The selected reading shows how Christianity started out crossing class boundaries (as it does today), and suggests a better alternative to all-out revolution (as exemplified in modern aid programs funded with government and tithe money, and more so in the early church).
The Social Status of the Faith
Jesus himself and his first followers belonged to an essentially rural environment in Palestine, but within a decade of his death and resurrection, this culture had been largely left behind. Spreading out from Jerusalem, the gospel was planted primarily not in rural areas but in cities and towns. In a number of ways, this urban context was crucial to the expansion of the faith. In cities, people typically lived in very close proximity to one another; ideas traveled fast, and ways of living were closely observable. Given the very poor conditions in which the great majority of city-dwellers were housed, ill-health, disease, and death were constant realities, and every city contained large numbers of widows, orphans, and needy individuals. To many such people, the story of Jesus offered not only spiritual consolation and hope but also the present assistance of charity and the assurance of belonging within a family network.
It would be quite wrong to imagine, however, that the Jesus movement was essentially proletarian, made up primarily of the poor, the dispossessed, and the vulnerable. The charge that Christianity attracted only the weak, the vulgar, and the ignorant (or “women, children, slaves, and fools”) was commonly made by pagan critics in the second century and beyond, and this interpretation has had plenty of supporters in modern times, not least among scholars influenced by Marxist approaches to sociology. The evidence, however, is against it. Certainly the Nazarenes did not for the most part engage the attentions of the landed aristocrats, the senatorial class, or the rich equestrians of the Roman world. They, however, made up only a very small proportion of the ancient populace, and compared with them, more or less everyone was subject in some measure to the vagaries of economic circumstances. Very probably the Jesus movement did have some appeal for unskilled manual workers, hired menials, and laborers, and there were certainly constituencies of vulnerable believers for whom charitable collections and distribution of aid were necessary (1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8:1-9:15). The Pauline letters also give some instruction to slaves (Eph. 6:5-8; Col. 3:22-25; cf. 1 Cor. 7:20-24). But the gospel appealed not only to the vulnerable; in fact, we have a greater degree of evidence of its effects upon those who represented what we might very loosely call the “middle” or “lower middle” classes than we have of conversions at the lowest levels on the social scale.
It is thus mistaken to suppose that those at the edges of society made up the core of Christianity’s followers. Although Paul states that “not many” of his converts in Corinth were “wise by human standard,” or “influential,” or “of noble birth” (1 Cor. 1:26), he also mentions in the same context other significant facts. Among the very few individuals he had baptized in the city were Crispus and Gaius (1 Cor. 1:14). Crispus, as the Jewish synagogue leader (Acts 18:8), was a man of some standing in his community, and Gaius was evidently of sufficient wealth to offer hospitality not only to Paul but to all the believers in Corinth (Rom. 16:23). Erastus, the city’s director of public works, a wealthy individual capable of financing civic schemes out of his own resources, is also notably cited among the Corinthian Christians (Rom. 16:23). It is in fact quite likely that some of the problems in the Corinthian church were attributable to tensions between individuals of different social strata, with different expectations about appropriate moral conduct. Even if they were not in a majority, the well-off or the successful in worldly terms were not entirely absent from the local body, and their attitudes may well have been a cause of resentment among more lowly members.
In Acts, we see the gospel achieving success or at least a sympathetic hearing from a number of figures broadly representative of the military, political, and economic elite, such as the Ethiopian treasurer (Acts 8:26-39), the centurion Cornelius (10:1-48), Manaen, “who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch” (13:1), Sergius Paulus, the proconsul of Cyprus (13:7), and certain Greek women and men of prominent standing in Berea (17:12). Asian officials are described as Paul’s friends in Acts 19:31, and Paul is at home conversing with those in powerful positions, even if he does not persuade them of his message (24:24-26; 26:1-31). Although the proportion of socially prominent persons within the Jesus movement as a whole may have been small, it was not nonexistent.
The supposition that the poor and the uneducated are naturally more inclined to religious belief is in any case not borne out by the findings of more recent scholarship in the social sciences. Like every other movement that has emerged out of an existing religious culture, faith in Jesus must generally have taken root among those who were privileged enough in socioeconomic terms to be capable of giving serious consideration to the possibilities of immersing themselves in a new lifestyle. The privilege in question, of course, is relative: those who convert to a new faith need to be both in a position to understand the demands and opportunities it represents and at the same time sufficiently disaffected by their existing position within their inherited culture to be prepared to make a change. They will not be so lacking in physical security that they can give no thought to any religious message because they are preoccupied with the more pressing question of how they are going to stay alive, but they will also perceive that their present condition fails to satisfy their longings and needs. Had early Christianity been obviously a movement spearheaded by a restless proletariat or those with no sense of social belonging, it would almost certainly have been crushed by Rome at a very early date as a political threat. The fact that it was not suggests that it drew its converts from a wider cross-section of society.
Overall, the typical believer was in fact neither at the bottom nor at the top of the social pyramid but was likely to be an artisan, small trader, or skilled manual worker. Some such individuals were persons of reasonable wealth, as was probably the case with the tentmakers Priscilla and Aquila, who were able to move from city to city and act as patrons for both local believers and visiting evangelists (Rom. 16:3-4; 1 Cor. 16:19). Lydia, the first convert in Europe, was by background a merchant from Thyatira, dealing in luxury purple fabric, and she was of sufficient means to put up Paul, Silas, and their friends in her house in Philippi (Acts 16:13-15). The majority, however, were probably of more modest means—small-scale merchants, shopkeepers, and trades people with free status and adequate resources to manage some kind of reasonable life most of the time, barring disasters such as famines or the collapse of their local economies (the effects of which reached all but the very wealthiest)—but usually not people of significance or prestige within their society.
It may be that a greater degree of social mobility in cities such as the Roman colonies of Corinth and Philippi meant that in such places there were higher numbers of wealthy believers than elsewhere, and in the Hellenized cities of the East there were often significant numbers of prosperous Jews from whose ranks some converts were made. Figures such as the educated Jew of Alexandria, Apollos, were seemingly able to travel independently (Acts 18:24-28); Paul’s friend Barnabas, a Levite, had owned property in his native Cyprus (Acts 4:36-37). Like other believers (Acts 4:34), Barnabas had sold his land and donated the profits to the apostles. On his missionary endeavors he engaged, like Paul, in manual work in order to support himself (1 Cor. 9:6). But notably Paul says that he and Barnabas were unusual in that regard; the other apostles were apparently able to rely on the generosity of others. Wherever the economic resources of early Christianity came from, the movement was not confined to the meager assets of those who lived at the margins.
– pp.102-105 of Ivor J. Davidson’s “The Birth of the Church: from Jesus to Constantine, A.D. 30-312” (Baker Books, 2004).
[ Btw, Barnabas is a fascinating person to study. Besides his generosity and excellent work ethic noted above, he stood up for Paul when the apostles were too afraid of him, he is the cousin of John Mark, who wrote the gospel of Mark and over whom Barnabas and Paul had a temporary disagreement; he was mistaken for Zeus in Lystra, is a possible author of the New Testament book of Hebrews, and he was a big-time missionary – approved by the apostles to go to the gentiles with Paul. There’s more, but this is an aside. ]
An economically-relevant fact that is absolutely fascinating about the early church: because they were one in heart and soul, they shared common property:
Acts 2:41-45 — “So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.”
Acts 4:32-37 — “And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need. Now Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means Son of Encouragement), and who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.”
It would be nice if everyone of wealth converted and gave their excess to fund the treatment and prevention of things like poverty, unemployment, hunger, disease, pollution, abuse, addiction, etcetera.
It would also be nice if certain (not all) people who are not filthy rich but do have all their physical needs met, would stop spreading the infection of greed by whining about revolution, and start helping out those who are truly in need. For me the motivation for that did not come until God saved me.
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