Now that the whole world has experienced first-hand what a pandemic feels like, we can probably grasp the significance of the second century pandemic with a bit more sensitivity and clarity. Although plagues had ravaged parts of the world for thousands of years, the Antonine Plague (also known as the ‘Plague of Galen’) was the first known pandemic.
It originated in the East and reached all corners of the Roman Empire at just about the peak of Roman population and glory from 168 to 190. That is roughly the period of time when most of the Nag Hammadi works must have been written. So I am curious to know if there is any connection between those writings and the great humanitarian need during the first pandemic. How did people deal with fear, illness, and death?
Where did this pandemic come from?
Following a ruthless Roman conquest into the heart of Babylonia, the victors sacked the town, and a strange disease followed them back to Rome. It spread its way across the empire, frightening even the famous doctor, Claudius Galen, who tried to escape Rome.
Remembering the first tough months of the Covid 19 pandemic, we can imagine the fear and panic that swept through the empire. The Antonine Plague (named after Aurelius, an Antonine emperor) was far deadlier, and the ancient society was much less prepared to save the sick.
Where were the gods or the God? Did they help?
All the gods were very busy. Before the outbreak of the pandemic, Jupiter had enjoyed the greatest popularity and reverence throughout the Roman Empire. But he brought no relief to the pain and suffering from the plague.
It was the Greek god, Apollo, who was generally considered the culprit. Following the Roman invasion in the East and the subsequent plunder, one of the soldiers broke into a temple which was a sanctuary of the Greek god Apollo. He unsealed a chest inside the temple, and it was easy for the Romans to believe that a pestilential vapor had been unleashed and followed them back to Rome. It polluted everything with contagion and death.
Deeply offended by this Roman act of war, Apollo had good reason to fight back with revenge against the Romans who attacked his temple. The religion of Apollo, then, became hyperactive in a desperate attempt to placate the offended god.
Meanwhile, Asclepius, the god of healing and son of Apollo, was in a much better position to help with the pandemic than Apollo or Jupiter. Asklepion temples were scattered throughout the empire, and sick people often sought healing during visits to the temples. But important changes began to take place in the ancient Asclepius healing tradition about the time this pandemic was stirring up religious anxieties. On the one hand, divine intervention remained the dominant force, while another trajectory turned toward medical techniques.
As the pandemic worsened, Galen, the famous physician, offered some measure of medical hope. But even with all his medical skill, experimental inquiry, and philosophical insight, the pandemic pressed on beyond his control. The empire had turned to the most archaic layers of Apollo worship.
What other sources of help were there beyond the gods and medicine?
Religious entrepreneurs were more than eager to fill in gaps where gods and doctors were coming up short. Exploiting fears and superstitious beliefs during the crisis, they performed magical feats, encouraged reliance on amulets, practiced exorcism, and occasionally blamed Christians for worshiping the wrong god.
One of the false prophets, Alexander of Abonoutheichos, appropriated the popular cult of Apollo Phoibos, added his own pseudo knowledge of medicine, and ultimately contributed indirectly to the belittling and general ignorance of the medical crisis. The deceit resulted in the death of numerous families and households. (“Religious Appropriations and the Antonine Plague,” Szabó, 814).
But where were the followers of Jesus?
This struggle with the failing gods and medicine, in the context of the confluence of the pandemic, Roman wars, and even climate change (another major topic for another day), creates an important context for understanding where the followers of Jesus were. Jesus was known for his healing works, and he taught his followers to do the same.
There are many pieces of the second-century pandemic puzzle that haven’t quite come together yet. I hope more scholars will look into this, as they become more familiar with the newer discoveries that have emerged in the past few decades.
One of the strange problems is the lack of any direct literary evidence of a connection between the historical event of the pandemic and the practices of the followers of Jesus. Similarly, the role of Asclepius with the pandemic shows no particular uptick or increased use due to the heightened need for health care.
Had the fear of Apollo overshadowed everything else? Perhaps the pandemic was so overwhelming that individual healing accounts were irrelevant in the context. Or, maybe there were still so few Christ people in the entire population and their actual healing events were so few, that their stories were insignificant to the larger population.
What we do know is that the next pandemic, known as the Plague of Cyprian, less than a century later, opened the door to the remarkable growth of the marginal religious movement known as Christianity. Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, became the most important figure of the western church, and for the first time, he offered Christian testimony to a generation of the plague.
But back in the second century, the followers of Jesus appear to have remained persistent in their commitment to healing even though they had not yet gained the spotlight. Numerous accounts of healing in other contexts related to the followers of Jesus appear to have been written during the second century, and probably during or after the pandemic.
A healing practice among Jesus followers
Some ancient sources speak of healing as a natural outcome of the religious teachings of Jesus. If Thecla was a follower of Paul, she would have come too early to be involved in the pandemic. But she is an example of the healing works associated with Jesus’s teachings.
“After accomplishing many healings, she rests in the place of the holy ones having fallen asleep on the twenty-fourth of September.” (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 45:2)
All of the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles stories were probably written in the second century, a hundred years or so after the lives of the actual apostles. According to these books, each one was involved in some way related to non-medical physical healing. But to be honest, some accounts sound so outrageous, we aren’t clear where the boundary between fact and fiction really lies.
Other second-century writings that were only discovered more recently in the 1945 collection at Nag Hammadi imply a closer connection to the teachings of Jesus than the later fourth-century reliance on relics. For instance, in the Letter of Peter to Philip, after the ‘voice’ of Jesus explains the meaning of fullness,
“the ambassadors [or, apostles] went up to the Temple and taught salvation in the name of the Lord, Jesus Christ, and they healed a crowd.” (Letter of Peter to Philip, 7:1)
Many other instances also call for the followers of Jesus to heal from the basis of his spiritual teachings. For instance, from the Gospel of Thomas:
“Jesus said to them: . . . in whatever land you enter and in which you walk, if they receive you eat whatever is put before you, and heal the sick among them.” (The Gospel of Thomas, Saying 14, A New New Testament)
And from the Gospel of Truth:
“Understand the inner meaning, for you are children of inner meaning. . . . Steady the feet of those who stumble and extend your hands to the sick. . . . Awaken those who wish to arise and rouse those who sleep, for you embody vigorous understanding.” (The Gospel of Truth, 32 – 33:5, Meyer)
A tentative assessment of the work of the Jesus followers during the first pandemic depicts a relatively small community (or multiple small communities spread throughout the Mediterranean area) who stayed loyal to their healing mission, even though they were somewhat invisible to the overview of the pandemic situation.
They were a diverse set of innovative writers gathering within small close-knit communities, dispersed throughout the empire, and who remained loyal to their primary mission. They may have been practicing their teachings faithfully even during the pandemic. They were certainly ready to face the fear of death and ridicule when the second pandemic swept through the entire region again. This time, the empire took notice.