Review of The Ransom of The Soul by Peter Brown
In The Ransom of The Soul, Peter Brown discusses the emergence and evolution of a relationship between wealth and the afterlife in early Christianity. He presents the argument that by examining the differences between early and later Christians views, we can track the development of the metaphysical view of the afterlife; from an emphasis on martyrs and the resurrection, to an individualistic journey of the souls. He answers the main question of the book; “What could the living do for the dead, and what were the social repercussions of their efforts?” (Kindle Location 435), with the assertion; “the relation between the living and the dead came to be presented, with marked emphasis, as a relation of sin and intercession” (440). However, he does not depict a linear journey from Early Christian views to the present. Instead, he presents a religion in constant flux, with several battling ideological strains, whose conflict defined the Christian view of the afterlife.
The book consists of Brown’s analysis of several religious sources, spanning from the second century to the seventh century. The text is generally structured by source, with each chapter analyzing a different theologian, who, Brown asserts, marks a development in the view of the afterlife. Brown begins with an introduction of Julian of Toledo’s Prognosticon, which emphasizes the individuality of the soul. He then compares this work to earlier authors, such as Cyprian and Tertullian, who emphasize the suspended, depersonalized existence of the soul except in the case of Martyrs. This contrast outlines the starting and ending points of the theological development he addresses in later chapters. In Chapter one, Brown introduces the intertwining of wealth and faith. He tracks the social and economic developments in the church that lead to the emphasis on the “Treasures in Heaven” (535); referring to the emerging idea that alms given in this life would translate to personal wealth in the afterlife. The following chapters focus on Augustine of Hippo’s views of the afterlife and the importance of almsgiving. He then concludes by outlining the development of the codification of religious giving in Gaul, according to Gregory of Tours.
Brown’s use of multiple sources over time to outline ideological shifts is masterful. Though sometimes the sources he chooses seem random, he expertly weaves them together to render a greater meaning. His introduction of Julian of Toledo and Cyprian is the first example he uses to outline change over time, but he employs this device throughout the book. For example in the first chapter he explains; “We would leave behind Mani and his ideas were it not for the fact that, when we move forward in time for one century, to the days of the aged Augustine, we find that the problems that Mani had been called upon to answer had not gone away” (925). This transition from Mani to Augustine is characteristic of his excellent integration of sources in support of his thesis.
However, despite his excellent integration of sources, his choice of source in support of his overall argument lacks power. Brown relies too heavily on ‘Great Man Theory’. He asserts that several Early Christian scholars shaped their respective communities views on wealth and the Church through their writings. However, he does not address the possibility that their philosophy could perhaps be an an expression of pre-existing popular opinion, rather than a unique response to the public’s questions. For example, Brown claims that “Cyprian [Bishop of Carthage 248-258 A.D.] was a dominant figure in the creation of a Christian view of the afterlife” (266). He claims that Cyprian’s emphasis on martyrdom was a reaction to the indifference of his congregation. Yet he offers no external evidence that Cyprian’s writings were in fact unique and influential, rather than merely reflective of the philosophical consensus among Carthaginian Christians at the time. In fact, he later goes on to say that “Christian martyrs were not a unique phenomenon” (306), which seems to contradict his previous argument that the masses were ambivalent to the role of martyrdom. In general, Brown’s argument would be far stronger if he took the time to support his claim that his sources were influential and formative.
Additionally, he generally only supports his source’s relevance to later scholars. Though he claims Tertullian’s writings were influential because Cyprian called him ‘The Master’ (324), he neglects to give any evidence that these writings were influential to anyone beyond a small group of Christian scholars. In order legitimize his use of only a few sources, he needs to prove their relevance to not only to an elite group, but to Early Christian populations as a whole. Brown’s almost exclusive use of elite scholarly sources significantly weakens his argument applicability to the development of early Christianity.
Brown’s argument perhaps too heavily favors gradual social development over large historic events as mechanisms of change. Although he does mention large historical events, it is often only in reference to their psychological effect on the theology of his sources. For example, when talking about the peaceful resolution of a war he says; “In 574, for a miraculous moment, it appeared that even the chain of sin that had dragged the Frankish upper classes into war had shattered. What Gregory saw in a human body freed from illness was very much what he hoped to see around him— an entire society whose fabric had been restored, because the rival kings and their followers were no longer “fettered” to avarice and violence” (2626). Rather than acknowledging the effect of historical events on the development of Christianity, he only mentions the effect on the theology of his small group of ‘influential’ men. It seems especially logical that events, such as wars, that involved both death and the passage of money on a grand scale, would have an effect on the popular Christian view as a whole. However, Brown does not seem to acknowledge this possibility. A more multifaceted examination of the causes of theological shift could strengthen his argument.