Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
Alms: Charity, Reward, and Atonement in Early Christianity
Alms: Charity, Reward, and Atonement in Early Christianity
David J. Downs
Baylor University Press, 2016
350 pp., 64.99

Buy Now

Gary Anderson

Treasure in Heaven

“Anyone who gives alms to the poor is lending to the Lord.”

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 temples into distribution centers for aid to the poor. As the sociologist Rodney Stark explains, there were no doctrinal bases within Roman religion for such actions to latch onto. It was like transplanting an organ from one body to another. Save for powerful drugs, the host body will turn against the intruder, however well intentioned, and reject it. Charity worked well within Jewish and Christian places of worship because the practice of generosity to the poor had deep theological roots.

David Downs' new book is an admirable attempt to re-discover the theological roots in early Christianity and the Second Temple Jewish sources out of which charity grew. One surprising feature of Downs' book, however, is his tendency to reduce the notion of reciprocity to an intra-human plane when he deals with these Jewish sources. This leads to some strange results. Consider, for example, the book of Tobit, in which Proverbs 10:2b ("righteousness [tsedaqa] delivers from death") plays a major role. When Tobit is instructing his son he provides this gloss: "almsgiving delivers from death and keeps one from going into darkness." St. Augustine found this teaching astonishing: "Tobit had no eyesight, yet he told his son 'give alms [to prevent blindness].' How could Tobit give that advice with such confidence? Only because he saw another light." In the end, Tobit's charitable deeds were rewarded: the angel Raphael guided his son on the perilous journey which resulted in the miraculous discovery of an unguent that healed his father's blindness. The return of Tobit to the light was glossed by the author of the book as an act of resurrection. Downs, curiously, reduces this moment of instruction to a tutorial in intra-human reciprocity: "Tobit's statement about 'storing up good treasure …' refers simply to security against future fiscal disaster by lending to others in the present …. In a world where sudden material peril is an ever-present reality, sharing generously with others can secure against future fiscal disaster." I think it fair to say that Augustine has the better reading of the book.

Part of the problem for Downs is that he does not seem to understand how Tobit has read Proverb 10:2. The author of Tobit understood the Hebrew term tsedaqa (normally, righteousness) in its Second Temple Hebrew sense as almsgiving. This is an extraordinary change. The proverb utilizes a common biblical contrast between wickedness and righteousness (resha and tsedaqa). But Tobit glosses this as a contrast between "treasuries of wickedness" and "good treasuries funded by alms." A similar exegetical reasoning lies behind the teaching of Sirach 29:11-13. One gathers from these two books that our proverb has been reread as: "treasuries of wickedness provide no benefit; treasuries funded by alms deliver from death." As Klaus Koch has argued, and most NT scholars have agreed, the gloss found in Tobit provides the background for the concept of a "treasury in heaven" that will appear in Rabbinic texts and the Synoptic Gospels. After all, what are these "good treasuries" but the source of Tobit's miraculous healing, an action the author understands as a raising from the dead? Remarkably, Downs rejects all of this and argues that Tobit and Sirach have no connection whatsoever with the concept of a divine treasury; their concern is with conventional human reciprocity. As a result of this reading, the distinctive contribution of Second Temple Judaism to the thought-world of the New Testament and early Christianity is lost. No longer does the reader stand astonished like Augustine before the unfathomable grace of God; all that one sees now is conventional intra-human exchange. It is passing strange that an evangelical scholar would adopt such a secularizing reading.

Another place where Downs' weakness in Second Temple Judaism is evident is in his exegesis of Daniel 4:27 [v. 24 in MT], one of the most influential texts in the early Church and a text to which Downs devotes numerous pages. This text might be translated: "redeem (p-r-q) your sins with alms (ts-d-q); your iniquities with mercy to the poor." It should be noted that this is one of the most disputed texts in the 16th century, for the verse suggests the possibility that mercy to the poor can have a material effect on the process of being forgiven. Protestant commentators of the 16th and 17th centuries spilled bottles and bottles of ink trying to refute this possibility. A hefty monograph could be written on the religious wars waged over this verse.

Jewish scholars, who are happily immune to these denominational controversies, are agreed that the verse provides us with the first clear usage of the root ts-d-q with its later Rabbinic meaning of "alms." (True, the verse is written in Aramaic, but Jewish Aramaic of this period was always under the heavy influence of Hebrew. There are, for example, Second Temple texts in which scholars debate whether the language of composition was Hebrew or Aramaic. The cross fertilization of the two languages was that extensive.) This is due, in part, to a realization that the Hebrew language underwent an enormous shift in this era. As James Kugel has put the matter: "many words common in biblical texts [were] replaced by other words; even such common ideas as "time," "much," "get," "take," "need," "want," and others were different." To this list we could add the words "sin," "forgiveness," and "salvation." The challenge for those reading texts like Daniel is determining whether the standard biblical meaning of such words is in play or whether Second Temple usage has taken over. This can often be difficult to decide.

In the case of Daniel, several pieces of evidence suggest that we understand the Aramaic word tsidqa [Hebrew, tsedaqa] in its newer sense of a merciful deed. First, the term already has that meaning in a number of contemporary Jewish sources. The usage is, in fact, quite widespread. Second, as the Israeli scholar Avigdor Hurvitz has shown, the term is used in parallel to an expression ("show mercy to the poor") that already means "provide the poor with material goods" in a number of late biblical texts (e.g., Prov. 19:17). Finally, the term used for forgiveness, p-r-q, is the normal Aramaic term (in both the Eastern and Western dialects) for redemption. Hence the extremely common Aramaic words, paroqa ("redeemer") and purqana ("redemption"). The Aramaic translations of the Hebrew term for redeeming a debt-slave (see Lev. 25) use just this term. The basic move made here is to treat sin as a type of "debt" that must either be paid off or remitted. As New Testament scholars have noted, this metaphor informs the imagery of the Lord's Prayer: "remit our debts as we remit the debts we hold against others." Raymond Brown once wrote that this usage of the noun debt "has a Semitic flavor; for in secular Greek 'debt' has no religious coloring." He added that the same thing was true for the Greek verb for remission. Its religious sense in the Gospels was obviously "under Hebrew influence." What is truly puzzling about Downs' treatment is that he passes over all these data about the usage of p-r-q in Aramaic. And to make matters even odder, he argues that the introduction of an economic metaphor into this passage is the work of the Greek translator (!) rather than the Semitic author himself. Prof. Brown, call your office! Downs is unaware of how the verb works in its larger Aramaic setting. If he wishes to argue that the financial nuance is due to Greek influence, it is incumbent upon him to show why the Aramaic would not have provided that.

When Downs gets to the central part of his book, the treatment of the New Testament and early Christian literature, the exegetical results are of a higher quality. But his inability to grasp the central concerns of the Jewish sources continues to dog him. One feature that struck the Gospel writers was the cruciform character of Proverbs 10:2. The text taught that the way to true financial security (eventually, eternal life) was radically counterintuitive: one had to give away earthly riches. I think it is safe to say few of us would want to hear such advice from a financial advisor! It is no surprise that echoes of this teaching can be heard in the story of the Rich Young Man, for it fits perfectly with the paradoxical character of the Gospel: to gain your life you must lose it. The impact of this teaching on Jesus is missed entirely by Downs because he fails to see how this Proverb was read and transmitted in contemporary Jewish sources. I might add that the loss here is not merely at the level of a small exegetical detail. Rather, one can see in this material one of the major reasons why almsgiving developed an atoning function. By giving alms to the poor, the Christian was participating in the cruciform mystery of the God who revealed himself in Jesus Christ. Showing acts of mercy toward the downtrodden was integral to the process of deification in early Christian spirituality.

On the other hand, when Downs gets to the letters of Paul (especially his treatment of 1 Tim. 6 and 1 Peter), the results are far better and readers will learn a great deal from his expert guidance. One of Downs' most important contributions is the acknowledgement of the atoning function of almsgiving in early Christian materials, an admission that few Protestant scholars have been willing to foreground and defend. In Roman Garrison's work on this subject, the most recent examination of similar sources, the atonement dimension was something of an embarrassment. Garrison feared that any attention given to salvific deeds on the part of human actors might qualify the singularity of Christ's atoning work. Such worries do not bother Downs in the least; his treatment of many of these texts is quite refreshing and illuminating.

In the course of his book, Downs takes several opportunities to contest a claim I have made about financial metaphors in my two previous books on Sin and Charity. As is true in all scholarly inquiry, there is plenty of room for disagreement. Downs makes numerous points against me that subsequent readers will have to judge on their own. There is not space here to rehearse all of his worries, but I would counsel readers to compare the contribution of Downs with that of Peter Brown. Brown notes that none of the standard dictionaries of the early Church have an entry on the treasury of heaven. The financial dimension of charity, Brown contends, has been expunged from the record in secondary scholarship in spite of its marked significance in the sources themselves. The discomfort of scholars with the concept, Brown contends, has had a deleterious effect on how early Christian charity is described.

One of the more surprising metaphors found among early Christian thinkers is the notion that a gift to the poor was a loan to God. Proverbs 19:17 is often cited to support this point, but it is important to note that Pentateuchal law had already put a special emphasis on the role of non-interest loans to assist the poor. What is added in Second Temple Judaism is the construal that God is the ultimate guarantor of these loans. Sirach 29:1-21 provides elegant testimony to this development. The idea picked up momentum in the Patristic tradition and eventually passed over into early Islam. "Your alms are like loans," wrote St. Ephrem the Syrian, "in every location they enrich those who take them, while to you belongs the capital and interest. What you offer as a loan returns to you." Or consider these surprising words of St. Augustine: "Give a little and receive on a grand scale. Look how your interest is mounting up! Give temporal wealth and claim eternal interest, give the earth and gain heaven. 'Whom shall I give it to?' did you ask? The Lord himself comes forward to ask you for a loan [cf. Matt. 25:34-36]. Listen to the scripture telling you how to make the Lord your debtor, 'anyone who gives alms to the poor is lending to the Lord [Prov. 19:17].' " The linkage Augustine makes between Matthew 25 and Proverbs 19 can be found in Irenaeus (and Richard Hays has recently argued it was presumed by Matthew himself!) and circulated widely in early Christian thought.

Downs claims that I have overstated the importance of these financial metaphors in early Jewish and Christian texts. But if I am wrong, then one is faced with a considerable problem: how do we account for their central importance in a region spanning from the coast of Spain to the Iranian plateau? Does this remarkable datum emerge out of nowhere in the 3rd and 4th centuries? Is it some sort of "spontaneous [theological] combustion" occurring from one end of the Roman Empire to the other? One would gather so from Downs. From the last page of his book to the opening pages of those by Brown stands a deep chasm. The story Downs wishes to tell leaves us unprepared for the world Peter Brown has so brilliantly described.

Gary Anderson is Hesburgh Professor of Catholic Theology, Biblical Studies, and Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity at the University of Notre Dame.

Most ReadMost Shared