Peter BROWN. The Ransom of the Soul. Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2015. ISBN: 978-0-674-96758-8. Reviewed by John V. APCZYNSKI, St. Bonaventure University, St. Bonaventure, NY 14778-0012.
Standard views of Christian doctrines regarding the afterlife are typically presented as summary teachings. The guiding assumption for Catholic interpreters tends to view these as further explications of seminal teachings from the early church, whereas among Protestant interpreters, as the deterioration of some earlier, putatively more Christian, vision of the afterlife. In his Preface, Peter Brown indicates how his exploration here does not focus on what is taught as why and at what time practices and views of the afterlife emerge. As such his emphasis is not on theology, but rather on the historical context within which specific beliefs are taught. His aim is to uncover the normally unnoticed relationship between a society and its religious imagination. But in so doing, Brown’s study offers profound implications for theological reflection.
He begins with a summary exposition of the teaching of Julian of Toledo from his Progonosticon futuri saeculi of 688 – which he renders A Medical Report on the Future World. In it Julian presented the stages that the soul would go through after death all the way up to the remaking of all creation in the general Resurrection. This became a standard source during the medieval period, one which was taken to present a summary of the timeless and unbroken tradition of the Church on the afterlife. Julian begins his own account by copying extracts of works by Cyprian on the afterlife and martyrdom.
This juxtaposition of authors allows Brown to highlight the considerable differences between the social and imaginative worlds of Cyprian and Julian and the implications this had for their communities on their attitudes toward the afterlife. Cyprian was the bishop of a tiny community in Carthage (less than 2500 members) whose identity was precarious and whose allegiance was one of several. To drop it, temporarily during the hard times of persecution, was considered by many to be simply prudent. Cyprian challenged the members of his small congregation by emphasizing the reward of martyrdom as the immediate presence before God in heaven. This contrasted with the typical status of the dead as enjoying a period of refreshment while awaiting the transforming recreation of the second coming. The emphasis was not on the individual soul, but the communal expectation of the renewal of creation with martyrdom serving as the anticipatory exception. This notion of the refreshment of the souls of the dead was a common heritage of Mediterranean world and the ancient Middle East. The notion of an individual soul traversing the heavens was too Platonic, and even denied a few decades earlier by Tertullian who insisted that the existence of the soul – along with its eventual reward – was dependent on the gracious will of God.
By Julian’s time, though, this Platonic notion of a soul had won out since the distance between the individual’s death and the glory of the Resurrection had become momentous. Each individual soul (presuming it had not gone to hell) now would mark its time on a perilous journey toward heaven, depending on their admixture of sins and merit. How did this transformation at the end of the seventh century come about? How did the use of wealth on earth contribute to the salvation of the souls of the dead? The laconic saying from Proverbs (13:8), redemptio animae viri devitiae eius (the ransom of a soul of a man is his wealth), had come to mean by the end of the seventh century the ransom of the captives on their journey toward heaven.
Part of the imaginative shift involved the growing importance of almsgiving to “the poor” as mirror of the mercy of God toward humans. This involved a major transformation of the social universe from “civic euergetism” of classical society to almsgiving for the poor, which for someone like Augustine had to become a form of everyday concern. This regular and dependable almsgiving would be able to expiate for sin. Part of his animosity toward Pelagius, consequently, involved his radical demand for the rich to renounce their wealth, which would undercut regular, expiatory almsgiving. Now that the church had become a refuge for ordinary people, a community of the non valde boni, indeed of continual sinners, expiation through prayer and almsgiving became essential. He insisted that this was effective in the other world, although Augustine was reticent about speaking of how this might be so. He eventually was forced to envision a kind of purgation beyond death, through which the non valde boni might be purified by fire before enjoying the heavenly presence of God.
Afterwards, in southern Gaul, the new leadership of local nobility began to face their fears of what awaits after death by practices that would assure them of some measure of comfort. This again involved expiation, including burial near saints who might intercede for them – a practice Augustine did not support – and almsgiving to the church. In response bishops of southern Gaul intensified their preaching on the need for repentance, including almsgiving. By the time of Gregory of Tours the intercession of the saints at the Last Judgment played a crucial role in the importance of amnesty and forgiveness, in the manner of a contemporary Frankish king. The treasuries of the churches and monasteries of the period swelled as a result of the nobility’s desire to heal and protect their souls in the afterlife and at the last judgment.
Brown’s story ends by a consideration of the impact of Columbanus on northern Gaul. The monasteries and convents established under his inspiration became the new intercessory powerhouses, effectively replacing the poor. Now donations on behalf of souls in the other world were channeled through the intercession of prayers of living saints residing in collective holiness of the monasteries. The hardly perceptible change over these few centuries involved the erosion and replacement of the ancient, classical cosmos by “a Christian model of the universe dominated by the notion of sin, punishment, and reward” (206). The Middle Ages had begun.This summary overview of Brown’s historical narrative merely highlights some of the factors he adduces in support of his claims. Yet it should suffice to encourage readers to engage his view that social and economic factors contribute significantly to the way the Christian community has come to view its understanding of the meaning of immortal life. Moreover, it ought to provide a stimulus for continued theological reflection on human destiny for the Christian community in our contemporary pluralistic culture.