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“Charity” and Benevolence in the Greek & Roman Eras

July 8, 2015

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)

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  1. Thanks Larry; this will be helpful for a paper I’m working on concerning patronage and benefaction in the ancient world for our conference at St Mary’s University later this year on patronage and benefaction in the early church and today.

  2. fellowsrichard permalink

    Readers may also be interested in Watson, Deborah Elaine (2006) Paul’s collection in light of motivations and mechanisms for aid to the poor in the first-century world, Durham theses, Durham University. Available at Durham E-Thesis Online, here. She came to similar conclusions to those of Hands, as summarized above.

  3. Greg Hillendahl permalink

    Dear Dr. Hurtado, Can you comment briefly on R. M. Errington’s review of the book by Hands in The Journal of Hellenic Studies (Vol. 90, Nov. 1970)? He seems to be concerned with the book’s methodology. He also avers, “we are surely not justified in regarding the views of these [Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca] eminent theorists as being necessary typical or applicable to the philanthropic activities of their less philosophic contemporaries”. Also, how applicable is it to relate the philanthropic ideas from the time of Plato and Aristotle to the first cent? You seem (I’m sure rightly) concerned about pulling back ideas from the period (350-550 AD) into the 1st cent. Thanks for any help you can provide.

    • Errington’s review seems to me both fair in some criticisms and beside the point on others. For example, that Hands chose to focus on private benefaction and not state-sponsored public-works projects such as sewers or aqueducts is not a failure but a choice, specifically to focus on motives etc., i.e., the mentalities of people of the time.
      It’s true, however, that the time-frame is wide, ranging from the classical Greek period to late Latin antiquity, but Hands tells us where he’s at and we can use our judgement. He also himself notes that the lofty principles stated in some texts of elite authors are not reliably taken as reflecting the actual practices of the time.

  4. When it comes to the subject of wealth, giving, generosity and the gradual change of perspective which took place in the first Christian centuries, an invaluable resource is P. Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. There is a lot of background information which is also relevant for the first Christian century.
    The book is a masterful “tour de force”. I highly recommend it to all those interested in gaining a wider perspective.

    • Thanks, but the period (350-550 AD) is late in comparison to the focus I’m pursuing, and is hardly relevant for “the first Christian century”.

      • True, the author has in view a much later period, but he often refers to the previous centuries. In this regard, the book might be enriching, because it takes into account generosity in Judaism across the same temporal spectrum. I found insights even for the first Christian century, but, as you rightly point out, this is not the first place to check for someone with a specific focus on the first century.

  5. Rick permalink

    “A big concept is that the notion of a gratuitous gift that expects no return is an invention of modernity. That is, the notion that grace = gift and that gift = altruism, unconditioned giving to one undeserving (or deserving) is not found as such until the modern era and he traces its origins especially to Luther and to Kant (most esp in its secular forms). One can see here the implications for the radical Lutheran teaching we sometimes here today. In particular, the anthropology of the gift has raised the possibility that the notion of the “pure” gift, a gift without return, is a historically and culturally specific Western invention. Allied with this big concept is that gifts in the Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds always entailed obligation and reciprocity…That is, “grace” or “gift” establishes social relations, community, and mutual benevolence/reciprocity of exchange and fellowship.”

    • Thanks for this advance notice of Barclay’s forthcoming book, about which I’ve known for a while, but no specifics. He may address the matter, but we do have an innovative approach toward giving/benevolence already in the Gospels, as in Luke 14:12-14, where Jesus-followers are told to invite those who cannot repay, on the assurance that the repayment will come in the resurrection (from God). More to the point, the benevolence advocated in the NT is to be undiscriminating, toward all fellow Jesus-followers at the least, not given to secure honors, etc. in return.

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