Some Christian writers thought having lots of money was a very serious problem – both because it made rich folk focus on something other than spiritual realities and because it was not just or godly for some people to be loaded when others were starving.


And so we have ancient Christian authors urging the wealthy to give away all their material possessions for a greater good and practice rigorous asceticism.  The “good” in this case was very different indeed from what was promoted in the broader Roman world — where what mattered was helping with the city’s finances and assisting those of one’s own family or socio-economic class, in exchange for acquiring a higher personal status — since for Christians involves helping the indigent.  But the personal motivation is roughly the same: it is a matter of “working out your salvation.”  That is, it is largely about one’s own well-being.

Other writers, however, argued that wealth was not itself evil or necessarily a trap, an obstacle to the good and holy life.  Righteous people could continue to enjoy their wealth while using it to good ends.  These writers urged the rich to be generous, but not to impoverish themselves.  Doing this would bring even better results both for others and themselves.  Wealthy beneficence, in this view, was a cherished Christian virtue.  As in the pagan world, this became the most popular Christian view (among the rich!), for rather obvious reasons.  The rich could stay rich so long as they didn’t care much about their riches and gave a chunk of them away for others.

What really set the early Christian view apart from the views of the broader Roman world was   the value placed on the poor – the seriously destitute in particular – and on the reasons for giving to them.  This is one way in which Christianity transformed the ancient world.

In this emerging tradition, God is concerned with those who lack basic resources, and he expects his chosen people to place a very high priority on helping them. Those who give their money to the poor will receive treasure in heaven.  It is true there is still a self-centered focus; it is still about what will most benefit the giver.  But that benefit differs as well, and in a significant way.  No longer does it principally come in life.  It is about rewards in heaven.

In my book Journeys to Heaven and Hell (Yale University Press, 2022) I illustrate this view of wealth by recounting a story of a Near Death Experience in one of the great but lesser known writings from early Christianity, the Acts of Thomas.  Even though very few people have read this book, its basic plot line is familiar to many interested in early Christianity: this is the book that claims the apostle Thomas was the one who brought Christianity to India.

Here is how I describe it there:

The Acts of Thomas is one of the five major surviving non-canonical “Acts of the Apostles,” each of which describes the missionary endeavors of an individual apostle: Peter, John, Paul, Andrew, and Thomas.  These are all historical figures, of course, but the accounts are almost entirely legendary.  The Acts of Thomas in particular comes with a delightful twist: Thomas is not merely one of the twelve disciples (see John 20:24), he is also the brother of Jesus, Jude (see Mark 6:3), and, in fact, his identical twin.  Thomas the twin is known from other traditions normally associated with Syria, which was almost certainly the place of composition of the Acts as well, sometime in the early third century.

The broader narrative comes to us in thirteen Acts that describe the missionary adventures of Thomas en route to and then in India, ending with a separate account of his martyrdom.  As with the other apocryphal Acts, it is never clear whether the anonymous author meant his account to be a dead-serious elaboration of the apostolic mission or (also?) an amusingly entertaining narrative.  Modern readers certainly find some of the anecdotes humorous, including the deceptive ploy used by the heavenly Jesus after his resurrection to sell his brother into slavery to an Indian merchant who was seeking a skilled carpenter (Act 1).  This is what compels the reluctant Thomas to travel from Jerusalem to India in the first place.  Equally amusing is the play on the “twin” theme in the next episode, which narrates Thomas’s adventure at a weeding feast during his trip (still in Act 1).  After the ceremony, as Jesus appears in the bridal chamber of royal newlyweds to their great confusion:  they had just seen him (or at least one who looked exactly like him) already leave the palace.

These two episodes in a sense set the stage for the entire narrative.   Thomas has one apostolic function: to take the gospel message to the royal family and peoples of India, and his message will mirror Jesus’s words to the wedded couple: to inherit the kingdom and obtain true happiness they must deny the desires of the flesh.  It is a particularly pressing matter in this early scene, since, obviously, the bride and groom have entered the chamber eager to consummate their marriage.

But they listen attentively to Jesus’ unsolicited advice to “refrain from this filthy intercourse”: sex is only for offspring, but Epistles 115.16; children can become demon-possessed, insane, crippled, or paralyzed.  Even if they are healthy, they may grow up to be lazy and good for nothing, or adulterers, murderers, or robbers.   It is better to avoid them altogether and keep oneself pure and free from grief and anxiety (Acts of Thomas 12).  Somewhat to the surprise of readers not accustomed to these Christian Acts, the married couple – in their bridal chamber — instantly accept Jesus’s ascetic gospel and devote themselves to lives of chastity.   And so the tale begins.


I’ll continue to describe this account in my next post.


 Thus his full name, Judas Didymus Thomas; Thomas is Aramaic for twin; Didymus the Greek equivalent.   He is also allegedly the author of the unrelated, but better known, work, the Gospel of Thomas.