For two and a half years I have been working on a translation of the New Testament for Yale University Press, which I recently completed. It should not have taken me that long, but an extended spell of ill health disrupted my life just as the project was getting under way. The only good result of this is that the delay forced me to take an even more reflective and deliberate approach to the task than I might otherwise have done; and this, in turn, caused me to absorb certain conclusions about the world of the early church at a deeper level than I could have anticipated. Most of them I already knew, admittedly, if often as little more than shadows glimpsed through a veil of conventional theological habits of thought—for instance, how stark the dualism really is, in Paul’s letters and elsewhere in the New Testament, between “flesh” and “spirit,” or how greatly formulations that seem to imply universal salvation outnumber those that appear to threaten an ultimate damnation for the wicked. Still, none of that surprised me; it merely roused me from my complacent assumption that, simply by virtue of having read the text in Greek for many years, I had a natural feel for its tone.
What did surprise me, however, was the degree to which the whole experience left me with a deeply melancholy, almost Kierkegaardian sense that most of us who go by the name of “Christians” ought to give up the pretense of wanting to be Christian—at least, if by that word one means not simply someone who is baptized or who adheres to a particular set of religious observances and beliefs, but more or less what Nietzsche meant when he said that there has been only one Christian in human history and that he had died on the cross. In that sense, I think it reasonable to ask not whether we are Christians (by that standard, all fall short), but whether in our wildest imaginings we could ever desire to be the kind of persons that the New Testament describes as fitting the pattern of life in Christ. And I think the fairly obvious answer is that we could not. I do not mean merely that most of us find the moral requirements laid out in Christian scripture a little onerous, though of course we do. Therein lies the deep comfort provided by the magisterial Protestant fantasy that the apostle Paul inveighed against something called “works-righteousness” in favor of a purely extrinsic “justification” by grace—which, alas, he did not. He rejected only the notion that one might be “shown righteous” by works of the Law—ritual observances like circumcision or keeping kosher—but he also quite clearly insisted, as did Christ, that all will be judged in the end according their deeds (Romans 2:1–16 and 4:10–12, 1 Corinthians 3:12–15, 2 Corinthians 5:10, Philippians 2:16, and so on). Rather, I mean that most of us would find Christians truly cast in the New Testament mold fairly obnoxious: civically reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, politically irresponsible, socially discreditable, and really just a bit indecent.
Perhaps my melancholy was deepened by an accident of timing. The final stage of my work on the translation coincided with my involvement in a series of public debates that I initiated by writing a short column for First Things praising Pope Francis and his recent encyclical Laudato si’, and that I prolonged when I contributed another article to the same journal arguing for the essential incompatibility of Christianity and capitalist culture. My basic argument was that a capitalist culture is, of necessity, a secularist culture, no matter how long the quaint customs and intuitions of folk piety may persist among some of its citizens; that secularism simply is capitalism in its full cultural manifestation; that late capitalist “consumerism”—with its attendant ethos of voluntarism, exuberant and interminable acquisitiveness, self-absorption, “lust of the eyes,” and moral relativism—is not an accidental accretion upon an essentially benign economic system, but the inevitable result of the most fundamental capitalist values. Not everyone concurred. The most representative statements of the contrary position were two earnest articles in the Public Interest by Samuel Gregg, neither of which addressed my actual arguments, but both of which correctly identified my hostility to libertarian apologetics. And on at least one point Gregg did have me dead to rights: I did indeed say that the New Testament, alarmingly enough, condemns great personal wealth not merely as a moral danger, but as an intrinsic evil. No, he rejoined with calm certainty, it is not wealth as such that the New Testament condemns, but only a spiritually unhealthy preoccupation with it (the idolatry of riches, wealth misused, wealth immorally gained); riches in and of themselves, he insisted, are neither good not bad. This seems an eminently reasonable argument, I suppose. Certainly we have all heard it before, almost as a truism.
Here, however, my more than two years laboring in the vineyards of the koine Greek had rendered me immune to the reasonable view of things. For, while Gregg had common sense on his side, I had the actual biblical texts on mine, and they are so unambiguous that it is almost comical that anyone can doubt their import. Admittedly, many translations down the centuries have had an emollient effect on a few of the New Testament’s severer pronouncements. But this is an old story. Clement of Alexandria may have been the first—back when the faith had just begun to spread widely among the more comfortably situated classes in the empire—to apply a reassuring gloss to the raw rhetoric of scripture on wealth and poverty. He distinguished the poverty that matters (humility, renunciation, spiritual purity, generosity) from the poverty that does not (actual material indigence), and assured propertied Christians that, so long as they cultivated the former, they need never submit to the latter. And throughout Christian history, even among the few who bothered to consult scripture on the matter, this has generally been the tacit interpretation of Christ’s (and Paul’s and James’s) condemnations of the wealthy and acquisitive. In the early modern period came the Reformation, and this—whatever else it may have been—was a movement toward a form of Christianity well suited to the needs of the emerging middle class, and to the spiritual complacency that a culture of increasing material security dearly required of its religion. Now all moral anxiety became a kind of spiritual pathology, the heresy of “works righteousness,” sheer Pelagianism. Grace set us free not only from works of the Law, but from the spiritual agony of seeking to become holy by our deeds. In a sense, the good news announced by Scripture was that Christ had come to save us from the burden of Christianity.
Perhaps that is a bit unfair. It is, at any rate, impossible not to be moved by the Protestant sanctification of the ordinary. There is something delightful in discovering, as Kierkegaard did, the figure of the “Knight of Faith” in a plump, contented burgher happily strolling home, his mind set upon nothing but the roast beef awaiting him there. This spiritual heroism of the everyday is so attractive an idea that it may constitute Protestantism’s single greatest imaginative contribution to Christian culture as a whole. Even for a modern Catholic like G. K. Chesterton, one of the greatest spiritual advantages of “the faith” over the creeds of other peoples was its robust appetite for “beef and beer”—a sentiment that, on the surface, has a kind of merry medievalism about it, but that few medieval Christians would have found intelligible. I certainly find it deeply appealing. But if, as its proponents insist, it is indeed a genuine unfolding of some logic implicit in the Gospel, it was a logic utterly invisible to those who wrote the Christian scriptures. Because one thing in remarkably short supply in the New Testament is common sense. The Gospels, the epistles, Acts, Revelation—all of them are relentless torrents of exorbitance and extremism: commands to become as perfect as God in his heaven and to live as insouciantly as lilies in their field; condemnations of a roving eye as equivalent to adultery and of evil thoughts toward another as equivalent to murder; injunctions to sell all one’s possessions and to give the proceeds to the poor, and demands that one hate one’s parents for the Kingdom’s sake and leave the dead to bury the dead. This extremism is not merely an occasional hyperbolic presence in the texts; it is their entire cultural and spiritual atmosphere. The New Testament emerges from a cosmos ruled by malign celestial principalities (conquered by Christ but powerful to the end) and torn between spirit and flesh (the one, according to Paul, longing for God, the other opposing him utterly). There are no comfortable medians in these latitudes, no areas of shade. Everything is cast in the harsh light of final judgment, and that judgment is absolute. In regard to all these texts, the qualified, moderate, common-sense interpretation is always false.
IT IS UNDENIABLY true that there are texts that condemn an idolatrous obsession with wealth, and that might be taken as saying nothing more than that. At least, 1 Timothy 6:17–19 is often cited as an example of this—though (see below) it probably should not be. Perhaps, to avoid trying to serve both God and Mammon, one need only have the right attitude toward riches. But if this were all the New Testament had to say on the matter, then one would expect those texts to be balanced out by others affirming the essential benignity of riches honestly procured and well-used. Yet this is precisely what we do not find. Instead, they are balanced out by still more uncompromising comminations of wealth in and of itself. Certainly Christ condemned not only an unhealthy preoccupation with riches, but the getting and keeping of riches as such. The most obvious citation from all three synoptic Gospels would be the story of the rich young ruler who could not bring himself to part with his fortune for the sake of the Kingdom, and of Christ’s astonishing remark about camels passing through needles’ eyes more easily than rich men through the Kingdom’s gate. As for the question the disciples then put to Christ, it should probably be translated not as “Who then can be saved?” or “Can anyone be saved?” but rather “Then can any [of them, the rich] be saved?” To which the sobering reply is that it is humanly impossible, but that by divine power even a rich man might be spared.
But one can look everywhere in the gospels for confirmation of the message. Christ clearly means what he says when quoting the prophet: he has been anointed by God’s Spirit to preach good tidings to the poor (Luke 4:18). To the prosperous, the tidings he bears are decidedly grim. “Woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full; woe to you who are full fed, for you shall hunger; woe to you who are now laughing, for you shall mourn and weep” (Luke 6:24–25). Again, perhaps many of the practices Christ condemns in the rulers of his time are merely misuses of power and property; but that does not begin to exhaust the rhetorical force of his teachings as a whole. He not only demands that we give freely to all who ask from us (Matthew 5:42), and to do so with such prodigality that one hand is ignorant of the other’s largesse (Matthew 6:3); he explicitly forbids storing up earthly wealth—not merely storing it up too obsessively—and allows instead only the hoarding of the treasures of heaven (Matthew 6:19–20). It is truly amazing how rarely Christians seem to notice that these counsels are stated, quite decidedly, as commands. After all, as Mary says, part of the saving promise of the gospel is that the Lord “has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away starving” (Luke 1:53).
Of the compilation of pericopes, however, there is no end. What is most important to recognize is that all these pronouncements on wealth and poverty belong to a moral sensibility that saturates the pages of the New Testament. It is there, for instance, in Paul’s condemnations of pleonektia (often translated as “greed,” but really meaning all acquisitive desire), or in the Pastoral Epistles’ condemnation of aischrokerdes (often translated as “greed for base gain,” but really referring to the sordidness of seeking financial profit for oneself). James perhaps states the matter most clearly:
Come now, you who are rich, weep, howling at the miseries coming upon you; your riches are corrupted and moths have consumed your clothes; your gold and silver have corroded, and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. You have stored up treasure in the Last Days! See, the wages you have given so late to the laborers who have harvested your fields cry aloud, and the cries of those who have harvested your fields have entered the ear of the Lord Sabaoth. You have lived in luxury, and lived upon the earth in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter. You have condemned—have murdered—the upright; he did not stand against you. (James 5:1–6)
Now, we can read this, if we wish, as a dire warning issued only to those wealthy persons who have acted unjustly toward their employees, and who live too self-indulgently. But if we do so, we are in fact inverting the text. Earlier in the epistle, James has already asserted that, while the “poor brother” should exult in how God has lifted him up, the “rich man” (who, it seems, scarcely merits the name of “brother”) should rejoice in being “made low” or “impoverished,” as otherwise he will wither and vanish away like a wildflower scorched by the sun (1:9–11). He has also gone on to remind his readers that “God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith and to inherit the Kingdom,” and that the rich, by contrast, must be recognized as oppressors and persecutors and blasphemers of Christ’s holy name (2:5–7). James even warns his readers against the presumptuousness of planning to gain profits from business ventures in the city (4:13–14). And this whole leitmotif merely reaches its crescendo in those later verses quoted above, which plainly condemn not only those whose wealth is gotten unjustly, but all who are rich as oppressors of workers and lovers of luxury. Property is theft, it seems. Fair or not, the text does not distinguish good wealth from bad—any more than Christ did.
I imagine this is why the early Christians were communists, as the book of Acts quite explicitly states. If these are indeed the Last Days, as James says—if everything is now seen in the light of final judgment—then storing up possessions for ourselves is the height of imprudence. And I imagine this is also why subsequent generations of Christians have not, as a rule, been communists: the Last Days seem to be taking quite some time to elapse, and we have families to raise in the meantime. But at the dawn of the faith little thought was given to providing a decent life in this world for the long term. Thus the first converts in Jerusalem after the resurrection, as the price of becoming Christians, sold all their property and possessions and distributed the proceeds to those in need, and then fed themselves by sharing their resources in common meals (Acts 2:43–46). To be a follower of the Way was to renounce every claim to private property and to consent to communal ownership of everything (Acts 4:32). Barnabas, on becoming a Christian, sold his field and handed over all the money to the Apostles (Acts 4:35)—though Ananias and Sapphira did not, with somewhat unfortunate consequences.
Even those verses from 1 Timothy 6 that I mentioned are not nearly as mild and moderate as we tend to think they are. Earlier in the chapter, the text reminds us that we bring nothing into this world and can take nothing with us when we leave it, and tells us to content ourselves with having enough food and clothing. It also tells us that all who seek wealth—not simply all who procure it unjustly—have ensnared themselves in desires that will lead to their ruin: because “a fondness for money is a root of all evils,” and those who reach out for wealth have gone astray (apeplanēthēsan) from the faith and girdled themselves about with piercing pains (6:7–10). True, verse 17 merely advises the rich not to be “arrogant” or “in high spirits” (depending on how one interprets it), and not to put their trust in wealth’s “uncertainty” (or, better, in “the hiddenness” of their riches) rather than in the lavishness of God’s providence. But verse 18 goes further and tells them not only to make themselves rich in good works, but also to become—well, here the customary translations are along the lines of “generous” (eumetadotous) and “sharing” (koinōnikous), but the better renderings would be something like “persons readily distributing” their goods, in the former case, and something like “communalists” or “communists” or “persons having all their possessions in common,” in the latter. (A property that is koinōnikon is something held in common or corporately, and therefore a person who is koinōnikos is certainly not just someone who occasionally makes donations at his own discretion.) Only thus, says verse 19, can the wealthy now “store up” a good foundation for the age that is coming, and reach out to take hold of “the life that is real.” And this would seem to have been the social philosophy of the early church in general. When Christianity arrived in Edessa, for instance, its adherents promptly became a kind of mendicant order, apparently owning nothing much at all. In the words of that very early manual of Christian life, the Didache, a Christian must never claim that anything is his own property, but must own all things communally with his brethren (4:9–12).
WHICH BRINGS ME back to where I began. I confess I do not really know what to make of these observations, or how to deal with the more onerous prescriptions and harsher judgments of the New Testament. Most of us in the modern West, by comparison to other peoples and times, might well think of ourselves as rich. Nor can I pretend ever to have embraced poverty myself—except in the sense that an unguarded jaw might be said to embrace the fist that strikes it. I do know, however, that I have no good grounds for treating those prescriptions and judgments as mere hortatory hyperbole.
Throughout the history of the church, Christians have keenly desired to believe that the New Testament affirms the kind of people we are, rather than—as is actually the case—the kind of people we are not, and really would not want to be. The first, perhaps most crucial thing to understand about the earliest generations of Christians is that they were a company of extremists, radical in their rejection of the values and priorities of society not only at its most degenerate, but often at its most reasonable and decent. They were rabble. They lightly cast off all their prior loyalties and attachments: religion, empire, nation, tribe, even family. In fact, far from teaching “family values,” Christ was remarkably dismissive of the family. And decent civic order, like social respectability, was apparently of no importance to him. Not only did he not promise his followers worldly success (even success in making things better for others); he told them to hope for a Kingdom not of this world, and promised them that in this world they would win only rejection, persecution, tribulation, and failure. Yet he instructed them also to take no thought for the morrow.
This was the pattern of life the early Christians believed had been given them by Christ. As I say, I doubt we would think highly of their kind if we met them today. Fortunately for us, those who have tried to be like them have always been few. Clement of Alexandria may have been making an honest attempt to accommodate the gospel to the realities of a Christian empire, but it was those other Egyptians, the Desert Fathers, who took the Gospel at its word. But how many of us can live like that? Who can imitate that obstinacy and perversity? To live as the New Testament requires, we should have to become strangers and sojourners on the earth, to have here no enduring city, to belong to a Kingdom truly not of this world.
And we surely cannot do that, can we?