compose and submit a 620-word (i.e., roughly 2-page) reflection/response to what you’ve read in the article. Strong responses will both briefly summarize key points from the reading and also critically reflect on and evaluate the author’s ideas and assertions. What did you find to be helpful or illuminating? What did you find to be troubling or confusing? What questions did the reading raise in your own thinking? Make clear and specific points while demonstrating engagement with the reading for best results.
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Bruce W. Longenecker
Typically we think of Jesus as preaching “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18) and
Paul as preaching “good news to the Gentiles” (Gal 2:7). Being primarily concerned
to evangelize Gentiles, Paul (it seems) had little interest in giving theological considération to the poverty that engulfed vast swathes of the Gentile world. In this
way of looking at things, while Paul depicts himself as “an Israelite, a descendant of
Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin” (Rom 11:1; cf. Phil 3:5-6), he stands outside
of the currents of mainstream Judaism, whose Scriptures and traditions were full
to the brim of strategies for alleviating the miseries of the poor and of prophetic
denunciations of the abuses against the poor by those economically more secure.
Sensitivities to the plight of the poor seem to have informed the ministries of Jesus,
the early Jesus followers in Jerusalem, James the brother of Jesus, and others associated with the nascent Jesus movement, but it is usually imagined that Paul sat lightly
toward the deeply-entrenched Israelite heritage regarding care for the poor in his
efforts to evangelize Gentiles. He simply had other fish to fry, or so it seems.
In fact, however, the reality is much different. The plight of the poor has a
strong foothold within Pauls apostolic m inistry and the theological contours of his
gospel. In the paragraphs below, overviews of the following issues will be offered:
Pauls collection for the poor among Jesus followers, economic structures within the
Greco-Roman world, and passages from Pauline texts demonstrating the “theological DNA” that pertains to poverty.
Paul’s Collection for the “Poor among the Saints in Jerusalem”
(Rom 15:26)
W hen we think of Paul and the poor, our thoughts tend to gravitate as a case study to
the funds that Paul collected on behalf of “the poor among the saints in Jerusalem”
(Rom 15:26). Beyond Rom 15 we learn of Pauls efforts for this “collection” primarily
from the Corinthian letters: 1 Cor 16:1-4 and especially 2 Cor 8-9.1 Although this
Some scholars would include Gal 2:10 within the passages that speak o f Pauls collection efforts.
I do not for reasons that will become clear below.
Bruce W. Longenecker
Poverty and Pauls Gospel
collection is not exhaustive of the pertinent data relevant to reconstructing Pauls
attitude toward poverty, it is nonetheless an extremely suggestive initiative on his
part that helps to reveal how poverty registered on his theological radar.
Doing our best to date Pauls collection efforts suggests that Paul dedicated five
or so years of his life to this project—during the years 53 through 58 CE. During that
time Paul did his best to entice members of Jesus groups that he had already founded
to contribute to the fund, and then took it upon himself to deliver the fund to Jesus
followers based in Jerusalem.2
There is much that we do not know about the collection effort. We can broadly
suspect that a leading motivation behind his efforts was to demonstrate something of
the unity of the Jewish and Gentile Jesus followers, a unity poignantly evidenced by
their mutuality in caring for each other in times of economic need. An 4economic”
description of his motivation is evident in 2 Cor 8:13-14, where Paul seeks to enlist
Corinthian support of his collection by speaking of it as involving “a question of a
fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance
may be for your need.” In 2 Cor 9:12 he speaks of the collection as a means of making provision for “the needs of the saints.” But there were needy people everywhere,
and among them needy Jesus followers spread throughout the M editerranean basin,
so an economic motivation alone cannot explain Paul s choice of Jesus followers in
Jerusalem as the beneficiaries of the collection. Something more is in view here than
simply the care for some Jesus followers by other Jesus followers.
This causes us to imagine that Jesus groups in Jerusalem are to be the beneficiaries of Pauls collection precisely because the symbolic value of Gentile followers of
Jesus offsetting the needs of Jewish followers of Jesus seems to have been irresistible
to Paul. It was to be a tangibly compelling symbolic gesture testifying to the unity
of Jew and Gentile in Christ, a unity that Paul had often fought hard to protect
throughout his ministry. The closest Paul gets to revealing this motivation for his
collection efforts is in Rom 15:26-27. There he presents the collection as an occasion
for Gentile Jesus followers to “share their [material] resources with the poor among
the saints at Jerusalem” as a form of debt owed to them, because Gentile Jesus followers “have come to share in their [i.e., Jewish] spiritual blessings,” and so are to
seek to be “of service to them [i.e., Jewish followers of Jesus] in material things.”
If the collection served this symbolic function, it was unlikely to have been
a paltry amount of money that Paul carried to Jerusalem. With many people in
For my attempt to date these matters, see my Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty; and the GrecoRoman World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) 338-44.
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Jerusalem being suspicious of Paul (see the discussion of Rom 15:30-31 below), it
would have run completely contrary to Pauls hopes and intentions to have brought
only a meager collection to Jerusalem as a symbol of the mutuality between Jews and
Gentiles in Christ. For this reason, we can imagine that the funds Paul eventually
brought to Jerusalem were sizeable. Perhaps Paul spent five years collecting funds
precisely in order to avoid a scenario in which he brought a derisory amount to the
Jewish followers of Jesus in Jerusalem.
But the purposes behind the collection cannot simply be restricted to the symbolic. The symbolic purpose of the collection itself relies on a more fundamental
significance of the collection. It testifies to the transformation of Gentile Jesus followers to the extent that they are digging into the resources that they have in order
to assist others in need.
This may sound like simple kindness to us, but it is im portant to recognize
that, rightly or wrongly, in the Greco-Roman world Gentiles were not known to
care for the poor. There was, of course, some degree of caring for the poor in the
Greco-Roman world, but to the Jewish m ind it was so negligible as to be virtually
nonexistent. Jews excelled at caring for the poor and needy among their number,
while to the Jewish m ind Gentiles did not. Imagine then the amazement that might
have transpired when Paul brought his collection to the Jesus followers in Jerusalem.
That seems to be the way Paul hoped his collection would be received. His hopes to
unleash consolidation among Jewish and Gentile Jesus followers in a single stroke,
lashing together Jesus followers in unity across ethnic boundaries, were based on
this testimony of the transforming power of God within predominately Gentile
members of his community. By their willingness to donate some of their own resources to offset the needs of others, Gentile Jesus followers were testifying to the
fact that the Spirit of the God of Israel was moving among their midst in a powerful
and unprecedented way.
Accordingly, the collection was devised to help remove the offense of Pauls
“law free” mission to the Gentile world, an offense that had dogged his mission for
many years. W hen the proceeds of Gentile generosity were brought right into the
heart of Jerusalem, Jewish followers of Jesus there would be brought face to face with
tangible evidence of the transformation of Gentile followers of Jesus, ensuring that
Pauls “law free” mission among the Gentiles would be invigorated and unencumbered by distractions from that point on.
Pauls hopes were high, but so too were the risks, as he well knew. Even as he
was wrapping up his collection efforts when writing to Jesus followers in Rome, Paul
Bruce W. Longenecker
Poverty and Pauls Gospel
seemed cognizant that many in Jerusalem had deep misgivings about him and that
grave dangers might await him if he participated in the delivery of the collection,
rather than simply allowing others to take the collection to Jerusalem, as he had earlier imagined.3 So, when laying out his plans to deliver the collection to Jerusalem,
Paul adds this poignant note (Rom 15:30-31):
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the
love of the Spirit, to join me in earnest prayer to God on my behalf, that
I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my ministry to
Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints.
Pauls suspicions that trouble may be waiting for him in Jerusalem probably
proved correct. The Acts of the Apostles depicts Paul as returning to Jerusalem only
to encounter an outcry against him as one who misleads Israel. As a consequence of
that, Paul was arrested, held in custody for two years (from 58-60 CE), and taken
to Rome where (for a further period of two years, from 60-62 CE) he waited for his
case to be heard by the emperor himself (Acts 21-28).
W hat happened after that is not entirely clear. But what is clear is that one of
the main threads weaving through Pauls life from about the years 53 to 62 CE is the
collection for poor Jesus followers in Jerusalem and its aftermath. This should not
be surprising since, as we will see momentarily, that collection was not an anomaly
within Pauls mission or a mere appendage to the main currents of his theology.
Instead, it was a concrete expression of his theology and gospel mission.
This is evidenced, for instance, by the way Paul speaks about the collection in
2 Cor 9:13, where he describes Corinthian contributions to the collection as ayour
obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ” (tê hypotagêtës homologías hymön
eis to euangelion tou Christou). Alongside terms like “obedience,” “confession,” and
4gospel,” others of Pauls favored theological terms appear in his discussion of the
collection in 2 Cor 8-9, including: “grace” (charts; 8:1, 6-7, 9, 19; 9:8, 14); “service”
(diakonia, 8:4; 9:1, 12, 13); “fellowship” (koinönia; 8:4; 9:13); and “righteousness”
(dikaiosynê, 9:9-10), both the righteousness of God and of those who would be obedient to him. Evidently Paul understood the collection for the poor to be intricately
intertwined with the gospel that he preached, a gospel about G ods righteousness
When writing 1 Cor 16:3-4, Paul imagines that the collection will be delivered to Jerusalem
through the use of emissaries from the various Jesus groups, with him accompanying the collection if
that is necessary. But by the time he writes Rom 15:25-33, he knows that he himself must be involved
in delivering the collection.
VOL. 27 / 2011
setting the world right, including in that project the transformed lives of his devotees, as demonstrated by their financial self-giving for those in need.
Scaling Poverty in the Greco-Roman World
We have seen some initial evidence indicating Pauls belief that, through the power
of the gospel, Gentile Jesus followers would become transformed in their lives, ineluding caring for the needy in ways that transcended the reputed norm of a general
pagan indifference towards the poor. Further evidence demonstrating this will be
highlighted below. In order to understand the full impact of those texts, we need first
to recognize something of the dimensions of urban poverty of Pauls day.
Although not an exact science, certain data from the Greco-Roman world allow us to reconstruct a rough outline of the economic stratification of the urban
environment in which Paul operated. I work with an 4economy scale” that is largely
indebted to the work of Steve Friesen (although I adjust his percentages somewhat).4
The economy scale differentiates seven levels of economic stratification, from ES7
(economy scale 7) at its lowest point up to ES1 at its highest, allocating percentages
of the urban population to each of those levels.
Economic Level
Basic Description
Percent of Urban Population
ES1 – ES3
The urban elite
The middling groups
ES 5
Those with modest reserves
Those at subsistence level
Those below subsistence level
The following generalities indicate something of the differences between
the various economic levels. The urban elite (ES1 through ES3) were enormously
wealthy. They controlled the structures of the economy, and they used their privileged position to ensure that their privileges were m aintained.5 Those within the
4. Steven J. Friesen, “Poverty in Pauline Studies: Beyond the So-called New Consensus,” JSNT 26
(2004) 323-61. My own interpretation of Friesens helpful scale can be found in my Remember the Poor,
36-59 and 317-32.
5. According to Friesens descriptors, ES1 comprises “imperial dynasty, Roman senatorial families,
a few retainers, local royalty, a few freedpersons”; ES2 comprises “equestrian families, provincial officials, some retainers, some decurial families, some freedpersons, some retired military officers”; ES3
comprises “most decurial families, wealthy men and women who do not hold office, some freedpersons, some retainers, some veterans, some merchants.” See “Poverty in Pauline Studies,” 341.
Bruce W. Longenecker
Poverty and Pauls Gospel
middling groups (ES4) were relatively comfortable, often having control of large
household estates and businesses of some kind.6 Those in the top half of this level
served the civic functionaries of the urban elite, and were well-placed to move into
the lower levels of the urban elite, if fortune permitted. Those within ES 5 operated
small businesses or urban-related farms, and managed to store up some decent levels
of reserves for themselves and their small households (i.e., the family and perhaps a
servant).7 Those at ES6 managed to get by on whatever resources they had available
but were not able to accumulate many reserves, therefore being precariously placed
in relation to utter destitution.8Those at ES7 were the utterly destitute, having to rely
wholly upon others for the resources to sustain their life. Prolonged periods within
ES7 would inevitably result in premature death, due to m alnutrition or other physical ailments that characterized ES7 in particular.9
A model of this kind requires all kinds of qualifications about its utility and can
be usefully employed only with caution. Nonetheless, as I have argued elsewhere, the
dangers of using an economy scale of this sort are less significant than the dangers of
not using one.10 In fact, some of the most unfortunate debates in research about the
early Jesus movement can be attributed to the fact that the participants in the debate
failed to construct a well-informed heuristic tool of this kind in order to ground
their discourse.
Poverty, Resources, and Generosity in Greco-Roman Urban Contexts
From the proposed economy scale it is evident that a high percentage of urbanites of
the Greco-Roman world lived in conditions of near poverty (ES6) and utter poverty
(ES7). Just over half of the urban population was extremely vulnerable to misfortune due to their economic situation. The “safety nets” to catch and protect those in
6. According to Friesens descriptors, ES4 comprises “some merchants, some traders, some freedpersons, some artisans (especially those who employ others), and military veterans.” I would add most
Augustales and apparitores among their number. See “Poverty in Pauline Studies,” 341.
7. According to Friesens descriptors, ES5 comprises “many merchants and traders, regular wage
earners, artisans, large shop owners, freedpersons, some farm families” See “Poverty in Pauline
Studies,” 341.
8. According to Friesens descriptors, ES6 comprises “small farm families, laborers (skilled and
unskilled), artisans (esp. those employed by others), wage earners, most merchants and traders, small
shop/tavern owners” See “Poverty in Pauline Studies,” 341.
9. According to Friesens descriptors, ES7 comprises “some farm families, unattached widows, orphans, beggars, disabled, unskilled day laborers, prisoners” See “Poverty in Pauline Studies,” 341.
10. See my Remember the Poor, 36-40, 231-35.
VOL. 27 / 2011
an economic downward spiral were virtually nonexistent. Consequently, not only
were the poor numerous, their situation was virtually impermeable to alteration and
There was generosity in the Greco-Roman world, but very little of it ever
touched the lives of those in ES6 or ES7. No doubt some gestures of charitable giving
were evident out on the streets, where coins might be tossed to beggars from passersby. But the Greco-Roman world was not awash with concerns to offset poverty
and care for the poor and needy, and not many were in a position to do much about
it anyway. For instance, those in ES 5 were unlikely to do anything of real substance
for those in poverty conditions, being all too conscious of how precarious their own
economic position was. This means that roughly eighty percent of the population
was poorly placed to undertake generosity in any meaningful fashion; generosity
would have to emerge from those above ES5 through ES7.
The elite were well groomed in customs of generosity. Although they were enormously wealthy, they took great care to involve themselves in generous expenditures
for the benefit of those most involved in civic life. Their generosity could take many
forms including lavish banquets, sporting events, civic monuments, roads, water
systems, public baths, arenas, and the like. The costs involved in these extravagant
measures were usually huge. The elite undertook such massive expenditures willingly, although altruism was rarely a sole driving force in their motivation. Benefitting
the public life of the civic community empowered their public and political prestige,
enabling them to bolster their resources, which could then be used to enhance their
political status further, in something of a never-ending loop.
This looped system of generosity and reciprocity worked well for all those involved. Usually, however, the ones involved were primarily the elite of ES1-ES3 and
those most closely associated with them in the middling groups of ES4; on occasion
some at ES5 might have benefitted, perhaps if they belonged to a Greco-Roman aassociation” of one kind or another. But for those at the bottom of the economic scale,
the benefits of elite generosity were negligible. The generous exchange of resources
marked out relationships at the top of the economic scale, but failed to “trickle dow n5
to those in ES6 and ES7 whose lives dangled precariously by a thin economic string.
With great expenditures came the urgent need to replenish the coffers of the
elite. W ith approximately eighty-five percent of the Roman imperial economy being
dependent on agrarian produce, land ownership was an essential component of fiscal well-being. Consequently, the elite made it their business to acquire as much land
as possible, often through less than respectable means. But one way or another, the
Bruce W. Longenecker
Poverty and Pauls Gospel
majority of the society’s resources made its way upward on a never-ending conveyor
belt that enhanced the elite in their quest to capture honor through generous initiatives and opulent living. The poor of ES6 who worked in agrarian contexts usually
played a key role in harvesting agrarian resources for the benefit of the elite, even
though they themselves were not in any real sense the beneficiaries of elite generösity. Resources moved from the bottom to the top of the economic scale and then
were redistributed among those at the top through to those at the middle. Those at
the bottom simply did wh …
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