Gary A. ANDERSON, Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. pp. 222. $22.23 hb. ISBN 978-0300181333. Reviewed by Jeffrey MORROW, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ 07079
Building upon the work he began in Sin, Anderson has produced yet another masterpiece. The implications of his work will be felt beyond the field of the history of exegesis, but also in the history of doctrine, and even moral theology. His basic argument is: “charity was construed as a loan to God, which was then converted into a form of spiritual currency and stored in an impregnable divine bank” (182). He begins the volume with an introductory chapter explaining all of the many contemporary challenges to his argument, mainly stemming from the Protestant Reformation and its influence in modernity.
Sirach does not view money as evil, nor as necessarily good, but neither is money simply a neutral matter: “wealth exerts an almost eerie power over its possessor such that it is nearly impossible not [to] be possessed by it…. having money is tantamount to a spiritual ordeal whose outcome is determined by whether one has the courage to give it away” (59). Anderson moves form Sirach to Tobit, and emphasizes one aspect in particular of Tobit’s discussion of almsgiving and charity that is neglected and missed in most of the scholarly literature, namely that the notion of the deliverance from death in Tobit (which Jews and Christians have both typically assumed pertains to the resurrection from the dead) has a temporal meaning (70-82). Lest the reader mistake Anderson for espousing some sort of “health-and-wealth” gospel, he explains how the point is not that such charity is always rewarded in this generation, but rather that the world is created charitably, and such acts of charity, even when not apparently rewarded, are an expression of faith in the God Who is Charity, and in the cosmos God created (83-103). This he does through an examination of the sufferings of Tobit in light of the sufferings of Job. Giving alms to those in need “makes a statement about the trustworthiness of God” (106). Or, as Anderson elaborates: “In the face of human tragedy it is difficult, if not impossible, for human eyes to affirm the goodness of the created order. One can affirm such a truth only by seeing it through God’s eyes…. Tobit continues to give alms not because of a pure altruism but because he believes in the goodness of God…. The reward does not erase the value of the moral act; rather it tells us something about the nature of the world and the God who created it” (110).
This provides the entryway into the second part of Anderson’s book, where he demonstrates the notion, already in Judaism and then in early Christianity, of a treasury in heaven, or a treasury of merits. This involves the long-standing Jewish and Christian view that such benefits from “merits” can be transferred to help others who have gone on after death (113-122). This is possible because of the “storing [of] good works in heaven” (123-135). He proceeds to show how prayer, fasting, and almsgiving over time replaced the notions of prayer, fasting, and sacrifice (136-148). Almsgiving itself became a quasi-liturgical act of sacrifice (149-161). It is from here that he concludes with a discussion of the development of the notion of purgatory, which he identifies as already rooted in Judaism (162-181). As he notes, “rabbinic Judaism clearly imagines that the state of the person is not always settled at time of death and that there is a period of time during which further purgation from sin is possible” (179). Mistaken claims of the late fabrication of the notion of purgatory, the role of indulgences, or the treasury of merit in the medieval period, are no longer tenable in light of Anderson’s work showing their firm roots in the Second Temple period of Judaism, through early Christianity and the rabbinic period.
Anderson is a first rate scholar, with exceptional competence in the primary texts in their original languages (Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin). One of Anderson’s greatest strengths, however, is his ability to communicate at a level that reaches far beyond the academy. This work will benefit laity, clergy, specialists, and non-specialists alike. Indeed, I found the volume not only informative, but I also found the book deeply spiritually challenging in the best sense. This book inspires at least this reader to do a better job living the corporal works of mercy. Anderson’s work also challenges scholars to rethink their treatment of Jewish and Catholic notions of merit and grace, among other areas. This is a book that has the very real potential to affect a paradigm shift within scholarship.