Plague and the Rise of Christianity

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!'”

It seems appropriate to quote some passages from Rodney Stark’s excellent book The Rise of Christianity. The first quotes the words of Dionysius, a Bishop at Easter in around 200 AD.

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 serenley happy: for they were infected by 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 presyters, deacons and layment 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.


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 supermantural makes behavioural demands upon humans – the gods have always wanted sacrifices and worship. Nor was there anything new in the notion that the supernatural will respond to offerings – that the gods can be induced to exchange services for sacrifices. What was new was the notion that more than self-interested exchanger relations were possible between humans and the supernatural. The Christian teaching that God loves those who love him was alian to pagan beliefs. Macmullen has noted that from the pagen perspective “what mattered was … the service that the deity could provide, since a god (as Aristotle had long taught) could feel no love in response to that offered”. Equally alian to paganism was the notion that because God loves humanity, Christians cannot please God unless they love one another. Indeed as God demonstrats his love through sacrifice, humans must demonstrate their love through sacrifice on behalf of one another. Moreover, such responsabilities were to be extended beyond the bonds of family and tribe, indeed to “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2). These were revolutionary ideas.

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 and wordly 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 see me… Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my bretheren, 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!'”

p. 86-87

In Western nations, with advanced public health systems, the way in which Christians serve will look different to the way that it did in the Roman Empire, but the call to selfless service has not changed. However, many of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world may soon find themselves caring for others in the way that Dionysius describes. Whatever our situation, may we be found faithful to our calling.