Treasure in Heaven

The Holy Poor in Early Christianity

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Peter R. Brown
  • Charlottesville, VA: 
    University of Virginia Press
    , March
     2016.
     192 pages.
     $22.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780813938288.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

With this shorter book, Peter Brown adds to his already substantive work on early Christianity’s intersection with the poor and wealthy classes, giving attention specifically to expectations placed upon monks and clergy in regard to labor and charity. In other works, Brown explores themes of the economically poor and wealthy in early Christianity, his largest contribution being Through the Eye of the Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton University Press, 2012). Presently, in Treasure in Heaven, Brown turns his attention to the emergence of a clergy class “freed from normal work (either fully or in part) through the support of the faithful. This support enabled them to pursue full-time ecclesiastical careers as preachers, teachers, and as administrators of the wealth of the church on behalf of the “real” poor. What we call the “professionalization” of the clergy rested on the decision to treat the clergy as a special kind of poor, supported (like the poor) by the free-will offerings of the faithful” (xiii).

Although I take issue with his treatment of certain New Testament texts, Brown’s extensive knowledge of both early Christian sources and the research of his peers make Treasures in Heaven an excellent guide for scholars interested in understanding the complexities surrounding early Christian professional clergy, the elites upon whom clergy depended, and the imperative to work for a living.

In chapter 1, Brown identifies Christianity’s inconsistent affiliations with wealth and poverty as originating in incompatible traditions attributed to Jesus and Paul. Drawing on Matthew’s account of the Rich Young Man, Brown correctly notes that Jesus presents a challenging principle to renounce material wealth, giving all to the poor, and thus earning “treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21). Brown then contrasts this against Paul’s letters, arguing that for Paul “wealth was not there to be renounced. It was there to be used. Furthermore, it was to be used as much to support religious leaders as to support the poor among the saints [sic] on whose behalf Paul’s appeal had first been launched” (2). In regard to support of religious leaders, Peter Brown repeatedly cites First Corinthians 9:11, “If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits” (e.g. Brown 9, 18, 36).

Unfortunately, there are two underlying problems in this chapter. First, Brown’s treatment of New Testament passages often neglects their literary context; for example, Paul’s appeal in 1 Corinthians 9:11 is part of a larger rhetorical movement that leads to Paul relinquishing his rights to “reap ... material benefits,” stating he would “rather die” than collect from them (1 Corinthians 9:12, 15). Paul’s argument seems to be that even though logic (1 Cor. 9:3-7) and prior tradition (1 Cor. 9:8-14) would justify taking material benefits from his churches, the success of the Gospel requires that he does not (1 Cor. 9:15-18), which is a conclusion that works against Brown’s use of the passage. Second, chapter 1 narrowly focuses on just a few passages (Matthew 19:21; 1 Corinthians 9:11; and Romans 15:26) which on their own give the impression that Jesus and Paul stand in stark contrast to one another; however, both figures have numerous other traditions attributed to them that complicate each with regard to wealth and poverty, for example John 12:1-8 and 1 Timothy 6:9-10. Even though the brevity of Peter Brown’s book would not allow for an extensive treatment of such passages, his argument would have been better served by surveying the overall diversity of the New Testament on matters of wealth and poverty instead of focusing so sharply on a false dichotomy between Jesus and Paul.

However, the rest of the book is not complicated by the aforementioned issues with chapter 1, given each self-contained chapter stands on its own evidence. Chapter 2 explores the presumptions of the wider early Roman empire in which “Christian charity was a markedly ‘countercultural’ activity. It deliberately flouted the expectations of a society that thought of itself as being held together by iron laws of reciprocity. To give to the poor on a regular basis was to throw money into a social void” (22). This same period saw the emergence of professional Christian clergy, a new type of intellectual position operating beyond the confines of—and interpreted by outsiders as an offense to—long established elite classes. The remainder of Treasures in Heaven follows various Christian communities in Syria and Egypt as each develops their expectations for the vocation of monks and clergy throughout the 4th and 5th centuries. Brown examines the extreme example of the Manichaeans (chapter 3) and the similarly leaning Christian communities of Syria (chapter 4) who “shared ... a distinctive way of life, in communities structured in a distinctive manner. These Christian ascetics claimed to be living a life ‘in the likeness of the angels.’ Like angels, they did not work. They expected to be supported by the faithful as part of a spiritual exchange” (38). In contrast, the Life of Anthony and the Lausiac History present Egyptian monks as disciplined workers (chapter 5), which helped to nurture their relationship to others by encouraging reciprocating empathy in the shared vocation of work and giving the monks an earned income with which to donate to the poor (chapter 6). Peter Brown then concludes by ruminating with a wider purview of Asia, Egypt, and Europe, including brief comparisons between Manichaeans, other Christians, and certain Buddhists.

Despite my critique of chapter 1, Peter Brown provides a work that thoughtfully traces complex themes of wealth and poverty. His examination illumines the multifarious nature of early Christianities, especially in Syria and Egypt, as each one contended with notions concerning labor, wealth, and the role of clergy. Furthermore, his book challenges the reader to abandon broad concepts of early Christianity and instead conceive its malleability to evolve successfully within the various landscapes of the eastern and western early Roman Empire.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James W. Yuile is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Hope International University.

Date of Review: 
January 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Brown, Emeritus Professor of History at Princeton University, is the author of The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity and Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD.

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