Greco-Roman gods had no interest in the poor nor was organised charity a religious duty. How was Christianity different?
“Organised charity in the sense of a communal obligation towards the needy, which was by and large unknown in Greco-Roman culture, was created by the Jews and adopted by the Christians.”
In Greco-Roman culture, the well-to-do weren’t expected to support and help the poor. The Greek and Latin verbs for ‘doing good, being beneficent’ never have ‘the poor’ as their object, nor do they mean ‘almsgiving’. The Greek word philanthrôpia doesn’t have the sense of our modern philanthropy. One is philanthrôpos towards one’s own people, family, and guests – not towards the poor. And eleêmosynê (from which ‘alms’ is derived), in the sense of showing pity or mercy for someone else, never has the poor as its primary object. Ancient Greek moralists didn’t admonish people to concern themselves about the fate of the poor. And while generosity was praised as a virtue, the poor were never singled out as its object; it was always directed to humans in general, provided that they deserved it.
When Greeks did speak about the joy of giving to others, it has nothing to do with altruism, but only with the desired effects of giving: namely honour, prestige, fame, status. Honour is the driving motive behind Greek beneficence, and for that reason the Greek word philotimia (literally, ‘the love of honour’) could develop the meaning of ‘generosity, beneficence’, not directed towards the poor but to fellow humans in general, especially those from whom one could reasonably expect a gift in return. These were the ‘worthy ones’ because they acknowledged and respected the principle of reciprocity (quid pro quo), one of the pillars of ancient social life, which was simply stated by the poet Hesiod around 700 BCE: ‘Give to him who gives, but do not give to him who does not give (in return).’ Even though some ancient moralists occasionally said that in the best form of beneficence one does not expect anything in return from the beneficiary, the pervasive view was that a donor should be reimbursed one way or another, preferably with a gift greater than the donor himself had given.
Religion was not much help to the poor: they simply weren’t the favourites of the gods. There was a Zeus Xenios (for strangers) and a Zeus Hiketêsios (for supplicants), but there was no Zeus Ptôchios (for the poor), nor any other god with an epithet indicating concern for the needy. It was rather the rich who were seen as the favourites of the divine world, their wealth being the visible proof of that favour. The poor could not pray for help from the gods because they were poor, for their poverty was a disadvantage in their contact with the gods. This was the implication of the common belief that the poor were morally inferior to the rich. They were often regarded as more readily inclined to do evil; for that reason, their poverty was commonly seen as their own fault. No wonder that they were not seen as people deserving help, and that no organised charity developed in Ancient Greece or Rome. In such societies, giving alms to the poor could not be seen as a virtue, as care for them was often regarded as a mere waste of resources.
The distributions of corn to the population by city states or emperors in times of need cannot pass for organised charity because the corn was given to all citizens in equal measure (not only to the poor). The poor didn’t get more than the rich, and even the poorest class of society was never singled out for especially favourable treatment. All this applies to the Ancient Romans no less than to the Greeks. When a Roman is generous towards others, it is not because they are poor but because he expects to get something in return, and because it confers honour and status upon him. Beneficia are for fellow citizens, not for the poor.
Since the beneficiary was usually expected to give something in return, the benefaction could become a burden. ‘There are some who even hate their benefactors,’ said Menander the playwright. But the idea of reciprocity was deeply ingrained in ancient society, and giving remained one of the chief ways of acquiring status within the social or political group. Neither Ancient Greek nor Roman shrank from admitting that striving after honour was the decisive motive for generosity. The Roman philosopher and orator Cicero wrote that ‘most people are generous in their gifts not so much by natural inclination as by the lure of honour’. And Pliny the Younger pithily agreed: ‘Honour must be the consequence’ of generosity.
While care for the poor, let alone organised charity, was a non-item in Greco-Roman antiquity, it is a central concern in the Jewish Bible. Caring for the poor is seen as a major duty and virtue not only in the Torah of Moses, but also in the Prophets and other biblical writings. Most significantly, God is seen as the protector of the poor and the rescuer of the needy. They are his favourites and the objects of his mercy, regarded as humble before God and therefore often as pious and righteous.
That is not to say that we will find a positive evaluation of poverty here – the poor are ‘righteous’ only insofar as they are the innocent victims of injustice, and poverty does not automatically translate into piety, but it does seem to make one closer to God. In a courtroom, an Ancient Greek could invoke his opponent’s poverty in order to cast a dubious light on his character – this strategy was not available to a biblical Israelite.
The Torah urges Israel to be generous towards the poor in their midst. The prophets warn repeatedly against oppressing the poor and the needy. A ‘day acceptable to the Lord’ is the day on which the people share their bread with the hungry, bring the poor into their house, and clothe the naked. In the book of Job, the protagonist’s efforts to help the poor are emphasised as laudable. The poor were to be allowed to harvest the borders or corners of the fields and vineyards, and the sabbatical year was instituted in order that the poor might eat. The biblical adage ‘Open your hand to the poor’ encapsulates the Jewish Bible’s approach to charity.
‘When you have wealth, stretch out your hand to the poor’
In spite of the fact that there is much concern for the poor in the Bible, there still is no organised charity. Of course, some of the Torah’s commandments are in a sense collective measures, but it is still left to the individual whether or not to carry them out, since there is no central organisation to oversee its implementation.
The post-biblical Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, a Jewish wisdom poem of 230 hexameters written in Greek, exemplify this private (as opposed to communal or organised) concern for the poor. In the opening section, the author wrote: ‘Do not oppress a poor man unjustly, do not judge him by his appearance,’ a sentiment repeated further on: ‘Give a labourer his pay, do not oppress a poor man.’ Then it says: ‘Give to a beggar at once and do not tell him to come tomorrow. Fill your hand and give alms to the needy.’ And again some lines further on: ‘When you have wealth, stretch out your hand to the poor. From what God has given you provide for those in need.