Judicial poor

Judicial poor July 3, 2012

In the aforementioned article on giving in the early church, Neil makes this intriguing comment about the Old Testament and Jewish understanding of “the poor”: “Justice for the poor is a strong theme in rabbinic texts. Injunctions to act justly towards the poor are evident in the earliest books of Jewish law. They illustrate what [Hendrick] Bolkestein called the ‘Near Eastern model’ of social relations, whereby the weak who described themselves as ‘poor’ could call upon the mercy and protection of a powerful protector, a model which is evident in Hebrew Scriptures but can be traced back much earlier to Canaanite literature. A key feature of this model was the encoding of the rights of the poor in written law codes. Early examples cited by Brown are the laws of Urukagina of Lagish (2400 b.c.e.) and the Hammurabi law code of 1729–1680 b.c.e.49 In this ancient model of society, the ‘poor’ were a judicial category rather than an economic one.”

She quotes Peter Brown, who pointed out that early Christians adopted the rhetoric of Scripture in a political and social climate that was very different: “All over the empire, Christian bishops, clergymen, and monks fostered a nonclassical image of society by the simple process of speaking as if society were, indeed, divided primarily between the rich and the poor, the weak and the powerful, according to a Biblical, Near Eastern model.”

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