David J. Downs is Associate Professor of New Testament Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. Downs has an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary and a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary. Downs is the author of The Offering of the Gentiles: Paul’s Collection for Jerusalem in Its Chronological, Cultural, and Cultic Context and co-editor of The Unrelenting God: Essays on God’s Action in Scripture in Honor of Beverly Roberts Gaventa. Most recently, Downs has delivered a blockbuster examination into the charitable giving of the early Christian movement.
Alms: Charity, Reward, and Atonement in Early Christianity looks to overturn the Western idea of charitable giving—or more precisely “almsgiving”—as a means to bring about social reform or personal identity, instead positing the notion that early Christians were compelled to give as an efficacious means of atoning for sin. Almsgiving according to Downs, “refers rather broadly to the merciful provision of material assistance to those in need, including monetary distributions, food, clothing, and shelter” (p. 6). Thus, “atoning almsgiving” is the means by which almsgiving is understood to bring with it redemptive and meritorious qualities—a framework of “charity as a means of cancelling, cleansing, covering, extinguishing, lightening, or in some way atoning for human sin and/or its consequences” (p.7).
Downs’ exploration to establish the above reality is ambitious and at times may be too complex for some readers. In fact, if the subject matter is as important and pervasive as Downs contends, then I would assume an abbreviated version would be helpful for the average reader. That said, the average reader will still be able to glean from Downs’ overall argument. The foundation of the book begins in the OT (specifically the LXX) where Downs’ observes a profound relation between charity and reward in Deuteronomy and Proverbs among others. Next, similar observations are concluded within the Apocrypha (specifically Tobit and Sirach), the NT literature, the Patristic literature, and well into the second and third centuries. The notion of “atoning almsgiving” is then traced from the foundation (OT and Apocrypha) through the NT and into the early Christian Church (Basil of Caesarea, Clement of Alexandra, John Chrysostom, Origen, Tertullian, etc.), as observation upon observation are examined and presented to the reader.
While Downs’ is neither the first nor the last to make such observations concerning the practice of giving in the early Christianity (see Redemptive Almsgiving in Early Christianity by Roman Garrison), I am confident that Alms: Charity, Reward, and Atonement in Early Christianity is among the best, and it will be studied for many years to come. Still, as I mentioned above, there is an opportunity for such notions to be brought into a more condensed package for laity. Moreover, while Downs was thorough in his approach (sometime overly so), I still found myself at times very much unconvinced by his conclusions. This could be a lack of exposure to the concept that is being presented, or it could be that Downs’ argument for “atoning almsgiving” in the early Christian movement is not as established as he thinks. It is likely the former.
Alms: Charity, Reward, and Atonement in Early Christianity by David J. Downs is an important book that demands consideration. This meticulous study will become an essential read for any one interested in the study of early Christianity. It comes highly recommended!
I received a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.