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Cyprian’s Response to an Epidemic

Sean du Toit —

Societies of the first centuries of the common era were no strangers to epidemics.[1]

Within that context, the early Christians formulated various responses, theological and practical, that enabled them to remain faithful to their core traditions and their example in Jesus. Throughout their history, the early Christians were on the frontline, wrestling with epidemics and associated issues and offering much practical help and hope to those being affected.[2] In what follows, I wish to explore Cyprian’s pastoral and theological response to an epidemic in his work, On Mortality, and see what lessons can be learned for today.[3]

Cyprian’s Response

The Plague of Cyprian, named after the Bishop of Carthage, swept across the Roman Empire from AD 249 to 270.[4] Cyprian witnessed the devastating effect and loss of life caused by this plague, where it was believed that around 5000 people a day were dying.[5] In his treatise, On Mortality, Cyprian discusses the epidemic he faced, its characteristics and its effects. Cyprian’s purpose, however, is not to document the epidemic, but rather to write to Christians to provide instruction and exhortation as they deal with this deadly plague. This exhortation provides beneficial instruction for us today as we seek to foster wise responses to our own current pandemic.

Cyprian offers two responses to the epidemic in De mortalitate (On Mortality) and Ad Demetrianum (An Address to Demtrianus).[6] The latter is an apologetic work, while the former is a pastoral address to encourage Christians. The focus of our attention here will be on De mortalitate, or as it is translated, On Mortality.[7] Here I discuss three elements of Cyprian’s response. Firstly, we address his response to the indiscriminate spread of the epidemic. Secondly, we focus on his insight that such trials reveal to us who we are. Finally, we focus on his eschatological hope as a key element of his pastoral response.

Solidarity in Suffering

Cyprian begins by noting the devastating effect this plague has on everyone, irrespective of their religious persuasion. The plague does not discriminate but kills both the just and the unjust. In an important passage, Cyprian describes the effect of the plague on his Christian community:                                     

Many of us are dying in this mortality, that is many of us are being freed from the world. . . [W]ithout any discrimination in the human race, the just also are dying with the unjust, it is not for you to think that the destruction is a common one for both the evil and the good.”[8] 

Christians like Cyprian knew that there was no special protection from God for them from the epidemics and plagues of death that ravaged the ancient world. Their suffering was common to all people.

Now it troubles some that the infirmity of this disease carries off our people equally with the pagans, as if a Christian believes to this end, that, free from contact with evils, he may happily enjoy the world and this life, and, without having endured all adversities here, may be preserved for future happiness. It troubles some that we have this mortality in common with others. But what in this world do we not have in common with others as long as this flesh, in accordance with the law of our original birth, still remains common to us? As long as we are here in the world we are united with the human race in equality of the flesh, we are separated in spirit. And so, until this corruptible element puts on incorruptibility and this mortal element receives immortality and the spirit conducts us to God the Father, the disadvantages of the flesh, whatever they are, we have in common with the human race.[9]

The notion that Christians are not exempt from suffering disturbed some early Christians, and Cyprian writes to address these concerns, concerns that are shared by modern Christians. Recently some voices have suggested that by merely praying Ps 91 or by tithing, Christians will be somehow protected from this virus that is ravaging planet earth. Unfortunately, such thinking departs from biblical wisdom. The Christian Scriptures have never promised an escape from the vagaries of life. Rather, we are promised comfort and care through difficult times as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The early Christians knew “death” was the ultimate enemy (1 Cor 15:26), but also knew they were promised not an escape from it, but the transforming promise of resurrection because Jesus has defeated death. This is, in fact, the major focus of Cyprian’s whole treatise which is concerned with instructing Christians regarding their future hope of salvation and restoration. The goal of such instruction is to provide them with hope in the midst of their suffering.

Revelation and Formation

Cyprian suggests that the horrible plague has the effect of testing us to see what kind of people we actually are.

How suitable, how necessary it is that this plague and pestilence, which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the justice of each and everyone and examines the minds of the human race; whether the well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love their kinsmen as they should, whether masters show compassion to their ailing slaves, whether physicians do not desert the afflicted begging their help, whether the violent repress their violence, whether the greedy, even through the fear of death, quench the ever insatiable fire of their raging avarice, whether the proud bend their necks, whether the shameless soften their affrontry, whether the rich, even when their dear ones are perishing and they are about to die without heirs, bestow and give something![10]

Such terrible times reveal to us who we truly are. Are we those who tend to the sick? Are we those who affectionately love our families? Are we those who stretch out in help and hope to those in need? Such times of disaster reveal to us the character we have cultivated by our affections and allegiances. But such disasters also provide us with the opportunity to cultivate caring and concerned characteristics as we become aware of deficiencies or weaknesses in our selves.

Underlying this insight is something that carries over from the first insight, the importance of solidarity with those who are suffering. Solidarity with the human experience makes us aware of the suffering of others. By being aware, we can experience compassion for those who are vulnerable and in need of assistance and aid. If we were not aware and did not experience compassion, then we are isolated from the common experiences of the world, and this would be unfortunate since we are created to benefit and bless one another. How can we serve people faithfully if we are not aware of their circumstances and don’t experience compassion for them? Life experiences teach us that no one is exempt from the devastating effects of creation’s brokenness.

Eschatological Hope

In the final chapter of On Mortality, Cyprian reflects more carefully on the effects of eschatological hope. Three elements stand out as worthy of reflection. Firstly, Cyprian exhorts his Christian audience to embrace God’s will and not allow themselves to be taken captive by “the terror of death.” The reason they should not fear death is that they have been given the gift of immortality. Cyprian understood that many in the ancient world feared death, as do those in our contemporary world. But the eschatological gift of immortality should bring comfort and release from the terror of death. In chapter 21, Cyprian cites Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians (4:13), noting that although they grieve the ones they have lost, they do not grieve as those with no hope. They will be reunited with loved ones who have been lost.

Secondly, their eschatology should lead them to not be too attached to the present world. Citing 1 John 2:15, Cyprian reminds them of their renunciation of the old world, and that as “strangers and foreigners we sojourn here for a time.” Cyprian then exhorts them “to embrace the day which assigns each of us to his dwelling, which on our being rescued from here and released from the snares of the world, restores us to paradise and the kingdom.”[11] While the pandemic he faced ravaged thousands of lives every day, Cyprian’s vision extends beyond the present world to the future kingdom and paradise. Such an eschatological reorientation would bring much-needed focus to these Christians as they are reminded of what is of ultimate significance. Physical distancing, and therefore not being able to take part in many of the various activities that usually characterise our lives, should cause us to reflect on what is of ultimate significance.

And this leads to Cyprian’s final point. Cyprian points forward to the great future of Christians.

What pleasure there in the heavenly kingdom without fear of death, and with an eternity of life the highest possible and everlasting happiness; there the glorious choir of apostles, there the throng of exultant prophets, there the innumerable multitude of martyrs wearing crowns on account of the glory and victory of their struggle and passion, triumphant virgins who have subdued the concupiscence of the flesh and body by the strength of their continency, the merciful enjoying their reward who have performed works of justice by giving food and alms to the poor, who in observing the precepts of the Lord have transferred their earthly patrimony to the treasuries of heaven![12]

Notice how for Cyprian, eschatology is to shape their present existence, as it is ours. The glory of heaven awaits all those who have persevered and endured the hardships of this world. Those who have been virtuous and faithful to God will receive “the highest possible and everlasting happiness.” The rhetorical force of this climactic ending is to encourage the faithful to continue their distinctive lives, modelled on the life of Jesus and in the vision of the Scriptural writers. There is also a challenge for them, and for us, that the merciful will be rewarded, namely, that those who are committed to justice and aid for the vulnerable will be reciprocated with the “treasuries of heaven.” The present pandemic should never discourage or dissuade Christians from their calling to be faithful to Jesus and to perform works of justice and aid for the vulnerable. Fidelity to the vision of Christ and the work of justice is, of course, its own reward, but God’s gracious provision promises more. Thus, an eschatological orientation is to inform and compel the present praxis of discipleship.

Learning from Cyprian

Much more can be said about Cyprian’s offering in Mortality, but I have focussed on an array of insights that provide us with perspective as we face our own pandemic. While there are various elements that would inform us about our unique response in this situation, here I have sought insights that could be beneficial for contemporary disciples. Firstly, we should not expect that Christians are exempt from the common suffering that afflicts humanity. Movie-stars, governmental leaders, truck-drivers and the homeless are all infected by this virus. It does not discriminate. As Cyprian notes, it affects the just and the unjust. But such indiscrimination can foster a sense of solidarity with those who are affected. Such solidarity in facing this virus helps us to identify with those who are suffering and to cultivate Christ-like dispositions of compassion and character to provide help and hope. Secondly, Cyprian sees such moments of trial as revealing our true dispositions and commitments. While the current pandemic is causing great anxiety and economic devastation, we can look to this as a moment of revelation and reformation. We can use the time allotted to us to grow in our discipleship, to put our faith into action. We can spend time in prayer, lamenting the death toll and devastation but also praying that God’s wisdom and strength would comfort or challenge those who need it. We can exercise our compassion by looking after the vulnerable and marginalised among us and even those who are far from us. Finally, Cyprian’s eschatological focus is important. Often the church has been distracted by weird eschatological theories that are the product of poor exegetical and theological interpretation. We should not allow such distractions and fanciful thinking to prohibit us from a deep and formative eschatological hope we see in the Scriptures. We can remind ourselves of our future hope and confidence in God’s restoration of all things and that can shape us here and now as we live lives characterised by compassion and care, as well as justice, through this pandemic, and also beyond it.

Sean du Toit (PhD) is a lecturer in New Testament at Alphacrucis and a theologian at Tearfund. He is married to Sue and has two wonderful daughters, Ava and Mia.

[1] J. F. Gilliam, “The plague under Marcus Aurelius,” American Journal of Philology 82.3 (1961): 225-251; Dionysios Ch. Stathakopoulos, Famine and Pestilence in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Empire: A Systematic Survey of Subsistence Crises and Epidemics. Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004.

[2] For specific responses to epidemics, see R. Stark, “Epidemics, Networks and the Rise of Christianity,” Semeia 56 (1992): 159-175. On the early Christian commitment to health care, see Hector Avalos, Health Care and the Rise of Christianity (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1999); A. Di Berardino, “Xenodochium (Hospital),” Encyclopaedia of Ancient Christianity, Gen. Ed., Angelo Di Berardino (Illinois: IVP Academic, 2014), 3:958-59; V. Lombino, “Christ the Physician,” Encyclopaedia of Ancient Christianity, Gen. Ed., Angelo Di Berardino (Illinois: IVP Academic, 2014), 3:185-192; Gary B. Ferngren, Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity. Cambridge: CUP, 2009.

[3] There are two Christian writings that discuss this plague, providing some of our best evidence from within the epidemic. These include the letter of Dionysius of Alexandria (H. E. 7.22); Cyprian of Carthage (De mortalitate). We also have later Christians discussions from Gregory of Nyssa and Jerome, but these are dependent on the earlier discussions.

[4] Scholarship devoted to discussions of the Cyprian plague are severely lacking, although this is somewhat remedied by Kyle Harper, “Pandemics and Passages to Late Antiquity: Rethinking the Plague of c. 249-70 described by Cyprian,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 28 (2015): 223-60.

[5] For an archaeological discussion of the evidence for the plague and its victims, see F. Tiradritti, “Of kilns and corpses: Theban plague victims,” Egyptian Archaeology 44 (2014): 15-18.

[6] An introduction to Cyprian is provided by J. Patout Burns, “Cyprian of Carthage,” The Expository Times 120.10 (2009): 469-477. Throughout this article I use the translation by Deferrari. Saint Cyprian, "Mortality," Treatises. Translated by Roy J. Deferrari (The Fathers of the church, Volume 36; Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1958), 195-224.

[7] For a helpful discussion of the genre of the text, see J. H. D. Scourfield, “The De mortalitate of Cyprian: consolation and context,” Vigiliae Christianae 50.1 (1996): 12-41.

[8] Cyprian, De mort. 15.

[9] Cyprian, De mort. 8.

[10] Cyprian, De mort. 16.

[11] Cyprian, De mort. 24.

[12] Cyprian, De mort. 26.