Were the First Christians Rich or Poor?

It’s the question that Greg Carey of neighboring Lancaster Theological Seminary asks in an essay in yesterday’s Huffington Post.  Carey follows up on an essay last month titled “Imagining the First Christians,”  and promises a third one on the “contribution of women” to early Christian communities.  This essay on the question of rich and poor favors a mixture thesis which sees early Christian communities generally as reflecting the population at large: a few very rich people, some prosperous artisans and traders, and the poor masses.  Carey suggests,

“People used to assume that Christianity flourished only among the poor. First Corinthians 1:26 — “not many among you were wise according to the flesh, not many powerful, not many well-born” — still influences how many imagine the first Christians.” 

He goes on to note,

“The churches in Paul’s circle of influence almost surely included some persons of means. For one thing, Paul depends upon “patrons” like Phoebe (Romans 16:1) and potential donors in Rome to send him along in his journeys. And what about Chloe, who had “people” who could communicate with Paul on her behalf (1 Corinthians 1:11), or Erastus, the city treasurer of Corinth (Romans 16:23)?”

As I’ve noted in this discussion of Erastus, this question of rich and poor is a major point of friction in Early Christian scholarship today.  If an early generation of scholars represented Christian communities as predominately poor, scholars since the 1970s have tended to highlight the socially mobile and wealthy component of the first urban Christians, people like Erastus and Chloe and Phoebe.  But there has likewise been a recent push back to the picture of poor Christians.   In the midst of the debate are Paul’s Corinthian letters, with all their talk of rich and poor, wise and foolish.  How would the situation appear if Corinth were left out of the picture?

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