Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Death-defying Christians

In one way, early Christians had a much healthier view of the body than did their pagan neighbors: they believed that love required them to take care of the physical needs of others. In fact, according to sociologist Rodney Stark, compassion for others was a major reason that Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire and supplanted ancient pagan religions.

Stark’s 1996 book, The Rise of Christianity, offers a fascinating discussion of early Christianity’s exponential growth rate. In chapter 4, “Epidemics, Networks, Conversion,” he quotes a letter from Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria written in about ad 260 during a major epidemic:

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. . . . Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.

In contrast,

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, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.

Paradoxically, the death-defying Christian community grew larger. According to Dionysius’s testimony (the plague’s “full impact fell on the heathen”) and Stark’s calculations, Christians who nursed the dying were far less likely to die during the epidemic than were pagans who did everything in their power to avoid getting sick.

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