Early Christian texts on poverty and hunger are well worth reading today, and many are available in English. They offer us voices of our spiritual "kin" from a different time and place who faced many of the same problems that we do. Their responses may be useful as we pray, contemplate need, share with the poor, and "do" the liturgy of service, especially if we draw on such texts with due caution in order to avoid perpetuating their mistakes. We must recognize, for example, the limitations of their framework (patronage, slavery), their failure to empower social change, and their all-male blindness to the effects of poverty as it was (and is) suffered disproportionately by women. We must also avoid treating such sources as if they are a canonical "fix-all" ideal. Like us, their authors argued among themselves, struggled with limited resources, and differed about who was "worthy," how much to give, and what responses worked best. Indeed the variety of their voices can encourage us in our own contemporary efforts at global inter-faith dialogue as it relates to treating the bodies of the poor and needy as global and sacred space.14
Susan R. Holman is author of The Hungry are Dying (2001) and God Knows There's Need (2009), both from Oxford University Press, and editor of Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society (BakerAcademic, 2008). She currently serves as an academic writer/editor at the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.
1. Lee Palmer Wandel, Always among us: Images of the poor in Zwingli's Zurich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) 40 (n.17) [Luther] and 62 [Zwingli].
2. Oecolampadius, Always among us, p. 41. For an English translation of Gregory's Oration 14, see Brian E. Daley, SJ, Gregory of Nazianzus (NY: Routledge, 2006) 76–97.
3. Elsie Anne McKee, John Calvin on the diaconate and liturgical almsgiving (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1984).
4. All examples are discussed in more detail in Susan R. Holman, The Hungry are Dying: Beggars and Bishops in Roman Cappadocia (NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), and idem, God Knows There's Need: Christian Responses to Poverty (NY: Oxford University Press, 2009).
5. Pontius, "The life and passion of Cyprian, bishop and martyr," trans. Ernest Wallis, AnteNicene Fathers series, volume 5, 270–271.
6. John Chrysostom, Homily on Hebrews 10.4 (PG 53.88), trans. Rudolf Brändle, "‘This sweetest passage:' Matthew 25:31–46 and assistance to the poor in the homilies of John Chrysostom," in Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society, ed. Susan R. Holman (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerAcademic, 2008) 130.
7. Didascalia Apostolorum: The Syriac Version Translated and Accompanied by the Verona Latin Fragments, trans. R. Hugh Connolly (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1929) esp.130–141.
8. For example, in the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, the apostle Thomas, ministering in India, promises to build a king a magnificent "mansion" but in fact spends the king's money on perpetual donations to the needy. Enraged when he discovers Thomas's duplicity, the king is prepared to kill him until the king's brother has a near-death experience in which he sees the heavenly mansion for himself.
9. Clement of Alexandria, "The Rich Man's Salvation," trans. G. W. Butterworth (Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1919); see also Annewies van den Hoek, "Widening the eye of the needle: Wealth and poverty in the works of Clement of Alexandria," in Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society, pp. 67–75.
10. The most complete primary source for the story of Basil's ptochotropheion is Gregory of Nazianzus's Oration 43, his funeral oration on Basil, trans. Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2, vol. 7, 395–422, and in Leo P. McCauley, trans., Funeral Orations by St. Gregory Nazianzen and St. Ambrose (Fathers of the Church 22; NY: Fathers of the Church, 1953) 27–99.
11. For an excellent study on the early Christian language of compassion, see Paul M. Blowers, "Pity, empathy, and the tragic spectacle of human suffering: Exploring the emotional culture of compassion in late antique Christianity" [2009 NAPS Presidential Address], Journal of Early Christian Studies 18/1 (2010) 1–27.
12. The linguistic focus on justice is discussed briefly in God Knows There's Need (see esp. 87–90) and more extensively in Susan R. Holman, "Healing the world with righteousness? The language of social justice in early Christian homilies," in Charity and Giving in Monotheistic Religions, ed. Miriam Frenkel and Yaacov Lev (Studien zur Geschichte und Kultur des islamischen Orients 22; Berlin and NY: Walter de Gruyter, 2009), pp. 89–110.
13. See esp. Robert Doran, trans., Stewards of the poor: The Man of God, Rabbula, and Hiba in Fifth-Century Edessa (Cistercian Studies Series; Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Studies, 2006).
14. For more on this, see Susan R. Holman, "God and the poor in early Christian thought," in God in Early Christian Thought: Essays in Memory of Lloyd G. Patterson, ed. Andrew B. McGowan, Brian E. Daley, SJ, and Timothy J. Gaden (Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae; Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009), pp. 297–321.
© June 2010
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 10, Issue 6