Takeaway: The variety of ways that the Christian church understands wealth and economics has a long history.
One of the reasons that we should read Christian history is because it can give us context for our own modern issues.
Because there are limited sources for late Roman history, Brown uses a variety of historical methods. Most interesting for me was the personal narrative of Christians, Augustine, Ambrose, and a number of people that I had no knowledge of prior to this book.
Culture has always influenced Christianity. So late Roman culture expected those of great wealth to give gifts to the city either through the games and circuses or through community building projects.
Christianity was one of the early religious movements that valued gifts to the poor because they were poor. Rome gave yearly food stipends to the citizens, but it was not because those citizens were poor (most who received them were not poor and most poor were not citizens).
But very early, there were movements that were trying to reflect the early church (through the descriptions in the book of Acts and tradition) by living communally and serving the poor. At the same time other Christians valued a paid clergy or grand church buildings or other projects.
The conflicts come when different Christians valued different uses for money, or viewed wealth itself differently, or when cultural values outside of the church community conflicted with the values in the church community.
As one small example there was a very wealthy couple that was convinced that they should give away all of their wealth to the poor. However, this was just before and the sack of Rome. So they tried to release 8000 slaves and give away all their money right as the city was under siege and the civil authorities were trying to raise money to ransom the city. The couple did not donate to the ransom fund (because it was not for the poor) and their released slaves were not necessarily happy to be released (because the siege meant there was little work or food and previously they had been at least cared for).
My knowledge of late Roman history is pretty poor so I cannot really evaluate Brown’s historical skills well. Peter Brown has a very different perspective about the growth of Christianity and the number of Christians that may have been wealthy by the era of Constantine then Rodney Stark presents in the Triumph of Christianity. Both are well known scholars in their fields, but this is exactly the type of interaction that is helpful, for a non-professional scholar to get in idea about where the state of scholarship is at.
I cannot really evaluate the original sources (I don’t speak or read the languages, I cannot devote the time to research, I do not have the evaluative powers), so all that I can do is evaluate the academic work.
There is also a very different perspective on Augustine. Brown says that while Augustine essentially turned his bishop’s role (and home) into a monastery, he did not have designs on getting other local clergy to renounce marriage or live as celibates. But that is exact opposite of what Henry Chadwick in Very Short Introduction to Augustine said.
So which was it? Was Augustine essentially a monk that also worked as a bishop and was just trying to have a community around him to support his work and ministry, or was he trying to convert all clergy to a monastic lifestyle?
This is a fairly long book (806 pages or 31 hours of audio), so it may be more detail than many would like. However, if you are interested in early Christianity and/or Christian understanding of wealth and economics this is a helpful.
The publisher provided a PDF copy of the book through Netgalley for purposes of review. However I did not read the PDF and purchased a copy of the audiobook when it was on sale at Audible.com.
Other Reviews of Through The Eye of a Needle
- Excerpt of Through The Eye of a Needle at Christianity Today
- History Today Review
- The American Scholar Review
- The Guardian Review