16-3-3 Rich And Poor In The First Century
“The poor of this world”
The Lord Himself had implied that it was to the poor that the Gospel
was more successfully preached. And Paul observed that in Corinth,
not many mighty had been called, but most of them were poor (1 Cor.
1:26-28). “Christianity in its beginnings was without doubt a movement
of impoverished classes…the Christian congregation originally embraced
proletariat elements almost exclusively and was a proletarian organization”
(1). It has also been observed that
the New Testament generally is written in very rough Greek, of a
low cultural level when compared with other Greek literature of
the period (2). The way he exhorts
the Thessalonians to work with their own hands so that the world
couldn’t criticize them implies the readership of Thessalonians
were mainly manual workers (1 Thess. 4:11). Likewise Eph. 4:28.
Paul wrote as if the “abysmal poverty” of the Macedonian ecclesias
was well known (2 Cor. 8:1,2); and yet he goes on to reason that
they had “abundance” in comparison with the “lack” of the Jerusalem
Christians (8:14). The Jewish Christians called themselves “Ebionites”,
based on the Hebrew word for ‘the poor’- “it was probably a conscious
reminiscence of a very early term which attested by Paul’s letters
as an almost technical name for the Christians in Jerusalem and
Even if not all these poor converts were slaves, they were all subservient
to their employers / sources of income. Craftsmen would have had
to belong to a pagan trade guild, normally involving idol
worship which a Christian had to refuse, and slaves of course had
no ‘right’ to their own religion if it differed from that of their
household. Everything was against the spread of the Truth amongst
the poor of the first century. And yet, the Truth grew and
prospered, as it marched through town after town across the Roman
empire. There can be no doubt that its’ development was due to the
early believers’ spiritual energy and powerful example, rather than
to any favourable social dynamic. And yet right before our eyes,
the very same miracle is going on. And it is a miracle,
of first century proportions. The poor of Africa, Europe, Asia,
the Americas, those with so much to distract them, with
so much to attract them to false, feelgood religion…are
in the face of all this, in the very teeth of gripping, wrenching
poverty and the distraction this brings with it, not only coming
to the Truth but spreading it so powerfully. For real poverty does
distract, terribly. How am I going to feed my children, pay the
rent when it needs all my salary, from where to get new clothes
for growing children, how to live in a room that has no windows
as a -30 Winter approaches…all this distracts, terribly, from spiritual
matters. And yet it is being overcome, day by day and hour by hour,
by the power of the true Gospel in the lives of very ordinary women
and men. And in the barest essence, the Western brotherhood is also
distracted by the things of this world, and yet is also waking up
as it did 120 years ago to the power of the Truth we possess.
The early church chose its leadership according to spiritual qualifications.
The radicality of this is easily lost upon us in this age. But we
need to understand that religion was perceived as almost a hobby
for the wealthy, who showed their wealth by being patrons for a
cult or religious idea. True Christianity was not a hobby. It was
and is a life-demanding commitment, which demands the very core
of our personhood. It wasn’t a question of mere manners, following
a certain set ritual and clothing; it’s about morals, about real
character-changing ethics. It’s no spare time hobby, engaged in
for social reasons. Further, the idea of a poor person being in
a decision making position in a religious group was bizarre to the
first century mind. To respect a poor person was very hard for them:
“If you're poor, you're a joke, on each and every occasion. What
a laugh, if your cloak is dirty or torn, if your toga appears a
little bit soiled, if your shoe has a crack in the leather. Of if
several patches betray frequent mending! Poverty's greatest curse,
much worse than actually being poor, is that it makes man objects
of mirth, ridiculed, grumble, embarrassed…Sons of freeborn men give
way to a rich man's slave”(4).
That Christianity should follow a poor man and His poor
disciples was a real challenge to society. And yet, Christianity
spread amongst rich and poor alike. The encouragement to us is that
even when it is apparent that what we are preaching is just not
what society wants to hear, or even appears able to hear, the power
of the Gospel itself will bring about a response if we
truly witness. When Paul commands to place the poor brother in a
position where he can make judgments between wealthy brethren who
are disagreeing with each other [only the wealthy could afford to
take out litigations as they were doing], he was really asking a
lot. But he never baulks. He always goes for it, and fearlessly,
without any embarassment, lays down the implications of Christ and
demands our response.
It is worth noting, though, that the NT does reflect the fact that
a number of wealthy individuals came to the Truth too; and that
these were bound together in fellowship with the poor. There were
wealthy women amongst the earliest followers of Jesus (Lk. 8:3);
and James and John came from a family who owned their own fishing
boat and could employ servants (Mk. 1:19,20). Zacchaeus was wealthy-
and note that he wasn't commanded to divest himself of all
that wealth (Lk. 19:1-10). Consider the Philippi ecclesia- the wealthy
lady from Lydia, the homeless slave girl, the middle class, respectable
jailer, and the slaves of his and Lydia’s household. There was nowhere
else in the ancient world that all these classes could come together
in such unity. Paul himself was not poor- “to be a citizen of Tarsus
one had to pass the means test of owning property worth at least
500 drachmae” (5). He was thought wealthy
enough to be able to give a bribe (Acts 24:26). He assured Philemon
that he personally would meet any debts arising from the situation
with Onesimus. Consider the other wealthy converts: the Proconsul
of Cyprus (Acts 13:12), Lydia, Jason who was wealthy enough to put
down security for Paul, assisted by prominent women (Acts 17:4,9),
Greek women of high standing at Berea (Acts 17:12), Dionysius and
Damaris in Athens (Acts 17:16-34), Crispus the ruler of the Corinth
synagogue (Acts 18:8 cp. 1 Cor. 1:14), Erastus the city treasurer
(Rom. 16:23). Marta Sordi quotes evidence for there being Christians
amongst the Roman aristocracy even during the first half of the
first century (6).
These few wealthy converts would have bonded together with the mass
of poor and slaves who had also come to Christ. It was a unique
unity. The list of believers’ names in Romans 16 is there for a
purpose: to show how all types had come together in the Rome ecclesia.
Women are named and greeted [uncommon in contemporary Jewish letters
of the time]; some names are common slave names: Phlegon, Hermes,
Philologus; whereas tradition has it that the Narcissus mentioned
was a famous and wealthy member of the court of Claudius. Greetings
are given from two members at Corinth: “Erastus the treasurer of
the city [of Corinth] salutes you, and Quartus, a brother” (Rom.
16:23). There is an intended juxtaposition here: of the wealthy
and powerful brother Erastus, and the unknown [slave?] Quartus,
who all the same was “a brother”, on the same spiritual standing.
Phoebe is described as the prostates of the Cenchrae ecclesia
and Paul himself- a word translatable as “patroness” (Rom. 16:1,2).
It could be that she funded Paul’s activities at least in part.
The same implication may be behind Paul’s description of the mother
of Rufus as being his “mother” (Rom. 16:13). This would have continued
the example of wealthy women like Joanna supporting the ministry
of Jesus (Lk. 8:2).
If one goes through the Acts and the New Testament letters and makes
a list of all the individuals who are named, we have a list of about 78
people. About 30 of these people have some indication in the narrative
as to their social status; and the majority of these are from above average
social stations. For example, the way Achaicus, Fortunatus, Tertius and
Lucius in Corinth and Clement in Philippi all have Latin names in Roman
colonies could well indicate that they were from the original stock of
colonists, who tended to be well ahead of the local population. Gaius
had a home big enough for the Corinth ecclesia to meet in (Rom. 16:23).
Crispus was the leader of the Corinth synagogue and yet he and Gaius were
the first people Paul converted there (1 Cor. 1:14). Thus in this case
the initial response was from the socially well to do, although the later
converts were generally poor. By all means compare with how wealthy Lydia
was the first convert in Philippi. Anyone who was a household leader or
with a home large enough to accommodate the ecclesia was clearly of a
higher social level. Thus the Philippian jailer, Stephanas and Chloe had
a “household” (1 Cor. 1:11; 16:15), as did Philemon; and even Aquilla
and Priscilla although artisans were wealthy enough to have room to host
an ecclesia (1 Cor. 16:19; Rom. 16:3-5). Titus Justus [whose name implies
he was a Roman citizen] lad a house adjacent to the synagogue in Corinth.
Mark’s mother had a home in Jerusalem that could accommodate a meeting
(Acts 12:12); Baranbas owned a farm (Acts 4:36); Jason was wealthy enough
to stand bail for Paul and entertain his visitors (Acts 17:5-9). An Areopagite
was converted in Athens (Acts 17:34). Apollos and Phoebe were able to
travel independently. Remember that most people at the time lived in cramped
tiny rooms, so unbearable that most of their lives were lived outdoors
as far as possible. Tertius was a “scribe”, which was a learned profession;
Luke was a doctor. Yet next to these brethren are listed the likes of
Ampliatus (Rom. 16:8), which was a common slave name. Romans 16 is an
essay in the unity between rich and poor in the early ecclesia. Although
the majority of Corinth ecclesia were poor, there were still some in good
standing enough to be invited out to banquets in the course of their business
obligations (1 Cor. 8:10; 10:27). The slave at conversion becomes “the
Lord’s freedman” and “the free person Christ’s slave” (1 Cor. 7:22). Thus
this extraordinary unity between social classes was made possible through
being “in Christ”.
“Not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men” were converted
in Thessalonica (Acts 17:12 RSV). Lydia was a wealthy woman, trading in
luxury garments (“purple”), and a female head of household. The attraction
of the Gospel for wealthy women has been often commented upon in the historical
literature. We are left to imagine wealthy sisters marrying poorer brethren,
or remaining single, with all the scandal attached to it in the first
century world, pining for children, comforted only by each other and the
surpassing knowledge of Jesus their Lord.
All this said, there is no question that the early church was characterized
by its poverty; for “to the poor the gospel is preached” succesfully.
" The fact that some Christians in the first century sold themselves
into slavery to help out fellow believers suggests the poverty of
the Christian community as a whole" (7).
This further reflects the bond there was between rich and poor,
free and slave. In the first century generally, however, the gap
between rich and poor was growing (8).
And yet true Christianity brought together in one all the social
classes in an extraordinary unity. We have commented elsewhere how
the shortage of marriage partners led to intermarriage between social
groups, within the ecclesia. This was yet something else which contributed
towards the startling and arresting difference between the ecclesia
and the world in the first century, and which attracted men and
women to it. The evidence that Christianity drew largely from the
poor cannot be gainsaid, and yet the sizeable evidence above indicates
that it was far from purely working class. The wonder is the way
the rich and poor bonded together to create a unity that arrested
the attention of their surrounding world. Even in the ministry of
Jesus was this so. The disciples were from very varied backgrounds;
and Lk. 5:30 RVmg. describes how publicans and sinners had Pharisees
and Scribes among them as they all sat at the same table gathered
around Jesus. There was something in His person and teaching which
welded people together.
The Jerusalem ecclesia is an example of how rich and poor were united
together. There were clearly wealthy members- Simon of Cyrene owned a
farm (Mk. 15:21). Barnabas sold lands (Acts 4:36). Ananias and Sapphira
had land. And then there were the middle class. Mary owned a house in
Jerusalem and had at least one servant (Acts 12:12-17). Levi was a tax
co9llector wealthy enough to throw a large banquet, implying he had a
large home (Mk. 2:13-17). James and John had a fishing business in Galilee
that employed day labourers. And then there were the poor. The Lord Jesus
and the apostles healed the beggars and diseased, who presumably became
members of the church. Acts 6:1; 2:44; 4:34 imply there were large numbers
of very poor people in the church. James the Lord’s brother was presumably
a carpenter, poor like the Lord was. And yet he was the leader of the
early church. Unlike many other religious movements, early Christianity
drew its members from right across society; and one of the poorest was
their leading light! This unity, as we have so often said, would have
been their biggest single advertisement. And yet the Acts record artlessly
says so little about social or economic class distinctions- precisely
because they were not important. Any uninspired writer would have made
great capital of this phenomenal feature of the early church.
(1) Karl Kautsky, Foundations
Of Christianity (Orabis & Windrush, 1973 ed)., pp. 9,323.
(2) Adolf Deisman, Light From
The Ancient East (Hodder & Staughton, 1927); A.J. Malherbe,
Social Aspects Of Early Christianity (Louisiana State University
Press, 1977), ch. 2. More recently, a translation of the Gospels
has been produced by Andy Gaus, entitled The Unvarnished Gospels
(Threshold Books, 1988). His aim is to reflect the roughness
of the Greek used in the Gospels in contemporary English. This is
well worth reading. Peter’s letters are a strange exception, although
this may be because he was illiterate and wrote through a secretary.
The relative roughness of Paul’s letters shows that he was writing
to his readers in a style they would understand, rather than exercising
his own cultural level.
(3) Henry Chadwick, The Early
Church (Penguin, 1993 ed.), p. 23.
(4)Juvenal, quoted in Roland Worth,
The Seven Cities of the Apocalypse and Roman Culture (New
York: Paulist, 1999), p. 41.
(5) Derek Tidball, The Social
Context Of The New Testament (Carlisle: Paternoster Press,
1997 ed.), p. 93.
(6) Marti Sordi, The Christians
And The Roman Empire (Norman: University Of Oklahoma Press,
1986), p. 28.
(7) K. Donfried & P. Richardson,
Judaism and Christianity in First-Century Rome (Eerdmans,
1998) p. 131.
(8) Wayne Meeks and Robert Wilken,
Jews And Christians (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1978).