Excerpt from the book, The Rise of Christianity, 1996
By: Rodney Starks
Preface: The following excerpt highlights the great charity of the early Christians and why they multiplied in the first centuries.
Survival Rates and the Golden Rule:
At the height of the second great epidemic, around 260, in the Easter letter…Dionysius [a Saint, Bishop and Father of the Church] 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 life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbor 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 lay men 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.”
Dionysius emphasized the heavy mortality of the epidemic by asserting how much happier survivors would be had they merely, like the Egyptians in the time of Moses, lost the first born from each house. For “there is not a house in which there is not one dead- how I wish it had only been one.” But while the epidemic had not passed over the Christians, he suggests that pagans fared much worse. “Its full impact fell on the heathen.”
Dionysius also offered an explanation of this mortality differential. 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 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, having thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease: but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape.”
But should we believe him?
[T]here is compelling evidence from pagan sources that this was characteristic Christian behavior. 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.”