View across the forum towards Basilica B and the site of the ancient makellon, or marketplace. Philippi Photo: J. Gregory Given and the Harvard University New Testament Archaeology Project

Doing Business with the Gods in the Ancient World

Jennifer A. Quigley

People today don’t usually think of going to the bank, buying groceries, and signing a lease as religious acts, but in the ancient world, they very often were. While many people today tend to think of religion and the economy as distinct, in the ancient Greco-Roman world, those categories were not so separate. People did business with their deities, and the gods were understood as active participants in a variety of financial transactions that occurred both within and outside of cultic sites. To take the three examples above, temples often included banks on site, and deities often had their own bank accounts, mediated by the bureaucracies of cultic officials. A person buying meat in the local makellon, or marketplace, would find the space filled with images and invocations of the gods on their coins, on the weight standards used to measure their purchases, and in the regulatory practices overseeing their transactions. And humans often found themselves signing contracts with their god(s), whether in leasing land from or to a deity, or managing divine property. These divine-human financial entanglements exist across wide chronological and geographic periods in diverse cultic contexts.

Early Christ communities, including the one in Philippi addressed by the apostle Paul, were situated in this context of theological and economic entanglements, what I call “theo-economics.” Early Christ followers, like their Jewish and “pagan” counterparts, understood themselves as able to transact with the divine, and understood the divine as deeply intertwined with their economic lives. Financial terms are common in early Christian texts, even those we think of as primarily theological. There is a significant concentration of financial language, including the language of profit, loss, gain, abundance, partnership, wealth, deposit, and security, in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. This text, an occasional letter written some time in the mid-first century CE, is one part of correspondence travelling back and forth between a Christ community in the Roman colony of Philippi and the apostle Paul. Reading a text like the Letter to the Philippians alongside ancient material evidence, including evidence for financial practices found in contracts, dedications, and other transactions, helps to elucidate the imbrication of economic themes including poverty, labor, and social status, and theological themes such as cosmology and eschatology. In Philippians Paul describes a relationship in the gospel as a koinōnia, a shareholding venture that includes Paul, the Philippians, and God. Paul then deploys rhetoric of deposit and security in describing his imprisonment as a contribution to the success of the gospel venture.

While people sometimes search for something unique about early Christianity or at least something that distinguishes it from other beliefs and practices in the ancient world, these earliest Christ-following communities often have a lot in common with the contexts in which they are embedded. Early Christian texts like the letters of Paul also provide evidence that is often scarce from the ancient Greco-Roman world. Unlike the majority of textual evidence that comes from elite literary sources, the Letter to the Philippians is written from, to, and for the 99%, from folks whose collective financial practices and vibrant theological imaginaries are otherwise difficult to access. Reading the people beside Paul alongside other non-elite material evidence, rather than always reading Paul alongside philosophers such as Seneca whose material and financial realities were worlds apart, is fruitful when considering economic themes.

The intersections of religion and economy in early Christianity, situated within the broader social and material contexts of the ancient Greco-Roman world, offer a complex picture of the diverse ways in which early Christians use financial language to think about their relationships with the divine and with fellow humans. They also have implications for contemporary conversations about what and who is valued, because contemporary Christians deploy biblical texts to make arguments about financial practices as diverse as the prosperity gospel and Rev. Dr. William Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign revival. The religious and economic entanglements in the ancient world also contribute to a broader conversation in the study of religion, as religious studies scholars are also beginning to reconsider our modern scholarly dichotomy between religion and economics. These aspects of the ancient world should cause us to pay attention to the ways in which our day to day lives, including our financial transactions, reflect our deepest values.

Jennifer A. Quigley is Visiting Assistant Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Huron University College at Western University. She recently completed a Louisville Postdoctoral Fellowship and three years of teaching at Drew University Theological School.

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