Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World

Book Review

Bruce W. Longenecker, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2010, 400 pp.

It is widely agreed that the apostle Paul’s theological reflections had little to do with social structures and economic issues. This consensus, however, is increasingly being subjected to closer scrutiny.  More recently, Bruce W. Longenecker’s monumental book, Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World challenges long-held assumptions about Paul’s attitudes toward poverty and wealth, demonstrating convincingly that contrary to popular opinion, legitimate concern for the poor was integral to Paul’s understanding of the good news. Chapter 1, “Paul’s Alleged Disregard for the Poor,” articulates the consensus view and sets the stage for the arguments of the following sections.

The book is divided into two sections. Chapters 2 through 5 comprise the first section, “The Poor in their Ancient Places,” an analysis of poverty and charitable initiatives in the Greco-Roman world. The remaining chapters, 6 through 13, “The Poor in Pauline Places,” explores every relevant aspect of poverty in Paul’s conception and ministry. These are followed by three appendices, “An Early Critique of Steven J. Freisen’s 2004 Poverty Scale,” “Non-Pauline Configurations of Generosity and the Mosaic Law,” and “Dating the Origin of Paul’s Collection.”

Chapter 2, “Advanced Agrarianism and Elite Acquisitiveness,” summarizes familiar territory, including Gerhard E. Lenski’s outline of advanced agrarian cultures in his 1966 book Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification. Perhaps the most interesting chapter in this section, chapter 3, “Scaling Poverty in the Greco-Roman World,” together with the additional argumentation of Appendix 1, models a foundational metric for studying economic stratification in the Roman empire. His concern is to avoid simplistic binary conceptions of the distribution of wealth. He does this by building on Steven J. Friesen’s seven-point poverty scale (relabeled “economy scale” by Longenecker). However, since Friesen’s proposed distribution of the population along that scale is indebted to Moses Finley, Longenecker proposes modifications that take into account the growing evidence (including the archaeological record) that technological innovation drove some economic growth in the first two centuries, meaning the empire’s economy wasn’t as stagnant as a binary scale would imply.

Though suggesting more of a spread across the economic stratification of the empire, however, Longenecker rightly avoids the anachronism of an ancient “middle class,” “since the notion of ‘class’ itself is a relatively modern construct, grounded in Marxist analysis – at least in the sense of a ‘class’ consisting of an identifiable stratum of society with a relatively stable shared profile and common socio-economic interests in relation to wealth production. As Thomas Francis Carney notes well, the Roman world was generally founded on the principles of patronage, not class stratification” (p. 55). Instead of a hypothetical “middle class,” Longenecker writes more realistically of “middling groups.” Based on his discussion on pp. 44-53,317-332, Longenecker develops an economy scale (again, a modified version of Friesen’s poverty scale) that looks like this:

Scale Description Includes %
ES1 Imperial elites imperial dynasty, Roman senatorial families, a few retainers, local royalty, a few freedpersons 3
ES2 Regional or provincial elites equestrian families, provincial officials, some retainers, some decurial families, some freedpersons, some retired military officers
ES3 Municipal elites most decurial families, wealthy men and women who do not hold office, some freedpersons, some retainers, some veterans, some merchants
ES4 Moderate surplus some merchants, some traders, some freedpersons, some artisans (especially those who employ others), and military veterans 15
ES5 Stable near subsistence level (with reasonable hope of remaining above the minimum level to sustain life) many merchants and traders, regular wage earners, artisans, large shop owners, freedpersons, some farm families 27
ES6 At subsistence level (and often below minimum level to sustain life) small farm families, laborers (skilled and unskilled), artisans (esp. those employed by others), wage earners, most merchants and traders, small shop/tavern owners 30
ES7 Below sustenance level some farm families, unattached widows, orphans, beggars, disabled, unskilled day laborers, prisoners 25

This model is intended to provide biblical scholars with a more precise tool and greater clarity in studies of wealth and poverty with respect to early Christianity, and throughout the book Longenecker consistently demonstrates its usefulness.

Chapter 4, “Charitable Initiatives in the Greco-Roman World,” examines the consensus that “care for the poor was virtually absent in the ancient world prior to the rise of Christianity” (p. 60). Though largely confirming the consensus, he nuances it by demonstrating that charitable practices, however negligible, nevertheless did exist in Greco-Roman society apart from Judaism and Christianity. If anything, some concern for the poor would explain the attractiveness of Christian values. Chapter 5, “Judeo-Christian Theological Traditions,” turns to the scriptural record, particularly the Jewish and non-Pauline Christian traditions which strongly affirm care for the poor as an integral part of service to Israel’s deity.

The second section of the book is even more interesting. Chapter 6, “Care for the Poor in Paul’s Communities,” is central in demonstrating Paul’s concern for the poor, particularly (though not exclusively) as exhibited in 1 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans, as well as in early traditions about Paul (including the deutero-Paulines, the Pastoral Epistles, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Acts of Paul and Thecla). This chapter in particular invites close attention.

The middle of the book, chapters 7 through 9, deals almost exclusively with the key text of Galatians 2:10, wherein Paul relates that James, Cephas, and John, the “acknowledged pillars” of the Jerusalem church, “asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do” (NRSV). This is perhaps the most compelling and innovative contribution of Longenecker’s book, and the most thorough deconstruction of a widespread consensus in biblical scholarship. In chapter 7, “Interpretive Paradigms in Conflict,” he meticulously describes the ubiquitous belief, virtually unquestioned by most, that “the poor” in the agreement of Galatians 2:10 were specifically the Jerusalem poor, and that this was the basis for Paul’s collection among the gentile churches for the Jerusalem church. He traces this consensus all the way back to the fourth century, to Ephrem the Syrian (306-73), Jerome (329-420), and John Chrysostom (347-407 CE). However, he notes that writers prior to the fourth century, including Tertullian, Origen, and Athanasius (and even Aphrahat in the early fourth century) appear unaware of the consensus view, interpreting “the poor” of Galatians 2:10 as the poor in general, not simply the poor of Jerusalem. This chapter includes a careful consideration of the proposed identification of “the poor” with the Ebionites, which Longenecker persuasively deconstructs (following Leander Keck). “It is noteworthy,” he writes, “and arguably more than a simple coincidence, that the earliest extant identification of ‘the poor’ of Gal 2:10 with Jerusalem Jesus-followers arises only in the second half of the fourth century and the early fifth century (in the works of Ephrem, Jerome and Chrysostom), who were writing in the wake of the spurious linking of Ebionism with early Jewish Jesus-followers in Jerusalem” (p. 172).

Chapter 8, “The Poor in the Mission of the Early Jesus-movement,” is centrally concerned with a close analysis of the syntax and structure of Galatians 2:10 in its rhetorical context, and chapter 9, “The Poor in the Rhetoric of Galatians,” fleshes out the implications of a broader application in the context of Paul’s overarching argument in the epistle. The combined effect of chapters 7 through 9 is a devastating critique of the consensus view and a strong affirmation of Paul’s commitment to alleviating poverty as a central concern, not simply a reluctant concession to the Jerusalem apostles for a one-time collection to smooth over relations between gentiles and Jews in the Jesus movement.

Having firmly established his main concern, Longenecker turns his attention to broader questions of the social and economic profiles of Paul and the early church. Chapter 10, “Economic Profiles within Paul’s Communities,” interacts with Wayne Meeks’ landmark study The First Urban Christians (as well as others) and proceeds towards a prosopographic survey of individuals named in Paul’s letters – an almost obligatory task in any study of economic profiles in early Christianity. Using the economy scale detailed above, he tentatively places Erastus, Gaius, and Phoebe in ES4. This section includes a compelling argument against identifying the Erastus of Romans 16:23 with the individual named on the inscription discovered at Corinth dating to the first or second century, an individual who was clearly a member of the civic elite (pp. 236ff). He proposes an ES4 or ES5 status for Stephanas, Philemon, and Crispus, and an ES5 or ES6 status for Prisca and Aquila. This chapter concludes with a consideration of Paul’s rhetorical construct of his communities’ economic level.

Chapter 11, “The Economic Attractions of Paul’s Communities,” compares and contrasts the general economic levels of Jesus groups and collegia in general, and chapter 12, “Care for the Poor in Paul’s Theology,” addresses additional important questions, such as Paul’s expectations regarding the interrelationships between people of different economic levels within his communities (cf. “Not Communism, Not Charity, but Community,” pp. 287-291) and whether Paul expected the members of his communities to care only for poor among their numbers (“Care for Poor Insiders Exclusively?,” pp. 291-294). Here he judiciously argues that “Paul seems to have imagined that, while alleviating the needs of the poor within communities of Jesus-followers was never to be compromised, neither was that practice to be set in opposition to caring for those beyond Jesus-communities” (p. 292).

It is also in this chapter that Longenecker tentatively proposes an economic profile of a typical Pauline community, on p. 295:

  Economy Scale Percentages Percentages for this Urban Jesus-Group Numbers in this Urban Jesus-Group
ES1-ES3 3 0 0
ES4 15 10 5
ES5 27 25 12
ES6-ES7 55 (30;25) 65 (35;30) 33

Chapter 13, “The Poor in the Life of Paul,” summarizes the main arguments of the book and goes on to consider Paul’s own socio-economic location. Based on several criteria – including Paul’s Roman citizenship (for which he argues in the affirmative), Paul’s characterization of his manual labor as a personal sacrifice, and the level of education evidenced by his rhetorical skills, Longenecker proposes an economic profile of ES4 prior to Paul’s christophany, dropping to ES5 and perhaps occasionally ES6 as a result of his labor as an apostle.

In the concluding appendices, one of Longenecker’s more interesting proposals is a reconstruction of the origins of the Jerusalem collection in the thinking of Paul (a necessary consideration if in fact the Jerusalem collection did not stem from the apostolic agreement of Galatians 2:10). Instead of reporting his conclusion, however, I’ll suggest that you buy the book to see for yourself – I’m sure you’ll find it’s a worthwhile investment.

While concluding that there is more continuity between Jesus’ proclamation of “good news to the poor” and Paul’s “remembrance” of the poor than is generally recognized (cf. p. 316), however, Longenecker is careful to qualify the extent to which his conclusions can be taken. For instance, he recognizes the complexity in applying his findings to “contemporary Christian theological reflection on issues of poverty and wealth in the globalized context of the twenty-first century” (p. 301). As another example, he acknowledges the larger question of how his findings relate to the current studies of Paul and empire, but notes that although they are certainly consistent with these studies, they do not presuppose them either (pp. 300,301). In fact, elsewhere he tips his hand in favor of an early Christian “malleable hybridity with regard to the Roman imperial order,” writing that “one could be critical of aspects of Roman rule without necessarily being anti-Roman” (p. 270, n. 28). The flip side of these careful qualifications, however, is that Longenecker’s study is disciplined and focused on specific, well-defined questions.

This book is so well argued and carefully nuanced that I have few constructive criticisms. One minor criticism may be noted with respect to Longenecker’s frequent use of the ambiguous term “Judeo-Christian,” which is nowhere defined or discussed. The closest he comes to indicating his meaning may be on page 272, n. 33, where he writes that “Reference to ‘Judeo-Christian’ is necessary at this point, since concern for the poor among Jesus-groups is ultimately rooted in Jewish scripture and tradition, with the Jesus-movement being one of various species within the overarching genus of ‘Judaism’.” By “Judeo-Christian,” then, he appears to mean “rooted in Jewish scripture and tradition.” But the term arguably carries so much baggage today that it is perhaps best left unused. To some engaged in Christian-Jewish dialogue, it smacks of supersessionism; in some political contexts, it serves as a cipher for conservative Western “family” values. However, Longenecker’s usage of this term is only a minor distraction since his meaning seems clear.

My other constructive criticism involves his brief discussion of the difference between charity and social justice, particularly on pp. 106,107. While rightly acknowledging the significance of the distinction, his explanation of why structural reform did not appear likely in the ancient world seems lacking. He writes that “anything that might qualify as a structural strategy for offsetting poverty in the ancient world was out of reach of all but the tiniest minority of people in the ES1 through ES3 economic levels – i.e., those who controlled economic structures (to the extent that those structures could be controlled)” (p. 107). But privileged elites have almost never been agents of real change. One may recall Dr. King’s famous comments in his well-known Letter from a Birmingham Jail that “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily…. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Furthermore, one need look no further than Josephus for examples of widespread popular campaigns – such as the successful Jewish nonviolent protest against Pilate in Caesarea over the Roman standards in Jerusalem, or the work stoppage with which thousands of Jews threatened Petronius if he persisted in carrying out his imperial orders to erect a statue of Caligula in the temple. Arguably what was lacking for social and economic change was not the tools but rather the evolution of a class consciousness built on values like egalitarianism which simply did not exist in the first two centuries CE.

Though one may quibble over points like these, nevertheless no one concerned about economics and early Christianity can afford to neglect this important and compelling book. Longenecker’s comprehensive analysis is simply too thorough and too well-argued to ignore.

Mark M. Mattison

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