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Wealth, Charity, and Christian Imagination in the Early Byzantine Period

Daniel F. Caner, University of Connecticut, Fellow 2004–2005

My research in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks this year explored the idea of sacred wealth and its proper management from the fifth through the eighth centuries. This was the first period in history in which Christian institutions became economically prominent as centers of donation and distribution, raising basic questions about how such wealth was represented and justified. To address these questions I focused on the use of the word “blessing” (eulogia in Greek, benedictio in Latin, bûrktâ in Syriac, smou in Coptic) as a special designation for a Christian gift in church and monastic literature of the time. Commonly applied to liturgical offerings, lay donations, medicaments, or tokens of hospitality or affection given out by clerics, monks, or at holy land shrines, the word also appears in hagiography as a gift sent by God to support people who do charitable work. It therefore provides a key to understanding how religious wealth was idealized and, to some degree, managed in early Byzantium.

What my research demonstrates is that the Christian notion of a “blessing” mainly derived from Paul’s definition of a “blessing” in Second Corinthians 9:5–12, but gained definition and importance in the Roman East through contrast with more worldly gifts of the time. Considered a product of God’s bounty, items called “blessings” were given out to churchmen and monks as a supplemental ration, thereby providing a material basis for charitable giving. When given, such gifts were also supposed to be free of self-interest, making no demands on either giver or receiver (for example, monks who gave them are presented as asking for nothing in return). When viewed against the secular use of gifts to achieve promotions or impose patronal bonds, it is this aspect of a Christian “blessing” that made it especially novel, providing one of the earliest historical examples of a “pure” gift. It was also conceptually different from an alms, since it was not given in atonement, and was believed to derive from God’s grace. Hence it provided the conceptual basis for a distinctly Christian way of thinking about material wealth and its use in early Byzantium.

Dumbarton Oaks greatly facilitated this work by providing access to rare editions, lexica, and papyri, and by providing training on use of the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae. Both enabled me to survey my subject in a manner more comprehensive than has been done before or would have been otherwise possible.