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The Gift Economy of the Earliest Christians

Thomas R. Blanton IV—

The apostle Paul, a Jewish preacher of the “good news” of Jesus of Nazareth, promoted a “spiritual economy” within the small groups of the early Christian movement in the middle of the first century CE. Although at first blush the phrase “spiritual economy” might appear to be an oxymoron, the terms point to the necessity of rethinking some long-held assumptions about the characteristics of both religion and the economy.

At least since the time of Descartes in the seventeenth century, and even as far back as Plato in ancient Athens, religious and philosophical views, construed as existing in the realm of the mind or of the spirit, have been assiduously separated from the concrete and the mundane, including all matters existing in the realm of materiality. In the twenty-first century, however, the study of religion has taken what has been referred to as a “material turn”: no longer construed simply as a matter of “belief,” religion is increasingly understood in terms of its embodied practices. Religion, in other words, has largely lost its transcendence: approached in terms of the habits, practices, and discourses engaged in by fully embodied human beings, religion is understood as a material phenomenon.

Accordingly, the term “spiritual” in the phrase “spiritual economy” refers not to a posited nonmaterial or transcendent realm, but to material discourses (spoken or inscribed) and embodied practices associated with the pneuma, or “spirit”—which for Paul is an active force sent down from heaven to the aid of human beings. Once the Platonic-Cartesian dichotomy between the nonmaterial mind or spirit and the material world of embodied practice is abandoned, questions follow regarding the production and distribution of material goods and services within early Christian assemblies. The bodies of religious practitioners, after all, require a variety of material goods for their sustenance, including food, drink, clothing, housing, and meeting spaces. Such elements constitute the economic aspect of Paul’s spiritual economy. “Economy,” therefore, is not the opposite of the religious practices that Paul associates with the “spirit,” but it is instead both a prerequisite and a corollary of their functioning.

Although a long tradition that stretches back to John Stuart Mill in the late nineteenth century dissociates the economy, construed as the province of markets alone, from all other aspects of society, Paul’s spiritual economy existed largely outside of the marketplace. Paul’s economy consisted primarily of gifts: gifts posited as coming from Israel’s God, often viewed as mediated by the “Spirit” of that God; and gifts from other human beings, who played the role of patrons and benefactors within early Christian assemblies. Paul’s spiritual economy was an economy of gifts.

Whereas in Aristotle’s economy, it was the land and its productive capacity that facilitated a “good life” for the members of the household, in Paul’s economy it was not the land but heaven—specifically Israel’s God; his son, Jesus; and his chief executive officer, the Spirit—that engendered the productive capacity: it was they who were construed as the sources of the gifts, both spiritual and material, that Paul was charged with allocating among the members of God’s extended household. The oikonomos, or estate manager, who was often a slave, managed domestic affairs under the supervision of the matron of the estate. In contrast, Paul described himself as an “estate manager of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor 4:1): the oikonomia that he envisioned included the management of divine secrets that could only be given as gifts from the “Spirit.” Whereas in Aristotle’s economy, it was the land and its productive capacity that facilitated a “good life” for the members of the household, in Paul’s economy it was not the land but heaven, specifically Israel’s God and his chief executive officer, the Spirit, that engendered the productive capacity: it was they who were construed as the source of the gifts, both spiritual and material, that Paul was charged with allocating among the members of God’s extended household.

As “estate manager” who had access to the “mysteries of God,” Paul construed himself as dispensing, through his preaching and instruction, mysteries to those initiates into the cultic association of Christ’s devotees who had matured sufficiently to be able to accept more than the “milk” of preliminary instruction (1 Cor 2:1–3:4). As with the Aristotelian economy, Paul, operating in the role of the “estate manager,” exercised significant authority over other “slaves,” both literal and metaphorical, who were engaged in the productive work of the “household” of God (Rom 1:1; 6:6:16–19; 1 Cor 7:21–23). Moreover, as one who was charged with dispensing divine mysteries and otherwise mediating God’s gifts, Paul could evoke language and practices associated with gift exchange: gifts given often elicited a response, whether in the form of a polite “thank you” or of a countergift offered in return.

It was the pattern of gift and countergift that served a variety of social and allocatory functions within the early Christian assemblies. The “gift” of the “good news” that Paul preached, news that he claimed to have received as a revelation from God, could be passed on in the “gift” of his preaching. Paul claimed that although he was entitled to a repayment for transmitting such a gift, he politely declined it, proclaiming the good news “free of charge” (1 Cor 9:3–18). Occasionally, the Aristotelian system, which allocated prestige to those whose landed estates generated income sufficient to release them from manual labor, came into direct conflict with Paul’s insistence—perhaps driven by economic necessity—of engaging in manual labor as a means of self-support. In response, Paul proposed that prestige ought to be allocated based on access to spiritual resources rather than material ones: the gifts of heaven were taken to exceed in value those of the earth.

The examination of Paul’s spiritual economy provides opportunity to rethink a number of longstanding assumptions, including oppositions posited between the spiritual and the material and between religion and economics; and the dissociation of the economy from extramercantile forms of exchange, including the exchange of gifts both spiritual and material. Approached in this way, Paul’s letters provide important insights for those interested in religious studies, early Christianity, the sociology of gift exchange, economic anthropology, and economic history.

Thomas R. Blanton IV is auxiliary professor in New Testament studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He lives in Glendale, WI.

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