Jesus, Peter and the plague: What we can learn from His life in pandemic zone

Museum of the Bible

As Christians, along with the world, struggle to deal with the Covid pandemic and now new genetic variants, few have turned to the Scriptures, and the person of Jesus for insight. That's a pity, because a careful reading of the Bible in historical context can shed light on this topic and on the balancing of risk with pursuit of opportunity.

Jesus heavily recruited his disciples from the region of Galilee, and especially from the fishing villages which lay on the Sea of Galilee. We are given explicit accounts of Jesus recruiting key disciples such as Peter, James, and John directly from the fishing villages. Peter's brother Andrew, obviously from the same fishing village, followed Jesus based on the teachings of John the Baptist.

What you may not know is that these were plague zones. According to prominent expert on the archeology of Galilee, Dr. David Fiensy: "If you lived around the Lake Huleh region and even around the Sea of Galilee, you might have been part of a fishing family. But you would also fear “pestilential air” (malaria). Chances are you would have been infected and carried around this disease for decades." That quote is from his excellent new book, The Archaeology of Daily Life: Ordinary Persons in Late Second Temple Israel (interview forthcoming).

Given that malaria is typically spread by mosquitoes (it is an opportunistic parasite spread by the exchange of blood during the bug bite) and that mosquitoes do particularly well in hot lowlands in standing water, it is no surprise that malaria was very common in the fishing villages which abutted the Sea of Galilee. Archeology offers confirmation in the form both of bones pitted by the effects of such parasitic infections, and by the discovery of amulets on which are ascribed language designed to ward off these fevers.

This puts new light on the incident with Peter's mother-in-law, who is mentioned in all three synoptic Gospels ("synoptic Gospels" refers to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, which have a similar point of view, looking with the same "eye" ("optic"), as opposed to John which focuses more on Jesus' speeches). Matthew and Mark show Peter's mother-in-law sick with a fever (literally a fire). Luke, the physician, adds more detail: a "great fever." The language in the Greek texts from which we get our English translations corresponds with the known term at the time for malarial fever.

It is probable that Peter's mother-in-law had malaria and it is virtually certain that even if she had some other infection causing "great fever," malaria would have been on the short list of her family's fears for her.

What do we make of this?

First, these were hardy, frontier people.

Second, God the Father knew what kind of people he was sending his son to live among, be raised by, work and apprentice with. In other words, the geography is not beside the point. It was part of the plan.

Third, Jesus could have recruited different sorts for his disciples and key followers. He knew what he was doing.

Fourth, Jesus was perfectly willing to rebuke people over their behavior, including how they made a living. But the Gospels record no rebuke to his disciples nor their families in choosing to accept plague risk in order to make a living.

Fifth, these frontier people were not taking hapless risks. Archeology shows that they used amulets (which they thought worked) and herbs to deal with the risks. This wasn't faith bravado about how God wouldn't let them get the plague, nor political denial about the existence and danger of plague. They knew the risk; took steps to manage the risk; and then took the risk to make a living, not faith-signal.

Sixth, Jesus' solution was to heal Peter's mother-in-law to restore her to her life.

Seventh, when I first did this research, I had such a blind spot that I did not connect it to our current situation. It was not until my friend David Bahnsen suggested the connection to me in a recent podcast interview (The Capital Record -- Episode 25: Bringing a Proxy to a Woke Fight | National Review) that I saw a connection.

Now, of course, our situation is not exactly the same, but the example of Jesus is a good place to start when it comes to forming a prudent response to our own "pestilential air" both viral and cultural.

Jerry Bowyer is financial economist, president of Bowyer Research, and author of “The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics.”

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