Discovering the poor
One might think that the church’s stance toward money has always been simple, direct and constant. That has not been the case since the fourth century, says Peter Brown, one of the most learned and steadfast historians of the early church. Brown has written an extraordinarily dense and compelling book exploring the crisis of the church in the fourth century, when wealthy people joined the church in large numbers.
In an earlier book, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, Brown demonstrated that the great bishops of the church rhetorically invented the social category of the poor, a category that had been absent in the political economy of the Roman Empire. In his new book, he considers both the church’s radicality concerning wealth in the context of the empire, and its readiness to make accommodations as circumstances seemed to require.
At the outset, Brown voices a remarkable decision concerning the scope of his study: he will focus on the years from 370, just before the election of Ambrose as bishop of Milan, to 430 and the fall of Rome. It is remarkable that Brown does not judge Constantine to be responsible for what we consider the Constantinianism of the church. Constantine is largely absolved of that charge because he took great risks and “deliberately chose a God as big and as new as himself.” Instead, it was the entry of the wealthy into the church, long after Constantine, that brought the church into settled social power and that led to accommodations to the political economy.