When I first came across Bruce Longenecker’s 2010 volume Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty and the Greco-Roman World I thought it would be mildly interesting and, knowing the author a little, imagined it would be well researched and engagingly written. I did not imagine that it would tackle an issue which leads to the heart of the place of ethics in theology, and debates about the interpretation of Paul. My mistaken assumption highlights a key issue which this book addresses—the separation of theology and ethical action which bedevils Western Protestant readings of Scripture.
The book as a whole is the fruit of many years’ study of this subject by Longenecker, a New Testament specialist, and some of the chapters are adapted from articles that have been previously published. But the book as a whole puts together a compelling argument that Paul has a clear commitment to the care of the poor as an integral part of his teaching, and that this was a hallmark of the Jesus-groups which he founded, taught, led and wrote to.
The reason why this is so significant is multifold. In the first place, one of the key arguments about Paul’s theology and teaching is that it has been believed to lack a central element of Jesus’ teaching which was the care for the poor. If Longenecker is right, then this moves Pauline theology back much closer to the historical teaching and mission of Jesus (and of James). This in turn suggests that Pauline theology has much more continuity with Jewish concerns for the poor as acts of ‘righteousness’, and makes Christian ethics central to the task of Christian theology, rather than secondary to or derivative of it. Thirdly, this understanding challenges the focus on atonement as being primarily concerned with the relationship between the believer and God, and at least as much focussed on relationships between believers or (in first century context) between members of the Jesus-groups. (For a contextual angle on this, see Corneliu Constantineanu’s recent LNTS volume The Social Significance of Reconciliation in Paul’s Theology). This in turn challenges the ‘interiorisation’ of much Protestant theology, and the persistent division between belief and action in relation to Christian discipleship.
So how does Longenecker go about making his case? His opening chapter offers something of a devastating critique of earlier commentators on Paul and his views on poverty, and refreshingly clears the air. As with other sections of the book, this is written in an engaging and well-structured way, and highlights the problem with great clarity.
The book then falls into two halves, the first looking primarily at the first-century context and academic understanding of it, and the second half looking at texts in Paul and how we might understand some of the economic implications of Paul’s teaching. Chapter 2 explores the nature of ‘advanced agrarian culture’ as understood by macro-sociologists, and quite interestingly links this to scriptural denunciations of the acquisitiveness of the economic elite, something that was clearly a social and economic reality. Chapter 3 looks at the models of socio-economic scaling in the first century, and the vexed question of exactly what proportion of the population were at subsistence level. Here Longenecker appears to be engaged with the key discussions, and although all such models are tentative, he offers a robust critique of Steven Friesen’s model, one of the most influential in recent debate. Overall, Longenecker wants to move away from the ‘binary’ approach of Friesen and others, arguing for the kind of nuanced gradation put forward by Peter Oakes from his analysis of houses in Pompeii (Reading Romans in Pompeii). Then follow chapters on charitable initiatives in the Graeco-Roman world, and a parallel analysis of the same within the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Without fundamentally questioning the scholarly consensus, that charity was not a notable feature of Graeco-Roman religion but was, by contrast, a central feature in the Judaeo-Christian, he nevertheless wishes to add some nuance to this whilst also giving it a sure foundation.
In the second half, Longenecker’s focus switches to the Pauline communities and the Pauline texts. A significant part of this section derives from his work on Galatians and in particular the injunction in Gal 2.10 to ‘remember the poor.’ Longenecker argues (convincingly, in my view) that this was not a cipher for the (poor) Jerusalem church, but did indeed refer to the poor in general. Perhaps the most fascinating chapter in this second section is chapter 10, where he takes information about some named characters in the Pauline letters, and tries to locate them on the economic scale he has constructed in dialogue with Friesen and others. But the most important, in terms of his argument, is the exegesis contained in chapter 12, which explores where we can find concern for the poor within Paul’s theology. As Longenecker summarises in his conclusion, Paul was concerned about the poor in the urban contexts in which he worked, and whilst this was not his sole interest, ‘care for the economically needy was a matter that he deemed to be characteristic of the identity of Jesus-followers.’
Overall, this volume is a convincing exercise in reading Paul in context—in the context of a key area of Judeao-Christian concern, in the context of social realities of his day, and reading particular texts in their wider context within Paul.
(extracted from a review originally written for Studies in Christian Ethics).
4 thoughts on “Does Paul care about the poor? Does it matter?”
I was a little surprised to read serious scholars could argue about concern for the poor (including the economically poor) in Paul’s writing. Certainly this concern must be included within the context of love, I am at a loss to conceive how it could be otherwise.
I do understand the tension between what I have understood as the “social” Gospel against the “evangelical”, but I did not imagine it was a subject of debate among anyone who studied. Christ was pretty clear about it – do both.
Thanks for sharing.
David, thanks for commenting. I agree with you that Christ was pretty clear about it. But both academic and popular readings of Paul often set him at a distance from Jesus’ ‘simple’ or ‘Jewish’ or ‘practical’ teaching (however they read it), characterising Paul (by contrast) as complex and/or Hellenistic and/or theoretical.
It is interesting to observe, in practice, that churches which are ‘reformed’, in that they prize Pauline theology above the gospels, often have practical care for the poor fairly low on their agenda in comparison with proclamation. So I like the way Bruce’s study draws Paul and Jesus closer together on this issue.
My goodness, my goodness I feel I have been in a cave up in the Wyoming USA high country for 72 years and Ian give to me blessed things to consider.I so like how Ian shines the light on so many areas.