In my previous posts I’ve been talking about Jesus’ “love commandment,” arguing that it revolutionized ancient thinking about how people are to behave toward one another. (“Love thy neighbor as thyself”).  Now I ask whether that revolution actually involved changing people’s behavior in radical ways.  Or not.

Obviously, on the practical level, Jesus’ insistence on complete self-sacrifice did not come to dominate the world of late antiquity.  People continued to live much as they had before.  Conquerors still conquered.  The first Christian emperor, Constantine, was one of the most bloodthirsty of them all; many of his ardent Christian successors (including his sons) were at least as bad.  Slavery continued and was never questioned.  The rich dominated the poor.  Men dominated women.  The rich kept getting richer.  Most notably, Christian churches themselves began getting very much richer.  Eventually the church was by far the wealthiest institution in the west, and stayed that way for well over a millennium.

Christian Ethics in the Roman Empire

Even so, the ethical discourse of society did change with the Christianization of the empire.  And that discourse played a significant role in the social practices of late antiquity, the middle ages, and down to today.  From the earliest of times, from the pulpit and on the page, Christian ethicists preached love over hate, service over domination, caring over ignoring, giving over spending.  The very sense of what it meant to be ethical changed drastically.  It was no longer a matter of…

…“finding happiness” or having the “right character” in the Roman sense of manifesting self-control, restraint, devotion toward family, friends, and others in one’s own social circles.  It was a matter of giving away, resources to the poor, principally money, but also time and attention, providing economic and practical assistance to those who in need.

That is how I am defining “charity.”  But the term in English obviously has a much broader meaning, involving not just giving things away but, at a deeper level, actually standing in a good and loving relationship with others.  That understanding figures prominently in early English Bible translations:  “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (1 Corinthians 13:13, in the King James Bible).  Clearly, in this context, “charity” is not simply a matter of providing money to the poor, given what Paul says earlier in the passage:  “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor… and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing (1 Cor. 13:3).  Even so, the ideas of being in a good standing with others and giving to those in need are and always have been closely connected.  Both are based on a divine exemplar, God’s own relationship with humans.  Charity toward humans is manifest in God’s loving actions toward them, providing them with what they need in their lives and for their salvation, and forgiving them when they transgress the boundaries of love.  Humans are to act that way to others.  Not just to those they love as spouses, children, or other family members; good friends or close neighbors; or just people they like–but everyone.

Imitating Christ

Even more than Christ’s teachings on love, his own life was to serve as the model for Christian behavior.  Or rather his death.  Christ was believed to have made the ultimate sacrifice, suffering and dying for the sake of others.  His followers were to…

…do the same, to give everything, their entire life, for those in need.  Jesus’ followers were to be his imitators.

For this reason, “charity” in the sense of giving resources to those in need is one of the clearest crystallizations of the distinctively Christian moral imperative of self-giving love.  The church fathers that I discuss in my original prospectus recognized and stressed the point.  It was impossible for someone who had an abundance of food, clothing, and other necessities of life to “love their neighbor as themselves” when the “neighbor” (meaning, anyone they knew about) was insufficiently supplied.  No matter how generous they were, if they had more than they needed and someone else did not have enough, then following Jesus’ teachings of love meant divesting the surplus and giving to the poor. This is what the church fathers meant by “Christian charity.”

Very few Christians took this demand literally, and generally either softened the injunction or understood it metaphorically.  But even so, the basic principle behind it came to be the dominant Christian ideology which, because of the Christian triumph, became a dominant ideology in the West.  Those with resources were to help those in need.  They often did so.  That changed everything.

Christian Charity Changes the Empire

It is not that the post-Constantinian empire became a welfare-state; or that multitudes of affluent Christians divested for the sake of the poor; or even that the Christian church as an institution gave away all its wealth for those in need.  Quite obviously not.  But some governmental assistance became available; some rich people sold all they had for the poor; and the church did begin to sponsor programs that provided material assistance for those in need.  As I indicate in the larger prospectus, that ethical impulse led to the invention of the hospital and the orphanage, (limited) governmental interventions, and, especially, direct poverty relief from those with resources to those without through the church, its leaders, and its members.  Beneficences were no longer directed only to one’s family or to fund municipal building projects or public entertainments.  Giving to those in need came to be a moral imperative. “Right living” no longer meant exercising domination but living in service; it shifted from a concern for personal character to making personal sacrifices; it now entailed giving at least some of one’s own resources for strangers in need.

This is the radical transformation of society I will be addressing in my book, on both the ideological and practical (i.e., material) levels.  It is a transformation with us still today, in governmental welfare systems, in charities of all kinds at all levels (from small local groups to major international billion-dollar enterprises), and in the moral consciousness of entire populations, who think that at the end of the day it is good, right, and desirable for those with resources to help those without.  As a result, Jesus’ teachings on the practice of love, as adopted by his followers, and seen most clearly and concretely in individual and collective acts of charity, has in important ways revolutionized our world and helped make western culture what it is today.

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2022-09-12T10:45:11-04:00September 17th, 2022|Historical Jesus, History of Christianity (100-300CE)|

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  1. mkoufakis September 17, 2022 at 7:53 am

    This and the last post at least for me are your most significant. After all the endless debates of separating fact from fiction and trying to get to the truth, we ultimately have to make choices. Moses transfer power from the Pharaohs to one God. Moses preaches don’t be bad. Jesus raises the bar and preaches go out of your way to do good and you will be rewarded later in heaven. He also desegregates heaven and “open” it to everyone including non-Jews. You get to heaven not by bloodline but by belief. He also brilliantly comes up with the concept of “passive non-resistance” to overcome the Roman domination. Three hundred years later the Roman domination of fear and domination falls to a transfer of power from the emperor to God. I don’t think “turning the other cheek to avoid domination would have worked with Hitler. Jesus preached do the right thing. Are we trying to punch a ticket to heaven or to make heaven on earth? We need to raise the bar again and make heaven on earth without expecting the “reward” of heaven.

  2. Seeker1952 September 17, 2022 at 9:07 am

    Very eloquent!

  3. nichael September 17, 2022 at 12:22 pm

    I have a Greek/linguistics question about this passage.

    (This has come up in some other reading I’ve been doing —mainly Buddhist/Zen discussions about this passage).

    In short, in English there are two ways to interpret (or parse) this phrase (I.e. “loving your neighbor as yourself”). That is:
    — One should love the other in the *same* *manner* (with the same intensity/concentration/etc) that one loves one’s self.
    — One should love the other as if the other *really* *were* you. (I.e. that the other can actually be considered as *identical* with you. One can imagine how this might fit in with certain models of, say, a “Global/Universal Soul” or possibly reincarnation.)

    (These two notions clearly intersect at a number of points, but they are, ultimately, quite different.)

    Do you have any thoughts on how the actual Greek might reflect on this issue?

    • nichael September 18, 2022 at 9:21 pm

      (P.S. If it wasn’t clear I wasn’t asking about the validity of the implied positions mentioned; only if the Greek might support the readings.)

    • BDEhrman September 19, 2022 at 11:41 am

      I’d say it definitely does not mean “as if they really were you.” That idea was foreign to ancient Judaism. But “same manner” doesn’t *quite* capture it, if you mean “intensity.” It means somethg more like “in the same ways.” You feed yourself, provide yourself with clothing, and a place to sleep, and… everything else you need to live without being in want. Treat others that way as well, just as you do for yourself.

  4. GwenDSutton September 17, 2022 at 5:05 pm

    Hi, I have a problem with the site, and it’s not letting me submit a support ticket. I wasn’t sure how else to get help, so posted here. I can be reached at [email protected].
    As for the post (and so the comment is not entirely off topic), I appreciate the contrast between charity as an ideal and charity as a practice that sometimes manifested, and still does. I do wonder about how common such acts of charity for outsiders was prior to early Christianity.

    • BDEhrman September 19, 2022 at 11:43 am

      Have you clicked on “Help” and then “Contact Support”? If you continue to have difficulty, send me a private email.

  5. giselebendor September 17, 2022 at 6:05 pm

    Great article.

    I think that another praiseworthy evolution in philanthropy was the creation of modes of industry and education, so that the proverb recommending teaching people to ” fish” – rather than gifting them a fish – is realised and sustainable. It also allows for the dignity of those initially receiving direct help.

    There is also by now sufficient hardwiring of generosity being a sociocultural given, so that wealthy individuals who were not contributing their share to charity suffered ( deserved) opprobrium.An example is Bill Gates, who at the beginning of his spectacular success was not a philanthropist. After a public outcry, he changed, and we know the rest.

    Western charity, cultivated by Christendom, has greatly expanded its aims beyond helping the poor. It also helps advances in medicine, who benefit all, and provides aid to the oppressed.

    What I don’t see as feasible is the extreme disbursements Jesus demanded, on account of the natural need for incentives of all working people and those building businesses. In my visits to countries behind the Iron Curtain I experienced general apathy and lack of productivity, as extra effort would not be rewarded.

  6. veritas September 17, 2022 at 6:30 pm

    Excellent Bart!!! Did Jesus, in your view, think of himself as a perfect human being ,able to fulfill the Mosaic Law and dye for everyone ? In Matt. 5;17-20, In v. 20, He suggests to be more righteous and better than the Pharisees thus implying perfection (like himself) while still preaching an apocalyptic view of the world and the coming of the Kingdom of God. Were these His words?

    • BDEhrman September 19, 2022 at 11:46 am

      Matthew, who is the only one who reports the words, appears to have thought so. It’s veyr hard to know what Jesus himself thought about his own righteousness, since we have access to his words only through writers who thought that he was the Son of God. But it probably is telling that he decided to be baptized by John “for the remission of sins.”

  7. drkdowd September 17, 2022 at 7:12 pm

    Virtually all religions and many schools of philosophy profess that we are here under sufferance, doing penance for some perceived indiscretions that we, or our ancestors, have perpetrated. We vainly hope for salvation, through good works, good thoughts, good deeds, and/or through the good grace of a divine entity, to be allowed to return to the realm where we truly belong.

  8. wphowell September 17, 2022 at 8:58 pm

    I would argue that none of the commandments can be followed without a belief in God, and even further, trust in God. Can a selfless nature even exist without a God that requires it and who also rewards that behavior?

    • hankgillette September 19, 2022 at 5:47 pm

      I would argue that none of the commandments can be followed without a belief in God, and even further, trust in God. Can a selfless nature even exist without a God that requires it and who also rewards that behavior?

      On what basis would you argue that? I would completely disagree. If someone is selfless because they want to go to heaven or want to avoid hell, are they actually selfless or just trying to advantage themself in the afterlife?

      • wphowell September 20, 2022 at 6:45 pm

        Jesus said, “If anyone wants to come after Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.” — Matt 16:24. This is a commandment about completely selfless behavior in one denying themselves, and it is the ultimate expression of “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”; however, one could not do this unless they believed in a God that would resurrect them after death, keeping a place for them in the world to come. I would agree that if someone’s reason for doing something is solely to avoid hell for themselves, then this would be a completely selfish motivation, and certainly not what Jesus was modeling for us.

    • DoubtingTom September 20, 2022 at 7:28 am

      The first commandment would definitely be problematic. The rest of the commandments are about being a decent human being, which doesn’t require a divine carrot and stick. There are many generous atheists.

      • wphowell September 20, 2022 at 7:03 pm

        Yes, but obeying those commandments in the sense of loving others as you love yourself is the real question being posed here, and while you can certainly do the commandments, the motivation is what’s really being spoken to here, which is what’s in one’s heart. There is a big difference between giving money and volunteering to help people in need; that difference is human connection and showing love in action. For example, many people on the street come to feel that they don’t exist because people don’t stop to talk to them and won’t even look at them. Jesus provided us with the essence of what it means to be charitable — to be truly loving to other human beings.

  9. DShields September 18, 2022 at 6:20 am

    In the transition of message from “give everything away to the poor” to “give to the poor without impoverishing yourself,” was there an adoption of the practice of tithing or was this practice something that came along later? Biblical references to tithing seem to be mostly in the Old Testament with only a few scant references in the New Testament. Did the early Church Fathers write about tithing?

    • BDEhrman September 19, 2022 at 11:48 am

      They almost never set a percentage or an amount. THe OT tithing was designed to support priests in the Temple; the Xn policy was more: Give what you can.

  10. mini1071 September 19, 2022 at 9:49 pm

    Professor, recognizing its very difficult to discern what Jesus may have actually said it surely must be more difficult to get at his beliefs. We apparently do see his charitable and ethical admonitions to match how he prophecized life would be in the coming Kingdom of God. But, can you tell if he intended it to happen supernaturally (supernaturally resourced perhaps, or because the supernatural only permitted tight acting people in) or perhaps did he think he was convincing enough followers to make it all happen? Apologize if this question is poorly framed but I think it speaks to how practical the message was received.

    • BDEhrman September 20, 2022 at 5:17 pm

      YOu’re right — all we can do is go on the basis of what it apepars he actually said. He talks about a massive destruction to be brought by a cosmic judge sent from heaven that he calls teh Son of Man, and he opposes military violence against the enemy. So he appears to have expected a supernatural intervention.

  11. Philmonomer September 19, 2022 at 10:06 pm

    In the world of Christian apologetics, one place where I often see the idea that Christians “should love your neighbor as yourself” means that, of course Christians must be against slavery. Indeed, that’s how–Christians say–we know the Bible is against slavery: because one cannot be for slavery and abide by this teaching.

    I am highly skeptical of this view. I’ve always suspected that “love your neighbor as yourself” did NOT mean “give your neighbor things you’d want for yourself” (here, freedom), rather, I suspect it means “if you were in that person’s situation, how would you want to be treated?” Presumably, you’d want to be treated well, and that seems very different from “we must do away with social order/hierarchy/slavery” that Christians argue it means.

    • BDEhrman September 20, 2022 at 5:19 pm

      It probably comes to the same thing, since the person in the situation of slavery would want to be set free. But you’re right, it seems very odd today that ancient Christians did not challenge the status quo on slavery and other ethically nasty situations (military power; oppression of women; etc.)

  12. DEBourque September 19, 2022 at 11:34 pm

    Hi Bart; Usually I have a debate with you, but in this instance, I really can’t disagree with your post. The only thing I might add is, the church did not formally present who or why Jesus was presenting this prospect of charity, but as far as the Roman church is concerned, their building on the charity profile, did change the focus among the common folks of the faith, such as you mentioned, hospitals, orphanages and shelters. This was not present in the early Christian days within the Roman Empire. Though, funny how the church itself became the richest organization in the world. Too bad today, most are referring to this charitable approach as a communism setting. Can we ever get that thought out from their minds, or is it beyond repair?

    • BDEhrman September 20, 2022 at 5:20 pm

      It’s hard to get people’s minds away from the red meat they’re thrown. (Socialism = Communism! e.g.)

  13. bsteig September 23, 2022 at 1:56 pm

    Professor Erhman: I fully support the idea that God believes all people should support the wellbeing of others (i.e., to love our neighbors), but not that Jesus voluntarily sacrificed himself as an “offering to ‘pay for’ the sins of the human race.” Do you believe that the story about Jesus causing a large disturbance in the Temple by overturning the tables at which were seated one or more moneychangers, and possibly releasing some birds, etc. being sold for “sacrificial offerings” was a fiction to explain why the Jewish authorities urged the Romans to crucify him, or did it really happen?

    William Steigelmann

    • BDEhrman September 23, 2022 at 6:52 pm

      I too don’t think Jesus wanted to die for the sins of others. I think his later followers *interpreted* his death that way, and that is what made all the difference. I do think Jesus performed some kind of small act of objection in the temple, but the accounts we have are exaggerated beyond recognition.

  14. DEBourque September 23, 2022 at 9:35 pm

    From my encounters, I found Jesus disapproved of many teachings or faith practices of the Pharisees. On his Sermon on the Mount alone, he often opens with, “You’ve heard it said,……but I say….”, at least five times, not to mention other disagreements he had with them, though all four Gospels. Their method of judging sinners, was determined with very closed minds, even handicaps were included in that list. He didn’t die on the cross to forgive sinners, but to expose the injustices and cruelty of their own faith leaders. They also demonstrated their haughtiness among the commoners, indicated by Jesus’ own words. This was also the reason for his rampage at the temple. The Temple, both within it and around it, was meant to be sacred. But the Pharisees went as far as allowing Alter gift sellers, to do their business within the entrance of the Temple. Because of their self righteousness and sidestepping ways of the faith, I believe is why Jesus lost it. I agree he may not have wanted to die on the cross, but may have been his last stand, to demonstrate their wretched ways.

  15. BobSeidensticker September 25, 2022 at 2:33 pm

    Having perfect morals is very difficult, especially if you must do it for your entire life. But see Jesus as an Apocalyptic prophet, with the End coming in months or (at most) a few years, and that morally perfect life sounds more doable.

  16. fcollado October 9, 2022 at 8:00 am

    That reminds me of my walkabout of The Saint James Way: Hospitality, hallmark of the Camino de Santiago. when it came? Charity from the people, bishops, and kings?
    The welcome to the pilgrim constitutes one of the fundamental aspects since the Middle Ages. Permanent service of health and spiritual help was organized by the various institutions, from the Crown and the Church to the people themselves. Most of the hospital institutions for pilgrims and the poor were created through donations made by episcopal sees, and, above all, kings. The monarchs founded a large number of hospitals on the pilgrimage route, expressing the will of the Crown to exercise the Christian virtue of charity and to serve God and Santiago as the patron saint of the kingdom. In small medieval hospitals, it was customary to offer rooms with six double beds, in memory of the twelve apostles of Jesus. For the medieval mentality, the pilgrim was an envoy from Heaven, so he had to be considered and treated as if he were Jesus Christ himself. King’s evolution from Roman time, charity from that time?

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