The worst famine to occur in the history of the Roman Empire began in AD 46 during the reign of the Roman emperor Claudius. It lasted many years, well beyond his death in AD 54. It was a coincidental result of several factors. First, in Egypt, the Nile rose to a height of approximately 8.25 metres—the highest in more than a century—totally destroying the crops of the Nile Valley and the delta. And, because Egypt was the main source of the nation’s imported grain, the entire Roman population began to starve as grain prices skyrocketed. This fact is recorded on Egyptian papyri from that period and it’s evident that prices remained high for more than a decade.
Also, in AD 45 a rebellion by the Maurusii tribes in Mauretania disrupted agriculture and trade along the more fertile North African Mediterranean coast. Almost simultaneously, the failure of winter rains in Syria and Judea (today’s Israel), two other food baskets of the empire, caused harvests to fail. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, famine had set in by the time of the Passover in the spring of AD 46.
This doesn’t mean that drought and famine were uncommon in the region. In fact, famines occurred on average about once every 20 years. The Bible refers to numerous famines that occurred during more than a thousand years, from the time of Jacob to the time of the apostle Paul. Despite this, according to the early Israelite king David, God’s people were said to “enjoy plenty” even “in days of famine” (Psalm 37:19)—a blessing promised them if they remained faithful to Him. But as common as famines were, the famine of AD 46 was especially bad and the populace of Jerusalem was literally starving.
And to make matters worse, the government did little about it. Emperor Claudius did nothing until the Roman people began to riot. He had new and larger ships constructed that could carry larger cargoes of grain from less affected parts of the empire and even from unaffected countries beyond the empire’s frontiers. But as much as this benefited Rome, all around the Mediterranean the grain supply diminished and the price of food went up, especially in Judea.
However, providentially for Judea, aid came from an entirely different source. Queen Helena, the mother of the king of Adiabene (a kingdom to the east of the Tigris River in present-day Iraq), being a recent convert to Judaism, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. According to Josephus, when she arrived in the city in the winter of AD 46, she found the people starving, so she sent servants to Alexandria in Egypt with money to purchase what stocks of grain they might find, no matter the price. She also dispatched ships to Cyprus to bring dried figs. Helena distributed the provisions to all of Jerusalem’s starving people. Not only that, when the Adiabene royal family heard what was happening, Helena’s son, Izates, who was also a convert, likewise donated financial aid to Jerusalem’s governing bodies for the purpose of purchasing and distributing food in order to keep the government of Judea stable and functional.
The story of this great famine, and Helena and her family’s part in alleviating it, is quite exceptional, given the times. But what’s even more amazing is that this empire-wide famine had been prophesied by an early Christian prophet, Agabus. The Bible book of Acts states that just prior to AD 44, Agabus and some other Christian prophets went from Jerusalem to Antioch where the apostles Paul and Barnabas were based, and while they were there, Agabus “stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world.” (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) Acts goes on to say that in response, “The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:27–30).
Such charitable giving has deep roots in Christianity. Jesus taught believers that they need not be anxious about money and that, rather, it’s a righteous act to give to the poor, a teaching taken up zealously by the early Christians in Jerusalem (Luke 12:33; 18:22). According to Acts, shortly after the Pentecost that followed Jesus’ crucifixion, the Christians living in Jerusalem voluntarily shared their resources, selling their property so that “there were no needy persons among them” (Acts 4:32–37). Fundamental to the Christian community was the priority to provide for the poor and widows among them (Acts 6:1–7).
Although Paul was not a member of that early Christian community (he was still busy persecuting them!), upon becoming a Christian he too took up charitable giving. As he records in his letter to the Galatian church, when the Jerusalem church asked Paul to help the poor throughout his mission fields, Paul agreed, saying that this was already his own personal intention, so “they [James, Peter, and John] agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along” (Galatians 2:9, 10).
"Jesus taught believers that they need not be anxious about money and that, rather, it’s a righteous act to
give to the poor."
After the AD 46 famine took hold in Judea, Paul displayed his Christian charity in powerful and determined action. He urged the Christian communities in Macedonia and Greece to donate funds into what is today called the Jerusalem donation.
In addition to monetary help, other churches, such as the one in Rome, offered gifts of prayers to God. As relations between Jews and Romans deteriorated in the buildup to the First Jewish War (AD 66–70), Paul made a point to encourage the Christians in Rome to include the plight of Christians in Jerusalem in their prayers (Romans 5:25–28). Besides the blessings that come with praying to God, Paul’s intention was probably also to counteract and dispel any hostile feelings that the Christians living in Rome might have felt for their Jewish-Christian family, and vice-versa.
But Paul also held that charity should be a natural expression of true Christian faith and not a mere obligation. He articulated this in his letter to the church at Ephesus. He began by saying, “By grace you have been saved, through faith,” and then he broadened the context of the basic tenet of salvation by faith alone, adding that once saved by faith, Christians should also act, since “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (Ephesians 2:8–10).
He also made the same point to the church in Rome, writing that while we are “justified by faith apart from the works of the law,” once saved by grace we become “slaves to righteousness” and thus exercise spiritual gifts that include “contributing to the needs of others” (Romans 3:28; 6:18; 12:8). Hence, in Paul’s view, the ideal Christian ought to strive to do good works as an expression of their internalised love for God and others—“faith expressing itself through love,” as he put it in his letter to the church in Galatia (Galatians 5:6).
Finally, in AD 57 Paul arrived in Jerusalem with “the donation,” even though he assumed that he would be arrested when he got there. He undertook this journey because he understood how much the Christians in Jerusalem needed both the moral and financial support he brought. Thus, with simplicity and brevity, Paul poignantly penned to the church in Rome, “I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the Lord’s people there” (Romans 15:25).
God had shown through Agabus that this famine was coming. And He has shown through Paul and other early Christian churches how we as Christians should respond not only to those experiencing hunger but to all those in need, be it for food, justice, mercy, protection, a family or giving in love, along with our prayers.