How an apocalyptic plague helped spread 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.

A team from the Italian Archaeological Mission to Luxor unearthed the remains in a funerary complex in the ancient city of Thebes. (The city is now known as Luxor.)

As archaeologists excavated the site earlier this month, they found remnants of bodies covered in a thick layer of lime. The lime was significant, as it was used in the ancient world as a form of disinfectant to prevent contamination.

Nearby, there was evidence of an enormous bonfire, used to incinerate the remains of plague victims, and three kilns used for lime production.

Pottery located in the kilns enabled the scientists to date the discovery to the middle of the third century, the time of a gruesome epidemic known as the “plague of Cyprian.”

Cyprian, the mid-third century bishop of Carthage, provides us with the most detailed description of the plague’s terrible effects. In his essay “De mortalitate” ("On Mortality"), Cyprian wrote:

“The intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting; the eyes are on fire with the infected blood; that in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction.”

In many cases, Cyprian went on to say, blindness and deafness would ensue.

At its height the epidemic is estimated to have killed 5,000 people a day in the city of Rome alone. Among them were two Roman emperors: Hostilian and Claudius II Gothicus.

The effects were just as extreme elsewhere in the empire. Sociologist Rodney Stark writes that as much as two-thirds of the population in Alexandria, Egypt, died.

Modern scientists may believe that the disease was smallpox, but to Cyprian it was a portent of the end of the world. Interestingly, this belief may have actually helped the spread of Christianity.

Cyprian noted that Christians were also dying from the plague, but suggested that only non-Christians had anything to fear.

His compatriot Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria – one of the most hard-hit areas – wrote that it was a period of unimaginable joy for Christians.

The fact that even Roman emperors were dying and pagan priests had no way to explain or prevent the plague only strengthened the Christian position.

The experience of widespread disease and death and the high probability that they themselves might die made Christians more willing to embrace martyrdom.

And that, somewhat paradoxically, helped the faith thrive, providing early publicity that Christianity is worth dying for.

Add to this the fact that the epidemic coincided with the first Roman legislation affecting Christians, and martyrdom became both a possibility and a more reasonable option: When death is always around the corner, why not make yours count?

As the martyr Apollonius is reported to have said at his trial, “It is often possible for dysentery and fever to kill; so I will consider that I am being destroyed by one of these.”

The harrowing images of putrefying bodies and burning pyres of corpses also influenced early Christian descriptions of hell and the afterlife, which were already filled with fire and brimstone.

With the spread of the plague, these threats seemed increasingly real. Now that hell had become a place on earth, Christians were increasingly eager to avoid it in the afterlife.

The epidemic that seemed like the end of the world actually promoted the spread of Christianity.

Candida Moss is a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame and author of "The Myth of Persecution."