- The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity by Peter Brown
Introduction by Robin Darling Young (The Catholic University of America)
The writings of the earliest followers of Jesus contain vivid, if terse, descriptions of an as-yet unseen world to come; their successors in the still-small Christian movement of the early-second century, spreading westward through the Roman world, treasured earlier, Jewish descriptions of the afterlife and continued to elaborate new ideas that were often received through dreams and visions. They frequently held strict views about divine rewards (for the righteous, especially martyrs) and punishments (for the great many wicked).
Here Peter Brown shows, in five chapters, how Christian teachings in the Latin-speaking West changed over the course of the centuries—from the mid-second to the late tenth; from Hermas and Tertullian to Julian, bishop of Toledo. Writing in 688, Julian compiled a Prognosticon Futuri Saeculi as a florilegium (Brown calls it a “manual,” p. 4) of earlier teachers’ apparently concordant opinions about the soul’s future after death. But although Julian thought that Christian teachers of his day agreed with the patristic authors, his book inadvertently preserves evidence of deep change—from the early opinion that only some would be saved to the contemporary view that many could be saved with the help of prayers and offerings.
This shift in authoritative opinion resulted, Brown wants to argue, from the early idea that the souls of the dead benefited from the prayers of Christians (as did Dinocrates, the brother of St. Perpetua). Yet as the Church grew, it included more and more Christians who were neither thoroughly holy nor completely wicked: the ordinary. Surely the prayers of [End Page 879] righteous Christians would avail for them? Almsgiving began to be directed their way. Increasingly, some of the massive amounts of wealth that came to the Church as it grew and became a licit religion, both as a result of imperial largesse and the donations of wealthy Christians, could be put to use supporting and encouraging prayers for the dead. Purging the sin that impeded a happy afterlife became easier, too, once the practice of confession had begun to spread outside the Irish-influenced monasteries of Gaul, and sins could be ameliorated in advance of death.
Thus from the first chapter, in which Brown discusses the solidarity of early Roman Christians and their intercession for their dead such as in the San Sebastiano catacomb, the book proceeds to describe the adoption of an increasingly detailed idea that the imperiled soul could be ransomed. In the second and third chapters, Brown returns to his persistent object of study, St. Augustine, to watch how Hippo’s bishop—pastor of souls as well as controversialist—judiciously treats questions of the future of the dead, including his strongly Christian, but not perfect, mother. He also contrasts Augustine’s conviction that the Church was a corpus permixtum and his related appreciation of almsgiving with Pelagius’s strict view and consequent insistence on the obligation to Christian perfection, through ascetic renunciation.
Chapter 4 turns to Gaul, where in the growing monastic influence of the fifth century Christians both gained a more detailed view of the afterlife and benefited from an increased use of penance. Finally, in the fifth chapter, Brown reaches the hortatory preaching of Gregory, bishop of Tours (d. 594), and his detection of the signs of God’s immanent judgment in the state of the poor. But as the epilogue describes, the future of the Christian view of the soul’s ransom developed significantly in the next century—from the influence of Columbanus and the Celts in France that fostered numerous monastic foundations as a place of intercession for their wealthy founders to the numerous visions of heaven and hell as told by pious monks or nuns—visions that confirmed...