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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 / Hardcover
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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 following the official acceptance of Christianity by Constantine the church slowly began to accumulate mass amounts of power-and wealth. Through the Eye of a Needle is a sweeping intellectual and social history of the vexing presence of wealth in post-persecution Christianity in the waning days of the Roman Empire.
Peter Brown, one of the world's leading scholars of late antiquity, examines the rise of the church through the lens of money and the challenges it posed to an institution that, at times, espoused the virtue of poverty and believed avarice to be a dreadful 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. Brown 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.
Along the way Through the Eye of a Needle fundamentally challenges many widely held notions about the 4th Century AD and with them the belief that Christianity's growing wealth sapped Rome of its ability to resist the barbarian invasions. A remarkable study offering a fresh perspective on the social history of the church in late antiquity and its influence on the Roman Empire.
Through the Eye of a Needle is a masterpiece of detailed historiography, brilliantly written. Peter Brown's long-awaited book surpasses even the high expectations set by his previous writings, and will engage general readers and specialists alike.
-Elaine Pagels, author of Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation
Here Peter Brown listens to the heartbeat of the late Roman world. His report is a masterpiece that introduces us to the wealth and poverty of an empire as it implodes, and the inspiring Christian concept of treasure in heaven. Excavating the roots of medieval charity, he illuminates the problems of rich and poor today, and delivers a triumph of history at its finest.
author of Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire
The gap between rich and poor is one of the major issues of today, and who better than Peter Brown to probe the acute problems of conscience it presented to late antique Christians? In this important book, he brings to this vital subject his characteristic wit, wisdom, and humanity, as well as the mature reflection of a great historian. It is a magnificent achievement.
author of The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity: AD 395-700
Like a master mosaicist, Brown brings together a huge assemblage of sources to produce a vibrant panorama bursting with vitality. His story of the transfer of great wealth from rich individuals and families to the coffers of the church is the story of the creation of the postimperial West and the European Middle Ages. This is a big, and big-hearted, beautiful book. Tolle, lege.
author of Sin: The Early History of an Idea
This is a book that only Peter Brown could write. It has his trademark stamped all over it, in the richness of its source material, its breadth of coverage and turn of phrase, its fondness for the middling folk and outsiders who usually fall by the wayside of academic scholarship, and its insistence on seeing pagans and Christians as part of a larger, shared world.
-H. A. Drake,
author of Constantine and the Bishops
Peter Brown has written a book for the ages, one that every specialist throughout the world in late antique history and the history of Christianity will read. Through the Eye of a Needle is a remarkable work of scholarship--interesting, informative, original, and stimulating. I recommend it warmly and confidently.
-Thomas F. X. Noble,
author of Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians
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