The first two times I heard Bruce Longenecker give a paper were when I was studying at Durham, Longenecker was lecturing at St. Andrews, and he was working on this book, Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World. One paper he gave I completely did not understand (on reconfiguring poverty scales in the GR world) and the other one I didn’t find convincing at the time (on his interpretation of Gal 2:10). And, yet, I found this book, having now read the “final product” absolutely fascinating. (All things considered, though, while I am “on board” with the overall argument of the book, I don’t think he has an airtight case for his reading of Gal 2:10; see below.)
At bottom, what Longenecker is interested in doing in this book is exposing the central interest Paul had in caring for the poor – not as a ministry initiative, but as a fundamental distinctive at the core of his mission. A primary gateway for the conversation, from which he derives his title even, is Gal 2:10: “They [the pillars] asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.” When it comes to this verse, most interpreters view this as a reference to the poor in Jerusalem – a particular, temporary need. Essentially, most commentators take it as a reference to the “collection.” Alternatively, Longenecker argues that this apostolic charge “replicated an essential feature of Judeo-Christian identity — that of caring for the needy, without geographic restriction” and “something that would characterize the emergent Jesus-movement in both its mission to the circumcised and to the uncircumcised” (198).
Is Longenecker just a hippie trying to make Paul a social crusader? I don’t think so (but I live in Seattle, so I could be biased!). He wisely notes that we who read Paul today don’t really understand the context he lived in. Longenecker argues (on very good research) that “the economically poor would have comprised at least half of the urban environment of Paul’s mission” (35).
It is important to understand that in the GR world, “care for the poor was virtually absent..prior to the rise of Christianity” (60). Pagan religions did not take an interest in “charitable initiative.” He argues that Jewish traditions and practices did support the needs of strangers and the needy, but this was precisely behind the importance of Paul ensuring such an attitude in his Gentile churches – it matters to YHWH!
Sociologically speaking, Longenecker reflects on historical proposals that “social practice best explains the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman empire” (64) and, in particular, the distinctive disposition of charity, hospitality, and care in this religion.
I found that his work in the realm of social history was very impressive and well-articulated. His work on Galatians, while not questionable, is not clearly an over-turning of consensus. It certainly stands as the best case against a reading of 2:10 that views “the poor” as a particular poor rather than a general poor.
I found this a very good read, though very detailed and “academic” – no “light-reading before bed!” Yet, Longenecker, known for theologically-engaging readings of Paul, ties his perspective down to the very heart of Pauline (apocalyptic) thought.
I leave you with this quote:
Paul imagined care for the poor among gentile communities of Jesus-followers to be an expression and embodiment of the invading triumph of the deity of Israel who had made himself known in the scriptures of Israel, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and now through the Spirit/spirit that enlivened small groups of Jesus-followers (299)