Charity, Reward, and Atonement in Early Christianity

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
David J. Downs
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , April
     350 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


David Downs’s book, Alms, investigates the emergence of atoning and meritorious almsgiving in the first two centuries of the Christian movement (5). His comprehensive discussion extends from the Old Testament to Cyprian, the third-century bishop of Carthage, whose radical treatise on this topic, De opere et eleemosynis, provides a suitable stopping point for Downs’s argument.

The first three chapters discuss the roots of meritorious almsgiving in early Christianity. Downs discusses the emphasis, and at times requirement, in Judaism to support the poor, as seen in Deuteronomy, Psalms, and Daniel 4. Other works, from both apocryphal texts and rabbinic literature, also help him demonstrate the antecedents and roots of almsgiving in Judaism. These texts demonstrate a direct reward after death for the rich who provide for the poor.

Chapters 4 and 5 cover texts from the New Testament and the Apostolic Age (33-100 CE). Here, Downs first discusses several passages from the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, demonstrating that these sources regularly, and sometimes emphatically, emphasize the connection between caring for the poor and divine recompense. For example, as in the Jewish texts mentioned above, the trend of promised reward (in the eschatological sense) is given to those who provide on earth (139). Paul’s letters also support this position, especially 1 Timothy 6-19.

The final chapters, 6 to 8, cover almsgiving in early Christianity, which is the crux of Alms. First, Downs looks at the reception of 1 Peter 4:8, highlighting the shift in Christianity which emphasizes Jesus Christ’s role in redemption as opposed to almsgiving. However, several of these works still state that almsgiving does cover a multitude of sins and helps in the cleansing process. Next, Downs discusses several stances on meritorious and atoning almsgiving held by 2nd and 3rd century theologians. In doing so, he demonstrates that early Christianity turned to the tradition and scriptural exegesis to support its theological positions regarding the merit or rewards of almsgiving. His discussion here is particularly strong, given the wealth of sources he utilizes to support his claim, including the Didache, Ignatius’ Letters, and 2 Clement.

Downs’ work is a great contribution to scholarship on almsgiving and atonement. His book provides a more in-depth and comprehensive investigation of the roots and antecedents of atoning almsgiving than recent books such as Peter Brown’s Ransom of the Soul (Princeton University Press, 2015). Moreover, the scope of Brown’s work is chronologically later and geographically more Western than Downs’s, which also makes Alms innovative. Indeed, Downs is right in stating that Roman Garrison’s Redemptive Almsgiving (JSOT Press, 1993) is the last work covering his chronology and topic; however, Garrison attributed several of his conclusions to Western sources, which Downs does not agree with given that the majority of their shared sources are from North African figures (Clement, Origen, Cyprian). Thus, Downs masterfully fills a lacunae in current scholarship, which is most appreciated. His discussion of technical vocabulary, such as ἐλεημοσύνη, is a particular strength of this work and will help experts and graduate students in the field.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul A. Brazinski is a Teaching Fellow and Ph.D. Church History Candidate (ABD) at The Catholic University of America.

Date of Review: 
August 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David J. Downs is Associate Professor of New Testament Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.