Following a fascinating archaeological find earlier this month, a historian is claiming that an ancient apocalyptic plague that wiped out scores of citizens in the Roman empire actually helped the spread of Christianity.
“Archaeologists in Egypt have unearthed relics from an apocalyptic plague that some Christians believed heralded the end of the world – an idea that likely helped spread the faith centuries ago,” Dr. Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, wrote in a CNN op-ed published Monday.
The plague of Cyprian apparently hit the Roman empire hard, killing up to 5,000 citizens per day in the city of Rome, alone, and spreading fear throughout its lands.
But the deadly pandemic — a disease that modern scientists can only postulate was akin to smallpox — also had a big impact on the Christian faith.
“The plague of Cyprian coincided with the period of time (250-270) when Christians first began to fall afoul of Roman law for being [believers],” Moss told TheBlaze. “The Emperor Decius’s legislation to renew the imperial cult and the letters of Valerian targeting Christians about eight years later put Christians in a dangerous situation.”
In addition to these social and political constraints, the deadly plague added additional challenges for Christians, though she said they ended up acting fearlessly in dealing with both the spread of their faith and the threat of death.
“Christian authors tell us that both Christians and non-Christians were dying of the plague. So, Christianity did not guarantee immunity,” Moss added. “What we learn is that Christians were fearless in their approach to the plague — many ministered to the sick and themselves fell ill and died.”
Bishops at the time noted that Christians embraced the circumstances and were dedicated to performing acts of charity. Believers knew that they, like anyone else, could die from the disease, thus they also became more comfortable with martyrdom and more bold in their approach.
In an odd way, Moss said this helped Christianity thrive, writing that it offered “early publicity that Christianity is worth dying for.”
Still in its infancy, the faith had already spread quite a bit at the time, but the plague actually helped it further progress, especially considering that Christians were given a glimpse of the horrors of disease, making them more adamant about avoiding the pain and suffering that hell could bring in the afterlife.
“While pagans had no explanation for the plague Christians were able to see it as serving a positive role. They described it using the language of education and martyrdom,” Moss explained. “This kind of language is very problematic when used of illness today but at the time — when pagan priests were throwing up their hands in despair — it was clearly persuasive.”
Consider the bishop St. Cyprian who wrote about the plague’s effects on citizens and who seemingly believed that it signaled a possible end of days.
“The kingdom of God, beloved brethren, is beginning to be at hand; the reward of life, and the rejoicing of eternal salvation, and the perpetual gladness and possession lately lost of paradise, are now coming, with the passing away of the world…,” he wrote in “De Mortalitate” (“On the Mortality”).
Moss’ comments come after the Italian Archaeological Mission to Luxor recently discovered a funerary complex in Egypt, which included bodies covered in lime; lime was considered a form of disinfectant at the time.
Evidence of a large bonfire was also nearby — a tool possibly used to burn the remains of plague victim to help prevent its spread. Based on pottery found at the site, archaeologists found that the area likely dated back to the third century and the exact timing of the plague, Moss wrote.
Read more about the plague and its possible relation to the growth of Christianity here.