The Christians who began to say that (unlike in the Roman world) the rich ought to give to the poor did not come up with the idea themselves. As we have seen, they were replicating (in a new form) what was found in the Hebrew Bible as taken up, as one would expect, by the historical Jesus. But the Christians ran with the idea, and that ended up having a lasting effect on all of society and Western culture.
The records of earliest Christianity are pretty clear: everyone (not just the rich) needed to give in order to help those who were less fortunate. According to the book of Acts, the members of the first community in Jerusalem sold everything and shared all things in common, so that no one was in need (Acts 2:43-45; 4:32-37). This sounds like Jesus’ own vision, though whether Acts can be trusted to describe social reality soon after Jesus’ death is another question. It is clear, however, that years later the churches of Paul, populated predominantly by those without substantial resources, were willing to share with those who had even less, as seen in Paul’s famous collection for the “poor” in Jerusalem (e.g., Rom. 15:25-27; 1 Cor. 16:1-4).
This Christian tradition of the relatively poor giving to the very poor continues to be attested over time (e.g., Tertullian Apol. 39.7). Quite extreme versions of charity for the sake of others are attested as well, including, at the end of the first century, 1 Clement’s remarkable claim that some Christians had sold themselves into slavery to pay for the manumission of others (1 Clem. 55.2).
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