Every once in a while a book comes across your path that somehow finds its way beneath your pillow. Just like Alexander the Great is said to have had a copy of “The Iliad” beneath his head at night, so “Rome & Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations” by Martin Goodman has found its metaphorical way beneath mine for a little while. Though hardly a comparison for that epic cycle, it is, what I advocate, should be required reading for anyone studying first century AD history, anyone studying Jewish history at all, and absolutely inseparable from all church and pastor libraries. Because I have found this book to be wholly fascinating it is my desire to present some of the more interesting and general audience friendly revelations found within the pages of Dr. Goodman’s book in an on going series of posts.
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” This question has begged to be answered since the age in which it was first spoken, which, according to believers of the Old Testament, was amongst the earliest words spoken by the first naturally born human on Earth, Cain. The asking of it cuts to the foundation of social responsibility and how a society gives answer reflects a great deal about their social consciousness and worldview. It should come with no surprise then to learn that ancient Jews and Romans answered this question quite differently.
Romans lived and operated within a focused network of family, friends and associates, many of whom from the latter categories came from collegia -guilds of professional and social classifications. Just like their approach to religion, their dealings with other people were based upon a reciprocity system. Business, politics and social living functioned because of a patron/client relationship where a lesser man came into the service of a greater one. The more clients a patron had the more influential he was, and the more influential a patron was, the greater standing in society a client became. Clients would be called upon for various reasons, perhaps to vote in a certain direction or to join a patron’s retinue around the city in a show of influence. In return patrons could offer a variety of help whether it be financial loans, endorsements for elections, protection in the courts, invitations to dine, etc. If a patron went outside of his established network of clients to help an “outsider” then the assisted man would become indebted to the patron and thereby join his network. Becoming a client was often times a very coveted step in the right direction because Roman life really was all about who you knew. Anyone who found themselves outside of these social networks were merely faceless bodies until they could become of benefit. As such the obligation to be generous to the unknown and needy was absent. While some moralists such as Seneca encouraged Romans to look beyond themselves and be generous without the expectation of reciprocity, they were fighting uphill.
This life style of patron and client and conditioned giving left no room for being a brother’s keeper. The poor and needy were the unseen. As Goodman summarized, “Charity, in the sense of giving to the needy as a virtue for its own sake, was not a concept that Romans understood.” This does not mean that beggars and the poor had an impossible task ahead of them; rather, it merely meant that their job was incredibly difficult. I believe that simply because the Romans’ mores did not have a space carved out for selfless giving that they were any less of a moralistic human race so much as it showcased their drive to get where they wanted to go; if someone could not add to that journey then they had to be left behind. Romans were not quick to drop friends and a debt could long go unpaid.
As can often be forgotten the ancient Jews were not always of one mind about their religious philosophies. As with any religion as old and revered as the Jewish one, there were hundreds of varying philosophies and teachings that a Jew could ascribe to and to say that the Jews as a whole believed this, or adhered to that philosophy is a risky business. They had hundreds of years of recorded oral laws on top of the even older Pentateuch which shaped their lives and commanded the way they interacted with the world around them. Even still, there remained pillars of the Jewish religion which remained common to all and one of these was giving to the needy. It was a divine command from God and the operation of this social safety-net was a burden for all levels of society to bear. The rules were clear and detailed from determining who could qualify for certain levels of aid, (ie. allowed to harvest the leftovers from a field, or take of the communal meals and funds), to how much a gift to the needy needed to be in minimum. But even with the command of God and the official place charity had within Jewish society it cannot be imagined that the needy had any easier of a life in Judaea more than in any other place.
One of the most significant differences between Roman and Jewish attitudes towards helping the needy was that for Jews there was no prerequisite of acquaintance nor was there any expectation of return from the show of generosity. While it would be naïve to believe that personal relationships did not benefit best from generosity, a stranger on the street was not ignored as completely as in the Roman world. There was, nevertheless, an unstated assumption that the recipient of a Jew’s generosity would be a fellow Jew and this can be concluded from the need to make point in the Tosefta, (a record of oral laws) that in a city where both Jews and Gentiles lived the Gentiles should be included in the giving of charity for the purpose of keeping the peace. Paul, a Jewish Christian divinely commanded to proselytize the Gentiles, in his letters to the same people repeatedly emphasized the need to remember the poor, needy and destitute among them without thought of who they were. From their Jewish roots the Christians carried on the divine command to be your brother’s keeper and so found it necessary to teach this concept to the people who had been living under official Roman control for over 100 years (Greece had become a Roman province in 146 B.C., and Asia not much later, however, both provinces and many others around them had been under Rome’s influence even longer). Having become familiar with the Roman way of patron and client, selfless generosity to all was something of a strange notion that Paul needed to spread and teach in furthering the Christian belief.
So, did the Roman answer for the question of being your brother’s keeper have any greater result than the Jewish answer? It could be argued that one way encouraged hard work and independence while the other encouraged laziness. It could also be argued that one was detrimental to the tate by burying its condemned lower class while the other bettered the state by giving the opportunity for grace to bridge the hard times with good times. In the end our modern conclusions on the matter will be as divided as the ancient ones since modern society itself is still struggling to find balance in its solution to the question.