Peter Leithart passes on Gary Ferngren’s observation (from Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity) that the pagan political order in the ancient world regarded plagues as a punishment from the gods for the “pollution” of the city. The proper political response was then to offer sacrifices to purify the city. Helping those afflicted by plague was not a governmental responsibility.
In contrast, (quoting Ferngren)
“Christian belief in personal and corporate philanthropy as an outworking of Christian concepts of agape and the inherent worth of individuals who bore God’s image . . . introduced into the classical world the concept of social responsibility in treating epidemic disease.”
Leithart adds his own observation: “Just as fundamentally, it seems, Christianity promoted public health by announcing that Christ’s death had brought an end to systems of pollution and purification.”