The Current of Creation

The Jewish Sources of Christian Charity

Imagine yourself in an airplane flying over the ruins of a large Roman city. What will first strike your eye are the public theater, baths, and various basilicas devoted to civic functions. All of these buildings were funded by wealthy patrons of the city. If we change directions and fly over a medieval city, the picture will alter considerably. Instead of theaters and baths, we see the roofs of convents, hospices, hospitals, orphanages, and soup kitchens. Charity to the poor and suffering has left an enormous, visible footprint on the design of the evolving Christian city.

Though the social scientist might be tempted to understand the buildings of the two towns as serving one purpose—the redistribution of wealth—this conclusion would be false. Generosity in a Christian context differs considerably from its pagan counterpart. What makes the charitable works of the church distinctive is their religious grounding and their singular focus on the poor. In contrast, Greco-Roman benefaction has little interest in helping the lower social classes and does not think of such donations as having a religious function. Homes for the elderly, orphanages, and hospitals are institutions that appear suddenly in the late Roman era and always in the wake of the expansion of the Christian church. New words, in fact, had to be invented in both Latin and Greek to identify these charitable organizations—a sure sign that they had no precedent. They are the fruits of this new religion....

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About the Author

Gary A. Anderson is the Hesburgh Professor of Catholic Theology at the University of Notre Dame. This essay is adapted from portions of the author’s new book, Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition (Yale, 2013).