Can money buy happiness…when you’re dead?

The Digging into JRA blog authors’ opinions are not necessarily identical to those of the featured JRA volume contributors.
Illustration by Tina Guo, 2017.

And what exactly happens when you die anyway? No worries, according to Peter Brown of Princeton University, the Romans didn’t know either. They knew for sure they were either going to paradise or hell, but the real question people asked at the time was whether money could secure one a spot in heaven, saving the trouble of going through all that Last Judgment divine bureaucracy. In “Changing Views of the Soul’s Fate in the Afterlife” (JRA 30 [2017], pp. 916-918), Jonathan Conant of Brown University reviews Brown’s monograph on the topic.

When Christianity first bloomed, its practices mostly concerned the middle class. Almsgiving was, therefore, a matter of solidarity between the living and the dead, bound to one another by the bonds of memory and piety. The dead were consciously honored with the hope that they would in turn remember the living, and there were numerous public events to support the tradition. This was true not just of powerful saints like Peter and Paul, who as martyrs were believed to have entered immediately into the presence of God, but also of ordinary Christians, whose souls were thought to spend the afterlife in a collective state of rest and anticipation of the resurrection.

Things changed as the church grew to include both the super-rich and the truly destitute from the 4th c. onward, almsgiving serving to bridge the social rift between the two and promising to expiate past sins. Around the same time, the popularization of Platonic concepts promoted the idea that not only martyrs, but also some elect believers, could go straight to heaven, skipping the dreaded Last Judgment. This did cause an intellectual overload, religious authorities like Augustine being besieged with questions about how things really worked, to which their answer was something along the lines of: “keep up the good work, but it’s still up to God to decide at the end of days.” No promises.

Almsgiving had local styles and variations that were quite differentiated and largely depended on who sponsored the church. In Late Roman Africa, Augustine insisted that since sins are humdrum and everyday, charity should also be routine, dependable, and affordable. In Late Roman Europe, however, where church wealth was founded on that of the local aristocracy, more radical deeds were expected, religious leaders consistently emphasizing the urgent need for repentance in the face of the terrors of God’s coming judgment. The monk Pelagius encouraged dramatic acts of giving as a means of taking a definitive break from one’s past sins and starting a new life. To those on the fence about donating, Honoratus offered his reassurance that church wealth was good wealth, since it was used for helping the poor. And if church lands were ever attacked, Gregory of Tours could denounce the villains as enemies of the poor who risked the wrath of God and his saints both in this world and the next. Sounds like a bad idea to mess with the church.

While Brown’s monograph is largely grounded in textual sources, that makes total sense to Conant, who comments that one cannot dig out of the ground the soul’s fate anyway. Or can one? According to Conant, burials in the countryside can actually reveal funerary rituals–and probably beliefs about the soul–that varied dramatically from those suggested by Christian texts, which tend to focus on the urban or monastic male elite. One might also expect to find children treated differently, suggesting that they were believed to have a different fate in the afterlife. In short, archaeologists, too, should have a say in this discussion that is only one part of the debate on how the world of antiquity slowly gave way to that of the Early Middle Ages.

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