Pandemic, Plague, and Biblical History

A collection of BHD articles looking at the role of widespread disease in the Bible and in early Christian history

The Plague in Rome 1869
painting by Jules Elie Delaunay (Museum: Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Where does pandemic disease, or plague, impact the history of early Christianity, and even before then, ancient Judaism? Biblical archaeologists have uncovered clues, but as in most of what is studied from thousands of years ago, there are more questions than answers.

The role of epidemic disease in human history is not questioned. The devastation of the Bubonic Plague, or the Black Death, in the 14th-century C.E. is known to have played a role in the destabilization of feudalism, and the transition from the Middle Ages in Europe to the Renaissance. The flu pandemic of 1918 was hard felt: recent scholarship draws tantalizing links between the areas where the flu was the most devastating, and where Nazism took its firmest hold in Germany fifteen years later.

It is more difficult to know the role of disease in biblical times. One area where it may have had an impact is the Assyrian war led by Sennacharib against ancient Judah in 701 B.C.E. Though the Assyrian armies were mighty, and conquered most of the kingdom, they departed after a siege of Jerusalem, without invading and destroying the city. In the biblical account (2 Kings 18), an angel killed many of the soldiers, and so they departed. Herodotus wrote  the army was overrun by mice, a possible reference to mouse-borne diseases. More recently, historian William H. McNeill speculated that cholera, due to lack of access to fresh water, weakened the soldiers. He felt this may have saved Judaism from annihilation, and thus also saved the still-fledgling concept of monotheism.

Bible History Daily has published articles about the role of disease in biblical history, how the ancients fought back through medicine, and of course, the ten plagues of Exodus. They are linked below. Please feel free to peruse them at your convenience. We hope these articles provide some interesting historical perspective, though we caution against drawing direct parallels to our modern world.

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Pandemics of Biblical Times


Classical Corner: The Antonine Plague and the Spread of Christianity

The Antonine Plague, described as similar to smallpox, may have killed as much as ten percent of the Roman population over a 23-year period in the late second century C.E. Aside from practical consequences of the outbreak, the destabilization of the Roman military and economy, the psychological impact must have been substantial. Ancient Romans must have felt fear and helplessness in the face of such a ruthless, and frequently fatal disease. It is not difficult to understand, then, the apparent shifts in religious practices that came about as a result of the Antonine Plague.

Justinian Plague Linked to the Black Death

The Justinian Plague, linked via bacterial research to the Black Death, claimed the lives of tens of millions of people in the 540s, and shaped world history for centuries to come. When Justinian’s troops had conquered nearly all of Italy and the Mediterranean coast, they were struck by plague and could not continue the conquest through Europe, ultimately losing much of the conquered territory after Justinian’s death. The Justinian Plague halved the European population and weakened the Byzantine Empire, making it vulnerable to the Arab conquests of the seventh century.

The Cyprian Plague

Between about 250 and 271 C.E., a plague—now known as the Cyprian Plague—swept across Egypt and the rest of the Roman Empire, reportedly claiming more than 5,000 victims a day in Rome alone. Researchers believe they have uncovered the burial site of the Theban plague victims.


Ancient Medicine


Medicine in the Ancient World

Entire cults and professions dedicated to health dotted the spiritual, physical, and professional landscapes of the ancient world. So what exactly did ancient cultures do to combat disease and injury, and did these methods have any real basis in science as we know it today? A survey of medical practices and how they interacted with religious practices in various ancient cultures.

Doctors, Diseases and Deities: Epidemic Crises and Medicine in Ancient Rome

In this lecture presented at The Explorers Club in New York, Sarah Yeomans examines a recently excavated archaeological site that has substantially contributed to our understanding of what ancient Romans did to combat disease and injury. This is a 48-minute video.


The Ten Plagues of Exodus


Exodus in the Bible and the Egyptian Plagues

The Book of Exodus describes ten Egyptian plagues that bring suffering to the land of pharaoh. Are these Biblical plagues plausible on any level?

The Bible in the News

In his column The Bible in the News, Leonard J. Greenspoon looks at the various ways the famous Biblical story of the ten plagues of Egypt is used by today’s media.

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