Legacy of Love
The early Christian Church—composed of both Judeo-Christian and Gentile groups—left a legacy of love to humanity. In this legacy, we can see just how seriously the early Church took the words of Jesus in John 13:34-35 and of John in 1st John 2:8-10 and 4:7-8 about loving one another.
First, let us look at the two events that caused the early Christian church to shine with such a brilliant light. From the American Journal of Philology, Vol. LXXXII, 3, Whole no. 327, I got this: “THE PLAGUE UNDER MARCUS AURELIUS, The great epidemic which occurred in the reign of Marcus Aurelius has a conspicuous place among the misfortunes of antiquity…Niebuhr wrote, ‘This pestilence must have raged with incredible fury; and it carried off innumerable victims. As the reign of M. Aurelius forms a turning point in so many things, and above all in literature and art, I have no doubt that this crisis was brought about by that plague…The ancient world never recovered from the blow inflicted upon it by the plague which visited it in the reign of M. Aurelius.’”
From Wikipidia I obtained the following information: “The Antonine Plague AD 165-180, also known as the Plague of Galen, was an ancient pandemic, either of smallpox or measles brought back to the Roman Empire by troops returning from campaigns in the Near East [could that be Asia Minor? Maybe] The epidemic claimed the lives of two Roman emperors—Lucious Verus, who died in 169, and his co-regent who ruled until 180, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, whose family name, Antoninus, was given to the epidemic. The disease broke out again nines years later, according to Roman historian Dio Cassius, and caused up to 2,000 deaths a day at Rome, one quarter of those infected. Total deaths have been estimated at five million. In 166, during the epidemic, the Greek physician and writer Galen traveled from Rome to his home in Asia Minor. He returned to Rome in 168 when summoned by the two Augusti. Galen’s observations and description of the epidemic, found in the treatise “Methodus Medendi”, is brief. He mentions fever, diarrhea, and inflammation of the pharynx, as well as a skin eruption, sometimes dry and sometimes pustular, appearing on the ninth day of the illness. The information provided by Galen does not clearly define the nature of the disease, but scholars have generally preferred to diagnose it as smallpox. The epidemic had drastic social and political effects throughout the Roman Empire. Imperial forces moved east under the command of Emperor Verus when the forces of Vologases IV of Parthea attacked Armemenia [that would be north of Asia Minor]. The Roman’s defense of the eastern territories was hampered when large numbers of troops succumbed to the disease. According to 4th century Spanish writer, Paulus Orosius [writing several hundred years later on the event] , many towns and villages in the Italian peninsula and the European provinces lost all their inhabitants…A major offensive against the Marcomanni was postponed until 169 because of a shortage of Imperial troops.”
Plague of Cyprian
“In 251 to 266, at the height of a second outbreak of disease, known as the plague of Cyprian (the bishop of Carthage), 5,000 people a day were said to be dying at Rome. Cyprian’s biographer, Pontius the deacon, wrote of the plague at Carthage:
“Afterwards there broke out a dreadful plague, and excessive destruction of a hateful disease invaded every house in succession of the trembling populace, carrying off day by day with abrupt attack numberless people, every one from his own house. All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if with the exclusion of the person who was sure to die of the plague, one could exclude death itself also. [i.e. they were abandoning their friends and loved ones] There lay about meanwhile, over the whole city, no longer bodies, but the carcasses of many, and, by the contemplation of a lot which in their turn would be theirs, demanded the pity of passers-by for themselves. No one regarded anything besides his cruel gains. No one trembled at the remembrance of a similar event. No one did to another what he himself wished to experience.”
Cyprian drew moralizing analogies in his sermons to the Christian community [in Carthage] and drew a word picture of the plague’s symptoms in his essay De mortalitate (“On Mortality”):
This trial, that now the bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength; that a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces; that the intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting; that the eyes are on fire with the injected blood; that in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction; that from the weakness arising by the maiming and loss of body, either the gait is enfeebled, or the hearing is obstructed, or the sight darkened…”
Historian William McNeill asserts that the Antonine Plague and the Plague of Cyprian were outbreaks of two different diseases, one of smallpox and one of measles, although not necessarily in that order. The severe devastation to the European population from the two plagues may indicate that people had no previous exposure or immunity—to either disease.” [taken from http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonine_Plague ]
Now let’s learn about how the early Christians faced these two devastating plagues. Did they run and hide like Galen? The following in bold text are quotes taken from Rodney Stark’s amazing book “The Rise of Christianity”.
“The great epidemic of the second century, which is sometimes referred to as the “Plague of Galen,” first struck the army of Verus during its campaign in the East in 165 and from there spread across the empire. The mortality rate was so high in many cities that Marcus Aurelius spoke of caravans of carts and wagons hauling the dead from the cities. Hans Zinssder noted that
so many people died that cities and villages in Italy and in the provinces were abandoned and fell into ruin. Distress and disorganization was so severe that a campaign against the Marcomanni was postponed. When, in 169, the war was finally resumed, Haeser records that many of the Germanic warriors—men and women—were found dead on the field without wounds, having died from the epidemic. ( 1960:100)
[Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity p. 76, par. 1-2]
As these quotes continue, the immensity of these disease epidemics will become apparent, as well as two distinct reactions to them, one of the pagan populace, and the other, of the Christian community of faith, the early Judeo-Christian community in Asia Minor which would have been under Polycarp, as well as all the scattered Christian churches, some of them Gentile like in Alexandria, Carthage and throughout the empire. These two separate reactions stand apart like night and day, one the merely human reaction, the other totally selfless and courageous in the face of certain death. Let’s continue. “I am most persuaded by McNeill’s (1976) estimate that from a quarter to a third of the population perished during this epidemic. Such high mortality is consistent with modern knowledge of epidemiology. It is also consistent with analysis of subsequent manpower shortages (Boak 1955a)…Almost a century later a second terrible epidemic struck the Roman world. At its height, five thousand people a day were reported to have died in the city of Rome alone (McNeill 1976). And for this epidemic we have many contemporary reports, especially from Christian sources. Thus Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, wrote in 251 that “many of us are dying” from “this plague and pestilence” (Mortality, 1958ed.). Several years later Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote in an Easter message that “out of the blue came this disease, a thing…more frightful than any disaster whatever” (Eusebius, The History of the Church, 1965 ed.) [ibid. p. 77, par. 1] …Boak (1955b) has calculated that the small town of Karanis, in Egypt, may have lost more than a third of its population during the first epidemic. Calculations based on Dionysius’s account suggest that two-thirds of Alexandria’s population may have perished (Boak 1976). Such death rates have been documented in many other times and places when a serious infectious disease has struck a population not recently exposed to it. For example, in 1707 smallpox killed more than 30 percent of the population of Iceland (Hopkins 1983). In any event, my concern here is not epidemiological. It is, rather, with the human experience of such crisis and calamity.” [ibid. p.77, par. 2]
How would we look at this if we were in the midst of this, living within either of these two devastating epidemics? That would depend on who we were, amazingly. “Here we are in a city of death. All around us, our family and friends are dropping. We can never be sure if or when we will fall sick too. In the midst of such appalling circumstances, humans are driven to ask Why? Why is this happening? Why them and not me? Will we all die? Why does the world exist, anyway? What is going to happen next? What can we do? If we are pagans, we probably already know that our priests profess ignorance. They do not know why the gods have sent such misery—or if the gods are involved or even care (Harnak 1908, vol. 2) Worse yet, many of our priests have fled the city, as have the highest civil authorities and the wealthiest families, which adds to the disorder and suffering.” [ibid. p.79, par. 3-4] Now that is the carnal reaction we would expect from those in any society. We see that attitude every day in today’s world as well. But what about the local Christians in the areas where this horrendous devastation was taking place, what were they doing while all the rich and famous, the government officials and wealthy were ‘taking off’? Let’s read. “But if we are Christians, our faith does claim to have answers. McNeill summed them up this way:
Another advantage Christians enjoyed over pagans was that the teaching of their faith made life meaningful even amid sudden and surprising death…[E]ven a shattered remnant of survivors who had somehow made it through war or pestilence or both could find warm, immediate and healing consolation in the vision of a heavenly existence for those missing relatives and friends…Christianity was, therefore, a system of thought and feeling thoroughly adapted to a time of troubles in which hardship, disease, and violent death commonly prevailed. (1976:108).
Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, seems almost to have welcomed the great epidemic of his time. Writing in 251 he claimed that only non-Christians had anything to fear from the plague. Moreover, he noted that although
the just are dying with the unjust, it is not for you to think that the destruction is a common one for both the evil and the good. The just are called to refreshment…How suitable, how necessary it is that this plague and pestilence, which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the justice of each and every one and examines the minds of the human race; whether the well care for the sick, whether the relatives dutifully love their kinsmen as they should, whether the masters show compassion for their ailing slaves, whether the physicians do not desert the afflicted…Although this mortality has 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. These are trying exercises for us, not deaths; they give to the mind the glory of fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for the crown…[O]ur brethren who have been freed from the world by the summons of the Lord should not be mourned, since we know that they are not lost but sent before; that in departing they lead the way; that as travelers, as voyagers are wont to be, they should be longed for, not lamented…” (Mortality 15-20, 1958 ed.) [The Rise of Christianity, p. 81, par. 1-2]
“His fellow bishop Dionysius addressed his Alexandrian members in similar tones. “Other people would not think this a time for festival,’ he wrote, but ‘far from being a time of distress, it is a time of unimaginable joy.” (Festival Letters, quoted by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 7.22, 1965 ed.)” Now what follows is interesting. Stark recognizes that these early Christians and Judeo-Christians applied Christian doctrine to their way of life. They weren’t a dead or sleeping church in their spiritual lifestyles of application of biblical Christian doctrine, they lived it. “Dionysius noted that though this terrified the pagans, Christians greeted the epidemic as merely “schooling and testing.” Thus at a time when all other faiths were called to question, Christianity offered explanation and comfort. Even more important, Christian doctrine provided a prescription for action. That is, the Christian way appeared to work.” [ibid. pp. 81-82, par. 3 & 1 resp.]
In the very next paragraph of Rodney Stark’s book, which he titles “Survival Rates and the Golden Rule” he describes how the whole Christian community, during the 2nd epidemic (260), which was still a heavily Judeo-Christian community, became a virtual army of nurses, providing the basic needs the suffering community needed to survive. “At the height of the second epidemic, around 260, in the Easter letter already quoted above, Dionysius wrote a lengthy tribute to the heroic nursing efforts of local Christians, many of whom lost their lives while caring for others.
Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. 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 neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.” [ibid. p. 82, par. 2]
“Having noted at length how the Christian community nursed the sick and dying and even spared nothing in preparing the dead for proper burial, he wrote:
The heathen [pagans] behaved in the very opposite way. 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 treated 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.” [ibid. p. 83, par. 2-3]
What was the numeric effect of this major effort of nursing the sick and dying?
Again, let’s see what social and medical science shows us about the effects of concerted nursing efforts in the area of a medical epidemic. “Moreover, superior survival rates would have produced a much larger proportion of Christians who were immune, and who could therefore, pass among the afflicted with seeming invulnerability. In fact, Christians most active in nursing the sick were likely to have contracted the disease very early and to survived it as they, in turn, were cared for. In this way, was created a whole force of miracle workers to heal the “dying.” And who was to say that it was the soup they so patiently spooned to the helpless that healed them, rather than the prayers the Christians offered on their behalf?”—Or both. [ibid. p. 90, par. 4] So, like supermen and women, these Christians marched through and took over the broken down social services of the community, supplying food, water and sanitation to the sick and dying, seemingly invulnerable to the “plague” that was striking everyone else. What a picture! “So even if the Christians did obey the injunction to minister to the sick, what could they do to help? At the risk of their own lives they could, in fact, save an immense number of lives. McNeill pointed out: “When all normal services break down, 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: (1976:108)” [ibid. p. 88, par. 2] Rodney Stark brings out through the combined medical-sociological sciences that in a population of say, 10,000, without basic nursing, 3,000 died, or 30 percent. With nursing, 10 percent died, or 1,000, leaving an additional 20 percent, or 2,000 alive. So instead of 7,000 of 10,000 left alive, you have 9,000 of 10,000 left alive. What a tremendous change. Of those 2,000 who survived, along with the other 7,000 who were nursed to health, how many of these would have seriously considered becoming believers in Jesus? Christianity spread to the world through the selfless acts of these early Christians, a majority of whom were Judeo-Christians.
What follows is an interesting quote from Rodney Stark, considering the recent evidence modern church historians have gathered, this “church”, this group of Christians would be predominantly Judeo-Christian in 165, or about 70 percent Judeo-Christian, and 30 percent of pagan Gentile stock. By 261 it was around 53 percent Judeo-Christian to 47 percent pagan Gentile stock. Apparently it wasn’t the evangelism of Paul that brought in the heavy numbers of pagan Gentiles into the body of Christ, it was some other “event”, actually a series of two major events, and we’re reading about them right now. For even Emperor Julian gives a strong historic hint as to the group that composed this mobilized “army of nurses”, 100 years later. He was trying to bring on a counter-revival of paganism into the Roman Empire. He was telling the pagan priests they had to emulate the Christians in their “charity” and care for the sick and infirm. In the following quote we will see who he identifies these early Christians as (and he grew up in Asia Minor). [Be sure to log onto my Early Church History article at http://www.unityinchrist.com/history2/index3.htm for more on early Christians.] But most importantly Julian identifies them by their lifestyle, their Way of life. “Thus, a century later, the emperor Julian launched a campaign to institute pagan charities in an effort to match the Christians. Julian complained in a letter to the high priest of Galatia in 362 that the pagans needed to equal the virtues of Christians, for recent Christian growth was caused by their “moral character, even if pretended,” and by their benevolence toward strangers and care for the graves of the dead.” In a letter to another priest, Julian wrote “I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priests, the impious Galileans observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence.” And he also wrote, “The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.” (quoted in Johnson 1976:75; Ayerst and Fisher 1971:179-181). [ibid. pp. 83-84, par. 5 & 1 resp.] “Impious Galileans”, that is an identifying stamp of the Judeo-Christians of Asian Minor. Interesting. “By Julian’s day in the fourth century it was too late to overtake this colossal result, the seeds for which had been planted in such teachings as “I am my brother’s keeper,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Grant 1977). Julian’s testimony also supported the claim that pagan communities did not match Christian levels of benevolence during the epidemics, since they did not do so even in normal times when the risks entailed by benevolence were much lower.” [ibid. p. 84, par. 2]
The early Judeo-Christian church which resided in Asia Minor and the surrounding eastern shores of the Roman Empire stretching to Rome itself (under Polycarp in the 150s AD and Policrates up through the 250s AD) would have been the chief producers of this “Legacy of Love” during these two colossal disease epidemics, as well as the Gentile congregations in North Africa, mentioned by the Greco-Roman church historians Dionysius and Eusebius. Eusebius actually was a strict Greco-Roman Arian Christian tutor of Julian during his boyhood. That Julian would call these Christians “impious Galileans” identified these Christians as early Judeo-Christians, whose main location was Asia Minor, and parts of Syria. As a direct result of their actions, many surviving pagan Gentiles were won over to and became converts to Christianity. It was these actions of love and self-sacrifice which actually caused the pagan-Gentile ranks within these Judeo-Christian congregations to rise dramatically, and then they actually formed Gentile Christian congregations, which probably used Gentile “days of worship” and not the Jewish ones. But nonetheless, Julian ID’d these Christians as “Galileans”, which was the early Judeo-Christian church. The apostle Paul’s contribution to Gentile converts was miniscule, according to Rodney Stark’s and Oskar Skarsaune’s research, as compared to what occurred here. And those Gentiles which came into the early Christian church through Paul’s evangelism entered Judeo-Christian congregations. These converts from 160AD to 265AD more than likely formed into genuine pagan-Gentile Christian churches, i.e. congregations formed mainly of previously pagan Gentiles who now were believers. Multiple thousands, and eventually hundreds of thousands, and then millions of Gentiles became believers in Jesus during the period covered by these two epidemics. Love, outgoing concern, and organized, selfless nursing of the sick and dying brought this about. Up until now, this has been an obscure fact buried in the history books, lacking proper interpretation. Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity is a modern historic marvel for properly interpreting those historic events in a new and improved light. [I highly recommend his book, which can be purchased at http://www.amazon.com] Let’s take a final look at some key quotes from Stark’s book, to better understand this Legacy of Love the early Christian church left us as an example of how we ought to love each other and the world around us, which is, on the whole, suffering no less than those in these two epidemics.
“It is also worth noting that the famous classical physician Galen lived through the first epidemic during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. What did he do? He got out of Rome quickly, retiring to a country estate in Asia Minor until the danger receded. In fact, modern medical historians have noted that Galen’s description of the disease “is uncharacteristically incomplete,” and suggest that this may have been due to his hasty departure (Hopkins 1983)…It was what any prudent person would have done, had they the means—unless, of course, they were “Galileans.” ” [ibid. pp. 86-87, par. 5 & 1 resp.] And even in Rome, if you read Romans 14, the early congregation was made up of an interesting mix of Torah-observant Jewish believers and Gentile believers. There was a mixture of “Galilean” Jewish as well as Roman Gentile in the early Church of God which resided at Rome. It was a label Julian stuck on the early Christian church. The quotes continue, getting to the doctrinal heart of the matter, showing what motivated these early Christians to risk and lose their lives for their pagan neighbors.
What motivated these early Christians?
“Here issues of doctrine must be addressed. For something distinctive did come into the world with the development of Judeo-Christian thought: the linking of a highly social ethical code with religion. There was nothing new in the idea that the supernatural makes behavioral demands upon humans…[But] The Christian teaching that God loves those who love him was alien to pagan beliefs…Equally alien to paganism was the notion that because God loves humanity, Christians cannot please God unless they LOVE ONE ANOTHER.” [ibid. p.86, par. 2] This idea is taken from Jesus’ statement in Matthew 22:37-40, “Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” i.e. the whole Ten Commandment system of laws are based on these two, the first four point us toward love to God, the last six, our love for man. But the love Jesus was pointing us to goes beyond the simple Decalogue of the Ten Commandments. It is wrapped up in the spirit of the Ten Commandments, outlined by Jesus in Matthew 5:17-48, where we are commanded to love our very enemies. Who were the enemies of early Judeo-Christian believers during these two epidemics? Wasn’t it their pagan neighbors, who often persecuted them, along with the Roman government? “Pagan and Christian writers are unanimous not only that Christian Scripture stressed love and charity as the central duties of faith, but that these were sustained in everyday behavior. I suggest reading the following passage from Matthew (25:35-40) as if for the very first time, in order to gain insight into the power of this new morality when it was new, not centuries later in more cynical worldly times:
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.
When the New Testament was new, these were the norms of the Christian communities. Tertullian claimed: “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another!’” (Apology 39, 1989 ed.). [ibid. pp. 86-87, par. 3 & 1-3 resp.]
In today’s churches, the rank of deacons has devolved into a church rank that oversees the setting up and managing of physical things under the pastor, or even holding some preaching authority in some churches. In Acts 6 the original reason for creating deacons was to look after the widows and fatherless in the church. During these two plagues, their role got expanded, they became the very battlefield sergeants who organized congregational members and led them out in ranks to nurse the dying and the sick, often at the expense of their very lives. If you’re a deacon in a congregation somewhere, could you do this? “Harnak quoted the duties of deacons in the Apostolic Constitutions to show that they were set apart for the support of the sick, infirm, poor, and disabled: “They are to be doers of good works, exercising a general supervision day and night, neither scorning the poor nor respecting the person of the rich; they must ascertain who are in distress and not exclude them from a share in church funds, compelling also the well-to-do to put money aside for good works” (1908: 1:161).” [ibid. p. 87, par. 4]
“Or let us read what Pontianus reports in his biography of Cyprian about how the bishop instructed the Carthaginian flock:
The people being assembled together, he first of all urges on them the benefits of mercy…Then he proceeds to add that there is nothing remarkable in cherishing mercy on our own people with the due attentions of love, but that one might become perfect who should do something more than heathen men or publicans, one who, overcoming evil with good, and practicing merciful kindness like that of God, should love his enemies as well…Thus the good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith. (Quoted in Harnak 1908: 1:172-173).
[ibid. p.87, par. 5-6]
Final comment: We in the United States of America are “well-to-do” beyond the wildest imagination of the average poor citizen in all the third world countries that make up 4/5ths of the world’s population. But the problem is, we’re isolated from their sight, and the sight of their squalid and impoverished conditions. We judge poverty by what we see around us, which is wealth to a street-person of Calcutta, India. When recent natural disasters such as the great tsunami, or the big earthquake in Pakistan occurred just before winter, or even what occurred in New Orleans right in our own country, the non-denominational evangelistic organizations listed in the links below went on the offensive, emulating these early Christians—but how many of us American Christians were aware of that? Christians in America don’t even have to risk their very lives or even their health to help out those caught in what appear to be ever-increasing epidemics, famines and natural disasters. All they have to do is contribute to these legitimate non-denominational evangelistic organizations. What can we do to support and reach out to these poor masses who are caught in similar circumstances? I give a few useful ideas on this subject in the Mission Statement of this site, if you’re interested. It just offers one way in which we as the unified body of Christ can try to emulate the actions of those we just read about. Since it is hard for most of us to quit our jobs and move as missionaries to these far lands, this link just offers a helpful suggestion as to how we can do what these saints did in the first 265 years of the Christian church. One final observation. Every one of these organizations listed on these links are always starving for the life-giving funds for them to carry out their missions of love and are always under-funded, while we live by the highest standards found anywhere in the world. Why is this? Is it because these impoverished and dying world citizens are not our immediate next door neighbors? [log onto http://www.unityinchrist.com/missionstatement.htm ] [See also http://www.unityinchrist.com/evangelism/sisterchurches/BlessiOrphanHome.htm ]
How were these early Christians able to show this kind of love in the face of such odds and certain death? Log onto this link for the answer to that question: http://www.unityinchrist.com/Agape/Agape%20I.htm