Biblical Studies, Christian Practice

Paul’s Appeal to Equality (ἰσότης) in the Collection for the Poor

Published on: February 28, 2024
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Apostle Paul's appeal to equality
Image: Apostle Paul in Monreale Cathedral, Italy. Credit: iStock.com/wirestock

How many persons—indeed, how many Christians—know that Paul spoke of “equality” and stipulated, moreover, that equality is both the ground and the goal of relations between Christ believers, between those who enjoy abundance and those who suffer lack? Is it not astonishing that, throughout two thousand years, and with only a few exceptions, Paul’s word about “equality” has been, so to speak, an oracle of silence?

“For the purpose [of the collection] is not that there [should be] relief for others and affliction for you, but rather [it should be] on the basis of equality (ἐξ ἰσότητος). At the present time, your abundance should supply their lack, in order that their abundance may supply your lack, so that there may be equality (ὅπως γένηται ἰσότης). As it is written: ‘The one who had much did not have more, and the one who had little did not have less’.” (2 Corinthians 8:13-15).

It is testimony to the power of the traditional image of Paul as the guarantor of divinely willed hierarchy that Paul’s exhortation to equality has been effectively silenced. If the first, faint echoes of Paul’s invocation of equality are now to be heard in the writings of a few philosophers and theologians, it is because these thinkers are acutely aware of the danger that hangs over the present: that structural inequality, like that which once characterized the Roman Empire, may now crush the human spirit.

In the years since the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, economists bring the distressing news that inequality has now reached historic levels not seen since before the Great Depression. The richest 1% of the world’s households now holds more than half of global wealth (Oxfam Briefing Paper 210, 2016). Indeed, the richest 26 persons on earth now own as much as the poorest 50% (The Guardian, January 20, 2019). Economists foresee dire consequences of our surging inequality. Thomas Piketty concludes that “the powerful forces of divergence [in the global economy] are potentially threatening to democratic societies and to the values of social justice on which they are based” (Capital in the Twenty-First Century, 571). Joseph Stiglitz warns that the price of our inequality is not only an imperiled democracy but an erosion of a fundamental moral value—our sense of fair play, our practice of the golden rule (The Price of Inequality, xvii). Now some philosophers (e.g., Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière) are invoking “equality” as the sole idea capable of challenging the power of oligarchy and creating an exit from the corrupt and dying world order. Yet, the philosophers are realistic about the difficulties confronting any movement toward a more egalitarian society: any progressive redistribution of resources would require a level of international cooperation that is not within the reach of nation-states, while the class structure has the effect of systematically evacuating all the places where people might meet, preventing the coming together of the common people.

Precisely what is lacking in the political landscape of the present, and whose lack occasions both the apocalyptic mood of the philosophers and the reduced expectations of the economists, is there, however tenuously, among the communities that are the latter-day legacy of the apostle Paul—namely, places where people come together across the barriers of class, race, and gender and organization that have proven to be historically durable. For, despite the shrinking numbers of Christians in Europe and North America, Christians remain the world’s largest religious group, making up nearly a third of the earth’s 7.6 billion people. Some of these communities are connected across cultures by sororal relations of long-standing duration. Should we dare to hope that these communities, scattered across the globe, might become places for the construction of scenes of equality in our perilous moment?

A crucial step toward this possibility might be the retrieval of Paul’s idea of “equality” as the ground and goal of Christian existence. In my book, That There May Be Equality: Paul’s Appeal for Partnership in the Collection (Lanham: Fortress Academic, 2023), I begin the work of retrieval by identifying the principal exegetical obstacles to an understanding of Paul’s idea. First among these is the equivocal translation of the word ἰσότης as “a fair balance” in English versions of the Bible. I demonstrate that this translation has no lexical support: in every instance in which ἰσότης stands alone in ancient Greek, the meaning is “equality,” especially “political equality,” in keeping with a tradition of thought in which “equality,” alongside “freedom,” was the fundamental principle of Greek democracy. Second, I counter the opinion of numerous scholars that “equality” was not crucial to Paul’s understanding of the relationship between Christ believers because the word ἰσότης is found only in 2 Corinthians 8 among Paul’s authentic epistles. I trace the arc of Paul’s concern for the poor—from the first mention of the collection in the instructions offered in 1 Corinthians. 16:1-3 to the final accounting of contributions in Romans 15:25-27. I argue that a decisive moment in the evolution of Paul’s thought was his discovery that “the have-nots” were being humiliated at Corinth when the Christ believers gathered to eat the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). Finally, I seek to overcome the tendency of scholars to regard Paul’s appeal to “equality” as an argument immanent to his relationship with the Corinthians, by setting Paul’s appeal in the context of the widening gulf between the rich and the poor in the early Roman Empire, a development which has been well documented by Roman economic historians.

Against the background of rising inequality, I seek to ascertain Paul’s place in a first-century revival of the discourse of “equality,” which surfaced in the writings of a variety of thinkers (Philo, Plutarch, Archytas, et al.). The most distinctive aspect of Paul’s argument in 2 Corinthians 8 is his extension of the ideal of “equality” into the economic realm. The consensus of ancient historians is that the concept of “equality” was purely political and did not spread to the social and economic sphere of society. There is no precedent in the Greco-Roman world for Paul’s attempt to establish a relationship between persons of different social classes, the goal of which was to achieve “equality.”

How far did Paul intend that the principle of “equality” should extend in economic relations between groups of Christ believers? Was Paul’s goal the equalization of possessions among Christian communities, to be achieved through repeated reciprocal exchange? Paul emerges from a close reading of 2 Corinthians 8 as a more radical thinker of “equality” than moderate defenders of oligarchy, such as Philo and Plutarch, or moderate democrats, such as Archytas. On the one hand, Paul’s presupposition of the equality of all Christ believers dissociates him from the oligarch’s assumption of a difference in worth of individuals. On the other hand, Paul’s exhortation to equality as the goal of the collection for the poor disrupts the democrat’s satisfaction with equality as a liminal condition. Moreover, and crucially, Paul’s twofold usage of the concept “equality”—first as the ground and then as the goal—constantly calls into question the distribution of places to which persons are assigned by the hierarchical structure of society. In Paul’s formulation, equality as ground exerts a constant pressure upon equality as goal. Paul challenges his readers to actualize the presupposition of the equality of all Christ believers through voluntary redistribution of resources. In reaching this conclusion, I follow in the footsteps of the Greek scholar of the New Testament, Petros Vassiliadis, who wrote 32 years ago: “According to Paul’s argument in 2 Corinthians 8, the implication of the collection project was the social ideal of equal distribution and permanent sharing of material wealth” (“The Collection Revisited,”Deltion Biblikon Meleton 11 [1992] 42-48, at 44).

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

About author

  • Larry L. Welborn

    Larry L. Welborn

    Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Literature at Fordham University

    Larry L. Welborn is Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Literature at Fordham University.  He is a graduate of Yale Divinity School (M.A.R.) and Vanderbilt University (PhD)  He pursued post graduate studies at the Universitaet Tuebingen and the University of Chicago.  Among his books are ...

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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