Jesus preached the Kingdom of God, calling for social justice, while Paul wrote about theology … or so a common refrain goes. But is it true? Bruce Longenecker, in Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World, presents a compelling case that this is not true.
Part of the challenge in New Testament scholarship is being clear by what we mean when we say “the poor.” Some scholars have been inclined to believe that the top 1% of society was "the wealthy" and everyone else was "the poor." Others, like Steven J. Friesen, have done extensive work in stratifying the Greco-Roman world. Longenecker builds on Friesen’s work and proposes the following economic scale. The categories are Friesen’s. The estimated percentages of the total population are Longenecker’s:
- ES1 – Imperial Elites (.04%) imperial dynasty, Roman senatorial families, a few retainers, local royalty, a few freedpersons
- ES2 – Regional or provincial elites (1%) equestrian families, provincial officials, some retainers, some decurial families, some freedpersons, some retired military officers
- ES3 – Municipal elites (1.76%) most decurial families, wealthy men and women who do not hold office, some freedpersons, some retainers, some veterans, some merchants
- ES4 – Moderate Surplus (15%) most merchants, some traders, some freedpersons, some artisans (especially those who employ others), and military veterans
- ES5 – Stable near subsistence level (with reasonable hope of remaining above the minimum level to sustain life) (27%) many merchants and traders, regular wage earners, artisans, large shop owners, freedpersons, and some farm families
- ES6 – At subsistence level (and often below minimum level to sustain life) (30%) small farm families, laborers (skilled and unskilled), artisans (esp. those employed by others), wage earners, most merchants and traders, small shop/tavern owners
- ES7 – Below subsistence level (25%) some farm families, unattached widows, orphans, beggars, disable, unskilled day laborers, prisoners
Longenecker also talks about an elongated spectrum for ES4, with an upper and lower group. Paul was likely from ES4. Many of the household churches were probably of this status, but by no means all. Jesus was from ES5. When Jesus talked about the poor, he was most likely talking about ES6 and ES7. It is also possible that the percentage of people in various strata were different in Palestine compared to urban centers.
One of the challenges with using economic strata is that it imposes somewhat of a Marxian lens onto the ancient world. The Greco-Roman world was not so much defined by class as it was by an intricate web of pyramidal patron to client relationships. A slave could be economically comfortable while a free farmer may have been living on the edge. Still, when we come to the question of who were “the poor,” it gives us a clearer picture.
There is also an interesting discussion about what level of charity and generosity was present in ancient cultures. According to the analysis in this book, the tendency by some to say that there was no charity and generosity until the Judeo-Christian movement is an overstatement. (For instance, why were there beggars if no one gave to them?) There were measures to care for the poor but the Judeo-Christian movement was unique in both the extent to which the poor were valued and in the centrality that caring for the poor played in their communities.
Longenecker begins his analysis of Paul and the poor by taking a look at Paul’s famous comment in Galatians 2:10:
“They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.”
For much of church history, interpreters have said that Paul was referring to the poor in Jerusalem … not the poor generically. Paul was speaking to the particular context. This view is held by many prominent scholars today. Yet Longenecker shows that there is no evidence of this view prior to the 4th Century and that interpreters prior to that time interpreted it as though it generically meant “the poor.” He builds a convincing case that, far from addressing an isolated context, Paul was articulating something that he saw as central to the gospel.
But if there was concern for the poor, it was primarily for the poor as they became part of the Jesus-movement. Longenecker writes:
In general, it is most likely that care for the poor was primarily practiced intra-communally within Jesus-groups. In view of the huge number of destitute and poor within the ancient urban context, and the relatively limited resources of Jesus-groups, it would be foolhardy to imagine much other than an intra-communal practice of extending support in limited supply to a few within a community. Anything beyond that was probably unlikely to transpire. (291)
Although broader concern for the poor of society fit with the grand Judeo-Christian narrative, the Jesus-groups were limited in what they could address. Longenecker also writes:
At no point do we get the sense that the ES4 members were selling all of their resources in an effort to equalize the economic profile of all Jesus-followers. There is no sense that Paul expected all members of urban Jesus-groups to pool their resources and distribute them equally between all of the members. Economic differences continued to exist within communities of Jesus-followers that Paul established, and Paul imagined nothing to be wrong with that, as long as the needs of the needs of the poor were being met. (288-289)
At some point I think he comments that it was neither “communism nor charity.” The poor were cared for in a context where people were responsible for themselves (you don’t work, you don’t eat). People reaped rewards according to their status and their labor. But the Jesus-communities were also inclusive of the poor with dignified means of caring for the poor as full partners in the community.
The book is a treasure trove of economic and sociological analysis. I’ve only highlighted a couple of key points. At the end of the book he summarizes his analysis in nine key observations:
- Paul, the follower of Jesus and apostle to gentiles of the Greco-Roman world, was concerned about the plight of the poor in the urban contexts in which he operated.
- Although this was not his sole interest, and although he was not forced to deal with it extensively in his extant letters, care for the economically needy was a matter that he deemed to be characteristic of the identity of Jesus-followers.
- Communities of Jesus-followers that Paul established were expected to offer care for the poor – albeit in their own groups in the first instance, although theoretically beyond those confines as well, if/as resources permitted.
- Paul shared this conviction with other sectors of the early Jesus-movement that were committed to caring for the poor, and with leading figures of the early Jesus-movement – including its influential “founder” (i.e., Jesus) and that founder’s influential brother (i.e., James).
- With Paul properly situated in this respect, care for the poor is recognized to have been practiced fairly ubiquitously across the spectrum of first-century proto-orthodox circles of the Jesus-movement.
- The early Jesus-movement, including Paul’s own mission to Greco-Roman urbanities, embodied and exemplified values long embedded with mainstream forms of Early Judaism.
- Rightly or wrongly, Paul and other leading figures of the early Jesus-movement imagined (along with some other Jews of their day) that care for the poor was not a notable feature of Greco-Roman paganism.
- Paul imagined care for the poor among gentile communities of Jesus-followers to be an expression and embodiment of the invading triumph of the deity of Israel who had made himself known in the scriptures of Israel, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and now through the Spirit/spirit that enlivened small groups of Jesus-followers.
- Proto-orthodox forms of Christianity from the second through fourth centuries are known to have enormously augmented the strategies and institutions for caring for the poor to an unprecedented extent in the Greco-Roman world. Those efforts are organically related to more low-level forms of similar efforts evident throughout the early Jesus-movement, with Paul taking a prominent lead in spearheading such efforts among the gentile urbanites of the Greco-Roman world.
This book does a masterful job of opening a window into the socio-economic context of the early Christian world. Its extensive documentation makes it a rich resource for pursuing more study. In case you can’t tell, I think this book is a must read.