Book Review: The Ransom of the Soul
by Peter Brown
Harvard University Press, 2015
Historian Peter Brown’s previous book, his magnificent 2012 Through the Eye of a Needle, studied the role that money played in the early Christian Church from roughly AD 350 to 550. And in 2012, at Vienna’s Institut fur die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, he give a series of lectures about the role that money played in the Christian afterlife from roughly AD 250 to 650. His new book, The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity, must therefore thread a path between the Scylla of being a reprint and the Charybdis of being a spinoff, and indeed, Brown himself warns his readers about the latter, assuring them this new book is not, in fact, a spinoff of the previous one – an assurance that’s usually a dead giveaway of what it’s denying.
He threads the path quite easily, as it happens. The Ransom of the Soul is much shorter than its predecessor but would probably inevitably have felt so, since Brown is one of those writers you could read at any length and still want more. And the book looks in the opposite direction: not backward, at how early Christians reconciled their worldly wealth with their Savior’s explicit instruction to abandon it, but rather forward, at how early Christians could use their wealth in this world to change their status in the next. Through the Eye of a Needle examined some of the mentally torturous ways wealthy Christians avoided becoming mendicant preachers like Jesus was; The Ransom of the Soul examines some of the mentally torturous ways wealthy Christians sought to avoid the age-old truism “You can’t take it with you.”
As is almost always the case when it comes to Christianity, much here rests on literary misinterpretation. In this case, it’s Proverbs 13:8: “The ransom of the soul of a man is his wealth.” As Brown points out, the meaning of the line is actually literal: “that a rich man could use his wealth to save his skin, as a poor man could not.” But a succession of Christian thinkers, from Cyprian and Tertullian onward, gradually argued and altered and shaped the sentiment into something quite different.
That argument – the nature of it but also the very existence of it – is at the center of Brown’s book, which dispenses with the idea of a monolithic and sempiternal Christian theology in favor of a vast range of ideas constantly under debate, a religion vigorously re-inventing itself all the time. In this context, the Christian conception of the afterlife altered radically over time, beginning as a picture of relaxation – the struggle of life is over, and the virtuous dead may now be at ease in a kind of pleasant limbo during the interlude between the material world and the Final Judgement:
In Christian belief and in Christian art, the notion of the refreshment of souls was conjured up through images that had always meant much to persons of the ancient Mediterranean and the Middle East. Good souls enjoyed what Tertullian called a refrigerium interim – a refreshing period of rest in the other world, as delightful as the taste of cool water and of food shared, in shady bowers, with boon companions.
These souls weren’t in Heaven – that didn’t happen until the end of the world – but they were in effect guaranteed a spot there, so they could relax and wait. It’s a very pleasant picture, but it had a very big problem for a growing Christianity that acquired more greed as it acquired more money: Tertullian’s refrigerium interim induces no anxiety. It can’t therefore provoke anybody to pay up.
It was gradually replaced with a conception Brown likens to the modern-day marathons held in many cities, a long-term and grueling process for which death is only the starter’s pistol-shot. Instead of earning a rest after having won its way through earthly life without being a complete and utter turd, the soul must now begin its ascent to Heaven, winding a course, facing obstacles – and, crucially, requiring help. “A view of the soul as immediately bound for heaven after death won out in Latin Christianity,” Brown writes. “This victory has placed a glass wall between ourselves and the fierce hopes of a more ancient Christianity.” As a result, “a virtual arms race of pious practices” sprang up, “by which the wealthy – and that far wider group who wished to imitate the wealthy – sought to protect, nourish, and eventually bring home to heaven their own souls and the souls of the deceased.”
Brown brilliantly tracks the development of this insidious new idea through the formative centuries of Christianity’s history. It was a development in which the Christian Church lengthened the distance between the virtuous here in Earth and their eternal reward in Heaven – lengthened that distance until it became virtually impossible to cover without the aid of prayers, patrons (including patron saints), and most of all money. The early Church eventually legislated that it was possible to buy the kind of afterlife you wanted for yourself and your loved ones, and as a direct result, the Church became the focal point of almost incalculable amounts of money. Only a very small and despised minority thought that this whole development would make Jesus weep all over again.
The genius of those early Church fathers was in making this “arms race of pious practices” truly all-encompassing. The dead Christian had to atone for an entire life of imperfection – including, as Brown cannily observes, the stuff they didn’t even know they were doing wrong. There was no conceivable way to avoid this particular assessment of back-taxes:
There were no stars. Instead, the voyage of each soul was determined by its sins and merits alone. And these sins and merits were not (as was often the case in the ancient world) horrendous crimes or deeds of great glory. They were the humble conglomerate of an entire life, built up like a coral reef by a deposit of thoughts and deeds so complex and deeply rooted in the particularities of a given life, that … they escaped the full consciousness even of those who had committed them.
The Ransom of the Soul turns out to be not a spinoff of Through the Eye of a Needle but an indispensable and quite cheeringly effervescent companion-piece to it, equally rich in scholarly goodies, equally revelatory, and ultimately – though perhaps inadvertently – equally damning.