Book Notice: Remember the Poor by Bruce Longenecker

Bruce  W. Longenecker
Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty , and the Greco-Roman World
Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010
Available at Amazon.com.

It is a common adage that Jesus preached good news to the poor, while Paul preached the good news of Jesus. Paul was, well, not really into all that socialist, marxist, commy crud about helping the poor.  In this volume, Bruce Longnecker (Baylor University) challenges the popular and academic consensus. Longnecker’s theses are (pp. 298-99):

  1. Paul, the follower of Jesus and apostle to the gentiles of the Greco-Roman world, was concerned about the plight of the poor in the urban contexts in which he operated.
  2. Although this was not his sole interest, and although he was not forced to deal with it extensively in his extant letters, care for the economically needy was a mater that he deemed to be characteristic of the identity of Jesus-followers.
  3. Communities of Jesus-followers that Paul established were expected to offer care for the poor – albeit in their own groups in the first instance, although theoretically beyond those confines as well, if/as resources permitted.
  4. Paul shared his conviction with other sectors of the earthly Jesus  movement that were committed to caring for the poor, and with  leading figures of the early Jesus-movement – including its influential “founder” (i.e., Jesus) and that founder’s influential brother (i.e., James).
  5. With Paul properly situated in this respect, care for the poor is recognized to have been practiced fairly ubiquitously across the spectrum of first-century proto-orthodox circles of the Jesus movement.
  6. The early Jesus-movement, including Paul’s own mission to Greco-Roman urbanites, embodied and exemplified  values long embedded within mainstream forms of Early Judaism.
  7. Rightly or wrongly, Paul and other leading figures of the early Jesus movement imagined (along with other Jews of their day) that care of the poor was not a notable feature of Greco-Roman paganism.
  8. Paul imagined care for the poor among gentile communities of Jesus-followers to be an expression and embodiment of the invading triumph of the deity of Israel who had made himself known in the scriptures of Israel, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and now through the Spirit/spirit that enlivened small groups of Jesus-followers.
  9. Proto-orthodox forms of Christianity fromt he second through fourth centuries are known to have enormously augmented the strategies and institutions for caring for the poor to an unprecedented extent in the Greco-Roman world. Those efforts were organically related to more low-level forms of similar efforts evident throughout the early Jesus-movement, with Paul taking a prominent lead in spearheading such efforts among the gentile urbanites of the Greco-Roman world.

Highlights of the book include a reassessment of agrarian economic models  in the ancient world, a survey of Greco-Roman and Jewish charitable initiatives, an argument that “remember the poor” in Gal 2.10 means the indigenous poor and not the Jerusalem church, a sketch of the economic profiles in the Pauline communities, a study and chronology of Paul’s collection for the Jerusalem saints, and showing that Paul was probably from a well-off family and he chose to become poor at times for the sake of his apostolic mission.

Some cool quotes are:

“Six texts from Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius and Aphrahat suggest that, at least until the middle of the fourth century, the ‘poor’ of Gal 2:10 was not thought to refer to members of the Iarly Jesus-movement in Jerusalem. By the middle of the fourth century, this had begun to changed [sic], as testified to by Ephrem, Jerome, and John Chrysostom …  It is far simpler, however, to imagine that ‘the poor” of Gal 2:10 was ubiquitously interpreted throughout the earliest centuries without geographical specificity for good reason” (p. 181).

“He [Paul] imagined urban Jesus-groups to be miniature oases of eschatological refreshment amid the harsh economic conditions of the Greco-Roman world” (p. 300).

“If Paul gave up some economic status in his commitment to the gospel (with care for the poor embedded within it), it seems he was also willing to put his life on the line for the same commitment. In this regard, the pattern of his life is not a world away from that of the one whose death and resurrection he proclaimed. The gospel story of Jesus’ own self-giving for the benefit of others provided a theological basis for Paul’s own efforts to build up communities in which the poor were not overlooked but were explicitly targeted as deserving of corporate support” (p. 310).

“Now matter how we slice it, then, it looks as if care for the poor was something for which Paul was willing to put his life on the line. Just as Paul’s gospel is not reducible to caring for the poor, so his motivation for undertaking the Jerusalem collection cannot be reduced to that. But just as caring for the poor is an integral dimension to Paul’s larger gospel, so concern for the poor was also an integral feature of Paul’s larger motivation pool for undertaking his collection. The devotion to the cause of the poor that Paul says had marked out his early ministry (Gal 2:10) seems to have continued to characterize his ministry throughout the 50s, as evidenced by the fact that he was willing to put his life on the line in his delivery of the collection, despite the dangers that he knew were likely to face him in that very undertaking” (p. 316).

  • S Wu

    Thank you, Mike, for posting this. I’ve been using this book for my research. It is excellent. I think its treatment on the debates on the economic conditions of Pauline churches is fair and thorough. I think Professor Longenecker’s analysis of Paul is great. Another recent book that is really worth looking into is Peter Oakes’ Reading Romans in Pompeii – Paul’s Letter at Ground Level (SPCK: London, 2009), which is recommended by N T Wright, David Horrell, Edward Adams and others.

  • Anonymous

    Really useful book. Thanks Mike for highlighting it for us.


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