Intersections

Plagues, Parables, and Pundits (Part 1)

by: 
Michael Cox, PhD

Terrible, too, was the sight of people dying like sheep through having caught the disease as a result of nursing others. This indeed caused more deaths than anything else. For when people were afraid to visit the sick, then they died with no one to look after them . . . . The bodies of the dying were heaped one on top of the other, and half-dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets or flocking around the fountains in their desire for water.[1]

Thus Thucydides (ca. 431 BC) paints a vivid—if morbid—picture of a plague in the classical world. This situation did not change for another seven centuries. We can learn much from what (and who) brought the change. 

The Plague of Cyprian

Around 250 AD, a plague spread throughout the Roman Empire. It lasted for fifteen or twenty years spreading from Ethiopia to Scotland and killing off large percentages of the population. It is estimated that somewhere between a quarter and a third of Rome’s population died. One source suggests that, at the peak, 5,000 people died every day in the city. In Alexandria over half of the population died. Gregory of Nyssa, commenting on the plague, says, “more died than survived, and not enough people were left to bury the dead.”[2]

Christians responded and it cost many their lives. “According to Dionysius,” Eusebius, a church father and historian, tells us, “the Christians undertook the burial of the dead, a task that the pagans refused for fear of contagion.”[3] Eusebius notes of the Christians, “some continued without rest to tend the dying and bury them—the number was immense, and there was no one to see to them.”[4] These risky acts of benevolence distinguished the Christians. Gary Ferngren writes, “The Christian churches had become so identified with the burial of the dead by the fourth century that Constantine inaugurated free burial services under the direction of the clergy.”[5]

In Carthage people responded similarly, deserting the dead and dying, such that “the streets were filled with corpses, which people were afraid to touch.”[6] And, although Christians were blamed for the plague, Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, urged Christians “to aid their persecutors and to undertake the systematic care of the sick throughout the whole city.”[7] Appealing to the rich for funds and the poor for service, “he urged that no distinction be made in ministering to both Christians and pagans.”[8] And Christians responded to his call to serve persecutor and sufferer, and it cost many their lives. Their response was so compelling that the plague came to bear the name of their bishop, the Cyprian Plague.  

Responding with Neighbor-Love

In the face of devastating plague and persecution, in cities where the dying were abandoned and corpses filled the streets, Christians responded with compassion and sacrificial love. In Eusebius’ words,

The most of our brethren were unsparing in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness. They held fast to each other and visited the sick fearlessly, and ministered to them continually, serving them in Christ. And they died with them most joyfully, taking the affliction of others, and drawing the sickness from their neighbors to themselves and willingly receiving their pains. And many who cared for the sick and gave strength to others died themselves having transferred to themselves their death.

 And they took the bodies of the saints in their open hands and in their bosoms, and closed their eyes and their mouths; and they bore them away on their shoulders and laid them out; and they clung to them and embraced them; and they prepared them suitably with washings and garments. And after a little they received like treatment themselves, for the survivors were continually following those who had gone before them.[9]

In short, these Christians played the part of the faithful neighbor who went and did likewise (Luke 10:37). In a second post, I offer reflections on what we might learn from their example.



[1] Ferngren, 116, who quotes Rex Warner’s translation of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (London: Penguin, 1974), 2.51–3. As the citations show, I am indebted to Ferngren’s fine book for the historical facts of this piece.

[2] Gregory of Nyssa in Vita Gregorii Thaumaturgi, 12, as quoted in Ferngren, 119.

[3] Ferngren, 119, note 40. Dionysius’ words are recorded by Eusebius in The History of the Church, 7.22.

[4] Ferngren, 119, note 42, citing Eusebius, The History of the Church, 9.8.

[5] Ferngren, 119, note 45.

[6] Ferngren, 118.

[7] Ferngren, 118.

[8] Ferngren, 119.

[9] Eusebius who is quoting a letter by Dionysius in The Church History of Eusebius, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, in vol. 1 of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1886), 7.22. Available online at  https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.iii.xii.xxiii.html (accessed December 1, 2016).