Paying and praying: economics determined theology in the early Christian church

In a review of Peter Brown’s The Ransom of the Soul A.N. Wilson finds that the afterlife of the early Christians was largely influenced by money

11 April 2015

9:00 AM

11 April 2015

9:00 AM

The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity Peter Brown

Harvard University Press, pp.288, £18.95, ISBN: 9780674967588

Peter Brown’s explorations of the mindsets of late antiquity have been educating us for nearly half a century, ever since his great life of St Augustine in 1967. His latest book, relatively short in volume but very wide in scope, explores Christian attitudes to the afterlife, from the time of Cyprian of Carthage (martyred in 258) to that of Julian, Bishop of Toledo in the late seventh century.

Julian put together an anthology called the Prognosticon Futuri Saeculi. He viewed his book as a compilation of the shared wisdom of Christianity. What in fact he demonstrated, in this ‘futurology of the Christian soul’ as Brown calls it, was the extreme variety of viewpoints over the previous 400-odd years. One would expect a difference over nearly half a millennium. We do not think as the Elizabethans did and by ‘around the year 650’, as Brown rather poignantly demonstrates, ‘the ancient world truly died in western Europe’.

Gregory of Tours, the first historian of western, barbarian Europe (he became bishop of Tours in 573) had a quarrel with one of his priests. The priest believed that ordinary people did not have everlasting life. The damned were damned. The saints and superheroes became stars in the Milky Way. Marcus Aurelius (121–180) had had similar views, while deploring the Christians as suicidal exhibitionists. Tertullian (160–240), who was Marcus Aurelius’s contemporary, thought that the Christians slept in silence until the Last Judgment: they were having a nice rest, a refrigerium interim, before they awoke, either to damnation or to glory. Tertullian regarded it as ‘trivial’ to believe in the immortality of the soul, and hated the Platonism which was creeping into the church’s thinking.

So, there was a huge gap between St Matthew’s Gospel — which depicted Christ simply sending the sheep to heaven and the goats to hell in one moment of judgment — and the later, more complicated thoughts of the church. One reason for this was that the gospel writers thought that the world was about to end, so there was less time for what Brown is so good at doing — imagining the lives of ordinary people who were not just ‘early Christians’, or slightly later Christians, but were also tradespeople, aristocrats, lawyers, soldiers and so forth. He is very skilful at extracting, from graffiti and funerary inscriptions, the lives of those who ‘lived a hidden life and rest in unvisited graves’ (he himself uses this beautiful quotation from Middlemarch).

St Augustine, the centre of Brown’s lifetime’s research, was not noted for his easy-going attitude to sin, but even he, while Bishop of Hippo, was coming to realise that when it came to the future life, some people were not so saintly as to go straight to Christ when they died, nor so sinful that they merited hell. Whereas early inscriptions in and near the Roman catacombs reflect the early Christians praying to their dead, the Christians of late antiquity and beyond began to pray for their dead.

And Brown shows brilliantly in this book how the future life of Christians beyond the grave was influenced in particular by money. The pagan rich of late antiquity went on bankrolling the games which provided entertainment for the poor. The Christian rich, guided by the gospels, felt they should give alms to the actual poor. Sometimes, though, this was a bit notional, and they found themselves merely endowing almshouses or monasteries for a few poor people, while not engaging in wholesale programmes of public good works — still less the ‘euergetism’ or good works of the pagans. One of the functions of these religious houses became to pray for the rich dead who had endowed them.

Under the influence of the Irish monks of Columbanus’s entourage (543–615), Gaul became infiltrated with ‘Celtic’ ideas. The practice of frequent confession spread outside the monastic enclosure. Immortality became something to which all Christians, not just those destined to become stars in the Milky Way, could aspire. ‘By 650, religion and society in Gaul had begun on a slope that would end with great monasteries, regular confession, the emergence of purgatory, and the great Divina Commedia of Dante Alighieri.’

As Brown’s title shows, the theological development which Julian of Toledo unwittingly laid bare was the consequence of highly untheological economic circumstances.

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Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16.95 Tel: 08430 600033. A.N. Wilson is a former Spectator literary editor, and the author of more than 40 books, his most recent being Victoria: A Life and The Potter’s Hand, a novel.

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