THROUGH THE EYE OF A NEEDLE
Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD
By Peter Brown
Princeton University Press, 806 pp., $2;9.95
When the renowned historian of late antiquity Peter Brown confesses in a preface that this has been his most difficult book to write, ever--though the topic is at the center of the field he more or less created--a reviewer naturally wonders why.
To be sure, Brown has provided an unprecedented resource that deserves some appreciation. Through the Eye of a Needle (the title refers to Matthew 19:21-26, in which Jesus teaches that it is unimaginably difficult, but not impossible, for the rich to be saved) leaves out practically nothing important about the Western Christian churches' evolving relationship to material wealth during the crucial period (longer than indicated in the subtitle) from the Roman Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity in 312 A.D. until well after the
churches' emergence as the leading institutions in Europe. (I use the plural, "churches," because in this era, when Catholicism was still consolidating itself, these institutions were local and distinct.) Drawing on decades' worth of expertise in writing and speaking to both scholars and the public, Brown creates broad, deep landscapes in which the reader can watch the ancients moving. You can, in places, just crawl in and have a true dream about the ancient world.
Moreover, the topic holds fascinating implications about the formation of modern Western culture. In ancient Greece and Rome, the wealthy traditionally engaged in civic giving, chiefly for public buildings and entertainments. The Christian churches managed to harness the sentiments, but with a critical difference: everyone, down to a community's humblest member--and no one was too humble to be excluded from Christianity--was expected to give what he or she could. Also, help for the needy verged from the main pagan precedent of allotments to citizens alone. Those with nothing now had an ipso facto call on the pious and respectable, those with more than they needed an ipso facto duty to give.
Monasticism and other sweeping material sacrifices in the name of an increasingly power-fit and influential religion helped break down the ancient pagan belief that anyone important must also be materially secure and independent, if not wealthy. Basic ideology was also changing in that "laying up treasure in heaven" (instead of buying dependence and...