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Book Review: Through the Eye of a Needle

Through the Eye of a Needle

by Peter Brown

Princeton University Press, 2012

One of the central embarrassments of Christianity arises from one of the most central errors of its founding figurehead. Jesus Christ was convinced that the next world – a radically different world from the observable reality of Roman Judea in which he found himself – was, as he continuously put it, “at hand.” He was the prophet of this change in the exact same way John the Baptist had been the prophet of his own coming – that is, as a roadside herald, trumpet in hand, declaring the coming of something extremely imminent. Jesus repeatedly tells his listeners that he is a divisive figure, an enemy of complacency – he repeatedly tells people they must choose sides, this dusty live-a-day world all around them, or the next world, which is just about to dawn and change everything.

The problem with this particular mistake (the world didn’t change, the kingdom of Heaven didn’t arrive, the Romans kept nailing troublemakers to scaffolding) is that it elicits some of Jesus’ most straightforward comments – none more so than Matthew 19:21, when the Master is confronted by a rich young man who is righteous and God-abiding (when he’s given a list of commandments, he comments that he’s been following them his whole life – in other words, crucially, he’s not a sinner). The young man asks what he must do to gain eternal life, and Jesus’ answer hits him right between the eyes: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.”

The young man refuses and goes away disappointed, and that’s when Jesus utters his famous imprecation that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven.

It couldn’t be any clearer: wealth is antithetical to Christianity. But since early Christianity soon began attracting wealthy patrons (indeed, very soon: Jesus’ tomb is provided to his presumably poor family by just such a person), we come to the aforementioned embarrassment – hardly any rich Christians have wanted to do what their Savior explicitly commands them to do. The text from Matthew provides the title of Peter Brown’s dense, magnificent new book (with its gigantic sub-title), Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD, and the subject – the way early Christians got around the embarrassment of not wanting to be poor – is explored in 500 pages of fascinating, engaging prose and 100 pages of close-packed and amazingly comprehensive notes. The conflict between the sacred calling of Christianity and the more mundane concerns of spes saeculi, the hope of advancement in this world, is here given an examination like it’s never had before, with money at the heart of it all:

 Wealth was a theme that lay heavy on everybody’s mind. The issue of wealth flowed like a great braided river through the churches and through Roman society as a whole. Wealth was not only about budgets and rent books: the streams of that great and diverse river touched on many banks.

Also at the heart of it all is that pivotal figure, St. Augustine, and readers who’ve already encountered Brown’s justly revered Augustine of Hippo will know to expect fine writing and fine insight into the figure who, more than anybody, tried to work out a theocratic framework that would allow his congregation to be wealthy if only they avoided avarice. Blatant double-talk like that would come in very handy to Christians of every subsequent century, and Brown makes it clear that St. Augustine came by it honestly, as part of a whole social strata of climbers:

Far from coming from nowhere, Augustine came from the most vivid and creative section of the Roman society of his time. He did not come from the established nobility of Rome or even from the inner circles of the local society in Roman Africa. He came from a far less secure and, for that reason, all the more energetic group. In little towns scattered all over the Latin West (and especially in the towns that lay particularly thick on the ground of Africa), men who had gown up within sight of the top of their own, local society saw no reason why, through their talents, they should not rise to the top of the greater, imperial society that reached beyond the little circle of their region.

One of the most assured and absorbing aspects of Through the Eye of a Needle is how gamely it exceeds the very specific brief Brown sets out in that elongated sub-title. Really, this is a full-spectrum history of the Western Empire from the fourth to the early seventh centuries, touching on everything from military organization to trade fluctuations to reassessments of long-standing assumptions about labor in the Roman world (Mikhail Rostovtzeff, among others, comes in for some gentle but firm correcting). When we get more theoretical discussions of figures like St. Ambrose of St. Augustine, we get them set in clear, pithily-phrased context:

Augustine’s justification of wealth came at the right time. In a world that had been unexpectedly shaken by renewed civil war and by barbarian invasion, there was no point in denouncing the rich for the manner in which they had gained their wealth. Those whose wealth had survived the shocks of this new crisis were unlikely to feel guilty about what little of it was left to them. The radical critiques of wealth and the wealthy associated with the preachings of Ambrose and with the Pelagian De divitiis were out-of-date. Such radicalism had been the product of an age of affluence. It had played on the disquiet of the comfortable rich of the fourth-century age of gold. It had less effect on persons who now faced the prospect of losing everything.

This is the world of 5th Century Provencal, and of now-forgotten contrarians like Prosper and Salvian – a time when the centuries-old Roman imperatives of status-through-civic-munificence were clashing with the flickering new Christian imperatives of status-through-social-munificence … a time when grave markers could note without irony that the deceased was officio sanctus … holy by reason of his office.

A great deal of the Catholic Church’s Medieval character was being hatched out from the spiritual and temporal chaos of the period Brown examines here, and he’s alive not only to the nuances of that but also to how the whole transition has been portrayed by much later historians. His end notes bristle with the latest research (and yet, he’s got sense enough to quote from the great Samuel Dill, which would have earned him a telegram of thunderous approval from Theodore Roosevelt, for whom Dill was the closest equivalent to, well, Peter Brown), and his chapters contain warnings:

Historians of the early medieval church all too readily assume that any rulings that offend the sensibilities of our own age (such as the imposition of celibacy on the clergy and the segregation of women from contact with male priests) must have derived from the decisions of an austere elite of clergymen. They are the villains of the story. They are assumed to have imposed their own ascetic codes upon their weaker colleagues and upon an otherwise fun-loving but passive laity. Altogether, there is a tendency to view the history of Christianity in the early Middle Ages in terms of a top-down model. On this top-town model, clerical power is seen as always triumphing over the laity – and usually with results of which we disapprove. Such a view is to be strongly resisted.

Given Brown’s age (our author was born in 1935) it’s tempting to view Through the Eye of a Needle as the capstone to a great, impressive career. Such a view is to be strongly resisted.