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Charity, Reward, and Atonement in Early Christianity

By David J. Downs

Hardback, 350 pages $59.95
Published: 15th April 2016
ISBN: 9781602589971
Format: 9in x 6in

Subjects: All Biblical Studies, All Theology, Church History, Historical Theology, New Testament

Christianity has often understood the death of Jesus on the cross as the sole means for forgiveness of sin. Despite this tradition, David Downs traces the early and sustained presence of yet another means by which Christians imagined atonement for sin: merciful care for the poor.

In Alms: Charity, Reward, and Atonement in Early Christianity, Downs begins by considering the economic context of almsgiving in the Greco-Roman world, a context in which the overwhelming reality of poverty cultivated the formation of relationships of reciprocity and solidarity. Downs then provides detailed examinations of almsgiving and the rewards associated with it in the Old Testament, Second Temple Judaism, and the New Testament. He then attends to early Christian texts and authors in which a theology of atoning almsgiving is developed—2 Clement, the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, Polycarp, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Cyprian. In this historical and theological reconstruction, Downs outlines the emergence of a model for the atonement of sin in Christian literature of the first three centuries of the Common Era, namely, atoning almsgiving, or the notion that providing material assistance to the needy cleanses or covers sin.  

Downs shows that early Christian advocacy of almsgiving’s atoning power is located in an ancient economic context in which fiscal and social relationships were deeply interconnected. Within this context, the concept of atoning almsgiving developed in large part as a result of nascent Christian engagement with scriptural traditions that present care for the poor as having the potential to secure future reward, including heavenly merit and even the cleansing of sin, for those who practice mercy. Downs thus reveals how sin and its solution were socially and ecclesiologically embodied, a vision that frequently contrasted with disregard for the social body, and the bodies of the poor, in Docetic and Gnostic Christianity.

Alms, in the end, illuminates the challenge of reading Scripture with the early church, for numerous patristic witnesses held together the conviction that salvation and atonement for sin come through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the affirmation that the practice of mercifully caring for the needy cleanses or covers sin. Perhaps the ancient Christian integration of charity, reward, and atonement has the potential to reshape contemporary Christian traditions in which those spheres are separated.


What Can Wash Away My Sin?

1. Redeem Your Sins with Acts of Mercy

2. Merciful Deeds Deliver from Death

3. Desire Mercy, Not Sacrifice

4. Give Alms with Respect to the Things Within

5. Storing Up the Treasure for a Good Foundation

6. Love Covers a Multitude of Sins

7. Merciful Practice Is Good as Repentance for Sin

8. By Alms and Faith Sins Are Purged Away


"A broad yet deep study of the atoning power of merciful action in ancient Judaism, the New Testament, and early Christianity, Alms is beautifully written and persuasively argued. Deposit this book in your library's treasury and generations of readers will be enriched."

—Matthew W. Bates, Quincy University, OnScript

“Recent years have seen a sharp rise in interest in the topic of almsgiving in Jewish and Christian traditions. Downs makes a contribution to this burgeoning discussion by tracing the character of atoning almsgiving as it emerged in the first two centuries of Christianity and by exploring how Christians correlated such a notion with an understanding of the atoning value of Christ’s death and resurrection…Readers interested in the topic of almsgiving in early Christianity will learn much from this volume.”

—Bradley C. Gregory, Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology

"Downs’ work is a great contribution to scholarship on almsgiving and atonement."

—Paul A. Brazinski, Reading Religion

"This thorough examination of Jewish scriptural traditions, New Testament writings, and second- and third-century Christian authors reveals that believers had many theological incentives for performing merciful acts and giving to the poor."

Christian Century

"In this important study that fills a major gap, Downs offers a compelling exploration of almsgiving in the early church. Because of the centrality of almsgiving in early Christian thought and practice, the theme becomes a window onto ideas of sin and salvation, the changing nature of the Christian community, and the interpretation of scripture. This book should be essential reading for any scholar of early Christianity."

—Kyle Harper, Senior Vice President, Provost, and Professor of Classics & Letters, University of Oklahoma

"Although pervasive in early Judaism and Christianity, ‘atoning almsgiving’ is terra incognita for most biblical scholars. David Downs illuminates, corrects, clarifies, and synthesizes what can be known of a complex subject that spans both Testaments and reaches into third-century patrology. His research is thorough; his exegesis painstaking; his conclusions original, provocative, and insightful. Alms is now the standard investigation of its often-neglected, yet important, topic."

—C. Clifton Black, Otto A. Piper Professor of Biblical Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary

“Downs’ study allows one to grasp the theological implications of the practice of almsgiving."


"David Downs here significantly advances the growing realisation that early Christian gifts were not ‘disinterested’ in the modern sense, but were expected to bring reward, recompense, even atonement for sin. By meticulous and deeply researched study of key texts stretching from the New Testament to Cyprian, and through detailed analysis of their scriptural sources, he offers a robust historical argument that will challenge and inform all future treatments of this topic. This is a very fine book which will be warmly welcomed and carefully studied for years to come."

—John Barclay, Lightfoot Professor of Divinity, Durham University

"Downs’ careful and meticulous study anchors the early Christian notion of atoning and meritorious almsgiving on their faithful engagement with scriptural traditions of promised reward for an individual’s or a community’s care of the needy. His outstanding textual scholarship, theological sensitivity, and keen contextual understanding make this volume a critical source for both scholars and students."

—Helen Rhee, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Westmont College

David J. Downs is Associate Professor of New Testament Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Publication Details:

 Hardback , 350 pages
 9in x 6in

  REL006220, REL067080, REL108020
 Baylor University Press

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