Jesus taught his followers that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Yet by the fall of Rome, the church was becoming rich beyond measure. Through the Eye of a Needle is a sweeping intellectual and social history of the vexing problem of wealth in Christianity in the waning days of the Roman Empire, written by the world's foremost scholar of late antiquity.
Peter Brown examines the rise of the church through the lens of money and the challenges it posed to an institution that espoused the virtue of poverty and called avarice the root of all evil. Drawing on the writings of major Christian thinkers such as Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome, Brown examines the controversies and changing attitudes toward money caused by the influx of new wealth into church coffers, and describes the spectacular acts of divestment by rich donors and their growing influence in an empire beset with crisis. He shows how the use of wealth for the care of the poor competed with older forms of philanthropy deeply rooted in the Roman world, and sheds light on the ordinary people who gave away their money in hopes of treasure in heaven.
Through the Eye of a Needle challenges the widely held notion that Christianity's growing wealth sapped Rome of its ability to resist the barbarian invasions, and offers a fresh perspective on the social history of the church in late antiquity.
Drawing on Jesus' exhortation to a rich young man that owning possessions and true discipleship are incompatible, many Christian traditions have stressed renunciation of worldly goods as the only authentic Christian response to wealth. Other Christians, using different passages from the Bible, teach that wealth can result from living a true Christian life, a result guaranteed by prayer for the blessings that God has for each of us. As Brown , the great dean of early church history, compellingly reminds us in his magisterial, lucid, and gracefully written study, the understanding of the role of wealth in the developing Christian communities of the late Roman Empire was much more complex. Combining brilliant close readings of the writings of Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Paulinus of Nola with detailed examinations of the lives of average wealthy Christians and their responses to questions regarding wealth, he demonstrates that many bishops offered such Christians the compromises of almsgiving, church building, and testamentary bequests as alternatives to the renunciation of wealth. As wealthy Romans and believers of all classes joined Christian churches in the fifth century, the gifts that they had once bestowed on the empire in order to gain fame in this world could now be bestowed upon the church to enable the givers to join an eternal world. Brown's immense, thorough, and powerful study offers rich rewards for readers.