“Charity” and Benevolence in the Greek & Roman Eras
Speaking for myself, I’m often finding valuable scholarly work on various matters pertaining to the world in which early Christianity emerged, such as this book: A. R. Hands, Charities and Social Aid in Greece and Rome (London: Thames & Hudson, 1968). It’s a well-researched and balanced discussion of ancient attitudes and practices toward the “less fortunate” in society, which provides a valuable context in which to view attitudes and practices reflected in the early Christian texts.
Here are some representative observations by Hands:
- “In the vast majority of texts and documents relating to gifts in the classical world, it is quite clear that the giver’s action is self-regarding, in the sense that he anticipates from the recipient of his gift some sort of return.” (26)
- In records of the time, “. . . the motive which is constantly ascribed to the donor by the recipient–and, indeed, asserted by the donor himself–is philotimia or philodoxia (love of honour or glory). . .” (43).
- “. . . the classical preoccupation with philotimia left little room for any mention of pity–or of ‘the poor’ as peculiarly deserving of such pity.” (61)
- Although there are commendable expressions of the notion that the wealthy should give more generally (and examples of this humanitas), “It is . . . among a comparatively few rare spirits, even within the cultured Latin-speaking class of the Empire, that this distinctive humanity is, if anywhere, to be sought.” (88)
- The more common pattern of public provision by the wealthy was to direct the gifts to town councillors and others of standing in the town, or to give larger shares/portions to such people: “. . . discrimination by factors of three or five is quite normal.” (91)
- Hands also touches on child-exposure, noting that the practice seems to have been particularly focused on disposing of unwanted female children. Families were often limited to one child, or perhaps two sons, but “more than one daughter was very rare.” (69-70). Hands notes, however, that Jewish families (and then Christians as well) were known as not practicing child-exposure, at least as a group. (Note, e.g., the reference in Acts 21:9 to Philip who is ascribed there four daughters.)
- In light of the current financial crisis over Greece, one other statement caught my eye, which I hope it is not too mischievous to repeat here: “The Greeks, in particular, were notorious, not least in the eyes of fellow Greeks, for their unreliability in handling money.” (19)