Brown, “Through the Eye of a Needle”

As a break from grading exams over the last couple of weeks, I worked my way through Peter Brown’s immense new work, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West (Princeton 2012). Brown is the greatest living historian of late antiquity, and in this work he sets out to show how the Christian church gradually attracted the rich and powerful in the century or so following the conversion of Constantine. According to Brown, it was Christianity’s ability to attract the Roman super rich, rather than the moderately wealthy people who had made up the bulk of the pre-Constantinian church, that really “marks the turning point in the Christianization of Europe” — not the conversion of Constantine itself, which had little immediate effect on Roman society. It’s a useful lesson for law and religion scholars, who tend to assume, the way lawyers do, that official acts like Constantine’s are the most important force in social change. Brown’s erudition is incredible and the book offers many insights about late Roman culture and society. Many readers will love the immersion in the past — though, candidly, some might think Brown’s obsessive attention to detail occasionally detracts from the sweep of his narrative. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Jesus taught his followers that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Yet by the fall of Rome, the church was becoming rich beyond measure. Through the Eye of a Needle is a sweeping intellectual and social history of the vexing problem of wealth in Christianity in the waning days of the Roman Empire, written by the world’s foremost scholar of late antiquity.

Peter Brown examines the rise of the church through the lens of money and the challenges it posed to an institution that espoused the virtue of poverty and called avarice the root of all evil. Drawing on the writings of major Christian thinkers such as Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome, Brown examines the controversies and changing attitudes toward money caused by the influx of new wealth into church coffers, and describes the spectacular acts of divestment by rich donors and their growing influence in an empire beset with crisis. He shows how the use of wealth for the care of the poor competed with older forms of philanthropy deeply rooted in the Roman world, and sheds light on the ordinary people who gave away their money in hopes of treasure in heaven.

Through the Eye of a Needle challenges the widely held notion that Christianity’s growing wealth sapped Rome of its ability to resist the barbarian invasions, and offers a fresh perspective on the social history of the church in late antiquity.

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