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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, January 06 2022

Deadly diseases: Again a threat to humanity?

With COVID 19 having spread to every nation on earth, a review of an article published in The Good News magazine of May-June 1998 is instructive and sobering.

by Scott Ashley

In February, 1975 an 11 year old boy found a dead coyote in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains in New Mexico, and decided to skin it for its hide. Within a few days he began to feel weak, and developed a bad headache, with chills and pain in his right shoulder. Then an egg-sized swelling appeared in his right armpit. After several days it was determined Danny Gallant had bubonic plague!

Danny was the first diagnosed case of the 1975 plague season, which turned out to be the worst outbreak of plague in half a century. Many wild animals perished, with each animal presenting a potential threat to domestic animals and humans. A decade after Danny's deadly encounter, plague-infected animals could still be found in at least 40 percent of the continental United States, from the Pacific eastward into Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

History records three great pandemics during the past 2,500 years, with each ravishing nearly the whole of the inhabited world. The first lasted for 200 years, the second for 400 and the third more than 100 years.

The first pandemic began in the 15th year of the reign of Roman Emperor Justinian I (ca. A.D. 542). Apparently it first broke out in the Egyptian port of Pelusium, then spread to Byzantium (now Istanbul), probably aboard grain ships from Egypt. The Byzantine historian Procopius records the deadly march of the disease: "From [Egypt] it spread over the whole world… in either left neither island nor cave nor mountain ridge which had human inhabitants ..." ("Procopius," translated by H.B. Dewing, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Vol. 1, Book II, XXII-XXIII). For more than 50 years the plague infected much of Western Europe, taking a century to disappear.

The plague then remained dormant for 600 years, following the typical pattern of passing through a populace and largely annihilating it. Then, as conditions change for the better and it runs out of hosts to infect, it disappears as quickly as it had spread.

The plague reappeared in the 14th century, reaching Europe in 1348. When Philip VI of Spain ordered his physicians to discover the source of the pestilence, their conclusion was the plague had occurred because of the conjunction of Saturn, Mars and Jupiter. The prescribed ways to avoid the disease was to eat poultry, fatty meats and olive oil, no one should sleep past dawn, baths were dangerous and sexual intercourse fatal (Charles T. Gregg, Plague: An Ancient Disease in the Twentieth Century, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1985, p. 12). The black death (another name for the bubonic plague) then spread to Scandinavia and England, where centuries later it finally played itself out.

During the summer of 1665 the plague reappeared again in England. Instantly the wealthy retreated to the country and some 100,000 Londoners died. To this day, the old London graveyards are a mute testimony to these tragic years. Outbreaks of plague continued for more than a century in Malta, Marseilles, Moscow and Vienna, until the plague gradually withdrew to the East from whence it came, and some 400 years passed. During these four centuries the disease sporadically reappeared every 17 to 25 years, usually in urban centres where rats were numerous. It concluded its devastation of Europe in Marseilles in 1720, but history shows us that the plague only went underground.

The third pandemic, which began in the 1850s and ended in 1959, remains virtually unknown to most people. It started in the two ancient flashpoints of plague, Africa and Asia and created a third region that now permanently harbours the plague: the Western United States. This outbreak brought epidemics in San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Pensacola, several Texas ports and other coastal cities around the world (Gregg, p. 16) and lasted more than 100 years.

While the Great Plague of London (in the second pandemic) took 100,000 lives in six months, the third pandemic killed that many in a few weeks and continued monthly, and yearly, until more than 13 million were dead (Gregg, p. 17). In India alone more than 11 million perished. During the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s, over 10,000 people died of the plague, with transoceanic shipping the principal transporter of the disease.

Eventually the plague again played itself out, but not before demonstrating the world's vulnerability to this and other microscopic killers: "The plague bacillus and its hosts [rodents] show increasing resistance to antibiotics and pesticides. This raises the specter of our most potent weapons [modern medical scientific discoveries] splintering in our hands at that moment when they are most needed" (Gregg, p. 17).

Laurie Garrett, who won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the Ebola virus, wrote a bestseller on new diseases, titled The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance (Penguin Books, New York, 1995). She described the emergence of diseases such as Legionnaires' disease, AIDS, the Muerto Canyon microbe, the Rwandan cholera outbreak and others, referring to such opportunistic infections as ecological paybacks for our modern behaviour, flawed technology and the destruction of the rainforests.

Most people assume that medical science will shield us from disasters such as those in previous centuries, but we are much more vulnerable than we suppose. Garrett's analyses of outbreaks of deadly diseases show some have been actually precipitated by human actions.

In describing the deadly Machupo virus, she illustrates how easily our best intentions can bring disaster on our own heads. It was eventually determined the virus was transmitted through the urine of mice. Bolivia had initiated a massive DDT-spraying campaign to eliminate malaria, but the spraying also poisoned thousands of cats, resulting in the growth in the mouse population, which spread the virus. Thus, a well-intentioned government program inadvertently contributed to a deadly plague.

"Even in modern times there is still much we do not know about the causes, spread, and decline of many epidemic diseases. Unexplainable appearances of new or mutated strains can burst unexpectedly on an unsuspecting population and man can even, unfortunately, create an epidemic where none existed before" (Geoffrey Marks and William K. Beatty, Epidemics, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1976, pp. xi-xii).

Garrett's book is a call to realise we are much more vulnerable than we suppose. Left to our own devices, without turning to God for His help and protection, mankind could really be his own worst problem: "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death" (Proverbs 14:12).

Herod had ruled the province of Judea, which encompassed most of the geographical areas of the former kingdoms of Israel and Judah, for almost 40 years at the time Jesus Christ was born, with secular history and archaeology confirming his reign (Matthew 2:1-3, 7-8).

He was a great builder, initiating construction projects in at least 20 cities or towns in Israel and more than 10 in foreign cities: "Archaeological excavations have uncovered a surprisingly large amount of evidence pertaining to Herod the Great Idumean who, in 41 B.C., was granted provisional rule of Galilee by Mark Antony [the friend of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra´s last lover] .... In 30 B.C. Octavian (Caesar Augustus) affirmed Herod's rule over Judea, Samaria, and Galilee .... Herod remained in power until his death in 4 B.C…." (Archaeology and the New Testament, 1997, p. 91).

But Herod was not just known for his great building, political and military skills, but also for his great cruelty. The Bible records his utter disregard for human life by describing his reaction to the birth of Jesus. When his scheme to identify the newborn Messiah failed (verses 7-8, 12), Herod lashed out with great violence: "Then Herod … sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under [the approximate age of Jesus], according to the time which he had determined from the wise men" (verse 16).

This massacre in Bethlehem was not out of character for Herod, who also had many members of his family put to death: “Herod in his rage over his family rivalries and jealousies put to death the two sons of Mariamne [his wife] (Aristobulus and Alexander), Mariamne herself, and Antipater, another son and once his heir, besides the brother and mother of Mariamne (Aristobulus, Alexandra) and her grandfather John Hyrcanus." (Word Pictures in the New Testament, Bible Explorer Software, 1997).

The New Testament description of Herod the Great is thus confirmed by what historians and archaeologists have found concerning his rulership, building projects, political strength and uncontrollable wrath toward anyone threatening his kingship.

The Census of Caesar Augustus

Luke, a meticulous historian, introduces other famous personages in his account of the birth of Christ. "And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered … So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city" (Luke 2:1-3).

Ancient papyrus census decrees have been found for the years 20, 34, 48, 62 and 104. These show a wide-ranging census normally took place every 14 years, although local counts were, at times, taken more frequently. A papyrus in the British Museum describes a census similar to Luke's account, taken in 104, in which people were ordered to return to their birthplaces: "Gaius Vibius Mazimus, Prefect of Egypt: Seeing that the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all those ... to return to their own homes, that they may both carry out the regular order of the census and may also attend diligently to the cultivation of their allotments" (Frederick G. Kenyon, Greek Papyri in the British Museum, 1907, plate 30).

Joseph's Occupation in Nazareth

Joseph was a skilled craftsman who worked not only with wood, but with stone masonry. The usual term translated as "carpenter" in the Bible (Mark 6:3) is from the Greek term ‘tekton’, which has the broader meaning of 'artisan,' referring to a skilled worker who works on hard material such as wood or stone or even horn or ivory. “In Jesus' day construction workers were not as highly specialized as in today's workforce. For example, the tasks performed by carpenters and masons could easily overlap" (Richard A. Batey, Jesus & the Forgotten City: New Light on Sepphoris and the Urban World of Jesus, p. 76).

Although Nazareth was a small village in Galilee of no more than a few hundred inhabitants, Joseph and Jesus likely found steady work in the city of Sepphoris four miles away, where huge construction projects were transforming the city into a large, regional centre.

Recent archaeological excavations in Sepphoris show it to have been a bustling, prosperous city during the years Jesus grew up in nearby Nazareth. Shirley Jackson Case, professor of New Testament at the University of Chicago, remarks “.... It requires no very daring flight of the imagination to picture the youthful Jesus seeking and finding employment in the neighboring city of Sepphoris. But whether or not he actually labored there, his presence in the city on various occasions can scarcely be doubted..." (Batey, pp. 70-71).

These historical records help us better understand the background of Christ's teachings, which included illustrations drawn not just from farming and animal husbandry, but also construction, rulers and nobility, the theater, government, finance and other aspects of city life.