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Tom Wright: How Christians responded to ancient plagues

NT Wright, one of the world's leading New Testament scholars, tells Justin Brierley how Christians have responded to pandemics in the past

Quite frequently in the ancient world, you would have a plague striking a city or a whole region. I think we have forgotten that actually plagues, just like famines and earthquakes, are simply part of the way the world is. We post-enlightenment people have got used to thinking that if anything goes wrong, then there's somebody who is responsible for making sure that we don't have to suffer and will get better soon. But actually most of history has not been like that. And these things have never been seen by Christians as a sign of the end times or whatever. It's just normal life!

Getting ill is normal. In most times in history, many people have not lived beyond 15-20 years old, let alone to be the age that I am now! We have been closeted against the realities.

When a plague struck a city in the second, third or fourth century, the Christians took this as a call to look after people and to nurse people. Any Christian doctor would say, "right, this is what I'm here for". Most people, especially the rich and respectable would take to the hills and get out of town fast, rather than be caught in this plague. Their attitude was 'leave that lot to die'. But the Christians would stay and nurse people.

This was one of the reasons why people became Christians - because they looked at these funny Christians who they'd always thought were weird, for all the usual reasons - and they said, "Why did you do that? Why did you come and nurse us? We're not your family. We're not your your tribe." And they would say, "It's because we follow this man called Jesus, who went about doing good and touching lepers and touching corpses and risking uncleanness in order to bring health." Of course, some of the Christians would die. But this was an extraordinary witness. I'm not saying therefore, all Christians should rush out and find coronavirus patients and lay hands on them or whatever, although there may be some who are called to that kind of ministry. Obviously, this doesn't mean that we can ignore public health instructions.

What's happening is pretty terrible. But there were famines that affected the whole world. We read about them in Acts. And what did the church in Antioch do when they heard there was a famine on the way? They knew that the Christians in Jerusalem were very poor, and were being persecuted. So their instant reaction was to raise money and send people to go and help. Whatever the equivalent of that is, that's what we should be doing. I think particularly of our Christian brothers and sisters in China and Iran who have a hard time anyway. And we are their brothers and sisters, so we need to do everything we can, starting with praying and working for their safety. And we also need to remember the people on our doorsteps who we can still help.

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