The plague in Rome. Painting by Jules Elie Delaunay
Moving on in the “hospitals chapter” in my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis:
What does a distinctively Christian practice of mercy look like?
To see what a distinctively gospel-centered approach to care for the body looked like in the early and medieval church, we turn to a case study: the early development and medieval rise of the hospital
What, then, did this distinctively Christian practice of mercy look like in the early and medieval church? A key case is that of the hospital. Before Christianity, there were no hospitals in the Roman Empire. Within a few centuries of Christ’s coming, an institution that would later develop into the hospital begin to emerge as a unique new form of religious philanthropy on the face of the earth.
Church parish networks
Before it did, however, there was plenty of Christian healing and helping going on—with healthcare usually happening in the context of needy members: widows, orphans, the poor. But it was happening in the church. Specifically, it was happening within parish networks. As a regular part of their worship, the earliest Christians gathered alms to be distributed by deacons for the help of those in need. By the mid 200s, the benevolence mission of the church had birthed a complex of minor clerical orders, and a report from Cornelius, bishop of Rome, in 251 described a strategic system that involved dividing the city into seven districts, with deacons and subdeacons appointed to care for the people in each one. Gary Ferngren relates that the Roman church in that day spent up to a million sesterces a year—a huge amount of money—in supporting and caring for 1,500 needy people. Continue reading
The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670) shows the Good Samaritan tending the injured man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Here’s the next bit of the “hospitals chapter” in Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. It follows from this bit on Lewis and this introductory bit.
So how did all of this translate into a Christian emphasis on bodily care? For the early and medieval churches were notable for healing. Yes, miraculous healing, on occasion. But also, and much more frequently, the sort of healing that comes from basic nursing care and the application of medical knowledge (however rudimentary during most of the period we’re studying).
The Pagans in the Roman world of Christianity’s birth had no such distinctive. They had “no religious impulse for charity that took the form of personal concern for those in distress.” Indeed the Pagans taught neither compassion nor active mercy as virtues. To be merciful only helped the weak—those who were drags on society.
It is important that we “get” how radical this change was, from the Pagan to the Christian attitude toward illness and healing: “In the cramped, unsanitary warrens of the typical Roman city, under the miserable cycle of plagues and famines, the sick found no public institutions dedicated to their care and little in the way of sympathy or help.” Continue reading
Medieval miniature painting of the Siege of Antioch - First Crusade
After lecturing the other day to Bethel undergrads on the feudal system (the defining reality of “those who worked”), and before outlining the idea of sacramentality and the sacraments in the Middle Ages (a central notion and rituals for “those who prayed”), I laid out what many of “those who fought” were doing between the 11th and 15th centuries.
They were going on Crusades.
That is, they were seeking to reclaim the city of Jerusalem and the Holy Land in general for Christendom.
[Again, sources for this part of the lecture include several lectures from the Teaching Company, e.g., http://teachingcompany.12.forumer.com/viewtopic.php?t=2605]
Jerusalem was the center of the world for medieval Christians—and for hundreds of years, Christians had been making pilgrimages there. Yet since the 7th century, Jerusalem and the surrounding area had been controlled by the Muslims, whose massive growth from the 7th through the 11th century came at least partially at the expense of formerly Christian territories. Continue reading
Justin Martyr in his philosophers' robes
Roger Olson‘s The Story of Christian Theology is a big, rambling narrative compendium of juicy information about the development of Christian theology through history. Unlike almost any other book I can think of on historical theology, this one is accessible to a lay, non-specialist audience. Though it needed a good edit (it could have been trimmed to about half its size), it is still a compelling read.
One of the places where Olson shines is in describing the original and development of key theological concepts in the early church. And of these, one of the most fascinating is the use of the term Logos by the mid-second-century apologist Justin Martyr. Here we find a pagan philosopher converted to Christianity who still (of course!) uses the equipment of the Greek thought-world, in particular the term Logos–also used in the Hebrew tradition, to describe Christ to other pagans.
Here is my reworking of Olson’s account. As this is from lecture notes, I have not always used quotation marks when I am quoting Olson verbatim. Best assumption: much of this is in his own words. As always when I present notes from a book, my abbreviations are in play: X for Christ, xn for Christian, xnty for Christianity, etc.:
Without doubt Justin Martyr deserves his reputation as “the most important 2nd-c. apologist” because of his creative ideas about Christ as cosmic Logos and about Christianity as true philosophy. Continue reading