Through the Eye of a Needle by Peter Brown
To read a Peter Brown book is to watch somebody treat a subject as though it were a fully interactive online map. He zooms in on one area, he pans back from another, he ponders about the best route between two incredibly unlikely points and then walks you through turn-by-turn directions, and he shows you a tornado in one part of the map, only to follow it up with a satellite photo of a fallen tree, miles away on the opposite end of the map, explaining how the winds the tornado stirred up knocked it down. It’s a demonstration that is at once amazing, thought-provoking, and unsettling.
Such is 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, 2012), Brown’s study that is nominally about how the problem of riches transformed the late antique church in the Western half of the Roman Empire, and substantively about virtually everything else besides. In his lengthy treatment, he effortlessly shoots from Africa to Italy to Gaul and back again, with side trips to Ireland and Greenland. He speaks with authority on narrative history, politics, archaeology, agriculture, book production, and inscriptions so as to build an incredibly detailed image pixel by pixel; you might not like the image in all of its particulars, you may want to change the filter or airbrush out a couple of dark spots, but you can’t deny that the very act of rendering the image represents mastery of the craft.
Brown’s fundamental questions are these – as Christianity entered the public square in the Roman world, how did the entrance of wealthy, elite Romans into the churches impact the message and how the message was carried out? Did Christianity accommodate the wealthy or force them to change? How did this change as the Western Empire collapsed, altering the social and economic landscape? Who drove the change, the institutions or the people? In a way, his questions are less interesting than his answers; towards the end of the book, the scope of the project comes into focus, and it becomes clear that what he’s arguing is that it is the Church’s development of a theology of wealth that transforms late antique Christianity into medieval Christianity. Ultimately, Brown is writing a response to R. A. Markus’ book The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge University Press, 1990), in which he argued that the transformation was ultimately one of culture; the secular culture of the West fell apart, leaving the Church – or rather, monastics — to re-assemble the pieces and absorb the result, re-articulating the culture through an ascetic filter. Brown takes over five hundred pages to get there, but for him it’s really a lot simpler – “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Brown starts off with the image of a fourth century African figure – known only from his tomb – called the “Harvester of Mactar”. This Harvester was, evidently, a farmer able to build up enough capital over the years to be eligible to become a town councilor. Brown uses this proleptic figure to foreshadow Christianity’s own transformation, and as a springboard into a discussion of the social function of wealth in the Roman West. Wealth and “honors” (that is, a certain level of institutionalized privilege) went hand in hand; as such, there were public and political expectations of those with money and vice versa. And, in the fourth century, the rich got quite a bit richer because the emergence of the gold solidus as the standard Roman currency allowed those with grain resources to acquire solidi relatively easily.
Constantine brought Christianity into the social fore of the Roman world, but the Church didn’t get rich off of him; for much of the fourth century Christianity was solidly middle-class. Brown says that “…the social niche of the Christian congregations [in this period] seems to have consisted largely of moderately well-to-do townsfolk. They did not think of themselves as rich. But they were by no means paupers” (Brown, 38-39). Bishops and clergy enjoyed a new social status as public servants, but they weren’t at the top of the salary scale by any means. They were a class that hadn’t really existed before, and nobody quite knew what to do with them. The presence of wealthy Christians in the churches didn’t change much in the way of social stratification; if anything, it merely relaxed the rigidity of the borders somewhat.
Pre-Christian patterns of Roman giving focused on benefit to the city by means of self-conscious displays of wealth; Christian discourse started to develop a response to this kind of pagan benefaction, speaking of a transfer of riches to the next world in the language of “laying up treasure in heaven”. This could take moderate forms, as with Paulinus of Nola, who renounced his senatorial career in favor of a life of Christian retirement and became a bishop following the death of his wife. It could also take more extreme forms, as in the case of Melania the Younger and her husband Pinianus, who ostensibly gave away everything and became monastics. But what did renunciation of wealth actually look like? Brown shows that, by and large, what is renounced is the public dimension of wealth, the conspicuousness of money, not necessarily the money itself. Melania and Pinianus were said to have divested themselves entirely of their riches, but even after doing so, they still had the means to travel from Rome to Sicily, Africa, Alexandria, and Palestine, endowing monasteries as they went (and Pinianus nearly being permanently obligated to Augustine’s church in Hippo because the congregation wanted to ordain him as a priest, committing him, Melania and their resources to their church). Even giving up “public wealth” had unintended consequences; Melania and Pinianus were embarking on their project of laying up treasure in heaven just as the Senate was trying to seize all the wealth they could to buy off the Visigoths. Embracing poverty was, ironically enough, a luxury the rest of the wealthy did not think they could afford in such a time of crisis. Even somebody like Jerome was in no position to simply be a poor ascetic; the economics of book production meant that his ongoing scholarly efforts required patronage.
Following the sack of Rome, Brown uses the Pelagian controversy as a means to shift the discussion to Roman Africa, where Roman elites had escaped to when they thought the world was ending. The acrid anti-wealth rhetoric of Pelagius and his imitators was brought to Africa by self-divested Roman elites Melania, Pinianus, and those who were like-minded, and represented a cultural clash with the Christianity that had developed in an Africa where the class structures were able to be enacted less rigidly under the church roof. Augustine, alarmed by the tensions that were developing, comes to a theology of wealth that emphasizes continuous giving. A rich man who committed himself to regular, daily almsgiving had a concrete form of piety that would bring him forgiveness of his sins. Wealth itself was not the problem; the problem was using it in an un-Christian manner. To a certain extent, this was simply another, less extreme way of rearticulating the approach of avoiding conspicuous riches: “[I]f the rich were to use their wealth,” Brown tells us, “they were to do it on a regular basis and with a low profile… To give in expiation of sin… muted the profile of the benefactor” (Brown, 364).
The spread of Augustine’s ideas coincided with the administrative collapse of the Western Empire in the fifth century. Brown traces how discourse about “the poor” now has to account for the aristocracy living in much-reduced circumstances. Pope Leo’s construct of “the poor” is present, but unspecific; for him, “Christian discourse on the poor had changed from obsessive concentration on the afflicted ‘poor’ as standing for the nadir of the human condition to a less dramatic but more general concern for the impoverished members of an entire city” (Brown, 467). In other words, Brown shows us a fifth-century Rome that uses the idea of poverty to try to build a civic unity. And, as the aristocracy became more impoverished, the church of Rome became wealthier.
As a result, lay bequests to the church become a legal tangle that the Roman Senate clumsily tried to assert authority over, only to have Pope Symmachus reclaim administrative power over bequests in 502. Brown paints this as a moment where the meaning of wealth in the Western church changed forever; now, ecclesiastical riches “came… to stand out sharply as different from the wealth of laypersons because it was wrapped in the magic of eternity” (Brown, 477). Lay bequests enabled bishops to become managers of estates and the well-off to buy prayers for their intercession in perpetuity. As noble patronage of monasteries became institutionally normative, monks became both the primary earthly intercessors for their patrons as well as “the poor” to whom the rich gave their regular gifts. Brown insists that this endowment of monks, priests, and bishops with such intercessory power is what ultimately drove issues such as clerical celibacy, and even appearance; “[a]s givers, the laity came to insist that the clergy should be clearly other to themselves. If they were not, gifts to the churches would not work for the relief of the sins of the givers” (Brown, 517). For an uneducated peasant priest in the countryside, celibacy and the tonsure would be the only characteristics that would identify the priest as “other” enough. “Patrons watched that celibacy closely lest it be lost, with the hard eyes of persons who had paid for intercession” (Brown, 521).
In this way, the transformation of a late antique Christianity that, as Brown argues, was interested in finding a way to concretely serve its community, already assured of salvation, into a medieval Christianity concerned primarily with securing an uncertain place in heaven, was complete: “[i]n a small church, filled with the light of so many lamps and candles, the average believers felt less that they were members of a happy group bound eventually for the Heavenly Jerusalem. Rather, they stared directly, with a longing tinged with fear, into a world beyond this world” (Brown, 525).
Brown’s treatment of his subject is compelling and thorough; it is a long book (530 pages of body text), and it is by no means a quick read. It goes slowly, it has to be said, primarily because it is such productive reading; there is much to consider, much to underline, much to note down, much to sift through. Even though Brown has done much of the sifting for the reader, the sheer volume of what he presents takes time to process.
Upon consideration of Brown’s points, one is left with uncomfortable questions. To name but one – does he mean to say that Western Christianity ceased to consider in any meaningful way the moral dimension of wealth, and that medieval foundations amounted to a Christian version of the Egyptian pyramids, intended principally to ease the journey of those who had paid for them? The way he adduces Thorstein, a son of Eric the Red on an expedition to Greenland, certainly suggests as much. Thorstein’s dying words instruct his wife “to bestow their money upon the church or to give it to the poor; and then he sank back for the last time.” Brown presents this as “what any believer… was expected to do when he or she faced death” (Brown, 527).
To some extent, Brown’s thorough and high-resolution argument, to say nothing of the total lack of self-consciousness in his categorical completeness, is at once what makes the book so compelling and what makes one wonder how solid it actually is. There is no other scholar who, having discussed a fifth century inscription in Gaul, can assert so confidently that “one is reminded of the debates of Chinese mandarins at the court of the T’ang emperor in the eighth century”, only some pages later to state with authority, “It has been said of the constitution of the Roman empire that it was an autocracy tempered by assassination.” This is not a new concern; in 1973, Dame Averil Cameron reviewed Brown’s second book, The World of Late Antiquity: From Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad (republished in 1989 by W. W. Norton and Co. as The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750, part of the Library of World Civilization series), and noted that “[t]he method… is seductive but risky… imaginative and emotional, abounding in modern analogies and daring metaphor, the narrative sweeps the reader along in a rush of admiration – until he stops to wonder for a moment whether all things are really as they seem.”
Yes, there is that moment of doubt, but for the most part, it applies to nuance, not to broad strokes. What the detailed nature of the presentation also can highlight is absence, but perhaps, given the length and scope of the present work, these absences are best seen as opportunities for other scholars. For example, the Christian East is sorely missing in Brown’s argument, even if it is clear that its inclusion would likely only double the page count of the book. Brown’s description of Pelagius’ attitudes toward wealth, for example, makes him sound like an Eastern Father such as Chrysostom or Basil, and one wonders if a studied comparison would bear fruit.
That said, Brown’s own thoroughness sometimes seems to convince himself a little too well; passages such as the one quoted above about what “the average believers felt” presumes a certain level of historical ESP that doesn’t seem entirely earned. It’s also unsettling the way, on the one hand, he says that he seeks “to integrate the sincere otherworldliness of the Christian movement with its considerable worldly success in the late antique period” (Brown, 523) and rejects the “top-down model [of] clerical power [which] is seen as always triumphing over the laity – and usually with results of which we disapprove” (Brown, 519), only to wind up in roughly the same place as such narratives. “In Poreč, in Istria,” he writes at the end of his account, “the basilica of the great managerial bishop Euphrasius rose above a church once paved by the little people. The earlier pavement was buried. It had contained a patchwork of donors, such as Clamosus, ‘the teacher of children,’ his wife, Secundina, and with other parishioners, each of whom contributed panels worth around three solidi each. This was not the case in Euphrasius’s magnificent new church. It was a church of the elite, headed by their bishop. It was no longer a church that depended on the support of little men and their families… In two centuries we have passed from the Cockney confidence of Clamosus, who added a cheap new mosaic panel to the pavement of his church so as to add to the honor of the Christian community, to a silent array of elite names, pushing close to the altar, where the Eucharistic prayer was recited on behalf of their own souls” (Brown, 525-526).
Still, even if it is for later scholars to fill in the gaps and sand around the edges, Brown’s account of the role of wealth in the transformation of late antique Christianity is a major contribution, worthy of respect and gratitude, that reflects mastery of a field following a decades-long career. On that point – Through the Eye of a Needle is a book that clearly reflects things that Brown has been thinking about for some time. A long excursus – it’s essentially a book within a book – about Augustine dropped right in the middle of the discussion hearkens back to his very first monograph, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (first published in 1967, republished in 2000 by University of California Press as Augustine of Hippo: New Edition with an Epilogue). Many of the ideas he develops here can be found sketched out in his second book, the 1971 essay The World of Late Antiquity: From Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad. I do not know if Brown considers this to be his final book, but it would certainly be a deserving bookend.
Given the enormous scope of this book, much needs to be digested before one might say what it may mean for current Orthodox Christians, beyond its sheer historical interest. Additionally, as a historian I claim little expertise in theology. However, having said that, there are two points that I submit for consideration. First, the implications of Brown’s book for the Orthodox Christian of the twenty-first century may, perhaps, be found in the title. The full quote from Matthew 19:24: “And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” If Brown’s book makes anything clear, it is that Our Lord’s instruction to “sell your possessions and give to the poor”, even if it cannot be relativized away within a historical context, nonetheless has a historical context in which it must be carried out. Sell your possessions — to whom? According to what timeline? If you’re a man, do you do so in a way that disinherits your siblings, wife or children and leaves them destitute? What about the people who work on your estate, what about them? There may well be a proper Christian answer to such questions from our perspective, but these were real, practical concerns for the people whose story Brown is telling. If people of high status are converting to Christianity, then that means that somehow the social and economic consequences have to be confronted, and Brown argues that these consequences were not only real, but they also had implications for people beyond the individual wealthy working them out, as was the case with Melania and Pinianus when they were trying to give everything away at the same time the Senate was needing to consolidate wealth to buy off invaders.
Which also brings me to my second point. I said that Pelagius’ rhetoric sounds much like that of an Eastern Father, and yet Pelagius ran into problems of being considered a heretic. A key difference between the East and the West that is brought up in a good deal of recent scholarship (such as Michele Salzman‘s The Makings of a Christian Aristocracy and Alan Cameron‘s The Last Pagans of Rome, to give but two examples) is that the East had its own wealthy aristocrats and people of status, but these were largely “new men”, people who were able to make their fortunes by taking advantage of the new, expanded bureaucracy in Constantinople. They were not scions of venerable old families with roots going back to the early days of the Principate and possibly beyond. The social function of this wealth was at least somewhat different, and thus the exhortation to walk away from it meant something different. That is to say, they don’t have the same investment in the socio-economic structure, nor is there the same ingrained interdependence with the other players in the system. Perhaps it is at once easier for a the rich in this half of the empire to give away all they have as well as for a churchman to criticize such a people for not doing so (although perhaps, somewhat paradoxically, more dangerous at the same time, as Chrysostom found out); should a comparable study ever be done of wealth in the East, these are issues I would want to see addressed.
Where is the line between giving such socio-historical considerations appropriate weight, and Brown’s apparent suggestion that the negotiation ultimately turned into the wealthy and the church using each other, the church having enjoyment of great resources and the rich being empowered to buy their spot in heaven? That is a question for a better theologian than I could ever be, but it seems to me that the church being grafted onto any kind of existing secular structure is likely to generate the consequence of that structure needing to be supported by the church. In other words, to the extent that Romanitas and Christianitas became entwined, Christianitas was unavoidably stuck with the bill for maintaining that sense of Roman-ness (East as well as West), and some kind of negotiation with wealth was an inevitable result.
What does that mean for today’s Orthodox Christian? Simply put, wealth has consequences, especially for the Church. Perhaps those consequences are positive, but they are consequences nonetheless. Holy Dormition Monastery in Michigan recently completed construction of their beautiful new chapel, and I am given to understand that they did so entirely on, as they put, “tens and twenties” — that is, without any major gifts. In fact, they turned down any gifts larger than a certain amount, for the very reason that they did not want for there to be even the perception that they might be beholden to the writer of the check. Is that always the solution? I don’t know; pragmatist that I am, I’m inclined to say no, but at the very least, it is clear that these are nuns who are quite aware of Brown’s point, and have at least considered what the consequences mean.
I will close this postscript with the words of Christ that round off the quote Brown uses in the title — “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”