The Ransom of the Soul

Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Peter Brown
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , April
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Peter Brown’s The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity tells the story of how Christian preachers in the West from the 3rd to 7th centuries promoted prayer, almsgiving, and commemoration at the Eucharist as a way for the living to aid the souls of the dead. Brown’s purpose in the book is not simply to describe the various Christian beliefs of the afterlife during this time, but to answer the question of why certain beliefs stirred up controversy, why others prevailed, and why others were forgotten. In the introduction, Brown discusses how Christian thinkers in the 3rd century were preoccupied with the martyrs and Christ’s second coming, but Western theologians in the 6th and 7th centuries were more interested in the journey of individual souls between death and Christ’s final advent. Chapters 1 through 3 focus on views of the afterlife and habits of giving in Augustine’s North Africa during the late 4th and early 5th century. Chapters 4 and 5 and the epilogue treat these same views in Gaul from the 5th to 7th centuries.

While Brown’s primary aim is to explain how the living could aid the dead according to early Western Christians, he also discusses how sinners were thought to be capable of redeeming their own sins through gifts to the poor. He carefully distinguishes how Christian priests and bishops in different regions stressed different practices of giving based on their local contexts. For example, in North Africa, where the congregations were large and still relatively prosperous, Augustine stressed giving in small but regular sums to atone for small, everyday sins. By contrast, in southern Gaul, which was shaken by several civil wars and barbarian invasions in the early 5th century, bishops, such as Salvian of Marseilles, urged their wealthiest members to donate considerable portions of their wealth to the church to expiate their offenses. 

Brown’s work can be grouped with two distinct bodies of literature: that on early Christian views of the afterlife, which includes works by Brian E. Daley (Hope of the Early Church: A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology, Cambridge University Press, 1991) and Eliezer Gonzalez (The Fate of the Dead in 3rd Century North African Christianity, Mohr Siebeck, 2014), and that on redemptive almsgiving, which includes books by Roman Garrison (Redemptive Almsgiving in Early Christianity, JSOT Press, 1993), Gary Anderson (Sin: A History, Yale University Press, 2009; and Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition, Yale University Press, 2013), and most recently, David J. Downs (Alms: Charity, Reward, and Atonement in Early Christianity, Baylor University Press, 2016). Brown’s contribution to the first body of literature is that he does not simply describe various speculations concerning the afterlife among early and late antique Christians, but also addresses why different people in different regions held these beliefs. His contribution to the second body of literature is that he examines redemptive almsgiving beyond the 3rd century. Although Anderson mentions the views of several 4th-century Christian theologians, he does not treat any Western works from this time period in depth. 

The only significant weakness I find with the book is in chapter 3 where Brown discusses redemptive or “expiatory” almsgiving. Because he relies on Anderson’s earlier works, Brown focuses exclusively on the financial imagery associated with almsgiving (especially 96–98). He discusses the images of almsgiving as paying off the debt of sin (96–102), loaning to God only to be repaid later with extravagant interest (97–98), and storing up treasure in heaven (25–33). Yet early and late antique Christians still frequently employed the older Jewish metaphor of sin as a burden that almsgiving could relieve, as well as a stain that almsgiving could cleanse, a sickness or disease that almsgiving could heal, and a fire that almsgiving could quench. This exclusive focus on the idea of almsgiving as redeeming the donor’s or their loved ones’ post-baptismal sin has led to the mistaken notion that early and late antique pastors saw sin as something that could be dealt with through money alone and ignores other prevalent rhetorical strategies ancient Christians used to promote almsgiving, such as the inculcation of virtue and a shared humanity between the rich and poor. 

Brown even remarks that the idea of almsgiving paying off the debt of sin led to a change in the image of God. Although he does not comment on how people perceived God before this, he explains that God came to be seen as the “‘debt manager’ of the believer (97). While I am uncertain if any early Christian ever referred to God as a “debt manager,” many did, in referencing Proverbs 19:17, speak of God as a debtor who paid lavish interest to those who loaned to him in the person of the poor. Brown mentions this image, and he astutely observes that Christians used these commercial metaphors to convey God’s mercy rather than God’s scrupulosity or exacting nature (98). Still, it is misleading to say that the image of God changed during this time. Rather, the image of God as a debtor was one image among several employed by early and late antique Christians. For example, Augustine, who is the key figure of this chapter, spoke of God as a judge and even as a physician. Just as ancient Christians continued to speak of sin through other than financial terms, so they continued to portray God through images entirely devoid of economic overtones. 

Brown, always a great storyteller, paints a vivid and spell-binding scene for his readers, and he provides plausible reasons why various Christian leaders in the West described the afterlife differently and pushed distinctive giving practices. He has also included an index, a map of the Latin West from 250–650 CE, and a chronology of the major authors and works mentioned in the book to help orient the reader. I would recommend this book not only to those interested in Christian beliefs on the afterlife and redemptive almsgiving, but to anyone interested in the social or religious history of the West during this transformative era.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Becky Walker is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2018



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.