Christian Colligation of Apologetics Debate Research & Evangelism
Pagans, Christianity, and Charity
By Christopher Price
The idea in the West that individuals, organizations, and the state should offer help to those in need without an expectation that the favor will be returned -- charity -- is largely due to Christianity's influence. The Christian concept of charity was unique because it promoted the idea that charity was not just limited to one's own family or even one's own social or cultural group. From the founding of early Christianity to the modern age, Christians have carried with them a beneficial concept of charity that has had a substantial, positive impact on humanity.
Jewish Precedent for Charity
There was, of course, Old Testament precedent for charity. The Old Testament instructs land owners to allow the poor to glean their fields for food. And first century Jews were known even in the pagan world for the practice of "alms giving." But Jewish customs prevented the widespread influence that Christians were soon to realize. It simply did not have the success as a missionary religion that Christianity achieved. Moreover, the charity produced by Jewish society was generally limited to the Jewish poor. As a result, while Jews favored a form of the charitable concept, their views had little impact on the wider pagan culture (except, of course, to the extent we recognize Christianity as an offshoot of Judaism).
Jesus as the Source of Christian Charitable Attitudes
Christian attitudes towards Charity can be traced directly to the teachings of Jesus. Many of his sayings and teachings emphasized the role of caring for the poor in the Kingdom of God. From the most widely used Gospel of early Christianity:
Then the King will say to those on his right, `Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.
The point here is clear, and powerful. You express love for God by expressing love for the poor and disadvantaged.
There are many other Christian verses in which Jesus expresses God's love and compassion for the poor, such as Matthew 19:21 ("If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me."). It is well known that the Gospel of Luke in particular emphasizes compassion for the poor, such as in Luke 14:13-14 ("But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.") and Luke 19:8-9 ("And Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, 'Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.' And Jesus said to him, 'Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham.'").
Perhaps most significant of all, though, is the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:30-37. The context of the story is often overlooked. Jesus had instructed the people to love their neighbors as themselves. But in Jesus' time social responsibility was limited to members of one's family or social/racial class. So when asked who was a neighbor, Jesus took the opportunity to greatly expand the scope of obligations. By using the example of a Jew helping a Samaritan -- who Jesus' Jewish audience saw as religious and cultural enemies -- Jesus imposed the burden of charity and mercy towards those who are not part of one's own family or tribe. You should help those that need help, regardless of their social class or kinship. This is perhaps early Christianity's most important expansion of the Jewish concept of charity.
Early Christian Attitudes Towards Charity
Christians took Jesus' teachings to heart and -- even though spreading deep into the pagan world -- carried with them their broader concepts of charity. Many such examples and injunctions to act charitably were provided to early Christians in the New Testament beyond Jesus' teaching. Acts records that the Jerusalem Church had established a common fund for the support of widows (Acts 6:1-6). Though exact numbers are obviously not available, that it took the appointment of seven men to administrate indicates that it was substantial. There is also the example of Paul and the generosity on his mostly Gentile churches towards the poor in Jerusalem. Paul took up a collection from all of his churches to help support the Jerusalem Church when it fell upon hard times, often closing out his letters with instructions regarding the collection. (1 Cor. 16:1; Romans 15:25; Gal. 2:10).
Another New Testament epistle places great emphasize on helping the poor as a part of one's Christian responsibilities. The Epistle of James states that an inherent part of religion is the support of orphans. James 1:27 ("Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress."). Indeed, the Epistle of James places a strong emphasis on providing practical assistance to those in need. James 2:15-16 ("If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,' and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?").
The examples of Christian charity did not end with the New Testament. Christians of the second and third century could also find many examples of charitable injunctions in other early Christian writings. The Didache (perhaps around 100 CE), a kind of instruction manual for recent converts, instructed Christians to "give to everyone who asks thee, and do not refuse." Similarly, the Shepard of Hermas (early 100s) instructed Christians to "Give simply to all without asking doubtfully to whom those givest but give to all." In the early 200s, Tertullian reports that Christians had a voluntary common fund into which Christians monthly deposited what they could. The common fund was then used to support widows, the disabled, orphans, the sick, the elderly, shipwrecked sailors, prisoners, teachers, burials for the poor, and even for the release of slaves. Apology, 39.
As early as the second century, Christians were practicing an interesting and very sacrificial form of charity. They would fast from meals so that the unconsumed food and resources could be given to the poor and hungry. The first mention of this practice that I have found is in the Shepard of Hermas (early 100s):
Having fulfilled what is written, in the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want, and thus you will exhibit humility of mind, so that he who has received benefit from your humility may fill his own soul, and pray for you to the Lord.Chapter 3.
It is also found in another second-century writing, the Apology of Aristides (130 CE).
And if there is among them any that is poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food.
The practice was enduring. Origen writes in the third century: "Let the poor man be provided with food from the self-denial of him who fasts." Also, according to historian Michel Riquet,
It has been calculated that at Rome in 250, under Pope Cornelius, ten thousand Christians obliged to fast could provide, from a hundred days' fasting, a million rations a year. These more or less regular offerings were supplemented by gifts made to the Church by rich converts.
Christian Charity in Action, page 55.
Thus, Christians devoted much time, energy, and resources to generous charitable efforts in a time of great need. Not only was there an abundance of human misery (in a broad range of forms), but the pagans did little or nothing to assist them. Yet, uniquely, the Christians did not limit their assistance to members of their own subculture, or as an exchange of favors. "To cities filled with the homeless and the impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope." Stark, op. cit., page 161. This Christian creed of charity was widespread and embodied in the actions of individuals, families, and churches. "In homes, whole families adopted a style of life modeled on that of the Apostles; some devoted themselves to missionary works, others to Charitable deeds among the outcasts of Roman Society--lepers and other identified as 'unclean': vagabonds, prostitutes, the homeless and destitute." Judith Herrin, The Formation of Christendom, page 57. "Churches everywhere took care of widows and orphans; tended the sick, the infirm, and the disabled; buried the dead, including indigents; cared for slaves; and furnished work for those who needed it." Hinson, op. cit., page 171. As discussed more fully below, this broad approach to charity did not exist in Western culture until Christianity placed it there.
The Contrast Between Pagan and Christian Concepts of Charity
While the Jews had precedent for charity, and the Christians embraced and expanded the concept, the pagans did not. The pagan concept of "charity" at the time was really nothing more than politicking or an exchange of favors -- to the extent it existed at all. This does not mean that certain pagans did not act in a charitable manner, but it is clear that such was not the cultural norm and was not supported or encouraged by the pagan religions, philosophers, or the Roman government. Pliny the Younger even wondered if charities that gave to the poor should be allowed to exist. Plato stated that "a poor man who was no longer able to work because of sickness should be left to die." Republic 3.406d-410a. The Roman Philosopher Plautus stated, "you do a beggar bad service by giving him food and drink; you lose what you give and prolong his life for misery." Trinummus 2.338-2.339. All told, "classical philosophers regarded mercy and pity as pathological emotions--defects of character to be avoided by all rational men. Since mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it was contrary to justice." Stark, op. cit., page 212. As Will Durant wrote, "[c]harity found little scope in this frugal life." Caesar and Christ, page 71.
To the extent charity existed in any form, it was not selfless or religious in any sense. Rather, occasionally a more wealthy patron would provide assistance to a lesser family or citizen. Not even given to the truly poor or destitute, such "charity" was given to secure loyalty and favors. As Robin Lane Fox explains: "Whereas the corn doles of pagan cities had been confined usually to citizens, usually to those who were quite well-off, the Christians' charity claimed to be for those who were most in need." Pagans and Christians, page 668. Moreover, "at their festivals, the great pagan families made distributions to the small class of councillors, the male citizens, and lastly, if at all, to the women. Christians brought their funds to those in need, men and women, citizen and noncitizen: Christian 'charity' was different in range and motive from pagan 'philanthropy': it earned merit in heaven and sustained those dear to God, the poor." Ibid., page 323. E. Glenn Hinson also notes the difference between pagan philanthropy and Christian charity: "One of the strong links in the Christian chain was its charities and social aid, offered with little discrimination. Although the Romans practiced largess, they sought something in return, if not quid pro quo in the gift." The Early Church, page 140. In other words, "[t]he active, habitual, and detailed charity of private persons which is such a conspicuous feature in all Christian societies was scarcely known in antiquity." Lecky, The History of European Morals, 2:78-79.
The difference between pagans and Christians on the practice of charity was recognized by pagans of the time. For example, the pagan satirist Lucian (130-200 c.e.) mocked Christians for their charity:
The earnestness with which the people of this religion help one another in their needs is incredible. They spare themselves nothing for this end. Their first lawgiver put it into their heads that they were all brethren.
Even more interestingly, the Pagan Emperor Julian -- who attempted to lead the Roman Empire back to paganism -- was frustrated by the superior morality shown by the Christians, especially when it came to charity. This was something he readily admitted: "The impious Galileans relieve both their own poor and ours . . . . It is shameful that ours should be so destitute of our assistance." Epistles of Julian, 49. Julian "especially admired the letters bishops wrote to commend poor travelers to the care of other Christians." Hinson, op. cit., page 211.
In an attempt to emulate the Christian Church, Julian attempted to impose a high sense of moral behavior on his priests and attempted to copy aspects of Christian charity. In fact, one of these emulations is found in his instruction to high priest in Galatia to establish numerous hostels in each village so that strangers could have the care they needed. Ibid. Julian's efforts failed and paganism was never again to be a force in the Empire.
Furthermore, it seems that pagan recognition of Christian charitable efforts was a significant factor in its success in gaining converts. Robin Lane Fox credits it in with the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire: "to the poor, the widows and orphans, Christians gave alms and support, like the synagogue communities, their forerunners. This 'brotherly love' has been minimized as a reason for turning to the Church, as if only those who were members could know of it. In fact, it was widely recognized." Fox, op. cit., page 324.
In sum, the pagan and Christian concepts of charities were very different. After explaining that mercy and charity were impulses despised by classical scholars and that charity had little place among pagan culture, he states:
This was the moral climate in which Christianity taught that mercy is one of the primary virtues--that a merciful God requires humans to be merciful. Moreover, the corollary that because God loves humanity, Christians may not please God unless they love one another was something entirely new. Perhaps even more revolutionary was the principle that Christian love and charity must extend beyond the boundaries of family and tribe, that it must extent to 'all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ' (1 Cor. 1:2). Indeed, love and charity must even extend beyond the Christianity community. . . . This was revolutionary stuff. Indeed, it was the cultural basis for the revitalization of a Roman world groaning under a host of miseries.
Stark, op. cit., page 212.
Christian Ideas of Charity Spreads Throughout the West
As with Christian opposition to infanticide, Christianity's support of charity was unable to fundamentally transform Roman culture until Christianity itself reached some level of prominence. Fortunately, it did. Perhaps best signifying Christianity's triumph in transforming the pagan culture into one which actually valued virtues such as charity is that Constantine -- the first Christian Emperor -- set about to widen the scope of charity in the Roman Empire. "He  acknowledged the new ideal of charity. Previous emperors had encouraged schemes to support small numbers of children in less favored families, the future recruits for their armies. Constantine gave funds to the churches to support the poor, the widow and orphans." Moreover, according to Fox, the church used the funds it received from Constantine to fund their charitable efforts. "Swollen by the Emperor's gifts, it helped the old, the inform, and the destitute." Fox, op. cit., page 668. Thus, with its first Emperor convert, Christianity had an immediate, practical impact on Roman society's approach to charity.
Of course, this Christian concept of Charity did not end with the Roman Empire. The Christian Church continued its veneration of the virtue of charity throughout the middle ages. Indeed, if anything the scale of charity had increased. Will Durant notes the following:
But never had the world seen such a dispensation of alms as was now organized by the Church . . . . She helped widows, orphans, the sick or infirm, prisoners, victims of natural catastrophes; and she frequently intervened to protected the lower orders from unusual exploitation or excessive taxation. In many cases, priests, on attaining the episcopacy, gave all their property to the poor. Christian women like Fabiola, Paula, and Melania devoted fortunes to charitable work.
The Age of Faith, page 78.
The administration of charity reached new heights in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Individuals, guilds, governments, and the Church shared in relieving the unfortunate. Almsgiving was universal. Men hopeful of paradise left charitable bequests. Rich men dowered poor girls, fed scores of the poor daily, and hundreds of major festivals. At many baronial gates doles of food were distributed thrice weekly to all who asked. Nearly every great lady felt it a social, if not moral, necessity, to share in the administration of charity. Roger Bacon, in the thirteenth century, advocated a state fund for the relief of poverty, sickness, and old age, but most of this work was left to the Church. In one aspect the Church was a continent-wide organization for charitable aid.
Durant, op. cit., page 31.
To add color and vividness to these charitable efforts, I offer other specific examples of Christianity inspired charity from the middle ages. Notably, these examples tend to be post-Reformation, showing that Protestants and Catholics remained committed to Charitable works:
©2004 Christopher Price
Questions or comments concerning this article or the use of this article should be directed to Christopher Price.