Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the making of Christianity in the West, 350 – 550 AD by Peter Brown
“Again, I tell you it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven.” With these words, spoken by Jesus and brought to us by the gospels, Peter Brown, in his new book, attempts to deal with “The distinctive manner in which wealth and social status came together in Roman society.”
Wealth in the Roman Empire in the 4th Century AD, was as unequally distributed as it is today. Riches derived from the fruits of the land, expansion of the tilling of the soil and favorable planting conditions. Rich farmers would intermarry with other wealthy landowners, so the profits would be kept within the family. Well off families would create magnificent villas, and in time the Fabulous City of Rome with its overarching Emperor. A lot of wealth was also created by using a slave class to do work that was not compensated. Slaves were imported from conquered territories throughout the Empire. In order to keep the slave and working classes pacified, in the cities, the wealthy patrons of Rome held almost daily Games and Circuses that were free to the general public. While attending these events the common folk could forget their wretched lot for a while.
The rise of the Christian Churches started to compete with these enterprises by offering the Liturgy and the Eucharist to the wealthy and the poor. By offering Jesus’s vision of “Eternal Wealth in Heaven” instead of transient riches here on earth, the Church was able to sway and gain hold with the moneyed class in what was now termed a “Pagan Environment”. So instead of endowing themselves or passing on their wealth, the rich gave their treasure to the newly rising Christian church. “in some way or another, to give within the Christian Churches was to open a path to heaven. That Wealth despised on earth should somehow follow the ethereal soul up to the stars opened a new horizon.”
Another element of giving to the church was the notion that possession of riches was evil. “There was a common proverb, cited on one occasion by Jerome, which stated that “a rich man is either a wicked man or the heir of a wicked man”
The writings of Augustine (City of God), Ambrose and Jerome amplify this thesis as the Roman Empire begins to disintegrate at the end of the 4th Century, due to Barbarian invasions and widespread internal corruption.
“Through the Eye of a Needle” reads like a novel. “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.”