By the sixth century, the church was wealthy and full of wealthy people. How did the rich get their loads through the eye of the needle into the kingdom of heaven? How, in other words, did an institution pledged to recognize the blessedness of the poor gradually reconcile itself to unprecedented wealth? Peter Brown's latest, very substantial, book, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton University Press) gives a deliriously complicated answer.
Brown follows the money from Rome to Milan, to North Africa, to Gaul. He takes the measure of superrich pagans like Symmachus, as well as Christian leaders who wrote about riches, like Ambrose, Augustine, Paulinus, Priscillian, Popes Damasus and Gelasius, Jerome, John Cassian, and Salvian. As usual, Brown leaves no stone unturned in his search for insight and evidence. He examines texts, of course, but he pays close attention to architecture and archeology and late Roman art. He paints a colorful social setting for early church debates about theology and ethics without becoming reductively sociological, and often overturns accepted mytho-history in the process. He quietly draws on contemporary theory but typically lets ancients speak for themselves because his aim is to introduce us to an exotic world. Through it all, he focuses the masses of details by treating attitudes, beliefs, and practices about wealth as a "stethoscope" to hear the heartbeat of late Roman and early Christian civilization. In a brief review, I can do more than hit some highlights.
A New Model of Pastoral Power
Wealth did not immediately inundate the church in the aftermath of Constantine's conversion. The ...