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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

Rich and Poor

The relative peace imposed on the Mediterranean basin by the Romans in the first two centuries of our era, together with the mobility made possible by Roman roads and comparatively safe sea routes, created conditions under which many people could enjoy some prosperity. The most visible consequence was that families already well off became still richer, while the poorest members of the society, especially peasants who had previously held small plots of their own, were driven into even greater extremes of dependency. Commercial ventures, however, produced new fortunes for some of the not-so-rich as well. Although the old elites disdained trade and crafts, they often engaged in commerce at arm's length, employing their slaves or freedpersons as agents. Money made in trade was often invested in land, which was thought to be a more proper as well as a more stable form of wealth. The distance, both economic and social, between the richest and the poorest grew steadily in the period around the time Christianity began.

Sympathy for the poor was not common in ancient society. Rich people felt obliged to spend, often lavishly, in gifts to their native cities and sometimes elsewhere as well. But these gifts were only very rarely devoted to projects that would directly aid disadvantaged members of the society. They rather produced conspicuous monuments, games, or spectacles that would redound to the honor of the donors. The Greek language distinguished the working poor, just able to eke out a living (penēs) from the destitute, who must beg (ptōchos). It is the latter term that is ordinarily used in the New Testament. Jesus' saying, “Happy are you poor” (Lk. 6.20 , author's translation), would have seemed an absolute contradiction in terms to most ancient people. Christianity, however, inherited the vigorous Jewish tradition that God cared especially for the poor and judged the community by its attention to their needs. This tradition is voiced with special vividness in the Letter of James, but it echoes widely in early Christian literature—for example, in the Gospels, as a theme of the two-volume work Luke-Acts, and in Paul's extended effort to raise funds from the Gentile churches for “the poor among God's people at Jerusalem” (Rom. 15.26; cf. 1 Cor. 16.1–4; 2 Cor. 8–9; Gal. 2.10 ).

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