysts for the church’s explosive growth in its early years was how Christians navigated disease, suffering, and death. The church’s posture made such a strong impression on Roman society that even pagan Roman emperors complained to pagan priests about their declining numbers, telling them to step up their game.
So what did Christians do differently that shook the Roman Empire? And what can the early church teach us in light of the coronavirus?
Non-Christian Response to Epidemics
In AD 249 to 262, Western civilization was devastated by one of the deadliest pandemics in its history. Though the exact cause of the plague is uncertain, the city of Rome was said to have lost an estimated 5,000 people a day at the height of the outbreak. One eyewitness, Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, wrote that although the plague did not discriminate between Christians and non-Christians, “Its full impact fell on [non-Christians].” Having noted the difference between Christian and non-Christian responses to the plague, he says of the non-Christians in Alexandria:
At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treating unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape.
Non-Christian accounts confirm this sentiment. A century later, the emperor Julian attempted to curb the growth of Christianity after the plague by leading a campaign to establish pagan charities that mirrored the work of Christians in his realm. In an AD 362 letter, Julian complained that the Hellenists needed to match the Christians in virtue, blaming the recent growth of Christianity on their “benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead, and the pretended holiness of their lives.” Elsewhere he wrote, “For it is a disgrace that . . . the impious Galilaeans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well.”
Though Julian questioned the motives of Christians, his embarrassment over Hellenic charities confirms pagan efforts fell massively short of Christian standards of serving the sick and poor, especially during epidemics. According to Rodney Stark in The Rise…