Subscribe to Christianity Today
Alms: Charity, Reward, and Atonement in Early Christianity
David J. Downs
Baylor University Press, 2016
350 pp., $59.95
Treasure in Heaven
The subject of charity toward the poor has attracted much scholarly attention over the past decade or so. Some of the inspiration can be traced back to an oft-cited work by the historian of Late Antiquity, Paul Veyne. In his acclaimed volume Bread and Circuses, Veyne shows how Jewish and Christian practices regarding generosity varied from those of their Greco-Roman neighbors. Whereas the latter put a high value on the process of reciprocity (donors could expect compensation in the future from their recipients) and funding spectacular, highly visible, public monuments (theaters, coliseums, public baths), the synagogue and church esteemed gifts that were given to the poorest of the poor, that is, precisely those who could never return the favor. For this reason, Proverbs 19:17 ("He who shows mercy to the poor makes a loan to God, and He shall surely repay") was one of the texts most cited by the Fathers of the Church, both East and West. It was also a favorite verse of John Wesley, no doubt due to his study of the Fathers.
Peter Brown's recent work—Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton Univ. Press); The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Christianity (Harvard Univ. Press); and Treasure in Heaven: The Holy Poor in Early Christianity (Univ. of Virginia Press)—has brought this theological innovation into highest relief. He notes that in a culture ruled by "the iron laws of reciprocity … it was considered bad luck to dream that one gave money to a beggar." Such a dream portended an untimely death: "For Death," wrote one ancient Roman, "is like a beggar, who takes and gives nothing in return." No doubt this is one of the reasons why Julian the Apostate—the 4th-century emperor who sought to revive Greco-Roman religion in the face of an ever-expanding Christian church—failed when he tried to remake pagan ...