The Ransom of the Soul

July 27 2015

Peter Brown bibliography here (post and comment). For the sake of completeness, his new book is

The Ransom of the Soul, Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity, Harvard University Press, 2015

Reviews:

GW Bowersock, New York Review of Books (subscribers)

Tom Holland, New Statesman

Steve Donoghue, openlettersmonthly.com

AN Wilson, Spectator

In early Christianity, the souls of the dead were believed to enter a limbo during the interlude between the material world and the Last Judgement. Tertullian (160-240) wrote of a refrigerium interim, before their awakening to damnation or to glory.

But this refrigerium did not encourage anxiety or the giving of money to the Church.

In the later view, whose evolution and theology Brown traces from the time of Cyprian of Carthage, martyred 258, to that of Julian, Bishop of Toledo under the Visigoths, late seventh century, the journey to heaven began immediately (where did that leave the Last Judgement?) and the soul needed to be encouraged on its way.

“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” by pious practices, gifts and endowments. (Brown quoted in Donoghue)

You gave so that the prayers might continue after your death. Ancient euergetism. Christian giving. Foundations of medieval Church. Spain to Babylon, North Africa to Ireland. The soul’s destiny could be changed by what was happening on earth post mortem. The phrase “pray for the soul of …” puzzled me as a child. Surely it was too late.

The phrase comes from Proverbs 13:8: “The ransom of the soul of a man is his wealth.” What does that mean? Commentary. It was a phrase much used in the Middle Ages, but only two or three times, Brown tells us, in the period with which he is dealing, and towards the end, so he nearly did not use it.

In Matthew 19:21 and Luke 12:33 Christ seems to say that we can store treasure in heaven through almsgiving, ie gain a spiritual reward for financial generosity.

How much giving to the poor was direct, unmediated through the Church?

Wikipedia: The ransom theory of atonement.

“Labyrinth Books and Princeton’s History Department invite you to a discussion between Peter Brown and fellow historian Helmut Reimitz. Recorded Thursday, April 2nd, 2015 at 6pm.”

2 Responses to “The Ransom of the Soul”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Parry’s The Soul’s Ransom (1906), subtitled Psalm of the Poor and Sinfonia Sacra, was one of his six “ethical cantatas” and uses texts from Ecclesiasticus, Psalms, Isaiah, Matthew, John, Ezekiel and lines by Parry himself.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Brown rejects shallow reductionism and all crude dualities: ancient world/Dark Ages, money/spirit, west/east. His advice in the Q&A – don’t write while you are researching, or you will just write to convince yourself – seems exactly right.

    Forget the modern world. Learn how people thought who were not like you.


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