For my write-up today on Helmut Koester’s History, Culture, and Religion of the Hellenistic Age, I’ll talk about economic policy. I have three items.
1. On page 329, Koester talks about imperial Roman attempts to end exploitation, to bring economic recovery to the east, and to “provide for the constantly growing masses of poor in Rome’s population.” Essentially, imperial Rome set up “a new system of imperial administration”; remitted taxes; stimulated the building of “temples, administrative buildings, roads, and ports”; and reestablished “secure trade routes”. The result was “a new economic upturn in many countries of the east, especially in the heavily populated and culturally developed western part of Asia Minor.” The imperial economic program for recovery appears to resemble features of what the Left and the Right propose. The Left supports stimulus for building infrastructure, regulations that aim to get rid of exploitation, and tax cuts for the middle class. Many on the Right support tax cuts and free trade.
2. On pages 331-332, Koester talks about state welfare programs in Rome. According to Koester, there weren’t that many. Trajan established a fund for the education of orphans and poor children, but, overall, charity was left to private benefactors. There were some facilities for public health care, but mostly the wealthy got “regular medical attention”, and so the common people had to resort to the services of “somewhat questionable wandering physicians, miracle workers, magicians, and astrologers”. Families took care of their own elderly.
But Christians made things better, at the private and also the public level. Christian communities took care of their elderly. And Christian emperors and churches helped to establish “almshouses, orphanages, and hospitals”. As in item 1, we see features of what the modern-day Left and Right in America support, for the Left believes that the government should play a role in charity, whereas the Right believes that the role belongs to the private sector.
3. On pages 335-336, Koester talks about Christian associations, which included a few rich people but “larger numbers of craftsmen and working people…and some poor people and slaves.” According to Koester, “these Christian ‘associations’ in the cities of the Roman empire developed a system of mutual reliance and dependence that required greater sacrifices by the rich and thus created much more closely knit communities”.
I do not know if the wealthy Christians were required to sacrifice more, or if that was voluntary on their part. Of course, it was up to them whether or not they wanted to become Christians, but the teaching that their eternal destiny depended on them doing so would somewhat lessen the voluntary nature of the conversion. In the Book of Acts, Ananias and Sapphira were apparently not required to give all of their proceeds to the church (Acts 5:4), but there was probably social pressure to give a lot, since giving was considered the Christian thing to do.
Naturally, when setting up a system of “mutual reliance and dependence” within the church, those who had more would give more. But, as one can see in II Thessalonians 3:10 and I Timothy 5, there was concern that those who truly needed help would be the ones who would receive it. People had to work, if they could, and so they could not be freeloaders. And many probably did work, for there were plenty of working people who were not rich (craftsmen, slaves, etc.), as is the case today.