- Treasure in Heaven: The Holy Poor in Early Christianity by Peter Brown
Few scholars have traced the nuances between power dynamics of wealth and ideas of the sacred in late antique Christianity with the creativity, persuasive [End Page 282] elegance, and tenacity of Peter Brown. Brown's newest book, Treasure in Heaven: The Holy Poor in Early Christianity, invites readers on a journey that continues to explore how bodies shape social norms in religious history.
In a shift away from the focus of his last two books (Through the Eye of a Needle and The Ransom of the Soul) on the Latin-speaking West, Treasure in Heaven looks east, to Christian monastic trends in Egypt and Syria between the second and fifth centuries. It asks how "holy men" (indeed men are the primary examples here) became "holy poor" in the monastic and lay imagination. In particular it asks how this ancient world addressed questions such as: should monks have to work to support themselves? If so, why and how; if not, why not?
The idea of the "holy poor" has long been a familiar and controversial theme in scholarship about poverty in the New Testament and Late Antiquity. The debate often polarizes a religious "elite" (those who voluntarily divest, such as the Manichaean "Elect") against the "real" poor who struggle with economic destitution, hunger, disease, and social injustice at a molecular level independent of religious loyalties. This tendency to pit Jesus ("Sell all you have") against Paul ("whoever will not work will not eat") begs a definition of the "poor." Scholars in this field have also wrestled with fiscal conjectures to reconstruct elusive social frameworks of class, interdependence, and aid. Brown's narrative flies free over these minefields, with a thoughtful care that enables us to look down on the passing landscape critically mindful of the diverse ideas that tick just below the surfaces, ancient and modern.
Treasure in Heaven is less about poverty than it is about heroized personae and their impact on social and physical work. Brown's focus is early Christian virtuosi: ascetic or clerical elite, monks, bishops, and wandering charismatics, whose self-identity and self-denial engaged opposing views about manual labor (ponos). Those against were (mostly) rooted in Syrian traditions across the Euphrates and the Mesopotamian basin; those in favor were shaped (mostly) through monastic models in Egypt; Brown readily admits that the reality was more nuanced. Across six short chapters, he traces these competing views through representative stories to argue that the "remarkably stable imperial system" (xvii) of the Greek East made possible a particular monastic economic framework, a blend of the Egyptian pro-work model with Syrian traces, that would ultimately shape medieval norms in the West.
Chapter One outlines the basic questions. If, as Jesus said, total divestment is the way to deposit "treasure in heaven," how did early Christians reconcile the Pauline "feverish correspondence concerning the movement of money in the Christian communities" (2)? Given Paul's insistence both on clerics' work and lay offerings to support spiritual leaders, to what extent do "the poor" include outside-the-box holy ascetics on whose prayers, healing, and wisdom lay Christians depended? The heart of this divestment/investment tension is a tangle of variant views on the nature of the physical world, the physical body, and to a lesser extent Graeco-Roman values for leisure; even rich landowners "favored ponos—if only for others" (66).
Chapter Two traces these trends in the second and third centuries. A "deliberately inverted return" of alms reciprocity emerged as bishops gained a central role in church fund administration. These [End Page 283] were not boring Advent or Lenten stew-ardship drives, but empowered by the dynamic zest that average people poured into religious interests. Christian teachers shaped these energies with a coinage of "truth" and claims to certainty even as they positioned the poor, holy and otherwise, against the evils and errors of a treacherous world.
The prophet Mani was one radical Christian on the rim...