Over the past couple of weeks I have been explaining how I have reimagined my next trade book, written not for scholars but for general readers. As I’ve pointed out, my initial idea that I floated before readers of the blog was to have a book devoted to how Christianity revolutionized how people in the Roman world understood wealth and what to do with it. My argument was that as a Jew Jesus insisted that those with resources help those who were in need – a virtually unheard-of ethical principle in Greek and Roman antiquity. His followers were Jews as well, for whom this was a familiar message, but as they converted non-Jews to become Jesus’ followers, they convinced them as well. So this became the standard Christian view, leading to the invention of the public hospital, the orphanage, the use of governmental assistance for those in need, private charities, and so on.
My previous posts have explained how I have now expanded the vision of the book, to show that these new views of wealth and practices of giving are rooted in a broader ideological context, having to do with a revolutionary new understanding of how humans are to relate to one another – not in ways to promote one’s own well-being, status, reputation, or happiness and not by asserting power over those who were weaker… …in order to gain what one wants. On the contrary, Jesus taught the importance of service over domination, self-giving love of others over self-interested self-promotion, love over indifference. Views of wealth and acts of charity can be set in this wider new ethical discourse. And that’s what I (as of now!) plan my book to discuss.
So what is new and/or important about a book like this? There are, obviously, roughly a zillion books written on Christian “love.” The vast majority are by pastors, theologians, and lay moralists. Some of these are thoughtful, but most provide nothing new except (often interesting) anecdotal gist for the mill of the old. There are also significant works of scholarship, including classics such as Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros (1953) and Victor Paul Furnish, The Love Commandment in the New Testament (1972) as well as very recent and full analyses, as Oda Wishmeyer, Love as Agape (2021). There is, however, nothing on the market like what I am proposing to my publishers, with its focus on the transformative significance of Jesus’ teachings on love for both ancient moral discourse and the understanding and use of wealth in western culture.
I am stressing to my editor that this re-envisioning of my book proposal does not mean I will abandon my original interest in charity. I am placing that interest into its wider ideological context of love. Much of what I discussed in the original prospectus (as seen in a series of blog posts: just do a word search for “charity”) will remain important in this new iteration, and the totality is a big project. It will include discussions of intriguing ethical discourses from pagan antiquity that most readers will be completely unfamiliar with (the slave-philosopher Epictetus has long been my personal hero) (I’ll probably devote some posts to him down the line), as well as of Christian discourses that are almost invariably misunderstood today (Why was adultery condemned? Did Jesus really think anger would bring damnation? Did he genuinely expect the wealthy to give it all away?). I will also include discussions of other key passages throughout the New Testament, including the “love chapter” itself, 1 Corinthians 13 – read at virtually every wedding I’ve ever attended and almost never actually understood (it is decidedly not about marital love).
I continue to plan to show how early Christian writers often softened, reinterpreted, or just flat-out ignored the actual teachings of Jesus, while others radicalized them even further (think desert monks). In particular I will stress the crystallization of Jesus’ teaching of love in the Christian rhetoric about wealth and the practices of charity that accrued as a result, showing how these led to the institutional innovations I’ve discussed both here and in the main prospectus.
Given my previous writings, I suspect readers will be a bit surprised that I am advocating one of the great contributions of Christianity to our world. But it is a historical reality that in one respect, at least, the triumph of Christianity really did revolutionize western civilization on numerous levels, both institutional and personal. The teachings of love and charity that Jesus inherited from his Jewish tradition, and in many ways radicalized, came to alter how people understood and practiced ethical behavior, and, in the end, helped make the world a better place.