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The Relationship between Almsgiving and Conversion for the New Testament Αuthors

Recent studies have shown an interest in the practice of almsgiving in early Christianity, as well as biblical perspectives on wealth and poverty more widely. Together with the theological and socio-historical perspectives on these issues, there has also been an increased interest in the socio-economic aspect of life in the 1st century Roman Empire more generally. However, there has not yet been a concerted attempt to map the relationship between almsgiving and conversion. This paper will make a start on this task by reviewing perspectives on almsgiving in the New Testament and analysing the way in which they construe the relationship between this practice and the process of conversion.

There are indications in the Gospels that almsgiving was a core Jewish practice which Jesus and his followers perpetuate (eg. Matthew 6:1-4, John 12:18, 13:29). Significantly, we also find in Luke’s story of the rich young man (Luke 18:18-30) the possibility that almsgiving was a condition of conversion. Usually, however, the only concrete practices explicitly associated with conversion are confession and baptism, as exemplified in Acts 2:37-39. Yet the proximity of this initiation to joining a community that emphasised almsgiving (Acts 2:45) invites closer examination of the relationship between the two. Likewise, the agreement that Paul should ‘remembering the poor’ (Galatians 2:10) suggests that such practice would retain a non-negotiable role in Christianity, as we see in both predominantly Gentile contexts (2 Corinthians 8:1-7, Philippians 4:15) and Jewish ones (Hebrews 13:16). James (2:14-17) and 1 John (3:16-18) even gesture towards almsgiving being a sine qua non of a genuine convert. By analyzing these individual pieces of evidence in their biblical and socio-historical context, an initial construal will be made of the role that this socio-economic practice was seen to play in early Christian conversion and the community’s self-understanding that this assumes.