"Through the Eye of a Needle" by Peter Brown. A Review

Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD
Peter Brown
Princeton University Press
41 William Street
Princeton, New Jersey 08540 USA
ISBN: 9780691161778; $24.95; 2012

When Jesus remarked, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19.23-24, ESV), how did earlier Christians perceive his statement and engage it? And in what ways would this have coincided or conflicted with their cultural environment? These, and other questions, are addressed in sizable detail by Peter Brown, the Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor of History (Emeritus) and Senior Historian at Princeton University, in his voluminous 792 page paperback, “Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD”. It is a work written for the experts, the informed, the interested and the investigative.

“Through the Eye of a Needle” is delineated in its subtitle. The primary focus is on how wealth was perceived in earlier Christianity and in its contemporary Roman culture. Wrapped around this investigative evaluation will be the story of Rome from its golden age to its demise, and how and why Christianity remained standing amidst the ruins. To guide along this path Brown introduces the reader to Roman and Christian leaders in delightful detail, allowing us to see them in fresh light: Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, Ambrose, Ausonius of Bordeaux, Paulinus of Nola, Augustine, Pelagius, Jerome, Melania the elder, Melania the younger, Salvian, and Gregory the Great, to name only a few of the cast. The thread that holds this troupe together like a beaded bracelet is wealth. As Brown recounts their biographies through the lens of wealth, it adds hues and shades to the familiar backdrop. For example, the tale of Augustine and Pelagius becomes livelier when the role of affluence is drawn in and given its place. For Pelagius “touched on two central issues: on Augustine’s particular notion of sin and penance, and on more general notions, current in the African churches as elsewhere, on the expiatory nature of religious gifts…Augustine placed behind the largely unreflecting practice of expiatory giving the heavy weight of a view of human nature that made daily expiation a necessity” (362-3).

Woven into this history of wealth are innumerable aspects of society and social structure, church and monasticism, imperial rule and episcopal power. Brown’s “concern throughout has been to do justice to the pace and to the diversity of developments that do not fit easily into conventional narratives of political and ecclesiastical history…by concentrating on a series of distinctive figures, each of whom was placed in a distinctive landscape” (xxii).

Instead of being a droll dictation of facts, figures and philosophical foci, “Through the Eye of a Needle” chronicles a credible account that draws from many causes and draws in multiple characters. Upon completing the volume, the reader will have gained a broad and buxom picture of late Roman antiquity and earlier Church history. Yet the memoir moves purposefully toward its destination. It remains clear throughout that the “majority of the upper-class inhabitants of the Roman West were encouraged by long tradition to show generosity to their cities and to their fellow citizens—not to the churches and still less to the poor. Only in the last quarter of the fourth century did the wealthy enter the church in growing numbers…It was the entry of new wealth and talent into the churches from around the year 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 the unthinkable—to envision the possibility of a totally Christian society” (527-8).

“Through the Eye of a Needle” fills in many gaps, and highlights a number of important themes. I have employed it as supporting material in the Church History class I have been teaching at my congregation. The volume could well be used as the primary textbook for college and seminary classes that are covering the Roman millennia. Academic libraries, religious and secular, should likewise obtain copies. But anyone interested in Roman history will find Brown’s book valuable and engrossing. I happily and heartily recommend the book.

The book may be easily obtained here: "Through the Eye of a Needle".

Finally, for another book that is roughly about the same era, but has a different focus, see my review of "The Fate of Rome".


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