Did the Early Church Help the Poor?
Peter J. Leithart
July 3, 2012
In a 2010 essay on “Models of Gift Giving in the Preaching of Leo the Great” in the Journal of Early Christian Studies, Bronwen Neil answers the title question with a depressing, Not much. While the early church took over the Jewish and New Testament rhetoric on behalf of the poor, in practice the church’s relief was stymied by a Roman political system that gave favors to citizens and exploited the weak and a got ensnared in a patronage system that fit ill with biblical models of charity. Preaching favored the poor; but that didn’t translate into a transformation of their conditions or of the ways they had been cared for in earlier periods of Roman history.
Neil concludes, “How successful were fifth-century bishops as champions of the poor? . . . their power to bring about social change, even if they wanted to, was constrained by the imperial administration’s reluctance to reform a tax system that exploited the powerless, and especially those without property. Even those bishops who advocated on behalf of the poor had to work within an imperial framework which accorded them no real power. . . .
“Bishops co-opted the Psalmist’s and Hebrew prophets’ appeals for justice and mercy as images of their own generosity and the generosity they hoped to inspire in their audience. In this way, they sought to model giving to the poor according to much older Jewish traditions, especially in their role as judges in the episcopal court. Their homilies were usually directed towards people whose means to give were much greater than their own, the aristocratic converts who were faced with various models of withdrawal from society. As we have seen in relation to Demetrias Anicia, the model favored by the majority in the west involved minimal self-sacrifice, and respected the traditional need of donors for positive publicity for acts of euergetism.”
Also, “we cannot interpret an emphasis in homilietical texts “as evidence of a change of heart towards the poor or of a great upheaval in social relations . . . . The legal evidence concurs that citizens continued to be favored as recipients of imperial largesse and that the status of the plebs sank even lower in the fifth century. The poor as a social-juridical category continued to be discriminated against, and, within religious frameworks, to be judged according to their orthodoxy (whether Jewish or Christian) and moral worthiness. Thus we should interpret the preaching of redemptive almsgiving in fifth-century Christian texts, such as the homilies of Leo the Great, as signaling social stagnation rather than indicating the advent of a new era of generosity to the poor.”
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