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March 2014: Peter Brown

March 3, 2014 (All day) to March 4, 2014 (All day)

Photo of Peter Brown

The Ptarmigan Foundation Series on Early Christianity and the Ancient World inaugural events held March 3 and 4, 2014, featured a lecture and workshop with Peter Brown. Peter Brown is the Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor of History (Emeritus) at Princeton University. He is credited with having created the field of study referred to as “Late Antiquity,” the period during which Rome fell, the three major monotheistic religions took shape, and Christianity spread across Europe, roughly 250-800 C.E. A native of Ireland, Professor Brown has taught at Oxford, the University of London, UC-Berkeley, and Princeton University. He is the author of a dozen books, including Augustine of Hippo; The World of Late Antiquity; The Cult of the Saints; The Body and SocietyThe Rise of Western Christendom; and Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire. His most recent book is Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West (2012). In it, Brown observes that although Jesus taught his followers that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, by the time Rome fell, the church had become rich beyond measure. Through the Eye of a Needle is a sweeping intellectual and social history of the vexing problem of wealth in Christianity in the waning days of the Roman Empire, written by the world's foremost scholar of late antiquity.

In a lecture on May 3 entitled “Treasure in Heaven: Implications of an Image,” Brown explored the wider social and imaginative implications, for the Christian churches of late antiquity, of the well-known sayings of Christ that His followers should place “treasure in heaven” by giving to the poor. The talk examined the imaginative logic of the various representations of the poor in Latin Christianity, and how the highly polarized representations of the poor produced by Christian discourse have been responsible for mistaken views of the social structure and economy of the late Roman Empire.  Finally, Professor Brown suggested ways in which the language of “treasure in heaven” and related phrases taken from both the Old and the New Testaments, shaped attitudes to pious giving in the socially differentiated Christian communities of the fourth and fifth century West. 

Click here for a free recording of the May 3 lecture.

On May 4, Brown led a seminar for faculty and graduate students from Religious Studies, Classics, History, Art History, and Anthropology. The seminar focused on Shenoute, a ferocious and entrepreneurial Egyptian abbot of the 4th/5th century C.E. who vociferously claimed to represent "the poor" against "the rich." His corpus, mostly untranslated and not completely published, sheds surprising light on rural patronage, town/country economic and political relations, and religious intolerance.