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  • The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity by Peter Brown
  • Helen Rhee
Peter Brown The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2015 Pp. xxii + 262. $24.95.

This book culminates Peter Brown's recent scholarly devotion to the impact of wealth on the developing Christian institutions, theology and practices in late antiquity. In Poverty and the Leadership in the Later Roman Empire (2002), Brown charted the emergence of the poor as a distinct social class in the later empire for which the Christian church embraced a responsibility. In his massive Through the Eye of a Needle (2012), he focused on wealth, particularly its influx into and impact on the Christian experiences and the church in the waning Western empire; the emerging Christian upper-class hoped to lay up treasure in heaven through dramatic renunciation of wealth, care of the poor, and giving to the church. Picking up the theme of treasure in heaven, in this volume Brown explores the effect of wealth on the other world in Western Christianity in 250–650 C.E.

Brown is particularly interested in "the manner in which the imagined joining of heaven and earth through money was held to affect the fate of the soul in the afterlife" (ix), informed by his characteristically careful attention to changing social context and religious imagination of the afterlife. As such, he does not set out to chronicle what, but to probe why and at what pace the change of that imagination occurred. Tertullian and Cyprian in the third century were rather concerned about the deaths of the martyrs whose souls' entry into heaven was instantaneous; the souls of other Christians would enjoy a brief time of delightful rest and refreshment (refrigerium) before the Resurrection, the ultimate transformation of the whole universe. However, by the time of Julian of Toledo (688 C.E.), not only had the distance between death and Resurrection become extended, but every individual (Christian) soul was thought to engage in a race like "a present-day city marathon" toward heaven at its own speed based on individual sins and merits (15).

Through the notion of placing treasure in heaven, almsgiving to the poor joined heaven and earth, God and humanity, and the rich and the poor, examined in Chapter One. As almsgiving transferred the giver's treasure to heaven, it brought together the seeming opposites of vertical and horizontal relationships. [End Page 323] As for the living and the dead who were closely linked together, almsgiving with intercessory prayer had already been a crucial part of Christian funerals and memorial meals in the third century. By the time of Augustine, the tripartite ritual practices of almsgiving, prayer, and mention at the Eucharist were firmly established to remember the dead. At the same time, the concerns by ordinary Christians (the non valde mali and the non valde boni, the "not altogether bad" and "not altogether good") became pervasive, especially coming from the rich elite—regardless of whether these rituals for the souls of the dead in the twilight between heaven and hell actually work.

Against the backdrop of developing speculations about the soul's afterlife in North Africa, Augustine responds to inquiries such as: "What benefits did the souls of the departed derive from the living? Did any benefit whatsoever come from placing the dead beside the tombs of saints, so as to enjoy their protection at the time of the Last Judgment?" (77) The bishop's answers were remarkably blunt and reticent as explored in Chapter Two. In his letter to Paulinus of Nola (ca. 420/424 C.E.), Augustine simply confirmed the sufficiency of those traditional ritual practices and denied any efficacy of burial beside the saints. In contrast to "a baroque piety" of converted aristocrats in Italy, Spain, and Gaul that tended to envision Christ through the imperial majesty and patronage as one who could offer amnesty at the last judgment, Augustine focused on mundane piety of the average faithful.

As Chapter Three examines in detail, Augustine's answer was certainly in response to the Pelagian controversy, which was not only about grace and...


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