The “pious poor” and the “wicked rich”

[The freed slave, craftsman Titus Aelius Evangelius processes wool, 2nd century AD. Roman, Marble. Mediterranean Museum, Sweden—Lokal Profil / [CC BY-SA 3.0] Wikimedia]

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. (1 Tim. 6:10)

How to deal with riches formed an important aspect of Christian discipleship from the very beginnings of the Christian movement. Jesus’s teachings demanded a kind of discipleship that barred any competing commitment to people or things other than himself, including money and possessions. 

Early Christians believed that the Christian attitude toward wealth and its use critically distinguished them from non-Christians. When they thought about riches and poverty, they had to grapple with and respond to the clear call of the social and material responsibilities of the gospel.

Desirable goods

Christians lived and operated within the existing social, economic, political, religious, and cultural framework of the Mediterranean world, dominated by the Roman Empire. Rome had an advanced agrarian economy in which agriculture, business, and trade were based on scarcity and mainly used for consumption and self-sufficiency. 

For ancient Romans any desirable good—such as wealth, health, land, honor, friendship, respect, status, power, or privilege—existed in finite quantities; a person or family could acquire or increase these goods only at the expense of others. One could only acquire wealth justly or innocently through inheritance or self-sufficient production. 

Trade was usually associated with pettiness and greed because its goal was making a profit. Most Romans viewed the rich or those getting richer negatively. Philosophers and moralists regarded generosity as the quintessential virtue of a good aristocratic man, and love of wealth (greed)—manifested either in miserliness or prodigality (luxury)—a classic vice. Following Aristotle they regarded money as sterile and valuable only for its utility as a medium of exchange.

Romans both reinforced class hierarchy and dealt with social and economic inequalities through the patronage system. The patron, the social superior, provided his client, the dependent, with protection and economic and political benefits, such as food, land, housing, recommendations, appointments to office, and even inheritance (see pp. 6–7). The client in return was obliged to return the favor with loyalty, votes, and praise, which enhanced the patron’s honor and status. The emperor served as the patron par excellence of the whole empire by providing plebs (freeborn citizens) with basic urban amenities such as food, water, housing, baths, and entertainment. In addition to personal patronage, aristocrats provided public benefactions for their cities, towns, and countrysides throughout the empire: baths, libraries, water, theaters, games, and festivals. They garnered gratitude and honor in return, maintaining and enhancing their power and status. 

Patrons, however, did not consider the recipients’ actual needs as a factor in distribution. In the system of “Roman Justice,” they received proportionally to their status, not their need. Therefore the working poor, though ubiquitous, received gifts as “justice” only if they were part of and participated in the civic community; the destitute and beggars were excluded from the civic community. The poor were ever-present but largely remained invisible.

The afflicted and oppressed

Although early Christians engaged with these realities and moral teachings, they primarily inherited Jewish teachings and practices. The Torah reveals Yahweh’s absolute ownership of the earth and affirms the goodness of the physical creation and material prosperity as God’s blessings to the righteous for their obedience. 

The Torah also underscores God’s special care for and protection of the poor, widows, orphans, and strangers by establishing social obligations toward them in a covenant community. The wisdom tradition enjoined the rich to do justice, be generous to the poor, and care for them, and it warned them of dishonesty involving wealth. 

The prophets fiercely denounced the wealthy and powerful for their idolatry and its by-product—social and economic injustice and oppression of the poor in particular. These prophetic oracles against the oppressive rich are juxtaposed with the psalmists’ self-identification with the poor and needy, most frequently in psalms of lament. 

Being helpless and needy, the poor cry out and turn to God for help, appealing to God’s righteousness and salvation; God is the just defender and protector of the poor and deliverer of the oppressed. The poor are identified as the humble, the afflicted, the oppressed, and the righteous who turn to God for help and enjoy God’s special favor. 

This emerging notion of “the pious poor and the wicked rich” developed significantly in the postexilic Second Temple period (586 BC–70 AD), envisioning a “great reversal” of the respective earthly fortunes of the pious poor and the wicked rich in the last day.

In first-century Palestine, the concentration of wealth in the hands of a small group of pro-Roman landowning aristocracy and the general impoverishment of landless peasants, the majority of the population, fueled a serious volatility under Roman occupation. Jesus’s early followers, believing that the eschatalogical new age had dawned with him, inherited the tradition of “the pious poor and the oppressive rich.” 

In the Gospels, while Jesus associates with the wealthy and powerful and is often a recipient of people’s hospitality and financial support for his traveling ministry, he speaks to his disciples (and the crowds) about the antithesis between serving wealth (mamōnas) and serving God (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:13). He tells a rich man to sell his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow him to inherit eternal life (Matt. 19:21; Mark 10:21; Luke 18:22). 

Whereas the poor are the recipients of Jesus’s good news and beatitudes with a promise of God’s kingdom (Matt. 5:3; 11:5; Luke 6:20; 7:22–23), Jesus pronounces woe to the rich (Luke 6:24) and the virtual impossibility of them entering God’s kingdom (e.g., Matt. 19:24). As he warns of the lure of wealth (e.g., Mark 4:19), he stresses laying up lasting heavenly treasure rather than perishable earthly treasure by giving alms (Luke 12.33; Matt. 6:19–20).

No needy among them

Although early Christian groups did not formally identify themselves as the “poor,” in general they belonged to the lower strata of society. The early Jerusalem assemblies in Acts had special concerns for meeting the needs of the community members: they held all things in common and redistributed possessions to all according to each one’s need, to the effect that “there were no needy persons among them” (Acts 2:42–47; 4:32–37). 

While members of Paul’s urban communities were predominantly free laborers, artisans, slaves, and recent immigrants, moderate wealth existed in house churches. Some could offer their places for assemblies and hospitalities for Paul and his associates and act as “patrons” for the communities (Phoebe in Rom. 16:1–2; Gaius in Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor. 1:14; Philemon in Philem. 1–2).

In this context Paul taught about charity and hospitality for fellow believers, concerns shared by the rest of the New Testament (Heb. 13:2, 16; 1 Pet. 4:9; 3 John 5–8). His emphases included caring for the poor (Gal. 2:10); working with one’s own hands as to avoid idleness and dependence (Eph. 4:28; 1 Thess. 4:11–12; 2 Thess. 3:6–12); warnings against greed (1 Cor. 5:11; 1 Tim. 3:8; Titus 1:7); and generosity and hospitality toward others, particularly fellow believers (Rom. 12:8, 13; 1 Cor. 16:2; 2 Cor. 8:2; Eph. 4:28), rooted in Christ’s own generosity (2 Cor. 8:9). Paul took up a collection for the needy believers in Jerusalem (Rom. 15:26, 31; 1 Cor. 16:3; 2 Cor. 8:14; cf. Gal. 2:10) as a demonstration of unity between Jewish and Gentile congregations and as a display of legitimacy of his apostolic ministry (to the Gentiles). 

His and other New Testament writers’ pastoral letters exhort Christians to “do good works/deeds” (i.e., almsgiving/charity for those in need, Titus 2:14, 3:8; Gal. 6:9–10). Rich believers are especially commanded to be humble, put their hope in God rather than in the uncertainty of riches, and practice generosity (1 Tim. 6:17–18), which will result in spiritual blessing in the age to come (1 Tim. 6:19). 

Warnings against “love of money” and “pursuing dishonest gain” are prominent in qualifications for church leadership (1 Tim. 3:3, 8; cf. 6:10; Heb. 13:5a; 1 Pet. 5:2). This directly contrasts with descriptions of false teachers and the people in the last days as “lovers of money” and those seeking “dishonest gain” (2 Tim. 3:2, 4; Titus 1:11; cf. 2 Pet. 2:3, 14). 

To the ends of the earth 

In the second and third centuries, the Christian church witnessed significant external and internal growth. It made substantial strides in urban centers of the Greek-speaking world (especially Asia, Egypt, and Greece), Syria, and the Latin West (Italy and North Africa in particular). Some major missionary activities reached the members of the upper strata, especially in Alexandria, Syria, Rome, and North Africa; but converts to Christianity came from many social classes. Despite pagan critic Celsus’s scorn that Christianity attracted only the uneducated, slaves, outcasts, and women, the Christian social makeup actually resembled the typical social pyramid of the Roman Empire: a vast majority in the lower strata, with a growing minority from aristocratic elite and subelite middling groups. 

The emergence of refined Christian apologists in the late second century reflected not only the development of Christian literary culture but the beginning of Christian penetration into the educated rank of society. 

Particularly prominent were conversions of high-status women, the remarkable involvement of Christians in literary texts and activities, and increasing Christian financial and organizational capacity, which indicated a fair number of Christians from the top 10 percent of Roman society. This disturbed and threatened conservative pagan elites. Philosophers such as Celsus and Porphyry targeted Christianity with philosophical and social polemic. 

Jesus the savior

Christians during this period produced literature interpreting and applying for their community the sayings of the Lord and the letters of the apostles while still “strangers” in the empire. Salvation for these early Christians occurred within a community context and necessarily entailed social responsibility, as well as personal virtues, as a testament to faith in God and Jesus Christ. 

The early church proclaimed Jesus Christ as the Savior whose revelation of God and sacrifice on the cross provided his followers the once-for-all atonement for sin that began a life of faith through baptism. In the second century, baptism, which marked a new beginning, increasingly symbolized the “seal of salvation” that brought about remission of sins, rebirth, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. 

This salvation, a lifelong process, would involve and demand a steady progress in “taking off an old self and putting on a new self” and the persistent cultivation of spiritual and ethical virtues in community—both internal and external works attesting to one’s faith in God. Calls for sharing material resources (koinonia) and almsgiving took on an increasingly salvific significance, especially in dealing with the problem of sin after baptism. By the mid-third century, as a growing institution, the church centralized its charitable ministries under the supervision of the clergy—the bishops in particular. 

Early Christians thus bequeathed to later generations a tradition of appealing to people from all sorts of financial backgrounds—from aristocrats of means to slaves who did not even own themselves—along with preserving from their Jewish heritage a special concern for the poor. As the movement as a whole grew wealthier, it still had to grapple with the clear statement of its founder: “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt. 6:24b). CH 

By Helen Rhee

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #147 in 2023]

Helen Rhee is professor of the history of Christianity at Westmont College, the author of Loving the Poor, Saving the Rich and Early Christian Literature, and the editor of Wealth and Poverty in Early Christianity, from which this article is adapted with the kind permission of 1517 Media. She is an ordained Free Methodist minister.
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