I recently had a chapter accepted into an edited volume on, broadly, class and the New Testament. And, my piece concerned, among other things, those darn economic/poverty classifications in the first century, and some connections with mutualism and poverty.
This is one of those subjects that has always left me feeling a little isolated. My entry into this subject began with Bruce Longenecker’s 2010 book Remember the Poor, and continued on to Steve Friesen’s masterful work (some in concert with Walter Scheidel), and then I found the 1997 classic Paul, Poverty, and Survival by Justin Meggitt. I’ve tried to stay abreast of the work that has come out recently (I recall Zeba Crook and John Kloppenborg writing some amazing research on things related to my interests, here).
Now, I recognise something: Meggitt’s book, while a classic because it hit back in a powerful way at the so-called New Consensus, was criticised thoroughly. Dale Martin, Holmberg, Longenecker, David Downs, Meeks, and others spent many hundreds of words dispelling some of the simplicities. Binary representations of the Roman empire, or the problem of pointing to concrete evidence of ‘mutualism’, for instance. I use Meggitt’s work in a very particular way (to be seen in the forthcoming chapter mentioned above).
When it comes to stratification, work is still being done to figure early Christian congregations. I have serious doubts about some of this work, even while really enjoying (and commending!) it. I’ve expressed some of my reservations, primarily my pessimism about having sufficient evidence in regards to both associations in general, and early Christian congregations in particular.
A bit ago I did, however, find an intriguing article by Ryan Schellenberg, someone I was not familiar with previously. I wish I had stumbled into his stuff before I finished my essay. Instead of wasting anyone’s time with my own poor synopsis, I want to just quote the abstract:
“Although there is broad consensus that the majority of the early Christ-followers were poor, descriptions of the economic practices of their assemblies have focused on the contributions of a surplus-possessing minority. This article employs ethnographic accounts of the economic activities of the poor to challenge the assumption that Paul’s injunctions to generosity were targeted primarily at wealthier members. Since there is ample evidence from numerous societies of sharing among the poor, one cannot deduce from the fact that Paul commends generosity that he is addressing those with surplus resources. Moreover, the moral rhetoric employed by Paul addresses just such concerns as commonly arise when the poor participate in networks of reciprocal exchange. What Paul envisions and seeks to nurture are local networks of Christfollowers who utilize their mostly subsistence-level resources for their mutual benefit.” (Schellenberg, “Subsistence, Swapping, and Paul’s Rhetoric of Generosity,” JBL 137 (2018): 215)
What should be highlighted is this central point: that there is evidence that the poor engaged in non-hierarchical economic activity, despite poverty; further, the article notes that the aim of this activity accords closely to Meggitt’s ‘mutualism’, even if Meggitt’s work seems to obscure the fragility of such practices.
Furthermore, there has been robust discussion on (as noted above) stratification in early Christian communities, and that because of the usual types of resource allocation seen in association, there must be wealthy members bankrolling things (who to pay for meals, burials, etc?). I’m unsure, as noted above, however, about the evidence. While I have much to go through, what I have seen seems too provisional because of the nature of the evidence and the analogous games being played.
This post, I think, calls for a followup. But, in conclusion, I think there are some provocative things going on in Ryan Schellenberg’s article. Maybe I will try to spell those out more thoroughly in the near future. If you have access to JBL, go check it out.