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Alms, Acts of Compassion, Rewards, and Atonement for Sins

June 1, 2017

David J. Downs, Alms:  Charity, Reward, and Atonement in Early Christianity (Baylor University Press, 2016), will be an enlightening and stimulating read for many.  His central thesis is that early Christian texts of the first three centuries reflect the beliefs that doing acts of kindness/mercy (including, but not restricted to financial assistance) was widely encouraged, was portrayed as something that God would reward eschatologically, and was also regarded as a way of atoning for sins.

Downs also shows cogently that this view seems to have sat comfortably alongside the conviction that Jesus’ death was the supreme and unique atonement for sins.  In some texts, the explicit distinction is that Jesus’ death atones for pre-baptismal sins and merciful-acts help cover post-baptismal sins.  In other texts, however, the distinction isn’t so sharp, and the authors simply affirm the uniqueness of Jesus’ atoning death alongside exhortations to merciful acts as also “covering a multitude of sins.”

Protestants especially may find Downs’s analysis startling or troubling, and may be tempted to write off the texts that he cites as simply failing to maintain the uniqueness of Jesus’ redemptive work.  But I think that would be a mistake.  For the notions of meritorious actions (i.e., merciful actions that God rewards) are there all through the NT as well, including sayings ascribed to Jesus (e.g., Matthew 6:1-4; Luke 12:33)!

After a lengthy Introduction, Downs first reviews references to acts of mercy that acquire rewards in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint).  Then, he addresses texts in the “Apocrypha,” Jewish writings that were sometimes cited as scriptural but didn’t make it into the finalized Hebrew Bible.  In particular, texts from Tobit and Sirach were frequently cited by early Christians as bases for their encouragement to merciful actions.

Thereafter, he gives a close analysis of early Christian texts.   This includes the Synoptic Gospels and Acts (chap. 4), the Pauline epistles (chap 5, which includes attention to the NT writings typically regarded as written in Paul’s name but not by him), and the influence of 1 Peter 4:8 (“love covers a multitude of sins”) in subsequent early Christianity (chap. 6).

In chap 7, Downs cites early Christian writings that connect care for the needy with belief in the resurrection, and that accuse those Christians who didn’t believe in a bodily resurrection of a connected lack of interest in such merciful acts.  In chap. 8, Downs shows that early Christian teachings about almsgiving and related kindness were grounded in exegesis of scriptural texts, and were not foreign elements in early Christian concerns.

In his conclusion, Downs reflects on how the evidence that he reviews might be regarded by Christians today, especially Evangelical Protestants, who might be inclined to think that these texts exhibit some declension from a “pure” faith in Jesus’ atoning significance.

I won’t go into more detail and spoil the reading of the book for others.  It’s a well-researched, well-written and organized book, and the basic line of argument seems to me compelling.  (The publisher’s online description is here.)

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7 Comments
  1. David Downs permalink

    Prof. Hurtado,

    Thank you very much for your eminently fair and gracious review of my book.

    I do wish I had been able to incorporate insights from your two most recent books, since it seems to me that practices of mercy were both a key aspect of early Christian distinctiveness and one reason that people were willing to bear the cost of becoming Christian, either because their material needs were met or because of the promise of eschatological reward/atonement for sharing with those in need (or both, if the categories of recipient and donor were relatively fluid). Your work has helped me to think about how distinctiveness and attractiveness relate to practices caring for the poor, and I wish I could have done that before the book was published. Alas!

    Best,
    David

    • David: It may well be that benevolence, material care for one another, was a noteworthy feature of early Christianity. I didn’t set out to list all the distinctive features of early Christianity in my book, Destroyer of the gods, but instead only sought to illustrate the point that early Christianity was distinctive, and in ways that subsequently became unexamined assumptions in Western culture.
      (I should also indicate that I plan to have another look at Galatians 2:10 in light of Longenecker’s more recent discussion. I’m not initially inclined to his view, but shall think on the matter further.)

  2. I’m glad for this book. Someone has to do the scholarly heavy lifting. From my part, I’m more aligned with the Protestant tradition. However, there’s no denying that the Tanakh and the New Testament teach that the way we treat others affects our relationship with God. This is evident in the texts cited by Prof. Hurtado, but also in Jesus’ warning that what we do or not do to others we do or fail to do to Jesus (a passage which I’m sure is included in Mr. Downs textual analysis.

    I intend to buy the book and read it. And I encourage Protestants to read it, too; especially if you don’t agree with its main thesis. Otherwise, dismissing its thesis would be prejudicial.

  3. John Bugay permalink

    ///He then attends to early Christian texts and authors in which a theology of atoning almsgiving is developed―2 Clement, the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, Polycarp, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Cyprian. /// — from the Amazon.com description.

    Both T.F. Torrance (in “The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers”) and Oscar Cullmann argued that this generation of writers developed sub-standard concepts in their theologies precisely because they didn’t have access to the full New Testament scriptures. In any event, I would caution readers about building their own theologies around what these writers have said.

    • John: I’m aware of Torrance’s argument, but I don’t think it suffices. For one thing, there are NT texts that speak of God rewarding deeds of mercy (e.g., forgive that you may be forgiven, Matt 6:14-15). Moreover, it might be a bit patronizing and one-eyed to perceive the “mote” in the eye of ancient Christians and fail to perceive eye problems for us moderns as well!

      • John Bugay permalink

        For the most part, I’m not trying to find a mote, except that there are some who would tend to think that this generation of writers, as “closest to the time of the Apostles”, would have the best theologies. I’m simply saying that that’s not necessarily the case. As with everything about this time period, we need to read widely and understand the context. I’ve put the book on my wish list.

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