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A Typology of Gifts

Posted On January 23, 2020 | 11:12 am | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Daniel Caner untangles dirty wealth, fruit-bearings, and Christian philanthropy

Daniel Caner, an associate professor in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Indiana University, was a recent fellow in Byzantine Studies. His research report, “The Evolution of Christian Philanthropy in Early Byzantium (AD 350–650),” clarified the relationships, rationales, resources, and concerns between different religious gift ideals.   


Q&A with Daniel Caner  

Who gave gifts in the early Byzantine world?  

Most of our evidence is about monks, emperors, or just average Christians whom we really know little about. For example, a sixth-century Italian pilgrim describes how he encountered a monastery where 15 or 16 girls were living in the Holy Land. A companion tried to give them 100 gold coins, but they refused. Then he heard about a hermit called Mary, a noblewoman who reportedly went to live as a monk in the desert. He collected food and clothing and went off to find her. After a few days he returned with nothing, crying, “what good is it to be a Christian?” The pilgrim calls this man a Christianissimus, a “most Christian person.” This is probably meant to praise the man’s generous efforts, but we don’t learn anything else about him or his own understanding of his motives.  

Those are the kinds of shards of literary evidence that historians must work with. But we also have a lot of church ruins and inscribed floor mosaics. These often commemorate offerings, give the name of the donor, and sometimes show them giving gifts to Christ or the Virgin or a martyr in the front and center of the church. These illustrate how early Byzantine Christianity really was a gift-giving culture.  


What ethical questions arose when ascetic monks received such bountiful material resources?  

One traditional polemic against monasteries is that they were parasites that didn’t do anything for the community. But monks did provide penance and prayer. It’s important to understand that what people wanted monks to do was pray and fast and be real ascetics. They didn’t want them acting like worldly people, just chasing a dollar. That was because lay people believed the fruit of their fields—the basis of their prosperity—depended on achieving correct alignment between divine and mundane priorities. Monks helped guarantee that.   

Since monks received many donations, the question became what to do with all the stuff they accumulated and what responsibilities came with it. They couldn’t just refuse to accept gifts that were supposed to honor their deity, and, being human, they also needed to eat. So some of these offerings got turned into moveable wealth, given away to whoever needed them. Such generosity was seen as indicative of divine wealth, in contrast to wealth that was hoarded. Hoarding was the great sign of the miser in antiquity: a person who kept grain when others were starving or in need.  


What counted as a gift?     

Anything could constitute a gift. The most basic gift could be your life. For example, monks would sometimes stake their souls on the redemption of some layperson or monk, take on some of their sins, and do penance for them. This was considered an act and a gift of “charity.”  

In my book, which started here at Dumbarton Oaks 15 years ago, I discuss the origin, use, and meaning of five Christian gifts, which gained definition partly by contrast to one another. One of these is charity, a gift that came from your most essential possessions: for example, the last two mites given by the poor widow in scripture. Alms is probably the most familiar of all Christian gifts. Charity was actually considered to be the highest form of alms, but alms differed from charity in that they could come from whatever surplus you had at hand.     

Blessings, a lesser-known type of gift, also came from supplemental material resources. But they differed conceptually from alms in that, while alms were considered gifts that came from things humans had acquired for themselves, blessings were supposed to come from things God had provided, often through donors. Blessings were identified with “clean” wealth; though alms could be considered clean as well, they often were associated with “dirty” wealth extracted from the poor. To atone for sins of greed and exploitation, such ill-gotten gains were supposed to be given back to the poor as alms in four times the amount initially taken, and with some sign of attrition or sorrow. Such gifts constituted what we call redemptive alms.  

I also examine two types of offerings, from which material blessings often derived. One goes under the general name “fruit-bearings.” These were basically gifts of gratitude that thanked God or a holy person for giving health or wealth. Then there were the better-known liturgical offerings or oblations, regularly given for eternal salvation. Both were considered essential expressions of piety, but potentially dangerous to receive, since they obliged church and monastic recipients to perform services for their donors.

These gift ideals were devised partly to enable people to live up to the Gospel command to “give to all who ask of you,” and practice philanthropia, which meant aiding others even if you did not think they deserved it.  


Julia Ostmann is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.