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Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD

Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD - Peter R.L. Brown This book provides a virtual time-machine fly through of the Western Roman Empire from 350 to 550 AD with special attention being given to the ways in which the Christian Church dealt with wealth. This is a problem for the Christian religion because it is based upon the teachings of Jesus who is quoted in the New Testament as saying that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter heaven. For the first three hundred years of Christian church history there was no significant problem in interpreting the meaning of this statement because Christian membership generally consisted of urban artisans and trades people of the lower classes. They certainly didn’t consider themselves to be rich, and they had no difficulty in saying that rich people in this world wouldn't go to heaven in the next world.

Things began to change in 312 when Constantine gave favored status to the Christian Church. Today we generally imagine that things suddenly changed when Constantine came to power. However these changes were more complicated than perceived today and they were stretched out over many years. Constantine set in motion changes that allowed ambitious Christians with their favored status to start becoming the “new rich” while the older established aristocratic rich remained Pagan. It wasn’t until long after Constantine’s death that wealth began coming into the Church in a significant way.
“It was the gathering pace of the entry of the rich into the Christian Churches in the period after 370, and not the conversion of Constantine in 312, that marks the true beginning of the triumphant Catholicism of the Middle Ages.”
This book makes use of recent archaeological findings to modify conclusions reached by much of previous 20th Century scholarship on the subject of church history in this era. At almost every point regarding history of this era, the new understanding is more complex and varied than previously understood.

This book traces the long process of changes that took place between the years 350 to 550. It begins with a hesitant age following the conversion of Constantine in 312 AD, when the Christian churches of the West became privileged. But they had not become wealthy. Only in the last quarter of the fourth century did wealthy people enter the church in growing numbers, often stepping into leadership roles as bishops and as Christian writers. It was the entry of new wealth and talent into the churches from around 370 onward which marks the turning point in the Christianization of Europe. From then onward, as members of a religion that had been joined by the rich and powerful, Christians could begin to think of the possibility of a totally Christian society.

But this new wealth brought problems. There was conflict between the old believers, new believers, old wealth, and new wealth. Between around 370 and 430 there was an explosion of writing on the subject of wealth, associated with writers and preachers such as Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Paulinus of Nola, and the supporters of Pelagius. There was good reason for this explosion. In the Christian church of the time, distinctive traditions of giving and attitudes toward wealth reached back to before the age of Constantine. They were often associated with low-profile styles of leadership that drew their support from distinctly average congregations. These low-profile styles of giving and leadership frequently clashed with the expectations of those brought into the churches by the wealthy.

Ironically, once the churches became used to being affluent by the end of fourth and early fifth century they needed to learn how to live in an impoverished world once the Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century. Radical critiques of wealth were then abandoned and instead emphasis was placed on how wealth could be used to consolidate the Christian community.
“...The greatest surprise of all occurred in the late fifth century. The leaders of the churches realized that they--and not the great lay landowners whose fortunes had previously dwarfed the wealth of the church--were, at last, truly wealthy. The collapse of the traditional aristocracies left the church in a unique position.”
Through it all the church managed to maintain a sense of the collective nature of the wealth of the faithful for the purpose of care for the poor.

The main point of this book was not to discuss the cause of the fall of the Roman Empire. However, I was interested to see how this author addressed the subject. He says it was caused by civil war among Roman generals fighting each other in an effort to make themselves Caesar. These wars raged for a generation throughout Britain, Gaul, Spain, and Africa. The various competing Roman generals actually invited barbarian armies to fight for their side. The barbarians were paid by allowing them to plunder the invaded areas. In the end the barbarians found themselves in control of large areas that were then independent of any loyalty (or taxes) to Rome. With depleted revenue from taxes the central Roman government was no longer able to maintain an army to retake control of the lost provinces. From this description I have concluded that the fall of the Roman Empire was not caused by the rise of the Christianity at the cost of the traditional ways of the Pagans as was suggested in Gibbon's [b:Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire|19400|The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire|Edward Gibbon|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1345767836s/19400.jpg|3209631].